• Published 17th Feb 2015
  • 5,021 Views, 204 Comments

Dresden Rocks - Chengar Qordath

Just when Harry thought he was finally done with all the crazy things that have grown out of his involvement with Equestria after gaining Sunset Shimmer as an apprentice, he learns that three creatures have followed him back to Earth.

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Harry Gets No Useful Advice

Sirens and Equestrian Magic were both big blind spots of mine, and unfortunately there was only so much Sunset could do to help. Especially since the way Equestrian magic interacted with human technology was (obviously) something that had never been studied before. If I was going to stop whatever take-over-the-world scheme these sirens were hatching, I needed to know as much as possible about how their powers worked. In other words, it was research time.

I sent Sunset off to see what she could dig up from Equestrian sources. Normally I would’ve loved a chance to dig through some books on their magic, but a crisis wasn’t the best time to make my umpteenth attempt at figuring out how to replicate Equestrian teleportation and flight spells. Besides, the whole point of sending Sunset off to go do research on her own was to have her not be here while we were doing stuff I didn’t want her knowing about. See? I can totally be subtle sometimes.

Once Sunset was safely away, Butters brought Bob out. Bob was a spirit of air and intellect who’d been working with me ever since I’d graduated from my apprenticeship. He was kind of like a big magical library. The problem was he wasn’t especially picky about who he shared that knowledge with; whoever held the skull that served as Bob’s vessel had full access to everything he knew. When a nasty coven of necromancers had stolen him from me, Bob hadn’t hesitated to help them figure out a spell that would’ve killed everyone in Chicago to fuel their leader’s ascension to godhood.

Needless to say, that’s the kind of temptation that Sunset didn’t need to face right now. Plus, I’ve got a healthy level of paranoia about keeping Bob secret from anyone who doesn’t need to know. If Twilight ever found out about him, I’d never get a moment’s peace until I let her borrow him and pick his brain. Well, skull.

While I sat safely contained in a magic circle to contain my wizardly tech-busting power, Bob’s skull sat on the desk of Butters’ freshly repaired computer, watching the video. While I don’t have much of an ear for music, the Sirens did seem pretty good, even without the mind-control compulsions. I guess that was to be expected, though. Luckily, the circle kept me safe while Butters and Andi stuck with the old-fashioned solution to Sirens: earplugs. From what I could tell, their exposure to the Sirens’ song wouldn’t have any lasting effects, but subtle mental stuff isn’t my area of expertise.

In any case, when it came to understanding any weird new magic I’d never seen before, Bob was pretty much my go-to guy. Being a spirit gave him an ability to see and perceive magic in ways I couldn’t, not to mention centuries of experience working under one wizard or another. Even if he didn’t have any direct knowledge on the Sirens, he’d know enough to make some very educated guesses. Whenever I wanted a deep, in-depth magical analysis, nobody could do a better job of it than Bob.

Once Bob had watched the video for the third time, though, my patience was starting to wear thin. “So what do you think?”

The skull spun around to face me, orange lights glowing in its empty eye sockets. “Well sahib, I’ve gone over the video like you asked, and I’m ready to dish out my expert opinion.” Bob let that hang in the air for a while until I waved for him to get on with it. “Adagio has that nice classic beauty to her and the best breasts. Not the biggest, mind you—that goes to Sonata—but bigger isn’t always better. Aria has more of that lean ‘bad girl’ look to her; not really my thing, but still pretty nice. Sonata's the cute one of the bunch, but with just enough edge to keep her from being cutesy. And she has the best ass.” Bob spun back around to face the computer, starting up the video again. “Yeah! Shake your tail, baby!”

Oh, Bob’s also a total perv. Did I forget to mention that?

I groaned and suppressed the urge to apply a blunt object to Bob’s skull. Just once, I’d like to have a supernatural information source that helps me out without demanding payment, trying to steal my soul, or being annoyingly quirky and eccentric. Is that really too much to ask? “Do you have anything that’s actually useful, Bob?”

“I think knowing which of the three chicks is the most bangable is incredibly useful information,” Bob answered primly. “After all, you could use that information to seduce one of them into turning on the other two.” The skull paused for a moment, and amended, “Okay, you couldn’t do that, but someone a lot more charming, sophisticated, and better-looking could totally pull it off.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bob.”

“Oh, and let’s not forget smarter too. And you’d need better impulse control. And to get rid of some of your pesky moral hangups. And—”

“Careful, Bob. This stupid guy with poor impulse control might just decide to smash you now and worry about the consequences later.” I considered tossing in a crack about trading him to the bad guys in exchange for them stopping their evil plan, but Bob would probably love the idea of serving a trio of attractive women. “So if you’re done being a smartass...”

Bob rolled his eyelights. “Yeah, you of all people complaining about someone being a smartass. That’s not hypocritical at all.”

Clearly, it was time to break out the oldest trick in the book: bribery. “If I give you one of those trashy romance paperbacks you like, will you stop messing around and start telling me something useful?”

Bob snorted, which is quite an achievement for a skull with no nose. “I’ve got the internet now, Harry. I don’t need to read books for my porn. There’s even porn of your cartoon pony friends. Lemme dig one of my favorites out...”

“No!” I totally didn’t sound desperate or terrified at all by that. And it definitely wasn’t going to feature prominently in my nightmares.

“Rule 34 is the greatest thing you monkeys ever came up with.” I had no idea what this Rule 34 was, but I was pretty sure I was happier not knowing. Thankfully, the skull got down to business after that. “Okay, here’s the deal: from what I can tell, their magic is woven into the music itself, so pretty much any form of aural exposure is dangerous. That said, the quality of the recording matters; I found one really bad version of the video with the sound all messed up, and the magic was gone.”

“So that tells us they’ll want the best recording equipment they can get.” Which would mean they’d need a proper studio and probably some technicians to run all that expensive gear. That would tie them down to a specific base of operations, at least. If the Sirens could put out mind control songs just using one of those cheap camera-phone things, there’d be no way to track them down. “Okay, that’s good. What about the spell itself? Is there any easy way to counter it? And how dangerous is exposure to it? Am I gonna be dealing with armies of mind-thralls the instant the Sirens realize I’m a threat? Will they be able to mess with me now that I’ve been exposed to the song?”

“I think you should be safe on that front, boss,” the skull assured me. “The Sirens weren’t targeting their spells at anyone in particular. You can’t do any really heavy-hitting mind control on a mass basis—you have to one-at-a-time it. The only spell they’ve got worked into this song right now is a general ‘love our song and share it with all your friends’ compulsion along with the usual standard ‘adore us and obey us’ thing any half-competent mindbender would use. I guess they’re still building up their fanbase right now. Using anything stronger might get them noticed faster.” Bob was briefly distracted by staring at the Sirens’ dancing, but got back on topic before I lost my temper. “Even if the White Council or some other heavy hitter found out about these guys, they’d probably assume that the Sirens were just low level warlocks trying to make a quick buck. Not that this is stage one of a world domination scheme. That puts them a lot lower down on the priority list. You sure they’re planning to take over the world?”

“They’re Saturday morning cartoon villains,” I answered flatly. “Their goal is always going to be world domination.” I frowned as I spotted a problem with Bob’s explanation. “Wait, so why did we all start fighting after we heard their song? You’d think that would attract attention.”

“Nice to see you’re not a total dummy, Harry.” Once more I was tempted to smash the skull. It’s a hazard of working with Bob. “The song is fueled with a kind of psychic negative energy, which is why all of you got nasty. Though normally it wouldn’t be all that strong. Maybe the effect got boosted in your case since you and your new pet muffin are both pretty strong wizards, and have a lot of negative emotional energy hanging around you. Plus, she’s from the same universe as them, so that could also be a factor.” Bob’s eyelights widened, and he started sounding just a touch too eager. “I couldn’t say for sure unless you let me meet her, though.”

I groaned. “We’ve covered this before, Bob: no meeting my apprentices.”

Despite the utter lack of facial expression or body language, I got the definite sense that Bob was pouting. “Harry always likes to hoard all the cute little muffins to himself. It’s not fair. And don’t tell me it’s a coincidence that you keep picking young, nubile, teenage girls to train, ‘cause I’m not buying that for a second.”

“And another thing,” I ground out, struggling to resist the urge to come up with some suitably ironic punishment for the skull. “My apprentices are not muffins. Or cupcakes, or doughnuts, or any other type of baked good.”

“But they totally are!” Bob shot back. “I read this one story on the internet where they used the word ‘muffin’ to mean—”

“Nobody cares, Bob!” The last thing I needed was to be regaled with one of his porno fantasy stories. “Now behave, or I’ll send you to a monastery for a couple weeks. And not one of the monasteries from those Naughty Nuns videos you keep watching.”

“Aww, but those are some of my favorites.” Bob sighed, then got back to business. “But yeah, it looks like their Siren songs pull out negative emotions. That makes sense, since those are a lot better for enforcing control. And the spell itself is fairly low power, but also designed to draw in energy from others.”

“And a wizard like me is going to have a lot more energy to draw upon,” I finished. Not to mention I had plenty of negative emotions to tap into. I usually kept a pretty good lid on them, but it’s easy to keep your dark side in check when you’re handling average day-to-day stuff. When the pressure started mounting, I could get real nasty real quick.

Bob continued on. “I would also guess that your new muffin’s magic might have some kind of interaction with Sirens’ magic, though I can’t say for sure since someone refuses to let me have any fun at all. That Siren spell seems singularly good at drawing out and tapping into her magic. Guess it figures, since the Sirens made that spell to feed on ponyland energy.”

I groaned and started massaging my temples as I felt a headache coming on. So my apprentice who was still working on overcoming her own inner demons was going to be extra-vulnerable to the mind control spells that tap into the target’s inner darkness. Which Sunset definitely had plenty of. “Do you have any good news?”

“A couple of things,” Bob replied. “The fact that you guys are extra-vulnerable means that their control’s generally a lot weaker, so you’re probably safe from anyone the Sirens haven’t had direct contact with. At least for now. If your info on them getting stronger the more people they feed off of is accurate, then that might change after a while.”

I frowned as another worrying possibility occurred. “On top of building up their fanbase for a bigger food supply, fame would make it easier for them to get into direct contact with more people, and before long, important people. How famous do you think they need to get before someone like the President decides to listen to their song?”

“Or just putting on a big concert that’d let them directly eat ten thousand people at once,” Bob agreed. “What they get over the internet is a trickle compared to putting on a live show. The whole subtle puppetmaster routine is fun, but they’d also want to juice up on raw power.”

“Great, so they’ve got two ways to cause untold amounts of damage.” Whether they went for subtle mind control or brute force, we probably didn’t have very long before the Sirens became a lot more dangerous. Because of course I couldn’t have a case that didn’t involve a ticking clock counting down to some sort of catastrophe.

Good thing I do my best work under pressure. I waved for Bob to shut down Butters’ computer. The skull reluctantly stopped leering at the Sirens and turned it off. Once there was no more nasty mind control music, I signalled the all-clear to Butters, and he and Andi removed their earplugs. “Bob’s pretty sure they have to be operating out of a well-equipped studio with all the latest high-tech gizmos, so is there any way you can use that to track them down? Y’know, check sales of all that gear, run a pattern analysis, and triangulate their locations?”

Butters stared at me for a couple seconds, then groaned and shook his head. “This is what I get for being friends with a guy whose knowledge of computers comes solely from Batman comics.”

That wasn’t fair—I’d watched all the Batman movies too. Though I was really more of a Spider-Man kinda guy; gimme a wisecracking smartass over a dark and brooding loner any day. My parents were dead too, but you don’t see me dressing up in weird outfits and being all obsessive about it thirty years after the fact. Or hanging out with teenage boys who aren’t allowed to wear pants.

“Look Butters, you handle all the computer mumbo-jumbo and I’ll handle all the magical mumbo-jumbo. That’s how this deal works.” In fairness, though, Butters had begun branching out into magical knowledge ever since he started taking care of Bob. Shockingly, having a talking magical encyclopedia in your house is a good way to learn more about magic. Pity I couldn’t figure out all this technology stuff the same way. “Look, my point is that you have computer skills, right? You can hack into people’s cars and stuff.” I was reasonably sure that was something he could do. Well, I’d seen it in a movie once.

Butters put his head in his hands and let out a rueful chuckle. “You really are clueless about computers. I’m reasonably tech-savvy. I know how to fix my computer when something goes wrong with it, how to upgrade it, and even enough to help set up the ParaNet. What I can’t do is cast magic spells by typing on anything with an internet connection.”

At some point I really needed to find out more about all this new high-tech stuff. In my defense, it’s hard to avoid being computer-illiterate when computers die whenever I spend more than a minute around them without being shielded in some way. Butters had mentioned looking into what exactly caused tech to die around wizards and trying to find a way to fix or at least mitigate it, but so far he hadn’t had any luck with it.

Now wasn’t the time to worry about that, though. “Just spread the word about the Sirens over the ParaNet. The fewer people who see their videos, the better.”

“I can try,” Butters offered, “but protecting the ParaNet won’t do much good if they get the rest of the world. And I hate to say it, but ‘this popular music video contains secret mind control messages’ is usually the kind of thing that gets dismissed as lunatic rambling. Odds are for every one person who actually listens to us, a hundred will go watch the song just to see what the big deal is.”

Much as I hated to admit it, he was right. Back in my rebellious teenager days, I always listened to music that was supposed to have subliminal satanic messages you could only hear by playing the tapes backwards.

I took a good look at Butters. The guy looked about how I felt: tired, frustrated, and just a bit scared. Snapping at him certainly wasn’t going to help anything. “Just do what you can, okay? I’ll see what I can find on the spooky side of things.” First step, I needed to get a dozen pizzas. Faeries love pizzas.

Several dozen little faeries descended on the pizza like a pack of rabid wolves, except with more pixie dust. Sunset watched the spectacle, her jaw hanging open in shock. “You weren’t kidding. They’re like parasprites.”

“At least they don’t reproduce by puking out little baby pixies.” As far as I knew, they made baby pixies the old-fashioned way. Heck, Toot-Toot, the self-appointed leader of my little band of faeries, had a massive unrequited crush on a girl faerie. Not that I really wanted to know all the details of pixie reproduction. Some things are better left a mystery.

One thing to be said for how quickly the little folk ate everything, it meant we could get down to business pretty quickly. Once he’d finished gorging himself, Toot drew up his subordinates and snapped off something that vaguely resembled a salute. “What can we do for you, ‘Za Lord?”

“Za Lord?” Sunset repeated incredulously.

“I provide them with pizza on a semi-regular basis. Ergo, ‘Za Lord.” Twenty bucks a week on pizza, plus more whenever I needed a special favor, was a small price to pay for the little folks’ loyalty. They’re probably some of the best information gatherers in the world, at least when it comes to simple, everyday stuff. They might not have the attention span or intellect of something like one of the demonic information brokers or an oracle spirit, but they’re small, fast, and numerous. Not to mention faeries work for pizza; demons and oracles have much higher fees. I’m rather fond of my soul, battered and stained though it may be.

I pulled out a couple still images of the Sirens that Butters had printed out for me. “I need you guys to find these three girls and tell me where they are.” The little folk didn’t have the mindset needed for something complicated like tracking equipment purchases, but they had the numbers and speed to just canvass the entire city. While it was possible the Sirens had left Chicago, my gut told me they were still around. If I were in their position, I’d want to stay close enough to the portal back to my home dimension as a fallback option.

Toot turned around and started barking orders at all the pixies who had the dubious pleasure of serving the ‘Za Lord, and they scattered. Sunset watched them all go, a faintly bemused smile of her face. “Well, that was certainly something. How long will it take for them to get back with an answer?”

“Not too long.” With how short the little folks’ attention span was, they pretty much had to finish tasks in a short time period. Whenever I gave them jobs that took more than half an hour, they were liable to get distracted by something shiny and forget all about the task I’d put them on.

While we waited, I gave Sunset a quick rundown of what I’d learned from Bob, though I left out any mention of Bob himself. That didn’t take very long, so before too long we were just waiting for Toot to get back. To pass the time, Sunset threw a quick protective circle around herself, then pulled out her phone and started messing around with it. Unicorn magic is incredibly unfair. My own magical talents had come in right when portable video games were getting started, so I’d had just enough exposure to know what I was missing out on. Not to mention all the problems in my life that could’ve been solved if I had a working cell phone instead of being stuck with old-fashioned communication.

We weren’t waiting around for too long before Toot showed up again. One look at the proud smile on his face told me that his mission had ended in success. He pointed at the picture of Sonata. “We saw her at the taco place.”

Sunset, lacking my familiarity with how the minds of the little folk work, asked a perfectly sensible question. “Which taco place?”

The taco place,” Toot answered patiently. Pixies don’t exactly grasp the finer points of urban navigation like street addresses. Don’t misunderstand, they can get around just fine—they just don’t have the same frame of reference or use the same landmarks.

I could’ve swooped in and saved Sunset any further embarrassment by asking Toot to guide us there, but I decided to sit back and see how my apprentice would solve this issue. It would be a learning experience for her. I wasn’t doing it just to laugh at her frustration. Honest.

Sure enough, Sunset already had her eyes closed and was resting her forehead on a few outstretched fingers. “Okay. The taco place. There are probably thousands of taco places in this city. Is there anything you can tell me about this specific one?”

“It’s the one next to the pizza place!” one of Toot’s little helpers offered.

“Which pizza—” Sunset caught herself and groaned. “Of course, it’s next to the pizza place.”

Toot and his companions nodded eagerly, pleased to see that she was starting to get it. One of them began jumping up and down, buzzing his wings frantically. “Oooh! Oooh! I just remembered! There’s another pizza place across the street from it, and the other one has stuffed crust!”

“Stuffed crust?” one of the pixies scoffed. “The other pizza place has better sauce, and puts that flavoring stuff on its crusts. That’s way better than stuffed crust.”

That drew a chorus of horrified gasps from half the little folk in attendance. One of them leveled an accusing finger at the speaker. “Nothing is better than stuffed crust! You take that back!”

The rest of pixies rallied behind the one who questioned the value of stuffed crust. “He’s right! You’re the ones who’re wrong! Get them!”

Thus began the first Stuffed Crust vs. Flavored Crust Holy War. The battle lasted for thirty-five seconds of hair-pulling, wing-twisting, and limb-biting. The bloody conflict reached a shaky truce when Toot broached the possibility of a pizza with flavoring and cheese stuffing, which both sides could agree was the best of both worlds.

While I’d been watching the spectacle, Sunset was tapping away at her phone again. She looked optimistic at first, but it wasn’t long before she was growling in frustration. “Urgh, if I could get a map of all the pizza places in Chicago and a map of all the taco restaurants in Chicago, then I could cross-reference them and figure out where we need to go.”

“That’d work a lot better if you were using the bat-computer instead of a cell phone.” I might be clueless about tech, but I never forget a good smartass opportunity. With that seen to, I turned to Toot. “Can you just lead us there?”

“Sure!” Toot grinned. “It’s right next to two pizza places.”

“Great.” I grinned down at the little fairies. “If this pans out, I promise I will find a way to get you guys a pizza that has stuffed, flavored crust.”

That drew a chorus of cheers from the little folk.

Sure enough, Toot led us to a middle-of-the-road taco restaurant that had a Pizza ‘Spress right next to it and one of the competing pizza chains across the road. I knew this part of town fairly well, since we were only a couple blocks away from the university. In hindsight, the fact that there were two pizza places right next to each other should’ve been a giveaway. Only college kids scarf down enough of the stuff to justify that many pizza restaurants.

I pulled into the parking lot and hopped out of my borrowed car. I still hadn’t gotten around to replacing my poor old Blue Beetle, which had been crushed by an Ick. Fortunately, there were a few perks to selling your soul to the Queen of Winter. Not only did Mab have some very nice classic cars to loan out, all of them had killer air conditioning too. Chicago summers are nasty enough to make you appreciate that.

Sunset climbed out of the passenger seat while I quickly confirmed with Toot that our target was still there. From what I’d been told, the Sirens ate by turning everyone around them into jerks, then feeding off the negative energy. Tacos didn’t exactly fit with that, unless this restaurant attracted particularly grumpy patrons. That seemed a little small-time compared to their take-over-the-world scheme, though.

Sunset seemed to be on the same page. “Why’s she here? Seems like a big risk for her to be out in public and alone. And it’s not like they actually need to eat food, is it?”

I shrugged. “Maybe she just likes how tacos taste?”

“We can ask her ourselves.” Sunset stretched out, then snapped her fingers, grinning at the little spark of flame that produced. “So what’s the plan? I’m guessing we can’t follow normal Equestrian policy and just charge right in and arrest her?”

“‘Fraid not. Chicago PD doesn’t recognize ‘Being a monster in the first degree’ as an arrestable offence.” It really was amazing just how far a lot of people would go to rationalize away the existence of magic. The idea that magic isn’t real was just so ingrained into people’s minds that they wouldn’t believe in it even when the reality was staring them in the face. Sure, someone might admit they’re up against an ogre when one grabs them and hauls them into a dark alley, but once they got away and had some time to ‘think’ about it, they’d tell themselves that it was just some really big, ugly guy. After all, it had been a dark alley, and everything had happened so fast. Besides, everyone knows monsters aren’t real.

Sometimes ‘everyone’ has no idea what they’re talking about.

“So I guess we try to get her somewhere isolated?” Sunset suggested. “Your little faerie buddies say she’s on her own right now. Seems like the smart move is to grab her now while her friends aren’t around to help. Plus, we might be able to squeeze some information out of her.”

Not a bad plan, all things considered. A little vague on the details, but I tended to make up most of those as I went along. Not that I’m saying planning was useless, just that you need to keep your plans loose enough to be adaptable. “Any ideas on how to get her out of the public eye? If we want to avoid making a scene, we need to find some way to make her come with us willingly.” I’m not averse to ignoring a few inconvenient laws in the name of saving the world, but kidnapping someone in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses was pushing it. That would get the cops on my case, and I knew from my previous run-ins with the law that I was a pretty easy guy to recognize. The instant the cops got a report of a tall, skinny, creepy weirdo with a staff and a black leather duster kidnapping someone, they’d be after me.

“We could always try talking to her, see what that turns up.” Sunset paused, smirked at me, and amended, “Well, I could try talking to her. Your social skills are kind of horrible.”

“They are not.” Much to my annoyance, I sounded kinda whiny when I said that. “But fine, if you wanna take the lead, then go ahead. It’ll be a good learning experience.”

“Yeah.” Sunset smirked. “For you.”

“You’re like a kid poking a bear with a stick. Someday I’m gonna wake up and maul you. Except with smartassery instead of, y’know, mauling.” Truly, I am a master of wit and biting insightful commentary.

Though I wasn’t all that eager to admit it, Sunset probably had a point about letting her take the lead. “I’ll give you one thing, a slightly scruffy-looking adult man trying to convince a teenage girl to go into a dark alley is gonna have a hard time of it. Especially in a restaurant full of reasonably paranoid people.”

“Which is why you aren’t doing this alone.” Sunset grinned, looking entirely too eager to get on with the show. “I'm your accomplice. I’ll put her at ease, and make you look less suspicious and disreputable.”

Oh yeah, this wasn’t sounding creepy or wrong at all. I swear, at this rate I was gonna end up on one of those TV shows about dangerous criminals. Do they still have those on? I don’t watch much TV due to my minor problem of making electronics explode. I hope not, because my life’s complicated enough without every soccer mom in the world keeping an eye out for depraved pedophile, Harry Dresden. “The things I do to save the world...”

I quickly cased the place before we went in, giving it all a quick once-over to make sure there weren’t any nasty surprises waiting for me. No magical traps, no army of mind-thralls waiting to jump me the instant I threatened their mistress, nothing. Just cheap plastic chairs and benches done up in a gaudy pseudo-mexican color scheme. Typical for a taco joint, I suppose. I took a deep breath and braced myself. “Once more unto the breach...”

I opened the door.

The first thing that hit me upon entering was the music. It sounded like a mariachi band and a techno one had been tossed into a giant blender, and we were listening to their screams of agony. Maybe I’m just a music snob, though. It probably says something about me that most of the bands I listen to are older than I am.

It wasn’t hard to pick my target out from the crowd. Sonata Dusk—or as Bob had called her, the cute one. Her two-toned blue ponytail was pretty unique, not to mention she was still wearing the same outfit she’d used for the music video. From what I could tell, fashion sense in freaky high-school pony land was kind of weird. I’d seen Sunset’s closet, and it was just a dozen versions of the same outfit. Though I guess that was better than dealing with a humanized pony who’d never dealt with humanity before. After all, the cartoon ponies believed clothing was strictly optional. That would’ve been awkward. Bob would’ve loved it, though.

Judging by the small mountain of wrappers on her table, Sonata had been here for a while. She got up and headed for the line to place a new order, but there were several people in front of her. She waited patiently for about half a second, then began tapping her foot and squirming. When that didn’t make the line move any faster, she took a deep breath, and the large ruby fastened around her neck glimmered. Then she started singing.

“I’m gonna eat me some tacos
Because it is Taco Tuesdaaaay
And tacos are really yummy
So why don’t you get outta my way?”

The subtle mental pressure of her magic hit me, but now that I was ready for it I could guard my mind. It probably also helped that I wasn’t the target. Once her little ditty was done, everyone in line let her cut straight to the front, their eyes dull and glassy. A minute later she was parked back on the cheap plastic bench she’d claimed as her resting place, leaning to the side and kicking up her legs so she took up the whole thing. There were two fresh, fully loaded tacos in sitting in front of her. From the gluttonous grin on Sonata’s face, the two would soon be joining the rest of their taco brethren in her stomach.

I sent Sunset to pick up our orders, lest I fry the cash register. Bean tacos for herself since she’s a vegetarian like most ponies, and a steak burrito for me since I believe dead cow is an important part of any healthy meal. Once she had our food, she walked over to the bench across from Sonata and stopped right next to it, giving the Siren a friendly smile. “Hey, is this seat taken?”

Sonata’s mouth was stuffed with taco when Sunset approached, so it took a couple seconds for her to swallow and answer. “Nah, you can sit there if you wanna.” I couldn’t help but notice that she pulled her remaining taco-and-a-half a bit closer to herself once Sunset took her seat, and was warily watching the other girl out of the corner of her eye. That girl really loves her tacos.

I settled in next to Sunset and unwrapped my burrito. I’m not much of a Mexican food fan, but I have to admit it looked pretty good. Kind of like one of Mac’s steak sandwiches, except the bread was a giant tortilla instead of bread.

Sonata frowned as I joined them, and I wondered if maybe I should’ve just stayed back and let Sunset handle it all. The Siren’s eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute ... are you guys with one of the record companies? 'Cause I'm not allowed to sign anything that Adagio hasn’t looked over first. Sorry. But hey, at least you got tacos out of it!”

I made my best effort at a charming smile. She didn’t recoil or flee in horror, so it must not have been too bad. “Trust me, if we were from the record company, we would be eating something a lot nicer than fast-food tacos.”

“Yeah, we’re just hungry people who want some tacos.” Sunset offered Sonata her hand. “I'm Sunset, nice to meet you.” I was pleased by her holding back half her Name. While it wasn’t part of Equestrian magic, in human-land there was power in names. Give a wizard like me someone’s full Name from their own lips, and it could be used as a conduit for all sorts of nasty magic. Or at least, that’s what I’ve heard; thankfully I haven’t had anyone screw me over too badly by using my Name against me. Yet.

Besides, a name like Sunset Shimmer wasn’t exactly normal in human-land. If Sonata had half a brain, she would peg Sunset as an Equestrian in an instant.

Sonata wiped most of the taco sauce off her hand, then shook Sunset’s. “Sonata Dusk, nice to meetcha!” She grinned. “That's a good name, Sunset. Much better than the ones around here. I mean, most of these guys have names like Tom, Bob, and Harry. Those’re such boring names. They don’t even mean anything!”

I couldn’t resist an opening like that. “Hi Sonata, I’m Harry.” The smile froze on her face. “And for the record, ‘Harry’ derives from Harold, which comes from the Old English Hereweald, which means ‘army leader.” I turned to Sunset and smirked. “See? I know things!”

Sunset acknowledged me long enough to roll her eyes, then turned back to Sonata. “Well, it fits. He's a pretty boring guy.”

Just once, I’d like to have an apprentice who doesn’t sass me. Sunset was even worse than Molly about it. Maybe some day I’ll get an apprentice who’s quiet, attentive, and respectful. Probably right after hell freezes over. Instead, I answered sass with snark. “Sorry, not everyone gets a character defining noun-adjective name.”

“Whatever.” Sonata shoved the rest of her taco into her mouth, then messily chewed and swallowed it. “So, like, what’s your deal anyway? ‘Cause you don’t look like Sunset’s dad or anything, and you’re way too old to be boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Sunset turned on me, her lips curling in incredulous disgust. “What, him? My boyfriend? NO! Ew! Ew Ew EW!

Okay, while I was glad to know my apprentice wasn’t harboring an inappropriate and doomed lust for her teacher (this time), she didn’t have to sound that disgusted by the idea. I mean, I’m not gonna win any contests, but I like to think I look semi-decent considering my age and all the abuse I’ve put my body through. Or at least, not so ugly that women regard me with horrified revulsion. I definitely didn’t rate four ‘ews’ on the attractiveness scale. Maybe two, max.

Sunset shivered and set her taco down, then shoved the tray away. “Y’know what, I’m so grossed out that I'm not hungry anymore.”

Ow. Right in the pride. I wasn’t overly fond of this entire line of discussion, so I decided to move things along to a better topic. After all, we were supposed to be grabbing the evil mind control monster, not making small talk with her. I turned to Sonata and plastered on my best effort at a friendly smile. “Anyways, what’s your deal?”

“Eating tacos,” she answered, getting to work on her last one. “What does it look like?”

Sunset took over the fishing expedition. “I think what Harry meant to ask was why did you think we were with a record company?”

Sonata made a vague sound around a mouthful of lettuce and ground beef, and quickly chewed and swallowed. “Because a lot of people have been coming up to us asking to sign some deals ever since we did that video, or something. I dunno, Adagio and Aria take care of that stuff. The only thing they said I had to do was write my name down on a piece of paper when they found the right deal. As long as I get to sing, I’m happy.”

She would just sign whatever contract her band-mates picked without even reading it first? That’s a good way to get yourself into all kinds of legal trouble, not to mention how nasty contract law can get when magic’s involved. I’ve spent enough time around the really old creatures of Faerie to get a real appreciation for just how sneaky and elaborate they can make a seemingly simple deal.

It all led to an inescapable conclusion: Sonata wasn’t the brains of the outfit. I suppose if we were trying to pick out a weak link to squeeze info out of, that made her a good candidate.

Meanwhile, Sunset continued making small talk. “So a lot of companies are trying to sign your band? I guess that means you must be a really good singer. You said something about a video...”

“Duh!” Sonata set her taco down with a proud grin. “The Dazzlings are only the hottest thing right now! Our YouTube video has a bajillion hits! You’ve seen it, haven't you?” She pulled out a shiny new phone, which was probably moments away from dying horribly now that it had been exposed to me. “I'll show it to you. It's totally the bomb.”

I cut in before Sonata could start messing with her phone. I didn’t know how familiar she was with how things worked on Earth, but I didn’t want to risk giving away that I was a wizard when her phone died. “Why show us a video when we could hear you sing for real?”

Sunset was quick to support me, like a good apprentice. “Yeah. recordings are nice, but there’s nothing like a live performance.”

Sonata blinked in surprise, then grinned. “Oh my gosh, you're totally right! I'll do that right now so everyone can hear.” She sat up straight and cleared her throat.

“Wait!” I didn’t want all the innocent people in here exposed to her siren song. Plus, I could see my sneaky plan coming together. “How about we take this outside? I don't think the acoustics in here will be really good, not to mention you’ve got that music in the background and everyone talking and stuff. Also, we might bother people.”

Sonata paused and frowned. “Hey, everyone loves dine-in entertainment. And trust me, once I start singing, nobody’s gonna be paying attention to anything else.”

“Yeah, but this still isn’t the best place to give a performance,” Sunset offered, putting a hand on Sonata’s arm. “You can't let people get a bad opinion of your singing just because you got caught in the wrong place, right? You know how fickle fame can be. All it takes one bit of bad publicity and you’re a washed-up has-been.” She waved at the other diners. “I bet most of them have phones. What if one of them records you and it gets out on the internet?”

Another idea popped into my head, and I took a stab in the dark. “And you have to think about the other members of the group too. What do you think Adagio and Aria would say if you gave a bad performance that threw off their plans?”

I didn’t know anything about the internal dynamics of the Sirens, but I could make a pretty good guess about how much respect Sonata’s bandmates had for her. If they were telling her not to talk to anyone important and she was signing contracts purely on their say-so, then she was probably the lowest rung on the ladder. Not to mention Sonata hadn’t exactly struck me as an intellectual giant. I felt pretty confident betting that mentioning the possibility of messing up the group’s plans would shake her up a bit.

Sure enough, Sonata’s shoulders slumped slightly, and the friendly smile of her face flickered for a moment. “Yeah, I wouldn’t wanna upset them. Alright, we can go somewhere else. But lemme finish my taco first.” She wasted no time tearing into the last taco on her plate.

Sunset glanced down at her unfinished one, then nudged it towards Sonata. “Here, you can have mine too. I’m not all that hungry.”

Well, if the apprentice wanted to bribe the siren with more tacos, then more power to her. Personally, I paid for my steak burrito and I was darn well going to eat it. I picked up the pace a bit, though. I didn’t want to be the only guy left holding food once Sonata’s plate was empty.

“Score! Thanks, Sunset.” Celestia had mentioned that the Sirens were over a thousand years old, but judging by how fast Sonata had scarfed those tacos she still had a teenage metabolism to match her body. Well, that or the Sirens worked differently from humans. Heck, if she lived by feeding off negative emotional energy, did she even need tacos?

The closest earthly equivalent to the Sirens that I knew of were the White Court Vampires, who were also emotion-eaters. Despite mainly feeding on lust, fear, and despair, the White Court Vamps liked mundane food and drink just fine. From what I understood, they could survive by just eating emotion, but forgoing mortal food meant spending some of their supernatural energy to make up the difference. Most preferred to stick with mundane foods for mundane needs and save their supernatural mojo for when they needed it.

Besides, just because Sonata didn’t need tacos doesn’t mean she wouldn’t like eating them. After all, people can survive on nothing but bread and water, but that hasn’t stopped us from adding thousands of things we don’t strictly need to our food to make it tastier.

Sonata loudly slurping her drink put an end to that little philosophical tangent. The tacos were gone, and by the aggravating sound emanating from her cup she’d finished off her coke too. Sure enough, once she set it down she grinned and announced, “Okay, all done.”

Sunset got up with a friendly smile plastered on her face. “Great! Harry knows the perfect place, so if you’ll just follow us...”

Sonata bounced out of her seat, grinning eagerly. “Okay! Once you hear me sing it’ll knock your socks off!”

“I bet it will.” I put on my best not-at-all-creepy smile. “I think I know a great spot.”

Sunset shot me a sassy grin. “Lead the way then, old man.”

“I'm not old.” I started heading for a nice dark deserted alleyway. “Just seasoned.” Since we were reasonably close to the college, I knew the perfect place to take Sonata down. Fittingly, I’d discovered the place when I’d nearly been killed there myself. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any ninja assassin ghouls lurking there this time.

Once we got there, Sonata was frowning around in obvious confusion. I couldn’t blame her. A dark alleyway behind a second-hand bookstore wasn’t exactly the sort of place most people would pick. Hell, the acoustics here were probably horrible. “Are you sure this is the best place to sing? ‘Cause it looks like a dump.”

Sunset was already busy making sure nobody was watching us. I guess being an ex-bully would give her some experience in that kind of thing. There was one girl, college-aged, who was working on a cigarette, so I stalled for time. “Yep, it’s perfect for the type of performance I'm looking for. We just need to get you in the exact right place. You know, for the acoustics.”

Sonata stared at the overflowing pile of garbage next to a dumpster. “If you say so...”

Great, she was already starting to figure out something weird was going on. I didn’t want to risk her running off on me. Not only would it cost me this chance, but she’d probably warn Adagio and Aria too. Sonata might have been limiting herself to using mind control magic to cut in line for tacos, but I had a feeling her partners-in-crime wouldn’t. At the very least, they’d start keeping an eye out for me, and maybe hire some mortal security guards.

So I improvised. “Oh, hey, before we get started, can Sunset and I get your autograph?” I desperately searched my pockets, and pulled out a crumpled pizza menu and a stubby little pencil. “It’s just, you’re the first real celebrity we’ve ever met, so...”

Sonata’s face brightened up at that, and she eagerly took the pencil and paper from me. “Sure thing!” While she was jotting down her signature, Sunset gave me the all-clear signal. Because I’m paranoid, I double-checked anyway. Better safe than having a police sketch artist’s rendering on the six o’clock news. I confirmed that we were safe, and Sonata grinned and handed back my pizza menu. “Okay here you go! Ready for some singing?”

“Ready,” I confirmed.

Now I just needed to figure out some way to disable her. I’m usually pretty good at flying by the seat of my pants, but I’d run into a bit of a problem with Sonata.

The thing was, even though she was really a thousand-year-old monster that turned people into jerks as a form of sustenance, Sonata Dusk looked like an ordinary teenage girl. Heck, she acted like one too. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a bit too chivalrous to be okay with smacking around a girl. I don’t take the principle to suicidal extremes or anything—way too many monsters are good at looking like attractive women—but I just wasn’t comfortable with sucker-punching Sonata.

Sonata cleared her throat while I wracked my mind for a solution. I could try a binding spell, but those are always a bit hit-or-miss. Especially when I still didn’t know enough about how Siren magic worked beyond being pretty sure that it was tied into their singing. If I gagged her that should at least take care of her magic, which just left tying her up. I hadn’t seen any signs of superhuman strength, so that shouldn’t be too hard.

Geez, I was planning how to get a bound and gagged teenager into the back of my car. This wasn’t creepy or wrong at all.

Sonata took another deep breath, and I realized she was about to start singing. While I still hadn’t come up with a plan for how to subdue her, thankfully Sunset was one step ahead of me. Also, as a girl, she lacked any of my compunctions about hitting girls. My apprentice waited until Sonata’s lungs were full, then slammed a fist into her solar plexus. The breath left Sonata’s lungs in a pained wheeze, and the Siren went down, clutching her stomach and gasping.

I stared at my apprentice in shock, which she answered with an annoyed glower. “What was I supposed to do, let her sing? Besides, we wanted to grab her, right?” She pulled a roll of duct tape out from under her jacket and slapped a strip over Sonata’s mouth. “Come on, help me tie her up. The longer it takes, the more likely someone will see us.”

I sighed and pinned Sonata’s arms to her sides as gently as I could so Sunset could get to work taping them down. I guess Sunset was right about the fact that we would have to take Sonata down, and that was always going to require a bit of violence. That didn’t mean I had to like it. “Where did you learn to punch like that, Sunset?”

My apprentice answered with a somewhat rueful smile. “Well I was a high school bully. You pick up some skills.”

I sure know how to pick my apprentices. “I thought you girls did all your bullying by spreading nasty rumors and calling each other fat. Punching and dunking people’s heads in toilets is how guys do things.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “First off, that’s a stereotype. Second, I liked using rumors and lies because they don’t leave behind evidence, not because those are ‘girly’ tactics. Principal Celestia was too much like the real Celestia to let me get away with blatant bullying, but she wouldn’t punish me when she couldn’t prove I’d broken any rules, so...” She trailed off uncomfortably, then shook her head. “Look, I know how to throw a punch. Can we just leave it at that? I don’t like talking about the stuff I did back in High School-ville.”

My vague understanding of dime store psychology told me that I should probably push her on this at some point, but mid-abduction probably wasn’t the time or place for it. I couldn’t resist a bit of smartassery, though. “Did you learn about kidnapping in high school, too?”

Sunset took my snark and responded in kind. “Nah, I'm just making this up as I go along. Now get the car while I hold her down.”

“Got it, just try to keep her quiet until I’m back.” By this point Sonata was thoroughly bound in duct tape. She’d recovered enough from the sucker punch to start struggling, but duct tape is wonderful stuff. I’m sure she’d manage to work her way free eventually, but it would take her a while. Just to be safe, I went with multiple layers of it all the way around her head. In my experience, there’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to restraining the bad guys.

Hopefully all that tape would last long enough for us to get her to wherever we would be holding her for our interrogation. That raised the question of which one of my friends I should impose on for a bit of hospitality; getting Sonata all the way out to Demonreach might be a bit problematic.

So, which of my friends did I trust enough to ask them if they would be okay with having their mugshot next to mine in one of those crime shows?

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