• 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 Eleven

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 Eleven

Twilight could see a bright light and nothing else. She didn’t try to go toward it, but it moved closer of its own accord until it filled her vision. She remained calm; this had been inevitable, after all. She only wished she’d had a little longer before it happened.

“Pupil response is good,” the old earth pony said, moving his flashlight away from her open eye. “I don’t think you sustained any brain damage, Miss Sparkle.” The doctor had arrived promptly after Colgate stormed out of the room, and while she was grateful for the attention, Twilight wished he would hurry up and finish. She hadn’t had the chance to even get started on cracking the inhibitor ring before he barged in with a pair of cloaked ponies in tow.

He was the only pony other than Colgate that Twilight had seen without a hood. It could have been because he was near-sighted and needed plenty of light, or merely because he wasn’t concerned with being recognized outside of the Order. Whatever the reason, she found herself relaxing in his presence even though she knew, intellectually, that he was also one of her captors, “Do you mind if I examine a few of your joints and muscles to make sure you didn’t strain anything during the episode?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment, but impatient as she was, it was difficult to tell the kindly old stallion ‘no’. She nodded her assent. Her vocal cords were still raw and aching from her screaming. The doctor said they would regain functionality in a day or two, but until then she was forced to remain silent.

She wished the same was true for another pony. “You don’t have to ask her, Doctor No. She might be staying in a saferoom instead of a cell, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t our prisoner.” That was the pegasus guard set to watch her while the doctor preformed his examination.

Doctor No snorted. “Prisoner or not, she’s still my patient, and I will treat her as such.” The guard didn’t seem happy with that answer, if his dissatisfied grunt was any indication, but thankfully he didn’t say anything else.

The kidnapped scholar didn’t want to harm anypony when she made her escape, but she had already decided that she would do it if necessary. And if the loud-mouthed guard was one of those she needed to hurt? Twilight wasn’t terribly upset by the possibility.

“I have good news and bad news on the ring front,” said the last member of the trio. “Which do you want to hear first?”

The short unicorn mare hadn’t spoken much since she started examining the inhibitor ring, but her size and youthful tone seemed to mark her as several years younger than Twilight herself. She wasn’t sure what to think of that -- did the Order really recruit ponies that young? On the other hoof, it wasn’t unthinkable that she was just a short mare with a young-sounding voice. At any rate, she seemed very intelligent and quite skilled with magical devices. Kind of a pity, she thought, I think we might’ve been friends in better circumstances.

The pegasus shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We need to replace the ring, no matter how harmless the damage looks.”

The young unicorn stopped her work to stare at him. “Did I hear you right? Because, no offense to you, Miss Sparkle, but I’m pretty sure once that ring comes off she isn’t going to let us put another one on her.”

The guard snorted disdainfully. “So drug her again. What’s she going to do while she’s unconscious?” Twilight worked hard to suppress the tremor that his statement caused. Her hooves shuddered for a moment, but she brought them under control even as her mind raced. She couldn’t let that happen. She needed to be able to see the inner working of the ring to calculate the correct frequency and amount of magical energy that would unlock her ring. Each one was unique, of course, and with a new ring she wouldn’t have a chance.

“Try it, and I’ll tear off your wings and make you eat them,” Doctor No replied without looking up or even changing his tone of voice. The causal sound of his threat would have lessened its menace if he hadn’t stated it in such a direct, certain manner. Twilight stared at him, her shock mixing with a healthy dose of fear. Despite his kind demeanor, she had no doubt that he meant his threat literally. The guard must have reached the same conclusion because he took several respectful steps back from the busy earth pony. Doctor No didn’t seem to notice the discomfort of either pony. “Her body is already under strain after everything she’s been through, and I will not permit anything that could harm my patient further.”

An awkward silence followed until the small unicorn spoke. “Besides, if you’ll let me finish, you’ll know we don’t need to. All she did was cook off the insulating metals around the core. It’ll still function perfectly well. If anything, it’ll perform better with all the magic she’s pumped into it.”

Brute, as Twilight decided to name the guard, frowned. “Then what’s the bad news?”

“Well, I said the insulating metal is gone, didn’t I?” she huffed, as though anypony with common sense could spell out what that meant. The room remained silent as the technician waited for the guard to have a realization that wasn’t actually coming.

“Perhaps,” Doctor No said as he experimentally flexed Twilight’s left elbow, “you could explain the significance for those of us who haven’t spent our whole lives studying the intricacies of metal and magic?”

Even though Twilight couldn’t see the other unicorn’s face, her eye roll was clear in her voice. “Fine. It means that while the ring is fine in the short term, it will eventually begin to corrode. In about twenty years, or fifteen just to be safe, the inhibitor will have taken too much exposure to continue working. That’s something you can’t fix even under the best circumstances, much less when she’s still wearing it.” She paused, rubbing her chin with one hoof thoughtfully. “Though this is the first time I’ve seen it myself. Normally, this kind of wear and tear comes from months of prolonged use, not a single day.”

Brute mulled that over for a few seconds, but he clearly wasn’t ready to give up yet. “Yeah, well, what if she uses another big spell? From what I heard, the ring just barely shut her down the first time. Won’t more magic break it?”

The small unicorn gave a sigh that spoke more about the lesser minds she was forced to work with than any scathing remark could have. “No. The ring is at capacity already. It’s supposed to store excess magic to keep the shock painful rather than lethal, but now...” She turned to glance at Twilight, and the captive unicorn could just barely make out a worried face hidden within her hood. “The shock you received the first time was less than a tenth of the power you fed into it. If you try anything even close to that again, I don’t think you could survive the backlash.”

Twilight’s cynical side said that the Order was trying the classic good pony/bad pony tactic, an old favorite of mysteries and detective novels, but something told her the young unicorn was being sincere. And even if they were playing her false, overpowering the ring through brute force still wasn’t an option. Not while the memory of that excruciating pain was still fresh.

“You don’t have to coddle her, Cog.” Brute replied. “If she’s dumb enough to try that again, she’ll deserve what she gets.”

Cog arched her back like a cat and glared at him. If she had hissed, the likeness would have been perfect. “It’s not her fault Obsidian brainwashed her into following him!” She laid a hoof over Twilight’s and patted it sympathetically. “I know you don’t like us much right now, but don’t worry. They’ll find a way to reverse what he did to you and you’ll be right as rain.”

Twilight frowned and tried to speak despite the pain it caused her. “Tha… thas…not…” she fell silent again, her throat aching.

Doctor No gently touched her throat and scowled. “Don’t do that. You’ll just delay your recovery.” Twilight let out a sigh and relaxed as he continued his work. She was keeping her ticket out of here, so what they thought about her didn’t really matter. Hopefully, she could convince them that Dresden was innocent at some point, but for now getting out of here was all that mattered.

Brute still wasn’t satisfied, though. “And what if she messes with the ring directly?” He glanced around the room as though he expected to find a convenient hacksaw or chisel lying around. Twilight had already checked the room twice over, and the tiny blade screwed into the quill-sharpener was the only tool present.

“That…” Cog enunciated slowly, “would be a very bad idea. If anypony destroyed any part of the core, all of the stored magic would escape at once.”

The thought made Twilight’s blood run cold, and even the allegedly magic-ignorant doctor’s hooves shook for a second, but Brute needed it spelled out for him. “And that would be bad?”

“There wouldn’t be enough of her left to bury,” Cog informed him. “It could even collapse the room, given how much power is stored in there.”

Brute glanced at the small band of metal around Twilight’s horn with the first flash of fear she had seen from him. “Oh. Um, okay then. I’ll just... get out of the way so you can finish up. I’ll be outside, so just, uh, yell if you need me.” He didn’t quite run to the door, but his pace was quicker than it might have been ordinarily. Twilight watched him leave with something approaching satisfaction.

Doctor No shook his head and clucked disapprovingly as the door closed. “When I was one of the Slayers, we weren’t afraid of anything. Getting blown up would have been a picnic compared to some of our training.” Twilight wasn’t certain what to make of that, but Cog took the complaint in stride.

“And you had to hike thirty miles uphill in flank-deep snow to get to school even in summer. And Celestia only kept the sun up half as long even though everypony needed to grow twice as much food because families were bigger, and that meant everypony had to share, unlike the selfish brats we’re raising these days. And−”

“And that’s more than enough,” the old stallion huffed. “One thing that’s true, granddaughters showed more respect when I was your age.” Cog giggled in response, while Twilight boggled. These were the ponies who had kidnapped her. They dressed in weird robes, they wanted to kill her friend, and the very existence of their Order was a direct violation to one of Celestia’s commands. They weren’t supposed to have families or make silly jokes.

That made them too … normal.

Twilight desperately wished that she could speak, or even write, but without magic, her writing was practically illegible to anypony but her. Trying to communicate with them, trying to actually find the real pony beneath all of that Order nonsense, wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So she remained silent while Doctor No finished his work. Cog went with him as he left, pausing only to wish her well and express hope that ‘they could fix her brain’. While Twilight didn’t want anypony messing with her head, she was grateful for the spirit in which it was intended.

Once they were gone and Twilight had waited a few minutes to make certain, she went to work. One benefit to her lack of skill with a pencil was that even if somepony came into her room without warning, they wouldn’t understand anything she was writing. Numbers and symbols danced through her mind and she translated them into formulae and notes on the paper.

What she was attempting was not only difficult, but given Cog’s warnings, extremely dangerous as well. While it didn’t take a staggering amount of power to open a ring, every measure of it would reflect back on her if she got it wrong. She brought over the mirror and produced tiny sparks of magic, watching the shift of energy through the veins of the ring. The price for such experiments wasn’t pleasant, but compared to what she had already been through, the tiny shocks were nothing.

Twilight was merely writing when a pony opened her door unexpectedly, but she wouldn’t have known it from the hammering of her heart. “What?” she barked, trying to keep a calm expression. The word hurt her still healing throat but she was too panicked to care at the moment.

Twilight couldn’t see the hooded unicorn’s expression, but his reply carried a mild note of resentment. “I just want to see if you had a preference for dinner. They’ve got herb and veggie soup with fresh cornbread in the mess hall, but I could get you something else if you don’t like that.”

Twilight’s pulse slowed to an even pace as she realized he wasn’t here to drag her away and chain her beneath a waterfall. She gave him an apologetic smile and nodded enthusiastically. The moment the door shut behind him she began cleaning up her work. He hadn’t seemed suspicious, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

Twilight was just starting to get impatient when the door opened again. A steaming bowl and a plate of cornbread glistening with melted butter floated on a tray beside the unicorn. Twilight’s stomach rumbled at the scents of basil and sage and fresh bread. It was hard to measure the passage of time in the windowless room, but she had definitely missed at least one meal. She wasted no time in digging in.

Corn and butter and just a touch of honey melted in her mouth. Whoever’s cooking for these hooded hooligans really knows their stuff! she thought, wolfing another bite. It certainly wasn’t what her imagination conjured up when she pictured the phrase “jail food”.

The cornbread was simple enough, but eating the soup without any magic to help her offered a bit of a challenge. She hesitated over the bowl, her brow furrowed in concentration. There were number of different ways to approach the problem and she wasn’t sure which would work best. The unicorn gave a low chuckle. “I guess soup isn’t the best meal for a unicorn who can’t use her magic,” he said apologetically. “Might I offer a helping... er.”

He stopped and actually stepped back from the glare Twilight aimed at him. It might have been stubborn of her, but Twilight had been feeding herself for a long time and she wasn’t about to be spoon-fed like a little foal. She might not have had an earth pony’s practice manipulating objects with her hooves, but she managed to lift the bowl and sip from it without spilling soup on either herself or the floor. It tasted as wonderful as it smelled.

As the unicorn started collecting the dirty dishes, Twilight let out a contented sigh and sat back. Now that her stomach was full, her body began demanding sleep. She shook her head vigorously, but her fatigue refused to fade. Obviously, she would need some botanical assistance.

The unicorn started for the door, but Twilight flagged him down with a few clops of her hoof on the desk. “Do you need something else?” he asked. Twilight nodded, and attempted to mime drinking some tea. “You want some dessert?”

Twilight stared at him. Either he was thicker than the door, or she was terrible at charades. Sighing, she shook her head ‘no’. Picking up a piece of paper, she drew a messy sketch of a pot of tea accompanied by a cup.

Her waiter puzzled over the ‘artwork’ for a moment before exclaiming with the air of scientist coming to a brilliant realization. “Oh, you want coffee!”

Twilight buried her face in her hoof. What kind of pony serves coffee in a teapot and teacup? She shook her head even harder and drew a large letter ‘T’ with exaggerated slowness. If he got it wrong this time, she wasn’t sure how to make it more obvious.

“Oh, some tea? I can do that. I’ll be right back, Miss Sparkle.” Twilight rolled her eyes as soon as his back was turned. It was a bit mean, but she couldn’t help wondering if he’d get lost on his way back.

The tea took longer to arrive than the soup had, but it was still hot, which was all Twilight could really hope for. Breathing in the delicious aroma while she poured herself a cup, she realized that it was Earl Grey tea, her favorite. She hoped it was a pleasant coincidence, but after what Colgate had said, it was possible they already knew that. Whichever it was, she wasn’t going to refuse the delicious brew. A few cups later, she was fortified against the lures of Morpheus and ready to return to work.

It was hours later, long hours of tiring effort, when Twilight finally put down the pencil, but she had done it. Sort of. She thought. She triple-checked her figures and reevaluated the assumptions she’d had to make. In a perfect world, she would have arrived at a sure answer, but because she had only limited data, there were half a dozen possibilities. Some frequencies were more likely than others, based on the assumptions she’d made and some uncertainty about the more esoteric constants she had needed, but she managed to rank them with a few more calculations. The first was about forty percent likely, the second a strong twenty-five percent, and the rest followed in descending likelihood.

Twilight bit her lip. The pain from her ring had not been permanent, but it had made a lasting impression, as it was meant to. If she got it wrong the first time, she wasn’t sure she could try again. It wasn’t just that she was afraid of the shock, but even the minimum power for the key spell would be enough to make her scream. While Brute hadn’t shown himself to be most caring guard in the world, she was certain he would investigate that, and she doubted they would let her keep the same ring regardless of Doctor No’s objections. If she were at her best she could probably recover quickly enough for a second try, maybe even a third, but that was under ideal circumstances, not injured and running on caffeine. Realistically, she suspected she only had one chance.

Logic dictated that she try the most probable answer first. Theoretically, she was ready to go, but Twilight hesitated, pausing to check her math a fourth time. The first answer, despite all of her checks and reassurances, didn’t feel right. Neither did the second or the third. She couldn’t explain why, but the fourth, in spite of its twelve percent chance, was the one she kept coming back to.

Really? She thought to herself, her rational side annoyed by her stalling. I need to get out of here and I don’t have time for this nonsense. Objectively Twilight agreed. There wasn’t anything logical in being fixated on an unlikely possibility, but at the same time, she couldn't let go of it. She knew it was stupid, but something in her gut told her she was right and logic be damned.

A small part of her mind, the same part of her that had struggled to understand Pinkie’s bizarre precognition, recoiled in horror at that thought. But the rest of her remembered…

………

“Today you will learn something very important, my dear student.” Princess Celestia said, beaming at her protégé.

A ten year old Twilight Sparkle grinned in response, barely holding in her excitement. Something very important? That sounded even better than the alphabetizing spell she’d learned for sorting her books! “What is it?”

Celestia chuckled at her student’s enthusiasm. “We will get to it, but first I want you answer two questions for me.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Is this a test?!” She hadn’t been expecting that. She hadn’t studied!

Celestia shook her head. “Not quite. There is no right or wrong answer; there is only your answer.” Twilight puzzled over the statement, but her teacher went on. “What is magic?”

The little unicorn smiled. This one was easy. “Magic is the energy that permeates the entire world, a natural force like wind or gravity. In its natural state, magic is formless, but it can be expressed, given shape and meaning, by the pony using it.”

The Princess considered her response and nodded, an amused gleam in her eye. “Somepony has been studying. Yes, Clover the Clever was one of the first ponies to give magic a working definition, but in many ways she summed it up too neatly. While accurate, her explanation does not, and cannot, cover all of what magic is.

“Magic is more than a natural force. It is primal part of who and what we are. There is not a single creature on the face of the world that is not touched by this amazing power. Magic existed within the darkness before the sun was lit, and it will remain after the last pony takes her last breath. I have studied magic for more than a thousand years and many of its mysteries still evade me. All of that, however, is only a lead-in to my second question. How do you use magic?”

Twilight hesitated before replying. On the surface, this question was even easier than the first, but if it was really only what it appeared to be, then why had the Princess explained so much beforehoof? Still, using big words had never failed Twilight before. “Through concentration, I channel thaumaturgic energy from my environment through my horn, transforming it into the desired form by visualization and mental symbolism, and thus produce a spell.”

Celestia shook her head. “That is an excellent example of what you do with magic, but it doesn’t tell me how you use magic.” She rose to her full height and flared her wings, letting loose the aura she normally held in check. Power, raw, terrible and beautiful danced in her eyes and arced across her alabaster skin. When she spoke it was in a voice old as a mountain, gentle as a breeze and warm as a summer evening. “How do you take in something that is more ancient than the world and bend it to your will? How can you use a power so vast and complex that you can never hope to fully understand it?”

Twilight watched her teacher in awe, mesmerized by the display of might. It took almost a minute for the meaning of her questions to sink in. The tiny unicorn thought and searched her mind but she found nothing. Never, not in any of her lectures, not in any of her books had anypony even asked that question. Twilight didn’t even know where to start looking for an answer.

“I-I don’t know.” Her voice was small and weak compared to that of her teacher’s, but the confession of ignorance still seemed to echo in the quiet room. Twilight bowed her head in shame.

The lightest touch of magic, something no more substantial than a sunbeam lifted her chin and she found herself staring into the eyes of the Princess. Enormous wings of velvet soft feathers cupped her gently and lifted her off the ground, bringing her within inches of her mentor’s face. Celestia smiled, and warmth began to spread throughout Twilight’s body even before she spoke. “But you do, even if you don’t know that you know. You are more than flesh and blood, Twilight. More even than word and thought. Search the parts of yourself that only you can know. You will find your answer there.”

Twilight would have protested this impossible task, but she was entranced by Celestia’s eyes. They slowly shifted through all the colors of the rainbow, and above those fleeting shades of power she could see herself reflected within them. She relaxed, all of her tension leaving her. The pressure she had felt to give the right answer faded away, and her mind drifted. She didn’t know how long she stared. The Princess didn’t seem to blink, but neither did she. Eventually it came to her. Not the correct answer, but her own answer.

“Because it’s a part of me deep down. Magic isn’t some distant, unknowable thing.” Twilight raised a hoof and pressed it to her heart. “It lives in here.” Her hoof moved to her head. “And here.” Then to her horn. “And here.” She blinked, breaking eye contact with her teacher. “Umm… at least, that’s what I think.” She glanced down shyly.

“Very good, my dear student,” Princess Celestia said. Gone was her aura of power, but the loving smile she wore filled Twilight with pride. “You’ve taken your first step on the path of wisdom. But no matter how far you travel on that path, always remember this day.” The Princess’s horn began to shine, and she picked up Twilight in a golden glow, drawing her into a hug. “Always remember to trust yourself.”

“Even when I’m not sure?”

“Especially when you aren’t sure.”

………

Twilight blinked, returning to the present. Already the memory was fading, but for a moment it had been as vivid and solid as if she had been living it again. Her eyes swept over the fourth entry on her list, and before she could stop herself, she began her spell.

Most key spells were very simple in design and gave the user a fair amount of leeway. A range of frequencies were typically accepted, both because the number of possibilities was nearly infinite, and because most unicorns had a hard time focusing their magic on a single, precise frequency.

The enchantments in the ring, however, were anything but forgiving. Twilight focused with every ounce of her concentration. She had to get the perfect frequency on the first try, without using too much power in case she was wrong, and do it all before the ring reacted to her use of magic. Magic surged into her horn, a short, sharp pulse lasting less than a second. She braced herself for the retributive shock, but the moment passed without apparent response. Then, with a small click, the inhibitor ring snapped open and fell off her horn.

So long, Order Triune! Twilight thought happily. Sorry I couldn’t stay any longer, but I’ve got friends to protect and a Princess who needs to hear about all this. Focusing on her library in Ponyville, she quickly envisioned the place and began feeding power into her spell. Twilight wasn’t sure how far it was, but familiar places were the easiest to reach when the spell wasn’t line-of-sight. With a familiar stomach-rolling sensation Twilight felt herself wrenched sideways through reality, then reflected backwards as though she had run into a wall made of rubber.

Snapping back into reality was more disorienting than painful, but staggering heavily into the bed frame in her daze hurt quite a bit. A quick assessment told her that nothing was broken, though she expected she’d have a bruise or two on her shins. After glaring at the ceiling for a second, Twilight lit her horn and probed her room for the spell that had stopped her from teleporting. Every pulse she sent into the plain stone around her twisted, bent and refracted only a few feet into the rock.

Whatever substance or spell was in walls reflected her magic with ease. Ironic -- Brute had called this a saferoom; it was probably intended to keep hostile magic out rather than keep the occupant in.

Twilight scowled. She wasn’t getting out that way, at any rate. Not unless she tore out several feet of solid stone across an entire wall. Somehow she doubted she could get away with that without being noticed. She needed to get out of her cell, but that meant getting through the spelled and guarded door.

She stared at the glowing barrier, considering the spells layered across it. She could probably smash through the defenses if she had to, but that would take far more effort than she wanted to expend. Especially since she’d have to fight her way out after the huge noise from destroying the door woke up every pony in the entire base. At least the excavate-a-wall plan didn’t involve taking on an army single-hoofed after she made a lot of noise.

She thought she could probably deactivate the door’s wards, but doing so would take hours. Assuming she had eaten ‘dinner’ at its normal time, it was now late night or early morning, so unless a majority of the Order kept a schedule similar to Luna’s, this was the best time to escape.

That meant she had to get somepony else to open the door. Trickery seemed promising so long as Brute was still her guard. She didn’t have an overabundance of respect for the intelligence of any of the Order’s guards, but Brute scored even lower than the rest in her opinion.

Her ears flicked sharply as an unexpected noise came to her: the turning of the heavy bolts in the door.

Twilight focused her newly-freed magic on the shining crystal in the ceiling, pulling apart the enchantments laid on the magical stone until it went dark. The room plunged into shadow, lit only by the weak glow of the spells on the door. Twilight backed into the corner as quietly as she could. When door opened she would be behind it, giving her the perfect opportunity to take her ‘visitor’ by surprise. On one hoof, this was practically a free ticket out of here, but on the other, what would anypony want with her this late? Especially without knocking.

The door cracked open slowly, moving smoothly on its well-oiled hinges. A hooded head stuck itself into the room, then the rest of the pony followed. Twilight had a brief moment of panic as she realized the bed was conspicuously empty, but the pony ventured cautiously into the room anyway. That hood of theirs must obscure their vision, Twilight thought. That’s good to know.

She waited until her strange visitor was entirely in the room. The front part of their hood gave a subdued glow and Twilight realized it was a unicorn. A deep red, almost maroon, aura surrounded the door handle; they were about to shut the door.

Twilight lit her own horn, and a quick burst of magic grabbed the pony, dragging them into the shadows where she was hiding. They almost yelled, but Twilight focused her magic and conjured a large zipper across their mouth. The pony struggled with the spell for a moment, but the only sound they produced was a muffled grunt. Normally that was a skill reserved for Pinkie, or for Spike on occasion, but it served her well here.

The angry mage stared into the hood of her captive, but in the dim light of her horn she still couldn’t make out any features. Still, the pony could see her. Twilight’s eyes narrowed and she growled. After couple of painful attempts to speak, she instead grabbed a spare piece of paper and scrawled a quick message. Thankfully, her horn writing was neat enough to read even in the low illumination. The note read: I’m going to let go of your mouth now. If you try to scream or use magic I will hurt you. Believe me, after everything I’ve been through I’m just looking for an excuse.

She wasn’t, actually. The thought of violence against a helpless pony, even one of the headcases who had kidnapped her, was unpleasant. But that wasn’t what you said when interrogating a suspect. She’d read enough detective novels to know that you had to be tough when dealing with somepony you wanted to talk. Her captive nodded, and Twilight let the zipper disappear. She remained tense, holding the rest of their body in a tight grip, ready to take back control if they tried anything.

For the moment, at least, they were compliant. “Don’t worry, Twilight.” The words were distorted, unnatural deep, as if the unicorn were using a voice-changing spell. “I am a friend, and I’m here to rescue you.”

Twilight scowled and wrote out, Oh really?

“Yes, really.” The pony said emphatically. “I disabled the guard and I have the frequency for your inhibitor ring, not that you seem to need the second.”

That was either a spur-of-the-moment lie or some substantial proof. Twilight hadn’t heard Brute say anything, which was an argument in favor of the pony’s honesty, but there was a better way to be sure. What was the frequency? she wrote out. There was no reason her captive needed to know that piece of information unless they really were planning to release her.

“Fifty-two point six cycles per second,” the mysterious pony rattled off without hesitation. Twilight nodded in satisfaction and released her captive. She had a strong suspicion about who was underneath that hood, but even if she was the pony Twilight thought she was, that didn’t mean trusting her was a good idea. Twilight gestured impatiently with her horn and her would-be rescuer exited the door first. When that didn’t raise a great hue and cry, the lavender unicorn followed her out. Brute was standing still, his hood down and his eyes unfocused. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t an escaping Twilight Sparkle.

“Here, these should be your size,” the mysterious benefactor said, throwing a long robe and hood at Twilight. She wasn’t thrilled about wearing somepony else’s laundry, either, but she shrugged it on without complaint. The robe fit well, but she found to her displeasure that she had been right -- the hood did reduce her field of vision. Still, it was a fair trade for the disguise.

The strange pony gestured from further down the tunnel. “Hurry, we’ve got to move quick.”

You mean ‘move quickly’, Twilight thought, but correcting the grammatical mistake wasn’t worth the pain it would take to give it voice. Heaving a small sigh, she followed. Plain, utilitarian stone made up every surface, and beyond a rough finish, there was no ornamentation to it. The corridors were lit by more of the strange crystals that had illuminated her prison, and while Twilight would have liked a chance to examine them, she was too busy keeping an eye on the pony ahead of her.

The purple unicorn didn’t think she was walking into a trap, but then, she hadn’t thought so at Colgate’s office either. Still, she couldn’t see any benefit in helping her escape only to lead her into an ambush. But after everything she’d been through, she knew that her good luck couldn’t last. Less than a minute later, her cynicism was proven correct.

Loud and angry voices echoed from the halls they had come from. Somepony had found Brute and discovered that their prisoner was gone. The mysterious pony cursed. “They must have changed the guard rotation. Come on, we have to keep moving, but whatever you do, don’t run.” The thought of breaking into a full gallop was tempting, but running would attract more attention than she wanted. She lowered her head and walked at an even pace.

The mask of apathy was difficult to hold when her entire body was singing with adrenaline. Nervous energy raced through her mind and limbs. Twilight was hard-pressed to contain herself, and the clatter of heavy hooves approaching behind them didn’t help.

“You two!” A deep, masculine voice cried. Both of the hooded ponies nearly jumped out of their robes. Twilight spun to see a large earth pony, his face marred by scars and an eye patch. His remaining eye was a piercing gray and he looked like nopony’s fool. “Remove your hoods and state your names. We’ve had a breakout.”

“I’ll handle him.” The shrouded pony told her in a rush, the distortion spell making the words hard to understand. “You go ahead. Just remember that all of the stairs eventually lead to a door out of here.”

Twilight nodded. “Thanks, Colgate,” she croaked. Those words were difficult, but Twilight knew they were worth it. Colgate deserved to know that Twilight had realized what the false dentist had done for her.

At first there was a startled silence from Colgate, but a second later she chuckled. “Yes. You’re welcome.” She chuckled again. “But you need to hurry. Run.”

Twilight hesitated for a second, though she couldn’t say why. Then her baser instincts took over and she bolted, the hood whipping back in her flight. The scarred guard gave a surprised yell at her sudden dash, but then Colgate was on him. The sounds of the struggle faded quickly in the labyrinthine halls of the Order Triune.

Twilight wished that Colgate had given her better directions, or at least that the Order had clearly marked their corridors for easier navigation. She tested the walls with a quick burst of magic, but they reflected her spell just as easily as her cell had. The entire compound seemed to have been built to deflect spells, which was probably why nopony had noticed it for so long. Twilight grimaced. The only way she was getting out of here, it seemed, was on hoof. She willed motion into her weary legs and kept running. Maybe it was fatigue that caused her to miss the warning sound of hooves on stone ahead, or perhaps she simply couldn’t hear over her own breathing. Either way, she was caught completely by surprise when she rebounded from the chest of a large stallion leading an entire patrol of robed guards.

At first there was only a startled silence from both sides. Then the lead guard, a tall unicorn with a sharp horn poking out from beneath his hood, barked, “Halt!”

Twilight panicked, her mind already envisioning heavy chains and the merciless, hammering cold of the waterfall. The fear paralyzed her for a moment, locking her in place. The squad took the opportunity to spread out and encircle her, but Twilight felt power rising within her. She was Twilight, daughter of House Sparkle, student of Celestia, and Element of Magic. They may have taken her by trickery before, but there was not a chance that they could take her by force.

Her stance solidified into a defensive position instead of one meant for running, her body preparing to fight. Her expression changed from the fearful stare of the hunted to the measuring glare of the hunter. Only two of the guards realized what this change meant, but even then it only gave them a second of warning. Far too short a time to voice any alarm.

Violet light filled the corridor as Twilight lifted the entire squad of guards and slammed them into the wall. Most of them stopped struggling at that, though they were more likely stunned than unconscious. A couple, including the tall unicorn leading them, still fought her hold. His horn began to glow with a beige aura, but Twilight slammed them into the wall again and the light faded.

Twilight dashed past the stunned squad and galloped along her chosen path, scanning the hallway for any sign of stairs. Behind her rose cries of pain and shouts for help. She glanced back, her pace slowing for a moment as her stomach twisted. In some ways she was proud that she had overcome her fear and defeated an entire squad of trained guards, but she had also hurt somepony. Maybe badly. Several someponies who each had families and friends. Who laughed and joked. For all their craziness, just how different were they from herself and her own friends? They even thought they were doing the right thing.

But in the end there was no question of going back to help them. Twilight turned around and began running again. Whether or not they meant well, they still wanted to hurt her friend, and she was not about to let that happen. Ponies hadn’t run in herds for thousands of years, but somewhere in Twilight’s mind, ancient instincts still spoke. Dresden might not have been an actual pony, but he was her friend and she would defend him against anything that wished him harm. It didn’t matter whether they were monstrous predators or misguided ponies.

She thundered through empty passages, though she could hear movement here and there. Alarms began to go off, screeching klaxon spells stirring the Order to wake. Twilight knew her time was growing short. She had dealt with those guards easily enough, but nine to one were far better odds than a hundred to one. A large pair of double doors looked promising, so she charged through to discover the mess hall on the other side. By itself that wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was apparently used as a gathering place during times of emergency.

For example, if a dangerous prisoner was running loose.

Several dozen heads turned her way all at once, all of them hoodless. Reactions to her varied, but fear and determination seemed to be the most common. “Seize her!” somepony cried. And afraid or not, the mob rushed her. She could see a large stairwell on the other side of the room, but that meant getting through the crowd in front of her. Twilight focused her magic. Teleporting to the surface might have been out of the question, but fifty feet in line-of-sight was foal’s play. She broke into a run, horn lowered, and cast. The stampede slid to a halt as she disappeared in a flash of lavender sparkles. She reappeared next to the stairs with a muffled bang, not even breaking stride as she charged up them.

Cries of confusion were shouted down by the few who spotted her racing up the stairwell, but Twilight wanted no part of that. Her horn burned as brightly as it had the night she had faced the Ursa Minor. Dresden was more experienced in demolition than she was, but an overabundance of energy would make up the difference.

A ball of lavender light streaked from her horn like a cannonball. The magic was so densely compacted that it was almost solid. The spell crashed into the wall of the stairwell above the door, smashing through mortar and stone before finally exploding with a thunderous detonation. If there was anypony who had slept through the alarm spells, they were awake now. The wall shattered into rubble which began pouring down, burying the doorway beneath with tons of stone. Twilight sat down on one of the higher stairs, coughing as the dust from the demolition rolled past her.

She wanted nothing more than to stay there and rest. All of this magic was exhausting, but the physical exertion was even worse. Twilight would admit to herself that she might have let herself get a little out of shape since training for the Running of Leaves. The tea was long gone and she had ignored her body’s demand for sleep for hours. Even adrenaline was beginning to fail her. Twilight leaned against the wall above her makeshift barricade, waiting for her breathing to steady before she attempted the climb to the surface.

A heavy impact against the barricade rattled the stones, snapping Twilight out of her drowsy state. With a shiver, she realized she had almost dozed off. Her spell might have bought her some time, but it wasn’t going to stop a determined mob of ponies forever. With a weary sigh, she rose to her hooves and began climbing again. Her legs burned with the effort, but sheer will kept her moving. She didn’t dare sit down again until she was safe.

The stairway ended after only a few turns, mocking Twilight’s hopes of it carrying her clear to the surface. At the top, a doorway led into yet another utterly identical corridor. Twilight stuck her head into the hallway and saw a robed figure hurrying towards the stairs. Her hood wasn't on straight, and she was trying to fix it with one hoof while she ran on the other three. It wasn’t until the mare was only ten feet away that she finally got it on right and saw the purple unicorn. The hooded pony gave a startled squeak and slid to a stop, drawing in a deep breath.

Twilight didn’t wait for the pony to get over her shock; five ribbons of purple energy spiraled out of her horn, surrounding the stunned mare. All four legs were quickly wrapped in the magical bindings, anchoring them securely to the stone floor. The last one sealed her mouth shut, just in time to cut off a scream. The pony struggled for a bit, but Twilight’s spell held strong.

Sorry. Twilight thought as she dashed past her immobile foe. There were four passages to choose from, none of which had any kind of indication as to their destinations. That was both inconvenient and inefficient. How often did their own member get lost in the twisting maze of corridors in their stronghold? But complaining wasn’t going to fix anything at the moment, so Twilight picked one at random. A couple of twists later, she found that the passage stopped at a dead-end.

Fuming, Twilight turned back. As she hurried, a slow, rhythmic pounding sound caught her attention. It sounded distressingly like a battering ram striking rock. Twilight choose her next passage without hesitation and sprinted down it. This one ended in a stairwell, but unfortunately, it went down instead of up.

Grumbling about Colgate’s promise that all stairways eventually lead outside, Twilight returned to take the only option remaining. At first she didn’t realize what had changed when she reached the juncture. Then it hit her – silence. The battering ram had stopped. Which meant either they had given up (and Twilight almost laughed at that thought) or they didn’t need it anymore.

Fear gripped her again and she prayed that Colgate’s assurance had been correct. The final corridor, one of the dimmer halls, was longer than the other two put together, but at last a lone archway loomed ahead. Within, she could make out stairs leading upward. Tired as she was, Twilight pushed herself to keep moving. Just one more step. One more. One more.

Five minutes into her climb she was rewarded with what seemed like the greatest smell in the world: fresh air. Hope flared within and she renewed her flagging pace. The stone walls gave way to plastered brick and hanging lanterns replaced magical crystals, as if she were now climbing up through somepony’s basement. But what it looked like didn’t matter; she was almost free.

Beyond a short landing, a pair of cellar doors blocked her way at the top of three short steps. She blasted them off their hinges and ran off into the night. She was free! Free! The grey light of pre-dawn was just beginning to peek above the horizon. Twilight glanced around herself and realized that she had emerged in middle of a residential neighborhood. It was still too dark to tell where she was, exactly, but that didn’t matter. She could find that out at the nearest guard station. Finding that was only the first of a thousand things that still needed to be done; she had to find and warn Blackstone, let Celestia know that she was safe, and tell her everything that had happened. Her struggles weren’t anywhere close to being done, and it seemed she wouldn’t see a bed for hours yet, but she couldn’t help smiling at the sight of beautiful world around her. She blinked back tears of happiness.

She had escaped.

That was when, with a small ‘click’ behind her eyes, the spell activated. Wave after wave of exhaustion washed over her, threatening to send her to her knees. Twilight shook her head, her trot slowing to a walk. She couldn’t keep going. There was something in her head, something more than natural fatigue forcing her to sleep.

The purple unicorn bared her teeth in a snarl. She struck back at the spell, fighting it with every ounce of power she had, but whoever had laid it was no amateur. Violet fire flickered through her mind as she battled the complex enchantment, but she was losing, her eyes growing heavy and her body slowing down.

With one last desperate effort she struck, but it did nothing but delay the inevitable. Twilight glanced hopefully towards the horizon. The first light of dawn destroyed any spell that was not guarded against its power, but the dawn was still far away. The sun was moving in the east, but it was not yet in position. Princess Celestia would not raise it until far too late.

Twilight stumbled onward, but it wasn’t long before her knees gave and she collapsed. In her waning consciousness, she saw a pony approaching her. With her eyelids struggling to close, she couldn’t see anything about them save that they weren’t robed.

She steeled herself and forced her damaged vocal cords to cooperate one last time. “Help me. Please...” Her voice was a raspy croak, made all the worse by her exhaustion. Her eyes fell fully closed, but she could still just barely hear the pony’s response.

“Don’t worry, Twilight Sparkle. I’ll take care of you.”

Then there was only blackness.