• 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 13: Dis Appointment, See

There’s a tavern tucked up right next to the side of Mount Canter. Like a lot of things in Equestria in general and Canterlot in particular, it’s magical. Some claim that Starswirl built it, and others Clover the Clever, though mostly those are the ordinary ponies who occasionally go there for a thrill and, incidentally, also a drink. Most of its regular patrons lean to much less mundane origin stories, though nobody can agree on a single one.

But the key magic of the tavern is this: the bartender in the tavern will always be able to serve whatever beverage best suits the customer. You don’t request specific drinks; you just ask for a drink, and the bartender will give you one and take your bits. And without fail, you will enjoy what you get, provided you have the guts to drink it. For every white wine or fizzy cider or cola on ice, there’s also a bubbling green thing with foam… and a glass of something red for those who don’t drink, dramatic pause, wine.

The tradeoff is that the bartender doesn’t have a choice in the matter; if a pony asks for a drink, the bartender can’t throw the pony out until the pony has been served at least one drink. After that, of course, the bartender is free to use their best judgment. There are, of course, limits. If a bloodsucker comes up to the bar, their drink comes out in a glass, and not, as it were, direct from the tap. And although in rare emergencies healing potions have appeared on the counter after some accident or fight, generally speaking what you get will have no effects beyond nourishment, drunkenness (or sobriety if it ends up being coffee), and satisfaction.

As enchanted buildings go, it’s not even in the top hundred of Equestria’s most magical. Nobody seeking to conquer all ponykind would ever use the place as their starting point. But there are a lot of factions who have trouble finding a beverage of choice that they can stomach without incurring a lot of trouble, and for those beings, and those who had to deal with them on a non-hostile basis, the tavern was invaluable. As such, it quickly became neutral ground between all factions, and that was eventually written into the Accords that prevent the little frictions between wizards, fairies, the Courts, and other vaguely civilized beasties from becoming total war.

And practically the first thing you see when you come from the hallway into the main room is a sign hanging on the wall: ACCORDED NEUTRAL GROUND. There are a number of trophies hanging beneath that sign- hats, cloaks, staves, fangs, and even a couple of pony tails. Asking the bartender about them is one of the quicker ways to be asked to leave. If you have to have it explained to you that some ponies need a lesson about what “neutral ground” means, you don’t belong here.

I’d been there many times before, but Mac, the current bartender, jabbed a hoof at the sign anyway when he saw me come in. Mac is at first sight an ordinary earth pony- no mane, a yellow beard and tail, orange fur, and a cutie mark of a wedge of cheese overlapping a blue box of some kind. Nothing unusual… except that ordinary ponies don’t last long as barkeep in the tavern, and Mac was the only bartender there that I could remember.

“No problem, Mac,” I said, and meant it. “My usual?”

Mac grunted and pulled a pint of cider for me. Winter Wisdom, who walked up behind me, said something in the kirin tongue, and Mac responded with a foreign-sounding grunt before going to the cupboard and pulling out a large earthenware bottle and what looked like a saucer. He set them down before my guest and added a tiny flask with a stopper. “For the road,” he said, and then named a figure in bits that made my eyebrows rise.

I should point out that the secret of the tavern’s magic isn’t free booze. Everything served has to be paid for, one way or another. I spent an evening working it out once, watching Mac pull out a drink, set the appropriate coins back in the cupboard, closing it, and then reopening it for the next drink. Apparently, wherever the more exotic beverages come from, their makers get compensated. More common tipples like my cider, of course, Mac orders from the brewers himself, because the magic cupboard isn’t that big.

There was one time when, instead of naming a price, Mac had hoofed over a card to the customer and demanded the pony write down when they were visiting their grandmother next. That time the drink was a bowl of barley soup… but I’m digressing.

No, wait! I want to hear about the barley soup pony!

Anyway, as I sipped my cider-

Come on, we have time! What about the barley soup pony?

- I looked around the tavern, which was most unusually empty apart from Mac, Winter Wisdom, and myself. As I mentioned, members of secret societies like the White Council or factions of the netherworld like, well, like the Nightmare Court treasure this place as an evening hangout. Add on top of that the college kids, the occasional historian, and the more normal run of wizards-

Say, that’s interesting! The tables are positioned almost perfectly to make sure no three are on a direct line with each other. I wonder why- oh, it must be the support pillars! Yes, I can see the damping runes now! This entire chamber is built to dissipate magic force! How fascinating! I wonder if the ceiling beams-

- interested in magical architecture, and most nights this place is pretty crowded. Obviously Mac cleared the house for tonight’s meeting. Makes sense- although the regulars had banded together in the past to throw out troublemakers (minus a hat, or a tail, or something else), none of them wanted to get involved in the White Council- Nightmare Court war.

Winter Wisdom poured what seemed barely a splash of clear liquor into his saucer and sipped it. I likewise sipped my cider, which had the benefit of not smelling to me like industrial solvent, but to each his own.

Then the door opened, and in walked Thornbush, longcoat wrapped tight around his barrel. “Cor,” he muttered as he came in, taking a moment to stare around himself. Seeing us, he trotted up, saying, “Captain, it’s just like th’ pub where you an’ Plum Dumplin’ were married, it is! Remember that day? Th’ admiral came down to toast you. I thought that was right generous of her.”

Hornsparker took over my voice long enough to say, “I prefer not to be reminded of how far we are from home and homely things, Mr. Thornbush.”

“Oh,” the burly earth pony mumbled. “You’re right, ma’am. I’m dreadfully sorry.”

I retook my voice with a little cough and said, “Good evening, Mr. Thornbush. Where’s Ivy?”

“Miss Daresden?” Thornbush asked, a little confused by my involuntary split personality. “I suppose so. The Archive’s gone to bed, bless her. She had a tummyache all afternoon, poor thing. All that ice cream, you know. But she told me to tell you it was worth it.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “I’m not surprised,” I said. Sobering a little bit, I continued, “Where’s Little Nettle and his second?”

“Saw ‘em down the end of the street when I walked in,” Thornbush said. “They’ll be here in a moment, I’ve no doubt.”

Winter Wisdom looked at me with some bemusement. “Miss Daresden, is there something amiss?”

I sighed. Thornbush hadn’t realized that I was trying not to broadcast my current mental excess occupancy. “Alternate me’s from other worlds,” I said, tapping my head with a hoof. “Or past lives, maybe, since Thornbush knows one of them from his previous reincarnation.”

“I see,” the old kirin nodded. “So, nothing to do with my calling, then?”

Hornsparker took back my voice to say, “Venerable elder, sir, although I respect your age and wisdom, I resent the implication that I have anything in common with those foul creatures you occupy your time by pursuing! I trust you will be more discreet-“

The door opened again, and I retook my voice again, muttering, “Don’t let Nettle know. He’ll try to use it as a weakness.”

In came Little Nettle, looking just as fearsome to me as he had the day before. This time, though, I was able to see his glamour a bit better, overlaying his true form like the image made by the sun shining through a stained-glass window. A straight would see him as a fairly large pegasus, mane neatly coiffed, wings sticking out of slits in a perfectly tailored blazer slipped over a turtleneck. The illusion looked more in place in one of Canterlot’s fancy coffee houses, or in one of the nobility’s private salons. The reality, of course, belonged in a cemetery or on a rock outcrop, whinnying the cry that heralded death.

And behind Nettle came his second… a white unicorn who might almost have been the infamous Blueblood’s brother, a little taller, a lot skinnier, but every bit as white, blonde, and handsome. His appearance wasn’t an illusion, but it was just as phony as Nettle’s. It took a bit of effort to look beneath the altered shape and see the truth- a short, almost emaciated black figure with jagged fins and dripping fangs and glowing, pupilless blue eyes.

Of course I knew him quite well. His name was Napping Cicada, possibly the least ambitious and most annoying member of Canterlot’s branch of the Court of Shapes. Unlike thestrals, changelings didn’t suck blood-

Changeling! But- well, I suppose the author hadn’t heard about the overthrow of Chrysalis and King Thorax’s reforms-

Not. Now.

“Cicada,” I said, nodding greeting to the disguised vampire. “Still finding enough young and innocent noble maidens to debauch?”

“Hardly innocent nor maidens, Harriet,” Cicada drawled, trotting up to the bar. “But none of them have cause to complain of me, which is more than certain useless princes can say.”

“Give them a glimpse of the real you, and see if you can still say that,” I muttered.

“Oh, my sweet, naive Harriet,” Cicada said, “what makes you think I haven’t?” His smile grew a little wider as he said, “There was one time a month ago when my dinner partner for the evening refused, absolutely refused to complete the evening with me until I took her halfway down the mountain and tied her to the railroad tracks.” The bug-turned-unicorn’s smiling teeth took on a hint of fangness as he added, “She even brought her own rope.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” Thornbush said sternly, “but time is gettin’ on.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket and said, “I am here as proxy for the Archive, referee an’ final arbiter of this duel between the challenger, Duke Doctor Little Nettle of the Nightmare Court an’ Harriet Daresden, wizard of the White Council. Both factions bein’ signatories to the Accords an’ havin’ agreed to their conditions and terms, any violations of said conditions and terms, as laid out in the Accords and agreed to through their seconds, shall result in forfeit of the duel and such condign punishment as the arbiter shall see fit to mete out. Is this understood?” After a round of agreement, he finished, “Please introduce your seconds.”

I stepped forward and said, “Winter Wisdom, Knight of the Quill.”

Little Nettle frowned a bit. “My friend from the Court of Shapes, Mr. Cicada.”

Winter Wisdom bowed his head, and Cicada bent one knee in the perfect fashion of the Canterlot upper class which were his usual company and prey.

“Then gents, if th’ seconds will step aside with me, we shall negotiate the terms of the duel.” Thornbush’s glare was entirely for Little Nettle, despite his role as a theoretically impartial judge, as he said, “Trusting that th’ principals will not violate th’ Accords by seekin’ a showdown here an’ now.”

Thornbush, Cicada and Wisdom walked off to a table in the back corner of the tavern, while I turned back to the bar to finish my cider. Nettle sat on a stool a couple of spaces apart from mine, and Mac put a glass in front of him and named a price- a lot lower than the one he’d quoted for Wisdom.

To my surprise, it wasn’t blood. It was a cider mug- identical to mine. Nettle took a sip, nodded, and said, “Quite good. We don’t get this quality in Mexicolt.”

Mac grunted, then looked at me, and I nodded, pushing my mug over for a refill.

“I’ll cover it,” Nettle said, dropping a small coin bag on the counter.

“I have a tab here,” I said quietly.

“Then you may have a smaller tab,” Nettle said calmly.

Mac shrugged, took the cloth purse in his teeth, then pulled my refill.

“Why?” I asked.

“Life is short,” Nettle said quietly. “Even to an immortal, life seems short. There should be more to it than mere survival.”

“Then why have this duel?” I asked. “For that matter, why a war? I made it clear I was fighting on my behalf alone- mine and Hot Lead’s. I risked my life for his, and I won. Why does it have to go on beyond that?”

“My precise thoughts,” Nettle agreed. “I find this war most wasteful. But the fact remains that, whatever you said, you gained access to our home as both an invited guest and as a representative of the White Council. You committed a gross violation of the rules of hospitality by entering under false pretense, prepared to kill several of the Court. In so doing you made it impossible for many of us to trust the word of a pony wizard. At least not until some measure of vengeance is had.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“I understand,” Nettle said. “And now I am here to do what I must do, to achieve justice for my people. There must be blood for blood, Harriet. That is the oldest law of the Courts- my Courts, I mean.”

“It won’t bring them back,” I said.

“No. But your blood may stop dozens of others, of mine and yours alike, joining them.”

I grunted. That was about as I expected. But, well, I’d tried.

That wasn’t enough for Twilight Sparkle, though, and she took over so smoothly I never even felt the transition. “There has to be some other way of settling this,” she said. “Without any more ponies dying on either side.”

Nettle raised a dark eyebrow. “Possibly there is,” he said quietly. “You cannot restore Lord Blanco, this is true. But… you might replace him.”

I felt my stomach turn a couple flips as Twilight, Hornsparker and I all realized exactly what that meant. “Become one of you,” Twilight said carefully. “The same thing you tried to do to Hot Lead.”

“What we succeeded in doing,” Nettle corrected Twilight. “Sooner or later he will join us. The instinct cannot be suppressed forever. And the sooner he ceases to resist, the easier his life will become. It is not so different, once you make a few adjustments.”

I took control back- not difficult, since Twilight was busy keeping my body from bringing up a stomach full of half-digested pizza and cider. “And what kind of adjustments do the ordinary ponies have to make?” I asked. “You feed on the villagers down in the Forbidden Jungles, as I understand it.”

“I tend my livestock,” Nettle said, rephrasing it. “I provide justice. I see to it they have medicine, food, housing, protection from the monsters of the Jungles.”

“All but one.”

Nettle couldn’t rephrase that one. “All but one,” he nodded. “Or possibly three.”

“Not interested,” I said. “I swore an oath to fight the things that would prey on innocent ponies, Nettle. Maybe I’m not as good at upholding it as I should be. But I darn well won’t betray it completely.”

Nettle shrugged. “I advise you to consider my offer,” he said. “It is all that I can offer, aside from a gentle death.”

“We have nothing further to discuss,” I said, and pushed my full cider tankard away, untasted. “I’ll be outside if anypony wants me.”

A couple minutes after I stepped out into the chilly fog, Nettle came out too. He didn’t speak to me, or even look at me. He just spread his wings, jumped, and was gone.

A few moments after that the others came out, too. “If you’ll excuse me, cap- er, Miss Daresden,” Thornbush said. He shrugged his greatcoat up a little higher around his neck, hunched his head down, and walked off into the fog, his rolling gait quickly swallowed up by the diffuse light from the streetlamps.

Cicada sidled up to me. “So, Harriet,” he said in his usual light-hearted tone, “aside from this, how has your life been recently? Not dull, I trust?”

“Why don’t you guess?” I asked.

“Why, Harriet, I’ve been doing nothing else but. Like, for example, guessing why a very sneaky but somewhat underinformed pony is now in my queen’s parlor providing nourishment to the next generation of grubs.”

“Because you put him there.”

“I prefer to think that he put himself there,” Cicada said, for the first time giving his voice a bit of hardness. “By making the mistake of following me around for a full day with an array of instruments which would have seriously interfered with my plans for the rest of the week.” He clicked his tongue in annoyance and added, “Not that my queen, praised be her name, didn’t take care of that when she saddled me with this job.”

Chrysalis did what??

Who’s Chrysalis? “So she’s the reason you’re here?” I asked aloud.

“After a manner of speaking,” Cicada said. “Little Nettle showed up and asked for a second as a gesture of solidarity between the Courts against the upstart ponies- you know how that goes. And my queen, naturally, chose a pony perfectly suited for the task.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “So, do I get advance notice before you backstab him?”

“Oh, Harriet, you misunderstand,” Cicada said. “My role is merely to demonstrate to the most minute degree the exact length of solidarity between a group of murderous blood-drinking monsters and the elegance of a truly civilized Court. Unfortunately, that length is not a zero quantity, so I am in fact obliged to act faithfully within the limits of the Accords.” His smile mostly faded as he finished, “Within those limits, and not so much as a wing’s thickness farther.”

“Uh-huh. Swell.”

Now Cicada’s smile faded completely. “Be careful, Harriet,” he said. “Nettle is a stone killer. The main reason my queen didn’t tell him to trot off a cliff is that he scares even her. He wants you dead. And he’s got an unbroken track record of getting what he wants.”

“He’s not the first,” I said simply.

“Just so he’s not the last,” Cicada said. “Good luck, if that’s not a violation of the Accords to say.” With that, he too walked into the fog. Just as his body was lost in the gloom, I caught a flash of green fire, and then nothing.

“Unusual friends you have, Miss Daresden,” Winter Wisdom said, no sound of judgment in his voice.

“I lead an unusual life,” I said.

“Most ponies do.” Winter Wisdom took a deep breath. “The duel shall be tomorrow at half past sunset on the athletic fields of Celestia’s School. The mode shall be willpower.”

“I think I can handle that.”

“For all our sakes, I hope you can,” Winter said. “In the meantime, shall I walk you to the Mareiott?”

A carriage pulled by a single earth pony wearing a black jacket and peaked cap rattled out of the fog. Hot Lead’s head poked out of a window.

“No need,” I said quietly. “Looks like my ride got here.” My ride, that was, to the second of my appointments for the evening…

Author's Note:

Nope, not getting any easier, between a writer's block about how to begin this chapter followed by technical difficulties which made writing all but impossible over last weekend and mental exhaustion from other writing chores yesterday. And it's not going to get better soon, since tomorrow I have various tasks including finally flying Mission 22 for Changeling Space Program so I can work on that Tuesday nights from here on out.

So far as I know, the tavern in Harry Dresden's world isn't magical. But such a place almost would have to be in a fictional fantasy world created by beings whose benchmark for "mundane" includes cloud cities and celestial objects managed by shepherding. Going with that idea for several hundred words broke my writer's block, which had hung up on, "How do I get messages to Harriet for her appointments without telephones?" The answer, obviously, becomes, "Don't bother, just cut to the chase."

FYI, this weekend is Yellow City Comic Con in Amarillo, followed by Epically Geeky Expo at Central Texas College in Killeen, followed by MomoCon in Atlanta (and that last one will REALLY make writing difficult). Working around these was easier with Maretian, when small bits would do and when I'd chosen a format which didn't tie me quite so tightly to existing plot lines and text. Silly me, I thought this would make it easier, not harder, to keep writing...

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