• Published 4th Jan 2015
  • 9,521 Views, 1,060 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...

  • ...

08 — Gordian Not

I tried to scream at her to stop, but Nemo just thrashed and nearly took my head off with a swipe of her wing.

Quite a few people think that birds are delicate, nature’s little glass sculptures of the air that crumble if you as much as touch them too hard. There is some truth to this, but only when compared to mammals, one of the sturdiest base animal templates on the planet. In comparison birds are brittle, yes, but that’s like comparing ice-sculptures to brick-outhouses.

And that is of course not even counting that there are more to the group of avians than tiny balls of fluff that go ‘tweet.’ Something the size of, say, an ostrich can kick you to death if it feels threatened.

Size matters, trite but true. Sometimes you can bridge that gap with skills or quick-thinking, but if I arm-wrestled with Carlos now I’d probably outright break the dude. And I’m not talking about going up against that crippled arm of his, or while in my bat mode either.

Horses are impressive beasts. One of the few creatures with strength, speed, and endurance, while most others ‘focus’ on just one of those traits. Some weird twist of evolution adding brains and magic on top of that? Mother Nature likes her dice weighted.

And preferably with poisonous spikes that makes your arm turn black and fall off. Nemo was, of course, neither a bird nor a horse. She was a pegasus, one built like a Abrams tank and with a once-in-a-lifetime talent in kinetomancy.

Nemo’s wing gave off a whip-snap right by my face, trailing crackling lightning that sent ribbons of pain through my flesh, despite my natural insulation. I felt a cold little pit in my stomach, but some distant corner of my mind realized absently that if I had still been human, I might as well have tried wrestling a person-sized bug-zapper.

Clearly, I had to do something, and there wasn’t any time for half-measures.

Still this if anything seemed like a good time to take that risk. “Dormius, dormius dorme!” I murmured my sleep spell, my wing draped over Nemo’s head for just a moment lighting with white-blue flames that made the membrane tingle.

Soulfire. The power of creation, and all at the tiny, tiny price of burning bits of your soul away to empower one's magic. Use too much and only oblivion awaits, but it was scary potent stuff. Like nitro for my magic, it let me do things I’d never otherwise would have dreamed of as long as I dared risk the price.

(It—your soul I mean—apparently grows back. To be fair, hearing that surprised the, heh, hell out of me too.)

I’d never used soulfire with that spell before, but it apparently did the trick. Nemo collapsed like a bad pyramid scheme, a silly smile on her muzzle before she even hit the ground despite the wetness of her cheeks. Only when that mace of hers clattered to the floor did that lightning aura of hers fade. Yeesh. Scary, scary mare.

Luna, a mare I really didn’t care for dealing more with, blinked. “...What was that?” she asked in a tiny voice.

I didn’t get further than opening my mouth for snapping at her, when two steam pistons Carlos had carelessly left lying around in his kitchen turned my barrel into more of an envelope.

Or alternatively, a certain sky-blue wùnderkin of self alteration had just done the impossible again, and shrugged off a sleep spell that should have made a bull elephant on steroids do a Sleeping Beauty impression, before bucking me in my stomach so hard I hit the ceiling.

And not even the locale fitting Hollywood style hyperbole either. I smashed into the ceiling, saw stars that would have made Roger Rabbit ask me for lessons, and bounced back down again. Not sure about any Dresden shaped indents in the ceiling, but the air got driven out of my lungs, and I saw shards of concrete falling down with me.

Yeah… again, don’t want to admit it but without the pegasi thing? I think I’d have something far more troubling to worry about than my back and stomach feeling tender. ‘Pulverized’ or ‘splattered,’ perhaps, but not just stinging in the ‘that’s going to leave a bruise’ kind of way.

The worst bit? It felt good feeling pain properly again.

...You don’t mean that, Harry.

Don’t get me wrong, I hadn’t started eyeing the riding-crops or spurs at the pet-store I got most of my toiletries nowadays or anything like that, so perhaps ‘good’ was too strong a word. ‘Honest,’ perhaps? Like that warm fatigue in your muscles you get after a long day of work. It's not pleasant by itself, sure, but you know you’ve earned it, and that small discomfort now is going to help you sleep soundly later.

Guess it made sense in a way. Like the cold The Mantle draws its power from, you only realized how numb you’d really gone when you’re warm again.

Oh. OK, yeah, I guess can get that.

Carlos was still holding that ‘doom rain’ spell going, but had glanced up at me with a mix of awe and worry. Guess Agatha hadn’t given him much of a clue on what a beating it takes to make a pony stay down.

Speaking of, it seemed Nemo’s little bomb-shell of a revelation had rocked Luna to the core, and she’d lost control of her not-quite-champion. Agatha still looked like the winged unicorn’s long-lost pegasus daughter,—black, black, fangs, the ethereal star mane tail combo, bit more black just for variety's sake, tall and lanky—but the crimson had returned to her dazed eyes, and there wasn’t even a glimmer left of Luna’s moon in the cutie mark, leaving just Agatha’s own sprig of Bittersweet Nightshade.

A waking dream, perhaps? Like some freaky mix of sleepwalking and somepony else’s lucid dream? Gritting my teeth, I fought down the pain and forced myself to just spread my wings instead of outright flapping them. Hopefully giving me just a few moments to silently survey the scene. A certain prissy immortal yanking Agatha around like an overeager kid with one of those rigged claw-games at a fair? Would make sense with Luna’s ‘bow or I’ll go Freddy Krueger on your rump’ routine from earlier.

Might even explain just what was up with the mood-ring eyes, and why Luna didn’t seem to know about such a glaring tell. My guess from her ‘sworn to me’ comment was that Luna was used to obedient little robots. Chosen champions sworn to her—perhaps even in death like the Einherjer, and their Wills literally made part of hers.

And I had to admit, Agatha looked rather adorable in a ‘lost kid’ sort a way with that maniacal gleam gone from her eyes. You just wanted to hug her, squeeze her, and feed her the biggest, juiciest beetles you could find until the poor dear started feeling better.

...Although that last bit might have been Ding Bat trying to help again.

Nemo was quite clearly not feeling any such pity. Or, for that matter, anything aside from red-hot fury. I’d barely been in the air for a second or so, but she was already scrambling back towards Agatha, so lost to reason she was stumbling over her own limbs - not to mention failing to notice that the original owner was back in the driver's seat of the mare she was gunning for.

The most adorable little berserker ever wanted to play hardball because she wasn’t hugged enough as a foal? Fine, I’ll show her how we throw a curve-ball on my side of the tracks.

With a sound not unlike shaking off my duster, my leathery wings caught the air, and I zoomed downwards. Both hooves aimed straight at the back of Nemo’s head. Hopefully even with such a thick skull, I’d be able to knock her out that way.

Well, if not, at least it would be far quicker and gentler than anything the Equestrians’ would do in the name of ‘curing’ her.

Please don’t hurt her, Harry. I know you might not have a choice, but I think Dash has suffered enough.

At the last moment I realized I was listening to Ding Bat again, going for the quick but stupid way. I couldn’t stop myself in time —didn’t even try truth be told, but instead just barely spread my arms in time that my crash left two smaller craters beside Nemo’s head instead of one large where it used to be.


Slowly, with pupils the proverbial pin would have scraped against, Nemo’s right eye slid from the crater just by her face, and up towards me.

I gave her a smile that had as little warmth in it as it was overflowing with pointy teeth. “Why, hello to you, Ms. Kettle!”

Using my hoof and levitation in tandem, I yanked Nemo’s mace right out of her hoof and threw it clattering away under the kitchen table. Even with hooves Nemo had a strong grip, and who knows if I’d been able to beat it had she still had fingers and that booster spell of hers…

But a magical grip, versus my own magical grip and outright magic? Judging from how Nemo winced and immediately clutched at the hoof, it hadn’t been much of a contest.

“For somepony that’s so pissed because their old friends treat her as the same hot-blooded idiot you apparently used to be...” I snarled pulling the wide-eyed Nemo face-to-face, giving her the hardest wizard’s glare I could. “Well, you sure act like I’m the same glass-jawed, yellow-bellied patsy you used to know.”

The fire roared to life in Nemo’s eyes again as I called Fluttershy names.

“What? You traded your tongue for those acting lessons, or something, Rainbow?” I leaned in until I was outright nose to nose. Lowering my voice until it was a meek little whisper. “Don’t like being called a backstabbing, lying hypocrite by her face and voice?”

It wasn’t much of a stretch given how much about… well, Fluttershy I’d heard to guess what tone she normally employed. Heck, it was almost outright in her name how much of a doormat she’d been.

Baring her teeth and hissing, Nemo twisted and pulled her hoof back to give me a haymaker.

I flinched, bracing for the impact.

It never came.

When I’d reopened my eyes Nemo’s hoof was shaking, her eyes welling with tears. Her wings, formerly flared in challenge, deflating and dropping down faster than a snow sculpture in Death Valley.

By the time I hesitatingly lowered her to the floor, she was outright blubbering, sobbing out half-choked repetitions of “I’m sorry!” over and over again while curling into a little ball. Hugging herself while tears streamed down her face.

I winced from the pitiable sight. Using what I’d heard about Fluttershy had worked, all right.

A sigh tried to escape me, but I kept that one down for the sake of her pride. Dealing with and staying mad at Nemo Schwartz would be so, so much easier if the same two-faced, infuriating double-dealing killer that didn’t trust anypony anymore wasn’t also a pitiable bundle of simmering anger and broken trust that just wanted to be your bestest friend forever and ever.

I glanced over to Agatha, but Carlos was already at her side. The man was near lost in the embrace as his once-more niece had all but enveloped him in a four-limbed bear-hug, leaving little more than Carlos’ head uncovered by Agatha’s rustling wings as he gently hushed and stroked her.

Guess it says something rather bleak about me and my life, but for a moment I tensed, looking for the trap. To my relief I didn’t spot anything like that, though. She was shaking like she’d just come in from a blizzard in June, and there was this distant, haunted look in her crimson eyes, but for now at least Agatha seemed to be, if not back in the driver’s seat at least, once more in the car.

But seeming is easy. “Luna,” I growled, “leave that poor kid now. If you do, I'll actually humor that you marched right on in on the road of good intentions.”

Agatha’s ear twitched once. Just once. Could have been Luna, could have been just reflex and a fly. Impossible for me to tell without opening my Sight—and given what strain my mind was already under thanks to this mare crap? No way that would end well for me or my sanity.

Nothing else… except Luna, the stubborn, vile old bastard, having decided to ignore my ‘cunning trap’ of offering her one last chance, and instead focusing her all on ripping Agatha’s mind and soul a new one. The crimson of Agatha fighting valiantly but being overcome by Luna’s cyan, as if a field of roses were being consumed by an uncaring ice-storm. Not one flower spared

And I felt so stupid. Humiliated. Anger—no, outright hate even, for having bought such a pile of sweet smelling rubbish. Fear for poor Agatha, and what me daring to hope Luna was different from the other monsters I’d met might have cost her. All burning and churning in the pit of my barrel.

My lips twisted into a snarl, and I felt my empty stomach churning. Who cares if you’ve got a line directly to Friendship, can feel Love itself stir, or smell Honesty? The air-caste girl dared to have an opinion on real magic in front of the ivory-crowned unicorn overlards. Let us in our mercy and our grace ignore her mad ramblings, so that we don’t have to give her the customary telekinetic beating with the iron rods of adorableness.

Why waste miracles on the hired help when they won’t even bleed and die for you properly?

But most of all, I felt ashamed for being so stupid. A pretty face and prettier words, and I’d been falling over myself to find excuses why this horror from before they invented rocks was different. Just because Luna kept barking about ‘Friendship’ and ‘Harmony’ instead of ‘Kine’ and ‘Mortal,’ I’d bought it.

Hook. Line. Sucker.

The room went still as animal growl more in tune with a wolf’s throat than a pony's ripped out of me, my lips curling back from fangs I could feel growing. Nemo outright flinched back from me.

Just like Justine. Enough little glimpses of faked kindness that you write the cruelty off as though love until it’s too late.

Two things happened.

Something within that thought went ‘click,’ and the mass of anger, hate and guilt crystallized into something hot, rigid and warm in my core. The few last lights flickering out as magic flowed into me, overflowed into me. The power my body involuntarily drawing so thick and potent, that it was nearly visibly in the air. A rasp warm from the forge that dragged against my bones without bothering about the skin and muscle in between first.

(Kinda like one of those paraffin hand-warmers, just with more face-punching, girlyness and raging hatred.)

The room fell both silent and away, darkening further as if all the shadows in the house were cuing up for the show. My bones and tendons creaking as they lengthened, most of the other tissue keeping pace as I grew, but all scars pinching painfully until they too kept up. My left hoof especially feeling temporarily as it was in a glove three sizes too small.

“No…” Luna spluttered, ‘her’ eyes wide in shock. Carlos tightening his good arm around Agatha’s neck.. “No! Not now, not like this!”

I vaguely heard Nemo make a decent impression of a dormouse going: ‘Meep.’

Darkness settled on the room, as thick and cloying as six feet of dirt. A gloom almost alive, the oddly cool heat of its power prickling as it sank my pelt and mane. The latter and my tail bursting into pink flames rising out from my in a flaming cloud whose light only murked the dimness further..

All was silent. My heavy breathing flowing steam past my fangs the only sound. The ghostly pink flames of my mane reflecting in what was left of the kitchen casting this heckish light that illuminated, barely, enough to see by. Such as my muzzle twisted into, again, a snarl more fitting for a mother wolf than a pony, the fur now stained the color of old gold. The change in color and the light of my mane making me nearly seem drenched in fresh blood—an illusion compounded by the lumpy stickiness still dripping off me.

Screw the damned consequences. I was going to feed Luna her own throat if I so had to climb through whatever waking dream that had been forced on this poor girl.

And that’s when the second thing happened.

Agatha, (metaphorically this time) grew a pair, and ripped Luna a new one from the inside.

Physically, not much happened. Shock, a short gasp that reminded me of that one time I saw a heavyweight boxer take an uppercut in the junk, a brief but blinding flash from Agatha’s cutie mark, and the crimson rushing back and over the cyan in her eyes as fast as if some mad snow-plower had bought a flame tank out against an ice-storm.

Magically, though, it was like being slapped in the face with an enchanted two-by-four. This cresting wave of shock, anger, fear and terror that even I felt, mixed with enough power that it made my teeth ache even after my own metamorphosis. Luna’s ethereal scream fading on the air even before the now unconscious Agatha slumped down into her uncle’s arms.

The crimson autumn full moon now framing her sprig of bitter-sweet nightshade nearly making her cutie mark glow from within.

We all just sorta froze from the mood-whiplash temporarily. Nobody having expected such a sudden turn, or for that matter for Agatha herself to settle things that decisively.

Then she whimpered. Once. Agatha steadying herself, pulling her uncle into a bone crushing hug while crying. Breaking the proverbial spell before Carlos could even start hurryingly hush comforts at her.

The sudden twist of fortune and how it seemed that Agatha would be OK had broken the back on my fury, but I still had to cover my face with my hooves and snarl backwards from ten a few times before I got my breathing under control enough to count backwards from ten instead.

I made decent headway, but it was a tiny whimper from Nemo’s direction that washed the embers away in a flood of guilt. Stars and stones, if I’m this pissed at Candyland’s false-flag operation, then how badly is it going to effect the girl with the ‘memories’ of all those ‘happy times?’

I winced, feeling guilty. Hell’s bells, I’ve done the seeing somebody I care about turning into a monster thing. It sucks diseased donkey dick, and here I was feeling sorry for myself instead of helping Nemo.

Nemo was stiff enough when I scooped her up, that with a dozen spoons, a roll of tape and a heaping helping of bad taste I could have made a xylophone of the now smaller mare, but ever so slowly she relaxed.

“Shhhh,” I hushed. “Don’t think about Blackie right now. Just focus on calming down.”

Nemo was oddly still and quiet for a long time. “You don’t trust me,” she finally said, her voice flat, hard and hot.

I’m honest enough with myself to admit I had to think it over for a moment, but I ended up shaking my head.

“I’ve been lied to by a lot of pretty and vaguely girl shaped creatures that drop their pants at the slightest provocation, Nemo.” I said, continuing to slowly stroke her mane. “Hate to admit it, but: ‘because I used to be the chosen one’—and not even a wizard will believe that one—and: ‘because my tail gets in the way’ is actually somewhat refreshingly innocent and down-to-earth compared to what I’m used to.”

Having blown her mother-load of righteous fury Nemo didn’t seem to have enough mental energy left for such complicated things as focusing on me, listening, and talking, but the kid did her best.

I just continued stroking her back, trying to pretend I wasn't noticing how slimy the hug was.

Took a while, but Nemo finally blinked. “...You think I’m under a mind-control spell, and going cray-cray from being forced to stay ‘in-character.”

“Nope,” I answered right back, “hadn’t even really crossed my mind. You know the one thing every single creep in Luna’s weight-class I’ve met has had in common; be they cackling mustache twirlers or well-intended throat-slitters?”

Nemo frowned, and thought it over for a few moments. “...No?”

“They have broom-handles stuck so far up their asses,” I answered, making Nemo splutter, “it’s a dark miracle they need servants to lick their floors clean.”

Carlos raised an eyebrow at me over Agatha’s shoulder.

“People in that weight-class without something to prove, without that ginormous red-wood right up their posterior?” I frowned, wracking my brain for a positive example of world-shaking power I could actually tell Nemo about. “There’s this one dude in Ukraine, for example. Semi-immortal shapeshifting guru. If you have to ask for his price-list, you can’t afford it.”

Nemo frowned into my shoulder again. Thinking.

“Guy could easily go Godzilla on Kiev without breaking a sweat if he wanted to. But he doesn’t, because he’s actually content with the respect and power he’s got.” I couldn’t quite stop a chuckle. “Only thing menaced in his turf as far as I’ve heard is the local fair maidens, if you know what I mean.”

Nemo’s cheeks lit red. Blue as a clear sky one moment, red as the proverbial tomato the next without the tiniest bit of purple. The fur itself somehow changing like Hollywood thinks chameleons work.

I didn’t stop stroking, but I made a mental note about that. If those butt emblems and pony fur could be every shade of… well, the rainbow, maybe I could mix up something alchemical to give myself slightly less ‘Disney Princess’ style colors.

Something more dignified.

I’ve seen your wardrobe, Harry. You’re a good b- girl and have many other wonderful gifts, but you couldn’t color match snow with hail if it started raining vanilla ice-cream in Antarctica.

Darth Vader black, and lightsaber red! I mean, if Twilight managed that living neon thing, how hard could it be?

...You know, Harry? I’d almost want to see you do that. Just to see anypony with actual taste collapse frothing at the mouth at fifty paces.

“Anyway,” I continued, realizing my mind had drifted again, “‘just’ being something as cuddly as Princess Buttercup of Candyland isn’t enough for those creeps. If they went through enough trouble to brainwash entire percentages of the world population, they would have been the God-Empresses of Eternity—bow before their pastel maws or be consumed—by now.”

Nemo shuddered once again.

“Besides,” I added,”mind-control doesn’t work like that. You’d have to ‘program’ every little character tick and preference, and I’ve seen people go permanently crazy from as little as: ‘stop doing drugs.’ That sort of massive list of ‘do's and dont’s’ would have had every-’pony’ drooling vegetables within a week. ”

I hesitated, looking closely at my hoof.

Still, ultimately I shrugged it off, and continued to slowly stroke Nemo’s head.

“Anybody subtle and good enough at loopholes to tear mind-magic and transmutation a new one? I would have just walked out that door with Twilight, you with Celestia, and it would have seemed like the most natural thing in the world to go follow our ‘destinies.’”

Nemo shuddered again. Harder this time.

A thought struck me, and I let out a hum. “...Although I did disenchant the freaky magical emblem on my butt within a few hours or so of finding it. That could be it.”

Please don’t remind me, Harry.

I disentangled myself from Nemo, and brushed the worst of the sludge off. “Let’s go. We’re heading out in five. All of us.”

Nemo blinked, clearly stunned by the quick turns. “Where?”

I just craned my neck around, and gave Agatha a meaningful look before beckoning her uncle over.

It made Carlos grimace as he pulled free from her, but he got the hint. He stopped to give Nemo a brief warning glare before following me out of the half ruined kitchen.

We walked in silence, neither of us saying a word until I was in the shower. Running the water at full blast both to obscure us speaking, and hopefully get the gunk off me quick enough.

Even so, I got blindsided by Carlos first question. “You sure ‘Nemo’s’ the only one that remembers things, Hoss?”

I paused mid scrub. (Modesty not seeming like a priority since I’m fairly sure no sane man is into tiny pastel mares covered in soap and vomit, and Carlos had seen everything already.)


Carlos rolled his eyes at the depth and width of my wit. “Don’t ‘what’ me, Harry. Answer the question.”

I just slowly blinked at him. Completely baffled. “Dude… You think I’ve kept a secret like that for years and years? Me?” I put my hoof to my barrel.I’m supposed to have resisted making cracks about the girliest eighties franchise this side of Care Bears and The Popplers for thirty plus years?

Carlos hesitated, before frowning deeply at me while crossing his arms.

“Besides,” I added, using a brush a bit harder than was strictly comfortable or good for my fur just to get all the crud out as soon as possible, “what even made you think that?”

“Because you’ve got a once in a generation talent for air magic you’ve neglected for years, almost like you’re hiding something.” Carlos started up without a moment's hesitation. Even counting on his freaking fingers. “You consider keeping your magic a secret stupid to the point that you’re in the yellow pages under ‘wizard.’ Again. Something that has a lot more in common with Equestrian values on magic than the local ones…”

I tensed, the normalcy of the wet porcelain and heavy hardwood brush in my hoof suddenly feeling a whole lot more important.

Carlos just rolled his eyes at me again. “Oh, and you somehow ‘missed’ the media meltdown on people turning into fictional characters from a cartoon. For half a year, while one of the main characters yourself.

I... couldn’t quite somehow find a counter to smelling a rat in all that.

“Your interest in flight, Hoss. Oh, and speaking of: Your old master that also ended up a pegasus had taken near all of us aside and politely asked that: ‘if that stubborn fool boy smears himself into a hospital-bed…’”

I lifted a hoof, cutting him off. “I… get the hint, ‘Los.”

Carlos folded his arms again and leaned against the sink, giving the impression that he wouldn’t move until he’d gotten an answer even if the room imploded.

“Look,” I said, starting up my scrubbing again since the clock was ticking, “I was bedridden for half of November, and rushing to get my crap together to fight back against whatever pony-obsessed freak did this for the other half. I’ve been alternating between putting out fires from so many new practitioners, getting my life together, and waiting for the other horseshoe to drop since then...”

Carlos frowned, but said nothing.

“And then nothing whatsoever happened. No cuddly death-cults. No sudden equine world-religion popping into existence. Zilch and nada…” I did a grimace. “Just a lot of kids with no clue what the dangers of magic are, but foci glued to them twenty-four-seven.”

“Until Twilight popped up, and expected you to follow her down the rabbit hole without any questions asked?”

I spread my wings in a shrug, water spraying and dripping over them in a not entirely unpleasant (if utterly inhuman) sensation.

Carlos gave me a Look.

“Hey, I gave the kid a free one-on-one on in the local dangers of magic, listened to her blabbering on and on for forty-five damned minutes, cleaned up after she pissed herself on hearing what Names can do…”

And I even invited the creep to my home and table. I found Luna at the latter and a fucking army at the former.” I pointed a wet hoof at him. “And when I fucked off to not have to punch what might be innocent ponies or brainwashed victims in the face…”

I gave the wall towards the kitchen a nod. Carlos’ face hardening as he got my hint.

“Well, your niece can tell how well Luna allowed that to work.”

Snarling, Carlos’ jabbed a finger my way. “Watch it.”

Fighting down a growl, I held my head high. “‘Los, I admit those are some scary accurate observations, but I swear I don’t remember anything of this ‘Fluttershy’—if she even ever existed. I’ll even swear it on my power if that’s what it takes.”

Carlos hesitated, leaning back again. Not entirely mollified, but mostly so

“A pretty girl walked into my office, and when I wasn’t taken in immediately with a few flashes of tail and power she tried to make my life a living hell. That’s about it. ” I gave another splashy shrug. “For all I actually know right now, that news report might have been another trick to make us play Harmony ball. Even immortals may take acting lessons, after all.”

Carlos hesitated, eyeing me evenly. “Harry, even wizards can go too far in being properly paranoid.”

I waved him off, nearly splashing him. “So the pegasi hole fit the wizard peg, and it was just utter coincidence they got some-’pony’ with prior magic with whatever bullshit magic they used instead of the Joe Average they planned for. Even the bad guys get unlucky sometimes, and it's not like I’ve gotten the slightest proof for what they’re claiming.”

...No. I don’t believe it. Something’s clearly happened to the girls, but they’d never, ever do something like that.

I grimaced, and lowered my voice a bit. “Even ‘Rainbow Dash’ could just be a bug in the programming of a slow-burn mind-whammy that didn’t work quite as planned. For her it flared up years ago and burned itself out without a script to follow, while mine got fried the moment I learned magic.” I shrugged again. “Would fit the whole idea of a magical-but-pony-obsessed genius savant without formal training. Even the resemblance to the show you’re talking about could be through foresight—or outright planned and planted to reinforce the mind whammy.”

Carlos looked uncertain about the idea, but not enough to actually offer any protests.

I turned the water off and, foregoing my match-book’s worth of modesty and dignity I had left, started shaking myself off like a dog. Not actually clean-clean, but at least I wouldn’t be smelling like a hobo who had gotten drunk in an abandoned stable.

Carlos tilted his head, seemingly thinking over something. “Think that’s about four minutes…” He gave my pile of clothes a half-amused look. “One minute with hooves sounds… less than dignified. Want me to step out?”

I let out a snort, lifting my hoof and pretending I still had fingers. “I am a wizard, you know.” I snarked, snapping that freaky magical grip of mine. “Of course I’m going to cheat.”

My pile of clothes lit with an amaranth aura, zipping over to me A small but swirling school of socks and underwear jumping me, while my pants, shirt and duster circled me like some sort of cloth sharks waiting their turn.

Not what I’d call dignified jumping from leg to leg like that, but it got me from buck-nude to fully dressed in about four seconds flat. I’d like to see any ‘pegasi with pegasi magic’ match that.

Although I’m sure Special Snowflake would deride me for stealing the secret of buttoning without using your mouth from my pointy-headed ‘betters.’ Don’t want the mouth breathing, flying slabs of muscle to get ideas above their station after all...

That’s… That’s not what Equestria is like at all, Harry.

Carlos frowned while I fidgeted with my collar. “With all due respect, Harry… Why do you actually bother with that bra when you have teats?”

I felt my cheeks heat. “Because running for your life from monsters sucks badly enough without jogger’s nipple in the mix?”

I don’t think Carlos would have dropped the subject faster if my reply had been etched into a white-hot skillet covered in razor-wire and rather distressed rattlesnakes.

“Anyway, “ I said, jumping right on that bandwagon, “let’s take your niece to Edinburgh. If she isn’t safe behind those wards, she isn’t safe anywhere. The kid and I can do some recon and figure out what’s next while we’re there.”

Carlos didn’t like it, but he grunted and nodded at me, scowling up a storm.

A thought seemed to strike him, though. “Speaking of ‘the kid…’”

I let out an unhappy grunt. Not liking it, but getting the unsaid question. “Not to sound cynical even by my standards, but she’s clearly so starved for the tiniest bit of genuine affection she’d clean the teeth of a grinning dragon holding salt and pepper shakers.

Carlos scowled down at me.

I rolled my eyes at him. “I have a good feeling about the kid, but I do mean the starved bit.

Carlos blinked. Frowning.

“As in, ‘she’d throw herself in a bonfire for the slightest bit of warmth’ starved. Dangerously starved,” I said firmly. Crossing my hooves over my barrel. “I think the fairest and safest thing to do is for me and her to disappear for a bit.”

Carlos frowned, and did a ‘go on’ gesture.

“We both know it, we just haven’t said it out-loud yet: Mr. Disco is a dead dragon-pony levitating. He’s simply pissed on way too many feet to live now, even before he went kaiju on the city of angels.” I did a grimace. “If Mab playing cute in person isn’t enough one way or the other, then every Nelly Not-So-Average is going to be howling for his blood in a very human manner soon.”

The frown deepened into an outright scowl. “So, what’s the problem?”

I grimaced. “When was the last time you met a big-wig supernatural that can stand losing face?”

Carlos blinked, letting out a hum while putting his hand on his shin. “...True. Troublesome.”

“Exactly,” I nodded. “Either the Equestrian newcomers have all been curb-stomped and are going to be saltier than a whole Lay’s factory that just fell into the sea with their entire lineup of heavy-weights just brushed aside, or some alien demi-gods are about to pull out their AAA-game to make sure ‘destiny~’ proceeds as planned. The locals cooperating—or not—with their lives being unmade for the sake of their convenience be damned.”

Carlos didn’t say anything. How his eyes hardened and flickered towards Agatha’s direction said plenty all on its own.

“But this time, it’s not some random amount of virgins off the streets. Or some ancient thingamajig needed to prime the doohickey for the arrival of the whatsit” I thumped my barrel. “This time, somebody was stupid enough to turn me directly into the damn McGuffin.”

“You watch way too many movies, Harry. They’re rotting your brain.”

I snorted and waved him off. “My point being, me simply saying ‘no’ was clearly off-script. Grabbing some random slobs off the street and redubbing them ‘Spectral Rush’ and ‘Thoroughfare-awkward’ is clearly either the last option, or not an option at all.”

“’Thoroughfare-awkward’?” Carlos droned, giving me a Look with one eyebrow raised.

I have to admit, Harry, that one needs… work.

“‘Trek-Timid,’ ‘Loiter-Loser,’ or ‘Stumble-Klutz’ then,” I snarled, making Carlos twitch back. “Hell’s bells, how should I know a naming scheme where calling somebody Flutter-shy for all eternity is A-OK?”


Carlos seemed taken back. I took that as a sign I needed to lean back and take a couple of deep breaths.

“Sorry, “ I forced out, rubbing my temples with both hooves. “I’m just… extremely frustrated with being the ‘bad guy’ for not wanting to lay down and think of Candyland.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the tiny room.

Carlos thought it over for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said, rubbing at his face with one hand. “Sorry for doubting you, Harry. It’s been a long morning.”

I gave a grunt, and moved to the door. “De nada. If the horseshoes were on the other hoof, I’d have some doubt too after all this pony crap.”

And it was with that inspired choice of words that I opened the door in Nemo’s tear-stained face, the weeping mare hugging herself, and having bit her lip hard enough to draw blood to keep quiet.

Oh ponyfeathers…

Well, at least I wouldn’t need to repeat myself.

The silence stretched out as Nemo and I sat and stood there, respectfully. I half expected a slap in the face with a contrail, but it never came. The girl just stared me down, silently demanding an explanation.


I got a hum of acknowledgement from behind me.

“Could you go get the first-aid kit while Nemo and I load Agatha into the car? She bit her lip, and I think I’m about to lose a couple of teeth from unfortunate muscle-spasms.”

As my answer, Carlos grunted, clattered around in one of the shelves, and dumped a green plastic case at my hooves. Walking off without a word.

I blinked, ignored feeling stupid, and got to work. “Panic room that flushes, right…”

Nemo barely moved as I fidgeted around with the disinfectant, scissors and bandages, but her shoulders relaxed from ‘asphalt’ to ‘old oak’ at least.

“So, Kid…”

“I’m twice your damn age,” Nemo snapped at me. Almost making me jab her in the eye with the cotton-ball full of disinfectant.

“Think you forgot to carry the ten on general cynicism and times I’ve been lied to my face…” I rubbed the ball in a bit harder than strictly necessary, making Nemo yelp. “You know, if we’re talking mental age, Kid.”

Nemo winced, and I don’t think the iodine was the only reason.

I hesitated, but it all came back to not being given any trust with Nemo, didn’t it? “My mom died in childbirth. Dad did his best, but he was a small-time, traveling illusionist. Good man, but he had an aneurysm when I was six.”

Nemo blinked, her eyes filling with pity… and, about two seconds later, deep, deep suspicion.

“I’ll spare the sob-story,” I said, jingling my pentacle, “but you’re looking at the only legacy I’ve got left. Everything else I fought for tooth and nail, bled and bargained for myself.”

Nemo hesitated.

I took a deep breath, and made a small show of setting the bit of bloody cotton on fire with an effort of will. “So… Yeah. My entire life not mattering because Princess Special Snowflake is destined~ to have five ponies as her hoof-maidens? Fuck that. With an angle grinder.” Fueled by my irritation the cotton very briefly burned white. “Sorry if that comes across a bit too hard.”

Nemo winced. Not taking her eyes off the soot stain.

“What was your first spell?” I asked, blowing the ash off my hipposandal.

Nemo blinked. “Err… Human or pony?”

I gave a shrug, and started cutting out what hopefully wouldn’t be that obnoxious a bandage.

“Well, pegasi don’t quite work like that normally. I… guess the sonic rainboom?”

“Spells don’t need vocal invocations to count; they’re a safety. Technically, you can do even the hardest spells with nothing but Will,” I droned half on autopilot. “Which makes the pointy-head master-race crap even more suspect, but go on.”

Nemo winced before pushing on. “Yeah, the rainboom then, unless you count just flying. It’s how I got my cutie mark.”

I nodded absently. Not really getting the point of the butt emblems—or caring to be honest, but getting that it was important to Nemo for some reason why she earned her ass tattoo.

This tiny shred of hope lit up in Nemo’s eyes. “...Do you want to hear how Fluttershy earned hers, Harry?”

A stab of pain nearly made me drop the bandages. “No, not really,” I grumbled, rubbing at my temples while getting back to work on the bandage.

Nemo gave me this look that was equal mix heartbroken and subtly fascinated. “You barely realize what you’re doing, don’t you?”


Nemo poked the scissors I was still levitating, pushing them back a tiny bit in the air.

“Oh, that,” I said, gently levitating the bandage in place, “have to admit, I’m getting used to it. It’s a really useful little cantrip. Sure beats using your mouth for anything that needs precision...”

Or popping a ghoul’s head off from its shoulders from a twenty feet away like a cork from champagne. Although quite impressive flexibility for one spell, somehow, mentioning that bit to the mare whose lip I was gently applying adhesive too seemed a bad call so I picked a much cheerier topic.

“There was this long-jump contest it seemed very important to a young boy to win,” I said, smiling softly despite myself. “Wasn’t going to make it, but I wished really, really hard, and whoosh. Think I still have the school record, even.”

Nemo got this really odd, blank look. “Shoo…” She slurred, not used to the bandage. “...The wind carried you?”

I froze, the tiny flash of good mood gone like my staff.

A small whimper from Nemo made me glare at the wall instead. Or Glare, more like, from how the concrete started to smoulder a bit.

“Nemo,” I forced out in a voice that could have gelded at fifty paces, “although I can sympathize, now is not a good time to fish around in my head for signs of your long lost foal-hood friend.”

Nemo answered with an awkward laugh that wouldn’t have fooled a zombie Martian.

Anyway,” I growled, “a couple of weeks after that I got adopted by a warlock.”

Nemo froze.

“I’ll spare an Equestrian’s sensitive ears the yucky details, but by the time I learned there were actually other magic users in the world,” I snarled, “I was standing in the ashes of the only home I’d known for years. My first introduction to The White Council was getting grabbed and thrown in a cell for three days with a bag over my head.”

Nemo went from frozen to outright statuesque as she stopped breathing.

I vaguely heard something shift down the hall. I pretended not to notice.

“But I was given the mercy of The Doom of Damocles. I worked, I bled, and I worked until I bled even more... and had The Doom lifted. Because no matter how much shit I’ve been given over that—still happens, even—I believe that magic is a force for good and that on the whole, the White Council does good work for good reasons. I did one bad, horrible, monstrous thing because I was not told better by a monster, and it still nearly got me killed and damned “

Nemo whimpered. “...Why?”

“Because they are right. It is a stain I will carry on my soul forever. And no matter how much easier it becomes to ignore that tiny voice in the back of my head, sometimes it still gives suggestions.”

The proverbial pin would have echoed.

“’Suggestions?’” Nemo whispered. In the same tone a bomb-diffuser would say: ‘The swimming pool is filled with how much astrolite?’

“Power, mostly,” I admitted, suppressing a shudder. “Whenever something dangles, say, one sixth of all magic in my face and tells me it could be mine for a tiny, tiny price…”

Nemo went ashen.

“Well, then there’s a tiny, nasty, stained part of me that can’t help but wonder.” I hold up my hoof. “Just how much good could that ring do on my finger? Surely I am wise and powerful enough to master it?”

Silence stretched out like a poorly measured noose.

“And at about that point, I usually stomp down hard on that little voice.” I continued. “Force myself to think of all the people I’ve seen destroyed by dark forces they thought they were the masters of. How much vileness, pain, and suffering actually came from those shortcuts. How little there is left once the rider becomes the ride.”


I gave Nemo a grim nod. “Usually. But I’m only human.” My eyes flickered to the kitchen. “And the things I’ve had to fight so seldom are.”

I could almost look inside Nemo’s head without magic in that moment. Memories of ‘the good old times…’ only for this subtle horror to bloom as she reached the end of what that power had actually cost and brought her.

“So, yes, I am all for giving the dork god of pettiness, who has used his power for nothing but tormenting and harming innocents, enough rope to go hang himself while Mommy Wide-Load’s greasy wing can’t shield him for once,” I continued quietly. “If that’s by sipping drinks on a beach somewhere instead of wading through blood, shit, and fire, I’m all for it.”

I put a hoof gently on Nemo’s shoulder, closing the first-aid kit with the other. “You’re a good kid, Nemo, but you’ve got an air-raid siren strapped to your back right now. To anybody in the magic business it’s screaming: ‘Come quick! The fresh meat hungers for a master!’”

Nemo was clearly stunned, but she still frowned at me.

“And, theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that.” I reluctantly added. “But there’s a hell of a lot more assholes than saints out there. Always have been, always will be. ‘Seven times down, eight times up.’”

Nemo’s jaw dropped off. “You’ve read Hagakure? You?

Usagi Yojimbo, actually, but same difference.”

No doubt blindsided by such squirrelly wisdom only available to a wizard with a card to the Chicago Public Library, Nemo face-palmed with both hooves.

“So, how’s your first string as a ronin treating you… Kid?”

Nemo froze under my hoof again. So I cheerfully patted her a couple of times.

“You’ve got talent, Kid. The White-ish Bitch, Special Snowflake, or Conformity won’t be the first to try to squeeze every drop of it out for her own bullshit.” I gave her neck one last pat before rising. “Just make sure you hitch your wagon to actual stars instead of black holes like ‘em, and you’ll be fine.”

“You being a ‘star’ then?” Nemo’s suspicious voice came drifting after me. “Since only ‘a jolly good chap on the up-and-up’ would tell me that?”

I just barked out a laugh. “See? You’re learning already!”

Maybe magic eyes are a pegasi thing, because Nemo’s shot me a stinkeye I swear made my entire aura wobble. If only for a moment, but still.

I smiled sadly over my back. “Is it really less scary that the baby-face ‘half your age’ is giving you the: ‘Oh, if I only knew this when I was a youngster, before the world bent me over a banister!’ schtick and means it?”

The facade of untouchable hardass crumbled, and behind me, for just a moment, there was a girl that lost everything and was trying to kill me with her mind alone for making light of it. Then just like that, almost fast enough I could have imagined it it was gone. Replaced with a mask of detached annoyance.

Frowning, I slowly turned around.

“...Wasn’t quite fast enough, huh?” Nemo muttered, not even pretending I hadn’t caught her.

“Well, whoever or whatever you paid for those acting lessons deserved a zero more.”

Nemo snorted at me. Hot enough that it misted in the air.

Now, I’m not the sharpest spoon in the quiver, but I like to think that I get there eventually. And now? I was adding one and one and getting two. “You said you’d tried to contact me.”

Nemo frowned.

“I’m not even the first triple digit on the list of occult ‘experts’ Loyalty contacted to try to get home, huh?”

Nemo twitched, and I’d clearly touched a nerve.

“Except… There’s a whole lot more frauds, crooks, and crackpots out there than genuine freaks that actually advertise. Even now.”

Nemo fidgeted, but her face hardened. “Aren’t you clever.”

Translation: ‘Sure, you just ‘figured that out.’ I’ll buy that for a dollar… of Monopoly money.’

“And a bonafide wizard in the phonebook was just too good to be true, huh? Especially once somepony twice bitten went and dug, and found…” I waved a hoof at my face. “Well, a very special but rather suspect pegasus, huh? A twisted mirror of Kindness level special.”

Nemo shuddered and hugged herself, and for a blink I actually bought that she was chronologically about sixty-eighty something. I repressed a sigh. What a gosh darned mess, and that was putting it mildly in way, way more than just the cusses. No wonder Nemo had been acting like a lost kitten. All the more juicy for some sort of twisted sadist that actually deserved the moniker: ‘Cruelty.’

“Except I kept actually risking stuff for you. Showing my sanctum. Turning my back in Equestria. Giving you some genuine one-on-one stuff instead of the ‘I sense great potential in you, young one… if only your credit card you give me’ crap.”

Nemo twitched again, making me wonder how many times she’d gotten that dance.

An unpleasant thought struck me as I turned around towards her, but one I couldn’t quite silence. “You know? There’s about two things I’ve actually heard about my mom.”

Nemo blinked.

“That she was in one hell of a downward spiral—as in demons have literally told me they almost got her—and then she met dad.” Didn’t feel right even thinking it, but… again, the horse-shoe just fit a bit too good. “True love at first sight, believe it or not…”

I couldn’t read Nemo’s expression. At all. It was trying to judge the mood of a rock.

I couldn’t help but chuckle dryly. “You’d think a god of chaos could figure out cause and effect to the point he’d get where babies come from.”

Nemo did a little gurgling sounds I honestly couldn’t tell was good or bad.

I frowned. “But he’s never had that, has he? He’s a big, dumb hedonist that’s never had to do more than snap his claws for the next fix.” I snapped my own hoof. “Like those rats with electrodes in their pleasure-centers that keep pushing the red button until they die… except he so utterly blew the curve on the power-lottery that he’s immortal as well.”

“You pity him,” Nemo choked out.

I shrugged. “I’ve pitied a lot of things I’ve had to fight over the years. Then made it quick, if possible.”

Nemo froze. Her shocked expression telling me that she’d expected and dreaded a lot of things, but not apathy.

“I’ve also seen people change, or fight with their alls to stay human. Good men and women dead before their time because evil ones were faster.” I snapped at her. “The overgrown titan-child of sand-castle kicking thinks he’s big-leagues enough to pull one over on the Queen of Air and Darkness?”

Nemo hesitated on hearing the title.

“I pity people that play chicken with freight trains, Nemo, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get indebted for life—again—to get them out of the hospital bills they damn well earned with that level of bottomless stupidity.” I folded my arms and shrugged again. “That’s too cold for ‘Sailor Kindness?’ Well, I’m sorry, but I’m from the real world, used to the limits of real magic, and must have left my Mars Wand of Undeserved Consequence Removal in my other pants.”

“No,” Nemo snarled, “you left it on your haunted island of doom, in the ‘hands’ of your pet forest demon.”

“Genius loci,” I tartly corrected. “Spirit, not demon.”

Nemo flipped me a rather ironically feathered bird.

“And you have just as much proof those things weren’t eating us as I’ll actually admit I’ve got of them not being the genuine McCoy.” Nemo wilted as I growled on. “Except if I’m wrong, one evil bastard gets what he deserves and your friends get a slap on the fetlock. A couple of weeks or even years in a box is nothing to an immortal.”

Nemo hesitated.

I made my voice as kind as possible, ironically enough, before continuing. “...But I have to assume I’m right. Too many lives are at stake if that ‘magical root access’ thing you told me about happens for the wrong reasons.”

Nemo twitched, her face ashen again, as she wilted into a little pony puddle on the floor.

For a moment I was puzzled. Why bring that up, come to think about it, if…?


“...It’s too far, isn’t it? Thinking of them, you, as nothing but some bastard’s tools.”

Nemo’s ears twitched.

“Them being misguided is tragic, but fine. Same thing if something warped them. Or if they're just that stupid from being desperate.”

Nemo growled at me, like a hurt... . well, hound, I guess.

“But they’re still your friends,” I softly sighed.

Nemo froze again.

“Thirty odd years, and a lot of pain and insult when they finally showed,” I murmured. “You’re probably never going to call them ‘liege’ again. Give them shit until they breathe the stuff. The next thirty Christmases they’re getting itchy sweaters and little notes that say: You suck.”

I got glowered at.

“But they’re still your friends,” I finished at a whisper.

Nemo hesitated. Her shoulders sat hard, but she forced a more neutral expression. “...I don’t know how stuff like that works around here, Harry,” she said through gritted teeth, “but I didn’t get to bear Loyalty because I filled out a coupon while I was doing the contract in blood anyway.”

Humbled, I bowed my head. Deep in thought.

You were a decent enough person, and that gave you power? Not PC ‘everybody gets a medal!’ power either, but honest to goodness, your teeth aching from just looking at it levels power? For free? Right making might, and that being the way things should be?

I… honestly couldn’t even imagine it working like that, and that scared me.

No. You did right, because it was right. The slower, but ultimately more rewarding, road of your might making right, because your might could just as easily do wrong.


I mean, if everybody got sparkle-powers from doing the right thing, who would ever be evil? What would even be the point of the hard work, sacrifice, and determination needed to stay good, if you got rainbow eye-beams from hugging your friend enough times?

And even if—if this ‘Tree of Harmony’ was such a sap about handing out its power, what made six mares, that from my impression could barely spell ‘dismemberment’ between them, so special? Thirty-ish years of barely flinching Loyalty was on the high end, yeah, but I’d seen millennia old demonic hosts lay down and bleed for their cause—and that was the ‘bad-guys.’

A nasty, dark and twisted part of me that refused the courtesy of actually being wrong flashed me an image of Michael. The shining Fist of God, striding knee deep in filth and swinging a holy sword, leaving broken monsters and rose-water in his wake… and the broken but smiling wisp of a man he’d become as his ‘reward.’ The one that needed a cane to walk, in constant pain, and could only see clearly through one eye.

He’d taken a fully loaded AK to the chest for a girl he’d never met, to help his idiot friend save somebody their short-sighted stupidity almost gave a fate worse than death, and I’d never seen him give off rainbows.

“No,” I stated firmly, shaking my head. “I refuse to believe that much power is free and without a whole litany of catches. That only happens in bad fairy tales and worse cartoons.”

I’m fairly certain that Nemo wouldn’t have gone so teary-eyed if I’d done an Ozzy with a real bat in front of her.

Anger. Pure, hot and almost beyond words, it flowed up from the battered core of my heart. My mane and tail flared into entire bonfires that covered the corridor without burning as I reached that quiet place where even the rage burns away.

“Or are you telling me, Nemo, to my face, in the house we were let into while looking like this…” I growled, sweeping a hoof over my whole Darned Heck-pony look.

Nemo flinched.

“That I wouldn’t have had to bury anybody if I’d been a true friend?”

I almost smashed the wall. In that moment, I’m honestly not sure how much would have been left of it or my hoof, but Carlos’ face flashed before me. Making me lower the thing, even if it took me almost as much will as a spell.

“That if I’d just been a true, true friend, I could have just—” I spat the words. “—hugged vampires, and had them hale and hearty?”

I think Nemo would have prefered the beating, to be honest.

“Oh, I know!” Pulling back the arm of my duster, I shoved the half-waxen hoof in her face. “Maybe if we’d been true friends, the napalm would have just bounced of my aura of smug satisfaction like it apparently does for real ponies when their true friends are in danger! But I’m sure I didn’t hug the second law of thermodynamics enough, or I’d been just peachy, you lying, backstabbing nag!”

OK, maybe I wasn’t quite as happy with Nemo as I had tried to pretend I was; good gut feeling or not.

Nemo let out a tiny whimper and started weeping again. Maybe she hadn’t noticed due to my clothes before and the distraction from Agatha, but her eyes were transfixed on the scar-tissue. The anger just disappeared in a puff of crushing guilt. Good going, Harry, you made the rainbow-maned My Little Pony otaku-kin cry from what a broken waste of a mare you are.

Again. And it didn’t even take you a full hour from the last time.

“I’m sorry,” I pleaded as I pulled the unresisting mare into a hug. “I’m so, so sorry, you’re not the one I should be chewing out about this.”

Well, tried. On that last bit Nemo’s eyes flashed, and I got an uppercut right into the milky way from how many stars I saw.

“But you ‘should’ be chewing out the others, huh?” Nemo, who I had to admit seemed unlikely to be on the ceiling, snarled down at me.

I carefully felt my teeth before answering, but didn’t get up.

“...Rainbow Dash.”

Nemo, or… well, you know, frowned down at me.

“That’s who I’m actually talking to right now, right? Or do you prefer Loyalty?”

Nemo just glared daggers at me.

“I am a wizard of the White Council. A young one, with enough potential to be… tasty, so to speak.”

Nemo frowned, just a bit, before going back to glaring.

“If I had a dollar for every ‘join me, young Harry’ moment I’ve had, I could retire.” I couldn’t quite stop a shudder. “And… once or twice, because nobody else seemed to be lining up to dirty their damned hands themselves, I’ve said yes. To have enough power to protect people.”

Nemo went blank again.

“The idea that I’ve been nothing but a cruel joke. That my friends fought, died and bled for… some sort of fun-house mirror person they were never meant to even meet.”

I blinked away some dust. Damn dust. It gets everywhere.

“I’m sorry, Dash, but I’m not Kindness. If I thought some twisted shit had done all that horrible stuff, and still deserved to live more than I do for some twisted reason? I’d walk right out that door, and not stop until I’ve fed Discord his own heart. Maybe Kindness really could forgive all that, but…”

The words: ‘I'm just human’ died in muzzle. Just didn’t seem right to say them with my wings splayed off my barrel, and my hooves folded on my chest

Nemo’s face twitched into a grimace on noting the silence, but said nothing.

“...I’m not. I’m just a dork with magic that’s done her best.” I quickly let go a bit of my pentacle when it gave off a warning creak. “And I know exactly what things like Harmony do to little people that get in its way.”

Nemo’s mask broke again as she winced. “That’s… not what Harmony is about, Harry.”

“All hail the wisdom of the Knight of Obedience! Or else!”

The sad frown went to a glare in two blinks flat. “You’re still a razor tongued bitch.”

“I’ve had many excellent teachers.”

Nemo shuddered once. “So I’ve gathered.”

Guess I wasn’t the only one feeling hungry and tired, because this time Nemo’s fake smile wouldn’t have fooled a blind woman. “But you're a good ma-”

Rainbow,” I cut her off, a warning note sneaking back into my voice, “I haven’t told any lies to your face about how sure I am Fluttershy—ngh, may be saved.”

Nemo’s mask cracked again.

“Please return the courtesy, and don’t try to bullshit me about what actually happens in a: ‘Johnny Five is alive!’ situation when the government’s shiny super-weapon starts talking about growing pansies instead of killing foreigners.”

Nemo let out a deep sigh and rubbed at her temples. “Did I mention what a glorious ray of sunshine and happiness you are, Harry?”

“Ah, yes. Good point. I better sound like a real pony.” I cleared my throat, and put on the most obnoxiously chipper voice I could. “Puppies! Socks! Beer! Cute things!”

“Beer was never invented in Equestria, Harry.”

I think my heart skipped a beat. “No fooling?”

“No fooling.”


Well, at least it was all but confirmed now: I had died again, and hell really is big on irony. Irony, My Little Pony and pastel type irony.

I frowned slightly. “Do you think ‘girl hell’ has a Transformers theme? Or is a ‘He-Man’ thing more Ol’ Scratch style given all those depictions where he’s more flaming than your hair?”

Nemo lined up a hoof with my kidneys. “Don’t tempt me, Harry.”

“Was rather the point of laying here… in my nice, comfy armored duster.”

Nemo did a double take.

“So... “ I waved a hoof between us. “Is this the part where we punch each other on the shoulder and insult each other like grown-ups after a fight, or do I need to go raid Carlos’ fridge for caramel-sauce an’ whip-cream?”

Nemo’s cheeks started matching the red bang in her mane. “You’re a pig, Harry,” she grunted, offering me a hoof.

I hesitated.

Nemo looked sad for a moment, but then steeled herself. “Fine. We’ll do it.”

Now it was my turn to splutter.

The plan. I meant the plan!” Nemo spluttered right back. “That Edinburgh thing!”

I let out a deep sigh of relief.

Now, this time? I did get a punch in the kidney. Driving the air out of my lungs even. Ouch.

“I’m technically seeing somebody,” I growled, rubbing at the sore spot. “I’m sure one of your personas is just lovely, though.”

Nemo stopped, rubbing her own hoof.

“I’m technically seeing some-body,” I clarified, hastily. “We’re on break while I try to fix this pony crap.”

Nemo froze.

“Something I have every intention to still do if I live through this, I should add. You know, if we’re actually putting all our cards on the table.”

The mare closed her eyes for a moment. “You’re a beautiful mare, Harry...”

I let out a snort, and got jabbed in the ribs again.

“You stop squirming like you just ate an uncooked spider and liked it as soon as you check somepony out, and you’d have the amazon thing going on.” Nemo jabbed me in the ribs again. “And yeah, that’s counting the scars.”

I frowned up at her, not quite buying it.

Nemo sighed. “But if you need to do it to stay happy? It’s… your body.”

Now that? Now that made me crook an eyebrow.

The ghost of a smile haunted Nemo’s lips for a moment. “Let me guess: Twilight’s entire synopsis was: ‘kind, likes animals’ or something like it, while blathering on, and on, and on…”

Nemo nodded down at me as I froze. “Thought so. Guess she backslid on those social skills.”

“What social skills?”

This time I was ready for it, and swatted Nemo’s hoof aside.

“Those of the girl that didn’t have more than a study group before she got gently kicked out of her ivory tower by the boss mare herself,” Nemo snarled, while fanning her hoof. “The girl that lost all her friends in one day because the draconequus she never really trusted killed them all for a ‘prank.’”

A moment of silence passed as I got to my hooves.

“Okay,” I growled as I dusted myself of, “that one sounds like a plausible reason to get just a smidgen unhinged.”

Nemo glowered at me.

“Fine, you’ve talked me into it.”

Nemo blinked again.

“Carlos and Agatha to safety, then Demonreach to clear the air with the idiots.” I shrugged. “I doubt they’ll get a Christmas card anytime this decade, but if they’re willing to talk with me instead of spouting platitudes and hypocrisy at me? I’ll put on my big-girl panties and suck it up that they screwed the pooch so hard, the poor thing exploded.”

Nemo cringed slightly at my choice of words.

But,” I said, poking Nemo in the chest, “they keep being as opaque as granite? Then you have to suck it up, and face that either way the good ol’ days were a filthy lie told to you by immortals saying what you wanted to hear… or that we haven’t even seen the pony-obsessed mastermind yet. That happens, and we run until the real ponies break down from all their precious ‘alicorns’ being AWOL; be it morale wise or mentally.”

Nemo winced and cringed this time, but I got a weak nod.

I frowned as a thought struck me, speaking of all the crap I’d been through over the years.

“...You’re not doing any freaky pony mojo right now, are you?”

Nemo blinked. “...Not that I am aware of?”

I nodded slowly. “Right. I’ll take your word for it.” I patted her on the shoulder as I moved out. “Then maybe you should think over Love’s words on ‘ascending wrong…’”

Nemo blanked.

I gave her another pat. “...and how a cranky, paranoid old wizard with more notches than belt left can’t seem to find a good reason to stay mad at you, eh, Loyalty?”

Nemo made a small blubbering sound at the back of her throat I took as a good sign the kid had a healthy respect for the survival prospect of licking the Power-Outlet of Eternity on accident.

I gently patted her on the head a few times, Nemo barely registering the movement. “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”

I was halfway down the corridor—again, when her voice came drifting after me. “Oh God, you really have no idea, do you? You haven't even noticed.

I scowled and turned my head. The lamps having all blown out from my earlier stunt, but my current bonfire hairdo casting enough pink light to see by anyway. “Noticed what?”

Oh, Harry, you clueless dolt of an overgrown filly....

On noticing the deadpan look from the rainbow maned mare now—and call me a cynic but that seemed to be it, currently half my size it clicked. “Oh, right. This.”

Say what you want about Svartalves (just do it quietly) but if you’ve got enough incentive to let them go hog-wild? You almost get stuff that’s too good. I hadn’t even noticed how much I’d been swelling up this time because all my clothes… well, fit perfectly.

Perfectly, paying no heed to such silly things as the owner having silly extra-dimensional, magical horse-allergies that makes their new salt-water taffy based biology swell up to twice their body-weight at the drop of a hat.

But I’m sure~ a ‘pegasi with pegasi magic’ could have done just as good a job. I’m sure it’s just part of the prancing on rainbows package, and the reason for the casual nudity is just boredom. Being perfect all the time must simply be so draining.

Then it hit me. Speaking of perfection I’m marring with my mare existence, “Hey, you remember if Ms. Shy ever mentioned any allergies?”

Nemo blinked slowly at me.

“Because I just can’t figure out what’s causing this ‘My Little Mare of Damocles’ look, and it’s annoying. I wouldn’t even be able to keep a whole pair of pants if I couldn’t cheat like a motherfucker.”

Nemo cringed slightly at the last swear. “Annoying? You find… that annoying?!”

I spread my wings in a shrug, accidently brushing the walls with my wing tips. “At least it keeps Ding Bat quiet and makes me tall again.”

These are the priorities of the mare that may bend reality by her Will alone, everypony. It would be terrifying if it wasn’t so gosh darned adorable.

Nemo opened her mouth, raised a hoof. and hesitated. “...You said you treat it with... meditation?”

I frowned a bit at the ‘grandma forgot to take her pills again’ tone, but nodded.

“How about I promise to fill you in after you’ve done that?” Nemo frowned. “And we’ve stopped at White Castle or something to make sure ‘Ding Bat’ stays quiet, while we’re at it?”

The house rumbled as a small satchel charge went off somewhere in my lower intestine.

Still… that tone of voice had me worried enough to discount the hole where my stomach should be. “It’s not, you know, the pony version of your eyes turning yellow, your nails white, or something?”

For some reason, that also made Nemo freeze. Her eyes filling with pity, of all things. “No,” she said, strangely softly. “I… It’s…”

The mare drifted off, rubbing her head in embarrassment. “It’s…” Nemo blinked. “How about I leave it at it being a ‘witches and warts’ type deal? I really don’t want to stress you out if you really can... meditate it away.”

A tension I’d barely felt building up in my shoulders just melted away. I suppose. Human Wizards used to sour milk or get liver spots, now they blow up technology. Made as much sense as the pony stuff possibly could that pony wizards got a different side-effect—and I’d even noticed, today notwithstanding, that I was blowing up a lot less light bulbs.

Ponies that dabbled in—gasp—non-Sparkles magics become ugly, scary, and—double gasp—scary ugly. With darker colors, and fangs! While ponies that do good, wholesome pony things like, say, clearing their heads by going flying like good little pegasi, get to poop rainbows while prancing on moonbeams.

So made perfect sense… from the logic of a Saturday Morning Cartoon aimed at pink obsessed girls in the ‘pink-pink-pink’ to ‘pink glitter-rainbows!!!!!’ demographics.

...Harry, I do love you and treasure you... but right now I very much wish I could smack you until your ears fall off.

“Fair enough,” I nodded, before noticing something and tapping beside my pentacle. “Just make sure you don’t forget something.”

Her hoof snapped to her bare neck, and Nemo took off towards the other guest-rooms at speeds I’d normally associate with things trying to eat my face.

My right hoof twitched out of reflex, but with an effort of will I kept it down. Nemo being so intent on pouncing that trinket of hers I doubt she’d noticed if she’d passed The Roadrunner, let alone the tiny jingle from my shield bracelet.

Or maybe the Kid really was just that alright, and that was all my gut was telling me. Stranger things have happened than something nice for once, right? Speaking of, by the time I stopped in the doorway to hiss at the cruel day-star, Carlos had almost gotten his niece into the car.

A ‘car’ I must admit made me raise an eyebrow.

It was a soccer-mom’s mini-van. Well, had been one long ago before coming into the ownership of a wizard. Lord only knew what make and year, because I don’t think even the body of the ‘car’ was still original. Half melted red hood. A baby-blue fender on the right where claw marks hadn’t quite buffed out completely contrasting ‘nicely’ with a factory new purple one at the left. A radioactive green roof, the old hippy painting of a daisy pockmarked by acid…

I could go on listing how not a single seat matched another, or how the thing had a dreamcatcher made from pipe-cleaners hanging from the rearview mirror, but you get the gist. To Carlos’ (or at least his mechanic’s) credit Franken-Van’s Monster was idling with barely the odd splutter, but the thing might as well have had ‘wizzard’ in sequins on the fender for how unsubtly it screamed: ‘For the modern magic user on a budget.’

I fought down a pang of nostalgia. The Franken-Van could have been The Beetle’s long-lost brother in coughing along.


My ear perked at Nemo’s voice. “Hmm? Nah, just had one of those ‘not’ moments.”

Nemo frowned, whatever fingering is called with hooves that choker of hers. “‘Not’ moments?”

“‘Not human’ moments, if I must spell it out,” I said, getting a soft wince from the mare I pretended not to notice. “Been years since I drove a car myself, and now…” I wiggled a hoof at her. “You know. Ungulate quadruped with feather-dusters nailed to the side and modern automobile ergonomics going together like popcorn and petroleum jelly.”

Nemo did a grimace at the mental image. “Give it a year or two,” she shrugged. “I’m sure there’ll be fancy new mobility-scooters if you still feel like it.”

A half murmured children’s song drifted over for just a moment, followed by a weak and hiccuping mix of a giggle and a sob.

An uncomfortable silence followed. Neither of us wanting to intrude on Agatha and Carlos. Time was somewhat of the essence, yeah, but I’d personally rather have eaten my own hoof than go out there and Nemo seemed to feel the same way.

It just felt too private and raw. Like walking in on somebody changing the bandages on their kid.

Or comforting them after waking from a nightmare, I guess.

Nemo outright closed the door. I didn’t argue with it, but just leaned back and made myself comfortable.

“Did you mean it?” Nemo said after a couple of minutes.

I blinked. “Mean what?”

“The ‘boy-hell’ thing, or was it just sarcasm?” Nemo cringed. “Or… the wings being the only thing you’d miss about being a pony?”

I thought it over for a moment.

One moment. Singular. “Pretty much.”

Nemo twitched, and went carefully blank.

“It’s like… some bunch of nuts from the Old World tracked my lineage, and decided that only I’m good enough a patsy for something due to my bloodline. But first they have to whitewash the American and Wizard ‘stuff’ off the Gelfling of the Dark Crystal, or whatever.” I gave a shrug. “And I wouldn’t have minded playing along with that to a point… except they firebombed my house because the feng shui was abominable, or crap like that instead of asking nicely.”

Nemo blinked. Frowning deeply.

“I don’t hate Equestria. I’m deeply annoyed with Equestria. There’s a difference.”

Nemo cringed slightly. “Annoyed? You call shooting Sw- somepony annoyed?”

I took notice of that ‘somepony,’ but I saw it as a good sign. That I was being—slowly admittedly, being shown the real Nemo slash Rainbow Dash.

“Collectively speaking, yeah,” I explained. “Would rather not have shot that girl, or slammed that boy in golden tinfoil through a car, or thrown around that squad with winds... but it was either that or get nasty on all of them.”

Nemo gave me a wide-eyed look.

“You haven’t seen nasty, Nemo. Not by a long shot,” I said quietly. “I’ll even give the she-demon her dues: For Marcone it was just business.”

Nemo froze.

“A bunch of intruders poaching on her turf. Nothing more, nothing else.” I frowned slightly. “Why she was doing it in my backyard on my island’s something of a mystery, I’ll have to admit.”

Nemo gave me an odd look, her expression guarded. “You hate her, don’t you?”

I scowled a bit, my mouth feeling dirty even before the word left it. “No.”

Nemo blinked.

“Marcone’s scum, but I’ve seen too much outright filth to hate her. She’s been on my list for years, but there’s just always a bigger fish with more tentacles than the mob boss.”

On hearing ‘Pinkie Pie’ and ‘on my list for years’ in the same sentence, Nemo cringed. It was a good cringe too, one of those ‘the head nun just found the used condom in the nativity scene’ full body ones.

I gave her an even look over my muzzle, but trying to keep my voice kind. “Nemo, you do get that you’re quite possibly the lone exception on the whole planet, right? One way… or the other.”

Nemo froze. Not even breathing.

“Because I’ve shared a soulgaze with Marcone. And I sure didn’t see the slightest hint of even lower-case laughter in there, let alone capital L Laughter.” I grimaced. “Hell’s bells, I’m downright amazed the Power-Bling of Giggles didn’t rot away when Special Snowflake homed in on her with it.”

Nemo shuddered again. Staring down into the floor with a forlorn look on her face.

“And frankly, if I had some sort of ‘sparkle-sparkle-super-duper-mode,’ I think it would have activated by now.” I said softly, pulling back the sleeve on my burned hoof. “And not for lack of true companions that have bled and, yes, died for me.”

“Maybe because they weren’t ponies?”

The resulting Glare from me outright pressed Nemo against the wall.

Literally. Croaking out a whimper, Nemo was as plastered against the wall as if her personal bit of gravity had flipped ninety degrees and quadrupled. Even her mane and all its colors wouldn’t fall off that wall.


It was as much guilt as shock that made me screw my eyes shut and slam an arm over them both for good measure.

With a soft thump that only didn’t scare the hell out of me because it was followed by a deep, rasping breath, Nemo fell off the wall.

The only thing breaking the silence for quite a few moments after that was more deep breathing from Nemo. I didn’t quite feel like it.


I cringed, but didn’t take the arm of my face.

“That was very poorly worded. I forgot how utterly clueless you are about ponies, and I apologize.”

If I hadn’t already been keeping them closed, I would have blinked.

“I can’t give you nitty-gritty details—I flunked out of school my first time, but to ponies Friendship is Magic.” I literally heard Nemo’s ear twitch in annoyance. A soft snap, like a fly had cracked a whip. “As in, you get a bunch of friends and you’ve got more.”

My brow furrowed against my arm. “A feedback loop? Really?”

A soft scritch of fur on concrete told me Nemo had nodded. “I guess. Again, I used to…” Nemo hesitated for just a moment. “be an utter idiot. And Twi’s a bright cookie, but her idea of peer-review is to send a letter to Sun Butt to check if her research is on the right track.”

I frowned a bit at that one.

“And mechanics aside, it’s usually not that noticeable. When Milk Run buys Fast Cashier and Winter Melon salt-licks. Well, to be blunt, one point zero-one to the power of three still ain’t that impressive a figure.“ Nemo let out a dry chuckle tinged with something dark. ”But you, shiny wizard person, had power even before eating my friend, huh?”

I winced. I… hadn’t thought of the ‘Equestria is real’ thing from that point of view before—and given how beyond the far edges of cynicism I usually travel that’s saying something.

“A changeling queen willing to bleed for you, ‘Laughter’ as some sort of nemesis…” Nemo continued listlessly. “I think I even felt a siren sneaking around on your doom island.”

My ears perked. Mortimer had been that ‘thing’ I couldn’t recognize? And how exactly did you sense a ‘siren’ pony then?

Still, now did not seem the time. Not when Nemo’s—or Rainbow’s, whatever—mask was seemingly cracking with the rest of her.

“You and Mr. Ramirez, have you… known each other long?”

The sudden switch in subjects made me pause.

“Because… Because…” Nemo drifted off, fiddling with her hooves from the sound of it.

I carefully lowered my hoof. I’m not good at reading women, let alone mares, but even I could tell what mood the fuzzy little puddle of dejected pony in front of me was projecting.

“Nemo,” I said gently. “Nobody that waited thirty-ish years for a friend fits the definition of ‘worthless.’” Nemo’s face was still utterly unreadable, but her ears perked.“I’m not sorry that I’m not her, but I am sorry how much pain that is causing you.”

I hung my head.

“That sort of wait’s… storybook stuff. Nice storybook stuff, not the Grimm Brother’s peyote fueled fever-dreams type crap I usually get dragged into.” I took a deep breath, and just said it. “If this world was fair, you wouldn’t have to pick.”

Nemo frowned. The expression somehow caught between insulted and pitying. “Pick?”

I gave the girl a hard look, trying to ignore how she flinched from it. “Nemo… I don’t have much of a life, but there are people that depend on me and my skills, and those dear to me that I refuse to abandon because Princess Special Snowflake wants her fifth pony back.”

“If I genuinely thought that this ‘Equestria’ was in existential danger, and only the chosen maidens of Whatever could save the day?” I grimaced. “I’d sure still tell anypony that tried to rush me into it without even getting to say goodbye or clear my affairs where they could stick their teeth, but… I’d do it.”

Nemo gave me a look just as hard right back. Softening into a thoughtful one only when she didn’t see any deception there.

“But that place had nobles with shining coats, pelt and cloth. Labs with magic resistant computers, and interdimensional doorways. The forges, industry, and know-how to make all that spandex and tinfoil for those eager young bits of beef and cheese cake Princess Bathes-With-Red frankly should have trained in more than looking good. The food and thus by implication farmland and farmers to keep that sort of massive undertaking going.” I raised my head again. “And such beings that’ve been fighting ‘Chaos’ incarnate couldn’t last five minutes in this bleak, cold world.”

Nemo froze as she got the implication.

“I’m not laying down on the altar willingly,” I said firmly but softly, “just so that Hippo-topia can go from ‘great’ to ‘excellent’ again. If that ‘never ending’ golden age needs some heartblood to lube it forward over this rough patch…” I gave off an disinterested shrug. “Whoopsie daisy, if only the country had a few spare, useless immortals laying around, huh?”

Nemo’s face flickered between conflicting emotions. Disgust, both against me and Equestria, sadness over the whole situation, anger at being used…

But she finally settled on annoyance. “And that’s it? Screw how much they’ve lost, because Harry Dresden had to walk to wizard-school twenty miles, uphill both ways?”

My face nearly twitched into a snarl, but I fought it down. “I’ve had to step over friends laying in bloody puddles, Nemo. Wet behind the ears apprentices that were carved like sushi.” I nearly spat on the floor. “Or for that matter, seen good champions laying on sacrificial altars so the vile monsters could go cartwheeling away, laughing at the shot at redemption they spat at.”

Nemo froze.

Don’t go there,” I growled. “I get that you're testing me, that you have a history with frauds... but don’t you go calling me spoiled if you want an unbroken jaw. Not when you’re comparing what little power and tools I have with some bullshit wish fulfilment rainbow and Candyland’s entire gum-drop brigade of magic niceness-engineers.”

Nemo nearly wilted right down through the concrete. Like a dandelion in reverse and blue.

But she still had enough fire in her belly to mumble something sullen at me.

“What was that?” I said, and Listened. Not sure if there’s even magic to it, or if it’s just a trick not many have the inclination to figure out nowadays. Focusing and filtering out all but a few tiny sounds.

“...You promised,” Nemo mumbled. As tall and proud as a soldier ant that could still drag itself home with its lone remaining mandible.

I hesitated, but nodded. “Yeah, I did.”

Nemo blinked. Seemingly as much from the words as that I’d heard her.

I glanced through the door again. A soft hushing made me close it again just as quickly.

“But you’re going to have to wrap your head around the fact that I’m not interested in being a puppet again. Not even of a Thing with good intentions and a grasp of PR.” Absently, I studied my hoof again, before moving out. ”There’s no way a lunch that big is really free. If it was, it would have been all gobbled up at the dawn of time.”

I made it two whole steps beyond the threshold before I heard this odd note. Like somebody was ringing a tuning fork in syrup, or Tinkerbell had just tried to go for a well-deserved backstroke in a tarpit.

My own shield beat Carlos’ with half a dozen blinks, but that was far more due to involuntary cheating on my part then a skill and power divide. By the time even his good arm had moved and produced the glimmering, green field of entropy he favored, an inhuman blur of movement had simply given me about half a second extra to weave the more complicated if power-hungry dome of forces I favor.

Not that it helped this time.

The tone changed to a hum with teeth in it, as translucent and reverbing bands of leaf-green magic sprung into existence. Binding all four of my cannons, and forcing my arms and legs into an X shape.

“Harry!” Nemo and Carlos screamed in perfect unison.

I snapped my head around, my pentacle jingling, thrown around clean on my back as I locked Nemo in my glare as quickly as I could. The other mare one step from stepping over the threshold.

Stop!” I screamed, pouring as much command into the word as I could. “Don’t go over t-!”

Something suddenly tightened around my neck, pulling the already looped chain tight enough around it that I felt the friction burn form. Tightening, pulling, ripping fur…

The loop of chain fastening hard, and yanking my already uncomfortably turned neck a quarter turn more the wrong way. A deafening crack and stinging pain, a look of shocked horror on Carlos and Nemo’s faces, and then…

Nothing. An altogether far too horribly familiar numbness from my neckline down. Letting me move my neck to stop the glowing shard of ruby wrapped in bailing-wire—all that was left with the glamour burned off ‘my’ pentacle—from strangling me, and breathe, but little else.

I stared in numb horror at the thing for a few moments as it started pulling from my chest in earnest. One burningly hot thought racing through my mind like a tide of molten iron, for those brief seconds making the second time in my life I’d become paralyzed seem quaint, distant, and unimportant compared with the churning ocean of rage.

That bitch Sweetie had stolen my pentacle. Leaving a decoy of the one thing of mine she had I’d be guaranteed to spot and retrieve, if I managed to get past Equestria’s finest, its rulers, her staff and her.

And if I’d gone for any other Way than one of the standard trots of the White Council, I would have noticed almost a day ago. Quite possibly saving Carlos and Agatha from so much grief mine and Nemo’s presence had brought.

My eyes snapped open. Nemo…

“Nemo! It’s a trap!” I shouted over my shoulder again. A wave of nausea flooded over me at this bone-grinding sound I didn’t actually feel reached my ears. “Get that choker off, and go with Carlos!”

Nemo, frozen, hooves and streams of tears from wide-eyes covering her face in equal measure, whimpered.

I swore under my breath, the ‘pentacle’ picking up speed and dragging me off clean through the air. Bit above running speed, way below gallop, but more than enough to be hard to catch.

“Go! Go, both of you!” I screamed at the waxen faced Carlos hurrying towards me instead. “They need all six to win!”

Carlos hesitated. Not actually stopping his run, but the emotions raced plainly over his face.

Fly” I snapped as the ‘pentacle’ started accelerating in earnest. “Fly, you fools!”

A flash of incredulity flashed over Carlos face, but he swore something that from his scowl no doubt made the air smell like brimstone, and turned. Racing just as fast the other way to stop Nemo from following me once she snapped out of her shock.

I vaguely heard what might have been my name called, or just the wind. Then the binding carried me (barely, almost breaking my limp left leg) around the house opposite Carlos’. Cutting my view off.

Leaving me alone. Zipping through the air with nothing but my thoughts, the wind, and the glow from the mockery that had replaced my mother’s pentacle to occupy me. With scant few moments to prepare myself to face an empire, again, with nothing but my wits and what little magic I’d be able to bring to bear sans foci and hooves without roasting my own brain

The corpse of a smile twitched to shambling unlife on my lips. A chuckle dark by even my standards forcing itself out between my clenched teeth. This time, I got to die with a snappy one-liner and with my boots on, at least.

With great, wracking sobs I collapsed on my side, hugging myself. My son just got maimed for life—again, and I couldn’t as much hold her hoof afterwards.

I let out a weary sigh. At least no-’pony’ innocent gets hurt this way. Small favors.

Author's Note:


Seriously though and a comic I never thought I'd get to reference, (wiki link since one of my editors asked what was up with the letter soup), got some mixed feelings on this chapter.

Not quite up to my usual standards and that's annoying, but given the massive behind the scenes troubles and how many rewrites this took I still think the end-result was decent enough. I had so, so, so much trouble with this chapter. Not only is this version—no joke, four dot two, but it just refused to let me end it in a satisfactory way.

Still... Three of the biggest complaints for Dark Horse so far is how much Harry has been winning, how many times she's been right/on top of things, and how little the Equestrian’s been getting in proper blows.

But then it occurred to me three things:

Rule #1 of The Dresden Files is supposed to be that Harry suffers the most, and I haven’t read one fan-fic that had the stones to maim him even a tenth as bad as he gets in the books.

Or for that matter, to touch his pentacle.

Or again, how by wizard standards utterly in the dark and clueless Harry is kept due to his backstory. Going twelve fold for any pop-culture not widespread enough to trickle down to public library levels.

So I reached into the depths of my sadistic streak, and did all three.

Speaking of, see you all sometime 2017!


In all seriousness, I’ve done a lot of plotting and planning after V1 of this chapter crashed and burned, so things should be far smoother going forwards even with my new job... but still, thank you so much for your patience. It means a lot to me that even after all these delays and a year later, people still want to see this strange little tale continued. :rainbowkiss: :yay:

Oh, and I know the Gordian Knot was on an ox cart, but it's generally considered one of the greatest legends about Alexander The Great, famed for among other things being one of the first recorded horse whisperers. So ha, still a horse pun!

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Comments ( 146 )

It is here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:pinkiehappy:

And congratulations on being featured!


*Girly squee!* :yay:

Edit* And~ lasted all of half an hour this time. Drat. :applecry:

Yay! And...Harry's Mum being part of kindness? The plot thickens...
Also, Discord may or may not be alive at the moment...probably is very dead...

ye!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wonder if there be a throw down with starlight glimmer twilight student? she wasn't too bad at spells and combat or sunset shimmer from the "human" portal plus the whole stigma against fangs and color scheme harry has right now for evil poor Dresden and co habit Fluttershy shall be face palming at the stupidity bound to be said...

Finally happy to see this chapter out. I liked the debate between Rainbow and Harry about friendship= Unlimited Magic vs Dresden's more limited magic pool that's equally supportive of heroes and villains. Furthermore, I also liked how Dresden explained to RD about how bad the villains in the Dresdenverse are compared with Discord, whom Harry compares to a pitiful fool who's about to get curb stomped. The ending with Dresden being paralyzed, again, was a shocker, especially since it involved someone tampering with Harry's amulet. Hope the next chapter comes soon.

DEFINITELY worth the wait.

Weĺl; looks like Harry wasn't paranoid enough.

Soooo did HarryShy go alicorn? Or nightmare moon? Or was it that ponyta fire mane thing that twilight did that one time? When he/she grew twice as tall?


The second.

But Dresden doesn't know it, Yet,

I'm quite happy to see this, but there's some things that leave me confused, and some that I think are remnants of previous editions.

Something within that thought went ‘click,’ and the mass of anger, hate and guilt crystallized into something hot, rigid and warm in my core. The few last lights flickering out as magic flowed into me, overflowed into me. The power my body involuntarily drawing so thick and potent, that it was nearly visibly in the air. A rasp warm from the forge that dragged against my bones without bothering about the skin and muscle in between first.
The room fell both silent and away, darkening further as if all the shadows in the house were cuing up for the show. My bones and tendons creaking as they lengthened, most of the other tissue keeping pace as I grew, but all scars pinching painfully until they too kept up. My left hoof especially feeling temporarily as it was in a glove three sizes too small.

“No…” Luna spluttered, ‘her’ eyes wide in shock. Carlos tightening his good arm around Agatha’s neck.. “No! Not now, not like this!”

At first, I thought that this was Harry achieving Alicornhood, based on the size difference, and Luna's response. But as no-one else commented on it at all, I was just left confused.

The ghostly pink flames of my mane reflecting in what was left of the kitchen casting this heckish light that illuminated, barely, enough to see by. Such as my muzzle twisted into a snarl more fitting for a mother wolf then a pony, the fur now stained the color of old gold.

So, is this Nightmare Fluttershy then?

Darth Vader black, and lightsaber red!

I love this plan, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

Why do you actually bother with that bra when you have teats?

I have since been trying to picture this. Is it something like a sports bra?

“Well, whoever or whatever you paid for those acting lessons deserved a zero more.”


I couldn’t help but chuckle dryly. “You’d think a god of chaos could figure out cause and effect to the point he’d get where babies come from.”

I feel that I'm missing something here. I don't understand how this line fits into what's going on.


Should that be chocolate sauce?

I was halfway down the corridor—again, when her voice came drifting after me. “Oh God, you really have no idea, do you?”
I scowled and turned my head. The lamps having all blown out from my earlier stunt, but my current bonfire hairdo casting enough pink light to see by anyway. “Noticed what?”

Should Nemo have asked "you really haven't noticed, have you?"

On hearing ‘Pinkie Pie’ and ‘on my list for years’ in the same sentence, Nemo cringed.

But, she didn't mention the name Pinkie Pie. She said 'Marcone', but that was a couple of sentences ago.

So, overall, I'm incredibly happy to see this updating again. I'm willing to grant that chapters from now, I'll look back at this chapter and say, "oohhh...", so if it seem to any of you that I'm being unreasonably obtuse, my apologies. I'm looking forward to the shock on Discord's face when he loses, and the alicorns coming to realize just how badly they've screwed up this whole thing.

Ok, just for clarification. Are you insinuating that Margaret "Le Fey" McCoy was Fluttershy? And that Harry was just (un)lucky enough to inherit the Mantle of Kindness' power along with his mother's "looks"?

I am so happy to see this chapter and can say it was somewhat nice, however, I must say that while I get the gist of the story, the dialogues are awfull. I don't get half of them (for example: what is Harry clueless about what happened to her with her hight or many others strange inconsistences.)

...Dang. Well now, I wonder if Nemo/RD will still be singing praises for Equestria after watching them snap Harry's neck? Will be looking forward to seeing how Dresden's "reunion" with the Equestrian's will go, and what platitudes/excuses they'll give that they're doing what must be done.


At first, I thought that this was Harry achieving Alicornhood, based on the size difference, and Luna's response. But as no-one else commented on it at all, I was just left confused.

So, is this Nightmare Fluttershy then?

Yeah. Dresden's 'allergies' is actually her having enough baggage to go Nightmare, but not the frame of understanding of things 'pony' to realize what type of dynamite she's juggling by doing so.

It's meant to be rather subtle since Dresden hasn't figured it out yet, but that's the real reason both Carlos and Nemo were so harsh towards Harry this chapter initially only to quickly (-ish) back off. They thought ignorance was outright lies.

I love this plan, and I'm excited to be a part of it.


I have since been trying to picture this. Is it something like a sports bra?

More or less. Just with leg-holes instead of arm-holes, given equine anatomy in that regard.


Dresden's implying Nemo paid a tenth of what she should have. IE, the check should have had one more zero added at the end figure.

I feel that I'm missing something here. I don't understand how this line fits into what's going on.

Dresden's implying that, from the point of view of the Equestrian's being 'right,' then that means his mom & dad got their almost-happy-ever due to Discord's curse.

IE, if Dresden's entire purpose in life was to be 'not-Fluttershy,' then that nixed a great evil, his mom, in the bud via true love as an direct result of how brute-forcely Discord messed around with the destiny of Earth.

Should that be chocolate sauce?

Oh, slight bit of Swenglish there, actually. I meant 'caramel sauce.' Fixed.

Had no idea cola sauce wasn't as common a flavor in the Us as in Sweden. Neat.

Should Nemo have asked "you really haven't noticed, have you?"

Tweaked it a bit.

But, she didn't mention the name Pinkie Pie. She said 'Marcone', but that was a couple of sentences ago.

Thus the quotes around 'Pinkie Pie.' Dresden knows that the name 'Marcone' isn't the one Nemo's actually thinking when referring to :pinkiesmile:.

So, overall, I'm incredibly happy to see this updating again. I'm willing to grant that chapters from now, I'll look back at this chapter and say, "oohhh...", so if it seem to any of you that I'm being unreasonably obtuse, my apologies. I'm looking forward to the shock on Discord's face when he loses, and the alicorns coming to realize just how badly they've screwed up this whole thing.

Thank you. :twilightsmile:

But yeah, I might have overdone it a bit, but a lot flew right over the head of Dresden this chapter, and she's only going to figure it out later.


Ok, just for clarification. Are you insinuating that Margaret "Le Fey" McCoy was Fluttershy? And that Harry was just (un)lucky enough to inherit the Mantle of Kindness' power along with his mother's "looks"?

Not quite. Harry is mostly just pondering just how much his/her life been influenced by the Five Score curse, if such a thing really exists, but free will is most certainly still a thing in the Dresden universe.

But without the legacy of dark power Margaret passed to Harry, s/he wouldn't have 'qualified' for such a 'high ranking' pony.


I am so happy to see this chapter and can say it was somewhat nice, however, I must say that while I get the gist of the story, the dialogues are awfull. I don't get half of them (for example: what is Harry clueless about what happened to her with her hight or many others strange inconsistences.)

Should be clearer what just happened in this chapter going forward once Harry herself figures it out.

In short? Harry having no idea about Equestrian/pony magic and having dismissed it all as irrelevant to 'real' magic is about to bite her right on the tail.

Still, I'll acknowledge that I might have made it a bit too subtle just what the characters in this chapter were really asking Harry about, but that's one of the weaknesses of the first-person perspective. Can't really say more then that Harry should figure it out eventually.

Oh thank the gods it's finally here! Thank you for the new chapter it really made my day to read.

It returns! I thought Harry had become the alicorn of vengeance for a moment there. Keep up the good work!

I do have some criticism of the story as a whole, however: I can't see the equestrian side of the cast being quite so clueless and callous without a mind whammy of some kind involved. At this point, every scene that hows how far removed from reality they are is just beating a dead horse. Someone should have taken a hint before now. Still, I enjoy this story, and it's a pleasure to have such meaty updates.

Great chapter!!:pinkiehappy::derpytongue2::moustache:


I admit being a bit confused about Nemo. When did Rainbow go back? Do they exist as separate personalities in the same body?

7594025 Thank you for taking the time to address my questions. I LOVE the idea that Nightmare Fluttershy's personality is indistinguishable from Regular Harry Dresden. Also, as far as Discord (indirectly, accidentally) causing Harry to be born? That can happen when you're dealing with Chaos. Good, Bad, it's all fodder for Chaos, baby!

Edit: Also, I suppose, chaos babies. Although how you tell them from regular babies I'll never know.


Honesty the way all the Equestrian ponies are so blind and stupid is a big sore point.

Luna specially. How she did not figure that TAKING OVER RAINBOW DASH SISTER BODY wasn't gonna piss Dash of?

"Oh really, what part of friendship includes taking over the body of Rainbow Dash sister, specially since that violates one of the laws of magic I told your so called Princess of Friendship about?"


Really Harry is probably right about someone above Discord pulling the ponies strings because Luna does have a sister that she loves, how would she feel if it was someone or something taking over Celestia body?

Very enjoyable chapter. I loved and was hoping for the conversation between Harry and Nemo/RD. Hopefully in going back to the island Harry can let the Fluttershy inside him out to chat with everyone.

Awesome chapter man, good to see it's back.

So Harry rage-ascended to alicornFlutterrage? I am totally okay with this, Dresden deserves it at least as much as the Merlin. Of what though? Protectors? Retribution/Justice? Ooh how about Karma?
Also since Luna regrew her legs the broken neck shouldn't be permanent right?

Also Nemo was so absolutely on Harry's side the rest of the story but now she's seeming to want to go with the Equestrian's willingly and trying to persuade Harry too as well as attacking him repeatedly for acting/speaking exactly as he has the whole time she's know him. She's also spent the previous chapters as 'jaded human youth' but now is acting like 'idealistic/canon Rainbow Dash' which seems odd since you'd think those two states would have merged better in to 30-some years as a human, she seems kinda bipolar/like Nemo and RD are distinct personalities instead of a person who has RD's memories but was raised and lived as a human boy for her whole (second) life.

Well, that was ... interesting.
It certainly leads to some new questions. The first one is why the 'Equestrians' are so completely out of touch with reality. The Fluttershy we've seen doesn't correlate in any way to the so called rescuers.

Note that the various possibilities below don't necessarily mean that the Five Score thing isn't where this started... I'm still personally thinking that the Five Score event happened as Harry dreamed it. That's not to say that the 'Equestrians' are what they claim to be, just that I think the transformed victims are.

The first possibility I see is that Harry is correct. They are some sort of horrors either causing or taking advantage of the show and the weird transformations to impersonate rescuers from Equestria and try to use the ready-made ponies from MLP for something nasty, such as Nemo's guess about fake Elements and Magic Root Access.

Second is getting bizarre. The rescuers are from a different Equestria to the one Fluttershy and Nemo remember, but their search found the wrong destination world and wrong set of friends. It would certainly explain the personality differences in the Princesses, and the fact they have the Elements instead of them being in the Tree of Harmony. It would also explain Discord. If he knew about Earth all along, why didn't he show up to have fun in a whole new world years ago? The image of a theoretical 'initial' Discord showing up to help nuke the 'new' one for messing with his toys is nifty too.

Third is, as has already been suggested, some form of external mental influence on the Equestrians. By now there's just no way I can see for them to genuinely be the long lost friends and rescuers they claim to be based on their behaviour without something external making them act, not like they got hit with the idiot stick, but as if they fell out of the top of the idiot tree, hit every branch on the way down, then landed on a trampoline and hit every branch again going back up.

Edit: Needless to say, I enjoyed the read, and look forward to what xomes next.


If Harry is a nightmare... shouldn't she have become evil /creepy to a level even the Wardens would have been scared? I know we are talking about the wizard who kept both Lasciel's coin and the Winter Knight Mantle deshumanizing influence at bay throught sheer willpower, but stilll....

This said, Luna and the equestrians ' possible reaction upon learning how, for "new Fluttershy", becoming a walking terror (for their standards) is "no biggie" is too funny to let it pass :rainbowlaugh:

Alright, so after a first readthrough of the story I'm conflicted. The premise of the crossover is great, and much better executed than the original 25 story. I like the way you delved into the whole issue of "what if the person they grew into is an entirely different person?" question, rather than just automatically reassimilating them, as well as the aspect of "I have my own life here."

However, the longer I spent reading the story, the more frustrated I became with the handling of the equestrians. One could be forgiven for believing you disliked the fandom based off of your treatment of Luna and the others.

A saying I've seen when it comes to fanfics, is that if you believe a character/group is dumb and needs a wakeup call, you get one. And that's it. If, for example, a character gets their wings broken because they made dumb assumptions, that's one thing. But if they then, say get their limbs cut off, sealed in a doom prison, and forced out of a person's mind and they’re still making the same dumb assumptions? You've stepped into the realm of bashing and wank. As an author, you’re the one who decides the IQ of your characters, and if they keep doing dumb things, that's your choice not theirs.

You've been very... focused... on making the equstrians piss themselves, and throw up, and be shocked and terrified by the dresden events, over and over, and never delve into the implications so many other explore- that if tarturus exists, the world isn't likely to be completely sunshine and rainbows at least in the eyes of the diarchy.

I wasn't fond of the situation with marcone. There were a lot of pointless deaths there for the sake of gore, and it felt like fridging, but I can understand that it has a purpose. But over all, it feels like you've intentionaly taken the worst possible interpretation for every facet of the crossover, and you didn't have to.

I like the story, and I really enjoy the interatctions between harry, dash, and fluttershy. If Luna was willing to learn, this would be exactly what I was looking for. You have the dresden snark going perfectly, and that makes everything wonderful.

I just... feel like there's some missed opportunities that were passed up on for angst.

Edit: It may be that I'm just not in on the joke. Some of the others have spoken about the possiblity that these are alternates or doppelgangers or under a whammy, and if that's the case, fair enough. (Though you're still awful focused on making them throw up.) If that's the case though, I can't wait for us to get to that discovery because it certainly feels grating to read.

Well, bravo. Now we have an even BIGGER cliffhanger! :flutterrage: As much as I like this story, you gotta stop doing that! Hopefully the next chapter won't take anywhere near as long to show up. Keep up the good work!

Nice to see the cover image is continuing the tradition of Dresden wearing a hat, despite the fact that he never wears a hat in any of the books. :pinkiesmile:

when i readed the part luna said “No! Not now, not like this!” i just felt rage at the implication of fluttershy future self-was always going to go dark mare one day but on their terms apparently another plot of harmony and friendship. :pinkiesick: that low real low,

7595727 The answer is pretty definitively no.

Compare Nightmare Moon with Nicodemus, Mab, He-Who-Walks-Behind, the Red King, Corpsetaker, or any of the other numerous baddies Dresden and/or the Council have had to deal with over the years.

Nightmare Moon is peanuts.

As Harry put it, by her standards Nightmare Moon, wouldbe world destroyer, was cute and cuddly.


But Nightmare Dresden maybe is not. One of the reasons the Council had a bad relationship with Harry over the serie is that anyone with the Sight could tell the fine line between light and dark in his soul, so they assumed it was only a matter of time until he went full warlock.

Spoiler alert. Judging by events of original books, Fluttershy is gonna sacrifice herself for his safety, Harry will go angry about it and destroy everyone responsible for this. And he will give birth to another spirit. Horse spirit... How predictable.

Sweetie Belle took his pendant...she took the one thing he has to remember his parents.

There is never going to be enough fire after all is said and done, is there?

7599679 Fire is to good for them, instead they should get the full force of THE STARE!!

7593731 nightmare Dresden ftw :rainbowlaugh:

Darth Vader black, and lightsaber red! I mean, if Twilight managed that living neon thing, how hard could it be?

My goodness, we have a genious over here :rainbowlaugh:
Also, Dresden getting to make that Gandalf quote was amazing:pinkiehappy:

7599679 I do believe the correct answer is hell no:rainbowderp:

7600968 Considering what happened last time Dresden STARED at someone, that wont end well for anyone.

Seriously, the things he's done? His Soul is not a happy place anymore.

7601240 With a side order of ALL OF THE FIRE.

You know, this story had me thinking... I don't think Twilight is the Alicorn of Friendship or the Alicorn of Magic, I think Twilight is the Alicorn of the Magic of Friendship, which, when you stop to think about it, is TOTALLY different. Essentially I think that Luna is mixing up Twilight's Talent with her Domain, which is understandable, considering that for she and her sister the two are one and the same. That said, she actually lived with another example that helps me prove my point; princess Cadence.

Cadence's Cutie Mark is an emblem of the Crystal Heart, the most powerful form of emotive magic known to ponykind. Something similar to, but altogether different from, the magic of the Changelings. That said, it is not a symbol of love, at best, it is a symbol of positive emotion, and represents a fairly broad talent. On the other hand, Cadence's Domain is love, and she has immense power and understanding of it. So we have an Alicorn who's Talent is broad and flexible, but who's Domain is a comparatively narrow scope within that field. I believe that Twilight is much the same way.

I mean, how many incredible feats of magic have we seen from Twilight since she ascended? And I mean things she couldn't already do as a Unicorn. How often has she shown unusual, piercing insight into the fields of friendship and magic, beyond what a mortal might have? After all, you may have to read the comics to get the full scope of things, but it's pretty obvious that Cadence understands love in a way no mortal can; and that was true even at a very young age. Can Twilight make two people be friends? Because Cadence can make two people love each other, it barely takes any effort for her. That she doesn't do so more often speaks more of her sense of morality than it does about her ability to inflame the emotions of others.

Meanwhile Twilight has shown no such ability or special insight, in fact, she's straight up lost in a magical duel against a mortal pony not that much older than her. And sure, SG might be a pretty incredible Unicorn, but I doubt she compares to the likes of Sombra or Starswirl.


I admit being a bit confused about Nemo. When did Rainbow go back? Do they exist as separate personalities in the same body?


Bit about Nemo pointing out more or less the same thing, but in more detail .

Can't really talk about the down and dirty on the mechanics of it yet, but Nemo Schwartz is Rainbow Dash. Think of it as remembering a past life. S/he did it when he/she was five, I think it was, and has had quite a few years to polish the chip-on-shoulder collection from expecting the cavalry any day now but getting zip for years and years.

And well, in this case that means some rather nasty conflicting loyalties. Conflicts Nemo has, for better or worse, done her best to resolve by acting like a naive, exploitable idiot, and seeing who tries to sell her a bridge versus who's trying to treat her right. Who deserves Loyalty, if you will, compared with who wants Loyalty.

The 'waiter test,' if you so will. Celestia and Luna failed it horribly, while Dresden—despite all but wearing an opera cape, a monocle and cackling by Equestrian standards—has passed so far.


Is this scenario what I fear the most:

Sweetie: "Oh Fluttershy, I finally discovered why you wanted so much to remain in this terrible world. You have a daughter! Don´t worry, we brough her here and also turn her into a pony. Isn´t she delightful? Anyway, "Maggie" doesn´t sound quite good as equestrian. What about "Cotton Tail"?
Harry: ....:rainbowderp:

7602728 You give Harry too little credit.

Mess with his daughter?
Would only be the BEGINING of what he would do.

Ahh so the behavior with Dresden/against the Equestrian's was part of her 'act' which the Equestrian's failed so she pretended to be wholly against them/with Dresden to see if he was worthy of her loyalty. If I have that right? In which case Dresden is perfectly right to be pissed and untrusting of her. Also, WTF RD! You bloody helped Dresden beat the tar out your (pseudo) little-sister and shoot the horn off of her best friends/one of your best-friends sisters, and were/managed to pretend you were convincingly, glad to do so. She's a damned psychopath in that case or a sociopath who is also one of the greatest actors in history. By that point she should either be a complete traitor in her own eyes, if she thinks the Equestrian's/Scoots have any chance of being hers, since she beat the crap out of her little sis, or should believe completely that these are not the ponies she knew and be totally on Dresden's side in taking them down and stopping whatever evil plot they have. The cognitive dissonance of believing they're the ponies she knew and loved and what she did to them/helped do to them should leave her catatonic, though they've had no chance for her to collapse I suppose since then and she's obviously unstable. Still she is gonna even more fucked up mentally once this is over.

7598737 Let me put this another way: Equestria's standards of light and dark are very different from the White Council's. By Equestria's standards, Dresden's always been a bigger bastard than Nightmare Moon, so why should this have any effect on him?


Nightmare "Moon" was Luna dabbling on villany (resulting in something more hammy than actually menacing). Harry is not a bastard, just an anti-hero type II (or III depending of the day). He going Nightmare should be bad news for everyone.

Cliffhanger? Nope. You ought to know that you should always bet your money on the bob-tail nag! (Or at least on the mare with tail extensions)

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