• 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 11: The Lost Art of Negotiation

Although there are a few charter flights for tourists to and from Cloudsdale and Las Pegasus, by and large airships are expensive playtoys for unicorns and the occasional nouveau-riche earth pony. The fact that Canterlot has a double-digit number of airship berths is a testament to just how much dough the old unicorn aristocracy still has to throw around. Ordinary non-pegasus ponies like me have to settle for the train.

Dock Six, like all the other airship docks, stuck out on the far edge of Canterlot, overlooking a three-quarter mile drop to the base of Mount Canter. The city guard had a pegasus patrol out just in case a pony stepped, fell, or got thrown over the edge… but all that meant was the last word you were likely to hear in this life would be, “Well, I almost-“

The airship in Dock Six was a personal-sized pleasure blimp, large enough to be quite comfortable inside, but not large enough to have parties on or to carry any real number of passengers. That also meant not any great number of, say, bodyguards. Considering the nature of the Pastel Rats’ occupation, that more than likely meant the two of them were alone.

And to make things even better, the main hatch was wide open, with the gangplank extended to the dock. I could just step right in, cast a sleep spell on the thieves, and stroll right out with-

No. We’re not going to do it that way.

And just like that, I was shoved back into the dark space behind the eyes, and Friendship Princess Or So She Claims Sparkle was in control.

Well, I am. And we’re not going to attack these ponies-

They’re not ponies. They’re an Abyssinian and a diamond dog.

You know what I mean. And we’re going to give them a chance to do the right thing.

They had their opportunity to do the right thing. They stole a holy relic instead.

See? Hornsparker agrees with me!

We’re still going to give them a chance. Remember, Equestria was built on trust and friendship, not on violence.

Tell that to the dragons.

Tell that to the windigoes. Or the changelings. Or-

Not listening!

And before Hornsparker or I could object, Twilight raised my hoof up and, believe it or not, knocked on the hatch. “Hello? Hello the ship?”

A face- a very shapely face for a diamond dog, I thought- poked its way around the frame of the hatch. “I told your boss already, the price is non-negotiable. After the extra expense and trouble, it’s only-“ She blinked, then narrowed her eyes even further. “Who the Tartarus are you?”

“I’m Pr… I’m Harriet Daresden. I’m a private investigator. And if I remember correctly, you are Fifi, known to the Germane authorities as one of the Pastel Rats. I’m here to talk to-“

The diamond dog- Fifi- stepped fully into the hatchway. Her right forepaw held a compact, but very lethal looking, crossbow. “Inside,” she said. “Now. And if I see even a flicker from your horn, you get perforated. Got it?”

“There’s really no need-“ A forceful wave of the crossbow silenced Twilight, and she allowed herself- and me- to be escorted into the airship.

Remember, Twilight, I thought at the pony currently controlling my body-

My body, remember?

No, you remember. As a member of the White Council I’m sworn not to kill non-monsters with my magic. If this gets bad, you can’t-

I was never going to in the first place! Twilight insisted. I’m going to talk, and we’ll take it from there! If it looks like we’re going to get in real trouble-

We are currently being held at the point of a crossbow quarrel, Hornsparker pointed out. Nopony knows we’re here. Nopony is going to rescue us. Would you be so kind as to tell us why this does not constitute real trouble?

I felt something cold slide down my horn, and then my magic simply ceased. The Abyssinian stepped into view- Anastasia, that was the name from the police files- smiling at me. “There,” she purred. “No tricks from you, little miss nosey.”

Um… I think we may be getting there now, Twilight thought.

With the magic suppressor ring on my horn, the search began. My jacket, of course, came off. The blaster rod followed, which raised a couple of eyebrows but didn’t seem to trigger any recognition. If I hadn’t already been assuming them to be straights with no knowledge of the secret societies, that would have been the tell to use for my negotiation.

My negotiation.

Anyway, I didn’t have my magic. I didn’t have my pre-spelled blaster rod. I didn’t have the pepper spray I used as my normal non-lethal, non-magical deterrent for straights. And I didn’t even have my body, because Twilight Sparkle was using it to sit and smile at our two captors.

“Okay, she’s clean,” Anastasia the cat-creature said at last. “My first question is, how did she find us?”

“I’m a freelance wizard,” Twilight said, making it clear this should have been obvious. “It’s my business to find things, Especially very dangerous things like the Sketchbook of Tiveen.”

“Well, take it from an expert in finding things,” Fifi growled, “you need to find another line of work. What kind of private eye doesn’t have a plan for getting away with the goods?”

“I’m not here to steal it back,” Twilight insisted. “I knocked, remember? I’ve been hired to get the Sketchbook back where it belongs as quietly as possible. My employers don’t want to bring in the guards if they can help it.”

“Oh really?” Fifi asked. “And who are your employers? House Golden? The Moon Cult? Or some Griffon treasure-hunter?”

“The Church of Faust,” I sighed.

“Really? They want to ransom it back?” Fifi smirked. “What’s their offer?”

“They didn’t mention any ransom offer. I’d have to talk to my contact about that.” Twilight smirked and added, “But I’d gladly accept a fifty bit fee for disposal of hazardous materials.”

Good line, I thought. I’ll have to remember that for future use.

“This is a joke,” Anastasia said, frowning. “You’re a guard informant of some kind.”

Technically this was true, since I was a paid consultant to the Canterlot city guard, but I don’t tell the cops about my private cases if I can help it. I do have professional standards. Twilight didn’t have the same standards, but she was a lot more honest than I was, so it came to the same thing. “I haven’t said a word to any Canterlot guard ponies about the Sketchbook, and neither has the Church,” she said. “The Church doesn’t want the guard involved. They don’t want to risk the Sketchbook becoming a piece of public evidence. The fewer ponies who know where it is, the better.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Fifi said, raising her crossbow again. “Anna, this deal’s gone sour. It’s time to bail.”

“Not until Gustav gets here,” Anastasia hissed.

“If he was coming he would have been here by now!”

“He isn’t coming,” Twilight said, very quietly.

“And you’d know, wouldn’t you?” Fifi snarled. “What did you do with him?”

“The Romane guards found his body the day after your theft,” Twilight said softly. “What was done to him was very cruel and painful. And whoever did it planted evidence on him pointing straight to Canterlot. Unless he really was an ambassador?”

Anastasia’s face fell. “Gustav’s gone?” she asked.

“I’m very sorry,” Twilight said. “But somepony else obviously wants the Sketchbook. Somepony you should be a lot more afraid of than me, or the guard. And they’ll keep coming for it until they get it.”

“And you’ll take it off our claws,” Anastasia said in a dangerously quiet tone, “out of the goodness of your own heart, isn’t that right, pony?”

“And don’t forget her fifty-bit hazmat fee,” Fifi agreed.

“The name is Daresden,” Twilight said. “And right now I might be the only friend you have here. I know people who should be able to keep you safe.”

Do I? I asked.

The Knights of the Quill, for a start. They’ll want to keep anything evil away from the Sketchbook.

“I’ll just bet you do,” Anastasia said. “So do we. Time to leave, Fifi.”

“Right.” Fifi handed the pistol crossbow to Anastasia before reaching into a closet to pull out a pair of duffel bags. She set down the bags, unzipped them, and then began emptying the contents of a bureau into them. Among the first things to go in was a large double cylinder, painted bright red, with gold-plated knobs at the ends.

“Now, Miss Daresden,” Anastasia said quietly, “as it happens, we have a plan in place for getting out with the goods, because we are professionals. And a core part of the plan is making sure no nosy ponies know where we’ve gone. Or even that we have gone.” She smiled a little, just a little. “I’m sure you see where the logic takes us.”

“You’re going to kill me?” Twilight was honestly surprised. Why, I’ll never understand. “But I came to you openly, to talk! Just to talk!”

Anastasia shook her head. “And you think that makes a difference,” she said, marveling at a naive little fool.

“With Johnny Respectable it does,” Twilight said quickly. “Because Johnny might be a mobster, but he has standards. And honor. Are you really going to say the Pastel Rats have lower standards than a mob boss?”

Anastasia tapped one clawed finger to her chest. “Touche’,” she said. “Very well, we’ll play it your way.” She reached into a nearby cabinet and withdrew a very utilitarian set of hobbles. “These should keep you from removing that suppressor ring,” she said. “We’ll make sure someone comes along to let you go after we’re clear. Assuming that the people you think can protect us don’t come to your rescue first.”

Twilight didn’t argue. I didn’t blame her. She’d won our lives, and this was the price. But I still wasn’t hot on the idea of being hobbled and helpless in an airship, waiting for somepony to come along, knowing the odds against it being a friend were pretty strong.

I don’t have any better ideas, Twilight thought. Do you have any, Hornsparker?

I have an excellent plan, Hornsparker said. Unfortunately it begins with us not being so foolish enough as to have gotten into this sorry state in the first place.

If you can’t be helpful- DOWN!

Twilight had reflexively turned on her hooves, facing out the hatchway, as she began to dress down Hornsparker. As a result, my eyes were in position to see the monster before either of our captors. Twilight, for once, did the smart thing; she ducked away from the hatch and over into the corner, out of the way of the oncoming freight train of pain.

The Mane-iac? What is the Mane-iac doing here? Twilight thought.

Who the hay is the Mane-iac? I thought back.

Comic character. Supervillain. But something’s not-

Whoever or whatever it was chose that moment to barge through the hatch. At the core of it was a pegasus- a pegasus covered in green scales that, on first glance, almost seemed like a body suit until you realized that the wings had no feathers. Long strips of what looked like sheet metal substituted for her mane, or for a mass of angry snakes, have your pick. And on her flank- just as there had been on that monster from last night- the cutie mark had been obliterated by a horrible scarred brand in an undecipherable sigil.

The Order of the True Canon had arrived, and this time I had a magic suppressor on my horn, and my blaster rod was on the other side of the cabin.

Anastasia had the crossbow in her paw, and her reflexes were plenty good. Unfortunately, although she was undoubtedly a professional thief, she was useless as a fighter. Instead of going for the center of mass shot, which probably wouldn’t have worked, she tried to shoot the creature between its four glowing eyes. Even on an ordinary pony that shot had problems, including the probability of a glancing shot, the ease of ducking the shot, and the near impossibility of actually scoring the perfect aim required for a kill shot.

And all of that didn’t matter when your target head is covered with and surrounded by massive amounts of moving sheet metal. The bolt hit one strand with a spang and bounced away. Half a dozen other strands of metal hair lunged forward, and I watched with horror as two of them neatly trisected the metal crossbow.

The Abyssinian’s reflexes were sharp- almost as sharp as that razor hair. She’d jumped up and backwards the instant she realized the shot missed, rolling backwards in a curve that just missed the ceiling of the cabin. The metal hair passed underneath her… except for one curl which wrapped around her ankle. That one yanked hard, turning the graceful somersault into a brutal landing on the deck.

The True Canon monster giggled, the sound running down my nerves like a jagged sawblade. More strands of hair lashed out at the prone Anastasia, slicing through clothes, then through fur and skin. Little spatters of blood- very little- flew around the room. The thing was toying with her.

That’s when Fifi, snarling, bounded on all fours towards the monster. Before it could react, the diamond dog girl had her jaws clamped around the thing’s right foreleg. Diamond dogs can dig through sandstone and bite through harder rocks almost as easily as you or I can go through a cupcake, so it was less surprising than it should have been when the bite actually drew blood- a lot of slimy, silvery blood- and a shriek of outrage from the demon.

One thrash of the foreleg sent Fifi flying to the far end of the compartment, hitting the bulkhead with a loud crash. A moment later, seven of the metal hairs struck- one in each shoulder, one in each thigh, and three straight through the diamond dog’s belly.

Fifi tried to say something, but no sound came out- only blood.

The monster laughed again, its titter even more jagged and brittle. It yanked out its mane-blades, letting Fifi slump to the deck.

“NO! NOT AGAIN!”

That was Twilight, using my voice. Up to this moment I’d been beneath the monster’s notice, but Twilight’s shout pulled its full attention directly my way. And, worse luck, my blaster rod and my pepper spray were out of hoof’s reach- and behind the True Canon.

And in spite of all logic, Twilight was still trying to force magic past that suppressor ring. “I WILL NOT LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN!” she shouted…

… and then I felt magic come into my body from somewhere else. It felt like the world was a unicorn, donating magic to us…

… and, with that power, Twilight burst the ring. Little null-metal fragments went flying.

A moment later, so did the Fallen, flying straight through the bulkhead and out the other side, trailing a mass of flailing strips of metal hair behind it.

Suddenly I found myself back in control of my own body. Whatever Twilight had done, it seemed to have used up her willpower for the moment. Fair enough, I figured; it was impossible for a unicorn to burst a suppressor ring while wearing it, but she’d just done it, somehow. So she deserved a little rest. And hey, I had my body and my magic back, so no complaints on that score.

Not that I had any time to celebrate. The monster had done a lot of damage to the airship cabin with its razor-hair, and after my experience with its big brother the night before I didn’t believe for a moment that Twilight’s magical body slam would do more than stun it for a moment. I had to figure out some way to get rid of the thing before we got killed or the airship collapsed around us.

Anastasia had crawled over to Fifi, holding the diamond dog’s body in her arms. “Good dog,” she said quietly. “Good, good dog.”

“How is she?” I asked.

“She’s gone,” the Abyssinian said bitterly. “This is my fault. She was right. I was a fool for us to stay here.”

“Look, we don’t have time for that,” I said. “That thing will be back any moment. It won’t stop until it gets what it wants.”

“Like Tartarus!” Anastasia bared her fangs. “My two best friends in this world died for that treasure!”

“Do you want to make it clean sweep?” I hissed right back. “I’m taking this!” I reached out with my magic and grabbed one of the duffel bags.

The wrong one.

Anastasia’s eyes widened. “But-“

“This cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hooves!” I shouted. “And you can’t stop me!” I pulled the bag through the air towards me as I started to run for the hatchway…

… and that’s when something slammed into the back of my head, dropping me to the deck in a world of pain and flashing lights. There was that grating giggle again, and the sound of those long strips of metal embedding themselves in the woodwork all around me.

I felt my head get lifted up, looked into those four eyes- two the green eyes of a pony, the other two the glowing red of something much worse. “I have my orders,” the Fallen hissed. “But nothing says I can’t have my fun first. And I shall make you suffer, Harriet Daresden. I shall make you scream whenever you hear the name Helpmeet!”

Up until this moment I hadn’t realized that the blow to the head had knocked me out of control of my body. But when my mouth opened and the words, “With regret I must decline your kind invitation!” and when my hind legs came up for a roundhouse kick that hit hard enough to make the monster drop me, I figured it out pretty quick.

Hornsparker reached out across the floor with my magic-

The rod! The stick, darn it! Grab the stick!

Don’t be foolish. I don’t know the first thing about using it.

- and grabbed the pepper spray out of my jacket pocket. In an instant the thing zipped over to me-

You don’t know how to use that either!!

- and Hornsparker aimed it straight at the monster and pushed down on the trigger, filling its eyes with concentrated peppery goodness.

Oh, I rather fancy I can figure it out.

The monster screamed, rubbing its scale-covered hooves into its eyes. Sharp metal hair flashed through the air around me at random.

Now you may retrieve your wand, madam, Hornsparker thought, and she ceded control of my body back to me. Once back in control I dropped the pepper spray (Hornsparker had emptied the can) and grabbed up the blaster rod with my magic.

“FUEGO!”

I was careful to aim for a part of the True Order demon nowhere close to the duffel it had tucked under it. The lance of flame hit its scarred flank, splashing a bit to set bits of broken woodwork on fire, which caused the Falllen to scream again. With one final thrashing and slashing of mane, it swept up the wrong duffel under a foreleg, spread its wings, and jumped through the hole Twilight’s spell had made.

I kept the blaster rod up, ready to give the creature more encouragement to leave. Anastasia walked up to me and asked, “Is it-“

I shook my head and motioned for silence, for all the good it did. The airship lurched violently as the cables connecting the cabin to the gas envelope above were severed like so many spider threads. The lines tethering the airship to the dock arrested our fall for the moment… but only for a moment.

I heard that giggle again, faintly, from outside. Then the airship tipped backwards wildly as one of the four lines suddenly ceased to be a single unit.

I levitated the other duffel bag- the one that actually had the Sketchbook in it- into Anastasia’s arms. Then I wrapped my own forelimbs around the Abyssinian and thought, Twilight, we need one of those teleports of yours right now, to someplace where that thing can’t see us, before it figures out it’s got a fake bag.

Twilight didn’t respond.

Twilight, I thought again, I don’t care if this is your body or my body, but when this body’s brains are splattered over two square miles at the bottom of the mountain, neither of us is going to have a place-

The number of intact mooring lines went from three to two. The remains of the airship flopped sideways, throwing us against the port side, along with far too much loose furniture. I decided I would take up this blatant lack of safety precautions with the airship drydock at my next available opportunity.

Twilight! I thought. We have maybe thirty seconds to live once those lines go! We need that teleport NOW!

I don’t know if what I felt just before the airship cabin vanished was a side effect of a poorly cast teleport or the beginning of the airship’s fall down three quarters of a mile of mountain, and I probably never will, but when the light and smoke dissipated to reveal a donut shop three blocks away from the front gate of Celestia’s castle, I no longer cared.

Anastasia, gently pushed my hooves aside, breaking our embrace. “Wow,” she said. “Thanks. I guess… I guess maybe you had a plan after all.”

There are many occasions where I’ll make a clever remark to break a mood. Those times when someone I don’t trust is crediting me for things I haven’t done are not among them. “No problem,” I said.

Anastasia slipped the duffel so its strap rode over her shoulder. “You could have just taken it and bailed,” she said. “Why didn’t you?”

“You never paid me my fifty bits for hazmat cleanup,” I replied.

That little cat-smile appeared on Anastasia’s face again. “I’m still considering the option,” she said. “But for now, don’t call me. I’ll call you.”

“They won’t give up,” I warned. “You really need to get serious protection. And get rid of that thing.”

Anastasia pulled the duffel a little tighter to her body. “I’m all that’s left of the Pastel Rats,” she said quietly. “This is going to be our last caper. I have to make sure it’s a success. And that it pays.” She turned her back on me and said, “Don’t follow me.”

I didn’t. I just waved goodbye, hoping that she hadn’t noticed the little tracker-snoop gem I’d slipped into one of the tears of her jacket just before the teleport.

Twilight Sparkle was naive, but a good pony.

I’m not.

Author's Note:

Ugh.

There were a lot of things that got in the way of this chapter, not least being the fact that it was one of those chapters that just plain didn't want to write.

In the original book, Harry Dresden tries to steal the MacGuffin out of a houseboat, only to discover he'd been spotted before he got on board. Here, Twilight tries an honest and above-board negotiation. Things eventuate. This minor change was important not just because I wanted to show Twilight trying to change the story. Phone communications as we know them- and as exist in the Dresden books- don't exist in most of Equestria. We've only seen phones in the cartoon a couple of times, in Manehattan and (I think) in Las Pegasus. They're very rare. The thieves wouldn't have them available for use to trap our hero(es).

Likewise, without phone messages there is no reason to use a notepad to write down an address, which is how Harry picks up the trail again. So, enter the tracker bug.

I'm going to try to get back on daily updates for a while. I had good reasons for stopping work on this project, but the thing is, once you stop writing stuff every day, it's a struggle to get back into the groove. Momentum counts for a lot.

In the meantime, I'm in Baton Rouge this weekend for a tiny anime show called Louisianime. My schedule for May:

1st weekend - Dreamcon, Waco
2nd Weekend - Yellow City Comic Con, Amarillo
3rd Weekend - Epically Geeky Expo, Central Texas College (Killeen, TX)
4th Weekend (a very long one) - MomoCon, Atlanta, GA

So... yeah, funtimes.

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