• Published 4th Mar 2012
  • 23,954 Views, 2,955 Comments

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks - psychicscubadiver



Sequel to the Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends. Everyone's favorite wizard returns to Equestria.

  • ...
38
 2,955
 23,954

Chapter Twenty-Three

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-Three

Heaven was just next door. Or hell, if you were one of those granola-munching health nuts.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been to expensive bakeries before. I’ve tasted pastries as good as those made at Sugarcube Corner. But never, and I mean never, had I seen such a spread of cavity-causing goodness. There were four tables, each one big enough to seat twelve people, loaded with nothing but high-grade pies, cakes, tarts, flans, cookies, cupcakes, brownies, turnovers, strudels and some desserts I couldn’t even categorize. Literal cornucopias of sweets spilled forth from each table. There was enough sugar in the next room to give a hummingbird diabetes.

Still, I hesitated on the far side of the door to the party room. It was a small gathering, and all of the ponies here already knew I was human, but it still made me a little nervous after hiding it for so long. Mouse was ready to charge in and chow down, but I wasn’t planning to move anytime soon. Until Pinkie noticed me lurking, at least.

“Attention everypony!” she yelled, banging her glass with a spoon. The low buzz of conversation died out as the partygoers gave her their attention. “I’d like to thank all of you for showing up to Blackstone’s Super Secret Goodbye Party! And here’s the man of the hour, Harry Blackstone Dresden!” She gestured grandly to the door.

I glanced down to Mouse for moral support – which he provided with happy panting and a big doggy grin − and opened the door. I was careful to duck the low door jamb, though Mouse provided an unforeseen tripping hazard as he rushed toward the food.

My entry was greeted with silence, and I gave an awkward wave with my right hand, since my left was still in a sling. Twilight and friends smiled, but none of them − not even Pinkie Pie – came close to matching Lyra’s grin.

“Let the party continue!” Pinkie shouted, bouncing away to the kitchens. Conversations were slow to restart, but with Lyra practically charging me, I figured I might have other concerns soon.

“This is so cool!” she proclaimed as she skidded to a halt. Bon-bon hurried to keep up with her girlfriend, shooting me an indecipherable look, though it was oddly lacking in her usual malice. Lyra bulled ahead, taking no notice. “I know we discussed your species while you were recovering,” she said, which was a nice way to describe her hours of interrogation while I was trapped in a wheelchair, “but seeing you in the flesh is another experience! Less than thirty seconds of observation, and I’ve got a whole new set of questions!”

“All of which Bob will be quite happy to answer for you,” I replied, having anticipated this reaction from her. I had also made Bob thrice promise not to tell her anything dangerous − using my definition of dangerous, not his. “He’s upstairs in Pinkie’s room.”

Her eyes lit up, and Lyra turned quickly towards the stairs. Then she stopped herself, and turned back. Her eyes glanced at Bon-bon in worry. Not for herself, though. There was far too much care in Lyra’s expression for that. “Thank you for the offer, but−”

“Go on, Lyra,” Bon-bon interrupted. “I promised you’d get a chance to talk to it, didn’t I?”

Lyra frowned, and put a hoof on her girlfriend’s shoulder. “Are you sure, Bon-bon? I don’t want to just leave you down here alone.”

“I’ll be fine,” Bon-bon replied, laying one of her hooves on top of Lyra’s. “I know this is something you want to do, and I’ll have everypony here to keep me company. Go on. When else will you get the chance to interview a human’s familiar?”

I rolled my eyes again, but once more refrained from correcting her. Lyra looked uncertain, but she didn’t argue any further. Bon-bon got a quick peck on the cheek, and Lyra hurried over to the staircase in the corner, pausing only to glance back once.

“So,” I said, not sure where to take the conversation from there. Ordinary parties are weird. I’m more used to high-class supernatural shindigs. At those, veiled threats are more common than small talk, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who wants you dead.

“Yes,” Bon-bon replied, sloshing her cup of punch around a little. At least I wasn’t alone in awkwardness.

“Where did your hate go?” I asked, deciding to take the bull by the horns. “After the trick I pulled to get you out of my way, I figured I’d have to get a food taster. But now you don’t even seem angry.” I held a hand in a forestalling gesture. “Not that I miss the loathing, but its disappearance is kind of throwing me off.”

Bon-bon snorted, “Oh, I was mad enough to spit nails once I realized what you had done. Even after Lyra showed up out of the blue and convinced me to take refuge with the Elements at the castle, I was planning to introduce you to something that would make you sickly and miserable for the next few weeks.” She chuckled, but then all the humor drained from her, like someone had flipped a switch. “Then Bookmark, one of our own, gutted the Order. Five of my first cousins, an uncle, and a third of all my foalhood friends died at his hooves. I’m one of the lucky few who didn’t lose a parent or sibling. After that, everything you’d done didn’t seem to matter anymore.”

Ouch. That had gotten dark. “Did Celestia suspend your sentence, too?” I asked, hoping to turn the topic away from the death of family, whether close or extended.

She eyed me oddly and made a noise that could be mistaken for a chuckle. “No, actually. Thanks to you it wasn’t necessary. I was given a pardon for ‘service to a Royal agent in a time of dire need’. My mother broke into the castle to see me once it was announced.”

I blinked. Well, that explained the disturbance last Tuesday. “And why did she do that?”

Some of her tension left Bon-bon and the lines on her face eased away. Good. This line of conversation seemed to be steering her away the darker parts of the past week. “Everypony in the Order thought you had killed me. Princess Celestia’s announcement told her otherwise, and…” She shrugged. “From there, maternal instinct took over. Rumor claims that it took an entire squad to bring her down. They arrested and imprisoned her, but with luck, I think we can get her a suspended sentence too. The Princess seems more interested in rooting out the rest of the Order than punishing anypony.”

It didn’t seem quite fair that those nutcases were getting off scot-free, but Celestia’s move made good political sense. Besides, any sign of a relapse, and that sentence wouldn’t stay suspended. “Did your mom apologize for punching a national hero?”

There was no smile on Bon-bon’s face, but her lips curved slightly. “She wanted to, but I told her you deserved it. Teleportation potion, my rump.”

I held up one hand defensively. “Hey, I gave you exactly what I promised. Can you really blame a guy for trying?”

“Yes,” she retorted, but it was without heat. “I’m going to head upstairs and make sure Lyra doesn’t try to run off with your familiar. Otherwise, I might follow through on the temptation to sprinkle a pinch of this or that into your food.” I blanched visibly, and got an actual, though brief, smile out of her.

Having navigated that conversational minefield, I managed to sidle over to the vast array of food I had earlier noted. I loaded my plate with a modest amount – not like any of it was going anywhere, right? Then, I settled myself into a corner seat to watch the proceedings.

Pinkie, Twilight and all the rest were there, of course. Lyra and Bon-bon had just vacated the area. Mr. and Mrs. Cake, the owners of the bakery, were tending to the mountains of food; I recognized them as the yellow stallion and blue mare among Bookmark’s hostages. Spike was deep in discussion with their fellow hostage, the huge red stallion that was apparently Applejack’s brother. Trixie kept sneaking nervous glances at me. Either she was weirded out by how I actually looked, or seeing me as a human had triggered some… less pleasant memories of my last visit. It was a small gathering, but that was more than fine with me. The last thing I needed was a crowd. I’d just polished off my first plate and was about to scout out seconds when the Cakes approached me.

“Mister, uh, Dresden?” Mr. Cake asked me. They both looked apprehensive, though I gave them props just for the attempt.

“Uh-huh?” I confirmed, shooting a wistful look at the rest of the waiting desserts.

“We just… wanted to thank you,” Mrs. Cake said, offering a sheepish smile.

I blinked in surprise. “Thanks, but you should know that the rest of the gang is more to thank than I am. Princess Luna especially. Without her, we’d all be dead.”

They both winced that my blunt choice of words, but they rallied with a smile. “I know,” Mr. Cake said with a bit more confidence. “We’ve already thanked all of them, but we wanted to say it to you, too.” He grinned. “And you’re the only one I’m going to tell quite yet, but if our suspicions are right, then you may have helped save not just a couple, but a family.”

“Carrot!” Mrs. Cake said, poking him with one hoof. “We won’t know for sure until we visit the doctor next week. But either way, we wanted to give you something special to remember us by.” She pulled something out of her saddlebag. I unwrapped it carefully, peeling off layers of wax paper. At first glance I thought it was a piece of stained glass, but then logic kicked it and I realized it was a plaque made out of spun sugar.

“ ‘To Pinkie Pie,’ ” I read aloud. “ ‘Our hero and the best employee−’ ”

“Wrong one, wrong one,” Mrs. Cake interrupted, blushing as she dug back through her bag. She handed me another one.

“ ‘To Blackstone. Thank you for your heroism. Any friend of Pinkie’s is a friend of ours, and you will always be welcome at Sugarcube Corner.’ ”

“Though, when you come back, we’d prefer that you transform into a pony again,” Mr. Cake added. “No offense, but you’d scare away the customers otherwise.”

I chuckled, touched by their gesture. “Thank you both.”

They beamed at me, then hurried off to award another edible medal to some lucky pony. I stared at mine, wondering where I could put it without breaking it or having to explain it to my brother. I was having trouble coming up with a likely spot, when Applejack’s brother broke my reverie.

Big Mac − if I was remembering his name right – didn’t say anything, but the advance of a mini-Clydesdale was hard to ignore. He shrugged a wooden cask roughly the size of a small barrel off his considerable shoulders. Before I could worry about it hitting the floor, he deftly caught it in one massive hoof and set it gently to the ground. “Here,” he offered, his voice a basso rumble.

“For me?” I asked. He must have been keeping it under the tables or something, because there’s no way I could have missed seeing that earlier. Given that it was marked ‘Sweet Apple Acres’, and I could hear sloshing inside, cider was a safe bet for the contents.

Big Mac nodded solemnly. “Eeyup. You done good.” That said, he turned around and moseyed off.

A man after my own heart. Though, I was at loss as to how I’d manage to take his gift home. I shrugged it off and wandered back to the buffet table. That was a worry for later. I had just about finished stacking another plate with delectable desserts when I felt a tug on my jacket. I glanced down in surprise and found Spike there.

“Hey,” he said. “I wanted you to have this.” I’m no geologist, but he was offering me what I suspected to be a sapphire. It was easily the size of my thumb. I was speechless.

I don’t think he read my expression correctly, because he looked away and blushed. “Yeah, I know it’s not much, and you’ve probably got like a whole treasure chest full of jewels back home.” It was difficult to not to drool as I thought about all the months of rent that pretty bauble would pay for. “But it’s only one I’ve got right now, so I wanted to give it to you. As thanks for when you rescued Twilight.”

As much as I wanted it, I hung back for a moment. There was an undercurrent of sadness in his words, and his smile felt forced. I put a hand on top of his and folded his claws back around the gem, though my wallet cried out at the action. “I don’t want you to give me something that’s precious to you, Spike. I helped because I’m Twilight’s friend, and your friend, too.” I gave a crooked smile and a snort of laughter. “And because I’m a friend, I can tell something’s bothering you. C’mon, you can vent to me.”

His eyes darted this way and that, and I saw him consider denying it. In the end he sighed and relented. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful or selfish or anything. And I know I shouldn’t feel like this, but when everypony goes on an adventure, I’m always left behind or unconscious or something. I wasn’t there when they fought Nightmare Moon, or when they faced that red dragon. Trixie took me prisoner, and then when Twilight got taken, there wasn’t anything I could do except research some old books for you.” He paused and let out another heavy breath. “I just… Everypony is so amazing, they’re heroes. And me? I’m useless.”

Oh, boy. That was a thorny mess. Yeah, it wasn’t hard to see how a kid like him could feel inadequate when he was surrounded by so many incredible people. Still, there was light at the end of the tunnel. I put on hand on Spike’s small shoulder and steered him away from the table of gustatory goodness. “Spike, how old are you?” I asked conversationally.

He shrugged. “About thirteen.”

That raised both of my eyebrows. I’d expected him to be a bit younger, but my point would still stand. “Y’know,” I told him, “when I was thirteen I was still learning how to do magic. I’d place a decent bet that the same holds true for Twilight. I don’t think Applejack or Rainbow were fighting monsters at that age, either.”

Spike frowned pensively; he wasn’t slow by any stretch of the imagination. “So, you’re saying that I’m too young? That’s not much of a consolation.”

I snorted and gave him a shake. “I’m saying you’ll get your turn in the spotlight some day. Just because you aren’t the hero now, doesn’t mean you’ll never be one. Hell, during that ambush at the library you stood up and pitched in during a serious fight. If you hadn’t kept those pegasi off my back, we might not have won that battle.” He blushed and tried to wave off the praise, but I didn’t let him. “You jumped in and helped without a second thought, even though they were bigger, stronger and faster. You’re braver than you give yourself credit for.”

“I wasn’t brave, I was terrified the whole time. I only did it because I needed to. Because you needed my help.”

I chuckled, and ruffled his head spines. “That’s what courage is, little buddy. If you think I’m not scared when I fight, then you’re dead wrong. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Someday, we’ll need you to be brave again, and I’ve got no doubt that you’ll measure up when the opportunity arrives.”

He blushed again and pushed my hand away, but I could see the shadow of a smile on his face. “Okay, okay, but I want to give you this.” He offered me the sapphire again. “Yeah, it’s precious to me, but I still want you to have it.” He grinned cheekily. “And some day, after I save you, you can give it back.”

That rendered any plans to sell it null and void, but I couldn’t help but smile as I took the gem from him. “I’ll hold you to that.” Twilight called for him and he scurried off. Then, finally, I got my just desserts.

It was somewhere between my second and third plates that the sugar buzz started to make things blurry. I might have sung ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (badly) and might have danced (even more badly) to some of Pinkie’s records. With any luck, those were just hallucinations caused by my pancreas going into diabetic shock. Either way, when the sugar crash came and I conked out on the sofa, I did it with a smile.

………

“Ugh.” My mouth tasted like somebody had been using it to mix off-brand lemonade. Gritty sugar and acid were heavy on my tongue, and I had a medium-sized headache. I would never have thought it was possible to have a sugar hangover, but Equestria liked to introduce me to all sorts of new concepts.

“Didst thou sleep well?” boomed a voice behind me.

“Ahh. No. Sound bad,” I replied, clutching my ringing ears. Pain, pain go away; come again another never.

“Sorry,” Luna said, in something approaching a normal tone of voice. That still hurt, but not nearly as bad. “Art thou ready to return to thy world?”

I groaned at the thought of walking, but shook myself mostly awake and stumbled to my feet. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” I mumbled, “My stuff is all packed, but it’s upstairs.”

“Not anymore!” Pinkie announced proudly. I bit back a curse, but she quickly redeemed herself by offering me a cup of the one true elixir. “You’re the last one up. We already brought all of your stuff down. And Luna said we can all come with you this time, since there’s nothing dangerous on the way to your home!”

I finished the cup of perfect-temperature coffee, and Pinkie pressed another one into my hand. It wasn’t as good as the stuff at Bon-bon’s parents’ house, confirming my suspicion that they bought gourmet beans, but it was more than good enough to get the job done. “Okay,” I said, “let’s get this show on the road.”

Luna, unfortunately, took me at my word and teleported all of us to the edge of the Everfree Forest without warning. I then discovered firsthand that a sugar binge, coffee and a stomach churning teleport don’t add up to a pleasant combination. At least there were plenty of bushes to throw up in. From the noises I heard, I don’t think I was the only one, either.

“Sorry,” Luna said again, a wince in her voice. But I’ll give her this, she had gotten all six girls, me, Mouse, Bob and all my stuff here in neat order. “We thought thou meant all was in readiness.”

“No harm, no foul,” I replied. I used some of the fresh coffee to rinse the taste out of my mouth. That done, I eyed the pile of gear apprehensively, especially the cask of cider. Applejack noticed and she laughed.

“Yeah, my brother tends to forget that not everypony can haul things like he can. I ran back to the farm for a cart that’ll make moving it a mite easier on you.” A spell from Twilight settled the cask gently into the miniature wagon. In that time, Luna grabbed the rest of my gear, leaving only Bob and my staff for me to look after.

I accepted that division of labor without dissent, and we started down the path to the ruined castle. We used the same path as we had taken the last time, but now I had a whole troop of ponies with me instead of just Luna and Twilight. The second cup of coffee, the fresh air and the exercise combined to take the edge off my hangover. My head still pounded occasionally, but for the most part I actually felt human.

Most of the group chatted and talked back and forth, the conversation flowing easily. The Princess, on the other hand, mostly kept to herself, seemingly uncomfortable in the presence of the others. Not everything was sunshine and rainbows for the rest of my friends, either. Every once in a while one of them would go quiet and stare into the distance. The rambling chatter and jokes always drew them back to the topic at hand, but none of them were immune to those heavy pauses. I had my own suspicions about why their expressions would go numb for a few seconds, and why some subjects were never broached.

Trixie’s madness had hardened them, like a sword in fire, but I feared that our latest adventure had done much worse. I had expected them to withdraw and become more aloof, but instead they stuck together more fiercely than before. Only a day after that night, they had wheeled me out of the castle to try donuts at one of their favorite shops. All the same, I could still read the signs of their scars. Luna had promised me to ward off the worst of their nightmares − explaining in the process her power to dreamwalk. Even then, it worried me; all the more because I couldn’t be there for any of them.

I shook my head, banishing that thought. Even if I wasn’t needed back home, which I most certainly was, there was no guarantee I could help them. Hell, my presence alone was dangerous, or Celestia wouldn’t want me gone so promptly. And frankly, it was hard to argue with her on that. I clenched my left fist as far as it would go and determinedly refused to continue that line of thought, focusing instead on some of the beautiful nature we were hiking through.

A few birds chirped at us as we passed, and some of the forest’s inhabitants stared. I saw another manticore, which wisely chose to avoid us. A flamingly effeminate River Dragon − apparently a friend of Rarity’s − lived in a surprisingly deep river and helped the flightless among us to cross. There was a wolf that I’d swear was made of twigs and branches, even though I only saw it for a few seconds. Once I spotted a large gray something with wings that vanished into the underbrush before I could get a good look at it. Were dodos still alive here?

Eventually, we reached the ruined castle and the Way close to it. Luna opened a portal between worlds and five of the girls got their first look at the Nevernever.

“Wow!” Pinkie cheered, bounding into the desert before anybody else could even take a step forward. “A whole new world! A new, fantastic point of view!”

“I dunno, Pinkie,” Applejack said, Twilight levitating the cask and cart in after her. “It looks a mite empty. Not much to get excited about.”

“That’s the whole reason to be excited!” Pinkie yelled back, already investigating every pile of rocks she came across. Mouse barked happily and ran to follow her. “It’s a blank canvas just waiting for a dam of fun to burst and spill happiness all over it.”

“I think you may have mixed your metaphors a bit there, darling,” Rarity said, pulling out a large parasol before realizing that, despite the bright light, there was no sun in the sky. That, in turn, made me realize that none of us had shadows. Weird.

“There’s nothing here? No monsters or demons or anything? I thought you said this place was full of ‘em!” Rainbow put on plenty of bravado, but I could tell the thought of fighting hardly thrilled her. We’d both seen more than enough violence in the past week.

“No,” Luna answered shutting the portal behind everyone. Fluttershy lagged behind the Princess, while Twilight was already examining the rock formations to find our trail. “Yon waste is barren, insofar as we are aware. Never before hath we seen another creature, whether benign or malignant, while traveling it. However, we shall not relax our vigil. Should something wend its way to us, it shall be dealt with.”

“Neat,” I said. I glanced at my belt, happy to hear only silence from that corner.

The conversation continued, with more than a few clever quips attributed to yours truly. Yet, all too soon, we arrived at the Way back to Earth. I bit back a sigh. I didn’t want to leave them behind. I didn’t want this to be the last time I saw them, but there didn’t seem to be any other way. They didn’t know about Celestia’s command. She hadn’t told them, and I wasn’t planning to either. I didn’t want them to know about the coin. I didn’t want to tell them that I wasn’t coming back anytime soon. Maybe not for years, maybe not ever.

“Thank you,” I said, giving each of them a smile. “You guys are some of my best friends. We might live a world apart, but I’ll always be proud to consider you close.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rainbow said, waving her hoof in irritation. “Don’t get all mushy on us.”

“Shoot, we’re glad to have ya. If nothing else, you keep things from gettin’ boring. I can say that much without any doubt,” Applejack replied, grinning sardonically.

“Yeppers! Come back soon and be sure to bring Bob with you. He’s fantastically fun-a-riffic!” Pinkie shouted, waving around the banner from my goodbye party.

Fluttershy was giving Mouse one last belly rub for the road, but she looked up and gave me a shy smile. “It was nice to see you again, Mr. Dresden. Make sure you take good care of Mouse. He’ll grow up big and strong before you know it.”

“It was our pleasure, good sir. Though, I would appreciate a cutting from one of your leather trees if you ever get the chance,” Rarity said, giving a small curtsy. I winced, wishing I’d never told her that terrible lie. Applejack looked caught somewhere between discomfort and amusement at my reaction.

“We’re glad to have you,” Twilight said with a smile. “I’m looking forward to exchanging more letters. With any luck, we can schedule another visit that won’t be quite so hectic.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, and returned her smile. No use ruining the mood now. “We’ll see. A wizard’s life can be pretty busy, and I know you bunch have to deal with some crazy stuff, too.”

“That’s a worry for later. Now it’s time for a group hug!” Pinkie yelled, drawing everyone in close. After a moment of hesitation even Luna joined in.

“Thank you,” I heard the Princess whisper near silently in the press. “Remember that thou art welcome in Equestria always. It matters not what anyone says. Thy star will serve as guide whenever thou will it.” The hug ended, and from the unchanged expressions, I gathered that I had been the only one to hear what Luna said. When I shot her a look, she just smirked back with a defiant gleam in her eye. Somehow I could tell that said Celestia’s verdict didn’t sit well with her. The vote of confidence was nice, but I didn’t feel like testing Celestia’s resolve unless I absolutely had to. I just gave her a fractional nod and turned back to collect my things.

Luna opened a portal back to my world as Twilight helped me get my backpack on again. My left arm might have been in a sling, but there was nothing wrong with my shoulders. Of course, the cask and cart were going to offer another layer of challenge, but we’d see what I could manage. I stepped through, and Mouse jumped in right after. Once on the other side I did a quick inventory and confirmed that I had everything.

“Bye,” I said, waving to them as the portal sealed itself, and I was left in a Midwestern cave. I sighed and tugged on the yoke for the cart. Thankfully the floor of the cave, aside from the occasional stalagmite, was smooth and even.

“So, how was working with Lyra?” I asked the black bag hanging from my belt loop. “She didn’t take advantage of your delicate sensibilities, did she?”

“I wish,” Bob said. “She ignored every pass I made, and even when I finally brought the discussion around to human sexuality, she treated it like a science project. She referred to the best bits you humans possess as ‘genitalia’. Does it get more clinical and detached than that? And Bon-bon was even worse. No matter how many times I suggested she let Lyra physically comfort her in her time of need, she just ignored me and acted like I wasn’t there. Honestly, the only reason I put up with it all is that they came to the interview naked.”

If I knew Bob, and sadly, I do, there was a good chance I was the Exhibit A in his lectures on ‘human sexuality’. That Lyra had been interested in only an intellectual manner was a small mercy.

“Oh, you poor boy,” I told him dripping with all the sarcasm I could muster. “I am glad you kept your mouth shut around Luna. Surprised as hell, but definitely glad.” I grunted with effort as I hit a small uphill portion of the path. Yeesh, it hadn’t felt this long walking in.

“Are you kidding, Harry?” Bob replied incredulously. “I could feel the power coming off her in waves, and unlike the rest of you mortals, she isn’t going to die in a few decades or even centuries. Any grudge she held could last longer than a geological period. Savvy?”

I chuckled at that. “So you do have some notion of self-preservation. Good to know.” He had a few choice things to say in response to that, but we’d reached the gate not far from the cave’s mouth so I ignored him. It was still unlocked, meaning that either I hadn’t been away very long, or the gate was only checked infrequently. Whatever the reason, it worked to my advantage, and I wasn’t going to complain.

It was another five minutes walking to reach the exit, and the sudden profusion of daylight made my eyes water. I blinked the pain away and stumbled out into the parking lot. Waiting for me at the other end was a familiar car and driver. My feelings were mixed between relief and annoyance. Still, when Michael says something will be, he isn’t wrong very often.

Michael spotted me about the same time I saw him. He waved and brought his car to life, backing it towards me. Good thing too. I hadn’t been carrying my gear for long, but my shoulders were already groaning in protest and those bruises and aches that had been quiet for the past couple of days were making themselves heard. Dragging that cask along hadn’t helped either.

Michael Carpenter, Chicago contractor and Knight of the Cross, got out of his car with some small amount of difficulty. Only then did I realize that he was sporting a sling around his left arm, and had a bandage around his cranium, covering his forehead. He still looked reasonably healthy, but he’d obviously been through the wringer. My friend finished seizing me up a second or so sooner and laughed. “We make quite the matched set, don’t we? I take it your trip must have been at least as exciting as mine.”

I rubbed my head sheepishly. “You could say that,” I replied. “How long was I gone this time?”

Michael shrugged, and winced at the motion. Yeah, he was hurt all right. “About two and a half weeks. The Lord sent me a little further off the beaten path than I would have expected. We were in the Canadian Yukon, up in the mountains.” That brought a grunt of surprise from me, but Michael forestalled any questions with a curt gesture. “Let’s get your things loaded, and then we can talk. Or,” he said, shooting an amused glance at the massive cask of cider in the little wagon behind me, “I can talk, and you can deflect questions.”

That made me chuckle. “Hey, a wizard’s world is one of deep and varied secrets. Probe too deeply, and he won’t share any cider with you.”

Michael acted aghast for a moment before laughing again. I stuck out my tongue at him, and we set to getting things packed away. With each of us only having one useable arm, it wasn’t easy. But when one person has magic and the other is as strong as your average linebacker, nothing’s too difficult. All my stuff got stored fast enough to make me happy; we even managed to cram the cart into the back seat. The real pain would be getting the cider down the steps to my front door. Living in a basement apartment was not always a thing of joy.

“Thanks be,” Michael said as I reached up to shut the trunk. “Well, let’s get on the road.” He reached out to pat me on the shoulder. Without even thinking about it, I flinched away. Michael stared at me in surprise and mild confusion.

I didn’t want him to touch me. I was afraid that if he did, he’d sense what I had done. He would know I had touched that coin. Hell, Celestia had noticed, and she wasn’t even attuned to that spectrum. My mind raced for an explanation, and I gave a weak laugh. “Sorry, but my back is one giant bruise right now. No hard feelings, I’m just not in the mood to double over in pain.”

Michael’s concern disappeared, and he smiled. “Oh, sorry, Harry. I should have considered that.” Lying to him made my stomach churn, but I nodded along. We clambered into his car, stowing Mouse and Bob in the back seat. Michael checked his mirrors and did all the safety stuff nobody ever does before driving. Then, he turned his car on, and we got out of there.

Once we were safely on the road and under way, I prodded him for details. “First things first. You said ‘we’. Was Sanya there?” Anything that required both of the active Knights of the Cross had to have been big. No wonder Michael looked like he’d gotten the crap kicked out of him.

He nodded. “Yes, and a couple of others as well.” That made me raise one eyebrow expectantly. Michael didn’t disappoint. “There were also two wizards. One of them was thin, very tall – even taller than you I’d think – and he wore a hood that hid his face. The other was about my height with a strong build, and he had a grey beard and ponytail. He also carried a large sword, and didn’t seem very pleased when I mentioned your name.” My other eyebrow joined its brother.

“Did you catch their names?” I asked. Their identities weren’t exactly difficult to guess, but it didn’t hurt to check just in case the universe was throwing me a curve ball.

“The shorter one called himself, Morgan. The tall man only went by the Gatekeeper.”

I stared at Michael. “What the hel− heck were you four fighting?” Not only had this thing drawn the attention of the two men called the Fists of God, but the friggin’ Gatekeeper had intervened and brought one of the best soldiers the White Council had along to help him.

Michael looked at me with the weirdest mix of emotions. The remembered fear made sense, but the embarrassment was puzzling as hell. “The Gatekeeper called it a Demon Lord and said that it had emerged from the depth of the Nevernever. It certainly had enough lesser demons at its command to deserve the title, but more than anything else, it looked like a unicorn. Only twisted and monstrous.”

My stomach sank to roughly the area of my boots, and I heard myself mumble, “Really?”

That probably sounded a lot different than I’d meant it, because Michael flushed slightly in response. “Yes. It was coal black, and had a mane and tail of fire. It took all four of us to defeat the thing, and we are lucky that none of us died in the attempt.” He gestured to the back seat floorboard, where his holy sword rested inside a courier’s mailing tube. “The finishing blow was a stab to its heart, and for a moment I was not sure even that had killed it. But the Gatekeeper said it was ‘truly destroyed at last’ – his words.”

I wanted to say something, but I was numb with shock. Michael shuddered for a moment and continued. “I’ve seen many unpleasant creatures, Harry, but I don’t think I will forget the thing that called itself ‘Obsidian the Undying’ any time soon.”

Oh, Hell’s Bells.

Author's Note:

Show of hands, who saw the last reveal coming? I've been waiting since the first chapter to tell you guys who Michael went off to fight, and now you finally know. Anyway, there's still an epilogue to write (expect it within the week) and I'm planning a chapter in 'Extra Stuff' that will add a bit more detail to Obsidian's last return.