• 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 Twenty-One

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 Twenty-One

“Night is upon us. The time has come for you to rise.”

I would have argued with her about that, but it would have taken too much effort. Never before had cold, hard ground felt so good. I continued lying there until one of her wings nudged me. I grunted at that, but still didn’t move. Unfortunately, that’s when she chose to cheat. With a small poof, the pillow under my head and the blanket covering me disappeared, leaving me to the mercy of the cool breeze. Nasty, tricksy alicorns always taking away our preciouses.

With a yawn that was at least two parts grumble, I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Good morning to you too, Princess.”

At last I opened my eyes, only to see myself. I frowned, an expression mirrored by the image before me. I must have moved in my sleep, because I hadn’t started that close to one of the mirrors. I glanced around, making sure that everything else was still in place. All twelve mirrors, each one a massive thing of metal and glass taller than me and wider than my outstretched arms, were positioned around me in a circle. Well, a dodecagon, technically, but what was important was that I was surrounded by them. No matter which direction I looked, I could see behind myself. The ghostly, blue-white lanterns hanging above each of the mirrors lit the area brightly, banishing any shadows within the circle of their light.

“Admiring yourself?” the Princess asked, giving a chuckle too refined to be anything but practiced.

A disapproving grunt was all she got in response. Between getting here and setting everything up, I had had only grabbed five, maybe six hours of sleep. I didn’t look pretty by anyone’s standards. ‘Grimly determined’ would be on the money, though.

The Princess was another story. Her midnight-blue coat had clearly been brushed and curried. It shone where she wasn’t covered by silver armor. Her star-spangled mane flared out from the base of her helm, and the armor covering her legs and hooves was bladed. Her tail was bound, free only at its very end, though how a nebulous mass of starlight could be contained was probably a trade secret for the Princess’s stylist. Her chest plate was more silver, artistically blackened in certain places, both to soften the hard lines and sharp curves of her armor and to contrast with the enormous, luminescent moonstone set in its center. Her wings were uncovered, which I supposed made sense given the amount of armor already weighing her down. Strapped underneath those huge wings were twelve short swords, six to each side. Each sheath was stamped with a different constellation.

“How many of those do you need, anyway?” I asked, pointing at her swords.

Her wings fanned out in an impressive display, her smile somewhere between grim and coldly satisfied. “All of them,” she replied curtly. Both her weapons and her armor blazed with the magic of centuries, every inch the Princess of Night.

All in all, it was more than enough to make a guy feel insecure. Especially when all he could bring to the fight was a beat-up duster, weapons that felt like toys in comparison, and just one functioning arm. Still, I was one of the most important parts in Princess Luna’s grand scheme. After all, every trap needs bait.

“I’m good to go,” I said as I started stretching. There are few things more embarrassing than pulling a muscle in the middle of your climactic showdown with a massive, soul-rending demon. “How’s everyone else?” I asked.

“We’re fine,” Twilight’s voice came from behind one of the huge palace mirrors. “Though Rainbow won’t stop pacing, Fluttershy has to breathe into a paper bag every five minutes, and Pinkie hasn’t let go of that doll since we pried her off of you.”

“Mini-Harry is an action figure, not a doll!” Pinkie shot back. “Just listen to some of his cool action phrases!” There was the sound of a string being pulled, and an old-fashioned voice box crackled to life.

“There’s a ghoul in my boot!” the toy proclaimed, which was disquieting for a number of reasons. One: I was pretty sure I hadn’t mentioned ghouls to anypony. Two: That sounded a lot like my voice, and I knew that phrase had never passed my lips. Three: I was there when Rarity hastily made that toy as a last-ditch effort to stop Pinkie’s never-ending hug, and she had not installed a voice box.

“How is the circle, Twilight?” the Princess broke in.

“Ready to go,” Twilight confirmed. “All the glyphs are in place, all the crystals are aligned, and I made Rainbow pace well away from it so that she wouldn’t disturb any of the lines. If everything goes as planned, the entire array will be closed in less than forty seconds.”

I snorted at that. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” I was quoting somebody, but I couldn’t tell you who.

“True, it isn’t quite as inspired as your decision to heroically sacrifice yourself,” Rarity retorted drily, “but I do put more faith in a plan that doesn’t require one of my friends to die.”

Despite my daily dose of cynicism, I had to admit that the plan looked good. Princess Luna had really thought everything out. The moment He Who Walks Behind showed up, he was going to throw down another psychic whammy designed to drown the Element bearers in fear, despair and a few other nasty emotions. Until the girls overcame that disabling mental magic, they couldn’t focus the power of the Elements, hence why they never jumped in during the debacle at the ceremony. However, we couldn’t count on the Walker ignoring them while they were disabled this time. The double-layered circle Princess Luna had built, using magic and symbols I had never even seen before, was intended to prevent that. All six of them were positioned between the two layers, each surrounded by their own circle at one point of an unmarked hexagon, connected to the inner circle. The two of us in the center would keep He Who Walks Behind busy long enough for them fight off the bad mojo and activate the circles. That not only sealed them off from the demon, it set them up to banish his unnatural ass with a Harmony beam channeled through the circle.

And while we were doing that, Captain Armor would be leading a sizable force through the last hideout we had found. Between him and Princess Luna, it was just a matter of scooping up the Order Triune and preventing them from summoning He Who Walks Behind again. Everybody was confident that it was only a matter of time until we had them.

I glanced upward, examining the sky. The moon had already risen, and the last of the sun’s light was disappearing over the horizon. I glanced past the circle of mirrors into the distant forest. The clearing where we had set our trap was a stone circle almost two hundred feet in diameter. Since we were in the middle of a thick forest several miles north of Canterlot, the smooth stone was likely the evidence of ruins or some other ancient architecture. Princess Luna had seemed to recognize the place when we arrived, if I was reading her expression correctly. Along with that recognition was a flicker of something. Pain? Regret, maybe? She didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. If anypony else noticed, they also kept it to themselves.

So we waited as the light died and visibility was reduced to the small area lit by those ghostly blue flames. We waited as shadows danced outside our shelter and the woods rustled with the furtive movements of animals that avoided us and our fire. What I’m getting at is that we sat there doing nothing for a long time.

“So,” I said stretching for what felt like the thirtieth time. “We just wait here for him to show up.”

“Yes,” the princess replied.

“However long that takes?”

“Yes,” she answered, her royal jaw tightening in annoyance.

I rubbed my chin and yawned. “There might be a problem with this plan that we hadn’t considered.”

I should have known better than to hand the universe a straight line like that.

There was no warning. A wave of nausea washed over me as a miasma of crippling doubt and fear filled my mind. The shocked cries of my friends told me they had been caught just as much off guard. I almost fell to my knees, barely keeping myself upright. I raised my head to look in the mirror, and he was right behind me, one limb already raised for a strike. I dove forward, rolling on my uninjured shoulder, and I felt the tip of his arm, or tentacle, or whatever catch the tail of my reinforced duster, only to slice through it like tissue paper.

“FIEND!” the Princess roared, fury alight in her eyes. “PREPARE TO−”

He Who Walks Behind opened his mouth and the horrifying silence washed over the whole area. I shoved my hand into one pocket, fumbling with the loose silver belt buckle inside it. I glanced in the mirror in time to see another attack headed my way just before a telekinetically controlled sword sliced through his limb. All twelve of Luna’s swords were floating in a cloud around her in positions both offensive and defensive, but He Who Walks Behind didn’t appear all that impressed.

Maybe he should have been, because the lamps hung above each mirror flared to brilliant life, mimicking the spell cast during the ceremony. The silence broke like a shattered dish as he let out a basso rumble that sounded like a growl on steroids. Swords flashing like liquid silver, the Princess dove in and He twisted to meet her charge.

I shook my head and tore my eyes away from the scene, finding the hammer where I had last left it. With one hand I slammed the silver buckle onto the weapon, and it clung there without any need for adhesive. The buckle, enchanted to act like a sort of supernatural battery, was fully charged with my magical energy. So for the moment, the hammer was feeding off of it instead of me. I hefted the weapon, which moved far more easily than physics should have let it. One glance in the mirror was all the warning I got, but my handy-dandy hammer was light enough for me to spin and bat the razor sharp tendril aside. There was a screech of pain, not just from He Who Walks Behind, but from the hammer too.

That was odd. Though, if the hammer took a bite out of everything it hit, I wasn’t too surprised that whatever well of power He Who Walks Behind drew on would be painful even for it. I turned around again in time to watch him simply engulf two of the swords in a pair of pitch-black spheres. The only parts left of them were a pair of hilts dribbling tiny bits of molten metal. Still, the Princess was keeping him busy, and the Walker was in a tangible state like at the ceremony. I dashed in, ducking another tentacle aimed for me, and wound up for a home run slam.

I wasn’t trying to commit suicide, though I’m certain would have looked that way. I was hoping he was too distracted to pay close attention to me. That hope was thoroughly dashed mere milliseconds later. The instant I came within reach, his head spun like a cartoon owl’s, accompanied by a sickening crack that sounded like he had broken his own spine to execute the move.

“Little mortal,” he hissed as I barely batted away an inhumanly quick swipe of his arm. This time he didn’t screech, though the hammer sure as hell did. “Do you really think you can stop me?”

“Really? I asked. “That’s got to be one of the most cliché−” Another tendril of darkness sprouted from between his freaking shoulder blades and slammed me backwards. I hit the mirror going somewhere between twenty and thirty miles per hour. The glass shattered and my spine felt like doing the same as I hit the thick wooden backing. It ached enough to tell me that the damage wasn’t that serious, but I wiggled my toes all the same. Just to be sure.

He Who Walks Behind stalked forward, tossing back a few of those black spheres to keep the Princess busy. He had a clear shot of me, but just like before, he was giving me time to recover, playing with me. I looked behind him and grinned. “Forzare!” I bellowed, catching him off guard and throwing him backwards. Right onto the Princess’s waiting swords. Ten blades, propelled by the telekinesis of a virtual goddess, plunged into him all the way to the hilt.

“You shoulda killed me when you had the chance,” I gasped as I struggled to my feet. My back felt almost as bad as my ribs and left arm, but I was still mobile. Sort of.

“Kill you?” He Who Walks Behind echoed, sounding genuinely amused and not at all as though he was currently impaled on ten swords. “I don’t mean to kill you, Child of the Stars. I mean to break you.” The wave of hate and bile that reverberated in those two short sentences was enough to turn my stomach, and I nearly lost the scant lunch I had choked down.

His neck twisted back to its original position, turning to face the Princess, and she took an unconscious step back. The swords inside him started to hiss and smoke, and she withdrew them in a hurry. He Who Walks Behind lashed out with a strike too fast for me to even see, and she lost two of them anyway. Both swords fragmented into nothing more than shards, and his fist buried itself in her armor. Her breastplate held, at least, but it dented and the Princess was driven back several feet.

“I can see through your false mask,” the Walker said in contempt, casually tossing another oblivion sphere over his shoulder to keep me busy. “I know the true nature that you hide. You are weak; so much weaker than you pretend. You struggle and struggle, hoping, though you deserve only despair. Does your sister still blame you for your choice? Does she still hate you for what you forced her to do?”

“No,” she answered, gritting her teeth against what I felt sure was another mental attack. I darted forward, only for a thicket of gray-green brambles to rise from the ground, blocking my way. I threw the hammer at the Walker. It crashed into his head, staggering him, but only for half a second. I hadn’t even fully drawn my sword before he picked up the cracked hammer and crushed it to scrap in one fist. There was one last plaintive screech as it was destroyed. Then, only silence.

What’s taking them so long? I thought desperately. We weren’t supposed to fight him for an extended period of time. The girls should have already done their part, but the circle around us was still dead. It felt like we had been fighting for hours already.

“I think she does,” He Who Walks Behind purred. If you can call the satisfied rumble of a tiger eyeing a freshly blooded doe ‘purring’. “And I think you know it.”

“And I think you’re an asshole!” I shouted. “Venteferro!” With that, the crumpled bits of hammer flew from ground like they’d been fired from a shotgun. A lot of them struck in an area that would’ve taken his voice up an octave if the Walker were a man of flesh and blood. He Who Walks Behind may not have had any particularly tender bits there, but he still howled as the shrapnel pierced him. His tiny violet eyes flared with a more heated and immediate fury than their normal soul-chilling hatred.

“Thank you, Dresden,” the Princess said, her tears tracks only visible if you looked closely. “I think it’s high time I returned the favor.” She slammed her hooves down, and the ground shook. I don’t just mean right around her, either. Across the forest, trees trembled and fell with massive crashes, and hundreds of birds took flight in a cacophony of sound. It was very easy in all that ruckus to miss the subtle sensation of a circle closing.

The things I had thought were brambles uprooted themselves. Only then did I realize they weren’t made of vines, but some kind of barbed sinew or tendon. They moved to engulf me, but before they were within ten feet, the Princess appeared beside me with a pop of magic, and swung her mane, releasing it from her helm. Stars spilled from it. I don’t mean little cartoony things with five points, or even a sphere of soothing light, like the one I had been given. These things were miniature suns: tiny balls of pure, Grade-A nuclear fire. They scorched away the encroaching tendrils like they were nothing, then intercepted three of those pitch black oblivion spheres. The stars and spheres canceled each other out.

He Who Walks Behind apparently decided it was time to stop playing. With roar that set my teeth on edge, he gathered an alien power to himself and charged forward.

I have seen gods and demons, I have seen Summer and Winter at war in all their terrible, beautiful fury, and I have seen creatures a saner man would call unimaginable. And I had never seen something move as quickly as the Princess in that moment. In a burst of frenzied power, she summoned eight more stars and took off, darting forward. Her wings beat too swiftly to be seen as she swept past and around him, losing the last third of her tail to his swipe. He Who Walks Behind spun to face her, but she was already gone. In less than a second she climbed almost a hundred feet, only to reverse immediately into a dive. He bellowed again, and I could see the crystals set into our circle vibrating in sympathy with it. He crouched down, then simply leapt to meet her, his arms spilling forth more of that dark energy, forming it into twin lances. Without hesitation, she met his charge head on, a star cupped in each of her forehooves, six more encircling her head like a halo.

Riflettum!” I barked hurriedly, drawing as much defensive energy I could between me and the confrontation. They met with a crash of sound and power that ripped my hasty shield to shreds and threw me backwards. When the dust cleared, they stood straining against one another, but the Princess looked to have spent her power and He Who Walks Behind was still ready and raring to go. The stars around her head darted this way and that, blocking the sinew-brambles and other dark tendrils, but they were getting used up awfully fast. His claw-like hands locked around her hooves as they each attempted to overbear the other. It was obvious that she was beginning to flag. Slowly, she was pushed backwards as he bore down on her. He Who Walks Behind opened his mouth, grinning, oily sludge dripping from his serrated teeth.

Until, of course, the circle itself flashed with every color that existed, and a few new ones too. A torrent of rainbow-colored magic poured out of nowhere, rocketing downwards as like it had been shot from an orbital cannon. He released the Princess and she quickly pulled back as the technicolor sky fell on the Walker.

Only it didn’t.

The powers of the Elements slammed downwards, but to my surprise, they didn’t wash over him. He Who Walks Behind suddenly bent as if holding a heavy weight, going down to one knee. The ground cratered beneath him, rock splitting and cracking beneath the tremendous force. He braced himself like Atlas, only with extra arms, tentacles, and whatever else he could summon. I wouldn’t have thought you could hold back refracted light, but somehow, the rainbow didn’t quite touch him. It piled up a few feet away, like the repellent ends of magnets. It took a moment for me to understand; I was witnessing a clash of two forces so completely antithetical to each other that they were incapable of coming in contact. Though, seeing He Who Walks Behind’s apparent strain, something told me the Harmony Beam was still more than capable of ending him.

I sheathed my sword and picked my staff back up, wincing at my new injuries. If my back wasn’t one giant mass of bruises, I would be shocked. The rainbow hadn’t fallen just yet, but it was almost a foot lower. He Who Walks Behind bent beneath it as though he really did carry the world on his shoulders. Then he did the last thing I expected.

He laughed.

I’ve heard plenty of evil laughs in my day, but trust me; He could give lessons. Even with every indication that we’d already won, he still drove an icicle of fear deep into my heart.

“You haven’t won, little mortal,” the Walker said, making me wish for a tinfoil hat. “You don’t even know the game you play.”

That was it. He was more terrifying than any three of my regular enemies put together, but there’s just some part of me that can’t stand letting the bad guy have the last words. “Then it must really suck, getting your ass handed to you by somebody who doesn’t even know the rules.” I ignored the pain in my back, arm, ribs and everything else as I gathered energy. While the fight hadn’t been kind on my back, I was still at a half tank in the magic department. I leveled my staff and quickly lined up my shot.

Forzare!” I yelled, pouring all the energy I could into the strike. A crimson comet shot from my staff with a pungent whiff of brimstone. My spell tore through some smaller limbs to crash into his arm. I knew a kinetic strike like that wasn’t enough to wound him on its own. But it was enough to knock his arm off center and disrupt whatever was keeping the Harmony Beam at bay. The moment his hand went aside, the rainbow crushed him flatter than a frog on a busy highway, leaving nothing but a dark stain on the stone.

“Yahtzee,” I told the splatter smugly as it began to evaporate.

Threat finally gone, I just about collapsed with relief. “Okay,” I wheezed. “Next time, I’m the one who gets to use the magic jewelry and you six can fight him.”

“Hey!” Rainbow retorted, rounding the wall of mirrors. “It wasn’t exactly a picnic for us, either! You try having something like that poke you in the brain and see how you like it.” There was bravado in her voice but even in my tired state I could hear the pain and fear underlying it. Physically, they were fine, but that didn’t mean my friends had gotten through this unscathed.

“Is everypony all right?” the Princess asked, her concern just as evident as her exhaustion. Her foreleg was bleeding in a slow but steady trickle. I briefly wondered if I should have told her not to fight with me. I dismissed the notion for a pair of good reasons. Not only would I have been dead without her, but she had been determined to fight, and I doubt anything I said would have changed a thing.

“We’re fine, Princess,” Twilight called out, sounding about how I felt. “A week of sleep would be nice, but other than that we’re all okay.”

Floodlights, or crystals bright enough to serve the same purpose, flicked to life one by one around the entire clearing. “Heads up,” Applejack murmured warningly.

I stood to one side of a mirror and took a look myself. It was more ponies. At least a hundred of them, maybe even two. They stood just outside a circle painted on the stone, a few frantic ponies still adding symbols and lines here and there. It encompassed not just us but almost the entire clearing. Call me crazy, but I was willing to bet that the rustles and furtive movements we’d heard while waiting for He Who Walks Behind hadn’t just been wild animals.

The… Slayers, if I remembered their name correctly, were armored. The earth ponies wore barding so heavy I was shocked they could move. The pegasi had on light chainmail that I swear looked like it was made of aluminum. The unicorns wore more modest armor, but more than a few had gem bandoleers and gauntlets that reminded me of the pipsqueak that had stonewalled Twilight and Rarity last night. Standing at their head was a tall female pegasus, flanked by a wizened earth pony mare and Arcane Mind.

“Something tells me those three may just be the leaders we’ve been looking for,” Rarity said, examining them carefully. I suspected she was being a touch sarcastic, but right now the army awaiting us held my attention a lot tighter.

“Give us Blackstone!” the pegasus demanded in what I’d swear was a Russian accent.

“Not by the hair of our chinny chin chins!” Pinkie shouted back. That threw them for a loop for a second, and the Princess used the opportunity to interject.

“Members of the Order Triune. This man means you no harm.” That wasn’t true at this point, but they’d started it. “He is innocent of whatever crimes you imagine he has committed. Let go of these hateful delusions before they cause you to make a mistake you can never take back.”

The crowd stirred at that, which was good, because I can only speak for myself, but I was in no condition to fight even a small army of these jokers – a fact I’m certain they had been counting on. The lead pegasus shook her head imperiously and stamped one hoof to the ground.

“You!? You would dare to say that over the grave of our ancestors? Over the site of your first betrayal and the slaughter you wrought upon the Order Triune? Had not the Elements purified you I would−” The pegasus cut off as the wizened earth pony, laid a hoof on her shoulder.

“Let the past rest, Soldier.” But her kindly air disappeared as she turned one of the better glares I’d ever seen on yours truly. “We must deal with the present and this viper now.” She raised her voice and turned to address us. “Blackstone has lied his way into your confidences and concealed his darker nature. Look at his unnatural form and tell me he is not of demonic origins.”

Unnatural form? I don’t know if that comment counted as racist, but I resented it either way.

“I tend to judge by actions over looks,” Applejack drawled, “And he ain’t the one that summoned that monster we just fought.”

Arcane Mind whinnied furiously at that and shouted back, “I told you he’d draw the rest of you into this. Yet you refused to listen! If he was really so honorable as he pretends, he’d never have risked your lives to save his own.”

“Yes,” Twilight replied dryly. “The honorable thing would be to turn your back on your friends and go off to die on your own. He didn’t ask us, we insisted on helping.” I had limped out of the inner circle at this point, the Princess following me, to join the rest of the girls. Twilight had already let the inner barrier dissipate, but she was maintaining the outer layer. Smart thinking. I didn’t know what the Order’s magic circle was intended to do, but I doubted it was pleasant. Staying inside our circle would protect us from whatever the Order was trying to do with theirs.

The earth pony leader snorted. “Enough talk. If he won’t give himself up, we’ll come in there and get him.” A few orders were called, and the waiting army of ponies entered the circle, warily marching toward us. The pegasi dragged nets, the unicorns levitated ropes or prepared their gem gauntlets, and the earth ponies whirled lassos in their teeth. Only a small reserve force, about twenty or so ponies, remained outside their circle as the Order advanced. Five unarmored unicorns stood at equidistant points, marking a pentagram on the massive circle. As one they bowed their heads, touching their horns to the complex lines painted upon the stone. The Order’s circle began to glow a faint silver as they activated it.

“Bring it on!” Rainbow shouted at the encroaching ponies. “I’d like to see any of you limp-hoofed cowards try it!” Her bluster hid nervousness poorly, but I didn’t blame her. Our circle had only been made to stop spirit creatures. It could shield us from their magic, but it wouldn’t do a damned thing against any form of physical assault.

“We aren’t worried,” Arcane Mind stated confidently as he and the other two leaders advanced at the head of their force. “Our ritual barrier will restrict Princess Luna’s magic to levels we can manage. Please understand we don’t wish to harm you, but we must do this for the good of Equestria.”

Blue-white flame gathered at the Princess’s slender horn, growing into a massive ball. Even if their circle was capable of what they claimed, it didn’t mean squat until they broke through ours. I was about to taunt them with that fact, when the Princess shot the fireball skywards. It climbed several hundred feet in the next second before bursting in an explosion of light.

“A flare. Fantastic,” I groused under my breath. The odds of any cavalry actually seeing that, much less getting here in time to save us, were slim to none. “If we get out of this alive I am gonna kill Luna.”

The flare had made the Order draw back, but not for long. I just hoped the Elements of Harmony worked on misguided zealots as well as they did on demons. We all braced ourselves for a fight, but the violence didn’t begin anywhere near us.

Two dozen ponies, most of them dressed in the full robes of the Order, burst from the forest, yelling their damn heads off. The crystal-bandoleer pipsqueak was with them, and I was willing to bet that Watcher was the lead figure. What surprised me was that they weren’t charging us. They were running hellbent for the bulk of the reserve force. The army inside the circle stopped in confusion, but there was no way they would reach the reserve force before Watcher and her group did.

They didn’t need to. Pegasi hidden in the trees above Watcher’s target erupted into the air, throwing weighted nets that brought down most of her entourage. The few remaining were quickly dealt with by unicorns and earth ponies that had likewise been hiding in the surrounding forest. Most of the rebel band fell quickly, but it took two unicorns and a pair of lassos from the earth ponies to bring Watcher to her knees.

“What is the meaning of this!?” Arcane Mind bellowed. We were off the hot seat for now, but I confess, I was just as confused as everyone else about what was going on.

“What indeed,” the wizened earth pony said. “Isn’t that your daughter, Mage?”

“And your apprentice, Advisor,” Arcane Mind returned crossly.

“Father! This is a trap!” Watcher cried, no longer trying to disguise her real voice.

“What does she mean, it is trap?!” Soldier, the pegasus leader, snapped, her gaze darting warily in different directions.

“Blackstone is not the real Obsidian!” Watcher shouted back struggling against the ponies holding her. She had lost the emotionless façade, and her voice was ripe with anger and frustration. “He is just a servant of the true darkness. Bookmark is his master and the real Obsidian!”

“Vigilant Watch, that is enough!” Arcane Mind thundered. “When I indulged your jealousy and tested him, I found no trace of Obsidian. I thought that would end this delusion of yours. I am sorry you were not born a unicorn, and I had to choose another as my apprentice, but this irrational hatred for Bookmark must stop.”

Advisor, the earth pony leader, shook her head. “We each have our part to play, child. Were the secrets of the Earth not enough for you?”

One by one, the ponies inside the circle turned their backs on Watcher and resumed their march on us. Arcane Mind waited a moment then yelled to the ponies holding Watcher’s band captive outside the circle. “She didn’t threaten the integrity of the ritual barrier, did she, Bookmark?”

A tall, tan unicorn stepped forward, and my stomach sank. It was Novel Notion. All too late, I started to make connections I should have seen days ago. “No,” he replied with a grim smile. “The ritual will still proceed as planned.”

Five ponies clad in more of those enveloping robes stepped out of the forest. One behind each of the unicorns powering the circle. Metal flashed in the bright light of the glowing crystals, five throats were opened in a moment, and blood spilled to the cold stone ground.

Soldier and Advisor both cursed loudly and with plenty of heat. Arcane just whispered, “Oh, sweet Harmony...” They weren’t the only ones to notice either. Screams and shouts filled the air as the betrayal began to register. In the chaos and confusion of the next few seconds, the orders from the leaders went unnoticed. Some of the Slayers panicked and ran for the circle’s edge, but it was already too late.

The killers each yanked a massive clay urn out of the forest and brought it next to the circle. As one, they tipped the urns over, pouring dark red liquid over the complex lines and symbols of the circle’s array. Rather than washing away and breaking the circle, the symbols absorbed the blood, turning from white to red. Bookmark shouted in a language I doubt was native to ponies, and the light of the circle blazed crimson.

One second, we were surrounded by about one hundred fifty ponies crossing a barren circle of rock. The next second, the whole area was knee-deep in dun-green ceramic pentagons. Given that each one was only the size of the palm of my hand, that wouldn’t have been that alarming. Except that the plates were sliding to and fro like a restless sea, burying the warriors walking among them. Most of the ponies were taken by surprise and pulled down instantly, but a few of the pegasi got airborne or were already flying.

I saw Arcane Mind’s eyes widen with terror, and a spell begin to form at his horn before he was pulled down, disappearing from view. Advisor struggled for longer, but without any way to gain purchase, she was inevitably swallowed up too. Soldier, the pegasus leader, was one of those who managed to get airborne. She immediately began barking orders, trying to pull her shattered force together, but if they had been panicked before, now they were scared senseless.

The plates rose in physics-defying tendrils, somehow adhering to each other in long, tentacular structures, and swatted the flying ponies down. In close confines, none of them lasted for more than ten seconds. Their muffled screams, unfortunately, went on for much longer.

Nobody in our circle moved a muscle. I think it was more shock than any sense of self-preservation. In less than thirty seconds, an army of our enemies had been destroyed with nothing but a few dark red stains on the pentagons to indicate they had ever been there.

“NOOOO!” Watcher screamed, straining against her bonds, actually shifting two of the ponies that held her until a third joined them. Similar noises arose from the rest of the net covered ponies, and most of them broke down into tears. “Father, you fool,” Watcher sobbed, bowing her head.

“Hell’s bells,” I whispered. I’d seen people die before, but never like that. Never so many, so quickly.

Fluttershy and Rarity had hidden their eyes in one another’s manes, both letting out horrified sobs. Rainbow was retching somewhere behind me, and Applejack just stared, frozen with her hat clutched to her chest.

“Magic… shouldn’t do things like that. It isn’t right. Magic is for helping ponies,” Twilight mumbled, staring in numb horror at the Order’s meticulously constructed circle.

“We… we can get them back, right?” Pinkie asked, her happy energy gone. “T-they’re just buried under those little plates. They’ll be okay, won’t they? Twilight? Dresden? Princess?” Pinkie’s eyes watered, but she didn’t cry. I almost did; it hurt to see her innocence killed so brutally.

“I can’t believe it,” the Princess whispered as tears ran in silent rivers down her face. “I have failed you, my little ponies.” She seemed to take the slaughter that had just occurred as hard as any of the ponies who had lost their family members.

The demon wasn’t done just yet, though. The plates moved in waves, thousands of them, millions of them. They built on each other, forming what I thought was a serpent at first. More and more of the pentagons shifted and combined until they formed what looked like a three-story-tall centipede from Hell. Except that centipedes only have one row of legs, while this thing had two, one above the other. It had no eyes, but I didn’t question for a second that it could sense us. Its mouth had no teeth, but the roiling, glittering darkness promised a death at least as painful as any more mundane mauling. The previously-smooth stone it left behind as its components combined was scored with scratches and stained with blood. There were no bodies or even bones left, which in a way was even more disturbing.

The pseudo-centipede struck our circle, but with a flare of purple light, it held steady. Twilight had watched Luna build it, and I had no doubt she had spent the past several hours figuring out exactly how it worked. The composite demon let out a hiss like a steam engine and struck again, but this time Twilight was ready. The circle didn’t even rock as it rebounded from the invisible barrier.

We were at a stalemate.

The Dark Order couldn’t do anything to us without breaking their circle and freeing the demon to eat them, but we couldn’t do anything without breaking our circle. And I sure as Hell wasn’t up to fighting two Eldritch abominations in one night. Still, with that flare up, waiting was more to our advantage than theirs. We just needed to keep them talking before they could realize that.

“Obsidian, I presume,” I said, tipping an imaginary hat to Novel Notion (or Bookmark, as he had been called,) feeling less glib than I acted.

He actually seemed amused. “Not at all. Arcane Mind wasn’t lying about testing me for his influence.”

“Then why!?” Fluttershy said between horrified sobs.

“My parents didn’t hug me enough as a foal,” Bookmark replied sarcastically. “You don’t understand. Evil isn’t a disease. It’s the cure. My ancestors were forced into hiding underground in the name of ‘harmony’. ‘Harmony’ left me with a life of secrets and lies, indoctrination to an organization that can only live in the past. In the name of ‘harmony’, we bow and scrape to immortal tyrants, regardless of their crimes! If that’s what ‘harmony’ is, then I’m more than willing to be ‘evil’.

“You really think that the pain of your past justifies what you’ve done here today?” the Princess asked. She shook, though how much was exhaustion and how much was anger I couldn’t tell you. I’ll say this much, I wouldn’t want the glare she had going leveled at me.

Bookmark frowned and considered her. Then he smirked, shrugged, and whispered something to a nearby pegasus. The latter zoomed off into the dark forest while Bookmark replied. “I know you’re trying to stall me. You’re hoping your guards will see that flare and arrive in time to defeat us. Sorry to tell you,” he grinned, “but the lookouts on duty right now are members of the Order. Not my inner circle, but they still obey the Mage’s apprentice. Besides, you have more immediate concerns.”

I frowned. This was bad. We’d dropped plenty of opportunities for him to monologue, but he wasn’t taking the bait. Just my luck to run into a guy who actually followed the Evil Overlord list in a world where they’d never even heard of it.

He tapped one hoof sharply against the stone, and on cue, several struggling forms were dragged out of the forest. A trio of fillies, Applejack’s and Rarity’s little sisters plus their friend, were asleep, but the huge red stallion, a chubby blue mare, a lean yellow stallion, and a small white rabbit were awake and still fighting. It had taken chains with links as thick as my wrist to keep the red stallion contained, and even then, he still rattled and strained against the shackles with an expression of suppressed fury.

“It’s simple,” Bookmark said. “Drop the Elements of Harmony and dismiss your protective barrier, or I’ll start slitting throats. Then I will activate our sleeper agent; I believe you called him ‘Rom’? He will kill Celestia in her weakened state, and all of Equestria will fall into chaos. I doubt those Elements would still work once each of you carried that many deaths on your conscience.”

His words were met with stunned silence. Then, with phantom flames licking across her coat, Twilight screamed at him, “What is wrong with you?!”

“Megalomania, most likely, but that isn’t important. If you don’t do as I say in the next thirty seconds, I’ll start with the hick’s brother.” One of his pegasi pulled out a purely functional knife, and that’s when I started to really worry. Bookmark seemed a lot more competent than most would-be dark lords. Between having access to some nasty summoning spells and being a halfway decent plotter, he had us in quite the pickle.

“Girls−” I began.

“No,” Twilight answered. “I know what you’re going to say, but you’re in no condition to fight anything alone.” A purple glow surrounded the tiara on her head, and she gently set it to the ground behind her. She stood unflinching in spite of the nightmare she had already faced. Ready to do it again.

“I’ll keep it distracted,” Rainbow replied, already going through exercise to keep her wings limber. She unclipped her Element, and it fell to the ground with a weighty clunk. “I’m fast enough not to get hit like those other pegasi. That’ll give you guys time to get in place.”

“Try going straight up,” Applejack offered. “That’ll make that durn critter spread itself nice and thin. Once it’s stretched out enough, I imagine a good buck will teach it a thing or two. I’m gonna need somepony to hold my hat, though, just in case things get messy.” She passed her hat and necklace to Fluttershy, her eyes never leaving the demon.

“Twilight, dear, if you could teleport us to the edge of their circle, perhaps we could break out while Dash distracts it,” Rarity said, seizing up the barrier waiting for us. She removed her Element with magic, floating it and the others to the center of the inner circle.

“If we help free Watcher and all those poor ponies, I think they would help us,” Fluttershy whispered, carefully setting her necklace among everyone else’s and clutching Applejack’s hat nervously.

“Let’s do this,” Pinkie yelled, ripping her Element off and tossing it over her shoulder without even looking. It flew in a perfect arc to rest next to all of her friends’. Pinkie didn’t even seem to notice; she was too busy pulling Mini-Harry’s string one last time.

“I’m a witty wizard!” the doll announced proudly. “Are you a wizard too?”

They knew we were dead. We had all seen how fast that thing could move and how powerful it was. Even if we broke out, there was nothing to stop it from following us. But they refused to believe it. Deep down, they knew what was going to happen, but they refused to give in to despair. Even in the face of the inevitable, they had hope.

There is power in that kind of belief. There was more magic in the trust they shared than any spell I could have thrown. In the end, it didn’t matter that I was going die, because I could go out swinging with my friends at my side.

“I could not be more proud of any of you than I am right now,” the Princess said, a gentle smile lighting her battered features. “Twilight, would you−”

“Five seconds,” Bookmark yelled, snapping open an old-fashioned pocketwatch as he prepared to give us a countdown.

“Not necessary,” Twilight told him coldly, dragging her hoof across the circle’s outer line. With the protective barrier dispelled, I could feel the demon’s power. It was no Walker, but somehow, that thought did little to reassure me.

As our circle fell, the demon, which I mentally dubbed ‘the Gigapede’, let a noise that was part hiss and part roar. Bookmark just started laughing, “Yes! And so our bargain is fulfilled, demon.”

But before it could even build up a head of steam to attack us, Rainbow was already in its face. Having no jaws to snap, it simply lunged forward, trying to swallow her whole. Ceramic limbs like the mouth-bits of a spider grew out its face, seeking to drag Rainbow into its dark mouth.

Applejack charged off the same time as Rainbow did, though she was slower. Still, she was building some impressive momentum. Our favorite blue daredevil dodged the demon’s first swipe and started to climb. Rainbow seemed to have distracting it well in hand, but I missed a bit after that because Twilight chose that moment to teleport us. Everybody except the athletic duo reappeared on the far side of the circle, as far away from Bookmark and the demon as we could get.

I put a hand out to disrupt the circle, but it rebounded from an invisible barrier. I grimaced; they had built this circle to stop both the physical and spiritual. “Bad news,” I told Twilight.

The Princess likewise put a hoof to it and concentrated. “Yes, and it’s well constructed. Breaking it will be a task of several minutes at the least.” She frowned, and glanced at the demon. “Minutes which we do not have.”

“We’ll give you the time,” Twilight said with more certainty than I’m sure she felt.

I looked at the Princess and we shared a glance; both of us knew it was only a matter of time until we were overwhelmed. “Very well,” she replied and unsheathed her remaining eight swords. Without further speech, she offered four of them, hilt first, to Twilight. “These may help, if you would wield them.”

Twilight gasped. “The Zodiac Swords? I-I couldn’t. Those are national treasures!”

“Four of which I’ve already broken fighting the Dark One,” the Princess replied with a ghost of a smile. “Take them, and hurry. Your friends need you.”

My head jerked around almost of its own volition. Rainbow was still dodging and weaving, but she was slowing. Not by much, but it was enough to notice, and worse, the demon was learning. Applejack was bulling through its legs, but they reformed almost as quickly as she destroyed them. The demon didn’t even seem to have noticed her efforts.

“Yes, Princess,” Twilight said, taking the swords and galloping to the aid of her friends.

“Can I have some?” Pinkie asked, a wicked smile on her face. Before the Princess had a chance to answer, the pink pony had already swiped three blades out of the air and was running off with them. “Kay, thanks, bye!” she called over her shoulder.

We blinked at that, and I followed her, laughing. Rarity pursued, lugging the last blade along with her. I was fine with just my staff.

The Gigapede hiss-roared again and its face exploded outward. Apparently, it was done trying to capture Rainbow with just one or two tendrils, because now a cage of thirty or so had shot out to ensnare her. Rainbow was fast, but I could already tell it was too late. She had barely been keeping ahead of its lunges already; she couldn’t escape this. Until she flashed with purple light and reappeared some twenty feet closer to Twilight.

The demon was top heavy now, and Applejack used that fully to her advantage. She bounced from one leg to the other, bounding on top of the demon’s back. She used one of its gyrations to fling herself upwards and struck its ‘neck’ with a stomp from all four hooves. Pentagons shattered at the impact and the entire upper third of the Gigapede dissolved into its component pieces. At first that seemed great. Then I realized the rest of the demon was reforming underneath Applejack, and she had nowhere to fall but into its mouth.

Rainbow swept through, grabbing Applejack in a move that should have wrenched both their arms – forelegs, whatever – out of their sockets. They both got moving back in our direction, but the ceramic pieces were frothing upwards like an angry wave, rearing up to crash down and crush the both of them.

“Not today, bastard! Forzare!” I bellowed, releasing the energy in a wide flat plane aimed at the base of the wave. My spell struck home, smashing some of the pentagons to splinters, but more importantly, it ruined the wave’s momentum. Like a breaker over a reef, the Gigapede curled over and collapsed onto itself as our friends got clear. But I’d only slowed the oncoming tide, not stopped it.

“Three sword style!” Pinkie yelled, the hilt of one sword clenched in her teeth, the other two duct-taped to her fore-hooves. “One-oh-eight Caliber Phoenix!” She leapt up, spinning in midair and bringing all three blades down in one slash. It looked impressive, but seeing that the ceramic plates were still fifty feet away I don’t know what she expected to happen. “Oh c’mon!” she complained. “It worked in that cartoon!”

Rainbow landed next to Twilight, dropping Applejack to her hooves. “So what’s the plan, egghead?”

“Everypony, do your best to destroy the individual plates. Otherwise they’ll just keep reforming.” She faltered, losing the hard façade she had been maintaining. “Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you.”

The looks of her friend’s faces softened, but before they had time for any motivational speeches, the enemy was on us. Plates poured one over another like a grinding flood, raising a haze of stone dust as it came.

Twilight led the charge with a massive beam of light from her horn. Her spell cleared the first two ranks of pentagons, and then she was in the thick of it. He Who Walks Behind had proved that those blades weren’t Vorpal swords by any stretch of the imagination, but they were slicing through the ceramic plates without much trouble. And what Twilight lacked in any type of swordsmanship or skill, she more than made up for with energy.

“Three sword style: Demon Slash!” Pinkie shouted, slicing her way through a row of pentagons, bounding over a wave that threatened to engulf her. As … unconventional as her style was, the swords worked just as well for her as they did for Twilight. Her erratic movements and strangely effective attacks helped to keep her from getting pulled down even as she moved from one dangerous spot to another.

Rarity and Applejack were working together. The former redirected the surges of plates and the latter crushed whatever made it through her friend’s deft telekinesis. I was standing next to the pair of them as well, shooting out blasts of force. Most of them were minor, just my basic lances of kinetic energy, but they helped to keep the area clear.

Rainbow dive bombed again and again, delivering attacks anywhere the pentagons massed, constantly dodging the limbs that grew around her. Maybe it was her bright color scheme or just the fact that she was the hardest one of us to catch, but she kept the bulk of its attention.

Between the six of us, we broke hundreds of those pentagons. Twilight alone probably made it to half a thousand. More and more kept coming. They piled over each other in a never-ending tide. We were keeping them back, but we couldn’t keep this up forever. Even as I watched, more flowed around us, headed for Fluttershy and the Princess.

I spared a glance back at Bookmark and his cronies. Some of them were still keeping their hostages in line, including the pegasi with a knife to AJ’s brother, but most of them were watching us fight for our lives. A couple of them had the decency to look squeamish. Bookmark looked like a spoiled kid on Christmas. I was about to hurl one last insult for the road when my breath caught in my throat.

An orb of starlight winked into existence in the shadows of the forest. It burst with a flash and a pop, leaving an unarmored Princess Luna in the forest, just outside the Order’s circle. She blinked in surprise at the situation she faced, but it took less than a second for her eyes to narrow dangerously. Honestly, I don’t think the deductions involved were all that difficult.

Ponies gasped in surprise and confusion. Several of the Dark Order looked between her and the armored Princess still inside the circle as if wondering how she had doubled herself. I’ve got to hand it to Bookmark; he reacted faster than anybody else there.

“KILL−”

Well, except Luna.

WE THINK NOT,” Luna thundered, her amplification spell at full force. Some of the trees actually bent away from her as she spoke. I was so distracted I nearly missed another wave of incoming pentagons, and Twilight had to blast them out of my way.

The pegasus with the knife drove it towards the red stallion’s throat, but his own shadow shot upwards, pulling him to the ground, choking him where he lay. Five unicorns shot beams of light at Luna, Bookmark included. She wrapped herself in a wall of darkness, and after it faded, she was already gone. She reappeared behind the ponies holding Watcher immobile and dispatched them with five precise blasts, as fast as a machine gun.

Watcher threw the net off of herself and charged Bookmark, screaming murderously, only to be intercepted by the remaining Earth ponies. I didn’t think they were going to last long, though. That was about the time the Dark Order realized that discretion was the better part of dishonor and tried to make a break for it.

A flap of Luna’s wings and gust of breath froze the wings of the pegasi, sending them crashing to the ground. She captured a few more of the Dark Order in her midnight blue aura, freezing them as certainly as if she’d used ice. The rest were brought down by the Watcher’s band of ponies, now free from the nets holding them down.

“The summoner is the tall tan unicorn!” I bellowed, then cursed as I fired off another force spell. The Gigapede could sense that things had gone south, and it was turning up the pressure. The tendrils chasing Rainbow retracted and the waves of pentagons rushed forward with more force, heedless of how many we destroyed. I took a blow that only my spell-reinforced duster stopped from ripping straight through me, but it still sent me into a roll over my bad shoulder. I let out a manly groan of pain, and while I struggled back to my feet, the pentagons closed in farther. Applejack and Rarity were almost engulfed in another wave until Twilight covered them with a shield.

Luna nodded and released Bookmark from her aura. “How−” he began, caught somewhere between disbelief and abject fear. Luna didn’t let him get more than that out before she wrapped a glowing thread of magic around his neck like a noose.

Bookmark’s hooves skidded over the stone as the alicorn dragged him over fast enough to make him worry about whiplash. “Listen, cretin. The only reason you yet live is your knowledge of yon demon. Relate everything you know or we shall tear it from your mind, leaving you a gibbering wreck capable of feeling naught but agony. And there will be agony should you refuse us, we assure you.”

She loosened her chokehold and Bookmark bowed his head in defeat. He was a sneaky bastard, but he didn’t seem to have much going for him in a stand-up fight. “I’ll talk,” he said venomously.

It wasn’t going to be in time. The dun-green tide rose up around us on all sides until it met at the top, mounding up to crush us all like a giant fist. Twilight’s blasts and the sword strokes tore holes and slashes out of the dome, but nothing large enough to slip through without getting ground into paste.

There was a flash of purple light and suddenly all six of us were standing beside the armored Princess. It was a good save, but it had obviously taken the last of Twilight’s power. She slumped to the ground and the swords fell from her aura to be caught in a golden glow and restored to their sheaths.

“You did the best you could, my faithful student,” the Princess told her gently as she slipped towards unconsciousness. The Gigapede reformed its head at the crest of the wave rolling towards the edge of the circle. No more cautious parries or inexorable pressure. No matter what losses it took, it was going to swallow all of us in one last attack.

BEGONE, HARENAGNIS!” Princess Luna roared, louder even than its hissing cry. “BEGONE, FOUL DEMON OF WICKED DEALS AND DARK PROMISES! BEGONE, HARENAGNIS! THRICE WE COMMAND THEE BY NAME! HARENAGNIS, BEGONE!

The Gigapede hissed and screeched and thrashed, fighting her command. But Bookmark had built his circle too well. Anything that let him deal with a demon without getting eaten was more than strong enough to let Luna to banish it. The pentagons tumbled from each other like a house of cards falling in slow motion. They turned to ectoplasm as they fell and splattered like giant raindrops on the stone. All eight of us got splashed with a generous helping.

“It’s in my mane. Sweet Celestia, it’s in my mane!” Rarity screamed. As though almost dying was only a minor inconvenience in comparison.

The circle around us fell as Luna broke it from the outside. The Princess of Night walked towards us, Bookmark once again enclosed in her aura. Given the way Watcher was eyeballing him, that was perhaps more for his protection than ours. She stared at us and her double, then spoke with dread. “We presume our plan did not work as we had hoped?”

The moonstone set in the armored Luna’s breastplate flickered and went dark. Princess Celestia’s white coat suddenly shone in the light of the magic floodlights, and her star-spangled mane burst into a multicolored aurora. The Day Princess looked haggard and worn in her battle-damaged armor, but she still stood proudly. “No, I’m afraid we were outmaneuvered. I, too, thought they would have summoned the Dark One from deep within their lair. I never imagined Novel Notion was capable of such atrocities.”

“And our foolish plan led thee to be injured further,” Princess Luna replied, shaking her head sadly. “We thought that Captain Armor would need our help more dearly against the hordes of the Order, but yon fastness was nigh deserted! We never expected that they would come for you. Had Captain Armor not posted guards to watch outside, we would never even have known thou needed us.” Tears began to tumble down Luna’s face as the adrenaline of battle left her. “The pride – the arrogance! – that made us think we could surprise the summoners and apprehend them before thou were even in danger was pure conceit! Thou came within inches of death and it is all our fau−”

Celestia’s great white wings opened to their full span and she wrapped them around her sister, drawing her close. Small tears dripped from her eyes as well. “Shhhh… It is all right, Luna. We are safe and whole, and it is all thanks to you. I sent that flare because I knew you would come for us. No matter what the circumstance, I knew you would be there when we needed you.”

“We all believed in your plan, your Highness,” Twilight offered. “Everypony here thought it was a great idea, but like Dresden said, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’.”

Y’know, I’d be entirely okay if that quote was permanently attributed to ‘Blackstone’ in pony culture.

“Any climactic battle you can walk away from is a good one in my book,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve been carried out after enough of them to appreciate the difference.”

“Thank thee,” Princess Luna replied, still not breaking her older sister’s hug. She sniffed once, and poked her head out from behind the white plumage. “Such support means much to us. However,” she cleared her throat and flushed, “we would do well to comport ourselves more properly. The Royal Guard will arrive soon to arrest these scoundrels, and it would not do for them to see their Princess in such a state.”

In the end, the arrest and detainment of both Bookmark’s minions and the remaining members of the Order Triune was one of the most anticlimactic parts of the night. Which was fine by me. We’d had more than enough death and destruction for one day. Princess Luna recast her chameleon spell on me before the guards had arrived, and I just sat and watched as the criminals were dragged off. Literally, in some cases. I sighed; all I wanted at this point was a chance to get some sleep in a proper bed. Unsure what to do with myself, I wandered over to Celestia. “So, what comes next?”

“Justice,” she replied, her cold eyes never leaving the departing ponies who had sacrificed so many of their own to fulfill their dark desires.