• 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 Sixteen

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 Sixteen

“I’m not getting in that bed. I don’t care what you say,” I told the mare.

She scowled. “You’ll get in and stay there if I have to tie you to the bedposts myself!”

I rolled my eyes; thank God that didn’t sound suggestive. “Look, lady, I’m perfectly fine. I don’t need any medical attention. I definitely don’t need to be stuck in a hospital bed all day. Thank you for the offer, but I’ll be on my way now.”

I don’t spend a lot of time in hospitals – well, not willingly, anyway – but every once in a while, I have an injury that I can’t heal off at home. Then I spend my entire visit worried sick that my magic is going to blow out some extremely delicate medical technology and cost somebody their life. It isn’t a fun experience. I’m aware that a pony hospital probably wouldn’t have the same problems, but by this point, just the sight of patients and the ever-present antiseptic smell makes my stomach churn with anxiety.

“For the third time, my name is Nurse Ratchet. And you most certainly do need our help, no matter how much you want to deny it.” One of her wings snapped forward, a clipboard balanced between several feathers. “Three fractured ribs, two black eyes, several shallow cuts along your barrel and forelimbs, a hole through your ear, and you’re showing the symptoms of a mild concussion.”

I nodded, unsurprised at the list. “So, nothing major. Like I said, I’ll be fine. Just return all my stuff and I’ll be out of your mane.”

The dull beige pegasus didn’t glare or bluster at that as I’d expected. Instead she gave me a smile that promised much worse than the mere threat of physical harm. “Of course, we wouldn’t want to hinder you, Mr. Blackstone. I’ll leave right now to get your cane and saddlebags.” She turned and began walking slowly towards the hallway. The eyes of several ponies followed her down the length of the ward. Almost none of the privacy curtains in the long room were drawn and most of the patients were watching us. I had no doubt that our argument was a rare source of entertainment, since they didn’t have TVs yet. I heard a grumble or two as the ‘show’ ended, but I wasn’t as certain as my fellow inmates. I just knew that the other shoe had yet to drop. Nurse Ratchet didn’t disappoint.

She stopped in the doorway and looked back at me. “Though it would be tragic if I was so upset by an unreasonable patient that I wasn’t careful enough getting his belongings out of storage. Why, I might drop them. Something could get broken or even get lost if it rolled somewhere out of sight.” Her eyes flickered with malicious glee as she waited for my response.

I glared at her, but she had me over a barrel. I couldn’t break into the storage room without pissing off the palace guards, and they were already looking for some payback after that scene at the gate.

In hindsight, opening the conversation with, ‘I’ve got Twilight’ wasn’t my brightest idea. The rest of the group caught up in just a couple of minutes, but by then, things were well and truly out of hand. By which I mean I’d already been tackled, pinned, and hoofcuffed. They also tried to slap some kind of ring on my horn, but they weren’t quick enough at it. Four of the ponies in this ward were proof of that.

Still, I was more willing to tussle with them than waste my entire day in here. Twilight and Rarity had been taken straight to Celestia, but Trixie and I had been waylaid and dragged into the medical wing of the palace. ‘Twenty minutes,’ they said. ‘Just to make sure you’re all right,’ they said. That was forty-five minutes ago.

“Two hours,” I declared. “I’m yours for two hours, but only if you return with everything. If you aren’t back in half an hour I’m going to go looking for my stuff.” I gave her the smile I normally reserve for the staff at the DMV. “And I won’t let little things like guards or locked doors stop me.”

Nurse Ratchet nodded. “Very well. Just take off your coat and take a seat on the bed.”

I snorted at her, but complied. Soon, I was naked again save for my pentacle. To preserve my modesty I crawled into the hospital bed and pulled the sheets up. Our argument had attracted more than a few staring eyes along the ward, from patients and nurses alike. I glared at everypony looking my way, daring them to keep watching. With only one exception, they flushed and pretended they hadn’t been staring.

“Trixie doesn’t understand your reluctance,” the exception said, relaxing in the plus-sized bed she had demanded. “A comfortable bed, food from the royal kitchens and an entire staff to wait on you, horn and hoof. Trixie admits she would prefer a private room with better furnishings, but she is well used to receiving things below her station and has learned to make do.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, but things are a bit too busy for me to just kick back and relax right now. Those jokers aren’t going to quit any time soon, and I should be in on whatever briefing Twilight and Rarity are giving the Princess. Besides, if I wanted to relax, a hospital is the last place I’d go.”

Trixie shrugged. “Then why didn’t you simply leave, regardless of the Nurse’s orders? It isn’t as though the Royal Guard could stop you.” This earned her a trio of scowls from the bedridden stallions across the aisle. I suspect the fourth guard agreed with them, but it was difficult to see his expression beneath the bandages circling his jaw.

“You know what I told Nurse Ratchet was a bluff, right? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. With great power comes great responsibility.” I was so damn pleased with myself for working a Spider-Man quote into a serious discussion that I could practically hear Stan Lee yelling ‘Excelsior!’ in approval.

“Right,” Trixie said with a nod. “The responsibility to show everypony how great and powerful you are. This is why you and Twilight Sparkle confuse Trixie. Everypony should be in awe of your powers and eager to do your bidding, but you always act so … modest. You never receive any of the recognition you deserve.” Trixie’s eyes lit up like stars as spoke her forelegs spreading in an expansive gesture. “Why, if Trixie was the Element of Magic, her face would have appeared on the cover of every newspaper in Equestria, and there would not be a pony in the land who did not recognize her by name or sight.” She gave a contented sigh, evidently pleased with her fantasy.

Which probably goes a long toward explaining why you aren’t the Element of Magic, I thought crossly. “That’s where you’re wrong. Power isn’t a gift, it’s a burden.” That brought Trixie out of her happy place awfully quick. She gaped at me, but I didn’t let up. “You don’t use your power, especially not when you have as much as Twilight or me, unless you have to, unless it’s important. It isn’t hard to love having power. A little grandstanding to stoke your ego doesn’t seem like much at first, neither does using your magic to apply some pressure when somepony’s being unreasonable, but power corrupts and the more you love using it, the more of it you’ll want.”

I shook my head sadly. “It’s a slippery slope and I’ve seen what happens to those who fall.” My mind flashed to my late foster father, but I shook the painful memory off. “It might start small, but it’s an addiction that can’t ever be satisfied. It doesn’t take long until you start doing things that you never would have even considered before.” I dropped my voice so that only Trixie could hear me, “Things like destroying the Elements of Harmony or trying to kill innocent ponies.”

Trixie could not have flinched harder or with more shock and pain than if I had slapped her. “How could you say that? I’m not like that anymore. I’ve changed!” Her nearly hysteric tone attracted more than a few eyes, but I glared until they turned away again in embarrassment. The pause, though, gave her a moment to recompose herself.

“I’ve changed,” she repeated desperately. I don’t know whether she was trying to convince me or herself.

I frowned, but I didn’t argue with her. In some ways she was right. The caustic hatred that had driven her to insanity was gone without a trace. She hadn’t been all that friendly to Twilight after we had found her, but I hadn’t detected any of the bitter envy that she had practically seethed with last time. I’m certain that the Nightmare had ratcheted up her negative emotions, playing the same game as it had with me, but it had to start somewhere. Being a private detective is all about reading people, and everything I’d learned over the years was telling me that Trixie’s jealousy had taken a leave of absence. It was possible that it wasn’t really gone, though I would be surprised if Trixie was just repressing her envy. Something like that would require a level of mental and emotional discipline that I doubted she possessed.

Whether it was the Harmony beam or Celestia’s tutoring, she really had changed. The real problem, however, went much deeper than mere jealousy. The heart of the matter was that Trixie wanted power; she wanted to be famous and respected. Her entire feud with Twilight came from when the purple mage had ‘upstaged’ her by saving the town when she couldn’t, destroying Trixie’s delusions of grandeur. Even after going through villain rehab, she still wanted that power, and what seemed harmless could easily spin out of control just as quickly as her foray into demon summoning.

“T-trixie would l-like to change the subject. Please?” she asked, bravado gone. It took a moment for her request to sink in, and only then did I realize that I was staring. My glare pierced her, focused not on who and what she was, but on what she could become. It was a stare that went beyond judgment, a look that bypassed any sort of kindness or compassion, using only cold pragmatism to decide her fate.

It was the same look the wizards of the White Council had given me at my trial.

A part of me recoiled in horror at the thought of becoming anything like the merciless wardens that had dragged a teenaged Harry into that stone room, a black bag over his head. The rest vehemently disagreed that I had been anything like her, even at that age. That thought gave me pause. True, I acted in self-defense while she definitely hadn’t, but both of us were guilty of being young, stupid and willing to make deals with the first creature to offer us power. I never thought I would be thankful to my Faerie godmother Lea after the hell she had put me through, but compared to most of the things I could have ended up with, she was an angel.

Trixie had gone farther down that dark road than I ever had, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never taken a step on it. Maybe that was the reason I was so quick to judge Trixie. Maybe I had been ready to go along with the Nightmare’s desire to bump her off because she reminded me too much of what I might have been.

The little sigil of unburned flesh on what used to be my left palm itched with unnatural intensity. The symbol was the same one carved into the silver coin I had accidentally touched a year and a half ago. A coin that contained a Fallen Angel.

And what I might still become.

I shook my head, trying to banish the unpleasant thoughts. I was only partially successful. “Sorry, I was thinking about something,” I offered. “I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

“Trixie was not f-frightened,” she said flushing angrily. I thought her stammer gave pretty good proof to the contrary, but I didn’t press her on it. She looked ready to continue, but the arrival of a certain nurse, and more importantly the rest of my stuff, took my attention.

“Here you are, sir,” Nurse Ratchet declared, putting the saddlebags on a nearby chair, leaning my cane sword against them. “Now, do you mind if I run some tests?” Even if her expression hadn’t told me the question was rhetorical, I think I could have figured it out. Maybe because she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my foreleg before giving me a chance to respond.

Next came the stethoscope, followed by an examination of my eyes with a small flashlight. A bottle of peroxide, or whatever the ponies used, stung like fire, but I managed not to whine as she cleaned all of my cuts. Then I got a cold compress for my eyes, and she changed the bandage on my ear, giving it a thorough scrubbing with the disinfectant. As much as it hurt, I was grateful for those attentions at least. Wizards may have hardier immune systems than your average Joe, but we aren’t untouchable, and I was pretty certain I was behind on my tetanus shots.

Not content with working quietly and actually raising my opinion of her, Nurse Ratchet tried proving that she was the boss again. She chose a poor way of doing it. “You need to remove your necklace, Mr. Blackstone. I need to wrap your chest and the hospital has a policy forbidding jewelry on its patients.”

I snorted. My pentacle hung too high to interfere with any attempt to bandage my ribs even assuming they needed it. “Oh, it isn’t jewelry,” I replied. “It’s a bullshit detector. Here, let me turn it on.” With Nurse Ratchet less than five feet away, it was child’s play to empower a quick tracking spell linked to her aura. My pentacle began to glow a bluish-white and rose to point directly at her. There were some startled laughs from ponies close enough to see, but most of the ward seemed more offended than amused by my language.

My nurse flushed in anger and began unraveling a roll of bandages without another word. Trixie giggled as Nurse Ratchet moved to the other side of my bed and the pentacle followed her, which just made the pegasus scowl even harder.

I probably – no, I should have stopped there, but I couldn’t resist. “Any more ‘rules’ you want to share with me? If this thing gets any brighter, I won’t need a bedside lamp.”

For some reason, she was less than gentle as she wrapped my fractured ribs. After the third or fourth ‘accidental’ bump against my fractured bones, all of which were followed by a hiss of pain and a couple heartfelt expletives, she finally finished.

“So, can I leave now?” I growled, impatient to out from under her tender, loving care.

“In a while,” she promised, somehow using her wings to snap a pair of rubber gloves onto her fore-hooves. She dug around in a small cabinet for a moment to re-emerge with a large thermometer carefully held between her latex covered hooves. “First, I need to take your temperature and run some more tests.”

I told her in no uncertain terms where she could stick that thermometer, drawing a gasp from a few ponies. But Nurse Ratchet just smiled.

“That is the general idea. I’ll just need you to bend over for a moment. If you’d like, we can draw the privacy curtain.”

Then somehow – mysteriously − the thermometer floated out of her hooves before being crushed into a tiny ball of glass shards and mercury. These were safely disposed of in a nearby ‘Hazardous’ box by the same mysterious force. For some reason Nurse Ratchet assumed I was involved.

“Those are expensive,” she informed me coldly. I tried to let my expression show how much that fact broke my heart, but I don’t think I looked properly contrite. Nurse Ratchet stomped off, presumably to find another medical instrument to abuse me with. Trixie started giggling again, as my pentacle followed Ratchet’s progress out of the room and down the hall. With a thought I dismissed the spell and leaned back in bed, mostly satisfied. The clock on the wall told me I needed to stick around for another hour to fulfill my promise. Other than that annoyance, I was pretty well pleased with myself.

“So,” Trixie began once she was done laughing, “what is that amulet of yours really? Your horn wasn’t glowing at all while it moved.”

I frowned. She certainly seemed eager to put our last discussion past, but with a shrug I relented. I’d already said everything I needed to, and I didn’t see the harm in giving her an explanation.

“It’s a pentacle, not an amulet. Anyway, it’s my focus, or one of them at least.”

Trixie’s head cocked sideways in a mix of confusion and curiosity. “What’s a focus?”

“Just what sounds like,” I shot back, but before she could complain I elaborated. “It’s an item enchanted to help me focus my magic. They make my spells more efficient, and easier to perform. You can use them to boost your power as well, but I’ve got more than enough of that so mine help out with control for the most part.”

Her eyes lit up, and she gave me her full attention. “Interesting, Trixie feared such artifacts were only myth. How do you make such an item?” Naturally, I was reluctant to tell her. Secret-keeping runs deep in wizards, but I needed something to pass the time and staring at the clock wasn’t making it move any faster. Besides, it wasn’t like she could pick one up at the local Walmart.

“It takes years to learn how to craft them, but once you know the spells, it isn’t that tough. My staff took about three months to enchant, but it’s both powerful and versatile. Something simpler can take as little as two or three weeks of work.” Obviously, the process was more complicated than that, but giving her the Reader’s Digest version was for the best.

Her frown loudly proclaimed that she had been hoping for a more technical explanation, or maybe an entire ‘How-to’ course. I shook my head. Not even if she paid the fifteen easy installments of nineteen ninety-nine, plus tax.

She didn’t take the hint. “What about your pendant then? What does it do?”

“Not much,” I shrugged. She waited for me to continue. With a sigh, I did. “Mostly I channel light or tracking spells through it.”

“Really?” Trixie asked. I nodded in affirmation. She rolled her eyes and let out a huff. “Trixie expected it to be a legendary artifact of power that boosted your magic beyond that of any mortal pony.” I raised an eyebrow, but she ignored me, leaning back into her pillows, her eyes full of stars. “Though it’s disappointing, Trixie supposes it is for the best. After all, what sort of story would it make if Trixie reached her goal so easily?”

A comparison between her, my pentacle, and a brain-dead monkey in terms of utility died on my lips, as the meaning of her last sentence sank in. Maybe it was just another bout of paranoia, but something about that just rubbed me wrong. Sure, she could have been talking about playing to Caeser’s Palace, or whatever equivalent Equestria had, but somehow I doubted her ‘goal’ was quite so benign.

I was about to press her on the issue when a glittering silver aura yanked my privacy curtain shut. The logical part of my mind noted that if it was somepony hostile they probably wouldn’t have wasted time pulling the curtain before stabbing me in the back, but an equal portion grunted like a Neanderthal and bellowed that anything sneaking up on me had to be bad and a club to the head was really the only sensible option. Tired of listening to them argue, my reflexes twisted me around to face this possible threat without waiting for a conscious order.

The mysterious curtain-closer was a tall, slim, silver unicorn wearing a lab coat. When I say silver, I don’t just mean her coat, either. Her mane, eyes, horn, magical aura, and presumably tail were all the same exact shade of shining silver. I noticed her eyes crinkle with amusement as I inspected her, though her professional smile remained undisturbed. “Hello. Sorry to startle you, Mr. Blackstone. I’m Starry Skies, your doctor.”

“That,” I declared with a certainty born of long experience, “is the worst disguise I have ever seen.” I lowered my voice, and continued. “Seriously, Luna? Does that actually work on ponies?”

There are no words to describe my feeling of satisfaction as her jaw dropped in shock. It more than made up for the way she had surprised me. Luna’s horn glowed silver again, and the rest of ward fell dead silent, as though every noise from beyond the curtain came from a radio that somebody had just turned off. Color me impressed. A sound-proof ward isn’t all that difficult, but the same spell would have taken me three times as long, and that’s not counting the time it would take me to draw the circle. If I’d had any doubts before, that display of power would have capped it.

“How didst thou see through our disguise?” Luna asked, pouting slightly. Thankfully, she’d left the megaphone spell behind. “We even mimicked perfectly the modern mode of speech; no easy task in its own right.” As she spoke, the illusion bled off of her. The glow around her horn shifted from silver to dark blue. The lab coat disappeared, revealing a midnight coat and a nebulous tail made of what looked like a section of the night sky. She grew several inches and her body filled out some, though she remained slim in proportion. Her horn lengthened, and aquamarine flooded into the eyes beneath it.

I grinned like the cat that caught the canary. “Magic.”

“Has anypony ever told thee how aggravating thou art? We could deliver a soliloquy which would last from now until three days hence upon the subject.”

Most people would have been intimidated by an immortal sorceress with a history of madness and enough power to crush them like an insect. “It’s nice to see you too, Luna.” I’m not most people, and I think that was one of the reasons she liked me.

She flushed slightly, her frown changing into a sheepish smile. “Where hath our manners gone? Indeed, let not my annoyance at your skills of perception blind you to my exuberance upon your return. We only wish it had been to a better reception.” Dark storm clouds began to gather in her eyes, and her brow lowered in fury.

“Yeah, I’m not the biggest fan of the Order Triune, either. What’s the news on that front?”

With some effort Luna curbed her anger, and her arctic expression warmed a few degrees. “Twilight acted with commendable alacrity. As soon as our sister released her from their embrace, she and Rarity detailed the known entrances to the blackguards’ stronghold. Within the hour, Captain Armor led a full platoon of cavaliers in a raid upon the rat-hole those curs nest in. Though we have little doubt that he shalt find naught but an empty lair for all his trouble. They are a furtive, cowardly lot.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Maybe, but they’re more than willing to strike from the shadows. I would hope you aren’t discounting that possibility.”

“Of course not. Already we set to securing the castle most tightly. Our sister will convene with the guard to ferret out any creeping corruption, and we shall see to it that any poison is cleansed from every crumb of sustenance and drop of liquid within these walls.” Luna nodded with satisfaction, then seemed to remember something. “Do not relax thy vigil overmuch, though. Any vipers hidden amongst the staff may still wield knife or spell against thee.”

A short snort expressed my feelings on that matter. “They wouldn’t be the first, and sure as hell aren’t the most dangerous pack of nutcases to come after me.” Though they were the first mortal group, which was a weird shift. Extermination with extreme prejudice is my standard reply to anything that tries to kill me, but with idiots hunting me instead of monsters, I had to hold off on any lethal magic. And if Celestia’s commands had been anything to go by, she wouldn’t be happy if I used my guns either. Talk about having your work cut out for you. Still, I’d rather be alive to worry about the possibility than the opposite. “I’m more worried about the girls. They already captured Twilight once, and it’s likely that they’ve got plans for the others as well. I told them to stick together, but I doubt they’re all that familiar with the concept of ‘stranger danger’. I’d feel a lot better if we could get everypony under guard here.”

Luna began smiling. It was a small, almost smug expression that practically sang ‘I know something you don’t know’. I’m very familiar with the look, since not only have I worn a similar grin on occasion, but because it’s also standard issue to every one of the sidhe. Damned condescending faeries.

Anyway, I was just about to give Luna the third degree and figure out just what that self-satisfied smirk was about, when somepony jerked the curtain open, popping Luna’s sound barrier. No points for guessing who.

“You can’t hide from me that easily, Mr. Bla−” Nurse Ratchet froze still as a statue. Her shiny new thermometer rolled off of her hoof as its motion came to a sudden stop. A midnight blue aura gingerly grabbed the instrument, careful not to touch the business end.

“Thou must show greater care with such a delicate implement. We are told these devices are quite costly, though why you might have brought one here mystifies us.” Luna examined the thermometer, her puzzlement clear. I rocked with silent laughter as my nurse unfroze long enough to turn bright red.

Nurse Ratchet scrambled for an excuse. “Y-your highness. I was just … um, I needed to check his temperature to ensure that he doesn’t have a fever.”

Luna looked at me, and I grinned to show her that I was in perfect health. Aside from all the bruises and damaged bones, that is, but eh, I’ve had worse. The princess of night turned back to Lil’ Miss Malpractice and arched an eyebrow. “We sense no trace of fever upon him. If his wounds have been seen to, then we require his presence elsewhere.”

“But Royal medical procedure−” Nurse Ratchet began. Just a look, not even a glare, just a curious frown from Luna made the nurse’s mouth shut so quickly that her teeth clicked.

“Dost thou have any objections?” Luna asked. Her tone wasn’t the least bit accusatory, but Nurse Ratchet still flushed as she shook her head. I could hardly believe it was that easy after all the fuss she had been making before. “Then we shall be on our way.”

I gathered my things together quickly, throwing my coat back on. I glanced at Trixie, but she seemed to be snoozing away. It was likely the first peaceful sleep she’d gotten since the Order had laid hands, er, hooves on her. I was torn between sympathy for her and a lingering distrust. Maybe I’d have a word with Twilight, but there wasn’t anything I could do right now. I had bigger fish to fry, anyway.

I had been inside a couple of rooms in the castle before, but there had been several distractions at the time – namely breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The forced march to the medical ward hadn’t given me much time for sightseeing, either. Now that I finally had the chance, I took a good look at what appeared to be one of the main passageways of the Canterlot Castle. I was suitably impressed.

The inside of the castle couldn’t have looked more Disney if it had tried. Proud, flowing banners covered the walls wherever they weren’t broken by gracefully arched windows. Empty suits of armor were interspersed with real guards standing stiffly at attention. Everything was immaculate, buffed, polished, and in perfect condition. Servants bustled here and there, either carrying things or hard at work keeping the hall pristine. Most of them went au naturel, but a few wore simple, well-kept clothing. Couriers were easily identified by their box-shaped hats. They were mostly pegasi, soaring overhead in the ample space provided by the high, vaulted ceiling, but a few earth ponies also hurried up and down the corridors, juggling books, scrolls and other sorts of paper as they hurried from place to place. Bureaucrats moved under similar, if lighter loads, but they weren’t nearly as rushed. The cogs in the machine exuded a placid sort of satisfaction, confident that whatever they did was not just important, but vital to the well-being of Equestria. Anything they wore, except a few hats, was strictly practical. The few nobles who drifted about, either on their own or surrounded by a fawning entourage, were easy to spot. Even the ones that weren’t wearing ostentatiously expensive accessories were obvious – a neon sign flashing the word ‘Ass-hat’ couldn’t have marked them more clearly than their haughty expressions and mannerisms.

Even the nobles, though, paused to bow and offer greetings to Luna as we passed. The couriers mostly ignored both of us, but the rest earned approving nods from Luna. Sometimes she gave a greeting in return, delivered with her megaphone spell at full force.

The reactions of the various ponies to me were more interesting to note. All of the servants and most of the clerks ignored me. The guards watched me carefully, but their stares weren’t hostile, just attentive. Calculating looks flashed across the aristocrats’ faces as they surreptitiously eyed me. I had the distinct feeling they were trying to figure out who I was, why I was accompanying one of the Princesses, and how they could fit me into their games of flattery and backstabbing. Even adorable technicolor ponies have politics, it seems. That’s one universal constant I could have done without.

We eventually left the main passage for a smaller one, leaving the other ponies behind. Luna’s horn flashed again, and we were once more surrounded by a bubble of silence. One major difference, though; this one moved with us. At this point I just accepted the incredible spellcraft without comment. With no fear of being overheard, Luna continued our earlier conversation. “Worry not, Twilight Sparkle and all of her friends shall be here for thy ceremony. And−”

Like smoking, interrupting superpowerful entities is a habit that will kill you eventually. And by the time I got out of my stupid teen phase, I was already hooked. “Hold on, isn’t that a week away? Shouldn’t we catch everyone from the Order before just opening up the castle to a public event?”

“The ceremony shall not be open to the public. We desired this to be more private even before any security concerns arose. The only guests other than your friends will be the elite of the Royal Guard and a few of the greater nobility.” Luna replied. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Though calling them great or noble is often a heinous misuse of those words. We shan’t allow those zealots to disturb this occasion. However, we are in accord with Celestia that we must perform the rite no later than tomorrow. She means to restore thee to thy home on the following day.” If immortal goddesses don’t sulk, then Luna was doing a pretty good imitation. “We desired that thy sojourn last ‘til the new moon at least, but our sister has convinced us that you should go. For all the defenses we can offer, we are not perfect, and so long as the Order remains, they shan’t cease their atrocious efforts.”

I mulled that over with a frown. My first instinct was to say ‘screw the Order, I do what I want’, but the small part of me where my common sense lives made me stop. What good would sticking around be? As long as I was here, they’d keep gunning for me, and the longer that went on, the greater the chance that somepony would get caught in the crossfire. Take me out of the equation, and they’d likely go back to hiding, only now the Princesses knew they were out there, and I had no doubt that their highnesses would eventually find the rest of those nutcases. Leaving a problem for somebody else to solve went against every one of my heroic/suicidal tendencies, but if I was the problem, wasn’t that the fastest way to fix it?

“I don’t like it, but yeah, I see the sense in it,” I grumbled. Luna only nodded in response. The silence that settled in afterwards felt awkward, but I wasn’t sure whose fault that was. Trying to think of a good conversation starter piqued a little of my own curiosity. It’s not often you get to talk shop with an immortal spellcaster… not without putting your soul in hock, at least. “How’s the spell work going? The shrouding and other stuff, I mean.”

Her face lit up at my question. “Most excellently. We have renewed several score of the old spells, and most of those were within the most perilous portions of our borders. We are fortunate that much of the Outer Realm – that which thou called the Nevernever – turns benign close to our world.”

“Like the giant desert on the Way you showed me?” The question popped out before I even gave it any thought.

The only response was silence. I glanced in surprise at Luna; she seemed to be lost in troubled thought. We continued walking down near empty corridors, and I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was or how we’d gotten here. There were no more windows; instead the hall was lit by gently glowing blue orbs in silver brackets. The air had also become much cooler, which was a relief since I was still wearing my coat. Taking all those facts together, though, I surmised that we were in an underground section of the castle that was seldom visited.

“We aren’t certain,” she finally responded.

I arched an eyebrow at her. “About…?”

She made an impatient gesture with one hoof. “Whether the Vast Waste is benign or malign. ‘Tis an anomaly of great proportions, and has been ever since we discovered it. Yet, for all its foreboding nature, never have we been threatened while walking upon its path. Mayhap it was the place of some great battle eons ago and has yet to recover.”

“You mean you mapped a Way to Earth and set all kinds of enchantments there, but you don’t even know what that place is?” My eyebrow remained arched, and its brother was threatening to climb to a similar altitude.

“Pardon, but do your kind explore the Outer Realm out of curiosity?” she asked in a half-amused, half-disbelieving tone of voice. The question was phrased politely, but its real meaning was clear: ‘Are humans really that stupid?’

I shook my head. “No, we mainly use the Ways of Faerie, or other well-mapped paths. I just figured that since you and Celestia are major league material, you’d be free to poke around a little more.”

Luna thought for a second then dipped her head in admission. “True, seldom is there a creature capable of threatening either of us, but even so, ‘tis not wise to test fate. Not when those few beings capable of overcoming us would most likely rip the knowledge of Equestria from our minds and seek dominion over all this realm.”

I had the brief, disturbing vision of Cthulhu erupting from the small lake on the edge of Ponyville. That was enough to send a shiver down even my spine. Until an imaginary Pinkie somehow put a colorful hat on him and started throwing a party, at least. Jesus Christ, my mind is weird.

“I can see where that would be a problem. Still, you must’ve done a lot of exploring a while ago if you’ve got a couple dozen safe Ways to Earth.”

A longing, almost nostalgic, smile crossed her face. Luna smoothed it away, but not before I noticed. “Yes, but we ceased such activities a long time ago, even as we reckon such things. Ah, what a joy those times were, when we were but a filly. We bore not such responsibilities, and all of existence was our playing field. But, however much we loved those nights, they are past, and it does little good to dwell upon them.”

That has to be hard, I thought. I’m young for a wizard. By the time I finally come into my full power, making the big assumption that I haven’t gotten myself killed in the meantime, my friends will all be dead and gone. When I’m old, their great-grandchildren will be taking dirt naps. Some wizards cope by never getting attached, some find solace in their beliefs. I’m not really good at either of those. And hell, that’s only a couple extra centuries on everyone else. What would it be like if you measured your life in millennia?

I shook my head. Maybe Nurse Ratchet had point about the ‘mild concussion’ thing. I’m way too hardboiled to get maudlin in the middle of a case. It was a good thing I dug my way out of those tangled thoughts just then, too, because when I looked up, I was about two feet away from a door and still on autopilot. Thanks to my quick reflexes, the malicious door didn’t catch me off-guard, but it was a near thing.

Luna made a sound that I choose to believe was an expression of concern, no matter how much it sounded like snickering. The coolly lit hall ended at a large pair of double doors. They were at least ten feet tall and made of what looked like obsidian. Only they couldn’t be, because they were each a single perfectly flat piece of crystal, somehow banded with silver belts and inlayed with thousands of tiny, sparkling lights. A pair of bat-winged, cat-eyed ponies in armor stood at attention on either side of the impressive entry.

I started to peer closer at the… stars… inlaid in the door, then my mind backtracked. The pair of what standing at attention? I checked again, and sure enough, they still looked like a couple of Halloween-themed piñatas. I tried not to stare, though neither of them paid me any mind. Either Luna took her ‘Princess of Night’ thing seriously enough to require heavy-duty illusions on her guards, or there was a whole other race of ponies that nopony had ever mentioned to me before. I thought the first scenario was a bit more likely, but I wouldn’t put anything past Equestria at this point.

I brushed the irrelevant train of thought aside and closed my mouth. Standing in a manly, dignified fashion, I gestured to the closed door. “So I take it we’re here. Wherever ‘here’ is. Nice doors, by the way.”

Luna preened a bit (not in the literal sense, mind you) at the compliment. “Thank thee. We patterned them after our apartments in another palace, long ago.”

That took a moment to sink in. “Are you saying,” I asked in as neutral a tone as possible, “that we’re outside your bedroom?”

“Most verily,” Luna answered with a smile. One that, to me at least, looked … hungry. Her horn shimmered and the doors swung inward on perfectly oiled, and soundless, hinges. They opened into darkness, but the light from the hall was enough to let me see the focal point of the room: a giant, sumptuously decorated bed.

“Won’t thou come inside?” asked the black widow.

“Umm … are you sure?” I edged backward slowly. The hallway was very long and devoid of cover. We were deep underground, and far from anypony except her guards. If I screamed, nopony would hear me. The idea of outrunning her was laughable. I had to talk my way out.

Shit.

“W-why don’t we just talk out here in the hall?” I asked with a large, fake smile.

Luna frowned in a way that was supposed to be playful, but revealed quite a bit of real irritation. “We should be more comfortable within our quarters. Besides, though we would trust our guards with our life,” she said, her eyes sliding to the stoic pair, “we desire a more private discourse.”

I knew exactly what ‘course’ she wanted to have, and ‘dis’ was the wrong prefix. “Okay, sure. Just let me run by the kitchens really fast for a glass of water and I’ll be right back.”

The transparent lie didn’t fool anybody, and one of the stolid guards actually scoffed under his breath. “We haven’t time for your incomprehensible jests. Come along,” she ordered.

I was about to voice my concerns, when a felt a strong tug on my tail. A midnight blue aura had engulfed it, and Luna was already walking into the darkened room. The pull was slight at first, but it had the inevitable insistence of gravity. Far too late, I turned and tried to run, but my hooves couldn’t find enough traction on the stone floor. With inexorable slowness, I was being drawn into Luna’s bedroom. In desperation I grabbed the doorjamb, attempting to delay my unavoidable fate. How I grabbed it with hooves, I have no idea. Things were a bit hectic at the moment.

“Help me,” I whispered to the guard standing beside me. I was hanging horizontally now, only my inexplicable death grip on the doorway keeping me from falling into the room. Already my forelegs were beginning to tire.

“No can do, buddy,” he replied, sotto voce. “Just relax and try to have fun.”

An extra-strong tug tore my hooves free from their hoofhold, and I was yanked into the darkness. “I regret everything!” I screamed as the doors slammed shut.

My only consolation was that Bob would still be unconscious for several more hours. At least he would never know. I braced myself for what was to come.

“SURPRISE!”

The room burst into warm brilliance as Pinkie launched herself from behind a nearby dresser to hug me. All six of the Elements, Spike, Mouse and both of the Princesses were waiting along the back of the room where all the trimmings of a party had been set up. Confetti and streamers poured from the ceiling in all colors of the rainbow. In one corner of the room I saw a huge banner that had ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ crossed out and ‘Welcome to Canterlot/Equestria/this plane of reality’ hastily scrawled across the bottom. There were piles of cupcakes, a bowl of punch, and trays of tiny pies taking up every inch of three tables. A jaunty tune started up from an unseen gramophone.

I blinked once, twice.

“What?”

“It’s a party!” Pinkie shouted, releasing me from her surprisingly gentle embrace. Somepony must have told her about my ribs, or maybe it was just more proof of her mysterious powers. “I told you I was planning a party for you. The Princess said it had to be a private party because of the murderous madponies trying to kill you, and switching it to Canterlot at the last minute was really difficult, but it was worth it!” I opened my mouth to ask one of several thousand questions, but she didn’t give me a chance. “And I got you a present!”

She pulled out a long thin something wrapped in bright pink paper. Silent with disbelief I opened it. It was exactly what I expected, though I had no idea how. “My staff? How did you get this?”

“Oh, I know some ponies,” she replied with a smile.

This could only end badly. “Who?” I asked, fearfully.

Pinkie just giggled, but Applejack rolled her eyes and came to my rescue. “After playing stalkin’ horse for ya, we went to Lyra’s and convinced her to tell us where y’all went. This morning, we rode in on the early train and stopped by Bon-bon’s house to look for y’all. You’n Rarity weren’t there, but Bon-bon was, and madder than a wet hen! It took some doin’, but thanks to Lyra, she calmed down an’ let us in. They’re both here in the castle under the Princess’s protection, and we picked up the stuff y’all left behind.”

“Not cool, by the way,” Rainbow growled. “Leaving all of us behind so you and Rarity could go be the heroes! You should’ve given me a shot at those Orderlies. It woulda been like, pow, bam! Dodge, punch! And I’d have taken out like a dozen of them.”

I couldn’t help grinning as I informed her, “Rarity took out more than two dozen.”

“What?” Rainbow yelped, zooming over to her friend to press her for the details.

“Might we begin feasting on the tasty confections?” Luna asked, her hungry expression back. “A party hath started, has it not?”

“Sure!” Pinkie giggled. The princess of night wasted no time taking her up on that offer, snatching one up to take an enormous bite. Only after crumbs began to spill from her mouth as she blissfully chewed did she remember that little thing called manners. Her mouth slowed and Luna self-consciously brushed herself clean. Her next bite was small, dainty and regal, but you could tell she still wanted to just dive right in. It was difficult not to laugh, but somehow I managed. Then, an unpleasant thought wiped the smile off my face.

“Are we sure those are safe?” I asked. “The order has been slipping stuff into everything they can get their grubby little hooves on.” And a Bon-bon who was still pissed at me was in the castle, after a chance to pick up certain … ingredients from her house.

“Don’t worry,” Celestia said, levitating one to herself and taking a dainty bite. “I checked them myself. Here.” With a moment of consideration, she chose a cupcake and floated it over to me. “Have one,” she suggested without even a trace of malice in her voice.

That and her beatific smile only served to unnerve me further. I knew in bold print that she was unhappy with me. This wasn’t just an assumption based on what we’d said in our last conversation; it was a gut feeling that went right to the core of me. The Princess was relieved and happy at Twilight’s safe return, but I had not just sent her babysitters off into danger, I’d also disobeyed her. For a good cause, true, and I had no doubt that she could see why it made sense, but still, I had crossed her.

I’m a terrible poker player. Despite my best efforts to conceal that train of thought, Celestia read me like an open book. Her smile relaxed into something less picturesque and more personal. One enormous wing and unfolded to gently pat me on the back. “Don’t worry, wizard. Though there will be consequences for your actions, they won’t be as terrible as you seem to fear. Besides, that is a matter for later. Right now, we have a party to enjoy!” With that, she left me still holding the cupcake, and uncertain what to do. Pinkie was jabbering away a mile a minute about one thing or another with Applejack, Rainbow was trying to badger Rarity into a hoof-wrestling contest, Fluttershy was playing with Mouse, and Spike was sticking to Twilight with all the attachment of a puppy.

Everything over the past twenty-four hours had been one emergency after another. Maybe the Princess was right. Maybe it was time for break, time to let the guards take care of the problem and relax. Maybe I didn’t have to be the hero, just this once.

It wouldn’t happen. As much as I’d like to just forget about the Order, I knew they wouldn’t give up this easily. They were coming back in one way or another, and I doubted they would be worried about collateral damage this time.

Still, I took a bite of the cupcake. Flavor exploded on my tongue and I almost let out a moan of ecstasy. Damn, these ponies could bake! The rest of the pastry disappeared just as quickly and I wondered if I should try another. Just to make sure the entire batch was this good, of course.

I moved into the fray, grinning. There might have been a group of insane, slightly-to-moderately amoral zealots who wanted nothing less than my body swinging from the nearest lamppost, but you know what? Screw ’em. I’d handle those idiots when they popped their ugly little cowls out of hiding. Until then, I was going to have a good time with my friends.

Author's Note:

Welcome to the transition chapter!
Next chapter: Things happen! Plots advance! Asses get kicked! Short sentences!