• 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 Eighteen

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 Eighteen

Surprising no one, the Order had another base close to the castle. This one was higher on the mountain, located on the eastern slope, facing away from the city. Novel Notion had been happy, sort of, to tell me where it was and how to get inside. A warning about the guards in the room just past the entry hall would have been nice, though.

The room looked like some kind of staging area for troops. It was about the size of a basketball court, or maybe a little bigger, but not by much. Its spartan design and relatively low ceiling made me think it was a practical and efficient place, the kind of place that had never heard of ‘casual Fridays’. Getting here hadn’t been easy, and getting past the ponies guarding it was proving just as difficult.

Creak, creak.

Rainbow buried her hoof in another guard’s face. She didn’t have the room to build up speed, robbing her attack of most of its power. Rainbow didn’t let that stop her. The first blow was followed by three or four more all launched before the pegasus guard could react. He reeled back, stunned, and she followed with a pair of kicks that brought him down. Even in close quarters, her agility still gave her a ridiculous advantage.

Creak, creak.

One pegasus darted toward a back door. She was too far away for anyone to reach in time, even Rainbow, and just one door away from warning the entire hideout we were here. If that happened, best case scenarnio, Arcane Mind would bolt, rendering this whole trip pointless. Worst case, we would get overwhelmed, captured, and I would get lynched. She yanked open the door, already opening her mouth to belt out the alarm. Then there was an enormous bang, and she was thrown back into the room by a torrent of confetti and streamers.

“Surprise!” Pinkie shouted, gleefully bouncing on top of the stunned guard. She didn’t get long to celebrate her victory, though. A heavy earth pony charged her once he’d picked his jaw up off the floor. Pinkie squeaked in comically over-played fear and ducked into the hallway, shutting the door behind her. By the time he reopened it, she and her little ‘party cannon’ were gone... only for her to drop on top of him, dressed in a catsuit fit for a very strange James Bond flick. He tried to buck her off, but she pulled out a cowboy hat, put it on, and started riding like it was a rodeo.

Creak, creak.

A guard who was at least four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Applejack plowed right into her with a powerful body blow. She met the charge with one shoulder, sliding back with the screech of metal on stone, but her stance didn’t change as she held him back. The guard rose up to deliver a double-hooved stomp, but the farmpony slid to one side, dodging him easily. With a quick, practiced movement, her muscles bunched as she shifted her weight to her front hooves. Applejack unleashed a mule kick that had every ounce of her strength behind it. The guard turned, barely managing to catch her attack on his shoulder, but it still dented his armor and flung him halfway across the room. He wasn’t unconscious, but he sure as hell didn’t look eager to jump back into the fray.

Creak, creak.

Twilight was handling three unicorns at the same time, and for once getting a challenge. She was more powerful than any of them, but not laughably so, and all three easily outweighed her in combat experience. The purple mage was teleporting quickly and often to avoid their spells, but they weren’t too shabby at anticipating her moves. After several volleys back and forth, they had her surrounded. I was about to step in, when she disappeared again. I’ve seen cats that reacted more slowly than those guards. Each one spun around, horns already glowing with a new spell. They were ready to counter Twilight from any direction.

Then she reappeared about two inches to the left of her previous position, the one place none of them were facing. They didn’t last long after that.

Creak, creak.

Twilight took a breather, while Rarity began tying up the unicorns her friend had downed. We hadn’t waited for the fashionista to find more spider silk, so she was making do with some stout rope we’d found in the armory. Without warning, a midnight blue earth pony exploded out from behind one of her immobilized comrades, charging towards Twilight. She was fast, lightly armored, and Twilight hadn’t even begun to see it coming. There was nothing anyone could do as the speedy mare plowed into Twilight -- and passed straight through her. The surprised guard stumbled as she failed to meet the impact she had expected. The illusion continued to stand motionless behind her as the guard began to climb back to her hooves, but it was too late.

“Sorry, darling, but appearances are apt to be deceiving,” Rarity said before sucker-punching the prone pony. Her bell thoroughly rung, the earth pony slumped back to the ground, where Rarity went to work with more rope.

Creak, thud.

“Sorry, Blackstone,” Fluttershy mumbled as she moved to steer my squeaky wheelchair around the small rock we’d bumped into.

“That’s okay,” I told her, busy lining up another force spell. Right now, with my staff floating threateningly above my head and my body confined to a wheelchair, I felt like the unholy offspring of Doctor Strange and Professor X.

Three of the room’s twelve guards had zeroed in on me instantly. If they weren’t regretting that choice now, then I wasn’t doing my job. The pegasus had a goose egg big enough to bump him up a hat size, but Rarity had tied him up anyway. The earth pony was mostly inside a crate, having entered through a hole that didn’t exist until I had introduced the two. Occasionally, one of his legs twitched. The unicorn was keeping his distance, scared but determined. These bastards were tougher than the skeleton crew we’d faced in the main base, but I wasn’t in the mood to play around anymore. I’d been pissed when we crashed that rat hole, but after our run-in with He Whose Ass Shall Not Be Kicked I was at whole new level of angry. The Order had just crossed the kind of line that makes wizards with even a shred of decency shoot first and never bother with questions later.

Unless, of course, I thought darkly, they weren’t the ones who summoned Him. There were too many details that didn’t add up, too many coincidences and miscommunications. The blatant assassination attempts, the missing Agents, whoever locked up Colgate, and so many more clues. There was another group in the background. Someone was still hiding in the shadows and pulling the strings. My gut said they were already inside the Order, and the rest of me agreed.

Not that this excused any normal guards from a well-deserved ass-kicking, but a majority of my anger was reserved for those shadowy bastards. They’d pulled one too many strings and now I was ready to hunt down the puppet master. If I’d gotten the information differently, I might not have suspected anything, but Novel Notion’s appearance had been a little too convenient to be a coincidence. I hadn’t decided whether he was in on the plan or just a pawn, though I was leaning towards the latter. It wasn’t just chance that brought us an easily intimidated pony who knew just where to find the Order’s head mage. Novel had even given me a name and description. Arcane Mind: dark teal coat, bright gold hair, one of the Order’s ruling trio and their top unicorn.

I summoned a translucent shield of force, bouncing an orange beam of light from the unicorn into one of his fellow guards. My scowl turned into a hidden smirk.

The Shadow Ponies had pointed me at the Order like a missile, counting on me to carry on my fine career of massive property damage. And, to a point, I was going to. But the moment I found Arcane Mind, there was going to be a slight change of plans.

I wasn’t going to take him out for these assholes.

I was going to tell him the truth.

The Princesses might not be thrilled with that decision. Hell, I wasn’t thrilled with that decision. My inner caveman was bellowing for a swift vengeance, preferably one that involved as much smashy-smashy as possible. But this was the best way. Those bastards in the background wanted us at each others’ throats. They wanted both groups too busy fighting to notice what they were secretly up to. I don’t know what the evil plan was just yet, but anything involving a demon as badass as He Who Walks Behind couldn’t be good.

So, as much as it pained me, I was going to try working things out peacefully with the Order. If I could convince them to work with us instead of against, we could root out the pony responsible for this whole mess.

And if they didn’t listen? Then, it was time for smashy-smashy, and the consequences be damned.

“Done,” Rarity said coolly, finishing the last knot on the last guard. There were a few bumps and bruises from the fight, but everypony appeared to be in good condition. We needed to get moving. The sounds of our scuffle had probably alerted everypony in the hideout they had visitors. We had to find Arcane Mind before he escaped.

According to Novel Notion, the mountain Canterlot sat on was riddled with cave systems and old mines, a legacy of gem hunters called Diamond Dogs and the Unicorn miners who'd kicked them out. Once the jewel seams were played out, the Order moved into the left over tunnels, shaping and expanding them before Canterlot was founded above them. Even though this hideout was relatively isolated, I had no doubt it was connected to a labyrinth of tunnels and God knows what else.

“Let’s get moving, then,” Twilight said, echoing my thoughts perfectly. She’d calmed down a little since her scene with Novel, but she still smoldered. The rest of the ponies were a collection of different emotions. Rainbow was equal parts angry, nervous and excited. Fluttershy shook with fear, but she pressed on, steering my wheelchair towards the door at the back of the room. Rarity was affecting an air of detachment to hide her icy fury. Pinkie was strangely solemn, sometimes reverting to her more typical antics, but more often silent. And Applejack just seemed grim.

The hallway beyond the heavy door was plain but well-lit. There were a dozen doors to either side of the corridor, each of them identical to the large slab of hard wood we had just passed. It would have taken far too long to check each of them, but thankfully, we didn’t have to. Novel had already told me that Arcane Mind was on the bottom floor. The staircase at the end of the hall made us pause for a second. Or at least I paused, seeing as how wheelchairs and stairs don’t exactly get along.

“Oh dear,” Fluttershy murmured staring at the steep steps. “I don’t think it’s big enough for Dash to fly you down.”

Twilight opened her mouth, but got cut off before she could make a sound.

“What?” Rainbow exclaimed. “It might not be easy, but who are we talking about here? I can do it, no problem.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got to go with Fluttershy on this one,” I said. “One wrong move and we’d both go down. And the stone floor doesn’t look all that soft to me.”

We pondered for a second more, and Twilight began again. “I could−”

“I got it!” Pinkie interrupted. “Why doesn’t Applejack carry you? She’s got crazy strong legs from all that apple bucking,”

“Not a bad idea, but I’m worried that he’d slip off,” Applejack said.

“I’ve still got some rope,” Rarity suggested. “We could tie him on.”

I was suddenly enveloped by a purple field of energy as Twilight lifted me and the wheelchair together. “Or we could do this,” she stated with a faint trace of irritation in her voice.

“Or we could do that,” I agreed. The rest of group fell into an awkward silence as they followed Twilight and me down the stairs.

The first flight was uneventful, but we remained alert anyway. We still had another three to go down. If this was a set-up, then the stairwell would be a good place for an ambush: little cover, unstable footing, and the risk of falling. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but this whole situation reminded me all too much of Trixie’s crazy castle of death.

Nothing jumped out at us, though, and we reached the bottom floor without incident. Somehow, that failed to ease the tension. The corridor before us was empty. The sound of an indistinct but heated conversation came from a half-open door barely fifteen feet away. Other than that, everything was eerily silent.

This isn’t right, I thought glancing worriedly from side to side. Why weren’t there more guards? Was the room above really far enough away to mute the sounds of our fight? Why did this feel more and more like a trap?

I opened my mouth to discuss some last second strategy with the group. Walking in and offering to parley was the ultimate goal, but if this was a trap, that could get us killed. I wanted to hear what everypony thought before committing us to anything. The first syllable hadn’t even passed my lips when Rainbow shot forward.

“IT’S GO TIME, PONIES!” she bellowed as she charged the cracked door. Conversation stopped in the nearby room and everypony in the hall, except for one obvious exception, froze.

“Oh my goodness, she just flew in there,” Rarity said, breaking the silence. Rainbow was already in the room, and if the grunts of effort and clang of hoof on metal were any clue, she was already fighting somepony.

“Darn it, Dash,” Applejack swore as the rest of the group followed her wild charge. The farmpony cleared the door no more than ten seconds after the flying daredevil. Most of her friends were close behind. Notice that I said ‘most’. Fluttershy was trying her best, but my wheelchair wasn’t built for speed, and she wasn’t exactly in contention for the title of Equestria’s strongest mare.

“Didn’t we agree to try talking first?” I grumbled. “I know Rainbow was there when we discussed the plan.”

“You’re right,” Fluttershy agreed quietly as we neared the door. “but she sort-of, kind-of might not have listened.” I bit back a sarcastic reply to that and settled on trying to figure out a way to fix this mess.

We were only ten seconds late to the fight, but in combat, ten seconds is a long time. The room was ruled by chaos, or least a close relative. Papers were flying through the air, scattering everywhere. Between the floating pages I saw Rainbow engaged in hoof-to-hoof combat with a lightly-armored pegasus stallion. He couldn’t quite match her in speed, but strength and experience were letting him hold his own. Rainbow already had a pair of bruises that almost perfectly matched the dents in his breastplate. Both combatants were wearing confident grins, tempered only by a small edge of fear.

Applejack and Pinkie were double-teaming a single robed pony. They charged together, the farmpony lowering her shoulder into a rush and Pinkie swinging an over-sized candy cane like a battle ax. I thought for sure they’d have this guy. Then he chuckled and I recognized the voice. It was Watcher. He sidestepped Applejack’s charge, launching a quick jab she had to jump back to avoid. That should’ve left him open to Pinkie’s attack, but he spun like a top, shattering her candy cane with one metal clad hoof. All without disturbing the deep shadows of his hood.

The last enemy was a small unicorn, almost a kid, really, with a gear or cog marking on her flank. She was facing off against Twilight and Rarity, and to my surprise, she wasn’t getting her ass handed to her. Two bandoleers stuffed with dozens of glimmering little crystals lined her chest. Her horn glowed brightly as she moved the gems in and out of little slots on her bracers. A stream of green-grey energy shot from one of the gauntlets as she fought, leading me to the brilliant deduction that she was powering her spells with magic stored in the gems. Unlike her pegasus comrade, her expression was conflicted, edging towards sad. “I’m sorry!” She yelled as a trio of flashing white balls homed in on Twilight.

Twilight batted them away into a stack of paper just in time to raise a shield against a spear made of neon orange light. The spear exploded, ripping apart a pair of illusions Rarity had cast, revealing her true position. The scattered pages rose from the ground in the form of a barred cage, but Rarity managed to jump back, dodging the spell. I was impressed that the kid could stonewall both our unicorns, even though Twilight didn’t look to have her heart in the fight for some reason, but at the rate she was using those crystals, they weren’t going to last very long. The little unicorn was purchasing time at a premium, but why?

Then, through the fluttering paper, I saw the reason. A dark teal unicorn with bright gold hair was escaping. Behind an impressively large desk, there was an open door. A door that Arcane Mind was currently passing through.

I gathered my will, pouring power into my voice. “STOP!” I bellowed, putting every ounce of authority I had into it. My enhanced voice rebounded in the small room, despite the muffling effect of the paper. Somehow, luck was on my side, and everyone actually listened to me for once and stopped.

Arcane Mind was frozen in the doorway of his bolt hole, a bespectacled unicorn next to him. The unicorn was probably an assistant of some kind; he certainly didn’t look like a fighter. The loose pages had settled to the floor, no longer stirred by furious action, by the time he spoke. “You,” he said, pronouncing the word like it was the vilest curse he knew.

“Who else?” I asked sarcastically. Before he could respond I shook my head and sighed. “Look, I know you think I’m some kind of evil zombie pony hell-bent on world domination or something, but I’m not here to fight. First impressions aside,” I said with a glare at Rainbow. She didn’t even have the grace to look guilty.

“Then what are you here for?” His tone was still cold and hostile, but there was an undercurrent of genuine curiosity in it.

“To talk,” Twilight said, shaking her head sadly. “All of this craziness has been nothing more than a misunderstanding.” She paused a moment to let that sink in before continuing. “He isn’t Obsidian.”

“So you have told us,” Watcher stated, voice empty of emotion. “But somehow, we remain unconvinced.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Rainbow shouted, throwing her hooves up in anger. “How thick can you ponies be? Do you really think the freaking Elements of Harmony and both Princesses can’t tell if somepony’s a super evil bad guy? Really?!”

“I think he’s more cunning than you give him credit for.” The pegasus stallion added challengingly. “Both you and the Princesses are overconfident. You’re so certain of yourselves that you let his lies fool you, because they sound sweeter than the truth.”

“Actions speak louder ‘n words,” Applejack cut in. “And last time I checked Dresden weren’t the one who kidnapped my friend, almost killed my sister, and sent a demon that took a bite outta the Princess.”

“It was supposed to kill him,” Arcane Mind bit out. “We wanted to summon it somewhere that we knew the Princesses would be together with him. That way they could deal with it before things got out of control. We didn’t expect him to survive, and we certainly didn’t expect one of them to be injured.”

“So the ends justify the means?” Rarity responded arching an eyebrow disdainfully. “How high of a price are you willing to let other ponies pay to satisfy this vendetta of yours?”

“It’s not like that!” the small unicorn cried, her expression troubled. “We’re trying to save Equestria! We’re the good guys!”

“That’s what’s so super confusing!” Pinkie chimed in. “I mean, you think killing Blackstone would keep Equestria safe? Or locking up Trixie? Or how you shadowed Lyra? How many ponies do you have to hurt to keep everypony safe?”

“Just one,” Watcher said, glaring at me. The room fell silent after that. The loose sheaves of paper didn’t even rustle without wind to move them.

Arcane Mind sighed. “If that’s all you have to say, you’ve wasted both our time and yours. We are gathering the reagents to summon that demon again.” Expressions of horror and shock spread through every face in the room. Even the small unicorn and her pegasus comrade looked fearful and uncertain. Watcher seemed as impassive as ever, but with his face shrouded that wasn’t difficult to pull off. “Right now with the Princesses, the Guard, the Elements and the rest of Equestria on your side, it’s the only way we can even reach you. Perhaps if we had more ponies, we could make a stand right now, but you knew how few of us were here before you ever considered coming, didn’t you?”

“Are you insane?!” I barked, hardly able to believe what I was hearing. “You saw what that thing did. I know you had spies in the audience. You know that creature is the closest thing to pure evil that Equestria has ever seen. Why in Hell would you ever bring it back?!”

“Because it knows you, Obsidian,” he sneered. He took a moment to compose himself adopting a calmer pose, but the anger and contempt remained lurking just beneath the surface of his cracking mask. “You’re right, we did have ponies in that audience and they heard what it said. Something about ‘unfinished business’ between the two of you. That’s not even the most convincing evidence we have against you, but I am curious how you would explain that in any other light.”

I felt a vein in my forehead begin to throb, but I had to admit that he had a point. From his perspective that had to look pretty damn … damning, I suppose. Still, that didn’t matter. It just meant that the time to play my trump card had come. “Very well,” I replied. “Twilight, cancel your spell, please.”

It took her a second to realize what I was talking about then her eyes went wide. “Are you sure we should…” she trailed off, then shook her head. “No, you’re right. If we want them to believe us they should have the full truth.”

Her horn began to glow and I could feel her spell in and around me. It was a presence I’d gotten so used to, I had forgotten about. I could feel it holding me in place, not physically, but on some deeper level. It was kind of like a tight suit or costume that you had to contort yourself to fit into. There was a blaze of purple light and with that the spell was gone. There were none of the careful, slow changes that had accompanied my equine transformation. This was like releasing a stretched rubber band; I snapped back to being human all at once.

My first sensation upon return to my real form was discomfort. The jacket that Rarity had made for me, which I hadn’t thought to take off, wasn’t made to fit a human frame. Especially not one as tall as mine. I shrugged it off as I rose from the wheelchair, straightening my spine for the first time in days. My head nearly brushed the ceiling, and there wasn’t chance that I could stretch my restored arms, but I was just happy that I didn’t have to hunch to stand.

Damn, that feels good, I thought almost sighing in satisfaction. With effort I focused on the mission at hand. Yes, at hand. Damn, it was nice to have those back, even if one was still useless.

“As you can see,” I told the shocked ponies staring at me. “I can’t be Obsidian because I’m not even a pony. My species is called ‘human’, and I come from a world on the other side of the Nevernever, or Astral Plane, whatever you call it.” I actually wasn’t a hundred percent sure how our two worlds worked in relation to each other and the Nevernever, but that sounded as good as anything. Besides, that wasn’t the important part right now.

“My name is actually Harry Blackstone Dresden.” I carefully left out ‘Copperfield’, just in case. No sense giving away your True Name to people who may or may not still want to kill you when introductions were over. “You can call me Harry.”

“But you’re not,” the near-sighted assistant mumbled, his face red as a beet.

With willpower that should have earned me a Green Lantern ring, I ignored his statement and continued. “Anyway, you wanted an explanation for the demon. Well, in my world, our semi-divine entities aren’t nearly as nice as your Princesses. That, and the swarms of supernatural predators make my home a much rougher place. Among those predators are humans who give in to darker emotions. People who let hatred or ambition rule them. Those kind of humans with magic are called Warlocks. When I was young, one of them summoned He Who Walks Behind and sent Him to kill me. I was lucky to survive.” My face fell in an expression of cold fury. “He toys with people before destroying them. When I tried to run away, He ripped an innocent bystander in half just to prove a point.”

I pulled my arm out of its sling, ignoring the flash of pain that came with it. The dislocated shoulder hadn’t left much of a mark, despite the horrendous pain that came with it, but the razor tentacle hadn’t been as kind. I ripped the bandages off to show the rows of stitches, bleeding and twisted out of place by my transformation. They looked messy by themselves, but it was the mottled purple bruises around them that really sold the image. “This is what He does; He brings nothing but pain, suffering and despair. He came close to killing Princess Celestia, and He’ll do worse if you bring him back.

“You accused me of being Obsidian, but I haven’t done a damn thing since I arrived other than bust up your stupid stronghold looking for Twilight. Even then, I didn’t kill a single pony. You’re the one willing to re-summon one of the darkest demons in existence, despite what He’s already done. Remind me which one of us is the ‘bad guy’, again.”

There was silence, but only then did I realize it wasn’t quite for the reasons I had expected. Everypony in the room, with three exceptions, was blushing and very carefully staring at anything other than me. Arcane Mind was instead glaring at me in disgust, Watcher was still as stone and Pinkie was just barely holding back gales of laughter.

That’s when it hit me. I looked down to be certain, but really there wasn’t any way to mistake it. I was naked and, unlike ponies, human equipment hangs out on display. Personally, I blame pony society for its lack of proper clothing. I’d gotten too used to walking around half-naked to realize immediately after changing.

“Oh, come on! Really?!” I burst out.

“So that explains the ‘boxers’ then,” Twilight murmured.

A black bag tied to the side of the wheelchair shook with mirth. A voice that was pitched too low for anyone else to hear floated from it. “Remember, boss. If they’re blushing that means they want it.” He paused. “Though, given the temperature in here you might want to reassure them that it does get−”

“Shut up, Bob,” I growled. My face was as scarlet as anyone’s and I wanted desperately to cover myself. There had to be some way to preserve my modesty without looking like a total idiot, but after spending several minutes explaining who I was and where I came from completely nude I couldn’t think of one.

Rarity came to my rescue and not a second too soon. “Here, darling,” she said, tying a crude kilt around my middle. If it looked suspiciously like a hastily-transformed sling, then so be it. As long as I had something to wear, I wouldn’t be ashamed.

“Sorry,” Rarity said. “Given time I’d have done better, but at least that skirt complements your mane.”

I choked down the last remnants of my pride and replied in a neutral tone, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you,” Arcane Mind said, his expression of disgust unchanged. “I’m not certain what that vulgar display was meant to accomplish, but I’m glad it’s over.”

That vein in my forehead started throbbing again. “My species normally wears clothing, but transforming into an entirely different creature is tricky like that. Please tell me you weren’t so distracted by my nudity that you didn’t listen to what I was saying.”

“Oh, I was listening, all right, and congratulations. I’ll admit that it’s possible that you aren’t Obsidian in some freakishly hideous new form.”

Freakish? I thought. Isn’t he Mr. Diplomatic? Still, he was at least considering the notion that I wasn’t the boogeyman. So, why do I feel like the other shoe still hasn’t dropped yet?

“But that doesn’t change what you are,” he concluded.

Oh, right. Because he’s an asshole, I grumbled mentally. “And that means…?”

“It means everything!” Arcane Mind roared, smashing his hoof to the ground. His calm, superior composure broke, and I was seeing the anger and desperation that had seethed behind his mask the entire conversation. “Two nights ago my niece, my sweet little Romana, came to me on her knees and begged my forgiveness. She was in pain, and I had to watch her contort in agony. I had to hear her screams as she fought the compulsions you placed inside her. But she withstood it long enough to tell me what I needed to know. She told me everything that you forced her and others like her to do and everything you let slip about your plans for the future. Before her strength faded she made me promise to lock her away, to chain her beneath a waterfall! All so that she couldn’t be forced to hurt the ponies she loved doing your bidding! If you truly aren’t Obsidian it would at least explain why she only referred to you as Blackstone, but it doesn’t matter anymore. You are a cancer growing and festering in the heart of Equestria. Even if you aren’t him you’re just as bad!”

I was silent, shocked by this revelation. The Shadow Ponies were two steps ahead of me. They’d already guaranteed that no matter what I did the Order was fixed against me. Those bastards had tapped into the worst fears of these ponies and kept feeding them.

“And that doesn’t sound like a set-up to you?” I challenged. There was only one way out of this, but I didn’t like my odds. “Somepony you trust stumbles up, obviously under the effects of mental magic, and you actually believed what she says? Somebody else is behind that and they played you like a cheap violin. Whoever messed with her head wants us to fight, they want you to summon that demon and you’re letting them win. In fact, where did you get the knowledge to summon Him anyway? I’m willing to bet that info conveniently showed up just when you needed it.”

He grimaced and I could tell my words stung him, but he shook his head erasing his doubts. “And to think I was surprised you managed to talk your way into the Princesses good graces. Silver tongue or not, you won’t convince me.”

“Really? Why don’t you look me in the eye and tell me I’m lying?” This was my last shot. The Soul Gaze couldn’t be faked and couldn’t be doubted. He might still hate me after seeing my soul, but whatever it showed him, I’m damn sure my soul wouldn’t make me out to be a brilliant Machiavellian schemer. There was no way I could’ve come up with a plan this subtle and layered, and he’d see the proof.

“I think not,” he said his expression darkening into a grim scowl. “Miss Sparkle detailed your ‘Soul Gaze’ and I have no desire to expose myself to whatever magic you used on her. My mental shields may be better trained, but a fight avoided is only one you can’t lose. Let me say just one thing before I go. If you’re really as innocent as you pretend, you’d face this demon alone, somewhere far away from innocent ponies. If you actually care about the Elements, if you’re really friends with the Princesses, you won’t make them fight this battle.” He shook his head, his eyes heavy with condemnation. “I know you won’t. I know you’re willing to let them die in a pathetic attempt to save your own life, but I can only hope that they’ll realize what you’re really doing when you ask them to defend you.”

Shit.

He began to turn away, finally stepping through the heavy stone portal behind him, and my mind started racing. I only had enough time for one spell before he went through that door. I searched my mind desperately, trying to find a solution. We were too far underground to pull him towards me with wind. Any breeze down here would only ruffle his mane. He wasn’t wearing any metal so magnetism wouldn’t work, even if my sword had been in hand. A force spell could knock him out, but what would that accomplish? Even if the blow didn’t throw him into the next room, his unicorn assistant would. Then it was just a matter of shutting the door.

In the corner of my eye I saw light gather at Twilight’s horn. Before I even got the chance to feel relieved, Watcher’s hoof blurred in tiny, perfectly practiced movement. A stone the size of a golf ball smacked into Twilight’s horn and she yelped in pain. The purple light extinguished as Applejack began to charge, more than ready to resume her fight. The exchange had barely taken a second, Arcane Mind was still framed by the doorway. But time was slipping away and I couldn’t think of a way to stop him. He was going to get away scot free and bring back He Who Walks Behind. I had to stop him, but I couldn’t. Unless…

Unless I did more with a force spell then knock him out. I’ve broken stone with my power, a skull would be nothing.

He’s a murderer and a scumbag, a part of me thought. This world would be better off without him, even if he wasn’t trying to kill me.

My right arm was extended and my power ready. One word, and I could end him. The war with the Order would remain, but I doubted they could summon He Who Walks Behind without their head mage.

His life was in my hands, and the power felt good. Intoxicating, even.

Until I realized that was exactly what it felt like. Bile began to rise in the back of my throat, and I nearly threw up. I lowered my arm, power draining away. The door slammed shut with a resounding boom that carried even over the renewed sounds of combat. Following Applejack’s charge, the rest of my friends had jumped back into battle.

I’d almost killed him in cold blood with his back to me. What made matters worse was that I still wanted to. It would’ve been so damned easy to just give in to that anger and kill him.

“Dresden!” Applejack shouted in warning. My head snapped up in time to see Watcher slip past her in a direct charge towards me. Survival instincts kicked in, banishing my guilt for the moment.

I pulled my staff to me with a quick burst of will, even as I prepared a shield. The barrier flared to life just as Watcher neared me. He kicked the shield and I slid back a couple inches from the impact. He hit hard, at least as hard as a black court vampire, and they can rip someone literally in half.

“What did you think that would accomplish? Talking to him? Even I did not think you were that stupid.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I replied letting the shield drop so I could level my staff at him. I managed with one hand, but it wasn’t easy. “Are you telling me, you still think I’m Obsidian too?”

“Of course not,” he actually sounded insulted. “I have never once thought you were actually Obsidian.”

For a moment I couldn’t understand it, but then it all clicked. Somepony within the Order who knew I wasn’t Obsidian. “It’s you,” I realized. “You’re part of the third group in all this mess. You’re with the ponies who tried to kill me in Ponyville.”

“I ordered those ponies to kill you,” he corrected. His voice turned sour and I could almost imagine his grimace. “I still find it difficult to believe that they failed so completely.”

“Oh, it is on,” I growled.

He dodged my first spell by jumping back, but that put him in range of Applejack’s hooves. He took her kick like a beast, barely staggering from the powerful blow. A quick glance told me that Pinkie was busy helping Rainbow mop up the pegasus, and our unicorns were still busy with the half-pint. That’s okay, AJ and I had this guy.

After a furious exchange of blows, he withstood not just Applejack’s kicks, but my spells as well. The ones he didn’t dodge, at least. I wasn’t exactly giving him love taps, either, after seeing him withstand Applejack’s kick. The biggest problem, though, was actually hitting the bastard. He moved like oiled smoke, and neither Applejack or I were exactly known for our finesse in combat. Still, with two on one we were wearing him down, he couldn’t focus on just one of us of the other would have him.

I started to let myself ramp up the amount of force in each spell. Normally, I hold back, especially when the opponent is a mortal, but he was already shrugging off every hit I landed. If he could take what I was throwing, there wasn’t any reason not to hit him harder. Anger began to grow inside me, slowly but surely. I was angry at myself, angry at the world, but mostly angry at this stupid, evil asshole. Everything was his fault. He had set all this up, and if I could only take him out, I could fix everything.

Forzare!” I yelled for what felt like the hundredth time. The wave of heat washed down my arm and the scent of brimstone erupted from my staff as the spell was unleashed. What had been intended as a lance of force turned into a wall, one of that had lost none of its massive strength despite the sudden increase in area. Watcher lowered his body, bracing himself against my power, but this time it was too much for him. He was thrown backward through a couple stacks of paper to slam against the stone wall. He gave a cry of pain that was surprisingly high-pitched. His hood had been ripped off by the wave of energy, and for the time I finally saw the true face of my enemy.

Equine faces are roughly similar to human ones. There are differences, of course, but once you’ve spent some time with ponies, you learn to work past those. Or, at least, that’s what I had thought, but now I was starting to question how well I could read them. Watcher not only appeared to be female, but she didn’t look older than her early twenties. Her coat was pitch black, and her mane was deep gold even though it was close cropped. She didn’t have a horn, which I actually had been wondering about since she never removed her hood. I felt my fury start to cool; somehow she just didn’t look like an evil mastermind. Her eyes flew open, letting me see that her irises were bone white, blending almost perfectly into the rest of her eye. I was treated to a brief hateful glare, before she yanked her hood back on.

“Cog!” she yelled. “Time to go!”

“Thank Harmony,” the small unicorn said from the other said of the room. “I’m down to my last five crystals.” A lance of purple light forced Cog to call up a navy blue shield. “I mean, four.”

“Do it!”

I brought my shield to bear, uncertain what ‘it’ would be. I turned towards the small unicorn ready to stop her. That, unfortunately, was the wrong reaction. A pulsing white crystal slid into her gauntlet and the world flooded with light. It felt like someone had shoved my face into a searchlight. The light was everywhere, and it was so painfully bright. Even when I shut my eyes and pressed both hands over top of them, there was only blinding light. I could still hear just fine, but between the shouts from the rest of my friends, and the constant rustling of the paper underfoot, that sense wasn’t much help. It took a couple minutes before I could see again, but I wasn’t surprised by what I found.

Watcher and Cog were gone without a trace.

“Dammit!” I swore trying to rack my brain where they had gone. I don’t know if the magic hadn’t affected them, or if they were simply trained to navigate these tunnels without the benefit of sight, but either way they weren’t hanging around. At least they had only cared about getting away, I wouldn’t have liked trying to fight sightless. I briefly considered giving chase, but we didn’t know where they’d gone. I’d bet my original Stars Wars movie poster that there were more secret exits and trapdoors in this compound and I didn’t feel like going on a wild goose chase. At least we knew where Arcane had gone, even though the warded door made for a daunting obstacle.

I glanced around the room. Okay, we’ve still got both unicorns, two earth ponies, all three pegasi and the wheelchair with Bob’s bag tied to it. Wait… three pegasi? I wondered, inspecting our group more thoroughly.

“One of them rattlers are still here!” Applejack shouted, coming to the same conclusion that I had.

The olive colored pegasus stallion jumped into the air with a quick flap of his wings. “Rattlesnakes? Where?” He nervously inspected the floor. It would have been comical if I were in a better mood.

“There aren’t any snakes. Now get down here,” Rainbow commanded.

“Oh,” the pegasus said, flushing in embarrassment. “So does anypony know where I am? Or who am I? That eye-searing light went off and now I can’t remember anything.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I growled.

“Nope,” Pinkie said shaking her head side-to-side in an exaggerated motion. “I jumped on his back, which somehow brought him down even though I haven’t eaten nearly as many triple-fudge heart-stoppers this week as normal. Then Dashie hit him again, which isn’t really fair since I‘d already put him in a double wing lock, but I guess it’s fine because he’s a bad guy so then he started mumbling ‘you’ll never take me alive’ or something like that, there was a crunch and Watcher yelled ‘do it!’ and light started coming from everywhere and blinded everypony. I think he lost his memories just like that other soldier you and Dashie beat up.”

“Great,” I snapped. Pressing him for information would have been nice, but there was no sense crying over spilled brains. Besides, something told me we weren’t likely to have gotten anything out of him even if he hadn’t scrambled his mind.

My mind moved onto more pressing priorities. Things had been hectic with the Order still here, but I had gotten a good look at the door before they shut it. The thing was solid stone, six feet tall, three wide and at least four inches thick. It also opened into the next room, so there weren’t any hinges on this side to mess with. It was a solid, formidable piece of architecture that could take some serious damage. That said, I’d broken bigger doors than this one. The problem here was that there was more than just stone reinforcing it. While not as powerful or elegant as the ceiling runes I’d seen in the main stronghold, the wards laid over this backdoor were nothing to sneeze at.

Twilight was already examining the door along with me, muttering something under her breath. I wasn’t much use here, so I decided to grab somebody who was. “Time to earn your keep, Bob,” I said, pulling him out of the black mesh bag.

“Yeah, yeah,” he groused. “What do you need?”

“Land sakes! I thought you were pulling my leg, Dash,” Applejack exclaimed, marveling openly at Bob.

“Is that skull talking?” random Order member #47 asked in a combination mild horror and keen interest.

“Yes. Bob meet Applejack and Rom 47. Applejack and Rom 47, Bob. Now be amazed elsewhere, he has work to do.” I crossed the room in three steps and all but shoved his skull into the door. “Tell me how to get through these, ASAP.”

Bob’s eyes dimmed, then focused, becoming two pinpricks of intense orange light instead the usual swirling orbs. A tense silence settled over the group, or it would have if Pinkie wasn’t busy explaining to Applejack, Rom 47 and anypony else who’d listen that Bob was apparently a ‘super-riffic’ friend of hers.

Two or three minutes later, Twilight shook her head in disgust and stepped back. “I can’t get a handle on these spells. Some of the magic in this door is centuries old, and they’ve added, renewed, and changed it year after year since. Maybe I could get somewhere if I had the instruments from my lab and a couple hours to study, but it isn’t possible right now.”

I nodded, trying to hide my disappointment. “Looks like everything rests on you, buddy,” I told Bob.

“Then I’ve got bad news for you there, boss,” he replied still staring intently. “Remember how I said I’m still learning this world’s magic system? Yeah, something this old and this detailed isn’t the type of spell I can unravel off the top of my head. Give me some time to work, some assistance from Twilight and some decent incentives, and I might be able figure out how to disarm this.”

“How much time?” I asked, already fearing the worst.

“Hmmm…” Bob considered the question. “Ballpark it at four or five hours.”

“Why don’t you just break it down the same way you did Trixie’s doors?” Rainbow asked, stretching her wings and yawning.

“The door is very strong,” Rarity answered for me. “I can almost feel it from here. Besides, even if Blackstone, or… Dresden, now, I suppose, were to gather enough power, the resulting spell would likely bring down the roof.”

“You mean…?” Fluttershy asked nervously, her eyes drifting upwards.

“Splat!” Pinkie shouted, giggling a little as her friend jumped.

“But we aren’t doing that,” I said, giving Pinkie a stern look. “Even if Bob’s only half as smart as he thinks he is, that still makes him twice as intelligent as your average Mensa member.” I clapped him on the skull. “C’mon, we needed to be past that door ten minutes ago. I don’t usually ask for a rush job, but this is time critical, Bob. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t believe you could do it.”

“Oh joy. My very own cheerleading squad,” Bob groused, “but that doesn’t change the facts. This is like asking someone to solve a riddle in a language they don’t speak. Bare minimum, if everything goes perfectly, it’s a three hour job. Anything faster just isn’t realistic.”

I growled and shook my head. “We need to get this guy now. You have to find a way past this.”

“Don’t put this on me,” Bob replied bristling at my tone. “It’s your fault he got away. You had a clear shot, and you didn’t take it.”

My teeth ground together as my jaw clenched dangerously hard. My voice came out low and threatening. “The only way to stop him there would have been to kill him, and in case you’ve forgotten, that goes against the First Law.”

The first law of the White Council is simple: ‘Thou shalt not kill by use of magic’. The punishment for breaking it is decapitation. If you’re guilty, and they’ll know if you’re guilty, then the trial, sentencing and execution won’t take more than fifteen minutes. The only thing that can change that is a case of self-defense and even then you’re placed under a zero-tolerance probation that can just as easily end in beheading. If it sounds extreme that’s because it is. The kind of magic a wizard uses is a part of who and what he is. If you’ve killed once, no matter what your reasons were, you always carry the temptation to do it again.

I should know better than anyone. I killed Justin when I was just sixteen.

I still hated the Council for the way they treated me after that, and still treat me in a lot of ways, but I understand it now. I had been so damn tempted to kill Arcane Mind then and there, and this wasn’t the first time. I had almost burnt down the Shadowman’s lake house. I almost ripped out Agent Denton’s throat when I wore that hexenwolf belt. Aurora had died in my arms, bleeding from a thousand cuts. I beat Cassius within an inch of his worthless life after a better man than me forgave him. I tried to shoot Trixie after the Elements of Harmony knocked her out and that was even before the Nightmare had crawled into my head.

I’m not a nice person. I’ve made the wrong choice before, but I refused to do it again here.

“So?” Bob retorted with a snort. “We’re in another dimension, man! How are they going to find out? Besides, didn’t he just say he was going to summon He Who Walks Behind again? Even Warden Morgan would give you a high five for taking this guy out, and he hates you.”

“That’s not what this is about, Bob!” My voice rose to a roar, my temper fully lost. “There are lines I don’t cross, stuff that I just can’t do! It doesn’t matter that he’s a demon-summoning scumbag, I’m not using magic to kill him!”

“Why not?” Bob said. His voice wasn’t any louder than normal, but I could feel the heat behind it. “Seriously, why not? You killed Justin for the same thing, and he was your foster father.”

The room fell dead silent.

I shut my eyes, unable, or maybe unwilling, to face my friends. I know I’m not a good person, but they didn’t. They thought well of me and I didn’t want to know what they thought now.

Justin had been a monster, who needed to be put down. That didn’t mean it had been easy to kill him. He’d never been the most loving guardian, but he’d been there when no one else had. He’d pulled me out of that orphanage and told me that I was special.

“Dresden,” Twilight said, her voice hushed. “Did you really…”

She trailed off and I didn’t respond.

“Uh … Harry?” Bob asked, his voice uncharacteristically subdued.

Eventually, I stood up. “I’m going,” I said. I grabbed my staff and coat, but left the skull behind.

“Dresden, wait!” one pony shouted, but I couldn’t tell who. I continued down the dim hallway without pausing. Nopony followed me, and I didn’t blame them.