The Dresden Fillies: False Masks
Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.
I destroyed the alarm clock without a second thought.
It was only doing its job, but I didn’t care. No sane person wants to get up at five in the morning, and for that matter, neither did I. Only afterwards was I struck by sudden panic. My Mickey Mouse alarm clock had served me faithfully for years, and I had returned its loyalty with fair treatment and the occasional maintenance. Had I finally crossed the line and damaged the one machine that had never betrayed me? Had I become the kind of man who would crush an innocent cartoon mouse without regret? I shot to my feet and promptly fell over, unable to balance. That’s when I remembered that: A) I was at Bon-bon’s family home in Canterlot, and B) I was a freaking pony.
I glanced at the mangled clockwork in relief. It was only Bon-bon’s clock, not my Mickey. Even in its broken state it was still trying to ring. I couldn’t help but be impressed, and a little annoyed, by the clockmaker who had created it. A groan of despair came from the bed at the continued noise and Rarity burrowed herself deeper into the covers. I was tempted to go back to my sofa as well, but unfortunately, the clock had done its job. I was awake, regardless of my desires. I grunted, trying to decide whether or not to pull Rarity out of bed. Then I remembered that I wanted to live long enough to find Twilight. Bon-bon had offered me a room of my own, but my instincts, or maybe simple paranoia, told me that was terrible idea. If Arcanos had taught me anything, it was that you never split the party.
I let out a yawn and moseyed my way over to the closet. My coat and a pair of robes that Rarity had altered for us were the only items hanging in there. My project from the past evening’s work lay on the floor, but I wasn’t one who would be wearing that.
I shrugged on my coat, patting the pockets to make sure everything was there. My staff and my sword cane were leaning in the corner of the room, but for the moment I was going to leave those where they were.
“I can’t believe you.” Bob said, glaring at me coldly.
I mumbled something in response. I’m not certain what exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was threats of a dark and ominous nature. I needed caffeine before I could put up with Bob’s usual level of nonsense. He remained unimpressed, mostly because he knew I also needed caffeine before I could make good on any of my dire promises.
“You had a perfect opportunity, she agreed to let you spend the night in her room, and you didn’t even come close to capitalizing on it. When you told me to keep an eye out, I thought that was an unexpectedly subtle way of saying, ‘Hey Bob, I finally took the stick out of my ass, and you get to see some pony-on-pony action’.”
I just mumbled again, something along the lines of ‘you know she’s right here, don’t you?’. It doesn’t really matter if he didn’t understand me, because Rarity made that point very clear in short order.
“You thought what?!” she shrieked, bolting upright. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes, once she’d ripped off her sleep mask, were narrowed to razor-sharp slits. “Mr. Blackstone is a gentlecolt, unlike you!”
My face didn’t change expression, caffeine withdrawal had it locked into a scowl, but mentally I chuckled. I always knew Bob’s comeuppance would come some day, and Rarity’s imminent tirade sounded like a legend in the making. As interesting as that might prove to be, I wanted my morning addiction above all else. I faced the huge dresser barricading the room’s only door, with more than a little trepidation. Last night it had seemed like a great idea, a little extra insurance just in case Bon-bon was planning to stab us in the back, but now that it was between me and coffee I was re-evaluating the wisdom of this particular plan.
Thankfully, I managed to shove the dresser out of the way without giving myself a hernia. Rarity was still listing Bob’s numerous faults when I slipped into the drab corridor that was our link to Casa Bon-bon. Why they had half a dozen guest rooms, and why they were all underground were mysteries to me, but at least that meant I didn’t need to worry about windows last night. You could argue that I was just being paranoid, but seeing that I was alive to wake up, I’d just call it a point for team Dresden.
I stumbled into the kitchen, blinking blearily. Bon-bon was already waiting there with a steaming pot of tea and a mug of the heavenly brew. I stared at her and the drinks for a second before moving past her to rummage in the cupboards. Bon-bon sent a pointed stare after me, but my skin is so thick that it just bounced off.
“Good morning to you, too,” she said. I grunted in response, then finally found the object of my desire. She frowned as I pulled out the bag of ground coffee. “I already made you some coffee.”
It took real effort, but I managed to say. “Duly noted.” Then I went back to my work. Bon-bon didn’t have a Mr. Coffee, a fact that didn’t slow me down at all. Given that my apartment doesn’t even have electricity, I was used to making my stuff the old fashioned way.
“I didn’t poison it.” Bon-bon said, her tone as brittle as glass.
I waited a minute to respond, breathing in the smell of the percolating perfection. “Never said you did.” But it would have been lying to say that I hadn’t remembered the hundreds of bottles and jars in that metaphorical pantry after seeing that steaming cup. I decided to change the topic to something more positive. “I destroyed your clock. Sorry.”
Okay, so maybe I’m not the smoothest conversationalist in the morning.
“You broke my clock? Why?” Bon-bon asked. It seemed to have caught her off-stride and her brow was knit in confusion. Or maybe ponies just treat their timepieces better than humans, who’s to know?
“In my defense, it was really annoying.” I said, as I poured myself a fresh, scalding hot cup of java. One nice thing about a telekinetic grip is that you can’t burn your hands if you aren’t using any.
Bon-bon swelled with anger, but sighed and deflated a moment later. “Look. Would it kill you to have a little faith in me? I’m taking a huge risk by helping you and you’re still acting like I’m an enemy.”
I took a sip and was surprised by the flavor. I don’t know if Bon-bon only buys the high quality stuff or if the beans in Equestria are naturally superior to the things we mere mortals grow, but this coffee was divine enough to deserve its own shrine. I took another sip, considered Bon-bon’s question, then went with my first impulse anyway. “Distrust is a two-way street, sweetheart. You aren’t here because it’s the right thing to do. You were afraid I would destroy the Order if you didn’t offer a better solution.” I gestured towards her with my cup, careful not to spill a drop of the delicious nectar inside. “And if you found a better way of insuring the safety of your club, like bumping off the guy threatening it, I don’t doubt that you’d take it. Hell, I’m half-expecting an ambush the moment we walk in the door.”
The room was silent other than the soft sound of my sipping. I glanced at Bon-bon, and got a surprise. She wasn’t glaring at me, shocked at my cunning wit, or afraid of my insight. Instead, she just looked sad.
“I should have. Everything in my training told me to do just that. Told me that the means justified the ends. Told me that I needed to protect the Order no matter what. But I didn’t.” She picked up one of the teacups and blew on it before taking a drink. “You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not much of an agent. I’ve got the right skills for it, but I still have the wrong mindset.”
The thought had crossed my mind I’ll admit, but that left me puzzled. “Then why did you even join the Order in the first place? And if you want to get out so badly, why do you even care what I do?” Honestly, the combination made no sense.
Bon-bon stared at me in a mixture of disbelief and amusement. After a second, amusement won out and she started laughing. “You really haven’t figured it out? Okay, now I really do believe you aren’t him. There’s no way you could be that slow if you were.”
I just finished my drink before replying. With patience that I firmly believe would earn me the title of Zen Master elsewhere, I said, “Then illumine me, oh wise one.”
Still chuckling, Bon-bon shook her head. “Nopony joins the Order. Well, almost nopony. We are the single largest secret society in all of Equestria, and the only reason we continue to operate is that nopony outside of the Order knows we exist. Some ponies like Lyra believe it, but without proof, nopony believes them. The moment the Princess discovered us, we’d be rooted out and thrown in prison. You don’t take risks in recruitment when it could mean the end of the whole organization.”
I frowned, my brow furrowed and mental gears grinding until caffeine worked its way in to lubricate them. Then, it just clicked. If they weren’t getting new ponies from outside their organization…
Jeez, no wonder she was so damned conflicted.
I sighed and rubbed one temple with a hoof. “I should’ve realized. Hell, you even told me the Order is all about tradition. It’s a family business, isn’t it? You’re all the descendants of the ponies who refused to abandon the Order after Celestia shut it down. You were raised to be a member, not trained.”
My unwilling ally sighed and nodded. “Yes, but there was a lot of training too. Unfortunately, I had an aptitude for it. I know hundreds of poisons, soporifics and paralytics and dozens of ways to introduce them to the victim’s body. I’ve got skills that would put the assassins in historical novels to shame, but when I asked to be transferred to Ponyville my application was accepted. Would you mind if I told you a story?”
I took another quiet sip of coffee. “No.”
“Gran-gran’s ‘final exam’ was simple on the surface: create a brand new poison for the Order. I quickly discovered how difficult it really was, but I wanted to succeed more than anything else. Eventually I discovered that mixing blackthorn sap and honeyviper oil, two mild paralytics, yielded a poison that could stop the heart. Not content to stop there, I mixed the toxin into a special candy designed to appeal to predators. The chief ingredient is blood, among other things, but the point is that it attracted them like moths to a flame. I’m told chimerae are especially fond of them, even fighting to the death over one. When Gran-gran told me she was proud, that I’d gone above and beyond her expectations, I was so proud of myself. It wasn’t until the reports of confirmed kills, until the commendations from the higher-ups came, until I found out how many creatures had died because of my cleverness that I realized what I’d done. It didn’t matter that they were monsters; I was responsible for every one of those dozens of deaths. I stopped working, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to make any more poisons. My family was confused, but they stood by me when the rest of the Order called me a coward. Even if they couldn’t understand why I was so upset, they were my family. I was quietly transferred to Ponyville as Lyra’s handler, and that’s where I finally found my own happiness.”
She locked eyes with me and we stared into each other. We were both silent for a moment until she spoke in a low, impassioned tone. “I won’t let you hurt them, Blackstone, but I don’t want to hurt you either. I’m trusting you not to run wild once I let you into our stronghold, and I need you to trust me in return.”
That explained a lot, like why Bon-bon’s house had so many ‘guest rooms’ and why they were all underground. Hereditary membership made so much sense I couldn’t believe it hadn’t seen it myself. Why risk recruiting when you can produce your own soldiers? Kids are impressionable and eager to prove themselves to mom and dad. I bet they even did a lot of adopting to increase their numbers and add a little genetic diversity. It might have been a cynical way to look at it, but that’s exactly what it was.
I’d bet my bottom dollar the Order had a different spiel about it. Probably something along the lines of honor and duty, praise for the noble sacrifice they were making. As though they’d ever been given the choice. After all, it was the job they’d been born to, and who would ever want to go? If that was the only life you knew, if that was where your family and friends were, everyone who understood you, would you leave?
Bon-bon wanted to, but it was clear she cared about the ponies she’d left behind. They were her family, and there is nothing so meaningful, so irrationally important as that.
However, that only meant I should trust her even less. People, even decent, ordinary people, are more than capable of murder when their loved ones are in danger. In a lot of ways, this was the limitation of the Soulgaze. I knew Bon-bon down to her truest nature, but that couldn’t tell me what she would choose to do. Killing me was the fastest, easiest and most certain way to protect everypony she cared about, but she hated her poisonous skills. She had a decision to make, and if I was going to trust her, I had to be certain she was going to make the right choice.
I finished the coffee and poured myself another cup, remaining silent. This was the kind of situation I hated. I’m a brute force kind of guy. Put a wall in front of me, and no matter how big or strong, I’ll smash my head into it until something gives. (Hint: it’s usually the wall). But this was a forest of thorns and brambles in comparison, something I had to pick my way through with caution and delicacy.
I settled back into my seat just as Rarity sauntered into the room, her mane un-styled and her brow creased with fury. It did not take a genius to see that she was still angry at Bob. Just in case I had missed the subtle cues, though, she apparently felt the need to inform me. “I cannot fathom how that thing’s twisted little mind works. Do you know what he said to me after I was done berating him?” I had a couple of guesses, but Rarity didn’t give me a chance. “He said, ‘Wow, you’re even hotter when you’re angry.’ Can you believe that?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” I replied. “Putting up with his mouth is the price for keeping him. He’ll stay quiet once we’re out of the house, though. He knows that if the Order catches us, they’ll smash his skull to pieces and let the next dawn tear him apart. And that’s if he’s lucky. If he gets sent back to the Nevernever, it’s only a matter of time until Mab finds him. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.”
Bon-bon had been listening with a bored expression, but that woke her up. “The fabled Queen of Air and Darkness? Your familiar is powerful enough to escape her wrath?” Her stare became calculating. “If so, his lechery is probably just a front to make ponies underestimate him.”
Rarity snorted derisively. “I find it more likely that his ‘front’ is what earned her animosity. Oh, is that tea for me?” Her change in direction caught me off guard, and by the time I realized what she had said, the cup was already floating toward her mouth.
I opened my mouth to warn her, but I was too late. Rarity had already sipped deeply from the small cup. I waited for something to happen, not certain just what that would be. Nothing happened, other than Rarity drinking more tea. I glanced suspiciously at the principal culprit. Bon-bon hadn’t even blinked when Rarity took the cup and certainly didn’t seem concerned now. Nothing continued to happen, and she finished the tea with an obvious relish. “That was just what I needed. Thank you. I’ll go fix myself up – only the essentials, I promise – and then we can be on our way.”
I watched her leave without saying a word, gears still spinning in my head. Bon-bon seemed to be innocent. Of course, that hardly proved she was pure as the driven snow, but in this case at least, I had been wrong. The smirk on Bon-bon’s face told me that she had some idea of how much that irked me.
“I told you I didn’t poison anything,” she said triumphantly.
I grumbled out something that could have been an apology. Bon-bon seemed to accept it, and the silence between became less frigid. All the same, I didn’t drink from the cup of coffee she had prepared, and she didn’t offer it again.
Rising with the sun is unnatural. Rising before the sun is the next best thing to blasphemy.
Still, it was for a good cause, so I followed Bon-bon through the dim light of pre-dawn without complaint. Rarity followed, her saddlebags bulging. The streets were almost deserted, but it was better not to take chances.
The plan was simple enough. Use Bon-bon’s knowledge to get in, sneak down to the Order’s holding cells, knock out the guard or guards, release Twilight, put her in a robe, and sneak out. It was a good plan, but it did hinge entirely on Bon-bon’s whole-hearted participation. So just in case, I had a back-up plan, and it was even simpler. Break down the door, kick in the teeth of anyone who got in my way, and generally just make a spectacle of myself while Rarity snuck in through the confusion and rescued Twilight. In all honesty, I preferred Plan B. Not because it was less risky, but because I’d get some payback for the all the trouble those idiots had put me through.
It broke my heart, but I had to leave my staff behind. It was too big and too conspicuous for stealth. I was hardly helpless without it, but my staff was my most versatile weapon. If things turned ugly, I’d be fighting with a handicap. Of course, if things went to plan, I wouldn’t be fighting at all. And plans always work out just right, so what was I worrying about?
“Stop,” Bon-bon whispered. I brought myself to a halt just in time to avoid running into her. “It’s the bookstore over there.”
“Which one?” Rarity asked peering at the small line of shops across the street.
“I’m not going to point,” Bon-bon said, exasperated. “It’s the small, used one.”
“I see it.” I nodded. It was barely more than a doorway and sign squeezed between its neighbors. Almost unnoticeable, though I was certain that was just a coincidence, and not a calculated effort to conceal the entrance to their secret hideout . “So how are we doing this?”
“Put on your robes and follow me. I’ll do the talking.” I rolled my eyes at the cliché, but complied. Rarity had done her work well. The hood hung far forward, cutting off most of my peripheral vision, but concealing my face from sight. It also masked the sword cane I had strapped to my side, hopefully without any telltale bulges. I had practiced drawing and wielding it with telekinesis in between working on Rarity’s saddlebags. Any unicorns we faced probably had a lot more experience with levitating swordplay than I did, but at least I understand the basic principles. Bon-bon examined Rarity with an air of satisfaction, but her expression soured when she turned to me. The robe couldn’t hide my height, and I hadn’t seen any unicorns with a horn as big as mine either. I doubt my identity was obvious, but anything out of the ordinary was likely to rouse suspicion.
“This can’t end well.” Bon-bon mumbled under her breath.
I just grinned. “Wait a second, and I can do something about that.”
A frown crossed the earth pony’s face. “Are you talking about an illusion? That won’t work; the spells at the door would rip any disguise to shreds. And set off some alarms in the process.”
I shook my head. “Not quite, and I doubt your wards would do anything about it.” I frowned. “Unless they can affect potions.”
“Zebrician magic?” Bon-bon asked. I shrugged, unsure how similar my concoctions were to Equestria’s type of potions. She sat back and thought. “I don’t think so, but we wouldn’t know until it’s too late to turn back.”
Why can’t things ever be easy? “If that happens, I’ll wreak some havoc and cause a distraction. You two can find Twilight while everypony’s attention is focused on me.”
Bon-bon glowered at me. “That is not an acceptable plan.”
I shrugged. “Do you have a better one?”
“Yes. If your disguise fails, then start running and don’t turn back. They’ll chase after you, but you’ll have a head start and should be able to lose them. That creates a distraction without causing any mayhem.”
“I believe causing mayhem was rather the point.” Rarity interjected, with a glare of her own. Bon-bon seemed surprised by Rarity’s attitude. Did she think we had forgotten who had taken Twilight? Rarity smoothed her expression before continuing. “While I agree with you on the principle that violence should only be a last resort, I can more than understand Mr. Blackstone’s desire to vent his frustration.”
Bon-bon looked more than ready to respond, but I managed to cut her off. “Okay. Fine. Plan B is pulling a Roadrunner. Once dawn hits, I’ll use the potion and we can get going. Sitting here arguing is only going to draw attention to us.”
A certain earth pony wasn’t happy with that decision, but thankfully she saw the logic in it. Instead of starting a row, she grumpily asked, “When is sunrise?”
Rarity yawned. “It shouldn’t be long now.”
I stared at the eastern horizon, but there wasn’t even a hint of pre-dawn brightening the sky. “How can you tell?”
To my confusion, she pointed westward. I turned around, wondering if she was referring to a clock, but her hoof directed my gaze beyond the rooftops of the town.
In the distance, a huge castle clung to the side of the mountain. I had been inside it during my last visit, but only now could I see it in all its splendor. The palace looked like a medieval architect’s wet dream, with dozens of turrets, towers, domes, banners and every other kind of fancy architecture done in gleaming marble and beaten gold. Waterfalls cascaded around it, forming a moat, before pouring further down the mountainside. The whole thing was staggeringly beautiful, but it didn’t answer my question. Until I realized that the light shining from one of the higher balconies was not a lantern.
Realization hit me when I made out the long-limbed figure beneath the light. Princess Celestia’s horn flared to a brilliant point and the sun roared into motion, climbing the eastern hills within seconds.
Dawn has a powerful effect on the supernatural. That should come as no surprise; the sun is a giant ball of nuclear fire capable of supporting all life on earth with only a fraction the energy it produces. Much like mundane fire, daylight is a force of both cleansing and destruction. True, most the things harmed by it like to eat humanity, but dawn degrades mortal magic just as quickly as the inhuman variety, and friendly spirits are no safer than poltergeists from its rays. I have never heard of anyone, not even Merlin − the freaking Chuck Norris of wizards − trying to affect the sun, much less control it. And the pretty pony princess from her shiny mountainside castle has been doing it every morning for untold centuries.
I suddenly felt very insecure about that scene in the library. Probably because I was missing my staff, i.e. the best security blanket a wizard could have.
The light raced across the land, and I felt it as day broke. There was a sort of intangible pressure that washed over everything, subtle but powerful. The enchantments woven into my coat and the saddlebags frayed slightly, but neither one fell to pieces just yet. The rest of my gear was fine, but then I’d spent weeks, or even months on all of them. More importantly, I could finally drink my blending potion. This was the last day of its shelf life, but it shouldn’t have lost much in the way of potency. The flavor was bland, about as unremarkable as you could get, but I wasn’t drinking it for the taste.
The colors of the world around me slowly bled out as the potion went to work. Once everything was reduced to shades of gray, I knew it was finished. I wasn’t invisible, that’s too tall an order for someone without any skill in illusions. Instead, what I had now amounted to an aura of unimportance. I would just fade into the background, as far as observers were concerned. With enough attention anyone could see right through it, but so long as I remained inconspicuous the potion would keep anypony from even realizing I was there.
“How about now?” I asked Bon-bon, my voice reduced to mumbling monotone.
Her eyes slid past me to focus on Rarity. “Did you say something?”
Rarity shook her head and I rolled my eyes. Wouldn’t it be just my luck to have the potion keep them from noticing me? I tapped Bon-bon on the head with one hoof. That finally got her notice, but even so, it took her a second to fight through the effects of the potion. As Bon-bon focused on me, her eyes flashed from light gray to a cool blue.
“Wow,” she said. “That should work.”
I don’t know if it was Rarity’s eye for detail or just because she knew me better, but she returned to full color as soon as she turned to see who Bon-bon was talking to. At least, I hoped it was one of those two things, not a defective potion. Rarity gave me an impressed glance, then returned to scouting the street outside our alleyway.
We waited for a newspaper pony to pass by, then crossed the empty street and entered. My heart accelerated from its normal speed to a beat more appropriate to a jack hammer. Other than my companions, the world around me remained gray, indicating that the potion was still at work, but Rarity had pierced it so easily. The tension mounted. We needed to at least get into their headquarters, but if my disguise didn’t pass muster with the guy at the door, all of this preparation would have been for nothing.
I felt my brow furrow. I had promised Bon-bon I’d follow her lead, but if Plans A and B fell through, I then considered myself a free agent. Not that I was going back on my word; after all, I had promised her not to smash through any of the Order’s members.
I hadn’t said anything about the walls or doors, though…
The sign on the bookstore said ‘closed’, but the door was unlocked. We entered the shop to the tinkle of a small bell, which got the attention of the pegasus at the counter. For second her eyes changed to a faint pink as she looked over us, but the color faded away quickly. I heaved a sigh of relief. Bon-bon marched over to the counter and lowered her hood. “What’s your favorite shape?”
The unnamed pony flicked her wings. Nervously, I think, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to read body language on limbs I didn’t have. “The triangle,” she replied in a rush. “Now, hurry and follow me. I’m expecting another group any minute now.”
That raised my eyebrows, and for once, I wasn’t alone in that reaction. “What?” Bon-bon asked, clearly taken aback. However, our guide hadn’t stuck around to chat. She was already moving between the shelves of the deceptively large bookstore. Bon-bon followed her, still trying to ask questions. After a moment of hesitation, Rarity and I hurried to tag along. I caught up when the pegasus paused to unlock a door marked ‘Employees Only’.
“So tell me,” Bon-bon gasped, her voice verging on anxiety, “why we skipped the rest of the ritual. Why are you expecting another group so soon? What’s happened?”
The response was genuinely surprised. “You don’t know?”
“No?” Rarity ventured, deepening her voice a shade. Good idea. I was planning to stay silent, since all I needed was to slip up once, say ‘somebody,’ and we’d all catch hell. Still, I doubted that both of us could get away without talking.
“Everything that could go wrong, has. The only thing that could make it worse was if the Princess, or Harmony forbid him, found the stronghold.” I had to hold back a chuckle at that, but her fear-stricken expression made that less difficult than it might have been. She continued, “Just hurry in and find your superior. Whatever you were here to do, they’ll have different orders, I guarantee it.”
She ushered us down some creaky stairs into a dimly lit basement. It was for the most part unremarkable, just more shelves and books, but in one corner there was a huge minting press, several low-tech machining tools, a few stacks of coin-sized blanks, and a pile of finished gold coins. I almost did a double take at the sheer amount of (presumably counterfeit) money, just sitting there like so much merchandise.
Unfortunately, we never got close enough for me to take a sample of one from one of the golden hills. Our guide shepherded us along one wall and gave one of the books on the shelf a solid yank. With a low rumble, one of the massive bookcases slid aside, revealing a set of stairs.
I’m not kidding. I wish I was, but Equestria apparently runs on clichés.
I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Bon-bon moved quickly down the stairs, still wearing a confused frown. Rarity followed her, and I brought up the rear. The bookcase trundled back into position, but over the noise I just barely heard the pegasus say, “Good luck.”
That’s not ominous at all, I thought sourly. Glaring at the concealed doorway didn’t do much to dispel my apprehension, but it did make me feel a little better. Something strange had happened to the Order, even if she had been frustratingly vague on the actual details. Would it have killed her to be more specific? Bon-bon’s surprise at the news felt genuine, which made me doubt she was leading us into a trap. Unless they knew about us from another source, and they already thought Bon-bon was comprised.
That pleasant thought made me inspect my surroundings as closely as I could, but since we were in complete darkness, that was more wishful thinking than action. Rarity called forth light from her horn easily enough, and I pulled out my pentacle to do likewise, but the darkness didn’t seem to bother Bon-bon. Somewhere around the third story underground, the stairwell began to change. Brick walls were replaced by finished stone, and some type of crystals fused to the ceiling provided illumination. They weren’t very bright, but it was enough. I peered at the glowing crystals as I tucked away my pentacle, but some odd patterning on the stone above me caught my eye. It was difficult to get a good look, but I managed, even if the attempt almost cost me my balance. When I realized what I was seeing, though, my mouth dropped open and I stopped walking.
The ceiling was lined in runes. They looked old enough to give Stonehenge a run for its money, and I could definitely feel the power radiating off them, but that wasn’t what impressed me. The part that left my jaw hanging in the breeze was that each rune was made of dozens, maybe hundreds, of tiny, perfectly-interlocking symbols that shifted and changed while I was watching them.
I think the pony responsible for this deserved a more badass title than ‘the Clever’, but that was just me.
I hurried down the rest of the stairs. The warding symbols continued down the entire length of the stairwell. I know this because I’m observant, not because I glanced at the ceiling every five seconds out of fear. Whatever they were, thankfully, they didn’t seem interested in me. I don’t know if my magic was foreign enough not to trip any alarms, or if the latent protections were just better at detecting the difference between “strange” and “evil” than the Order they protected. I wouldn’t have been surprised in either case.
As we continued to descend, I tried to put the dangerous wards hovering above us out of my mind. I doubt I would have succeeded if it hadn’t have been for the noises we started hearing. At first they were just a low rumble, barely loud enough to hear, but a couple twists of the stairs later and they were discernible as individual sounds. Hooves rushing on stone was the main component, but multiple conversations, the thumps of heavy objects on a wooden surface and the rustle of hundreds of pages created a varied background. The stairs ended just as the noises reached a conversational level, and I got my first look at the secret headquarters of the Order Triune.
After a short landing, the stairway opened onto something that looked like a cross between the reading room at the New York Public Library and a Victorian business office. Enormous bookcases lined the walls, the smallest of which was easily two stories tall, holding thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of tomes, scrolls, grimoires and any other kind of book you could think up. The shelves were aglow with the auras of a dozen or so unicorns drawing the books off them as quickly as possible, creating a severe air space hazard to the pegasi darting in and out of the giant room through its doors. Some of the books were going to desks manned by a mix of unicorns and earth ponies to be flipped through in furious study, but most of them gathered into teetering stacks, which vanished in flashes cast by a pair of exhausted-looking unicorns. Maybe half the ponies I could see wore hoods, but the rest were bare-headed, their faces showing the strain of panic channeled into frantic activity.
The grayscale circus was held barely under control by one dark gray unicorn with steely hair shiny enough to show your reflection. He consulted with the messengers and a circle of ponies around him, but he still managed to bark orders to the rest at the same time.
“They’re evacuating.” Bon-bon said a hushed tone. Fear touched her voice, winding itself into her words. Whatever explanation she had expected for the interruption of routine, it hadn’t been this. “But why?”
“Does it matter?” Rarity whispered back. “We need to find Twilight. You can find out what’s going on afterwards, if you’d like.”
I nodded in agreement. Our entrance had been ignored in all the activity, but three ponies just standing and watching would draw attention eventually. We needed to move.
Bon-bon bit her bottom lip, chewing on it nervously, but sighed and began to lead us once more. Unfortunately her path went right through most of the activity and skirted far too close to the gesticulating boss for my comfort. One benefit to diving into the mess is that I could actually discern some snippets of conversation, instead of just hearing it all as crowd noise.
“−find the accounts on his fourth incarnation. I think he did something similar when he−”
“−and even if the Agents’ covers were blown, how did he−”
“−obvious she couldn’t have deactivated that ring by herself. She had help, and I think−”
“−looking through Romana’s transcripts, but−”
“−like a complete madpony. I was barely out of my room, rushing towards the mess hall, when−”
“−because we’ve lost contact with them doesn’t mean−”
And all too soon, we were sidling by the boss unicorn and his entourage. He had a commanding tone, and was clearly used to being in charge. I wondered how high he was in hierarchy here, but at any rate, I paid close attention to what he was saying.
“−Bookmark, I need you to begin clearing the Level Six archives. They need to go into cold storage.”
“I thought the archives were only five levels?”
He sighed. “Midnight, the Keepers store many secrets. I’ll need you to keep that knowledge to yourself. Now, how many Agents are confirmed missing, not just out of contact with−” And then, sadly, I was out of earshot.
I puzzled over the fragments of chatter as we scooted out one of the doors. At the least, I could glean that somepony was taking out their hidden spies, and that they thought it was me – well, Obsidian, but as far as they were concerned, we were one and the same. Personally, I suspected Luna. She seemed more likely to use subtlety than her sister, but either way, the Princesses had evidently opened season on the Order. Between the two of them, the organization probably wasn’t long for this world, but whatever ways Celestia had of making them talk evidently weren’t effective. If they were, I doubt there would have been an Order left to panic.
“I don’t understand.” Rarity hissed to Bon-bon. “What is going on?” I glanced around to ensure nopony had heard, but the hall we were moving through was mostly empty.
“They’re evacuating, but I don’t know why. I heard something about missing Agents, but I don’t understand why that would cause panic this wide scale.” She shook her head, mind evidently made up. “I’ll find out soon enough. We need to hurry and find Twilight before they move her. She should still be there. Preparing a new place capable of holding her wouldn’t be easy, but I don’t know how long they’ve been at it.”
“Where will she be?” I asked. The halls were unmarked, there were no signs on any of the walls, and the ceiling had been devoid of anything but light crystals since we had left the stairwell. Apparently, you had to memorize the layout. Annoying if you lived here, but a nightmare to any intruders.
Both mares startled and spun around as if they had forgotten they weren’t alone. Rarity touched her chest like she was trying to stop her heart from jumping out and Bon-bon let out a relieved breath as she realized it was just me. Once she had calmed down, Bon-bon answered. “Further inside. She should be in the safe rooms, or – no, she’ll be in the safe rooms.”
I didn’t like that verbal stumble on Bon-bon’s part, but making a scene here was not a good idea. If Twilight wasn’t in a ‘safe room’, we’d burn that bridge when we came to it.
We hurried through the secret stronghold, down more stairs and across more rooms. No matter where we went, everypony was in a hurry, packing up everything that wasn’t nailed down or running here and there with messages. Nopony paid any attention to us, and fifteen tense but conflict-free minutes later, we had arrived at our destination. But, much like the rest of the place, it wasn’t anything like what we – or at least I – had expected.
Instead of a long line of cells, or even barred doors, it looked more the hallway of guest rooms at Bon-bon’s home. It was carved out of solid rock and lit by crystals, but the resemblance was there if you looked. Oh, and instead of a couple of guards, there were about a dozen pegasi milling around without any sign of purpose. That was odd. Everything else had been running like clockwork, frantically paced, but still with a sense of precision. And why were there so many of them? Something wasn’t right.
“Something’s not right,” Bon-bon echoed my thoughts. I gave her a glare for stealing my line, but the obscuring hood kept her from noticing.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Rarity observed dryly. “How are we supposed to spirit away Twilight in all this mess?”
Bon-bon stared for a moment then rolled her shoulders with a crack, and shrugged her hood back on. “Let’s find out. Follow my lead.”
Okay, because that’s worked so well this far, hasn’t it? I groused. I was sorely tempted to vocalize that piece of snark, but I still couldn’t afford any attention. Man, this stealth thing sucks.
“Excuse me,” Bon-bon demanded, her voice and posture reflecting a self importance not normally found outside of a Fortune Five Hundred boardroom. Her haughty gaze settled on the nearest guard and she marched up to him, bold as brass, Rarity and me flanking her. “We are Keepers First Class, and we’ve been given the task of interrogating Twilig−”
“She is to be referred to as Prisoner T.” The guard corrected brusquely. “And you’re on the wrong floor. She’s being kept down below.”
The breath seemed to catch in Bon-bon’s throat. “You mean the holding cells? Nopony told me−”
“I don’t give a flying feather what you were told,” he replied, growling like a wolf. “We’re busy, and we don’t need a trio of arrogant Keepers interfering with Slayer business. I don’t care if you’re first class or last class; get lost.”
Bon-bon puffed up in indignation and for a moment I thought she was going to let him have it. Instead she just let her breath out in a dissatisfied huff and spoke the six words that all bureaucrats fear most. “Your superior will hear about this.” She turned to Rarity and me, acting like a petty demagogue with a new enemy. Though in a workplace like this, where the regular business seemed to be brainwashing and assault, I imagine enmity in the office was a lot deadlier than normal.
Bon-bon lead us on without looking back, but once we turned the corner and were out of sight, her composure broke. Sweat beaded across her forehead and her pace changed from purposeful to rushed. I still couldn’t gallop very well, but with my long legs, her walking speed wasn’t any trouble at all. I pulled up alongside her and without pause asked, “What did you mean ‘holding cells’? Where. Is. Twilight?” My tone was cold as Antarctic winter, but even less forgiving. Bon-bon winced; my anger had carried even through the potion’s monotone.
“Unicorns are … difficult to keep secure. Magic was difficult to counter for centuries. About eight hundred years ago, inhibitor rings solved that problem, but before then the Order had to use other measures to contain dangerous unicorns.” Her head dipped to the floor in looked like embarrassment. Or maybe it was shame. “If they put her in ‘down below’, then she’ll be in the dungeon.”
I lifted an eyebrow, silently waiting for her to finish.
“Chained beneath a waterfall,” she said in a small voice. “But I swear to you, I never thought they’d do that.” She slammed one hoof violently to the floor, her own fury growing. “Nothing makes sense! What is going on?!”
I raised my head, checking to make sure that nopony had heard her outburst. We’d been fortunate that everyone was too busy to check our credentials, but Lady Luck, as I have previously stated, is a bitch. In hindsight I am firmly convinced we only got so far because she wanted us in fully over our heads before stabbing us in the back. And don’t ask how we’d get stabbed underwater, weirder things have happened.
“Sweetie?! Oh, Sweetie, it is you! I was so worried!”
A tiny pony, barely three and half feet tall, plowed through me like a NFL linebacker. At first I thought she was a filly, maybe a little older than the Butt Tattoo Brigade, but on closer inspection she had faint lines around her eyes, leading me to realize through clever deduction that she was actually a middle-aged adult.
“Mother?!” Bon-bon yelped, which was entirely unrelated to my aforementioned deduction.
“My little Sweetie Drops! I was so worried when the reports of missing Agents started to come in. Nopony had seen you since yesterday morning. I thought I’d lost you!” She hugged her daughter closer seemingly at the edge of tears.
“Mom! What are you doing here?” Bon-bon demanded, the horror in her voice making her sound more like a petulant teenager than a world-weary secret agent.
Her mother chattered away, doting her full attention on her ‘baby’, and in the meantime I picked myself back up and dusted myself off. As funny as it was to see Bon-bon (or Sweetie Drops, which I supposed was her real name) brought low, we needed to lose her mom and keep moving. This was not the time to delay, but her mother didn’t look to be in danger of running out of conversation just yet. I glanced at Rarity, but she was as hesitant as I was to get involved.
Instead, I took the opportunity to study Bon-mom. She was a light gray color with hair that looked like styled steel. I still couldn’t see any colors, but her mane shone like some kind of metal. She didn’t have a horn, so I assumed she was an Earth pony. Sure, she could have been a pegasus, but with all the mass she had hit me with, I doubt she could ever have gotten off the ground. The robe made it difficult to tell, but she’d felt like a solid slab of muscle when she bowled through me. And no, I was not making excuses for my tattered dignity, thanks for asking.
“And who are these ponies? Friends of yours? Did you get a new team? Is it a special mission? Or is he that colt you’re so obviously obsessed with, but never talk about?”
I was about to butt into their conversation, reminding ‘Sweetie Drops’ that we still had a mission and blatantly hint for her mom to leave, when I realized three very important things. One: the flow of chatter had cut off and both ponies were staring at me. Two: my hood was on crooked thanks to the collision, revealing part of my face. And three: Bon-mom’s hair was as bright as a new penny.
I processed all of that and the contents of her last statement in less than a second. Considering that my potion doesn’t actually hold up under close scrutiny, it was not a fun combination. And there is no closer scrutiny than a doting, overprotective mother examining the boy she thinks her daughter is dating. Her stare pierced my disguise with all the ease of a fire hose going through a paper towel. From there the widening eyes and terrified gasp told me the rest of the story.
“Listen,” I said, “I know what this looks like, but−” and then she punched me.
Unlike her daughter, Bon-mom definitely worked out, because she delivered a jab to my face that rung my bells. I was still standing, but for the moment I was seeing stars. Maybe it was my brand new head injury speaking, but I couldn’t help thinking, What is it wrong this family?! Why is their first reaction always a punch?
“Run, Sweetie! I’ll hold him off!” she yelled, winding up for another punch. A shimmering blue aura caught the hoof mid-swing, though it cost Rarity a surprised grunt of effort. I began gathering my wits, and my power, as Bon-bon tried to explain.
“Mom, this isn’t him. We’ve got the wrong pony.”
For about three-tenths of second, Bon-mom actually considered that then her face twisted in absolute horror. “You poor girl. He got to you just like he did that nice Miss Sparkle.” Her fury boiled to the surface and she fixed me with the kind of stare that only an angry parent can produce. “If you hurt one hair on her head, Obsidian, you won’t live another day!” Luna would have been jealous of the volume she reached, as her announcement echoed down the corridor.
Great. Just what I needed. She was gearing up for more, but I had had enough. “Inflexia!” I shouted, encasing her in the same spell I’d used yesterday. Bon-mom froze in place, the cocoon of hardened air muffling her words even if it couldn’t silence her entirely.
“Blackstone!” Bon-bon yelled, her worried frown changing into a scowl. “This was not part of the deal.”
I rolled me eyes. “I didn’t hurt her, that spell will last an hour tops, and I’m not going to just stand here and let her hit me.”
“She’s my mother!” My logic didn’t seem to be penetrating her thick head. Or maybe she was just angry. I could identify with that, especially since I was starting to feel that way myself.
“Which is just about the only reason I didn’t throw her into the wall after she punched me in the face!” I roared back. We went nearly eye to eye, tempers frayed to bloody shreds.
“I hate to interrupt your moment, but our presence was just announced rather loudly. I would suggest we get moving.” Rarity intervened. The sound of shouts and hooves on stone just reinforced her sensible suggestion.
“She’s right. We don’t have time for this.” I fixed my hood, and started moving. I could see stairs at the end of this corridor. Assuming that ‘down below’ wasn’t metaphorical, I had an idea where to go.
Bon-bon, though, wasn’t moving. “And what if I’m not coming?” she asked coldly.
I chuckled darkly. “Then, I’ll have to find my own way.” I didn’t look forward to getting lost, but there were some benefits to abandoning her help.
In another circumstance the face she made would have sold tickets. Even in the middle of all this I was tempted to laugh at the shocked horror my statement had produced. Rarity glanced at me apprehensively, but remained silent. That deflated some of my levity. Just what did they think I was going to do?
“Fine,” Bon-bon bit out, rushing past me towards the stairs. “But I’m not going to forget this.” I rolled my eyes again, which the hood thankfully concealed. Somehow the threats of a pony half my weight and a foot shorter than me weren’t exactly intimidating.
And if I acquired a food taster for the rest of my stay in Equestria, that was just a coincidence.
The sounds of pursuit echoed as we hurried downward. Or at least that was how it felt. I doubt they could organize anything that quickly, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. We were on a ticking clock and didn’t have time to waste.
Six stories’ worth of stairs later, the sound of other ponies had died out entirely. We hadn’t passed a single pony, and I got the feeling this wasn’t an area anyone wanted to visit. The atmosphere darkened as we continued down what Bon-bon promised was the final hallway. The light crystals had dimmed, the walls showed more rough stone than masonry, and there were even some jagged crystals sticking out here and there. I had no trouble believing that this was the dungeon.
We rounded the corner to find a massive stone door, lined with even more of the Equestrian runes of unknown purpose. They might just make the door stronger and more durable, but I wouldn’t put money on that. It was more likely they were a set of wards designed to reflect the power of whatever hit them. Given enough time, and Bob’s assistance, I could probably disassemble them, but I didn’t have a day or two to waste on that. Besides, I doubted any of the guards standing watch would just sit back and let me try.
“You there!” Bon-bon shouted and the guards snapped to attention. “We’re here to interrogate Prisoner T. The Mage believes she has information about the disappearances.”
The guards glanced at each other. One stepped forward, and asked, “And you are?” I got nervous then. The world had gone gray again after we left Bon-mom behind, but there were flashes of color here and there. The potion was giving out on me, and I could only hope it would hold for just a little bit longer.
Bon-bon pulled out a silver coin marked with some kind of symbol I couldn’t make out. “A Keeper First Class, and that’s all you need to know.” Whatever trick she was running, the guards bought it completely, and the one who had questioned her bowed in deference.
“Of course, ma’am. We’ll be ready momentarily.”
He retreated and the rest went to work opening the door. Rarity took the opportunity to lean over and whisper, “Impressive, my dear. Here I thought you were bluffing when you acted like somepony important.”
Bon-bon hissed back. “Don’t say anything else, because I am. The whole reason we had to enter through the first level Archive was so I could swipe the badge of office from one of the Keepers.”
I wrestled briefly with the question of how it was possible to pickpocket with hooves before giving up. Some things are just inexplicable. The door screeched, stone scraping against stone as the giant door opened. Most of the guards resumed their positions around it, but one walked through, gesturing for us to follow him.
The rest of the dungeon was just variations on the theme. I kept track of our turns and the intersections, but I didn’t pay any attention to the tunnels themselves. The monotonous walls began to blur together as I became lost in my own thoughts. I tried to suppress the anger boiling inside me, but in was becoming more and more difficult. One phrase echoed in my mind refusing me any peace. They chained her beneath a waterfall.
A low growl, something almost inaudible, stirred at the back of my throat. I’ve been strung up in a similar situation, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It doesn’t sound that bad at first. After all, everybody’s taken a cold shower before. But allow me to enlighten you. The water is colder than anything you can imagine, colder even than ice. Groundwater saps just enough heat to make you cold without the mercy of numbness, ensuring that every part of you is chilled to the point of agony. Factor in gravity, next. The water is falling and you’re what it hits. At first it isn’t much, but it only takes a few hours before you feel like you’ve gone a dozen rounds with Mike Tyson.
Then you have to deal with the helplessness, a sensation few mages have ever experienced. Magic is central to a wizard’s life; it’s as much as part of them as their name or voice. Even if we aren’t a match for something, a death curse is nothing to laugh at no matter how powerful the enemy. But take their magic away, and a wizard is at your mercy. And the kind of creatures who would do that in the first place aren’t exactly known for their compassion, which makes the situation even more nightmarish.
Back then, I had been given the choice between having my throat slit or turning into Darth Dresden. If a friend, one of the best men I have ever known, hadn’t sacrificed himself for me, I would have bled out beneath that cold curtain of water, incapable of anything beyond token resistance.
But the worst part was that the sensation would be completely, horribly new to Twilight. She had graduated the school of hard knocks with the rest of her friends after Trixie’s insane little gambit, but this would be PhD material. Waking up to the cold and pain, helpless to fight back, to do anything to her tormentors, must have been terrifying. And that’s not even considering whatever they would try as ‘reverse brainwashing’. I’d already seen that mental magic wasn’t illegal here.
Suddenly, ‘anger’ seemed like a mild way to describe what I was feeling.
Finally, we reached a corridor lined with doors instead of blank walls, the sound of roaring water now audible. They were smaller, and made of wood, but otherwise identical to the enormous door that had guarded the entrance. The guard pulled a large ring holding dozens of keys from a clip on his armor, and solemnly unlocked the door, pulling it open.
At first I thought there was a second door, one made of some shimmering, moving metal. Then I realized it was the waterfall. It reached all the way to the edge of the cell, and there was enough water pouring past to make it seem almost solid. I peered inside, but couldn’t make anything out. The inside of the cell seemed to be unlit.
The guard grunted in distaste. “Can any of you give me some light? It’s bad enough I’ve got to go in there and unlock her, doing it in the dark ain’t any fun.”
Not just under a waterfall, but in complete darkness too, I thought, stomach knotting like a fist. I didn’t trust myself enough to speak, much less perform any spells.
“Certainly, darling,” Rarity said, her horn flaring to an almost painful level of brightness.
The guard yelped in response dragging a hoof across his eyes. “Not that bright!”
“Sorry,” she replied sweetly. If I hadn’t known her, it would have been difficult to hear the venom beneath her seemingly innocuous words, but it was there all right. She lowered the illumination to a normal level and the guard entered the pouring curtain of water.
It took him less than a minute, but time seemed to drag on for me. He finally emerged, a shaking pony wrapped in a thick, dripping blanket following him. “There you go,” he said. “You’ll want to put a ring on her horn before she recovers, though.”
We didn’t have an inhibitor ring, but Rarity had removed one of my force rings from its elastic band the previous evening. I fished that ring out of my pocket, hoping that the guard didn’t notice what it really was. His colors didn’t even flicker from dark gray. He hadn’t noticed. Confident, I pulled off the blanket, ready for whatever Twilight did.
Only it wasn’t Twilight.
This pony was a unicorn, yes and definitely a she, but this was not the Element of Magic. I recognized her, but honestly she was about the last pony I had been expecting.
“Trixie?!” Rarity gasped, reflecting my surprise.
The guard turned to stare at her in suspicion. “You know her?” Then the light began to dawn in his eyes. “Wait, aren’t you−”
I slammed him into the wall, my telekinetic aura engulfing his entire body. Trixie began backing away, clearly terrified. I didn’t care. I had bigger fish to fry. Color flooded past, the burning red-orange of my magic, the dull green of the guard’s eyes, the glistening pink of the jagged crystals. My blending potion had given out, but I didn’t care.
“Where is she?! Where is Twilight?” I bellowed, shaking him as I roared.
“Stop that!” Bon-bon yelled.
I turned my glare on her and she wilted visibly. “You told me Twilight would be here. I followed your lead and did everything you told me, but we still didn’t find her. Now I’m doing this my way.” I slammed the guard, who had started squirming, against the wall again. I stared into him and without any attempt to disguise the anger rampaging inside me. “You will tell me where she is or I will break you.” I didn’t bother with elaborate threats or bluffs and the simple certainty in my statement broke his resistance.
“Last I heard s-she was upstairs in the safe rooms. W-we’d never put her down here. This place is for criminals and monsters.”
Synapses fired faster than lightning. The group of guards with an unclear purpose and bad attitude weren’t just there by chance. Those bastards had been moving Twilight in secret; she was already gone! I growled again in frustration, but my unholy fury began to evaporate away. I was too relieved to stay mad, knowing that Twilight hadn’t suffered in one of those dank cells. If she was on the move, she wasn’t behind their wards, and if she wasn’t behind their wards I could find her. I just needed to get out of here in one piece.
I cracked a smile, which for some reason just made the guard shudder even more. “You said this place is full of crooks and monsters, right?”
He whimpered and nodded.
“Good. I’m going to need your keys, then.”
Twenty seconds and one of Bon-bon’s candies later, he was out like a light. My scheme, if you wanted to call it that, was simple: unleash as many prisoners as quickly as I could, stage a prison riot/mass breakout, and slip away in the chaos.
Of course, there was a major stumbling block in all that. One named Bon-bon.
“We may not have Twilight, but I upheld my end of the bargain. I led both of you down here, and helped you past every sentry on the way. I’m expecting you to keep to our deal.”
I sighed, and continued in my efforts to unlock the next closest door. “Then offer a better plan for getting out of here, because I never promised to sit back and hand myself over. I said as long as we got Twilight I wouldn’t tell Celestia or hurt anypony.” I gestured to our little group. “Let me know when you see Twilight.”
She fell silent, but I knew that wouldn’t last for long. One way or another she was going to cause trouble, and unless I could get rid of her, I didn’t like our odds of escape.
Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Rarity approach Trixie, trying coax her back towards the rest of the group. “Come on. You’ll be safer with us than wandering these halls alone. Whatever were you doing in there anyway? I thought you were still under the Princess’s care.”
Trixie got to her hooves slowly and hesitantly moved to Rarity’s side, keeping a careful distance from me. Was she scared of me because of what I had just done do the guard, or was it something else? How much did she remember from her night of madness?
“Trixie’s … recovery was completed more than a month ago, and she was given a new wagon. She was booked for a job within a week of her release, and put on an excellent show. Trixie’s employer offered her a drink after the show, and the next thing Trixie knew, she woke up in that cell.” She gestured to the closed door and shivered. I doubt it was a lingering chill from her soaking.
“Why?” Bon-bon asked. Her expression was twisted in confusion. “I know you were to blame for that thing with the Ursa Minor, but why would that put you under the Princess’s care? Why would the Order capture you and hold you here, of all places?”
Trixie didn’t answer. I tried key number twenty.
“It’s a long story, and I’ve no idea how your comrades learned of it,” Rarity said at last. “To be brief, she was possessed by the same demon that transformed Princess Luna into Nightmare Moon. There was some... unpleasantness, but we ultimately defeated the demon and turned Trixie over to Princess Celestia to recover from the experience.”
Trixie’s face reddened in shame. “Yes,” she whispered, “they kept asking me about what had happened, but I couldn’t tell them anything. I remember stealing the Elements and breaking them with the hammer, but everything afterwards is just whispering voices and flashes of emotion.” She sunk to her hooves, shivering again. “I told them I didn’t remember how Twilight and her friends stopped me, or anything about the stallion who helped them, but they wouldn’t believe me.”
Rarity clucked and pulled a hairbrush out of a saddlebag. “Now, now. You’re past all that. Here, let’s get some of these tangles out of your mane.”
Bon-bon seemed caught somewhere between empathy and horror. I wondered darkly what they would have done to Trixie if they hadn’t wanted information out of her. That might be the pot calling the kettle black, but it didn’t do anything to raise my opinion of the Order Triune.
With a small shake of her head, Bon-bon turned her attention away from Trixie and refocused on me. She walked over and lowered her voice, speaking in an almost inaudible tone. “We shouldn’t take her with us. Not only will she slow us down, but I wouldn’t trust anypony who did something like that. She’ll abandon us the first chance she got.”
I almost called out her hypocrisy then and there, but instead I got an idea. I’m talking about a plan that would have impressed Machiavelli. “True, and if we leave her behind I’ve got a quick way out of here.” I turned, stopping my fiddling with the keys. “Rarity, huddle up; we’re talking strategy.” Rarity frowned at me for interrupting Trixie’s grooming session, but with a sigh she rose and came over.
“What?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said, I’ve got something that will get all three of us out of here, but you’re going to have to trust me.”
Bon-bon frowned. “Trust you?”
In answer I fished three sports bottles out of my coat pockets and gave her one of them. I could practically hear Chekov clapping in approval. “I made these before I left home.” I shook the one I was holding, and grinned. “This sucker’s an escape potion. Focus on where you want to go, then drink it.”
“There are only three.” Bon-bon said raising one eyebrow. Her expression was not amused. “Were you planning to leave me behind once we found Twilight?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, if you’ll remember I wasn’t planning on Rarity coming along.” I passed her the last sports bottle, only for Rarity to blink in confusion as she took it from me.
“Blackstone, isn’t this−”
I didn’t let her finish. “Dishonest? Look, we didn’t come here for Trixie, and it’s not like they’re killing her. We need to get moving, pronto, and these will get us where we need to go.”
Bon-bon sniffed at her potion suspiciously. She knew something was up, but she couldn’t tell what. With a thoughtful look she recapped the bottle then passed it back to me. “Agreed,” she said, “but only if we switch bottles.”
I shrugged, and gave her mine. “Deal. I’ll even drink first. The destination is your house.”
She looked shocked, but thankfully she didn’t let the potion hit the floor. Once I was certain she had it, I chugged the potion she had given me without hesitation.
“Well?” I asked her, the potion within me churning into action.
For all my criticisms of Bon-bon I’ve never claimed she lacked bravery. One look at me, and she slugged back the whole potion, grimacing at the taste. “Yuck. So when−” was all she got out before she disintegrated.
The prison corridor became absolutely silent.
“What she didn’t know is that I’ve spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder,” I said, breaking the horrified silence.
Then the screaming started. It was loud, piercing and shrill. I turned in surprise to my remaining companions before realizing it was coming from down farther down the hall. A huge, burly guard was screaming like a little girl. The moment he realized I was looking at him, he bolted tail literally between his legs. While that sight was certainly ego-boosting, I would have rather been attacked. I could have knocked him out in that case. Now every guard in the compound was going to find out where I was.
“Y-you… you killed her.” Trixie’s voice was a reverent hush, and her pupils had shrunk to tiny specks of black.
I snorted, and shook my head. “Not even close. That was my escape potion.” The two ponies were still staring in confusion, so I hastened to explain. “It turns you into the wind for five minutes, but you have to focus on the destination beforehand because the change is really disorienting.” I went back to trying different keys in the door. Trixie wasn’t in any condition to leave yet and even if I could only get one extra pony on my side, that would be better than nothing.
“Some warning would have been appreciated, then.” Rarity huffed, passing me back the empty bottle that had contained my Blending potion earlier this morning. She acted upset, but I could see some amusement lurking in her eyes. “But that was clever.”
“If that’s what happened, why are you still here?” Trixie interrupted curiously.
The door clicked as I finally found the right key. The only one I hadn’t tried yet. “Aha,” I exclaimed, then glanced over my shoulder at Trixie. “I bluffed. I only had one escape potion, so I gave her my other brew, a senses enhancer. Paranoia is a trait she and I share; I figured she’d demand the one I was holding.” I opened the cell door and stared in. My ears flicked as they detected movement within the cell. The potion didn’t do much for my sight, but my hearing was vastly improved and smell had gone straight off the charts.
Trixie looked puzzled. “But what if she hadn’t?”
“Then we would have been boned,” I responded eloquently. I was about to dive headfirst into the biting cold and pounding disorientation of the waterfall, but then I remembered in a panic that, if I did, Twilight’s transformation spell would melt like a snowball in Hell. Stealth was already a lost cause, but I really didn’t want to turn back into a human just yet. Among other problems, I didn’t have any clothes that would fit, and I didn’t feel much like fighting my way out naked.
I slid to a stop scant inches from the edge of the pouring water, almost tripping flat on my face. I managed to avoid that, but at the cost of a fit of giggles from the pair of ponies watching. My revenge, however, was swift. “Rarity,” I said sweetly, “could you go in there and free whoever they locked up? I’d do it, but the running water would cancel out Twilight’s spell.”
The laughter died as though I had strangled it. Rarity was wearing a hesitant smile as she replied. “Are you certain that’s necessary?”
“We could use all the help we can get.” I reminded her with a satisfied grin. “Besides, you’ll be freeing another unjustly imprisoned pony.” I shook the key ring, picking out the key marked for ‘hoofcuffs’.
Rarity grumbled, but give the girl credit – she marched right into the cell with the key protruding from her frown.
Trixie and I waited in the hall as muffled voices came from beyond the doorway. Trixie kept glancing at me, but her eyes darted away each time I looked toward her. Ignoring her, I focused my heightened senses on the cell, trying to hear what was going on. So when Trixie finally spoke, it caught me by surprise.
“Intentional or not, you saved Trixie from that awful place. You have earned Trixie’s vast and undying gratitude, Mister...” she trailed off, a faint pink coloring her cheeks. “Sorry, Trixie never caught your name.”
“You can call me Blackstone,” I answered, utterly failing to pick up on the tone of the question.
“Blackstone,” she repeated, as though she relished the sound of my name. “Thank you, Mister Blackstone. If there is anything Trixie could do for you... anything at all... please don’t hesitate to ask.”
I started as the unspoken intention finally sunk in. Once more, I silently cursed Twilight for my appearance. Out loud, I sighed. “You’re welcome, but that won’t be necessary.”
She flinched at my refusal. “Why not?” she demanded, a bit of her old fire returning.
There were dozens of reasons, starting with the species difference, but even if she had been a bombshell of a human woman I would have said no. “I was there that night,” I responded softly. “I helped Twilight and the girls fight the Dark and All-powerful Trixie. Maybe it’s petty for me to hold that against you, but a first impression like that is hard to shake.”
Trixie’s face burned bright red and she clammed up. That silence was more awkward than the time I had walked in on Thomas when he was, ahem, ‘busy’ with a mime. In my defense, she hadn’t been making any noise, which was usually the only warning I got.
I started down the hall, thinking that I would keep watch around the corner. I was halfway there when a pony bounded out of the sodden cell. I had expected a mare from the sound of her voice, but recognition was a shock of its own. It was another blue unicorn, but this one had a two-tone mane of white and dark blue.
“Trixie?” Colgate asked in confusion.
Rarity shook the water out of her eyes, then they widened with recognition. “Colgate? What are you doing here?”
“Rarity?” Colgate looked even more aghast. “What are you doing here?!”
“Rarity, who is this?” Trixie asked.
“Dr. Scott!” I said, chuckling.
Colgate spun to stare at me. Her pupils shrank to points and her ear flattened against her head in fear. “Blackstone! W-what are you doing here?!”
Well, there went my mood. I bit back a few more vicious comments and settled for, “I’m here to rescue Twilight after you made off with her. And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not Obsidian. Now answer Rarity’s question.”
Colgate winced, and Rarity offered a spare robe for her to dry off. “Sorry, it’s just that you were the last pony I expected to see,” she said as she rubbed herself down. “I-I have to admit, though, I don’t think you’re him anymore. Even an idiot could tell you’re dangerous, but Twilight believes in you, and I’ve known her for a long time.” The dentist sighed. “She thinks you’re all right, and my instincts said the same thing even when I didn’t want to listen to them. As for the cell?”
She shook her head sadly. “I wish I knew. The last thing I remember is going to bed, then I woke up in there a few hours ago.” Fire entered her eyes, and she straightened her spine. “But I’m going to find out.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So how willing are you to fight? Because we’re not getting out of here without cracking a few skulls.”
Her anger faltered, and her mouth twisted into a grimace. “You’re aren’t going to, y’know, kill anypony, are you?”
I scowled at her. “That’s not what I do. They’re going to need a good hospital after I’m done with them, but I don’t kill ponies. Not even assholes like these.” I was going to say more, but I stopped as my enhanced ears caught a sound I didn’t like. The clatter of hooves and crash of metal. I dropped the keys and got ready to run, as much as I didn’t like the idea of leaving any other prisoners behind. “Time’s up. Lock and load.”
Colgate frowned. “What are …”, but she trailed off as the sound became loud enough for everyone else to hear.
The pack of guards rounded the corner at a gallop. They were unicorns clad in glimmering plate armor. I cursed and began to gather my power for an attack. That died the moment I caught sight of the insignia stamp into each helmet. My thought processes ground to halt and my breath caught in my throat. A chill washed through me, turning my blood to ice water as feelings of dread mounted. Every one of the guards, all twelve of them, wore an insignia of a flickering flame, and to prove me right, their horns lit with fire as they charged.
“Any ideas, Blackstone?” Rarity asked, trying to hide her worry beneath a calm façade.
I didn’t reply. I was frozen in fear, reliving that godawful sensation of burning.
“Blackstone?!” she yelled
The guards were twenty feet away and they showed no signed of slowing. The fire had spread to encompass all of their upper body, making them look like a pack of comets screeching towards us. Rarity’s horn was glowing, but whatever she cast, they wouldn’t be fooled by an illusion now. Colgate was still as a statue, disbelief mixing with fear in her expression. Trixie’s horn was glowing, but whatever she planned to do it wouldn’t be enough. Not after how long she had spent under that waterfall.
I’d like to say I snapped out of my fear and heroically saved the group, but that’s not what happened. My natural reaction has always been to lash out at whatever scares me, and with those giant fireballs closing I acted on my instincts. Which is a nice way to say I panicked, and well …
I kind of threw a river at them.
“Aquilevatus!” I screamed in manner that was definitely manly and not at all high pitched. Water isn’t my favorite element, but hey, I was already standing right next to a raging torrent of it. It was really just a question of redirecting the massive flow. Working with water is a major power sink, but at the moment I didn’t care how much of my reserves I burned through.
The underground river poured through the open door like a tidal wave, smashing into the oncoming ponies and destroying their charge. The unicorns were tossed ass over teakettle by the force of the blow, but their armor should have protected them from any serious injury.
All three of my companions turned to stare at me. My breath was coming in ragged gulps and only then did I realize I was still holding the spell, pounding the soldiers with more and more water. I let go of the spell, an enormous weight off of my shoulders, let me tell you, and tried to slow my breakneck heart rate.
“I’m not … as fond of fire … as I used to be.” I said between gasps for air.
Trixie glanced at the battered and disoriented guards, scattered along the hallway. “Trixie will take note of that.”
Rarity looked impressed as well, but hers was tinged more with gratitude than fear. “Very well. I’d suggest, though, that we run rather than sit around admiring your work.”
“Seconded.” I said, pausing to sniff deeply. Few ponies had walked in these stone corridors and our trail was easy to pick up. “That way,” I pointed, rushing in the chosen direction.
Rarity followed, and with a squeak of alarm so did Trixie. Colgate hesitated, but she was up and running after us before I rounded the first corner. I slowed to gentler pace, both to let our tag-a-longs catch up and so I could get more information from my nose and ears as we ran.
Twice, my hearing warned me about incoming guards long before they were in sight, letting us dodge the patrols on our way out. There was one obstacle we couldn’t get around, though: the door of the prison. They had shut and relocked it, and I didn’t see any means of opening it from the inside. Well, duh, I thought, pissed at myself for not realizing it sooner. It’s a prison. It’s made to keep people inside.
The up side, though, was that the door was way too thick for an eye slit or anything else. I cleared my throat and banged on the door. “We need more soldiers!” I yelled trying to deepen my voice, but keep it panicked. “He took out my squad and he’s freeing the prisoners, enlisting their help! We have to move fast before he gathers an army!”
There was silence on the other side of the door, and when the reply came it was not what I had expected. “Understood, passcode?”
“Uhh…” I stumbled, but luckily somepony covered for me.
“By the sun, moon and Harmony
I call now for aid from thee
Let us stand, the races three
Against the dark one’s vast cruelty.”
I blinked at Colgate. That was the first time I’d ever heard a poem barked in an authoritative tone. The guards were apparently fans, though, because barely a minute later the door began to rumble open.
I wanted to rush the door the moment it opened, but I waited for the crack to widen from a foot, then two, once it was five feet across I nodded to the rest of the group and we all charged forward. One guard moved to enter as we rushed the opening. I had left the robe behind – the time for secrecy was past – so he had no trouble identifying me. His eyes widened and he shouted a warning to his fellow guards that made him my favorite faceless mook ever, hands down.
“It’s a trap!”
I almost felt bad about slamming him into the wall with a burst of telekinesis and plowing past. Unfortunately, turnabout is fair play, and I was barely through the door when a train crashed into me, tossing me to the side. I hit the wall hard, and it hurt. I got back up in time to see the guard charging for another round. Punching didn’t feel natural as a pony, but while the motion felt odd, the magic I used to trigger one of my force rings was still familiar. I hit him in the chest, denting his armor and killing his momentum. The moment he slowed I slammed him to the floor with more telekinesis.
I looked up, ready to be rushed, but I was surprised to see the rest of the group holding its own for the moment. Colgate was holding off two guards with blasts of magic, and while she hadn’t knocked out either of them, at least she was keeping them busy. Trixie had gotten a rope from who-knows-where and hogtied one guard while she fought another with a sword she’d evidently taken from the first.
Rarity, though, was the one who deserved the award. There were a total of twenty-four earth pony guards, so if you do a little math, you’ll realize that while the rest of us were taking two apiece Rarity was left with eighteen trained, armored fanatics about twice her size and weight.
They didn’t stand a chance.
Held in her dexterous telekinetic grip, a ball of thick white thread unspooled rapidly. The strand darted with the speed of a striking snake, tangling and tripping the guards, tying all of them into a giant web of thread that grew more and more complex as the ball continued to dart and weave, connecting pieces where guards had broken through or pulled loose. By itself, the thread was only an annoyance, but as a delaying tactic, it was masterful. And that was all we needed to escape. A couple telekinetic body blows later, Trixie’s and Colgate’s opponents were down for the count.
“Let’s get moving!” I yelled, pointing out the way we had come. Once we were past the guards, the hallway was deserted. Confident in our escape, I galloped towards the stairs. Through both memory and smell I found the floor we had come from and dashed into the next hallway, listening carefully for any company. I couldn’t hear anything except for the three ponies with me. Our way was as clear as it was going to get.
Suffice to say, I did not expect a pony to step out of the shadows and bury a hoof in my side, fracturing one of my ribs. I grunted in pain, but I didn’t trip or stumble. Another blow caught my flank, but I had already begun to turn and face my attacker, making the hit glance off with nothing more than bruise. The pony I was facing was shrouded in one of the robes, but was otherwise unimpressive. Average height, and build, no other clear details about them. He, or maybe she, was an earth pony, but unlike the bulky bruisers we had left behind, this pony clearly relied on skill and speed over power.
Not that he’s missing any of that last one either, I thought nursing my damaged side. For a moment I thought my potion had given out on me. This guy had come out of nowhere, but my magic proved to be working just fine as I heard the faint rustle of cloth from behind me. I dived to the side, barely dodging a mule kick from another pony in black. That was when I realized what I was facing.
“Come on! Ninja ponies? Really?!”
Ridiculous or not, my opponents clearly had the training and grace of lifelong martial artists. Not the kind who go to the gym once a week and only spar in tournaments. I’m talking about the people who live for their art, the ones who practice styles of fighting that are meant to put their enemy down. The first ninja moved in as his comrade missed, and I was forced to back up to avoid another barrage of blows. I managed to draw my cane-sword and parry his jabs, but the ring of steel on steel told me that he was wearing some kind of metal gauntlets over his hooves. The second rushed back into the game, and I had to abort an attack to defend myself from him.
The two were faster than they had any right to be, and they weren’t easing up on the pressure at all. They rushed me together or alone, steadily forcing me to retreat. They worked together to split my focus, but I was wise to them and a sword with a telekinetic grip has a hell of a lot of reach. I cleared out some space and gathered my will for a force spell to throw them back. I had barely begun when a ton of bricks landed on my back, driving me to the floor. Two more of the hooded attackers had struck from the shadows, forcing me to my knees and disrupting the spell I was charging. I grasped for my magic, trying to get off another spell as quickly as possible, but my first attacker had closed the distance and his hoof connected with my horn.
Channeling magic apparently made the horn sensitive as hell, because it felt like he had just kicked me in the balls. My power winked out, and I gasped in pain.
“I have you now,” he said, his voice curiously androgynous. Later I would have to wonder about his gender, but for now I was sufficiently distracted by the sensation of ropes being wrapped around my ankles. I started to struggle and I reached out with my telekinesis again, only to receive a blow to my horn that told me he had pulled the first punch.
“Son of a bitch!” I complained. “You assholes don’t play around, do you?”
The leader of the group pulled me to my hooves and held me there, displaying more of that surprising strength. “I would not be flippant if I were you. The only reason you are not dead is because I need you. The moment I am done, so are you.”
I blinked. That’s interesting. He needs me? So far every pony in the Order had been more than happy to try killing me. What made this guy different? I stared into the hood trying to see his face, but there was only darkness. “Who are you?”
At first I didn’t think he would answer, but he finally replied, “You may call me Watcher.”
That didn’t sound hopeful, but I could still hear the sounds of fighting, so Team Dresden wasn’t out of the game just yet. I glanced over his shoulder at the rest of my group. They hadn’t been caught by surprise like I had, but these nutcases were good, even without an ambush. Trixie was down, one pony fixing her into ropes similar to mine. Colgate was still on her hooves, but she had a split lip among other wounds, and her opponent looked untouched. I doubted she’d last much longer. I turned with fear to the last member of our crazy band, just in time to see Rarity uppercut her opponent like something out of a video game. The hooded pony went flying, and I would be surprised if he got up from that any time soon.
The hall went silent as the ninjas turned in shock to stare at their fallen brother. Except Watcher. He moved like a mongoose, darting towards Rarity. Fast as he was, though, he still had almost twenty feet of distance to cover, and Rarity wasn’t wasting time. A tiny streak of silver, followed by more of that white thread, shot from her saddlebag. Watcher dodged to one side but the needle and thread followed unerringly. The needle moved through the thick cloth like it was water, and with a speed that bordered on supernatural, it stitched his robes shut. Within seconds, Watcher’s voluminous clothes were sewn together at the hem and hood. He might have been a master-class ninja, but I’d love to see him try to run like that.
Watcher crashed into the ground, and not wasting the moment, I crashed into the ponies holding me. They definitely had me outclassed in skill and probably in muscle, but a body blow depends on mass, not technique. Every one of the ninjas were a lot smaller than me. They reacted quickly after the fact, but I’d gotten all I needed, some distance. None of them were close enough to hit my horn again, letting me put it to good use. Even then, the five of them working together might have beaten me. Too bad for them that Rarity still had plenty more thread.
Thirty seconds later we’d bagged (ba dum pish) all of the ninjas, and I was pulling myself free of the ropes. They hadn’t had enough time to tie my bonds securely, and my sword made short work of them.
“And mine?” Trixie demanded, almost toppling over as she hopped toward me. I snickered at her, which she didn’t appreciate, and cut her free, which she did. Trixie had been put down quickly and it didn’t look like she’d suffered anything worse than having the wind knocked out of her.
“What next?” Colgate asked. Her voice and expression were calm, but I could tell she was nursing one leg.
I grimaced. She was trying to hide her pain, but it was obvious she’d been hurt badly. Can she run on three legs? Do we have the time−
A dark-coated hoof clad in a metal gauntlet burst through Watcher’s robe, and that made my decision awfully fast. “Run!” I barked, leading back the way we originally had come. It was difficult to follow the scent trail, since there had been some traffic in this hallway since Bon-bon had first lead us down it, but the potion was doing its job and I didn’t entirely lose it in spite of the chaos.
I tried to keep the pace slow, both for Colgate’s sake and for mine. I wasn’t as bad off as her, but they hadn’t been giving me love taps either. Rarity drew even to me, her sharp eyes watching for another ambush.
“That’s twice you’ve saved our collective asses in the past twenty minutes.” I grumbled. “I don’t know if you missed the memo, but I’m supposed to be the hero. You’re making me look bad.”
Rarity chuckled and gave me a faux apologetic smile. “So sorry, Blackstone, whatever was I thinking? But, never fear. That was the very last of my spider silk thread, so I won’t be saving the day again.” Her mocking smile faded into a worried frown and her tone changed to match. “That is unfortunately true. I used the last of it on those hooded fellows, and nothing else I brought with me will serve half so well.”
I nodded. That was par for the course. “If we do run into more trouble, you’ll probably just use more of that Crane Fist or whatever you were doing. Seriously, where did that come from?”
Rarity tittered. “Classes from the local dojo. Funny enough, I only attended them because Rainbow Dash convinced me it was a good way to stay in shape. I never expected to be any good at it. Or for any of the training to be useful.”
“Right, because you’re never in life or death situations where secretly being a fighting guru could be helpful.”
“Sarcasm is hardly becoming for a hero,” Rarity quipped back, threatening to edge out Rainbow for second-best banter pony.
Still, the pace was beginning to take its toll on me. I didn’t have enough breath to waste much of it. We barreled along, following my nose. We ran into more Order ponies, but these were alone or in pairs. The moment they saw us, or more specifically me, they tended to scream and run. They were going to draw down more guards, but trying to subdue or knock them out would more trouble than it was worth. We were already running short on time, and if they weren’t in our way, I was willing to let them go.
My ears flicked again as I heard ponies ahead. There were a lot of them, but they weren’t moving towards us. With a glance to the group – and a wince at Colgate’s pained expression – I drew my sword and dashed around the corner. We were back at the ‘safe rooms’, and there were still a dozen guards just milling around. Surprisingly, only one of them looked up when we crashed into view. The rest just continued their wandering.
That was weird, but the stillness didn’t last long. The lone pegasus staring at me bellowed, “Obsidian!” Every head in that hallway snapped up, as the guards lost their distracted expressions. The guard who had misled us earlier was not present. Strange.
I floated my sword into a defensive position and began preparing a spell as they bit down on the hilts and drew their own swords. They were even faster than the ninja ponies, but these guys weren’t catching me by surprise. Normally, I would have blown them off course with a blast of wind, but this deep underground, Earth magic was easier. I was really only practiced in one branch of the element, but it was one hell of a specialty. As I finished the spell, invisible lines of electromagnetic power snaked out from my sword into all of theirs. I didn’t try to take them away – pulling the weapons from a dozen of them would take a too much effort. Instead, I just yanked on the tips, pulling each sword into a sudden slice.
They resisted, which prevented a couple cases of maiming, but none of them could stop it. The packed rush turned into a mess and three of them lost their swords. I was quick to capture the loose blades and pass them to my companions. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Colgate wouldn’t stab me in the back, her earlier words notwithstanding, but my enchanted coat should at least hold up to the first cut.
The pegasi recovered quickly, but they no longer had the time or distance to build up a head of steam. I led Team Dresden into the fray, using my sword to parry and disarm, inflicting some damage wherever possible. I took a couple small cuts in the process, but I was fighting two or three times as many as anyone else. Trixie didn’t have much in the way of training, but the tiny fireworks and explosives delivered from the end of her blade kept opponents at bay. Rarity seemed to have some experience, she struck a pose that I was certain came from fencing, but it was obvious she didn’t have much in the way of practical ability. Colgate surprised me, though. She was wielding two swords, and though she didn’t move much on her injured leg, her weapons danced and twisted among the guards, blocking attacks and inflicting painful, but shallow, wounds.
We were winning, but the fight was taking too long. With a surge of magic I pulled away the swords of the last six who still had them. They bit down and tried to hold on, but swinging a three-pound chunk of metal for several minutes is tough work. By the time I decide to play tug of war, they were too tired to put up much of a fight. Grinning, I picked up each of the stolen blades in my telekinetic grip and aimed them at the remaining guards. Magnetic magic is a lot of fun, and not just because I can pretend I’m Magneto while using it. You can, for instance, create an attraction between two metallic objects, like maybe a piece of armor and a sword. Six swords oriented point-first toward the breast plates of the guards. I released the spell with a shout, and the blades shot towards the pegasi like I’d fired them from a gun.
I don’t care who you are, when a sword is coming at you, you run. Or in the case of these ponies, fly. They bolted, each trying to escape his own sword, which followed in hot pursuit. I wanted to laugh, the sight was certainly funny enough, but I had work to do. After a quick cleaning I sheathed my own blade and searched my pockets.
“What are you doing?” Trixie asked.
“Looking for the key to our escape,” I replied. When I triumphantly pulled out Twilight’s hairbrush seconds later, I was treated to some less then enthused looks.
“What’s that?” Colgate asked, her tone indicating a disturbing lack of faith in my sanity.
“It’s Twilight’s hairbrush,” I retorted. “With this I can track her scent out of here and to wherever the Order moved her to.” I had originally brought the hairbrush to give me hair for tracking spells, but I figured it should hold her scent as well. I took a deep whiff and, following my nose, pointed in the direction of a new hallway. She had been here, all right, and she had left recently, too. How recently, I couldn’t tell, but she couldn’t have moved far. There were some other interesting scents I would have liked to examine, but we didn’t have the time. I could already hear reinforcements coming from behind us.
“We’re about to have company,” I growled, staring down the hallway we had come from.
“You all go ahead. I’ll stay behind and hold them off,” Colgate said, an icy detachment flavoring her words.
“We aren’t leaving anypony behind,” I growled. “Even if they’re a kidnapping nutcase.” My ears swiveled, trying to figure out which hall the guards were coming from. Damn echoes.
“Thanks, you violent jerk, but I’m choosing to stay. I’ve got friends who will help me get to the bottom of all this.”
“Are you sure?” Rarity asked, brushing an errant lock of hair back into place. “It’s brave of you to offer, but what if they lock you in that horrid cell again?”
Colgate shrugged. “It’s possible, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t run anymore. This way, at least you three will escape. Without Twilight here, it’s the best payback I can give for taking her in the first place.”
“Trixie will never forget you.”
“I wish you the best, Colgate.”
“This is the most−” I wasn’t sure whether I was going to call it noble or cliché but the arrival of the guards cut my sentence short. Actually, the twang of their crossbows and the arrow that went through one of my ears cut me off, but, y’know, same thing.
“Dammit!” I roared, turning my hate filled glare on the ponies responsible. They retreated back around the corner, probably just to reload, but for the moment they were gone.
“Go!” Colgate yelled, and we ran. I didn’t like leaving her there, but she was right about slowing us down. I had my own suspicions about who had put her in that cell, and it was just as well she was staying here. There were more secrets to the Order than it had first appeared. Wheels within wheels.
Further down the hallway, we paused so I could examine an intersection. Trixie took the chance to perform some first aid. The arrow hadn’t hit anything vital, but it was bleeding more freely than I would have liked. Blood is a powerful symbol, in addition to being potent in magic. If they gathered enough of mine before it dried out, the Order could do some very nasty things to me that my defenses wouldn’t do a damn thing to stop.
“Do we have anything Trixie can use as a bandage? You’re still, ungh, leaking.”
A thought occurred to me and I grinned. They weren’t the only ones who could use blood to power a spell. “Sure, but first, I’ve got an idea.” Both Trixie and Rarity took a step back at that, which was insulting, but I could understand their trepidation. This spell, however, was one of the least dangerous ones I knew.
“Ventas veloche, ubrium, ubrium.” I mumbled, concentrating my power through the spilled drops on the ground. It began as small wisps of mist, but as the spell consumed the power in my blood it began to billow out of the tiny dots of liquid, filling the corridor with a light haze. Every drop of blood was now a miniature fog machine, which should confuse and delay any pursuit from behind. If Colgate was still fighting, it would give her a thick veil of cover, which she desperately needed against enemies armed with bows.
I caught the scent again and began to follow it, my ear safely bound and the rest of my blood consumed. We followed the trail once again, only meeting one or two ponies before halting outside of a large pair of double doors. We burst through them at a run, then slid to a stop.
We had just entered a mess hall, and given its size, probably the mess hall for the whole compound. There were roughly a hundred ponies in there. They were neatly divided into two groups, those eating and those packing food and other goods. It was a scene of hectic activity, just like the library we had seen earlier, but unlike our earlier experience, our appearance did not go unnoticed.
Every pair of eyes was focused on us and I could hear the quiet sound of knives being drawn. Twilight’s trail crossed the room, and I knew that I had to get through these all of these jokers to follow her. My anger rose to the fore again, white hot and fierce. They were between me and Twilight, which is a suicidal tendency if I’ve ever heard one. I stepped forward, meeting the eye of any pony in there brave, or stupid, enough to look at me.
“Let’s get this straight,” I told them breaking the tense silence. “I only want to leave.” I paused. “No, that isn’t true. I want to beat the living shit out of each and every one of you. I want to find the ringleaders of this moronic little club, throw them into the Nevernever and let them see what real evil looks like. I want to tear this place down, blow it to pieces, and then set the remains on fire. But I’ll be satisfied with just getting out of here.” My voice, which had been reasonably calm and conversational, rose to a full-throated roar.
“So if any of you idiots − and I mean any − try to stop me, I promise you this: I. WILL. END. YOU.”
“Forzare!” I bellowed, slamming the table in front of me, a solid piece of furniture that had to weigh at least four hundred pounds, to the side. An invisible force hurled the table out of my way with a crack of breaking lumber and a hot wind that smelled like fire and brimstone. The table flew through the air, easily clearing forty feet to smash into kindling against the nearest wall. I was done playing games, my ribs and ear throbbed with pain, and I think I’d finally gotten the message across.
At first there was only silence, but panic set in suddenly and the ponies began to flee, pouring out of the room as quickly as their hooves would carry them. I snorted and moved forward before they noticed how damn tired I was after that stunt.
The trail was almost impossible to follow through a formerly-crowded room still full of food smells, but I was pretty certain Twilight had used the shattered and freshly-excavated doorway. They might have taken her away, but she hadn’t gone easily. I felt a tear come to my eye. Already, my love of property damage was beginning to rub off on her.
There were stairs and more stairs, but no more ponies. Which was good, I had been slinging around a lot of magic and I didn’t want another big fight. One intersection was a bit confusing, because Twilight had been down each of the three halls, but after a moment I managed to suss out the corridor she had ultimately taken.
That’s when we ran into trouble.
There weren’t any more guards, and I couldn’t hear the sound of pursuit, though I knew it was coming eventually. The stairwell that Twilight had taken was lined in the same complex runes as the one we had used to enter, but these blazed with green light, and I could feel the power they were giving off from fifty feet away.
I had no idea where to even start analyzing these things, but thankfully I had brought someone who could. “Rarity, would you get out Bob?” I asked gesturing to the saddlebag that had remained clasped tight throughout our entire escapade.
Rarity grimaced, and gave me the bags. “You can, but I’m not touching the little beast.” It seemed she hadn’t quite forgiven him for earlier this morning just yet. I rolled my eyes, but went to work on the clasp.
“Trixie doesn’t understand. Who is Bob?”
Rarity let out a dissatisfied huff. “You’ll see soon enough, unfortunately.”
The top finally popped open and I pulled the skull out of the specially lined and prepared bag. I had spent several hours last night warding the bag to make him undetectable. Between that and the more skilled enchantments on the skull itself, I was certain he wouldn’t set off any alarms. Well, I had hoped at least, because there was no chance I was leaving him behind at Bon-bon’s house.
“Tell me what we’re looking at.”
Orange lights flared to life within his eye sockets. Bob whistled, “Now that’s a ward.”
Trixie’s face twisted in disgust. “It talks?!”
Rarity laid a consoling hoof on her shoulder. “I know. It gets easier to accept with time.”
Bob’s eyes pulsed brighter, and for once he ignored not just a pair of insults, but a new girl. I frowned as he remained silent. “Anything yet?”
“Be patient. This is a toughie.”
I sighed. If it were up to me, I’d give him all the time he wanted. Hell, I was curious about what those things were. Unfortunately, we needed to be gone as fast as possible. “We don’t have the time. What do you know so far?”
Bob grumbled. “I can’t tell you much about the runes themselves, but I can give you a rough description of what they’re doing. It’s a selectively permeable reflective enmeshment barrier utilizing a conceptual filter.”
Three sets of eyes blinked in confusion. Bob continued studying the strange symbols.
“Okay,” I replied, “I get the first part, but what do you mean by ‘conceptual filter’?”
Bob sighed. “It’s what happens when you mix morality with magic – a combination I could do without. The caster creates a spell that is triggered by some quality or trait in a person or object, like that whole Sword in the Stone thing with Arthur. The stone was enchanted not to let go of the sword until someone ‘worthy’ tried to pull it out. Of course, who’s ‘worthy’ is completely subjective and it depends on both the caster’s definition and the spell’s ability to sense the quality he defined.”
He snorted derisively, but didn’t stop studying the ceiling. “Not a branch of magic I’ve ever liked. Unreliable, and it depends too much on a ‘good vs. evil’ viewpoint. Whoever built the ward that powers and protects this spell is a genius. I don’t understand why they’d waste such a beautiful set-up on something so intrinsically mediocre.”
I turned over Bob’s comments in my mind and thought through a couple of them. I didn’t like what I’d come up with. “So, this is a barrier that only lets through ponies who have some undefined quality?”
Bob nodded. “Exactly, only I think it doesn’t just repel the unaccepted. That’s where the reflective enmeshment comes in. If you try to enter it and trip the filter, it should freeze you in place. Any movement you make, any spell you use would be absorbed and used to restrain you further. I don’t know its limits yet, but it’s possible you could kill yourself if you kept trying to move and the spell continued to apply pressure.
Ick. I didn’t want to think about what that would be like.
“But what quality does it look for?” Trixie asked, her expression tinged by more curiosity than fear.
“Dunno.” Bob replied calmly. “Something like that would take at least an hour, and that’s assuming I could even understand whatever ‘virtue’ it depends on. You’re lucky I was able to get as much as I did.”
Trixie pouted and glared at Bob, but I was rubbing my chin thoughtfully. “Do you think the saddlebag would hold up if we took you through?”
For a second Bob was silent. Then he turned to stare at me like I was not just an idiot, but an idiot in the midst of a particularly stunning piece idiocy. “You want to just walk into the possibly deadly and definitely dangerous barrier, just taking it on blind faith that you’ll match whatever this thing’s key is? Harry, you’ve come up with some dumb plans but this would be your crowning moment of stupidity. Why not take another exit?”
I shook my head. “Our entrance had the same runes. I’m willing to bet the same is true for every door. You don’t build the Great Ward of China, then leave a giant hole in it. The only other option is trying to hide inside the stronghold, but that’s only a delaying tactic. Even if we can move fast enough to keep from getting overwhelmed by numbers, everybody has to sleep sometime.” I glared at the glowing runes. “We’ve at least got to try.”
“Have you considered tunneling?” Bob asked weakly.
“We’re at least fifty feet underground, probably more, and this is solid rock. I’m gonna go with ‘no’ on that one.”
Bob squeaked, presumably in fear even though I knew he’d deny it if I ever asked him. “In that case, put me back in the bag; I’m going dormant.”
“You’re doing what?” Rarity asked. I think she was repressing a smile at his reaction.
“For the next twelve hours,” he said, “I’m going to be the next best thing to dead. Just promise me before I go under that if we get captured, I have your permission to leave the skull, no strings attached.”
I sighed, but in the end I couldn’t refuse him. “You have my permission to do whatever you deem necessary to escape if we get captured.” I hoped that wouldn’t come back to bite me, but I refused to leave Bob out to dry. He was a perverted, arrogant asshole, but he was my perverted, arrogant asshole. Wait…
“I think,” Rarity said as I stuffed Bob back into his saddlebag, “that one of us should test it first. That way, if we don’t qualify, the other two can try another avenue of escape.”
“Not it!” Trixie yelled, earning a glare from Rarity.
“It’s my idea. I was planning to volunteer,” she replied bitingly.
Trixie flushed, her shoulders hunched, and her tail tucked in. I could practically feel the shame radiating off her. Not that she had been especially tactful or brave just now, but it was easy to see the effects of her time in that cruel cell.
Rarity shook her head, and when she looked up again it was with a much softer expression. “I’m sorry, I suppose we’re all a little tense right now. Blackstone, if I am trapped, I want you to leave me. Try to find Twilight another way.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I didn’t like letting her go first, but that was the logical choice. I had a better chance of finding Twilight than she did, and the Order wouldn’t hang her from the nearest tree. Reason told me to do one thing, but my gut disagreed. Reason was winning for now, but only just. I hoped she moved quickly.
Rarity approached the foot of the stairs just as my ears picked up the sound of distant hooves. I glanced down the hallway, seeing nothing yet. When I turned back Rarity had already taken several stairs without any trouble to her movement.
“That was anticlimactic.” I declared, mumbling under my breath about melodramatic skulls and seamstresses.
I stepped forward, Trixie moving hesitantly at my side, and pushed into the invisible barrier. It felt like moving through molasses. I’ve never actually tried moving through molasses, but I’ve got a vivid imagination and it agreed with the metaphor. The air around me was thick against my limbs and even breathing felt like a serious labor. I stared up the stairwell, wondering how far it was to the surface. I doubted my ability to go two floors under this pressure anything more than that seemed like a pipe dream.
“How,” Trixie gasped her mouth moving comically slow, “can you move through this spell?”
I glanced up in time to see Rarity frown and began walking back down the stairs towards us. She was moving normally, obviously unaffected by whatever was weighing down Trixie and me. It was difficult to move, but that was a far cry from impossible, which didn’t seem to match Bob’s description at all. The runes overhead glowed and swirled, but didn’t give me a clue about what was happening. Were we trapped in the barrier? Was the spell broken? Had we partially activated it?
“What’s wrong?” Rarity asked concern shining in her eyes.
“Don’t know,” I replied the words drawn out.
“Can I help somehow?”
I shrugged at one quarter speed. It couldn’t hurt. At least I hoped it couldn’t.
Rarity pouted in thought. Her horn lit up and she tried pulling on one of my forelegs. That moved me forward, but still at the reduced speed, and it felt like she was pulling my leg off. She tried going behind me and pushing, but that didn’t work any better and she almost slipped on the stairs.
Trixie and I had almost reached the first turn, but the effort was wearying on top of everything else we had been through. We were still moving upstairs, but the sound of pursuit was closer. Rarity could hear it now too, if her worried glances down the hallway were any indication. Out of ideas for the moment, she flounced down on the stairs in front of me.
I nodded; sweat beading on my brow as she watched. “You’ll think of something.” I reassured her.
Rarity gave a small chuckle. “Thank you, darling. That’s kind of you.” She reached forward and ruffled my hair before giving me a small hug. Then I ruined the moment by falling on her. The important thing in that, though? I fell at normal speed. Hardly able to believe it, I picked myself back up, still moving without restraint. At first I thought the spell had given out, but the runes were still glowing and Trixie wasn’t moving any faster.
“What happened?” Rarity asked her tone an odd mix of cross and happy. She stood back up as well, fixing her mane after I had knocked it askew.
“I have no idea.” I replied. “If I did, we could do the same thing to Trixie.”
“I could certainly try the obvious.” Rarity said, moving to hug the struggling unicorn. It didn’t work, though I’m certain Bob would have enjoyed the sight.
Trixie continued to struggle upwards, and we tried everything Rarity had done for me, and a few new attempts. Nothing worked. Exhausted, Trixie sank to the stones. “Leave me.” Trixie said, her bitterness audible even through her slowed words. “You came for Twilight; go get her. I don’t need you. I don’t need anypony.”
“Horseshit.” I said, plopping myself in front of her on the stairs.
“Language!” Rarity gasped, looking thoroughly scandalized.
Trixie glared at me, moisture beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes. “Don’t talk like you know−”
“You’re right, I have no idea what happened to you. But I can tell you this, you aren’t going to fix it with self-pity. And if you knew anything about the pony I’m trying to save, you’d never tell us to just leave you.”
“No, I’m talking now. I know you said you don’t remember much about that night, but let me tell you something, Trixie. I tried to kill you after the girls blasted you with the Harmony ray.”
The silence is the stairwell was absolute after that statement. Trixie stopped trying to interrupt me and instead stared up at me in fear.
“There was a demon running around, and it certainly influenced me, but I had control of my own actions. I wanted you dead, because of everything you’d done to my friends and everything I feared you would do in the future. The girls tried to convince me not to do it, and eventually, when I refused to see reason, they fought me. To protect you. The demon stoked my rage and I returned the favor. I won. I beat all of them and then I went to kill you. Twilight teleported in front of my attack, trying to save you, and it nearly killed her. She went to death’s door to keep your sorry ass safe even after everything you had done to her. I will be damned before I let her pain and courage go to waste.”
I put a hoof under her chin and lifted Trixie’s head, straining against the feeling of molasses.
“I am not letting you lie down and die. You are coming with us, whether you like it or not.” Then, without a trace of magic or any other warning, the power holding Trixie back vanished and I stumbled on top of her.
“That was certainly a … unique motivational speech.” Rarity said, but I detected a small tear at the corner of her eye. “But perhaps we should began moving again.”
Trixie pulled herself upright, flushed bright red, and followed Rarity up the stairs. I rolled my eyes and hurried to catch up. As we climbed, the sounds of movement below died away.
Only a few floors later, the runes vanished and the stairwell changed to something that would have looked more at home in the cellar of an old manor. The walls were brick and light came from lanterns instead of crystals. The three of us burst through a damaged and hastily repaired cellar door into daylight and a busy street. I howled in pain as daylight stabbed into my eyes, but my nose still worked, and Twilight’s trail was as fresh as it had ever been.
Thankfully, pedestrians made up most of the traffic, because I moved half-blind through the crowd as I tried to keep track of Twilight’s scent among the smells of hundreds of other ponies. I thought I was doing a pretty good job at first, but when the trail began to wobble back and forth, weaving across the road, I started to doubt my ability. Then the path just ended.
I sat and stared in shock for a moment. I’d had her. She had been so close, and the only lead just vanished?
“Clear some space,” I ordered. No doubt I looked like a madman, sniffing at the ground and growling at the crowd, but nobody, human or pony, wants to make a crazy person mad. Everypony within earshot did as I said, and soon I had more than enough space for a circle. It wasn’t the cleanest figure I had ever drawn, but I was in a hurry. They weren’t getting away with her again.
I pulled several long purple hairs out of Twilight’s brush and set to my spellwork. It was rushed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t effective. Thirty seconds later, I had a link and a new heading.
“I hope you assholes had fun,” I muttered, glaring into the distance, “because I’ve got you now.”