• 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 Seven

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

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

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

Chapter Seven

At first there was only silence after I destroyed it. Wincing, I braced myself for what was to follow. Usually the shock takes a while to set in, but once it does, then comes the fear.

There’s a reason why so many storybook villains are wizards. We deal in forces and powers that normal people can’t even imagine. We can do the impossible, leaving them to gape in wonder or horror at what magic hath wrought. People fear us not for what we do, but what we could do. And that fear leads to hatred for making them feel small and afraid.

Magic might be common here in Equestria, but I doubted that what I had done fit even a loose definition of ‘normal’. The thick smell of brimstone from the Hellfire that kept turbo-charging my spells didn’t help. Still, at least it was more likely to be a cold shoulder and mild cowering than outright panic, if I was judging Ponyville right.

“Did you see that!?” screamed somepony in the market, his voice shrill. So much for the hope that things would work out quietly.

I ground my teeth together and felt a hiss of frustration slip out between them. I still wasn’t comfortable running in this form, but it looked like I was about to get some serious practice.

“He just saved those fillies!”

Maybe I can claim sanctuary in the library − wait. What?

I was quickly surrounded by a teeming mob, but instead of greeting me with torches and pitchforks, they did it with cheers and energetic hoofshakes. In short order they treated me to more compliments and pleased introductions than I’d gotten in the past three months. I flushed, uncomfortable with all of the attention, but it was better than what I had expected. Equestria had a way of doing that.

I spotted a familiar-looking Stetson forcing its way through the crowd, collecting a fair share of sharp glances. Applejack burst from the throng and wrapped me in hug that cracked at least three of the vertebrae in my neck.

“Well ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?!” she exclaimed, putting even more pressure into the embrace. I responded with just as much enthusiasm and decorum.

“Jesus! My neck!” Okay, so maybe it was difficult to be polite with the blood being cut off from my brain.

The farmpony let me go and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry ‘bout that, partner. I was just tickled pink to see you, even before you saved Apple Bloom. Me n’ the girls wanted to thank you.” The three fillies, having apparently made good use of the path Applejack had cleared for them, popped up beside her, their faces sporting enormous grins.

“That was amazing!” Scootaloo yelled, staring at me with stars in her eyes. “You act so weird, I never would have thought you’d be almost as awesome as Rainbow Dash!”

Wow, thanks kid.

“If you hadn’t been there that cart woulda smashed us flatter than a flapjack. Thank you, Mister Blackstone.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle piped in. “I don’t think anypony else could have done that, especially not with the shield, too!” She was wrong there; plenty of wizards, and I’d be willing to bet more than a few unicorns, could have gotten the job done. I’d just done it in one of the more flashy ways possible. It took a second, though, for the full impact of her statement to sink in.

“Wait a minute.” I said, focusing on the last comment. “What shield?”

Applejack and all three of the Crusaders frowned, their expressions confused. “The shield you put ‘round us when you were dealin’ with the cart.” Apple Bloom said.

“I never put up a shield.” I turned to Applejack, hoping that she’d had a clear view. “What color was it? Was anypony in the crowd using magic?” I kept my voice low, but I probably didn’t need to worry. The murmur of the crowd around us was already an unintelligible mess; I doubt our voices stuck out all that much.

Applejack brought a hoof to her chin and rubbed it. She frowned as she thought back, and I tapped my hoof impatiently while I waited for the results. “You know. It does seem funny that it was green when the light coming off your horn was red, but I didn’t see nopony else doing magic so I thought it was you. I couldn’t see the whole marketplace, but you’d figger that somepony woulda spotted ’em an’ said somethin’. O’ course, maybe they just don’t like attention, or they felt silly because they weren’t needed.”

Both of those explanations were plausible, especially if you thought it had only been an accident, but I suspected otherwise. Back home there were entropy curses that could give you a fatal case of bad luck, but I hadn’t felt anything like that, and an entropy curse subtle enough to avoid my notice wouldn’t be strong enough to give you more than a stubbed toe. Or hoof, whatever. No, I was positive that every 'accident' had been carefully orchestrated.

That was a bit of relief, since entropy curses that strong also tended to do a lot of collateral damage, but the flipside of that coin made my blood boil. The girls had been used as bait, as an anchor to ensure that I didn’t just run. Whoever my mystery assailant was, he or she wasn’t afraid to endanger my friends, even if they stopped short of actively seeking to harm them.

But why were they trying to kill me in the first place? Who were they? How could I find them? I briefly entertained the thought of one of my enemies from back home being behind all of this nonsense, but the keyword there was ‘briefly’. Even if one of them had somehow followed me without being detected, they wouldn’t have pussyfooted around like this. Or bothered to protect the Crusaders. Everything pointed to a pony, or ponies, that had a grudge against me, and me alone. But that just left me with more questions and zero answers. I needed to figure out what was going on, and fast. My assassin clearly wasn’t an expert, but he only had to get it right once.

Applejack cleared her throat, and interrupted my musings. “I hate to run out on ya, but I’ve got to get back to my stand. Them apples ain’t goin’ to sell themselves. I’ll leave you to your fanclub for now, but come on over when they’re done with you.” She dragged all three little fillies with her, ignoring their pleas and shouts that they wanted to hang out with me a little longer.

Fanclub? I thought. Then I noticed the crowd still around me. Most of the stallions, all of them actually, had wandered off. The only ponies surrounding me now were mares, and they were all watching me, covertly or openly, with flushed faces and intent expressions. For all the variations between them, each pony was very clearly conveying one emotion: desire.

All of sudden it hit me. Ye gods, I’m the pony version of Thomas.

There was no comfortable way to come to that realization, but the evidence was indisputable. Rarity’s warnings (or compliments, from her point of view) had sounded unbelievable, and I was willing to write off that meeting with the teacher as an anomaly, but the point had been driven home at the marketplace.

I kneaded my forehead with one hoof while my razor-sharp deductive skills lumbered into action. Only two possibilities came to mind. Option one: the current me, despite being a moderately accurate analogue to my real form, fulfilled the equine stereotype of ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ by pure chance. I hoped that was the case, because option two was less pleasant. Among other horrors, it meant Bob would actually be right about something.

Magic, even unicorn magic, I suspected, was tied strongly to emotions. That was one of the dangers of performing spells on a person. It was possible that Twilight had unconsciously tweaked my transformation here and there to make me more physically attractive. To a pony, at least. Which would mean, of course, that she really did have a crush on me.

I grimaced mentally. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her; hell, I thought she was cute as a button. But it wasn’t the same kind of affection I felt for an attractive woman. In my mind, Twilight was somewhere between adorable niece and junior colleague. Was that analogy insulting? Probably, but that didn’t stop it from being true. Maybe if she were a human, and a few years older, there’d be something there, but as things were? Turning me into a pony might have solved the cross-species thing for her, but it just made it exponentially more awkward for me.

I shook my head and shoved all of that nonsense on the back burner. Someone was trying to kill me, and I needed to find some answers. I could explain to Twilight why I wasn’t her knight on a white horse, if she was somehow suffering that delusion, later.

I hadn’t spent long in contemplation, but it was long enough for Applejack and the three fillies to get gone. I glanced around, looking for clues. The fact that I was a head taller than any of the ponies surrounding me helped. If I was lucky, the would-be killer would have left a cryptic note revealing their identity and location if I could puzzle out the clue. It hadn’t happened yet in a decade or so of investigation, but a guy had to hope, right? I did spot something useful, though. A yellow unicorn was being grilled by what had to be a police officer. She wasn’t wearing a uniform or anything, but I recognized the look.

I turned to my crowd and zeroed in on the mare I thought would be least likely to proposition me, but would still be bold enough to answer my question. I’d been introduced just a few minutes ago, I’d already forgotten her name.

“Excuse me, Miss…” she turned slightly and I caught sight of her mark. That helped. “Roseluck. Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

She giggled and gave me a smile. “Only if I get to ask you one in return, Mr. Blackstone.”

Thank God that didn’t sound like lead in. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and nodded. “Sounds fair. Is that unicorn over there,” I pointed more or less accurately with one hoof, “the owner of the cart that went out of control?”

She craned her head to see who I was pointing to and her face lit up with recognition. “He sure is! That’s my cousin Axle. He’s the only unicorn in Ponyville that does any shipping. Do you want to know anything else?” She batted her eyelashes and smiled demurely. I’m not even kidding. All she needed was little hearts floating around her head to make this into a cartoon.

I felt a headache coming on. “His name is Axle Rose?”

She laughed again. “Of course not, that would be silly. His real name is Rear Axle, and his twin is Front Axle. But he doesn’t like his first name much, so everypony just calls him Axle.” I fought down a groan, but honestly, that was par for the course in Equestria.

“Thanks. I want to have a talk with him.”

She frowned, and gave me the first non-infatuated look since I had met her. “Don’t be too harsh on him. He’s usually a great driver.” I nodded and turned to leave. “Wait,” she called. “You still need to answer my question.”

A bargain’s a bargain, so I turned around and came face to bloom with a beautiful red rose. All of the thorns had been clipped off the short stem and the rosebud was just beginning to blossom. I was speechless. Roseluck wasn’t. “Would you like a rose?”

There arose a great murmur from the dozen or so mares around us, and Roseluck blushed deeply. I’ve said no to women before, even to insanely beautiful women who, believe me, had quite a lot to offer. But every one of them had been A) evil, B) inhuman, C) manipulative or D) all of the above. Saying no to Roseluck would have been like kicking a puppy when it was hoping for a tummy rub.

Besides, it was just a flower. Unless Twilight had missed some major part of Equestrian culture during her lessons, it didn’t commit me to anything. What the hell, why not? “Yes, thank you.” I took the flower and tucked it into one of the front pockets of my coat. There, polite but non-committal.

Roseluck stared at me. “Aren’t you going to eat it?”

Only my lack of hands kept me from facepalming. Of course she’d meant it as a snack, they’re herbivores. My altered digestive tract might have been able to handle the rose, but I wasn’t in any hurry to test just how thorough the transformation had been. I needed a decent explanation. My mouth, though, tended to move faster than my brain. “No. I’d rather keep it.” She blushed even deeper than the first time, and the crowd responded in kind. That had not been the smoothest thing I had ever done.

After seeing Roseluck’s success, another mare, I think her name was Daisy, had to give me one of her flowers. I couldn’t tell her no without hurting her feelings, or looking like Rosie’s boyfriend, so I said yes. Then it seemed like everypony had something to give me, most of it edible. By the time I had finally accepted the last gift and added it to my growing pile of swag, the police pony was gone, and Axle was sitting beside the remains of his cart.

I waved goodbye to my – shudder − groupies, and headed over to the unicorn I hoped he could give me some answers. There was a small sound of protest from Bob, but I shushed him and after a little grumbling he stayed quiet. Now that I was closer I could see the wooden wheel emblazoned on the unicorn’s flank. “Hey. I hear that was your cart.”

“Wagon,” he corrected absentmindedly. Axle glanced up at me and sighed. “Are you going to chew me out, too?”

I sat next to him and let my collected treats settle to the ground. “That depends. I wanted to hear what happened before I said anything.”

He grunted and chucked the fragment of wood he’d been examining into the splintered remains of his vehicle. I frowned, but sometimes you’ve got to give a little to get a little.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” His eyes flashed to me, confused, but I continued. “I didn’t mean to destroy it. The whole thing just caught me by surprise and I reacted without a lot of thought.”

There was a moment of silence, then he chuckled. “That’s one hay of a reaction. I bet you’re really popular on Nightmare Night.”

I didn’t get the reference, but I nodded anyway. “Usually I’m more controlled, but I’ve been having a bad day.”

“I can understand that,” he said dryly, which made me chuckle. “Thanks, though. As far as everypony else is concerned I got what I deserved for being careless. Officer Sharp came this close to dragging me in for reckless endangerment.”

I nodded and made polite noises. “That’s why I wanted to hear what happened. You don’t seem like the careless type.”

Axle shook his head. “Not much to tell. I’d just finished a delivery, so I was bringing the wagon home. Usual speed and strength on the spell for motion.” He glanced at me sideways. “And that spell’s my own invention, not that sloppy ‘come to life’ most unicorns learn. Mine lets me control the wheels directly, and I’ve had almost a full decade of practice with it. Believe me, when pegasi ship so much by air and earth ponies have a lock on the ground, a unicorn needs a flawless reputation to make it in this business.”

He sighed. “And until today, I had one. But something went wrong with the spell, and I still don’t know what. The whole thing just overloaded and went completely out of control. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.”

I considered the stallion carefully. Either he was one of the greatest actors I had ever met or he was on the level. I’m damn good at spotting a lie, and I wasn’t picking up anything sinister from him. It made sense, though. Whoever had been doing all of this had taken pains make sure that nothing could be traced back to them. My deadly stalker just messed with this guy’s spell and left him holding the bag.

I added another entry to my quickly expanding list of why I hated the Shadow Pony. They weren’t just trying to kill me; hell, dodging a would-be killer described a typical weekend for me. This asshole was callous enough to ruin this poor guy’s reputation and possibly his life. And for what? The off chance that his stupid scheme might actually have worked?

He might not have the execution (heh-heh) down pat, but I had to give the slimy bastard points for stealth. This was getting ridiculous. Hell, the White Court was famous for using cat’s paws to do their dirty work, and even they weren’t this cagey. Still, Axle might have seen something.

“Did any of your competitors give you a warning lately?” He gave me a puzzled look, not making the connection. “Maybe somepony was trying to mess with your spell a little. You know, make you run into a building or something, just to damage your reputation, and things got out of ha− er, hoof.”

He stared at me oddly. “I might not be the most beloved stallion in Ponyville, but that doesn’t mean anypony has it out for me.”

My friendly smile melted away and my face turned grim. Axle looked surprised, maybe a little frightened even, and started to lean away from me. I tried to still my expression. “Look. I’m not trying to imply anything, but there’s something suspicious about all this, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Either somepony has it out for you … or they have it out for me.”

His eyes widened with understanding and the tension between us was thick enough that you’d need a chainsaw to cut it. At last he sighed and shook his head sadly. “Sorry, but I didn’t notice anything strange. I don’t know what else to tell you.” Damnit. My instincts told me that he was playing me straight.

“Just one last thing, if you don’t mind.” I said. “Would you lift that piece of debris with your magic?” He looked confused but obliged me. The glow surrounding it was a soft gold, similar to but not quite matching the sickly yellow that had encased the wagon’s wheels. Either the second color was the perpetrator’s aura or, more likely was just the result of mixing the two. So I was back to square one in terms of information. Great.

I sighed and rose to leave, careful to shake the dust off my coat. Rarity would kill me if I messed it up. As I shook it I noticed something stuck in the side. At first I tried reaching for it, and after that failed miserably I used a little telekinesis to pull it out. It was difficult to work with an item that small, but after some concentration I managed.

It was a pin, the same kind you’d find in any tailor’s shop, but the sight of it sent chills down my back. Perhaps that sounds like an overreaction, and on a normal day it might have been. But someone had been trying to kill me all day, and I doubted that the dark stain on the tip was due to rust. It hadn’t pierced the inner lining, I could tell because the tip was bent (and, more importantly, I was still breathing), but what if they hadn’t been so worried about being subtle? I could be dead right now. I wondered if that hadn’t been the real plan. That entire debacle with the wagon could have been nothing but a set up for this: a plan with a higher percentage.

I’ve been closer to death. I’ve seen and fought things that by all rights should have killed me, but that was different. Even when the odds had been terrible, even when standing and fighting was the dumbest option on the table, I’d been able to face my enemies head on and confront that death. This new foe was a creeping, faceless one, and I couldn’t fight them any more than I could a shadow.

He or she must have been right beside me to have done it. During a quick pat on the back, maybe, or just an innocent jostle. Frustration rose in me. I had been right beside them, I had seen them and probably even spoken to the bastard, but I still didn’t have a clue about who was doing all this. One of those ponies, hell, maybe one of my admirers had been trying to kill me. It isn’t often that I berate myself for not being paranoid enough, but this time I really had to assume that everyone was out to get me.

I suddenly glared the small hill of assorted gifts and wondered how many of them were poisoned. My eyes narrowed dangerously, and I twisted the pin I was levitating into a mangled mess. Axle didn’t miss my reaction.

“Are … um. Are you okay?” I don’t know what face I was making, but he sounded hesitant. I tried to shake off the expression, and I might have managed a tired smile.

“Sorry. I’m not fond of pins and needles.”

His face brightened with understanding. “Oh, a phobia, huh? That’s got to be tough.” Then his eyes widened and he took a step forward. “In that case take a deep breath.” His voice was subdued, like a man trying to calm a spooked horse. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.

“Okay,” I told him, “I’m calm. What is it?”

“You’ve got two more pins stuck in your coat. Do you need me to take them out for you?” I jerked my head around and searching for them. He hadn’t been kidding, there were another two jammed into one of my flanks. I let out a deep breath in an exasperated rumble.

“Thanks, but I can manage it.” I sighed. “This just hasn’t been my day.”

Axle laughed. “I guess not. Thanks for the apology, but I’d better get going. I’ve got a job tomorrow and getting a new wagon will take time.”

I waved goodbye to him as he wandered off. A little bit of telekinesis later and I removed a pair of pins, both of them bent at the tip and covered in the same strange stain. I crumpled them as well, and regarded all three of them unhappily. I couldn’t use them for any tracing, but I didn’t want to leave them lying around where anypony could accidentally poison themselves. What if I melted them down to slag?

A cold sweat broke out on my brow at the thought of wielding fire. I pushed myself angry at my reaction. Come on, damnit! I don’t even need flames for that, just some heat. I can do that, can’t I? I’m freaking wizard of the White Council. I reached for my power and almost threw up. Phantom flames wrapped themselves around my arm and my breathing became short. I knew the fire and the smell of cooking flesh weren’t real, not to mention that my hand was currently a hoof, but that didn’t stop the feral terror from rising within me. I stopped trying and the fear slowly receded. My breathing was ragged, and I silently hoped that nobody had noticed.

I glared harder at the deadly pins, unsure what to do with them. For lack of a better option, I stuffed them into one of my smaller pockets. The inner lining of my coat would protect me from them; I just had to remember not give anybody a hug. Despite the intentions of half the town’s female population, I was pretty damn sure that wouldn’t be much of a problem. I trotted over to Applejack’s stand, hauling my gifts behind me. I needed a bag for them. Until I was certain they were safe, I couldn’t let anyone eat any of them. Or maybe I should stoke up a natural fire somewhere and toss the whole lot in just to be sure.

“Applejack.” I said, once I was within earshot. “Have you got something I could use to haul all of this around?”

The farmpony chuckled and pulled out a burlap sack. I gladly deposited my probably poisoned presents and cinched the sack shut. Applejack tilted her hat back and studied me curiously. “I figgered you weren’t comfortable with all those mares after you, but now you look like somepony just kicked your puppy. What’s going on, Dresden?”

“I’m going by Blackstone at the moment,” I said, then paused. Lying to Applejack wasn’t a good idea, I knew from experience, but I wasn’t sure how to introduce this topic. Somehow, ‘everyone’s trying to kill me’ lacked … sanity.

I sighed, which was fast becoming a habit, and answered her. “What would you say if I told you somepony was trying to kill me?”

Her mouth dropped open and her hat slowly slid off the back of her head. She recovered just in time to keep it from dropping to the ground, but it was a close save. “You think Axle was tryin’ to kill you?”

I shook my head. “Nah, I checked him out and I’m pretty sure he’s innocent. But somepony messed with his spell, probably the same pony who put that shield around the girls.” Her skeptical glance told that me that my sanity was in doubt, so I bit the bullet and went all in. “And that’s not the first time I’ve nearly died today. Pinkie’s welcome wagon exploded in my face, an anvil almost crushed my skull, somepony tried to choke me with Rarity’s tape measure, then the thing with the wagon. Not to mention three attempts to stick me with poisoned needles. For all I know, one of those gifts is soaked in strychnine or something. Maybe it sounds crazy, but that’s just how my day’s been.”

Applejack was hesitant to respond. She gave it some thought, only then did she open her mouth and respond. “That sure don’t sound like coincidence, I’ll admit, but why would anypony want to kill you? Even if Trixie were crazy enough to go looking for a little payback how would she recognize you, or know you were back? It just don’t make any sense.”

It was frustrating, but I knew what she meant. “I know. Believe me, I’ve been trying to figure this out since I realized it. Do you think somepony discovered that I’m actually−”

“Well hey there Apple Bloom!” Applejack shouted, drowning out the rest of my sentence. “I didn’t think you and an’ your friends would get back that fast.”

I turned around and saw the three fillies approaching, Apple Bloom carefully balancing a delicious looking muffin on top of her head. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were trailing her. The leader of the little trio set the pastry on the edge of the market stand and looked her big sister in the eye. “So why did all three of us need to go to Sugarcube Corner to get you a muffin?”

Applejack stared right back at her. “So you three’d be outta Dre- Blackstone’s mane while he was talking to all those ponies. What they were saying weren’t none of y’all’s business.”

“Fine,” the young filly grumbled, “but what were y’all talking about just now?”

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle chimed in. “what if somepony discovered what?”

Well, being a wizard, so smart and so slick, I thought up a lie and I thought it up quick. “That I bleach my mane.” Not a good lie, but objectively speaking, the Grinch hadn’t done much better.

Apple Bloom furrowed her brow and pouted. “Really?”

“Who cares?!” Scootaloo exclaimed her head muffled slightly by a thin layer of burlap. “Look at some of the stuff they gave him! Sugar Leaf’s molasses candies, Carrot Top’s carrot cake, Lily’s caramelized lily petals and tons more. Oh wow! Honey Drop gave him some of her special Almond Honey Crunch Bars. Can I have one?”

Only mild shock had kept me from reacting for so long, but with that relatively innocent question I snapped back in a hurry. My horn lit up and I jerked the bag away from Scootaloo fast enough to make her head spin. I then tied it shut again and levitated it up to ten feet just to be safe.

Scootaloo shook her head to clear it and gazed longingly at the floating sack. Sweetie Belle stifled a giggle. “So I guess that’s a no.” Scootaloo glared at her, but Sweetie just smiled innocently in response.

“Don’tcha think that you’re overreactin’ a mite?” Applejack drawled from behind her counter. She tried to disguise her chuckle with a cough, but it wasn’t fooling me.

I turned to look at her and cocked one eyebrow. “Whether you believe me or not, do you really want to take that chance?” Her smile faded, and I could see doubt in her eyes. I don’t think I’d convinced her, but she was smart enough not gamble anyone’s life on it.

“Why can’t we have some?” Apple Bloom huffed, glaring at us. Either an eye for truth ran in the family or she’d learned well from her big sister’s example. “Y’all ain’t telling us somethin’.” Sweetie Belle’s and Scootaloo’s ears perked up at that and they gave a couple of searching looks as well.

Applejack’s jaw set in an immovable line and her eyes hardened. She returned her sister’s glare with interest and then some. “If it was any of your business, we’d a’ shared it with you. You three need to break that habit of stickin’ your noses where they don’t belong.”

Apple Bloom winced at the rebuke, but when she lifted her head to protest, I could still see the stubborn defiance in her eyes. “But Applejack−”

“But nothin’.” She retorted. I was careful to stay quiet. Maybe I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but even I know better than get involved in a family argument. Not everypony was quite so wise.

“Ah, give her a break, AJ! Hay, I’m kinda curious too. I mean, you’re cool and all, Blackstone, but you can’t keep all that good stuff all to yourself.” All eyes flashed upward to see a light blue pegasus with a polychromatic mane and tail lying on a low hanging cloud. I had no idea how long Rainbow had been there, but I didn’t really have time to worry about that. Not when she was trying, with increasing frustration, to untie the knot on my bag of gifts.

The sight of her picking at it with a combination of hooves, teeth and even a wing would have been funny if it weren’t for the (probably) deadly treats she was trying to get at. With a quick burst of telekinesis I jerked the bag out of reach, almost making her fall off her cloud.

Applejack swelled up with indignation. “Darn it, Dash. I’m tryin’ to teach them somethin’ and you’re ruinin’ the lesson. An’ it’s especially bad comin’ from you, seein’ that you’re supposed to be a role model−. Are you even listenin’ to me at all?!”

I severely doubted it, but then I wasn’t paying close attention either. I was too busy trying to keep the treat sack out of Rainbow’s hooves as she put up a determined pursuit. I was treated to a series of aerial acrobatics that previously I hadn’t thought possible for any creature other than a hummingbird. Seeing as how I wasn’t going to outpace her, I switched tactics, dropping the bag to the ground then tucking it underneath my body.

That might have ended it, but I made the mistake of looking her in face and slowly shaking my head. I’d meant to signal that the game was over. She took it as a challenge and accelerated toward me instead. Cursing, I began to power my shield bracelet. A small but steady stream of sparks began to rain from my outstretched hoof. I tried to make my shield as flexible as possible, but still, she wasn’t giving me much in the way of options.

Riflettum.” I said, bringing to life a quarter-dome of blue light between me and the speeding mare. Unfortunately, she seemed to have planned for that. Rainbow flared her wings and twisted, both reducing her speed and letting her shoot past the edge of my shield. She had killed all of her momentum, but she’d gotten behind me far too quickly for me to react, and she used that opportunity fully to her advantage. Her hoof shot forward, and, well…

She gave me a hard smack on the ass.

I don’t know if it was the natural equine reaction or just the shock of what Rainbow had done, but whatever the cause, I reared back and skittered away from her. Which, of course, was exactly what she’d been counting on. My bag of gifts was exposed and unprotected, and I wasn’t anywhere near the right frame of mind to defend it.

Forsaking the restraint of her earlier attempts, Rainbow ripped a hole in the top of burlap sack and shoved one hoof inside, digging around for something. “Come to momma,” she said, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She was so intent on her searching that she never noticed the lasso until it had fallen over her. Rainbow only had a moment to realize just what had happened before there was a mighty tug on the rope and she shot back to rest at the hooves of an angry Applejack.

“I said,” the farmpony stated through the rope in her mouth, “that your s’posed to set a proper example, not stir up more trouble!”

Rainbow glared at her from her position on the ground. “C’mon, AJ. You heard what Scoots said. Almond Honey Crunch Bars! Honey Drop sells out of those every time she makes them. Don’t you want one?”

Applejack relaxed slightly, but she still gave her friend a frown. “Of course I do, but that don’t mean you can just take somethin’ that ain’t yours. Especially when you don’t even know why somepony ain’t sharing.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and collected my gifts again. Most importantly, I pretended that I hadn’t just been smacked like a race horse in the home stretch. I wanted to keep what little dignity I still had. “If we’re done with the after-school special, I need to get moving.” And I needed to do it without the three fillies tagging along. I doubted that my stalker with done with me just yet.

Applejack was busy here, though, and as far as I knew everypony else was too. That only left one option. “Would you mind coming with me, Rainbow? I’ve got something I want to discuss with you.”

“Really?” Scootaloo said, popping up right in front of me, her tiny wings buzzing with excitement. “What?”

I snorted. “Secret stuff.” I wasn’t going to make another half-assed attempt to sideline the question. They just weren’t going to get a straight answer out of me. “Something that you three don’t need to hear.”

Next came the inevitable cries of protest. I ignored them for the most part and checked one of my pockets for money. Twilight had given me a few coins so I could buy lunch, but it was well worth the cost of a meal to get them off my back. Literally, in Scootaloo’s case. The pint-sized pegasus had jumped up there to entreat me while her friends gathered at my hooves.

“Hey, you three!” I had to raise my voice, but at least it cut through their chatter. “How about you get some ice cream or something on me?” I pulled out all ten of the coins Twilight had given me. “That’s enough for the three of you, right?”

Applejack huffed, but I could tell she was hiding a smile. “More than enough. You’re spoilin’ those fillies.”

Their eyes went round and their talking ceased. I could tell they were thinking about the treats they could get. Apple Bloom shook her head, and pouted. “But we told Pinkie that we’d show you how to get to Fluttershy’s.”

“That’s all right. Rainbow will show me the rest of the way.”

The blue pegasus looked startled. “I will?”

I fought down a groan. “Yes, you will. Anyway, you three did a great job, thanks for all of your help.” The truth of that statement was debatable, but it didn’t hurt to be nice to the kids. They glanced at the floating coins I was offering them, then gathered together in a little huddle.

I was about to just put the money down and go, but they broke their circle and gave me a smile before I could. “Deal,” all three of them chimed, and with the swipes from three hooves the coins were gone. Within a minute so were the girls.

I let out a heavy sigh. “Thank God. I am not good with children.”

Applejack chuckled. “I dunno. They seemed to like you plenty. And at least you weren’t actin’ like a foal yerself.” She gave an exasperated sigh. “Unlike some ponies I know.”

Rainbow was preening in the literal sense, getting the dirt and such out of her feathers. Being lassoed and pulled to the ground probably hadn’t done her wings any favors. She looked up from her task and glared at Applejack. “Fine, I got the point. Jeez.” She walked over to me and frowned at the now floating bag. “So, why can’t I have one?”

I considered her for a moment before speaking. “Because they’re poisoned.” Rainbow’s jaw dropped almost to the ground, and honestly, it was difficult not to laugh at her. “Well, we’d better get going,” I said. “Bye, Applejack.”

“See you later,” she replied. I trotted off, hopefully the right direction.

Rainbow came back to her senses about then and quickly caught up with me. “Full story,” she demanded. “Now.” I chuckled and started telling her about my morning.

………

I had suspected for some time that pegasus flight was a matter of innate magic, like it is for pixies and sylphs. While Rainbow and Fluttershy were lighter than the other ponies, they were still too heavy for their wingspan. Besides, ponies weren’t built to be aerodynamic, yet I’d already seen Rainbow reach speeds that would make a falcon proud.

What she was doing now clinched it. I trotted forward at an even pace while she floated lazily beside me, doing something I could only call a backstroke. I might not have a degree in physics, but even I could tell there was no possible way she was staying up without a little supernatural assistance.

“So,” Rainbow said, snapping me out of my musings, “you really think somepony’s trying to bump you off?”

I snorted derisively. “I don’t think, I know. Trust me, kid. When you’ve made as many enemies as I have, you develop a sixth sense for this kind of thing. Or you get dead.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, thank Celestia that doesn’t sound paranoid.”

I smirked. Twilight was the best pony when it came to banter, but Rainbow made a decent second. “It’s only paranoia if you’re wrong. Ten bucks says the Shadow Pony strikes again.”

“I don’t care how many deer−” she began but her sentence quickly came to a screeching halt. She gave me a look which ‘amused disbelief’ does not do justice. “The ‘Shadow Pony’? Really?”

I shrugged, then had to take a quick step to keep from falling over. “Why not? They sure as hell aren’t giving me a name, so I might as well make up my own. Besides, it fits.”

“I’m just saying, why would anypony want to kill you? Other than the way you run your mouth, I mean.” Her eyes narrowed, and her face grew serious. “Unless it’s something instead of somepony.”

I hadn’t considered that. It was entirely possible that it was something from one of the darker corners of Equestria. That brand of darkness wasn’t common in this sugar bowl, but that didn’t mean that it was nonexistent. Anyplace that had given rise to a demon like the Nightmare couldn’t be entirely pure. Still, my instincts told me it was a pony, and the presence of the shield seemed to back that up. Not that I’d dismiss the theory entirely.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think most ‘somethings’ would worry about hurting innocent ponies. Still, I’ll keep the option open.”

She frowned and flew in silence for a moment, but the grim talk didn’t seem to weigh her down. Her face brightened and she said, “Hey, we’ve still got a few minutes before we get to Fluttershy’s. Just enough time for me to show you some of my tricks!”

“I, for one, would love to watch you turning tricks,” said a near-perfect impression of Groucho Marx from my saddlebag. I groaned and planted a hoof on my face. Just when I thought Bob was actually going to behave for once...!

Even if Rainbow didn’t understand Bob’s slang, there was no mistaking his intent. The speed demon’s face turned crimson from a mix of fury and embarrassment. Some might have called the color ‘cherry’ or ‘tomato’ red, but somehow, ‘volcanic’ seemed like a much better fit. She opened her mouth and I winced. She might start off with words but I was damn certain that things with her would turn physical. And not in the way Bob was hoping.

Whatever she was going to say it was lost as an ear shatteringly loud howl came from a short distance away. We both spun towards the sound in time to see a gigantic creature with four heads charging us, murder in all eight of its eyes.

Oh thank God, he’s trying to kill me again. Is it insane that I was relieved by the arrival of a three story monster so long as it distracted Rainbow from smashing Bob’s skull into powder? Don’t answer that.

I’d never seen a hydra before, but I was familiar with the legends. Cut off the heads and more grow back. Supposedly, one of them was indestructible, too. Its breath was deadly and its blood was poisonous. I wasn’t sure how this version stacked up to the one Hercules fought, but after my failure to even warm up a couple of lousy pins, his method of cauterizing the stumps before a new head could grow back didn’t sound like a great game plan.

The huge bastard lumbered towards us. It looked slow, but it had the momentum and stride length to eat up that distance fast. I wished briefly for my staff and resolved that, after this, I wasn’t so much as going to the bathroom without it.

“Dresden?” Rainbow said, her anger gone and her voice turning to worry.

I lined up the shot carefully, and the moment one of the hydra’s giant feet slammed into the ground, I screamed “Forzare!” One thing I’d never understood about that legend was why Hercules never thought to attack any part of the body other than the stupidly overpowered heads. Maybe he had something to prove, but I just wanted to survive this.

I heard bones creak, and one snapped like a gunshot as the spell slammed home. I’d caught him in mid-stride with all of his weight on one comparatively small foot. The power I’d used was just the trigger; the real force came from his own weight and speed. Several tons of scaly flesh crashed into the ground and rolled, crushing a few small trees and tearing a trench in the earth behind it. The thing finally stopped then began to slowly pick itself back up.

I scowled. Even the meanest predator on Earth should have been crawling away to nurse a broken leg. Then all four heads turned to me, and everything became clear. The Shadow Pony was using it a lot more directly than he had any of his other pawns. The faint glow in the eyes overlying glassy anger meant that it was being compelled. I’d have to do a lot more damage to the thing before it gave up. Maybe even kill it outright, if the caster had been strong enough.

Compelling animals wasn’t quite a violation of the Laws of Magic, but it was still really damned gray. I know I’d be quick to go for my revolver if I ever met a wizard who roped dumb animals into doing his dirty work.

It roared and Rainbow dashed into action. Swooping around one head, she kicked another with both hind legs, making its eyes cross. The third dove at her, fangs extended, but she just zipped out of the way and let it crash into one of its brothers. Both heads bellowed in pain, and soon all four were firmly focused on her.

That, of course, was when I broke the other leg. The log was either hard wood or just hadn’t started to rot yet. I was sweating and shaking while I did it, but I managed to levitate the improvised club long enough to get in one good swing, and that was all I’d really needed.

The creature screamed again, but this time there was an almost piteous tone to it. The hydra wasn’t intelligent, and it couldn’t reconcile the pain it was feeling with the tiny creatures it was facing. I’m sure a lot of the monsters I’ve fought have had similar feelings. It fell to the ground with a mighty crash, and I think I heard ribs break under the strain this time.

Credit where credit is due: the beast still tried to inch its way toward me. When it was within range, one head shot forward and released a huge cloud of noxious vapor.

Ventas servitas!” I almost felt guilty about how easy it was to use the wind the turn its own attack against it. The hydra may have been immune to the more deadly effects of its own breath, but it still hacked and coughed in the thick miasma. Must have been the smell.

Rainbow landed beside me, but continued to watch the hydra warily. “Now what? Can you put it to sleep?”

Not a chance, but that did raise an interesting tangent. If I could put one head to sleep, would that knock out the other ones, too, or were their nervous systems independent enough to function autonomously? I shook my head, both to clear it and in answer to her question. “No, I’d have to make physical contact, and even then it would be a chancy thing.” Then I felt my mouth curve into a sly smile. “I do have an idea, though.”

I stepped forward, and of course all four heads oriented on me. Not as quickly as they once had, but still fast enough to be dangerous. The Shadow Pony’s control was breaking down under the massive trauma the hydra had taken. Hell, I was amazed they had any control at all at this point. The creature winced in pain as it moved to follow me and I actually regretted what I was about to do. The hydra wasn’t evil, any more than a shark or a wolf, and in a lot of ways it was another victim. But even if I could break the Shadow Pony’s hold on it there were few things as dangerous as a wounded animal. Especially one as large and powerful as this one.

“That’s right, you great big ugly bastard. You know you want to.” The moment I was within range of one of the heads, it shot forward, jaws open wide to rip me to pieces. Even with the magic-dense atmosphere, the force spell and telekinesis had been hard, especially on top of the nonsense with the cart. But I wasn’t close to my limit just yet. With speed that would have done a baseball pitcher proud, the bag of gifts shot straight down the gaping maw in front of me.

The hydra sputtered and began to choke on the blockage. It faltered for a moment, but lunged again despite the damage I must’ve done to its esophagus. I prepared my shield, but for a change, I didn’t need it. Rainbow dove in, blindsiding the enormous skull and smashing its mouth closed so hard its enormous teeth clicked.

“Are you stupid?!” she screamed as she grabbed me at a speed just short of giving me whiplash. “You had to use all of the treats?”

I laughed, possibly manically. I was too full of adrenaline to care. “Now we’ll find out if they were poisoned, won’t we?” Her glare told me I was an idiot for multiple reasons, but I laughed it off. Something about narrowly escaping from the jaws of terrifying monsters tended to do that to me.

The hydra was shuddering, but whether it was from pain or pleasure I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t crying or howling anymore, but instead was making these strange mewling sounds. It was like no noise I had ever expected to hear from a reptilian throat. Whatever they had used, it was fast-acting, and the Shadow Pony had packed a lot in there. One by one, the heads of the hydra stopped moving. Their eyes slowly closed, and finally the whole beast lay quiet. Its chest was moving, but the slow pace told me that it was just a matter of time.

“So remind me,” I said, my previous humor disappearing beneath a heavy scowl. Scootaloo and Rainbow had come within inches of eating some of those treacherous gifts. “Who was being paranoid?”