• 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 Seventeen

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 Seventeen

Applejack fought down a yawn big enough to let anypony in the throne room count her molars. She had a hard time keeping it in, but somehow or other, she managed. She glanced around as sneakily as she could, trying to make sure nopony had noticed. Nopony had, but her frantic glancing around turned a few heads, which made her flush.

Of course, she and her friends all had front row seats. Thankfully, the whole thing wasn’t too formal. She hadn’t had to wear a dress or do her mane up. The Element of Honesty did twinkle at her throat, but that was one bit of fanciness she didn’t mind. Applejack snorted. She’d have bet her last bit that none of those fancy ponies in the crowd would have recognized her without it. She bit back another yawn and tried to shake the cobwebs out of her head.

It wasn’t really her fault she was yawning, though. Not only had the whole gang stayed up late last night, but Princess Luna had insisted that the Court of Night be the place for awarding Dresden his medal. Work on the farm meant getting to bed early, and right now her internal clock was telling her that bedtime was long past.

“− and it is an honor, a singular honor indeed, to speak at the ceremony of such a hero as Mr. Blackstone. Far too often, ponies will choose what is easy over what is necessary, but among us sits a pony who refused to do such a thing. A pony who knows better−”

Then again, Applejack mused. I’d likely be yawning through this windbag’s speech any time a’ day. Applejack had a low opinion of politicians, the Mayor of Ponyville excepted, and this slick-haired unicorn wasn’t doing much to change her mind. Bronze Tongue was only supposed to get ten minutes, but his empty chatter made every one of them seem like an hour. Some stuffed-saddle who called herself a noble had already spoken, and her speech had been just as long and pretentious.

Applejack suspected most of these ponies couldn’t have been entertaining if they were getting paid, but the dullness was also because they didn’t know much about why Dresden was getting a medal in the first place. That brought a smile to Applejack’s face for the first time in almost an hour. She had been present when Luna had briefed the speechmakers at lunch.

………


“− and I must say again, your Highness that I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to speak at such an august occasion.” Bronze Tongue drew in his breath ready to continue rambling, the same way he had been for the past five, but Dresden used the momentary lapse to interject in a stage whisper to Twilight.

“August? Wasn’t it June when he started talking?”

Most of the ponies at the table chuckled, and even Bronze joined in after a second. Countess Well Bred gave a polite titter, but the laughter never touched her cold eyes. Lt. Surge, the guardspony that Dresden had sent off on a wild goose chase, just glared. That was pretty much how he’d acted the entire meal, except when he took a time-out to trade scowls with Rainbow Dash.

Luna finished off another parfait with a flourish of her spoon and smiled benignly, as though she hadn’t noticed either Bronze’s blather or Dresden’s wisecracking. “We are most pleased to host this luncheon, all the more so because all three of you answered our summons.” Countess Well murmured her thanks, and Surge kept glaring. Bronze opened his mouth to launch into a fresh monologue, but Luna cut off him smoothly. “We sought your attendance to ask a favor. Blackstone, our guest of honor, shall be awarded a medal this evening and we are hopeful that each of thee could orate upon the occasion.”

“Most certainly, your Highness,” Countess Well offered. “Though, I must confess I have heard little of Mister Blackstone,” Applejack frowned at the subtle stress she had put on ‘Mister’, but the noblemare had already moved on. “I would love to hear more about him.” She tittered slightly. “It would, after all, be rather difficult to speak about somepony I scarcely know anything about.” Bronze nodded in agreement, leaning forward like a colt expecting a cookie. Lt. Surge just grumbled.

“Oh, oh, oh!” Pinkie shouted waving one of her hooves in the air like a schoolfilly trying to answer a teacher’s question. “Pick me, I know about Blackstone!”

“That you do,” Rarity interjected quickly, “but perhaps we should let our friend speak for himself.”

Applejack nodded, breathing a small sigh of relief, as Pinkie pouted, but slid back into her seat. The farmpony knew better than to open her mouth. Keeping things secret wasn’t an easy trick for her. Bronze and the Countess watched both ponies with interest, one of them openly curious, the other calculating.

Dresden chuckled. “Not much to tell. I’m a private investigator and occasional consultant for magical crimes. As far as my personal life goes, I have a dog and cat and enjoy reading. Fiction, mostly. The medal is for helping out during that mess a couple months ago.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Hell, those six deserve more recognition for it than I do. They did more than half the work.”

“Really?” Bronze asked. “So just what did you do? The only thing I heard about that incident was that some crazy pony tried to kidnap the Elements of Harmony.”

“That’s all you’re going to hear,” Lt. Surge barked, drawing shocked stares and glares from everypony at the table, but he didn’t waver until Princess Luna frowned at him. Under her stare, he unbent just enough to add, “It’s classified information.”

“So what do you know about it, buddy?” Dash asked challengingly.

Lt. Surge’s ears laid back in annoyance. “Nothing. I don’t even know what level of clearance you need for it. I suspect that there are only three or four ponies outside of those directly involved who know what actually happened.” He cast another glare at Dresden. “Assuming certain ponies know how to keep their mouths shut, that is.”

“You’re awfully cute when you’re angry,” Dresden replied with a mocking smirk. The tension in the room skyrocketed as the two stared each other down. The rest of the table was silent. Reactions ran the gamut from Fluttershy’s uncertain confusion to Luna’s icy glare.

The sound of a throat being cleared broke the silence. Twilight’s frown was mild, but Applejack could tell she was repressing a stronger emotion. “Lieutenant Blue Surge, I’m told that you and Blackstone didn’t meet or part on the best of terms, but he has saved not only my life, but the lives of my friends as well. He did that voluntarily, without expectation of reward or prestige, at great risk to his own life. I’m not asking you to like him, but you will respect him.”

Lt. Surge’s scowl grew deeper and he almost – almost – replied with something heated. Applejack didn’t know what he would’ve said, but her hackles rose all the same. “Yes ma’am,” he finally replied.

“Indeed,” Luna added, her eyes still cold as a winter night. “We were most doubtful when our sister suggested that thou shouldst speak for the Royal Guard. Do not prove us correct.”

The quiet afterwards was disturbed only by the sound of Pinkie eating popcorn as she watched with unashamed interest. Applejack didn’t know what the flimsy-looking glasses were for, or why one of the lenses was red and the other one blue, but where Pinkie was involved, she’d stopped questioning things like that a long time ago.

“Yes, your Highness,” Lt. Surge said through clenched teeth, his ears folded submissively.

“And you need to stop baiting ponies,” Twilight told Dresden.

“Yes ma’am,” Dresden said with a smile.

“So…” Bronze said trying to ease the conversation back on track. “The rest of the information is classified? If we don’t know anything about Mister Blackstone, or what he has done, it will be quite difficult to write a speech about him.”

Applejack almost found herself nodding. That was a fair question. One that she had wondered about herself.

A secretive grin flashed across Luna’s face before she changed it to a much more modest smile. “We suppose thou must get creative, then.”

………

Applejack frowned faintly at the memory. All three of the speechmaking ponies were more than a mite self-important, but she understood their frustration. She didn’t like keeping secrets any more than they liked not knowing them.

Her family had only gotten the basic details: Trixie went crazy with power and kidnapped Spike, and they had gone to rescue him and almost bitten off more than they could chew. Granny had just been relieved that her granddaughter was home safe and more-or-less sound. Apple Bloom had been full of all sorts of questions, but with Big Mac’s help, she had convinced their younger sister it wasn’t the sort of story she could share with anypony.

Big Mac might have worked out more than a few of the details she left out, though. He was sharp like that, even if he didn’t seem like it at first glance. He never brought the topic up again, which was a relief to Applejack. It didn’t make the guilt of keeping the whole story from her family any lighter, but it kept her from thinking about it as often.

She understood why she couldn’t tell them; that wasn’t something she questioned. The moment Apple Bloom learned about other worlds and Faeries and all that stuff, she’d run off to earn her ‘Faerie Catcher’ or ‘Other World Explorer’ Cutie mark. And if she ever found a way into the Nevernever, which she just might, given her single-minded determination, she would get herself killed.

Applejack shivered. She had fought monsters. Manticores sometimes came out of the forest, and Timberwolves were a constant around Zap Apple Season. She’d climbed a mountain to tussle with that red dragon and followed Spike into the Diamond Dog mines to save her friend. She’d even stood up to Luna, Trixie, and Dresden when they’d been possessed, and they were scarier than anything the Everfree forest could serve up. Applejack knew it wasn’t bragging to call herself brave.

But Dresden had said, and the Princesses had agreed, that none of the things they’d faced even came close to some of the stuff lurking out there. Not that everything outside of Equestria was evil, of course. Dresden was more than enough proof of that. But Applejack didn’t want to meet even one of his unfriendly ‘neighbors’.

This wasn’t some ‘surprise party’ kind of secret. This was knowledge that needed to be kept locked away for the safety of Equestria. If everypony knew about the Nevernever, it wouldn’t even take a bad pony to use that knowledge. Just somepony who was curious or overconfident, and Equestria had more than its share of those. Applejack wasn’t keeping things from anypony out of spite or malice. She was doing it to protect both them and the entire country.

If only that actually did something to ease her conscience.

“Thank you for your speech, Minister Bronze,” Celestia said, interrupting Applejack’s wandering train of thought. The Princess then led the hall in a round of polite applause. Applejack doubted the long-winded politician would have gotten even that without the Princess’s example. “The final speech will be given by Lieutenant Blue Surge of the Air Combat Elites.”
Lt. Surge walked up to the podium, his face blank as stone. He bowed to Celestia, and she drew back to let him speak.

“Until two days ago I had never heard of Blackstone. My only contact with him was during what is now termed the Order Incident.” There was a soft murmur at that. The public had gotten the bare bones of the story, the Order coming back and stealing Twilight away, but Applejack figured most of the ponies in this room knew a little more than what was in the newspapers. Still, they seemed surprised to hear Dresden’s name connected to it. Applejack wondered if anypony other than her friends and the Princesses knew that Dresden was the real target.

Not waiting for the noise to die down, Lt. Surge continued. “Less than an hour after Princess Celestia received news of Twilight Sparkle’s disappearance I was given my orders. My squad was to assist a unicorn named Blackstone in his investigations and see to it that the remaining Elements of Harmony were guarded. I pride myself on knowing every officer in the Royal Guard, both those above and below me in rank. I knew, therefore, that Blackstone was not a military pony. However, he was described as powerful, stubborn and eccentric. Commander Mason told me that the description came from Princess Celestia, but I had my doubts. I found it far more likely that this ‘Blackstone’ was the arrogant son of somepony important, looking to use this tragedy to advance his own agenda. When I arrived in Ponyville and discovered he had left the remaining Elements alone except for one he had taken into danger with him, my opinion of him sank even lower. Then I met him.”

He paused to sip from a glass of water on the podium. A few of the audience members looked insulted at the mention of an ‘arrogant son’, but an equal number looked amused. Applejack frowned as she inspected the audience. There was something odd about everypony gathered here, but she couldn’t put her hoof on it.

“That did not improve my opinion of him, either. He burst into the Twilight Sparkle’s home like he owned the building, and his first words were an insult directed at both me and my entire squad. Blackstone claimed that his investigations had turned up a valuable lead. I ordered him to stay put with the Elements and I left a group of guards to protect them. The lead proved false, and on our return, I found all of the ponies I’d left behind unconscious and bound. The ponies I had been sent to protect were missing without a trace. It was not until much later that I discovered that Blackstone had intentionally provoked me, then lied about his lead. Once he had tricked me into leaving him behind, he convinced the remaining Elements to assist him in his plan. They subdued my soldiers and left to follow his real lead.”

In Applejack’s opinion, that re-telling was more than a mite biased in favor of the pony making the speech. Rainbow Dash was muttering something under her breath, and judging by Fluttershy’s blush, it was rude. Rarity was eyeing Lt. Surge with just a bit of scorn. Twilight looked impassive, but her jaw was clenched tight and her stare was too intense for somepony just interested in the speech. Pinkie was asleep, same as she had been since three minutes into the first speaker.

“Blackstone is reckless, flippant and overconfident. Despite that, he is also powerful, brave and more cunning than anypony would expect. There is no doubt in my mind he has earned this medal. However, I am surprised that he did not get himself, or anypony else, killed in the process. Twilight Sparkle told me that he saved her life, and I believe her. It is probably clear that I do not like Blackstone, nor do I approve of his methods. Do not think that blinds me to the good he has done for Equestria. I appreciate the ends, even if I deplore his means. Thank you.”

Applejack blinked, uncertain whether to be thankful for the short speech or ticked off at Lt. Surge’s description of the day’s events. After a moment’s thought, she decided there was no reason she couldn’t be both. Luna had come down solidly on the angry side, though she hid it pretty well. Celestia seemed as impassive as always, but one corner of her mouth tugged upwards just a fraction. Dresden didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Instead, he seemed to be staring at the rest of the audience with the same expression she would give a smiling timber wolf. Applejack craned her neck to look behind her. Whatever she had thought was off with the crowd, he had noticed it too.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Blue Surge,” Princess Celestia said, once again starting a round of applause. This was a bit more hesitant, but most ponies joined eventually.

The stamping was deeper, heavier, than it would have been at most events. Applejack’s eyes flitted across the audience, just a mix of stallions and mares, maybe a little heavy on the stallions…

Wait one minute, she thought. It was actually a lot heavy on the stallions. That wouldn’t have been too surprising if it were just the Royal Guard, where the normal population imbalance was actually reversed in favor of males, but among nobles and politicians too? Most politicians were mares, and that went double for nobles, who preferred a female heir. Twilight had even pointed out a few of them who were known for their magical abilities or research. It had gone over Applejack’s head, but now, that seemed important for some reason.

“And so, we come to the crux of this ceremony. Mister Blackstone, would you please approach the podium?”

Then there was everypony’s age. Most ponies present were only a decade or so older than her and her friends, and anypony beyond that was either a grizzled veteran or a unicorn, often both.

Applejack might not have gotten a fancy education, but she had plenty of common sense. Right now it was trying to tell her something, if she could just figure it out. She settled back into her seat at the same time as everypony else, her mind still chugging away at the problem.

Dresden’s eyes lit up with understanding, and a troublemaker’s grin flashed across his face. It was gone in a second, but Applejack was certain he’d figured it out. She peeked at the audience behind her again, scanning young faces and heavy bodies.

The answer struck her before Dresden even reached the podium. This whole darn ceremony’s a setup, she realized. The Princesses knew those Order ponies wouldn’t pass up a shot at Dresden, and the entire audience is made of ponies who can fight! We’re even wearing the Elements of Harmony.

Applejack’s mind raced, running off on tangents as the excitement of the realization washed away her fatigue. Shoot, they probably talked about some of the security around the palace on purpose, letting the Order figure out the best way to attack. It was one of the oldest hoofball tactics in the book. Leave an obvious weakness, and you know exactly where the other team will try to break through. They’re letting them think they’ve actually got a shot before catching ‘em in the act. It ain’t like they’d have a crowd of innocent bystanders to worry ‘bout. Most of these ponies probably even been through a tour or two with the Guard.

Part of her was annoyed that she hadn’t even suspected anything until now, but the rest of her was hopeful those crazy ponies would actually try. After what they’d put everypony through, she was looking forward to giving them a piece of her mind, and a couple of her hooves, too.

A quick nudge got Twilight’s attention at the price of her scowl. “What?” Twilight whispered.

“Get ready for a fight. I think the Order’s gonna try somethin’. Wake up Pinkie and pass it on,” Applejack hissed, trying to keep an eye out for anypony acting suspicious.

Twilight’s jaw started to fall open, but she quickly took control of herself. “Thanks,” Twilight murmured, leaning over to rouse Pinkie Pie. She seemed to have a lid on everything, but Applejack did notice a lock of purple hair spring wildly out of place.

Dresden mounted the dais and Luna followed him to the podium, holding a velvet box in her aura. Fancy clothes weren’t Applejack’s kinda thing, but she had to admit the outfit Rarity had put together for him looked mighty spiffy. His coat had needed some cleaning, but it was spotless now. That dark red shirt he was wearing underneath suited him pretty well, too. The manecut made her want to laugh, not just because it looked silly on him, but also because of the way they’d had to practically drag him into the salon. He was almost as bad as Dash.

Princess Luna started speaking next, her voice set on ‘booming’ again. “It is with our utmost gratitude and respect that we confer upon Blackstone one of the highest honors the Court of Night can bequeath: The Bright Star of Bravery.” With that she opened the box and everypony in the room gave a small gasp of wonder. Nestled within the velvet box was not a piece of metal, stone, or crystal worked into the shape of a star. It was a tiny glowing orb of the purest, softest white light Applejack had ever seen. A real star.

Dresden took the box gently, wonder etched into his face. He usually acted like he had seen it all, but right now, he was as awestruck as anypony else.

The Princess of Night’s voice dropped to something more personal. Most of the room couldn’t hear her, but Applejack was close enough to catch it. “We are afraid it is not the sort of accolade one might pin upon your chest, yet we believe the greatest honor should consist of more than metal and cloth.” Luna smiled mysteriously, softly shutting the lid of the box. She gestured to the podium and stepped back towards her seat with Celestia.

Dresden got the message clearly enough, gulping as he delicately set the box on the podium. “Thank you,” he began, without a trace of his usual joking. He took a deep breath, like a swimmer preparing themselves for a plunge.

Then the lights went out.

Instantly, or close enough not to make much difference, Dresden’s pentacle lit up. So did the horns of just about every unicorn in the place. Princess Celestia had raised a light of her own, though Luna seemed just as comfortable in the dark. A low murmur rose among the audience, but nopony was panicking. The Princesses’ gamble had paid off. Instead of a frantic mob, the audience was calm and alert.

Applejack nodded in approval, trying to keep an eye out for bad guys. She glanced at the stage and everypony on it. The podium was in front of a wide window. Instead of stained glass, like the throne room, this one was clear, made for viewing the night sky outside. At least, that’s what it normally did. Right now, with all the moving lights, it was showing a distorted reflection of the room.

Applejack tried in vain to see past the glare, but then she saw something in that mirror that didn’t belong. Something huge, malformed and just plain wrong was rising out of Dresden’s shadow. It was bipedal, like Dresden’s real shape, but that’s where their similarities ended. Its shoulders were too broad, and the head was a lumpy mass that barely even had a neck. Like a zombie pulling itself out of the grave, it staggered upright. If the towering thing wasn’t eight feet tall, it wasn’t for lack of trying, yet its arms still almost reached the ground. Applejack opened her mouth to give Dresden a warning, but it moved so darned fast. The shout died in her throat, and it wasn’t the only one. Every sound in the room guttered out like a candle in the wind as the thing opened its jagged mouth.

Out of nowhere, a new sensation swept over and through her like an irresistible tide.

Hatred.

Cold, precise, unrelenting hatred. It was an emotion that didn’t have any reason, any decision, any motivation behind it. It was simply, unquestionably evil. Applejack’s stomach twisted on itself and she came close to violently losing her dinner. From what she could see in the dim light, not everypony was as lucky, including poor Rarity. And still there was no sound, not even her own heartbeat.

Every inch of the country mare felt stained just to stand in this thing’s presence. Hay, just knowing something like it even existed was enough to make bile rise at the back of her throat. There wasn’t any recovering from this. There was no balm or ointment that could heal a defiled soul. Whatever that thing was, whatever magic it had, she didn’t stand a chance. She was already soiled just by feeling its greasy touch.

It was tyranny, corruption, and treachery given form, an endless void of despair, cruelty and greed. The Elements of Harmony were worse than useless against this thing. The necklace around her throat was a dead weight, an anchor that dragged down even as it choked the life from her.

There was no point in resisting, no point in even trying to fight the thing. It was a darkness so vast, so old and powerful and terrifying that there was no possible way she and her pathetic friends could hope to beat it. How could she believe Harmony was even possible, anymore?

The bond she had shared with her friends was broken.

They were broken.

It had won.

That’s a lie!

Warmth spread through her body, starting from a small point on her chest. In the darkness her necklace gleamed brightly. Applejack shook her head, driving out the horror and despair that had overwhelmed her.

Maybe this demon really is that bad, but it don’t matter. You ain’t lost until you’ve given up. We ain’t even started fighting yet!

Small sparks lit the inside of her friends’ Elements has they fought against the creeping darkness. Everypony struggled to free themselves, as righteous anger began to replace helplessness.

Less than five seconds had passed since the demon had first appeared.

A thin shape that might have been a tail, or maybe a tentacle, snapped forward to impale Dresden’s left foreleg. His mouth opened in what looked like a scream of pain, but no sound came out. Applejack stared at the sight. In the murky mirror, the demon could be seen, but looking at Dresden directly, there was nothing but a thin hole in her friend’s body. The limb moved suddenly, dangling Dresden by the impaled leg. It hung him close to the lump that might have been its head, and its mouth began moving.

“I told you our business was unfinished, little mortal,” the demon said in a calm Trottingham accent. “None can escape He Who Walks Behind.”

It twisted, throwing Dresden into the window behind them. The window must have been reinforced, because instead of crashing through it and falling to his death, Dresden just slammed into the glass and collapsed.

That’s when the dawn came.

A light as strong and beautiful as the morning sun erupted from Celestia’s horn, banishing the darkness and outlining the hideous thing in a stark black outline. Applejack almost wished it had remained a half-seen reflection in the window. Now, its hideous, deformed features were clear as day. She hadn’t noticed the glowing violet eyes, the disgusting fungal fur, or the mouth that stretched across its entire head. It turned to face Celestia, but as it did, blue-black cords sprang from its own shadow, dragging it to the ground. The horrible, sickening pressure eased, and sound returned to the room. Applejack had expected to hear screaming, but most ponies only whimpered.

The demon seemed unconcerned with its apparent helplessness, even going so far as to chuckle. “Ah, so this is the realm you call home now. Do these pathetic mortals even know what you truly are?”

Princess Celestia, on the other hoof, was not laughing. For the first time Applejack had seen, or even heard of, she was furious. Fire danced in her eyes and licked across her coat. There was power in her, the kind of power that formed worlds and ground mountains to dust. Luna stood on the demon’s other side, mist pouring off her body, frost forming where her hooves touched the floor. Together they stood tall, resolute, and unshakable.

“This is not your place, Dark One. What fool gave you permission to enter?” Princess Celestia’s voice hummed with power and everything in the room thrummed in response. Applejack’s hair stood on end from the sheer authority her Princess carried.

The demon, however, wasn’t impressed. “All places will be ours in time.” Its head twisted with unnatural crack to stare at Luna. “Tell me, Mistake, has exile erased the hatred you feel for your precious sister, even though she still outshines you?”

Luna didn’t answer, but the temperature in the room dropped several degrees. Shards of blackness, equal parts ice and shadow, burst from ground beneath the demon, stabbing through its body. There was no blood from the wounds, making the demon look more like some sort of unnatural pincushion than any real creature. The sight was enough to make Applejack gag again, but the thing didn’t even flinch.

Princess Celestia growled and as she stepped forward, resting a hoof clad in molten, shifting gold only inches from the demon’s neck. Her hoof hovered over where the hollow of a pony’s throat would be. Her threat was crystal clear, but she vocalized it anyway.

“Tell me, or I will return you to the foul pit that spawned you. Who brought you here?”

It grinned, and Applejack could see what looked like oily sludge dripping from long, serrated teeth. Far, far too many teeth. “You have grown powerful, but no matter how strong you become, you will never be a true immortal.” Too quickly to see, its neck lengthened and twisted. Nightmarish teeth latched onto Celestia’s leg and tore into her.

Princess Celestia, the undimmed daystar and sovereign of Equestria, screamed. It was a sound of near primal pain and rage. Her other hoof flashed downwards like lightning, smashing the demon’s head to the floor. Its skull shattered in a thunderous detonation that rattled the huge window. The room fell silent as the echoes of the strike slowly died out.

“Wow…”

Applejack didn’t know who said that, but she sure as sugar agreed with them. The body of the demon transformed into some kind of clear jelly that spilled across the floor. Rarity and Fluttershy weren’t the only ponies to jump on their chairs with a squeak of fright. Applejack was half considered the same response, when the transparent substance began to evaporate, fading away like fog under the rising sun. The lights flickered back on with a static-y sound of the magic reactivating.

Then Princess Celestia fell to her knees, her breathing labored.

“Princess!” Twilight screamed, and she wasn’t the only pony yelling it either. She rushed forward and Applejack followed close on her hooves. The room was full of noise now and full-blown panic seemed close at hoof.

“Calm thyselves!” Luna demanded, her voice a powerful roar. “Soldiers of the Royal Guard, gird thyselves for battle. The Order may seek to capitalize upon the damage this foulness hath wrought. Alert your brethren and ready the castle! We shall deliver our sister and Blackstone to the infirmary.”

A few ponies were still frantic, but most of the room and almost all of the Royal Guard responded to the authority in her voice. The soldiers fanned out to follow Luna’s orders. The Princess of Night nodded, clearly satisfied with their actions. Twilight had pressed herself to Celestia’s side, tears streaming down her purple muzzle, when Luna’s horn flashed and the world disappeared.

Applejack’s poor stomach, already queasy from the sickening presence of the demon, decided that a sudden teleport was the last straw. As soon as the group blinked back into existence, it rebelled. Thankfully, there was a garbage can nearby.

Her heaves distracted Applejack for a moment, but the smell of antiseptic hit the moment they stopped, barely overpowering the coppery scent of blood. The farm pony raised her head, blinking blearily. They were in the infirmary, and Celestia was already laying back in an over-large bed. Doctors were crowding into the room with nurses watching fearfully from the door. All of the physicians were speaking at once as they began their work.

“We’ve got to get clean the wound first. Nurse Test, get me−”

“This is horrible! What could have−”

“That black substance is everywhere, we need to−”

“Do not touch it!” Princess Celestia shouted, freezing one of the doctors in place. Her hoof was less than an inch from the oily sludge still coating the wound.

“Your Highness,” the doctor replied hesitantly. Her tone was respectful, but it was obvious she disagreed with the order. “With all due respect, we must clean this contamination out of the wound. Everypony here is wearing gloves. We can use magic to draw it out if necessary, but without knowing what it is, we risk an adverse reaction to your system.”

Celestia gave an exhausted chuckle. “That would be a very mild description of what it would do. Anypony who touches this, no matter what they wrap their hooves in, will die. Only my sister and I may cleanse this wound, and it will not be easy. Draw the curtain, we will be finished soon. You can tend to me then.”

Before any protest could be made, a midnight blue aura seized everypony around the bed and pulled them away. Luna strode forward, not bothering with the curtain. She erected a hemisphere of darkness to surround them.

There was a silent moment as everypony anxiously stared at the dark barrier.

“You know,” a gruff voice said from the other side of the room, “I would love some help fixing this dislocated shoulder, if you’re not too busy.”

Dresden! Applejack had almost forgotten her injured friend in all the excitement over Celestia. He was lying on a more modestly sized bed, grimacing in pain. Blood trickled from the wound on his foreleg. The white cloth he was pressing to it was already stained deep crimson.

The doctors glanced at each other uncertain what to do for a moment. Then one of them shrugged and the entire group mobbed Dresden. The black unicorn yelped as they descended upon him, then switched to a string of half-muttered, half-shouted curses.

Twenty minutes. Only twenty minutes ago Applejack’s biggest worry had been boredom. Since then, the ceremony had been wrecked, Dresden had been attacked, and the Princess had been wounded, maybe poisoned too. How had things gone so wrong so quickly?

Twilight’s tears had dried, but she still glanced nervously between the black shield around her mentor’s bed and the crowd of doctors around Dresden’s. Fluttershy was trying to comfort Twilight, stroking her mane and murmuring reassurances. The shy mare’s red-rimmed eyes said that she had been crying too, but she hadn’t let that stop her.

Rarity seemed to be in shock. The doctors had cut away that fancy coat she had worked so hard on and thrown it by the wayside. There was a clear hole, stained with blood where the demon had impaled his arm. Rarity stared sadly at it, mumbling to herself. “I told him not to alter his coat after I finally got it clean again. Would it – would it have changed anything if I had let him? Did I do this to him?”

Pinkie was trying to keep the fashionista’s spirits high even though it was clear hers were just as low. She’d already prepared a ‘Secret Farewell’ party for tomorrow morning, but Dresden had nearly had a more permanent farewell less than an hour ago.

Rainbow, in contrast, was livid. She stalked back and forth, seething. It was a reaction that Applejack could understand. The more her shock faded, the more time she had to think about what those Order yahoos had done. Anger bloomed bright and hot inside her. Until now, she’d been at the sidelines of everything. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe her friends, but craziness on the level of these crackpots was pretty darn hard to swallow.

Applejack had thought all this nonsense was a bunch of ponies who were long on spirit but short on brains latching onto a stupid idea. That thing, though, smashed that into dust. Nothing good could come from a monster like that. These crazies just wanted to kill, and they didn’t care who got hurt in the process. Her blood started to boil at the very thought. If Dash went off looking for trouble, she wouldn’t be doing it alone.

Before either pony could do anything more than stew, the dark barrier around Princess Celestia’s bed dropped, revealing two exhausted alicorns. Luna only looked like she needed a good night’s (or maybe day’s) sleep. Celestia didn’t look half so good.

The Princess of Day was worn and weary, like she’d gone days with no food and little water. Her face was thin, and there were bags beneath her eyes. Instead of majestic, snowy white, her coat was a sallow ivory. Her mane still had all of its colors, but it only hung limply. For once in her reign, Celestia no longer seemed ageless. She looked like a mountain finally worn down to a bleak crag by time and rain.

She looked old.

Despite what had to be terrible pain, she smiled. “Thank you for your patience. I’m ready to be treated.” The Princess lifted her torn leg, the gruesome injury making Applejack’s stomach turn again. With an effort, she kept herself from being sick. The only good thing about the sight was that the black ooze was gone, not a speck remaining.

Without hesitation, most of the doctors abandoned Dresden and rushed to surround Princess Celestia. The only pony left at his bed was a younger doctor wrapping the damaged foreleg in bandages. Rainbow eyed the physician suspiciously. Applejack’s first thought was that Dresden’s paranoia had rubbed off on her, but it made sense. After all, it isn’t paranoia if there really is somepony out to get you.

“We shall take our leave,” Luna announced, this time at a reasonable volume. The doctors didn’t even look up, but she had the attention of everypony else. “We must assure everypony that our sister yet lives and organize a hunt for the ponies responsible for this atrocity.” Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but with a whisper of magic, Luna was gone.

There was nothing to do now but wait. Fortunately, Dresden’s treatment didn’t take long. “There,” the medical mare said with an air of satisfaction as she finished tying the final knot. “Now don’t get it wet, or move it too much. I’ll be back with a sling for that in just a minute.”

“And then I can get out of here?” Dresden growled.

The doctor frowned, her expression becoming exasperated. “You can’t walk with a wound like that. You’re lucky that none of your tendons or ligaments were permanently damaged. Not to mention the stress of a dislocated shoulder or your older injuries. I’m ordering you to stay at least one night, though a full week would be for the best. If you have to leave tomorrow, you’ll use a wheelchair and return in a week to get those stitches checked out.”

Dresden grumbled something that could have been mistaken for consent. The doctor trotted off, apparently satisfied. The moment she was gone, Pinkie, Twilight, and Fluttershy all rushed Dresden.

“Are you okay?” all three of them asked at once at three different volumes. Despite the circumstances Applejack almost laughed as Dresden was overwhelmed by her friends.

“Ahem,” Rarity interrupted. “Perhaps we should give him some space to breathe?” Fluttershy and Twilight each flushed and took a step back.

Pinkie had already hopped onto the bed next to him, and she just stared at the fashionista in confusion. “I’m not using up that much air, am I?”

Most ponies would have just gotten confused, but the five of them had been Pinkie’s friends long enough to just roll with it. Rarity shook her head and replied. “No, but I would suggest moving back a little anyway. You may jostle his wounded leg if you stay there.”

“And it will make getting this sling on him more difficult,” the doctor said as she returned, a navy blue sling floating in her telekinetic grip. She hurried past the bustling crowd around the Princess’s closed privacy curtain and made a motion to shoo Pinkie away. Pinkie pouted, but in the end she moved and the doctor went to work.

The murmuring from the other doctors began to quiet and in ones and twos they started to drift off. Applejack studied a few of them, but she didn’t get much. They didn’t seem especially happy or sad, just guarded. The farmpony couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or not.

“Twilight Sparkle?” one of the doctors, a heavyset earth stallion a little bit past middle age, asked.

“Yes?” Twilight replied, her voice tense. Applejack reached out and gave her friend a pat on the back. Whatever had happened, they would be there for her.

“The good news is that Princess Celestia’s life does not appear to be in danger. She’s sleeping right now and in a stable condition. Whatever that substance that coated her injury was, it’s all gone. Beyond that, it is only a normal, though savage, bite wound.” The room became silent, waiting for the other horseshoe to drop. “The bad news is that its magic already did quite a number on her, and whatever she did to remove it has left her exhausted.” He shook his head, and paused for a moment. “No, exhausted is the wrong word. Debilitated, maybe?”

“Long story short,” the younger doctor added without glancing away from Dresden, “the Princess is in a delicate condition and she needs rest. As much of it as she can get. And there will be a pair of doctors on standby for her.”

The aged earth stallion harrumphed at the interruption but didn’t move to correct his younger colleague. “Yes,” he continued. “Dr. Manner and I will be here for the first shift. Now that all the excitement is over, however, I’d like an explanation of what happened.” His impartial expression faded into a worried frown. “What in Equestria is capable of this?”

The room fell into awkward silence as everypony rushed to be the last to answer the question. Not just because Celestia wanted them to keep their traps shut about demons, either. Talking about that thing, even thinking about it, made what had happened feel real again. Applejack shuddered, and she wasn’t the only one.

Finally, Twilight cleared her throat and described the attack in a trembling voice. The explanation was swift and she was careful to report only the facts that anypony in the room could have shared, but it was still just as unpleasant as Applejack had feared. Fluttershy shook like a leaf and even Pinkie looked solemn, maybe even sickened, by the retelling.

The younger physician, Dr. Manner, shook her head. “I’d say that’s unbelievable if I wasn’t looking at the aftermath right here. Where did it come from?”

“I can’t say for certain, but I believe it was those Order Triune ruffians.” Rarity heaved a sigh of relief. “Unpleasant as the experience was, at least we won’t have to face a creature like that again.”

“Yeah!” Dash added. “The Princess kicked its butt good.” Applejack could see the fear beneath her friend’s bravado, but she didn’t say anything. She could feel the same terror still lurking in her own chest. “We won’t be seeing that jerk again!”

“Not quite,” Dresden said.

The two simple words sent a shudder up Applejack’s spine. She could see her own horror reflected in her friends’ eyes as they turned toward the black stallion. Dresden’s face was grim and grey. The last time Applejack had seen him this serious was in Trixie’s crazy castle of death. Now that she thought about it, there hadn’t just been fear and anger on Dresden’s face when that demon had appeared. There had been recognition, too.

“I told you our business was unfinished, little mortal,” it had said.

Dresden hesitated, then grunted. “Yeah, this is something you all need to hear. But not you two.” He shooed the two doctors away with one hoof.

“Excuse me,” Dr. Manner replied with a scowl. “Dr. Condition and I are not leaving.”

The well-padded earth stallion, Dr. Condition, hastened to relieve the growing tension in the room. “Please, both of you, be reasonable−”

“Yes, you are.” Dresden asserted, his glare fully leveled. “Information about the de− creature is a matter of national security. I’m under orders from Princess Celestia herself not to tell anypony about it.” Dr. Manner opened her mouth to respond, but Dresden cut her off. “Knowing more wouldn’t change her treatment, and I’m not kidding about it being a secret.”

“Who are you?” Dr. Condition asked, his eyes wide.

“A friend,” Fluttershy said, surprising everypony. She’d been so silent this whole time.

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said to the doctors. “He is right, though. If that thing was what I think it was, then it is secret. Could you go find that wheelchair for Blackstone?”

The doctors left with a couple grumbles, but they still left. Applejack glanced outside the door to the room to make sure they weren’t hanging around. There were a couple of guards stationed nearby, and more probably on the way, but that was it.

“They’re gone,” she announced, shutting the room’s heavy door and locking it, just in case.

“Spill already,” Dash demanded. “Whaddaya mean, ‘not quite’?”

“Have you met that meanie before?!” Pinkie said, almost shouting.

“So just what was that thing?” Twilight asked, her brow furrowed and expression concerned.

“Hold on,” Dresden said, making a calming motion with his uninjured hoof. “He Who Walks Behind is some kind of super hunter-demon that my... that somebody sent to kill me once.” Applejack cocked an eyebrow at the slip, but didn’t interrupt him. “It was years ago, and I was lucky to survive the encounter. Even then, he still marked me, and anyone with the Sight who looks at me can see that stain.”

“How did you ever endure such a thing?” Rarity asked breathlessly.

Dresden shrugged. “I got lucky. Like you saw, he gets off on playing with his victims. If he had just wanted me dead, I’d have been dead. No questions. The memory is kinda hazy from the head trauma he gave me, but I remember blowing up a gas station to stop him.” At everypony’s confused stares, he facehoofed. “Right. Point is, I set off several thousand gallons of highly flammable oil.”

“Shoot, how’d he survive that?” Applejack could hardly believe it was that tough.

“He didn’t,” Dresden said. “I tore the hell out of him, but that’s the problem. He isn’t like the Nightmare. That thing was part of this world. This guy is more like the quartz hornets that stung Pinkie back in Trixie’s castle. He’s from somewhere else, and somebody in this world plunked down the energy to bring him here.”

“So?” Dash demanded.

A fierce scowl met her words. “So, that’s not even his real form. Demons don’t have solid bodies in the real world. They’re more like a spirit wearing a body-shaped suit made of ectoplasm. Killing the body doesn’t actually destroy the demon, it just banishes them.”

“Which means,” Twilight gasped, her eyes sparking with horrified realization, “that thing can just come back if the Order invests enough energy again.”

The mood of the room plummeted as the news sunk in, but Dresden wasn’t done. “Not if. When. The only reason I got away with blowing him up the first time is because the person who sent him didn’t know I survived. I guarantee the Order is responsible for this, and they’ll know it failed. The only silver lining to all this is that summoning something as powerful as that bastard takes time. We should have a day or two before they can bring him back for Round Two.”

Suddenly there came the sounds of a scuffle from outside the room. One voice finally rose loud enough to be heard through the thick door. “I demand to be let through! I am an aide to her Highness, I need to see her! Princess Luna is suddenly giving orders, Princess Celestia is nowhere is to be seen, and the worst rumors are flying around. Let me into this room!”

“Sorry,” one guard growled not sounding as though he meant it in the slightest. “The Princess is recovering from the attack and nopony except her doctors are allowed in and out of that room.”

A purple aura rapidly unlocked the door and pulled it open. Two guards in heavy armor were blocking the door, preventing a tall, tan unicorn stallion with a disheveled green mane from entering. “It’s okay,” Twilight said, a strange expression on her face. “Let him in.”

The guards went silent in surprise. “Are you sure?”

The looks from everypony else in the room echoed the question, but Twilight nodded. “Quite sure.”

There was another moment of silence, but the guards moved aside to let him in. His eyes immediately zeroed in on the shrouded bed, but he stopped short of simply plowing through the curtain. Instead, he turned his attention to the pony that had invited him in. “Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. I don’t know if you recognize me, but I’m one of Princess Celestia’s aides, Novel Notion.”

“Oh, I recognize you all right,” Twilight snarled, her face suddenly contorting with fury. “You were the tall unicorn who visited me while I was locked up in the Order’s dungeon. I know your voice!”

Everypony is the room tensed at the accusation, but Novel’s face went blank with surprise. “I was what? In where?! I think you’ve got me confused with somepony else,” he said, scratching his green mane in confusion. The two guards had been about to jump him from behind, but at this they hesitated.

Twilight’s fury seemed to stumble in the face of his reply. “But … aren’t you? I was sure…”

Novel Notion shrugged. “You must be mistaken. If it was only a voice, are you really sure? I’ve been Princess Celestia’s aide for years! I’m not a part of any Order.”

Twilight flushed in shame and most of the group, though not Dresden, began to relax.

Applejack considered herself more than just a good judge of ponies. It wasn’t some kind of magic, like the Pinkie sense or Fluttershy’s stare, just some good instincts. And right now every one of them was telling her that this Novel Notion wasn’t on the level. Sure, he sounded good, his explanation made sense, but he had brought it out too readily. Everything from his surprise to his reply was so smooth that it had to be practiced. He was lying; Applejack would’ve bet the farm on it. Her vision clouded with red. “You think you’re mighty slick, don’tcha?” she demanded.

“Huh?”

The farmpony ignored the genuine shock on his face, moving in like a wolf. “You’re a good liar all right, one’a the best I’ve ever seen. An’ you might be Celestia’s aide, but I’m dead certain you’re member of the Order.” Everypony’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and the guards glanced uncertainly between Applejack and Novel Notion.

“What are you−” ‘Novel Notion’ began, but a reddish-orange aura grabbed his jaw and forced it open.

“Quick,” Dresden barked, his horn glowing brightly. “Check his mouth for one of those memory charms.”

“Must we?” Rarity whined, but Pinkie already had her muzzle nearly inside Novel’s mouth.

“Mhhmm hmm!” Novel yelled inarticulately, struggling against the magic holding his mouth in place. A purple glow froze the rest of his body, Twilight glaring daggers at him. Pinkie shoved a hoof in and started rummaging around, her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth in concentration.

“Found it!” she cried, holding up a tiny chip of wood like it was some kind of special treasure. Dresden held a hoof out, letting the aura around Novel’s jaw fade away. Pinkie tossed the wood chip to him, and though he fumbled the catch, it thankfully didn’t go far.

“Well, well, well,” Dresden said, grinning at the trapped unicorn. “If you aren’t a member of the Order, what are you doing with one of their memory charms?” The tan colt remained silent, but Applejack could see sweat beading on his forehead. “I’ve got some questions for you, Orderly.”

Twilight glanced at Dresden. “Orderly?”

The black unicorn nodded with a grin. “Why not? They both belong in a mental hospital.” A few groans and eye rolls met that joke, but Dresden ignored them. “You’re going to tell me everything I want to know.”

“And if I don’t?”

Dresden’s grin widened and his left eye started to twitch just a little. Whether he’d done that on purpose or not, Applejack felt a chill go down her spine. “Then I’m going to ask the girls to leave the room, and I’ll make you tell me.”

Shoot, Applejack thought. He ain’t bluffing. She knew Dresden could be a touch more rowdy than most ponies, but it was always a shock to be reminded just how scary he could be when he put his mind to it. Even as a pony, there was something dangerous and predatory in those fiery eyes.

Novel’s color changed from tan to cream as the blood drained from his face. “I hope you know that it is against the law to coerce information from anypony. Even convicted criminals are protected from cruel and inequine treatment.”

“Good thing I’ve got diplomatic immunity,” Dresden said, chuckling darkly.

Novel’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and he deflated like a leaky balloon. “I’ll talk,” he squeaked.

“Good,” Dresden nodded, his expression coming a few degrees closer to sane. “Fluttershy, could you check on that wheelchair? We’ve got places to be and new friends to make.”

He might have seemed pleased with the prospect, but somehow, Applejack doubted that any of these ‘new friends’ were going to be half so happy to make his acquaintance.

Author's Note:

And for all the Dresden-philes out there, remember that at this point Dresden doesn't know what He Who Walk Behind really is yet. He discovers that in White Night (Book 9).