• Published 4th Jan 2015
  • 9,372 Views, 1,056 Comments

Dark Horse — A Five Score Tale From The Dresden Files - Lord Of Dorkness



One strange day, Harry Dresden turned into a tiny pastel horse. Weird, but what else is new, right? Except now, months later, this country with a silly name wonders what became of one of their lost heroes and just why she never returned...

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07 — Bucking Bronco of the Bronx

I guess it rather sets the tone when Odin in his full glory is the first to take to the field. Stepping through the lightning arch with all the poise and calm as if it had been a normal door.

Sure, he was wearing that ‘pirate Gandalf’ look of his, all greys including the eye-patch and a big bushy beard. All topping a wisp of a man that looked as if a stiff breeze would blow him, his pointy walking stick and his top-of-the-line bathrobe all the way to eager arms of the fashion police.

But to anybody with any knowledge in mythology that was almost a worse ‘oh crap’ than full armor.

You do know Gandalf, right? The wizard in many people’s eyes? Semi-immortal? A grand and terrifying master of fire? Grey robe, with a staff in one hand and a sword in the other? Told what was basically Satan Light to suck his warding gesture while the rest of the Fellowship scarpered?

That’s Tolkien’s toned down version of The Grey Wanderer.

That’s the guise The Allfather wears when he wants to be subtle.

A woman followed him hot on his heals through that glowing arch that had formed between the thunder. Although I use both the words ‘woman’ and ‘hot’ lightly.

She was beautiful on a level that inspired awe.

And I do mean ‘awe’ in the biblical, ‘Fear Not’ sense. Except you could —no, should skip that last bit in this case.

I gulped a bit, mouth suddenly dry. The Queen of Air and Darkness might have been humanoid, but even I, sitting half wet on my haunches with moisture dripping of my bat-wings, had more humanity left then her.

She was wearing of all ironic things, a simple sun-dress. If, granted, one made from silk that shimmered impossibly from one icy hue to the next. One moment the deep green sea-ice rarely becomes when enough plankton flash-freezes inside it, to a snow white her long free flowing hair matched so perfectly two became lost against each other and all the way to the crystal clear ice of the deepest glaciers compacted over eons until its mistakable for glass.

And yes, to millions of other viewers (if not my own) blushing amusement that last hue did in fact reveal that Mab was wearing only a sun-dress.

I tried not to cringe and failed quite badly. At least this time I wasn’t forced into taking part in Mab’s nation-wide exhibitionist streak.

Sadly, the other immortal I needed to take into account had taken notice judging from how Carlos’ cousin had gone ramrod stiff and staring at the TV screen. “Who are they?” Luna asked in a shaking voice. “What are they?”

“The Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab, and The Allfather, King of the Aesir, Odin.” I held up my hoof before either Luna or Nemo could let their jaws more than fall open. “Do not repeat those names. They can hear them being spoken.”

Nemo let out a cough into her hoof, looking rather pointedly away from Carlos’ cousin. “And the ‘what’ bit?”

“If I say ‘old-school gods’ you’ll actually know what I mean.” I frowned. “Or ‘human-ish alicorn analogues’ to be a bit more topical.”

Nemo just frowned, but Luna went wide-eyed.

I frowned a bit in turn, but decided on the truth. “The Allfather’s actually a surprisingly alright dude as long as you’ve got manners, but The Winter Queen’s a real piece of work. I’ve literally seen her kill her own minions for bleeding on her floors.”

Luna spluttered a bit, but fought it down. “And this ‘Allfather’ is how if you don’t have manners?”

“Don’t think he still does it, but he allegedly used to ride around and test people's’ manners in that form. You succeed, and you got a boon of some sort.” My eyes followed ‘her’ gaze to the giggling serpentine form visible in the distance on-screen. “You failed, and at best you got fed to his pet wolves.”

Luna started coughing; seemingly having swallowed a bit of Agatha’s spit the wrong way.

“Yeah, a bit old school.” I couldn’t quite stop a rather dry chuckle. “And speaking of school it seems a certain rude jokester is going to get a rather brutal lesson from the two sternest teachers on the planet.” I gave the TV, Mr. Not-Gandalf and Ms. I’m-Totally-Harmless, Honest a nod. “From what I’ve heard of this Disco dude is going to make a ‘hilarious’ joke on their expanse, and get smacked down into his place hard enough to leave a jello filled crater.”

I got a rather unsubtle glare from Luna.

“Don’t give me that look,” I said calmly. “I didn’t set him up. Just making an observation that Mr. Disco is about to make his bed, and that narrow, hard one made from pine and six feet down the dirt hole was a really poor choice.”

Luna’s glare barely wavered. “Doesn’t stop you from clearly taking joy in his misfortune,” she snapped at me.

I ignored it and the jab, more interested anyway in the other gateways.

Still, no way two physical gods could be topped, right?

Should be down-hill from that, and hopefully things should end in a quick, merciless but non-city leveling curb-stomp. Both Odin and Mab were heavy-hitters, but neither of them the type that level cities for funsies. As long as nothing worse came out of those doorways there might actually be hope still for The City of Fog.

....Right?

The ‘gladius gate’ was second to open, the world bending in a way that even through the TV made my eyes water, like a tent flap being lifted up.

A man stepped through, the ‘flap’ of world behind him falling and returning to normalcy with a heavy ‘splort’ sound not unlike two lumps of clay being fused by dropped the atop each other.

He was of average height, with broad shoulders and the type of lean, wiry build that starts looking like sixty at twenty but keeps on doing so well past retirement as long as you keep yourself in shape. He had no hair I could see, but the olive skin of his head gleamed in the light, only matched by his flawless teeth and the rather hungry gleam in his mulberry eyes.

His ensemble was rather odd, but made me perk my ears. On one hand, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a board-room. Black shoes with that high-quality shine and a blue pinstripe suit that clearly been tailored for him, all with that type of fit and shine that told you he’d easily been able to get at least a car for the same sum. There was even what looked suspiciously like obsidian cufflinks gleaming near his sleeves.

But on the other, there were signs that he’d armed himself in a great hurry. A tie or bow-tie had been removed so hastily and with such force the still ruffled collar of his shirt had torn slightly. He didn’t carry the traditional staff, but instead held that gladius in his left, and a big, black suitcase in his right that gave me the heebie-jeebies for some reason. I couldn’t see anything overtly unnatural about either implement —not through the TV at least, but the hairs on the back of my neck had gone up and I trusted those instincts of mine.

No way to be certain right now what type of high-grade mojo was in that case, but somehow I doubted it contained the dude’s prized family fertility idol.

...Well, maybe an idol blessed by Madam Pele, but she’s a bit of an odd duck. Most creator goddesses aren’t quite that fiery tempered or frequent in their lava based vengeance.

All in all and the mystery case of potential doom aside, the man reminded me a bit of that Monty Python sketch with the accountant pirates except with a NC-17 rating. There was this sense of twisted professionalism that made it really easy to imagine him striding through a boardroom with viscera to his well-pressed socks, bloodied blade on one arm, the now dead rival firm’s secretary swooning from the other, and the final draft of the extremely hostile take-over and its red not-quite-ink drying gently on the scarred meeting-table.

There was nothing business like about that grin, however. I’ll give the man this much: he actually frowned for a tiny bit on seeing the chaos, but soon that grin was there again twice as fierce. Like a big-game hunter called in due to big, nasty man-eater lions. The locals suffering were tragic, sure, and a good deed would come of it, but the actual focus and drive was that glorious hunt.

I narrowed my eyes at the man on the TV. I’d never met him before, but I recognized the man through description and the purple stola hastily thrown over his shoulders. There was only one member of the Senior Council (the ruling body of The White Council) I’d never met in person and that was the youngest member, Gregori Cristos.

He wasn’t quite as I’d pictured him, even if I’ll reluctantly admit I now saw why my mentor taught him an idiot and a patsy instead of an outright member of The Black Council. Christos had that type of raw, rugged charisma you can see even in a picture, but he at least seemed the type of gung-ho hot-blooded type that’s more easily manipulated by than outright turned to the dark side.

Yeah, Pot calling the kettle black on that one. Won’t even deny it.

(One guess what The Black Council is, and it doesn’t even count with that type of name. We didn’t actually have any outright proof yet, but there had been too many near catastrophes and information leaks these last few years to be coincidence. Somebody, potentially a lot of somebodies were playing a long-con, and The White Council was officially sitting on its big, fat hands for political reasons. Nasty, but hopefully for now unrelated business.)

Of course, seeming like an idiot that can barely find the Lady in a game of three-card-monte is quite the political trick all on its own. (The sleeve. Always.) Not something I’d outright cultivated, but I’ve been underestimated myself like that enough times to know what type of sucker-punches it lets you dish out.

Big, big difference between not being the sharpest bolas in the weapons locker, and never hitting the mark. Or being harmless for that matter.

Christos seemed to find the other Ways opening quite interesting, but the only thing he actually did was shoot a million dollar smile first towards Mab and Odin (both giving stiff nods in turn), and then the camera before settling down. Keeping an eye out in that watching everything and nothing way you only see from rather dangerous people, seemingly as comfy on the slowly inflating bike-rack he’d found as a lion on the savannah.

The whole thing rather disturbingly reminded me of kids lining up by the new flashy cabinet at an arcade. ‘Fine, you got here first, but here’s my quarter, I’m next, and if you try to cut in line I’ll punch your teeth out.’

The third way opened, the golden, glowing curtain flopping open and the glaring light obscuring all for a few moments.

Partez!” A woman’s voice rang out before even the camera could focus enough for her to be more than an outline in the rapidly fading light, one long staff held in the air as a sword ready to fall. “Partez, Saleté!

With a sound like a silver gong being struck, the butt of the woman’s staff hit the concrete. A wave of blocky static washed over the camera, making the poor cameraman flinch and swear.

At first glance it seemed nothing had happened. The buildings nearby were still half-melted. The people contorted into impossible shapes.

Then my ears perked, as I heard human sobs and wails of pain, not the animal bleats the sick bastard had forced his victims into making.

“Impossible…” Luna muttered, some genuine awe in her voice.

The damage hadn’t been undone, per se, but it had been mitigated. The energy driving the worst of the, well, chaos cut off and —for now, stopped from doing more damage. Flocks of previously flapping —oh the wit, fliers falling stiff down. Cars still smoldering, but no longer outright melting. Stuff like that.

And about two-three dozen people who’d probably need specialist care for the rest of their life for walking down the wrong street at least got that big a chance. Their eyes clearing, and running quickly away even if it was on limbs that bent the wrong way.

I carefully hid a frown, and forced myself to think through the specifics. Equestrians had never figured out counter-spelling? Not my forte, but I knew the theory and had even used it in combat a few times.

Guess it made a twisted amount of sense. If you really Believe magic is friendship made manifest —literally the strength your friends grant you by believing in you with all their hearts— then countering a spell directly would be in some tiny way like tearing at that bond directly. So even if some bright, young extra-pointy unicorn had gotten the theoretical idea, counter-spelling had probably been slammed with taboo status.

That, and counter-spelling is one of those things that’s easy in theory, but fiendishly difficult when bullets and/or fireballs are whistling around your ears. Like the poor schmucks that get hurt sky-diving now and then because folding a giant piece of special cloth a certain way isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Don’t get me wrong, a whole city-block with both mental and physical tempering like that? In one spell? It was damn impressive stuff. The type of simple but done on mass stuff you needed a grandmaster for.

So impressive in fact that I didn’t even blink on seeing another purple stola around the extremely tall women's dark robed shoulder. Over six feet tall, even, making me feel a tiny but real pang of jealousy about my now lost height.

Her name was Martha Liberty. Hard as nails old lady, but fair. Hadn’t seen her since that one time she helped pull my feet out of the fire, but she’d barely aged a day. Still the same bun of grey, her earlier brown lingering in the eyebrows, and, currently, a scowl you could cook dinner in.

That scowl by the way? Aimed straight at a distant serpentine shape that had frozen impossibly in mid-air. A just barely visible head-tilt showing (mostly showing due to the miss-matched horns) there, like a great wolf trying to decipher if a distant howl had been a real challenge or not.

She broke of that first scowl long enough to aim a new one right at Cristos together with the butt of that red wooded staff she’d had last time as well. “Why are you just sitting there?!”

“I will admit I am not the greatest gentlemen around…” With a soft shrug, Christos spread his hand towards Mab and Odin.

Martha let out soft swear under her breath.

“...but it seemed rude to cut in line, no?”

His accent was… strange. Yeah, strange really about summed it up. A mix-match fitting for a man born in Europe, working often in the States, but that had actually lived in near every major Asian country during the last century or so. I’d never quite heard anything quite like it, but the best word I could think of for it was ‘windy.’ Like every word was this puff from an invisible cigar Christos had dangling from his lips at all times.

I was frankly half-surprised little thunderbolts weren’t coming out of her ears, but Martha stiffly half-bowed to the two immortals. “Greetings, oh Queen of Air and Darkness, and to you as well, Grey Wanderer.”

Mab didn’t even look away from the serpentine shape lazily drifting closer, but Odin did a small waving motion towards Martha and the other gates.

“We lay no claim to this chaos,” he declared formerly, “only its creator. Do with the stricken as you wish, but we humbly request for The White Council not to interfere in our own parley.”

My ears folded back on hearing the word ‘parley.’

Martha just bowed, and hurried over to a man who no longer seemed to actually have any joints. Somehow the elderly business-man kept enough ‘firmness’ for lack of a better word that his weight wasn’t crushing his own organs (as far as I could tell, anyway), but his arms and legs kept flopping around like squid tentacles.

“And what are you scowling about?” Luna growled.

“Agatha,” Carlos said firmly, finally giving me a name for his poor possessed cousin, “be nice. They’re guests and friends.”

For a tiny moment the crimson of Agatha’s eyes reasserted itself and he looked confused and a bit embarrassed, but Luna’s cyan was soon there again. With a scoff the stallion sank down into the sofa again.

“Miss Subtle there usually is,” I grumbled. “Terrifyingly so. This is too direct for her, too clear a set up.” I scratched at my chest a bit, the drying soap starting to itch. “There’s something I’m missing here that makes it worthwhile for her to actually do this the hands-on way instead of sending a minion.”

Nemo raised an eyebrow my way. “Killing your own servant for bleeding is your version of terrifyingly subtle?”

For just a moment I was tempted to say ‘yes,’ but I fought the rather unconstructive urge down.

“She’s one of those ‘wheels within wheels’ types long-term, but doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty short-term, OK?” I explained while turning back to the TV. “Now shush, we need as much info as possible before that camera burns out.”

And yeah, that camera despite a valiant fight was giving up the ghost. The sensitive electronics not being able to handle so much magic in the air from all those heavy-hitters.

For now we still had a garbled picture, but with a screech that made all four of us wince and clutch at our ears the microphone gave out. Plunging the newscast into an eerie, unfamiliar silence. ‘Technical Difficulties: Please Excuse the Lack of Sound’ added to the news-ticker along such cheerful headings as ‘Thousands Confirmed Wounded,’ ‘Military Mobilization Underway,’ and ‘White Council Presence Confirmed.’

And I have no idea how I felt about that last one. On one hand it was something I’d barely dared dream about. Magic and all those that practice it forced into the limelight, and judged on exactly the same plint as the rest of society.

But on the other one, in its own way it was just as much an end of an era as that time the Hindenburg was meant to come in for a routine landing. Just with the secrecy of magic instead of blimps being the future of aviation.

Sure, intellectually you know it was only a matter of time. Heck, I’ve heard people are actually starting to wear these glasses with cameras and tiny computers in them, like something straight out of Bladerunner. People don’t want to believe there are really monsters out there, but even the most Agent Scully like sceptics with mental blinders glued onto their heads would need to start putting one and one together sooner or later. A murder victims cellphone no longer working is one thing, but smart-clothes, smart-glasses and who even knows what all being fried?

There’s only so many times (and places) a technophobe serial killer with a knack for burning out electronics actually makes sense as a pattern. Only so many times officials can be bribed before some stiff-necked one with actual morals says ‘no’ and survives. We are living in the information age, after all.

In a way it was seeing your threadbare, itchy and smelly safety-blanket be burned on a scrap pile. No matter how old, dirty and rotten, you really can’t help but feel something on seeing your old blankie get torched.

And that was without something as previously contradictory as a unicorn engineer suddenly being a real thing. Or minotaur scientist. Or bug-pony social-workers.

I’d even outright been told so by a few clients. A pegasus wizard didn’t seem quite as impossible and silly, after you’ve shaken fin with your cousin and had to seriously ask the question: ‘So how’s the improvised Lake Michigan shanty-town getting along?’

Oh yeah, that was a thing going on. The Chicago city-council had big, big dreams about turning the ‘City-In-The-Lake’ —as the name that actually was sticking went, into a rallying point for all the poor bastards that ended up aquatic or semi-aquatic. Giving them a place that eventually would be just as modern and livable in as any other district of Chicago, just semi-submerged.

On paper, quite impressive a concept. Walkways next to waterways, even inside some of the larger buildings, letting man, mare and mere alike mingle. Lit and (relatively) warmed underwater ‘thoroughfares.’ Even plans for a small dual-layered park that had gone way over my head, but was essentially this just above water bridge with another, seaweed based park underneath it.

Of course, that was the concept for the future.

Right now City-In-The-Lake was sadly little more than an old marina full of shipping containers. Purposely sunk, weighted down, and with ‘ventilation’ holes cut and big aquarium heaters installed. The old main-office turned into this near demented but necessary mix of a town hall, embassy, soup-kitchen and an entertainment center. Too few volunteers trying to keep people that can’t even walk on land anymore as safe and happy as possible as the world got turned upside down.

Bit cynical, but doing a good deed, the eventual tourism boon and nabbing that amount of immigrants wasn’t a stupid ploy. I’ll grant that.

The worst bit? It might have sounded second rate, but compared to how many of the immigrants had been living before the place might as well have been named Shangri-Lake. So far the district and its new inhabitants had been mostly keeping to themselves, trying to create something constructive as they rebuilt their lives.

Sadly, there were still some horror stories leaking out. People going from respected leaders of entire communities to the freak that had to beg to borrow a pool. Others barely able to swim in open water due to muscle atrophy from being stuck in bathtubs for too long. Even a few with kids nobody else had been able to care for that they’d barely been able to bring along safely.

Still, growing pains and teething problems aside, City-In-The-Lake was a far better idea than ignoring the problem until the fish-ponies were sleeping with the fishes in the traditional rather than literal sense.

Realizing my mind was drifting again; I shook my head and refocused.

In the few moments I’d drifted off, two more Ways had spit out their casters.

The fourth, the folding in that cafe had ‘clicked’ into place. Even through the TV screen and with the effect fading around the scariest little old lady I’ve ever met, the sight made my eyes water.

You know that old trick where you double expose a bit of film? When cameras still used that, I mean? Like that, but the cafe and what looked like another quite like it had been smeared together until it simply made sense for the world to treat the two places as one.

I swear there was even a menu just visible on one of the tables even to my new eyes that probably would have made a linguist cream themselves on sight. Twisting and shifting impossibly from leather-bound and Mandarin, to laminated-paper and English like oil on a puddle.

I’d already considered Ancient Mai scary, even for a member of the Senior Council, but privately I lifted her threat level up a few notches anyway. I don’t think she’d even actually set a single foot in the Nevernever proper with that Way, but instead used some type of Feng Chu style magic to ‘fold’ two similar places together until it —magically speaking was one place existing on two continents at once.

In other, plainer words: a neat if complicated doorway instead of a dangerous but simpler tunnel.

Theoretically it was possible, yeah, but man. I had to admit it made me feel a bit like a kid that had been proud of his baking-soda volcano, until that one kid whose dad’s in Nasa came rolling into the science fair with the 1:1 moon buggy replica he and his dad been building in the garage.

That was some serious (if admittedly slower than the standard) mojo, alright.

Ancient Mai, as the nickname implies, was no spring chicken. She’d foregone the stola and was a plain-white robe, but she had this egg-shell tea-cup look to her. That look of once great, almost ethereal beauty, faded over time but with enough hints of what once had been you could tell. Like Martha, she had her hair in a tight unadorned bun, just with hair the color of granite instead of bleached linen.

Showing no particular hurry and with her staff (presumably) clicking, Ancient Mai strode over to the creator of the fifth Way. Even now shaking the last of that glowing rain of herself.

And Luna was nearly making poor Agatha’s eyes shoot out of her skull again. Interestingly joined in that by Nemo, however.

I don’t see why, it was just a winged unicorn.

Frankly, I was more concerned with how young she looked. ‘Fighting,’ and ‘filly’ should never be in the same sentence, let alone together with ‘chaos god.’

Cute as the proverbial button after a makeover session, though. Little-Girl-Pink fur, a long, flowing lilac mane and tail with a broad white streak in it, pale blue eyes and even an almost glittering tiara as her emblem.

I’m a grizzled old wizard with more notches on my belt than actual leather left, and there was still a part of me that wanted to just reach through the TV and hug the girl half to death. She was that level of adorable.

With a glance towards the distant serpentine shadow, the girl’s lazy smiled got traded for a frown.

I mentally notched her mental age up at least a few decades. The pink ‘filly’ didn’t even look worried, just tense. Her now hardening eyes didn’t even look away from Discord, but she even started stretching slightly, her perfectly groomed wings straining to work any kinks out of her back.

It was rare, but not unheard of. Most of us afflicted with this pony stuff had ended up biology twenty-thirty something for some reason, but there had been outliers in both directions. Naturally, the ones that had gotten a push up in age were generally less happy about it than the ones that had gotten a new lease on youth.

Yeah, I know. People not liking when some monster sucks years if not outright decades of their lifespan. My monocle nearly fell off as well when I had to shout: ‘Oh, my word!’ at such a novel concept as well.

Hate to admit it, but I honestly didn’t recognize her until she reared up on her legs, her form blurring in that moment of movement.

Luna again echoed by Nemo, let out another gasp.

The young woman was now wearing a plain but well-sewn robe with that rather familiar splash of purple. A smooth unadorned staff that looked both towered over her and looked a bit too big for her dinky little hands.

“Huh, so Listens-To-Wind caught the pony?” I murmured, glancing at my own mane. “Have to admit, I thought I had the girliest colors on the whole council.”

Still, even in a human shape, as impressive as that was, Injun Joe —I swear I didn’t make that nickname up, she’s just old enough she’s had it since it wasn’t politically incorrect— didn’t look what I’d call normal. Don’t get me wrong, she was still outright adorable, but very few human-humans have skin the color of strawberry flavored cotton-candy. Guess I was getting used to it, but her eyes were way too big as well, almost the same size they’d been while in her pony form.

It wasn’t a bad look or even the least human shape I’d seen, but Injun Joe would only pass for human-human in rather bad lightning and with something covering her head. I’d grant her that she did look quite harmless and approachable, though, for both good and ill.

Maybe we’ll start a club when this is all over. Manly Mares Man-Card Preservation Society, meeting once a year to drink beer, grunt at monster truck rallies and lament the existence of the color pink by interparative flexing.

Carlos turned in that recliner of his, and raised an eyebrow my way. “I thought you’d visited headquarters?”

“Yeah, a month after the pony stuff hit.” I spread my wings slightly in a shrug. “I swear, you wouldn’t have noticed if the place was upside down, invaded by Martians and on fire. Pure pony perpetuated pandemonium.”

Carlos let out a grunt, and sank back down. “Didn’t hear it got that bad.”

“Besides, I’ve had my own life to get onto track again, so I didn’t exactly stay for long,” I said with a grimace. My leathery wings refolding with a soft sound of ruffling leather. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d said: ‘Hi,’ and swapped pony-tips if I’d bumped into her, but I didn’t.”

Luna was scowling that:’ You’re a ba~d pony!’ scowl of hers again I’m sure must be terrifying to six-year olds. “And the tiny part where she is now an alicorn?!”

“I actually have to agree with Agatha on that one,” Nemo reluctantly stated. “How the hell did she manage that?

Both I and Carlos joined into a giving Nemo a glare.

Nemo quickly held up her arms in surrender. “Hey, I’m not dissing this Listens-To-Wind dude, but Diamond Tiara —the pony she’s turned into, is the brat to end all brats in the show.”

Both Carlos and I frowned a bit, our glares wavering.

“I’m just saying I don’t quite see the link between small-town earth pony bully and becoming an immortal wizard with power overwhelming.” Mid lowering her arms, Nemo froze. “At least I hope there isn’t one,” she mumbled as an afterthought.

Had to admit for the twisted situation that was a fair enough question.

“I guess now that you mention it, I wouldn’t mind one of those legendary hat slayers myself.” I said, turning to Nemo. “If you’re stuck as a living little-girl’s toy for the rest of your life it might as well be one with all the extras, right?”

Luna looked as if she really, really wanted to slug me straight in the face for that one, but even she realized how nonconductive for a ‘stealth’ operation that would be.

I got an odd look from Carlos, but he just shrugged. “I doubt it’s that easy.” Carlos waved his good hand vaguely towards the TV. “If anybody on the Council has actually worked for earning hi- her position, it's Listens-To-Wind.”

I let out a grunt of acknowledgment. There was a rather short list of people I’d actually trust with that amount of power apparently involved in being a winged unicorn, and with Joseph ‘Injun Joe’ Listens-To-Wind having apparently managed it all on her own I could cross out…

Well, what was left of the whole list, really.

Speak of the Devil…

Luna nearly choked on Agatha’s spit again as the ‘static fuzz’ Way opened. Flashing and sparking once, the sixth gate coughed out another winged unicorn.

“And of course the biggest dick on the whole council got to keep his,” I muttered sourly under my breath.

I had to admit (reluctantly) that for another person that had gotten the pip-squeak package Arthur Langley, The Merlin, still carried it quite well. Better than Injun Joe, even, despite at the moment barely reaching to her waist.

There was just no mistaking The Merlin for anything but a man at the moment stuck inside a colt’s body, in part due to wearing most of the (if heavily modified) gear I’d seen him wear a few years ago against the Red Court.

He was standing upright, subtly leaning on that staff of his I still had no idea what type stark white wood it was made from. The Merlin had traded in that ‘spell-slinger utility-belt’ of his for six leather armlets and two garter belts based on the same principle. Made from thin, white leather that honestly went quite well with his chocolate brown pelt and bristling with pouches they nearly covered both his upper arms and thighs.

The later even obscuring most of his marks in a way that made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, for some reason I couldn’t quite put a metaphorical finger on. Or perhaps it was how it was the first text based cutie mark I’ve ever seen? No idea, and I could only see a tiny bit over the rim of each ‘bandolier-gathers’ anyway.

No idea what a whole bunch of amber arrows pointing and the word ‘Start’ in the same color meant on their own, but it seemed important somehow. Still gave me the heebie-jeebies, though.

The new eyes the same color as his mark were rather cute, though. Although perhaps that was the bat mode talking.

Personally for me, though, Langley having somehow gotten a similar mane and tail style going as Twilight, Luna and Celestia just killed the intimidation factor. He’d —somehow cut both of them short, but dark and light caramel colored lighting just looked way too cartoony to be intimidating.

Don’t get me wrong, Doc Brown and Willy Wonka teaming up was a rather awesome concept, just not in a wicked scheme to corner the hair-care market. Bit silly (and sticky) looking, is all I’m saying. Like some type of fudge based Tesla-coil.

I’ll give him this much, though: it wasn’t little-girl pink lighting.

Sigh… Yes, Harry, there are other colors than black, black, brown, black, Joda green, black and ‘jeans-blue.’ Some of them are even —gasp, pretty. Can you please get over it already?

Now that? That would be silly.

I actually thought for a few moments that the Way was lingering around Langley somehow, but as soon as he started walking I realized it was static in the camera proper. Not the static-y Way of his.

In other words what looked like a little colt dressed up as a mix between Rambo and Saruman The White was pouring out enough magic just by strutting around to nearly kill a camera that been holding up against the other six-ninths of the White Council's finest and two immortals. Yikes barely covered it, to be frank.

Speaking of things that are extremely non-silly, it took me that long to notice that Langley was only wearing that wizard-commando gear of his. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sort of figured out what a naked pony looks like by now, but it just hadn’t registered consciously for me until I noticed that something felt a bit off.

It was just… background. The normal stuff you don’t even think about. The sky is blue. The ground is (usually) down. The Merlin didn’t feel like wearing pants today.

Frankly, that tiny moment of realization? It made the bottom of my stomach flutter more than Luna’s ‘nightmare’ had.

How long until I felt hungry, and just didn’t see anything weird about bending down to graze for a bit? Or feeling a bit peckish, and those fresh new spring leaves looked tasty?

Raw leaves and grass? Eww! You’re not a foal, Harry. Just because it's green doesn’t mean it's edible or tastes good.

It had actually happened a few times already, but what if I got hit on by a stallion and it actually… did something for me? Hell’s bells, what if met a woman that actually liked this? All tasteless jokes about riding crops and all men secretly already being lesbians on the inside aside, could I actually take somebody into the new me seriously?

I mean, come on. There’s vanilla, there’s strange but socially acceptable, the really freaky…

And then there’s being into the idea of a lesbian, cross-species relationship with a yellow, pink wizard pegasus mare with tons of battle scars and that wears leather quite often.

I… Umm. I…

Fine, a healthy relationship should always have both give and take, and that can involve doing stuff you yourself don’t care for... but hysterical laughter in the bedroom isn’t a good sign most of the time.

OK, I hate to admit it, Harry, but when you put it like that it sounds a bit strange.

I mean, the off-chance of some ex-woman-turned-stallion with a mirrored experience aside, would I even make a good match for anybody anymore? Not even tom-boy quite covered it, after all.

I nearly jumped straight out of my skin as a cerulean hoof tapped me on my shoulder. I hadn’t even heard Nemo get up, let alone walk over.

“You OK there, champ?” Nemo said. Just a bit too chipper to be totally genuine. “Looked like you zoned out there for a bit again.”

I did not care for saying it within earshot of Luna, but I couldn’t figure out a good dodge in time.

“It’s the damn bat-mode.” I mumbled while rubbing my temples, not even faking how embarrassing it felt to admit it out loud. Hopefully Luna would miss most of it, though. “Unless I’ve got something to focus on it tries to ‘help,’ but it's basically a clever animal. A picture of a future threat is too abstract for it, so Ding Bat gets bored and starts rooting around in my thoughts for something more interesting to go help with.”

I got a really odd look from Nemo. Mirrored by Carlos. “...She? ‘Ding Bat?’” Nemo asked. Slightly concerned.

I felt my cheeks heat a bit. “Just a bad joke. Forget I said anything.” I let out a deep sigh, and let my hooves drop. “Let’s say that every damn word starts with ‘A’ as far as Apple Monster is concerned.”

“You know, Harry? You’re almost cool. Almost have that —pardon the name, but ‘Blue-collar Warlock’ thing going, that modern master of the arcane swagger. Like John Constantine, Dr. Stephen Strange, or Mickey Mouse.” Nemo didn’t remove her hoof, but the shake of disgust didn’t look quite totally faked. “And then you open your big, fat mouth, and the multi-layered allusion to what’s big about Big Bird kinda kills it.”

“No messing with Big Bird,” I said stone faced. Poking Nemo hard in the stomach. “Dude’s a role model for yellow feathered American’s everywhere.”

Quietly, Carlos face palmed.

“It’s because I’m blue, isn’t it?” Nemo said with mock seriousness even if the tugging of her lips fooled nobody, before straightening up. Almost looking me in the eye even. “Seriously, Harry, how are you doing?”

I was actually taken back a bit with the sincere concern in Nemo's voice. I just… hadn’t expected it.

Nemo had to take a deep breath before continuing, her grip tightening a bit on my shoulder.

“Harry, I know I haven’t known you for long, but you’ve actually done more for me while I was wearing those damn prison scrubs than some of my ‘family’ did when I sprouted fur and feathers.” Nemo’s face twisted into a mask of disgust, and I heard her tail flick once. “Let alone those so-called Equestrians.”

For just a second Agatha’s eyes were as hard as a pair of sapphires.

“Thing is, you’re clearly not well,” Nemo said softly. Reaching over to my other shoulder with her free hoof, and gently twisting me around until I was face to face with her. “And again, this is from somebody that’s known you for twenty-four hours.”

Guess all that ‘boosting’ must have done the trick, because from the feel of things Nemo barely felt a tug of resistance. And again, pony with what that implied in weight. Not that I struggled or anything, but yeah, was that rather telling for how strong Nemo was even powered down.

“Look, I’m not calling you a coward or anything. You seeing Godzilla’s anemic but overcompensating cousin half the country over, and your first damn reaction being: ‘How do we stop that? ‘That’s great. I wish more people thought like that.”

I was about to protest, when Nemo turned my spine into a slinky that had gone ten rounds versus a steam-roller.

With a sheepish grin, Nemo relented on that trash compactor of a hug of hers. Somehow I managed to whip my lazy, good-for-nothing powdered spine back into enough shape to return the gesture.

“I’m just trying to say I might not recognize near any among those people, but would we really be more than bloody speed-bumps in that type of fight?” Nemo continued. “You seem like a good mare, Harry, and I don’t want to lose a new friend just because a produce cart rolled by at the wrong moment.”

On my head nearly wiping around on reflex on just hearing ‘produce cart,’ I reluctantly had to admit that Nemo had a point. “Let’s see what happens first, OK?” I scowled out. “Might give us info, at least.”

I got something of a bit of mood-whiplash, as Nemo leaned forward and nuzzled me. A rather equine gesture I was not used to getting from somebody yet. “You’ve done well by me so far, Harry,” Nemo smiled. “You do your best, and I’ll do mine, OK?”

Actually managing a half-hearted smile despite the situation with Agatha, I hesitatingly returned the gesture. That one nuzzle made my cheeks burn, but Nemo seemed to like it.

Carlos raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. Guess living with his niece had already given him some insight into the less normal bits of the whole pony thing.

I pretended not to notice, but Luna didn’t seem to know if she wanted to cry or slam us both into the bedrock.

Besides, I was a bit distracted by seeing the two last Ways open.

The seventh, the ancient looking iron gate, opened in a surprisingly undramatic fashion. It well, just swung open. Didn’t even show a nightmarish nightmare realm beyond it, but what looked like a decently peaceful —judging from the one flag flying in a slack-jawed man’s backyard, Welsh country-hamlet.

Yeah. White-washed little cottages with smoke drifting out of their chimneys, and everything. There were even a sheep. Not what I’d call Mordor-esque, frankly.

However, since the ram in question had a horrendous Hawaiian shirt on and a camera around his neck I don’t think he fit that national stereotype.

The disturbing mystery why a tourist of the ovine persuasion in Wales was grinning that wide aside, though, I recognized the Way’s creator. Frankly I was barely even surprises by now.

Rashid, The Gatekeeper of The White Council, barely paused in his stride on spotting the others. The iron gate fading behind him. As usual a black robe including a face-concealing hood billowed behind him, but I caught the glimmer of steel from his fake eye as he turned.

“Ten bucks on the whole set showing,” Carlos chirped. Slightly forced, but you needed to know the guy to tell.

“No bet,” I mumbled back. “I already know that Way.”

Of course, last time I’d seen it, that Way had been the normal to the Nevernever and back type.

The last clumps of background fell ‘down’ into the black abyss of the eight way opened.

Carefully I pulled away from Nemo. It was there and gone in a blink, but I saw some disappointment flash over her face.

On noticing me noting, Nemo chuckled awkwardly and started rubbing the back of her own head with a hoof. “...You give nice hugs, and I don’t get many pony ones.” she mumbled. Clearly a bit embarrassed.

Had to admit (reluctantly) that the pelt was good for a bit more than being hard to clean. Horrible puns about being warm and fuzzy aside, I did feel quite a bit better. I wouldn’t call my mind quite clear by any stretch, but the apple-scented fog had lifted just a tiny bit.

Apparently either noticing his camera giving out or just due to seeing a good shot coming, the cameraman zoomed in. Abandoning the wide-shot of the terrifying gathering for a closer look of who was just about to come out of the Way.

A ripple formed near the top of the last Way, like a fish having splashed in a dark pool. A fluted horn the same bluish-grey as brushed steel, nearly a lance, seemingly grew from that ripple.

Again, Luna let out a gasp.

Nemo just let her jaw drop near clean off.

The mare that horn was attached to was scowling deeply even as the dark passed over her. She actually had a quite pleasant face, one of those neither thin nor plump ones that stick with you without you being able to put your finger on why. There was this real sense that if she’d actually smiled, it would have been one of the prettiest things you’ve ever seen.

Like the other winged unicorns present she hadn’t bothered getting clothed, being completely nude aside from a simple eye-patch of mat black leather over her bad, right eye, the healthy, left one narrowed enough that the normally warm gold looked about as comforting and inviting as a gilded shiv.

Perhaps I was biased, but her mane and tail were a cut above any other winged unicorn I’d seen. Especially in the actually looking intimidating department. Like this strange and pretty but unnatural looking mix of a golden heat-haze and an ever boiling acid-yellow liquid.

Both really looked like one of those things that would make you lose your entire arm if you as much poked it.

The mare turned, flaring her impressive wings even as she glared down the draconequus. Discord, who like near all bullies on a power-trip, was taking his sweet ass time drifting over there, quite clearly savoring every minute people’s fears had to build and build on his approach.

I couldn’t help but smile, true and wide even as the camera finally went out in a burst of static, a few flickering, blocky images of the mare in profile —her mark of seven bubbles clearly visible before the TV screen turned a solid blue.

“...And what are you smiling about?” Luna asked. ‘Her’ voice this mix of morbid curiosity and creeping horror at what the answer would actually be.

“Nothing much,” I said honestly, if grinning from ear to ear. “I’m just happy for my old master. Good on her.”

Nemo, looking a bit pale for some reason, crossed her hooves in a time-out gesture. “You were taught magic by… her?”

I frowned a bit at the hesitation on: ‘her,’ but ultimately shrugged. “Yup.”

For some reason that simple word made Nemo burst out into hysterical giggles.

Pulling out a busted up remote, Carlos turned the TV off. Interestingly the circle around it flickered for a brief moment, but held.

That made me frown for a moment, but I guess it made sense. If something as small as a bit of infrared light projected by a mortal could collapse a circle, then every magic user on the planet would carry a flashlight at all times. Rendering circles near totally useless outside the lab.

Still, that aside it appears I was wrong about nothing being worse than Mab and Odin. The entire Senior Council was apparently on the war path. Probably having deciding to lay down the law on how poorly chosen a time it was for any non-accord signees to try rocking the boat publicly. Eek.

Gently lifting my metaphorical jaw off the floor, I had to burry my head in my hooves for a bit. There’s overkill. There are grenades against flies’ level excessive overkill.

And then there’s the whole Senior Council, Odin and Mab against what so far had seemed like a brat with a more power than sense and a god-complex. Wile. E. Coyote falling down that cliff while sitting on a whole train full of nitroglycerin and while on fire would take one look at this Discord dude and the mess he’d strolled right into and hold up a sign saying: ‘Damn, I never knew I had it that good!’

“Well, Discord’s dead,” Nemo chirped out with a smile a bit too big. Even going so far as to clop her hooves together a few times. “Or even better, worse than dead if we’re really lucky! Who’s up for celebratory pizza!”

Only Luna outright gasped, but I had to admit even Carlos and I gave Nemo a look.

With a huff Nemo crossed her arms over her barrel, the sack she was wearing audibly protesting.

“That bastard rapes minds, destroys lives and levels cities for fun. Not profit, not power, not even glory, but for the fucking lolz.” With a scoff, Nemo started staring out the window. “He’s a giant, magical bully, and I will not apologize for finding him getting the no-holds-barred beatdown he’s deserved for millennia satisfying.”

I frowned a bit, the image of Chicago suffering the same fate. Something that very well could have happened if we’d just picked the more obvious gateway to leave open back home.

Quite a few images flashed through my head.

Murphy’s old-lady home she’d inherited from her grandmother deflating like a cake somebody had poured water on.

That white-picket fence Michael was so proud of growing like a wine and ensnaring the whole of the Carpenter household in some twisted take on Sleeping Beauty.

A soft hiss forced itself out of my mouth before I could stop it.

Maggie, dirty, crying and alone covering below a serpentine shadow floating unnaturally above her.

Over. My. Dead. Body.

Ignoring the worried looks, I forced my eyes closed and started massaging my temples. Trying to calm myself. “Fine,” I told Nemo, if rather tartly, “you’ve got a point. Discord needs to be stopped, preferably permanently.”

Luna let out a small offended gasp.

“There’s however a big difference between doing the right thing but also finding it satisfying, and outright glee at somebody suffering while you do the right thing,” I continued, still rubbing away with my eyes closed. “You do have a point, Nemo, but you still went over that line a bit.”

I didn’t look up, but the silence got that sucking quality when people are intently listening.

“That’s the thing about being a good guy. You need to at least do your best to act like one, or it's just a pretty façade on another bad guy.” My voice turned to a growl. “Like those Equestrians that keep talking up friendship but just keep acting like backstabbing bastards.”

Luna, the mistress among mistresses of subtlety, let out a low growl.

“OK, fuck subtlety then,” I snarled, the brilliant amaranth glow of my hoof for a moment reflected in Luna/Agatha’s wide, shocked eyes.

I did my best to be as gentle as possible, but the stallion still hit the nearest wall so hard a breath got forced out of his lunges. “W-Why?” was all he said, eyes sadly still a deep purple.

“Luna,” I snarled with my fangs barred wide, as the poor kid’s eyes did that frosted over thing even as they widened, “get the fuck out of him, or prepare to be exorcised.”

There was a brief —all too brief, flash of crimson and Agatha tried saying something.

Then the poor kid spasmed once, and Luna raised her eyes, the cruel, slitted cyan near shining even through the aura of my own spell. “Nightshade is sworn to me in both body and soul,” Luna said in her own voice, as the body she was in started warping without seeming effort, “you can no more ‘exorcise’ me, than you can siv the salt from the sea.”

Agatha Camila Zeo Ramirez.”

Carlos didn’t even put any magic into the words, but his niece still arched his back to near breaking point and screamed. Agatha’s entire body rippled, as —at least partially and temporarily, she regained control and tried fighting off whatever Luna was doing.

I caught Nemo nodding at Agatha's —ugh, cutie mark. Personally I tried ignoring looking too closely at those things. Not certain if it’s a pony-wizard thing, but there’s just this almost cloying, crawling moment of disturbing intimacy when you do. Almost like the beginning of a soul gaze that won’t actually start, but won’t stop either.

A sprig of deadly nightshade with three flowers. The vibrantly purple and yellow five leafed flowers superimposed over a glowing moon.

A moon that had, for a few moments, gone from full to waning gibbous.

“It appears my niece disagrees with that,” Carlos stated, with just a hint of pride in his voice, as he walked up to my side.

“S-S-Stop!” Luna panted out, “Y-Y-You can’t do this, you’ll tear his soul and mind apart!”

I frowned a bit, hesitating for just a moment at the tone of panic in Luna/Agatha’s voice. Was that what had been happening whenever I heard that pony name for ‘me?’ Even the tiny trickle of power in a non-correct pronunciation enough to ‘tug’ at the spreading corruption from this pony thing? Just not yet enough to call her out?

Something cold slithered in the pit of my stomach.

Or actually worse, had somepony been seeing my life without even being able to scream?

H-Harry…?

I mean, even with her riding Agatha like a bad loa knockoff, I just couldn’t quite take Luna seriously. There was no bite to the mare. No bloodlust. Compared with even the lowliest ghoul, she might as well for all her powers have been a sniffling kid.

And it would have been so, so much easier to just write her totally off, if that wasn’t the case.

Thing is, if Luna was this dark goddess type. Somebody that even normally wrestled with who even knows what on a nightly basis, not to mention her own fall to madness.

Well, how much could there possibly be even left of this ‘Fluttershy’ by now? A doormat of an animal handler that even her friends seemed to think had no character beyond ‘kind, likes animals?’ Even Twilight had seemingly thought a ‘Hi!’ and a few hugs would have been enough for her slash I to just drop everything and go follow her to the next ‘recruit.’

Stars and stones, most wizards haven’t had the string of horrors and triumphs I’ve had. The average human —even with the chupacabra being out of the bag on magic, wouldn’t believe even half my stories.

And that was, of course, if the Equestrians’ weren’t monsters.

“Carlos?”

Rodriguez head snapped around my way, tearing his eyes off his niece.

“Do you trust me?”

Eyes darting back to Agatha, Rodriguez hesitated.

And gave me a single, stiff nod.

So I dropped Luna.

For a moment, Agatha's face was twisted into confusion.

With a single flap of ‘her’ wings, she stopped Agatha from falling, and landed smoothly in the same movement. “Why?” she forced out, suspicion writ large in both ‘her’ expression and tone.

“I need to know,” I simply said, “if you’re a monster with an agenda.” I had to take a deep breath, my wings fluttering with a dry sound of leather being flapped around. “Or a desperate friend, trying to save somepony dear to them in all the wrong ways.”

Nemo let out a wince, but didn’t say anything. She did step away a few more feet from the possessed stallion, though.

Luna stared at me, only to start laughing me in my face. A harsh, bitter one at that.

My ear twitched, but I fought the irritation down. “No more taunts. No more posturing. I’ll even cut down on the snark, just this once.”

Through Agatha's eyes, Luna glared suspiciously at me.

“I don’t like you or your methods, Luna, but if it was all to save your friends I can at least respect the intent.” I didn’t turn around, but I pointed a wing back at the TV. “But there’s a monster going after several of my friends, allies, and even The Merlin.”

Nemo spluttered. “Merlin?!”

“Don’t repeat names like that near a circle!” I snapped, a bit harder than I should have from how Nemo twitched.

“It’s one of the quickest and dumbest ways for an apprentice to kill themselves,” I continued in a (somewhat) kinder but still firm tone. “Besides in this case it’s a title, the strongest wizard on the Council. He’s a prick, but even I’ll admit Arthur’s hot stuff.”

Agatha’s face paled a few tones.

I wouldn’t have stopped the grin on my face even if paid in free kicks to Nicodemus’ groin.

“Yeah,” I chuckled darkly, “don’t let the Junior Woodchuck makeover fool you. You don’t get that title —let alone keep it after two harrowing metamorphoses, by collecting bottle caps.”

Agatha’s eyes were wild and wide, as Luna kept darting them between the static filled TV and the rest of us.

“Oh. O~h,” Nemo droned out, followed with a slap to her own forehead. “I’ve figured it out.”

Agatha stopped breathing.

“They’re grooming us for alicorn ascension, so that Little Miss Friendship won’t go nuts or lose her powers when her bunch of nakama shuffle off their mortal coils.”

I kept my eyes on Agatha, but I heard Nemo doing that not-quite-finger-counting thing again. Tap. tap. tapping away as if she still had fingers.

“Why you, Harry, have been the #1 target,” Nemo continued to her little mental beat. “Because you have a high-risk, high-reward lifestyle that might kill you or grant enough power for you to ascend any day now. Why it’s apparently so important we confront Discord, and do it ‘properly’ with the Elements. Because if we don’t, we might end up alicorns of the ‘wrong’ concepts.” The mare’s smooth lecture turned to a growl. “And why it’s so important we keep being idiots that can’t figure any of this out. Because that subconscious bias might skew the fucking end-result of their recruitment drive for five more alicorns. To complete the whole Harmony set, of course.”

What.

What.

Agatha's face had gone so pale, it was literally ashen in coloration. Like that fine, white stuff on the edges of logs while they’re burning.

“Fifty plus years of your sister’s plans and manipulations to turn Twilight Freaking Sparkle into even more of a spoiled, entitled noble brat down the drain, because Rainbow Dash grew a brain and figured out how to count past potato.” Nemo spat at Agatha's shivering form. “Never saw that one coming, huh?”

“If Equestria is a real place and not one big manipulation,” I absently added.

I heard Nemo’s wings ruffle as she shrugged. “Either way, I’m not really seeing why being the raw-materials for RD two-point-oh with the memory of this little moment of insight carefully scrubbed away is in my interests.” Nemo came trotting up to my side, a scowl so large I could see it even in my peripheral on her face. “Or for our Earth’s, I might add. That line about ‘balance between worlds,’ remember?” The mare gave a shrug. “We are here. We consider this world our home. We are allegedly chosen champions of Magic Incarnate. Ergo, the Equestria/Earth balance of power is currently skewed heavily in Earth’s favor thanks to the bonus our favor and presence provides, while Equestria is currently suffering an equally severe malus due to our absence and disinterest. Quod erat demonstratum.”

I frowned a bit. It was quite the stab in the dark, but given how Agatha’s face was scowling at Nemo I got the impression she was on to something Luna would have preferred she wasn’t.

It did actually match up with what I know. Nothing specific, but lots of little details that theory would explain.

“Quad e-rat, what?” Agatha growled out, pawing at the ground just like Luna had on Demonreach.

“It’s a really snobby way of saying you just rubbed somebody’s nose in their own bullshit with logic,” I deadpanned, taking notice I wasn’t seemingly the only one in the room for once that´s really bad at the official tongue of the White Council. “Like the ancient philosopher Sabitus said: Go captando arma, dum distractam inimicum. Uiro maxime fugere oportet qui in urbe erant adhuc minatur.”

Of course, being bad at it and not speaking it at all are different things. A useful difference, sometimes.

Nemo outright winced at my Latin, but she quickly turned it into a lie about the subject matter instead. “With a whole donkey? Is that even medically possible?”

Troubling gift for such a sweet face, being able to lie that quick and easily. Luna seemed to fall for it though, given the stink-eye I got. “I thought you said no more taunts,” she growled at me.

“It sounds more profound in the original Latin,” I deadpanned. “Anyway,” I waved my wing at the TV again, “all else aside, we are at a deadlock.”

Agatha’s eyebrow twitched. “Most every word out of your mouth be so needlessly grim?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “You sure you want to go down that route, body-borrower? Because I’m certain Carlos and I can disable whatever mind-whammy you’ve slung on Agatha without resorting to any ‘harsh’ words if it’s really that disturbing to your warped little suggestions of a moral code.”

With her True Name, two wizards and one A+++ minion to hold Agatha’s arms while we worked, it was near a given even.

Doing that and keeping the poor kid sane? Not so much.

“But yeah, deadlock,” I snarled, putting some emphasis on the ‘dead’ bit just to see Luna squirm. “Every moment we waste here is one more for the brawl with Discord to run rampant. Who even knows what horrors now on-route to join in.”

A small smirk spread over Agatha’s muzzle. “I fail to see how that is not an advantage for me, rather than an impasse for the both of us.”

“You know, I never actually got a physical description of Nightmare Moon,” I ignored the glare, and instead tapped myself near my own eye. “But slightest chance of the whole slitted pupils craze isn’t just a ‘ponies when really ticked’ kind of deal?”

Luna was stock still for a moment in shock.

But when that moment passed Agatha’s body blurred down the hallway. Typically, straight for the bathroom where all my gear still was.

Nemo still took the hint and darted for her own room. Not even a whisper of magic this time, but still faster and quieter than any creature with hooves had any right to be on concrete.

Might have been a bit overkill given the screams of horror echoing down the hall and what they implied about Luna’s current priorities, but better safe than sorry.

Carlos and I both lowered our arms, and let go of the magic we’d been gathering.

“Continue to let me do the talking,” I half-whispered to Carlos as I got up and started trotting after the sounds of anguish. “Luna technically doesn’t fall under the Laws, and it’s better for both of them if we can get her to just back off.”

Carlos hesitated for a moment, before following. “Just remember what I’m trusting you with, Harry.”

I let out a hum of acknowledgement, and hurried a bit more.

“You did kinda forget something else, though.”

I stopped, and looked back.

At the ruined towel, still laying there innocently in the middle of the small TV room.

My cheeks heated up a bit, as I finally noticed the rather refreshing if intimate draft. Oops.

I almost went for the TK spell, but I hesitated with my hoof half raised as a thought crossed my mind. “Apparently the norm for Equestrian’s is nudity,” I reluctantly grumbled out as I lowered my hoof again. “I might get a better response if I push as many ‘pony’ buttons rather than ‘human’ ones as I can.”

Carlos frowned down at me. “Since when did you get devious?”

“Fairies.” Despite the rather pleasant temperature I couldn’t stop a shiver. “Just… Yeah, fairies. That about sums it up.”

Not that the demons, archangels, old gods, outsiders or any other of the terrifying creatures that had taken an interest in me these last few years had made it any easier staying on the straight and narrow, but fairies definitely took the cake as far as the subject at hand went.

Hell’s bells, the fairies didn’t even take the damn cake. They had an ancient contract, written in demon’s blood when the world was young. Stating without a doubt and signed in triplicate by Old Scratch, The Almighty, and Jimmy Hoffa themselves that all cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, pies, muffins, loaves and flan on the subject of deviousness are theirs for eternity and a day.

Granted, you bring forth a donut, and they’ll nod and smile at a clever bargain fulfilled to the letter. Fairies are weird like that. They can’t as much as say that two plus two equals five, but they’ll still run circles around you with half-truths and double meanings.

Parasite,’ my bucking hoof.

Still, it was rather refreshing to actually have that type of conversation —however brief, with somebody in the actual know about magic. Carlos just shuddered once, and dropped the subject. No laughs about Tinkerbell. No digs about Disney.

Just a tiny moment of shared horror at the Things lurking (normally) in the dark corners of the world, and that was it.

A small whimper came drifting out of the bathroom, reminding me I was getting distracted during something far more important again.

I couldn’t help but groan. Ugh, why of all the legendary vampire weaknesses did it have to be a variant on that stupid aniseed one? Not even the Black Court suffers from that!

At least a short and rather lame list of powers was ‘paid’ for by an equally short and lame list of added weaknesses. Not that I’d tried to bite a coin stolen from a dead-man under a new moon, or anything, but so far I at least didn’t seem to have any of those ‘splat, gone’ type banes in this ‘form.’ Small favors.

“Go help Nemo for a few minutes,” I gently told Carlos, “I can’t make this seem genuine with you scowling over my shoulder.”

Carlos frowned again. “‘Seem?’”

I gave him an even look, continuing at a whisper just in case. “She hasn’t claimed parley, if the worst happens and I can’t get Luna to back down…” I took a deep breath, and squared my shoulders before pressing on. “I’ll use that TK spell to break one of Agatha's legs, and flee with Nemo.”

Carlos went as still as a corpse somebody had tied to a pole.

“She’s after Nemo and me,” I continued, still at a whisper, “and with Agatha wounded it wouldn’t make any sense to not switch hosts. The time that will take just might be enough for us two to get to Chicago and shut her down before anybody else gets hurt, while you stay here and help Agatha.”

It wasn’t much of a plan, but was the best one I could think up with my gear divided up like some demented treasure hunt. Still, unless there was something I was missing about how Luna had possessed Agatha like this, there should be no logical reason to cling to he- him.

Of course, given that ‘sworn to me’ stuff there might be an illogical one.

Still, I couldn’t think up a better way to at least attempt to cause as little damage to Agatha as possible. Hopefully it would be enough.

Judging from how Carlos stared me down for a few seconds while biting his lip, he couldn’t either.

I jerked my head towards the bathroom.

“Dammit,” Carlos swore, before hurrying off. Presumably to get his gear.

I slowly approached the doorway, only for a snarling face to pop out of the bathroom. “YOU!” Luna bellowed at me, slowly but surely becoming unmistakingly her, pointing me out with a rapidly blackening and slimming hoof. “THIS IS YOUR DOING SOMEHOW!”

I winced, as my ears tried crawling inside my own skull. “Actually, I gave your precious Twilight a whole mini-lecture —plus an outright damn pamphlet, on the seven ‘Never Ever Do These, Ever’ types of magic in this realm.” I forced myself to sit down on my haunches, even if I couldn’t quite get rid of the snarl in my voice. “If the racist idiot threw that in the nearest trashcan because she got it from a ‘pegasus with pegasi magic,’ that is not my problem or fault.”

Luna —or rather, Nightmare Moon, hesitated. Still glaring, but frozen mid-point, making me all but see how ‘her’ mind ground along as it tried to find fault in what I’d just said.

“Slight refresher then on the important bits,” I growled out, forcing my wings to stay folded down instead of going for the dominance crap they insisted they wanted to do. “The Second, The Third, and The Fourth, to be precise. Transforming others, mind magic, and enthrallment.”

‘Luna’s’ eyes went to outright trash-can lids at the word ‘enthrallment.’

“So yeah, deadlock,” I continued, my voice hard. “We can’t get you out of Agatha without massive damage to the poor gi- stallion, and you can’t force he- him to be your avatar like this without slowly but surely relapsing into that Looney Lunatic persona.”

Of course, Carlos, Nemo and I had the whole city of San Francisco to worry about as well.

Still, they had the whole Senior Council in their corner. Agatha only had us three to drag her out of the dark.

I’d probably be faulted for that math by somebody down the line, but usually happened anyway. Some pencil-necked twig would come crawling out of their ivory tower, and tell me I could have had a far more optimal outcome by eating two point one puppies for a power boost.

For some strange reason that type of person very seldom offers to go grab a spoon of their own.

Oh, and Luna/Nightmare Moon herself. I could feel a bit of corruption around the mare as she glared daggers my way, but (by my standards) it wasn’t that bad. Finding a spoiled sausage at the back of your ice-box rather than a small hell portal, or thereabout. Still bad —especially with the mare’s powers, but not quite beyond hope.

MY NAME IS NIGHT-” The mare started bellowing again, only for a look of pure, wide-eyed horror to flash over her face.

Judging from how… Luna? Nightmare Moon? Bit confusing to keep changing between those two, I’d have to figure something out.

Anyway, from how she grabbed at ‘her’ muzzle so fast she nearly toppled over, I’d guess she was near as mortified with how she’d told me one of her Names, as which one of them had been closest to heart in that moment.

Agatha (and her rider) didn’t even twitch, as I walked over and sat down next to her. The ‘two’ just staring into nothingness.

I gave the ‘duo’ an once-over. The big strokes were still ‘Agatha’ —if now a rather masculine mare, but more and more ‘Luna’ was slowly creeping into the features. The strong jaw was still Agatha's for instance, but the wings were ‘creeping out,’ getting a longer and sleeker, —almost regal even, look to them.

“You know?” I said quietly, almost not sure I was about to do so myself even. “Bit sad, Blackie, but you’re the only pony-pony so far that’s actually been acting like a desperate friend.”

Slowly, like something from a horror movie, or one of those owls that can’t actually move their eyes and instead swivel their necks around if you want to defang it a bit, Agatha’s head slid my way.

Luna glaring at me with the type of contempt usually reserved for trolls covered in bits of the last kid lost to under their bridge. “You are one —if not the, most hateful, spiteful and perverted presences I’ve ever encountered. Why would I believe for an instance that this is genuine and not a cruel trap?”

There was a small zap of electricity between me and Luna for a moment, the energy trying to ground itself as our glares met in the air.

“It’s almost as if you and yours dangled this perfect little changeling fantasy in front of an orphan.” I spat at her, all the disgust and bile I’d been trying to keep under wraps until it could be safely dealt with just spilling out. Like a boil that been poked too hard. “And then when I stomped down on that pretty little bonfire of hope for long enough to ask for proof, I got told I’m a fool that don’t know how magic works, a sweet, false smile of reassurance and fucking death squads sent after me AND MY FRIENDS!”

I’m not sure where the burst of magic came from (aside from how I was finally letting out something that had been boiling along in the pit of my stomach for over a day), nor why it decided to manifest like it did.

I do know Agatha’s eyes (purple) near popped out of her head, as Luna stared at me like I’d grown a second head.

“Oh, I’m so terribly sorry,” I snarled at her, “am I being a ‘corrupted mockery’ again, for daring to presume four immortals and their army did five minutes of recon?!”

I hadn’t even consciously considered the action, or even noticed myself move.

And yet, between one brief moment of nothing but red, thundering blood and anger, I had Luna pinned to the nearest wall.

Pinned, by what I had to forcefully remind myself was actually Agatha's neck, and that choking her out was harming somebody innocent.

I used a trick I’d learned fighting against the impulses of The Winter Knight’s Mantle, and backed slowly off, my legs checking with the effort as I went through the cold, unchanging logic of the situation. “Fact, killing Agatha is w-wrong, and won’t even harm L-Luna.”

I hit the wall, sliding down, my wings scraping dryly against the cement.

Luna/Agatha coughed while holding her throat,

“Fact,” I mechanically stated for myself, as I buried my face in my hooves, “you are hungry, scared and in the damn bat-mode. All of that means you are defaulting to fight-flight responses.”

“W-What are you?” Luna, but seconded by Agatha from the wide, purple eyes, choked out while massaging ‘their’ throat. “That was not a peg-” A shudder swept the ‘mare.’ “No, not even earth ponies are that strong or fast.”

“Fact,” I panted out, only now noticing I was coated in sweat as if I’d just galloped around the entire block, “Luna has so far shown all the signs of being a well-meaning but uninformed idiot. It is not her fault Sparkle is an even bigger idiot.”

It wasn’t quite as outright hard to fight as The Mantle, but the bat-mode kept hitting me below the belt and throwing curveballs in a way that The Mantle had never done.

The Mantle was a beast starving in the dead of winter. Me, me, me, food, food, food, sex, sex, sex, fight, fight, fight. Over, and over again, and not a thought for who it hurt or the consequences.

The Bat-Mode on the other —ugh, hoof was all about actions and consequences . Hell’s bells, I’d swear the darned thing has a mind all of its own, sometimes.

It was just —well, some sort of fruit bat’s version of actions and consequences.

Hungry? Why, that produce aisle is just swimming in unguarded food, and ‘we’ have enough silly bits of green paper for all of it! What do you mean ‘rent’ is due next week, we’ve got a whole park, a house and a den to sleep in! Why do we need that office thing to get more bits of green paper?! We’ve got enough for all the fruit!

Sleepy? Hiss at the annoying people until they go away! What do you mean that would be rude towards our friends? I didn’t even bite or spit seeds at any of them!

Say, wasn’t playing with the pups all day fun? Why don’t we go out, find a nice, handsome male to play with —wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and next spring we can have even more fun! What do you mean that’s not a good idea?! Pups are adorable and sex is neat, so of course it’s a good idea!

Or like right now. There’s a big, scary rival-female right there! She’s going to burn our home, kill our cubs and steal all our fruit! Hiss! Hiss! Hiss! Bite her! In the face! WITH OUR TEETH!

Ugh, fermented pony. I do not want to know what that tastes like.

And on, and on. Problems? What problems? Those are future Harry’s problems! And we can stomp them too!

I swear, it was like having an excitable puppy. Living in your head, with thumb analogues, and that knows where you’ve hid all the best things to go chew on.

Worst bit? Listening to The Mantle would have turned me into a monster. No other word for it.

My inner little Ding Bat just wanted a big orchard all to herself, the monsters to stop needing a good de-throating, and enough happy, safe children of ze fruit to bloat out the sky in a Technicolor curtain of adorably hissing doom.

And, well, as much as I disagree on the rather fruit obsessed specifics... A happy home filled with family? Sure was a harder drum to ignore then one going Murder, Death, Kill all day, even if the metaphorical volume was lower.

Don’t get me wrong, I listen to the call of the wild-grown fruit and my life as Harry Dresden was over just as surely as if I’d done it with The Mantle. I’d be just as happy a monster, if one from a fifties horror-comedy instead of a modern day slasher.

’The She-Bat From Beyond the Paddock!’ Think I’d watch that actually, sounds like cheesy fun.

“I was told by Twilight that you had been cured of this affliction.” Agatha got up on unsteady legs, Luna glaring at me again. “And for that matter, that you have the self-control of a rabid animal under its effects.”

My ears perked. This whole mess was pony related? Had to admit, I’d thought the bat thing was unrelated. A curse from an enemy, lingering effects of killing the Red Court, or something.

“Oh my,” I deadpanned as I got to my own hooves, “Little Miss Know-It-All Sparkle-butt being wrong about something magical? Stop the presses, the scope of the century is ours.”

Luna started gritting ‘her’ teeth again. “She is the alicorn of Magic, just as I am of the Moon!” A shaky hoof, now near totally black, pointed at me. “She knows more of pony magic then you’ve forgotten!”

Phf. The same girl that think wings make neat backscratchers? No offence to Twilight, but I think I remember more than she’s ever learned on that subject of pegasi magic, and I only finished basic flight camp.

This time, I outright did roll my eyes. “The same girl that didn’t even know what power Names have until I told her, you mean?” I folded my hooves over my barrel, and narrowed my eyes as Luna pulled in an angry breath to start shouting again. “The same girl that dismissed warnings that could have saved you from a relapse because the messenger had wings?”

Slowly, Agatha’s mouth closed. Luna’s eyes showing a tiny hint of uncertainty.

Even gleaming and slitted as they were.

So I made a choice.

“Luna,” I said, slowly walking over, “I’m not going to lie, there’s a part of me that wants you and yours’ to hurt right now.”

Agatha slash Luna tensed a bit, but didn’t do anything as I sank down next to ‘them.’

“In here?” I tapped my chest with a hoof. “There’s still a six year old kid that kept dreaming some distant great aunt or uncle would come sweeping in, and he’s currently screaming at me to make. You. Burn.”

I’m not sure if Agatha or Luna was the weak link, but they flinched a bit from my glare anyway.

I took a deep breath, and forced down as much of the churning hate as I could.

Still felt as if there was a cauldron of molten steel where my heart should have been.

“I’m not going to do that,” I forced out, in a voice by all rights should have scolded the floor without a bit of magic. “I’m going to do the right but stupid thing, and politely ask you for a cease-fire while I go smack Lord Disco in his nuts until he’s the Chief Eunuch of Chaos.”

Luna’s eyes stared down at me in sad disbelief, like I was some kid that didn’t get why scribbling pencil mustaches on classical paintings is such a bad thing.

“You do that,” I continued, in slightly a less ‘could etch gold’ tone, even if it was a far cry from friendly, “get the hell out of Agatha, and you have my word that —as long as I live of course, that we’ll have a long, nice chat about this mess.”

Including the topic keeping hostile immortals in almost sealed cans near clueless mortals to test for champions. Oh yeah, we’d talk about that, alright.

“Tea, crumpets,” I held out my hoof, “and I’ll even send word to Demonreach to let you four winged unicorns free if I haven’t returned in a week.”

“Alicorns,” Luna absently ‘corrected.’

“Actually, that means unicorn horns around here,” I snapped, “you make that deal, and I’d be totally in the right to dehorn you all and keep the rest of you forever locked away. In a few circles my reputation would even go up for having played you so thoroughly while keeping the letter of our agreement.”

Luna actually gagged.

“Yeah, nine bastards out of ten around here? Actual Honesty means nothing to them, only the letter of the agreement.” I pointedly put my hoof down. “Now do we have an accord, or should I just write you, the Harmony crap, and all that ‘friends from another life’ talk off as the vilest damn lies I’ve ever been told?”

Please, please, Luna, don’t make me do this...

Luna pulled herself up to her full height, to glare down at me.

Would have been a bit more impressive if I wasn’t about an inch taller than Agatha even when sitting down. Might not be much, but you start noticing stuff like that when switch teams from ‘ent’ to ‘hobbit.’

So, yeah, I was apparently still quite tall. It was just the end of the bell curve for the female of a species where even the male averages 3-4 feet. Bit more literal than normal, but small favors.

“My old boss’ idea of physical rehabilitation was attempted murder daily for seventy-seven days.” I growled out. Luna’s jaw actually dropped in a rather unintimidating way. “So unless you’re going to step up your game and drop a ticking crocodile on my lap, your ‘intimidation’ isn’t quite cutting it, Nighty.”

For nearly half a minute, I was stared down. Luna searching for the slightest hint what I’d just said was a joke in poor taste, or even a bluff.

“Remember that Lady that called first-dibs on Discord?” With a small smirk, I nodded towards the TV room and mimed slapping something with my hoof a few times. “Itty-bitty bit of a temper, you could call it.”

Luna just stared at me. “Why would you serve such a monster?”

“Because in this world, ultimate power doesn’t grow on fucking trees of goody-good incarnate!” I snarled at her. “Because when you're a real wizard in the real world, you sometimes have to do real sacrifices to get enough power to save everyone and hope you can live with yourself afterwards!”

Agatha’s hoof snaked out, and dragged me face to face with Luna by the fur on my chest. I was so pissed I barely felt it. “So you did trade with something for this ‘magic’ of yours,” she snarled in my face.

“No, I already had magic,” I snarled right back. “What I didn’t have was enough magic to go up against a whole Court in their place of power to stop a bloodline curse. I think I mentioned part of that, right?”

Luna frowned. “‘Bloodline curse?’”

“Dark magic.” I rolled my eyes. “Wizard stuff we grown-ups have to worry about, so no wonder somebody like you have never heard about it.”

From how my haunches left the floor for just a moment, a certain teeth gritting mare had nearly slammed me into the nearest wall. Just barely stopping herself.

“Fine, since you ‘asked for it, I’ll even ‘ponify’ it so it will actually get through your thick skull,” I deadpanned. “You ritualistically end several hundred ponies, using their heart-blood, horror and pain to charge a place of power full of death and misery. Using a foal of the bloodline you wish to destroy, you finish the spell.”

Agatha and Luna got this waxen look to the both of them, judging from how glassy the purple tinge to ‘their’ eyes got. Guess Carlos had been trying to keep the worst away from his niece.

“The variant the Red’s charged to unleash on a senior council member you frankly don’t need to know which?” I continued. “It would have ripped out the heart of every relative to that poor, innocent filly. Jumping from her to her dam and sire. From dam and sire to any other foals, siblings and grand-parents. All the way, to her entire line was simply gone. Hundreds if not thousands of ponies gone to kill one they couldn’t strike at directly.”

Luna and Agatha stared at me. Searching for the slightest sign I was lying.

When they didn’t find any, they projectile vomited in my face.

Yeah, one of those days.

I wiped the, ugh, semi-liquid puke out of my eyes just in time to see the charming image of The Mistress of the Night (and host) galloping away. Leaving a rather chunky trail all the way back to the bathroom.

I tried letting out a sigh, only to start coughing as some of it slipped into my nose. Who the hell even has sauerkraut for breakfast?

Agatha apparently. Weird kid.

I fought down the bit of my hind brain that was screaming about preening now. Now gosh-darnit, now, before our pretty feathers are stained forever! We might have trouble flying, or even —Gasp!— attracting a mate! Ahhhhhh!

You really shouldn’t joke about that, Harry.

That I could just flap my bat like wings once at the moment and get most of it off me didn’t seem important to that voice.

Still, I did so, got up and moved towards the kitchen.

Agatha/Luna didn’t even seem to notice as I passed by the open door. Heck, the light wasn’t even on.

As I actually entered the kitchen —a rather comfy bit of anachronism compared to the rest of the house since Ramirez had apparently not wanted to risk that many circles and electrical devices, both Nemo and Carlos instantly rose from the small table.

I waved them down, limping momentarily on three legs as I aimed myself at the ice-box.

Carlos, clearly not liking what the vomit covering me implied, fumed a bit, but sat down again. How he kept fidgeting with both his staff and gauntlet saying volumes anyway.

What made me stop momentarily was Nemo, however. For some reason one of the most subtly horrifying (mortal) physical powerhouses I’d ever encountered was actually panting softly, and covered in a slight sheen of sweat I could smell even through the vomit.

(Odd bit of mental disconnect with that smell, actually. My mind insisting ‘work horse yet to be groomed for the day,’ and my nose instead saying ‘healthy, young attractive female you might want to go over and talk to.’ Wasn’t quite the bucket of ice-water I’d frankly wish was dripping of my back, but it helped a bit.)

And then there was the third strong smell of the room. A whole stack of paper, some hastily stapled together, some not, and all of it laying in front of Nemo and outright stinking of whatever that not-quite-ink stuff modern printers seem to have switched to.

Tilting my head, I read the front of the top papers. Some type of essay from the looks of it, but the cover image was too smeared in the printing to make out. “The End of the World as Rapunzel Knows it - A Look at Why Fairy-tales are Even More Disturbing than You Thought,” I read aloud from the title.

“Oh, you know,” Nemo panted out with a small smirk. “Some nerds will just overanalyze anything, huh?”

“Draft Four. Written by Nemo Schwartz, Age Nine. Do NOT steal.”

“And their princeling got an A+ well before she even became twisted into their dork queen.” Nemo solemnly declared, one hoof to her ‘attire’ and chest. “Seriously though,” she continued with a bit less formality, thumping the stack of papers for emphasis, “ammo. If Nightmare is willing to listen, she might as well get illuminated.”

I frowned a bit. Seemed a long-shot to me, but Nemo had that —admittedly rather suspect accuracy wise given the source, insight into Luna’s character from having seen the ‘show.’ If she thought that stack of paper could help, it seemed worth a try at least.

Seriously-seriously, Harry.” Nemo thumped the papers again, looking grim. “If that mare is really the Luna and just misguided, these things should have quite the effect.”

I grimaced, even as I turned back to the ice-box. “Yeah, about that.” A shudder swept through me, one that had nothing to do with the gust of cold air as I opened it. “The good news is that it’s starting to seem likelier and likelier Luna is actually who she claims she is.”

“And the bad news?” Carlos growled out.

Well, for starters it meant by implication that my entire life was a lie.

Every victory. Every loss. Every friend. Every enemy. Every person I’d ever dragged out of the dark. Every scar and drop of blood I’d spilled.

Even my magic. After all, pegasi have pegasi magic, right? That’s what the real ponies keep telling me.

Stars and stones, what crueler prank to play on somebody, than having them wake after two and a half decades as some magic thug that went against everything you’ve ever tried to stand for as the exemplar of Kindness. A killer. A murderer. The type of man that would actually sign a contract in blood because it had seemed a good idea at the time.

I mean, who cares about the details, right? It’s not as if ‘he’ being a dad and mom of two wonderful little girls matter. That both those same girls would have been dead without that contract. That even Mab had needed to push herself to make me fall in line with her plans.

That’s the type of details you add to a villain’s backstory when you want a few more sympathy points from the audience but don’t care enough to have it be more than part of the joke. Unimportant but cute fluff, worthy of a few chuckles. Like Darth Vader turning out to have a thing for country-music, and it was piping through his helmet during every scene that used to be awesome, or something.

I vaguely heard metal groan, but it didn’t seem that important. Not compared to the white-hot ball of anger in my chest.

It just meant there was a few twists and turns to the joke. You don’t want it to be straightforward and predictable when you’re a god of chaos, right?

How my unfocused eyes didn’t actually see the inside of that ice-box probably the only reason that flame in my chest didn’t use that cursed stare of mine to punch through the wall.

“I haven’t felt this angry since Chichen Itza.” I said softly, as rain started pattering against the widows. “Except this time around, it’s all apparently my fault for having been born under the wrong pastel star, or something.”

“...Chichen Itza?” Nemo hesitatingly asked, while Carlos started coughing. The later seemingly having swallowed his own tongue.

“Pretty tourist trap by day, used to be heavy duty ritual ground for the Reds by night,” I answered on autopilot while I rummaged through the ice-box. “Managed to subvert some serious bad mojo there, and turn it on The Red King’s bloodline.”

Carlos let out a low wince. “Harry… Who did you use for that?”

My hoof froze halfway to the carton of apple juice I’d been eyeing. “You never met her, Name would mean nothing for either of you, so I’m just going to avoid saying it.” I managed to force out. “Follower of St. Guile's I used to…”

I nearly fell forward into the damn ice-box, as my heart split open from the feel of it. Somehow I managed to keep the stinging in my eyes down and my voice even but it was close.

“The other person there from the Followers turned out to be a double agent. She lost control, killed him and turned.” I explained mechanically, sounding about as healthy as I felt. Still, at least there was no way for it to be tracked back to Maggie, the way me breaking down crying might have. “Youngest vampire in the world. Bloodline curse with the alter and knife right there. You do the math.”

Only sound in the whole house was the drumming of the rain.

“She even crawled into my arms, and let me… d-d-do it.” I managed after a shuddering breath, my hoof shaking but actually moving again. “Heck of a woman. She deserved far better an end then that.”

“You killed a friend?” It came in a tiny voice from the doorway.

I grabbed a few apples and the juice, before turning to Luna/Agatha, standing and staring in wide-eyed horror at me. “I told you I’ve faced things like you but evil and competent at it, Blackie. That I expect monsters to actually deserve the word.” With a snarl, I shut the door, pretending not to notice how I’d turned the metal handle into a bendy straw. “If you thought I was talking about such dread horrors as boasting mares, or bunny stampedes, that is not my problem.”

“Wait,” Nemo blurted out, as I limped over to the table with my spoils, “you know about Trixie and the bunny thing, but not what cutie marks are?”

With an effort of will and a wave of my hoof, four glasses flouted out and over from a nearby cabin.

“Little Ms. Cray-Cray thought I might get frightened, and started off easy,” I grumbled as I poured four glasses. “Seriously, what type of sheltered do you need to be not to get what an illusionist’s stage-persona is? You’re supposed to sound like an exotic master of Whateveristan, that’s outright part of the act. You may as well tar and feather a juggler for risking the wrath of the falling spirits.”

For some reason, Nemo started fidgeting in her seat. Looking quite uncomfortable.

Luna, whose eye had twitched on my nickname for Twilight I might add, gritted Agatha’s teeth and slowly started walking towards us. “Don’t switch the subject. You killed a friend, and yet you dare try t-”

With an audible click, Agatha’s jaw shut, both her jaw and my hoof covered in my aura.

“Luna, I know that you are a proud idiot. Even fairly certain now that in your own twisted way you are trying to do the right thing.” I declared in a tone that could have frozen ice. “But if you turn Susan’s sacrifice into another one of your damn rants on how perfect Celestia’s little pony utopia is, I will literally kill you,”

Nemo, Carlos and Luna stared at me. Outside, the rain gave way for equally heavy hail.

“If you do, I swear I will drop everything else —damned be the consequences, go to Demonreach, and beat the real you to death with the Element of Kindness itself while your sisters’ royal can do nothing but scream and watch.” I let go of the spell and dropped my hoof, but I kept the wizard-glare going, the fur on a tiny spot right between Agatha’s eyes quite literally flattening from the force. “Am I clear, Blackie?”

For nearly a full minute, the hail falling outside was the only sound in entire house. Even Carlos and Nemo staring at me.

“I thought you said no more posturing?” Luna finally growled.

“That was a promise.” I growled back. “You can sit there and spit bile at me for the rest of this little talk for all I care, but my friends are off-limits.”

Luna frowned, her glare dying down but not quite passing. “So this is a peace talk, then?”

Only a lifetime of dealing with creatures that can smell the slightest bit of weakness stopped me from tensing.

“Because I do believe somepony that wasn’t quite as quiet as they thought they were said something about no parley having been declared.” Luna shuddered, and Agatha’s lips curled up in disgust. “I barely see the point in mentioning how barbaric and vile using telekinesis in actual combat is. You clearly care nothing for real magic.”

I frowned. “Oh? But picking somebody up like a sack of potatoes and ‘healing’ them in some alley until their minds are squeaky clean is OK-kosher?”

Luna sucked in a breath, but Carlos cut her off with a slash of his hand. “Be silent, both of you.”

Luna paused, and trained Agatha’s eyes on him. “This is an Equestrian matter, Wizard.”

It seemed Carlos had been working out in more than body, because these tiny droplets of water started forming all around him. Hanging in the air, poised in such a way they reminded me of the bullets in that one Matrix scene.

Hesitatingly, Luna took a step back. Wings twitching like somebody had pulled a feather from them when she wasn’t expecting it.

“You are currently riding my niece as if he was nothing but a draft animal, and you have hunted my friend and fellow Warden for over a day.” Carlos said, his lips a line. “You have made this a White Council matter, Your Highness. Deal with it, or get out of my niece and house now.

I tried to not smile too smugly.

Tried.

Failed miserably, yes, but I tried at least.

“It’s good to have friends, isn’t it?” I sang out.

I might as well have conjured a lemon spirit inside Agatha’s mouth, from how her face scrunched up and Luna glared at me.

“You will swear on your Power to release my niece and never touch her again at the conclusion of these talks,” Carlos continued, the curtain of water-bullets growing heavier by the moment. “Or these negotiations are over, and I will save as much of Agatha as I can.”

Luna stared down Carlos, face unreadable if not for that side-effect with the eyes. Those kept sliding back and forth, crimson, cyan and even flashes of purple as a ‘debate’ I’m not sure even Luna noticed raged.

I started drawing in power. Preparing for what was rather clearly coming.

Surprised me slightly, but Nemo actually followed the example. Making it feel almost as if I was sitting on top of a high-voltage line instead of the kitchen floor.

Luna glanced around us, biting Agatha’s lip and pawing nervously at the floor. Clearly sensing that we were doing something, but not used to our way of handling magic.

To my surprise, she actually went after Nemo. “Dash, please,” she pleaded, “you know this isn’t right.”

Nemo titled her head. Some part of me expected an angry snort and just a ‘Yeah, right,’ for some reason.

“Of course this isn’t right,” Nemo actually said, sounding calm if sad and disappointed of all things. She even took a sip of the juice, before continuing. “But you and Celestia never quite got that loyalty is a two way street, did you? You neglect it for too long, and it withers like a melon with the vine cut off.”

Agatha’s eyes nearly bulged out of her skull.

“Well, except for Celestia’s pet unicorn student. There just weren’t enough titles, perks and little bonuses she could just sprinkle on that extra-pointy golden girl. Now was there?” Nemo took another sip, before putting down the glass with a clink and a melancholy sigh. “But do a legendary pegasi deed when you’re fucking ten —that gave Twilight that same damn boost for her lightshow I might add, and you don’t even get a scholarship.”

Despite myself, I felt my head slide around.

Nemo was staring straight at Luna, with contempt in her eyes.

...Dashi?

“No,” Luna mumbled. “No!” she shouted after that, slamming a hood down. “It’s just a trick! That ‘show’ you keep blabbering about!”

Nemo gave Luna a long, hard look. “Harry?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you be a pal, and float over plan A to Luna?” Nemo flexed her wings once. “Haven’t gotten that spell figured out quite yet.”

I frowned. What was she playing at this time? It was getting kinda clear to me that Nemo was way, way smarter than she liked to pretend. Scary levels smart.

But there’s quite a difference between a quick bluff, and a long-con. Or for that matter being clever, and clever enough.

Still, there really wasn’t anything I could do to raise my doubts about this plan without sinking it. So a quick frown aside, I floated over the top-most, bound papers. Letting them simply flop down near Agatha’s hooves.

Luna glared down at them like I’d done the same to a rattlesnake venom-gland and asbestos sandwich. A tiny note stuck to the same ticking toothpick as the slice of cyanide sausage, saying: Totally not poison. Honest.

“You expect me to believe you printed this foul smelling thing in fifteen odd minutes?” Luna coldly drawled at Nemo. “Besides, I can’t read those claw scratches humans call writing, anyway.”

Nemo barred her teeth in what I’m sure was meant to be a smile, but it didn’t even really give a friendly wave towards her eyes. “Good thing Plan C is a stack full of pretty pictures then, right?”

Luna scoffed, clearly not believing a word.

Nemo, outright face-hooved. A slightly more meaningful gesture then the face-palm, now that I think about it. Most people don’t walk around daily on their hands, after all. “Luna,” Nemo groaned out without looking up, “you are using an innocent stallion as a biological proxy server. Standing in a room with two wizards, lit by lighting, mercury and phosphor.”

Agatha’s eyes darted up to the fluorescent tubes, and back again.

“Hell, you and all the other alicorns got curb-stomped because you didn’t know the magics of this realm.” Nemo continued in an exasperated tone. “And printing being more advanced in this world is really where you draw the: ‘Nope! Not buying it’ line? Really, really?”

Carlos gave her a look that all but screamed: ‘You have to do this now?’

“I do not believe it an unfair question since Luna have done nothing but scoff and scoff at everything not exactly like in Equestria as if she’s the tourist from hell.” Nemo stated, taking another sip of her juice. “And if I’m about to be dragged away to some horror dimension filled with dead magic I’d rather it not be an isolationist, xenophobic culture as well.”

I do believe I heard Luna’s heart shatter all the way across the continent. A small, strangely echoing silence accompanied by a thousand yard stare.

And Luna’s mask utterly shattering with it. “You’ve been to Equestria? And came back to this cursed realm willingly?”

I shared a glance with Nemo, but she just shrugged.

I did take the lead on that, so fair enough I’m take the hit, I guess. “Yes, one of your...”

I frowned and hesitated, realizing I’d never actually heard the real name for the superhero wannabes. Probably not wise calling them that right now.

“Wonderbolts,” Nemo explained with a sigh. “The guys and gals in blue and yellow are called Wonderbolts.”

I gave of a grunt of thanks.

“Seriously, if we survive this, I’m finding a stack of the old laptops or something, tying you to a chair and making you watch the show so I don’t have to explain every little thing.”

I rolled my eyes. Yeah, watching a kid’s show with censored nudist versions of me and Nemo in it having wacky adventures. I’m sure that’s going to be a totally normal movie night.

“One of the Wonderbolts,” I continued, “played dead, grabbed me and Nemo, and activated those one-use amulets.” I met Luna’s gaze for just a moment. “We of course fought our way back through the portal after destroying as much of the lab as possible.” I let out a sigh, as Luna started snarling my way again. “And that we did it with only two ponies wounded don’t actually matter to you at all, does it?”

“Those ‘only two’ ponies have sacrificed years, if not outright their special talents, on saving you two ungrateful nags and the other cursed doesn’t to you, so why should it?”

I let out an annoyed sigh at Luna. “You don’t get it, do you? To you, we’re these twisted mirages that apparently never should have been.” I pointed at her. “To us, you are this monster that appeared from nowhere and started trying to tear our lives apart. To you, we’re apparently ungrateful brats that don’t get why spontaneously changing species should have been the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Luna’s lips curled, manners the only thing forcing her to let me make a point she clearly didn’t care for at all.

My lips a line, I pointed a hoof to my own chest. “For me at least, it was twelve hours of screaming agony, because guess what. When you're a wizard and notice a curse on yourself, you try dispelling the damned thing.” Agatha’s eyes went the size of dinner-plates. “So I’m terribly sorry, but even if there’s normally some gentle merging or whatever loophole Discord used, it’s still quite possible that Fluttershy got as shredded mentally as I almost was physically.”

Luna slash Agatha stopped breathing.

*Cough.*

“And if actually asked, I would have told you all this, There’s even this girl I know I trust enough to poke around in my noggin to check if there’s even a trace left of Fluttershy. I even know how to carve a vessel that could hold her until something better can be figured out.” I sighed out, my ears sticking slightly to my scalp when they folded back. “And if you’d actually even tried to convincing me you and the other cutesy overlords actually care to save more than the adorable mass-murderer I would have cooperated.”

Luna did a cod impression at me. Closing and opening ‘her’ mouth as if air-drowning.

Nemo too, actually.

Carlos, though, was just frowning. “And where did you learn how to make a freaking soul jar, Harry?”

Even without the tone, I could see the edge to that question in his eyes. ‘And why?’ all but growled at me.

“Spirit safe-haven,” I corrected, head half turned to keep an eye on both him and Luna. “And I can’t say the details due to client confidentiality, but I had to help this man with frequent migraines nothing worked on.” I let out a wince, as much for the half-lies to a friend as the memories. “Turned out he had an almost fully grown spirit of intellect growing in there, and his head was a few days if not hours away from popping open like an over-ripe melon.”

Speaking of popping from a head, Carlos eyes nearly did so. “Harry,” Carlos almost whispered out, “do you have any idea how terrifying even minor spirits of intellect are? They’re near pure magic, and never stop learning. Do you have any idea what that creature could do in the wrong hands?”

“I’m sure the girl can stay home with her dad and have a happy childhood just fine,” I growled out. “As long as no well-meaning wizards try to use her for their own gain.”

Carlos tried opening his mouth to protest, but I cut him off with a raised wing. “I’m well aware of Kemmler and his slave.” I turned back to Luna, before adding: “And I will not stand by and let her be killed —or worse, because of what horrors her ground-up parts could be put to,” in a tone that I hoped would make it clear that the ‘discussion’ was over.

Still had to suppress a shudder at talking about my little girl like that.

“Kemmler?” Luna and Nemo asked, in near perfect unison.

“One of the most terrifying necromancers the Council has ever faced,” I stated mechanically, looking Agatha in the face if not her eyes. “To put it into equestrian terms, he and his followers almost became alicorns of Death by eating the spirits and life-force of about quarter of continental Europe.”

Luna gagged again. Either she was getting used to this, or Agatha didn’t have anything more to throw up, but aside from her fur dropping a few shades lighter nothing more happened this time.

Still, credit where such is due, Luna actually took it better then Nemo for once. Nemo just sat there for a bit, staring without actually seeing the hail smattering against the windows.

It was a bit bad tone as far as properly paranoid wizard-manners go, but I picked one of the glasses, floated it over and started sipping.

Now that woke the bat up, alright. Part of me suddenly rather loudly insisting this silly ‘glass’ thing was not nearly enough, and that it was obviously much better if ‘we’ hissed at everybody and made off with the glorious prize on the table.

My hoof started shaking slightly from it for a few moments, but with an effort of will I fought the urges down.

The bat screeched at me from the back of my head in a way I’d bet translated to: ‘So unfair! Mine!’ all the way, but I kept on top of it. Taking long, shallow sips of the apple juice, and actually enjoying the way it started slowly filling the gaping abyss I’d been ignoring where my stomach should have been.

I’d seen what happens when a vampire starts to be ruled by their hunger instead of the other way around. Sure, I’d doubt I’d ever get quite as bad as The Red King and his blood addiction, but it still wasn’t what I’d call a good end.

Being known as a grand scourge of orchards rather than mankind was a step up, yeah, but all the same I’d rather not have it on my merit list.

I let out a small sigh, but mentally squared my shoulders. Part of me despised learning any lesson from such a foul monster, but If I’m stuck being the grand matriarch of some new, (almost) terrible breed of vampire whether I like it or not…

I fought down a small shudder on how that siring would probably happen. Not that I’d tried, mind you, but so far I hadn’t gotten any urges to spread the love of apples around, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t know for sure before I —ugh, have a foal, but so far this ‘bat-mare’ thing seemed like it would either die with me… or pass on to my descendants.

And well, however that works out, I’d rather be thrice damned before I let my ‘pups’ follow the same type of example The Red King had set for his ‘children.’

Carlos wrinkled his nose. “OK, now what’s that smell?”

“Vampire fruit-bats have magic fangs that ferment all they bite. It’s how they can drain fruits in moments.” Luna of all ponies explained. With tone and expression that could have curled milk in its own right, yeah, but still. Credit where it’s due. “It appears Dresden has gained that ability.”

I froze for a bit. Vampire fruit-bats? Who names this stuff?

Nemo frowned. “Shouldn’t Dresden’s mouth be a fetid mess in that case? Like a komodo dragon?”

I nearly choked on the last bit of juice in my glass, before giving Nemo a look.

“Well, excuse me for being curious about the biological specifics of somebody that can semi-spontaneously switch race to a pony slash animal hybrid and back again!” Nemo huffed out, crossing her arms over her barrel. “It’s not like that type of stuff could lead to tribe or even species change procedures to name one bloody application!”

“Or alternatively,” I deadpanned, “people could figure out that magic actually exists and spend the couple of months it takes to learn how to shapeshift properly.”

I pretended not to notice how badly Luna hid her interest in the small aside, while Nemo did a double take. “Months?!”

“With the right teacher, yeah.” I gave a slow nod, thinking over my phrasing very carefully. “My life sort of imploded for a bit, though, so I haven’t had time to call in those types of favors. Let alone figured out how to take human form again.”

Of course, I’d been given quite a few friendly pointers by my friends and former gaming group.

The rather werewolf heavy one. Tips up to and including: ‘Here’s the spell we use. Be careful with it, OK?’

You can’t buy friends like that. Not even close.

Granted, given how gear dependent (safe-ish) wizard magic can be and that I (normally) prefer clothes, the original spell was of rather limited utility for me. No arguing that turning into a wolf the type of size not seen this side of the ice age wasn’t rather awesome. It is.

But compared with actually being able to hold a gun, shield myself, sling spells and other stuff like that, just to name a few tactical alternatives? Compared with fangs and claws? Cool, but often rather lackluster. Especially with the whole pegasus thing offering me many of the same advantages plus flight and speech, let alone the lingering after-effects of The Mantle.

Still, it was another ace up my sleeve. Might even be a foundation for me to build on to one day become human again, or at least to control this bat-mode of mine.

Given how Luna reacted to only the idea of the option being open to me, though, I’m rather glad I played my cards so close to my chest.

NO!” she bellowed again, stomping Agatha’s hoof for emphasis. Rattling the windows as much from that as the shout itself. “WE FORBID IT!

I winced, and dropped my glass. Thankfully it didn’t break, but that was small comfort to the ache in my ears.

With a wave of my hoof at the glass and using my magic, I lifted and refilled it. I must have been hungrier than I though, because that tiny pit was already howling for more.

Didn’t surprise me, though. Been awhile since I had to do some heavy-duty magic on an empty stomach, but that hardly meant it had stopped being a bad idea.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Nemo said, voice hard and downright unfriendly, resting her cheek on her hoof. “We don’t care about that damn crown, title or even winged unicorn crap of yours.” The mare gave a hard nod mine and then Carlo’s way. “And I think I talk for the others when I say that the only reason we’re even trying to talk you down, is that we’re not a hundred percent on if that friend stuff is genuine or not.”

Luna froze under our collective glare.

“What Crayola mane said,” I growled out, getting a snort from her and a nod from Carlos. “Now, are you actually going to talk with us and try to figure out a solution that makes everybody and everypony happy, or should we just call you on grandstanding and bust out the big guns?”

I’m not letting you have my Harry, Luna. Not just because Twilight has the social grace of a tadpole.

Luna gritted Agatha’s teeth again. “We need the Elements united again!” She exclaimed as if we were kids —or foals I guess, that simply didn’t get it. “Without them functioning, it will take decades to restore Equestria to even a shadow of its actual glory!”

I gave a shrug. Unconvinced. “The Senior Council didn’t seem to have much trouble undoing Mr. Disco’s play time.” I reached behind my back, and brushed off some of the half congealed vomit. “I’m certain they’ll charge you an arm and a leg for it, but I’m certain a few lessons and resources on ‘our corrupt mockery of real magic’ could be arranged.”

I didn’t actually add: ‘If you actually care the slightest for harmonious cooperation,’ but I think the tart tone of my voice did it just as well as if I’d used the actual words.

“It doesn’t work like that!” Luna growled right back at me. “The whole nature of chaos magic means it forces the will of the user upon the world! Only the strongest and most skilled unicorns can even learn spells not of their talent, let alone ones potent enough to guide the world back into order!”

A long, long moment of silence followed. I shared a glance with Carlos, but he was just as dumbfounded as I was. Even Nemo had her jaw somewhere around navel height.

...Oh, buck on toast.

Luna mistook the source of our silence, and pointed a hoof at us, smirking in triumph. “So it matters not how this mockery of yours work or hail from, it is not real pony magic and there is no way it may overcome Discord’s chaos!” Luna threw Agatha's head back and outright cackled, a few bolts of thunder even clashing down outside, somehow. “You may as well bargain with rocks!”

I decided against mentioning that I’ve actually have called and bargained with quite a few nature spirits. Using actual if extra shiny rocks as payment a few times, even.

I traded another look with Carlos, but he just had the same: ‘Is she really talking about what I think?’ look as I had on.

Besides, why juggle dinky little hand grenades, when the suitcase nukes are just laying right there?

“And presumably this ‘real’ magic is drawn from... within? One’s inner energies tapped and shaped into what you consider the order things should be or happen in?” I started carefully. “While ‘chaos’ magic as you call it, manipulates and uses ambient energies? To force the way the user believes things should be?” A small trickle of intuition made me frown, and add: “Harmony magic being some supercharged mix of the two? Like somehow smacking hydrogen and antihydrogen together and using that power, instead of blowing yourself up?”

Luna froze mid cackle. Agatha’s head sliding down, while Luna’s slitted eyes bore into me like augers. “What are you playing at? What trick is this?”

“No trick.” I chuckled softly, a sound that apparently was for more horrible than any shouted threat from how Agatha’s fur rose a bit. “I’m about to tell you the worst thing you’ve heard in twenty-five years as a gesture of good faith, and it’s going to be nothing but cold, hard truth. How you react to such honesty is your business.”

Luna growled at me. Showing teeth that looked a bit too pointy for a pony, even by my new, somewhat batty standards.

“Magic —what we call magic I might add, is quite rare in humans. About one in a thousand have a minor talent, while magical ability on the level of a wizard —Somebody trained in the traditions and skills of the White Council— or a sorcerer —Somebody with the same power but not that training slash allegiance— is about one in a million.” I explained in a smooth lecture while pouring another glass of juice for myself. “The average person can barely sense magic, let alone use it.”

It was gone almost as fast as one of the flashes of lighting outside, but a look of pity darted over Agatha’s face. “So this is a world of donkeys and cows,” Luna said. “That is saddening to hear, but one does not need magic to lead a full life.”

I took a long sip, as I waved her off before answering. “And what if I told you I suspect that magic as we see it is even rarer among Equestrians?”

Luna drew in a deep breath presumably to laugh me in my face.

But Nemo starting to splutter on her own spit seemingly cut Luna off.

Carlos slapped her on the back, but that only made Nemo start giggling hysterically instead. In that hugging yourself (with arms and wings) while you ‘Go Mad from the Revelation’ kind of way.

Yeah, I mused while sipping my (not-quite) soft drink, I’d definitely need to have a long, long chat with Nemo after this about how much she actually knows. I didn’t think she was playing me, but the girl definitely knew more then she’d let on.

“...Go on,” Luna said with a frown. Pawing nervously at the floor, to the point she was nearly scraping that ‘Plan A’ of Nemo’s without noticing.

With a shrug, I did so. “Nobody quite knows why it happens, but those extra senses are key to moving beyond a minor talent. Otherwise it’s like learning to paint for a blind-man. A near titanic effort, yeah, but not totally impossible.” I tapped my own forehead with my free hoof. “Learning how to open those spiritual senses fully —the Sight as we call it, is one of the first and most important steps to becoming a wizard. It is also why I’ve been avoiding direct eye-contact with you. Neither one of us would like the result right now. ”

Slowly and quite reluctantly, it seemed my words were getting a certain princess curious, judging from how Agatha was now frowning. “I will admit to thinking the eye-contact thing a cultural preference, but fine.”

That made me raise an eyebrow, but I let it go. It did not feel normal to have somebody just take my word on the basics of magic at face value, but I wouldn’t look a gift pony in the mouth.

Might catch another glimpse of ‘Luna’s’ creepy mare of Diomedes style fangs that way. Eek. Now there’s a smile only a really masochistic boy-friend could ever love.

“Anyway,” I continued, “the downside to this method is that every person sees the world a bit differently. Thus every wizard magic is a bit different. His or her spells needing to be made from scratch, but thus also tailored to his or her skills.”

Luna’s eyes went wide, ‘her’ pupils going about as thin as paper-cuts.

“Sadly there’s another problem,” I went on, floating over the glass to the table, “a mortal mind can’t quite hold that type of power, so you need a layer of insulation. That’s why wizards’ seem to be calling terrible power with nonsense words to anybody actually familiar with the tongues. Because technically, we are.”

I lifted my right hoof, and started murmuring. “Ignus, ignus infuiarus!”

The lights flickered slightly, but to the credit of whatever mad-genius of an electrician Ramirez had hired didn’t go out, as a brilliantly glowing ball of flame started forming above my hoof.

Had to admit, it was with some satisfaction I heard both Luna and Nemo gasped as my little ball of sunshine took shape. Even Ramirez seemed slightly impressed.

Fire is a useful if tricky element to conjure, you see. You call up too little and it does nothing but splutter out. Call too much, and you get just as crispy as your target.

Fire doesn’t care who called it or why. It just burns.

There’s another side to it beyond destruction, of course. Just like earth can be both a grand invigorator and a smothering weight, fire is both a grand destroyer and a transmutative agent of change and rebirth. All the Elements are like that. Good, and ill, those are mortal concepts. Fire, Air, Earth, Water and Spirit? They just are, and it is the caster that decides what use they are put to, be it foul or fair.

And in the case of my little ball of sunshine? Being very pretty and grand looking, but utterly useless for combat. The ball of flames burned brilliantly brightly, yes, but its power cost and movement speed left much to be desired.

In other words, a perfect little show piece to demonstrate with since it wouldn’t matter if Luna figured out a counter.

“For me those words you just heard mean this,” I continued, waving a wing at the ball of fire. “The calling, binding, shaping and release of magic and fire into this one shape. Summed up and associate with —to me, two short words that would mean next to nothing of any actual speaker of Latin, but lets me do in moments what otherwise would take minutes if not outright hours.”

The light of the flames danced all over the walls. A harsh but not unpleasant golden-yellow light of a fire well and truly feed.

“T-T-This has to be a trick,” Luna stuttered out, walking Agatha’s body a bit closer. Eyes wide enough for the flames to dance in them as well. “Not even dragons have such control over flame.”

My little ball of sunshine nearly went out from shock, until I realized Luna wasn’t talking about dragon-dragons but those overgrown fire-lizards some people had turned into instead of ponies. Still a decently flattering comparison, but not the outright jaw-dropping one I’d first thought it.

I waved a hoof at the small stack of apples I’d been ignoring. “Throw one to Luna.”

Carlos seemed unamused at the request, but to his credit he did as I’d asked. Reaching over the table and lobbing a decently sized royal gala straight at Luna using his good arm, the curtain of water droplets not even wavering as he did so.

Agatha’s hoof snaked out and grabbed it in mid-air, moving with an almost lightning grace I hadn’t seen any pony before her move with.

At first, Luna held the apple at hoof’s length away, glaring at the thing as if it might explode at any moment.

“They’re called apples. Ap-p-les,” I snarked. “They’re quite tasty, so you might not have them in that goody-good utopia of yours. With all the unseasoned vegetables and plain tap-water, or whatever it is perfectly perfect prissy perfectionist pony-ponies partake in.”

I’d expected Luna to start glaring and gritting Agatha’s teeth at me again, but I just got a sad look. “You neither remember nor care anymore about fair Applejack, do you?”

I frowned a bit, until I remembered. “Ah, right, the apple farmer. With a hard liquor talent and name. In a land of a people that can’t get drunk.” I gave a slow shake. “And I thought Fluttershy was a cruel and shortsighted name. At least it doesn’t set the expectation of an impossible task.”

Luna let out a shuddering breath, and Agatha’s wings drooped almost to the floor. “You don’t care in the slightest do you? About us. About Equestria. Not even for Fluttershy.” With a grimace, Luna rather blatantly forced down a few tears. “We and all our efforts is nothing but an obstacle to overcome for you, and kindness is just the better blade.”

I didn’t move. Just sat there, and glared at her.

But for a few moments, my ball of fire flared and burned blue, as the temperature of the room jumped by quite a few degrees.

“I invited that Twilight girl to break bread with me.” I growled under my breath. “ Into my very home to share my fire. There are baby eating monsters in this world that wouldn’t dream of showing the kind of disrespect you and yours have shown me while playing the victims.”

Over us, the florescent lights started popping one by one. Lightning dancing over them, before exploding in showers of hot sparks and stinging glass until only a few stubborn ones remained. Casting the kitchen into twilight, my ball of sunshine the only real illumination.

Vaguely, as if from a distance I heard both Nemo and Carlos yelp, but it didn’t seem important. Not compared to the scowling idiot in front of me, my ball of flame, and the shadows I could feel boil and twist in the corners of the room.

“Don’t you fucking dare speak with me about kindness when my reward for greeting the alleged winged unicorn of Friendship with open arms was being called a fraud, having my friends attacked and a finding half an army on my doorstep!” I hissed out, for once in perfect agreement with my bat. “You or that Twilight girl wouldn’t know actual Kindness means, if you’d held it in your hoof!”

With a scowl the apple in ‘Luna’s’ hoof popped like a water balloon. I don’t think she even noticed.

I threw my head back and laughed. “Oh right, you did, and the thing hates your guts!” I pointed a hoof at her. “Because mighty Luna couldn’t stand her sister actually being the golden girl, and ruined everything last time around due to petty jealousy!” I finished, again at a hiss.

Luna reared back a bit, as if slapped.

“You know what? Fuck this,” I snarled. “I’m not sugar-coating it anymore, Blackie. Congratulations, you’re in a room with three chaos mages, and you’ve pissed all of them off.”

Luna despite being a shadow among many, quite clearly stopped breathing. “No…” she whimpered out.

“Have to hand it to that Disco idiot,” I continued. “Cherry picking a world with no tradition of ‘order’ magic, as you describe it?” I let out a low whistle. “Quite the long term gamble. Twenty-five plus years of long term, even.”

I let my spell and thus my ball of sunshine wink out. Leaving Luna and I two gleaming slitted pairs of ice in the gloom.

Behind her, nothing but flickering light and shadows.

Behind me the same, but also a frozen rain glittering in the dark, and the from within gently glowing mace I don’t even want to know where Nemo had been keeping.

“No,” Luna whimpered out, followed by a desperate shout. “NO! That can’t be true, it’s impossible!”

“Search your feelings!” I shouted in triumph, shaking my hoof at her. “You know it to be true!”

Oh, Harry…

The room went silent.

As if dusk was happening only in the small kitchen, stars started twinkling alight all around Luna. Circling and dancing all around Agatha’s head like a swarm of piranhas of light.

“You dare mock me?” Luna’s hate filled eyes glowed with a harsh, inner light. Like smooth pebbles under a harvest moon. “You know I only seek to aid my friends, and you mock me?!”

“You don’t want your friends back, Nightmare.” Nemo all but spat at her, brandishing her mace a bit higher. “You want Equestria’s best pawns back. I’m sure about it now.”

“What do you even know about champions, murderer?!” Luna spat right back. “I can smell the tattered loyalties, the jokes told at others expense, and the mountain of lies you’ve told! Even with my connection to the Elements as tattered as it is!”

I got up on my back-legs, tensing for the sucker-punch I’d have to try to get out of this.

“Yeah, guess what, you sheltered bastard, not many people believe you if you look four, and tell them you’ve just had the weirdest dream, and realized you’re actually an almost thirty-five year old pegasus mare with a rainbow mane!”

The whole room kinda slowly solidified into an impromptu statue garden. Everyone but Nemo kinda stuck thinking: Did I actually hear that right?

With a clatter Nemo chair fell backwards, and there was a rush of magic towards her.

Far more magic than any self-thought dabbler should have been able to call on, let alone put to use.

But that’s just what Nemo did. Wings flared to the point her tendons nearly creaked from it, she started stomping forward while sucking lighting out of the ruined lamp-fixtures. Wearing the darting wigs of thunder like some type of cloak, making her improvised clothes smolder and drift off her frame.

The cement floor cracked and smoldered slightly, as she stomped closer and closer to Luna. Eyes and face locked into that type of snarl you usually only see on rabid dogs.

“And it only gets worse as you get older, and should ‘know better!” Nemo snarled out, the quite literal flashes of angry thunder in her eyes reflected in Luna’s. “When you look six and don’t want to go to school for the first time again, you’re a silly boy!”

Luna tried throwing up a cyan glowing shield, but Nemo, her hoof moving so fast it blurred, just shattered the thing with a single punch. Making Luna back-pedal in a panic until she hit the (thankfully cold) stove.

“When you look seven and have gotten a rep for being the biggest hellion in school, it kinda starts gets a bit hard justifying those tears you keep seeing in your new mom and dad’s eyes!” Nemo stomped and shouted on. “Except when you decide to do the best of things with your hazy memories of filling out taxes and weather management, you're suddenly this wunderkind that first grade simply must have bored!”

“And you know the worst bit? Of basically falling to the dork side of the force?” Nemo snatched up the report on the floor, hurling it at Luna’s shocked face before her lightning aura could do more than singe it. “It felt good, because suddenly I was #1 boy in the entire class instead of the gangly filly nobody actually bothered to help. Then the school. The district. The region.” With a proud smile and eyes gleaming with pride, Nemo waved a hoof about an inch over her head. “I actually scraped at the top hundred students for a few years. Me, a freaking boy genius!”

Luna, tears streaming down ‘her’ cheeks, tried opening her mouth but no words would actually come out.

Nemo shuddered slightly, her eyes unfocusing for just a moment. “Almost made it feel as if I actually had my wings back, sometimes.” Nemo’s eyes snapped onto Luna’s again. “Except no. Discord grounded me for twenty-nine years.” I got pointed at with that glowing mace. “But unlike Harry over there, I actually knew exactly what I was fucking missing, because Discord apparently can’t even count right!”

Luna’s eyes darted down at where Nemo’s hoof was pointing, and even in the gloom I saw how she stopped breathing. Hell’s bells, I nearly did.

The report-draft wasn’t written in actual English, but that sweeping almost circling script I’d seen only half a day before. Row after row of neat, scanned Equestrian. The ink in the copied notes even visible faded a bit.

“And that wasn’t even the worst bit!” Nemo shouted, pointing the mace at the papers. “Four years! Four years beyond the damned dead-line, and nothing happened!” With a snarl, Nemo swept the mace through the air with a whistling sound. “I’d finally found that some resources on actual magic and made peace with that I ‘just,’” Nemo made air-quotes with her wing tips, “some magical talent with a really weird version of an imaginary friend! And that’s when I grew back my cutie marks, because Discord is a fucking dick!”

I didn’t even see Nemo move. One moment she was standing halfway across the kitchen, the next a vaguely rainbow colored blur had slammed Luna into the nearest wall.

“And guess what? When you suddenly start turning into what your parents long ago dismissed as a young boy’s fantasy that’s quite a shock. ” Nemo hissed into Luna’s face. The larger mare not even struggling. “Give your dad a heart-attack he still hasn’t recovered from level shock!”

I rushed forward before Nemo could actually raise that mace, and do something she’d deeply regret. I got my own arms around her barrel, getting almost as surprised a grunt from her at that as when my dragging actually started moving her.

It was like trying to pull a kicking, screaming and biting car with my teeth, but ever so slowly I got her further and further from Luna. Who had stunned just slid down along the wall.

“That isn’t actually Luna!” I shouted into her ear. “It’s still Agatha!”

To Nemo’s credit, she actually slacked instantly on hearing that. Collapsing into a crying heap in my arms. “And now you show up like this, and the fucking secret trials start up within the day?” A sob forced itself out of her, but Nemo didn’t stop glaring at Luna. “I waited twenty-six damned years, and you couldn’t even give me a week to get to know the new me?”

I got the air driven out of my lungs as Nemo ‘pointed’ at me with her wings a bit too hard, slamming both into my ribs. I kept my grip but it was close. Have to try remembering that trick.

“You know what Dresden did for me after knowing me for a few hours?” Nemo continued, still snarling and crying. “I told an off-color joke about bribing a pooka with nookie, and she took the time —While her home was under attack by you!— to tell me what a life ruining level of bad idea that was! I actually got a promise of the basics of magic for free! Most wizards around here are such bastards they won’t even tell you your shoes are untied without a flat fee and an appointment!”

I winced a bit. It wasn’t what I’d call a fair summation, but it wasn’t a wrong one either. I wasn’t exactly the only wizard living of their knowledge in magic, but I was near unique in actually having office hours and an ad in the yellow pages about it.

“You!” Nemo shrieked, trying to jump ‘Luna’ again, but I held her back. Aided a bit by the awkward angle she’d slumped down in. “You wouldn’t even skim a paper because it had the name Nemo on it! Celestia lied me in the fucking face to make me play ball! Cadance didn’t even try talking with us, but just distracted us long enough to sneak the Elements around our necks!”

With a loud crash, Nemo slammed her mace into the floor, sending stinging shards of concrete everywhere. I winced and held on.

“Twilight didn’t even come visit me! Twilight! After all we did together! After I helped her become a fucking goddess! After I died to Discord!” For a few moments, Nemo sank down in a blubbering heap again for a bit, but she was soon screaming and fighting again. “I’d even forgiven her for thinking up that damn Mare Do-Well stunt! And still stupid Rainbow isn’t even worthy of being stabbed from the front?!”

Nemo utterly lost it. Screaming, crying, gnashing her teeth, and fighting like a mare possessed, she kicked off the ground, and started literally clawing herself towards Luna with me on her back. Murder in her eyes, and totally forgetting that this wasn’t the Luna.

Luna who just sat there with unfocused, unblinking eyes filled with tears. So utterly devastated with this turn of events it was clear she wouldn’t even defend ‘herself’ while Agatha got beaten to a pulp.

Either not thinking about it due to being used to near invulnerability, or due to distraction from grief simply not thinking about it.

Oh, and just to add more doom and gloom Carlos was spinning up that ‘death rain’ spell of his, the droplets starting to take on a familiar green hue I’d seen before.

From Carlos disintegration rays he likes to sweep around in combat. A distinct sickly green light I got confirmation on the nature of when Carlos rose and a dozen or so droplets just hissed straight through the table, leaving these thin, nasty looking holes without even slowing down.

And judging from how hard his jaw was set, I doubted the take-down Carlos was planning for Nemo if she got any closer to his niece would be clean and painless.

Except I had this sinking suspicion that if anything would make Luna snap out of her fugue state —murderously so given how little she seemed to care for humans in the first place, it would be a warning shot clean through Nemo’s wing.

So in other words, I had to wrestle the next best thing to Supermare while covered in soap, because of course my luck is that good. And if I didn’t I’d either get a back full of the buck-shot from hell, or Darth Squeamish would go spare and force smear Carlos all over his own kitchen

Òh, and the only reason I could grapple Nemo at all during her faulty light-socket impression without frying like a sausage at a science fair was the stupid pegasus crap. I could actually feel the soap and vomit boiling, a rather uncomfortable ‘popping’ sensation that for now at least didn’t seem to be doing any damage.

Not that I would feel it with adrenaline coursing through me.

I swear, when I complained about not being taken seriously I didn’t mean it as challenge.

Author's Note:

First and foremost, gorgeous new cover by Tulip:

Who offered me a picture of my choice as thanks for the story so far.

Again, thank you so much!

Make sure to head over to Tulips DeviantArt for more awesome.


Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turn'd.
Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd.
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride.

Good on all of you that called Nemo clearly not telling the whole story.

I will admit I’m not quite certain how this will change the opinion on what so far has been the most popular character in the story, but Nemo’s big secret has been planned and foreshadowed from her first appearance.

Thirty odd years is a long, long, long time to think, and that should frankly leave a mark, but more about that in the coming chapters.


Partez, saleté! = Begone, Filth! in Google-translate French. Just to save you a trip either there or to the comments.

Again to future readers, next to no official material to my knowledge on Martha Liberty. At the time of writing her one and only appearance was in Summer Knight. A bit dark I won’t deny, but with every member on the senior council being over the century mark and her being African-American French seemed a natural fit for her language of power.

Again, won’t deny it’s dark, but given that time-period in American history and her lastname being Liberty I can only really picture one backstory for her. (IE, ex but freed slave.)

And, well, since another of the members is quite literally named Joseph Listens-To-Wind slash Injun Joe, I think that type of backstory fits quite well for her. Its faults and lumbering nature aside, I don’t think any charges of being racist or sexist can be laid in earnest at The Council’s feet. You have the power and the skill, and you’re a wizard. Nothing else.

Some thing with Gregory Cristos. At the time of writing this he’d only been (heavily) foreshadowed with no actual description beyond Ebenezer finding his usage of magic ‘unpleasant’ and that bit about thinking him an idiot.

Given how near obsessed with the sanctity of life Ebenezer is ‘The Great White Hunter’ seemed like a good fit for that ‘unpleasant magic use,’ and as a bonus it is one of those morally out-dated hero archetypes I’ve always found fascinating. Given the centuries long life-span of wizards the chance of exploring one even in passing was simply too great to pass on.


Speaking off, yes that was:

Arthur Langtry slash Button Mash, alicorn of Games.
Joseph Listens-To-Wind, Diamond Tiara, alicorn of Command.
Ebenezer McCoy, Ditzy ‘Derpy’ Do, the alicorn of Destruction. And yes, she still holds The Blackstaff. You may now feel a moment of existential dread.

I think that’s a good mix of out-of-the-left-field transformations, while still keeping a good mix of people still human.

And yeah, me going with the more impactful but work-intensive option of having the most long-running and well described characters end up ponies but keeping the ‘c-listers’ human was indeed what made this one update take so long.

Still think it was the right artistic choice, but man, did it add a lot of work.

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