• 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 One

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter One

I sat alone in my basement apartment with a bottle of beer, brooding.

An uncharitable asshole like my brother may have called it sulking, but what the hell does he know? I’m a wizard, damnit, and wizards brood. It’s a part of the mystic atmosphere shtick.

I was in a bad mood and the world seemed to be conspiring against me to make it worse. The day was gray and overcast, rain pouring down in a steady, monotonous stream. I was in between cases at the moment, mundane or otherwise, and without any private investigating to do I had nothing to keep me busy. That wouldn’t have been so bad except that the rent was due next week, and I wouldn’t make it even if I started selling plasma. And to top off the list my hand was hurting again.

I glanced down at the offending extremity and scowled. Now that I’d given it my attention, the next ache was even worse. It had been months since the bandages came off, but I suppose nearly burning your hand to slag wasn’t something you get used to. The doctors had suggested I amputate it and get a prosthetic, but I had refused. Vehemently.

Roasted beyond use or not, it was my damn hand, and I was keeping it. At least the glove covered most of the scarring. I sighed; the only good thing to come out of that misadventure was finding my brother.

Thomas is a half-brother, actually, and a vampire of the White Court, but you can’t pick your family. He certainly couldn’t. Thomas’s father had subtly tried to arrange his son’s death for years, just to ensure there could be no one to challenge him for control over the White Court.

Now, though, Thomas lived with me. He hadn’t had much choice otherwise. It made the small apartment seem smaller, but both of us had managed not to kill each other yet. Given my temper today, though, it was a good thing he was out. I finished my beer and debated whether or not to get another, when a slow, measured beat hammered my door.

With cat-like reflexes, no doubt assisted by the beer, I leapt to my feet and instantly tripped, trying not to step on the puppy that rushed past. I managed to catch myself on my good hand, which immediately informed me that was a bad idea, and I cursed loudly. The gray little furball just nudged the door, staring at me quizzically, as if to ask why I wasn’t answering it. Mouse was another consequence of my last case. It was either adopt him or throw a Foo dog into the streets. I didn’t know everything the little guy was capable of, but so far he’d shown a real talent for getting underfoot. The door rang with three more precise knocks, and I cursed again as I stood back up. Now the fuzzy little monster was grinning as he pawed the door.

“Don’t get smug,” I told him, “one of these days I’m going to feed you to Mister. How does getting made into kitty kibble sound?” He just yawned, seemingly unconcerned about his possible future as Fancy Feast.

The knocking continued, and I growled as I pulled my staff from its position next to the door. Some people would call such precaution paranoid, and I would admit it was entirely possible there was a non-sinister reason for a strange knock on my door on such a dreary day. Then, after I greeted the normal, friendly person waiting for me, we would sit outside and watch the pigs fly by.

I opened the door, leaving the wards active, and glared at whoever had interrupted my brooding. I stared what sat on my doorstep and quickly discovered that ‘whatever’ was more appropriate. It was a section of the night sky cut into the shape of a horse. Or, I realized in a flash of insight, a pony.

It snorted at me and stomped its hooves. I couldn’t see any eyes, but its mouth was occupied by a thin scroll sealed in wax. Without a word, the sending set the message on the ground and disappeared, leaving me staring at thin air.

It could have been a trap, but I didn’t think that was likely. I’d never told a soul about my adventure in the land of brightly colored ponies. All the Council knew was that I’d gotten lost in the Nevernever. Sure, I was gone for almost a week, but time isn’t necessarily constant between here and there. They had grudgingly accepted my explanation, and that was that.

I glanced up the stairs to be sure, there were no nasty surprises waiting for me to lower my defenses, but there was nothing but the drumming rain. Mouse wasn’t growling either, and he’d proven more adept at seeing – okay, smelling – danger coming than I ever had. I lowered the wards just long enough to grab the scroll, then ducked quickly back inside. I don’t know how the sending had done it, but the paper was barely damp. The letter was short and to the point.

Dear Mister Dresden,

Something is about to happen, and we need you to return. If you come back the same way you left, you will find me waiting at the ruins. Sorry for the vague letter but I couldn’t be certain no one else would see this.

Your friend, T. S.

P.S. We all look forward to seeing you again soon.

I scratched my head. 'Vague' was right. I couldn’t even tell if she talking about a pony apocalypse or a tea party. I grabbed a poker and stirred up the fire that had been dying in the fireplace. After I’d read through the letter a couple times and committed it to memory, I tossed the parchment into the flames, careful not to get my good hand too close to them.

That done, I moved one of the rugs and pulled open the trap door that led to my lab. It was really just a sub-basement, a gray concrete cube, but after years of filling it with various items of arcane purpose and mystical origin, the place actually looked like a wizard’s study. Well, it did if you turned your head and squinted, anyway. One wooden shelf seemed out of place, littered as it was with trashy romance novels, and old Playboys. In the middle of that shelf sat a human skull.

“Bob. Get your lazy nonexistent ass up. I’ve got a trip to prepare for,” I said, rummaging through some bric-a-brac to set up a potion-making rig. Twin orange glows lit in the eyes of the skull behind me, and it gave an exaggerated yawn.

“So, something actually managed to knock you out of your funk, sahib?” His eyes brightened. “Does Murphy have a case for you? I bet she’d be glad to see you again. Maybe glad enough to−”

“No,” I interrupted before the conversation turned X-rated. “I got a letter from Twilight and the sending that delivered it makes me think it’s legit.” I said I hadn’t told a soul, and that was the truth; Bob didn’t have one.

“Oh?” he said, drawing out the word. “So, going back to the land of ponies, boss? Alone?”

I snorted. “Who else would I take? It’s not like−” I stopped, the meaning of his words sinking in. “Oh, hell no. I am not taking you with me. I’m bad enough as it is, who knows what you’d do?”

How he can glare without a face, I don’t know, but it was as impressive as ever. “Maybe, but I know what I won’t do if you leave me behind. How much research do you think you’ll get done without my help?”

I returned his glare with one of my own. “Given your history of throwing fits? About as much as usual.” Bob was a spirit of intellect who had worked with wizards for hundreds of years. He was literally invaluable and probably illegal. Knowledge was power in wizardry, and Bob had more information at his metaphorical fingertips than the Library of Congress. Not to mention his ability to analyze, theorize and study magic and the shifting laws that controlled it.

Seeing that his threats weren’t getting him anywhere, Bob switched tactics. “C’mon, Harry! It’s a whole new world, a different brand of magic, and more information than I’ve added to my memory in a century. Why can’t I go?”

I considered that. True, Bob could actually tell me more about the mechanics and differences between our worlds than any three wizards I knew, but I couldn’t let him off that easy. “Yeah, like your motives are ever that pure. If you tell me the real reason you want to go, I just might take you.”

He replied without hesitation or shame. “You described the population as mostly female and entirely naked. I am not missing out on that.”

“They’re horses, Bob!”

His voice took on a condescending tone, and he slowly shook his skull back and forth. “Harry, Harry, Harry. I appreciate a good-looking girl no matter what species she happens to be. Not that I’m the only one. How do you think centaurs were made anyway?” It’s times like this I wish mental magic was legal, because now I had an image in my mind that was disturbing beyond all belief.

When I was finished repressing that particular bit of trivia, I sighed. Bob might be a pain in the ass, but he’s still my oldest friend. Besides, it wasn’t like he could tell anyone without my permission. “Fine. You can come, but only if you stay silent and don’t leave your skull. Same rules as being out in public.”

He cheered lustily in a few dead languages before changing back to English. “As long as I can watch, I’ll be as still and cold as your sex life. Speaking of which−”

“No, not speaking of which at all.”

“I’m just saying, if you get any in Equestria, can I ride along?”

I gaped at him. “I’m not letting you into my head, Bob and I am definitely not sleeping with a pony!” The idea alone was enough to drive a man to drink.

“I’m just saying if you get lucky.”

“I am not sleeping with anyone.” I growled.

Bob sighed. “Well, business as usual, then.” I glared at him, but it wasn’t worth pursuing. Bob would just make me regret bringing him along even more.

“The letter was vague, so I’m going to make a few potions. If there’s trouble, they’ll be handy, and if not, then it’s an object lesson in some of my magic for Twilight.” I rubbed a hand across my chin, thinking. “I’d probably better make a blending potion and an escape potion. Hmm. What else would you suggest?”

Bob didn’t have any eyebrows to raise, but that didn’t stop him from giving the impression that he did. “Really, sahib? You’re actually going to give me a straight line that obvious?” I glared at him again, and he sighed. “I’d include the wolf brew – you know, the sense enhancer – but nothing else. Those three should be good.”

“Isn’t wolf fur the main ingredient for the wolf brew?” I asked, trying to remember. Potion making was a delicate art, and without the proper formula, the mix would be more poison than potion. That was one place especially where Bob’s memory came in handy.

“Yep,” Bob confirmed. “Just call up Billy, he’ll help out.” His orange eyes glimmered. “Or better yet, try Georgia. Oh! Or Andi! I mean, they have to be naked to transform, and it wouldn’t really be your fault if you saw their−”

“Thank you, Bob.”

………

“You want what?” asked Billy the werewolf, leader of the Alphas. They were a pack of college age werewolves who had decided to go vigilante on some of the darker parts of the supernatural. You’d think that would end in disaster, but they were smart enough not to tangle with anything out of their weight class. Unless I was involved. Then they tended to do dumb things like follow me into a battle between the supernatural armies of the Fae courts.

I rolled my eyes. “You heard me, Billy. I need it for a potion I’m making.”

“Oh, gotcha. Is this that anti-gravity one you were talking about?”

“No,” I replied, “I’ll get that right one of these days, but this is for something more practical. On that note, I’m going to be out of town for a while. Not sure how long it’ll take, but you’ll probably want to step up the patrols while I’m gone.”

He paused for a moment. “Will we have a way to contact you if something crazy goes down? It’s not like you have a cellphone we can call.” Magic tends to disrupt technology, and the more complex the tech, the easier it breaks. That’s one reason I’m not worried about Skynet; even the weakest wizard could short out something like that with a sneeze.

“Yeah, just turn on the Bat Signal and I’ll show up at the commissioner’s window.”

“Really, you’re going to be a smartass? After you called me for a favor?” He paused. “Two favors, actually.”

I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I think it’s funny, and you’re still going to do both of them anyway, so it’s a win-win.”

Billy laughed. “Fine, but don’t forget to call Murphy too. If she found out you told me and not her … Well, I’d just hope your insurance was paid up.” I swore dark things under my breath, and Billy laughed again. “I’ll bring it over later. See you, Harry.”

I hung up the phone, then picked it back up and dialed a familiar number. After a couple of rings she picked up. “Lt. Murphy, Special Investigations. How can I help you?”

“Hey, baby. What’s shaking?” She’d kill me later, but it was so worth it. I hope she had me on speakerphone.

For a lady who’s five foot three on her tiptoes, Murphy can grunt like a linebacker. “Oh, it’s you, Harry. Well, I’m going to have a seven foot corpse to deal with if you keep that up. How’s the hand?”

“Still half-melted and totally useless, but I called to tell you I’m going out of town for a while and don’t know when I’ll be back. Try not to let any mysterious homicides happen ‘til then.”

“You’re going somewhere on a case? Or is it Council business?”

I briefly considered lying to her, but I’m a terrible liar. “No to both.”

“Are you actually taking a vacation?” She sounded like she couldn’t believe it. Then she caught on. “Or does this have to do with that week you just disappeared, then turned up in the middle of nowhere and never talked about it?”

I snorted. “What was there to talk about? I got lost in the Nevernever and fell out again a week later. I told you time flow there doesn’t always match up with the real world.”

Her voice was skeptical. “Yeah, but I’m a police officer, Harry. I can tell when someone isn’t giving me the whole story. Why are you holding back?”

I hesitated. Murphy was good people. She’d saved my ass more times than I’d care to admit, and I knew she wouldn’t betray anything I told her in confidence. But, at the same time, I had promised Twilight and the Princesses that I’d keep my mouth shut. If I told her, she might let it slip, or it might be overheard. The more people that knew, the greater the chance the knowledge would fall into the wrong hands.

I couldn’t risk telling her, and it definitely had nothing to do with the fact I’d be embarrassed to admit I was close friends with a bunch of pretty, colorful ponies. Or that I was going on a magical adventure with them. Nope, I am completely secure in my masculinity.

“Sorry, Murph, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Some secrets aren’t mine to share.”

She was quiet for a moment. “I swear, Harry, if you found Bigfoot and you're keeping it secret…”

I laughed. “That’s not it, but I did have a case like that once. I’ll give you the full story when I get back.”

“See you then, you bastard.”

I hung up still chuckling and got busy getting the rest of my gear together. My force rings were all charged up, and so was my latest and shiniest toy, a silver belt buckle. My cane sword, a few crystals, a tuning fork, a silver bell, and all other sorts of useful odds and ends joined them. I debated whether or not to bring a gun, but I reasoned that it was better to have massive firepower and not need it than to need it and not have it. Both the sawed off shotgun and my .44 joined the rest of the equipment. Of course I grabbed my staff, the symbol of a wizard’s authority and power. I would have taken my blasting rod, but I’d never gotten around to making another one after the last one was destroyed.

All in all, it took a couple of hours before I was ready to call what I hoped would be my ride. The Blue Beetle, my sixties Volkswagen bug, may be sexy, but it breaks down way too often for me to trust it on a trip that far.

“Hello, Harry,” said a deep and resonant voice on the other end. “How are you?”

“I’m okay, Michael. Are the wife and kids doing all right?”

“The children are healthy as ever, growing like weeds. Though Charity’s mad right now. Probably because you’re going to ask me to drive you hundreds of miles out into the middle of nowhere.”

My jaw dropped open, and with my mind otherwise occupied, it stayed that way for a good minute. Michael Carpenter was a Knight of the Cross, and he wielded a sword that supposedly had a nail from the Crucifixion set in its hilt. I’d seen him do things that were supposed to be impossible, seen convenient coincidences happen with ridiculous frequency, but last I checked owning a holy sword doesn’t give you telepathy. “How on Earth did you know that?”

He laughed out loud. “He works in mysterious ways sometimes.” And somehow he didn’t even sound smug, the bastard.

“Wait a minute,” I said, piecing it together. “Murphy told you, didn’t she? Mysterious ways my ass.”

“I don’t know about you, Harry, but I find women mysterious enough to give even the Lord a run for His money.” There was a sound of muffled impact, and Michael laughed again. Knowing Charity, she’d probably given him a thump on the head. I chuckled and relaxed. I don’t put much faith in religion (ba-dum-tish), but I have to admit Michael makes it look good.

“I hope Charity gave you what you deserved for that one,” I said, “but yeah, I could really use a lift. I don’t want to chance taking the Beetle that far, or leaving it there while I’m−” I stopped, realizing what I was about to say. “Elsewhere,” I finished lamely.

“I won’t begrudge you your secrets. Lord knows you’ve probably had enough questions already. It’s a bit late to make the trip today, though. Is tomorrow morning okay?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I wasn’t planning to leave until then. I’ve still got some prep to do, and I need to tell Thomas I’ll be gone.”

“I’ll stop by at seven. See you then, Harry.”

Freaking early risers. I hadn’t seen the dawn in weeks, and that wasn’t a record I looked forward to breaking. But I was getting a free ride, so I couldn’t say much. “I’ll be here.”

………

I’m not sure how late it was when Thomas came back, but Billy had dropped off the ingredients hours ago, and I’d started brewing my potions after dinner. The familiar sensation of my wards reacting to the charm Thomas carried caught my attention, but not as much as the feminine laughter that shortly followed.

“All right!” Bob cheered. “Thomas brought home another girl!”

I sighed, trying not to think unkind thoughts about my brother, but somehow I was less than successful. “Go to sleep, Bob. We’ve got company.” He grumbled slightly, but he was still too happy about going to Equestria to put up much of a fuss. I climbed the stairs up to the trapdoor and pushed cautiously, making sure nobody was standing on it.

For some reason, a seven-foot-tall wizard rising out of the floor surprised the woman who was getting one of Mac’s special darks, my favorite beer, out of my icebox. “What the hell?!” she yelped, clinging to Thomas. I hadn’t scared her that badly, but I think she just wanted a chance to grab hold of him. My brother was more than willing to be grabbed, and if I hadn’t cleared my throat noisily they might’ve have started right there. Not that it was her fault, really – my brother is an incubus, after all.

I glared at him. Most people would never guess we were brothers, but that wasn’t surprising. There may be a family resemblance between us, but humans and chimps kind of look alike, too. Not that I’m ugly, but Thomas has the kind of looks that belong on statues of Greek gods. He’s good-looking enough to make male models jealous and has a smile that kills inhibitions at fifty paces. In short, he was the perfect predator for his type of feeding.

I don’t begrudge him his necessities, but this was the fifth time this week I’d been kicked out of my own bed. Thomas at least had the good grace to look guilty.

“Uh, Monica, meet my roommate, Harry. Harry, this is Monica.”

I nodded curtly to her, then turned back to Thomas. “I just wanted to let you know to keep it down. I’m going out of town tomorrow, and I’ve got to get up early.”

He blinked at that. “Really? How long?”

I shrugged. “However long it takes. I’ll be leaving you the Beetle though. I’m catching a ride with Michael. Don’t forget to feed Mister and Mouse.” Thomas frowned; he and Michael didn’t really get along. I think it has to do with the time he took Michael to a strip club.

“Whatever. Just call me when you get in trouble.” He wrapped an arm around Mary, or whatever this one’s name was, and began heading to the bedroom.

I snorted. “You know I don’t have a cell phone.” In response, he flipped a quarter over his shoulder without even looking. I caught it and glared at the bastard. As much as I hated to admit it, he had style.

The potions wouldn’t wait, though, and I started back down the stairs to watch them brew. At least he hadn’t offered to share this time. I know that sex wasn’t much different from any other meal to him, but somehow I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of family dinner. Not to mention that, thanks to his description, the phrase ‘spit roast’ no longer reminded me of medieval cooking.

………

“We’re here, Harry.”

“Huh-do-wha?” I mumbled, trying in vain to return to the land of the living. The potions had taken longer than I’d thought, and the couch wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to sleep. How Thomas manages on it I don’t know.

Long story short, I was more zombie than human when my wind-up Mickey Mouse alarm clock informed me it was time to get up. A quick, cold shower later, and I still wasn’t much better. Michael had shown up right on time and helped me pack everything into his sedan. I gave him a map and the name of the town closest to the Way and promptly went back to sleep.

Now, though, the sun was at a much more reasonable angle, and I actually felt halfway refreshed. I yawned and stretched, bashing both hands and feet on the small confines of the car. We were in a small town that was remarkable only in how perfectly it matched the Midwestern stereotype. I blinked dazedly, relying on a memory months old, and directed Michael to the outskirts of the place. There, we followed the signs to the nearby cave. I’d looked it up after I got back to Chicago, and discovered a lot of interesting things.

The cave was called Snake’s Bend and had a lot of ghost stories, mysterious disappearances, and bizarre sightings associated with it. The town and cave were listed in several local books about the occult, but it had never become a popular spot. I wasn’t surprised. Most of the truly paranormal places never did. Humans may not admit that the supernatural exists, but when their gut tells them to avoid the dank cave or the old house, most of them listen. Sure, they tell themselves it’s for perfectly valid reasons. ‘It’s easy to get lost in that cave’ or ‘that house is just waiting to fall apart’. But when push comes to shove, they recognize a dangerous place for what it is.

We reached it before too long, and I wasn’t surprised to see that the small parking lot outside was empty. Hell, I wasn’t even out of the car, and I was already getting the heebie-jeebies. It wasn’t full-blown fear so much as a warning; I could tell the barrier between our world and what lay beyond was weak here. I didn’t doubt for a second that those disappearances had been real. Somewhere in that desert rested the bleached bones of anyone unfortunate enough to be in that cave at the wrong time.

I ignored my Spider-sense and began pulling gear out of the back of Michael’s car. He came around to help, and in short order we had everything in a neat stack. I stared at what I’d brought. At the time all of it had seemed not just smart but essential. Now that I actually had to haul it across a desert, though, I was a little doubtful. Michael noticed the look on my face and clapped me on the back. “You don’t do things by halves, do you, Harry?”

I just grunted, picked up the old pack I’d gotten at an army surplus store, and started hanging the rest of the bags off it. I was still young and could probably take the weight for an hour or two. My back, however, began protesting almost immediately, disagreeing with my assessment of its abilities. Tough. I was the one in charge.

“So, where are you off to now?” I asked Michael. “Back to Chicago?”

The knight shook his head. “No, I’ve got a job. Your trip was just on the way.” Somehow, I didn’t think he was talking about his contracting business.

I slung a duffel bag across one shoulder and ignored my body’s mutinous complaints. “Where are you headed? There’s not much around here.”

He smiled and handed me the last thing, a human skull in a black net bag. “I’ll know when I get there.”

I tied the bag to my belt and snorted. “Sounds like your head office is pretty lazy. Would writing you a note or using a little telepathy really be that hard?”

He laughed. “Thanks, but I’d rather not hear any voices in my head. God go with you, Harry.”

“I don’t see why he’d start now.”

Michael shrugged and began to climb back into his car. He paused. “I think you forgot something.”

I wondered what the hell Michael was talking about until I heard a couple of happy little yips coming from the back seat floorboard. “Mouse?” The terrier sized puppy was on the floor, tucked halfway under some newspaper. He smiled at me as he emerged from his hiding spot. “Damnit, you were supposed to stay home.” He just sneezed and started pawing at the car door.

I doubted that whatever eldritch horror Michael was going to confront was a fan of puppies. I didn’t really have much choice but to bring the little monster along with me. Something I’m sure Mouse had been counting on. I sighed. “Come on, then, you little stowaway.”

Michael frowned. “Are you sure he’ll be safe?”

I nodded. “Yeah, if there’s trouble, I know someone who’ll keep an eye on him.” Fluttershy would love Mouse, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the attention. “Could you give Thomas a call and let him know I’ve got the dog?” The big man’s frown darkened a hair, but he nodded agreement. “Thanks again for the ride, Michael. See you later.”

He smiled. “I’ll be here to pick you when you’re done.”

I paused, frowning. “But I don’t know how long it’ll take.”

“I know,” he replied, then got into his car and drove off. I watched him disappear around a bend in the road and grumbled to myself. I’m the wizard. I’m the one who’s supposed to have the mysterious powers and speak in arcane riddles. I stood there for a minute more, ignoring my aching back and Mouse’s whines.

“So, are we going to get this show on the road or what? Those naked ponies aren’t going to ogle themselves. Oh, but what if they did?” That was Bob, of course, practically drooling over thoughts I had never even wanted to consider.

“Oh sure, you’re plenty talkative now. What about when Mouse got in the car? You couldn’t have said anything then?” I glared at the skull.

“Hey, you weren’t the only one who was asleep, sahib. I didn’t notice until we were more than halfway here, and it was too late to go back at that point.” Logic, damn her traitorous heart, had sided with Bob this time. I made a strategic retreat from that battle.

“Yeah, let’s get moving,” I said, making sure Mouse followed as I headed toward the cave.

Snake’s Bend was chilly compared to the warm day outside, but my duster was enough to keep out most of the cold. I entered the cave only to be stopped a few feet in by a metal grill set into the stone. It looked like someone had transplanted the front of a prison cell, complete with a locked door. I grunted, setting down my pack. I’d been forced to blast open the lock on my way out last time, and I’d honestly hoped nobody had fixed it in the year since then.

Not that I’d counted on it. I fished out my lock-picking kit and went to work. The lock was a simple one, but having only one usable hand made the process more difficult that it had any right to be. It took me a full twenty minutes of frustrated effort to open the damned thing, and I was tempted more than once to just smash the door off its hinges.

I managed to get the pack back on with only a little difficulty and some heartfelt curses. I whistled for Mouse and waited for him to return from the bush he’d been investigating. When the party was finally assembled, we started into the cave itself. I drew in power, making my silver pentacle glow a soft blue-white as we explored. The deeper we went, the creepier the atmosphere felt. Mouse whimpered softly, but I gave him a reassuring scratch behind one ear. After about a tenth of a mile, we reached our goal.

Even if I hadn't been able to feel the obvious weakness in the veil between here and the Nevernever, the site itself was more than a little memorable. Two stalactites, or stalagmites or whatever the kids were calling them these days, had grown next to each other in almost perfect symmetry. Together they formed a pair of sinuous columns fifteen feet tall. They widened at both top and bottom, forming a tall oval between them. The wall a few feet behind the structure glittered in the weak light, tiny crystals making it seem to be covered in jewels.

The whole place looked pretty amazing, which may explain why the town thought it was necessary to put in a gate despite the cave’s reputation. I wasn’t impressed, though. Not only have I seen better, but I knew that the only thing on the other side was a drab and empty desert.

Opening the gateway startled Mouse a little, but after a moment’s hesitation he followed me through. We walked out of the shallow cave into the desert’s bright light. I let my eyes adjust then glanced around. The place looked the same as I remembered, barren except for a few stones and some scattered plateaus. I quickly spotted the first rock pattern in the hidden trail to Equestria and lurched into action. Mouse ran here and there sniffing at the ground, but after a while he lost interest and stuck close to me.

Without Twilight or Luna to talk to, the trip seemed a hell of a lot longer. Knowing I’d probably come to regret it, I decided to start a conversation with Bob. I figured if I stuck to the topic of magic I could manage to keep things PG. “So, Bob, what part of the Nevernever is this? I’m pretty sure we’re outside of Fae territory.”

“You’re right. This land doesn’t belong to either Summer or Winter. It isn’t even one of the lesser courts or kingdoms of the Wyld Fae. I honestly can’t tell you where we are.” Bob’s reply had an unusually flat tone. And he hadn’t thrown in a single insult or dirty comment.

I eyed the skull suspiciously and poked him. “Who are you and what have you done with Bob? You’re being suspiciously quiet.”

“I know,” he replied. “It’s this place. I don’t like it.” My heart damn near skipped a beat. He might not be saying it aloud, but I could tell Bob was scared. That wasn’t that big a deal for people, we get scared all the time. But as long as his skull was intact, Bob was immortal. That and his wealth of information gave him a fairly cavalier attitude to danger. I could count the number of times I’d seen Bob truly afraid without using both hands.

“Why? Can you sense something?” I could pick up on a good number of supernatural spectrums, but I was still mortal. Bob was made to feel more vibes than I ever could.

He shook his skull slowly. “That’s the thing, boss. I can’t sense anything.”

I pondered for a moment. “Then what’s the trouble?”

Bob twisted his skull to look up at me and glared. “That is the trouble! This place is empty, no animals, no plants, no ley lines, nothing. There isn’t even any background magic seeping in from other parts of the Nevernever.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I knew this place was barren, but is it really that bad?”

Bob sighed. “It’s like finding a hole in the ocean, or a vacuum in the atmosphere. And even without any ambient magic, there are still plenty of mundane things that should thrive here. But this place is just empty. We’re walking through a dead land, Harry, but that’s not what scares me.” He paused, because the ass just had to add dramatic effect to it. “What scares me is trying to imagine what killed it.”

I stopped walking and stared at the skull in shock. After a moment I started again, this time at a much faster pace. And I thought the trip was going to be boring. Thanks, Bob. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and I couldn’t help but scan the horizon for signs of our impending doom.

An hour later we reached the end of the trail at a small spring. Even here at the oasis, there was no life, a fact Bob commented on at length. I was just relieved that we’d reached the end with nothing worse happening than Bob’s paranoia. The exit was less obvious than the entrance in the cave, and it took slightly more effort to open. Still, less than a minute later, I stood breathing in the fresh air of Equestria.

Now that I didn’t have to worry about the dark maw of some abomination tearing open the ground beneath my feet, I could relax. I took off the heavy pack and stretched, enjoying the creaking sensation of my unburdened back. That, of course, was when the dragon charged me.