• Published 4th Mar 2012
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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks - psychicscubadiver



Sequel to the Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends. Everyone's favorite wizard returns to Equestria.

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Chapter Ten

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

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.

Chapter Ten

“It’s like the bad guys around here have a hard-on for kidnapping.” I snarled under my breath. After the adrenaline from the fight faded, all of the emotions it had shoved to the wayside came back in full force.

Have you ever seen a father after his child goes missing? They somehow combine desperate fear with boiling anger yet still have that quiet hope that they were wrong and little Sally is just playing next door. Any parent worth the title went through that. When I started out as an investigator, I worked for a man who specialized in lost kids. After a few cases, after seeing what could happen to those kids, or never finding them, I thought I understood what it felt like to have someone you loved go missing. I hadn’t known how wrong I was until now.

Twilight wasn’t my daughter, or even my apprentice, but that didn’t stop a cocktail of unpleasant emotions from slowly filling me. Bitter rage and several helpings of guilt churned in my stomach. I growled in frustration, making the mare across the street back away, trading her admiring glance for a nervous one. I wanted to growl again, just to let her know that I was in a mood foul enough to deserve a warning from the Surgeon General. Instead I tried forcing my expression to change into something a bit less grim. Acting like that wouldn’t help me find Twilight. If anything, it could hurt the investigation. I know I wouldn’t volunteer any information to a guy who acted like he was looking for an excuse to break something.

I don’t know how well I managed, but nopony reacted like that first mare, so I must have done all right. The dentist’s office was only a couple streets over, so finding it wasn’t that hard. I’d never seen the place before, but something told me I had the right place -- maybe the huge tooth-shaped sign that said ‘Colgate’s Dentistry’. The first thing I did was walk past without even looking at it. Peripheral vision told me that the windows were shuttered, and the sign on the door was flipped to ‘Closed’. I stopped at a small café a couple stores down.

Some subtle questioning and a friendly waitress, who to my pleasant surprise didn’t act as though I was her dream date, gave me all the info I was likely to get. The waitress, Misty Dawn, had seen Twilight arrive this morning and enter the office. Sometime between one or two hours later, the sign had been flipped to closed, but she wasn’t certain when. Mostly importantly, Misty hadn’t seen Twilight leave. She blamed a mid-morning rush that caught the café by surprise, but I had darker suspicions.

She hadn’t seen anypony other than Colgate arrive at the office this morning either. I smelled a trap, but I couldn’t tell whether it had been one for Twilight, or if she was just the bait to draw me in. I belatedly wished that I had brought Mouse along, but I doubted Fluttershy would let him go anywhere until he was well. I left the café and walked aimlessly, pretending to be lost. Really, it was just a ploy to check for any shadows.

If anypony was tailing me they were much better at hiding than I was at seeking, because not even my jumpiest instincts were saying anything. Given that their ambush squad had retreated less than half-an-hour ago, I figured I probably didn’t have any eyes on me at the moment. I circled around the block once more and came at the office from behind. Mouse outclassed me when it came to sensing danger, and Bob could read patterns of magic with the same ease that I could read written English, but none of that meant I was helpless on my own. I closed my eyes, and with a subtle effort of will, I opened my Sight.

The Sight is complex in the same way that the sun is hot. I had tried explaining it to the ponies on my last trip, but I don’t think they had really understood it. The Sight shows you the truth with a capital ‘T’. Plenty of famous and well-quoted people have said wonderful things about the truth, but that just goes to show that they’ve never really seen it. Truth tears away every mask, every lie about what the world really is, stripping bare the walls of reality itself. You can see things of such breathtaking beauty that you cry for hours afterwards, and you can watch horrors so unspeakable that they’d give Cthulhu nightmares. And you can’t forget them. Not ever. You can keep them out of mind for a while but when you do think of them, there they are: as vivid and detailed as the minute you first saw them.

All of that is a long way to explain why I seldom use the Sight despite the ability’s power. ‘Mental stress’ doesn’t even begin to cover the madness that can result. A while ago, I shut down this warlock who was making a potion that opened the Sight in magic-less humans. It hooked harder than crack even as it drove them crazy. That was half a decade ago, and not one of them has ever shown any signs of returning to the land of the sane.

When I opened my eyes, all I could see at first was fear and pain. The office was wrapped in a bluish miasma of psychic energy that reverberated faintly with the screech of a dentist’s drill. Squat, shadowy forms ranging from baseball to basketball size crawled over the roof and walls of the building, chittering to one another as they sucked in the miasma through round, jawless lamprey-mouths. Shades were generally harmless, too small and weak to really deserve to be called ‘demons’. The worst they could do was give you a brief chill and a twist of nausea, but a crowd of the hideous things gave the place an aura of menace.

I wasn’t unnerved or even surprised. That was par for the course for a dentist’s office. This particular dentist’s office, though, had more underneath. In the Sight, the walls were built from interlocking symbols and patterns, twisting and reforming in endless cycles. It was a Byzantine mosaic, a fractal design that hinted at secrets within secrets. I frowned at that. For all the layers of misery and mystery hidden within the structure, nothing I saw hinted at anything overtly sinister. That would square with the ‘get thee behind me’ attitude from the mind-wiped moron, but not with the more reckless attempts to kill me. Unless, of course, they thought I was dangerous enough to warrant the risk.

Great, I thought. Another group of self-righteous zealots. Like I don’t deal with enough of those already. The White Council was instrumental in defending humanity from the darker parts (i.e. the majority) of the supernatural, and I’d defend it to the death, but that didn’t mean I loved the assholes that made up most of the organization. Not after how many times they’d tried to string me up.

Abstract analysis aside, the office was empty. I don’t think the windows were actually broken out, the door boarded over with plywood or the yard choked with weeds, but the Sight was never so direct as to put a ‘this place is abandoned’ sign on anything. Colgate wasn’t just out at the moment; she was gone for good. I shut my eyes, and with them the Sight, giving myself a moment to recover. I hadn’t brought my lock-picking kit (how the hell would I use it?) but a small crowbar served me here just as well as it had in Chicago. If anything, the lock on Colgate’s back door was easier than anything I’d faced in the Windy City.

There weren’t any wards, but I wasn’t that surprised. Their bases and safe houses probably had them, but I doubted that their homes or businesses did. Anonymity had been their best card; if they acted unusual, they’d attract attention. It was a decent strategy and might even be a good defense most of the time, but I prefer a good set of wards and a shotgun myself.

I searched the office quickly and quietly for anything that hinted at their agenda. I doubted it would be out in the open, but a secret room, a locked drawer or an encoded day planner might be the key to finding Twilight. Unfortunately, Colgate was evidently aware of that. Given the mess she’d left behind, I was betting she had taken anything helpful with her when she bugged out. And if she had missed something odds were slim that I could pick it out of all the debris she’d left behind. I gave the place a once-over away looking for a hairbrush (manebrush?) or anything else I could use to track her with. So long as it had a recent hair or two, I could establish a thaumaturgic link.

I didn’t find one, but I hadn’t counted on that. I cleared away a good portion of the floor, which thankfully was wooden instead of linoleum, and drew a large circle with a piece of chalk. It wasn’t perfectly round, but then my telekinesis wasn’t exact enough just yet. Once that was settled, I pulled out a brush I had taken from the library. Unless one of her friends was in the habit of leaving their stuff in Twilight’s bedroom, odds were it was hers. Of course, all of the purple hairs in it narrowed the list of possible owners even further.

Selecting a few of the topmost (and hopefully most recent) hairs, I sat down and began my spellwork.

………

“Not a damn one!” I snarled, slamming my hoof to the floor hard enough to splinter the wood beneath. It also made my hoof hurt like a bastard, but I had at least been smart enough to use my unburned extremity.

In a way, the pain was a welcome distraction from my abject failure to successfully cast any of my best spells. Not every wizard can trace things like I can, and I’d always taken some pride in that ability. But there were limits to everything. No matter what I tried, it couldn’t find her. Hair wasn’t the best possible focus -- that would be blood or actual tissue -- but it still created a decent link. Not to mention that I’d used it often enough to be well familiar with its strengths and limitations. I tried several various spells, everything from a compass enchantment to a dowsing locator that would have given me distance and a bearing, to a charm that would let me follow her spiritual footprint like a dog chasing a scent trail.

None of them came through. Either the spell failed or I threw too much energy into the focus and burnt it out. The attempt at dowsing had done the best, and all it had given me was ‘north-ish’. Not northwest, not northeast, not ‘due north’. Just ‘north-ish’.

The problem could be as simple as Twilight being out of range, but the maximum distance for one of those spells was a couple hundred miles. It was possible that she had been moved that far in a few hours, but unlikely. Unless one of the Shadow Ponies could do extremely long range teleportation, I didn’t see how they would have transported her that far that fast without giving themselves away. So, either she was behind a decent set of wards or somewhere that naturally canceled magic. There weren’t a lot of candidates for the second, which would take a lot of running water or certain types of crystal, so the wards seemed more likely.

I’d been hoping that I’d be able to pick up Twilight’s trail, but it was obviously cold. I doubted Colgate’s house held anything helpful. Even if she had left behind something I could use to track her, odds were good that she was behind the same wards. The only thing to do now was head back to the library. Hopefully Spike had dug up something useful. If not, I’d try to trace down our memory-challenged captive. The guy looked pretty distinctive. Somepony had to know who he was.

I gathered up my supplies, erased the chalk circle, and scattered some papers back over the space I’d cleared. If anyone else showed up, I didn’t want to leave any trace that I’d stopped by. The busted lock made secrecy an exercise in futility, but the less connecting me to the scene of the crime, the better. Especially since it looked more like a robbery than an investigation.

I left the same way I had came, pausing only to make sure I wasn’t walking into another ambush. The coast seemed clear, so I made a beeline for the library. I tried to keep to the alleyways, partially because I figured the Shadow Ponies would be looking for me on the streets and partially because my temper was stormier than ever and I didn’t feel like trying to hide it from anypony. My options were hardly exhausted, but the group hunting me wasn’t going to just sit around while I played detective. It wasn’t just the attempts on my life, now they’d taken Twilight away, and who said she was their only target?

I stopped short, wishing that thought hadn’t just occurred to me. It wasn’t that I thought none of them could handle themselves; after some of the stuff they’d done in Trixie’s death trap, I’d never think that. But Twilight was a pint-sized powerhouse, and the Shadow Ponies had still managed to spirit her away. I kicked my ass into gear and hurried towards the library. Hopefully Mouse would be feeling better, because his spider-sense was the best insurance against nasty surprises I’d ever seen.

I reached the library without any sudden attacks, though the hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle about halfway there. I didn’t catch anypony looking at me, but my gut told me I was back under surveillance. I ignored them as best I could. With any luck, they didn’t know I was aware of them. Strangely enough, the feeling faded once I reached the library. Assuming it was based on more than just paranoia, why weren’t they watching me here? This was my de facto base of operations. The crowd had dispersed over the past hour, and though there were still a few ponies hanging around, the streets were hardly packed. So why were they pulling back?

This just screams ‘trap’. I thought grimly. What else could make them retreat?

I got my answer when I opened the front door and was bathed in light. For a second I was blinded. Instinct made me pump energy into my shield bracelet even as I levitated my staff into a defensive position and dove to the side. It wasn’t until I heard a beautiful, regal voice that I realized what was going on.

“Ah, I was wondering when you would reappear, Mr. Dresden.” Princess Celestia said, the brilliant shine from her horn dimming.

I blinked as the revelation settled in. My first thought was Please tell me she hasn’t talked to Bob. My second was Oh yeah. Why not ask the immortal pony queen for help? Seeing that it’s her student who was kidnapped. Still, I was more than a little nervous. Not just because I was facing a creature that had the power of a Fae queen without any of their constraints, but also because Twilight had been taken by the nutcases gunning for me. I wasn’t to blame, but I doubt she excused me entirely.

“And a good afternoon to you too, your majesty.” I said, stepping in and closing the door behind me. The Princess was the only one in the main room at the moment but I could hear movement coming from the kitchen and upstairs. I crossed the room and set down my staff before turning to face her. “Shouldn’t you be calling me Blackstone, though? I thought you were the pony who wanted me to go by that.”

She frowned slightly, and suddenly looked through me instead of at me. I felt a cold sweat on the back of my neck, and I couldn’t look away, despite every fiber of my being telling me to do just that. Whatever she was doing, it was obvious that she was examining me with more than just normal vision. According to Twilight, ponies didn’t have the Sight, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if the Princesses were capable of much more than their subjects even knew was possible. Whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her, since I wasn’t blasted to pieces or forced into a telekinetic submission hold.

A gentle smile lit her face again, and she answered my question. “Is that what she chose to call you? I asked Twilight that you take on a pseudonym, but I never specified what name you should use. How … interesting.” She said with the air of someone fitting a puzzle piece into place.

I bristled, but did my best not to show it. “Now isn’t exactly the time to play cryptic games. I’m assuming that Spike and the girls already filled you in on the situation. Twilight is gone and even my most reliable spells were useless. Unless you can fix our prisoner’s head, we don’t have a lead.”

“I am well aware of Twilight’s absence. Spike sent me a letter shortly after you left and I arrived as quickly as I could. I sent orders back to Canterlot and even now my guards are beginning to comb all of Equestria in search of her. As soon as Rainbow Dash returns with Applejack and I am certain of the Elements’ safety, I will leave to lead them in their search.” Celestia let out a regal sigh, and folded her wings. “As for that poor pony… I examined him, and I’m afraid that the damage is irreversible. His memories were not suppressed or taken; they were destroyed. I could no more restore them than I could recreate a book from its ashes after somepony burned it.”

I swore under my breath at that news. From the way her ears flattened slightly I think she heard me. I cut short the muttered expletives and focused on the problem at hand. Nothing came to mind, but if anypony knew what was going on it was Celestia. “Do you know who these crazies are? Something about them just screams ‘ancient cult’ to me. Maybe an Illuminati-type group, but I’m leaning more towards cult. They aren’t skilled enough for a group with any real power, and the loathing when that pony called me ‘Obsidian’ just screamed ‘zealot’.”

Celestia’s face changed to a neutral, thoughtful expression. “I have my suspicions, but I must hope that they are wrong.” She shook her head softly. “Even if I am correct, that gives me no clue of Twilight’s whereabouts. All of the Order’s fortresses were demolished centuries ago; I oversaw their destruction myself.”

I frowned. I didn’t like it when people were cagey, but she had slipped enough to give me one piece of info. “The Order, huh? So what’s the scoop on them?”

The Princess made a mildly dismissive gesture with one hoof. “It does not matter. I would ask that you stay here and assist my soldiers in guarding the other Elements of Harmony. They cannot keep Twilight hidden from us for long, and until then, the safety of her friends is the highest priority.”

I snorted derisively, which incidentally isn’t a good idea when the creature you’re snorting at could vaporize you with an angry word. But then I never had much of a track record when it came to good ideas. “Yeah, right. They may be amateur assassins, but if they’ve hidden from you this long, odds are they’re pretty damn good at staying undercover.” She blinked in shock. I doubt anyone had spoken to her like this in centuries, if ever. I pressed my advantage, giving her a stony stare. “A manhunt might work for normal fugitives, but not these ponies. You need me. My spells may not have worked, but I’m a trained investigator. Even without magic, I can find her.”

Celestia frowned, this time more severely, and while I’ve seen expressions that were scarier, none of them had been delivered by anything as powerful as her. She got rid of the expression before my suicidal half made me mouth off, but her tone was still stiff and formal. “I am aware of your abilities, ‘Blackstone’. More so than even you are yourself, I suspect. But I will find my student myself.”

A wise man would have taken the hint and kept his mouth shut. “But your best spells have already failed, haven’t they? If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be talking about searching for her. They know how to hide from you. But they have no idea what I’m capable of.”

“And that,” she said, with more sadness than anger in her voice, “is why I will not let you search for Twilight.” It was my turn to be surprised, and she fixed me in place with a stare unlike any other I had ever known. Even Fluttershy’s enigmatic ability was nothing compared to this. “You are a good man, but you are also a product of your environment. The last murder in Equestria happened over thirty years ago. The pony guilty of the atrocity was a deeply disturbed individual, and his actions shocked and horrified the entire country. Conflict is no stranger to Equestria, but lethal force is.”

She continued staring into my eyes with a relentless power that completely paralyzed me. I felt the beginnings of a Soul Gaze, but my mouth refused any effort to voice a warning, and my eyes refused to close. Then, with a sudden and painful mental impact, the sensation stopped. Celestia didn’t even seem aware of what had just happened, meaning that she probably wasn’t seeing any more of my soul than I had seen of hers. It wasn’t that she didn’t have one; I’ve felt that before when locking eyes with the Fae. She had a soul, but something in her very nature prevented me from seeing it. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more for my protection than hers.

What are you? I thought. While I was stunned, my mouth opened of its own accord. “I don’t understand.”

Celestia sighed, finally releasing me from that overpowering stare. “I am not calling you a murderer, but you have killed before. I fear that your anger at those who stole Twilight would lead you to do so again. It would even be justified, after their attempts on your life and their disregard for the safety of those around you, but I wish this to be resolved with as little bloodshed as possible. Giving you free rein would only aggravate the situation.” She paused and glanced over my shoulder. The Princess broke into an indulgent smile and she raised her voice, injecting a small note of humor into it. “And if you’d like to join the conversation, all four of you are welcome.”

I turned to see Pinkie, Fluttershy, Rarity and Spike peeking around the edge of the kitchen door. The last three flushed in embarrassment at being caught, but Pinkie seemed immune to shame. She took the invitation at face value and bounced into the main room, eager to add her two cents. “Don’t worry, Princess! Blackstone fought all of those soldier-y ponies that showed up at the library without hurting anypony.”

Everyone, me included, just stared at her.

“Okay, without hurting them much.”

All we needed were crickets chirping in the background to complete the silence.

“Weeellll, he didn’t send anypony to the hospital, and that’s what counts, right?”

I was grateful for Pinkie’s efforts, but I really wished she would stop digging my hole even deeper. I wasn’t going to stop my investigation for anything, but doing it without pissing off a being of phenomenal cosmic powers would be a major plus.

“Umm… if you don’t mind me saying so--” All eyes turned in surprise to Fluttershy and she squeaked, shrinking back. After a moment, though she gathered herself and spoke. “I-I trust Mr. Blackstone. He listened to us when we told him to leave Trixie alone, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt anypony. He’s a friend, and sometimes you need to believe in your friends, even when you’re afraid to.” She stopped, but she didn’t look away or blush. The little pegasus just watched her ruler with steady, hopeful gaze.

“I would agree,” Rarity said, moving forward to stand at Fluttershy’s side. “Blackstone helped us find Spike even though he hardly knew us. I won’t deny that he has some … less than admirable qualities, but nonetheless I’m certain his efforts could not hurt, your Majesty.”

Princess Celestia considered their words, her eyes closed. I crossed my fingers (mentally, at least,) hoping that she’d come around. For once I was smart enough not to say anything.

“What do you think, Spike? Of all of us, you are the closest to Twilight and likely the one hit the hardest by her absence.” Celestia said gently, and only then did I realize that I’d been more than a little preoccupied with looking for Twilight to realize what her kidnapping might have done to him.

Looking at him with fresh eyes, I thought he might have been crying recently. It was tough to tell thanks to his scales, but something in the lines of his face told me that he had been hit hard. Whatever sadness he felt, though, had been put aside for the moment. Now, he looked frightened, but determined. “I think we should do whatever we can to find her. The more ponies looking for Twilight, the better.”

The Princess nodded slowly. “Very well.” Pinkie let out a small cheer, and Fluttershy quietly congratulated me. “However,” she continued. “I expect you to take every precaution and limit your investigation to Ponyville, and I shall send a squad of my finest guards to protect and assist you. Should you discover anything important, you must contact me before proceeding farther. In return, I will keep all of you notified of my movements and let you know the moment I find anything important.”

I shrugged. “That sounds reasonable.” It actually sounded needlessly restrictive, but from her point of view I’m certain it was reasonable. A minor shading of her eyes informed me that she was aware of my less than enthusiastic opinion, but she didn’t say anything about it. Despite my popularity with most of the ponies I don’t think I was her favorite wizard.

I could hardly blame her, though. If I was in charge of the local utopia and some wizard of questionable morality started blundering around and stirring up ancient conspiracies, I’d probably shoot first and ask questions later. Which would hardly be in keeping with the whole paradisiacal set-up. No wonder I don’t run things.

We spent the next several minutes discussing various strategies. She filled me in on the capabilities of her forces and I made some suggestions on their movements. I also discovered what was and wasn’t considered appropriate behavior during interrogation. Apparently my treatment of our captive, who I decided to name Pansy until we discovered his real identity, was too rough. Instead I was to treat any further prisoners as gently as possible while still keeping them from escaping or erasing their memories until the Princess could show up and perform her Jedi mind tricks. Personally, I saw opening up someone’s mind with magic as way more harmful (there’s a damned good reason mental magic is punishable by death back home), but if the ponies had different rules, I could play by them for the time being. Especially if that was the price of searching for Twilight.

Eventually, our two missing ponies showed up in a thunder of hooves. “I came quick as I could.” Applejack said as she and Rainbow burst into the library. “Sorry, ‘bout the wait, but we’re here now.”

“Excellent.” Celestia said as she charged her horn. “Then I must take my leave. I wish you all luck.” Before anyone could respond there was a blinding flash of light and she was gone.

Both Applejack and Rainbow stared at the now-empty section of library. After a moment of confused silence the farmpony asked, “Uh, what?”

“Double for me.” Rainbow added. “I thought we were going to look for Twilight.”

“Allow me to explain.” Rarity said drawing out newest arrivals aside.

“Me too!” Pinkie chirped. Ostensibly she wanted to help, but I wouldn’t put any money on her ability to cast light on the situation. Fluttershy was already halfway up the stairs, though whether she was hurrying to treat Mouse or Pansy I didn’t know. Still, a chance to speak to Spike alone suited my purposes just fine.

“So, dig up anything on Obsidian?” Hopefully I could find out what I needed and get moving before the guards showed up to assist. I’m hardly Mr. Subtle, but a single unicorn, even a very distinct one, was far stealthier than an entire squad of royal guards. Even if she sent me Equestria’s covert ops, I doubted that they’d follow my orders and let me run the investigation the way I wanted. I know cops, and if there’s one thing they hate, it’s someone outside the normal chain of command running the show. Of course, a psychologist might say that my reluctance to rely on them stemmed from a deep seated distrust in people of authority. But since I have yet to meet a psychologist who sees mild paranoia as a survival mechanism rather than a problem, who cares what they think?

“Yeah,” Spike replied, leading me towards what appeared to be a small reading room. It was cozy, verging on cramped for a pony of my size, and was furnished only a plain desk and small lantern. I couldn’t tell much more about the desk because it was covered in books, at least two dozen huge volumes. A couple looked modern but most of them were unmistakably old. Hell, one was even a monster of a grimoire that only needed a leather cover to fit the RPG cliché.

I stared at the modest mountain of books and felt a headache coming on. All of this would be perfect if only I had the time for it. As things were, I wouldn’t have a chance to even scratch the surface.

“Any chance you could give me the Cliff Notes version?” I asked hopefully.

Spike stared at me in confusion. “Cliff notes? Like geology? I thought you wanted something on Obsidian the Undying.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, and shook my head. “It’s just an expression. I wanted to know if you could summarize it. Is there really this much on the guy?”

Spike shrugged. “Not really, only a couple of those books are about him. Most of them are histories of the Order Triune.”

That is what we detectives call a clue. Even if Celestia hadn’t mentioned ‘the Order’ in conversation, I still would have been suspicious. It wasn’t a lead just yet, but it was the first hint of the identities of those nutcases. “Even better. Could you tell me about them, especially the bit about Obsidian?”

Spike nodded. “Before Equestria was founded, the three tribes lived separately. It wasn’t until the first Hearth’s Warming Eve that they formed a common bond.” His tone and delivery were similar to Twilight’s lecturing, but I suspected he would deny it ferociously if I ever told him so. “But not everypony agreed with their leaders. Obsidian was one of the most outspoken unicorn nobles against uniting the tribes. When Equestria was formed, he broke out into open revolt and vowed to conquer all three tribes and rule with an iron hoof. Most of the nobles stayed true to Princess Platinum, but he still had a lot of supporters and disciples. At first the loyal nobles tried to fight him, but thanks to dark magic and deals with evil spirits, Obsidian was more powerful than any other unicorn. Clover the Clever went to the other tribes and to get the help of her friends Private Pansy and Smart Cookie to beat him.”

I was well aware that the ponies he was listed were the equivalent of America’s founding fathers and probably some of the most respected and revered historical figures Equestria had. Even knowing that, I really had to fight not to laugh at their names. I did chuckle a bit, but a hasty fit of coughing covered that up.

Spike gave me a skeptical glance that told me I hadn’t been entirely successful, but he cleared his throat and continued anyway. “So they formed the Order Triune, and together they defeated Obsidian. Afterwards, they kept the Order around to keep the peace between the three tribes. At first they weren’t all that popular, but that changed after all of the attacks on early Equestria. The dragon treaties hadn’t been signed yet, the griffins raided the coast, the changeling legions were on the march, and there were even ponies who still opposed unification. In pre-modern times they were the most important and influential group in Equestria, but after Nightmare Moon was banished, Princess Celestia ordered them to disband. Most historians don’t know why, but some of them suspect it was because they tried to kill Nightmare Moon.” His voice dropped to conspiratorial whisper and he leaned towards me. “And because they came so close to succeeding.”

I nodded slowly, trying to process everything. Most of the history was useless without context, but I’d gotten the gist of it. The only problem was the part where they disappeared a thousand years ago. I’d needled Celestia about them hiding from her, but had they really stayed undercover for that long? “And that’s the last time anypony’s ever seen them?”

He snorted and waved a claw dismissively. “Well there’s always been conspiracy theorists who claim that they aren’t really gone, but they’re the type that believe in sea ponies and go searching for Bighoof. Nopony takes them seriously. I mean anypony with sense…” He trailed off then stared incredulously at me, starting to put the pieces together himself. “Wait a minute, are you telling me−”

“Yes, I am.” I interrupted, grinning broadly. “So, who’s the town crackpot? Because I’d bet my ass that they’re the only pony with the info I need.”

………

“Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?” I groused as I stood still along the edge of an otherwise busy street.

“Yeppers.” Pinkie said. Had anyone told me that she could stay in place for even a minute I never would have believed them, but Pinkie had well and truly proved me wrong. I had a moderate amount of patience, but ten minutes without moving was enough to strain my limits.

I shifted, trying to keep my legs from falling asleep, and damned near jumped when she suddenly barked. “Okay, now!” We started moving again, me at a casual walking pace and her cheerfully bouncing along in that bizarre hopping gait of hers. I had been tempted to come by myself, but not knowing the way was a bit of a problem. The clock was ticking, and I wanted to get there without attracting too much attention or taking too much time.

Pinkie’s strange method of odd ‘shortcuts’ and long pauses had all but killed the second objective, but I had to give her credit. I hadn’t even felt the hint of a shadow, or more importantly, been attacked again. I was still getting the occasional appreciative look, but even those seemed to be slacking off now that the ponies were more used to me. However Pinkie’s instincts worked, they had certainly got the job done.

Another few minutes of what looked (and felt) like random wandering and we arrived outside of an ordinary house. The only thing that distinguished it from any of its neighbors was the presence of a large eye-slit in the middle of the door. Pinkie sprang forward and pounded on the door enthusiastically. After a moment the slit slid open and a pair of amber eyes gave me a suspicious stare.

I opened with a simple, ‘hello’ and nodded. I didn’t bother smiling. If this pony was anything like the conspiracy nuts I’d known, she’d see it as either patronizing or suspicious. Pinkie had other methods.

“Hi, Lyra! How’re you doing? Did you finally get that sonata you’ve been practicing?” The amber eyes swung from me to her and instantly lit up.

“Hi, Pinkie Pie. Did you bring me any cookies? Oh, and who’s your friend?” Pinkie started digging around inside one of her saddle bags, where she no doubt had a lot more than just cookies. I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

“You can call me Blackstone. And I’m here because I believe you are the only one who has the information I need, Miss Heartstrings.” I hoped so, at least. The rest of the group had been less than enthusiastic about depending on her, which, luckily enough, meant they required very little convincing not to come. Their opinions hadn’t been promising, ranging from Fluttershy’s ‘very nice, but easily excitable’ to Dash’s ‘complete screwball’. Still, I had the bruises to prove that there was some kind of secret society at work, so with any luck she’d know something useful.

Lyra considered me for a moment more, but it wasn’t until Pinkie presented a wrapped plate of cookies that she replied. “Okay, you can come in.”

The door opened and I got my first look at Miss Lyra. She was a mint green unicorn with a messy two-tone mane and tail of green mixed with white. Most importantly, she looked well groomed, and she wasn’t wearing a tinfoil hat. That didn’t prove anything just yet, but both facts were points in her favor.

“Thanks−” I began, but she cut me off.

“Hang on, don’t say anything until we’re in my room.” I raised an eyebrow and explained further. “All of the walls are soundproof and I sweep the place for listening spells every other week.” Her expression dropped into a frown. “I haven’t found any yet, but I know they’re keeping tabs on me somehow.” On the surface that sounded more than a little crazy, but remember -- it’s only paranoia if you’re wrong.

Most of the house was spotless, but the room she led us to couldn’t even come close to that standard. It wasn’t dirty, but it was cluttered and disorganized enough that at first I couldn’t even tell it was her bedroom, with the stacks of books, piles of scrolls and pyramids of newspapers burying every piece of furniture except the unmade bed. She didn’t have the classic “I want to believe” poster with a UFO, but she did have a large corkboard, complete with newspaper clippings and pieces of yarn connecting seemingly unrelated stories. Evidently, she believed there was some connection between a ‘parasprite’ infestation and the unexpected retirement of a prominent building contractor.

Pinkie shut the door and we got down to brass tacks. Or, at least, I told an abridged version of the Order’s efforts to kill me while Lyra and Pinkie snacked on the plate of cookies. The unicorn was sitting oddly, using a slouched position that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a human teenager. How she managed it with an equine skeleton was a mystery to me. Personally, I suspected it involved a lot of trips to the chiropractor. Lyra asked a few questions as I told my tale, but otherwise she seemed content just to listen, her eyes almost shining. She was awfully chipper for hearing about multiple attempted murders, but I suspected this was a major breakthrough for her.

When at last I finished, she only had one last question for me. “And you are absolutely sure that he called you, ‘Obsidian’?”

I chuckled. “Without a doubt. Until he let that slip, I hadn’t even heard of them.”

Lyra nodded, a grin slowly stretching across her face. “Then, it’s them! Oh, I’ve been waiting for proof like this.” Her horn flashed a light gold, and a quill, inkpot and small notebook hurried over to her. She immediately began writing, the quill scratching across the paper as she worked. I waited a moment for her to say something more, but she was engrossed in whatever she was doing.

I gave a short, expectant cough to get her attention. It failed miserably. Two more didn’t get me any further.

I rolled my eyes and tried clearing my throat instead. From the way her ear flicked I think she might have actually heard that, but it didn’t make her stop writing.

Pinkie finished off the last of the baked goods and gave me a worried glance. “Do you need a cough drop? I think I’ve got one here somewhere.” she said, digging around in her mane. I did my best to reassure her I was fine, mostly because I was terrified of having to eat something that had been in her hair for God-only-knew how long.

Pinkie frowned, but at least she ceased searching. “Then why were you coughing?”

“I was trying to get Miss Lyra’s attention.” I didn’t bother whispering, but our hostess remained oblivious. I was more than half-tempted to pull the quill away from her and see if she could ignore me after that.

A fit of giggles distracted me from getting us kicked out. The source wasn’t hard to guess. Pinkie tutted as though I was a particularly dull student. “That’s not how you get somepony’s attention, silly! You’ve got to be firm, but polite. Watch me.”

I did so with a growing feeling of trepidation. Pinkie marched over to Lyra and drew in a breath that expanded her chest cavity further than her rib cage should have allowed. “HEY LYRA! Blackstone wants your attention!” That, at least got through to the unicorn, but there was every chance that Pinkie had just destroyed her hearing in the process. “Please?” she added a second later.

I shrugged and rolled with it. “Anyway, I want whatever info you have on the Order. Right now I’ve hit a dead end in terms of leads. Any idea where they might have taken Twilight?”

Lyra planted one hoof on her chin and leaned forward, capturing the classic ‘Thinker’ pose perfectly. I gave it a couple of chuckles, but from the expression on her face she really was thinking hard. “I can’t tell you anywhere for sure,” she with a pensive frown. “The Order had a lot of hideouts and secret strongholds. The Princess destroyed all of the ones she knew about, but there are references to plenty of hidden bases in the documents that survived their destruction.

“You know, it’s funny.” Her expression changed, becoming more thoughtful. “Until now I had always thought the Order was secretly working for Celestia. Of course, if your theory about there being two factions is correct, then it would still make sense.”

I stared at her. Making sense was the last thing she was doing right now. Even Pinkie looked confused. “Could you run that by me again? I think I missed something,” I asked.

“Yeah,” Pinkie interjected. “Why would the Princess hire a bunch of meanies like those?”

Lyra shook her head sternly. “That’s what everypony says, but think about it. Celestia keeps secrets from the public, and she has for centuries. She has to have somepony to keep everything hushed up.”

I grimaced, this was more along the lines I had been afraid. Pinkie just giggled. “That’s silly. The Princess doesn’t do that.”

Lyra arched an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Then why do we know so little about our own history? Everypony thought Nightmare Moon was nothing more than a myth until she returned. And the Crystal Empire vanished without a trace a thousand years ago, but how many ponies have even heard of it? Why isn’t it covered in any history class? Sure, the information’s there if you know where to look, but it’s obvious that somepony doesn’t want us to know. How many books have you seen that cover Discord’s reign in terms less vague than ‘it was bad and a long time ago’? No details, no information, as though historians just decided to take the century off. And all that’s just the tip of the iceberg, some stuff is actively suppressed.”

She hesitated, glancing around as though she was afraid somepony might overhear her. Whatever she saw, or didn’t see, satisfied her because she leaned in and continued. “I have books hidden away that talk about worlds beyond our own. Places of raw magic and lands of powerful beasts. Things that used to be common knowledge until we forgot them. Tales of spirits known as demons, creatures called the Fae, and a mysterious race named ‘humans’.”

It’s time like this I envy my brother, because he has a poker face that wins tournaments. Lyra didn’t look like she was buying my bluff, but it was a wasted effort anyway.

“No way!” Pinkie gasped. “You know about humans too? We should make an ancient secrets club or something. That would be so cool!”

I saw excitement, along with a couple happy tears, begin to well up in Lyra’s eyes. I moved to cut her off at the pass before this conversation went completely off the rails. “Yeah and that’s great but I’d be more satisfied learning some ancient secrets about the Order.” I cast a skeptic glance at Lyra. “That is what we’re here for.”

The mint green unicorn didn’t blush at the cut of my rapier wit, but she did let the topic drop. “Okay, well, among other things, I think I know why they’re after you.”

“They think I’m Obsidian back from the dead.” I interrupted. “Given that they called me Obsidian, and his title was ‘the Undying’, that’s not much of a stretch.”

Lyra pouted briefly but bulled ahead. “Yes, but did you know that you aren’t the first? There have been six recorded attacks of a black unicorn calling himself Obsidian over more than a thousand years. It was a different pony each time, but they all had cutie marks related to magic and used similar spells. The Order believes that Obsidian somehow reincarnates with his memories and powers intact, and their primary mission is to keep watch over Equestria to make sure he never threatens it again. If they think you’re him, they aren’t going to stop until you’re either dead or gelded.”

My eyes widened to the size of bread plates, and I fought the urge to cover myself in a sensitive area. I may not have gotten a lot of use out of that particular piece of anatomy any time recently but I’m still pretty damned attached to it.

Both Lyra and Pinkie divined my thoughts from my expression. That set Pinkie off to laughing again and Lyra blushed. “I meant magically gelded, not literally!” She let out a breath in a huff and gathered herself. “But yeah, you’ve got a lot more to be worried about than Twilight does. They see the Elements of Harmony as sacred to their cause, so they shouldn’t hurt her. They might be interrogating her for information on you, or maybe trying to convince her that you’re evil, but they should treat her well.”

I wasn’t as certain, not after the hydra. He was perfectly willing to attack Rainbow, and she’s impossible to mistake for anypony else. “Yeah, but how do I find them?”

Lyra shook her head. “I’ve been trying for years just to get proof they exist. You’re not going to find them.”

Well, this trip was a bust.

“But,” she said, “you don’t need to. Keep in mind that they’re coming for you.” She shrugged. “You’d have a lot more luck drawing them into a trap than trying to ferret them out once they’ve gone to ground.”

That... was actually pretty damned smart. Not my preferred method for dealing with assassins, but you don’t always get what you want. I was about to ask a follow-up question, when I was interrupted by the sound of a slamming door. “Are you home, Lyra?” shortly followed it.

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple friends over. We were just talking about stuff.” Lyra yelled back.

The voice harrumphed and replied, “You aren’t boring them with those theories of yours again are you?”

Lyra frowned in a put upon manner. “They aren’t boring! Pinkie even thought we should form a club.”

“Well, come out to the kitchen and I’ll provide refreshments. How do tea and scones sound?”

“Great!” Pinkie yelled, springing up and hurrying downstairs.

I raised an eyebrow at Lyra. “I thought you said this room was soundproof.”

Lyra blinked for a moment then realized what I’d figured out before the first sentence. “Darnit. I thought for sure I’d gotten the spell right that time.” This did not fuel my confidence in her analytical abilities, but she had given me some interesting ideas.

“So who does the voice belong to?” I asked. “Your roommate?”

Lyra sighed, her morose expression surprising me. Her voice matched her face as she replied. “Yeah, just my roommate. That’s all.”

I filed that suspicion away, though it wasn’t any of my business. I shrugged and followed her into the kitchen. It turned out, Lyra’s roommate was a cream colored pony with a curly mane and tail. The mark on her flank was three wrapped candies. Her name was Bon-bon, and she was a confectioner. I knew all of this because I had already met her. She was one of the admirers I had accepted gifts from after that debacle in the market place.

“Hey Bon-bon, say hi to my new friend.” Lyra said.

Bon-bon turned around to reply, and then she saw me. There was a second of hesitation, the briefest flash of fear behind her eyes, and I knew she was one who had slipped me the spiked treats.

I gave her a smile that had far too much in common with a shark to belong to any real pony, and quickly began to empower a binding spell.

“Hello, Bon-bon. I think you and I need to have a talk.”