The Road Home

by Pen Stroke

First published

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.

In the wake of the battle with Tirek, Twilight Sparkle becomes fixated on restoring Golden Oaks Library. After all, it was home for her little family of three. But as her attempts to repair the books and tree continuously fail, her friends must take matters into their own hooves. Discord, as the good friend he is, tosses Twilight and her extended family into an unexpected adventure while Twilight's other friends get to work on the new crystal palace.

All together, they'll do everything to ensure Twilight and her family have a place to call home when they reach the end of the road.

An Empty Palace

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

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

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Chapter 1

An Empty Palace

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The sharp snip of the golden scissors preluded the roar of the applause. Twilight stood under the arch of the gatehouse, smiling proudly as a marching band began to play a triumphant fanfare. It had taken a lot of work, but one of her first big acts as a princess was complete. Night Stone Castle had been renovated and reopened as a school, a university for higher learning. Princess Twilight’s School of Higher Learning was now open, and it was a place where anypony or any creature could come to broaden their horizons.

There was a school of magic, of course, but with the size of the castle and the renovations, there was space for so much more. Her friends had provided input, of course, and Twilight was happy to say it was as much their university as it was hers. Programs on agriculture, fashion design, zoology, veterinary medicine, culinary arts, history, and literature all stood alongside a strong athletic program. Maud Pie had even taken Twilight’s offer to be the head of a school of geology, much to Pinkie Pie’s delight.

Twilight had even tried, towards the end, to rename the school to something that reflected her and her friends, but they wouldn’t hear a word to the contrary. It was like another rite of passage as a princess to have a school of your own. To be like Princess Celestia, with her long standing school of magic, or like Princess Luna, who had recently reestablished her own school for the creative arts.

The achievement of finally being able to cut the ribbon and open the school had Twilight wearing a constant smile. The weather teams had ensured it was a perfect day for the event. Fall was just beginning; the trees were changing, and there was a crispness in the air. Breathing in was like taking a bite from a fresh apple. It was just so refreshing and energizing. Twilight couldn’t think of any way the day could be any more perfect.

“The school looks beautiful, Twilight.”

Yet the day seemed intent to prove Twilight wrong. With her smile widening, she turned around to see Princess Celestia. The solar princess beamed with pride, and she and Twilight quickly shared a warm embrace.

“I thought you couldn’t make it!” Twilight said when she pulled back from Princess Celestia.

“You can thank Luna and Cadance for ensuring I had time to come down here,” Celestia answered as the pair began to move with the crowd that was already flowing into the castle’s courtyard. “You really have done a great job taking this castle away from its origins and making it someplace wonderful.”

“That means so much coming from you,” Twilight said, struggling to contain her own joy. A princess should not hop for joy, but with each passing moment, Twilight found the urge to bounce around like Pinkie Pie grow more irresistible. “You should let me give you a tour. Really, some of the facilities we’ve put together are amazing. Rainbow Dash made sure the athletic fields behind the castle are some of the best in the kingdom. She really wants Ponyville to come home with more gold medals at the next Equestria Games.

“And you should see the new library. We modeled it after the main library in the Crystal Empire. Though Rarity, of course, gave it a unique flair of its own. She couldn’t stand the idea of us being outright copycats.”

“I remember Ponyville having a library. Wasn’t it... in a tree?”

The third, rough old voice came up from behind Twilight and Princess Celestia, causing them turn to look back at an old rust red pony with white mane. He was wrinkled and walked gingerly, as if any unevenness in his steps might cause his hip to pop out of place. He was familiar, though Twilight could not place where she had seen him before.

“Yes,” Princess Celestia said as she took a step towards the older stallion. “Tell me, what do you remember of the old library?”

“Oh, a few things,” the old pony said with a dry chuckle. “It had delightful little balconies, and... that one... she used to live there. Oh... I remember one other thing. I remem—” The old stallion broke into a cough, one that nearly knocked him off his hooves. He teetered, and it was only the quick actions of Princess Celestia that kept him from falling. She caught the stallion with a hoof, and he offered a genuine thankful smile. He then opened his mouth, as if to yawn or sneeze. It would have been an innocent expression for such an old stallion if not for one thing.

The fact that Celestia’s alicorn magic was flowing out of her mouth and into his.

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight shouted, trying to rush to her mentor’s aid only to be blasted back by a surge of magic. She hit the ground hard, bouncing once before coming to a stop. She gasped, trying to catch the air that had been knocked from her lungs, and she winced at the throbbing pain in her side.

“That’s right, I remember turning that pathetic library into splinters.”

Twilight struggled to pick herself up off the ground. “No! No, you can’t be here! Not today!” She looked up, body shaking in fear as she looked upon the familiar visage of Tirek.

“You give me far too little credit, Princess,” Tirek said. He held Celestia by her neck, her body hanging limp and lifeless as he dragged her along side him. “Do you think Cerberus just left his post that fateful day on a whim? No, that was an opportunity for escape I orchestrated, and it was simple enough to do a second time. Though, I’ll admit, that cage you added was a minor annoyance.”

Tossing Celestia to the side, Tirek reached out and grasped Twilight by the neck, lifting her off the ground. “Showing mercy has always been a weakness of ponies.” His grip tightened, Twilight struggling to breathe as she waved her hooves in desperation. “But I assure you, I intend not to make your mistake.”

Tirek opened his mouth, and Twilight felt the painfully familiar sensation of her magic being drained away. Like flesh being stripped from bone, the pain lasted through every moment of the process. It was searing. It was mind-rending. It was something Twilight could never hope to forget.

As the last of her magic was drawn away, Twilight went limp in Tirek’s grip. She looked to him, unable to voice a word while his mouth twisted into a grin. “Just as delicious as I remember. Alicorn magic truly is the most delectable essence, but do not pass out on me yet, Princess Twilight.” Tirek spat the words, finding no humor in such a frail creature holding such a title.

“Yes, I want you awake as I show you just how well I learned my own lesson. I will grind your fellow princesses into dust instead of imprisoning them. I will kill your friends instead of using them as leverage.” A sphere of magic formed between his horns as he sneered. “Yes, I learned my lesson from you, Princess Twilight, and I shall show no mercy.”

He unleashed his magic, causing fires and explosions to rip across Night Stone Castle. Rubble was sent flying, and the screams of ponies trapped inside ripped at Twilight's mind. “No! Stop!” Twilight pleaded.

“A little death will ensure the rest of this kingdom bows to its new king,” Tirek said as the flames surrounded him and Twilight. The heat became increasingly unbearable, and the wails of pain only grew worse. It was like a tornado of anguish that was swirling around Twilight, giving her no rest or reprieve. Twilight shut her eyes and brought down her ears, trying to drown it all out.

“Besides, I already took care of the two possible revenge seekers before you had a chance to hide them away.”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat, and she looked to Tirek. “No,” she whispered.

“Oh yes,” Tirek answered, holding out his hand. In his palm lay two tiny things. One was a green scale; the other was a black feather. Twilight felt tears welling up at her eyes. She began to flail and fight against his grip, screaming at the top of her lungs. No, it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. She had lost the library. She couldn’t lose them. She couldn’t lose it all.

She couldn’t let Tirek take it all away.

~~~

“Twilight! Twilight!”

“Gah!”

Bolting awake, Twilight shivered and looked around frantically. Her forehead was dripping with sweat, and her hooves were shaking. “What... where?”

“Twilight, it’s okay. You’re safe. Now would you please put down my barn!”

The truths of reality began to sink back into Twilight’s mind. The school... it didn’t even exist yet. She had only submitted the proposal to Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and the mayor a month ago. It had all just been a horrible, horrible dream. Nyx and Spike were safe. Tirek didn’t even know about them. She had hidden them with Zecora during the attack, and then sent them to her parents home in Canterlot straight after that. They were safe. She was safe. Everypony and everything was safe.

Except for, perhaps, Applejack’s barn, which was levitating a good dozen feet off the ground.

“Sorry! Sorry, I’ll put it down,” Twilight said, seizing control of her magic. She lowered herself, the barn, and everything else back to the ground, ensuring a gentle landing.

Standing up from her bed of blankets and hay, Twilight moved to the main doors of the barn where Applejack was climbing down from a ladder. “I’m so sorry. Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Applejack said. “You just gave us a scare. Granny Smith nearly spat out her teeth when she saw our barn starting to float off.”

“I’m so sorry. I was just... having that dream again.” Twilight turned, heading back into the barn. She had somewhat taken over the space. There were stacks of boxes everywhere. It was everything she had been able to clean up from the rubble of the library. Most of the boxes were just full of ash and charred corners of books. Very few of the tomes from the library’s upper floors survived the explosion. Still, she was sure she could use magic to piece the ashes back together. There had to be a spell for it. She just needed to do some research, a task admittedly made harder without the very thing she was trying to restore.

“You’ve been having that dream for almost a week now, Twilight. Maybe you should talk to Princess Luna about it,” Applejack said as she folded the ladder and leaned it against the exterior of the barn. “That’s part of her royal duties, after all.”

“That isn’t how it works. If Princess Luna thought this was a dream I couldn’t handle, she would have probably come and helped me already.” Twilight sat down on the bed she had made, which was a mattress of hay with a few blankets to separate her from the itchy straw.

Applejack walked up to the edge of the bed. “Are you saying Princess Luna is making you have these dreams?”

Twilight shook her head. “No. At least, I don’t think so. I think this is my own dream, but Princess Luna is letting me have it. I just wish I knew what it meant.”

“Me too. I’d hate to think what else you’d start levitating if this goes on much longer.”

“I’m sorry. If you’d like, I could go stay with Rarity.”

Applejack waved her hoof. “Now, I didn’t say you had to go no place. When I said you could stay here as long as you need, I meant it. I just think I might need to start tying a few things down, that’s all.”

“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, or I can try wearing a magic suppressor to bed. I got a lot of practice in the dungeons of Night Stone Castle.” Twilight yawned and rubbed at her right eye. “What time is it?”

“A few hours 'til sunrise.”

Twilight pulled herself up from the bed, groaning as she began walking to a workbench she had assembled from a few stacked boxes and a wooden board. “Well, there’s no reason to try and go back to sleep then. I can probably make some progress on the repair spell if I’m lucky.”

Applejack walked to the far side of Twilight’s workbench, brow furrowed. “I thought you’d given up on that yesterday? I thought you were finally going to start figuring out what you need to do to move into the new palace.”

“I did, but then I had an idea before I went to bed. Some of the time spells from the Starswirl the Bearded wing in Canterlot might be able to help. If there's one that could reverse time, I could just turn back the clock on the library to a time before Tirek destroyed it. It and all the books could be just like new.”

“But Twilight, the library—”

“It’s gone. I know, but I can put it back together. I have a few more days before Nyx and Spike come back to Ponyville. If I fix the library before that, then it’ll be like it was never destroyed. Everything can go back to normal, and Nyx won’t even know anything happened.”

Applejack sighed, shaking her head as she turned to leave. “Well, all right, but you should try to get some more rest. Even if you don’t go to sleep, laying down and just resting your eyes would probably do ya a world of good.”

“I’ll lay down as soon as I try out this new variation on the repair spell,” Twilight answered, casting her magic on a pile of ash at the center of the workbench. It began to twist and swirl, changing colors and forming back together into a book. But before it was halfway restored, the spell flickered and collapsed, causing the book to change back into ash. Twilight groaned, starting to pick up little bits of the ash in her magic. “I must still have a piece of some other book in this pile.”

~~~

Applejack had to shake off a yawn as she walked amongst the orchard rows. She had gotten back to sleep after what happened with Twilight, but dealing with a floating barn had taken a good hour out of an otherwise restful night’s sleep. Still, she had worked a full day on the farm with less sleep before. She’d just need to try to make up for it later, either with a nap or by going to bed early.

That, however, was a long ways off, and Applejack had a lot of work to do. Fall would be coming soon, and that meant they were getting some of the last harvests off the orchard. It had been a good year. Her family enjoyed good sales during the Summer, and they had been able to squirrel away more than enough food to keep Ponyville fed during the winter. Even with the vampire fruitbat infestation, they had managed to come out a little ahead.

Making a slight turn, Applejack approached a tree still laden with fruit. The baskets had already been laid out by Big Macintosh. That was how work was going to be split today. She’d do all the bucking while he set out the empty baskets and collected the ones she had filled.

First tree of the morning and Applejack could already feel the peaceful joy she got out of tending her family farm starting to settle over her mind. This was a nice, simple, straightforward day of harvest. No pressure to get it done quickly, and nothing out of the ordinary. It was a day with her family and the orchards.

Turning, Applejack raised her hind hooves and gave a firm buck to the tree. The leaves quaked and rustled. The apples gently popped off the branches and fell. It was all going perfectly well. The short-lived rainstorm of apples would end, and she’d pick up any that missed the baskets.

This morning, however, the apples seemed to have a different plan. When they hit the ground they bounced like a rubber ball. Squeaking with each hit, the fruit began to ricochet in every direction. They hit the trees, the buckets, and a few would have bounced right off Applejack’s head if she hadn't dove for cover.

Hiding underneath an empty basket, Applejack watched the fruits bounce across the orchard. The volley of apples were starting to move away like an angry swarm, their ricochets taking them closer and closer to the barn. For a moment Applejack feared what would happen when the apples reached it. If they got inside while Twilight was casting her magic, who knew what could happen.

Climbing out from underneath the protection of the basket, Applejack was ready to sprint to prevent whatever magical catastrophe was about to happen. Yet she had to stop in her hooves before even taking a single step. The apples that reached the barn were bouncing off it and into nearby empty fruit baskets, where they abruptly stopped. In the span of a few seconds, every apple that had been acting like a mad pinball now rested peacefully exactly where they needed to be.

“I do say, this farming thing is very relaxing. It’s like a soothing massage for the soul.”

Applejack slapped her hoof against her face, dragging it down across her muzzle before she turned around. Discord was sprawled out in the branches of a nearby tree, a relaxed smile on his face. He used his claw to pick an apple from the branches. He inspected it slowly for a few seconds, turning it over in his claw. He then dropped it, and like the ones before, the apple bounced. Applejack had to quickly juke to the right to avoid getting hit on the head as the fruit ricocheted towards the barn.

“Discord, what have I said about messing with my apples?”

“I’ll have you know I haven’t done a thing to your precious produce.” Discord picked and dropped another apple. This one bounced around Applejack, not forcing the mare to duck or dodge. “The apples are perfectly fine. It’s everything else I’ve put a little magic into. The ground, the trees, it’s like one giant bounce house meant to help my dear friend.”

“And how exactly is this helping?”

“Why, I’m helping you harvest your apples. I’m saving you and your dear brother the numerous, monotonous trips of hauling them back to your barn.”

Applejack sighed, ducking her head once more as another apple soared within inches of her skull. “Well, I guess that means you're feeling better.”

“Oh yes,” Discord said as he snapped his claw. He disappeared from the tree and reappeared next to Applejack. He wore an orange button down shirt, with Applejack’s cutie mark on the back and an infinity symbol. He had on a matching brimmed hat, and a sports glove on one paw. “I am happy to report that after having my magic so rudely torn out and then lovingly put back in, I’m feeling completely normal.”

Plucking an apple from a nearby tree, Discord stood with it clenched in his claw. He rolled his shoulders a little, then reared back and threw the apple. With the speed and force of his arm swing, the apple should have soared through the air like a comet. Instead, it corkscrewed and swerved through the air until, finally, it bounced against the distant barn and landed in the basket with the other apples.

“I can tell,” Applejack said. “Now, did you want something or are you just here to ‘help?’”

“Ah, straight to the point as usual,” Discord said, snapping his claw to remove his sporty outfit. “I am here for more than just the pleasure of your company, but it would be rude for me to start without everyone else. I just went on ahead to figure out where you were.”

“And who else is coming, exactly?”

Discord swept his paw backward, and as if he had timed it perfectly, two ponies came into view a few orchard rows away. “Applejack, there you are,” Rarity called, she and Fluttershy turning and starting to walk straight towards their friend. “Granny Smith said you were in the east orchards, but we were having such trouble finding you.”

Applejack pointed a hoof at Discord. “So you sent him to come find me?”

“Oh no, he volunteered,” Fluttershy answered.

Discord floated up behind Fluttershy and Rarity, smiling as he clutched his claw and paw to his chest. “I was just trying to do the friendly thing.”

“Of course.” Applejack rolled her eyes before looking to Rarity and Fluttershy. “What are you two up to?”

“We were actually hoping we could convince you to take a little bit of a long brunch. Twilight’s been closed up in your barn for a week now, and Fluttershy and I thought it would do her some good if we got all six—”

“Seven,” Discord corrected, holding up his claw which now sported seven talons. Six of the claws were painted to resemble six particular mares while the seventh looked like the draconequus himself.

Rarity chuckled, though the tone in her voice made it clear that she wasn’t entirely fond of the seventh guest’s presence. “Yes, my apologies. We thought it would be good for Twilight if all seven of us had a nice meal together.”

“Well, you're more than welcome to go and try to pull Twilight out of the barn.” Applejack walked towards another fruit-laden tree, turning around to buck as she spoke. “I’m a bit too busy to go to town for lunch. These apples won’t buck themselves.” Applejack punctuated her words with a kick to the tree, a solid thunk that should have knocked every apple to the ground. Instead, the tree began to quiver, vibrating almost like a tuning fork.

The vibration began to spread, neighboring trees starting to shake. Instinctively, Applejack looked to Discord as the source of the odd behavior. The draconequus, however, was now wearing a suit of armor. Not a single inch of his body was exposed; even his tail was covered in plate mail. It was clue enough for Applejack to realize what was about to happen.

“Hit the dirt!” Applejack shouted, jumping at Rarity and Fluttershy. She tackled her friends to the ground just as the first apples began to fall from the vibrating trees. Within moments the orchard was a hailstorm of bouncing apples. Ricocheting off the trees, the ground, Discord’s armor, and one another, every apple in the orchard had become a concussion-inducing projectile. Even the baskets began to bounce, flinging about the orchard with dangerous speed.

The maelstrom of fruits lasted for a few seconds before the sound of the bouncing faded. Applejack slowly raised her head, cautiously looking around to see if the coast was clear. Everything looked fine. She couldn’t see any more bouncing fruit, and looking over at the barn, Applejack could see bushels upon bushels of apples stacked neatly in several dozen wooden baskets.

“Careful, Applejack. There’s one left.”

Discord’s warning came too late, and Applejack winced as one final apple bounced against the back of her head before landing in Discord’s armor claw. She turned and glared back at him, but he just shrugged and opened the visor of his armor. “I tried to warn you. Still, it looks to me like your harvest is done a bit early. So why don’t you come join us for brunch?”

Rubbing the small sore spot on the back of her head, Applejack gritted her teeth at Discord. “Y’all could have given us armor too!”

“And mess up Rarity’s mane by stuffing it into a helmet? Now, what kind of friend would I be if I did that?”

Rarity picked herself up from the dirt, cringing a little as she dusted off her coat. “Yes, well... though you may not agree with his methods, Discord did just save you and your brother a lot of work.”

Fluttershy nodded her head. “Yes, why don’t we just go get Twilight, go to brunch, and put this little disagreement behind us.”

“Alright, but it’s going to take a force of nature to get Twilight out of the barn,” Applejack said as she began walking towards the barn. “She’s still trying to figure out a fancy repair spell so she can put her books and the library back together.” Applejack stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “Hey, wait a minute. Discord, why don’t you just fix the library? It’d save Twilight a whole mess of trouble and actually put that chaotic magic of yours to good use.”

“Twilight already thought to ask me about that days ago.” Discord put his claw and paw behind his back and withdrew them, each now wearing a sock puppet. One looked like him, the other was Twilight.

“Discord, would you please fix my library?” Discord said in a surprisingly accurate impression of Twilight’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Princess, but I can’t. Besides, don’t you have a shiny new palace to live in?”

“But I miss my old library and all the fond memories I have there, like the time Cadance and I took care of you when you were sick.”

Discord chuckled, moving the lips of his own sock puppet while his real mouth remained motionless. “Yes, I do suppose any time with me is a fond memory, but I can’t fix the library. Oh yes, I could snap something together that looks like your library, but I can’t make what I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Twilight sock puppet, as if speaking out for some some small foals that were watching the performance. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it really is very simple. I know very little about your old library. Yes, I know what it looked like and what you kept in the drawer of your bedside table, but I don’t know what books you had or the contents of your kitchen. I’d have to make up so much, and I think we can both agree you wouldn’t be happy with what my chaotic imagination can put together.”

“I guess you're right,” the Twilight sock puppet said before it and the Discord puppet disappeared. The real Discord then smiled, making a few theatrical bows to the three mares. “Yes, thank you, thank you. You’ve been a wonderful audience. Oh, really, no, stop.”

“We’re not applauding,” Applejack said.

Discord popped over beside Applejack, putting a claw on her shoulder. “Yes, but you are giving me a standing ovation. After all, you're standing here, aren’t you?”

“Now, Discord,” Fluttershy said. “I’m sure Applejack is thankful you helped with the harvest, but maybe you should stop trying to antagonize her.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, was I going too far? I thought I was just giving her a playful ribbing. Isn’t this something she and Rainbow Dash do all the time?”

“Why, yes, it is,” Applejack said. “Here, let me return the favor.” With no further warning, Applejack quickly turned, brought up her hooves, and bucked Discord in the side, sending him tumbling into a nearby apple tree. “See, wasn't that just a ‘playful ribbing?’” she asked with a smile.

Discord smirked as he pulled himself up from the ground and dusted himself off. “Yes, I suppose it was. Still, I would like to assure you that I would help Twilight if I could. Considering what she did for me during that whole Tirek business, I owe her that much at least. Unfortunately, I simply cannot put the library back into order, and I certainly can’t do anything to make that new palace more livable.

“That whole thing is a saturated in feel-good harmony magic,” Discord said with a shiver, as if the thought alone made him ill. “I might be able to summon a few things here or there while inside, but nothing I could conjure magically would last very long. Nope, Twilight will just have to move into her new palace the old fashioned way.”

“Well, she sure isn’t going to be doing it any time soon either,” Applejack commented. “She’s fixated on putting the library back together.”

“Can you really blame her?” Fluttershy asked. “That library was her home for three years. I don’t think any of us would be ready to move on quickly if our homes got destroyed.”

“I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing the library repaired,” Rarity said. “The library has been part of Ponyville ever since I was little. You remember the old librarian? She used to have story time with the kids, and I took Sweetie Belle there a few times.”

Applejack nodded her head. “I remember. Big Mac and I used to take Apple Bloom to that story time every other week. I even remember seeing you and Sweetie Belle a few times. Still, repairing the library to what it used to be isn’t as simple as raising a barn. Sure, Twilight might figure out how to do it magically, but who knows how long that could take.”

“Even if she does figure it out, it may be too late,” Discord commented frankly. He snapped his claw, making a box appear in his paw. It was a simple, child’s picture puzzle, twenty five pieces that made a picture of the Golden Oaks library. “A little nuance to almost any repair spell Twilight could use is the need for pieces. You need all the pieces.” Discord opened the box, taking one of the puzzle pieces out and chucking it over his shoulder. “And the longer you wait, the more likely those pieces are going to get lost.”

“Well, how difficult would it be just to build a new library just like the old one?” Rarity asked.

Applejack shook. “Not easy. It was carved into a tree, after all, and ya can’t just build a tree. We’d have to rip out the old stump first, then plant a new tree, and then, even with magic, there’s no telling how long it could take for that tree to grow large enough to be used for a library.”

Rarity nodded gently with a small blush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “I do suppose that makes sense.”

“But I don’t know if I could bear to tell Twilight to give up on the library,” Fluttershy said.

“Well, something needs to change. Nyx and Spike are going to be coming back from Canterlot soon. Spike already knows what happened to the library, but as far as I know, they haven’t told Nyx. If this keeps up, she might end up finding out the hard way that her home got blown to splinters and that they all have to stay in my barn.”

“It’s almost a shame Twilight didn’t have some friends who could get the palace ready for her,” Discord commented casually as he leaned against a nearby apple tree, scratching his back against the bark. “Don’t you agree, Rarity?”

Rarity looked at Discord a moment, then her eyes wandered as a smile started to pull at her lips. Applejack and Fluttershy glanced at one another, able to tell immediately what was about to happen. Applejack even began to count it out, tapping her hoof against the ground while mouthing the words. “Three... two... one...”

“I just had the most brilliant idea,” Rarity said, nearly jumping for joy.

“Really, I couldn’t tell,” Applejack said, laughing to herself.

Rarity ignored Applejack’s sass, her smile only growing. “Discord is right. We should get the palace ready for Twilight. I have always wanted to try my hoof at interior design on a royal level, and how many times am I going to get a chance like this? The palace is one of a kind, but it is also a blank canvas on the interior. The only thing it has are the thrones in the throne room. Everything else, the furniture, the color scheme, the theme... all of it is just waiting for somepony with proper vision to mold it into something grand.

“Yes,” Rarity said as ideas took form in her mind. “It will need to be practical but regal. It needs to be bold and inspiring to visiting guests, but with homey comfort for private evenings. Of course there must be a library, and both Nyx and Spike could finally have their own rooms. Twilight wouldn’t have to keep that laboratory of hers in the basement anymore, either.”

“And where exactly are you going to get the bits for all this?” Applejack asked. “Furnishing that whole palace isn’t going to be cheap.”

“Maybe we could ask other ponies for donations,” Fluttershy suggested. “If everypony pitched in a little, then I’m sure we’d have no trouble. I’d be more than happy to donate some sweet little bird houses.”

“What about things like the plumbing we’d have to install, and what about all the ponies you’d need to haul in all this furniture. You're talking about a sizable workforce, one that would need to be organized and kept on track. About the only pony here that has experience organizing that many ponies is Twilight.”

“Oh, I can think of another,” Rarity said with a smile. She walked over to Applejack and put a hoof on the mare’s left shoulder, only to take it off a moment later when she realized how dusty Applejack’s coat still was. “A strong, honest mare who is one of the team leaders during Winter Wrap Up. A mare who knows how to motivate ponies to do their very best work and can keep them honest so they don’t cut any corners.”

“A mare who now has a lot of free time on her hooves because of the help she got with her apple harvest,” Fluttershy added, stepping over to Applejack’s right hoof side.

Discord joined in as well. He disappeared one moment only to reappear at a fraction of his normal size, lounging on the brim of Applejack’s hat. “A mare who honestly needs to get Twilight out of her barn so she can store all those apples out of the sun.”

“All right, all right. Y’all can stop beating around the bush,” Applejack said, stepping out from between her friends. “It’s a good idea, and I’d be happy to help, but let’s not put the cart before the pony. There are a lot of things we’d need to get done. We’d need to ask around to see if ponies would even be willing to volunteer for something this big. That and we’d need plans or blueprints of the castle, and those aren’t going to be easy to come by considering that whole building grew out of a magic chest.”

“Well then, we know where to start, don’t we?” Rarity said. “Fluttershy and I can head back to town and start asking around to see how many ponies would be interested. At the same time, you and Discord can go and start taking measurements of the palace.”

“Oh, yes, that sounds like a delightful idea,” Discord said as he hung down from the edge of Applejack’s hat brim. “It would be a wonderful chance for me and Applejack to bond closer as friends.”

“Then it’s decided! Come along, Fluttershy, we haven’t a moment to spare.”

Fluttershy took to her wings, gently hovering behind Rarity as the pair began to head off in the direction of town. “Um... what about brunch?”

Rarity stopped in her tracks. “Oh yes... well... that is the whole reason we came out here, isn’t it? Very well, we have enough time to get brunch, but then we shan’t have another moment to spare.”

Giggling a little, Fluttershy nodded as she and Rarity resumed their departure. Applejack was just left standing in her orchard, Discord hanging from the brim of her hat like a wet noodle as he waved farewell to Fluttershy. He then snapped his claw, appearing next to Applejack with a yellow construction helmet hanging from one of his horns. “We’d best be on our way too, Applejack. I can snap us together something to eat along the way. But oh, I’m just so excited to finally be able to strengthen my friendship with you. I mean, you're no Fluttershy, but you and I do share a few things in common.”

Applejack rolled her eyes as she took a few steps forward. “We’re just like two peas in a pod.”

“See what I mean? What other pony do I know shares my love of sarcasm?”

~~~

“Nyx, Spike, lunch is ready.”

Twilight Velvet set out the last piece to the meal, some market-fresh carrots, before stepping back to admire her work. It had been so long since she had prepared regular lunches like this. It had all ended so abruptly after Shining Armor was accepted into the guard and Twilight went to attend Celestia’s school. Before her children were even really adults, they were out of the nest. Sure, some ponies would say she was lucky to have such a great son and gifted daughter.

She would have been happy making lunches for them just a little longer, though, a year or two at most.

Still, even if it was just for a few days, Nyx’s and Spike’s visit had allowed her to step back into the old routine. Proper breakfasts and lunches for the both of them, and then a true family dinner every night. Some would say she was spoiling the pair, but that was her right as a grandmother. A right she was embracing thoroughly.

“Spike! Nyx! Where are you two?”

“We’re coming,” Velvet heard Nyx call back before the sound of hooves and claws on the stairs reached her ears. A few seconds later the pair entered the kitchen, Spike holding a comic book open in his claws while Nyx read over his shoulder. A comic book that didn’t come from The House of Enchanted Comics, as per her daughter’s very specific instructions, but instead from Spike’s extensive collection that was stored in the attic.

“Okay, you ready?” Spike asked.

Nyx nodded firmly, a bit of her mane bouncing against her horn. She wore none of her usual attire. It was safe to expose her wings and slitted eyes in the comfort of her grandparents home. “Yeah! Turn the page!”

“You can turn the page after lunch,” Velvet said, using her magic to levitate the comic book out of Spike’s claws. “And maybe after you go do something else for a while. You’ve been reading comic books since you got them down from the attic yesterday.”

“Sorry, we couldn’t help it,” Spike said as he climbed into a chair at the table as Nyx hopped up into her own. “It’s been so long since I’ve gone through my collection like this. I forgot just how many great comic books I have. Like Power Ponies number fifty six when Zapp has too—”

“La-la-la. I’m not listening. La-la-la!” Nyx sang to herself as she covered her ears with her forehooves.

“Whoops,” Spike said through a chuckle. “Forgot that’s the next one we were going to read.”

Nyx lowered her hooves from her ears. “It’s okay, I just don’t want you to ruin what happens next.”

“Well, I’m glad you two are having fun,” Velvet said as she began to serve lunch, doling out healthy portions to each plate. “But it’s too beautiful outside to spend the whole day cooped up reading comic books. I insist you take a break, go outside, and get some fresh air.”

“Can’t we at least finish the book we’re already on?” Nyx asked.

Velvet shook her head as she took her own seat at the table. “Nope, you're going straight outside after lunch. Trust me, the comic book will be here when you get back.”

“Awww.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it, Nyx,” Spike said as he picked up a carrot from his plate. He puffed out a little fire, quickly roasting the vegetable before popping it into his mouth. “After all, I heard the Mane-iac has built a secret base right in the backyard. She’s got a new doomsday weapon, and only two heroes can stop her.” Spike swallowed before pointing at himself. “Humdrum and—”

Nyx smiled, catching onto Spike’s plan. She levitated a carrot up from her plate and held it above her head. “And Fili-Second!”

“Really? You want to play as Fili-Second?”

Nyx lowered the carrot and looked over at Spike with her head tilted to one side. “What’s wrong with Fili-Second?”

“Nothing,” Spike said with a wave of his claw. “I just thought you’d pick somepony else.”

“Well, I like Zapp and Radiance too. Would they be better?”

“What about Matter-Horn? I was sure you’d like her.”

“Isn’t she just a unicorn who shoots magic? That’s something Twilight can do.”

Spike laughed as he prepared to fire-roast another carrot. “You have no idea.”

~~~

“Thanks for helping me clean up, Spike.”

The dragon picked up the last dirty plate from the table and carried it over to the sink. Velvet was using her magic to wash and rinse the dishes before putting them on a drying rack. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I needed to kill time while Nyx is setting up our super hero base in the backyard.”

“That was nice of you to share your comic books with her, by the way. I remember that, once upon a time, you didn’t like anypony in the house touching them.”

Spike pulled a stool over from the corner of the room. He then hopped up, grabbed a drying towel off the counter, and began to dry the dishes. “Well, I was already going through them, and you know Nyx. Once she’s curious about something, there’s no stopping her.” He sighed a little. “Still, I don’t know how I’m going to replace some of my comics. My Power Ponies number twelve, fifteen, and twenty-eight. My Fantastic Fillies numbers sixteen, twenty-three, and rare fifty-six misprint. All of them went up in smoke with the rest of the library.”

“I’m just happy books are about the only things that were lost,” Velvet said, putting a hoof around Spike’s shoulder and giving him a little squeeze. “I’d hate to imagine what could have happened if you, Nyx, or Twilight had been in there when that monster Tirek attacked.

“You know, you really need to tell Nyx what happened before you two get back to Ponyville.”

Spike nodded as he continued to dry dishes. “Yeah, I know, but how do I even start? 'Hey, Nyx, you know our library, the only home you’ve ever known besides your dark, creepy castle? Yeah, it got blown into a million tiny pieces. Yep, it and just about everything inside is gone. Want to go back to reading comic books?'"

The sarcasm left Spike’s voice. He held up a glass, inspecting a smudge before wiping it away with the drying cloth. “Honestly, not telling Nyx has been kind of nice. I kind of get to forget what happened when we’re hanging out, but that all changes the moment I tell her. It will be the only thing she’ll be thinking about. Then she’ll be in the dumps. Then I’ll be in the dumps, and that... that will just be the dumps.”

“I’ll admit, I’m no expert in breaking bad news,” Velvet said as she set the final glass in the drying rack and pulled the drain plug out of the sink. “Night Light and I never really had bad news we had to tell to Twilight or Shining when they were growing up. They didn’t have any pets that died, and we didn’t lose any close family members either. No friends from school got sick or injured. It’s really a miracle that Night Light and I never had to have such a serious talk with them.

“But we still need to tell Nyx what happened.”

“Okay, let’s make a deal,” Spike said. He finished drying the last glass before hopping down from his stool. “We’ll give Twilight a few more days. Trust me, the moment she’s repaired the library, I’ll be getting a letter with the good news. If we haven’t heard from Twilight before we need to get on the train to Ponyville, then I promise I’ll tell Nyx everything. It’s a long train ride, after all. Plenty of time to break some bad news.”

“I guess it’s only fair to give Twilight a chance. After all, she did just defeat another ancient evil. Fixing a library should be a cinch for my little girl.”

“Spike! It’s ready!” Nyx shouted from the backyard.

“Coming!” he shouted before looking at Velvet. “Well, looks like I have a day to save.”

“Have fun, and try to stay out of my flower beds. I don’t want my zinnias getting trampled. I still need to get my seeds for next year out of their pods.”

“You got it,” Spike said, waving his claw as he headed out of the kitchen and turned towards the door to the backyard.

Plans and Diversions

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

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

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

Chapter 2

Plans and Diversions

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

“Never again.”

“I’m sure yesterday wasn’t that bad.” Fluttershy walked alongside Applejack, the pair heading to town together. The sun had cleared the horizon and was beginning its ascent into the sky. The weather team’s schedule had it being partly cloudy for most of the day, with a breeze here or there. Overall, it was going to be a wonderfully pleasant day.

Which was a stark contrast to Applejack’s current mood.

“Fluttershy, do you want to hear what happened yesterday?” Applejack asked, struggling to not grit her teeth at the memory alone. “First, before we even got to work taking measurements, he’s got me picking curtains while wearing some cheesy suit and talking like everything was some sort of game. When I finally picked a curtain, my ‘prize’ was something he called a 'Barrel of Ponies'. Which I guess equates to Discord making I don’t know how many copies of me like I had just nose-dived into the Mirror Pool.

“But was that all? No, he then had my clones go and start measuring the castle.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Fluttershy commented.

Applejack snarled. “Discord had them using their tongues.”

Fluttershy instinctively rolled her tongue in her mouth, as if trying to wipe away some bad taste. “Their tongues?”

“Yeah. It was an army of clones of me pulling on each others tongues. They were stretching them out longer than any pony’s tongue should ever stretch and using them to measure the castle. All the while he had every clone acting like his little puppets saying ‘Yes sir, Mr. Discord, sir.’”

“Oh my. But... you still got the floor plans for the palace, didn’t you?”

“It’s about the only good thing that came out of the whole mess. I dropped them off with Rarity after you had left to feed your animals,” Applejack said as she and Fluttershy began to reach the outskirts of town, passing by a few other ponies going about their business. Their chosen path was taking them straight in the direction of Twilight’s new palace, which was easily visible from any part of town.

“I know it must have been frustrating, but if you look at it another way, Discord did do all the work,” Fluttershy delicately pointed out. “All those copies were just his magic. It sounds like you didn’t even have to lift a hoof.”

“If that’s true, why didn’t he just go and do it himself and leave me out of it?”

“Would you have been happy if he left you there to finish the whole castle by yourself?”

Applejack huffed but shook her head. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t.”

“See, you made the job enjoyable for him by staying. Yes, it may have been the teensy bit annoying, but that’s just the way Discord is. It’s kind of like how, sometimes, you’ll find Pinkie’s pranks a little annoying, but you know it’s all in good fun.”

Applejack and Fluttershy drew closer to the castle, beginning to climb the steps that led to the large, yellow front doors. “I know you mean well, Fluttershy.” Applejack put a hoof on the door, pushing it open slowly. “But sometimes, I think you do a little too good of a job covering for Discord.”

“Oh, Applejack, don’t tell me you're still miffed about the whole tongue thing from yesterday.” The doors to the castle opened, revealing Discord standing on just the other side of the threshold. He was holding a tray in his paw and a pair of metal tongs in his claw. “It was all just a playful joke. Now, would either of you like a cinnamon roll?”

“That depends. Did you make them?” Applejack asked.

“No, I just provided the place settings.” Discord motioned behind himself. Set up in the overwhelmingly empty main foyer of the castle was a large wooden table filled to the brim with tea cups and teapots in various sizes, shapes, and colors. “Pinkie Pie brought the cinnamon rolls.”

“They’re super-special friends-meeting-to-help-another-friend cinnamon rolls!” Pinkie Pie sat up in her seat at the table, appearing from behind a large teapot that matched the shape of her head. She waved her hoof excitedly. “Come in and have one!”

Rainbow Dash, who was sitting opposite of Pinkie Pie, turned around in her seat to look at the front door. “Yeah, they’re great.” She promptly took another bite of her own cinnamon roll, the heavy frosting smearing her lips and she chewed contently.

“I would love to have one,” Fluttershy said with a smile. Discord nodded, using the tongs to take a cinnamon roll from the tray. At the same time, one of the plates from the table sprang to life, floated over, and hovered like a patient cloud until Discord deposited a roll on its clean surface.

“And what about you, Applejack?” Discord asked while Fluttershy flew over to the table with her plate.

Applejack looked to her friends for a moment before focusing back on Discord. “Alright, I’ll have one, but I thought we were here to talk about what we’re going to do for Twilight’s palace, not to have breakfast.”

“We are, darling; I was just waiting for everypony to arrive.” Rarity came out from one of the archways that boarded the staircase at the rear of the foyer. She was using her magic to push along what resembled a large schoolhouse chalkboard on wheels that had been covered with a sheet. She positioned it to face the table, then smiled. “My friends, tha... oh, Discord? Would you be a dear and maybe move all your lovely tea sets out of the way? I don’t think Applejack and Rainbow can see.”

“But of course,” Discord said. He snapped his tail, causing himself and Applejack to disappear from the door. Applejack reappeared in the seat next to Rainbow Dash, a warm cinnamon roll on the plate in front of her. Discord popped back into existence, floating a few feet above the table, where he reached out and plucked a small cork from the spout of a teapot. Air began to leak from the spout, and as it did, all of the tea sets deflated like they had been one large balloon.

The deflation continued until the teapots and cups became a tablecloth, resting beneath the few lingering plates. Discord then snapped his claw again, disappearing one moment only to reappear in the seat at the head of the table next to Fluttershy and Applejack.

Rarity gave a smile and a thankful nod before clearing her voice and continuing. “My friends, thanks to the floor plan Discord and Applejack provided me, I have come up with a brilliant design for the palace. I was up most of the night working on it. The elegant architectural beauty of the plans just inspired me in so many ways. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you... my vision.”

Rarity pulled the sheet away, revealing what was in fact a wheeled cork board. To the board numerous paper designs and concepts had been pinned carefully in place. At the center of it all was a large front-perspective sketch of the castle which showed several small cutaways of the interior.

“Now, while I still need to work out many of the details, I see the castle being broken into three areas.” Rarity cast a small spell, causing a thin, focused beam of light to shoot from her horn to the papers on the cork board. “One section will be devoted to being a library. I recalled just how elegant the library in the crystal empire looked, and I thought we can achieve something just as wonderful here. That, I think we can all agree, is something Twilight would really appreciate.”

The four other mares and one draconequus nodded in agreement.

“Now,” Rarity continued, moving her magical pointer to another part of the floor plan. “the palace is of course a palace and it will likely have royal duties. I don’t quite know what it means for Twilight to be the Princess of Friendship, nor am I sure how we contribute to that, but I believe this section of the castle would be best suited for such duties. After all, it is where the throne room is.”

“So where exactly are Twilight, Nyx, and Spike going to be living?” Rainbow Dash asked through a mouthful of cinnamon roll. “That’s the whole reason we’re doing all of this, isn’t it?”

Rarity moved her magical pointer once more, using it to circle a few of the cutaways she had drawn on her sketch of the castle. “That would be this part here. Considering the three of them all used to share a bedroom and a bathroom at the old library, even this modest increase in space is going to feel very different. But, I’ll admit, to pull off what I have planned there and for the rest of the castle, we’ll need to do more than just bring in furniture.”

Applejack swallowed the small nibble she had taken from her cinnamon roll, cautious of it being some sort of chaotic trap. “How much more, exactly?”

“We were already going to face a big challenge putting in basic utilities, Applejack. Because of that, I thought it wouldn’t be too much more trouble to maybe... knock down a few walls and put up some others up. I mean, there is no ballroom. Every palace simply must have a suitably sized ballroom.”

Rarity levitated a few of the other sketches off the cork board, floating them over to her friends. The drawings showed different room concepts. Bedrooms, bathrooms, the library, as well as the proposed ballroom were depicted with Rarity’s usual style. “I mean, just look. Won’t it be simply fabulous?”

“Rarity, not to let the air out of your balloon, but we can’t hope to have all that done before Spike and Nyx come back,” Applejack said as she stood up from the table. “I thought we were just going to be making this place livable. I mean, the small part you have planned just for Twilight, Spike, and Nyx is fine. We could maybe get that done in a few days if we all hunker down and we get enough help. The rest is too much. We can’t do it all!”

“But Applejack,” Rarity pouted, “this isn’t like an outfit where I can just make the hat and do the dress later. This is a palace. Doing a few rooms and then leaving the rest vacant just isn’t proper. What if Twilight had to host some visiting delegates? She’d be a laughing stock on the international stage for having such a poorly prepared palace.”

Applejack took a calming breath, trying to remain sympathetic and understanding. “I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think Princess Celestia would ask Twilight to host any important visitor before this place was ready. I’m just saying we need to prioritize. Twilight, Spike, and Nyx need beds for sleeping, a kitchen, and a bathroom. If we can get more than that done, then fine, but Nyx and Spike are coming back tomorrow evening. We’d be lucky to get a few rooms fully furnished before then.”

“Oh! Oh!” Pinkie Pie had her hoof in the air, waving it like a school-age filly needing to use the bathroom.

“Yes, Pinkie, do you have a something you’d like to add?” Rarity asked.

“First, can somepony pass me another cinnamon roll please?”

Discord picked up another roll with the serving tongs. “But of course.” He then smiled, snapping his talons. With his characteristic pop, Discord was suddenly wearing broad shoulder pads and a helmet. “Go long!”

Pinkie was out of her chair in a moment, running to the far wall of the castle’s foyer with her plate in her mouth. As she ran Discord chucked the cinnamon roll, causing the pastry to spiral perfectly in the air. Rarity audibly gasped as the roll soared through the air, threatening to spread it’s sticky frosting across the crystalline walls.

Still, with a great leap, Pinkie Pie got into the path of the roll, catching it on her plate. She then landed and bent her head forward, catching one final dribble of frosting that had come free of the roll. It was a perfect catch, and Discord celebrated the achievement by suddenly appearing next to her. He wore a black-and-white striped jersey and threw his arms above his head in two straight lines while blowing on a whistle.

“You two done?” Applejack asked flatly.

Pinkie Pie and Discord glanced at one another, then shrugged before returning to the table. Pinkie set down her plate and retook her seat as she spoke. “Second, what if Nyx and Spike weren’t coming home tomorrow night?”

Rainbow Dash wiped the frosting from her mouth with a crumpled up napkin before dropping it on her plate. “What do you mean? Did Twilight tell you something?”

“No, but that’s good thinking, Rainbow.”

“It is?”

Pinkie Pie nodded her head firmly. “You bet! If Twilight was around Ponyville, she’d find out what we were doing and ruin the surprise. And a ruined surprise is worse than cake being accidentally left out in the rain. That’s why we should get Twilight to leave, and then Nyx and Spike can go to wherever she is, and then all three of them can come back in a week instead of tomorrow night.”

Rarity smiled as she looked back at her designs with renewed hope. “Yes, I see. You mean we should send Twilight off to someplace with Nyx and Spike. Basically distract them so we can work on the palace. It would give us the time we’d need.”

“Even with a week, it would take an army of ponies to get this all done,” Applejack said. “We also can’t expect the ponies in Ponyville to donate all the supplies we’d need to furnish the entire castle.”

Fluttershy finished the last nibble of her cinnamon roll, leaving only a few tiny crumbs behind and a pristine, unneeded napkin. “Maybe we could ask around outside of Ponyville.”

“But how are we going to get the message out?”

“Well, not to point a claw, but there are two mares at this table who might have a knack for drumming up volunteers. One who’s the self-proclaimed ‘fastest flier in all of Equestria', and another who is able to inspire ponies to join in on large song and dance numbers.” Discord said, even as he made flashing magical signs appear above Rainbow and Pinkie’s heads. “And, to borrow your honesty for a moment, may I make an honest observation? Applejack, why are you being such a downer? Don’t you want to help your friend?”

“Of course I want to help Twilight, and don’t you ever go saying otherwise ,” Applejack said, She almost stomped her hoof, but she managed to reign in her temper and speak calmly. “I’m just saying these are things we have to think about. Otherwise, this will all just turn into a big mess and we’ll end up making things worse instead of better. I’m just worried, that’s all.”

“I think we get that, but come on. It’s not like we haven’t done crazier things.” Rainbow Dash motioned towards Discord. “I mean, we reformed him.”

“And I’m sure Discord would be happy to help anyway he can,” Fluttershy added. “Isn’t that right?”

“But of course,” Discord said with an overly toothy grin. “It would be my pleasure to help Twilight feel more at home in this beautiful palace. I think Applejack and I could really do some great work if we collaborated again. Wouldn’t you agree?” he asked as he looked at Applejack.

“I think we worked together more than enough yesterday,” Applejack said. “Still, if y’all are dead set at trying to get all of this done in just a week, then a few things are going to need to happen pretty fast. The first thing needs to be buying us this extra time y’all keep talking about. We need to get Twilight out of Ponyville and keep her, Nyx, and Spike distracted. For that, we’d need...”

Applejack first looked to Pinkie Pie, but then paused. Slowly, a mischievous smirk spread on her lips as she looked away from Pinkie Pie and focused instead on Discord. “We’d need someone who really knows how to cause a little chaos.”

~~~

Discord popped into existence outside Applejack’s barn. He was rubbing his paw and claw together, dancing a little on his hind legs. He was like a colt that had been told he could get as much candy from the candy store as he could carry, and he was going to be taking advantage of every moment. Still, after expressing his elation, the spirit of chaos shook his shoulders, coughed into his claw, and then politely knocked on the barn door.

“Darn it!”

Twilight’s shout of aggravation came moments before the princess threw open the door with her magic. Her mane was disheveled, and her eyes were bloodshot from a lack of sleep. “Do you realize what you just did?”

“I knocked,” Discord answered plainly. “After all, isn’t it rude to enter into a princess’s bedroom unannounced, even if it is temporarily in her friend’s barn?”

Twilight moaned, turning to go going back inside. She was glaring daggers at a pile of ash on her work bench, the same pile she had been struggling with for days. “I was so close to fixing this book. All I needed to do was put on the finishing spell, and you broke my concentration!”

“Well, I would apologize, but you can’t really blame me this time.” Discord reached into Twilight’s ear, digging around for a moment with his claw before pulling out a scroll. “With your usual scaled mailbox out of town, Princess Celestia asked if I’d drop this by. Must be something important if she asked me to get it to you. Though, one could easily argue that it may not be important because of the simple fact she entrusted me to deliver it. It’s equally important as it is unimportant until it is opened. Reminds me of a cat I once knew. Anyway, I doubt it’s anything dangerous. Maybe it’s just a friendly hello? Maybe she’s asking you if you like the new castle? Maybe—”

“Maybe we should just read it.” Twilight snatched the message out of Discord’s claw. She undid the seal, unfurled the message, and began to read down the elegant cursive that was Princess Celestia’s writing.

Dear Twilight,

I am sorry I could not write you regarding this matter sooner. I wanted to verify some information before getting your hopes up, a task I was able to accomplish this morning. There was once a very powerful repair spell known to lands beyond Equestria. A spell capable of undoing the damage done to almost anything. I believed the knowledge of the spell was lost hundreds of years ago, but it may still exist within the library of the Crystal Empire.

The only clue I can give you beyond that is the spells’ name, which is itself in a long forgotten dialect of the griffin empire. The spell was developed as a means of swiftly repairing castles during one of the more violent times eras of their history.

The name of the spell is “Yllissi Thgi Liwt.”

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,
Princess Celestia

Twilight’s eyes glimmered as if she had rediscovered the magic of friendship all over again. “There’s a spell.” She turned the scroll around, shoving the message into Discord’s face. “There’s another spell! Do you know what that means?”

“That you wasted all this time trying to perfect the spell you’ve been working on, and now you're not going to use it?”

A sound that was part laugh, part annoyed moan escaped Twilight’s lips. “Yes, I suppose that is true, but this also means there is a spell out there that can fix the library. One that won’t require me to sift through a ton of ash and splinters!” Twilight began moving about the room. She levitated an old pair of saddlebags from a hook on the wall, placed them on her back, and began to fill them with scrolls, quills, ink bottles, and other basic supplies.

“Well, this certainly is a fortuitous turn of events, but why are you packing your bags?” Discord asked as he, instead of reading the letter, began folding it over and over again.

Twilight began pulling books from the small pile of tomes that had survived the library’s destruction largely unharmed. “I’ll need to go to the Crystal Empire to track down the spell.”

Discord twisted and bent the scroll, the many folds beginning to form the shape of a winged creature. “Certainly doesn’t seem like you're planning a short trip. Should I ask Applejack or one of your other friends to keep an eye on Spike and Nyx when they come home tomorrow?”

Twilight paused, her eyes wandering to the ceiling before she shook her head. “No. I don’t want them coming home until I have learned this new spell and fixed the library. In fact, Cadance and Shining Armor were going to leave Canterlot for the Crystal Empire tomorrow morning. If I get to Canterlot today, then we can all take the train together. That would be nice after all the crazy that’s been going on.”

“It certainly sounds like a delightful family train trip. And, if I’m not mistaken, you might even be able catch the noon hour train to Canterlot.” Discord snapped his claw, making a large grandfather clock drop from thin air and land beside Twilight. The sudden impact startled her, but her eyes quickly moved to the clock’s face, which showed it was still about fifteen minutes before noon. “I’m sure they could make space if a princess really wanted a ride. That, or you could just fly.

“Though, doesn’t the noon hour train have lunch service?” Discord mused as he began making the final few folds to his origami masterpiece.

The mention of food made Twilight’s stomach audibly grumble, which she followed with a small laugh of embarrassment. Still, Twilight quickly regained her composure, closed the flaps of the old saddlebags, and trotted towards the door. “Yes, I believe it does,” Twilight said. “You’ll tell my friends where I went?”

“But of course. It’s always been my dream to be a messenger boy for princesses,” Discord sassed as he used a pair of tweezers to make some microscopic folds to finalize his origami. “But yes, I’ll tell Fluttershy when we have tea this afternoon.”

Twilight pushed open the barn door, wincing as the bright, sunny day assaulted her eyes. It took a few moments for her sight to adjust, but once it did, Twilight took a step outside. She called on her magic to shut the door, but before she did, she turned back and looked at Discord.

“Just in case you have any funny ideas, let me say this. You aren’t to touch anything in this barn until I get back. Get it?”

“Got it.” Discord lifted his feet off the ground and floated mid air, though his attention remained focused on his creation.

“Good. I’ll be back in a few days tops.” At that, Twilight pulled the barn door shut. Discord remained where he was for just a few moments, but then floated lazily over to a window. He saw Twilight taking off and flying towards Ponyville. He then looked down into his claw, smiling at the miniature, origami Fluttershy he had managed to fold out of the scroll.

“Now what was the code message again? Oh yes, the apple is out of the tree.”

“The apple is out of the tree,” the little paper Fluttershy replied in the pegasus’ own voice. It spread its little wings and fluttered out of Discord’s claw like a butterfly. Discord cracked open the window, allowing his little message to get outside and begin its journey. He watched it fly for a few moments before pulling the window shut.

He put the talons of his claw together, preparing to snap himself away from the barn when he paused. Discord looked around once, twice, and then a third time. He then smiled, reached out, and nudged one of Twilight’s quills out of place. A moment later, Discord was gone, laughing to himself as his mind got to work.

After all, he still had so much chaos to sow in the name of friendship.

~~~

“The apple is out of the tree.”

“I can’t believe she bought that!” Rainbow Dash said as she held the origami Fluttershy in one hoof. She and Applejack were overlooking the barn from the Apple family’s orchards. They were supposed to be Discord’s backup in case Twilight figured out he had faked Celestia’s note. Rarity was at the boutique, further developing her designs for the palace with Fluttershy. Pinkie Pie was already on the parade path to get volunteers for the project.

Applejack leaned against a nearby tree, smiling. “Well, I’m glad she did. It just let us buck two trees with one kick.“

“Yeah, sure,” Rainbow said as she poked at the origami Fluttershy, which giggled as if ticklish. Rainbow then abruptly turned her head to look at Applejack, eyebrows cocked in confusion. “Wait, what? We just got Twilight, Spike, and Nyx out of town for a week? How is that two trees? Don’t you mean three?”

“It’s two because they’re out of town and Discord’s got something to work on. Something that doesn’t involve being a pain in our flanks.”

Rainbow Dash snerked, containing a few laughs just behind her teeth. “Wow, he must have really got on your nerves yesterday.”

“You have no idea,” Applejack said. She shifted, taking her weight off the nearby tree and standing upright. She then tossed her head, motioning for Rainbow Dash to follow her. “Come on, we’d best get back. There’s lots of work of do, and the first thing I need is for you to fly to the Crystal Empire.”

Dash hopped into the air, hovering beside Applejack as she still held the paper Fluttershy in one hoof. “Right now?”

“Yes, right now. I need you to ask around the empire for something. All their homes are made out of crystal, so they may be the only ponies that can tell us how to build and take down walls in the new palace. Since, you know, it must have a ballroom.” Applejack shifted her voice into a mocking, high-society tone. “What kind of a palace would it be if Rarity couldn’t attend froofy parties in pretty dresses?”

Rainbow Dash allowed her laughter to flow freely. “I hear that.” She then cleared her throat before sticking her nose in the air. “Oh, Lady Applejack, could you just imagine this castle being worth anything at all without a ballroom?”

Applejack stopped, putting a forehoof to her head, continuing her own mocking voice. “Oh, the thought alone leaves me in need of a fainting couch.”

“Why, can you just imagine what some ruffians might do with the space otherwise. They’d turn it into a sweaty gym, or a...” Rainbow Dash stopped, her smile growing as her voice returned to normal. “We should put in a pool!”

“Now you're the one that’s gone off her rocker. Where are we going to put a pool?”

Rainbow Dash circled around Applejack, hovering in front of the mare. “It doesn’t have to be inside. We can put it outside, behind the trunk or something. Some of those balconies would make killer diving boards, and we could put in an awesome slide too. I mean, we’re going to have to do something with the backyard anyway.”

“What backyard?”

“Duh, the big grassy meadow behind it,” Rainbow Dash said, using her free forehoof to point in the direction of the palace. “That’s just begging to be turned into a backyard pool. Come on, you know it sounds cool.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “As cool as it may sound, it ain’t happening. Now come on, get flying.”

“Fine,” Rainbow Dash said with a groan before holding out the origami Fluttershy. “Take this.”

“Why should I take it?”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it? It’s still moving.”

“Just crumple it up and throw it away,” Applejack said.

Rainbow glanced down at the paper, and moved her free forehoof into position to crush it, but the little origami Fluttershy cowered at its imminent demise. Rainbow tried to force herself to continue, but she groaned and held it out to Applejack again. “Look, just give it to Fluttershy or something. She’ll think it’s cute.”

“I suppose so.” Applejack gingerly took the paper pony, holding it as if it was a ticking bomb of chaos. “Now go on and get flying. You’re burning daylight.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rainbow Dash turned and flew skyward. She blew through a stray cloud, did a loop, then got her bearings and began flying north. Still, even as she flew, Rainbow Dash’s mind returned to a previous thought. One that left her grumbling and bursting through clouds trying to vent her frustration.

“A pool is too a cool idea,” she said to herself. “Even Canterlot Castle doesn’t have a pool. All it has are gardens like the statue garden or the animal garden or the garden party garden. I bet if Rarity thought of stuff like that we’d be building a backyard.”

Rainbow Dash’s frown shifted into a grin. “Yeah... you can’t have a palace without royal gardens. Where would you hold the garden parties, and pool parties can be high class events.” She leaned a bit more into the wind, finding the motivation to try and make the trip to the Crystal Empire in record time.

After all, she needed to talk to Rarity as soon as she got back.

~~~

“The last of the tests came back normal. You and the foal are perfectly healthy, Your Highness.”

Shining Armor and Cadance both breathed a sigh of relief. They were in a room of Canterlot’s most renowned hospital. Cadance laid on the bed, resting on her side while Shining Armor stood nearby. They had been holding forehooves when the doctor came in, but with her words, that touch evolved. Shining leaned into Cadance, embracing her and placing a hoof on her side as, together, they bathed in their relief.

They had been so worried, so fearful, that Tirek’s rampage had put more than just Cadance’s life at risk. After Cadance had been saved from Tartarus, Shining took her straight to the hospital. Every test the doctors could think to do was done. Her body had been examined from the point of her horn to the tips of her rear hooves at least three times over, but it was all okay.

“Shining, did you feel that kick?”

Grinning ear to ear, Shining nodded and gently rubbed the side of Cadance’s gravid belly. “I did.”

The doctor chuckled as she held her clipboard in her magic. “I think that’s your foal telling you that you need to stop worrying. Now, you've already been discharged, so you’re free to leave whenever you want. Also, as a little side benefit to this battery of tests, we’ve confirmed your due date. You’ll be having that little filly or colt in about four weeks.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

The doctor bowed to the royal couple before turning towards the door. “Just doing my job, Your Highness,” she said before walking out of the room.

Shining Armor placed a kiss on Cadance’s neck as he began to slowly pull away from their embrace. “You want to wait a little while before we leave?”

“No,” Cadance answered with a shake of her head. “I think I’ve been cooped up in this hospital room long enough. Besides, we should go tell your parents the good news. They’ve been just as worried.”

Shining nodded. “Okay, I’ll pack your things. You take all the time you need getting up.”

Getting up, one of many things that had become much more challenging in recent months. Still, Cadance began to work herself closer to the edge of the bed, pulling some of the sheets with her. She had to pause once, as her unborn foal delivered a powerful kick to her insides. They had elected not to know the gender of their child until he or she was delivered, but with how strong the kicks were sometimes, Cadance was placing her bet on a healthy, strong colt.

Still, with another tug, Cadance had perched herself on the edge of the bed. Now came a slow, ginger slide. Bracing herself with a little of her own magic, Cadance lowered herself to the floor. The long stay in the hospital had, at the very least, given her hooves some time to recover. They had been aching so badly before Tirek’s attack. Cadance imagined it wouldn’t be long before they were hurting again, but she’d gladly enjoy the respite while it lasted.

But while her hooves had been allowed to rest, Cadance couldn’t help but feel other parts of her had suffered. Yes, she knew part of it was her hormones talking, but she felt so much bigger than she had been. She didn’t even want to think about stepping on a scale. She’d probably gained five pounds between lying around all day, the hospital meals, and her cravings for pastries from a nearby corner bakery.

“You ready, honey?”

Cadance looked over at Shining, her eyes wandering to his saddle bags, a bit bewildered. “You already have everything packed?”

“I had a few things put away before the doctor came in, but yeah, we’re ready to go.”

“Sorry, guess the mountain is moving slow today,” Cadance joked, shifting on her hooves and moving to Shining. She planted a kiss on his lips before starting to head towards the door. “Do you mind if we stop by the corner bakery before we go to your parents’ house? I want to get one more of their chocolate croissants before we go back home.”

“You sure?” Shining asked as he followed Cadance out of the room. “My mom will probably have lunch on the table by the time we get to their house.”

“A pregnant mare is allowed to have dessert before lunch if she wants.”

~~~

Twilight twirled her tongue, shifting the sweet peppermint candy to the other side of her mouth as she flew over Canterlot. The lunch on the train had been great: a sandwich with a salad and lemonade. It had been enough food to sate her hunger, and it had helped to pass a good chunk of her time on the train along with the Ponyville newspaper. Of course, even days after everything had happened, there had still been an article about the palace. The paper was also still running her personal ad asking anypony that had checked out a book to return it to Applejack’s barn.

Still, she’d be able to put all of that behind her once she had the repair spell. She had written it down as soon as she reached the train station. She then memorized and figured out multiple pronunciations of the words on the train itself. After all, she didn’t want to end up with a spell for growing bigger vegetables by accident when she spoke with the librarian in the Crystal Empire.

Rolling the peppermint candy with her tongue again, Twilight banked to catch a small breeze before beginning her descent. Her landing was gentle, though perhaps not perfect. She carried a bit too much forward momentum, forcing her to skip a few times before coming to a complete stop. “Still can’t stick the landing,” she laughed to herself, feeling better just getting out of the barn and chasing this new, much more promising possibility. Looking back, she had been beating her head against the wall trying to sift through a pile of ashes just to repair one book.

That previous spell she had been researching just wasn’t sensible, and she’d have to be sure to thank Princess Celestia if this new course of research bore fruit.

All that, however, would have to wait until she got to the Crystal Empire, which would be sometime the next day. She had already checked at the train station. The magical, crystalline locomotive of the empire would be arriving bright and early the next morning. It would be pulling Cadance and Shining’s royal car, which had more than enough room for a few extra passengers. It would be a pleasant ride up, and then Spike and Nyx could spend time with Cadance and Shining while she did her research. It was a practically perfect plan in every way.

Swallowing the last little chunk of the peppermint, Twilight trotted up the walk to her parents’ front door. She knocked a few times, just to be polite, but then cracked it open and took a step inside. “Hey, is anypony here?”

The loud patter of hooves drew Twilight’s attention to the stairs, where a familiar filly skidded to a stop on the smooth wooden floor. Nyx looked through the gaps of the staircase railing, smiling before scrambling down the stairs. “Twilight!”

“Hey, Nyx!” Twilight stepped all the way inside, shut the door, and spread her hooves just in time to receive a big, welcoming hug. She squeezed Nyx back, squishing her daughter tightly against her chest. “Oh I missed you. Have you been having fun?”

“Lots of fun!”

“She and Spike have been reading his old comic book collection,” Velvet said, coming out of the kitchen with Night Light and Shining Armor following in her wake. The older mare reached Twilight and gave her daughter a welcoming hug, not unlike the one Twilight had just given to Nyx. “You didn’t tell us you were coming.”

“Well, it was kind of last minute,” Twilight said as she switched from hugging her mother to hugging her father. “I need to do some research in the Crystal Empire, and I was hoping I could ride north with Cadance and Shining.”

Shining was last to hug Twilight. “What kind of research? Don’t tell me Equestria needs saving a second time in a week,” he joked.

Twilight patted Shining reassuringly on the back before pulling out of his hug. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing that bad, I promise. Now, where’s Cadance and Spike?”

“I’m up here,” Spike called, waving from the far side of the staircase banister before he began coming down the stairs. “Just needed to put my comic book away. Still, Twilight, does this mean the library—”

“Has gotten that new shipment of books.” Twilight jogged over to the base of the staircase, using her hoof to quickly gesture to Spike to zip his lips before putting a smile back on her own. “No, it hasn’t, but I’ve told the post office to hold onto everything until we get back.”

Spike reached the bottom step, forcing a smile of his own as he gave an awkward thumbs up. “Oh, that’s... great.”

“What’s great?”

Twilight and everypony else turned, looking to Cadance who had made her way out of the kitchen. Twilight quickly went up to her sister-in-law, pulling her into a hug, though it was gentler than the one she had given the rest of her family. “That you look so great,” Twilight said. “So, I guess this means the doctors gave you a clean bill of health.”

“Yes, we’re both doing fine.” Cadance used a forehoof to gently tap on her gravid belly. “Nothing’s changed as far as the doctors can tell. My due date hasn’t even— ow... moved. Unlike this foal, who hasn’t stopped since we finished lunch.”

“Can I feel again?” Nyx asked, walking up beside Twilight and Cadance.

“Okay, but remember to be gentle.”

Nyx nodded, moving to Cadance’s side and putting her small hoof gingerly against the swollen, pink-furred mass that was her aunt’s belly. Nyx stood there a few seconds, her ears turned forward and her body perfectly still. She then smiled as her stillness was rewarded. The foal kicked near her hoof.

“Knowing how curious Nyx is, I’m surprised she hasn’t asked where foals come from,” Shining said quietly to Twilight as he, Velvet, Spike, and Night Light watched Nyx’s smile grow wider with each kick she felt through Cadance’s tummy.

“Oh, she asked that as soon as we got back to Ponyville after Hearth’s Warming,” Twilight said. “And, unlike our parents, I couldn’t tell her a story about how foals magically appear. Doesn’t work as well when the filly you're trying to explain things to actually did come into existence because of a spell.”

“What did you tell her?”

“The truth.”

Shining, Velvet, and Night Light looked at Twilight in disbelief, mouths hanging open slightly. “You had the talk with her?” Velvet said, like she needed to scold her daughter for her parenting decisions.

“Oh no! No no no no,” Twilight said, waving a forehoof back and forth. “I didn’t have that talk with her. I just told her that foals grow inside a mare’s womb until they are ready to be born, and that they start growing when a stallion and mare really love each other. Please, give me some credit.”

“Does anyone else want to feel?” Cadance asked, interrupting the conversation. “It’s probably the best time. This foal is kicking up a storm right now.”

“She, or he, is probably just trying to impress her cousin,” Shining joked as he stepped up beside Nyx and put his hoof next to hers. He then laughed again. “Wow, you aren’t kidding.”

Twilight, Velvet, and Night Light moved to Cadance’s other side, each putting a hoof on her belly and smiling as they felt the foal inside squirming. The only one who didn’t come closer was Spike. “Don’t you want to feel the foal kick?” Twilight asked.

Spike put up his claws and shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks. Maybe it’s because I hatched from an egg, but I don’t get the appeal of feeling a baby kick. I think I’m just going to go back upstairs. Nyx, I’m going to pull out the next comic. Should I wait for you?”

“Yes, I’ll be up in a second,” Nyx answered, though she did so without removing her hoof from Cadance’s side. Spike nodded to this, heading back upstairs while the rest of the family remained in the hallway, continuing to feel the foal kick. Each of them was wearing a smile, except for Cadance, whose joy was interrupted by winces of pain whenever her unborn foal kicked at her sensitive internal organs.

You Hit a Rock

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

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

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

Chapter 3

You Hit a Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s so funny?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Well, I haven’t seen ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

That band only marked the halfway point of the crowd.

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

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

~~~

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

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


For a great game of wits was unfolding within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, look at her cards again.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Then why did we stop?” Cadance asked.

“Because we did hit it.”

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

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

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

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

“You hit a rock.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, like building houses?” Rainbow asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“What you got, Pinkie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“But how did the rocks fall?”

“They fell like rocks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?” Nyx asked.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe something happened to change the plan?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it isn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let the game begin!”

Dogs' Gambit

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 4

Dogs' Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twilight, remember that trick Cadance taught you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” Twilight asked.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could go to Lumberton.”

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

“How far is it?” Twilight asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

“It looks so beautiful.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Duke, they are only ones here.”

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

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

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

“What about wings and horns?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go wrong?

~~~

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

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

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

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

“That isn’t a bad—”

“Help!”

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

“Maud! Cadance!”

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

“Very smart, purple princess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

“Twilight? Twilight!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Nyx and Spike?”

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

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

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

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

He was a good big brother like that.

~~~

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

“What’s your name?”

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

“You will tell me more,” Maud said.

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

“You will.”

“I won’t.”

“You will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many outpost caves are there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You help us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duke would be so proud.

Kitchen and Garden

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 5

Kitchen and Garden

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

“Wow, you look super duper tired, like you worked really hard all day.”

Applejack glanced up from the worktable she had fashioned out of some planks of wood and a few boxes. There was a deep frown on her face at first, for the day had been long. Her patience was at its end, and that usually meant she wasn’t in the best of moods for Pinkie Pie’s antics. Yet, the pink party pony had just popped up on the other side of the table with her normal, bright smile.

That and a hearty, home cooked meal.

“Brought you some dinner,” Pinkie said as she set the plate down in front of Applejack. “Also, everything up at Night Stone Castle is right as rain. We got the kitchens going and everypony who just got off shift is having this same yummy food. We got a bunch of old blankets and some hay and used them to make the best super sleepover bed ever! We even set up some fun games for ponies to play in the castle courtyard.”

Applejack let herself smile as she drew in the sweet smells from the food. She used a hoof to draw the plate closer. “Thanks, Pinkie. Don’t know if anypony else could have pulled it off.” She savored the aroma for just a few moments more before taking her first big bite.

The praise made Pinkie bounce for joy before she turned her head upward and looked across the crystal palace’s trunk’s interior. The scaffolding reached all the way to the ceiling, and across the walls numerous bookshelves were in varying stages of completion. “Looks like things are going great here too.”

“Well, they’re going. I don’t know if I’d say great though.” Applejack paused to take another bite before continuing to speak as she chewed. “Still, at this pace, we might actually get this all done in seven days.”

“Six,” Pinkie Pie corrected as if singing a note in a song. “Today’s just about over. Then again, you do have ponies working all night, so maybe you have six and a half left. Or maybe six and thirty two sixty fifths.”

“Let’s just call it six,” Applejack said. She licked her lips a moment, and Pinkie promptly offered a canteen from her saddlebags. “Thanks,” Applejack said before taking a quick swig of water.

“You’re welcome,” Pinkie said before bouncing over to the bookshelf wall. “So, what’s the secret?”

Applejack finished taking a swig from the canteen and wiped her mouth before answering. “What’s the secret to what?”

“To how you’re making these awesome shelves. They look like they’re growing right out of the wall!” Pinkie Pie pressed her face in between the shelves, trying to find some seam or crack.

“That’s because they are,” Applejack said. “The Crystal Ponies helped us whip up what they call crystal mortar. You spread it on like a layer of paint, and then it makes the crystal underneath grow. You have to carve it back down to the right shape, but all-in-all, it’s just about as fast as building out of brick or wood.”

“That’s so cool! So you grew all this crystal just today?”

“Eeyup, it is pretty amazing when you say it like that. But we still have a lot more to do before this part of the palace is ready. Then we can move up into the castle proper, where Rarity’s got us taking out some walls and putting others up.” Applejack yawned, not even bothering to cover her mouth as she just looked up towards the ceiling. “But I do have to admit, Rarity’s design is looking right pretty.”

“I’m sure Twilight will just flip for it! She’ll have space for so many books! Books she doesn’t have anymore because they got blown up with the library.” Pinkie Pie’s smile faltered into a frown. “Aw, I just made myself sad.”

“Don’t you worry, sugarcube. I’m sure Twilight will be able to fill up these shelves in no time.” Applejack took another drink of water from Pinkie’s canteen. She then gently pushed her plate to one side, focusing on the piles of papers that had been hidden beneath. “But only if we get all this work done.”

“Oh no you don’t, Miss Working Workaholic McWorkpants,” Pinkie said firmly. She bounded over beside her friend and pushed the plate of food back on top of the blueprints and designs. “You’re not going to last all week if you don’t get a good night’s sleep just like everypony else. Now you take this food home, you finish eating it, and then you go right to bed.”

Applejack opened her mouth to protest, but instead of words a yawn slipped out from the depths of her throat. She then chuckled and looked down at the half-eaten plate of food. “Alright, Pinkie, I’ll get to bed. Just let me—”

“No ‘just let me work until I pass out.’ You’re going right now.” Pinkie Pie butted her head against Applejack's side, forcing the farm pony away from the table. She kept shoving Applejack until she was standing on the front step of the crystal palace. Pinkie then zipped back in, grabbed Applejack’s plate, and shoved the rim of it into her mouth. “See, you’re already out the door. Might as well go home.”

Applejack rolled her eyes, but did so with a smile. She lifted a forehoof and took the plate from her mouth. She then placed it on her back, balancing it between her shoulder blades. “Alright, alright, I’m going. But don’t forget you gotta rest too. Even Ponyville’s Party Pony needs her sleep. Also, when the night shift gets here, just tell them to keep working on the bookshelves in here. There should be a crystal pony contractor with them, and he’ll be able to put everypony else on the right track.”

“Tell the crystal pony to work on the shelves. Got it!”

“All right then. Have a good night.”

“Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Pinkie Pie sang, waving as Applejack turned and walked down the palace’s front steps. She then took a step back, shut the palace doors, and wagged her poofy tail as she turned around. “Now that the last pony from the day shift is clocked out, this pink little pony gets to party down with her pillow. That’s after I find some of that crystal mortar. I’m going to need some if I’m going to make a crystal palace cake topper for Twilight’s welcome home cake.

“Now, where would they be hiding it?” Pinkie asked as she passed Applejack’s workbench. It was then that her eyes were drawn to the designs and blueprints. Some of the volunteers she had found were skilled architects, and were helping to translate Rarity’s vision into workable designs. After all, Applejack knew a lot about raising barns, but not a whole lot about building proper, load bearing structures.

“This palace is going to be so great! I hope Twilight likes it.” Pinkie’s smile then slipped once more into a frown as she grabbed up one of the blueprints. It depicted one of the castle’s upper levels, showing the layout of the corridors and rooms. The biggest room was the ballroom, but that was not what had brought a frown to Pinkie’s face. No, the thing to blame for that was the kitchen.

“Rarity has to be joking!” Pinkie said. “That kitchen’s way too itty bitty for a ballroom that big. How am I supposed to cater the super duper parties we’ll be having here with only one measly oven and hardly any counter space?” Her eyes wandered to the neighboring room. “And why the heck do we need such a big room just for sitting? What kind of pony sits around when there’s a super fun party going on just down the hall?”

“Uh, excuse me. Where’s Applejack?”

Pinkie Pie looked up from the table, focusing on the group of volunteers that had started coming in through the front door. It was the night shift, and leading the group was the crystal pony Applejack had told her about. Pinkie looked at him for a moment, then down at the plans. She repeated this motion a half dozen times before smiling, scooping up the blueprint, and jumping over the table.

“Applejack has gone home, but don’t you worry. She told me exactly what all of you need to be working on. Just follow me upstairs! We’ve got some kitchen work to do.”

~~~

“I don’t know, Apple Bloom. I don’t think right now is a good time to ask them. They look kind of mad.”

“Well, if we wait any longer, there’s not going to be anything left for us to do.” Apple Bloom led Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Twist towards a large tent that had been setup just outside the palace. It was the design tent, where Rarity and her hoof-picked team of ponies were hard at work. They were planning out the finer details of the castle, picking decorations, and even sewing some tapestries and curtains.

It was a picture of efficient design, with dozens of skilled ponies well at work except for two specific mares: Applejack and Rarity.

“Rarity, you’re the only one who would have sent the night shift up to the ballroom area.”

“But it wasn’t me. Even if it was, I wouldn’t have had them take out that wall. They’ve completely destroyed the division between the sitting room and the ballroom’s kitchen.”

“What about the shelves in the trunk? Because of what happened last night, that whole part of the project has been delayed.”

Applejack and Rarity continued to go back and forth, trying to discern what had happened last night even as the four fillies drew closer. They would have perhaps gone all the way, if not for a mare stepping into their path.

“Oh, hello. Is there something I can help you four with?” The pale amber mare, with cyan mane, asked.

“We just need to talk to my sister and Rarity for a second,” Apple Bloom said, trying to push past the mare. “We want to ask if there’s anything we can do to help.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now, girls. They’re having... a discussion.”

“Sounds like an argument to me,” Twist said, her lisp lessened thanks to speech therapy but not entirely erased.

“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle agreed. “What are my sister and Applejack arguing about?”

“Oh, nothing much. Some of the volunteers just did something a bit unexpected last night and they’re trying to sort out how to fix it. And if you’re Rarity’s sister, you must be Sweetie Belle.”

“That’s right, but how do you know that?”

The cyan maned mare smiled. “I’m a friend of Rarity’s from Manehatten, Coco Pommel.”

“Wait, you’re Coco Pommel!” Sweetie Belle said as she pointed her hoof at Coco. She then smiled and bounded closer. “Then you’re the one that gave my sister that spool of thread that helped her save Equestria!”

“I beg your pardon?” Coco asked, before shaking her head. “Never mind. Girls, I know you mean well, but I don’t think right now is a good time for you to ask Rarity and Applejack for permission to help.”

“But we want to help!” Scootaloo said, her wings buzzing and almost lifting her hooves off the ground. “We don’t want Nyx to come back to Ponyville and find out we didn’t do anything to help with her new home.”

“You’re friends of Nyx?”

“Eeyup,” Apple Bloom said, smiling a bit to herself at her impromptu Big Mac impression.

“Well then...” Coco glanced over her shoulder, checking on Rarity and Applejack before looking back at the girls. “I may have just the thing for you four to help with.” She trotted away for just a moment, rummaging through some papers before returning to the four fillies with a single scroll.

“Did you know Nyx kept a treasure book?”

Sweetie Belle nodded her head. “Yeah, we just found out about it a few months ago, after Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and I were named the official flag carrying team for Ponyville. The five of us took a picture together, even though we weren’t all on the same flag carrying team.”

“We weren’t allowed to have more than four ponies on a flag carrying team,” Twist explained. “So Nyx and I agreed to make our own team since Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom already had an idea what they wanted to do.”

“But after we got back to Ponyville, Nyx showed us her treasure book before putting her copy of our picture inside,” Apple Bloom said.

“Well, girls, then this may be the perfect thing for you to work on,” Coco said with a smile as she gave the scroll to Sweetie Belle. She was able to levitate the light piece of paper in her magic, holding it up so all four of the fillies could see it. “You see, lots of things in the library got destroyed by Tirek. One of those things was Nyx’s treasure book.”

“No way!” Scootaloo said, pushing the scroll out of the way to look Coco square in the face.

“I’m afraid so. If it did survive the explosion, we haven’t been able to find it. So Rarity thought it would be a good idea to try and make Nyx a new one. We know it will never replace the one she had, but it would also be a nice way to welcome her to her new home.”

“And is this everything Rarity thought was in the book?” Sweetie Belle asked as she looked over the scroll from top to bottom. “I don’t see Nyx’s kazoo on this list.”

“Or the peppermint recipe me and Nyx tried when we had a sleepover,” Twist pointed out.

Sweetie Belle leaned forward a little to look at Twist. “When did you two have a sleepover without us?”

“Twilight just brought Nyx by my house one day. I think it was the same day as the Starswirl the Bearded Traveling Museum was in town.”

“Well, Rarity was doing her best to remember what Twilight told her. After all, she never saw the original book,” Coco said as she smiled down at the fillies. “Still, doesn’t that mean this is the perfect thing for you four to do to help?”

“Cutie Mark Crusaders, I do believe we have our mission.” Sweetie Belle said as she rolled up the scroll.

Apple Bloom nodded, putting out her hoof and motioning for the others to follow. “First, to search across Ponyville to see if we can find Nyx’s original treasure book.”

“Step two, if we can’t find the book, do everything we can to assemble a new one that’s even more awesome.” Scootaloo put her hoof on top of Apple Bloom’s. Sweetie Belle and Twist soon followed their lead, the four of them raising their hooves together at the same time before shouting to the air.

“Cutie Mark Crusaders Treasure Book Savers! Yay!”

The four fillies followed their battle cry with giggles of laughter as they ran off. Coco Pommel remained behind, smiling and waving before noticing somepony come up beside her. When she turned to see who it was, she saw it was Rarity. “Did you get everything sorted out with Applejack?”

“We came to an agreement that no matter who’s fault it was, the current delay in construction is a situation we must work together to deal with. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I thought I just heard my sister and her friends doing one of their Cutie Mark Crusader shouts. Please tell me they didn’t just go running onto the construction site.”

“No. They came asking if there was someway they could help, and I found something simple for them to do that will keep them away from the palace for a while.”

Rarity blinked a few times, her mouth slightly agape in disbelief. She remained like that for a few seconds before shaking her head and coming back to reality. “You managed to give them something to do. Something that, in the end, won’t lead to the utter derailment of what we’re trying to do here.”

“I believe so, yes.”

“Well, I must say I’m impressed, Coco. Normally, when those fillies go on one of their crusades, disaster follows in their wake. After all, I told you about the whole affair with ‘Gabby Gums’ when we were working yesterday. Still, what did you send them off to do?”

“I’ll tell you right after you explain something to me,” Coco said as the pair turned, returning to their work under the shade of the design tent. “What exactly did your sister mean when she said the spool of thread I gave you helped save Equestria?”

~~~

“Status report?”

“The festival we tossed together is keeping the populace in good spirits. They believe it’s a celebration of Tirek’s defeat as well as an extended homecoming for Princess Cadance and Prince Armor, who have been delayed in Canterlot. We’ve confirmed Flash Sentry was able to secure the train conductor before anypony in the heart of the empire was able to hear what she was shouting.”

Commander Quartz nodded, looking over the map spread before him as if he was navigating the dangers of a war. The crystalline layout of the streets of the empire were marked with tiny flags representing where troops had been deployed. It was all for the sake of keeping the peace and ensuring the power of the Crystal Heart remained strong. “How do things look for assembling a search and rescue team?”

“Not good, sir. The bulk of our forces need rest after spending all night setting up the festival. Those we have in reserve need to be on station running the stands and festivities while the rest of the army is sleeping. Right now, the only ones not assigned are the squad that were pulling the royal carriage to the train station. They were tied up in debriefing yesterday evening and we sent them to their bunks last night.”

“Where are they now?” Commander Quartz asked.

“In the hallway, sir. I was going to give them their orders after this meeting.”

“Well your orders are for them to come in here and get orders from me. The rest of you, get out there and do what you can to keep spirits up. I won’t have the Crystal Heart losing power on my watch.”

The officers saluted and quickly left the room, leaving Commander Quartz to glare down at the map for a few moments before he heard a quartet of hoofsteps coming across the crystalline floor of the castle. He waited for the hoofsteps to stop and for the outer door to close before he looked up at the four soldiers in front of him.

“Flash Sentry, Ardent, Lapis Lance, and Gem Shield,” Quartz said as he eyed the four of them. “You’re all young and more inexperienced than I’d like, but at the moment you’re all I’ve got. So consider this a chance to prove yourselves to me and the empire, because you four are going to search for our missing royals.”

Quartz took a rolled scroll from the edge of the table and unrolled it over top of the map of the Crystal Empire. It depicted the northern regions of Equestria, and Commander Quartz reached out and began to trace a line between Canterlot and the empire. “This is the route the train took from the capitol. Somewhere along this line, at an unknown time, the royal carriage disappeared along with its passengers.”

“Who was on board, Commander?” Gem Shield asked.

“After talking with the guard ponies that were knocked out in the baggage car, we can confirm Princess Cadance and Prince Armor were in the royal car. They were also being accompanied by Princess Twilight, Great and Honorable Spike The Brave and Glorious, and Princess Nyx. Stallions, that’s our national hero, our prince, and three of this nation's five alicorns that disappeared without a trace. We need to find out what happened as fast as possible.”

The four soldiers glanced at one another before Lapis Lance cleared his throat and spoke up. “Sir, weren’t the on-duty guards able to tell us anything else?”

“Yes, but we don’t know how reliable the information is,” Commander Quartz answered. “From their debriefing, the guards in the baggage car remember seeing these landmarks while riding the train.” The commander began to tap out different points on the map, slowly but surely making his way towards the empire.

“Based on those reports, that narrows our search to this stretch of the track in the Rainbow Range. That, however, is still a lot of ground to cover and the bulk of the Crystal Empire’s forces won’t be available for several more hours. That and we need to narrow our search, otherwise it will take days if not weeks to search the entire forest.”

“So then what is our mission, sir?”

“Scout out the tracks,” he said, tapping once more on the map. “Try to find out what happened to the royal car. If you find it, or even better, our missing royals, your mission then becomes to get them back to the empire in one piece. If you find anything else, signs of a struggle or a foalnapping, then you are to report back to me immediately. Hopefully the rest of the army will be ready to move out by then, and we can concentrate our search where we believe the car disappeared.”

Commander Quartz began circling around the table towards the four. “You are scouting only. You may want to be heroes, but I don’t want any heroics putting the three princesses, prince, or dragon in danger. Am I understood?”

“Sir, yes sir,” the four replied back, striking salutes with their forehooves.

“Then get your flanks in gear. Go to the train station and commandeer one of the small steam engines they use for track inspection and service. It will have just enough power to pull the royal car back to the empire should you find it. Search the tracks and, if you find anything, have Flash Sentry fly back with a report. Dismissed.”

~~~

“Do you realize the kind of heroes we’ll be if we bring Princess Cadance, Prince Armor, and Spike the Brave and Glorious back?” Ardent said as the quartet were pulling out of the empire’s train station. There, waiting for the squad, was one of the few military locomotives the Empire possessed. A crystal based engine that ran on a magical charge rather than coal and steam. Its design wasn’t ready for regular use by civilian train lines, but would be perfect for the squad’s needs.

“My colt will be wanting my autograph.” Ardent went a little dreamy eyed before he was knocked in the shoulder by Gem Shield.

“Remember what Commander Quartz said: unless we find them picnicking along the side of the tracks, we are just to report what we find back to the empire,” Gem Shield said as he and Ardent climbed into the back of the train. Lapis Lance was already there, tending to the crystalline locomotive’s controls. He had received the basic tutorial on how to operate the magically driven engine while the others had gathered their supplies.

“That and you seem to keep forgetting about Princess Twilight Sparkle and her daughter,” Flash Sentry pointed out. In a flutter of wings, he landed on the platform next to the locomotive.

“And you seem to be bringing her up a lot,” Gem Shield replied. “I also hear you have a habit of bumping into her when she’s at the castle.”

Flash Sentry rolled his eyes. “That’s more her than me. She’s the one that’s always talking to friends or herself and not looking where she’s going.”

“Yeah, and what about you?”

“What about me?”

Gem Shield rolled his eyes as the locomotive gave a little lurch. Lapis had put on some power, and the engine was starting to ramp up to speed. Flash took to his wings, flying slowly next to the window while Gem looked out from the interior. “Why couldn’t you get out of the way? Bumping into somepony, and being able to say she wasn’t looking where she was going, usually means the stallion was looking where he was going. And that said stallion chose not to step to one side.”

“Look, this really isn’t what we should be focusing on. I’m going to get above the train and start my circling pattern. You guys shout from down here if you see anything.” With that, Flash banked upward, taking his position high above the train while looking down at the landscape below.

An act that just left Gem Shield chuckling. “Yeah, our fly-colt there seems to have his sights set pretty high.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Ardent replied, chuckling under his breath. “Wouldn’t have my wife or my colt if I hadn’t dared to ask her out. Then again, the gap wasn’t as big between her and me. She had the honor of being a Hoof Maiden of the previous princess at the crystal fair, and I was just the stallion at the basket booth.”

“Yes, we know. You sold her your finest basket and hid a letter in the bottom, and she actually replied. You’ve told us that story a hundred times, Ardent,” Gem Shield said with a shake of his head. “We probably know the story better than you do.”

“Hey, when you’re married, you’ll understand.”

“Sure we will.”

“Alright, you two, that’s enough,” Lapis Lance said. “Don’t forget why we’re on this locomotive. Get to the windows and keep a look out.”

~~~

“Well, it certainly doesn’t seem like the chaos coefficient in Ponyville is suffering in my absence.”

Fluttershy laughed a little, unable to deny Discord’s observation though not wanting to laugh too loudly at her friend’s expense. She had taken a break from the design tent to eat her lunch in the grass on the shady side of the castle. Yet, she found herself with an unexpected dining companion. She had left the origami sculpture of herself that Discord had folded at her cottage. The little sculpture, however, had flown the whole way on its little, paper wings before landing on the grass in front of her.

And now it was speaking with her voice, though the intonation and word choice left Fluttershy no doubt she was talking with Discord.

“Well, it is a big project. There’s bound to be some hiccups along the way.”

“Of course, but please do try to note them all down somewhere.” The origami sculpture spoke, fluttering here and there as if it simply could not sit still. “My attention is rather focused on Twilight’s distraction, so you’re going to have to tell me everything that happened when I get back.”

“How is everypony doing by the way?” Fluttershy asked. “I trust they reached the Crystal Empire safely.”

“Oh, yes, of course. They’re lounging by the crystal pool sipping crystal-coladas right now.”

Fluttershy arched an eyebrow, unable to ignore the fact that the sculpture’s cheerful bouncing had paused for a moment when it answered. “Now Discord, you aren’t going too far, are you?”

“No, of course not. I promise, Fluttershy, I’ve got everything under control. I am the master of applying just the right amount of chaos necessary to achieve the desired effect. Now, speaking of desired effect, I’d better get back to it. Oh, and do make sure you make a creative contribution to the palace’s design. You can’t let Rarity have all the fun.”

At that the origami sculpture went silent and its behavior pattern returned to something more similar to Fluttershy’s mannerisms. It grew calm and controlled, taking a few steps towards her as if it was confused how it had gotten outside the cabin. Fluttershy, out of simple instinct, used her hoof to gently draw the origami sculpture closer. She then picked it up and gently placed it in her mane, where the paper pony quickly cuddled up for a nap.

Looking at her reflection in the exterior of the crystal palace, Fluttershy couldn’t help but notice how it looked like a cute little hairclip. She also couldn’t help but notice a few familiar animal friends were moving towards her, with Angel Bunny in the lead.

“Oh, hello little friends. Are you here to help us fix up Twilight’s new home?” Fluttershy asked, to which Angel firmly shook his head.

“You’re not. Then why are you here?”

Angel made a few motions with his paws and ears before pointing at some other rabbits, mice, and furry creatures behind him. Fluttershy lifted a hoof to her mouth, further hushing her already quite gasp. “Oh no, did Twilight’s new palace really scare all those furry critters out of their homes?”

With a confirming squeak, Angel nodded his head and then motioned to mixed flock of birds. This, again, made Fluttershy give a quiet gasp. “And all the volunteers scared those birds out of their nests in the trees and Night Stone Castle? Oh no, I’m so sorry. We didn’t realize we’d be driving you out of your homes. But I promise, no pony at the castle wants to hurt you.”

Crossing his forepaws, Angel tapped one of his hind legs against the ground and then pointed at the castle. Fluttershy looked back over her shoulder, then back at the less-than-pleased pack of animals before her. “Okay, I can see how some of you think the palace is very big and kind of an eyesore, but it’s Twilight’s new home. I don’t think we could tear it down, even if we wanted to.”

The pack of animals squeaked, growled, tweeted, hooted, and otherwise vocalized at Fluttershy, making the small pegasus flatten her ears against her head until the din of animal voices had quieted. “I’m sorry, but don’t you think you’re being a bit unreasonable. I know you seeing a castle just grow out of nowhere is a bit unsettling, but I assure you that having that big meanie Tirek stomping around wouldn’t be any better.

“Now,” Fluttershy said as she climbed to her hooves. “Can’t we all come to an amicable agreement about what it would take for you to like Twilight’s new palace?”

The animals chattered amongst themselves for a few moments, and then grew silent as they seemed to reach some form of consensus. Angel, Fluttershy’s self-appointed animal ambassador, tapped his paws and made tiny bunny squeaks. Fluttershy listened and nodded her head, smiling a little as the animals’ idea was explained to her.

“Oh, a lovely little palace garden with all your favorite kinds of trees and bushes. That does sound delightful. It could be just like the gardens in Canterlot where all of the Princesses’ special animals friends stay. Why, the crystal palace could have a menagerie all of its own.” Fluttershy’s enthusiasm dwindled a little. “Oh, but we already talked about adding a garden to the castle. Applejack and Rarity didn’t think it would be a good idea right now. We don’t know where the property lines are, and we don’t want the garden being bigger than it should."

A small group of mice that were amongst the creatures gave a series of squeaks, drawing Fluttershy’s attention to them. "Really, you don’t think the mayor would mind if we borrowed it for a little while?”

The mice, and all the other animals, shook their heads in unison. Fluttershy frowned for a moment, glancing over her shoulder at the design tent before looking back to her animal friends. “Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it would be okay. Rarity did like the idea of the palace having a garden, and it would make all of you a lot happier. But we’d have to do it ourselves. Applejack needs all the ponies working on the palace if she wants to get it done before Twilight comes back. Is that okay?”

The animals nodded, and the mice even scampered off to do their part in the plan. Other animals began to depart, and Fluttershy couldn’t help but flutter her wings in excitement. “I’m so happy to see you’re all willing to help. I think everypony will enjoy the garden, and it won’t cause any trouble for Rarity or Applejack. It will be just perfect.”

Fluttershy picked up Angel and gave him a gentle hug. She then put him back down and jumped into the air, hovering around. “Oh, I know just the kind of flowers we should plant. I’ve got some seeds back at the cottage. I’m going to go get them.”

Angel and the other animals waved as Fluttershy flew off, and continued to do so until she had disappeared from sight. Angel then spun around, clapping his paws together and grabbing a stick from a nearby bush. Immediately, he began scratching out lines in the dirt. The images were of different building materials and tools. The other animals were nodding as they listened to Angel’s squeaks, some scampering off to collect items from the supply list Angel was creating.

Great Gem Gauges

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 6

Great Gem Gauges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“Just watch me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save it for Lumberton you two!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

“Breakfast, pony and dragon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, what’s step two then?”

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Nyx shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“Hey! There are ponies over there!”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Psst!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Mine stopped working!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Work? For what?”

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

“But we can’t risk being seen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

“Mission successful!”

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

“We did it! Yeah, we did it!”

“Victory! Sweet victory!”

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

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

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

“But why were you spiders?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all stupid?”

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

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

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

“What are you going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filly Scout Cookies

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 7

Filly Scout Cookies

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

“I’m sorry girls! Can’t talk right now! Super duper friend emergency in town! It involves Fluttershy’s animals, a garden, power tools, a sculpture of Fluttershy, and Applejack’s temper. We all know none of those mix, and if I don’t insert some smiles into the situation stat, it will get seriously serious straight away!”

Neither Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, nor Twist had said a word to Pinkie Pie. Yes, they had been heading up to the castle to talk to her. Apple Bloom had even opened her mouth to hail Pinkie when they saw her galloping towards them down the road. But Pinkie’s strange intuition beat them to the punch, and the four fillies were left standing silent.

They watched Pinkie as she continued to gallop towards town. From where they stood, on the road that approached Night Stone Castle, they could see most of Ponyville along with the new palace. Yet, the palace looked very different from where they stood. The area behind the palace looked like it had been walled off, or rather dammed off, by beavers. They couldn’t see much else of what was going on, but Pinkie’s additional words left much to the imagination.

“Should we just turn around?” Apple Bloom asked. Her saddlebags shifted a little as she turned, the contents inside loose. She was also the only one in the group carrying a bag, for the things they had to carry were still very few in number. “I mean, we came up here to talk to Pinkie Pie, and there’s no Pinkie Pie up here.”

Sweetie Belle squinted and lifted a hoof to her brow, trying to keep track of Pinkie’s movements as she became little more than a pink dot parkouring across Ponyville. “Well, we don’t know how long she’ll be gone. We could just wait to see if she comes back.”

“I like that idea better than walking back to town,” Scootaloo said, drawing a nod of agreement from Twist before the four continued up the road. Once more the castle found itself playing the temporary shelter for hundreds of ponies. All of the out of town volunteers had been given beds to sleep on and food to eat to thank them for their effort, food and bedding that itself was donated. All of Equestria seemed particularly willing to give to the mares who defeated the magic stealing Tirek as well as Equestria’s newest princess.

“This place looks pretty plain considering Pinkie Pie’s in charge.” Sweetie Belle poked her head into the castle’s main hall, which was where everypony was sleeping on beds with hay mattresses and thick blankets to cover said hay. “Where’s all the streamers and balloons?”

“Applejack told me last night that Pinkie’s been running this all like a big camp out. So less balloons and streamers, more campfires, spooky stories, and s'mores,” Apple Bloom said.

Scootaloo made a deep, throaty laugh. “Hah, I bet the stories aren’t even that scary, but the s’mores sound delicious.”

“That reminds me, you girls should try my new brownie recipe. It’s a chocolate brownie on a graham cracker base with swirls of marshmallow. It’s super yummy,” Twist said, beaming in pride as she remembered how successful the particular recipe was.

“Can we stop talking about s’mores. All it’s doing is making me hungry, and we need to be focusing on getting a blue ribbon for the treasure book.”

“What’s all this about a blue ribbon?”

The four fillies turned to the unexpected voice, seeing a tall dark stranger leaning against a nearby corridor. At the moment his voice was dark, almost brooding with its intensity. The stranger was in a gray and white patterned poncho with a dark gray cowpony hat. Yet, the four fillies began to smile as the figure tilted his chin up, revealing a bright smile and gamboge colored coat.

“Cheese Sandwich!” the four fillies cheered, all of them easily remembering the grand party the stallion threw for Rainbow Dash, even if they didn’t get to see all of it because of their bedtimes. The four rushed up to him, broad smiles on their faces as they looked up at the stallion.

“What are you doing here?” Scootaloo asked.

“Well, I heard Pinkie Pie was rounding up ponies for positively ponirific project, and I wanted to see what all the hullabaloo was about. What about you four? What brings you to Ponyville?”

“We live here,” Twist answered.

Cheese tossed his head back, causing his hat to fall onto the back of his neck. His now freed curly brown mane poofed up, and the head of a rubber chicken stuck out at a weird angle. “Whoops, don’t mind Boneless Two, he’s just not feeling very talkative right now,” Cheese said as he tucked the chicken back into the depths of his curly mane. “He’s taking the loss of Boneless One pretty hard.”

Scootaloo leaned in and whispered quietly to Apple Bloom. “Who’s Boneless One?”

“The rubber chicken that turned into Pinkie’s key for the box thing,” Apple Bloom replied back in an equally quiet whisper. Scootaloo made an O shape with her mouth, and nodded in understanding while Apple Bloom turned her attention back to Cheese Sandwich. “Cheese Sandwich, we were going to ask Pinkie Pie this, but maybe you can help. We’re looking for a first prize blue ribbon for a tug of war competition.”

“And a kazoo,” Twist added.

Cheese rubbed his chin. “An interesting combination for a request, but you fillies are in luck. As a properly stocked party planner, I’ve got plenty of ribbons in hundreds of colors. Just tell me the kind of tug of war game you’re going to be running, and I’ll’ recommend the perfect prize ribbon. And should I assume the kazoo is to signal the tuggers to tug.”

“We need them to replace a ribbon and kazoo that our friend lost,” Scootaloo said. She flipped open a flap on Apple Bloom’s saddlebags and then withdrew a blue ribbon. “We were all on the same team, so we brought one of our own ribbons.”

Cheese took the ribbon, tossing it around his hooves a few times as he inspected it with a discern eye. “A number five style blue ribbon from Ribbon Reverie’s Ribbons, one of the largest suppliers in Equestria. It was made in the Manehatten factory, a mail-in order from the looks of it. Yes, the design identifying this as a tug-of-war ribbon is one of the stock designs from the company. It’s a quality ribbon. I prefer to get my prize ribbons from the Perfect Prize Company, but Ribbon Reverie’s Ribbons do good work too.”

“Do you have a spare one?” Apple Bloom asked.

“I don’t, but let me ask you. How soon do you need this ribbon?”

The four fillies glanced at one another, truthfully unsure of their timeline. Sweetie Belle then answered by saying, “We probably need it before the palace is done, because that’s when Nyx should be coming back to town.”

“That’s not enough time to order one, but a party pony always knows what to do in a pinch,” Cheese said with a bright smile. “Here’s what ya do. Order the replacement ribbon, and then give your friend one of your ribbons. That way, you can give her the complete present when she comes back, and one of you gets the brand new replacement ribbon in a week or two.”

Apple Bloom slipped her own ribbon back into her saddlebags. “Okay, that works for the ribbon, but what about Nyx’s kazoo?”

“That, my little ponies, is something I can provide,” said Cheese Sandwich. “Just tell me what color you need, and I’ll get you one of the highest quality kazoos to be found in all of Equestria.”

“What color was Nyx’s kazoo?” Sweetie Belle asked.

The group stood in silent contemplation for a few moments before Twist raised a hoof. “Oh! I think it was red!”

Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo nodded in agreement, and then all four looked to Cheese Sandwich. The stallion had pulled his hat back onto his head, and his smile had fallen back into a grim, desperado frown. “Alright, meet me back here at sunset, and I’ll have your merchandise.”

“We’re not supposed to stay out that late unless we’re with somepony,” Apple Bloom said.

Cheese’s smile returned to his face. “Oh, yeah, silly me. How about an hour from now, at four o’clock? That work?”

Once more, the four fillies nodded their heads in unison. Cheese returned the nod and once more returned to his dark demeanor as he walked away, heading deeper into Night Stone castle. “Then I’ll see you at four.”

“He’s a strange one,” Apple Bloom said as the four fillies turned to leave, their task at the castle done for the time being. “Still, what’s next on the list?”

“We need to find Rarity. If I’m going to make Nyx a new crusader cape, we have to ask her to make a little more of that special golden silk of hers,” Sweetie Belle answered.

~~~

“I am so sorry. I couldn’t imagine they’d do all this.”

Fluttershy had returned from her cottage, saddlebags laden with all kinds of seeds for the garden. She had been gone longer than she expected, over three hours, and in that time her animals had gone a little overboard. It was hard to understand how it all came to be. Yet, from Applejack, Rarity, and Angel, she had been able to discern at least the gist of what had happened.

Under Angel’s command, her friendly animals had invaded the construction site. They chased off the ponies, stole tools, and confiscated building supplies. Then, when the mice returned with the stolen property line paperwork from city hall, they began tearing up the back yard trying to construct the animals’ vision of a perfect garden for themselves. Something that didn’t align with Rarity’s designs or Applejack’s work schedule.

The whole situation would have probably broken down into a fight if not for Pinkie Pie. She arrived just in time to keep tempers from boiling over until Fluttershy could return to see what chaos her animals had wrought.

“I’ve told all my animal friends to go home, and I promise you Angel is going to be grounded for a week for taking this so far.”

Angel, who had been standing next to Fluttershy like a punished child, tapped on her hoof. When she turned to look, Angel was giving her one of the cutest, pleading faces she had ever seen from the small bunny. Fluttershy’s face began to shift from firm to saddened, like ice melting away. Those big bunny eyes, his cute little nose, and he just looked so sorry. How could she stay angry at that? Maybe grounding was too extreme. They did have good intentions, they just got carried away and—

The sound of Applejack clearing her throat caught Fluttershy’s attention. She looked to her friends, seeing Rarity and Applejack staring her down with stern expectation. She put on a big smile, and chuckled a little before looking back down at Angel. She spoke with a scolding voice, though her heart wasn’t in it. “Now go on home, and I expect to find you in your little rabbit house. You are grounded for a week, mister.”

Though he kicked the ground in protest, Angel did as he was told and began bouncing back towards the cottage. Fluttershy watched him for a few moments, then looked back to Rarity and Applejack. “Again, I’m so sorry girls. I know I kind of encouraged this, but I just thought we’d plant some pretty flowers and hang some small bird houses. I didn’t know they would go so overboard.”

“Well, I suppose there is no reason dwelling on it now,” Rarity said as she looked to the mess left behind by the animals. “But I’m afraid we can’t just leave this mess like it is either. We’ve either got to try and put things back the way they were or do a proper garden.”

Applejack turned her head sharply, looking at Rarity like the word “insanity” had just been stamped on her horn. “And where exactly do ya expect us to find the time for that? We already lost half a day because of this! The day shift volunteers will be heading up to the castle for dinner by the time we even get everything put back the way it was.”

“I can appreciate that,” Rarity argued. “At the same time, we can’t leave this mess the way it is. It’s an unsightly, half-finished disaster. Frankly, I’d even say it would be easier to finish a proper garden then to try and undo what has been done.”

“Oh, of course you’d say that. You’ve been wanting a garden since this whole thing started.” Applejack snapped her jaw shut, as if trying to prevent the escape of more antagonistic words. She then turned and began stomping off, huffing and puffing like a boiler that was ready to blow.

“Uh... Applejack, where are you going?” Fluttershy asked as gently as she could.

“To buck some apple trees before I end up bucking somepony in the head!”

“But what about the palace?”

“The night shift forepony knows what he needs to have everypony do,” Applejack shouted back, continuing to stomp away. Fluttershy and Rarity glanced at one another, and reached a silent agreement. After the animal-induced headache Applejack had endured that afternoon, letting her blow off some steam would be the best course of action.

“Well then, I suppose we had better start figuring out what we want to do with the castle gardens,” Rarity said. She gave her head a little toss, motioning for Fluttershy to follow her back to the design tent. “Tell me, do you recall if any of our volunteers have experience with exterior landscaping?”

“I think there were a couple,” Fluttershy answered.

“Good, be a dear and find Rainbow Dash. She’s been flying back and forth attending to errands with a few other pegasi. Have her go ask Pinkie Pie which of our volunteers have that experience, then have Rainbow Dash tell them all to come to the design tent.”

“But wasn’t Pinkie Pie just down here, trying to keep Applejack from chasing off my animals?” Fluttershy asked.

Rarity nodded as she and Fluttershy passed into the shade of the design tent. “She was, but I haven’t seen her in a while. I can only assume she’s gone back to Night Stone Castle.”

With that, Rarity and Fluttershy’s conversation grew muffled, but a certain pink pony had heard all she needed to. Pinkie Pie opened the front door of the crystal palace wider, poking her head out with a wide smile. “Phase 2 of Operation Knight Kitchen is a go. Just have to wait for the next shift to arrive, and with some proper baked bribery, that party-quality kitchen will be ready to go by morning!”

~~~

Discord sat back in a chair, his hind legs up on the game table while he used his tail to adjust and reposition the pieces. He was sipping at a cup of what a bystander might mistake as hot chocolate, but the boiling stew within was as hot as lava. Any normal cup would have melted, and the marshmallows were nothing but charred, burnt specks. It was just the thing for him to enjoy before turning in for the night. After all, his little adventurers were all starting to nod off, and he wasn’t going to be so cruel as to send the hordes after them in their sleep.

Yes, he was being a kind and benevolent master of the world. After all, the goal wasn’t to put them through soul hardening trials and tribulations. At least, that was not a primary goal. All he was doing was buying time, and one did not need to bring the world to the brink of destruction to do that. A perfect example was the bad encounter roll Twilight’s party had received. For a roll like that, he should have dropped one gigantic, unstoppable monster on their heads. Instead, he sliced up the danger into smaller pieces.

It made the threat much more bite sized.

Stretching and scratching, Discord let his eyes wander from his gameboard to the horizon. Ponies would call the view from the mountain top spectacular, especially earth ponies. A view from the heavens that let them keep their hooves on solid terra firma. For Discord, however, he couldn’t help but see the showboating work of one particular princess.

“I see you’re hamming it up with the sunset again, Celestia, with all those reds, oranges, and blues. Why don’t you mix it up for once and throw in some—”

Discord was cut off by something he honestly didn’t expect: a knock at a door. He sat up from the chair that had grown next to the game table, craning his neck. He hadn’t even noticed his little seedling had grown a door, yet there it was. At the bottom of a long staircase was a large pair of extra-tall double doors. The knock came again, proving to Discord he hadn’t just imagined it.

“Well, isn’t this delightfully unexpected?” Discord downed the remainder of his hot lava with burnt marshmallows, then ate the cup as well before approaching the staircase. He took a seat on the banister, then used his tail to make a small snap. In an instant, the banister began to move, carrying him downward in a smooth, almost regal manner before coming to a slow, smooth stop at the bottom.

“Thank you good man, have a tip.” Discord tossed a bit at the banister, one it caught with and ate with a previously nonexistent mouth. The banister gave a small, grateful burp while Discord himself placed a claw on the door and opened it just enough for to stick his head out.

Two ponies were standing on the recently grown doorstep. One was a little filly, pink like a rose with a pair of rectangular glasses. She was wearing a green Filly Scout's hat and sash. Next to her was a very large stallion, in height and gut, with bark brown coat and a saw for a cutie mark. He was carrying saddlebags laden with numerous boxes.

“Hello?” Discord said, rolling the word slowly in his mouth.

The little filly retreated behind the older stallion. “G-grandpa... is that?”

“Yes, but don’t vorry.” The stallion gave her a little nudge. “Just do as you practiced on the vay here.”

The little filly nodded, then cleared her throat and looked Discord in the eye. “Hello sir, I am Pink Rose of Manehatten Filly Scout troop number twenty-three. I came to sell cookies in Lumberton with my grandfather, and we heard from a pegasus about your new home. What better way is there to celebrate a newly... um... grown home than delicious Filly Scout Cookies?”

Discord opened the door a little further, leaning his back against the frame as he crossed his paw and claw. “You came all the way out here to sell cookies?”

Under Discord’s gaze, Rose began looking down at her tiny hooves as if they were the most interesting things in the world. She tried to look back up at him a few times, opening her mouth a little as if to form a word. But the second she made eye contact, she’d look straight back at the ground. This continued for a good ten seconds before her grandfather stepped in.

He was really not what Discord thought of when he imagined a grandfather. Instead, he was a stallion in the middle of his life. Likely, he was a father who had a child young who, in turn, had a child of his or her own at an equally young age. “Yes sir. Ya see, I love this daughter of my daughter so much. She’s my little Spring Rose. So, vhen my daughter asked if I could help vith cookie sales, how vas I to say no? She’s sold to just about everypony in Lumberton.”

“But I’m still behind Golden Shoe,” Rose managed to say, some strength returning to her voice as she exchanged staring at her hooves for looking at her grandfather. “She’s going to sell the most cookies again this year and get a new scooter, and she doesn’t even really want it. She’s got a new scooter last month. She just doesn’t want the rest of us to have it.”

“Ah, do not fear my Spring Rose. She vill not vin.”

“I thought her name was Pink Rose,” Discord said, smiling like he was watching a comedic routine.

“Grandpa Jack always gives little ponies like me nicknames.”

“Jack... as in Lumber Jack, the pony who has that lovely little tree and log emporium in Canterlot every winter?” Discord asked, his body suddenly bursting with pine branches as he stood up straight, looking truly like a tall tree to the two ponies.

“Ah, you’ve heard of me. Vell, I guess that vould make sense. You friends vith Twilight Sparkle, no? Her family is one of my best customers. Night Light has very good eye for fire color. Still, Discord, how ‘bout some cookies? They are delicious. Ve have all the kinds. Ve have the Mint Mountains. Ve have the Laugherdoodles. Ve have the Two-Steps. They good for anything! Tell him, Spring Rose.”

“Oh... uh...,” Rose stumbled a moment, then took in a deep breath and tried to mimic her grandfather’s sale savvy. She was now able to meet Discord’s eyes, as if her grandfather was emitting an aura of infectious courage. “Yes, they are good with milk, and great for parties. Everypony loves Filly Scout Cookies!”

“It is true!”

Discord shook off the pine branches, which fell to the floor and scampered away like lobsters on the ocean floor. The fallen branches also revealed Discord was now wearing a sleek, pinstripe suit. He flipped a coin over and over in his claw while holding a toothpick dainty in his teeth.

“You come to me on this, the day of somepony’s daughter’s wedding, with such a request. Me, who can manifest cookies of grander quality with a thought. You come to me, and speak to me as if I’m like some other pony. That... takes spine. So much spine you probably have some vertebrae extra rolling around in yer back. So let me make you an offer you can’t refuse. I have a party I need to go to, a big one, in Ponyville. I’ll need enough cookies to sink a small boat. I imagine that such a large cookie order would help you with your... Shoe problem, but in return, I need a favor.”

“Vhat is favor?” Lumber Jack asked, his boisterous salespony bravado retracting into an uneasy caution.

“I’ll just need you be at a certain place at a certain time. Please, come in, and I’ll tell you all the details.”

~~~

“Flash, it’s getting too dark to see anything. We’re stopping to make camp.”

Flash Sentry glanced down at the locomotive that had been chugging its way across the Rainbow Range. They had stopped at Lumberton the previous evening to get some information about the area, a detailed map, and to wait out the night. When the sunrise came, they began their search in earnest, slowly making their way across the Rainbow Range as they looked for any sign of their missing royals.

So far, their search had turned up next to nothing. From the sky, all Flash could see were the train tracks directly below and the trees of the Rainbow Range extending over the landscape like a heavy green blanket. They had spotted a few trails of smoke, and he investigated each one in hopes that it was the royal family camping in the woods. But no, the camps either belonged to hikers or a group of wood cutters. The princesses they looked for always seemed to be at another campsite.

Still, despite his desire to keep on searching, Lapis Lance was right. It was getting too dark to see. The greens of the forest were becoming an inky black as the sun finished setting. The moon would soon step out from the horizon and begin its waltz amongst the stars, and while beautiful, it would not provide enough light to continue their search.

So Flash descended, circling as he glided down to the locomotive his squad had been lent for their search. Ardent, Lapis Lance, and Gem Shield were slowing the engine, letting the boiler vent its steam. The beast of pistons and pipes began to slow, eventually coming to a rest near a slightly open glade where the quartet could easily make camp.

“Gem and I will get a fire going,” Ardent said as the two ponies disembarked from the locomotive, stepping onto the soft grass just as Flash landed. Lapis stepped off the train a few moments later, carrying a carefully rolled map of the Rainbow Range. He spread it out on the ground, and began to trace his hoof before tapping at a point along the tracks.

“Looks like we’re about halfway through the mountains,” Lapis said. “I thought we’d make better time, but we were running the train at such a slow pace. We probably could have covered the same distance walking if we wanted to.”

“The slow pace is a good thing.” Flash Sentry gave the edge of the map a kick, making it roll back up into a tube. “We want to be sure we don’t miss the princesses, and once we’re on our way back we can open her up and make some better time. Besides, if we find them, I doubt the princesses will want to walk back to the Crystal Empire.”

Lapis nodded, picking up the rolled map and depositing it back on the locomotive. He then began to walk towards the front of the engine. “I suppose you’re right. Now come and help me inspect the engine while we wait for Gem and Ardent to make the fi—”

Flash had been looking at the locomotive itself when Lapis’s voice ended abruptly. He turned to see what had happened to his comrade, but Flash saw no trace. Like the volunteer in a magician's show performance, Lapis had vanished. Guard training kicking in, Flash quickly put himself on guard and began to cautiously approach the last place he had seen Lapis. In his head he was running through all the possibilities. They could be under attack from bandits, or perhaps a carnivorous magical creature native to the mountains.

Or it was a hole, from which he could hear the muffled cursing of a familiar voice.

Flash landed on the edge of the deep hole that was almost entirely hidden by the shadow of the train in the slowly growing light of Luna’s moon. He couldn’t see anything in the depths, but a moaning and cursing voice continued. “Lapis, you down there?”

“What hit me?” Lapis shouted back, his words mixing with the echoes of body shuffling against the dirt to stand up.

“Gravity,” Flash answered back, wishing now they had a unicorn with them. Still, he retreated to the train for just a few moments before returning with some glowing crystals from their supply bags. He tapped the two crystals together, causing them to glow even brighter as their magnetic magic activated. He then dropped them into the hole, letting them tumble down to provide Lapis with light.

“Ow!”

And, unintentionally, a new dent in his helmet.

“Sorry,” Flash shouted down into the hole, now illuminated from the bottom by the two crystals. He could see Lapis standing on his four hooves, rubbing the spot on his helmet where the crystals had hit. The yelp of pain had been more reactive than a sign of any real damage done, but now that there was light, the pair began to properly inspect the unexpected hole.

“This looks like a Diamond Dog tunnel,” Flash said, recognizing some of the telltale claw marks from his training.

“They’ve been known to live in the Rainbow Range,” Lapis confirmed. He picked up the two gems, balancing them in one hoof as he closely inspected the walls and the tunnel that branched off from where he landed. “I see a lot of connecting tunnels down here. It looks like it was a whole pack.”

“You don’t think this could—”

“Flash, Lapis, we found a fire pit!”

Gem and Ardent came jogging up, Ardent carrying a mostly burnt stick in his mouth. He quickly spat it to the ground. “Somepony was staying here recently, in the last few nights. And there are no signs of dirt or water being poured on the pit, meaning it was likely smothered magically.”

Flash nodded, a bit of fire in his eyes as he took to his wings. He dove into the hole, flying all the way down and grabbing up Lapis. He then flew back to the top, depositing his comrade outside the hole before landing himself. “Get more light crystals from the train. We may have just found our princesses’ campsite.”

Who? What? I Don't Know!

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The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

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!”

A New Direction

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 9

A New Direction

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

“Morning, Applejack!”

Applejack reached the foot of the crystal palace’s steps. Though she was not proud of how she stormed off the previous day, it had helped calm her down. Apple bucking always would be one of her favorite ways to vent frustration that was still a productive use of her time. Still, all that was behind her and she gave a smile to Pinkie Pie, who was standing halfway up the steps and holding a baking tray. “Morning, Pinkie. What are you doing here so early?”

“Wanted you to try one of these,” Pinkie said, lowering the baking sheet enough to reveal its contents. Laid out in three near-perfect rows of four were twelve apple danishes, and they were a beautiful sight to Applejack. The smell was dancing in her nose, a sweet mixture of apple and cinnamon. Oh, she knew these danishes well. It was Pinkie’s unique recipe, where she prepared the bread part of the danish like a cinnamon roll. It was a treat for almost all the senses. The warm, soft bread, the sweet smells, the beautiful swirl, and the delectable taste.

If the danishes could only serenade the ears, then no sense would go unused.

“They look amazing, Pinkie. Better than usual,” Applejack said as she picked one up from the tray and took a bite. A shiver ran down her spine, and she instinctively licked her lips to catch any fleeting crumb. “Whoa...”

“I know!” Pinkie said with a hop, though she was careful not to jostle the baked goods. “These are the best Cinnamon Swirl Apple Danishes I’ve ever made! That new oven is amazing.”

“The Cakes got a new oven? I didn’t hear anything about that,” Applejack said before letting her mouth once more enjoy the apple-tastic party of flavor that was the danish.

Pinkie Pie giggled, before turning and heading up the steps. “It’s not the Cakes,” she said in a sing-song manner. Applejack arched an eyebrow, but had another chomp of her danish before setting what little remained on the brim of her hat. She then followed behind Pinkie, who was climbing up the interior, spiraling staircase with the baking sheet balanced perfectly on her back.

“Oh, then who got a new oven? I bet they asked you to help them try it out,” Applejack said. She paused for a moment, removing and taking another bite from her danish. She then replaced it back on the rim of her hat and trotted to catch up with Pinkie Pie. “Let me guess. It was Rarity. She likes getting those fancy new gizmos for her kitchen, even though she hardly uses them.”

Pinkie Pie giggled and shook her head.

“Okay, then who would it be?” Applejack asked herself. “Was it Candy Dandy, the owner of the candy shop? He’s always talked about getting some fancy oven for the front of his shop so ponies could make their own candy.”

“Nope.”

The pair reached the top of the stairs, and began walking the halls of the palace part of the pseudo crystal treehouse. Applejack’s brow furrowed, and she looked to the floor as her mind tried to grasp for the answer. “Okay, then it had to have been... Bon Bon. I saw her getting a whole slew of new pots and pans last week. New pots and pans for the new oven, right?”

“You’re right!” Pinkie Pie cheered, then giggled. “Or at least, half right. Bon Bon did get a new oven, but I didn’t use her oven to bake these delicious danishes.”

“All right, then I give up. Whose oven did you use?”

“The castle’s!” Pinkie Pie turned, heading through a doorway into one of the rooms adjacent to the corridor. It was a room Applejack knew too well. The previous evening, her night shift crew had wasted their time taking out a wall in what was supposed to just be a sitting room. The room itself had been largely empty the last time she saw it.

It was not empty anymore. In fact, the room looked finished.

It was a kitchen, fully furnished and carrying the smell of the danishes. It was of the same style and size of the Canterlot Castle’s kitchen. There were three industrial ovens, and some crystal walls had been grown in the corner and affixed with the necessary machinery to create a walk in refrigerator. Pinkie Pie was beaming as she set the cookie sheet of danishes down on a counter and looked back at Applejack.

“Isn’t it wonderful!? With this kitchen, we’ll never have to worry about food in any parties we throw, even if we fill the ballroom with ponies. And look, look at the ovens. They’re crystal ovens. We grew them with that silly sticky paint like everything else, and they work so well! It hardly took them any time at all to warm up. I mean, you tasted these danishes.”

“It... was you?” Applejack said, her pleasant mood withering like an apple being sucked dry by a vampire fruit bat. “You were the one that pulled the night shift off what they were supposed to be doing?” She took the last piece of danish from the brim of her hat, staring at it for a moment before glaring back at Pinkie Pie. “You made these to butter me up, didn’t you?”

“No, I made them to sweeten you up!” Pinkie giggled at her own joke, but her laughter died quickly as she saw the frown and furrowed brow growing on Applejack’s face. “I mean, we were going to have to do this part of the castle anyway, I just had your volunteers work on it sooner rather than later. And come on, a super fun kitchen like this for throwing super fun parties is way better than a sitting room.”

“Pinkie, you just... you’ve..” Applejack grunted in frustration. “That doesn’t make it okay!” She threw the last of her danish on the ground like the bribery it was, turned, and stormed out of the room. In one fell swoop, her frustration had returned, and she needed to go someplace else before she did something she’d regret.

~~~

With a sigh of exhaustion, Flash delivered the last of his comrades to the top of the cliff. He then landed, nearly collapsing on his own hooves. He finally gave in and allowed himself to sit like the others as they all rested in the slowly growing light of dawn.

They had been up all night in a panic, working feverishly to ensure whether or not they had bad news to report back to the Crystal Empire. After finding the diamond dog holes, they had begun searching the nearby area. They checked forest trails, the tracks, and Flash did an aerial sweep. That was when he saw it. The wrecked royal carriage at the bottom of a tall cliff.

The four guard ponies had spent all night, working under the light of crystals and Luna’s moon, to search the wreckage. They overturned every piece of crystal and shattered remains of furniture. They found a broken pair of glasses and a few stray playing cards. They found tuffs of diamond dog hair. Yet the thing they hoped not to find, but searched diligently for, were the ponies and dragon they, as guards, were sworn to protect.

Thankfully, they could find no bodies amongst the mangled train car.

“We should go check on the train and then try to get a few hours of sleep.” Gem Shield tried to pull himself back to his hooves, but ended up back where he started, sitting on the ground with his head turned skyward.

“The train’s right here, Gem Shield. We moved it closer when we found the wreckage,” Lapis said. He was laying on his side, but he managed enough energy to point at the small, crystal engine that was sitting just a few dozen feet away. “You were the one that suggested it.”

“I am sorry that I don’t recall everything I said after working from dusk till dawn moving heavy crystal and worrying that I’d find our princess squashed like a bug!”

“Easy, Gem. We’re all tired,” Flash said, managing to get back to his hooves. “But we’re guard ponies. We’ve pulled all nighters before. We will survive. But you’re right, let’s catch a few winks before we get back to our search,” he said mostly for himself. While the others could take turns dozing in the train car, he had to keep airborne. He wouldn’t be fit to fly safely without at least a few hours of sleep.

Ardent groaned as he rubbed his eyes. “I hate trying to sleep during the day. All I end up doing is just lying there, staring at the back of my eyelids and never actually getting any sleep.” He sat up from the dirt, patting off one side of his coat before forcing himself to stand. A morning breeze blew across the group, a bit of cool relief after an evening of hard labor. Yet, as the wind gusted, Ardent turned his face and ears to the horizon.

“Did any of you hear that?”

Flash, Lapis, and Gem turned, looking to their comrade who was now standing on the very edge of the cliff. His ears were forward, and he was hardly breathing as he looked towards the horizon. Flash strained his own ears, but couldn’t hear anything except the occasional rustle of trees when the wind gusted. From the looks on Lapis and Gem’s faces, they couldn’t hear anything either.

“There it was again.” Ardent raised up onto his back hooves, trying to raise his ears higher and looking like a meerkat in the process. “I think... I think I heard the Great and Honorable Spike’s voice.”

Flash took to his wings, hovering a few yards in the air while Lapis and Gem moved up beside Ardent. They all turned their ears forward, trying to hear what he did. Yet, the forest only gave its audience its usual symphony. The birds chirped and the trees rustled. Everything with the world seemed right. Even the sunrise was picture perfect, worthy of being captured by a painter or a photographer. The warm light in the east and the trees casting long shadows against one another, as if trying to harbor the last moments of night from burning away.

“What was that?”

Gem pointed his hoof, and the other three focused their vision in that direction. “What did you see?” Lapis asked.

“I don’t know. That’s why I asked ‘what was that?’” Gem snapped, though he was now starting to trot along the edge of the cliff, trying to change his perspective on the forest below them. “But... I thought I saw a flash, or maybe I just blinked. I just don’t know.”

“Wait, I just saw it too,” Ardent claimed, the energy in the group returning despite their exhaustion. “A green flash of light?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gem nodded his head, then snapped his ears forward. “And I just heard something. It was a scream. It was definitely a scream. High pitched, like a filly.”

The four guards were now moving together along the edge of the cliff, slowly accelerating to a steady gallop as they kept their eyes on the forest. “Do you think it’s them? Princess Twilight does have her daughter with her,” Lapis said.

“But none of them have green magic?” Gem Shield said. “What would have made that green flash of light? It wasn’t the right color for Spike’s dragon fire.”

“I know one thing that could have done it.” Flash swoop down and picked Ardent up by the shoulders. He then began gliding along the cliff face. “Lapis, Gem, keep running along up here. I’ll come back to get you in a second. But we need to move on this now, stallions. The royal family may be being pursued by something dangerous, and I can only think of one such threat that uses green magic.”

The other three guards nodded in agreement, feeling their hooves gain speed as urgency filled their chests.

~~~

“Organize things for us, Applejack. Only you can do it, Applejack. Help us even though we keep doing things to make your job harder, Applejack.” She grumbled and cursed, venting her frustration with her hat pushed down over her eyes and her chin resting on the picnic table. She had walked to one of Ponyville’s often less populated parks, and went to a picnic table she knew was rarely used. It was tucked away, quiet, and a good place for her to stew.

The project had turned into a larger headache than she could have guessed, even with Discord off to keep Twilight distracted. She never expected everything to go perfectly smoothly. She expected there to be hiccups and hold ups. But what she didn’t expect was... sabotage. Yes, she knew her friends weren’t being malicious, but the results were the same. Pinkie Pie got her fancy kitchen while delaying other parts of the castle. Fluttershy unwittingly unleashed the Angel Bunny Army and shut down the project. Even Rarity had set them up for failure at the start. The project would be several times easier if they had just focused on the essentials.

The only one that hadn’t caused trouble was Rainbow Dash, and that wasn’t for lack of trying to get her backyard pool.

“Sorry, didn’t think anyone else would be here.”

Applejack turned her head, just enough so she could see out from under the brim of her hat. A pony had come around the tree that hid the secluded picnic table from the rest of the park. The stallion was carrying a lunch, and was starting to back away when Applejack sat up and fixed her hat. “Hey, Silver Shill, didn’t know you were in town.”

“Oh, Applejack, it’s you.” Silver stopped retreating and resumed his approach, taking a seat across from the mare at the table. “I didn’t recognize you, but I guess you can’t blame me too much. All I could see from over there was somepony trying to nap under her hat.” He began unpacking his lunch, a simple meal of a sandwich, celery, and a big, Sweet Apple Acres apple. “So, what are you doing out here?”

“Trying to clear my head.” Applejack sank back into her seat, letting her hat cover her eyes again. Maybe it was rude to Silver Shill, but she couldn’t care less at the moment about decorum.

Shill took a small bite of his sandwich, chewed, and swallowed. “I guess all the work on the palace isn’t going so well. That’s why I’m in town. I’ve been helping up at Night Stone Castle with your friend, Pinkie Pie. Boy, isn’t she a bundle of energy?”

Applejack sighed, the mention of Pinkie Pie reminding her of exactly what she was trying to clear out of her head. “That’s one way to describe her.”

Shill ate a few more bites of his sandwich, eyes wandering as the conversation withered like a dry plant under a hot sun. He took a bite of his apple, crunched on some celery, and then managed to find something else to say. “So, are you taking a lunch break? I’m eating before I start my shift at the castle.”

Applejack just shook her head, resulting in her rolling it back and forth across the table.

A single dry, forced chuckle escaped Shill’s mouth before he promptly filled it with another bite of his sandwich. He then crunched on his celery, and was about to chase that with a bite from his apple. He then paused, turning the pristine, red-skinned fruit in his hoof a moment. “You and your family really do grow great apples. I’ve been having one of these a day ever since I got here. I can’t get enough of them.”

The topic changing to something other than the palace was enough for Applejack to sit up. She straightened her hat, and even managed a little smile as she watched Shill bite into the apple. “Yeah, nothing beats an Apple family apple, and we put a lot of work in to make sure of that. We tend the trees. We harvest at just the right time, and we do all the honest work it takes to make them apples honestly good.”

“Honest work to make them honestly good." Shill smiled a little as he swallowed. "That almost sounds like a marketing slogan the Flim Flam Brothers would think up. Good or bad intentions, you have to give those two that much credit. They sure knew how to sell things.”

“How’d you get mixed up with those two in the first place?” Applejack asked as she leaned her head on her hoof. Without a lunch of her own to eat, all she could really do was talk and watch Shill enjoy his.

“It’s actually a funny story. I’ve always wanted to be a salespony, but I never really got the hoof of it. I was fired more times than I care to count from different shops because I couldn’t manage to make sales. But then Flim and Flam came into town. Other ponies were enthralled by their miracle elixir, but what I saw was a pair of grade A sales ponies. I approached them after their show, and asked if they had any openings. They weren't keen on it at first, but then they hired me to be their plant pony.”

“I never heard of anything like that before.”

Shill shrugged. “I hadn’t heard of it either, and I think those two may have made the name up to make me feel more important than I was. Still, it somewhat makes sense. I was the pony they were planting in the crowd to help make more sales. Though it didn’t work as well as we hoped the first few times. I was this close to losing that job.” Shill put his hooves about an inch apart for emphasis.

“Well, in the end, I’m glad you didn’t. That coin you gave me ended up being real helpful,” Applejack said with a little chuckle. “Still, what were you doing that got under Flim and Flam’s fur? From what I remember of those two, a tornado could be blowing around their heads and they’d still be keeping up their routine.”

“It wasn’t me, or at least it wasn’t all my fault. They were trying a bit too hard to control what I did. They were telling me which costume to use and how to fake my injuries. They wanted it spot on, and all that pressure was making my acting less than convincing. But then one night, they were too busy making more elixir and told me to just take care of it myself. That’s when things turned around. I had the freedom to do the act in a way I was comfortable. After that, picking the best costume and character for the audience became my responsibility. It was my contribution to the show, and the brothers trusted me to do it, even when I wanted to try out new props or costumes.”

Shill crunched down the last bite of his celery, chuckling a little as he did. “Now, thanks to the time I spent with them, I’ve started my own costume shop, a good honest place a few towns over.”

“I’m real glad to hear that, Shill,” Applejack said, the story rolling around in her head. For a moment the pair were silent. Shill was nearing the end of his lunch, and Applejack’s frustration had been vented away. It was now just two ponies sitting while one enjoyed an early lunch.

“So, what part are you doing for yourself?”

Applejack cocked an eyebrow. “What do ya mean?”

“Well, I heard from somepony that Pinkie Pie was making this big kitchen so she could use it to throw some super fun parties. It sounds like just the thing she’d do for her part of the palace.”

“None of us really have parts of the palace,” Applejack said, chuckling a little at the notion. “It’s Twilight’s new home. She’s the Princess of Friendship.”

“But didn’t Celestia say something different? I read it in the newspaper.” Shill paused a moment, eyes wandering before his mind managed to capture the memory. “Yeah, Princess Celestia was interviewed about the new palace and she said it was a perfect place for Princess Twilight and her friends. It even had a picture of the throne room, and it had a seat for all seven of you.”

Applejack laughed a little at the thought, but then she got quiet. Shill’s story and question were swimming and merging together in her mind. Applejack then shook her head before lifting a hoof and securing her hat on her head. “I suppose you got a point there, Shill. Now, hate to run off, but all this talking has helped me get my head on straight.”

~~~

“Applejack, is this really an appropriate time for this?” Rarity asked as she, Fluttershy, and Rainbow followed their friend through the castle. Her disappearance earlier that morning had been a major disruption to the work on the palace. Ponies had swarmed Rarity and Fluttershy in the design tent, asking questions they had no answers to. Where were the volunteers supposed to be working? Where was the crystal mortar? Where were they installing the plumbing? What smelled so delicious?

“I promise, we’ll get right back on track. I just need to settle something with y’all,” Applejack said before making a left turn, arriving back at the place where her frustration had reached a breaking point earlier that day. The ballroom kitchen, however, was nearly filled to capacity. Every counter space was stacked with plates of cookies and apple fritters. There were easily enough desserts to feed a small army, and the amount was only increasing. Pinkie Pie was at the oven, trading out a pair of cookie sheets while another half dozen apple fritters fried up in a pot of hot oil on the stovetop.

Rainbow landed, moving over to one of the plates and sniffing at the deserts. She couldn’t help but lick her lips. “Hey, Pinkie, what’s all this for?”

“Rainbow Dash!” Pinkie Pie yelped as if she had been caught planning a surprise party. Her eyes then flicked to Applejack before narrowing to dots. “Applejack! Oh no! My super duper apology isn’t ready yet! I still have ten dozen more cookies to bake and twelve dozen more fritters to fry before I can make my ultimate I’m sorry apple gift basket.”

“With all this, I think you mean gift wagon,” Rarity said. “What exactly are you apologizing for?”

“She was the one that hijacked the night shift the last couple days,” Applejack said as she trotted up to Pinkie Pie. With a quick twist of her hoof she turned the stove’s burners off before doing the same to the oven. “And, well, I didn’t take too kindly to the news when I found out this morning.”

“That was you! You ruined my lovely sitting room.”

Pinkie Pie opened her mouth, but Applejack stepped between her and Rarity, breaking the line of sight. “Ruined is a bit of a strong word, and if anything I’ve been the one making things difficult.”

“How is any of this your fault, Applejack?” Fluttershy asked. “I mean, it was my animals that caused the mess in the backyard.”

“I haven’t had my head in the right place for this project since day one. All I saw was the job you all wanted me to do and all the work that had to be done. But somepony helped me realize a few things. This isn’t a job, and though y’all put your faith in me, I shouldn’t be the one bossing everypony around. All five of us should be working together. We should be making decisions together, and doing things that get us excited about this project.

“I mean, look at what Pinkie got done,” Applejack said, sweeping her hoof through the air as she drew attention to the room. “This here is one of the best kitchens I’ve ever seen, and she got it done by just taking some ponies off the night shift. Sure, it kind of put a wrench in some other things, but the palace wouldn’t have this room if she hadn’t put her heart into it.

“And that’s something else I haven’t been thinking about. We all have seats in the throne room. This is going to be Twilight’s home, but this palace also represents our friendship. Heck, Twilight would probably making a fuss right now that all we’ve been focusing on is her.

“So, do you know what we’re going to do?” Applejack asked, to which her friends could only shake their heads. “I’ll tell ya what we’re going to do. We’re going to have fun with this and work together, like we should have been from the start. Rarity’s going to have her ballroom with this great kitchen of Pinkie Pie’s to make any delicious treat anypony could ask for.”

Rarity began to smile, nodding her head. “I do suppose this is a better use of space, and honestly, between all six of us who’s really going to sit in a sitting room long enough to make it worthwhile?”

“That’s the spirit,” Applejack said with a firm nod. “And Fluttershy, we’re going to have those palace gardens with room for plenty of nice little critters, but we’re also going to have Rainbow Dash’s pool.”

“What? Really!?” Rainbow grabbed Applejack by the shoulders, looking the mare dead in the eye. “You aren’t pulling my leg, right? I can actually have the pool?”

“Eeyup,” Applejack said, chuckling a little at how much she had sounded like her big brother. Rainbow Dash leapt into the air, somersaulting a few times in celebration to the amusement of her friends below.

“But what about you Applejack?” Fluttershy asked. “If we’re getting all these things, it would be a shame for you not to add something to the palace.”

“Honestly, the part I want to do is where Twilight, Spike, and Nyx are actually going to live. Those three deserve someplace nice and comfortable, a real place to hang their hats.” She then shrugged her shoulders. “And, if I find the time, I wouldn’t mind trying to plant a golden apple tree in the garden. I want ta see if I can put Celestia's to shame.”

“That all sounds well and good, Applejack, but what if we don’t get done?” Rarity asked. “Do we really want to go adding things now? What about getting done before Twilight gets back? And how are we going to organize all this?”

“I think the six of us will still need to keep ahold of the reigns of this wagon, but a lot of our volunteers are smart ponies. They came here to help, no matter their reason. If we break this project into a lot of smaller bits, I believe we can trust all them ponies to work together and get everything done. Sure, it will be a lot more hectic. There'll be more feathers and fur flying than if ya dropped a fox in a hen house. Why, I imagine Discord would be grinning ear to toe hearing what I’m proposing.”

“Don’t you mean ear to ear?” Rarity asked.

A small chuckle escaped Applejack’s lips. “Knowing Discord, I meant exactly what I said. Anyway, ponies do their best work when they’re doing what they have a passion for. Some hate painting with the crystal mortar, but others like it. Why not let those who aren’t having fun go outside and help in the garden or help tear down some other wall. It’s not like that’s the only job that needs doing.

“So what do y’all say?” Applejack asked, extending her hoof. “No more boss Applejack. Now we’re working together, and succeed or fail, let’s have fun doing it.”

The other four mares nodded, adding their hooves to Applejack’s before all five raised them upward in a unified cheer. Applejack then picked up one of the plates of cookies Pinkie Pie had baked and motioned towards the door. “Now come on y’all, let’s go take these treats to all those hard working ponies outside and tell them how things are going to work.”

“Only if you have one apple fritter right now,” Pinkie Pie said, holding the freshest fritter in her hoof. “Because I really am sorry I made you mad.”

Applejack chuckled, and then like a shark emerging from the water, chomped down the whole fritter in a single bite. The mares began to laugh together, gathering up the baked goods in preparation for taking them outside. All the while, no one noticed a particular origami pony sneaking out of Fluttershy’s mane and flittering out the nearest open window.

~~~

“Spell Nexus?”

The dark blue unicorn with light gray mane didn’t look up from his desk as a few papers floated by. For several months he had been maintaining his position as Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorn’s headmaster. After his run-in with Nyx over Hearth’s Warmings, he had finally been able to get his own life back on track. He was still a few pounds heavier than he once was, and there were perhaps a few wrinkles that had not been there before. Still, things had regained an old normalcy. Perhaps a tad mundane compared to being the leader of a cult, but he wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.

“Yes?” he asked before applying his signature to another form that required it.

“I know you’re busy, but we had a small disturbance on campus. Three fillies got separated from their parents, and started crying. Some students brought them here to the front office, and we’ve been trying to get them reunited with their families.”

Nexus nodded, giving a small wave with his quill while still focusing on his work. “That’s very good. Glad to hear the situation was resolved.”

“Well, it isn’t resolved, sir. The fillies won’t tell us their names or anything. They just keep saying they need to talk to you.”

Spell Nexus looked up from his desk for the first time, seeing his secretary standing just behind the chairs on the opposite side of his desk. There, beside her, were three little fillies with saddlebags, smiling and waving. Three little fillies he recognized all too well. “I see,” he said as he dropped his quill into the inkwell. “Don’t worry, I know these fillies and their families. Please give us a moment, and then we’ll get them back on the train to Ponyville.”

The secretary nodded, stepping out of the room and pulling the doors shut as she left. Spell Nexus then leveled his gaze at Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom as the three fillies made themselves comfortable in the cushions on the opposite side of his desk. “I’m surprised you three didn’t sneak in here in the brown paper bag I use for lunch.”

“That was what I thought we should do,” Scootaloo said, she and Apple Bloom sitting on one of the cushions while Sweetie Belle sat on the other. “But Sweetie Belle thought this would work better.”

“Of course, because nopony is going to just ignore three crying fillies,” Spell Nexus surmised.

“Oh no, it was just Sweetie screaming,” Apple Bloom said. “Trust me, she was doing more than enough screaming for the three of us.”

Scootaloo nodded before rubbing a hoof against one ear. “I think my ears are still ringing.”

Spell Nexus chuckled as he folded his hooves on top of the desk. “So what’s the mission this time, Cutie Mark Crusaders? I don’t think there’s anypony that needs rescuing here at Celestia’s school, and all three of you are a little young to be applying for admittance. That and won’t your families be a bit concerned when they realize you're missing? ”

“We need to talk to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,” Apple Bloom said. “It’s urgent.”

“Has something happened in Ponyville?” Nexus asked, a twinge of true concern filling his voice. He rose from his desk, and took one step to the side. “Are Twilight and her friends in danger? Did something else get out of Tartarus?”

“No, nothing like that,” Scootaloo said. “Twilight, Nyx, and Spike are being kept busy in the Crystal Empire while everypony else is working on her new palace.”

“That sounds very nice,” Spell Nexus said as he slowly returned to his seat with an arched eyebrow. “That, however, doesn’t seem entirely urgent, or something that demands the princesses’ attention. If Twilight’s friends needed the princesses’ help, I’m sure they would have come and asked for it themselves.”

“They don’t need the help, but we do,” Apple Bloom said as she opened her saddlebags. She held the flap while Scootaloo removed a book and placed it on Spell Nexus’s desk. He looked at the book for a few moments, then drew it closer so he could properly read the title.

“You need help with one hundred and one superior sugar sweet recipes?”

“No, we need help with what’s on the inside.”

Spell Nexus made a nod. Though not entirely interested in the crazy scheme being presented to him, he was willing to humor the girls for the time being. He cracked open the cover, and was surprised to see the book was hollow. A somewhat clean rectangle had been cut out of the thick pages inside, and the gap was filled with several small bits and bobs. “What is this?” he asked as he levitated a few items out to inspect them more closely.

“Did you know about Nyx’s treasure book?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“No, it doesn’t ring a bell.”

“It was a green book that Nyx hollowed out. She made it just like that one, a little secret treasure box.”

Spell Nexus stared at the three fillies, his mind tripping back. In the interleaving months, he had recalled more clearly what he had done while ‘blessed’ by Nightmare Moon’s poisonous drive and thirst for revenge. The thought, the memory of a green book bubbled to the surface. There was one green book he remembered clearly, one he had been so happy to turn over to his queen, The book she had them retrieve from Twilight’s library. The book he had been told contained dark plans for the future of Equestria.

He almost wanted to smile at the thought that Nyx had used him under such false pretenses to secure such a precious item.

“It’s a lovely book girls, but I’m afraid that still doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

“Nyx’s old treasure book got destroyed with the rest of the library,” Scootaloo said while Spell Nexus continued to pick through the contents of the book. He drew out the red crusader cape and the kazoo, a chuckle on his lips as he took in each item. “We’ve been making her this new one, but it’s missing something.”

“We need a picture from Twilight’s coronation,” Sweetie Belle said.

“Well, there were a lot of photos taken that day. Wouldn’t it be easier to go talk to somepony at the Canterlot newspaper?” Spell Nexus asked. He began putting the book back into order, returning all the items to the interior piece by piece.

Apple Bloom shook her head firmly. “No, it wasn’t just any picture. It was a special one. It had Nyx, Twilight, Spike, Prince Armor, Princess Cadance, Twilight's parents, Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna all standing in the same room where the wedding happened. When Nyx showed us the picture, it was the only time we’d seen one like it. Our sisters don’t even have that picture.”

“It must have been just one for the immediate family and the princesses then,” Spell Nexus mused as he closed the cover on the book. He then smiled, levitating the book back into Apple Bloom’s bag as he got up from his desk. “I can’t make any promises they’ll have a copy they can spare, but I don’t think the princesses will mind if we pop over to the castle for a moment. But then it’s straight back to Ponyville for you three. Am I understood?”

“Yes.”

“Of course.”

“Eeyup.”

~~~

“... and have a pleasant afternoon.”

Celestia shut the doors to the small meeting room, letting the smile fade from her face as she turned around. Luna was standing up from her seat at the table as well, stretching her legs and wings before shaking her body like a dog trying to dry off from the rain. While they were both tired, Luna looked particularly exhausted as she had been working against her normal sleep schedule. She was up all day, asleep all night, and was barely able to attend to any of the many feverish nightmares spawned by Tirek.

“What’s next after this, Sister?” Luna asked as she rolled her neck, her words carrying her dread of what the answer might be.

“The Equestrian Farmer’s Union have a meeting to express their concerns about the recent attack by Tirek, just like the Weather Pegasi’s Union before that, and just like the Zebra Delegation before that.” Celestia moved over to a window, looking outside and feeling the temptation of an early fall breeze. The windows were just big enough. If she and Luna truly wished, they could just escape into the sky, but that would only cause more headaches down the line.

“I do not recall the population of Equestria being so skittish a thousand years ago,” Luna said as she moved up beside Celestia, looking out a neighboring window. “It seems all we’ve done since Tirek’s defeat is reassure all these different groups that he is not a threat they need to concern themselves with.”

“It’s been an unusually turbulent few years, so I can’t blame them for being concerned,” Celestia said as she watched the comings and goings of Canterlot. Ponies strode the streets and flew the skies. From her view, Equestria was peaceful and happy, as it was supposed to be. “Most citizens were reassured by the articles that were printed in the kingdom’s newspapers. But there are always some, like these union groups and the delegations, that feel like they can’t believe what they’re being told unless it comes straight out of a princess’s mouth.”

Luna chuckled as she looked over to Celestia. “Well, let me offer my apologies.”

“For what?” Celestia asked.

“For the intolerable stream of meetings you undoubtedly endured when I came back from the moon.”

Celestia laughed openly, Luna’s words striking an odd chord in her mind. “Oh yes, I have some particularly clear memories from those days. There was one group from Applewood who wanted to make a movie about the whole thing. They even had a draft of a script they had hurriedly typed up on the train ride to Canterlot.”

“Was it any good?” Luna asked as she began heading back to her seat at the meeting table in preparation for their next visitors.

“The play performed in Ponyville last year was more accurate, more respectful, and overall more entertaining.” Celestia took a step to follow Luna’s lead and return to her seat when the door to the meeting room cracked open. A guard poked his head in, short on breath as if he had been galloping.

“Your Highnesses, I know you are busy, but we could use your assistance in the castle gardens.”

Luna rose from the cushion she had only just gotten comfortable in and strode around the table to approach the guard. “What’s happened?”

The guard opened the door further, and gave a respectful bow as he reported. “As you have been informed, the cooks have been reporting some loss of food from the pantry. This was assumed to be the result of rats, but the true culprit was revealed just minutes ago.”

“That sounds like good news,” Celestia said as she came to a stop next to Luna, the pair standing shoulder to shoulder as they listened to the soldier. “I assume something happened when this culprit was discovered.”

The guard nodded. “Yes, and it is why your presence is requested in the gardens. The guard believes we can contain the situation given enough time, but the longer the culprit goes undefeated the more collateral damage the castle will suffer.”

“Who exactly is this culprit?” Luna asked, a question that left the guard struck silent for a moment. He opened his mouth once, then made a small popping noise with his lips as his mind searched for the best way to describe what they were facing. He then looked back to the princesses, his lips caught somewhere between a frown and a smile.

“Your Highnesses, do you recall when Discord gave legs to some brownies at the Hearth’s Warming party?”

~~~

Celestia couldn’t deny, it was a sight to behold. Standing in the gardens of Canterlot Castle was a giant brownie creature, roaring and writhing as it dripped pure, melted chocolate from its mouth like saliva. It was the shape of a dragon, but instead of breathing fire, it was capable of spitting a stream of solid milk chocolate. Several guards had already been turned into decadent statues, and amongst the victims were three fillies and one particular stallion.

“I didn’t imagine our next meeting would be so sweet, Nexus. What’s the occasion?” Celestia asked, her words ringing with a small chuckle as she used her magic to free Nexus’s head from the chocolate. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. The chocolate isn’t even hot,” he answered as he was freed chunk by chunk from the sweet statue prison. “But these three certainly seem like magnets for chaos. I’d almost call it a special talent.”

“Cutie Mark Crusaders... Chaos Detectors?” Apple Bloom said as she, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle were freed by Luna. “I wonder what that cutie mark would look like.”

“Yes, I’ve heard a few interesting stories about these three from Twilight,” Celestia said quietly to Nexus, as to not offend the small fillies. She then let her voice return to its normal volume as she looked at the brownie dragon. “Though, special talent or not, I suppose it is better they discovered this particular pest before it got much bigger. Luna, would you like to dispel it or shall I?”

“Allow me, Sister,” Luna said as she spread her wings and called on her magic, a smile on her lips. “I’ll gladly slay this beast, and revel in the chaos as I do so.” With a single beat of her wings Luna was airborne, charging at the brownie dragon with what could only be described as a joyful battle cry. “Have at thee!”

“You two seem entirely too happy to see us,” Spell Nexus said as he was freed from the last of the chocolate.

“Let’s just say Luna and I can both appreciate this variety of relatively harmless chaos after the past few days,” she said as she watched Luna battle with the dragon. She had summoned her twin swords, and was swooping around the creature while cleaving off near perfect brownie squares with each pass. “So, what brings you four to the castle?”

“We need a picture!” Sweetie Belle said with a big grin before the three crusaders launched into an elaborate explanation of what had been going on in Ponyville. They told of the castle and its renovations, of their efforts to rebuild Nyx’s treasure book, and how they had arrived at the castle. It was an amusing story, and one Celestia gladly listened to. It was a welcome interruption to the schedule of meetings she and Luna had been enduring.

With the way Luna was fighting with the brownie dragon, Celestia knew her sister felt the same way. One spell and they could have cleaned up the whole mess in under a minute, but Luna was dedicated to slaying the dragon properly, downing it by the blades of her swords and nothing else. So far she had managed to lop off several sizable chunks, but had yet to land the brownie-killing blow. For a walking pile of soft, moist, chocolatey dessert, the dragon was very nimble.

“I wish Luna and I had been informed of the project sooner. We would have gladly come and joined in the efforts to renovate the palace,” she said as she watched Luna slice away one of the dragon’s solid chocolate horns. “Still, at the very least, I know we can assist with your contribution. That was the second of two pictures taken before Princess Twilight made her first public appearance. The first photo was just us four princesses. In any case, it will be simple enough to make a copy of the second photo for you to add to Nyx’s book.”

“Thanks so much, Princess,” all three fillies said in unison.

“It’s no trouble at all. It’s the least we can do to thank you for uncovering this little surprise.” Celestia motioned to the dragon. “I do wonder how it was stealing food from the kitchen at its size.”

“It was really small before we cornered it,” Scootaloo said. “So maybe it can make itself smaller.”

Celestia gave a small nod. “That would make as much sense as any other explanation for one of Discord’s creations.” A final roar brought the ponies’ attention back to the fight, and Luna was wearing a great smile as she landed next to them. She had the head of the brownie dragon levitated in her magic while, behind her, much of the body had been almost surgically cut into piles of servable brownie squares. “You’ve got some chocolate in your wing, Luna.”

“Yes, the confectionery creature managed to graze me as I flew, but that was the only blow it was able to land.” Luna levitated the dragon head a little higher. “The head seems to be made of particularly delicious brownie. I was thinking we could carve it up in front of the griffin delegates next week. Lady Razor Beak has a weakness for brownie, and the whole delegation would surely be delighted by such a well shaped sculpture.”

“That is a marvelous idea,” Celestia said, using her magic to take the dragon’s head from Luna and hold it out to Spell Nexus. “If you wouldn’t mind, Nexus, please take this into the kitchen with the fillies. Luna and I will help tidy up what’s left of the dragon, and then join you there.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Spell Nexus said, replacing Celestia’s levitation spell with his own. He held the brownie dragon’s head at hoof’s length, but began to head inside with Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Apple Bloom following in his wake, chattering about how amazing Luna was for slaying the dragon. It left the two royal sisters smiling as they remained on the balcony.

Luna dematerialized her swords, and began using magic to remove the chocolate from her wing. “That was a delightful distraction. Remind me to thank Discord next time I see him. Yes, perhaps it would have been better if his little legged brownie hadn’t managed to grow to such proportions. Compared to some of his other chaotic calamities, however, this one was most enjoyable. That and I believe just about everypony in the castle will be able to take a plate of brownies home this evening. A wonderful boost to morale.”

Celestia nodded her head. “Yes, though I imagine some of the guards who became chocolate statues may not be so keen to take bits of the beast home to their friends and family.” She called on her magic, managing to levitate one of the perfectly square brownie bits from the top of a pile. She brought it close to her mouth, taking a greedy bite and delighting at the flavor as it danced across her tongue. “How did you get such perfect cuts?”

“The dragon was falling apart that way. I can only guess that it is another aspect granted to the creature by Discord’s magic.” Luna finished cleaning her wing and folded it back against her side before turning to head back into the castle. “Though, I suppose with the beast slain, we must be returning to our duties. The next meeting won’t attend itself.”

“That is true, but I’d argue they aren’t our priority at the moment.” Celestia chomped down the last of the brownie morsel.

Luna turned around, looking to Celestia as she arched an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

Celestia swallowed and then licked her tongue around her mouth, getting the last crumbs of the brownie as she began to walk into the gardens to help expedite the cleanup. “Didn’t you hear, our presence is needed in Ponyville. The new palace is undergoing renovations without a princess to oversee and ensure it is a suitable representation of Equestria as a kingdom. In fact, considering they’ve been working unsupervised for at least a few days, it may very well take two princesses to correct any mistakes.”

Celestia glanced back at Luna, seeing doubt flash onto Luna’s face, but then her sister’s lips blossomed with an understanding smile. “Of course, Sister, and we must not forget the three young fillies. We should escort them home immediately. Their families must be worried. We really haven’t a moment to spare, even to tell Kibitz of our change in schedule.”

“We’ll leave him a note,” Celestia said as her magic began to break apart the remaining body of the dragon. “After all, Kibitz is a busy stallion as well. I’d hate to interrupt him just to tell him we’re leaving.

Different Time

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 10

Different Time

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

All night. It had taken all night but they had them cornered, and Duke was going to make those ponies pay.

He popped out of the diamond dog hole, right eye swollen shut and with a cut just above his eyebrow. Both injuries were a result of the gem thrown by one of two cursed brothers, but now they had them. It had taken all night. Through the use of fake trails, creeks, and levitation the four ponies had managed to elude capture, but with some pack coordination, they had managed to herd the ponies up against some cliffs. The same ridge that their precious trains chugged across on a weekly basis.

Pushing a tree branch out of the way, Duke caught sight of the four ponies. The two unicorns had thrown up a green colored shield, surrounding themselves on all sides with a domed half circle and a flat floor. They were protecting themselves, but the shield was only delaying the inevitable. His dogs were pounding the magical barrier with sticks, rocks, and their bare paws, and small cracks were beginning to show.

A smile pulled at Duke’s lips as he got closer. The ponies didn’t look much better off than him. They had small scrapes and cuts from running through the forest’s underbrush, and the brothers wobbled whenever the barrier was struck with a particularly hard blow. They would not last long, and Duke’s smile only grew as he came to a stop in plain view of the ponies.

“Did ponies have a nice midnight run? Did you get your exercise?” The smile fell from Duke’s face. He pulled back his fist, then punched the exterior of the barrier firmly. “Because when we get in there, I’m going to break your legs and snap your horns.”

“Now, there’s no need to be so violent,” Flim said before wincing as one dog, wielding a stone the size of a watermelon, smashed the rock against the barrier. “Surely we can all sit down and discuss things like civilized creatures.”

“How about a deal? We’re talented inventor ponies after all. Why, if there’s a little something you’ve always wanted, we could whip it up in a flash,” Flam said, forcing a smile.

“You could have your own gem magnetizer.”

“Or how about an automatic gem polisher?”

“What about a—” Flim and Flam’s back and forth was abruptly cut off by Duke punching the barrier again, his fist managing to leave a small crack behind.

“What we want is the filly and the dragon. What we want is the ransom from the ponies for their little princess. You two almost prevented that, and we diamond dogs don’t take kindly to ponies stealing what’s ours.” Duke reared back and punched the barrier again, the crack widening. More and more cracks were forming as the auras of magic around Flim and Flam’s horns began to flicker and fade. “So I am going to break your legs. I am going to snap your horns, and by the time I’m done, you're going to wish you had never been born.”

The sound of shattering reached Duke’s ears, and the smile on his face returned. One of his dogs had breached the barrier spell, managing to smash a hole in it with a thick tree branch. The cracks from that one hole began to spread and spiderweb across the barrier. The magic from Flim and Flam’s horns was all but gone. Only a few final trailing wisps remained. Duke snapped his paw, getting the attention of the other dogs and getting them to stop. He then reared back, twiddling his fingers once before reforming his fist.

He threw his punch, a fast right jab that Duke put all of his weight behind. The barrier would shatter under the blow. It would pop like a glass bulb thrown against a hard stone floor. The others watched with smiles of their own. The grips on their sticks and stones tightened, ready to jump the ponies in an instant.

A loud pang cut through the forest, and it was followed shortly by a loud stream of cursing.

Duke jumped up and down, holding his paw before snarling and glaring back at the ponies. The green barrier, which should have crumbled under the flick of a claw, had been reinforced. The cracks were filled with a dark indigo magic. Immediately, Duke’s eyes flicked to the filly, a deep growl in his throat. “Smash it open!”

The dogs resumed their assault, battering the shield. Spike was next to Nyx, trying to keep her upright as her legs began to give out from under her. With every blow against the green shield, more of her indigo magic tried to fill in the cracks, but the signs of exhaustion were setting in quickly. Her horn flickered, the whole barrier itself shifting and threatening to collapse from the loss of the additional support.

Once more, a loud sound cut through the forest, but this time it was not a pang. It was a chorus of shatters as the barrier fell apart, the many tiny fragments of magic disappearing into thin air. The three horned ponies fell to their knees, panting as their horns sparked and fizzled with their attempts to reform the barrier. Duke smiled as his dogs moved in, circling around with menacing smiles. The dogs began to reach out for Spike and Nyx, even as the little dragon tried to breathe fire at a few of the grubby, grasping paws.

Then there was a rush of air and a blur of color. Duke saw it, and turned his head quickly to try and glimpse what it was. The blur was gone just as quickly as it had appeared, but the effects of its presence remained. One of his dogs toppled over, unconscious. The others took a sudden step back, unsure how one of their comrades had been felled. “Don’t stop you fools, get the—” Duke tried to spit out the order, but the blur zipped past them again and another dog fell.

“Pegasus!” one of his dogs shouted, pointing skyward where an orangish armored pony was banking around. He was coming in for a dive again, dropping from the sky like a falcon on the hunt. Duke growled as he shook out his still tingling paw. “Don’t let him hit you!”

The wailing yip of another dog drew Duke’s attention from the sky back to the forest. There were three more ponies, glittering crystal ponies, each in armor and wielding large, pointed branches as weapons. They had managed to catch one of his dogs in the side, drawing blood with a stick’s sharp point. All of his pack turned quickly to face the new opponents, only for one more of them to be knocked unconscious by the pegasus. Another still began to yip and shout, his tail burning with a green dragon’s fire.

The tide of battle had turned so quickly, his pack couldn’t help but get overwhelmed in panic.

“Let’s get out of here!”

“No! No!” Duke shouted, trying to rally his retreating dogs. He turned to glare down all the ponies, only to be struck square in his one good eye by a well-thrown rock. He toppled over, falling into the arms of the dutiful Buck, who quickly picked Duke up and began to run away. All the while Duke screamed and flailed.

“They’re just ponies! Turn around and fight them like dogs!”

~~~

The seven ponies and one dragon stopped in the shade of the trees, resting weary legs and fighting off long yawns. They had been following the flow of a small creek as it spilled across stone, dirt, and sand on its way through the mountains. Flash Sentry assured them the creek offered them the most defined path back to the crystal locomotive. If they kept pace, they could be back at the train in a few hours. A faster alternative than waiting for Flash to rest enough to safely airlift six ponies and a dragon up a cliffside one at a time.


But keeping pace was not easy for the two groups of ponies who had been denied a restful night’s sleep.

“This is a good place to rest for a while,” Lapis Lance said, surveying the area for a moment. “The creek water pools here enough for us to refresh our canteens, and the wild vegetation is plentiful. We’ll take a couple hours. We’ll eat, water up, rest, and then get back on the trail.”

“Let’s focus on the resting part first. Right, brother of mine?” Flam removed the gem-laden bags from his back before looking to his clean shaven brother. Flim was woozier. He lifted a hoof and opened his mouth to answer, but the words died in his throat and he simply collapsed onto the soft grass. “Can’t argue with you on that, Flim,” Flam said before flopping into a sitting position.

“Are we sure it’s going to be safe?” Nyx asked. She and Spike had been allowed to ride on the backs of the guards. Nyx had been carried by Gem Shield while Ardent had transported Spike, and managed to get an autograph or two for his trouble.

Flash Sentry, who had been flying just above the group, landed and put a reassuring hoof on Nyx’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Princess Nyx. Your and Spike’s safety is our utmost priority. We’ll get you safely to Lumberton, and then resume the search for Princess Twilight, Princess Cadance, and Prince Armor as well as the other pony, Maud, that you said is with them.”


Flash’s assurances didn’t seem to affect Nyx much. Flam even believed he saw something of a frown on her lips. Still, she did not say anything to Flash. She just got down from Gem Shield’s back and walked towards the creek. The guards huddled to plan their next move. Spike sat and leaned against the base of a tree, his eyes quickly drooping as he fell into the gentle embrace of sleep.

“What’s eating you, kid?” Flam asked as Nyx drank from the creek and he went from sitting to lying in the grass. “The crystal guard has saved us. They’re treating you and the dragon like royalty, letting you ride on their backs. Not a lot of reasons to frown, unless you're worried about Princess Twilight.”

Nyx took a few final gulps of water before lifting her head from the creek. She rubbed the excess liquid from her mouth, then turned to face Flam. “I am a little worried about Twilight, but I know she, Uncle Shining, and Aunt Cadance can take care of themselves. They also have Maud with them, and from what I’ve heard, she can take care of herself too.”

“Then why the frown?” Flam asked. “Flim and I sure wouldn’t be complaining if we got to ride on somepony else's back.”

“I don’t like being treated like a princess.” Nyx sat down beside Flam, facing the creek so that her back was to the guards. Flam snorted and rolled his eyes. “What?” Nyx asked as she looked at Flam, snapping out the word with a bit of exhaustion induced irritation.

“You. Nopony doesn’t like being treated like royalty,” Flam said with complete certainty. “You get pampered, ponies listen and do what you tell them, you are a must invite to any high class event, and my favorite part, you get the financial perks. I can tell you, my brother and I sure wouldn’t be trying to make a living on the road. If it’s a monthly stipend, it’s got to be fat, and if it’s a government credit line, that’s even better. That reminds me, you wouldn’t happen to know how much Princess Celestia has in the bank, do you? I have a running bet with my brother. Winner gets a hundred bits.”

Nyx looked away from Flam and back to the creek before laying down on the grass as well. “All that isn’t fun if everypony is treating you different.”

“What, are you talking about that whole business when you were the scary queen of the country? I doubt anyone’s treating you that way now.”

“No,” Nyx said, drawing her forehooves up closer to her chest. “But things changed when Twilight became a princess. It was just little things at first, but I didn’t think much of it. Not until one day at school. Me and my friends had started working together to learn new skills from Twilight. We called it Twilight Time.”

~~~

“Because if she is, maybe you can meet up with us while we hang out with a bunch of famous celebrities.”

It was the midday recess, and everything had been going wonderfully. Nyx was waiting to be picked up from school by Twilight, and was passing the time taking turns on a swing with Twist. Nearby, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Pipsqueak had been playing four square. It was going to be another wonderful day, where her four filly friends came to learn things from Twilight.

It was hard to remember how it all started, what had prompted her friends to learn something with Twilight. But Nyx didn’t really care how it had started. All she knew was that learning new things with her mother and her friends was even more fun than just doing it with Twilight. Together, they could all celebrate their triumphs, and together, they could help one another through the difficult parts.

Yes, everything had been wonderful until a pair of familiar dark clouds had decided to float nearby. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were in the afternoon class now, but that still meant the two groups of fillies could cross paths at noon, when the morning class was waiting to leave and the afternoon class was beginning to arrive.

Like so many other days, Diamond had basically bought the admiration of both classes of little ponies. She had promised some acrobatic display, but had reneged on her promise just to have her butler do it. Still, almost everypony in the two classes flocked to them like they were the world’s greatest circus performers. Normally that would be it, Nyx and her friends would just have to endure Diamond and Silver at a distance.

Today, however, the pair had decided to make a personal visit, asking Sweetie Belle if she’d be in Manehatten anytime soon. It was an oddly generous offer, something Apple Bloom had already pointed out. Nyx’s personal choice would have been not to answer. Something didn’t sound right to her, but Sweetie Belle chose to give an honest answer. “Actually, my sister hasn't offered to take me to Manehattan anytime soon.”

“Yeah, we figured.”

There was the low blow Diamond Tiara was infamous for, and Sweetie Belle walked straight into it. Now she and Silver were doing their silly special hoofshake. Nyx could only shake her head at the pair, happy that they didn’t have to be around one another in the morning class anymore. Nyx would have been happy to let things drop right there.

Sweetie Belle, however, had decided to strike back.

“Oh, yeah?! Well, I don't have to go all the way to Manehattan to hang out with the famous and super cool ponies! Me and my friends hang out with Princess Twilight all the time!”

Diamond’s expression soured, and she snapped back at Sweetie Belle. “She doesn’t count!”

All five fillies glanced at one another before looking back at Diamond. Apple Bloom had an eyebrow arched in confusion. “Why doesn’t she count?”

“Yeah,” Scootaloo added with a nod. “Princesses are the coolest, biggest celebrities in Equestria, right next to Rainbow Dash. Everypony knows who the princesses are, and Twilight is no exception.”

“You’re just saying that because she got you grounded,” Twist said, all five of them having heard what happened to Diamond after her and Silver’s not so harmless prank against Nyx.

“Dia, maybe we should...” Silver had put a hoof on Diamond’s shoulder, but it was quickly knocked away. Diamond took a step forward, stomping as she glared down Nyx and her four friends before pointing a hoof at Nyx.

“No, I’m saying that because no real princess would be willing to keep someone like her as a daughter.”

Nyx glared back at Diamond. The insult wasn’t something entirely new. While Diamond always took the time to point out Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle’s blank flanks, she also made an effort to make verbal stabs at Nyx on a regular basis. She had spread rumors about Nyx eating pony meat, about her stealing candy, and targeting every little thing she could to remind everyone at school Nyx was the same pony who had conquered Equestria as Nightmare Moon.

Those insults Nyx had learned to put up with, but jabs at her mother were something she couldn’t stand for. “Twilight is too a real princess.”

“Yeah, and so is Nyx!”

A dead silence fell over all the fillies as every eye turned to Twist. “No she’s not!” Diamond spat, as if the very idea left a bad taste in her mouth. For once, Nyx found herself actually sharing an opinion with Diamond Tiara. She didn’t think of herself as a princess, even if she was an alicorn.

“Twist, I really don’t think I’m—” Nyx tried to correct, but was quickly cut off by Sweetie Belle, who was grinning ear to ear.

“You know what, I think she is.” Sweetie Belle moved up beside Nyx. She didn’t bother going to school in a vest anymore, but she kept her glasses. The Nightmare Moon eyes still made some of her classmates uncomfortable. Her wings, however, were Sweetie Belle’s focus. She pulled at the tip of one wing so it extended into view. “Why don’t we go down the checklist? She has wings and a horn. That makes her an alicorn, and every alicorn I know is a princess. Isn’t that right, Scootaloo?”

Scootaloo gave a firm nod of her head, now sharing Sweetie Belle’s almost triumphant grin. “Yeah, and her mom’s a princess. So even if she wasn’t an alicorn, I’m pretty sure having a royal parent makes you royalty.”

“At least as royal as that prince Rarity used to have a crush on,” Sweetie Belle added.

“Girls, really, I’d rather not—” Nyx tried to interrupt, but Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were like a steam locomotive charging down the track at full speed. There was almost no stopping them.

“So, not only do we get to learn cool things from Princess Twilight, but we’re also friends with Princess Nyx,” Sweetie Belle said, getting right up in Diamond’s face. “So go have fun in Manehatten. I’d rather stay here and hang out with two of Equestria’s five princesses right here in Ponyville.”

Diamond was seething, her eyes darting around frantically as if searching for something. She glanced back, then swung her forehoof around so quickly to point at her butler that she almost struck Silver in the head. “Y-yeah well... Nyx doesn’t have a butler that does tricks.”

“She doesn’t need a butler to do her tricks for her, she’s getting her super amazing magic back. She can do tricks ten times better than anything your butler can do.” Sweetie Belle’s shout was loud enough to draw the attention of everypony else from the two classes. Even Diamond’s butler had stopped his ball-balancing and juggling act to see what was going on. But unlike a moment before, Diamond Tiara was now grinning, as if she was a cat that caught a mouse in the corner.

“All right then, if Nyx knows such cool magic, why doesn’t she show us a trick? I mean, if she’s a super cool princess, she has to be able to do at least one trick, right?” Diamond’s questions started a murmur around the rest of the students as they were gathering closer. Most seemed excited, a few were nervous, but one fact was uniform amongst all of them. They were all looking to Nyx, staring with expectant gazes.

“I... I don’t...” Nyx tried to answer, only to feel a hoof on her neck.

“Excuse us for a moment.”

Sweetie Belle yanked Nyx to the side, all five fillies quickly collapsing into a huddle. “Nyx, you’ve got to do this,” Sweetie Belle said. “This is a golden opportunity. This is our chance to be the popular ones in school. All you need to do is one little trick.”

“Girls, I don’t really think this is a good idea. Aren’t we just stooping to their level?”

“No,” Scootaloo answered without a moment’s hesitation. “They’re always bragging about all these famous ponies they know but we never meet. They're always using their money or their butlers to make everypony like them.”

“I think Diamond only has one butler,” Twist pointed out.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes and made a small grunt. “That’s not the point. The point is we can finally give them a taste of their own medicine. All we need is for Nyx to do a little levitation. Just levitate some balls around in some fancy shmancy way.”

Apple Bloom, who had been largely silent and calm during the whole argument, looked over to Nyx with a small smile. “It would be nice to be the center of attention for once because of something good. We didn’t even get to enjoy being nominated Ponyville’s flag carrying team. Diamond wore that fancy new dress to school that Monday and that was all anypony could talk about.”

Nyx glanced back and forth between all of her friends, feeling a knot forming in her stomach. It would be nice to finally get one over Diamond, but she didn’t like everypony thinking about her as a princess. She sure didn’t think of herself that way.

“We’re waiting!”

Diamond’s words carried every drop of her smug attitude. Nyx could just picture the smile on her face. At this point, if she didn’t do something, Diamond would be intolerable for at least the rest of the week if not longer. Compared to that, doing a trick in front of the class and not disappointing her friends was easily the lesser of the two evils.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

~~~

Nyx sat, eating lunch with her friends a few days later at school. They’d eat lunch, then get to play on the playground until they were picked up or were supposed to leave to go home. She had a daisy sandwich, an apple, and some celery for lunch with a little bag of gummy bears for dessert. She was sitting and eating with her friends at their favorite spot outside. It should have been normal and easy.

Everyone else in the class had a different idea.

A flash of light signified another camera going off, and Nyx had to wince at the bright light before shooting a glare at the little colt who had taken it. With her levitation trick, she and her friends had usurped Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon as the most popular kids at school. Nyx wouldn't deny, it maybe had been a tiny bit fun finally putting the pair in their place. But now she wasn’t Nyx anymore to everyone else in class. She was now Princess Nyx, a turn of phrase that just didn’t ring well in her ears.

Another flash of light, someone else taking a photo, but this time Nyx glared over at Scootaloo. “Why do you keep doing that?” Nyx snapped.

Scootaloo was caught with a big, wide smile as she had been striking a pose for the shot. “What?” she asked as she settled back into her seat at one of the school’s few lunch tables. “If I don’t pose in a picture, I look sad.”

“Then look sad. You’re only encouraging them.” Nyx winced as another camera flash went off. She didn’t know why it wasn’t bothering her friends more. Maybe her eyes were just more sensitive to light, some other aspect of her origins that was currently far more a curse than a blessing.

“Nyx, relax, this is a good thing. We are the biggest of the big shots at school right now,” Sweetie said, triumphantly managing to levitate a single little baby carrot to her mouth before chomping down on it. “Besides, they have to run out of film sometime.”

“I don’t know about that,” Twist said, her words garbled a little as she was speaking around a half-eaten peppermint stick. “I think I saw some of them replace their rolls.”

The prospect of having to deal with the camera flashes for even longer made Nyx frown. She began to pack up her lunch, having hardly nibbled at anything. The only thing she kept out was the gummy bears, which she kept held in her magic as she got up from the table. “Look, girls, I think I’m just going to take my lunch and eat back at the library. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay.”

“Doesn’t Twilight usually like to come pick you up though?” Apple Bloom asked.

“She always uses the same route. I’ll just meet her halfway and say Cheerilee let us out a little early,” Nyx answered before popping a gummy bear into her mouth and walking away.

“Well, all right. See you tomorrow,” Apple Bloom said, the four friends watching Nyx leave before glancing back at one another. None of them really had anything to say, and even if they did, they weren’t given the opportunity. As soon as Nyx was out of sight all the other students swarmed the table, each talking a mile a minute and asking dozens of questions.

“What’s it like being friends with a princess?”

“Do you think you can ask Princess Nyx to do that levitation trick again?”

“Can you get me Princess Nyx’s autograph?”

There was a pause amongst all the other little ponies at the mention of an autograph, as if the idea was a bolt of lightning leaping between them. They then resumed their clamoring, pressing to the table with even greater fervor. Each was hoping for an autograph of some kind, either on the pictures they had just been taking or on other random things such as hats, saddlebags, and foreheads.

“Whoa whoa, we can’t get Nyx to sign all that stuff for you,” Apple Bloom tried to say.

“Why not?”

The new voice caused the crowd to part, allowing Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon to move closer. They had been in their usual spot, which was all the more secluded from the rest of the playground when they didn’t have somepony fawning over them. “I mean, she is your friend. Surely she would, as your friend, be willing to sign autographs. Unless, of course, you aren’t really as buddy-buddy as you’d have us all believe.”

“Hey!” Twist said, her peppermint stick still in her mouth. “We are Nyx’s friends.”

“Besides,” Sweetie Belle added through a forced laugh. “It’s not like we can just ask her to sign all this. It... uh... It has to be a special occasion. You know, like a grand opening or—”

“I’m opening my new lemonade stand tomorrow!” Pipsqueak spoke out, managing to muscle through a few ponies to get to the center of the crowd. “Princess Nyx could sign autographs there, and maybe you could ask Princess Twilight to come along too.”

The four fillies all glanced between one another. There was a moment’s hesitation, a moment of uncertainty.

“Well, just so everyone knows, I’ll be having a pool party at my mansion, and everypony is invited. Well, everypony except for you four blank-flanked friend-fibbers,” Diamond said with a triumphant smile as she directed her accusation at Twist, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom. Diamond then began to walk away. The crowd chattered and moved to follow, their excitement shifting from getting autographs to getting to enjoy a pool party at a mansion.

“Wait!” Sweetie Belle shouted, jumping up onto the table to get the crowd’s attention once more. “Princess Nyx and her best friends, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, will be there at the lemonade stand opening, and she’ll sign all the autographs you could want.”

Apple Bloom put her forehooves up on the table. “What are you doing? We can’t promise that.”

“Don’t worry, I know exactly how to handle this.”

~~~

“A school project?” Nyx and Twilight said in unison as they walked along with Nyx’s friends, heading towards another part of town.

“Oh yeah, it’s a lesson on the basics of business,” Sweetie Belle answered. “You know profits, costs, and figuring out what the market needs. Cheerilee passed out the notes after lunch yesterday. Cheerilee had just totally forgotten to hand them out to us. Mistakes happen, you know. Still, Pipsqueak was already opening a lemonade stand, so Cheerilee let him do it for the project. And while he’s doing that, the rest of us are doing our part of the assignment. We see what our fellow students are doing, and write little reviews on things like pricing, product quality, and service. And since we had to come here anyway, how about we buy you some lemonade to thank you for all the lessons you’ve given us during Twilight Time.”

“A glass of lemonade does sound nice, and it sounds like a fun little project too,” Twilight said, a smile spreading onto her lips as she contemplated the assignment. “A basic level introduction to the concepts of business as well as the influence of public opinion on that business's success. I imagine that the reviews from other students account for a portion of the grade.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Scootaloo said, glancing back at Twilight and Nyx a moment with a forced smile before turning her head back forward. “I was thinking about doing scooter lessons, and Apple Bloom I think was going to sell some apples, like her sister.”

“I have to hand it to Cheerilee, she thinks of some wonderful class projects,” Twilight said. “Though, Apple Bloom, if you are going to sell apples, be sure that Applejack doesn’t just give them to you. If you want to really get a good grade, you should buy the apples from your sister at a wholesale cost. Also sell close to lunch time, or even go the extra step and try selling baked goods. I’m sure buying the extra materials and calculating the cost per unit would really impress Cheerilee.”

Apple Bloom mimicked Scootaloo’s previous maneuver. She forced a smile as she glanced back. “Thanks, Twilight. I’ll keep that in mind,” she said before looking ahead again. “Oh look, we’re here.”

Pipsqueak’s lemonade stand was really popular, it would seem. The young pinto colt was behind the stand constructed of wooden boards, exchanging bits for glasses of lemonade. Twilight was surveying the scene, already taking little notes of her own.

“He’s using glassware, a bit risky considering the age of his clientele, but that means he’s saving bits on paper cups. The cost of washing them up at his house is probably negligible enough to be written off, though if he really wants to do it right he should maybe pay his parents a rental fee. That would look nice in his books.”

It was only then that Twilight took notice of how silent things had become. Every eye was turned on her and Nyx, as if they had just sprouted elephant trunks and were trumpeting the Griffin Empire anthem. Considering it had been a while since she had seen Discord, Twilight wouldn’t have been entirely surprised. Still, after a few tense moments, the deluge began. The fillies and colts rushed the two, holding out pictures as they chattered and bounced for joy.

“You want autographs? I’ve never really given an autograph before, but I guess it couldn’t hurt. As soon as I’m done, though, you should get back to your class assignments. And Nyx, be sure to get a glass of lemonade so that you can write your classmate a proper review before we start brainstorming for your idea.”

“Okay, Twilight,” she said, even as some of her classmates were asking for her to sign the pictures from lunch the day before, most of which were of her glaring at Scootaloo for posing when said photographs were taken.

~~~

Diamond Tiara looked on from the crest of a hill, glaring through a pair of binoculars as she spied on the lemonade stand. Twilight and Nyx had made their appearance, as promised, and had then left. Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Twist were lingering behind, soaking in the praise, adoration, and favors that came with being the most popular ponies in school. They were sipping free lemonade, Bedazzle was bedazzling Apple Bloom’s bow, and Scootaloo was getting her hooves shined to near perfection.

They were all things she should have been enjoying if her pool party hadn’t failed to compete with an autograph session with a pair of fake princesses.

Lowering the binoculars, Diamond resorted to glaring down at the ponies below with her own two eyes as she waited. She had sent Silver Spoon down there to mingle, and now her friend was coming back up the hill. From the small frown on her lips, Diamond could already tell the mingling hadn’t born any real fruit, but that didn’t stop her from asking.

“How did it go?”

“The lemonade was okay,” Silver answered with a shrug as she refused to make eye contact with Diamond. “Not cold enough if you ask me, and a bit too bitter.”

Diamond stepped around Silver, forcing herself into her friend’s field of view. “I don’t care about the lemonade! How did those four get Twilight and Nyx to show up? They couldn’t have just shown up because they asked.”

“I don’t know, Di, the Cutie Mark Crusaders weren’t talking about that. They were answering questions about Twilight and Nyx while getting free stuff. Sweetie Belle was drinking lemonade like it might vanish from the face of Equestria. Scootaloo was getting her hoof polished, and Apple Bloom was getting her bow bedazzled. The only two not getting anything were Nyx and Twilight, except maybe one free glass of lemonade each."

“The only odd thing I heard was that some of the others were confused why Twilight told them to get back to their class assignments,” Silver finished as Diamond went back to glaring down at the crowd through her binoculars. “Look, Di, I know it bites but what can we do to compete with two princesses? We’re still the most popular fillies in the afternoon class.”

“That’s not good enough!” she snapped back at Silver, though she did not take her eyes away from the binoculars. “Those blank flanks cannot take away everything we’ve worked to build after so long. We are the most popular fillies in school, not them and especially not ‘Princess’ Nyx. I mean, we’re popular because we have things they want and sometimes we let them get a taste of the good life. I have my butler do tricks. We throw parties at my family’s private pool. You come up with most of our best plans.”

Diamond lowered the binoculars and pointed a hoof at the crowd below. “But those five didn’t do anything. Twilight finished some spell and saved Equestria, so maybe she deserves to be a princess. But the rest of them haven’t done anything. They’re just riding Princess Twilight’s tail, and she doesn’t even realize it. Why, I bet if she knew...”

The rest of Diamond’s rant died, her voice growing silent as she just looked at the fillies and colts below, sipping their lemonade. She then turned around, walking back towards Silver with a smile on her lips. “Silver, do you remember what happened to me when my dad found out what we did to Nyx?”

“Yeah, you got grounded, just like I did when your parents talked to mine.”

“I think it’s time a certain princess found out just what’s been going on at school.”

~~~

“I hope Twilight isn’t mad that we didn’t get that much practice in with our new skills this week,” Sweetie Belle said. She, Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, Twist, and Nyx were all walking from her house towards the library. It was almost Twilight Time, and after experiencing the hecticness of being popular, even she was looking forward to getting away from the rest of their classmates. “I never knew being popular could be so demanding.”

“Yeah, but it sure is nice. Look, my hooves are still shiny from yesterday,” Scootaloo said, pausing a moment to show off one of her forehooves before the group continued heading towards the library, starting to get near the center of town.

“Nice for you guys,” Nyx said with a sharp bite to her words. “All I got yesterday was a headache from using too much magic signing all those autographs, and now Twilight is expecting me to do some school project on economics. What am I supposed to do for that, and what am I supposed to tell her when she asks what kind of grade I got on it?”

“I know you haven’t been having as much fun as us, Nyx,” Apple Bloom said. “But we appreciate you putting up with it. We really owe you one, and I bet it will get better. I mean, Diamond and Silver weren’t constantly swamped like we’ve been this last week.”

Sweetie Belle gave her head a firm nod. “Apple Bloom’s right. I’m entirely sure that everything will start quieting down and settling into a nice new school order after today.”

Twist was the first to make the last turn they needed to take to get to the library. The grand old oak came into view, but Twist stopped dead in her tracks. She tilted her head in the direction of her friends, but did not take her eyes off what she saw down the street. “I think you may have spoken too soon.”

When all five managed to get around the corner, they saw Twilight was waiting outside the library for them. This itself wasn’t so out of the ordinary, but Twilight’s expression was. There was no smile or warm greeting wave. Instead she wore a firm frown as her disapproving gaze reached down the street, carrying with it almost as much power as Fluttershy’s stare.

Scootaloo lifted a hoof to retreat, but didn’t even get to take the first step. In a flash of magic all five of them were teleported into the library, landing squarely in the center of the room. At the same time, the door to the library opened. Twilight trotted in, and with a flare of her magic shut the door behind her as she glared disapprovingly at all five fillies at much shorter range.

“A school project, huh?” Twilight said firmly, cluing the five fillies into exactly why they were in trouble.

Sweetie Belle hurriedly lifted her hoof. “We can explain!”

“Really? Then please, go right ahead.”

Sweetie Belle opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t manage a single word. She looked to the others. Nyx was looking away from Twilight, incapable of meeting her mother’s gaze. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were trying to make themselves as small as possible, and Twist was a single step behind them, as if that might spare her in some way.

“I... got nothing,” Sweetie Belle finally admitted.

Twilight called on her magic, lifting up an unfolded scroll. “I found this in the mail today, and it was very enlightening. Now I’ll admit, when I saw who it was from, I didn’t want to believe it. Diamond Tiara isn’t a filly I would normally put a lot of trust in. But then I went and spoke with some of your classmates. They said how happy they were to do you all sorts of favors just because you know two princesses and get to hang out with them regularly. Well, that’s going to stop for now. Twilight Time is cancelled until further notice, and Nyx, you're grounded.”

“But I was just starting to get good at potion making!” Apple Bloom said. She turned to look at the chemistry set up on one side of the room.

“I’m so close to levitating that broom.” Sweetie Belle called on her magic, as if to prove how good she had gotten at her spell. She managed to lift the broom a little, but it then fell back to where it had been leaning against the wall.

“I know, but you all need to realize why what you did was wrong. You are not special just because you know a princess.”

“But... but it’s not like we did anything Diamond doesn’t do,” Sweetie Belle tried to argue. “She makes everypony think she’s special just because she knows famous celebrities and has a butler that does tricks. How come she gets to be popular that way while we can’t?”

Twilight sighed. She turned, took a step back, and opened the door so that Twist, Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle all had a clear path out of the library. “Sometimes things aren’t fair, and in time I’m sure Diamond Tiara will learn having fans instead of friends comes with its own consequences. But for right now, I have to ask you all to leave.”

“Sorry, Twilight,” Apple Bloom said, hanging her head and starting to head for the door. Twist, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle followed soon after, each muttering their own apology as they began to head towards the door. Sweetie Belle couldn’t bring herself to really look at anything but the floor. She felt horrible, and was realizing now exactly what they had been doing wrong. It had just been so good to be popular for once, but tricking Twilight and pressuring Nyx was not worth it.

“Now, Nyx, I think you and I need to have a discussion of what it means to be a princess.”

Twilight's words rang in Sweetie Belle’s ears, and she couldn’t stop herself. She spun around and galloped back into the library. “Wait! Don’t be mad at Nyx.”

Twilight, who had been facing Nyx, glanced over her shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, and why’s that?”

“It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t want to do it from the start,” Scootaloo said as she, Apple Bloom, and Twist grouped up with Sweetie Belle. “We asked her to do the levitation trick at school, and she didn’t know anything about the lemonade stand.”

“She didn’t even like the pictures everypony else was taking,” Apple Bloom said. “She only put up with it because of us, and she still left lunch early because of it.”

“We got so wrapped up in being popular, in being special because we knew somepony special, that we forgot why she’s special,” Twist said. “Why you’re both special.”

“You’re special, Twilight, because you took the time to teach us wonderful new things,” Apple Bloom said.

Scootaloo took a step away from the group, moving over to and looking apologetically to Nyx. “You’re special because, when we’re having trouble with our homework, you help us figure it out.”

“And you’re both special because you’re our friends,” Sweetie Belle said in conclusion. “And we’re truly, deeply sorry that we got our priorities mixed up. But please, don’t be mad at Nyx, Twilight. It was all us.”

Twilight looked over the five fillies, the frown lingering on her lips for a few moments before a smile spread onto her lips. “I think you four learned something really important today, something I think you should put in the journal me and my friends have been working on. But we can save that for a little later.”

“Because you want us to leave now?” Twist asked.

“No,” Twilight answered with a shake of her head. “Because we’ve wasted enough Twilight Time on this. Now go get your things.”

Smiles burst onto Twist, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo’s faces, the four fillies leaping for joy and shouting “Thank you, Twilight,” in perfect unison. They then rushed off to get their things, a sight that made Twilight smile as she looked back at Nyx. “And did you learn something too, Nyx?”

“It’s okay to do things for your friends,” she said, managing to smile a little as well as she thought of how all four of her friends had jumped up to defend her. “But you shouldn’t take advantage of them, or make them do things they don’t enjoy. And if your friends are making you feel pressured to do something, you should talk to them about it so they understand how you’re feeling. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to them earlier, Twilight.”

Twilight put a hoof on Nyx’s shoulder and gave her a quick hug. “I’m just glad to hear my little princess wasn’t trying to abuse her title.”

“Am I really a princess?”

“Only if you want to be,” Twilight assured.

“I think I’d like to just be Nyx,” she said as she hugged Twilight back. “Ponies take way too many pictures around you when you're a princess.”

Those final words left a giggle in Twilight’s throat. She hugged Nyx a little tighter, then released her embrace so the pair could join Nyx’s friends. Already her friends were hard at work. Apple Bloom was checking ingredient measurements. Scootaloo was laying out all the pieces of her unicycle. Sweetie Belle had fetched her practice broom, and Twist had gotten a mirror to practice her pronunciations. And for Nyx, she quickly found her latest puzzle, a trinket Twilight had enchanted for her. After all, she figured the best avenue for learning and regaining some of her previous magical prowess was being able to understand and analyze magic on a fundamental level.

~~~

“Things were never really the same after that,” Nyx said as she concluded her story, her gaze lingering on the calm, pristine creek pool. “Everypony at school just started treating me differently. Some just started trying to be nice to me so they could say I was their friend, and others started siding with Diamond, saying I didn’t deserve to be a princess. All I really want is to be like everypony else.”

“So you want a mustache?”

Nyx snapped her head up then to the right, one eyebrow arched as high as it possibly could on her face as she looked to Flam. “What?”

“You just said you wanted to be like everyone else, and that means you want to be like me. So, that means you want a macho mustache like mine. That also means you want to be a dragon like Spike over there, and a crystal pony like our valiant saviors,” Flam said as he used one hoof to gently smooth and stroke his mustache.

A frustrated grunt escaped Nyx’s throat. “I don’t want any of that. You’re missing the point.”

“No, I get the point. You and your friends had a rough spot, but you sorted it out. Trust me, if I had a bit every time that happened to me and my brother, then we’d be one rich pair of salesponies. Sure, the problem might have started because your mother is a princess. That does technically make you a princess, but this whole little story time started just because you don’t like getting the royal treatment.”

“Yeah, I don’t like being treated differently.”

“Everypony gets treated differently,” Flam said. “That’s because we’re all different. Even my brother and I have our differences. Even those guards over there have their differences. Everypony is different, so of course everypony is going to be treated at least somewhat differently. And let’s face it kid, you’re in an exclusive club with currently five members. Some ponies are never going to be able to see past that. But personally, I think the only reason you don’t like being treated like an alicorn princess is because it reminds you of when you were a queen.”

Nyx’s voice went up a few pitches with frustration. “Isn’t that a good enough reason to not like something?”

“Not if it’s just so you can forget everything that happened,” Flam said as he got up from the grass, stretching and popping his leg. He then knelt down, taking a bite from the grass he hadn’t been lying on before continuing to speak through his occupied mouth. “Do my brother and I try to forget what happened at Sweet Apple Acres with our Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000? No, we remember what happened and try to do better."

Flam gave his mouthful of grass a few more chews before swallowing. He then licked his teeth, getting a few final traces of vegetation that hadn’t gotten swept down into his stomach with all the rest. “You’re no queen anymore, and you’re no dark, vengeful terror that stalks the night. But you can’t just sweep all that under the rug and forget about it. How else will you ever know you’ve gotten better unless you remember where you came from?”

Nyx turned away from Flam, choosing to glare at the pond in disagreement since it couldn’t argue back. “You just don’t understand.”

“Well, obviously,” Flam said before running his tongue across the interior of his mouth again. “Darn it, I hate eating raw grass. It always gets stuck in my teeth.”

Two Steps Forward

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 11

Two Steps Forward

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

Every muscle in Twilight’s body was tense, moving her form in measured degrees. She needed to be slow but swift. Slow enough not to be noticed, but fast enough that she wasn’t tempting fate. Her head moved past the white fluff, extending outward until her eyes could see the ground. She tried to snap a mental photo, take in all the details she could, then Twilight quickly drew her head back to where it had been.

Twilight had not been sure the white, fluffy cumulus cloud was going to be a sufficient hiding place. After Shining bucked the leader in the jaw, the whole changeling outpost had been buzzing like a fallen wasp's nest. They only had a few minutes before the swarm would be upon them. They needed to hide, but their only other option was to try and conceal themselves among the trees. That seemed even less suitable.

So, after casting a few cloud walking spells, Twilight and everyone else in their merry group took refuge within the cumulus fortress. The changelings streamed out into the forest in their absurd spider disguises, and began to search with feverish determination. With each passing minute, Twilight was sure they would be discovered. Equestrian Royal Guard search procedures, which she had studied with Shining to help him impress his commanding officers once upon a time, were very clear. If those you are pursuing are suspected of having capabilities of flight or magic, then you had to search the sky as diligently as you would search the ground.

As the minutes turned into an hour, Twilight began gritting her teeth and pacing anxiously within the cloud. The changelings below were defying any and all logic. They never looked skyward. They never thought to search the clouds. In fact, they didn’t seem intent to expand their search at all. The logic was simple. If you could not find something after searching one location, you should try looking someplace else. Yet, the changelings searched for them like they were a missing set of keys, incapable of moving or thinking.

Twilight couldn’t help herself, and took it as a personal insult to her intelligence.

Shining, however, had been keen to point out that the changelings idiocy was their saving grace. If they wouldn’t look to the clouds, then perhaps they could use their fluffy fortress to escape. All it would take was a little spell to gently push them away from the changelings and towards refuge. It was a spell Twilight was easily capable of casting, and soon their little cloud was shifting across the sky as if nudged by an unfelt breeze.

That had all started at sunset, when the long shadows of the forest had stretched across the landscape like long, proud, unicorn horns reaching out to greet the rising moon. Now the shadows stretched in the other direction, beckoning the last traces of the moon to sleep while the sun rose in the east.

"Keep searching! We will find the stupid ponies soon, and then they shall tell me the secrets of their baseball and high kickers."

Twilight’s eyebrow twitched as she retreated back into the hollowed out center of the cloud. Her propulsion spell had been flawless, as had her calculations. The gentle wind spell should have carried them away from the changelings overnight, but the not entirely tamed weather of the mountains had betrayed them. She had heard it, while lying awake. The trees had rustled below, indicating a natural wind. It had been too dark during the night to get a gauge of which way the wind was blowing, if it was with them or against them. Now, in the morning light, she saw the bitter truth.

“We’ve hardly moved,” Twilight cursed as she flopped back into the clouds. She stared at the ceiling of their fluffy fortress, tired eyes blurring until she could rub them with a hoof. Everyone else had been able to get a good night's sleep, and in fact they were still snoozing even as the sun began to rise.

Shining and Cadance had wrapped themselves in some of the cloud, only their heads poking out of the white fluff as they embraced. The dog, Biscuit, was curled up like a normal dog sleeping in a basket while the changeling was sprawled out like a dead body, her mouth slightly cracked open. Twilight wasn’t entirely sure, but in the wee hours of the night she was sure she saw some magical energy flowing into S43’s mouth. She couldn’t say if it was intentional or instinctual, but with Shining and Cadance nearby, Twilight couldn’t blame S43 for grabbing some love to eat.

But sleep had not been so generous for Twilight. She had gotten a few hours, but each time she dozed off her dreams were once more plagued by Tirek. They had, in fact, gotten worse. Now the power-hungry centaur was aided by an army of diamond dogs and the changeling queen as well. It was a war against Equestria, one where so many others were losing their lives. It was horrible, and it always ended with Tirek gloating about how he had slain Spike and Nyx, leaving hardly any trace.

All this stuff with the changelings had been a distraction. Twilight had to focus on herself, Shining, and Cadance while they were in danger. But now, now they were safe and her concerns for Nyx and Spike returned with full force. Were the diamond dogs taking care of them? Were they even still in the Rainbow Range, or had they been spirited away to some other hole in the ground? At this point, would they simply have to give the dogs the ransom and hope they kept their word? It was a boiling broth of worry in her mind. A mixture of uncertainty, love, rage, and—

“I would like to get down now.”

—mild annoyance.

Maud had been the only other one unable to get a restful night’s sleep. She was ill at ease in a cloud, more agitated than Twilight would have ever imagined possible. Maud would get up, pace in tiny circles, then sit back down. She’d knead at the cumulus beneath their hooves like a cat, trying to find something solid beneath the fluff. Maud would then lay down to try to sleep, but she’d be up again in a few minutes to repeat the ritual. A ritual that, with the nearing dawn, had grown to include her speaking the same statement to Twilight over and over again.

"I would like to get down now."

Twilight sighed, rubbing her tired eyes before dragging her hoof down her face. Her features stretched, skin pulled taught before it popped back into place once she removed her hoof. Twilight didn’t know if it was caused by an anxiety of heights or unease caused by being separated from the ground, but her patience for Maud's behavior was running thin. “We can’t get down until the changelings leave or my wind spell pushes us away from them.”

“But I would like to get down now.”

Twilight flopped over from her back to her belly, burying her face and a grunt of frustration into the clouds. She then sat up. Bits of cloud clung here and there, giving Twilight a rough beard with bushy eyebrows. Yet, Twilight took no notice of it as she smiled at Maud, having finally thought of something that might help them both find some peace. “Why don’t you pet Boulder for a while. I’m sure that’d help you relax.”

“It is very relaxing to pet Boulder." The faintest of smiles formed on Maud's lips. She stuck her hoof into the pocket of her dress. “He’s a very good pet like that. He's always ready to listen, and is there when... when...” The movement of Maud’s hoof, previously leisurely and habitual, grew frantic. She fished and dug around in the small pocket before quickly switching forehooves so she could do the same for the other.

Maud repeated this once more, checking both pockets before giving them a tug. She turned the pockets inside out, shaking out a few little pieces of lint but nothing else. She then planted both hooves in the cloud. Maud looked at Twilight, a few of her muscles quivering as if trying to make an expression. Twilight opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but was cut off when Maud turned and began walking towards one of the surrounding walls.

“Where are you going?” Twilight said, taking a few steps to follow Maud.

“Boulder’s missing. I have to go find him.” With not a word more, Maud brought her forehooves together. She pulled apart the clouds beneath her, creating a gaping hole between her limbs. She glanced one final time at Twilight, then brought her legs in.

Twilight scrambled, wisps of her magic trying to grasp Maud but it was too late. She dropped like a rock, disappearing from view as she plummeted to the ground below. Immediately Twilight’s mind raced as she moved to the edge of the hole. A drop from this high could injure a pony badly. What would she tell Pinkie Pie if Maud hurt herself? What was worse, what would she do if Maud was recaptured? They had only just escaped, and they wouldn’t have Biscuit and S43 to rescue them a second time if they were recaptured.

Yet, when Twilight looked down through the hole, she saw Maud had landed safely. Her fall had been broken by one of the changelings, the legs of the spider disguise twitching as Maud climbed down. For a moment her body language was relaxed. She planted her hooves firmly on the ground and twisted them around, as if reacquainting herself with the sensation of dirt. Yet her landing had not gone unnoticed. The other changelings were swarming, dropping out of their disguises. They carried nets composed of their hoof-made webbing, and tried to throw them out to catch her.

“Where is Boulder?” Maud asked as she sidestepped the thrown web. A changeling leapt at her, fangs bared and a dreadful hiss escaping its lips. Yet Maud was not phased. She reared her head back a little, then snapped it forward. Maud’s head collided with the changelings, a cringe-inducing crack filling the air as the changeling collapsed to the ground, knocked out cold.

Two more changelings tried to rush Maud after that, but she sprang into the air with a Pinkie quality bounce. She then dropped back onto the two changelings, managing to put both into a headlock. “Where’s Boulder?” she asked the changeling she was holding with her forehooves. She then looked down at the one she was suffocating with just her hindlegs. “Have you seen Boulder?”

The two changelings collapsed, passing out from the deprivation of oxygen, and so the combat went. Twilight could only stare, utterly marveled by what she was seeing. She might have used the word fluid to describe the combat, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. Maud hardly moved between blows, often returning to just standing calmly, but each blow was swift and on point. It was like a dance with all the movements in-between cut out. Maud was only hitting the important poses, and all the while she was grilling the changelings about Boulder.

“Gray dirt pony!”

Twilight glanced in the direction of the voice, recognizing its owner by sight and sound. It was the changeling leader, S1, and he was standing before the half of the hive’s forces that Maud had yet to knock out. “You think you're special with your special moves and your combat prowess, but you are not! You are nothing compared to the overwhelming might of the changeling hive and our glorious queen. You are simply prolonging the inevitable.”

“There you are, Boulder. You had me worried.”

S1 glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see some pony or other creature. But all he saw was his hive, and he looked back to Maud with an arched eyebrow. “Who are you talking to? There is no one named Boulder here, and there are no big rocks either. Tell me to whom you speak! I demand it!”

“Boulder’s stuck in your hoof.” Maud began to slowly walk towards the changeling leader. “Please give him back to me. He’s my pet.”

S1 turned his forehoof over, seeing a small stone that was stuck to the bottom by a bit of goo. He removed Boulder with a tug, then held it up where Maud could see. “This? This is your Boulder? This is only a pebble." S1 turned Boulder over a few times, a grin spreading onto his lips. "Yet, this stone is entirely saturated with love. It is practically oozing with affection and care. This must have built up over years."

Maud nodded her head. She stopped in front of S1, and held out her hoof expectantly. "I have had Boulder for a very long time. He is my one and only pet. I tried to have others, but Boulder's the best. Now please, give him back."

"With this much love, even you, scary dirt pony, would be nothing before my might," S1 said, his smile only growing. Then, with a single snap decision, S1 flicked Boulder up in the air. Every eye was on the small stone, Twilight, Maud, and all the changelings behind S1 watched as it flipped a few times in the air before falling back towards the earth. S1 then opened his mouth, and with a sharp snap caught the stone in his throat. Twilight felt her own heart skip a beat. With a held breath, she watched as S1 coughed and choked a little on Boulder before finally managing to swallow him down. The changelings behind him were grinning, as if their victory was assured. Maud was frozen in place. Twilight could not see her eyes, but her head was pointed directly at S1.

"Delicious," S1 said as he licked his lips, the expression of pained swallowing behind replaced with satisfaction. "That is fine, aged love.”

Twilight's eyes glanced feverishly between the changelings and Maud. She didn't know what to expect, but every instinct in her body was telling her to back away. With a small glimmer of magic, she increased the power of her wind spell, trying to get their cloud moving more swiftly away from the scene below. Maud had still not moved. She was still just standing there, her face hidden from Twilight's perspective by her mane. Still, even as Twilight put more distance between herself and Maud, she felt like she was watching a ticking time bomb.

The changelings were reacting as well. Those in the swarm behind S1 starting to back away, a couple of them hissing like cornered rats. Even S1, who had been reveling in his consumption of love, was beginning to frown and cower in fear. He tried to put on a strong face. S1 raised his forehooves, stomped them to the ground, and flashed his changeling magic as he hissed at Maud. A few of the swarm tried to follow S1's lead. For a moment, the swarm was rallying behind their leader.

That was when Maud took a single step towards them.

“Flee!” S1 screamed, and the swarm was gone. They sprinted away from Maud, like cockroaches scattering when a light is turned on. Maud, in turn, took chase. Twilight lost track of them within seconds, the thick trees of the forest obscuring the pursuit from her vision. Still, she felt a chill run down her spine as the moment of danger passed. She had never, ever, been so happy that a pony had not turned around. Maud’s expression, which managed to inspire such fear in the changelings, was one she hoped would never be directed at her.

Rolling her shoulders to try and wash away the feeling of impending doom, Twilight took the opportunity to look around below. She jumped to the top of the cloud, taking a perch on its pinnacle before surveying the surroundings. All the changelings were gone. They could now try and resume their trek to Lumberton. Without Maud, however, Twilight realized they'd never be able to follow the forest trails.

Their original plan was still good. It was a lot easier on Cadance if they continued to use the cloud to ferry themselves to Lumberton.

All she needed was to know which way to make the wind blow.

~~~

“No more mistakes. No more escapes. No more mercy,” Duke said, growling deep in his throat as he lead his diamond dogs through the forest. It had been hours since his dogs had fled from the soldiers. They had lost the trail, and now any hope of finding them again was slim. But failure was not an option in Duke’s mind. They returned to The Den, he rallied even more diamond dogs. A royal ransom for three princesses, a prince, and a dragon. Even divided into dozens of shares, it was the kind of gem payday that could get any self respecting dog drooling.

So his little prospecting squad was now a sizable militia. They marched through the forest, the swiftest of them running and scouting while the main body of the force headed in the direction of Lumberton. That was where the ponies wanted to go. If they could get ahead of them, then they could set a trap.

He clenched his bandaged paw, the one he'd hurt against the cursed magic shield, and squinted through his right eye. His left one was swollen shut now, but the right had recovered enough he wasn’t left blinded. Still, the ponies had insulted and injured him, and he would not let them leave the forest. They would either be prisoners or trophies, and if it happened to be the latter, then they would march on the Crystal Empire and take the greatest prize for themselves.

A slurp came from Duke’s left, drawing his eyes to Buck. “Yes?” he asked the looming, ever-slobbering giant of a diamond dog.

“Are you sure you’re okay? That eye looks like it still hurts real bad.”

“I’m fine,” Duke snapped, clenching his good paw into a fist as a silent threat to such insubordination. He was alpha of this pack, of this militia, and he did not need anyone, let alone Buck, questioning his strength. Still, the patter of paws drew Duke’s ire away from Buck and to a diamond dog that had just come racing up from the forest.

“We’ve spotted the princesses.” The short haired mutt said as he knelt down in front of Duke.

“Where!? Where are they?”

“The guards and the small filly and dragon have reached a crystal train and are now going down the tracks to the pony town. We then saw the purple princess pushing a cloud across the sky in the same direction. If neither group changes direction or speed, they should cross paths near the bridge.”

Duke smiled and turned to look in the direction of the bridge, visible just barely through the tree tops. It was the final crossing the ponies’ trains had to make before beginning their final descent towards the pony lumber town. The bridge itself was not very long, but it was tall. It crossed over a deep ridge, at the bottom of which was a waterfall fed lake. “Then we set our trap there. Get back on the princesses’ trails and alert me if anything changes.” He turned back, raising his voice to bark at the column of dogs. “The rest of you, into the tunnels! We move on the bridge!”

~~~

Discord surveyed his game table as he crunched on a filly scout cookie, the first one from the first box of the oodles he had ordered. Things were progressing nicely, he could see all his little pieces moving and dancing. It was not his most choreographed work. Maintaining control beyond the initial rock slide and some of the initial encounters was a fool's errand.

Yes, he could’ve used a bit of chaotic magic and mind control to make everyone his dancing puppets, but that avenue of action was far from ideal. For one, the chaotic nature of free will was making things even more fun. The other reason was a bit more… self-preserving. At that moment, Twilight's friends would defend him, to a degree, from what was surely going to be a positively livid pair of princesses. If he started taking away free will, then that safety net went out the window.

Discord reached into his ear and pulled out a pocket watch, clicking open the lid a moment and checking the time within. He then snapped the lid shut and gave the chain a yank, causing the watch to snap back into his ear like it was on a spring. He moved the groups of pieces together, three sets converging on a small icon of a bridge that was drawn onto the map. “It’s not going to be enough.”

Rapping the talons of his eagle claw on the table, Discord took another bite of his Mint Mountain cookie as he surveyed the map. “The Diamond Dogs will slow them down again, but that won’t stop them or that crystal choo-choo. They’ll get through, blow right past Lumberton, and head for the empire. Twilight won’t find the spell she’s looking for, and will head home in a huff a few days too early.”

Reaching for the set of pieces that represented the group with Nyx and Spike, he picked up a small locomotive statuette. “This thing has to go, but how?” Discord asked himself, like an artist unsure how to finish a painting. He began doing lazy loops in the air, popping different things in and out of existence as his mind wandered the possibilities.

“Should I have the train break down? No, too pedestrian. Could I trust the diamond dogs to disable it? No, they’ve proven to be anything but reliable as antagonists. Though that is part of the reason why I lured them to the location of the rock slide. Hmmm, maybe I could send them all to a fantasy world of candy where they have to save a vegetable princess. No, Cadance would probably just eat it all.”

"What to do, what to do, what to do?" Discord looked at all his pieces. He had heroes, he had enemies, he had neutrals, and he had a stage. It was a delightful casserole of chaos, but he was missing one ingredient. One final choice, on his behalf, that would make or break the distraction he had so caringly set in motion.

Like a flower blossoming in gentle light of sunrise, Discord's lips formed into smile. With a snap of his claw, he created one final game piece, and delicately placed it on the board. He placed it on the lake which was beneath a bridge the train had to cross. Discord’s placement was ginger, as if adding a garnish to perfect a plate of food before it was served. He then floated back a bit, admiring the gameboard from a distance as his mind played out the many possible outcomes.

Discord brought his eagle claw to his lips, placed a small kiss on his talons, and then tossed his claw out as if spreading the blown kiss to the wind. “Perfect,” he said as he enacted his magic on the mountains of the Rainbow Range a final time. The stage was set, the players were taking their positions, and now only one thing remained.

He just had to sit back with a box of filly scout cookies, enjoy the show, and see if Twilight noticed his little homage to their friendship.

~~~

“Twilight!”

The shout of familiar, but unexpected voices, roused Shining Armor from his slumber. He raised his head, feeling Cadance stir as well. The warm light of morning filtered through the cloud’s fluff, and he felt them come to a stop before hearing the slap of hooves landing on stone. The clatter of galloping legs, both large and small, was soon met by sounds of laughter and Twilight's voice speaking with relief and laughter. “I was so worried.”

With a gentle touch of his horn’s magic, Shining pushed back part of the clouds and saw the source of all the noise. Their cloud was an inch above solid ground, hovering lazily near the edge of a deep but narrow gorge. A short bridge spanned the gap, providing a safe crossing for the train tracks that wound along the mountain side. A waterfall spilled down the nearby ridge, passing by the bridge and tumbling down to a sparkling lake far below. On the railroad tracks, Shining saw a parked crystalline locomotive, and from its cabin several familiar faces of the crystal guard were rushing towards him.

“Prince Armor, sir! We’re so relieved you’re okay,” Flash Sentry said as he, Lapis Lance, Gem Shield, and Ardent quickly moved to the side of the cloud. “Is Princess Cadance with you as well?”

“Yes, we’re all safe,” he assured, looking back as Cadance poked her head out of the cloud. She was groggy, moving sluggishly as sleep’s lingering grip was slow to release her. She stifled a yawn, and kneaded at the cloud trying to find a good hoofing. Without a word, Shining offered his hoof, and Cadance took it with a smile. He helped her down, his wife giving him a quick kiss before looking over at the guards.

The pleasant, well rested smile on Cadance’s fell away. “What took you all so long?”

The four guards winced, but then quickly fell into line. They saluted, and Flash Sentry took a step forward. “We do apologize for the delay in your rescue, Your Highness.”

Shining’s eyes wandered a moment as Flash Sentry recounted the squad’s actions during their mission. He looked to Twilight, who was smothering Spike and Nyx with hugs and kisses. The two were now trying to squirm free of her embrace, all three of them giggling together. The sight made him smile, though his grin weakened a little when he saw two unfamiliar stallions lingering by the train.

“Who are they?” Shining asked once Flash Sentry had reached a pause in his report.

“They are the Flim Flam Brothers, Sir,” Flash answered. “They aided Princess Nyx as well as the Great and Honorable Spike the Brave and Glorious in their escape from the diamond dogs. We have not yet been able to get details from them on why they were in the mountains in the first place. They simply keep saying it is a long story.” Flash then paused, he and the other three guards tensing and lowering into aggressive stances.

Shining followed their intent gazes, and looked over his shoulder to see Biscuit and S43 were looking out the hole in the cloud. They now had their hooves up, looking a bit panicked in the face of the guards aggression. “Sir,” Ardent asked, “are these two prisoners you took during your daring escape? Do we need to arrest them?”

“No,” Shining said with a wave of his hoof. “They are... well, it’s a long story.” That turn of phrase made the guards’ ears twitch, and in turn made Shining chuckle before he stepped forward and clapped a hoof against Flash Sentry’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I promise to tell the story on our way back. Is there enough room on that train for everyone?”

Flash nodded. “There should be sir. If not, we’ll take positions along the exterior and in the air.”

“Good stallion, let’s get everypony moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

Flash turned and moved over to Twilight, Nyx, and Spike, interrupting their moment and asking them to board the train. Twilight, from a distance, looked a bit surprised to see Flash, but nodded her head and began moving with Nyx and Spike towards the train. At the same time Ardent, Gem Shield, and Lapis Lance began escorting S43 and Biscuit towards the train as well. Despite Shining’s words, the three of them were still understandably cautious around the changeling and diamond dog.

“Well, this was an adventure,” Cadance said as she nuzzled up against Shining. “I don’t think I’ll be leaving our bedroom for a week. Think you can handle the empire without me for that long?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about doing the same thing,” he said with a chuckle, planting a kiss on Cadance’s lips before the pair began to walk towards the train. He then glanced around, his mind scratching at an unexplained thought before he looked and shouted at Twilight. “Hey, where’s Maud?”

Twilight poked her head out from the train. “Oh, she lost Boulder and needed to go retrieve him.”

“Who’s Boulder?” Cadance asked as she stepped onto the train.

Twilight shrugged as she sat near the back of the locomotive’s cab with her wings wrapped around Spike and Nyx. “Maud’s pet rock.”

“She went back for a pet rock?”

Twilight nodded as Lapis Lance returned to his position at the controls. The locomotive gave a little lurch, its wheels once more turning as it began moving towards the bridge. Gem Shield and Ardent took positions on the step ladders on either side of the locomotive while Flash Sentry stood on the roof, ready to take off when the train gained momentum. The mood was high. Everyone had a smile on their face. Twilight was happy to see Nyx and Spike again, explaining to Cadance what had happened to Maud. Flim and Flam were speaking to Gem Shield, finally beginning their long story about how they had saved a princess and very important dragon. Shining himself stood next to one of the locomotive’s windows, starting to feel the mountain air in his mane.

It looked like their crazy little adventure was finally over.

Then came the shift. A sudden and abrupt tilt to the right sent several of the locomotive’s occupants stumbling to one side. Lapis Lance slammed on the brakes, halting the small bit of forward momentum they had managed to gain. “Is everyone alright?” Twilight asked, trying to shelter Spike and Nyx with her wings.

“Ponies! You will surrender now!”

Shining’s face fell, and he poked his head out the locomotive’s window. He looked forward, back, and then all around before drawing his head back into the cab. “It’s that diamond dog again. He’s got us surrounded. There’re dozens of dogs on both sides of the gorge, and there’s at least two dozen on the bridge beams below us. That jolt we felt, that was them digging out the anchors for the supports.”

“Is this what happened, Your Highness?” Flash asked. “When the train arrived at the empire, it showed signs it was attacked.”

“We don’t know for sure,” Shining answered with an irritated huff. “All we know is that we hit a rock slide or something and that’s what separated our car from the rest of the train. I don’t think these Diamond Dogs orchestrated the initial attack, but they’ve been very persistent in their attempts to take advantage of the situation.”

“Yes, that’s right!” The small diamond dog said, as if eager to please the ponies around him. “We did not cause rock slide. We just found the ponies, including the very thin and pretty pink princess. Yes, the very smart and powerful ponies who Biscuit hopes will figure a way out of this!” Biscuit rang his paws together, forcing a smile even though he seemed intent on cowering in a corner. “Duke would not be happy to find me here.”

Lapis Lance peeked out the window. “The rails of the tracks are still holding. If we could stabilize the right side of the bridge and level the tracks, I could try and hit the throttle and plow through those dogs.”

“I don’t know if I have that kind of magic in me right now,” Twilight said, bringing a hoof to her horn. “But, if it's the only way—”

Shining raised his hoof, placing it on his sister’s leg and lowering it down from her horn. “It’s not. You’ve saved the day enough already. You let your big brother handle this one.” He then motioned to the guards, years of training kicking into gear.

“Ponies! Did you hear me, ponies?” Duke shouted from outside the train. “We demand your surrender! You can’t escape!”

“If we don’t answer he’s going to figure out we’re up to something,” Shining cursed, glancing out the train as his attempts to formulate a plan with the other guards was interrupted. “We need someone to distract them. Does anyone have any ideas?” His gaze roamed between Nyx, Spike, Cadance, Biscuit, and S43, but none could provide an answer. That was when a pair of voices began to ring out into the crisp mountain air.

“Surrender is a very generic term, friend. Isn’t that right, brother of mine?”

“Indeed it is, brother. A surrender must be properly negotiated otherwise you risk the whole thing coming apart at the seams.”

Shining snuck a peek out the window again. The Flim Flam Brothers had climbed up onto the cab, standing on it proudly like they were on a stage. Duke, however, did not look happy to see the two brothers. He bore his teeth and pointed an accusing claw. “You are not princess ponies! Where are princess ponies?”

“Why, they are right below.” The group inside the engine’s cab could hear the rhythmic tapping of Flim’s hoof against the roof. “Yes, three fine examples of Equestrian female royalty are all contained in this, our glittering mode of transport. Why, I’d say they are wrapped up in the prettiest package a diamond dog like you could ever hope for.”

“Prettiest diamond dog present I’ve ever seen,” Flam said. “And let’s not forget about the prince. He’s no less royal, though a bit more aerodynamically challenged. But yes he, them, and everyone here could be all yours and more, after we’ve properly negotiated the terms of the surrender.”

“There are no terms.” Shining heard the clatter of a rock against the top of the train. “You surrender or we drop your train into the lake and fish you all out afterward.”

“Now now, we aren’t trying to say you aren’t negotiating from the position of strength at this present moment,” Flam said as he waved his hoof at the surrounding dogs. “Why, I’ve personally never seen such strength brought to a negotiation before.”

“A sentiment I can share, brother of mine,” Flim added with an enthusiastic swing of his forehoof. “Why, I doubt we have any cards left to play. We poor earth ponies are simply doomed, either to be taken by these ruffians or dropped from a dizzying height.”

“You’re not earth ponies!” Duke barked. “You ponies are stalling! You’re using magic! Take out the bridge!”

The sound of splintering wood sliced through the air. Some of the dogs below dug out the last crumbs of rock still supporting the bridges weight. With a rip, the supports began to pull themselves apart under the weight of the crystal locomotive. “Everyone out!” Shining shouted, forming a half sphere of magic next to the cab. In a single panicked movement every passenger of the locomotive bailed out, nearly collapsing into Shining’s waiting magic.

Shining quickly expanded his magic, enclosing the bubble into a full sphere as he stood on top. This protected the precious cargo below from the sticks and stones being hurled by the diamond dogs. He, however, was forced to try and maneuver on the smooth surface of his shield, ducking his head in different directions. Still, some of the stones and sticks struck him in the legs and on the sides, threatening to unseat him from the protective barrier.

It was then another shield spell took form, this one a familiar pink. Shining looked down and smiled, seeing Twilight flying up to join him on top of the barrier. “Don’t worry, Shining, I’ve got your back,” Twilight said, using her barrier spell to protect the two of them while Shining kept everyone else safe. “How long can you keep up your spell?”

“For a few hours, at least, thanks to that good night’s sleep,” he answered. “What about you?”

“I don’t think I can last that long,” Twilight admitted. “So let’s figure a way out of this. Think if I cast a levitation spell on everyone inside the bubble, we could roll your shield spell along the tracks down to Lumberton?”

A cascade of crashing sounds reached Shining’s ears, making him and Twilight glance down. Far below, the serenity of the mountain lake had been destroyed. The bridge, the rubble from the cliff, and the crystal locomotive impacted the lake like meteors from the sky. Great splashes of water were sent shooting into the air. A small island, in the center of the lake, was the hardest hit. Its delicate meadow flowers were crushed under the weight of the crystal locomotive, which shattered into thousands of pieces and embedded itself deep into the soft soil.

All was still on the lake for a moment after the impact, yet Shining and Twilight could not look away. The birds around the lake were scattering, taking to the sky in a chorus of panicked cries. A single great ripple then coursed across the water, starting at the center island and extending outward until it hit the banks of the lake. That first ripple was followed by another, and then by another. The lake’s surface was soon writhing like a pot of boiling water, and those vibrations were spreading out across the mountains.

Pine trees rustled, and the waterfall, which neighbored the collapsed bridge, shifted and splattered its water in rhythmic cascades. The diamond dogs fell to all fours, digging their claws into the ground while barking in panic at one another.

“What is going on?” Spike asked as he pressed his face against the interior of Shining’s protective bubble.

“Something’s down in the lake!” Cadance shouted, pointing her hoof to the island at the lake’s center. The rocky shores were stirring, stones tumbling as numerous white peaks rose out of the soil. The island itself began to sink, water flooding across its flowery meadow, enveloping the crystal locomotive and any lingering wreckage of the bridge. All of it disappeared beneath the waves as the tremors continued. Then, like a geyser erupting from the depths of the lake bed, something leapt into the air. It was a long serpent, its scales glittering like a cascade of rainbows. It had two serpent heads, one at each end of its body, and both were hissing, bearing long fangs as the creature’s powerful leap brought it closer and closer to where the bridge once stood.

“It’s an ouroboros!” Twilight shouted just before the snake reached Shining’s barrier. It bit down on the spherical shield, some of its teeth managing to pierce the magic. The backlash from his punctured shield made Shining grunt. He tried to plant his hooves and recast the spell, but as one head of the snake clung to the spell, the other head curled around.

“Look out!” Flash Sentry shouted, he and the other guards trying to prepare themselves to defend the royal family and all the civilians. But it was all for naught. The ouroboros’ second head snapped shut on Twilight and Shining, swallowing them and Twilight’s shield spell down in a single gulp. This caused Shining’s spell to pop, the sudden release of magic allowing the creature’s first head to snap shut on the rest of the ponies, all of them succumbing to the creature's gullet.

The last glimpse Shining had seen was Cadance looking up at him, reaching out for him as the jaws of the ouroboros closed around them. The glow of Twilight’s spell gave them some protection and light. They could feel the serpent tumbling back down to the lake from which it had sprung, and the muscles of the creature’s throat were slowly guiding the smooth, spherical shield deeper and deeper into the creature.

Shining’s mind was on the edge of panic, and he opened his mouth to call out in desperation for Cadance. But as he drew in the breath that would fuel his hopeless shouts, a sour taste filled the air. A gas began to seep into Twilight’s barrier, which was not meant to be airtight. He and Twilight coughed, their eyes growing heavy and their bodies numb.

Shining reached out for Twilight, with both hoof and magic, but he and the world began to fall away. His eyes slid shut to blackness, and there his mind remained for a moment before he saw something. In the distance, wrapped in darkness, was a door with light pouring through its seams. It was the only thing he could see, yet the sight of it alone filled him with dread.

One Step Back

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 12

One Step Back

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

The sun was Nyx’s favorite way to wake up. The warm rays would filter through the window, falling upon her and her little bed. Her black coat would soak up the heat, and like a gentle embrace it would lift her from her dreams and back to the waking world. Sometimes it would happen too slow, and she’d be almost sweating by the time she actually woke up. Sometimes it would be something else, like Spike or Twilight moving about this room.

This morning, however, the sun was perfect. Her eyes slid open as her body felt warm and cozy. She always did like things better when they were warm and soft, and she snuggled into her pillow a moment before sitting up. She stretched and yawned, feeling just... wonderful. There really was no other word for it. She had some lingering images of a dream, thoughts that escaped whenever she tried to grasp them. But it was just a dream. It didn’t really matter that much. What mattered was reality. The library around her, with the warm woods and curving bookshelves, and the family she shared it with.

“Nyx, breakfast.”

Twilight’s melodious words danced up the stairs, and Nyx felt a rumble in her gut. Again, it was a common occurrence of an average day. On the weekends Twilight would make breakfast for her and Spike. He was probably already downstairs eating a gem sprinkled pancake or something. When Nyx rose out of bed, the sensation of the fabric of the bed and the wood of the floor all felt right. Yet there was an itch, a scratch in the back of her mind. Why had she woken up in such a panic? Had it been a bad dream? Why did she feel like the library was not where she was supposed to be?

Heading downstairs, delectable smells began tickling at her nose and drawing her closer to the kitchen. It was breakfast, perhaps one of the best Twilight had ever made. Waffles with a side of apples and milk to drink. The waffles looked as fluffy as clouds and brown to perfection. The fruit was Sweet Apple Acre’s quality, a perfect shade of red and sliced cleanly. The milk was cold, bits of condensation clinging to the exterior of the glass. It was a perfect breakfast, and Twilight was just settling down to her seat at the table with two plates, one for herself and another for where Nyx normally sat.

“There you are, sleepy head. Come eat before it gets cold,” Twilight said as she began to apply butter and syrup to her waffles. Spike was already chowing down. His waffles weren’t just gem sprinkled. They were true gem pancakes, with dozens of tiny, blueberry sized gems dotting the interior and exterior. Everyone was happy, and Nyx felt like being happy too, but the itch remained.

Moving around the table, Nyx sat at her usual place. The waffles greeted her with a smile formed from two slices of warmed butter for eyes and a whip cream smile. Her own waffles were chocolate chip, a concoction she had first tried thanks to Pinkie Pie. Twilight normally didn’t think breakfast was the best time to be having candy, but today she had put the chocolate chips into the waffles herself. That was unusual. Nyx normally had to ask a dozen times to get Twilight even to consider it, or with Spike’s help sneak the chocolate chips in at the last second. “What’s the occasion?”

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked between bites of her breakfast.

Nyx began to spread the butter across her waffles. Her magic was easy today, responsive. She’d normally still be having a little trouble managing the knife, but today it was like it was dancing to her every whim. Her smile grew a little more, and the itch in the back of her mind disappeared a little. Maybe she had just had a weird dream. “Well, you never make chocolate chip waffles unless it’s a special occasion.”

“Maybe the occasion is just that I love my family so much and thought they deserved a little treat,” Twilight said, her words warm and true. She called them a family, something often said but right now it felt like it meant so much more. Nyx felt warm and content, and the sweet smell of the food wasn’t making things any worse either. She finished with the butter, added a bit of syrup, and got a chunk of the waffle on her fork. It was practically perfect, a morning that couldn’t be any better. The itch in her mind was almost a bygone memory. There was nothing wrong here. Everything was perfect.

Nyx looked up from her plate to help pilot the levitated fork and its cargo of delectable, chocolate-dotted goodness into her mouth. Her eyes wandered to the window across from where she sat at the table. The day looked beautiful. Ponies were out smiling and laughing like it was a national holiday. Her smile was growing as she pondered just what great and wonderful things could happen on such a beautiful day. It was the beginning of something...

Wrong.

She flicked her gaze and closed her mouth, letting the bite of waffle return to her plate as she stared out the window. Something was wrong. Something was missing. The horizon line of the rolling hills beyond Ponyville looked so similar, but they were missing something. It was something... she didn’t like looking at in the mornings. She never said anything to Twilight. It was silly, but there was something that didn’t always make her enjoy looking out the window at breakfast. Her mind grasped and wrestled with the thought as the itch in the back of her mind returned. Then it dawned on her, a moment of realization that made her stand up and point a hoof at the window.

“Where’s the castle?”

“What are you talking about, Nyx?” Spike asked through a full mouth of gem waffle.

“Night Stone Castle. It should be right there,” Nyx said again, pointing her hoof to the spot on the horizon where the fortress of her short-lived rule should have stood. Her mind was racing. Something was wrong. Something was really, really wrong, but Spike and Twilight didn’t act like it. They were smiling. They were chuckling, like she was telling some wild story of an adventure she had with an imaginary friend.

“There’s never been a castle there, Nyx,” Twilight said with a giggle of her own. “Now go back to your breakfast.”

“Never a... you wrote a report on the castle.” Nyx stepped away from the table, heading into the main room of the library. “You spent a whole week studying it as an example of equine architecture with diamond dog influences.” She reached Twilight’s writing desk, opening one of the drawers and searching through the folders for the report. The folders, however, weren’t labeled. The little white squares were nothing but black squiggles. She took out one at random, opened it, and looked to the contents inside. The actual reports and notes, things she knew Twilight had written, were like the labels. There wasn’t a single discernible word on the page. It was all scribbles.

“Nyx, are you okay?” Twilight asked as she and Spike stood in the kitchen door. They were just so calm and collected, it was making her panic even more. Their smiles, which had been so inviting a moment before, were now wide, forced, and the definition of creepy. They began moving towards her. “Come back to breakfast. You must be hungry, and we have a big day planned today. We were going to have a big party with your friends.”

The words, spoken so sweetly, were unbearably sour in Nyx’s ears. What had happened? Had Twilight and Spike been taken over by changelings? Was this the effect of some dark spell? She didn’t know, but as her family loomed closer, she didn’t have time to figure it out. She bolted, sprinting for the door. She had to get away from them. She’d go to Rarity or Applejack or Rainbow Dash. She’d tell them something was wrong, then they’d be able to help and fix it. She just had to get out of this place.

Nyx reached with her magic for the door’s handle, trying to open the door so she could escape. Something was wrong, though. The door was heavy, it was taking more magic to open than it ever had before. This was a trap. Twilight and Spike had been taken and she was next. She had to get out. She had to escape. She had to get away.

The door finally opened under another tug of magic, and Nyx leapt through. The bright light on the other side blinded her for a moment. At first she thought it was the sun, but then she realized she wasn’t standing on anything. She spread her wings instinctively to stop her forward momentum, and looked back to try and understand. The door to the library was behind her, and she could see Twilight and Spike standing on the other side. But the door was not attached to the tree like it should have been. It was instead attached to an orb of light, one that dangled and bobbed on a tiny string of light in an expanse of otherwise utter blackness.

The itch in the back of Nyx’s mind disappeared, and the memories of what had happened previously soon followed. They had been eaten by a gigantic, rainbow-scaled, two-headed snake. Twilight had called it an ouroboros. Nyx hadn’t ever heard of the creature before, but she knew they had been eaten. But then where was she now? Though she didn’t have first hoof experience, Nyx didn’t think the inside of a snake’s stomach looked like an empty abyss with balloons of light.

Approaching one of the other balloons, Nyx put her hoof on it gently. It was smooth, warm, and she couldn’t help but smile. It was weird to think that the balloons were something good, not after what she experienced escaping the one she had been inside. Though hers was looking a little more jagged and rough, like a lumpy orange compared to the perfectly smooth exteriors of the others. What were these things, and why did they seem so familiar?

Nyx called on her magic, trying to probe the sphere. She wanted to know what was inside, and like that her magic seemed to find something. There was a seam in the sphere, and as she looked upon the sphere now, she saw the seam belonged to a door. She didn’t know how or where the door had come from, but its existence was undeniable. Nyx was able to reach out and touch it. When she tried to grasp the handle with her magic, she could feel its weight. It was like the library door, very heavy, but with strains and grunts she was able to get it to crack open.

~~~

“Oh honey, it’s absolutely perfect. A mare couldn’t ask for a better diamond.”

“It is a fine stone, but it can’t compare to your beauty.”

A shiver crawled down Nyx’s spine, like she had just stepped out of the warm library into a brisk, winter day. Where was she? The empty expanse had just vanished, gone in a blink of an eye, and replaced with glass display cabinets filled with numerous combinations of gold and jewels. It was a jewelry store, and it wasn’t just Ponyville's nice quiet shop either. This store was filled almost to capacity with couples, each looking for a special something amongst the display cases.

“Hey little one, you look to be a little lost.”

Nyx turned, looking into the kindly face of the stallion that was approaching her. He was probably the most approachable stallion she had ever seen. His face bore a few wrinkles, likely caused by the smile that found a home on his face. He had a short, bushy mustache, much like the one worn by Sweetie Belle’s father. On top of it all he was dressed in a blue uniform. The hat and the shirt both bore a false gold badge, on which was emblazoned an image of a shining city and the letters MPD.

“Uh... yeah, I am,” Nyx said.

“Well don’t you worry, I’ll be happy to help you get back home, little one. You can always trust the Maretropolis Police Department.”

After staring blankly at the officer for a few moments, Nyx bolted for the door and ran into the street. Everywhere she looked, no matter how unbelievable it was, she could see the evidence. The jewelry store was called Maretropolis Gems. A pony, waiting for a bus, was reading the Wild Word Daily. Even the skyline, though she had never seen it in person, looked so familiar. It simply couldn’t be true, but she had no way to deny it.

She was standing in Maretropolis, the city from Spike’s comic books.

The glass of the jewelry store’s front window shattered, and the cackling laughter of a stallion filled the air as several figures leapt to the sidewalk outside the jewelry store. The ponies within were in a panic, and Nyx had to scramble off the sidewalk not to be swept away with the fleeing crowd. The figures were spooky, ponies wrapped entirely in bandages. They were mummies, and they were all crowded around a single stallion who looked like had been lifted straight from a hieroglyphic illustration. His grayish coat was decorated with a gold and blue headdress that matched his anklets, his tail braid, and a jeweled false beard.

“Pharaoh Phetlock?” Nyx stumbled back until she was standing behind the base of a street lamp. There was no mistaking it. This was one of the villains from Spike’s comic books. They had been reading about him the day before she, Spike, and everyone else got on the train for the Crystal Empire. The Pharaoh, at least in the comic books, had managed to secure a sacred scarab. The Power Ponies had managed to stop his plan to turn Maretropolis into his own personal empire, but the Pharaoh himself had managed to escape. But all that was simply a story. It was illustrations on a page in very short book held together by a pair of staples. She couldn’t really be in Maretropolis. What was going on?

“The Moon’s Eye, the last piece I need for my tomb’s new mural,” Pharaoh Phetlock said with a manic grin as he inspected a diamond studded necklace. The core of the extravagant piece of jewelry was a pale blue diamond. Round and smooth like the lens from a telescope, the jewel had a discoloration in its core where the crystal grew darker. All together, it truly looked like someone had plucked Nightmare Moon’s eye and turned it into a rare gemstone. Nyx had to lift a hoof to her own face, if only to be sure both of her eyes were still present.

“I’m afraid the only eye you’ll be getting tonight, Phetlock, is a black one.” With a sharp snap, several of Phetlock’s mummy minions were flattened against the sidewalk by a large flyswatter, one comprised solely of magical energy. The minions were left dazed, and Phetlock was looking across the street to the source of the attack. With a confident stride and a toss of her mane, a mare floated down to the sidewalk, carried there gently by a magically constructed flying carpet.

It was Radiance, financier of the Power Ponies and wielder of the rare magical bracelets that were the source of her many magical constructs. Yet, at the same time, something wasn’t right. Nyx knew it had to be her. The super power and the costume were a perfect match for the Radiance she had come to know from Spike’s comic books. The mare’s base colors, however, were wrong. The true Radiance had a yellowish base coat and a mane that was a darker shade of blue, like the base color of the costume. Yet, the superhero Nyx saw before her, about to face off against Phetlock, had a white coat and purple mane. That and her voice, it rang in Nyx’s ears with undeniable familiarity.

It was like the mare behind the mask was Rarity.

“Gems as precious as those don’t deserve to gather dust in your dusty old basement, Phetlock. They deserve to be on display in a museum, or around the neck of a beautiful mare,” Radiance said, smiling and swooning a little. “Oh, could you imagine how beautiful I would be with the Moon’s Eye and the right dress? Something long and mysterious, with a little slit up the leg.”

“Yeah, that’s Rarity,” Nyx said quietly to herself. She watched as Phetlock’s mummy minions began to encircle Rarity, the old sounds coming from their throats being moans and groans. Nyx was also noticing she was the only pony that had lingered behind. Everyone else that had been in the jewelry store or on the street had fled. At least, she thought that was what happened, but at the same time she could not remember seeing them actually run away. It was another inconsistency, as if that part of reality had simply been skipped over because it wasn’t important.

Phetlock slipped the Moon’s Eye into a velvet bag around his neck, simply smiling as he glared down Radiance. “You’ve bested me in the past, but I think you’ll find yourself lacking your usual luster, Radiance. Get her, my minions.” At the Pharaoh’s command, the mummies lunged at Radiance, their moans uniting into an aggressive chorus. Radiance, however, didn’t even flinch. Her bracelets glowed, and around her a pillow fort magical construct took shape. The minions fell into the magic, and were quickly thrown back like they had been launched by springboards.

“Your tactics are as old and dusty as your basement.” Radiance formed a new construct, covering the street in fine, Saddle Arabian rugs. There was one beneath every mummy, and with a tug Radiance pulled at each one. The minions were sent tumbling, their hooves pulled out from under them in a single, swift strike. Radiance flashed a confident smile at her fallen foes. “What’s the matter colts, did I pull the rug out from under you?”

As Radiance mocked the hired hooves, the master had closed in. Phetlock was inches away from Rarity when he drew out a hoof-full of powder. One firm puff from his lungs, and the glitter like substance covered Radiance on one side. She felt the intrusion of the tiny particles, and quickly leapt away from Phetlock. Radiance then began to toss, shake, and brush at the glitter, trying to get it off. “Are you insane!? This glitter could contaminate my whole wardrobe.”

“It’s not glitter,” Phetlock said, an amused grin on his face. Radiance lifted her hoof, trying to summon a construct, yet nothing formed. She tried again, her brow furrowing, and her bracelets flickered with life for a moment. Yet, once more, none of her constructs succeeded in manifesting. “That’s the fun thing about magical artifacts. You never know what will make them stop working.”

“How?” Radiance shook her hoof, as if her bracelets simply needed a jiggle. She tried stomping. She tried jumping. She tried anything she could think off to jostle the magic out of the gems, turning into a spectacle in front of her opponents.

Phetlock laughed as his mummy minions began to climb back to their hooves. “Sorry, old family recipe, but don’t worry. I have another recipe for you: mummified super hero. You start with one freshly weakened mare, and well... you’re about to learn the rest of the steps first hoof.”

“Get back you ruffians!” Radiance spat. She brought up her hind legs, and managed to buck one of the mummies away. Yet, in defending herself against one, Radiance had allowed two others to move in close. They grabbed her by the neck and forehoof, restraining her movements as the others drew in. She fought and struggled, and Nyx felt her own heart thumping as she was forced to watch the scene from the sidelines. Radiance needed help, but who did a super hero call when they needed saving? Where were the police? There had been an officer in the jewelry store. He had introduced himself to Nyx. Why wasn’t he here? Why weren’t the other Power Ponies here? Who was going to save Radiance?

“Help!”

Radiance’s shout was followed swiftly by the firm crack of a punch connecting with a jaw. One of the mummies clinging was thrown into a half dozen of the others, causing a whole side of the mummy swarm to just collapse to the ground. The other mummies quickly backed away, moans and growls escaping their lips as they glared down the latest intruder in their robbery. Radiance had been rescued by a fellow hero of the city, but it was not Fili-second or Matter-Horn. It wasn’t even a pony.

No, the super hero Nyx had just watched swoop in was a dragon, one that stood over twice as tall as any of the mummies. He was broad shouldered with purplish scales and green spines. He wore a bright red cape with a blue, gold-buckled belt. There was a thin strip of black over his eyes and the bridge of his nose, a minimalistic sort of mask that Nyx knew came from only one of the Power Ponies. The mask and costume belonged to Hum Drum. And, though he was far more mature and muscular looking than she had ever seen, Nyx recognized the dragon underneath.

“Don’t you know, you never try and harm something a dragon treasures,” Hum Drum said as he stood with Radiance against the mummies. “Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”

Radiance wore a little smile as she stood back to back with Hum Drum. “Well, I suppose I can forgive you for being fashionably late after that entrance, but only if you agree to dance with me. I’m afraid all the other prospective partners this evening are either wearing dusty old rags or garbed in a gaudy amount of gold.”

“This headdress is authentic and in no way gaudy!” Phetlock snapped.

Hum Drum chuckled, formed a fist, and punched it into his other palm. “I’d never turn down an invitation to dance with you, Radiance.”

What Nyx witnessed after was a fight torn straight from the pages of a comic book. The mummies charged, and the two super heroes met them in glorious combat. Hum Drum threw punches and knocked thugs out like a force of nature. Radiance was more tactical, but was holding her own despite her currently disabled powers. Nyx had to close her eyes and wince at the sights and sounds of the fistfight, but she couldn’t deny the grin on her face either. She still didn’t know what was going on, but she couldn’t deny her excitement from being able to witness such a comic book spectacle first hoof.

Soon, Pharaoh Phetlock was down for the count, wrapped up like a present like many of his mummy mininos. Police sirens were beginning to blare in the distance, the cavalry arriving too late to be able to do anything except take the criminals to jail. Radiance and Hum Drum bore a few bumps and bruises, but were smiling over their triumph as they waited for the authorities to arrive.

“Well, you certainly know how to show a mare a good time.” Radiance took a hoof to her mane, trying to smooth out a few hairs that had been knocked out of place.

Hum Drum smiled, drawing close to Radiance. In a moment the two spun together, Hum Drum holding Radiance in a deep bow as they looked into one another's eyes. “It was my pleasure, my lady,” Hum Drum said, like a knight speaking to a princess. They leaned in together. Nyx closed her eyes, blushed, and turned away. She knew exactly what the pair were doing. It was the kind of kiss the comic books only ever showed as a pair of silhouettes against the twirling lights of the police. It was a private moment, and she would not intrude. Nyx waited, counting in her head a good several seconds before daring to look back.

The pair were still kissing, and her awkwardness of intruding on such a private moment was continuing. She began backing up, trying to put some distance between herself and the intimate moment. Yet, her hoof caught on an uneven slab of sidewalk. She tumbled, and a yelp escaped her lips before she could catch it. She wasn’t hurt by her fall, but she quickly slapped a hoof over her mouth.

It was a hopeless attempt to recapture the shout that had escaped her voice, a shout that had not gone unnoticed.

“Nyx?”

The voice, one she knew so well, made Nyx look back at Radiance and Hum Drum. They had broken their kiss, though they were still bowed deep like a pair of dancers. Hum Drum was blushing, his cheeks a burning red. Nyx forced a laugh, and waved her hoof at the two super heroes as a blush began to redden her cheeks as well.

“Hi, Spike.”

~~~

Nyx gaped in awe as she, Spike, and Radiance entered a place more magnificent than it was ever depicted in the comics: the headquarters of the Power Ponies. Grand mystical devices, heirlooms of past victories against their foes, and everything else the super heroes could need and want in a secret base. It surely put the little fort she had assembled in the backyard of her grandparents’ house in Canterlot to shame.

At the center of it all was the round table, a call back to a legend of Unicornia where great knights and their lord, King Augeron, sat as equals around a circular table. The table was clean reflective steel with a dozen seats, enough for the Power Ponies and any extra guests that might be brought to the base, surrounding it.

“And you’re sure you heard someone shout ouroboros before we were eaten?” Spike asked, pressing for a few more details after Nyx explained what she remembered and how she arrived to witness such a personal moment. He took a seat at the table as did Radiance. They had not seen any of the other Power Ponies, though Radiance had assured they were around the city.

Nyx nodded as she took a seat at the table herself. Her eyes barely met the top of the immaculate table, but she then felt herself levitating. Radiance had picked her up before manifesting a pillow on the seat. It gave Nyx the little bit of added height she needed to have her chin higher than the table. “Yeah, that’s what Twilight called it.”

“The ouroboros is a species of snake that eats dreams.” Spike gave the table a little knock, causing a little console to appear. Pressing on the buttons inside, a floating hologram of the two-headed serpent appeared hovering over the table in front of them. “They’re household pests normally. They get into a pony's bed at night, gently bite down on their ears, and then siphon away the energy from their dreams as they sleep. You usually only see them in older houses, where there are crevices big enough for them to get through, and near forests. They also like young dragons when they're taking their first long nap. The dragon is usually small enough the snakes can reach both sides of the head during that first nap. Twilight was supposed to study them as part of a class assignment, but I ended up doing most of the field work for that one.”

“Why?” Nyx asked.

“Twilight doesn't like snakes, and part of the assignment involved going to the Canterlot zoo and seeing the ouroboros.” Spike grinned as a memory floated into his head. “Twilight tried, she really did, and she made the funniest faces while we were standing outside the reptile house. She eventually bailed, promised to buy me something from the gift shop, and had me go inside to do that part of the project. It was really cool, and the raw gemstones Twilight got me from the gift shop were delicious.”

“But you said this snake normally nibbles on a pony’s ears.” Radiance’s ears twitched at the thought of having such a thing attaching itself to her in her sleep. “How in the world were you two consumed by such a thing?”

“That’s what I don’t get,” Spike said. “The one that attacked us was monstrous, as big as a train. It was able to gobble just about everyone except... uh oh.”

“What’s wrong?” Nyx asked.

Spike pressed on the buttons on the little console again, causing a few arrows to show up with the hologram. “Each mouth of the ouroboros eats different kinds of dreams. One eats good dreams, and the other eats bad dreams. When both mouths latch onto a pony's ears, the sleeping pony has their regular dreams and the good and bad portions are eaten by each respective mouth. If, however, only one of the mouths becomes attached while the pony is sleeping, only that part of their dreams will get eaten.”

Nyx stared at the hologram for a few moments, the little cogs in her brain spinning before she looked back at Spike. “So are we dreaming?”

Spike shrugged as he shut the hidden console on the table, causing the hologram to dissipate. “Maybe. Twilight and I never came across any reports of what happens if a pony’s eaten whole by an ouroboros while doing her class project. They’re just not supposed to get this big. I think the largest one recorded was maybe as long as a teenage pony.”

“Perhaps a better question to ask is how little Nyx got here,” Radiance said as she turned to look at Spike. “I may not understand dream logic that much, but if what you’re saying is true, then all of this is a dream, including me. She did appear out of nowhere, so it begs the question: is she a part of your dream as well, making you remember what happened, or did she escape her own dream and somehow find her way into yours?”

“I remember escaping my own dream,” Nyx said.

Radiance nodded. “I’m not saying you don’t, darling, but those memories could also be part of Spike’s dream. Do you understand?”

“No, not really.”

“Instead of trying to figure out if Nyx had a dream within my dream, why don’t we just try something. This is my dream. I should be able to change it.” Spike looked over at Radiance, furrowing his brow a moment. At first nothing happened, but then Radiance’s colors began to shift. She changed back into her true, comic book colors, and didn’t seem to notice or feel the change. Spike tilted his head to one side when the transformation was complete.

“Eh, I like you the other way better.” At those words, Radiance popped back to sharing Rarity’s white and purple color scheme. This made Spike smile, but then he turned his eyes on Nyx. He stared at her, long and intently, like he was trying to read her mind or shoot laser beams from his eyes. Nyx looked herself over, trying to see if she was suddenly changing red, blue, green, or aquamarine. Nothing, however, was changing.

“I don’t feel anything,” Nyx said. “I don’t see anything.”

“That’s because nothing’s happening.” Spike stopped concentrating, shaking his head as if to break a trance. “I was trying to give you the sudden urge to tap dance.”

“Why didn’t you just try to change my coat color?”

Spike shrugged. “Because I thought it’d be funny if you suddenly started tap dancing.”

“Well, I’m not dancing,” Nyx said as she gestured to herself. “My memories must be true. I got out of my dream and managed to get into yours. But how did I do that?”

“Luna has the ability to go between dreams, and your magic is probably nearly identical to hers,” Spike said, leaning back a bit in his seat as he put one of his beefy claws to his equally impressive, super heroic chin. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that you’d have her ability to enter dreams or, in this case, escape them.”

“It is a mystery, but perhaps it’s one that’s to your benefit.” Radiance stood up, absent-mindedly using a constructed brush to smooth out the few wrinkles in her tail she got from sitting. “Nyx escaping her dream and coming to you has made you both aware of the situation. Perhaps now you two can figure out a way to free everyone you care about.”

Spike stood up to follow Radiance, reaching out a claw but not getting close enough to actually touch her. “But Radiance, what about you?”

“I am just a dream, and a super hero. If it will save your family and friends, I’ll gladly lay down my existence. Besides, you have real friends and a real life to get back to. One cannot simply live forever in their dreams.” Rarity turned, walking past Spike to return to the table, and as she did she flicked her tail up so it gently brushed the underside of his chin. “Also, I’m your dream. You can always bring me back. And maybe this time, we won’t get... interrupted.”

Spike blushed, quickly looking away from Radiance to focus on Nyx. That, however, only made his blush worsen as she was staring at him with an arched eyebrow. Nyx was a bit lost, she wouldn’t deny. Radiance had a funny look on her face, like she was half asleep, and was speaking real slow. Nyx felt like she maybe knew about this once, maybe when she was an adult, but the facts were escaping her at the moment. Perhaps an effect of Luna’s spell that turned her back into a filly.

“S-she’s right... about us... about us escaping,” Spike finally stuttered out, steering the conversation to another topic. He coughed into his fist, and forced the uncertainty from his voice. “Now that we know where we really are, we should be able to get out.”

“Great, how do we do that?” Nyx asked.

Spike opened his mouth to answer, but then deflated a little. “I don’t know. I don’t remember reading anything that said how someone is supposed to wake up from an ouroboros dream. Twilight would probably know, we’d just have to find her...” Spike went quiet, the corners of his mouth dropping into a frown. “Oh no.”

Nyx stood up from her seat, almost climbing up onto the table. “What is it?”

“Twilight was helping Shining, they were both on top of the barrier spell. The rest of us got eaten by one mouth, and if this dream is any indication, we got eaten by the head that eats bad dreams. But when we were getting gobbled, Shining and Twilight were being scooped up by the other head. They were eaten by the mouth that feeds on good dreams. That means...”

“I believe you two need to get to them as quickly as you can,” Radiance said. “Sometimes, our worst nightmares are more horrible than anything that could ever happen in reality.”

Spike stood up from the table, looking across the table straight at Nyx. “We better try and get as much help as we can first. Knowing Twilight, she’s come up with a doozy of a nightmare. She’s very good at imagining the worse possible situation.

~~~

“And today, we would like to honor the Flim Flam Brothers for their multitude of achievements in the advancement of magic and science in Equestria for modern, practical uses.”

The twin brothers beamed as they looked across the crowd, puffing out their chests and making mares swoon with their smiles. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna approached them, regally bestowing upon each a medal and a kiss on the cheek. All around Canterlot had been transformed. Gilded in metal and humming with their patented technologies, it was a city transformed into a beacon of the future. Mail whizzed through pipes and tubes at near supersonic speeds. The streets kept themselves clean, and the weather was guided through strategically placed billows and windmills. Even the sun and moon had been brought under the control of mechanical accuracy, leaving the Princesses of Equestria with more time to rule as well as have a little fun.

“Now you better hurry along,” Princess Celestia said to the two brothers. “You have an airship to the Crystal Empire to catch. The march of progress can’t stop here.”

“You’ve got that right, Princess.”

Luna flashed a smile at the two, like the smile shared by dear friends who had possibly gotten into some crazy trouble that was being kept under wraps for national security reasons. “Please, for you two, it’s just Celestia and Luna.”

Flim and Flam smiled and bowed, giving one another little eyebrow waggle before abruptly turning and heading up a wooden ramp to a large airship that had been parked right next to the royal announcement balcony of Canterlot Castle. There they were greeted by beautiful stewardesses, who whisked them away to lounge chairs right on the bow of the ship. They had finely crafted Apple Wine to sip and gladly toasted one another as the airship lifted off for their next conquest.

“Wow, you two sure don’t dream small.”

Flim and Flam had just about settled into their deck chairs when they heard the familiar voice. They both turned around, and Flam expected to see the pint sized dragon that had been one of their biggest disbelievers. Wouldn’t that just be the thing, to have him there to introduce them to the Crystal Empire. He did have a lot of sway for being such a small little guy. Except, the dragon standing behind them was not small in any definition of the word. He was tall, broad shouldered, and was dressed in a ridiculous outfit and mask. There was no way some tiny piece of black would hide his identity from anyone.

“Spike, you’ve certainly shot up like a weed, though I can’t say your sense of tastes matured as robustly.” Flim turned his head back to the front of the ship and took the first sip of his wine. “Probably because we saved you from schlepping all those books around. I trust Princess Twilight Sparkle is still enjoying her automated book sorter and shelver. It has been about two weeks since we got her last thank you letter.”

“Yeah, no, that isn’t it,” Spike said as he came up behind the pair.

“Then it must have been our patented Dragon Hoard Homeguard and Hopper. That is one of our most popular dragon based inventions.” Flam stretched, taking his hat off and passing it to a stewardess that had rushed to his side. She took the hat, and whisked it away to rest on top of a statue bust of Flam's head. “Maintains and controls the size of a dragon’s hoard leading to a controlled and well adjusted maturation. Leads to less cranky dragons who can enjoy smaller but more diverse treasure troves.”

“Or maybe it’s our new, one hundred percent effective miracle elixir,” Flim said as he held his wine up to the sun. “Really, getting those golden apples were the key ingredient. Just the right amount of magic mojo and a perfect tart flavor. Makes old feel young, makes the young feel strong, and for a young dragon... well, I think the results speak for themselves.”

“You really think golden apples would do this?” Spike flexed a little, smiling at his muscles and looking a bit dreamy eyed. He then firmly shook his head and gently slapped his cheeks before looking back at the brothers. “Hate to break it to you guys, but you’re dreaming.”

“Pffft.” Flam waved his hoof before standing up from his seat. “The only dream is the one of modern society and conveniences that we’ve brought to all of Equestria. Isn’t that right, brother?”

“That and we’ve got more bits than we could ever dream of spending in a lifetime,” Flim said, clinking his glass against Flam’s once more before taking another drink of cider.

“Do you even remember half the things you supposedly invented?” Spike asked.

“That’s looking into the past, Spike. We only look to the future, and it is bright.”

Spike rolled his eyes at Flam’s words, and took a step closer to the pair. Without any warning, he grabbed each brother up in one arm, carrying them like bags of flour. Their wine glasses spilt, and the pair shouted their protests as the stewardesses tried to rush to help them. But it was all too late. A few more steps, and Spike leapt from the side of the ship and the trio were in freefall towards the ground.

“What are you doing!? You’ll kill us all!” Flim kicked himself free of Spike, but soon regretted it as he spun and tumbled through the air. He wasn’t able to regain control of himself until Spike reached out and grabbed one of his legs, but then Flim immediately kicked himself free of the dragon’s grip a second time. This in turn gave Flam a chance to escape as well, though at least now all three of them were falling straight. The two were panicking, shouting, and trying to conjure magic to slow their fall.

“We’re dead! We’re going to be smears on the ground!” The brothers said in unision.

Spike remained entirely relaxed and pointed downward with his claw. “Yeah, you might want to double check that.” Both Flim and Flam looked down almost immediately, but there was no ground. They had barely lifted off from Canterlot, but now there was nothing but blue skies for miles and miles in all directions. “This is a good dream, and you never hit the ground in a good dream.”

Flim and Flam glanced to each other, then back down where the ground was supposed to be, then up at Spike. “Okay, dragon, start talking.”

“I’ll give you all the details once I get your word on something. You have to promise to help us reach Twilight.”

Flim managed to turn himself around in the air, facing his back to Spike and taking a sitting position. “I think my brother and I have more than helped enough. You’ll need to bring something better to the table than that, dragon. Especially after you pulled us out of our airship into this... magical fall trap.”

“Brother of mine, you took the words right out of my mouth,” Flam said. “Besides, if you wanted to reach Twilight, you shouldn’t have gotten on our airship in the first place. We were off to see Princess Cadance, not your Princess Twilight. Besides, we were just with Princess Twilight when we were on that train.”

“What train would that be?” Spike asked.

“Why, that would be the train we were on right before... we...” Flam looked over at Flim, the pair sharing a similar expression of panic.

Spike was now lounging in the air, smiling smugly. “Let me guess, you two just remembered you were eaten by a giant snake with two heads.”

Flam flicked his gaze back to Spike, glaring down the dragon who was so full of himself he might burst, at least in Flam’s personal opinion. “I think you’ve proven your point. All this isn’t real, and the last real thing was us getting eaten. What does that have to do with finding Twilight? Didn’t we just find her?”

“We did, but we have to find her again. She might be the only one that can get the ouroboros to puke us up. But, to get to her, we’ll have to get through her nightmare, and it won’t be pretty.”

“Sounds like work for those guards,” Flim said with a huff.

“We’re going to try and get the guards to help too, but Nyx is already getting tired. She opened a door to Cadance’s dream and barely managed to get this one open. If she pushes herself much farther, she won’t be able to get us into Twilight’s nightmare. I thought we should get the guards too, but Nyx seemed to think we’d need a pair of inventive unicorns instead.

“So are you in?” Spike asked. “Because if you’re not, I could just leave you here falling forever. Maybe we’ll get to Twilight without you, but maybe not, but at least you’ll have a great view while you wait to find out.”

“I think we’re in a corner here, brother,” Flam said as he looked over at Flim. “And it’s not like we’re going to be able to turn a profit ever again if what Spike says is true.”

“I can’t believe how complicated a simple trip into the mountains became.” Flim glanced back and forth between his brother and Spike a moment before throwing his forehooves up, and nearly sending himself into a spin at the same time. He had to flail his legs a moment to stabilize again before being able to answer. “Okay, we’ll help, but can you now explain what all this talk about dreams is?”

~~~

Nyx should have been greeted by the smooth, glistening streets of the Crystal Empire. She should have stepped into Cadance’s dream and landed in the Crystal Palace, or even someplace nearby. She was the princess of the empire, successor to the power of the Crystal Heart. She was a mare soon to be a mother, with a stallion that loved her. Nyx expected Cadance’s dream to be a bit like her own: only a slight variation on reality.

The truth, Cadance’s dream was more like Spike’s. It was a flight of fantasy far removed from the norms, and Nyx was starting to wonder why her own dream had been so dull. Rather, she would have been thinking about that if she had been able to take her eyes off the rough and tumble spectacle that was rolling in circular laps before her.

“Last jam of the second period and the Everfree Wolves managed to pull ahead in the last jam. The Sombra Shadows’ jammer is going to need to lap the opposing team not just once but twice if her team is going to have any hope of claiming victory, and that’s if the opposing jammer doesn’t score a single point. Who is the coach going to send in? We’ve got fifteen seconds until the last jam and... stallions and mares... it looks like the hammer is about to fall.”

The roller derby teams were lining up in place, and Nyx’s eyes focused on one in particular. She now wore a helmet marked by two stars, and was the hammer the announcer spoke off. Signs were raised depicting a crystal hammer swinging and smashing some indiscernible object and the crowd roared. The cheers only seemed to fuel the determined look in the jammer’s eye.

The mare in question was the Shining Hammer, a star player of the Sombra Shadows roller derby team. She was lean, mean, and had been skating up a storm in the few “jams” Nyx had been able to watch. She was the star player. When she was on the rink, the Sombra Shadows came out ahead in points. Yet for every gain the Shadows' got, the Everfree Wolve’s seemed to manage to squeak out a little more when the Shining Hammer wasn’t on the field. That was what lead to the current point situation. Yet, Nyx’s curiosity was not in who was going to win the rough and tumble clash of the teams.

The big question in Nyx’s mind was why Cadance would be skating under the name Shining Hammer.

The referee tweeted his whistle, the skaters were off. The crowd winced and cheered as the blockers of the Shadows smashed hard into the Wolves’ jammer. At the same time, Cadance veered forward, skating around the others like they were all moving in slow motion. Nyx might have compared it to the grace of a butterfly, but Cadance was slamming into any jammers that tried to get in her way. Perhaps the more accurate comparison was watching lightning fall from the sky. Cadance juked and dodged, but she also struck past any obstacle.

The crowd exploded with fresh cheers as Cadance broke out from the pack. The arena’s powerful speakers struggled to match the volume, but still the announcer’s voice managed to cut through the roar. “The Shining Hammer has smashed through the pack while the Wolves’ jammer is still stuck at the back of the pack. The Shadows are now in a position to begin scoring, but with thirty seconds already gone in the jam does the Shining Hammer have time to pull off a miracle?”

Cadance was around the track in another fifteen seconds. The Wolves’ jammer was still struggling in the pack, the blockers' jostling with one another. Shoulders were slammed, curses were shouted, and Nyx was fairly certain she saw one of the mares now had a bloody nose. Still, the competition of rollerblade wearing gladiators continued. Cadance went tight, riding the inner edge of the track. She got past the back line of the jammers, shooting by unscathed as the Wolves’ jammers were too focused on trying to help their own struggling teammate.

“Shining Hammer closes the gap. The Shadows are just three points behind the Wolves. If Snowpain can’t break away from the pack and start scoring some points, The Hammer may just bring this one back from the edge! Wait, I may have spoken too soon. Snowpain has gotten free!”

With a charge to the outer edge of the track, the ice colored and themed skater finally got out of the pack and was now hot on Cadance’s hooves. The pair rounded the track, and were once more at the back of the pack with only forty five seconds left on the clock. Nyx had gained enough of an understanding of the game to know forty five seconds was not long enough for Cadance to make another lap. If Snowpain passed the jammer, the chances of the Shadows winning was out the window. It would at best end in a tie, and that was if Snowpain didn’t manage to gain anything more than a single point.

Then Nyx felt what she could only describe as a ripple. A puff of air, a rumble of sound, and a tingle down her spine: the ripple was all of these things yet none of them at the same time. Nyx looked over her shoulder, trying to find the source of the disturbance, but could see nothing but the roaring crowd. She then looked back at the roller rink, and something had changed. One of the jammers on Cadance’s team had morphed into somepony else.

Cadance made a sharp whistle by biting her lip, and the recently transformed mare glanced back. The name on the uniform was “The Buck,” but the orange coat, blonde mane, and freckles made it clear just who had been substituted into the dream to ensure a victory. Applejack gave Cadance a nod, hard shouldering one of the jammers for the Wolves team. Cadance surged through the freshly made opening, and Applejack closed it right back up to ensure Snowpain could not follow.

“Twenty five seconds left in this final jam folks, and it’s down to the wire. Snowpain jostles with The Buck. She’s trying to find an angle, but The Buck is brick walling the back of the pack. The Wolves’ jammers are falling back to try and force The Buck out of the way, but the rest of the Shadows are following. Hammer scores a point as the Wolves focus on a single goal, to help Snowpain score just one point. That just leaves one blocker to try and stop Hammer from scoring the last point.”

Another ripple in the dream, and the last blocker Cadance had to pass shifted to a black coated mare with a green mane. It was a color scheme Nyx found familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Her attention was now truly focused on the last seconds of the game. Perhaps it was the excitement of the dream crowd or seeing her aunt performing so spectacularly, but she was now rooting for the Sombra Shadows.

“Fifteen seconds left! Snowpain still trying to find a hole. The Hammer is coming up on Black Dragon. Can she make the final push? The Hammer jukes, but Black Dragon moves to block. But... wait! Black Dragon went too wide. She lost speed! The Hammer falls, she passes Black Dragon. The Shadows are one point ahead with seven seconds left on the clock. But wait! Black Dragon is falling back. Can the full force of the Everfree Wolves open up a hole for their jammer? Can Snowpain make the two points she needs to reassure victory for her team? She may have an opening. The Wolves are brute forcing the core of the pack to the outer edge of the track. Three seconds, and Snowpain may have her opening!”

Nyx eyes were locked on Snowpain. She was going for the inside edge of the track. Two seconds, and she was at the edge of the hole. One second, and she was trying to charge forward, but then the opening was closed. Cadance, after passing the Black Dragon, had fallen back to join the jammers. Cadance flashed a smile back over her shoulder just as the clock hit zero and a buzzer filled the air. The crowd’s cheers rose like a wave while some unicorns in the crowd shot out miniture firework spells. The announcer was screaming into his microphone just to be heard.

“The Sombra Shadows win! The Shining Hammer pulled another match out of the fire! The Sombra Shadows win!”

“Woo! Hammer rocks!” Nyx shouted right along with the crowd. She stomped her hooves and raised her voice as loud as she could. It was a good dream. Perhaps there was never really any chance Cadance’s team wouldn’t win, but the excitement of the moment had pulled Nyx in.

~~~

“Hard to believe this is all a dream cooked up by some worm,” Cadance said as she and Nyx were standing on the street outside the arena. She was bandaged in a few places, but otherwise Cadance was smiling from her hard won victory.

“I don’t think the worm really makes the dreams,” Nyx said as she watched the last parts of the audience filter out of the arena and into the streets of the Crystal Empire. “This mouth just eats certain parts, and I guess that encourages your mind to fill in the gaps with new things, normally better things. This is still your dream.”

Cadance chuckled a little. “Probably not the dream you were expecting when you came in here.”

“Well... I was kind of right about it being in the Crystal Empire,” Nyx said as she looked to the distance and saw the Crystal Palace. It was glowing subtly, the ambient light from the Crystal Heart and the aurora borealis created by the palace and the heart. “I’m surprised you know so much about stuff like this.”

“It’s funny how it started. Rarity told Twilight she saw some mare that looked like me at a derby in Manehatten. Twilight told Shining, and Shining told me. He and I then looked into it, and there is a real Shining Hammer. She gets her mane dyed like mine as part of her gimmick, and I guess I’ve been thinking about it a bit recently because of the pregnancy.”

“Aren’t you happy to be having a foal?”

Cadance quickly looked down at Nyx. “Of course I am. It’s like a dream come true. I have Shining as my prince, we rule the Crystal Empire, and now we’re going to have a family of our own. For some ponies, it’s practically a happily ever after end to my story. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, and honestly, it’s leaving me a little stir crazy. Sure, I was never an adventurer like Daring Do, but I did love to rollerblade once. When I became a princess though, all my tutors and advisors told me it was unbecoming of Equestrian royalty to roll anywhere like that.

“I’d never give up what I have with Shining, but I won’t deny having a dream like this is nice.” Cadance laughed a little and pushed a bit of her mane out of her face. “Though, it looks like the adventure isn’t quite over yet. We have to get to Twilight, and maybe I can actually lend a hoof this time.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. Still, this dream orb was bigger than any of the other ones I saw. Is there anyone else in here with you?”

“You know... I think there are. I saw them before my match started. That diamond dog, Biscuit, was placing a bet at the arena. It was all spiffed up in a fancy suit with a diamond top cane, diamond cufflinks, a diamond pocket watch, and I think he had a few diamond teeth as well. I also saw that changeling before that, S43. I saw her at a cafe outside the arena. She was wearing glasses and was talking with a few other ponies. They had a mountain of books next to them, and they were discussing something on papers. It’s almost something I’d expect to see Twilight doing.”

“Then we should go get them,” Nyx said, looking across the street to hopefully spot the cafe. “I don’t think I can get anyone else out of their dreams. We have to get everyone we can help from this dream and the one Spike went into, and then try to reach Twilight’s dream. She’s our only hope of escaping from the ouroboros.”

“Good thing she’s always been such a good student. If our rescue depended on me remembering my paper on Unicornia History I did back in school, we’d be in deep trouble. The only thing I can remember is the title.” Cadance raised her hoof up in the air, sweeping it from left to right. “Unicornia and its Undeniably Unsettling Underbelly.”

Nyx couldn’t help but snicker a little. “That’s a lot of U’s.”

“Yeah, but it got me an A.”

Belly of the Beast

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 13

Belly of the Beast

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

The sun was red from the smoke of a thousand fires. The ravenous flames speckled the horizon, consuming forests, meadows, villages, and cities alike. They swept and roared, ever moving across the landscape, fueled by the driving wind. There was no relief from the heat. There were no pegasi in the sky to bring rain to deter the fire’s advance. There were no unicorns with spells to smother the blaze. There were no earth ponies with their mighty strength to dig fire trenches. For even on a day when all of Equestria was burning, the ponies could not stop to save their homes and businesses.

Not when their lives and freedom were in such greater danger.

The diamond dogs had risen up under the leadership of their new lord and master. With the magic of the kingdom sucked away, the ponies could not stand against the dogs. The dogs pillaged and ransacked, an unforgiving tide that was washing across the landscape and leaving nothing but the fires in their wake. Ponies who surrendered were brought to heel, shackled and marched to labor camps where they would attempt to sate dogs’ bottomless greed for gemstones. Ponies who resisted were killed where they stood, left beaten, bloodied, and unburied where they fell. Those who hid were spared the dogs' wrath, but were often sealed into their homes to face the inescapable fires. It was a tragedy, a genocide of ponykind being played out with cruel efficiency. Lives, millennia of culture and traditions, and vast stores of wisdom were all being wiped away, to become nothing more than a footnote in the history books of the conquerors.

It was all happening before Twilight's eyes, and it was all her fault.

The sharp cry of another young life being snuffed made her strain against her confinement. To the top of a tower of Night Stone Castle, she had been chained. A shackle wore away at the fur in her neck and ankles. Her wings were gone, plucked from her back like petals from a flower before the stumps were cauterized by fire. Her horn was dust on the wind, smashed by the swift strike of a dog's hammer, leaving only a splintered base behind. She was bloodied. She was beaten, but unlike others, she was not allowed to die nor was she enslaved. Her torment was to watch, to remain nothing but an observer of all the disaster wrought because of her failure. Her friends, the other princesses, Discord, and even her family had either been slain or chained, and it was all her fault.

"That one sounded particularly gruesome, don't you think Princess? I wonder if it was another little pegasi getting his wings plucked. The diamond dogs do seem to have taken a liking to making themselves necklaces and headdresses from the spoils of war."

Tirek chuckled to himself as he sat on his throne. After absorbing all the magic of the nation once more, the centaur had regained his gigantic stature. The ruins of Night Stone Castle were now his seat, the rubble of bricks and beams plenty comfortable for his near impervious hide. The only part of the castle that remained undamaged was the tower where Twilight was chained, a tower that raised her up to Tirek's eye level like a bird in a cage. He surveyed the destruction of the nation like an artist admiring his masterpiece. He had returned with fury, and this time there were no Elements, no box, and no tree to help save the day. Only Twilight and her friends had stood against Tirek, and they had fallen. They had failed, and now all of Equestria was suffering for it.

The unforgiving wind brought a rise of smells to Twilight's nose. She would have cried, but dehydration had set in. Her lips were split. Her tongue was dry, swollen, and heavy in her mouth. She might have passed out if not for Tirek's magic. It alone kept her on the brink of survival. Too weak to fight, too strong to die, and unable to do anything but bear witness to the results of her failure. Another sharp cry in the distance, from the smoldering remains of Ponyville, reached Twilight's ears. It was a foal, a newborn, who was now in a very cruel world without its parents. Tirek too heard the noise, and he drew up a hand in the direction of the town.

"I think I hear an after-dinner mint," Tirek said as his magic located the foal. The tiny pony was drawn from the wreckage of Ponyville, carried by a levitation spell until it was floating before Twilight and Tirek. It was a filly Twilight didn't recognize. The only babies she really knew well were Pumpkin and Pound Cake. Yet, she tugged at her shackles with renewed vigor, trying to reach the filly as she continued to wail in the grip of Tirek's magic.

With but a gentle inhale, the spark of magic left the filly and was drawn into Tirek's mouth. He smacked his lips at what was possibly the last taste of Equestrian magic in the world. He then turned and looked at Twilight, a sneer forming on his lips as his levitation spell carried the child within Twilight's reach. She looked on in disbelief, but didn't hesitate a moment. She scooped the filly away from Tirek's magic, and tried to calm the filly with sweet whispers and gentle rocking.

"Oh, isn't that sweet. Your sense of motherhood is strong even now." Tirek chuckled as he rested his chin on one of his palms. "It's a shame you weren't able to offer such condolences to your own daughter as her life drained from her body."

"It will be alright." Twilight payed no attention to Tirek, devoting all she could offer to the filly. A sweet little thing, with a long curly mane, cream colored coat, and blue eyes that matched her hair. "I won't let him hurt you."

"You won't let me," Tirek said, his smile growing like he was tasting a delectable treat. "I'm tempted to let you keep that little promise you just made, you just have to do one little thing."

Twilight looked in Tirek's direction. "Anything."

"Drop her."

Twilight's blood froze as Tirek's words echoed into the very depths of her soul. She looked at the filly, now just starting to calm down. She had just been scared, but the presence of a caring adult was quieting her cries. Twilight felt Tirek's shadow loom behind her, his hot breath washing over her body with every syllable. "I will enslave that filly in the worst diamond mine. As soon as she can walk, she'll work. She will never know anything but my iron fisted rule, and I will personally ensure her suffering will be of legendary quality. But if you drop her right now, let her fall from the top of your tower, then she'll be spared. Kill the filly, Twilight, and you can save her from a fate far worse than death."

"No... No I won’t." Twilight clutched the foal tighter, even as she felt Tirek's magic trying to pull her away. "No, no, no, no."

"You can't stop me, Twilight. There's no hope for you or this nation. But maybe you can save this little one. Stain your hooves with her blood, and she'll never know how horribly you failed your family, your friends, and your kingdom." Tirek cast a little magic out, and the filly giggled. A tickle, a tease, and the filly was smiling in Twilight's embrace. "You can make her last moments happy. All you have to do is drop her."

A few tears managed to squeeze out of Twilight's eyes. She kept shaking her head, trying to defy Tirek and his sick game. But then she felt the filly being pulled away, and she snapped. She held her even tighter, and shouted to the sky. "I'll do it."

Tirek sat back in his ruined castle of a throne, and made a small, urging gesture with his hand. Twilight glared him down for a few seconds, but then looked back down at the foal. The foal with a cream colored coat and purple mane, a mane so much like Nyx's. A tremor filled her heart, and her breathing became short. Yet, Twilight inched herself to the edge of the tower. Far below, all that awaited the foal was a pile of shattered stone and splintered timbers. It was certain death, but still the filly giggled. Such a lovely voice, like a glass harp. Twilight's lip trembled as she began to hold the filly at leg's length.

It was such a beautiful filly, with her black coat and purple mane. She was so much like Nyx. Twilight wouldn't deny, she had wondered at times what Nyx would have been like as a younger foal. As a mother, she had been spared the dirty diapers but did not get to see a first wobbly step or to hear Nyx babble incoherently as foals tend to do. Now she had to deny this filly a chance of growing up, to spare her the horrors she'd experience in Tirek's world. She wanted to believe there was hope, that Tirek could be felled. Yet, there was no one left to fight. There was no more magic to fight with.

Everyone she loved and cared for was dead or enslaved. The least she could do was save this one filly.

"I'm sorry. It will be okay," she said, trying to force a smile as her whole body trembled. She tried to let go, but she couldn't. She could not make herself do it. She tried to bring the filly back to her chest, but then there was a nudge from Tirek's magic. The filly slipped, tumbling free of Twilight's grip. She gasped and reached, but the chains on her shackles snapped taut, holding her back.

"Failed again, Princess Twilight Sparkle," Tirek said, watching the whole scene play out like it was an amusing little puppet show. The filly dropped, her giggles turning to screams as fear once more filled her tiny body to capacity. Twilight looked down from the edge of the tower, the stubs of her wings trying to grant her flight as her horn sputtered with broken magic. She reached with her forehoof, pleading that something would give. She prayed that the shackles or her own joints would break apart and let her fall, so she could save the filly or join in the release of death.

But no such mercy occurred. The filly fell and fell and fell until she was but a breath away from the stones. Twilight wanted to close her eyes. She wanted to cover her ears and deaden all her senses, but she could not look away. She could only strain against her shackles one final time, reaching for the filly as a few dry rasps of words escaped her lips. "I'm sorry."

The filly hit the stones.

She bounced back into the air.

Both Tirek and Twilight gawked in disbelief as the filly bounced like a ball back up to the top of the tower, returning to Twilight's waiting forelegs. She couldn't believe it. She even wondered if her mind had snapped and this was just a hallucination. But she didn't care. Twilight lavished the filly with hugs and kisses, fresh and bountiful tears flowing from her eyes. Tears of joy flowed freely where tears of sorrow had gone dry. Tirek bore a deep scowl as he rose from his throne and looked down at the rubble that should have been the foal's death. "What magic is this?"

"Why, it's our latest and greatest invention: Super Baby Proofing Spray.”

“Never fear with your dear baby. One quick spray takes all the danger away."

Twilight looked in the direction of the voices, seeing two ponies standing on Tirek's back. The Flim Flam Brothers gave a happy wave to her as they stood, wearing their famed show pony smiles. "We hope that in the future, Princess, we can count on you for a glowing recommendation for all our products."

"I don't know how you two eluded me, but now your magic is mine." Tirek opened his mouth, unhinging it as far as he could before beginning to draw on the brothers' magic. Yet, with a sharp crack, a punch connected with his chin. His jaw snapped shut, and the gigantic centaur was sent tumbling back into Twilight's lone tower. The stone battlement managed to remain standing against the blow, but Twilight had to hug the filly tight to her chest to be sure she wouldn't lose her grip a second time.

"Hope you didn't fill up on all that magic, Tirek, because the all-you-can-eat buffet of butt kicking just opened."

Twilight knew that voice. Her dry lips cracked into a smile, and she strained at her shackles. He was standing on top of a pile of rubble, red cape flapping in a wind and his claws formed tightly into fists. Even through the smoke and the haze, she knew those scales and she knew those spines. She couldn't believe it. It had to be a hallucination. Her sanity had to have fled her mind upon seeing the filly die. Yet, she smiled all the same, cheering his name to the sky.

"Spike!"

"The dragon? It's not possible," Tirek said as he climbed back to his hooves. "I slew you myself. I used you and the alicorn filly to break Twilight's mind. You can't be alive!"

"Well, let's check. Heart beating. Lungs breathing. Fists punching. I think that qualifies me as alive and kicking. And speaking of kicking." Spike knelt down, then leapt forward with astounding force. He flew through the air like he had been hurled by a catapult. Tirek tried to raise his hands to swat Spike away, but the centaur reacted too slowly. Spike got in close and delivered a roundhouse kick directly to Tirek's jaw. Like the punch before it, the force of the blow made Tirek stumble. He fell into the tower that Twilight stood upon, and this time the stones could not withstand the impact. The tower began to crumble, leaving Twilight to scream. She clutched the filly to her chest and closed her eyes as they plummeted to the ground below.

"I got ya!"

Twilight felt the embrace of magic envelope her, warm and familiar. She opened her eyes and looked up, and once more her heart soared with a fountain of joy. It was Cadance. She was supposed to be dead. Her, Shining, and their unborn foal were supposed to have been crushed beneath the Crystal Palace when Tirek destroyed it. Yet her coat was pristine, and she looked like she had never been pregnant. "You're alive!" Twilight shouted above the sound of the wind as Cadance flew towards a nearby hilltop.

"I was never dead," Cadance said as the pair landed, joining two other figures on the top of the hill. One was Biscuit, though Twilight hardly recognized him. He was in a dapper little suit with diamonds for buttons and cufflinks. He stood with a diamond topped cane, and even one of his teeth had been replaced with a diamond. The other was a changeling, S43, though she now wore a pair of reading glasses and a pair of saddlebags laden with books.

"Good catch!" Biscuit cheered. "Biscuit thought you wouldn't catch her." There was a gentle tap on his shoulder from S43, and he sighed and tossed a few dreamed up diamonds from his pocket into her waiting hoof.

“Thank you,” S43 said, putting the diamonds in with her books before approaching Twilight, her magic reaching for the shackles. “Let me try and get those things off.”

"But this isn't possible." Twilight tried to shy away from S43, but the changeling didn't allow it. "You two helped Tirek take over. Biscuit, you were with Duke when he took the Crystal Empire. I watched it through Tirek's vision spell. S43, you and the changelings infiltrated and brought down the barrier around Canterlot. Cadance, I watched you die. I watched you get crushed with Shining."

"Biscuit no longer works for Duke. Biscuit help ponies! Biscuit love ponies! Ponies going to give Biscuit two suitcases of gemstone for helping!" The small diamond dog clutched his diamond-topped cane to his chest. "So many gems."

"But I saw--"

"Twilight, listen to me." Cadance put her hooves on her sister-in-law's shoulders, forcing Twilight to look her straight in the eye. "No one’s dead. None of this is real. This is just a--"

"What are you talking about? Look around you." Twilight pulled herself away from Cadance, still clutching the filly to her chest. Her wing stubs fidgeted, as if she was trying to point with the feathers that weren't there anymore. "It's a miracle you're all alive. You have to run, before Tirek kills you. Just take Spike and get out of Equestria. There is no stopping Tirek now."

"You have to calm down and listen, Twilight. Remember the trick I taught you." Cadance brought a hoof to her chest, drawing in a breath as she did. She then extended her hoof out while exhaling.

"You think that's going to help? Equestria is dead, and I killed it. I failed to stop Tirek! I failed my friends when it mattered most, and now everyone but you and Spike are dead! Breathing isn't going to bring anyone back. Breathing isn't going to do anything!" Twilight was screaming, unleashing all her pent up rage on Cadance. "I failed, we failed, and you're telling me to breathe!? You should be worrying about yourself, about your child!"

Cadance winced, and a resounding boom filled the air. All eyes turned to look at Tirek, who had unleashed a powerful blast of magical energy. The Flim Flam Brothers were flying some sort of contraption of metal and wood, launching beams of magic at Tirek while Spike picked himself up off the ground. He wiped away some blood from his nose, then leapt back into the fray.

"How?"

Cadance's pained word made Twilight look back, seeing her step-sister sinking to the ground as she placed a hoof on her gravid belly. "See, you have to think about your foal's life, Cadance. Just run away!"

S43 moved up beside Cadance, her words hushed as she offered a hoof to help. "I thought--"

"She's one of the most brilliant unicorns in Equestria." Cadance hauled herself back up to her hooves, wobbling a little as she tried to get her balance. "She's also one of the most imaginative when it comes to bad situations. I guess we should have known this wasn't going to be easy. Also, for the record Twilight, I am not this big."

"Of course you are. You're pregnant!" Twilight shouted, stepping back from the trio. "Biscuit, S, just take Cadance and leave. I'll run the other way. Maybe I can get away with this little one. Maybe we can escape. Escape is the only option. We can't beat Tirek. It's impossible. Spike, Flim, and Flam should just run.”

A sharp slap cut the air, making Cadance and Biscuit wince. S43 had finished with the shackles, but was now glaring down the princess. “You are are too hysterical, Princess Sparkle. You must listen and—”

Twilight slapped S43 back, interrupting the changeling just as rudely. “No, you aren’t hysterical enough! Tirek has all the magic in Equestria. He’s too powerful. Tirek is going to blow everyone away."

Another earth-shaking boom erupted from the fight. A huge cloud of smoke enveloped the area where Tirek had been, and three figures were sent flying through air, leaving behind black trails of smoke. Cadance extended her magic, reaching out to catch the Flim Flam Brothers. Spike was not as fortunate, the muscular dragon crashed to the ground at Twilight's hooves, leaving a deep crater in the ground. He was singed and scrapped, but even through his injuries, he struggled to pull himself up. "I don't get it. Why is this happening?"

"Because you can't beat Tirek," Twilight said as she stood on the edge of the crater. "You shouldn't have come back for me. You should have just saved yourself, Spike. If you had done that, you would have had a chance to save Equestria. You could have done what I failed to do."

"Twilight, you haven't failed. This is just a--"

"Yes I did. Tirek won. That means I lost. I lost everything. I lost my friends. I lost my home. I lost my family. The fact any of you are alive is either a miracle or a delusion. Now run! Run before it's too late!"

"It is already too late." Tirek stepped out of the wall of smoke caused by his attack, towering over Twilight and the others like an angry deity. The orb of magic between his horns glowed a murderous red, and his eyes were focused on the ponies below like they were insects to be squashed. "This rebellion ends now."

Biscuit hid behind Cadance's tail, and pointed at Tirek with his cane. "Is that bad? That looks bad! Biscuit thinks that is bad!"

"Where did that attack come from? We were winning," Flam said, his mustache and eyebrows singed.

"It's Twilight. She's so sure we can't win, that she's making us lose," S43 said.

"What about Nyx?" Cadance asked. "Where is she? She was supposed to follow us in. Maybe she can talk some sense into her."

"Nyx is dead." Twilight clutched the filly to her chest tightly, embracing her as Tirek prepared to unleash his attack. "And soon, we're all going to be dead too. All because of me." She looked up at Tirek's orb of magic, the world growing silent around her as the inevitable end raced towards them. She was sorry. She wished she could go back and change it. She wished she could go back and make it all better. At the very least, she wished she could go back for just a moment, to see everyone’s smiling faces again. She could picture them now. Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Celestia, Luna, Shining, Cadance, Spike, and Nyx. She would give anything to see them all again, alive and happy.

Perhaps, even in the last moments, she could imagine it was true. That they were all alive, and that she was hugging Nyx and Spike to her chest.

That they were a happy family again.

Tirek's spell was unleashed. It enveloped them within moments. It was hot, and the light was so bright it threatened to sear Twilight's eyes. Yet, the only pain she felt was the same aches she had been enduring on top of the tower. Was this death? To be cursed to live your last moment for an eternity? Maybe that was a fitting punishment. She'd never be able to forget just how royally she had screwed up the world.

Yet, eternity did not last. The blinding light began to fade, to be replaced with a subtle glow of dark purple. Twilight's vision began to clear, and her ears rang from the aftershock of the blast. She began to feel again. She felt the dirt beneath her hooves, but something was missing. The filly was gone. Twilight grasped at her chest and looked to the ground. She could not find the filly. Where had the filly gone? Perhaps more important, how did they survive?

She looked towards Tirek, and saw a figure standing between them and the mountainous villain. It was a mare with a tall, royal stature. She wore battle armor, and was a mare most would call Nightmare Moon. Yet, the distinctive blue shield on her flank made the air catch in Twilight's lungs. It couldn't be? Yet, if Spike had survived, maybe it was true. Could she dare to let herself believe that her family had survived?

"Spike, are you okay?"

"Little scuffed, that's all. Where were you?" Spike stood up and walked up beside the armored alicorn as her barrier spell faded.

"Twilight's dream wouldn't let me in when she began wanting everyone to run away. Her imagination was being stubborn."

"That sure sounds like our Twilight," Spike chuckled as he popped his knuckles. "Now, how do we want to do this?"

"You attack, I defend," the armored alicorn said as she spread her wings. "And we show this bad dream we're not scared of it."

"Dream?" Twilight muttered, her mind trying to grasp what was being said. She reached out for the pair, but they leapt into battle with Tirek. The giant centaur bellowed in fury, but the two fought undaunted. Spike landed blows, causing Tirek to stagger. The centaur cast out his magic in devastating beams of red magic, but they crashed against the alicorn’s shield spells like water against a rocky shore. Together, the two were not only holding their ground, but they were beating Tirek back.

Yet, to Twilight, the true miracle of the moment was in one simple fact. "They're alive. Nyx and Spike are both alive."

"Yes," Cadance said as she moved up beside Twilight. "No one is dead. None of this happened. This is just a dream. Remember the Ouroboros. Remember the mountains."

Twilight stared at Cadance a moment, as if the words had been spoken in a foreign language. Then the realization hit, and the memories hidden behind the dreams veil broke free. The snapping of the Ouroboros' jaws, the fall into darkness. A shiver crept up Twilight's spine. Her breathing became shallow, and she looked to the sky like it might constrict around them. “We're in the belly of a giant snake!"

"The snake part isn't really what's important," Cadance said with a sharp snap to her words. "Spike said you'd know how to get us out."

"Right right, the Ouroboros dream-eating part is what's important.” Twilight closed her eyes, shook her head, and was trying to control her breathing. Twilight then tapped her hoof against her forehead, trying to make certain knowledge bubble to the surface.

"Okay, there's never been one this big in recorded history. I had heard some theories that the Rainbow Range's uniquely burning trees were possibly caused by a high Ouroboros population. This was even a prime hunting ground in the early years of the kingdom when they were used as a cure for bad dreams. It was right after Princess Luna's coup, when Equestria was having to deal with its worst nightmares for the first time."

A beam of Tirek's magic went wide from the fight, cutting a trench through the ground near Twilight, Cadance, Biscuit, Flim, Flam, and S43, nearly blowing the six off balance. Biscuit leapt onto S43's back, and the changeling glared at the nearby princesses as she shouted above the sounds of combat. "Do you think you could remember something useful?"

"I'm trying!" Twilight snapped back before she stomped her hoof and smiled. "Wait, that's it. We have to find the snake. To manipulate the dreamer, the Ouroboros has to anchor itself inside the dream of the creature it's feeding on. If we find it, we can make it release us or make it leave the dream. If it does the former, we escape. If it does the latter, then we'll wake up and still be able to escape." Twilight's nose scrunched, and her brow furrowed as something wasn't adding up in her head. "But, how did all of you get here without knowing that?"

"It was Nyx and Spike," Cadance said, looking up to the pair as they were continuing to battle Tirek. "Nyx was able to get out of her dream, and Spike figured out what this was and what they needed to do to save everyone. If it weren't for them, we'd probably have been trapped in here until Luna or Celestia came looking for us."

Twilight turned slowly, looking up at the battle of titans happening before her. Nyx and Spike weren't just safe, they were saving everyone else. They were young. The attempts at inserting witty, super hero banter into their fight made it clear to Twilight that the more mature bodies only masked the dragon and filly she cared for. But at the same time, they were perhaps more capable than she had given them credit. They escaped the diamond dogs and found the Flim Flam Brothers. They had gotten out of their dreams and we're now trying to rescue her. They were stronger than she gave them credit, and why wouldn't they be? They had both faced their own obstacles in life and overcome them.

They were doing what she would have failed to do on her own. Equestria needed her, but if she failed, it wouldn't spell certain doom. There were a lot of good ponies in Equestria. A lot of good ponies who would take up the fight if she and her friends failed. Even robbed of their magic, Equestria would find a way to fight back. And if it couldn't be done alone, then they would reach out for their friends. The griffins, the zebra, the yaks, and all the other species of the world.

Equestria had friends, and when it came down to the wire, they could count on those friends to help.

That was what was wonderful about friendship. Your friends help you, and if that's not enough, your friends will call in their friends. It was an ever extending web that encompassed the whole world, and when every single hoof, claw, wing, and horn helped, then there was nothing they couldn't overcome.

Twilight smiled as she fidgeted her wing stubs, an aura of her magic starting to encircle her form. She had responsibilities. If Equestria needed her, then she'd stand up to do all she could. She and her friends would use the powers given to them by the Tree of Harmony, but if that wasn't enough, then they'd reach out their hooves. They'd ask the princesses for help. They'd ask Discord for help. They'd ask Zecora for help. They'd ask the ponies of Ponyville for help. They'd ask the world for help. She'd ask Spike and Nyx for help, and eventually, they would be able to defeat any evil that tried to plague their lives.

Because that was the magic of friendship.

Cadance and the others had to shield their eyes as a bright pillar of magic enveloped Twilight. It was warm and bright, like a beacon to an entire nation. The sky darkened, clouds blotting out the red sun before a rejuvenating rain poured over the land. The fires of war extinguished, and in the distance, the shouts of battle cries began to fill the airs. From the cloud cover, griffins descended in force , assaulting the diamond dog hordes. At the same time, an army of zebra galloped from the forests to flank the enemy. In a single stroke, Tirek's war was being swung in the other direction.

The pillar of magic that enveloped Twilight collapsed, revealing a much more regal looking mare. Her mane was long and flowing, like a star field of tiny lights marked only by the natural bands of color. She was clad in armor reminiscent of the Crystal Empire's jousting armor, full body plate mail with a helmet that funneled her mane into a regal mohawk. For a moment Twilight stood there, then she brought a single hoof to her chest. She took in a deep breath, then exhaled as she extended her hoof outward. She performed the single gesture to calm her nerves and center her mind, and then Twilight took off like a firework.

Nyx had up her shield spell, trying to keep herself and Spike from being crushed in Tirek's hands. His grip tightened, but the barrier refused to budge as Nyx stood steadfast. That was when Twilight flew in. She unleashed a narrow beam of magic, shooting it between Tirek's horns before turning her head sharply to the left. The beam followed, cutting through Tirek's horn like a hot knife through butter. She lopped off the horn with that single spell, forcing Tirek to shout in pain. He brought up his right hand to grasp his new stump, and fell to one knee as the sudden, sharp pain overwhelmed him.

Nyx and Spike took the opportunity to escape Tirek's grasp. Nyx flew up to where Twilight was with Spike on her back, the both of them smiling at her. "Way to go, Twilight!" Spike shouted as he pumped his fist in the air.

"Thanks, but I think it's high time we all got out of dreamland. So, want to help me finish him off?"

"You can't finish me off. You'll never finish me off," Tirek said, glaring down the two mares and dragon. "I’ll wait, and sooner or later, you'll fail, Twilight Sparkle. Sooner or later, you won't be around to save Equestria, and then every drop of pony magic will be mine."

"No, it won't." Twilight's horn began to glow as she and Nyx began to fly towards Tirek while Spike leapt off to land on the ground below. "Because even if I fail, someone will always stop you. I trust my friends. I trust my family, and I trust the nation of Equestria."

Nyx rushed ahead of Twilight, soaring behind Tirek before forming her barrier spell. She slammed herself into his back, tackling him with all her might. Tirek shouted as he lost his balance and toppled forward, though even above his shout, Nyx’s words range out into the sky. "Because Equestria is the kingdom of friends."

Spike positioned himself directly where Tirek was going to fall. He spun his fist around, then swung it through a sharp, theatrical uppercut. His fist connected with Tirek's jaw, and the force of the blow sent the centaur soaring upward. "And you're all alone with your anger," Spike said as he shook out his fist.

Tirek tumbled through the air, soaring higher and higher. Twilight was waiting at what would be the pinnacle of his flight, a massive blast of energy prepared in her horn as she glared down the face that had tormented her through so many nightmares. "And friendship will always beat hatred. Now get out of my dreams!"

With a turn of her head, Twilight pointed her horn downward and into Tirek's face. Her spell unleashed, a beam of magic large enough it enveloped Tirek's entire, gigantic body. He screamed and yelled, flailed and fought, but his form was shrinking as the stolen magic was being freed from his body. Soon, he was but a shriveled old centaur once more. He fell from the sky, and beneath him a gateway to Tartarus opened, greedily awaiting his return. He disappeared into the portal, with not a word or shout of revenge, and with a snap, the gates of Tartarus closed shut once more.

Tirek was gone from the world, gone from Twilight's dreams, and she couldn't help but smile as blue skies returned to Equestria. Everyone was rushing towards her as she descended back to the ground below. It may have been just a dream, but Spike was bursting with excitement over how they had so spectacularly beat Tirek. Nyx was all smiles as she circled Twilight, cheering and throwing her hooves skyward.

"Okay, okay everyone, I know you're all happy, but we're not done yet," Twilight said as she landed gingerly. "We have to find the Ouroboros, and if it's not in my dream, we have to check the others. We aren't out of the," she paused a moment to shiver, "the snake's belly yet."

~~~

Within moments, Cadance was drenched by the unforgiving rain. The water came down like it was spouting from a shower head while thick, heavy clouds obscured every inch of the sky beyond. She felt soft grass beneath her hooves, and could hear nothing but the cacophony of the rain hitting the ground. It was a far different nightmare than the one of fire and destruction Twilight had faced, but it was feeling like a nightmare all the same. While the others worked to find the Ouroboros in the good dreams of the guards, Cadance had volunteered to search in her husband's dream for both him and the snake.

Casting a barrier above her, Cadance shielded herself from the rain, preventing her from getting further soaked. She then began to walk, climbing up the soft grassed hill in front of her. That seemed to be all there was to the dream. The storm above and rolling hills of grass below. Cadance could not see Shining anywhere, and was beginning to fear what she would find. She didn't think he was scared of rainstorms, and she knew he wasn't scared of grass, so then what could his nightmare be?

Cadance got her answer when she reached the crest of the hill.

On a neighboring hill stood a solitary tree, and beneath the solitary tree Cadance saw two things. The first was Shining. He was seated in the grass with his head hanging down. He was doing nothing to protect himself from the rain. He and his military uniform were soaked to the bone. The second was a stone statue, one depicting an alicorn mare curled and sleeping peacefully. Cadance couldn't see any further details through the rain, but her heart sank in her chest none the less. She lingered where she stood a few moments longer, then walked toward the neighboring hill.

Each step closer revealed more details of the statue. Cadance saw her cutie mark on the flank of the stone alicorn. She saw, resting with the stone rendition of herself, a tiny little foal. It was hard to tell if it was a filly or a colt, but the meaning of the stone carving was becoming all too clear. She stopped when she was almost directly behind Shining. There, she could see the words carved into the stone, the letters etching themselves onto her heart as she read them.

"Here lies Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and her unborn child. One lost to us trying to bring life into this world. The other lost before a life could begin."

Cadance brought a hoof to her chest, struggling to breathe as the muscles in her chest and neck grew tight. A tear escaped her eye and trickled down her cheek, eventually finding the crease formed by her lips, the crease of a smile. Her lips were trembling, but the smile on her face was undeniable. She could not take her eyes off Shining, nor could she bring herself to dry her eyes. Such happy tears deserved to flow like a river, for Shining’s greatest nightmare showed the strength of his love.

With the rain hiding her tears, but not her smile, Cadance took one final step and extended her wing. Her feathers stopped the rain falling on Shining, and he turned to look at who had interrupted his mourning. He stared at her in disbelief, but as he rose from his hooves, the rain lightened. As a smile formed on his face, the clouds broke apart to reveal the most pristine blue sky Cadance could ever witness. A sky being entirely ignored as she and her dear husband embraced. Shining wailed and cried into her shoulder, and Cadance held him tight and nuzzled into his mane. Her tombstone crumbled away, and the grass grew to fill in the square of dirt left behind. The hill was pristine once more, as if it had never been marked by headstone.

And on the grass, its hiding place removed and existence exposed, was a two-headed snake with rainbow scales.

~~~

"Are you sure this is the right place, Grandpa?"

"Ah, it is no doubt, map points here."

"The local rocks show signs of being disturbed. It was a snake. It is larger than a train."

"You vere right about the boulders up stream and rapids, but there is no vay there giant snake up here."

At that moment, the island at the center of the lake burst asunder for a second time. The giant Ouroboros roared, extending half of its massive length above the ground. It tossed and it flailed, then spewed mucus skyward like it was a great geyser. The first spew sent four figures sailing towards the distant trees on the opposite shore. Then the creature roared a second time before pointing its mouth downward and vomiting straight into the lake. Its foamy spittle floated on the surface, but as the Ouroboros retracted into its hole, several heads began to pop out of the water.

"Vell, if it isn't favorite customers!" Lumber Jack shouted. He gave a wave of his hoof before he took a grip of the boat’s oars and began to paddle closer. Along with him in the boat was a young filly and Maud, who was reaching out her hoof to the nearest pony.

"What are you doing here?" Twilight asked as she began to paddle towards the boat. Shining was using his magic to levitate Cadance into the boat. Biscuit was being pulled in by Maud while S43 waited for the same aid. Nyx and Spike were paddling right next to Twilight, splashing around a little in the water to try and wash off the Ouroboros' spit.

"I came looking for you. He had a map," Maud finished pulling Biscuit in before motioning to Lumber Jack.

"A true vood stallion always has map of mountains," Lumber Jack said with a big booming voice. "And good thing too. Maud tells me you’ve been through quite the adventure."

"It's been rough," Twilight admitted as she levitated Spike and Nyx out of the water and into the boat. "But hopefully it's over now."

"Ah, vith Lumber Jack around, you have nothing to vorry. Now, come and hurry into boat. You all need big dinner and varm beds. And both of those things can be found in Lumberton!"

Yllissi Thgi Liwt

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 14

Yllissi Thgi Liwt

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

"That... was... absolutely... delicious." Warm laughter rolled around the table at Cadance's words as she sat back in her seat, patting her pregnant belly and licking her lips.

The group found themselves in the warm, welcoming embrace of Lumberton. Much of the populace gladly welcomed the royal family of the Crystal Empire. Their presence, and Lumber Jack’s infectious enthusiasm, was rousing an impromptu festival from the quiet mountain town. Lumberton Lodge became the heart of the celebration. The rustic behemoth of a cabin, constructed of stacked logs on a stone foundation, often acted as a home base for tourists. Hikers in the Summer, campers in the Spring, and skiers in the Winter found the lodge and its staff wonderfully welcoming.

For tonight, Lumberton Lodge’s great doors were propped open to the street beyond, where dancing and food stalls had assembled amidst lantern light. The inn’s interior was crowded, but there was not one pony who complained about tight quarters. The space was filled with laughter, cheers, and song. At the largest table, Twilight and everyone else ate and drank merrily, enjoying a feast of a meal.

It was like a Hearth's Warming dinner with all the trimmings, and everyone ate greedily of the spread. No one was excluded from the table either. The Flim Flam Brothers sat to the left of Nyx, with Twilight on the right, telling of all the marvelous things they had invented in their dream world to her. Spike was on the other side of Twilight, regaling her with tales of his super heroic exploits in Maretropolis. On the other side of the table, Cadance and Shining sat. Maud was to their left, and to their right was S43 and Biscuit. The short Diamond Dog had eaten like a possessed canine. S43, disguised as a plain mare of greenish tones, had been allowed to sip ever so gently on Cadance’s love for such a craving-conquering meal.

And at the head of the table, roaring with laughter and eating almost as much as Cadance, was their self-proclaimed host. “Ah, Cadance, you have appetite like my vife had. Your child going to be big and strong, Lumber Jack is sure.” The burly stallion leaned back from his own plate, stomach satisfied. “But vhat of everyone else? Surely little doggie vould like another piece of pie.”

“Biscuit—” He burped as he laid sprawled out on the pony sized cushion he had been given. “Biscuit only wants to pass out.”

“Too bad. Lumber Jack vas impressed by how much little doggie was eating. Vhat about everyone else? Come, come, there is plenty to go around.”

“I think we’re good,” Shining said with a chuckle as he held and nuzzled Cadance. She settled into his shoulder, yawning and drifting gently on the edge of sleep. “Thank you so much for all of this. You really didn’t have to.”

“Ah, vhen best customers visit, Lumber Jack always does his best.” He rose from the table, stretched, and then began trotting towards the door. “But now, I see my beloved vaving to me. The street and its music are calling. Lumber Jack vill return, but now I must dance!”

“Before you go, has there been any word about the guards?” Twilight’s words caused many of the smiles around the table to fade into concerned expressions. Cadance came back from the edge of her nap, and joined everyone else who were looking to Lumber Jack. “I noticed someone come over and whisper in your ear earlier,” Twilight said.

Lumber Jack turned to face the table, putting a hoof down on the hoof carved pine. “I am sorry, but there has yet to be any vord. There no signs of struggle or beast attack around lake. We believe they wandered back into forest, searching for all of you once more, but cannot be sure.”

"If they haven't turned up by morning, I'll start helping with the search,” Shining said. “I know their guard training, so I should be able to figure out what they did and what they're going to—"

"We need a doctor!"

"Yes, yes... the pain, it is too much. The convulsions of this child threaten to rip me asunder. Get it out of me! Get it out of me! Then lavish me with love once it's out! But first, you must get this tiny pony out of my belly!"

Every eye in the lodge was turned to the front door, where a sizable group had stormed into the lodge amidst shouts and melodrama. The missing guards were at the lead of the group, the four of them supporting a field assembled stretcher on their backs. They, however, were the only unique faces amongst the group. The mare on the stretcher was the spitting image of Cadance, though her belly was swollen to the point of near absurdity. Another Shining, Twilight, and Maud were behind them, each panicking like chickens with their heads cut off.

Lumber Jack turned to face the group while Shining and Twilight rose from their seats. The guards looked amongst themselves, panting to catch their breaths and making no effort to hide their confusion. The clones of Shining, Twilight, and Maud had fallen silent as well, clustering close together and inching towards the door. Yet, the copy of Cadance kept on going, bemoaning her condition so that all of Lumberton could hear. "Oh! By the white horse of the sun, I can feel it. I can feel it... dragging itself out of me. Hurry! Hurry rock ponies! Oh the pain and agony of this is unbearable. Oh, if only I was born a superior changeling, who does not need to worry of foal birth and must simply trust in the hive’s glorious queen for its continued existence."

A chirping filled the air, like the sound of a cricket. It emanated from the doppleganger of Shining, and the sound made the melodramatic Cadance snap her mouth shut. She abruptly sat up in the stretcher, as if every drop of pain she had been screeching about was gone. She looked across the room, eyes eventually settling on the Cadance seated at the table. They stared at one another for a few seconds, then there was a second chirp. The fake Cadance’s eyes moved up a little, focusing on Maud who had stood up from her seat as well.

In a burst of fire, the four changelings dropped their disguises. They were bruised and battered. The changeling leader, who had been the one impersonating Cadance, had some bandages around his middle. Still, despite their injuries, they moved with incredible haste. Stumbling and fighting over one another, they dashed out the door and took to their wings. All the while the leader screamed to the heavens, "Flee! Flee! It is the Gray Terror!"

The changelings soared towards the tree line, their panicked chirping growing into a symphony in the night. Other silhouettes joined the original few, changelings that had been on the edge of Lumberton following the retreat. The lodge they left behind was deathly silent. Flash Sentry, Gem Shield, Lapis Lance, and Ardent stared at the real Shining, not daring to move a muscle until someone else did.

Shining took a step away from the table, and the four guards snapped to attention, letting the stretcher constructed out of tree limbs clatter to the floor. The rest of those sitting in the lodge began to whisper, murmuring about the changelings and questioning what was going on. Shining came to a stop directly in front of the four stallions, eyeing them while wearing a firm frown. His gaze moved between each one, and then he chuckled and waved a hoof. "At ease, soldiers. Sit down and eat something."

"But... but sir... we just—" Flash Sentry tried to say.

"You thought we had all been thrown by the Ouroboros in the same direction. When you recovered, you hear Cadance shouting about going into labor. I doubt I would have done anything different if I had been in your position." Shining turned to look at the lodge. "And rest assured, the Crystal Empire will be addressing the slight changeling presence that has been uncovered in these mountains. None of you are in any danger at this time. These changelings are... very disorganized.”

“They’re stupid,” S43 said coldly, drawing a few more whispers and murmurs from the crowd in the lodge.

“No matter how you’d describe them, I'll be dispatching Crystal Empire forces to deal with the outpost as soon as we return."

The mood in the lodge lifted thanks to Shining's confident words. The four guards nearly collapsed from exhaustion and relief, and Shining couldn't help but laugh as he caught them with his magic. Soon, a few of the young mares from Lumberton had swooped in, flirting and giggling as they helped the guards to a table where they could eat and rest. Shining followed, but as he did, Cadance leaned over and tapped S43 on the shoulder.

"I don't know entirely how hives work, but if you aren't compelled to go back, I think the Crystal Empire can make room for another refugee. Biscuit’s already volunteered to be a royal gem inspector. You'll be carefully watched for at least a little while, just like Biscuit, but I imagine you'd like to get a fresh start away from all those... other changelings."

S43 smiled. "Idiots, princess. They are idiots from a bad clutch, but I guess that's where I got lucky. They were born without brains, I was born with enough free will to tell my queen to go get her horn stuck in a tree. The Crystal Empire I saw in your dream, Princess, is exactly where I want to be."

Cadance smiled and gave S43 a reassuring pat on the shoulder, then sat back up straight in her seat. She used magic to serve herself another piece of pie. Then she looked over at Maud. "Now what was all that 'Gray Terror' stuff about?"

Maud returned to her seat, gently replaced her napkin into the collar of her dress, and then reached into her pocket. "I got Boulder back,” she said as she pulled the small stone out for all to see.

~~~

“With the crystal locomotive the guards used at the bottom of the ravine, we’ll probably just have to wait for the next train. Flash Sentry left early this morning to tell everyone back at the empire we’re safe, and carried some orders I had for the general. But, I think Cadance would be more than happy to stay here in Lumberton until the train arrives.”

Twilight nodded as she and Shining sat on the patio of the Lumberton Lodge the next morning. The others were still asleep or were just getting themselves out of bed. Twilight would have likely joined them, but she slept so well she couldn’t help but get out of bed early. It had been a dreamless sleep, and such a thing was a welcome blessing after the many nightmares she had endured. “I guess there’s no sense rushing at this point anyway. For once in my life, I can’t even imagine doing research right now.”

Shining openly laughed as Twilight took a sip of her coffee. Not tea, but good black coffee. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“After all the impossible things we had to deal with on this trip, that shouldn’t be the thing that surprises you the most.” Twilight set her cup down. “I mean, how could an Ouroboros get that big!? What is it feeding on, napping dragons? Not only that, but we were dogged by diamond dogs, chased by changelings, and it all happened because of a random rock slide. The last time I heard of such a crazy adventure, it was one of your Oubliettes & Ogres campaigns back in school. The one where your character reached his max level, I think.”

Shining nodded. “I remember that one. It was pretty crazy. Gaffer had never been the GM when a character was likely to hit max level. He really pulled out all the stops. A world-ending curse being cast by a world-ending creature with the help of a world-ending sized army. I remember, there was this one roll where—”

The giggling and singing of a filly cut Shining off, causing both him and Twilight to look to the street. There they saw Lumber Jack walking with a young filly they had gotten to meet the night before, his bespectacled granddaughter, Pink Rose. Her songs were one of triumph, and her laughter could not be contained as she pranced about her grandfather while wearing her filly scout uniform. “I’m getting a scooter. I’m getting a scooter, and Golden Shoe can’t stop me. I’m getting a scooter.”

“What’s all the celebration about?” Twilight asked as Lumber Jack and Pink Rose climbed the steps to the lodge. Up to that point, Lumber Jack had been all smiles while watching his granddaughter prance in joy. Yet, when Twilight’s words hit his ears, he turned to look at them. His smile fell, and he stared at them as if only just becoming aware they were sitting on the patio.

Pink Rose, however, was not as stunned. She went galloping up to Twilight and Shining, and pulled out a scrap of paper from her filly scout sash. “I just got the check for the biggest filly scout sale ever!”

Shining whistled, seeing the number written on the check. “That has to be a lot of filly scout cookies.”

“It is! The person who ordered the cookies is going to be giving them out at this big party!” Pink Rose laid the check out on the table. It was a funny thing. The paper seemed to be two kinds of materials that were fused together. One side was almost like construction paper, while the other was the kind of card stock that Twilight would expect to be used for a high quality business card. The lettering was uneven, the numbers nearly illegible, but as her eyes wandered she noticed the bottom of the check, specifically the signature line. In those two blanks, two things had been scrawled out, perhaps the most legible letters on the entire check.

Memo: Yllissi Thgi Liwt
Signature: D. Cord

Twilight’s eyebrow twitched.

“Now, now, Pink Rose, didn’t I teach you it is rude to bother ponies.” Lumber Jack scooped up his granddaughter and dropped her on his back. He was wearing his smile again as he quickly took the check and passed it back to Pink Rose. “Twilight and Shining vere having nice talk over coffee. That coffee smells good. Think I’ll have a—”

“Lumber Jack, how did you end up at the lake again?” Twilight asked, an almost dark rumble in her voice. Her horn was glowing, her magic holding down Lumber Jack's hooves to prevent him from stepping away. “You mentioned a map.”

Lumber Jack opened his mouth to reply, then forced a laugh as he glanced away. “Ah, Brainy Grape, you put me in tough place,” he said before looking back at Twilight. “Do not be mad. If I had known vhat vas happening, I vould have rushed to your aid. But, ve vere not told as much. I simply heard of a house that appeared at top of mountain. My little granddaughter, she needed to sell her cookies. I took here there, thinking house owner vould at least have the money for filly scout cookies. Did not realize ve’d encounter your good friend the draconequus. He vas villing to buy. Just asked that ve take map, and vhen it rang like bell, that ve go to vhere X marked spot.”

Twilight held her breath, puffing out her cheeks as she tapped her hoof against the table like trying to squash numerous bugs in quick succession. She tilted her head skyward, then finally exhaled as she sank into her seat and let her head rest on the table. Her magic dissipated, freeing Lumber Jack from the short-lived bindings. “He is so turned to stone when I get back.”

“Is not all bad. You had vonderful adventure, right?” Lumber Jack said.

Shining cleared his throat. Though Twilight couldn’t see it, she imagined he was shaking his head. “You should go have some coffee. It really is good.”

“Yes, yes, I vill do just that. Have good day, my friends.” Lumber Jack's heavy hooffalls signaled his departure. The door to the Lumberton Lodge opened and shut, and once more Shining and Twilight were alone on the refreshing morning. Yet all the vigor had drained away from Twilight as she stared at the table, eyes hid by the bangs of her hair.

“You really think Discord was behind all of this?” Shining asked.

Twilight managed to turn her head upward, resting her chin on the table as she looked across the table to her big brother. “Yes, yes he was. Of course he was. Who else could have made a Ouroboros get that big? He was probably doing it as some weird test to make sure I 'deserved' to learn the repair spell. That any good friend would want to make sure I was magically capable of handling such a powerful spell. Don’t you think Princess Celestia would have tested me if she thought the spell was too advanced for me? Stoned or not, I am not trusting any shred of mail he delivers ever again.”

“Is that why you wanted to come to the Crystal Empire, to look up a spell?”

“Yeah,” Twilight said. She could not summon up the will to lift her head off the table. So she just cracked her mouth open, made a straw out of magic, and used the straw to drink a few sips of her coffee. She then laid out magical letters on the table. “I was going to tell Cadance and you once we got to the empire on the train, but we all know how that turned out. Still, Yllissi Thgi Liwt is the name of the spell. It’s supposed to be an old griffin spell that can repair just about anything. I was going to use it to fix the library.”

Shining stared at the spell while Twilight drank her coffee through her straw. He tilted his head, bit his lip, and then laughed a little. That laugh fell into a frown, then into a smile, but then back into a frown. Eventually, Shining brought a hoof to his face, rubbed his eye, then sighed before looking back at Twilight. “Um, you said Discord delivered the letter from Princess Celestia, right?”

“Yes,” Twilight said, not taking her lips off her magically-manifested straw.

“How mad would you be if I thought Discord may have forged that letter?”

Twilight tensed, a surge of air going back up her straw and causing her coffee to splatter. The straw dissipated, and she sat up from her seat and slammed her forehooves down on the table. “No! No, he wouldn’t dare! That was a letter from Princess Celestia about a spell to help me fix the library! That’s going to let me fix everything!”

“I hate to break this to you Twilight, but…” Shining called on his own magic, forming a copy of the spell Twilight had written out on the table. He then lifted it up, flipped it the whole spell horizontally, then counter turned some of the letters and adjusted some of the spacing. He then laid it back down on the table. Twilight felt a shiver crawl down her body as she read the new words formed by the same letters.

“Twilight is silly,” she said aloud. She gritted her teeth and flared her wings. “Twilight is silly.” She puffed her cheeks and began to shake, as if her body was trying to contain an explosion. “Twilight. Is. Silly!” She managed to keep herself standing there at the table for a few more seconds, then she took off from the patio with the force of a firework. She flew high into the sky, screaming into the morning air like a vengeful storm rumbling across the landscape.

“Discord!”

~~~

“You sure you saw her?”

“Yeah, she glided over town and landed on the other side of the river.”

Nyx’s hooves and Spike’s claws thumped against the boards of the wooden bridge which connected the homes of Lumberton to the heart of its industry. The mills bordered the river on the south side as it flowed west to east, sporting large water wheels from their sides. The wheels turned without rest in the river, the relentless march of water down to the ocean driving the saws that cut the region's famed timber. The smell of sawdust hung almost constantly in the air, and the road was peppered with the flakes and bits of wood that were shaken free by the mill workers as they went to and from their homes.

Under the noon hour sun, the lumber mills were at their quietest. The many hard working stallions and mares were on their lunch, and were congregating in the singular park which stood amongst the mills. Normally, despite working for competing companies, the workers would mingle, laugh, and speak of the day’s labors. There was camaraderie, but on this day it was all put on hold because of an unexpected intruder in the workers’ normal routine.

Twilight sat in the gazebo which itself stood on the river’s bank. There, she looked out across the river, her magic turning and twisting constantly as she manipulated the water. She had formed a sculpture of the Golden Oaks Library, almost every facet and detail accounted for and at percent one-half scale. She was entirely enthralled by her efforts, taking no notice of the onlookers as she continued to spell cast. She didn’t even turn her head as Nyx and Spike managed to squeeze through the crowd and ran closer.

“Are you okay?” Spike asked as he and Nyx stepped up into the gazebo. “Shining told us what you two figured out. He then rallied almost every pegasus in town to go looking for you. Cadance would have probably gone too, but Shining managed to convince her to wait at the lodge for you to come back. She is mad and… and Twilight, what are you doing?”

“I’m going to see if I can turn water into a tree.” Twilight didn’t turn her head, just kept her eyes focused on the water. Spike took a step closer, shifting his perspective on Twilight. He saw the damp lines of fur on her face as well as the spots on the gazebo’s wooden floor where her tears had fallen. A small fabric bag rested on the gazebo’s nearby railing.

“Did… did Discord say something when you found him?”

“No, because I didn’t find him,” Twilight’s magic faltered, part of her water sculpture falling back into the river. She rubbed at her eyes with a hoof, then went right back to her original position as she tried to reform the fallen branch of her liquid library. “By the time I found his lair, he had already sold it. Some griffin is going to turn it into a ski-resort or something. Discord even gave it away for free. A huge manor of a tree he grew out of a mountain, and he just gave it away for free. All the owner had to do was show me a table.”

Spike glanced back at Nyx, who could only shrug with her shared confusion. “Why would Discord want you to see a table?” Spike asked as he looked back at Twilight.

“So I could see these.” Twilight’s magic wrapped around the fabric bag, and tossed it behind her. It hit the floor of the gazebo and spilled, tiny figurines with familiar colors tumbling into view. Spike stared at the pile of pieces before reaching out to one that shared his purple and green colors. “It was all Discord. He had a map of the mountains, and these… game pieces laid out. I don’t know how he did it. No one was mind controlled, as far as I could tell, but this whole horrible trip has just been a game for him.”

Twilight shuddered, rubbing at her eyes again as anger billowed in her voice. “And the spell, the spell that was supposed to fix everything is just a big lie. Twilight is silly. I can’t believe I didn’t see that. I let Discord trick me, and now all the other repair spells are probably worthless. Too much time has passed. An errant wind probably blew all the ashes away. I’ll never be able to fix the library now.” Her magic surged, and the sculpture she had been so painstakingly working on burst. Water splashed into the river and onto the banks, and all that was left behind was a sculpture of the library as it now stood: a twisted, splintered stump.

“What happened to the library?”

Spike clenched his teeth as both he and Twilight turned around. Nyx was looking at both of them, her mouth trying to form words that her mind couldn’t grasp. Spike looked at Twilight, and saw a similar expression. All their effort to shield Nyx from the truth had just been blown away. “What happened?” Nyx asked again as she looked at the splintered sculpture in the river.

Twilight’s magic vanished, her liquid library collapsing back into the river as she quickly rose to her hooves. She reached out for Nyx, but the little filly pulled away. “I… I was going to fix it before you came home. I just… I just wanted to fix it. I’m sorry. The library is…. During the fight with Tirek it….” Twilight’s closed her eyes and hung her head. “It’s gone. I teleported to it, just for a second. I just wanted a vantage point of the fight, but Tirek saw where I went. He fired a blast and… it was coming too fast. I couldn’t stop it. The only thing I could think to do was grab Owlowiscious.

“It was my fault,” Twilight said, stomping her hoof. “I made a mistake. Tirek wouldn’t have destroyed the library if I hadn’t gone there. I got everything burned to ash and cinders. My first gala dress, the one Rarity put so much work into, its gone. My Slumber Parties 101, gone. Smarty Pants and the Mare-Do-Well costume, gone. All the pictures I’ve taken with my friends, gone. Our home… it’s gone.”

“Everything?” Nyx asked, a tremble in her voice. She was shaking her head, as if that might make the words go away. She moved up to Twilight, trying to get eye contact. “W-what about our favorite story books? W-what about my treasure book? What about our bed? What about Spike’s comic books and his pictures of Peewee? It… it can’t all just be gone.”

Twilight’s head sank deeper, a few tears escaping her eyes and falling to the gazebo floor, but her tears were not alone. Nyx’s eyes were water. She kept shaking her head, even as she dropped back into a sitting position. She rubbed at her eyes, and was trying to form words but couldn’t. The truth had fallen on her like a flood from a busted dam, and Twilight was offering no condolences. Spike felt his chest tightening as he watched the two. He kept glancing back and forth, hoping Twilight would say something to make Nyx feel better. Hoping Nyx would manage to say something to make Twilight forgive herself. But neither did. Nyx was reeling, and Twilight was guilt ridden.

Spike even felt himself starting to tear up. He had lost a lot too. He had lost his home, his basket, his gems, his comic books, but he had been sad about that and then got over it. His family hadn’t. Twilight had been in denial, trying to fix the problem so it would be like her failure, her mistake in the heat of combat never happened. Nyx hadn’t been given the chance, the policy of trying to hide the truth from her now bearing rotten fruit. Something had to be said. He couldn’t just stand there and just watch them be like this.

“I don’t care!”

Spike’s loud shout made Nyx and Twilight look over at him, tears still fresh on their cheeks. “I don’t care about all that,” Spike said, his claws balled into fists. “You know what I was worried about when I was Tirek’s hostage. I was worried that I’d never get to see you two ever again. But Twilight, you and everypony else beat him. You sent him back and saved the day. You even saved Owlowiscious. He’d have been hurt or worse if you hadn’t thought to save him. Twilight, what happened to the library isn’t your fault.”

“But Spike—” Twilight tried to say, but Spike continued on, not allowing the interruption.

“No buts. You saved Equestria. You were amazing, and you have nothing to feel guilty about. It sucks. I’m sad that the library is gone too, but it could have been a million times worse. But you can’t change the past. You should know that better than anyone. You actually tried! The only thing you shouldn’t have done, we shouldn’t have done, was keep this all a secret.

“We’re a family,” Spike said, walking closer to the filly and mare. He reached out his arms, gesturing for a hug. “We shouldn’t have secrets like this, because we only end up making it worse for each other. We can get through this. I know we can, but we have to be there for each other.”

Nyx and Twilight glanced at one another, tears still dancing in their eyes but smiles now forming on their faces. They moved closer, the three tightly hugging one another in the center of the gazebo. “I’m sorry,” Twilight said. “If there’s anything I learned on this crazy adventure, it's that you two are strong enough to know the truth. I promise to try and be better about it in the future.”

“But is it still okay to be sad about the library?” Nyx asked, her limbs trying to hug Twilight and Spike with all the strength they could muster.

“Yes,” Twilight said with a nod as she nuzzled into both of their faces. “It’s okay to be sad. Losing our home is a sad thing, but we can be happy too. We can be happy we’ve survived. We can be happy Cadance and Shining will be having their foal soon. We can be happy that our friends will always be there to help us in Ponyville. We just… we just have to be honest with ourselves.”

“Hey, that’s what I just said,”

Spike’s attempt at humor brought laughter to Twilight and Nyx, and before the two could react Twilight had scooped them on in her magic. She spun them around twice, laughing as they squealed in delight, then she pulled them back into another tight hug. “We’ll always be a family,” Twilight said as she kissed Spike and Nyx’s foreheads. “I won’t let anyone ever change that.”

“I won’t either,” Nyx added.

Spike nodded firmly, puffing out his chest. “I’ll make a dragon’s oath on it,” he said as he and Nyx were let down by Twilight. The three smiled at one another for a few moments, then Twilight’s eyes happened to flick up. Her cheeks flushed, and she forced her smile wider. “Uh oh, what is it now?” Spike asked.

“Oh nothing, just that we have a bit of an audience,” Twilight said. She lifted a forehoof and waved it gently, causing Nyx and Spike to turn around. Nearly every mill worker who had been on the extremities of the park earlier were looking at the trio. They were all smiling as they ate their lunches, and some even waved back.

Nyx joined Twilight in gently waving to the onlookers while Spike chuckled and whispered in Twilight’s direction. “Want to continue this heart-felt family bonding back at the lodge?”

“Yes. Yes I do,” Twilight answered.

The Road's End

View Online

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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

Chapter 15

The Road's End

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

“Is that the palace?”

Twilight glanced up from the book she was reading. Nyx was standing up in her seat, looking out the window at the passing scenery. After discovering Discord’s prank, Twilight had lost most of her interest in going to the Crystal Empire. They remained in Lumberton, waiting until the south bound train arrived a few days later. Those few days were perhaps the most relaxing and joyful since the library’s destruction. It had been good quality time amidst the inviting residents of Lumberton. Nyx had made a new friend in Lumber Jack’s granddaughter, Pink Rose, and the stress of their unexpected adventure melted away in the embrace of the gentle pines of the Rainbow Range.

It was calming, and it had allowed Twilight to gather her thoughts. Discord, however, wasn't entirely free from his crimes. Twilight was still angry that he had pulled such an inappropriate prank, and she wasn’t the only one in their private cabin aboard the train that held such an opinion.

Sitting with Shining on the other side of the cabin, Cadance was perhaps even more furious with Discord than Twilight. She had been swept up into the life and child threatening situations simply because she had been a bystander. She didn’t go screaming off into the mountains on a hunt for Discord, but that was only prevented by a kicking foal and how close it had been to lunch time. Still, during their unexpected vacation in Lumberton, the princess pair had devoted numerous hours to planning just how they’d approach, lecture, punish, and perhaps maim the spirit of chaos. It had been very relaxing to contemplate, even if the maiming only happened in the most hypothetical of situations.

The rest of the friends they had picked up on their little adventure had parted ways before they got on the train to Ponyville. The guards were going to escort S43 and Biscuit to the Crystal Empire. There, they would inform their commander everything was okay and also ensure the changeling and diamond dog were taken care of until the royal couple could return. Maud was going to take a break from her studies and take the train back to the rock farm. Maud claimed she and Boulder needed some quality time at home. Lastly, the Flim Flam Brothers said their goodbyes at the lodge before disappearing. No one knew quite where they went. The popular theory was they had gone back into the mountains to find the gems they had been forced to abandon.

In any event, the group had shrunk back down to the original five that had left Canterlot nearly a week before.

“Yes, that’s it,” Twilight said as she set her book down. She got up from her seat and walked to the window, looking out at the glistening palace with Nyx. “It’s a bit daunting, I know, but I’m sure we’ll get used to it. It’s really nice on the inside, if a little empty, and it does have some perks. You and Spike will get to have your own rooms now, and…” Twilight forced a smile, quickly running out of perks for the new castle. She laughed and made a little popping noise with her lips.

“Crystal’s also very durable and super easy to clean,” Cadance said as she and Shining looked out at the castle as well, though they remained in their seats.

“Yes, that too,” Twilight said, nodding her head to Cadance before looking out the window again. “Won’t that be nice, Spike?”

“Yeah, about that, I think we need to reconsider the chore wheel,” Spike said. “Because I will tell you one thing right now. Doing the dishes is not equal to sweeping or washing the windows anymore. Not by a long shot.”

~~~

“Is Ponyville usually this deserted at this hour?”

Twilight looked around, noticing exactly what Cadance had just pointed out. The normal ambient noises of Ponyville were silent, and the streets vacant. Businesses had their doors closed, except for the odd few where it appeared only one pony was working. And those few ponies who they could see through the shops’ doors and windows quickly vanished, closing up the shop with the loud shuttering of doors.

“Last time Ponyville was like this, it was when we first found out about Zecora,” Spike said as he rode on Twilight’s back. He was standing, using her to get a higher vantage point to hopefully catch a glimpse of someone. “You don’t think something’s going on, do you?”

“I really hope not,” Twilight said as she and the others kept searching. Their chosen route of travel would take them past the stump of the library before they continued on to the palace. The agreed upon plan was to stop and visit the library’s remains, to pay some last respects. Twilight had, of course, visited the stump multiple times, but that had always been on the premise of trying to fix the library. This time she would be saying farewell, and she was happy to have her family with her.

Still, block by block, intersection by intersection, they found not a single soul. The town was unnervingly quiet, silent except for the patter of hooves of ponies running away. Twilight was beginning to share Spike’s fear that something was going on, but she couldn’t imagine what. That thought, however, evaporated in her mind as they drew near where the library had once stood. It was then they finally caught sight of someone. It was the first and—at the same time—last person they wanted to see. He was lying on a cloud, snoozing like a coiled up snake, and below him was a hole in the ground. A hole where the stump of the library had once been.

“Discord!” Twilight and Cadance barked in unison, galloping ahead of Nyx and Shining while Spike hung onto Twilight’s back for dear life. Discord raised his head slowly, picked an alarm clock out of his ear to check the time before chomping down on it like a donut.

“A bit late getting back, aren’t you, Twilight? Was the train delayed?” He asked once he had finished eating his alarm clock. He licked his claws, as if to catch the last dribbles of frosting.

“Don’t play dumb!” Twilight took to her wings, flying up near Discord and shoving a hoof in his chest. “You have a lot to answer for, Mister, and you are going to answer for it. But right now, I want to know what you did to the library. Where is the stump? If this is another one of your pranks, so help me, not even Fluttershy will be able to protect you from being turned to stone.”

“Now, Twilight, is it really appropriate for a princess to be making such unfounded accusations?” Discord snapped his claw, teleporting from the cloud to a standing position on the street. “All I’ve done since I delivered that letter to you was relax here in Ponyville. It really was a delightful time. I enjoyed helping Applejack do some measurements, and I even grew a nice little house for myself.”

“I saw,” Twilight said as she returned to the ground. She and Cadance approached Discord together, both of them glaring daggers. “I’ve been there.”

“You have?” Discord gripped his claw and paw together, wringing his hands a little. “How did you find it?”

Twilight’s horn began to glow, a harsh light that was indicative of the spell she was preparing to cast at a moment’s notice. “I saw the check for the cookies you bought from Pink Rose. I saw what you wrote in the memo line. I found your little mountain house with the little game pieces.”

“Discord, you are in so much trouble,” Cadance said, the glow from her own horn matching Twilight’s in intensity.

“Ah, I see. You know, I just left that hint there to be fair. A proper game master should always ensure his players have a chance to figure everything out. It was a miniscule chance, really, but you’ve proven before you are quite capable of completing your quests to their fullest extent. Still, I know when the jig is up.” Discord bowed, lowering his head to the eye level of the average pony. “I am ready to accept any and all punishments my princesses have devised. But first, may I offer a few words in my defence?”

Cadance took a few stomping steps towards Discord, pointing her horn right below his jaw at point blank range. “You get one.”

Discord flashed a smile and winked. “Bye.” He snapped his claw, and a ploom of smoke erupted from the ground, blinding Twilight and everyone else. Twilight lashed out with her magic, and through the heavy smoke she could see the flare of Cadance’s magic as well. Yet, though she felt her spell of binding hit something, it had no effect except to draw out Discord’s laughter and a series of squeaks.

Quickly changing tactics, Twilight cast a wind spell. With a single strong gust of air, she blew away the smoke, and unintentionally, she sent Discord flying away as well. He had turned himself into a balloon animal. His body was comprised of dozens of long balloons tied and twisted, and he floated and bobbed on the strong gust Twilight’s spell had created.

“I’ve got him!” Shining sprinted forward to catch Discord before he had even gotten a block away. He leapt up to tackle Discord, and his body connected with the tied balloon animal form Discord had taken. Yet, when the pair crashed to the ground, Discord’s body made a distinctive squeak as all the air shifted to one side. His eyes and limbs bulged, and then the air rushed back. Shining was sent flying back like he had just pounced on a inflatable bounce house, and he flopped into a bush that bordered the street.

Twilight glanced back at Nyx and Spike. “Help Shining!” She then turned her head to Cadance. “We’ll go after Discord.”

Cadance smiled and nodded, and the pair of princesses spread their wings before taking off after Discord, who was now trying to run down the street and squeaking like a chorus of chew toys being chomped on by dozens of dogs. Twilight launched another spell, this time trying to chain Discord down to the ground. The chain formed, it grasped one of his legs, but as soon as it snapped taut, the balloons of the limb broke apart. Discord hopped along on a single leg for a few seconds, but the dozen balloons that made up his horse leg quickly gravitated back to their correct positions. Soon, he was running along, and laughing, as if he had felt nothing more than a tickle.

Twilight tried spell after spell to pin down Discord. She even tried a spell that manifested a large, magical pin that tried to jab him in the foot. The pin was unable to pierce his chaotic magic balloons. It bounced off, and ended up skewering the roof of the local fabric shop. It almost looked like an appropriate decoration, considering the fake, oversized roll of fabric that was mounted on the roof of the shop.

Cadance was being less inventive with her spells. She relied on the basics of blasting and bubbling. Her blasts hit, but they ended up only helping Discord. The force of their impact would send him bouncing down the street, giving him extra momentum until he was finally able to right himself and run on his own legs again. When she tried to bubble him, it would slow him down, but the balloons of his body would begin to bounce off the interior. Each bounce he gained more momentum until, finally, he managed to crash out of the barrier bubble and resume his escape through the town.

All the while, Twilight’s ears were assaulted by the infernal squeaking of his balloon body, which was leading her to try more and more aggressive spells.

Still, nothing she tried was able to catch Discord, and he was slowly starting to pull ahead of the pair of pursuing princesses. Twilight leaned into the wind and managed to fly faster, to match Discord’s ever increasing speed, but Cadance was beginning to fall behind. Though that wasn’t stopping her from hurling spells in Discord’s direction, even if they were starting to miss by fairly wide margins.

Twilight lost sight of Discord as he grabbed a lamppost and used it to swing around a corner, dramatically changing his direction for the first time in what had been a fairly linear chase. Twilight had to tilt her wings and bank hard to make the same turn without losing any speed. Rainbow Dash would have probably been able to pull off the maneuver flawlessly, but Twilight was not as practiced a flyer. She took the turn too wide, and soon crashed head first into a stack of hay on the side of the road.

Flailing around inside the hay, it took Twilight a few moments to get her bearings and dig her way to the surface. She popped her head out and shook it firmly, trying to cast off the bits of hay that were clinging to her. She then looked around, trying to spot where Discord had gone. He wouldn’t get away. She was going to make him understand just how much trouble he was in for sending them on such a wild goose chase.

At least, he would have been, if Twilight’s eyes hadn’t glanced down the street and seen what was going on at the end of the road.

She climbed out of the hay and walked to the center of the street. There, Twilight just stared a moment, trying to take in everything she was seeing. She heard wing flaps come up behind her, and they were soon accompanied by a voice. “Where is he?” she heard Cadance ask, but then her sister-in-law fell silent as well. In the periphery of her vision she saw Cadance walk up beside her, but she did not glance away. Her eyes remained transfixed on what lay before them. Soon, she heard the sound of hooves as well. Shining, Spike, and Nyx caught up, and like Cadance, they were only able to ask a question or two before they joined Twilight in her awe-struck stare.

At the end of the street was a celebration, a festival filled with hundreds of ponies that were crammed together in front of the crystalline, treehouse palace. Snack tables were stacked high with boxes upon boxes of filly scout cookies. There were balloons, streamers, music, and dancing. But all that was slowly being replaced with cheers and applause as the crowd became aware of their presence. From the balcony of the palace, Twilight could see her friends and fellow princesses waving down at them. Princess Celestia and Luna were forming words with their magic, a glimmering banner that appeared above the castle.

“Welcome Home!” was what the magic read, and it was what so many of the voices in the crowd were cheering as Twilight, Cadance, Shining, Nyx, and Spike looked on in disbelief.

~~~

The cheers of the crowd surrounded Twilight and her family, brother and sister-in-law included, as they stood on the steps of the castle. It was like being awash in positivity. Cheers, applause, and shouts formed a cacophony, making any individual words said incomprehensible. Yet the sentiment was undeniable. Princess Luna and Celestia stood to the left and right, sharing in the moment but also using a bit of magic to keep the clamoring crowd at bay. Twilight’s friends were standing in front of them, and they were now stepping back as Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy pushed open the doors. As the entryway swung up, they in unison said, “Welcome Home!”

The moment the doors were all the way open, Twilight’s body went an auto pilot. It walked forward, leading everyone into the library, but her head was craning in all directions. The air was caught in her chest. Last time she had seen the tree trunk like foyer of her castle, it had been little more than a large empty room. There had been a simple staircase that lead up to the castle proper, and a few columns for decorations. To her, it was similar to the foyer at Canterlot Castle. A grand entryway that’s only purpose was to be a prelude to the rest of the palace.

But over the week she had been gone, it had been transformed. It was a library now, a beautiful, jaw-dropping library. The bookshelves hugged the interior walls’ crystal tree trunk, stretching from the ground floor all the way to the ceiling, where the trunk joined with the rest of the palace. A spiraling staircase circled the interior, stopping at a total of seven landings that formed rings along the trunk’s interior. Each landing was an interior balcony that provided access to a section of the bookshelves. Several reading chairs and tables also occupied each landing, making the place truly feel like a library.

Twilight could hear her friends speaking to her, telling her what they had done. Her mind was incapable of processing the exact words, but the gist managed to break through the euphoria she was experiencing. While she was away, they had taken the initiative to make the palace feel like a real home. They had done a lot of things, and added several of their own personal touches, but one of the key centerpieces of the renovation had been the library. It wasn’t filled with many books yet, but Twilight could already picture it. Every shelf, stocked to the brim with rows upon rows of books. It made her feel weak in the knees.

She would have happily collapsed right there, but her friends scooped her up and began leading the tour group up the stairs. Carried in Rarity’s magic, Twilight floated in the air as her mind just tried to take it all in. She saw Spike and Nyx riding Applejack and Rainbow Dash’s backs respectively. Nyx was asking a thousand questions a minute. Questions that weren’t being answered, but she didn’t seem to care. Twilight had seen it before, her daughter was just trying to vent her excitement. Spike was a lot less chatty, but the smile on his face was undeniable.

Twilight’s body lazily rotated in the grip of Rarity’s levitation spell, and she could see Cadance and Shining taking up the rear of the group with Celestia and Luna. They were asking some questions of their own, though theirs seemed more focused on what Celestia and Luna were doing there. The princesses were claiming they had helped with the renovation, and Cadance seemed to be calling their bluff. That and giggling at the thought of her two aunts in overalls, holding paint brushes and other tools of the construction trade.

They were halfway up the library’s spirally staircase, having left the fourth landing behind when Twilight noticed small gaps in the bookshelves. Interspaced symmetrically along the bottoms circumference of the otherwise seamless shelves were small alcoves. While most were empty, Twilight saw two varieties of things occupying some of the alcoves.

Most of the alcoves that were occupied were filled with statues depicting different moments in time. In a way, it was a reflections of the stained glass mirrors in Canterlot, but it wasn’t just the big saving-the-world events. One statue depicted Discord holding Fluttershy’s hoof with his claw, commemorating the day he made his first friend. Another was carved to resemble Luna playing a game amidst costumed ponies, depicting her first Nightmare Night.

Those alcoves not occupied by statues had display cases that contained relics and mementos from similarly significant events. Rarity had donated the fire ruby from the day Spike’s greed got the best of him along with a hoof written note, both of which were displayed in one case. The shattered pieces of Zecora’s doorstop, which played the role of a fake magical amulet occupied another case. The shards of Nyx’s old armor, damaged in defending Ponyville from the creatures of the Everfree Forest and Fluttershy’s Mare-Do-Well costume were also on display.

In a way, the library doubled as a museum to friendship, giving physical shape to the many lessons she and her friends had learned over the years. It was a fitting foyer to the palace belonging to the Princess of Friendship. Twilight would have smothered her friends with “Thank you’s” for just doing this much, but they were beginning to near the top of the stairs. There was still the rest of the castle to see, and Twilight couldn’t even comprehend what else her friends had done for her.

~~~

After the library, each of Twilight’s friends took turns showing off different sections of the castle. Pinkie Pie and Rarity went first, giving a tour of what they called the business section of the castle. “This is where we see you performing a majority of your royal duties,” Rarity said with a grand sweeping gesture of her horn. They were passing by several doors as they walked towards a large set of double doors at the hallway’s end. “You’ll be able to meet with dignitaries, contemplating matters of the nation, and other similar royal duties in one of the many rooms, each of which has its own unique theme related to the Elements of Harmony, the sun, the moon, and the Crystal Empire.”

“Let’s not forget about throwing amazing parties!” Pinkie Pie cheered as they reached the double doors, which swung open to reveal a grand ballroom. “This ballroom is perfect for any kind of party. You could have your own Gala, or put your hooves in the air with a super fun dance party. It’s even got a disco ball, Twilight! A disco ball!”

Rarity cleared her throat, though the smile did not leave her face. “Yes, Pinkie Pie also assured that the connecting kitchen is more than capable of supplying all the food and beverages any such party should need.”

“Yay, and I worked with Rarity to make sure the ballroom could have the super fun party stuff it could ever need, but that’s all nice and hidden away so it can be super fancy. The disco ball is hiding as part of the fancy, schmancy chandelier. Isn’t that amazing?!”

“Not as amazing as the palace garden,” Rainbow said, trying to urge the group to move from the ballroom to the palace’s large, connecting, exterior balcony. Like a baton pass in a relay race, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy took the reigns of the tour, directing everyone to stand along the balconies railing and look down at the garden below.

“Yeah, that’s a pool,” Rainbow Dash said with a firm nod as Twilight and everyone else took in the view from above. The centerpiece of the garden was a one-half scale statue of the Tree of Harmony, which stood on a small island in the center of the donut shaped pool. Like rings on a dart board, the rest of the garden spread out from there. A sundeck surrounded the pool, occupied by a few lounge chairs which looked perfect for enjoying a midday nap. Surrounding the sundeck was the actual garden part of the castle gardens. It was populated by lush trees, vibrant flower beds, and carpeted in soft, green grass. From their vantage point Twilight could also see a few woodland critters and birds happily going about their business amongst the flora.

“We originally didn’t plan on doing anything outside,” Fluttershy said. She had a small blush on her cheeks and a slight uneasiness in her voice. “But, in the end, the garden turned out so lovely. It’s comprised of flowers and trees that occur naturally in the area around Ponyville, so it creates a naturally balanced ecosystem of flora and fauna. The little critters and birds have also promised to help keep the garden nice and clean, since they love their new home near the palace so much.”

“And did you see the pool?” Rainbow Dash asked, drawing a few chuckles from the group. She swooped down and flew once around the replica Tree of Harmony. “It’s nice and deep, so you can dive in just about anywhere. And do you see the green stuff at the bottom. They’re plants that will actually keep the water clean. You have a lawn at the bottom of your pool? How sweet is that?” Rainbow shouted before doing a loop-de-loop and diving into the water.

“It’s a naturally occurring type of river grass Zecora told us about,” Fluttershy said as she and everyone else watched Rainbow swim to the bottom of the pool and walk around on the soft carpet of green. “You’ll have to trim it every once in a while, since there aren’t any fish in the pool to eat the grass, but I personally think it’s a lot better than having to clean the pool with magic or harmful chemicals.”

Rainbow Dash returned to the surface, spraying water out of her mouth before shouting up at the balcony. “Hey! Tell them about the tree.”

“Which tree?” Twilight asked, her eyes moving from Rainbow’s antics in the pool to the surrounding garden.

“A Golden Apple Tree, courtesy of myself and the princesses,” Applejack said, pointing at a particular tree at the back of the garden. It was just a sapling, but it had been given a fairly secluded place to grow, with a perimeter of open grass separating it from most of the other bushes, trees, and flowers. “It doesn’t look like much yet, but Princess Celestia’s little Goldie down there will grow fast. By this time next year, you’ll be having your own golden apples.”

“And golden apple cider,” Rainbow Dash said. She had flown out of the pool, and was now letting herself dry off as she hovered on just the other side of the balcony railing. “Which, by the way, sounds awesome.”

“Yeah, it does, but I think it’s about time we got to the last part of the castle,” Applejack said, directing the group to head back inside. “After all, when y’all aren’t taking care of royal business, it’s where you’ll be able to hang yer hats.”

~~~

The last section of the castle, the home section as Applejack called it, was a few rooms on the highest floor of the castle. Accessible only through a pair of double doors at the top of a staircase, it was secluded. Yet, there was a good reason for it. Behind the doors was a part of the castle where the rooms were a little less grand and a little more welcoming. Rooms that were cozy and quiet, losing much of the grandeur that was prevalent in the rest of the palace.

The double doors opened into a shared living space occupied by comfortable chairs and a few additional bookcases, a place for Twilight to keep a very personal collection of books. One of the shelves was already occupied by a full collection of Daring Do books, which had been scrounged and assembled by Rainbow Dash in the final hours of the renovation.

From the living room a pony could reach a kitchen on one side, or head down a narrow hallway on the other which lead to a pair of bedrooms and shared bathroom for Nyx and Spike. Finally, a staircase up from the living room lead to Twilight's private bedroom and study. In some ways, it was an evolution on the layout of the Golden Oaks Library, one that accounted for the fact that as Spike and Nyx got older, they would have a greater need for their own bedrooms.

“I can’t believe you did all this,” Twilight said, tears in her eyes as she hugged her friends. “This is just… amazing. How did you pull this off?”

“Well, it wasn’t easy. We had a few rough patches along the way,” Applejack said, her words eliciting a few chuckles from the other mares in the group. “It also took a lot of help. All them ponies outside, we couldn't have done it without them. Heck, even the princesses took off their crowns and helped. We took plenty of pictures too, so you can see for yourself everyone that lent a hoof. Couldn’t have done it without Discord either.”

“Discord...” Twilight blinked a few times as she stared at Applejack, then slapped her forehead with her hoof. “He was the distraction, wasn’t he?”

Applejack nodded as the group began moving again. They were leaving the “home” part of the castle behind, heading back down into more public facing areas of the palace. “Eeyup. He was in on this from the start, but I hope he didn’t make things too chaotic for all of ya. It seemed like the best way he could help, and it kept him out of our manes.”

“Trust us, we really didn’t need anymore chaos going around,” Rainbow said. “Though, you have to tell us, how long did it take you to figure out that spell he made up was fake?”

“Well… there’s a funny story about that, and about Discord’s whole distraction,” Twilight said as the group reached the bottom of a set of stairs and began walking towards the palace’s throne room. “But I’ll tell you all later over dinner or something. It’s a long story, but I suppose I can’t be too angry at him anymore.”

“I can,” Cadance said, though she was smirking. “Where is Discord right now anyway?”

Fluttershy looked up at her mane, where a tiny origami version of herself peaked out. It was soon accompanied by another origami pony, one fashioned to match Rainbow Dash. “He sent a little message saying he was going to give you some time to calm down. He’ll be back later.”

“Though I hope he stops making those origami things. They’re kind of creepy,” Rainbow Dash added as she stared at the little paper clone of herself.

“Okay, then what happened to the library?” Nyx asked. She and Spike had been passed around the group as different ponies took turns giving the tour, and now found themselves riding on Shining Armor’s back.

“Yeah, what happened to the stump?” Twilight reached out for the throne room doors with her magic, beginning to pull them open. “When we got there, it looked like it had been dug up, and—”

Twilight finished opening the doors to the throne room. Her words died in her throat and smiles grew on her friends’ faces as she looked up at the ceiling. There, a grand chandelier had been made out of tree roots. Roots she could only assume came from the Golden Oaks Library. The wood had been polished, cleaned, preserved with a light stain, and its natural shape had been accented with some light carvings. From its many roots hung numerous gemstones. “What is this?” Twilight asked as she gently lifted off the ground and flew up amongst the gemstones.

Applejack walked over to the throne with her cutie mark on and took a seat. “Well, it was an idea the seven of us had. We were looking over everything while eating lunch yesterday. Ponies were moving in the furniture, and we were double checking the plans. That was when Luna realized we hadn’t done anything in here.”

“We had a long debate at first of whether or not anything needed to be done to this room, or if there was ample time left,” Luna said. “Once the decision was made something needed to be done, the debate then shifted into what should be done. We agreed that anything that was put in here needed to be significant. Like the library below us, anything done in here should represent a cornerstone of the renovation. Applejack then asked a very simple question. What was it that you liked most about the library?”

Rarity chuckled a little as she walked over to her throne, taking a seat to get off her hooves for a moment. “For a while all we talked about was books, though we agreed adding more book shelves in here would probably be a bit redundant. But then we started talking about all the good memories we shared with you in the library. That is, after all, part of what makes any house a home. It was then our dear Applejack had the most wonderful idea.”

“You made the roots of the library into a chandelier,” Twilight said, understanding now where the stump had gone. “How did you manage that while keeping them in such excellent condition?”

Applejack motioned towards Celestia and Luna with a hoof. “That’s where we got lucky the princesses decided to come and help. Would have probably taken a dozen ponies working for days to dig up all them roots and get them ready. I mean, the library wasn’t no sapling. Why, if it was just the five of us, I don’t know how long it would have taken.”

“It would have taken longer than a musical number sung while you were shopping for mattresses with Spike, that’s for sure.” Pinkie giggled as she jumped and landed in her own throne. She then spun herself around, her hooves near the top of the throne and her head pointed towards the floor.

“Right,” Applejack said, smiling but shaking her head at Pinkie’s strange sitting position. “But with their magic, we were able to pull it off. And it’s more than just a fancy, wooden chandelier. Take a look closely at one of those gems.”

Twilight did just that, holding a jewel in her hoof and noticing that, contained within, was a small picture. “The ornaments on the chandelier are reminders of all the good memories we’ve made together,” Fluttershy said as she took a seat in her throne. “Like the time we shared donuts after the Grand Galloping Gala, or the very first party Pinkie Pie threw for you in Ponyville.”

Rainbow Dash snickered as she flew a circle around the chandelier then landed in her throne. “I wanted to leave out the time you beat me and Applejack at the Running of the Leaves, but the others convinced me to keep it in.”

“Perhaps more than anyone, Twilight, I’ve seen how much coming to Ponyville has let you grow.” Celestia’s familiar, warm voice drew Twilight attention away from the ornaments. She began to descend from the chandelier, landing in the center of the circle of thrones as she looked at Celestia. “As the number of ornaments on the chandelier can attest, you’ve made so many wonderful memories. It is important to always be looking to the future, to the many wonderful days that are still to come as you continue to live with your friends here in Ponyville. As I recall, you once wrote a letter to me about trinkets, about things that help you remember the past, both the good and the bad.

“We hope that this chandelier will help you remember the Golden Oaks Library, and all the good memories you made there, fondly.”

Twilight was in tears again. She rubbed at her eyes, then smiled and gestured with a hoof towards Nyx and Spike. They got down from Shining’s back, and moved over beside her. She then proceeded to pick them up and carry them up into the ornaments of the chandelier. She wanted to share the view from up there with them. To share the sensation of being surrounded by so many good memories, given to them by the same mares who had put such time and effort into giving them their new home. It was nostalgic bliss. The roots not only encapsulated memories, but Twilight almost felt like she was back in the old library when she shut her eyes. The wooden smell of the roots filled her nose, and Twilight hugged Spike and Nyx tight as they just basked in the moment. There was no room left in her heart for sadness, not after being given so much by their friends, both in the past, present, and likely the future.

“Thank you, so much. It’s perfect,” Twilight said a few minutes later, when she descended to the floor. She let Nyx and Spike free from her embrace, the pair stepping down the floor as Twilight backed up towards her throne. “I really can’t tell you how much this all means to me. Thank you. Thank you. A million times, thank you. I don’t know what I could ever do the repay you for all you've done.”

She sat in her throne, and felt an odd surge in magic. She felt a tingle on her cutie mark, and now noticed that the six thrones were glowing slightly. There was a rumble in the castle, and she looked up to see her friends cutie marks and their thrones were glowing. Crystal rose and shifted on the floor, and in the center of the thrones a large table grew into existence. It glowed with magic, a depiction of Equestria appearing like a ghostly projection.

“What’s this, a map?” Twilight asked as she and her friends looked over the table from their seats. Cadance, Shining, Celestia, and Luna approached the table as well while Spike and Nyx had to scamper over to Spike’s throne to get a high enough vantage point to see. It was as Twilight described, a mystical map of Equestria and the land beyond. The strange occurrence, however, was not done. Magical projections of the six mares’ cutie marks disconnected from their thrones, and circled down to the table where they were hovering over a part of the map far north of Ponyville.

Fluttershy extended a hoof, pointing to two different parts of the map. “And if this is Ponyville, why are our cutie marks over there?”

“It’s hard to say,” Celestia said as the magical map disappeared, leaving behind only the crystalline table. “But I would venture a guess that the Tree of Harmony, or perhaps the castle itself, is trying to help you fulfill your duty as the Princess of Friendship. There is no telling what could await you in that far off corner of Equestria, but I don’t doubt that all of you will be able to handle it. And, I don’t believe the matter is so pressing that it can’t wait until tomorrow.”

“Or perhaps the day after, considering what Discord possibly put you through,” Luna said. “Today, let us focus on celebrating your return home, and the completion of your palace. As Pinkie Pie would say, let us party!”

“No no no no.” Pinkie Pie jumped up from her throne, walked across the table, and used it to put herself at eye level with Princess Luna. “You have to say it right.”

“I thought I did.”

“You were close. Now say it with me now. Let’s party!”

“Let us party!”

Pinkie Pie shook her head firmly, and put her teeth together to sharply hiss, almost like a snake. “Let’sssss party.”

“Ah, yes… the contraction. My apologies.” She cleared her throat and then raised a hoof to the air. “Let’s Party!”

“You heard the princess!” Pinkie Pie cheered.

~~~

After putting in so much hard work, the volunteers on the castle project were more than happy to cut loose. Twilight made a speech from the balcony, thanking everyone for all their effort, and that was the only formality the volunteers had to endure. After that, Discord and Pinkie Pie ensured there was plenty of fun, music, food, and drinks to satisfy the army of ponies that had made the renovations possible. It was also Discord’s way of apologizing for perhaps going overboard with his distraction. Twilight begrudgingly accepted it after a firm lecture, but Cadance required a little more coercion.

Discord didn’t get her to stop glaring daggers at him until he presented her with a pickled, red-velvet cake, the exact thing her pregnant hormones had her craving at that particular moment.

In all, the party was filling Nyx up with so much happiness, she couldn’t feel very sad about the library. The biggest contribution to the grin on her face was the present from her friends. A new treasure book, filled with things to replace those she had lost. It also had a few pictures from the renovations, when the Crusaders had finally been allowed to help. They had made a few messes, and Scootaloo still had a hunk of gem in her mane when they ended up spilling some crystal mortar. Still, Nyx found herself laughing at the pictures and the stories they accompanied. They were all excellent additions to her book.

Still, Discord was starting to manifest some games, and Nyx was now sprinting up the castle’s interior to put her book away. It was a lot of stairs, though, so upon reaching the third of the seven circular landings, Nyx stopped to rest. She set her new treasure book on a nearby reading table, one of many in what Twilight intended to make a publicly accessible library. She was a princess and a mare with marvelous magic, but Twilight had also grown fond of being the town’s at least part time librarian.

As Nyx caught her breath and rested her legs, she moved to the banister of the third landing and looked down. It was such an amazing place, it was hard to believe this was where she, Spike, and Twilight would be living. She was personally really thankful Applejack made their rooms, their “home,” a small subsection of the whole castle. It, in a way, reflected the Golden Oaks Library. There had been the more public facing areas, but the library had the second floor where they could get some privacy as a family.

No one had said anything about hiring staff yet, but Nyx had a feeling it was only a matter of time. The palace was too big for them to take care of it themselves, and as it began to fulfill its duties as a castle of Equestria’s newest princess, there would need to be staff to tend to the day to day matters. At the very least, as Spike pointed out, they would certainly need help keeping the place clean.

Stepping back from the banister, Nyx stretched her legs and felt she was just about ready to tackle the last half of the climb up the stairs. She picked up her treasure book, and was about to walk to the base of the next staircase when she caught a glimpse of one of the library’s alcoves. She had noticed this particular alcove during their tour of the palace, but hadn’t been able to linger and really look at it.

The alcove in particular stood right near where the spiralling staircase up to the next landing began. It was one of the alcoves that held a display case. The case itself was a stout, wooden podium with a rectangle of glass on top. The glass sealed away and protected the artifact within, and it was an artifact Nyx was all too familiar with.

It was her old helmet, the one that had become battered, dented, and sliced when she fought against the creatures of the Everfree. It had been set upon a mannequin head, one she imagined approximated what would be her adult features, just as it was. Not a single mark or imperfection had been buffed out. The damage was part of the display, though Nyx found the small plaque that accompanied the helmet a bit strange.

“The Helm of Nyx Sparkle.”

She wasn’t entirely sure if she had taken on Twilight’s second name. No one had called her Nyx Sparkle before, though she wouldn’t deny, she kind of liked how it sounded. It was a question of what Twilight had written on the adoption papers, and a question to be answered at a later date. Yet, the thing that should have been bothering her more was that her name appeared at all. She had never before considered the helmet hers. It had always belonged to Nightmare Moon.

She should have been angry, but instead, she was indifferent.

“Ah, there she is. There’s our little business partner.”

Nyx flinched and turned around, holding back her treasure book defensively before she realized who it was. It was Flam, noticeably lacking his brother Flim. The moustached stallion finished climbing the last few steps of the staircase that connected down to the second landing, and approached Nyx with what appeared to be a very confident smile.

Still, despite his unexpected appearance, Nyx was smiling. “What are you doing here? Where did you and Flim disappear to this morning? How did you even get here?”

“Asking as many questions as ever, I see,” Flam said. “My brother and I had to check on an existing investment to see if it could be liquidated. After that we found ourselves close enough to a town that had more frequent trains than Lumberton. So we decided to visit a few certain ponies and tidy up a few business deals.”

Nyx placed her treasure book on her back, letting the aura of magic around her horn fade. “You mean you went back to see if you could find your cart of gems.”

“That would be the laymare’s version, but accurate.” Flam stopped a few steps away from Nyx. His eyes flicked up to the helmet display, but quickly returned to her. “Unfortunately, diamond dogs or someone else absconded with it. My brother is actually looking for your mother, to file a formal theft complaint and discuss a royal reward. We did help a rather important filly and dragon escape from a dangerous situation, after all.”

“That’s true, but that same filly and dragon were the reason we all escaped from the belly of a giant, two headed snake,” Nyx said with a smirk.

“A business savvy counterpoint,” Flam said, chuckling a little. “I imagine your mother’s using that same argument with Flim. But I do believe we had another arrangement. As I’m sure you’ll recall, you promised my brother and I a sample of your magic and feathers.”

Nyx nodded. “I did, but only if you answered a question truthfully.”

Flam gently pulled at his moustache with a bit of his green-apple colored magic. “I believe my brother and I answered that question quite honestly.”

A frown formed on Nyx’s lips as she recalled their answer from that night out in the forest. They claimed they were con ponies because selling something that had actually worked was too much effort. “Is the answer the same now?”

Flam didn’t answer right away. He stroked his moustache a few times, looking down at Nyx as if needing to consider the question for himself. A single, short laugh emanated from his throat a few seconds later, and he shook his head. “No, I suppose it isn’t entirely true anymore. Though being eaten was not ideal, my brother and I got a taste of a world where our inventions actually worked. It wasn’t bad.”

Nyx wore a cheeky smile, the smile of a mare who was trying to hold back an I-told-you-so. “Well, that doesn’t change the fact I think your original answer wasn’t the honest truth. I think you stopped making things that actually worked because you were scared of failure, not because it was easier. That means I don’t have to give you anything.”

“Now look who’s trying to pull off a con,” Flam said, giving Nyx a little, playful nudge on the shoulder. “After all those questions I answered for you that night, you’re going to try and skip out on your part of the agreement.”

“You can only really blame yourself. You were a bad influence on me,” Nyx said before she and Flam shared an enjoyable chuckle, the kind that just leaves you smiling even after the laughter had died away. “So, what are you and your brother going to do now?”

“We’re considering making a new Super Cider Squeezy, the seven thousand edition.” Flam swept his hoof through the air, as if he was spreading out the words on an invisible sign. “But, instead of using it ourselves, this time we’re going to probably just sell it. It may be less profit than owning the cider market, but building, inventing, and maintaining equipment like that can be lucrative in its own right. After all, there are plenty of ponies that make shovels for a living, but you don’t see them out digging the holes.”

“I like that plan.”

“Thank you,” Flam said with a little tip of his hat. “What about you, kid? Do you still want to grow a fine mustache like mine?”

Nyx giggled, remembering the conversation she and Flam had near the river. She looked back at the helmet in the display case. She still didn’t want to be a princess, but being like everypony else… if that was true, then she and her family might still be in the belly of the Ouroboros. It was because of her uncommon origins that she had the magic to escape her dream, which let her and Spike rescue everyone else. That and, as she thought back, she realized something.

When she appeared in Twilight’s dream, like Spike, she had made herself bigger, stronger, and more mature. But unlike Spike, who’s super heroic form was entirely fantasy, she had taken on a probable shape. She had made herself into Nightmare Moon, without even noticing or thinking about it. She had even worn the armor as she and Spike battled against the dream manifestation of Tirek, but her cutie mark had remained the same.

In that dream, Nightmare Moon, or rather Nyx Sparkle, had helped save the ponies and dragon she cared about. Perhaps that was why seeing the helmet on display, seeing her helmet on display, hadn’t bothered her as much as she would have believed.

“No, I think I’d look silly with a moustache,” Nyx finally answered as she looked back at Flam. “You should talk to Spike, though. He’s always wanted one.” Nyx turned, using her magic to lift the book off her back again. “My friends are waiting for me downstairs. I should hurry up and put my new book away.”

“I’d better go find my brother then. The famous Flim Flam Brothers always negotiate better when they're together.”

“I’m sure you do,” Nyx said as she began to climb the stairs. She stopped though, and looked back at Flam. “Thanks again for helping me and Spike.”

“It was no trouble, kid,” Flam said as he began to walk towards the staircase that headed down.

“And when you finish your next great invention, you should bring it here. I’d love to see it.”

“Only if you promise to give us a royal endorsement, Princess Nyx,” Flam said, giving a final tip of his hat before he began descending the staircase back towards the ground floor. Nyx herself giggled before she turned and resumed her climb towards the top of the castle.

Discord had distracted them so that their friends could make the new palace feel more like home. In that regard, their mission was an undeniable success. Yet, so much more good had come of the trip than just that. Unlike Twilight and Cadance, who were holding Discord responsible for taking things too far, Nyx found herself wanting to thank him. Perhaps his reasons had been on the selfish side. Distracting them was, in some ways, a free pass to be mischievously chaotic. Yet, intentional or not, Discord had helped Twilight through the guilt she was feeling about the library. He gave Nyx and Spike a chance to save the day. Perhaps Cadance and Shining could have been spared the trek through the mountains, but it was certainly a wonderful story to tell their foal.

Working together as a family, overcoming the obstacles before them, had helped returning to Ponyville really feel like they were coming home. The library would be missed, but in the end it wasn’t what defined their family or their lives in Ponyville. What was really important were the ponies and other creatures they cared about. Their friends and family were the ones that comforted them when they were sad, laughed with them when they were happy, and helped them grow mentally and emotionally as time went by.

The road had been long, but Nyx couldn’t be any happier to be home.

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The End

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