• 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-Two

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-Two

Five days later…

The courtroom was nearly silent.

The ongoing case was being held in one of the oldest buildings the judicial system still owned. The courtroom, like much of the palace, came from a time when stonework had been popular for purposes of state. The marble columns, rife with fluting, were a tad excessive in Celestia’s opinion, much less the basalt podiums topped with rare and exotic woodwork. Still, there was a certain gravity to their surroundings. Besides, as time had gone on, most of the less practical innovations of the original architect had been changed. The stone benches in the gallery, for instance, had been replaced with wooden affairs, which was a significant improvement even without their velvet cushions. The room was small compared to most modern courtrooms, but that was one of the reasons it had been chosen to host this case. A small room gave her the excuse to refuse the large number of ponies requesting to attend the trial.

If Celestia had let the press have their way, it would have been a circus. While this atrocity could not – and should not – be hidden, certain details had no business reaching the public. The fact that Novel Notion and his followers had delved into dark and forbidden magic had helped to convince the more level-headed ponies in government that she was right to limit the amount of information released. The honorable Judge Verdict presided, a wise earth pony who could be counted upon to rule fairly. Swift Justice, the prosecutor, also had a reputation for discretion. Even the bailiff and stenographer had been hoof-picked as trustworthy ponies not given to gossip.

Standing behind the defense’s podium, Novel Notion had chosen to represent himself and the other conspirators. A few of them had at first requested individual trials, but no attorney had been willing to defend them. Given the choice between Novel Notion’s representation or a public defender, they had followed their leader.

In one half of the gallery there were several witnesses, including Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and the Elements of Harmony, a hooffull of government officials, and the few members of the press who could be trusted not to sensationalize the trial. In the other half, all of the defendants save Novel Notion were seated. They were chained to each other in ranks intended to complicate any escape attempts. Unicorns wore inhibitor rings, pegasi had their wings bound, and earth ponies were weighed down by hoofcuffs twice the size of the other chains. A full dozen guards watched them carefully, more than ready to crack heads to ensure the compliance of their prisoners. They had the right to attend their own trial, but that didn’t mean no precautions would be taken. Yet more guards surrounded the courthouse, though after that awful night, Celestia suspected that no surviving member of the Order Triune would lift a hoof to disrupt the trial.

The Princess of Day bit back a sigh as the last witness took the stand. Surprisingly few of the traitors had been willing to give evidence against her former aide. Whether that was fear of reprisals or true devotion to him, she didn’t know, and honestly, didn’t care. She was weary of the whole thing already. Her anger and horror had faded, leaving only disappointment. For so long she had done her best to guide and protect her ponies without stifling their freedom to grow and develop. When things like this happened, it was enough to make her wonder if her dreams were nothing more than foolishness.

Part of her knew that was only her sorrow speaking. Equestria was not a utopia, but then, such a thing was an ideal to be pursued, not a realistic goal to be reached. Her country came closer to that ideal than any other Celestia had seen in her long life, but even within the best of cultures, the seeds of darkness could sprout and grow, choking out the goodness that society tried to instill.

The witness finished telling the court of the capture and exsanguinations of key Order members in preparation of the final summoning ritual. Everypony in the room, save Novel Notion and some of his conspirators, wore looks of disgust. Once again, the defense declined any cross-examination, making the defendants mutter and stamp. Even those who had not sought other council before grumbled now as Novel Notion let pass another opportunity to provide any arguments in their defense. The prosecution thanked the witness and moved to make her closing argument. It was hardly necessary; the guilt of everypony involved was indisputable. Protocol had to be followed, but she kept her statement mercifully brief.

Judge Verdict thanked Miss Justice, and turned to the defense. “Have you any rebuttal, Defense?” he asked. Novel Notion cleared his throat and stood. Princess Celestia had expected him to let this pass as he had every other opportunity to prove his innocence, but he gathered himself and stepped to the center of the courtroom like an actor taking the stage.

“I do not deny any accusations made by this court,” he began, a curious statement for somepony who had submitted a plea of ‘not guilty’. “However, I do argue that nothing I have done should be considered a ‘crime’.”

Even with the limited number of ponies present, the uproar was deafening. Rainbow Dash and Applejack in particular were very loud in their opinions upon Novel Notion’s character and ancestry. Princess Luna swelled with fury until it seemed like only her sense of decorum kept her from shattering the eardrums of everypony present. Judge Verdict slammed his gavel with enough force to dent the fancy wood of his podium, but silence was slow in returning to the courtroom. “Proceed,” the judge said, though even his voice held a hint of a growl.

“Thank you,” Novel Notion said disdainfully, raising hackles throughout the courtroom. Even Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie glowered at him, Celestia noted to herself. “This all began twelve hundred years ago when my many-times-great grandmother was the Mage of the Order Triune. After Obsidian’s defeat in that time, she sealed his heart away and took it into the Astral Plane. The research drove her mad, but her sacrifice was the key to his undoing. Curious Notion destroyed our greatest foe and saved uncounted thousands of ponies, but nopony but her own daughter understood what she had done. Those fools called her notes insanity and blindly remained vigilant for a threat that no longer existed.

“The Nightmare War began a mere two centuries later, and Nightmare Moon decimated the Order Triune in her bid for power. The response of the Order was… overenthusiastic, shall we say.” Luna glared again, but this time the reaction was muted. Celestia could see the shadow of guilt lurking behind her sister’s eyes. “Princess Celestia took it personally, despite her sister’s intentions to kill her as well. So it was her orders that disbanded the Order Triune, forcing our more zealous ancestors into hiding. Those two events changed the proud Order Triune into a sad pack of pretenders who did nothing more than hide and wait, standing watch for a threat that would never come.” He paused for a drink of water, the magic inhibitor around his horn forcing him to awkwardly use his hooves instead of his levitation. Celestia noted that the glass shook slightly, suggesting that he was more nervous than he pretended.

“Princess Celestia forced us into lives of secrecy and lies,” he continued. “Forever hidden in the darkness. To me and my comrades this was unacceptable. We have been plotting this for years, and the arrival of Twilight Sparkle’s friend, ‘Blackstone’,” he smirked mockingly at the name, “just provided us with the perfect opportunity to take control.”

“Control of the Order Triune?” Swift Justice asked incredulously. “You would murder one hundred and seventy three ponies for that?”

“Counsel,” the judge rumbled, quieting the prosecutor.

Novel Notion tsked condescendingly. “I wasn’t talking about control of the Order Triune. That sorry organization is better off dead. I meant Equestria.” He raised his voice as if anticipating the murmurs that would provoke. “The fates of mortal ponies should not be determined by immortal tyrants. I and mine were meant to be The Council of Thirty. Our rule would have been more just than anything the sisters brought us. Ten of each tribe, with absolute power spread among equals rather than hoarded by a pair of despots.

“Within the deeper sections of the Order’s Archives, I found Obsidian’s notes on summoning and bargaining with demons. The code was difficult to crack, but not impossible, and inside I found everything I needed to give us the power necessary to make a better Equestria. He Who Walks Behind would have demanded our hearts just as he did of Obsidian, but there were other entities whose prices were far more reasonable. The creature that consumed my former mentor, among many others, was willing to grant all thirty of us powers near equal to Obsidian’s for a relatively cheap price. Only one hundred twenty ponies...” He turned slowly, focusing a viper’s stare on Celestia herself. “And one alicorn.”

This time, shouting was the least of the court’s worries. The majority of ponies in the court looked ready to lynch Novel Notion where he stood, and that wasn’t even discounting the defendants. At least a third of them were on their hooves, screaming for new representation. Even those who remained silent looked sick with despair. The guards added their shouts to the din, tugging on the chains to force the prisoners back down. Some of the prisoners resisted, and their keepers seemed on the point of silencing them by force. Within seconds, the courtroom had devolved into noisy chaos.

“ENOUGH,” Luna bellowed, using the Royal Canterlot voice of ages past. “ANY NOT SILENT SHALL FACE OUR DISPLEASURE!” It was a less subtle measure than Princess Celestia would have used, but nopony could deny its efficiency. In mere moments the whole court was silent and still.

Celestia nodded in thanks to her sister and turned to look at Judge Verdict, whose face had darkened from light yellow to a furious burnt orange. He could do little more than sputter for a few seconds before he calmed enough to snarl, “This court finds you inarguably, unrepentantly guilty. After the ‘defense’ exhibited here today, it shocks me to my core that you even bothered to submit a different plea.” He let out a snort and pointed his gavel at the chained defendants. “Any of you who desire a retrial under new defense may have one. A visitation with somepony from the public defender’s office will be scheduled sometime next week.

“Not that you’re likely to get a different result,” he muttered to himself, inaudible to anypony save the Royal Sisters. Judge Verdict turned his attention back to Novel Notion, and his jaw clenched again with fury. “As this is a crime against the throne, Princess Celestia will decide your sentence. Which is just as well. I do not believe I could objectively sentence you after the sickening treason you have spouted in defense of your actions.”

“It’s only treason if it fails,” Novel Notion retorted. “The ‘Royal’ sisters took the throne with no better credentials than defeating Discord. Had my Council of Thirty succeeded in our bid for power, who would history have named as just?”

That almost started another uproar, but when Celestia rose and swept the room with a disapproving gaze, the shouts withered to mere mutters. With quiet grace, she strode down from the gallery to the floor of the courtroom. She stopped before the defense’s bench and turned the same look upon Novel Notion, a pony she had trusted and even liked. Never had she suspected what he concealed beneath a hint of pompousness and a subservient smile. He quailed before the stare, but Princess Celestia knew her disapproval did not truly mean anything to him. “You have accused me of being a tyrant,” she began. “From a certain point of view, you are correct.”

If the courtroom had been quiet before, now it went dead silent as every pony in the room froze and perhaps even held their breath. Every eye was fixed upon the Princess. “There are laws that guarantee personal freedoms, and I must answer to the Stable of Lords for my actions, but laws can be changed and nobles commanded. Until Princess Luna returned, there were no true checks on my power. The ponies of Equestria often obey my decisions without question. I try whenever possible to encourage self-reliance and independent thinking, but for many ponies, it is easier to rely on my wisdom.”

Princess Celestia’s eyes did not narrow. Her brow did not furrow. She merely arched one eyebrow while drawing the other down, perfectly accentuating her slight frown. It had taken centuries to perfect this expression, but never before had it failed to shame its target. On the surface, at least, Novel Notion was no different. “But if I am a tyrant, then above all else, I am a benevolent tyrant. I honestly and earnestly care for each of my little ponies. You and your followers would have done no such thing. The cities of Equestria would not have welcomed you as liberators. They would have seen your bloody-hooved conquest for the power grab it was. You may have started with ‘only’ two hundred casualties in your ‘glorious’ revolution, but how many more would it have taken to force their capitulation? How many ponies were you willing to kill to cement your reign over them?”

Novel Notion said nothing aloud in response, but Celestia could see his mouth move beneath his bowed head. What he mouthed was lost to her, but somehow she suspected it was less than contrite. “But as you do not seem to respect the judgment of an ‘immortal tyrant’, I will not sentence you. Instead, I will turn over the matter of your punishment to one of your peers. I wonder if you will prefer her judgment to mine, after all.” Princess Celestia turned back toward the gallery and nodded. “Twilight Sparkle, you know the depths of Novel Notion’s crimes and the horror of the demons summoned in his service. You bear the Element of Magic, and I trust that you will temper justice with compassion. Will you pass sentence upon him?”

Twilight’s pupils shrank and her breathing increased noticeably, but she quickly mastered herself. Celestia was glad that she had discussed this with Twilight well in advance. Her student had fainted the first time Celestia had revealed her intentions. “Yes, Your Highness.”

The courtroom stirred at this, turning to a sea of murmurs, but the judge’s gavel soon restored quiet. “Very well. Do you need any time to deliberate, Miss Sparkle?”

“No,” Twilight replied, shaking her head. “Throughout this trial, and maybe even a little before, I have thought there was only one punishment appropriate to these crimes. I would see the accused undergo Exilium sin Misericordia.” There were one or two gasps and Celestia felt her breath catch in her throat, but most of the court merely exchanged confused glances.

“Errr… undergo what?” Judge Verdict asked.

“Exilium sin Misericordia,” Princess Celestia echoed. “It is an old punishment, meaning ‘Merciless Exile’. One that I have not administered in a long time. Not only are the accused banished from Equestria, they are marked with symbols of their guilt, forced to march from this land, and offered no food, water, shelter or succor of any kind during their travels. The cruelest part, however, is that their magic is stripped from them. Permanently.”

That set a fresh crop of whispers to growing. Twilight flinched from Celestia’s gaze as if worried that she had made the wrong decision, but Celestia had given her charge and those words could not be taken back. In bygone days, it had been a death sentence in all but name. In modern times, the members of the Order might survive if they stuck together and took refuge in one of the other civilized kingdoms. Even then, they would live hollow lives, shunned by any thinking creature that encountered them. Life in prison would have been a kinder sentence, but Celestia could more than understand Twilight’s decision.

“No!” Novel Notion shouted, his former composure crumbling like ash. Where he had maintained a calm and collected demeanor throughout the trial, now his expression was a mask of fear and disbelief. “You can’t do that! That punishment hasn’t been levied in centuries. There… there’s got to be a law against it!”

“You are wrong, Mr. Notion,” Princess Celestia said, trying not to feel satisfaction at his panic. “While this sentence has not been levied in over six hundred years, unlike the death penalty, it was never abolished. It merely fell out of favor.”

Novel Notion seethed at her words, but he didn’t respond. Instead he turned to the judge. “Your Honor, I’d like to appeal on the grounds of cruel and inequine punishment.”

“You are in luck, then,” the judge replied, a humorless smile on his muzzle. “As Twilight sentenced you under Princess Celestia’s authority, there would have been nopony to appeal to until recently. As it stands…” he trailed off gesturing to the other Princess present in the courtroom.

“Denied,” Luna told him, her eyes colder and harder than glacial ice. “We would not have wasted time in this mockery of a trial save that our sister asked it of us. You and your fellow murderers betrayed and sacrificed over a hundred ponies, kidnapped and bled dry another two dozen, used blood magic of the foulest sorts, summoned and bargained with demons, planned and attempted regicide upon our sister, and committed treason of the highest order. Were the death penalty not forbidden centuries ago, we would have been pleased to carry out the sentence personally! Count yourself lucky that Lady Twilight Sparkle showed you such mercy.”

“I would rather die than live with her ‘mercy’!” Novel Notion roared, which sent the court right back into chaos. Princess Celestia bit back another sigh and silenced them with a wave of her wings.

She met Novel Notion’s eyes and spoke to him firmly, but gently. “It is past time you learned that neither this court, nor this world, exist to please you.” His glare mixed fear and venom in equal measures, but she ignored him. “Bailiff, take him away and contact the palace architects. We will have to reopen certain rooms.”

Novel Notion tensed to struggle for a moment, but he slumped in defeat when the burly earth pony bailiff neared him. With his horn bound by an inhibitor ring, there was little he could do to resist. As he shuffled out, the judge nodded in satisfaction. “The case of the Ponies of Equestria versus Novel Notion is closed. Any of his co-conspirators who desire another trial under a new defense have up to one week from today to submit their request for one. The three defendants who provided evidence against Novel Notion will be arraigned at a later date.” The other half of the gallery slowly emptied as the guards herded the prisoners into the secure wagons that would return them to their cells. The three whose shackles were not chained to the rest were led out afterward, headed to a different cart.

The judge shuffled a few papers, finding the relevant documents, and rapped his gavel again. “Bailiff, please call forward the defendant for the next case.”

Princess Celestia settled back into her seat and waited as the robed pony was brought into the room. The heavy chains around her legs clanked as she walked into the room. Vigilant Watch had been permitted to wear the robes of the Order Triune, but she had to leave the hood down. There were a few more mutters as she took the stand, none of them as hostile as those that had greeted Novel Notion. Judge Verdict cleared his throat and glanced back at his paperwork. “The case of the Ponies of Equestria versus Vigilant Watch is now open. Defendant, you are charged with the attempted murder of one Mr. Blackstone, conspiracy to kidnap Miss Twilight Sparkle and Miss Trixie Lulamoon, and assorted charges of reckless endangerment, counterfeiting, invasion of privacy, assault and battery, breaking and entering, and multiple counts of trespassing. How do you plead?”

Vigilant Watch breathed deeply, letting her unsettling gaze pass over the entire courtroom. Her white irises made her pupils look tiny, her eyes manic. Where Novel Notion had piqued her ire, this pony sent a trickle of tension between Celestia’s wings. The surviving members of the Order Triune, estimated at three hundred ponies, saw Miss Watch as their de facto leader. If Celestia had read her incorrectly, then dealing with the Order would be a bureaucratic headache for years, perhaps even a painful thorn in Equestria’s side.

Princess Celestia had visited Miss Watch’s cell a day before this trial, as she had for all the members of the Order Triune the guards had been able to capture. Most of those ponies had either been inconsolable, or had begged her for forgiveness. Miss Watch had instead asked a single question.

“Is Obsidian really gone?”

Celestia had hesitated, but finally replied, “Yes, so far as I am aware. In more than one thousand years, I have not felt his presence or his magic in Equestria.”

Miss Watch had studied her intently, searching her words for truth. Whatever she had decided, though, she had kept to herself, and would speak no further. Now Celestia would find out whether that meant what she thought it did.

“Your Honor,” Vigilant Watch replied solemnly, “I wish to enter a plea of nolo contendere.”

Princess Celestia bit back a sigh of relief as the judge frowned in consideration. “You realize that a plea of ‘no contest’ means that you accept whatever sentence this court chooses to assign for the crimes of which you are accused.”

Vigilant Watch gave a shallow nod, her face a neutral mask. “And that while I accept this court’s judgment, I do not acknowledge guilt for the purposes of any civil suit that may be filed against me.” Swift Justice was nodding along to the explanation, looking confused. Such a plea was normally used for minor crimes that were too small or unimportant to warrant a full court case, not in one of the biggest cases in decades.

Judge Verdict frowned more deeply. “You certainly understand the law, but I am not certain you understand what it means for you in this situation. Save for the trial I just presided over, I have never seen a more serious list of offenses. Taken together, the minimum sentence for these crimes is over forty years. I will ask one last time, Miss Watch: are you certain you wish to enter this plea?”

She hesitated slightly this time, but she nodded again. Judge Verdict sighed. “Very well. Unless somepony has some comment or objection to add, I will sentence the defendant and close this case.”

Princess Celestia stood, causing another sea of murmurs to wash over the sparsely populated courtroom. Judge Verdict just snorted, giving her an expression that mixed mild annoyance with amusement. Celestia politely ignored his reaction as she addressed him. “Your Honor, I would like to request that you suspend whatever sentence you pass on Vigilant Watch.”

Vigilant Watch turned to her, mouth open in surprise. Celestia, however, was not yet done. “The suspension would be contingent upon two conditions. One, that Miss Watch assists the Royal Guard in locating and securing the existing strongholds and resources of the Order Triune. Two, she must swear before witnesses never to revive the Order Triune, and to inform the Crowns if she is aware of any attempt to do so by another.” The second might be a sticking point, Celestia knew, but she was firm on that. The secrecy of the Order had already created one monster; she had no desire to see another rise from the shadows.

“You would like to request?” the judge asked. “Your Highness, you can preempt the jurisdiction of this court and issue or suspend this sentence yourself, if that is your wish.”

He had a point, but Celestia shook her head. “That is not my wish. I will not take this decision out of your hooves, nor do I mean to undermine your authority. I only offer this as an alternative. You are one of the foremost in your field, your Honor, and I trust your decision in this matter.”

The Honorable Judge Fair Verdict sat back and considered her proposal. As he said, it would have been easy to take this authority herself. Had she wanted to be more subtle, she could even have chosen a judge that would bow to her suggestion without question. But either course would have made Novel Notion’s accusations a little more accurate. Judge Verdict had a reputation for his resolve in the face of power. He issued what he believed to be a just ruling without consideration of the status, wealth or pedigree of the ponies involved. At least a third of the aristocracy despised him, and he wasn’t much more popular among prominent businessponies. If there were anypony to consider her proposal solely on its merits, it was him.

“You believe she can be trusted, Your Highness?” He sounded thoughtful.

Princess Celestia solemnly nodded back. “I think so, Your Honor.”

“Very well,” Judge Verdict said. “The defendant is sentenced to forty years of maximum security incarceration, suspended upon the Princess’s conditions. Should the defendant fail to meet those conditions or commit any more crimes, the sentence shall be meted out in full. A later hearing will iron out the details and assign Vigilant Watch a parole officer. As of now, the case of the Ponies of Equestria versus Vigilant Watch is closed.” He rapped his gavel on the podium and began sorting through his paperwork. Most of the other ponies in court started to talk or stood up to leave. Some shuffled paperwork of their own. In all the bustle, nopony clearly heard what Miss Watch said the first time.

“Eh? What’s that?” Judge Verdict asked.

“I said, I do not deserve this,” she repeated, her eyes suddenly blazing with anger. Her dispassionate mask fell away as she finally gave vent to her emotions. “I have spent years doing things I knew were wrong all for the sake of ‘the greater good’. I attempted to kill an innocent stallion, putting other lives at risk in the process, only because I believed he was evil. The entire Order Triune has lived a lie. We were not the moral guardians of Equestria, we were fools who let fear rule us for generations.” She gave a mocking laugh, tears gathering in her eyes. “And I am biggest fool of them all. I sought to end Bookmark’s plans by any means necessary, confident that I was the hero. So long as I saved the day, what did the costs matter?”

Her anger failed her then and her tears fell freely. The courtroom fell silent as everypony watched her. A soft sniffle caught Celestia’s attention. Fluttershy was trying not to cry, and she was not alone in that attempt. Vigilant Watch spoke again in a low tone of despair. “But in the end, I failed. Half of my family is dead, and I could have saved them. All I had to do was tell Twilight the truth when we had her. I could have even sent word with the pony I assigned to her escape, but I did not. I hid behind the same lies I always had, and look at the reward I reaped for it. I need to atone for my crimes. For my failure. I am not worthy of your mercy.”

Princess Celestia’s hoofsteps echoed as she descended from the witnesses’ bench. She reached the defendant’s stand, and to the surprise of everypony in court unfolded her wings and gathered Vigilant Watch into a hug.

“What are you−” Miss Watch began, but Celestia shushed her.

“I understand,” the Princess told her gently, releasing the hug. “It hurts. It hurts more than you could have ever imagined. They’re gone, and you know that you could have saved them. If only you hadn’t been so selfish, so blind, they would still be right there beside you. So, you spend every night tearing yourself apart. You want nothing more than to throw yourself into exile. I know that feeling. I know that heartbreaking mix of guilt, shame and self-loathing.” Celestia’s serene mask held, keeping her true feelings in check, but her eyes were perhaps wetter than they would have been otherwise. She cut a glance toward the gallery, where Luna also seemed close to tears, though she, at least, could use an illusion to appear unaffected.

Celestia drove such thoughts from her mind; it was not the time for such musing. Vigilant Watch’s entire future still hung upon her next words. Celestia raised her head and locked eyes with the grieving defendant, unperturbed by their unusual appearance. “But you can’t let those emotions control you. If you truly wish to atone for what you’ve done, then prison is not the answer. The Order left behind places and knowledge that could be dangerous, should the unwary stumble upon them. You sacrificed your freedom for the good of Equestria. Now I ask you to take it back in service of the same cause. If you cannot accept this, and choose to serve your sentence, I will understand. But please think on what I have said and weigh that which you desire most carefully.”

Vigilant Watch bit her lower lip as tears threatened to spill from her eyes once more. “I-I will think on it, Your Highness.” She sounded indecisive, but it was better than her earlier outburst. The bailiff moved to return her to a cell, and she went without resistance.

Judge Verdict tapped his podium twice with his gavel. There was a slight hesitation on the part of most ponies, but he eventually got everypony’s attention. “This court will take a thirty minute recess, then reconvene to hear the next trial: The Ponies of Equestria versus Doctor No Chance.” He was about to use his gavel again to signal the dismissal, but he paused. Instead he turned to Princess Celestia, wry amusement in his smile. “Should I assume your suggestion extends to the next trial as well, Your Highness? Or would you like to dramatically reveal that halfway through the case?”

Both of Rarity’s hooves flew to her mouth, Applejack guffawed but then glanced at Celestia with an embarrassed expression, and Pinkie Pie simply giggled openly. Celestia nodded as though he had asked a serious question. “I believe you may assume just that, Your Honor. Besides, I’ve already given two heartfelt speeches this morning. I’m afraid a third would wear me out entirely.” That got a round of laughter, or at least a chuckle, out of everypony present. Nodding in faux-serious reply, Judge Verdict banged his gavel, and ponies began to exit the courtroom.

“Princess?” Twilight asked. Celestia glanced at her faithful student as Luna peered in her direction as well.

Twilight blinked in surprise, then flushed. “Sorry, um, Princess Celestia? Could I ask you something?” She didn’t look at Luna or any of the other ponies in the gallery, but her tone of voice clearly added ‘alone’.

“Fear not, Twilight,” Luna declared before Celestia could respond, her tone just a bit too jaunty. “We shall ensure thy privacy.” The air around Celestia and her student shimmered, and the noises of the surrounding room cut off. Luna nodded in satisfaction. “We shall retire to our chambers, should you need us, sister.” Then she blinked away in a flurry of starlight and shadow.

I’ll be there for you, sister, Celestia thought. She knew that emotional wounds could take so long to close, but Celestia would help her sister through every step of the way. Right now, though, Twilight had something worrying her. “What is on your mind, my faithful student?” Celestia asked, giving her a gentle, patient smile.

Twilight blushed slightly. “Thank you for trusting me with that decision. And for supporting me once I made it. It’s just…” she trailed off, looking worried. “I know it’s cruel – the punishment isn’t called ‘merciless’ for nothing – but all the same, I can’t help but feel it’s what he deserves. After what he did, I... I can’t forgive him.” She looked up at her mentor, eyes full of doubt, fearing the disapproval she might find there.

“Don’t fret, Twilight,” Celestia told her, mussing her student’s mane gently. “I was surprised that you chose such an archaic form of punishment, but it strikes me as fair all the same. Neither a life sentence nor exile seems appropriate for darkness of his magnitude. Yet, neither did I wish to bring back the death penalty. Washing blood with blood has never sat well with me. You found a respectable middle ground, my student.” Privately, the Princess also found some poetic justice in stripping the magic from somepony who had abused it in his lust for power.

Twilight smiled, though there was still sadness in her eyes. What she had seen that night hadn’t left her, and it probably never would. Despite that, she still smiled, and Celestia remembered why, of all the lands she and her sister had visited, this was where they had chosen to stay. Because she had seen these ponies in their darkest days, when Discord’s chaos ran rampant and a pony’s life was worth little more than a moment’s entertainment to an uncaring god. Even then, they could still smile. They could still laugh and love and hope.

“Pinkie’s throwing a goodbye party for Blackstone tonight. Will you be coming, Princess?” Twilight’s question snapped Celestia out of her musing. Which was just as well. Some of her memories of that time were not pleasant.

“I’m afraid not, Twilight. With the remainder of the Order at large and the loyalty of the Royal Guard in question, I cannot spare the time,” Celestia replied, rising to leave the courtroom.

“Oh,” Twilight said, failing to hide her disappointment. “Goodbye, then. I hope to see you again soon, Princess.” She ducked in close for a quick nuzzle before running off to meet up with her friends. They had already left, but Celestia suspected they weren’t far away.

Celestia bit back a sigh as she contemplated the day ahead of her. In truth, she had not refused the invitation because of her schedule, but because she had not been joking about being worn out. Even the simple effort of spending the morning in court left her aching to lay down. The more so because she needed to hide the signs of her fatigue. Everypony had to think she had already made a full recovery, or they would be all aflutter with worry.

Exhaustion was nothing that sleep and food couldn’t fix. But between her poisoning and the battle against the Dark One Always Behind – He Who Walks Behind as it was called in this world − Celestia had burned through over a century’s worth of carefully-husbanded magic in a single day. Though she was still formidable, it would likely take years for her powers to return to their full strength, and there were creatures that would see her weakness as an opportunity. Dire threats still lurked beyond the borders of Equestria, held in check solely by their fear of her. Few of them were old enough to remember why Luna had been more feared than her elder sister in ages past, but even an ill-conceived attack was all too likely to cause harm and hardship to her subjects.

So Celestia wore the same façade of invulnerability that she always did. Once outside, Princess Celestia stepped into the golden chariot her guards loved to pull. Normally, she saw it as a frivolous bit of ceremony – she had two perfectly functional wings herself – but for once, she was relieved to rest and let somepony else do the work. She was too tired to fly or teleport; without her guards, she would have had to walk back.

The dark-coated pegasi watching the silver chariot looked surprised to see one Princess without the other. Celestia nodded in response to their captain’s salute as he approached her. “My sister has already teleported back to the castle. She said she was returning to her chambers, but she may make a few other stops on the way.”

Captain Bullhead maintained a stoic expression, but it was clearly a struggle for him. This was far from the first time Luna had left her guards behind, most often because she forgot about them, but occasionally because she rankled at their presence. A thousand years ago, such honors had been mere spectacle, not long-standing tradition. “Thank you, Your Highness,” he said, returning to his complement of guards. Celestia gestured to her entourage and they took off, rising quickly into the open air.

Safely aloft and away from members of the press, she did sigh this time. “Private Break,” she called to one of her guards. He zoomed over and saluted her. “Please fly ahead and inform my steward that I will receive my next appointment in the Royal Tearoom. And tell Missus Brew to prepare two pots.” He saluted, and zoomed off to relay her order.

That done, she allowed herself to relax for the remainder of the short journey. As tiring as the morning had been, there were few balms more soothing than a good cup of tea.

………

The Royal Tearoom was not one of the rooms open to tours of the palace. Despite the fact that several key diplomatic meetings had been made there, Celestia had put her hoof down when the tourism department broached the subject. Many of the ponies in Equestria would have been surprised by the appearance of such an important place. The room was well furnished, but not luxuriously or impressively so. The table, despite careful attention and upkeep, showed its age, and the cushions were more comfortable than stylish. The few paintings on the wall were all landscapes, often by lesser known artists. The single large window did not overlook the gardens or the rest of Canterlot. Instead, it offered a view of Equestria that went on for miles, which any pony with a fear of heights would find quite disturbing. Perhaps the most surprising feature was the common porcelain teaware. Celestia possessed far finer tea sets, but those were brought out only for special events. When trying to relax, it was far better to use a cup that one could lose without regret. Well, unless one lost tea in the process; that was always regrettable.

“Ahhh…” The Princess sighed as she finished her second cup and settled back into her cushion. Fortified against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, she nodded to Proper Place, her steward. He waited unobtrusively in one corner, and at her signal, left the room.

He returned moments later, pushing the wheelchair of a pony who insisted he could do it himself. Dresden, once more in the guise of a pony, grouched about the treatment, but Proper Place gave him no notice. The faux-pony’s chest was wrapped in bandages, his back held stiff in a partial cast and his left foreleg in a sling. His bruises and cuts had mostly faded, and he was impatient to be released from, quote, ‘the clutches of those quacks you call doctors’. Proper Place pulled him up to the table, deftly pouring him a cup of tea while filling a small plate with a selection of various cakes and fruit slices. Dresden grumbled again, but quieted as he tried one of the cakes.

“Thank you, Mr. Place,” Celestia said with a nod and smile. “You may leave us now.” Her steward raised an eyebrow, but said nothing in protest. Normally, he would not have even objected that much, but with her own injuries so recent, everypony had been more protective of her.

“Very well. Will you be needing anything else, Your Highness?” Proper Place asked as he made ready to leave.

A week of sleep while Luna handles my duties, Celestia thought. Aloud she said, “No thank you, but tell the guards to knock before entering should they need me.” Proper Place bowed and smoothly exited the room, leaving her and the human wizard alone.

Dresden had moved from trying one of the cakes to a piece of fruit. His expression told her that it was not to his liking. The transformation on him was skillful; she was still impressed that Twilight had managed such a thing. For most unicorns, a mere two days in the company of another species was nowhere near enough preparation to cast a spell of this power. Though, she had clearly colored it with her own emotions. It was no coincidence that Dresden made for such a physically attractive stallion.

“If I may suggest,” Celestia began. “We each have questions for the other, so an equal exchange of answers seems fitting. I would add the caveat that either of us can refuse a question, but we must be honest in anything we choose to answer. You may even go first, if you are amenable to such a discussion.”

Dresden took a half-hearted sip of tea as he considered her offer. Celestia knew she made him nervous. From what she remembered about the powerful entities from his world, it was less distrust and more survival instinct. Still, he accepted her suggestion with a shrug. “Sounds fair enough. Hell, it’s a better deal than I’d get anywhere else. So, the big thing I’m really curious about is all this,” he started to wave with his left hoof, but stopped with a wince.

“All this?”

“Yeah,” he replied levitating another cake to his mouth. He took a small bite and continued speaking around it. “How does this world and my world and the Nevernever all connect? Is this place another universe, another reality, another planet? I’ve been here twice, and I still don’t know where the heck I am.”

“Ah, hmmm…” Celestia understood the nature of his question, but answering it would be difficult. “No offense meant, but I doubt you would understand a more technical explanation. If a metaphor would suffice…?” He nodded, and she continued. “Imagine all of ‘Reality’ as a bathtub filled to the brim with water. Within that water there are thousands of bubbles. Those bubbles shape the water around them and in turn are shaped by it. Your world, galaxy and entire universe are contained within one bubble. The water, which you call the Nevernever, flows through and around everything. Equestria and the universe it inhabits are another bubble. Most of those exploring the Nevernever stay close to the areas around their world, as vast distances separate each bubble. However, shortcuts across these distances exist, and you were fortunate enough to find one.” He nodded in understanding, but she was not done. “To continue the metaphor, the Outer Gates are the plug keeping the water in and the drain would be the Outside.” She stopped as his eyes widened to the size of saucers.

“Stars and Stones!” he yelped. “You can’t just talk about the freaking Outside out of nowhere! Jesus, getting that on my record is all I need.”

“Pardon?” Celestia asked, uncertain about the nature of his outburst.

A few breaths later and Dresden was calm again. “Sorry,” he offered, “but that is one topic we cannot discuss. Seventh Law of Magic: Thou shalt not seek beyond the Outer Gates. That’s one you can get convicted on just for researching. Hell, I expected you’d understand the concept of dangerous knowledge better than anyone.”

Princess Celestia could see his point, though the reaction to such a minor statement still surprised her. She would have thought that knowledge commonplace, since his world was one of those closest to the Outer Gates. Which could be even more reason not to speak of them, she thought. Still, with his potential, it was even more curious that he was so ignorant of them.

“Very well. My turn, I believe. During both the ceremony and the battle, He Who Walks Behind spoke as though it knew you. Twilight has already told me how your foster-father sent it to kill you. What, exactly, did it say when you fought it?” Celestia maintained an even expression, but the muscles in her neck tensed.

The Dark One Always Behind was an Outsider of no small means. The idea that a single human sorcerer, however talented and unbalanced, had summoned it merely to destroy his runaway apprentice was absurd. The idea that a boy only just coming into his power had defeated such a creature was even more unlikely. Though, she had heard the Dark One call him, ‘Child of the Stars’. No matter how she looked at it, there was more to this story than a warlock gone mad with power and a boy getting a ‘lucky shot’. She took a sip of tea to calm herself and considered Dresden carefully.

He grimaced at the question and shook his head sorrowfully. “I’m sorry, but among the injuries he gave me that night was a concussion. He actually talked a lot, but I call only remember scraps and pieces of it.”

Celestia bit back a sigh. “I will be satisfied by anything you remember.”

Dresden finished off his tea cake and considered for a moment. “I remember being scared.” He paused and shook his head. “No, I was more than scared. I could see him reflected in something, but nothing was there when I turned around. He kept getting closer, and I was terrified beyond anything I had ever known. I knew he was going to kill me, that he was going to enjoy killing me, and that I was helpless to stop him. He toyed with me for a while, hurting me just enough to reinforce that fear and desperation without serious injury. He kept saying, ‘You can’t escape what’s always behind you.’

"I tried to run away, and that annoyed him. He grabbed the gas station attendant, and asked ‘Are you merely one of them?’ or something like that. Then he ripped the poor guy into three pieces, and I had to watch. After that, all I remember is fire. Flames and screaming.” Dresden stopped, a haunted look in his eyes, and took a slow breath.

Then his eyes snapped back open. “But I saw him again, just a few months ago. These… ah, sorceresses were using a death curse ritual, and I tracked them down. I interrupted the ritual, and it turned out He Who Walks Behind was the force responsible for the curse. He killed the woman casting and took control of her body.” Dresden frowned in concentration. “I think he said, ‘I am returned, mortal. And I remember thee. You and I, we have unfinished business between us.’ Then he disappeared from the corpse, and I hadn’t seen or heard of him again until now.”

That was worrying. The Dark One had learned of her location, and it remembered them. Still, even if it shared that information, Equestria was well shielded from prying eyes, and only through another summoning could it return. It was a small mercy that most of those ponies involved in its summoning were already dead. Celestia merely hid most dangerous knowledge, but spells and rituals like those, she actively destroyed. While the scene at Dresden’s ceremony would ensure that monster would be remembered for centuries, with luck, any real information about it would disappear in a few generations. If Miss Watch fully cooperated with the Guard, her hope was likely to be fulfilled. Of course, she’d had such hopes before, and the events of the last week had proven them wrong.

“Okay, I’ve got mine,” Dresden said. “Y’see, I was paying attention when He Who Walks Behind was talking, too. And he said quite a few things about you and Luna, but some of it doesn’t make sense.” Celestia tensed and hoped this wasn’t going where she thought it was. “He mentioned exile to Luna, but at the same time, he was surprised to find you both here. So he couldn’t have been talking about her banishment to the moon. Then, when you were disguised as Luna, he was talking about your choice and why your sister would hate you for it. But he knew it was you; he even said that he saw through your mask.”

The tea cup lifted to Celestia’s lips with perfect grace, undisturbed by her inner turmoil. Dresden did not look or act half as intelligent as he was in truth. Celestia found that rather vexing, and wondered how many times he had triumphed because his foes underestimated him. “You have not asked a question,” she reminded him.

He nodded, and spent a moment to frame it properly. “What were the circumstances of the exile He Who Walks Behind spoke of?”

The Princess nodded like a fencer acknowledging a blow. He had phrased that well. “Neither Luna nor I are native to this world. We come from one of the countless others adrift in what you call the Nevernever. As you may have noticed, my sister and I are quite powerful. Sadly, it was magic we were not meant to have. I was in late adolescence and Luna was in late childhood, when we were given a choice. We could either give up our powers and live out our lives among those we knew and loved, or we could keep our powers, but nevermore return home. I chose to keep my magic, and Luna was stuck between losing me or losing everything else she knew. She chose to follow me into the Nevernever. Word of us spread quickly, as we were young and powerful: the ideal targets for many who prey upon such individuals. It was a cruel irony that after millennia of avoiding such creatures, Luna fell prey to something native to this world, one of the most peaceful we have visited.”

She carefully did not mention how Nightmare Moon had thrown that choice in her face, blaming her for everything that had happened since then. Because of Celestia, they had never been there for their mother. Because of Celestia, Luna had lived for centuries with no friend other than her older sister. Because of Celestia, they lived forever young while everyone around them grew old and died. The barbed taunts had made battling her difficult, even knowing that she was possessed. Many were the nights Celestia feared that, deep down, her sister still blamed her.

“Wow,” Dresden said, sounding genuinely surprised. Whether it was because of the content or the candor of her reply, Celestia didn’t know. “And I thought I had family issues.” He paused in thought, his tea cup levitated aimlessly around the table. “If it makes a difference,” he offered, “I would have probably chosen the same.”

A gentle golden push of her aura prevented his cup from spilling, as Celestia took the last of one teapot. She gave Dresden a small smile and replied, “I was unaware you were so enamored with power, Mister Dresden.”

His face flushed, though with a coat that dark it was hard to tell. “That’s not what I meant! I mean if you’ve got that power−”

“Then you have the burden to use it wisely,” the Princess interrupted. “That is what I believed also. I could not stomach living a normal life when I had the power to help those in need. I made my decision, but I fear that in the process I took Luna’s. She was a child, used to following her older sister. Can you really say she made it freely?” Celestia shook her head, forestalling any reply Dresden might have given. “However, the past is gone, and regret is a slow poison, but an efficient one. I believe it is my turn to ask a question.”

Dresden evidently had wanted to add something, but he closed his mouth with a frown, recognizing that she didn’t want to pursue the topic further. “Sure. Go on.”

Celestia nodded, taking another sip of her tea. Dresden tried some as well, though his expression suggested that he was only doing it to be polite. Celestia gave him points for the attempt and asked calmly, “How long has it been since you touched a coin of the Fallen?”

An arc of tea sprayed towards her, as Dresden choked in surprise. It splashed harmlessly against a thin shield, as Dresden began to raggedly cough. She gave him a few pats on the back, though avoiding his many bruises made the task difficult, and soon his throat was clear. He stared at her, shame and fear warring for control of his face. “Hell’s bells,” he began, before coughing again. “Did you just ask what I thought you did?”

Celestia regarded him with complete serenity, as patient as a mountain. “How long has it been since you touched a coin of the Fallen?”

Fear won out over shame, but the latter still lingered in his voice. “How could you know about that?”

Technically, her question was still unanswered, but she saw no harm in replying to his. “My sister mentioned that we visited Earth some eighteen centuries ago and met a small religion calling themselves Christianoi. What I doubt she mentioned is that we defended them from a demon in human form. He was a man who had allied himself with dark powers, and let one of those creatures into his soul. He called himself Nicodemus.”

His eyes stretched wide in disbelief. “You met Nicodemus, literally the most terrifying and powerful man I’ve ever seen, and neither of you are dead?”

Celestia snorted, and waved a hoof dismissively. “I found him difficult to kill, and I believe he would say the same. However,” and with that her eyes flashed in anger, “in our first meeting, before I knew the depths of his depravities, he offered me a coin. I could sense the spirit of cunning malevolence contained within, a spirit that the Christianoi called the Fallen. I have little doubt that with time it would have led me down a dark path. That coin bore the same sigil that is burned into your left hoof. You have no Fallen bound to your soul, yet the reek of brimstone accompanies some of your spells. So I ask again,” she said, her voice as unforgiving as the desert sun. “How long has it been since you touched a coin of the Fallen?”

“More than a year,” he said softly. “I… I didn’t mean to. He threw it in front of a toddler, and I reacted without thinking.” He chuckled darkly. “Of course, that doesn’t say much when my first instinct was to grab the coin instead of the kid, but I did my best to put the temptation out of reach. I buried the coin under a couple feet of concrete, then put a circle around it and sealed that shut. Afterwards, I did my best to forget. For a while, I thought that had worked. I didn’t hear any voices in my head; I didn’t get any evil urges. Then, just a few months ago, when my hand got burned, that sigil was the only part that didn’t get charred. About the same time some of my spells started to get randomly supercharged with Hellfire, which is where the brimstone smell comes from.”

He stopped talking, and turned to look at her. “What’s going to happen to me?”

He was afraid, and Celestia could admit that he wasn’t alone in that regard. The idea of Dresden, with all his power and his knowledge of Equestria, falling to such darkness... Twilight trusted him, and if he ever betrayed her, she would be dead in a matter of moments. With the proper planning and leverage, he could even kill Luna in such an attempt. Celestia knew how devastating the shock of betrayal could be, and how hard it was to fight against someone you loved and trusted.

She forced herself to leave her introspection. Dresden was waiting for her answer. “I don’t know,” she told him. It wasn’t the answer he had wanted, but it was the truth. “I only saw that coin for a short time, and I cannot tell you how they work. That you did not accept the Fallen into you must mean something, but how much, I do not know.”

Silence fell between them. Celestia finished her cup and set it down with a delicate clink. She stared piercingly into Dresden and spoke in solemn tones. “It pains me to do this, but I must ask you not to return to Equestria so long as you bear that mark. I hope with all that I am that you never take up the coin, but I am unwilling to risk the lives of my subjects upon it. Should you return without ridding yourself of this taint, I will have to assume you have allied yourself with Nicodemus. And I will respond appropriately.” Her stomach knotted, but that tension never reached her face as she calmly made her threat. Celestia hated this part of ruling, but she saw little other choice. It was best to loved, and almost as good to be respected, but should he fall to darkness, Dresden would care for neither of those. Thus, fear was the last recourse left to her.

Dresden’s expression was somber, all of his usual levity gone. “I understand.” He shuddered, as he swallowed that bitter pill, but his eyes were hard when he raised them again. “One of the best men I have ever known gave his life to save me from them. They tortured him until the body barely looked human and used his blood to fuel a curse that would have killed millions. I would rather die than bring their brand of evil to this world. If I do return, I’ll thank you to do it.”

Princess Celestia broke into a small smile, and held back a chuckle. Dresden stared at her, confused by her reaction. The Princess schooled her face into a more neutral expression, but the corners of her mouth still twitched upward. “Forgive me, but just now, you reminded me of someone else.”

“Who?”

“Myself,” she replied, letting her smile return. “I was so very like you when I was young that the similarity is astounding. Somehow, I suspect that you will find a way out of this and come sauntering back to Equestria, your palm unscarred. You have a strong spirit. Follow it, and you will not lose your way.”

Dresden flushed slightly and his ears folded back in reaction to the praise, but he recovered quickly enough. “Don’t you mean heart?”

Celestia shook her head. “No. A heart can feel rage without reason. A mind can be rational without compassion. You must let neither control you. It is the spirit that unites them and defines who we truly are.”

The silence stretched longer this time, and Celestia used the opportunity to gather their dishes into a stack and set the tea cups to the side. The cakes and fruit were long gone, and there was little tea left. The afternoon sun shone through the window. In a few hours, Celestia would lower it and make room for her sister’s moon.

“Thank you,” Dresden said. Then, breaking into a mischievous smile, he asked, “So, can I use you for a reference? Because that would look pretty good on my résumé.”

Celestia snorted slightly, and pulled a cord hidden in the corner of the room to summon Proper Place. “I’m afraid not. Still, I hope you have a good time at Pinkie’s party and a safe travel the next day.”

Her steward entered the room silently, standing aside until they were done talking to wheel Dresden away. Dresden waved him over even as he replied, “I might have a good time if the doctors let me out of this ridiculous stuff. Otherwise, I give it slim odds at best.”

“I’ve spoken to the doctors, and I believe you should be cleared. Proper Place will conduct you to the Medical Wing before taking you anywhere else.” Celestia rose, breathing in the lingering scent of tea. Despite the subjects discussed here, she felt content. Today had been a good day. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Blackstone. I hope to see you again in better circumstances.”

He snorted and chuckled under his breath as his chair was pushed out of the room. “Ain’t that the truth?” he murmured, staring at his ruined left hoof, and the sigil hidden beneath his bandages.