• Published 1st Mar 2019
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Haycartes' Pluperfect Method - Kris Overstreet

Twilight Sparkle has trapped herself in a shelf full of books. Will she survive- or will she lose herself to the story?

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DEATH BRIDLE Chapter 3: a Family Disagreement

Canterlot doesn’t like to admit it, much less advertise it, but tucked in among the spires and minarets and palace walls and windy alleyways are quite a lot of hotels. After all, ponies visiting the capital have to stay somewhere, and while Celestia is rather generous with the royal palace’s guest bedrooms, the demand vastly outstrips supply.

But… how do I put this? The selection really varies. On the one end of the spectrum you have the Hotel Parliamentaire, which posts no rates because, if you have to ask, you aren’t welcome there. On the other end you have the hotels built right against the face of Mount Canter, which get practically no sunlight and have signs that say ROOMS NOT RENTED BY THE HOUR. You know, classy establishments.

Father Victorious gave me the name of a hotel that was a lot closer to the latter than the former, though thankfully not in the same district. There were a number of cheap, no-frills, bare-but-clean hotels built around the train station, and if you could put up with trains arriving or leaving every twenty minutes, day or night, they weren’t a bad bargain. I knew exactly where it was, so we left the restaurant together, walking through the dim, rainy streets of the old town district.

We’re being followed. Two earth ponies, hats, coats concealing their flanks.

Now, I like to think after five years as a consulting wizard I’ve developed certain skills and a sixth sense not connected to my magic. And I had, in a casual way, been checking reflections in shop windows and looking around the skyline and street as I walked. But I hadn’t picked up the tails, and the grumpier of the voices in my head had. Naturally this irritated me, but foreign voice or not, I paid attention.

“Father,” I said quietly, “keep walking forward until I say otherwise. We have a couple of friends behind us making sure we don’t get lost.”

“Oh. Do we? I didn’t think anyone knew I was in town aside from Mighty Fortress.”

“I’m going to find us a shortcut to shake these guys,” I said. “Just keep close to me and-“

Look out!

The mental attack took me entirely by surprise. One moment I was in control of my own hooves, and the next moment, I wasn’t, simple as that. And, for no apparent reason, I was casting a huge bubble-shield spell, different from any shield spell I knew… and a heck of a lot stronger.

Three spell bolts went spang off it.

Now I really was annoyed. Even fangirl had more situational awareness than I did. I blamed the stupid thestral. I must have been worrying about him, subconsciously at least, causing me to-

Can you quit monologuing long enough for me to get us out of here?

Get us under cover, the other voice said. Unicorn snipers require line-of-sight. We’ll still have to deal with the earth ponies behind us.

And in front, I thought. This is an ambush. Professionals. And I think I know whose.

“Princesses preserve us!” Victorious said, ducking low. “What’s happening?”

I’d intended to get us to a certain large store three blocks down. I’d done the owner a couple of huge favors, and as a result I routinely used the stockrooms as a means of breaking pursuit. But, as I said, three blocks down, and also across the street. I might as well tack a bullseye on our rumps for the unicorn snipers.

The only option was the very narrow alley between buildings right next to us. We’d be out of sight of the snipers unless they were right on top of us. Unfortunately, that left the tails following us… and the ambush almost certain to be waiting at the other end. This had been planned perfe-

I think I can handle the ambush, Geek Voice said. I don’t have all my spells back, and definitely not all my magic, but I have a lot more than I did on the Lydia!

Magic is no substitute for a cool head and a sharp cutlass.

I heard my voice shout, “Into the alley! Go, go, go!” and a forehoof shove Victorious into a run in front of me. Then I followed, jumping over some crates half-full of garbage and keeping next to the priest. So far as I could tell, my body was doing all this on its own, and I was just along for the ride.

Then the shield spell went out. Does this alley go through to the Promenade? Geek Voice asked.

No, I thought hurriedly, Promenade’s two streets over. This goes to-

To Puddinghead Place! Okay, I know exactly where we are now! I grew up here! I felt a pressure building up in my horn. Now would be a very bad time to take the body back, she warned me. Either of you.

I felt the runes being shaped around my horn and realized exactly what was about to happen. Teleportation was a spell taught in Celestia’s School and by a few private teachers, but only the most powerful unicorns could cast it. I’d never been able to myself without a magic circle and so much prep time as to make it useless. But Geek Voice was doing it all in her head… well, in my head, but you know what I mean.

We kept running, and I saw daylight- or what passed for it in the rain- ahead. And there, leaning against a large black post-chaise, standing on his hind hooves, was the unicorn Maddog, the strong right hoof of the head of Canterlot’s organized crime, Johnny Respectable. He had three other goons with him, two earth ponies and a pegasus. The good news was, they’d obviously not been there long, since they really weren’t in proper position for an ambush.

“When we land, keep your head down, Father!” Geek Voice said with my mouth.

“What?” That was the kind of bewilderment you could buy in bottles, collected from unicorn aristocrats realizing for the first time how little ordinary ponies actually needed them.

The teleportation spell finished forming, and in a flash of light and smoke we went from just inside the alley to behind the post-chaise on the other side. “KEEP DOWN!” I shouted, and then my body turned around to meet the surprised-looking mob ponies just working their way around the ends of the carriage.

I felt a moment of dizziness, and then Grump Voice said, My turn. There had been some short, thick pieces of scrap lumber lying in the alleyway where the teleport dropped us, and Grump Voice had one in her telekinesis. The first blow went into the lead bodyguard’s chin, raising him up so the second caught him in the gut, which dropped him for the third to come down right on top of the noggin and send him to dreamland. The second bodyguard didn’t let himself get taken out that easily, but Grump had the board back to block the incoming kick- all in maybe a second and a half.

Then the board shot straight upwards just in time to bring some sweet chin music into the life of the pegasus, who’d been coming in for a tackle. He must have had a glass jaw, because instead of coming down on me he came down on the sidewalk and didn’t move.

But then Maddog was around the carriage, and his remaining bodyguard was still in my face, and the two tails from before were trotting out of that alleyway. And Grump Voice wasn’t backing down or even thinking about escape, but about the quickest way to neutralize them, and coming up empty.

It was time for me to take my body back, but I’d figured out instantly that Grump Voice was a much more experienced hoof-to-hoof fighter than I was- which I respected, since I’ve put some serious work into training my skills for when magic is a bad option. I didn’t want the whole body anyway- just the horn. Keep them busy! I thought, and focused my will on that one appendage alone. That was surprisingly easy, since Grump Voice barely acknowledged it existed, and I began pumping magic out into a specific spell.

Johnny Respectable and I had an understanding- or so I’d thought. We didn’t interfere directly in one another’s affairs. And Johnny definitely didn’t go around putting hits on ponies in broad daylight like this. So either I’d really put a burr under his saddle, or else Victorious wanted something Johnny didn’t want to let go of.

Now, I have no problem whatever with situations where it’s either them or me. But I don’t want to permanently end up on Johnny Respectable’s To Do list, so instead of cooking up a fireball big enough to take care of business, I cast a smoke spell. I can do fog too, but smoke is closer to my strongest element, and pegasi can’t just tidy it away with a flap of the wings.

In a few seconds none of us could see our hooves in front of our faces. That was fine by me, since I remembered where everything was, and a quick tracer spell located Victorious, hugging the corner of one of the buildings behind us. I took full control of the body, opening one door of the post-chaise with one forehoof while my magic grabbed Victorious and, with a strain, heaved him inside. I trotted around to the front, found the wagon-traces by hoof, slid into them, and galloped, hauling the carriage behind me.

Most unicorns wouldn’t be able to do this for more than a short distance. We don’t have earth pony strength and endurance. But fit, healthy wizards can channel more power, and they can deal with situations when more power doesn’t help. I did daily exercises and regular trots to keep in literal fighting trim, so I was able to gallop around the curves of Puddinghead Place until I got across Promenade and into the middle-class brownstones beyond.

That’s where I stopped. I didn’t want to steal one of Johnny’s rides, and anyway the sheer number of ponies out on the Promenade, even in the light rain, made it pretty certain that even Maddog would think a second try was a bad idea.

Even so, when I suggested we should walk quickly, Father Victorious agreed, especially after I explained exactly what kind of ponies we’d just got away from.

And since Promenade goes straight through Canterlot from the ceremonial gates of the Palace to the train station and the old wagon road that winds up the mountain from the plains, getting to the hotel didn’t give us any further problems.

“The Church is seeking a piece of stolen property,” Father Victorious said once we were settled into his cozy little economy room.

“Is that so?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked to retrieve something, but I have to ask. Why not try the guard?”

Victorious shuffled his forehooves together. “The Church has not yet admitted that any of Holy Faust’s relics are missing,” he said. “And it would be… inadvisable… to advertise the existence of this particular relic.”

“When did it go missing? And from where?”

“A week ago. From Mission Dan Cantor north of Roam.”

I whistled. “Even with airships, it can’t have been in town more than a couple of days. Maybe a relay of pegasi could have got it here in a couple days, if they rested on clouds above the Celestia Sea. What makes you think it’s even here? Klugetown would be a much better place to fence it. Or Manehattan.”

Victorious reached over to his suitcase, opened it, and pulled out a folder. “One of the thieves was found dead after the robbery,” he said. “He was well known to the Roam and Germane authorities. He was a member of the Pastel Rats. They’re a small group renowned for breaking into impossible places and making clean getaways.” He sighed and added, “But for some reason, this time he didn’t make it.”

I looked at the photo of the griffon corpse. Kind of a mess, but you don’t exactly expect corpses to look healthy. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“He was found near an airship dock the morning after the theft,” Victorious said. “On the body were various documents, no doubt forged, credentialing him to the Griffonstone Embassy here in Canterlot.”

Griffonstone hasn’t opened their embassy in almost a century! Geek Voice replied. And what kind of thief has that kind of stuff on him immediately after a robbery? If he’s part of a gang, why didn’t the gang empty his pockets?

Perhaps you are not as foolish as I thought, hallucination.

I agreed with Grump Voice, but I didn’t let on to Victorious, at least not yet. I flipped through the folder, finding what looked like a female diamond-dog and a svelte Abyssinian photographed. “File photos from the Germane guard,” Victorious said. “Not, of course, prisoner photos. These thieves have never yet been apprehended.”

“These are the remaining Pastel Rats?” I asked.

“So I’m told,” Victorious said. “I can only go by the best information given to me-“

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, cutting him off. “I want a thousand bits for retainer. My final bill will be determined by expenses, difficulty, and risk to life and limb. Based on today’s events, that last item is going to be pretty steep.” I looked the codger in the eyes and said, “And now that I’ve agreed to take your case, you’re going to tell me exactly what this thing is.”

“Is that strictly necessary?” Victorious asked.

“It’s something so hot that, by your story, it took the top super-crooks in the world to even touch it,” I said. “It got one of them killed. Johnny Respectable either has it or wants it, or so I’m guessing by the reception committee we got. You’re not telling the guard about it. In fact, by your own admission you wouldn’t admit the thing existed, except you need me to find it.” I’d paced back and forth in front of Victorious as I went down this list. “So now you’re going to tell me exactly what this thing is and what it looks like, or else you can find another wizard.”

Victorious rubbed his forehooves together anxiously. I didn’t waste any pity on him. He’d already given me a hard shove towards the cliff, and he was asking me to jump off and turn into an alicorn halfway down.

I might be able to do that!

“It is,” he said with great reluctance, “the Sketchbook of Tiveen. The writings of Faust Herself.”

“Really?” I asked. “Because, you know, if you’re missing your holy book, I know where you can buy a new one for-“

“In her own hoof,” Victorious continued. “No pony can read them, at least none we know. But we see the drawings, the many drawings. And they change, as the world changes, for the world is still being created.” He added in a whisper, “Some legends say, if a pony writes in the Sketchbook themselves, they can change the world, if it pleases Faust.”

“What happens when a pony tries it?”

“No pony has been recorded as trying it,” Victorious said. “But… there are inexplicable records of monasteries reporting themselves full, and yet recording one empty cell for years at a time. Perhaps a pony tried it, and Faust was displeased enough to… um… erase a drawing.”

Oooooo…. kay. So, not just a holy knick-knack, but an occult object of some serious holy power. And definitely the kind of thing some power-mad ponies would wipe out whole cities to touch. “How many people know this thing exists?” I asked.

“Oh, practically every religious scholar knows it exists,” Victorious said. “But the Church has heretofore concealed its possession of the Sketchbook. And its legends are not among those popularly circulated among ordinary ponies.

Lovely. Not well known enough to be recognizable on the street, but plenty well known enough for motivated ponies to learn about it and take action, Q. E. D. “Describe it to me, in detail.”

“It is in shape a scroll, spooled into a double red case of laquered wood with gilded ends,” Victorious said. “The cases are about three hooves long and a hoof in diameter. No pony has ever discovered its full length. Legend says it was once opened from Roam to Pizza without so much as a rip.”

“Okay.” I walked towards the door. “I bank with the Royal Trust. Once they send me word that my retainer’s been deposited, I’ll get to work.” I stepped halfway out, added, “Nice talking with you, Father,” and left.

Well. As if a duel with a thestral wasn’t enough, now I was also committed to finding a crazy-powerful artifact and persuading its current owners that it would be better for all concerned if it found its way back to its prior home. That’s not an easy job even when it’s only cheap jewelry at stake.

But at least I was going to get paid for this job…

Author's Note:

Because the kind of ritual sacrifice traditions that resulted in Jesus of Nazareth just plain don't fit with Equestria as we see it in the cartoon. No Shroud of Turin; instead we get a scrap of what might, or might not, be the pony world's source-code, so to speak...

Also, in the original book Harry Dresden just drives away from the ambush. No cars here, so things got a bit more, shall we say, personal...

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