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.
“Dresden, wait!” Pinkie shouted as he stalked out of the room, pausing only to grab his coat and staff. He’d left his… skull behind, but that didn’t surprise Fluttershy. Not after what Bob had just said.
Despite Pinkie’s plea, Dresden didn’t stop. They could all hear his angry footsteps in the hall. The pink party pony looked ready to go racing after him, but Rarity put a consoling hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder and shook her head. “Let him go for the moment, dear. I think he wants to be alone.”
“Then I’ll be alone with him!” Pinkie protested. “He’s our friend and nohuman should have to be alone when they’re angry like that!”
“That was more’n just angry, Sugarcube,” Applejack replied. “That was a whole mess a’ hurt, and that’s enough to make me think that his skull ain’t just spinnin’ tales.”
“No way!” Dash yelled, making a slashing gesture with one hoof. “Blackstone might be rowdy, and yeah, he’s kinda scary when he wants to be, but come on! Killing his own dad? No way he’d do that!”
“I hate to disagree, Rainbow Dash, but I fear that Applejack is correct,” Rarity added. “He refused to meet our eyes before he left. He… he looked like somepony who’s done something he isn’t proud of. Something that makes him ashamed to face his friends.”
“So… change of topic, but is my name really Rom 47?” the olive green pegasus asked. He’d pulled off most of his armor and was examining it curiously. “I’m just saying that sounds like a stupid name, and I don’t know if I believe that Dresden guy.”
“You're a weird pony so you get a weird name. Now shut up, Rom,” Dash said without paying him much attention. “The big ponies are talking.”
“He did seem really upset,” Fluttershy whispered. She had been watching Dresden’s face just as Bob said it, and his first reaction, before the anger or shame, had been pain. Not physical pain of course, but emotional pain. Something between Dresden and his foster father had hurt him deeply enough that he still carried those scars in his heart. A part of her was afraid to think that Dresden was capable of… killing somepony. Maybe she was even… afraid of her friend. But at the same time, she wished he was still here. Whatever had happened, no matter how scary it made him, Dresden was in pain right now and she wanted to help him.
“I think,” Twilight declared, cutting through the chatter that had began to grow, “we should hear the whole story. It sounds like Dresden did something terrible, but it’s impossible to say without all the details.”
“I’m pretty sure killing somepony, especially a parent, is pretty bad no matter what,” Rom 47 said decisively.
“Shut up, Rom,” Applejack said, giving him a brief glare. “Sounds about right to me, but are we sure we wanna do this now?”
Pinkie shrugged. “Why not? We can’t get through the door and we can’t leave while Dresden’s all mopey.”
The group’s consensus came in a few traded glances and subtle nods. Twilight picked up the skull, which had fallen silent, the hazy orange light in its eyes swirling lazily. “Bob, tell us the full story about… what you just said.” She paused bracing herself, then plunged forward. “I want to know why Dresden killed his foster father.”
The hazy lights in his eyes stopped swirling and refocused on Twilight. They flickered purple before returning to their normal orange hue. Fluttershy shuddered a little, but at least this time she didn’t faint. S-skulls shouldn’t talk, she thought. That’s too spooky to be fair.
“As you wish, Mistress,” Bob replied, his voice more solemn than it had been before, and touched with what sounded like a faint Trottingham accent. Twilight gently set him down, and everypony gathered around in a semi-circle. “The roots of this story go back to before Dresden’s birth, but I will endeavor to be as concise as possible. Harry’s mother was a powerful mage who didn’t get along well with the White Council, the ruling body of wizards. In time she left behind the supernatural world and met Malcolm Dresden, a small-time stage magician. They married, and she soon became pregnant with Harry. She died in childbirth, though it has been speculated that a curse from one of her enemies is what really killed her. Malcolm was left to raise Harry alone until he suffered an aneurysm, which left young Harry alone in the world.”
“Oh, poor Dresden,” Fluttershy murmured.
“He was an orphan?” Applejack asked softly, her voice rough. “There weren’t any relatives to take him in?” Her head hung low, and she quickly pulled her Stetson down to hide her eyes. Fluttershy put a consoling hoof on her friend’s shoulder and felt a subdued shaking that nopony else could see.
Fluttershy didn’t know the details about Applejack’s parents – it wasn’t something she talked about, and Fluttershy had never asked. But it wasn’t hard to notice that her family was missing two very important someponies, and from what Fluttershy had gathered, Applejack had grown up without them.
“There were not,” Bob replied dispassionately in his strangely cultured accent. “His parents were both single children, and any grandparents were either deceased or unknown. He became a ward of the state, and for several years resided in an orphanage.”
“But he didn’t stay there,” Twilight predicted.
“Correct,” Bob said. “Justin DuMorne, my owner at the time, adopted him and another young orphan, a girl name Elaine. Justin was a Warden, one of the soldiers – or perhaps, police − of the White Council, and they were his apprentices. He was a hard man, but fair in most respects. He never punished them unduly, nor did he neglect any aspect of their upbringing. Of course, that just made it harder on Harry when he betrayed him.”
“You’re lying! Dresden wouldn’t do that!” Rainbow Dash yelled, pointing an accusing hoof at Bob.
“Yeah, Bob that isn’t funny,” Pinkie said, pouting heavily. “And why so serious? You’re all stuffy all of a sudden.”
“You’ve misunderstood me,” Bob said with a huff. “Justin betrayed Harry. Beneath his honorable veneer, Justin was a Warlock, and he had adopted both Harry and Elaine with the intention of making them into his enforcers. Harry was sixteen when Justin enthralled Elaine -- enslaving her to his will, but keeping her mind for the most part intact. He intended to do the same to Harry, but Harry returned home before Justin had completed the process on Elaine. He didn’t fully understand what was going on, but it was enough to send him running despite Justin’s angry demand that he return. Justin summoned He Who Walks Behind and sent Him after Harry. Harry survived the encounter, then managed to make contact with his faerie godmother.
“The Leanansidhe finished his training, and he returned to Justin’s home with the intention of rescuing Elaine. Justin caught him in the act and they dueled, during which Harry killed Justin and set fire to the building. Elaine’s enthrallment faded after Justin’s death, and she ran from the burning house. Harry, unaware that she had escaped, searched the burning house for her. That’s when he found me and became my master.” Bob gave a rich, dark chuckle at that. “Certainly fitting, considering that I came into Justin’s possession after he plucked me from the ashes of another wizard’s lair.”
“But did… did Dresden have to kill him?” Pinkie asked hesitantly.
“Well, of course.” Bob responded without hesitation. “Harry is quite powerful, but Justin had the skill and experience of decades. It was already a close battle, and if Harry had held back, Justin would have certainly killed him. Even avoiding a fight was hardly an option. Eventually, Justin would have hunted Harry down and either broken his will or murdered him. It was the only logical solution.”
Silence greeted his words. Fluttershy felt her heart ache; no wonder Dresden still hurt even after all these years. To lose both of his parents, then to discover that the new father he had had come to love and trust was a monster? It was like something from an ancient tragedy. Some wounds never really go away, she thought sadly. The cruel taunts from her childhood still echoed in her ears when she felt low, but she had always had the love of her family to depend on. A betrayal as cruel as Justin’s would have shattered her.
“That’s how the Nightmare got to him,” Twilight murmured softly. The rest of the group, Bob included, stared at her, waiting for her to continue. Twilight met their gazes and her eyes teared up. “While he was possessed, Dresden accused us of sticking a knife in his back, of trying to brainwash him. I never understood that, but now I do. The Nightmare brought out all the pain and anger from Justin’s betrayal and convinced Dresden that we were doing the same thing.”
“That is quite likely,” Bob replied. “Harry didn’t say as much to me, but then, I doubt he wanted to share many details about the experience.”
“Then we need to find Dresden and tell him that it doesn’t matter!” Dash shouted, rising to her hind hooves and flaring her wings. “He didn’t want to do it, he had to! It isn’t his fault, so he can stop being a drama princess and we can get back to finding the Order!”
Twilight’s ears flattened back and Rarity looked less than amused, but Fluttershy smiled. She could tell what her friend was trying to say through her bluster. “I think Dash is right.” That caused more than a couple heads to jerk towards her in surprise. “We should find Dresden and tell him that we understand. He’s still our friend, and he doesn’t have to face something like that alone. He needs to know that we’re here for him.”
Dash blushed and backpedaled verbally. “Woah, woah. That's not what I said.”
“Maybe not in those words, but I think ‘Shy hit the mark,” Applejack said with a small smile, her voice steady once again.
“Then let’s get looking!” Pinkie shouted. “And once we find him he’s getting a super deluxe Pinkie hug, and I’m not letting go until he smiles again.” There was a pink blur somewhere in the vicinity of the door as she raced off before anypony could say anything to stop her.
“Wait! We need to form teams and sweep this place systematically!” Twilight cried futilely as Pinkie’s hoofbeats faded into the distance. She sighed when she realized her pleas had done no good.
“Don’t worry, Twilight. I’ll catch up to her,” Dash promised before shooting through the open doorway.
“But that doesn’t−” Twilight began before realizing the pegasus was already out of earshot. “Fine. Applejack, will you follow those two and keep an eye on them? The rest of us will head back the entrance. When you find him bring him there. I’ll cast another transformation spell and we’ll head back to Canterlot. Novel Notion may know where Arcane Mind went.”
“Sure thing, Twi,” Applejack said with a wink. “But it might take a bit ‘fore we get back. I don’t think Pinkie was joking when she said Dresden wasn’t getting outta that hug 'til he smiled.” With that the farmpony dashed after her long gone friends.
Twilight sighed again, then broke into a yawn. Rarity put a consoling hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, darling. Those two may be reckless, but I doubt there’s anypony else here. If there were more Order ponies here, that brutish Mr. Mind would have called for them. Let’s just get to the entrance and wait there.”
Twilight smiled, but shook her head softly. “That’s not what I was worried about, actually, but you’re right. We should get moving.” She picked up Dresden’s wheelchair, shaking off the papers that had fallen on it. Twilight hesitated, but after a moment she picked up Bob as well. She began to move towards the stairs across the hall, and everypony who was left followed her.
Fluttershy wondered what her friend had meant, but she didn’t say anything. Then a hoofstep sounded beside her, driving thoughts about Twilight out of her head. That strange pegasus stallion was following them. Fluttershy kept a nervous eye on him, uncertain what to do. He didn’t seem to be dangerous anymore, but he was still a stranger. And he was strong enough to stand up to Rainbow Dash. That alone made him a little scary. He suddenly noticed Fluttershy’s wary stare and turned to look at her.
“Eep!” Fluttershy squeaked, turning to stare at the floor. Nervous as she was, she still watched him out of the corner of her eyes. It was tempting to hide behind one of her friends, but she needed to be brave.
Rarity glanced over to see what had startled Fluttershy, and her gaze landed on Rom 47 with slight surprise, as though she had forgotten he was there. Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth twisted into a picturesque frown that still conveyed her distaste perfectly. “What are we to do with you, Mr. Rom?”
The stallion shrugged. “Actually explaining a few things would be nice, but after the first five times I was told to ‘shut up’, I gave up on that. Right now I’d be happy just getting out of this place and finding somewhere to grab a bite.”
“We’ll take you to Princess Luna once we’re back in Canterlot,” Twilight decided, as she climbed another couple of steps. As they passed the entrance to another floor, Pinkie’s distant call of ‘olly-olly-oxen-free!’ echoed from somewhere in the compound.
They reached the entrance without further incident, but by this point everypony was yawning. It was almost morning, and this was after another late night from the day before. The adrenaline rush had thoroughly worn off, leaving everypony exhausted. Fluttershy was no stranger to the occasional late night, whether it was staying up with a sick animal or helping a nocturnal one, but she could feel the stress and exertions of the day starting to catch up with her.
They waited for a several minutes, fighting the desire to sleep. Twilight paced back and forth, staring impatiently at the door to the rest of the compound. Nopony had heard anything from the searching ponies for a few minutes. “Where are they?” Twilight grumbled under her breath.
“It is possible Harry does not wish to be found, Mistress. He has some very strange notions of personal honor, and my thoughtless comment may have driven him to desire a more than momentary seclusion. If that is the case, they will have a difficult time locating him.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Rarity added, her expression curious, “but I must ask about your change in demeanor, Bob. You almost seem to be another person. Then there is also the fact that you’re referring to Twilight as ‘Mistress’.”
Twilight blinked in surprise, having apparently not considered the question among her other worries. Fluttershy had noticed, but it wasn’t something she wanted to think about. Not when Bob was sitting right there, his spooky orange eyes swirling like slow whirlpools. The kind pegasus fought to hold down another shiver.
“That’s because she is my Mistress, now. Harry deliberately left me behind, then Twilight took possession of my skull and gave me an order. Whether my skull changes hands through fate, force, or fortune, I belong to whosoever owns my container.”
“You ‘belong’ to me?” Twilight asked with an uncertain frown. She lifted him in her purple aura and began to examine him, as though searching for evidence of his claimed connection.
“Yes,” Bob stated simply. “To answer the rest of the question, my surface personality is strongly influenced by my current owner. Twilight believes that this is how a spirit of intellect should sound and act, thus my change in demeanor. It is curious that I would change in this instance, however. When a person meets me before becoming my owner, I typically retain the personality with which they are familiar. My Mistress apparently has rather stronger opinions than can be erased by a first impression.”
“Are you claiming,” Rarity began in disbelief, “that Dresden is to blame for your arrogant, perverted, loud-mouthed personality from before? He may not be a perfect gentlecolt at all times, but I have a difficult time believing that claim.”
“Well, he is at fault for my ‘loud-mouthed’ quality and for my… directness, but make no mistake, those are only surface traits. Everything else about me runs much deeper.” Bob’s voice dropped and took on a smoky tone. “My self-confidence and appreciation of the female form remain, no matter how I change.” Fluttershy shuddered again, this time more in revulsion than fear. “And I’d like it known that I appreciate more than just your delicious physical form, Mistress Sparkle. The sensation of your magic caressing my skull feels amazing. I can sense your every desire through this aura, and I cannot wait to help you fulfill them. I believe our… partnership will be quite mutually beneficial.”
Twilight’s face drained of color and the glow surrounding Bob’s skull dissipated instantly, dropping him to the uncaring stone below. Unfortunately, Rarity thought quickly enough to catch him. She held him awkwardly, her aura clinging only to the smallest corner of his mandible.
“Get the bag, get the bag, get the bag,” she demanded, and Fluttershy hastened to respond. Twilight was still frozen in shock. The black bag was opened in record time, and Rarity practically threw the skull into it.
“Don’t be so closed-minded,” Bob replied, his voice muffled slightly by the bag. “Just think of all the knowledge we could unlock together. The secrets we could discover. The experiments we could perform.” His voice turned husky once more. “Either magical or… otherwise.”
“I would smack you if I could find a way that wouldn’t sully me by touching you,” Rarity declared. Fluttershy hadn’t seen that mix of disgust and anger on her friend since the Grand Galloping Gala.
“Stop,” Twilight said, her shoulders sagging. “Bob’s the same as he’s always been. It just caught us by surprise. That said,” her expression soured, “I am not interested in any offer you can make me, so I’d suggest – no, make that order – you to be quiet. The moment we find Dresden, you’re his again. And good riddance,” she added under her breath.
“So, talking skulls may not be your thing,” Rom 47 said with an easy grin, “But how about a studly pegasus who’s−”
A single glare halted the awkward pick-up attempt like a baby bird before a snake. And unlike that incident with Miss Hissy and Elizabeak’s chick, Fluttershy had no intention of intervening here.
The awkward tableau lasted for several seconds until Pinkie exploded into the room shouting at double her normally impressive volume. “He’snothere!He’snothere!He’snothere!!” She grabbed Twilight by the shoulders and shook her back and forth even as she continued her incomprehensible rambling.
“Pinkie! Calm down and tell us what’s wrong,” Rarity said, but Fluttershy already feared that she knew.
“He’s not here!” Pinkie bawled, tears gushing in a pair of almost comical waterfalls. “I let him walk away and now he’s gone and the Order probably got him and we’ll never see him again and he’ll never know that we still love him and don’t hate him for what he did and that we could help him put that sad past behind him and I’ll never throw him another party or see him smile ever again, because they must have taken him and I sat back and let it happen!”
Everypony in the room blinked in surprise as they tried to understand just what Pinkie meant. It didn’t take long, until Rarity reached the same conclusion as Fluttershy. She gasped dramatically, sweeping one hoof to her forehead in overstated distress. Twilight was more practical. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t know if all that’s true,” Applejack said as she entered the room, “but she’s right about one thing. Wherever Dresden is, he sure ain’t here.” The farmpony sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “Dash didn’t want to believe it either so she’s re-checkin’ the whole place.”
“But he isn’t here,” Pinkie mumbled sadly. “I’m super good at hide and seek, and I didn’t find anything.”
“How?” Twilight said, her expression troubled and confused. “Even if there were more ponies left behind, he wouldn’t have been taken without a fight and that’s assuming they could overpower him in the first place.”
“I think−” Fluttershy began.
“But what if they doubled back and used a secret entrance and got him?” Pinkie shouted, waving her forelegs wildly.
“I think−” Fluttershy tried again.
“I’d doubt that,” Rarity offered. “Arcane Mind had very few ponies with him, and there simply wasn’t time for him to find reinforcements and return.”
“I think I know!” Fluttershy shouted drawing the surprised stare of everypony in the room. She shrank a bit under their scrutiny, but pulled herself together. “Does anypony remember the last thing Arcane Mind said to Dresden?” There was a moment of silence as all of her friends thought. Twilight got it almost instantly and her eyes widened in understanding.
“He told Dresden that if he really cared about us, he’d fight that demon alone, so we wouldn’t get hurt,” she said, almost breathless with disbelief. It vanished beneath a wave of anger. “I cannot believe he would do this! That idiot!”
“You don’t mean…” Rarity trailed off as she too understood.
Fluttershy nodded. “I think Mister Dresden sort of believed him, and what Bob said only made him feel worse. If he had… killed… Arcane Mind, we wouldn’t have to worry about fighting. I think… I think he’s trying to protect us.”
“I wish you were wrong, but that’s making way too much sense,” Applejack growled. “It’s just like him to try somethin’ that foolhardy all on his lonesome.”
“Then we need to find him!” Pinkie shouted, her eyes dry and full of determination.
“You’re right,” Twilight agreed, her face etched with grim lines. “Find Rainbow Dash and bring her back. We’ve got to find him in a hurry. The Order isn’t going to waste time, and neither are we.”
Pinkie sketched a quick salute then vanished into the bowels of the hideout, calling Dash’s name this time. Twilight watched her go, then turned her attention to the exit, staring at the lights of the city below her.
Fluttershy joined her, trying to find some sign of their friend out there in the darkness. The night winds were cold despite the season, but they weren’t the reason she shivered. A trip to Zecora’s for tea was as much adventure as she had ever wanted. If this were a fairy tale, then a courageous knight would have shown up by now and defeated the demon with a single blow. But there were no knights, this wasn’t a fairy tale. There was only Fluttershy and her friends, and the villains they faced were terrifyingly real.
Normally, that kind of pressure would start another panic attack, but this time the realization stopped her from shaking. She had to be strong. Her friend needed her, whether he knew it or not, and she was going to be there for him. Fluttershy wished she was as brave as her friends, Rainbow Dash especially, but brave or not, she had to do this.
It was six in the morning, but the palace already bustled with noise and confusion when it should have been just waking up. Twilight cast a worried eye at the horizon. The sun was due to come up soon, but it might not rise at all. Luna’s long years under the Nightmare’s thrall had weakened her, and bringing the dawn might well be impossible for her, even with Celestia’s guidance.
The word of the attack must have gotten out, because the front of the palace swarmed with nobles and common ponies alike, including a crowd of reporters from every publication in the city, all of them frantic to know what had happened. Princess Celestia was in many ways the foundation that the entire nation rested on. In the past thousand years, she was always there to guide Equestria, and the thought of her absence was terrifying.
Twilight knew that her mentor’s life wasn’t in danger, but the image of the Celestia in that hospital bed was still chilling. Those ponies at the gates didn’t even have that much. For all they knew, the country they loved was about to crumble. Princess Luna would be doing her best, of course, but she was still a stranger to most of Equestria. While her presence and reassurances could stem the tide of panic, only Celestia herself could calm them. It didn’t help that many ponies remembered Luna’s time as Nightmare Moon and were more than capable of drawing their own conclusions. Hopefully, few would take those rumors seriously, but if the sun failed to rise, then that hope was bound to be in vain.
Twilight wished that they could explain everything to those worried ponies, but they didn’t have the time. Even if they did, there was no guarantee that anypony would believe her. Not when there were all too many questions she couldn’t answer. So instead they circled around to a smaller gate set between the castle and the mountain, away from the more prominent front or garden gates. The small walkway they were on looked deserted, and so did the guard post next to the gate.
“Hey?” Pinkie asked in confusion as she scooted towards the closed door. “Where’s the−”
The Night Guards appeared around her as quickly as if they had materialized out of the shadows -- a metaphor that was entirely literal to the pair of unicorns that emerged from the darkness behind Twilight.
“Halt and identity yourselves,” commanded one of the dark-hued ponies. The sword he brandished looked sharp enough to split hairs, and his demeanor said he was ready to use it.
“I’m Twilight Sparkle, and these are my friends, the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight stated firmly, meeting him glare for glare.
The eyes of the Night Guards widened at that, but their leader didn’t look impressed. Unimpressed or nor, at least he sheathed his sword before replying. “And what about him?” he asked, pointing to the lone stallion in the group.
“Me?” Rom 47 asked. “I have no idea. They keep calling me Rom, but that sounds like a stupid name. All I know is that my memories are gone, and nopony wants to tell me anything.”
“He’s a member of the Order,” Applejack said. “We caught him, but he used one ‘a those memory charms to wipe his brain before we could question him.”
Rom 47 stared at her in amazement. “Okay, hang on. Why am I only hearing about this now?”
“Shut up, Rom,” the scarred bat-pony rumbled before turning his attention back to Twilight. “What is tonight’s passcode for this gate?”
“Passcode?” Twilight echoed, the uncertainty in her voice plain to hear.
The… sergeant, if Twilight was reading his insignia correctly, snorted at that, but lowered his weapon. Almost as though answering correctly would have earned them more suspicion.
“In that case, give me information that only Twilight Sparkle would know. Something easily verifiable,” he replied.
“Get real!” Dash shouted. She was impatient even at the best of times, and in the current situation, they were lucky she had waited this long to object. “Why should we have to prove anything to you?”
“Because I am in command of this gate, and until I’m certain of your identities, you aren’t setting hoof onto the castle grounds,” he stated matter-of-factly, though the look in his eyes dared Dash to try. “Or maybe because the Elements of Harmony showing up unannounced and unexplained at one of the quietest and smallest gates of castle at six in the morning is more than a little suspicious.”
Dash started seething, but thankfully she seemed to see the sense in his words. She hovered in place without doing anything more than grumble.
Twilight spoke quickly hoping to take back control of the situation. “I believe I know something that will satisfy you, sergeant…”
“Quiet Shadow. I go by Quiet.”
“Thank you, Sgt. Quiet. The first two physicians on watch for Princess Celestia were Doctors Condition and Manner. One of your guards can check that easily, but I insist that you hurry. Our business is urgent.”
Sgt. Quiet grunted at that, but called out in the same breath. “Go check on that, Shield. Double time.”
“Yessir.” One pegasus saluted before dashing through a smaller door set into the guard post.
“He’ll be back soon, and if your info checks out you can be on your way.”
“And if it don’t?” Applejack asked.
Sgt. Quiet snorted again. “We’ll demolish that bridge when we come to it.”
“I believe the phrase you meant was ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’.” Rarity offered helpfully.
“I know what I said,” the guard pony replied in way clearly meaning to end the conversation. Most of the ponies present took the hint.
“Soooooo…” Pinkie said, sidling up to Sgt. Quiet in a movement stolen from any number of bad espionage plays. “Anything suspicious happen tonight?”
He stared hard at her as she batted her eyes in some of the worst faux-innocence Twilight had ever been witness to. Eventually he spoke. “You mean besides the horrific creature that attacked the Princess during the awards ceremony, a moronic, amnesic stallion who is supposedly a member of the dreaded Order Triune, and six mares claiming to be the Elements of Harmony, trying to get into the castle at six in the morning?”
“Yeah, besides those.” His sarcasm bounced off her without visible impact.
Sgt. Quiet sighed, but gave in to the inevitable. “About thirty minutes ago, or maybe a little less, there was a disturbance in the gardens behind the castle. I sent Privates Shield and Umber out to investigate, but they didn’t see anything.” He gestured to one of the unicorns positioned behind the group who nodded in confirmation. “Why do you−” Sgt. Quiet turned back to look at Pinkie but she was already gone.
“Soooooo…” Pinkie repeated, this time eyeing the dark brown unicorn, who seemed surprised to find her so close. “You didn’t see anything?”
He glanced at his commanding officer, but answered her question. “No ma’am. The animals had settled down by the time Shield and I arrived. We swept the area, but found no sign of ponies or hoofprints to mark their passage. My detection spell didn’t sense any active magic so they weren’t hidden by illusions either. We returned here shortly before you and your friends arrived.” He paused, then shrugged. “I suppose there was one thing out of the ordinary, but it’s trivial. Just that one of the garden’s animals could use a visit to the doctor.”
Fluttershy let out a small gasp and darted forward. “Oh no! Was one of them injured?”
The guard shook his head. “Not injured, but it probably has a disease or something. I’m no veterinarian, but I can’t imagine losing your fur to be healthy for an ape.”
Twilight had only been half paying attention to the odd conversation behind her, but the last statement almost made her start in surprise. She repressed that instinct, but only just. Her ears swiveled almost of their own accord towards the ongoing conversation.
“Lost all its fur?” Fluttershy asked, seeming to have not made the connection just yet. “Are you sure?”
Umbra nodded intently, then seemed to hesitate. “Well, I only got a quick glance before it ducked back into the brush, but I’m reasonably sure about what I saw. It was tall and thin with gangly limbs and there was only a sparse layer of hair in some places and nothing in others. I can’t tell you the species, but I recognize a primate when I see one.”
So Dresden had come back this way. How he had entered the castle was a mystery in and of itself, but that was a question for later. They needed to get inside and find him. The only problem was that since he was still a human he’d be taking pains to avoid anypony. Still, she could predict where he was going, which should make their job much easier. There were only two things in the castle he would care about: his equipment, which was in the guest room, and more info on the Order, which he could only get from Novel Notion.
Twilight was so intent on her thought process that she never even noticed Sgt. Quiet’s stare until she glanced up and came face-to-face with him. Twilight took an unconscious step backwards, surprised at both his proximity and intensity.
“Why was that so important?” he asked, his glare moving to inspect every one of her friends as well. “I thought the pink one was just being weird, but you all reacted to that particular piece of information.” Twilight felt a small but growing sense of anxiety as Sgt. Quiet turned his attention back to her. “So, tell me why the health of one garden ape matters to the Elements of Harmony.”
“We, uh… we…” Twilight struggled to come up with a response, but nothing was coming to mind. Nopony spoke. The rest of her friends were apparently in the same predicament.
“Sir! Look!” one of the unnamed guards shouted interrupting the frozen tableau.
“Not now,” Sgt. Quiet bit out, never taking his eyes off Twilight.
“But sir! Look, it’s−”
“Unless somepony is on fire, bleeding, or breaking into the castle there is nothing happening that could possibly−” The impending rant halted in its tracks as Sgt. Quiet was blinded by the sudden light peeking over the horizon.
Everypony present fell reverently silent as they turned eastwards. Even the distant commotion of the crowd at the front gate dropped to nothing as every eye watched the horizon. The sun moved slowly, more slowly than Twilight could remember, but it climbed steadily, never once moving backwards.
Hope began to well inside Twilight as she watched. She was tired − so tired − after all that had happened, and their work was far from over, and yet… there was something in the light of this new day that uplifted her spirits. The problems that had seemed so vast and insurmountable in the fear-filled darkness were nothing before the sun. Her exhaustion didn’t vanish, her body was not magically rejuvenated, but a new fount of power seemed to form inside her. The demon had done its worst, but life and light still stood in defiance of that old, cruel evil. Even before the sun cleared the horizon cheers began to ring out from the front gate, terrified ponies relieved of their fears.
“Okay, maybe I’m missing something here,” Rom 47 said regarding everypony with confusion, “but what’s with the cheering? Doesn’t the sun come up every day?”
“Sir!” Private Shield called as he emerged from the castle. Sgt. Quiet snapped out of his trance. “Miss Sparkle’s story checks out, and the medical wing confirmed that the information she provided was not commonly available.”
Sgt. Quiet lived up to his name as he processed this news with a sour expression.
“Well?” Applejack asked. “We told you the truth, and we ain’t got the time fer you to spend all day hemmin’ and hawin’ over this. I’m going through that door, and at this point I don’t much care if it’s as a guest or trespasser.”
The guards glanced at her in alarm, but didn’t move into formation. They were clearly uncertain about arresting a national hero and their commander’s continued silence wasn’t helping their confidence.
“Yeah!” Dash cheered, a daredevil’s grin splitting her face. “We’ve got a friend to save and some Order Triune butts to kick!”
Sgt. Quiet gave a heavy sigh and stood aside. “Open the gate and let them in. Private Steel, take Mr. Rom into custody and deliver him to the medical wing, and remain there. He is to be held under watch, but not under restraint.” The guards hurried to obey him, and everypony hurried through the heavy double doors as soon as they opened.
“Bye,” Rom 47 waved as he turned down a different hallway. “I hope things work out for you and your monkey.”
Twilight turned her head, uncertain whether to thank Rom for the sentiment or tell him one last time to shut up, but surprise stopped her from speaking. “Really?” she asked, her irritation rising to the fore.
“Really,” Sgt. Quiet answered, shadowing them with an eerily silent canter. As they stopped, so did he.
“What an unexpected pleasure,” Rarity said the sarcasm in her voice evident. Everypony else settled for scowls, or a mild frown in Fluttershy’s case. “However, I am surprised that you would abandon your post so readily just to escort us.”
“My ponies can take care of themselves,” the guard answered flatly. “In the meantime, there’s still plenty you aren’t telling me and after everything that’s happened I don’t appreciate the mushroom treatment.”
“Mushroom treatment?” Twilight asked, confused by the odd phrase.
“Kept in the dark and fed horseapples,” he replied bluntly.
Twilight’s ears folded back at his rude language, but a small grin worked its way onto her face as she had an idea. “Very well,” she said, surprising both her friends and the inquisitive sergeant. “Pinkie will be more than happy to talk with you. We’ll be in our rooms when you two are done.” Twilight said turning to her energetic friend and giving her a small wink.
“I’d love to!” Pinkie said bouncing over to Sgt. Quiet and immediately violating his personal space. “Let’s start by talking about my great friend Bob, he’s a super-fun-a-riffic guy even though he says some really weird stuff sometimes and I don’t always get why he thinks things are funny, but I knew from the very first time I poked him with a stick that we were going to be friends for life! Or whatever you want to call his state of existence.”
Twilight motioned quickly with her head and everypony slowly moved away from the pair as Pinkie continued to chatter away and Sgt. Quiet tried to process her statements and separate fact from nonsense. His eyes were beginning to glaze over as they rounded the corner at the end of the hall. Still, he tried his best to find out something useful.
“So who is this Bob? What does he look like?”
“Oh, he’s a nobody.”
“But… you… Don’t you mean ‘nopony’?”
“He’s that too, but reaching that conclusion wasn’t easy. In fact I had to have a full tiered debate with every one of the Council of Mental Pinkies to settle that issue. You wouldn’t believe how long the Responsibility Pinkie can talk. Good thing I can tune her out most of time, speaking of which…”
The party pony’s voice faded into the distance as they continued on their way. Rainbow Dash started laughing the moment they were out of earshot. “How long until he gives up? Twenty bits say he doesn’t last ten minutes.”
“It is the height of rudeness to imply that one of your friends is insufferable, even when she means to be,” Rarity replied, through her speech was ruined by her amused grin. “That said, I’ll wager thirty bits he doesn’t pass the five minute mark.”
“Focus, girls,” Twilight reminded them. “We need to find Dresden. Rainbow Dash, will you and Fluttershy check our rooms? He might have gone there for his clothes and other stuff. The rest of us will see if he’s checked in on Novel Notion. If his gear is still there, stay put in case he arrives. If he isn’t interrogating Novel, we’ll be back to meet you soon.”
Rainbow and Fluttershy nodded and took a right at the next hallway, while Twilight, Applejack and Rarity took a left. Twilight had only been to the castle dungeons twice, and both times it had been to study the ancient architecture in them. The old cells were rarely used to hold criminals these days. Tradition dictated that they be maintained, but there had been very few crimes against the Crown in the past century. Modern jails took care of the more mundane criminals, and many ponies never knew about the ancient and powerful prison that descended from the castle into the mountain it rested upon.
Still, Twilight couldn’t help but wonder if these cells would soon resume their forgotten duty. There were too many ponies in the Order Triune for the modern penal system to handle, and many jails were ill-equipped to deal with ponies that powerful and well-trained.
Twilight slowed as she approached the almost hidden hallway that gave entrance into the dungeons. She expected to have to explain herself to another set of guards as she neared the heavily barred door, but curiously, nopony stepped forward to challenge her.
“What’s wrong, Twi?” Applejack asked as she stopped in front of the door.
“There should be more guards here. Luna commanded that Novel Notion be ‘thrown into the dungeons’ and told that entire squadron to watch him.”
“Yes, she was rather incensed when we explained what he had done, but perhaps you are worried over nothing,” Rarity reassured her. “If they are keeping an eye on him, they are probably within the dungeon itself.”
“Maybe,” Twilight admitted as she opened the door and began to descend the long staircase ahead of her. The walls were made of smooth cut and fitted stone, rather than just carved out of the mountain. Sconces held torches that appeared to be on fire, but gave off a steady golden light rather than the flickering illumination of real flame. Celestia had made those herself, and Twilight had always liked the atmosphere they gave the subterranean passages. Every hallway, despite being dozens of feet underground, had the same warm glow as late afternoon. It changed what could have been a dreary and spooky part of the palace into one that Twilight had never minded visiting, even though she had hated her home’s basement in childhood.
The lighting wasn’t the only part of the dungeon that failed to meet the stereotypical expectations of such places. No water dripped from the ceiling; in fact, the entire area was comfortably dry, though a bit chilly. There were no rats, spiders or other vermin scurrying in the shadows. Every corner was clean and maintained. The stout metal bars at the entrance of each cell were not rusted or stained, looking as strong as the day they’d been placed. The entire dungeon lacked the air of despair and darkness that was normally synonymous with the term, a fact that had always made Twilight a little proud of her hometown. After all, like Dostrotevsky once said, ‘you can judge a society by entering its prisons.’
That tangent aside, Twilight wondered where their captive pony might be. She hadn’t heard anypony mention which cell he was going to be kept in as the guards had taken him away.
“Hello?” she called, hoping to get a response from his guards. Her shout echoed down the empty hallway until the sound died out. There was only silence in response.
“Somethin’ ain’t right,” Applejack said, stating exactly what was going through Twilight’s mind. “Looks like you hit that nail on the head.”
“I wish I’d been wrong,” Twilight replied. But it didn’t look like she had been. The three ponies charged through the empty corridor, glancing down each branching hallway as they passed them. They continued calling as they went, but still got no reply. It wasn’t until the fifth branch that they found their goal, and not in the manner any of them would have preferred.
In front of one cell in the distance were several ponies, lying unmoving on the ground. Twilight feared the worst as she approached. The Order had never seemed overly worried about ‘collateral damage’, an innocuous phrase for so cruel a concept. Fortunately, the first guard she checked had a pulse, and so did each of the others. They were unconscious, not dead. Only after she was sure all of the guards were fine, did she look into the cell they were slumped around.
The door hung open, unlocked and apparently undamaged. There was no sign of Novel Notion, not even a hint that he had ever been there.
Twilight stared at the empty cell as though she could force Novel Notion to reappear by sheer willpower alone. Sadly, he didn’t materialize out of thin air.
“That’s odd,” Rarity said looking over the unconscious guards and frowning. “There are only seven ponies here. Aren’t there eight ponies to a squadron? I remember eight of them when Novel Notion was taken away.”
Twilight stared at the prone stallions and realized that Rarity was right. One of them was missing. That fact coupled with Novel Notion’s quiet disappearance suggested something Twilight had feared. The Order Triune had members inside the Royal Guard as well. A spike of fear struck her heart as she remembered leaving Pinkie alone with Sgt. Quiet. Her ‘clever idea’ could easily have dropped her friend into the ruthless clutches of those fanatics.
“We should go. Now,” Twilight said. “Pinkie and Dash won’t wait forever and Princess Luna needs to hear about Novel Notion’s escape.”
Without further conversation the three turned and galloped from the dungeon, taking the stairs two at a time in their rush to get out. Twilight was pretty sure they set a new record crossing the castle and in minutes they were back at their rooms. Twilight opened the door and was relieved to see Pinkie chatting happily with Fluttershy as she stroked Dresden’s puppy. Spike lay in bed snoring, unaware of everything that had happened this past night. He had wanted to attend the ceremony, but had fallen asleep hours before it had started. Dash paced impatiently, reacting instantly to their arrival.
“Was he there?” she demanded the moment they entered.
Twilight was breathing too hard to answer, but Applejack was up to it. “Afraid not. I take he wasn’t here either.”
“No,” Dash growled, miming a quick punch. “If he was, I’d have beaten some sense into him. Worst thing? His stuff isn’t here, so either somepony got curious or he’s already come and gone.”
“So, we have no idea where he is,” Twilight groused, her happiness at seeing her friends safe starting to fade as her frustration resurged. She fought a yawn, unwilling to give in to her body’s insistent demand for sleep. Eventually, she would succumb. She could already see the signs of exhaustion in her friends, but they couldn’t afford to stop now.
The room was silent, except for one dog’s happy panting. “Well,” Fluttershy began hesitantly, “we have Mouse. He might be able to track Dresden.”
“Or,” announced a new voice, as the door to the room swung open, “I could tell you where he’s gone.”