• 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 15: The Best Laid Plans of Pups and Ponies

Finding the Sketchbook in the Mareiott- either in its five above-ground floors or its multiple basements carved into the rock of Mt. Canter- would have required me to get a piece of either the Sketchbook or something that had been close to it for a long time, a lot of effort, and quick reaction times, since the spell would burn out in a couple of minutes, tops.

Twilight Sparkle said something about finding gems, did a week’s worth of advanced array work in her head- my head- in a couple of seconds, cast the spell, and sustained it without any apparent effort. It didn’t even interrupt her continuous explanation of all my personal problems du jour to Johnny Respectable, as much as I wished it would.

“So what happens if you lose the duel?” Johnny was asking as our little group- the three of me, Leedie, Johnny, Maddog and Pale Skies- worked our way through the service corridors of the luxury hotel.

“Well, for one thing,” Twilight said, waving her horn back and forth a moment before taking a right turn, “Harriet won’t have to worry about getting stiffed by her client.”

“Not funny,” said Leedie. I couldn’t have agreed more. Cracks like that are only funny when I’m the one using them.

“Sorry,” Twilight muttered, then continued, “Assuming the world doesn’t just cease to exist… um…” Twilight fumbled for some way to avoid mentioning fictional realities to people who definitely wouldn’t appreciate it. “… you know, because Harriet thinks she’s the center of the universe, you know…”

Thanks ever so, I thought, noting the amused grunt that had escaped from Johnny at that line.

“… well, the Nightmare Court might make peace with the White Council… or they might not. They might go back to their strongholds in the Forbidden Jungle… or they might set up permanent shop here in Canterlot. It kind of depends on how well you trust a bloodsucking monster.”

“You don’t appear to have a problem with it at the moment,” Johnny said. “The stairs are over here, by the way.”

Twilight turned us around and went through the door Johnny had indicated. “Trust me, Mr. Respectable,” she said, “You don’t begin to qualify as a monster. And your bloodsucking is only a metaphor.” She sighed and, without realizing she was still flapping my jaw, she continued, “In this story you were written to demonstrate that ruthless and criminal doesn’t equal evil.”

“That’s an interesting philosophy,” Johnny admitted. “It goes quite well with the Sketchbook. And what role does Faust have for you, otherworldly visitor?”

“Poorly conceived plot complication,” Twilight growled, turning us around the landing into the sub-subbasement. “Possibly edited out in the final draft.”

“Now that sounds more like Miss Daresden,” Johnny said. “But I was asking about more immediate consequences to our mutual-“

Twilight held up a hoof for silence. “We’re getting close,” she whispered.

At this point I could feel it too, even as far back in my head as Twilight had pushed me. My horn felt like it was literally being tugged by the Sketchbook-

I assume it’s the Sketchbook. I’m homing in on the strongest source of harmony magic in the area. But so long as Celestia doesn’t enter the building, I think it’s a good bet.

The tug pulled me ahead and to the left- no longer downwards, meaning the target was level with us. We’d come three levels below the ground floor, below the employee lockers and the kitchens. The doors around us led to storage rooms, nothing more. A second set of stairs, identical to the ones we’d come down by, rose back upwards at the far end of the hall.

Twilight stopped my body at one door. She pointed silently to it, then waved everyone else on to the end of the hallway. Once we’d all gathered there, she said, “Anastasia’s going to be very scared. She’s lost all her friends. She’s got no one she can trust. If we go in as a group, she might panic.”

Johnny nodded. “Mr. Lead, Mr. Maddog, remain here. Cover this hallway unobtrusively. If the seller leaves, let her go. Do not follow unless Miss Daresden or myself orders it.”

“Yessir, Mr. Respectable,” Maddog rumbled. Leedie followed him, looking at me with a mixture of concern and offended pride.

Twilight looked at Pale Skies and said, “It’d probably be better if you went with them.”

Pale Skies shook her head. “My contract is to protect Mr. Respectable,” she said. “And with death hanging over you, you cannot guarantee his safety.”

“She’s very good at her work, I’m told,” Johnny said quietly. “Mr. Maddog recommends her highly. Besides,” he continued, “if those demon friends of yours show up, I’d prefer the heavy artillery up front, wouldn’t you?”

The heavy artillery isn’t even here, I thought. It’s gone to Ponyville chasing a blind lead.

“I am curious why the thief selected a cake vault for the transfer,” Pale Skies asked.

“Indeed?” Johnny asked. “I didn’t notice a sign on the door.”

“Carved in stone above it,” Pale Skies said. “Ancient Ponish. Alicorni nunc admiterre, intenditis Celestia.

“I’m not up on my ancient Ponish,” Johnny muttered.

“No alicorns allowed,” Twilight muttered, “We’re looking at you, Celestia.” And, for internal consumption only, And Celestia is not that obsessed with cake! Stupid author!

“I see,” Johnny said, smiling a little smile. “Well, shall we go get some scones, ladies?”

The three of us walked back to the door. Johnny knocked on the door and said clearly, “Ratcatchers.”

A voice called back through the door, “Nobody here but us mice.”

“I’ve come to make the exchange,” Johnny said.

“Come in slowly,” the voice replied. “And alone.”

“I have two bodyguards with me,” Johnny replied, not smiling at all anymore. “They’re coming in.”

“Not if you want the merchandise, they don’t.”

Twilight chose this moment to speak up. “I’m one of the two bodyguards, Anastasia,” she said, doing her best imitation of me. (Which, since she was using my throat for it, wasn’t that bad.) “It’s all right. We’re not going to rob you.”

“Darn skippy you’re not,” the voice said. Then something scraped away from behind the door. A quiet click came from the lock. “Come in,” the voice said. “I’ve got you covered.”

She did indeed. It was only the third time I’d ever seen a blunderbuss. They’re really hard to load and fire if you have hooves instead of fingers or claws, and anyway unicorn magic is generally more effective. The two times I’d seen one before, they’d been long, two-handed jobs- essentially hand-cannons. Anastasia had one in each hand, short ones with big brassy bells, both pointed directly at us.

Like I said, unicorn magic is more effective, but that didn’t make me any happier about having two hand-cannons pointed anywhere near my direction. Pale Skies kept Johnny’s body shielded by her own, and I stepped up beside her, leaving Johnny to sort of poke his head up over our rumps. It wasn’t dignified, but it beat him being up front and personal with lead pellets at high velocity.

I could probably pull those pellets out of the barrel, Twilight thought. Pretty simple spell. But we need Anastasia to trust us, so I’m not doing that yet.

Good, Hornsparker replied. We might need those guns against our mutual enemies. Pistols are much easier to unload than reload.

While the voices in my head were debating that, I managed to regain control of my eyes enough to look somewhere other than those wide barrels. Anastasia herself wasn’t much to look at; the Abyssinian had found a delivery uniform cut for cats somewhere, a jumpsuit with large pockets and a name on the front. The feline eyes moved slowly from one of us to another, wary but not yet panicked, betraying her feelings only by the tear-stains still marring the fur of her face.

The cake vault we stood in hadn’t been used for cakes, or at least for cakes in any completed form, for quite some time. A single lantern lit an array of old barrels and somewhat newer-looking flour sacks. Although the door we came in by was the only entrance now, it hadn’t always been so; a rough-hewn archway in the back had been filed in with bricks ages ago. Etched into the stone above the archway were the words: ACCEPTIT PROVOCACIO. – CELESTIA.

Twilight groaned at this and retook control of my eyeballs, focusing on Anastasia. “The sooner we make the exchange, the sooner you can get away from here and out of danger,” she said. “Where’s the Sketchbook?”

Anastasia pointed to a small flour sack sitting on top of several larger ones. “It’s in there,” she said. She held up a small metal box with two switches on it. “There’s an explosive attached to it. One flip of a switch and bye-bye, Sketchbook. Try to mess with the bomb and it goes off, unless I flip this other switch. And if I don’t flip this other switch in the next, oh…” She looked at a wristwatch, nodded, and continued, “about ninety minutes, it goes off anyway. Think of it as my insurance policy.”

“That wasn’t in the deal,” Johnny grumbled. I’d heard that tone of voice before; it usually meant someone had just unwittingly made a date with one of Maddog’s associates.

“Neither was both my partners dying on this job,” Anastasia pointed out. “That goes on the expense account. My final bill is two and a half million bits.” She made a tight circle with one pistol to indicate the three of us. “I know you’re not carrying that, and I couldn’t carry it anyway. So- where is it?”

“The deal,” Johnny said in that same tone of voice, “was for one million bits flat.”

“Mr. Respectable,” Twilight said, “we’re short on time, and she has a point. The Pastel Rats did their job. Two of them died in your service. Pay up.”

Twilight glanced back at Johnny to get confirmation just long enough for me to see him with a single raised eyebrow. That didn’t surprise me, but the half-smile on his lips did. “As she said… Miss Daresden…” He drawled my name out to make it clear he knew it wasn’t me talking. “I don’t carry that kind of money on me.”

“You made arrangements,” Twilight said bluntly. “You knew there would be a renegotiation like this. And you always plan ahead for any contingency.”

“Any contingency I can imagine,” Johnny corrected. He reached into his suit jacket and pulled three tokens from an inside pocket. “These three chips are worth one million bits each at a certain establishment in Los Pegasus,” he said. “Keep the change.”

Anastasia nodded. “Set them down on that barrel. Over there.”

Pale Skies levitated the casino chips over to the designated barrel, and Anastasia cautiously worked her way around to it, keeping one blunderbuss on us at all times. She gave the chips a quick look, then used the other blunderbuss to flick them neatly as you please- one, two, three- into a hip pocket on her coveralls.

“All right,” she said, waving the blunderbuss at the flour sack. “It’s all yours. Once I’ve got a decent head start, I’ll disarm the bomb.”

“How will we know it’s disarmed?” Johnny asked.

“Well, if you open it and it explodes,” Anastasia said, “you’ll know you opened it too soon.”

“Funny. That’s a funny joke,” said Johnny, not sounding in the least amused.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Anastasia said. “And I’ll laugh once I’m well out of Canterlot and out of danger-“

Pieces of brick went flying, a couple of them smacking me in the face. The lone lantern swung on its hook, making the shadows in the room dance back and forth. Anastasia staggered, leaning against the barrel to keep from falling.

Pale Skies’ horn lit up, and the air cleared of dust to reveal three shadows in that archway- the archway they’d just blown in. I recognized one of them at once- my razor-maned friend from the airship, Helpmeet. Her manic grin shone in the light of Pale Skies’ magic even brighter than her steel hair.

The second figure was… a hydra, if a hydra ever shrank in the wash. It was green with large, sharp-looking scales, its core body about the same size as a pony, with four long serpentine necks writhing around to give its heads a look at anything and everything.

And standing between them was a pony-shaped shadow that no amount of lantern light or magic glow could clear away. Its eyes and teeth glowed from within as it smiled at us. “Out of danger,” the shadow pony said. “As if there were any such thing for those not born of Faust.”

I hadn’t heard whatever explosion had opened up the old passageway, but I distinctly heard the twin bangs of Anastasia’s hand-pistols. The shadow pony grunted, and I saw two swirls appear in the shadow right in the chest. I even saw a bit of blood drip from the wound before it closed up.

“Felt that,” the shadow grunted. “Ah, well, I wasn’t expecting a peaceful resolution here anyway.” He gestured a hoof in my direction. “I want Miss Daresden taken alive and the Sketchbook intact,” he said. “Kill all the rest.”

The hydra’s eight eyes narrowed, and the crazy-razor mare grinned even more than before.

Hooves rang from behind us. “Mr. Respectable! We’re coming!”

“Harriet! Are you all right?”

I felt two more bodies pressing up behind me- Leedie and Maddog piling into the room. Their arrival seemed to make the Fallen hesitate, which would have been just fine by me except for the pony I love getting closer to, instead of farther away from, the futile last stand shaping up before me.

“Everypony get close!” Twilight shouted, and I felt my magic lash out to yank Anastasia and the Sketchbook next to us. A moment later I felt magic powering up for the same spell Twilight had used in the alleyway… yesterday? The day before? It felt more like a year-

Stop narrating and let me concen-AGGHH!

The spell flared, something went bang, and suddenly I had control of my body again. Swell. If it hadn’t been for the clouds of black smoke making me cough my head off, the major depletion in my magic reserves, and the three demons watching us with bemusement, I might actually have been happy about that.

“You know,” the shadow pony said, “this hotel has a most fascinating history, if one is interested in the twisted imaginings of the false creators. There was a feud for years between the chef of the hotel and Princess Celestia, who kept sneaking bites of cake out of this very vault. The Mareiott family paid an extravagant sum of money to have alicorn-strength anti-teleportation spells embedded into the walls. Thus Celestia was forced to create this most convenient tunnel through the ancient crystal mines. She couldn’t teleport in…” The shadow pony’s teeth shone in the smoke-clouded room. “And you can’t teleport out.”

“Leedie, get out of here!” I shouted. “Try to get us backup!”

“You too, Mr. Maddog!” Johnny shouted. “Get everypony you can! And pass the word to evacuate the hotel!”

“I’m not leaving you, Mr. Respectable!” Maddog shouted back.

“The shadow of death is not on Mr. Respectable,” Pale Skies said calmly. “I will keep him safe. Go and bring reinforcements.”

“’Keep him safe,’” the shadow pony mocked. “My, my, it’s just one challenge after another with you people, isn’t it?”

“Anastasia, go with Leedie,” I said quietly. With a flicker of magic, the little switchbox left the Abyssinian’s hand and floated over to me as I let the thief go. “As for you ponies, the Sketchbook is rigged with an explosive. Take one step closer and I hit the switch. Whatever happens, you’ll never lay your hooves on it.”

A sliver of shadow struck like lightning, wrapping itself around the flour sack still floating in my magic. Something shiny and metal flashed right in front of my face, and then something thin and dark lay writhing on the stone floor for a moment before dissolving and flowing back where it came from. The hoof-sized battle ax continued to float in front of Pale Skies’ face, a half-moon of lethally sharp blade aimed directly at the Fallen.

“I’m getting rather tired of that,” the shadow pony said, shaking a hoof as if to fling off a piece of paper or something. “Anyway, Miss Daresden, you’re bluffing. There’s no explosive in that bag.”

I couldn’t keep from blinking. I couldn’t even stop myself from glaring at Anastasia and shouting, “You said there was a bomb!!”

“I was bluffing!” Anastasia said. “I don’t know anything about explosives! That was Fifi’s department! You wouldn’t catch me within a mile of a bomb!”

“Technically correct,” the shadow pony said. “Incidentally, I seem to recall ordering quite a number of deaths quite some time ago…” He spared a sharp look for each of his companions, the razor-maned filly and the fun-sized hydra alike.

“I have an idea,” Johnny said. “Daresden, you still have that fire magic of yours, right?”

I pulled out my blasting rod. “Sure do.”

“Good!” Johnny leaped over Pale Skies and me, grabbing one of the bigger and older flour sacks in his teeth. With a heave of his head he launched it at the enemy.

Eight strands of razor-hair met it instantly, turning the old bag into a cloud of white.

“NOW!!” Johnny shouted as he jumped right back over us.

I didn’t have a clue what he intended, but-

Oh fire and damnation.

-I aimed the blasting rod and poured everything I had left through it, shouting, “FUEGO!” Flame lanced out of the end, straight into the still-falling cloud of old flour.

Pale Skies’s forcefield covered us maybe three hundredths of a second before the blast wave coming back the other way hit us. The sound was pretty impressive: WHUMPH.

Old, dry flour scattered in the air with lots of oxygen, Twilight’s mental voice explained. Extremely rapid combustion in an enclosed space- in other words-

“EVERYPONY RUN!” I shouted, overriding Twilight’s explanation.

We ran.

The narrow confines of the sub-basements and the stairs leading back up to the surface had forced our little group to get strung out. Maddog, Johnny Respectable and Pale Skies were in the lead, naturally; the bodyguards had to see to Johnny’s safe escape first and foremost. Then came Leedie, who divided his time between guiding Anastasia and looking at me. I was tail-end Charlie, bouncing between stacks of chairs and buffet tables with both my blasting rod and the sack holding the Sketchbook of Tiveen in my magic.

And behind me- right behind me, just past the spreading fire triggered by the explosion- I heard the sound of blades slicing through timbers and stone and the roar of something big, reptilian and pissed.

As we stumbled through the tight service corridors, racing ahead of the flames catching on bags and sheets lying all around us, I suffered through the conversation in my head.

How did you know what was about to happen anyway, Hornsparker?

Every officer in Her Royal Highness’s navy knows the dangers of loose gunpowder! There’s a reason the powder colts wear socks, and it’s not what the horrible stories from the taverns claim! Even the dust in the air in the magazine can ignite from a stray spark! But how did you know?

Well, there was this time Pinkie Pie wanted fireworks for a party, but the store was fresh out, so-

Would you two CUT IT OUT!!

If the universe’s usual perverse sense of humor had been on, that would have been the time for Helpmeet to slash at us with her dreadlocks of doom. But we kept running, up into the actual basement, and into the employee locker area. I caught sight of Pale Skies rounding a corner, heading for the loading dock, no doubt pushing Johnny Respectable in front of her.

And that was when the floor shook and the ceiling caved in on us.

Anastasia and Leedie vanished under what I thought was a blanket of stonework and steel. A smaller avalanche fell behind me, not quite cutting off my escape. I only took a couple of hits from bits of rock, not that I paid it much attention. My mind was focused on the pile of rubble right in front of me.

Then the pile shifted… but just a little.

“Harriet?” Leedie’s voice was muffled, but he sounded all right.

“Leedie!” I lunged at the rock and began lifting at the pile with my magic. Too heavy. “How are you?”

“I caught a girder,” Leedie said. “Being half-thestral helps. But the cat-woman took debris to the head and arm. She’s out cold and bleeding.” Pause. “I can smell it, Harriet, and you don’t want to know what that does to me.”

Yeah. Trapping a helpless, bleeding victim in a tight space with a person who was quite literally one drop of blood away from becoming an amoral pony-killer didn’t rank particularly high on my list of Really Good Ideas. “Just a second!” I shouted.

And then, internally, I said, Twilight, can you do a teleport now?

Move over. Again, I was slipped out of control of my own body with no real effort. I… I don’t know, she thought at me. Our reserves haven’t built back up yet.

Can you send them to Johnny Respectable? I asked. He’s probably right outside. Short distance, right?

Maybe. It’ll probably be easier and safer than digging them out. “Leedie, I’m going to try to teleport you to Mr. Respectable,” she said aloud. “Both of you. I’ll try to follow, okay?”

“Okay,” the stone-muffled voice replied.

Tell her to take Anastasia to Mighty Fortress’s church, I insisted. It’s probably the one safe place in all of Canterlot for her.

“Once you’re outside, take Anastasia to Mighty Fortress’s church,” Twilight repeated in my voice. “I’ll meet you there.”

“You be right behind me, Harriet Daresden,” Hot Lead said, his voice straining. “I mean, right behind.”

“I’ll try,” Twilight said.

“You darn well do it.”

Twilight took a deep breath, and I felt her scrounging for every last scrap of magic in my body. The flour sack holding the Sketchbook dropped to the floor, as did my blasting rod. I felt my horn grow heavy under the strain of assembling the spell… and I wasn’t the one concentrating.

A flash of light flickered through the rubble, and the pile settled a little lower. My knees buckled, and I flopped to the floor, gasping for breath, feeling the lather in my fur.

Can’t do that again anytime soon, Twilight thought. Is there another way out?

Service doors into the hotel proper, I thought. Only way left. I think I saw some behind us.

Twilight pushed me back onto my hooves, bending her head to pick up the Sketchbook’s bag in my teeth. Good enough. Let’s get-

For a moment I saw a tall, thin shadow towering over me. Then something clipped me in the temple, and I collapsed back to the floor.

As the room went dark, I heard a voice say, “Your fourth down conversion attempt failed, Daresden. It’s my ball now.”

Author's Note:

Well, so much for daily writing.

Since the previous chapter, I've done three or four conventions, suffered through what I thought was more food poisoning, finally got diagnosed with (possibly) an incarcerated hernia of the large intestine, had all sorts of related and non-related illnesses and busy work...

... plus multiple instances of writer's block on this project, and slow movement on Changeling Space Program.

I'm probably going to cut this project down to six or seven books. I'm definitely not going the full twenty.

Also, updates will continue a bit sporadic, as I accepted an offer to write an adventure for Roan: the RPG. I'll be working on the first draft of that over this weekend.

Fortunately, I now know almost exactly where I want to go with the rest of Death Bridles. I've returned the library book; though there will be stations of the plot line, the actual rails are being laid on a different actual route to connect them. (People who read Death Masks might already be able to tell from this chapter.)

On medical matters, I was supposed to have had a CT scan today. Didn't happen, because my insurance still hasn't approved it... a week after the request was put in. Rescheduling will be a problem; I'm dropping into Magic City Con in Birmingham next weekend, and then I have A-Kon the week after- which means I'll be gone from Wednesday through Sunday of that week. Fun times.

This project is by no means dead, though. If nothing else, there's at least one moment I already have in mind for when Twilight meets her second Harriet that I HAVE to share with you...

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