• 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 Fifteen

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

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

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 Fifteen

Twilight Sparkle floated alone inside a vast pillar of white light. Looking up or down along the column, she could only see blinding brilliance, but to the sides it hardly obscured her vision at all. Not that there was anything to see. The ground was gone, the sky had vanished, and there was no trace of anything, living or inanimate, within this strange place. Nopony and nothing existed here; beyond her prison, everything was dark, foreboding and formless.

There was only her and the pillars of light.

From her vantage within the central pillar, Twilight could see many other columns of light surrounding her. They looked like the beams from giant spotlights, but no natural light could behave the way they did. Instead of being perfectly straight, they bent like bows, touching the central pillar miles above and below her. Together, they formed a cage in the shape of a sphere. The distance between each bar was vast, more than large enough for an Ursa Major to walk comfortably between them. It was a prison meant to hold a leviathan, and she was barely a speck compared to the enormity around her.

Twilight could have moved; the light was not holding her back. But she didn’t. Instead, she laid still, her stare blank. She knew nothing, thought nothing and felt nothing. Why should she? She was as empty as the featureless void around her prison. There was nothing within or without. There never had been and there never would be.

Time had no meaning to her, so Twilight could not say just when the wind had begun to blow. There was a faint whistle, something barely at the edge of hearing, and for a brief moment she almost saw a rush of motion outside her pillar. Blinking blearily, she stared into the darkness, but the sound and movement were already gone. Seeing nothing, her eyes began to glaze over once more.


For a time, the emptiness was still, but the low whistle began to rise again and a hint of luminosity danced in the corner of her eye. Twilight’s head rose again, and this time she caught sight of a long ribbon of light, so faint she wouldn’t have noticed it without the utter dark and stillness of the void around her. It twisted and swept around her pillar as the wind grew stronger. The ribbon turned suddenly and struck the pillar of light, but the vast column did not even quiver. Rather than dissipate, though, the ribbon seemed to gather strength from its defeat. The moving air picked up speed and the whistle rose to a roar as the light and wind, somehow intertwined, circled the pillar, striking it with every pass.

Twilight watched as the luminous gale broke again and again on her prison, brightening almost imperceptibly with every failure. Her expression was indifferent, but deep within her, a quiet curiosity had sparked. She looked on, the sound and motion captivating in that place of nothing.

The glowing wind accelerated faster and faster, racing around her pillar, attacking it hundreds of times. In what seemed like no time at all, a howling tornado had formed, stretching the entire length of her cage. The central pillar now shuddered and shook as the incredible force threatened to rip it to pieces. Twilight felt something stir deep within her, something that resonated with this wind. A muted sense of panic gripped her, but despite this new feeling, she remained still, staring into the whirling behemoth. She did not remember tornadoes, but something told her they did not normally glow bright purple or pulse in time with your heart.

As the windstorm’s assault intensified, it grew denser and denser, until Twilight could no longer see beyond the purple glow. She was safe within the eye of the storm, but elsewhere, the pillar of light began to splinter, cracks spreading through it as if it were thin ice. With a sound closer to the twang of a snapped cable than the crash of breaking glass, the top half shattered into glimmering shards that vanished as they floated away. Only moments later the distant bottom snapped free as well.

With the sinuous speed of a racing serpent, the purple fissures shot downward, whittling the mighty column down to a slim spire. The glow brightened, and Twilight felt a sense of frustration from the tornado, but what remained of the pillar stood resolute. She waited within her shrunken circle of light as the wind raged impotently outside.

Her earlier apathy gone, Twilight rose to her hooves, somehow finding ground where before there had been nothing. She stared in open wonder; the storm was both terrifying and amazing. What is it? She wondered, her first conscious thought within the prison of light. Curious, she stretched out a hoof. As she did, a new crack appeared, racing through the light towards her outstretched hoof.

The gentle breeze didn’t ruffle her coat or stir her mane. Instead it sunk into her, filling her veins with something strange, yet familiar. The light around her fragmented and fell away as the tornado poured through the thin fissure and into her. The sensation was wonderful and frightening at the same time. She could feel herself changing, her mind growing like it was trying to drink the ocean… and somehow succeeding. New terms, thoughts and emotions coalesced at a rate that would have given a heart attack to her apathetic self from only a short time before. It wasn’t until the last gust had disappeared and silence once more ruled the emptiness that she realized what she now held.

It was faith and fear, hope and despair, love and loss.

It was Twilight.

Memory and understanding flashed through her mind. She had been running down the streets of Canterlot, having just escaped from the clutches of the Order Triune. Then a spell in the back of her mind had suddenly activated, bringing her to her knees. With no small measure of difficulty, Twilight recognized it as Litwick’s Lucidity-Leashing Lethargic Luminosity, a spell from one of the restricted parts of the Royal Library. Litwick had been a prison warden centuries ago, and his spell was intended to utterly seal a prisoner’s mind if they managed to escape. Unless a pony knew how to counter it, they remained in limbo until the original caster released them. These days, only the most dangerous and depraved ponies were subjected to it. That thought brought a flush of anger to her cheeks. What gives them the right to mess with my head? Who do they think they’re playing with?

Lavender eyes opened again, staring into the void around her, but this time they held a calculating gleam. Twilight was surprised to see the glowing bars of the cage less than a foot away from her, and far less massive then they used to be. Either she had grown, or her prison had shrunk. Whichever was true, the beams of light no longer dwarfed her; if anything, they seemed small and frail now.

She concentrated, feeling the threads of the magic woven deeply into her psyche. Whoever had done this was good, but Litwick’s spell, though powerful, was not unbreakable. Twilight’s horn began to glow as she delved into the sorcery containing her. She had already broken the core of the spell, but the remnants were still stubbornly holding her unconscious. With a surge of power, she struck those final pieces a solid blow. The fraying magic couldn’t stand against her, and purple cracks began to race through the bars of light.

The spell fell to pieces around her and the emptiness slowly faded away. Next time, Twilight thought, her words flavored with a mix of anger and satisfaction, try building a cage that can hold me.

………

Twilight hadn’t been certain where she would wake up when she broke the spell. She had hoped she would wake up in the palace, as would certainly be the case if any of the Royal Guard had found her, but she hadn’t expected it. A hospital bed was far more likely, assuming that she had been lucky. If she wasn’t, the Order had likely returned her to one of their ‘safe rooms’ this time with a new inhibitor. Twilight tried not to think about that possibility, but a shudder ran through her. She also knew that the Order had far worse cells than the comfortable room she’d been kept in before.

Whatever she had hoped or feared, she had not expected this.

There was a face less than four inches away, close enough to count every wrinkle in the elderly stallion’s skin. His mouth split into a grin. “Good afternoon.”

“Ahhhhhh!” Twilight screamed in response, reacting instinctively. Without thinking she grabbed the strange pony in her telekinesis and threw him away from her. The old pegasus only had a moment to spread his wings before he hit the wall and bounced, the creaking of old springs an accompaniment to his fall.

Twilight blinked in confusion, taking note of several facts: she was in somepony’s house, she was sitting on a very comfortable bed, the far wall was lined with mattresses, the strange pony she had just thrown was lying at the base of one of them in a pile of pillows, and he wasn’t moving.

“Oh my gosh!” Twilight yelped, scrambling to the pegasus’s side. “Are you all right? I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

“Murmur murmur murmur,” came the muffled reply as the stallion remained face down in the pillows.

Using her magic, Twilight gently picked up the older pony and checked to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. His coat was the color of faded red bricks, and despite his age it was in excellent condition. His mane, tail and short beard were gray, but the few rust colored strands mixed in suggested that they hadn’t always been that color. He seemed to have survived his unexpected flight without injury, Twilight noted with silent relief. She set him carefully on his hooves, pausing to be sure he could support his own weight before she let go entirely. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” His voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place him.

The old pegasus looked at her oddly. “I said, ‘Murmur murmur murmur.’ I thought that was plenty clear.”

“What?” Twilight asked, baffled. Her … “host” moved on without pausing to explain.

“Would you like coffee or cider?” he asked as he began picking up the scattered pillows, throwing them casually over his shoulder into a hammock hanging from the ceiling. Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off, “And before you ask, I don’t have tea. Can’t stand the stuff.”

Twilight frowned. “I was going to say cider would be fine.”

The old stallion turned to look at her, showing surprise for the first time since she had woken up. “Really? Huh, and those were pretty good odds.” As he stared at her, Twilight realized that his eyes weren’t focusing. In fact, they looked dull and lifeless. It took her longer than she’d have preferred to admit to realize that both of his eyes were glass replicas.

“Your eyes…” Twilight whispered in horror, then cursed herself the moment the words crossed her lips. That was not the most tactful way to introduce such a sensitive topic.

“What? Is one of them backwards? And I thought these were my most reliable pair. Oh well.” He shrugged and tossed the last pillow over his shoulder before shambling over to the room’s door. The door, much like the ceiling and the pieces of wall not covered in mattresses, was made of wood. Evidently she wasn’t in a traditional pegasus home. So where am I, then? she wondered. Curious, Twilight detoured to take a peek out the window. She gave a relieved sigh upon seeing ordinary streets just outside and Canterlot Castle in the distance. She didn’t recognize the neighborhood, but it was evident she was in one of Canterlot’s many suburbs.

“Are you coming? No seriously, when you’re quiet like that I can’t tell.” The old stallion asked from down the hallway.

Twilight moved to follow him, mildly unnerved by the strange, and apparently blind, pony. Still, he seemed harmless enough, and he’d been kind enough to care for her while she was out. That thought made a small piece of memory fall loose and Twilight suddenly realized where she had heard his voice before.

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

Twilight stopped, no longer so ready to go wherever he was leading her. “Who are you?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “How do you know my name?”

The pegasus turned to face her and shrugged. “I guess we can do introductions here. My name is Keen Vision. Yours?”

The irony of his name did not escape her, but Twilight was not in a mood to ask about it. “Twilight Sparkle, but you already knew that. How?”

“My grand-niece,” he replied. He shrugged and started down the hallway again. “She talks about you a lot.”

Her curiosity driving her, Twilight followed him. “But how did you recognize me? Aren’t you, well, blind?”

“Yeah, but I try not to let it slow me down.”

They had finally arrived in the kitchen. The icebox in one corner was an older model, something that used actual ice to keep food cold instead of magic, marked with the dings and scrapes of many years. One of the table legs was propped up by a thick book, the sight of which made her left eye twitch. The chairs were cracked and spotted with ancient stains that no amount of cleaner could get out. Twilight wrinkled her nose slightly, but the room didn’t smell, and she couldn’t spy any dust lurking in the corners. Gingerly she lowered herself into a chair. It creaked under her weight, but it didn’t wobble in spite of its protests, and she couldn’t complain about its comfort. Mr. Vision opened the icebox and took out a pair of dark bottles.

Both were capped, but Twilight didn’t open hers. According to the label, it was bottled cider, but she still wasn’t certain she could trust her host. Keen Vision popped his with a small bottle-opener and took a deep draught. The smell of fresh cider filled the small room, and he sighed contently.

“Okay,” Keen Vision said, after another brief drink. “I’ve had my fun, I s’pose. I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got.” He frowned suddenly, and snorted. “Except that one. How I get fresh cider out of season is none of your business.”

The question died on Twilight’s lips and she stared at him in shock. It was trivial thing to ask, especially given her many other questions, but she had been curious. “How are you doing that?”

He put a hoof to his chest, a mockery of innocence etched on his face. “Doing what?”

Twilight harrumphed, but gears began to turn it her head. She reviewed their interactions from the moment she and woken up to this. There was a common thread among them. He always, or almost always, considering his comment about tea, knew what was coming. The mattresses on the wall, the pillows on the floor, and his calm, non-reaction to being thrown all said that he had not just expected it, but had prepared for it.

“But that’s impossible.” Twilight said shaking her head violently, as though the movement could drive the thought from her mind. Her mane caught the bottle of cider still waiting in front of her and knocked it off the table. Right into Keen Vision’s waiting wing. Without a word he set it back on the table. Twilight’s eyes widened to the size of saucers.

“Bah,” he snorted. “Impossible is just a word ponies use when they don’t want to admit something’s real. Why do you think I let you figure it out instead of telling you?”

“Well, isn’t that something?” Twilight said, trying to move past her shock. She had come to terms with Pinkie’s strange abilities, but the party pony had become a special exception to any form of reason in Twilight’s mind. Trying to place anypony else in that category was difficult. “So, you knew where I was, who I was and what I’d do because you can see the future?”

Keen Vision grunted and made a semi-dismissive gesture with one hoof. “That’s oversimplifying it a bit, since it’s more a matter of what might happen, but yes. Essentially. Maybe.”

“Could you explain that? What do you mean by ‘what might happen’?”

Keen Vision gave a mad chuckle, almost verging into a cackle. “The future is never set in stone. In balsa wood, maybe, since it isn’t perfectly fluid either, but nothing so solid as stone. I see several different possibilities, then have to figure out which is most likely from their feel. For example, if I hadn’t shown up, there were eleven chances out of seventeen you’d have been found by the next newspaper pony, seven in twenty three that one of the Order Triune would recapture you, and five to nineteen odds that the royal guards or your friends would collect you.”

Twilight did some quick mental arithmetic, an idle part of her mind annoyed that Keen Vision had only used prime numbers in his fractions. “Wait a minute, that’s more than one hundred percent. Percentages of probability don’t work that way.”

Had he been capable of the feat, Twilight suspected Mr. Vision would be rolling his eyes. “Right now I’m trying to keep track of everything that has happened, might have happened, is happening and might yet happen. It’s not like I get to choose what I see. Some days are completely blank and others, like today, are non-stop.” He paused to balance the salt and pepper shakers on top of his head before continuing, “You’re lucky I’m still sane after decades of this.”

A deeply ingrained respect for her elders was the only thing that kept Twilight from giggling at him. But any levity she felt faded away as his expression changed. The kindest word she could find for this new emotion was ‘haunted’.

His voice grew quiet and somber. “Especially after some of the things I have seen. I know far too well what would have happened had you and your friends failed to stop Nightmare Moon or the Dark and All-powerful Trixie. Both of those futures were too horrible to contemplate, but I have seen even worse than that. In the depths of the night, when the hungry darkness whispers and the winds howl cruel melodies, I see things that must not be.” The old stallion shuddered and chill raced down Twilight’s spine.

“Why are you telling me this?” Twilight asked fearing that she already knew the answer.

“Because last night I had a dream. One involving you,” Keen Vision gestured to the door behind her, “and your friend, Mr. Dresden.”

Twilight jumped like somepony had lit a fire under her and spun to face the door, nearly knocking her bottle off the table again. “Dresden?!” she gasped, fully expecting to see her towering friend in his long, black duster.

There was nothing behind her but an empty doorway. Confused, she turned back to Keen Vision who was nodding sagely.

“Don’t be surprised I know your real name, ‘Blackstone’. I know you weren’t here for the earlier part of our conversation, but−”

“He isn’t there,” Twilight interrupted.

Keen Vision blinked, and his mouth flapped open and shut, reminding Twilight of a beached fish. “He isn’t? Are you sure?”

Twilight snorted. “Unless he’s suffering from a combination of invisibility and muteness, yes, I’m sure. There’s nopony there.”

Keen Vision continued to stare at the empty doorway, truly staggered. “The odds of him missing that cue were one in a hundred and thirteen, and he still managed to mess it up?” The old pegasus growled and sulked. “Fine, if he can’t bother to be on time, he doesn’t get to hear.”

“Maybe we should wait a moment. He might be here soon,” Twilight suggested in a reassuring tone. If she were to be completely honest with herself, she wasn’t very keen to find out her part in whatever apocalyptic prophecy the addled old stallion had seen. She would listen anyway, but having a friend at her side would make whatever he had to say much easier to take.

“No,” Keen Vision sighed. “If he’s late that’s his fault. You’ll have to bear this alone, Twilight.” His brows lowered and he became serious once more. “Darkness is coming. A greater darkness than anything ponykind has ever known. Both of you will make decisions, that combined, will decide the fate of worlds.” His glassy eyes bored into her, leaving Twilight wondering if he was really as blind as he seemed. “All of the worlds. The two of you are nexuses, linchpins upon which everything turns.”

Twilight was no stranger to responsibility. She was not just the personal protégé of Princess Celestia herself, but also the Element of Magic, the keystone of Equestria’s greatest defense. When Nightmare Moon had returned, she had been certain the fate of the country rested on her shoulders. She had been wrong, then. It had taken and all of her new friends combined to defeat the wicked mare, but she had still taken up that burden willingly.

This, however…

This was orders of magnitude larger, even if Dresden shared half of it. She was one small mare without the wisdom, experience or power of her mentor, a pony far better suited to be the savior of worlds. What if she failed? What if she doomed everypony and everything to a fate worse than eternal night?

Twilight shook her head, holding her panic at bay. She would meet this new problem the same way she had met any other – armed with knowledge and reinforced by a plan. “When do we make our decisions?”

Keen Vision shook his head sadly. “I don’t know.”

Twilight frowned. That bit of data would have been invaluable, but she could press on without it. “What are we deciding?”

“Not certain, I’m afraid.”

“What choices are we given?”

He shrugged.

Twilight felt a frustrated growl rising in her throat. With some difficulty she forced it down. A lock of her hair sprang out of place, and sweat began to bead her brow. “Do you know when the ‘darkness’ will arrive?”

“No.”

“What about where it comes from?”

“Not that either.”

Exasperated, she shouted, “Can you tell me anything about this ‘darkness’?!” Her pupils were the size of pins and she was showing an unhealthy number of teeth.

At that he finally nodded. Twilight felt a wave of relief wash away the madness that had been building within her. Her hair slowly resumed its normal shape as she calmed down. “Great. What can you tell me?”

“It will bring destruction upon Equestria like nopony has ever seen before.”

Twilight waited a second before asking, “Anything else?”

The elderly pegasus rubbed his chin with one hoof. “It’s also really, really big. And very dark.”

“So, nothing useful?”

Keen Vision nodded. “Not even remotely.”

Twilight almost screamed in pure frustration. The sound rose within her throat like a tidal wave, and it took every ounce of her considerable willpower to force it back down. Keen Vision just continued sipping his cider, and if he had noticed her reaction, he didn’t show it.

True clairvoyance was a thing of legend, but as Mr. Vision had demonstrated, it was imprecise. Supposedly, those who had the gift were as cryptic as possible so that they could be right for multiple outcomes, but there was a difference between a vague description and none at all. Twilight glared at her host. He couldn’t see the expression but her tone carried the same emotion. “I know I’m basing this off myths, but when there is some kind of world shaking prophecy, doesn’t it usually come with at least some details? Are you certain this even involves Dresden or me at all?”

Her host nodded sagely. “Yes. That is the one thing I am…” He trailed off and his body went almost rigid. Twilight glanced around the room, but she couldn’t see or hear anything. She wondered if this was related to his ability. Or maybe he really it was proof that he was just a crazy, old stallion.

“Oh, dear,” he said. Keen Vision finished his cider in one quick drink and fumbled at the window sill to open it. Confused, Twilight undid the latch and opened the window.

“Thank you,” Keen Vision said, breathing in the fresh air with obvious relish. “I’m afraid this is where our paths diverge, Ms. Sparkle. I can’t tell you anything more, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to tell anypony else about me.” His grin would have earned him a straitjacket in any mental hospital worth their certification. “After all, only a crazy pony would believe some blind, old pegasus can really see the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to leave before your friends destroy my front door. Oh, and tell my grand-niece her great-uncle Keeny says hi.”

Still reeling at what the strange stallion had just told her, Twilight could only watch as he calmly walked out the window and into thin air. She gasped and leaned forward in time to see him soar placidly away. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought he would crash without his sight to guide him, but he seemed fine. Either he had the local airspace memorized or he was adept enough at reading air currents to avoid large objects. Puzzling over this unexplained ability, it took a moment for what he had just done to sink in. When it did, her mood soured considerably.

“Does that crazy old crackpot really think−” but Twilight’s incipient bashing of Keen Vision’s character and ancestry was interrupted by a thunderous detonation from the front of the house.

Out of the corner of one eye, Twilight saw a large, well-built door shoot down the hallway as though it had been launched from a cannon. Her horn was immediately sheathed in a nimbus of purple light. Whoever the Order had sent, she could deal with them. She flicked her ears forward, straining to hear any movement. Instead she was treated to a pair of very familiar voices.

“That is not what I meant by ‘precision’!”

“There’s less than an inch of wall missing around the entire door frame. I don’t know how you expect anything more precise than that.”

Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat and the spells she was focusing on, some defensive, most of them decidedly more offensive, vanished from her mind. Her more cautious side warned that it could be trick, but the rest of her was certain. That was her friends, they were all right!

“Blackstone! Rarity!” Twilight shouted happily, stumbling as she dashed for the door. Her legs were still unsteady after her strenuous escape, and her short rest had only done so much for them. Twilight caught herself and charged forward, hardly paying attention to her body’s protests. The pair of ponies in the doorway were frozen in place, staring at her. Twilight launched herself towards them in a flying hug.

Most unicorns, provided they were strong enough, could catch a pony leaping towards them. In fact, Twilight had been counting on her friends to do just that. Unfortunately, she had underestimated how much her appearance had astonished them. Twilight realized this just a second too late as she crashed into both ponies and sent all three tumbling down the small set of stairs leading up to the door.

Twilight sat up, blinking at the prone friends she was sitting on. “Oh no! Rarity! Blackstone! Are you okay?” She hurriedly scooted off them and lifted the pair to their hooves. The black-coated stallion winced as he was set down.

“Who replaced my spleen with a bag of broken glass? There’s no other way this could hurt so much,” he complained, but she could see relief in his grin. “Hey there kid, been busy?”

“I’ve been better,” Rarity said, giving Twilight a dazzling smile. “But it’s worth it to see you again. We were so worried about you.” Rarity drew her friend into a hug and Twilight happily responded, a small tear leaking out of one eye as she did.

Once they separated, Twilight chuckled, and used her telekinesis to drag Blackstone into a hug. She squeezed him just as tightly.

“My ribs!”

Okay, maybe a little more tightly, but it felt so good to have them back. Twilight wondered where the others were, but two friends were more than enough to lift her spirits.

“Trixie does not wish to interrupt, but shouldn’t we keep moving? Half the neighborhood is watching us, and Trixie suspects somepony has called for the guard.” The speaker may have been missing her trademark hat and cloak, but Twilight would have had no trouble identifying her even without hearing her name twice.

“Trixie?”

Trixie winced even though Twilight’s voice had only sounded surprised. She nodded in response with little of her usual arrogance. “Hello, Twilight. You’re looking very… well for somepony who was kidnapped.” She didn’t overtly suggest anything, but there was an undercurrent of suspicion in her voice. Rarity immediately shot her a glare, but Blackstone hesitated and glanced surreptitiously at the pony hugging him.

Twilight scowled. After all the stress and danger she’d been through, this was the last thing she wanted to deal with. It grated on her last nerve to have Trixie, whose slate was hardly clean, suggest that she was an imposter. Given the deceptive nature of the Order, her friends would be justified to ask for proof, but it still gave her the brief, but powerful urge to ask Trixie if that was her extensive experience in kidnapping speaking.

“I escaped, then got some sleep. If you want, I can prove I’m me.” She motioned Blackstone over, and put a hoof to his ear. He bent over, allowing her to reach his head without resorting to balancing on her hindlegs. “Your true name,” she whispered, “is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.”

Blackstone broke into an unabashed smile and pulled her into another hug. “She’s the real McCoy,” he announced proudly. “Now, let’s get going.”

“Wait.” Twilight said, her brow creasing with worry. “Before we do anything I need to tell you something.” All three sets of eyes turned towards her. Twilight lowered her voice just in case anypony from the small crowd watching them had ulterior motives. “This may sound unbelievable, but there’s a group of ponies that’s planning to kill you, Blackstone.”

For the life of her, Twilight could not understand how this terrible news made Blackstone erupt in laughter.

………


The crystals in the ceiling flickered occasionally, proof that their upkeep had not been attended as often as it should have. Hawkeye, Advisor of the Order Triune and its spymaster for going on three decades, wanted to have words with the ponies responsible, but she didn’t have the time. Even if she did, it was hard to blame them; who could have expected the loss of their greatest stronghold? While they had many bases, the one under Canterlot was the original. In their seclusion, it had become the heart of the Order Triune.

Even if it was lost for good, which was a foregone conclusion now that the Princess knew its location, they had to soldier on. Even if that meant holding meetings in Arcane Mind’s dimly-lit new office, sharing the small space with unstable towers of books, boxes of scrolls and piles of papers.

“Disgraceful!” Tornado Watch roared as she stormed through the room, scattering loose papers in her wake. The Mage did his best to gather them back with his magic, but the agitated pegasus was disturbing too many too quickly for him to keep all of them under control.

“If we needed not every hoof left to us I would throw into stockades those failures for their pathetic display!” Her normally faint accent grew stronger as she paced to and fro.

Arcane Mind finally gave up collecting the fluttering papers and just started tucking them back into their folders. “I hate to ruin such an engaging fantasy, but we don’t have any stockades, Soldier.”

“Then I will be making them build some before locking them up! We had him − had him − and those bunglers let him slip through their hooves.”

Hawkeye sighed as her old friend continued to rant and rave about how her Slayers had failed. In truth, they had not done that badly, not compared to the creature they were facing. He had fought very few of them in open battle, avoiding most guards and tricking or intimidating the rest. Likely, the presence of Rarity, the Bearer of Generosity, had prevented him from showing his true colors. However, even with a handicap, he had been more than capable. Twilight was already gone, but he had freed Trixie and escaped with her. Which raised some interesting questions.

Trixie was the pony who had brought back the Nightmare and almost killed the Elements of Harmony; a pony he had supposedly helped to defeat. Yet, why then would he risk freeing her, if she was really that horrible?

This confirmed some of their worst suspicions: Trixie was his willing servant. Everything from then until now had been orchestrated by Obsidian to ease his return, allowing him to worm his way into the trust of both the Elements and the Princesses.

Almost as disturbing was the mounting evidence of betrayal within the Order. Not only Sweetie Drops, but Romana had assisted him in his flight. One terrified witness had seen him kill the first with his own hoof, dissolving poor Sweetie Drops into dust. Romana, he had left behind to cover his retreat, and even now she raved that the Order had locked her up and ‘Blackstone’ was innocent.

It was possible that he had enchanted both members of the Order, then disposed of them before anypony noticed the magic he had worked on his ‘friends’. Yet that didn’t explain how he discovered they were members of the Order. There was still the mysterious pony who had assisted in Twilight Sparkle’s escape and the missing agents to consider as well. In one way or another, he had found a source of information on his ancient foe, and was using it to distract and dismantle the Order piece by piece. Their sources said he had even managed to convince the Princess that the Order still lived and was at fault for Twilight’s disappearance. Both charges were true, but it was hard to believe how much they listened to him already.

He’s outplayed us. Hawkeye thought sadly. It was a bitter irony that the Princess had forced them to become masters of under-hooved tactics, only to be beaten at them by their greatest enemy.

“− until they won’t sit happily for a week!” Tornado Watch finished angrily. She took a breath to launch into fresh abuse of her troops, but Hawkeye had been waiting for a break in her yelling.

“Yeah, he caught our colts with their armor around their hooves, but hold off on the piss and vinegar. He picked just the right time to do it. With the best troops gathering around Ponyville to attack him, and everypony else busy with the evacuation, his work was as easy as it could get. As unnaturally powerful as he is, this is hardly the first time he’s run through us like a scythe through wheat. I’m surprised none of the guards got themselves killed.”

The old warhorse refused to be pacified. “They are Slayers, born and bred. They could do better, and I will accept no less with so much at stake!” She snapped her wings, attempting a militaristic pose to emphasize her statement. Instead her right wing caught a box which then cascaded her with scrolls. “Solntse moye! Why are there many boxes and papers in here? How do we meet in such a mess?”

“Sorry,” Arcane Mind said, gathering more of the loose papers, gingerly grabbing those Tornado Watch was close to shredding. “Some sort of miscommunication sent part of the Level Six archives here.” He scowled. “Now I have to go through every piece to find out which storage facility should hold them. As though I don’t have enough on my plate already.”

Hawkeye cocked one eyebrow at the younger pony. “If you two are done complaining and fiddling with your papers, then be quiet for a second and listen. I’ve had word on two of the missing Agents.”

Both ponies froze. The Soldier recovered first and her grin banished all of the worried lines that had etched themselves in her face over the past two days. “Excellent! Why did you not share this good news earlier?”

“I would concur,” Lord Mind added, still attempting to enforce some semblance of order on the loose pages. “It’s nice to find a silver lining among all these storm clouds.”

Hawkeye’s grim stare bored into the both of them. She could watch the happiness slip from their expressions to be replaced with puzzlement. “They were nearly dead when we found them, tangled in wires and hooked into tubes that drained their blood.” She went on to share all of the details the reports had given her: the withered and drawn skin around their mouths and eyes, the shuddering, ragged breaths, the sallow color of their coats and so much more. Night Shade and Shooting Star, two strong and capable ponies, had been reduced to frail shadows, ready to crumble at the touch.

The looks of horror on her comrades’ faces hardened into anger, even the normally calm Mage growling under his breath.

“Who did this to them?” Watch bit out.

“I don’t know,” Hawkeye replied. “They were found unconscious, and I doubt they will be capable of telling us anytime soon. It doesn’t matter, anyway. We may not know which of his minions did it, but we know the pony ultimately responsible. Cut off the head, and the rest of snake won’t last long.” Trixie would, of course, return to her cell, and so would any other servant of his they caught. The interrogation to follow would not be pretty, but it would be necessary. There were still two dozen ponies missing, and the Order had barely reached these two in time. Hawkeye would do whatever she had to for the lives of innocent ponies.

Arcane Mind had lost his furious tension and now seemed listless. “A pithy solution, but there’s one problem: how? He’s already survived our, admittedly inexpert, attempts at assassination, then plunged directly into our lair and escaped unscathed. Consider also that he is protected by half the Royal Guard, both Princesses, and the Elements of Harmony, while the rest of the guard searches for us. He has won this exchange, and holds nearly every advantage.”

“We have ponies among the Castle’s staff, and a few are even part of the guard. One of your apprentices is even an aide to the Princess herself,” Hawkeye retorted.

“Yes,” he admitted, “but how many of them are capable of destroying him? He is alert, prepared and no fool. His food will be tested, and he’ll suspect everypony who isn’t already under his hoof. Even if we did get somepony close to him, do we have any guarantee he wouldn’t alter their mind? The last thing we need is another turn coat.”

Tornado Watch snorted and stamped her hooves, making the stacks of books next to her tremble. “But we must think of something! I refuse to let his darkness spread.”

“Then let’s brainstorm,” Hawkeye suggested.

The three of them traded ideas back and forth, trying in vain to come up with a successful plan. Anything practical he would expect. Anything unexpected was too unfeasible. Anything powerful enough was too obvious. Anything stealthy enough wasn’t strong enough. They all took turns coming up with ideas and shooting down other plans. Less than an hour into it, Arcane Mind cracked open a few of his books and started sorting them for relocation.

“Can’t you do that some other time?” Tornado Watch asked irritably.

“I’m very skilled at multi-tasking, thank you,” he retorted. “Besides, I’d like to make progress on at least one front.”

Naturally, Tornado Watch objected.

After three shouting matches, several threats of bodily harm, three tenuous truces and far too many hours, they were no closer to a solution than they had been at the beginning of the meeting. Grimly, they pressed on, but at this point none of them expected a miracle.

The first sign of a change was the faint tinkle of Arcane’s monocle falling out of his eye and landing on the desk. Hawkeye zeroed in on the reaction, ignoring Watch’s latest plan, which involved infeasible amounts of explosives. The Mage had been flipping through the classified books with a general air of disinterest, but now his eyes raced across the page.

“What have you found there?” Hawkeye asked, interrupting her old friend.

Tornado gave her a glare, but once she noticed Arcane Mind’s sudden interest in his texts the expression faded. “Yes, what has captured your interest?”

Arcane Mind didn’t answer for minutes and Hawkeye’s patience waned dangerously. She was seconds away from snatching the book out of his hooves when he finally put it down. His face was grim as ever, but there was a determination, a hope, that had recently been missing.

“What do you say,” Arcane Mind asked, a mad gleam in his eye, “to fighting fire with fire?”

Author's Note:

Here we are, as promised. Twilight's return and definitely no further mysteries or suspicious actions. I'm sure that guy, Keen Vision is totally on the level.

And speaking of on-level people, I'd like a round of applause for Coandco, the new proofreader. Any typos you find can now be blamed on him.