• Published 29th Jan 2012
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The Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends - psychicscubadiver



Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, accidentally travels to Equestria. What could go wrong?

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Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

Written by: Psychicscubadiver
Edited by: Silentcarto

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. Comments are appreciated, trolling is not. This takes place before season two in MLP and between books five and six in the Dresden Files.

There are a lot of creepy places in the world. I mean tons, some of them famous, others obscure. Some of them are meant to be scary, but most just end up that way. The scariest all share one common trait: emptiness were it shouldn’t be. An abandoned town, stores and homes left barren; an old factory, the dead machinery waiting for workers that would never come; an unused stadium, vacant seats and empty hallways echoing with your footsteps. All of these places are meant to be filled with noisy, bustling people, and their emptiness feels unnatural. Now add to that emptiness the feeling of looming, implacable power you get from a thunderstorm on the horizon and the neck-prickling suspicion that every shadow is alive and hungry. That’s what Castle Silverstar felt like.

We only stood in the main entry hall, but the darkness was already oppressive. Twilight and Rarity relit their horns while I checked my crystal. The ponies gathered around me, staring at the glowing spindle of quartz. It still pointed deeper into the castle, aiming upwards at a steep angle. Spike was somewhere on an upper floor, but I didn’t see any staircases here. I put it away, my bones aching and my mind exhausted. I wasn’t even forty yet, and I was already too old for this shit. All the adrenaline from the fight with the statues had burned out, and I was finally feeling the strain of all my spells even with the magic-rich environment. I was going to hurt come morning, but I had to live that long first.

“What’s our next course of action, Mr. Dresden?” Rarity asked, brushing the dust and rock shards from our battle out of her mane. How she managed to restore its pristine, original appearance was beyond me, but I put that aside and considered the question.

“Looks like there are two hallways; which we want to take? That one looks little closer to Spike, but the other looks like a main passage. The second’s more likely to have stairs.”

Twilight thought about it for a moment, and the other ponies waited for her opinion. “Let’s take the first one. It’s closer to Spike, and it has to have a set of stairs at some point.” I was a little doubtful of that logic, but we needed to keep moving, and I didn’t have any preference.

We’d barely entered the hallway when I held out my hands, stopping the ponies behind me. “Don’t move.” I’d spotted something on the ceiling ahead. I peered up at it, coming a little closer. “Huh,” I said. “Trixie installed a murder hole.”

“A what?” Rarity blurted. The rest of the ponies moved forward peering up at the grate in the ceiling. I don’t know what Trixie had up there, but I doubted it was party favors.

“A murder hole. There’s a technical name for them, but I can’t remember it. Most castles had them back in the middle ages; you pour boiling water, or any deadly liquid, onto invaders to kill them. The really nasty ones pour oil down a long hallway, then throw down a torch.” I stopped my musing and realized what I’d just said. Most of my new friends looked uncomfortable, but the shadow-Trixie just laughed.

“That is an excellent idea, human. I’ll have to remodel the castle once we’re done. Any other suggestions?”

I had a suggestion for her all right, but before my mouth could get me in trouble, Twilight spoke up. “They’re called machicolations. Ancient pony castles also had them. It’s rare to see any these days, though, most of those structures are nothing but ruins.” I only listened with one ear, concentrating on the trap ahead of us. I picked up a rock and tossed it forward. There was an odd click, and a column of fire burst from the murder hole. The flames died out after a few seconds, and the trap hissed quietly, probably resetting itself. The rock was only a bit scorched, but anything living would have been barbeque before it could react. After a few minutes of strategizing, I discovered that Twilight’s shield differed significantly from mine. I mainly pit force against force, but she could tune her version to stop a whole spectrum of things, including the heat of the flames. That’s a neat trick. I wonder if I should look into it? I thought as we shuffled through the fire in Twilight’s shield bubble. It was cramped as hell, but on the other hand none of us were roasted alive, which is always a plus.

The long, windowless hallway twisted multiple times, but its general direction was still consistent with the crystal. There were rooms here and there along the hallway. Some were open and empty, while others remained mysteriously shut. We left them all alone; the crystal never pointed in their direction. Besides, they might have been booby-trapped, and we were already dealing with more than enough traps in the main passage. After the murder hole there’d been a pit trap, a rain of stones from the ceiling, holes in the walls that shot darts and even an enormous boulder, one that filled the whole hall, rolling towards us.

“Now all I need is a fedora and whip, and this would be perfect.” I muttered after Twilight teleported us a few feet forward, neatly avoiding the stone juggernaut.

We took a breather; moving everyone even a few feet had left Twilight panting. She hadn’t wanted to stop, but everyone else voted her down. Canteens and some of Pinkie’s neverending cupcakes were passed around. Trixie had been oddly silent as trap after trap failed. While we waited she slunk off, muttering to herself, and I realized the same murmuring sensation was back. Interesting, I concentrated and Listened. Her words became clear, but the low droning staying frustratingly out of reach.

“—said no. I am not holding a knife to the dragon’s throat.” Her voice sounded strained, like it was real effort to say that. “Are you questioning me? We will be fine in the end, so stop badgering me with your paranoia. The longer they survive, the more interesting the story becomes.” There was a moment of silence; she was probably listening to its response. “Quiet.” She ordered. “They’re getting ready to move again.” Curiouser and curiouser. Our wicked witch wasn’t getting along with her demonic friend.

There was a good and a bad side to that coin. The good side was that Trixie was still in control of herself to some degree; maybe she could be reasoned with or, failing that, exorcised. The bad side was that the demon was giving her some very practical advice. If she really did take full advantage of having a hostage, we were screwed. Hell, we might be screwed anyway, but I’d rather go down fighting.

The corridor we were in now was as unremarkable as the rest. A few unlit torches lined the walls, but this section didn’t even have any rooms to break the monotony of the bare, grey stone. That should have been my first clue, as any dungeon master will tell you, but hey – I was tired, and still contemplating our possessed hostess. Rainbow and Applejack had the lead, Rainbow for speed and Applejack for muscle. They were a good ten feet ahead of the rest of the group when the trap sprung. A jaundice-yellow barrier flared to life behind me and began spreading like paint along the walls to the other end of the hall.

“Run!” I screamed even as the ward came to life. I’m a runner by hobby, and the ponies were born to it, but the yellow stain raced down the hallway like wildfire. It easily outpaced the trailing group, sliding past my feet to nip at Rainbow and Applejack’s heels. They had gone full out the second I yelled, but even they almost weren’t fast enough. The enchantment closed with a snap, forming another translucent wall just a few inches behind the athletic duo.

The rest of the ponies and I reached the new barrier a second later, panting and out of breath. My side had more stitches than my last head wound and my lungs wanted to punch me in the face, but neither pain blocked out the rumbling groan of the walls as they began to grind inward. And me without my R2 droid. Twilight reacted almost instantly, her horn glowing neon white. I began to get the same unpleasant shifting sensation I’d gotten in the earlier teleports when she let out a pained yelp. The strange feeling cut off, and I turned to see her grimacing in pain.

“Oh, hell no. I am not dying in something this stupid.” I gave Trixie a dirty look for the cliché trap. Well-built and effective, maybe, but still cliché. I focused on the barrier before me and drowned out the worried questions of the ponies around me. Soon there was nothing but me and the ward. I quickly studied it, looking for a weak point; it had none. The wall in front of me was the mystical equivalent of adamantium, an unbreakable barrier foraged by a power leagues beyond mine. It wasn’t well-made by any standards, despite all of the power that had been poured into it, but it was so massive and durable that the sloppy construction hardly mattered. Sure, give me enough time, and I could probably find a way to weasel through it, but I could hear the walls inching steadily closer through my concentration. Time was one thing we didn’t have.

“Solvos, solvos, solvos.” I furiously muttered, slamming my will like a battering ram into the barrier. Tiny hair-thin cracks started to appear by the fifth strike, but it was far too slow. I’d almost lost hope when Twilight’s voice broke through my concentration.

“Dash, Applejack! The barrier is being focused through those torch brackets there!” She grunted and suddenly a pair of torch brackets, seemly identical to all the others, blazed with hellish orange runes. “You’ve got to destroy them!” she cried, but neither of her friends had waited for her say so. The moment the symbols came to life, they charged toward the foci amid the cheers of the ponies behind the ward. The two ponies hadn’t gotten within five feet of them, though, when lightning arced from the metal, twisting into a pair of electric serpents to strike them. They both cried out and collapsed, their muscles spasming as the constructs bit them with charged fangs. The cheers died as they fell, and even Pinkie looked grim. The constructs stayed coiled under the sconces, eyeing their twitching prey.

Trixie laughed, and her left eye started to twitch. “Did you really think the Dark and All-powerful Trixie would leave such an obvious weakness unprotected?” She smirked at us, her grin wide and malicious, and her voice dropped to a smug purr. “No, that was just another layer to this trap. I hope you all enjoyed that little glimmer of hope while it lasted, because those snakes have enough power in them to destroy anypony.”

“Good thing I ain’t just anypony, then.” Applejack was still twitching, little sparks coming off her coat, but she dragged herself upright.

“Yeah,” Rainbow said from the other side of the hall. “Equestria’s best flier isn’t gonna stop just because of some little bug zapper!” They dove forward again, bracing themselves. The serpents threw themselves forward, meeting the rush head on. Applejack kicked out with both front hooves, but it dodged nimbly and struck her exposed hind legs. They wobbled, the muscles visibly cramping up, and she grunted in pain. She stomped at the serpent with her forehoof and it gave an agonized hiss, but just twisted more tightly around her leg. Rainbow jumped over hers, her wings letting her easily reach the ceiling. For a moment it looked like she would get past easily. Then the snake shot upwards, stretching its body out to an impossible length, and bit deeply into one of her wings. I could see sparks shoot from the wound across her body. Rainbow screamed and crashed, wrestling with the construct.

Applejack had trapped her snake’s head against the grey stone wall, but the rest of it had wrapped itself around her middle and was trying to squeeze the life out of her. She moved closer and closer to the brackets, dragging the snake with her and grinding its head between the wall and her shoulder; she was four feet from the spell’s focus, teeth gritted against the pain.

“C’mon, RD!” Applejack shouted. “Don’t tell me you can’t keep up!”

Rainbow was only a few inches from the goal, but the snake was holding her at bay. The construct had completely entangled her, and she was fighting just to stand. But that single phrase seemed to spark something in her. “I… can… so!” she said through gritted teeth. She brought both front hooves down, trapping the serpent’s darting head beneath them, and turned, lashing out with both hind hooves in a vicious kick. The torch bracket snapped like old wood and went flying, smashing into pieces when it hit the ground. The snake hissed in anger, pulling Rainbow back to the floor with its coils. Unstable on just two hooves she fell easily and it shot forward, sinking its teeth into her neck. Lightning flashed across Rainbow’s body before she could even cry out. She fell bonelessly, tumbling to the floor with her wings flared and tiny bolts of electricity arcing off her. The barrier faded, becoming more transparent, I tried again, hammering my will into the wall. The cracks widened, but the damn thing was still too powerful to fall.

Applejack took another step. Three feet. Two. Another step. Her coat stood on end, and she’d lost her hat. The construct redoubled its efforts, and I could hear her ribs groan in protest. Applejack suddenly let go of its head, rising up on her hind legs. The snake was caught off guard, but it struck even as she brought both of her front hooves down on the focus. With a resounding clang the ironwork broke, shattering into shards of dark metal, its runes going dark. The serpent struck, burying its fangs in Applejack’s chest. There was a flash of light and a small thunderclap. She collapsed, her muscles shaking from the abuse they’d taken, no longer able to support her.

The barrier wavered. It was weak, but it still had enough power to last a little while longer. The previously spacious hall was now barely three feet wide, and the walls hadn’t even paused when the sconces broke. I concentrated, bringing my will to bear. I drove it into the barrier, throwing my whole mind behind the task. I felt the cracks widen into trenches and visible fractures spidered out across the barrier, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe if I added some physical stress to the magical assault…

I smiled like a maniac. “Hulk smash!” I shouted, driving my fist forward. It crashed straight through the ward with a sensation like shattering glass, and the rest of the barrier dissipated like smoke.

We spilled out of the closing hallway in a panicked rush, only a little ahead of the closing walls. Fluttershy moved to help the still convulsing Applejack and Rainbow. “Don’t touch them!” I barked, pouring every ounce of authority I had into my voice. The serpents hissed, rising protectively over their prey. Why did it have to be snakes? I thought. But I could handle it. This wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with murderous constructs. I prepared the counterspell as quickly as I dared, trying to ballpark how much power they had left. They’d both just gone all out in that last attack, and their power sources were destroyed. They should be running low.

“Entropus!” I shouted sweeping an arm out in a banishing gesture. The constructs shuddered then fell apart, disappearing in a small flicker of lightning accompanied by a miniature crack of thunder. Fluttershy jumped forward without waiting for approval and started to tend them.

Even Twilight didn’t protest when I suggested another break so both ponies could recover. Either pony biology is significantly different from a human’s, or they had been extremely lucky. Both of their hearts were fine, and after some rest and stretching, they were even able to stand again. They were plenty bruised from all the wrestling, but the worst of their injuries seemed to be the burns from the lightning bites. They weren’t pretty, but at least they were a living red, not the dead black of third-degree burns.

It took a long half hour, but Applejack and Rainbow were soon patched up. I took the lead, staff at the ready, and we started walking again. The hallway continued for couple hundred yards, still twisting. There were a few more rooms, all of them open and empty, until the passage ended abruptly at an unremarkable, wooden door. I arched an eyebrow at Trixie; it couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d painted the word ‘trap’ on it.

“Hold on.” I said to the rest of the group. “I’d bet my eyeteeth this’s another trap. Twilight, would you take a look at this?” The purple unicorn came forward, and frowned at the door.

“Can I use your notebook, Mr. Dresden?” I passed her my small notepad and a pencil. She went to work, studying the door and taking notes. After a few minutes, a faint purple glow surrounded it and Twilight finished with a satisfied smile and soft

“Aha!”.

“Well?”

“The enchantment on the door was set to activate another enchantment, or more likely a set of them, if the door was opened. I couldn’t just dispel it without activating whatever it was meant to set in motion. So, I had to calculate the magical frequency on which the activator was set, based largely on the earlier exposures to Trixie’s magic, and match my spell—”

“Too long, didn’t listen.” I interrupted. “Just spell out the basics for us.” I would have loved to know some of the mechanics behind her magic, but now was not the time.

She gave me the disgruntled look of an underappreciated genius and sighed. “I moved the trap. Now, it’ll trigger if anypony touches that rock.” She pointed to one of the stones around the door.

Pinkie bounced toward it and examined it curiously. “You mean this one?” she chirped, her hoof only inches away from it. Everyone took two steps back, and I resisted the urge to yell at her.

“Yes, Pinkie. That one.” Twilight said with exaggerated calm. “Now, please move your hoof away. We don’t know what that does.”

“I wasn’t gonna press it, silly filly.” Pinkie said lowering her hoof. Everyone let out the breath they’d been holding; the relief was palpable. “I wanted to be sure that rock was the rock, so I wouldn’t touch it.” My mind briefly wrestled with that logic before throwing in the towel.

“So, it’s safe to enter?” I asked Twilight, she nodded. I held my shield bracelet and a few choice spells at the ready as I opened the door just in case. Thankfully, it was anticlimactic; nothing happened as I entered the room. It was decent sized, bigger than my apartment for sure. It was also the first furnished room we’d seen in the castle. A few show posters, all advertising the ‘Great and Powerful Trixie’, were plastered to the walls. A chair sat next to an old bookshelf, with a small lantern hanging above them. A large, thick rug covered most of the floor. The room didn’t have a staircase, unfortunately, but it did have three other doors just like the first, one set in each wall.

“So girls,” I asked, “Which door should we take?”

“Well, what’s the crystal say about’em?” Applejack replied.

I showed them the fully vertical crystal. “Spike must be almost directly above us. Right now we need some stairs before we can go anywhere else.”

Rarity was looking at the room’s furnishings, disdain evident on her face. She hadn’t even turned to look at the crystal. “I would suggest we take the trapdoor under the rug, but that’s just my opinion.” This announcement was met with silence, and more than a little staring, from her friends, but I focused on Trixie’s reaction. For half a second her mouth dropped and eyes widened before the sending’s face went utterly deliberately blank.

“What? It’s not that surprising.” Rarity told the rest of her friends. “I mean nopony else thought it was odd this was the only room with any sort of décor? Or that the rug didn’t fit the design scheme in the slightest? Or that slight bulge in the center of it?” I looked where she was pointing and even then I could barely see the tiny bump.

“Well, let’s see. Everyone off the rug.” I grabbed a corner, and once Pinkie Pie had bounced off, I flipped it, exposing a stone door with a ring set in one end. I thumped my staff on the trapdoor and was rewarded with a hollow echo. “Sounds good to me.”

“Wait.” Twilight said. “The crystal’s pointing upward. Why would we go downstairs?”

I shrugged. “Trixie didn’t want us to find this door, or she wouldn’t have hidden it. Besides, if it’s the wrong direction we can always come back.”

“But the staircase we need could be behind any of those doors. Aren’t we at least going to check?”

“No, because it’s way more likely we’d find a nasty surprise than a way up. Trixie may not be subtle, but she’s got enough power that I’d rather not take that chance. Down we go.” With a strained grunt I pulled on the ring, lifting the heavy stone door. The stairs below were well lit; torches gleamed from both walls as the passage descended. I started walking, my eyes peeled for any more dangers. Twilight sighed behind me, and her footsteps joined mine, echoing down the rocky stairwell. The rest of the ponies followed shortly. I called up the stairs to them, my voice bouncing oddly off the walls. “Don’t close the door in case we need to make a tactical withdrawal.”

Twilight eyed me, a ghost of a smile on her face. “Don’t you mean run wildly for our lives?”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

I reached the bottom of the long staircase and looked around. This room was a stark contrast to the one above. There was no light, and even when Twilight relit her horn, I couldn’t see any of the walls. From the echoes, though, it had to be huge. An odd shine caught my attention and I noticed an object just on the edge of our circle of light. It was a lumpy cube of what, at first, I thought was glass. It was about the size of shoe box, with a ton of holes arranged in a strange grid where the lid would be. I moved closer to examine it, and as I neared it I could hear a faint buzzing sound. It wasn’t until I heard the door above us slam shut that I realized what it was.

“Twilight! Rarity! More light, now!” I pulled my silver pentacle out from under my shirt and held it as high as I could, forcing magic into it. The pentacle began to shine a brilliant blue-white illuminating the whole room. It was joined a few beats later by the unicorns’ fluorescent spells, both of them bright enough to put a spotlight to shame. The huge room lit up like a lighthouse, startling the insects crawling out of their crystal nests into stillness. I stared in disbelief; hundreds of gently refracting nests littered the floor. I’d never seen them before, but I’d heard of them. Given how rare they were supposed to be, I don’t know how Trixie managed to find this many, much less summon them all from the Nevernever. The hornets were beginning to stir again; their crystal wings twitching as they got over their shock to the sudden brilliance. They appeared to be carved from obsidian set with topaz and emeralds for color. Their long stingers were as clear as a perfect diamond and were filled with a dark green liquid. I glanced around wildly, and spotted a narrow hallway opposite the bottom of the stairs.

“Okay.” I said, walking back to the group. “Everyone stay calm. I think they can smell fear.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be dogs?” Fluttershy whispered.

I facepalmed and frowned at her. “Stay calm anyway. If I’m right, these are Quartz hornets. They’re venomous, have a short fuse and are damn near invulnerable. We are going to calmly, quietly, calmly, carefully, and calmly walk to the exit,” I pointed to the distant hallway, “without disturbing them. Any questions?”

“Why did you say ‘calmly’ three times?” Pinkie chirped a curious frown on her face.

I glared. “Because that’s how calm I need you to be. Now let’s move.” I’d hardly turned around when an ear-shatteringly loud, completely inhuman shriek tore through the air destroying the hornet’s uneasy peace. I spun, completely confused until I saw the smug smirk plastered across Trixie’s face. I felt my expression harden to something between Old Testament wrath and nuclear fury. There would be a reckoning for this, but now wasn’t the time.

“Run! Now!” I bellowed, dashing toward the distant doorway. The hornets wasted no time, buzzing straight towards us. They were far larger and faster than any real insect, but I was ready. Badass they may be, but each of them only weighed a couple ounces.

“Ventas servitas!” I cried, a heavy gust of wind sending the bugs tumbling out of our way. I grunted with effort. The air down here was still and dead; moving it without any natural wind to manipulate was tough. I stopped about halfway to the door, letting the rest of the ponies pass me. Twilight was bringing up the rear, using a wind spell of her own. It looked a lot gentler than mine, but it held the hornets at bay.

“What did you say about this being the right door?” She asked, slight annoyance coloring her voice.

I shrugged. “Nobody bats a thousand.”

They pressed against the resistance of her spell. There were thousands of them in the air now, and they were angry, their buzzing like the drone of a hundred wood chippers. I moved backwards, using short gusts to swat down any insects that got near. I charged my magic as we moved. Wind is one of my specialties, and I only needed a few moments to get the spell ready. I brought my staff forward, murmuring to Twilight, “After my next spell, run.” She nodded and I aimed my staff into the heart of the seething mass of bugs.

“Vento giostrus!” I bellowed, turning to run without even looking at the miniature cyclone my magic had created. Instead of straining against an invisible resistance, the hornets would find themselves suddenly tossed around by a much fiercer wind. Most of them would survive, but they would be disoriented, which would buy us some time. The hallway was long, narrow, and barren, without doors or torches to interrupt the monotonous grey stone. At the end, the rest of the ponies had gathered at another door. Applejack and Rainbow were kicking it savagely, and it was already a little splintered.
But the cyclone had died out and I could hear the threatening drone of approaching hornets. I turned, dropping my staff, and drawing my blasting rod. The runes lining it glowed like hot embers as I waited, partially for dramatic tension, but mostly so the passage would fill a little more before I unleashed my strike. The first bug was only a few feet away when I thrust my focus forward.

“Smile you son of bitch! Fuego!” The lance of flame shot down the hall, turning the crystal hornets into shiny slag. Even the ones outside the blast were thrown back, their wings warping and twisting in the intense heat. Objectively the Quartz hornets were beautiful, and some small part of me regretted destroying them. Most of me, though, had no problem melting down the little bastards into glassy residue.

Unfortunately, that strike was all I dared. Fire eats up oxygen quickly and that attack was already making me lightheaded. The hornets were beginning to gather at the mouth of the corridor again, and wondered what spell to use next. That question became a moot point as I heard the door behind me finally break with a loud crack. I threw a quick blast of air down the hall to clear away any remaining bugs before turning to dash into the room.

We piled into the new area, and froze at the sight that confronted us. The good news was that there was a set of stairs across the room. The bad news was that it was an open spiral staircase at least three stories high. There was no way we could climb the whole thing before we were surrounded by hornets. This wasn’t like the hallway, or even the room. We wouldn’t be dealing with hornets from one or two directions. They would come at us from everywhere. I turned back to the door and slammed it shut. Naturally, they’d busted the lock forcing it open.

“Here’s the plan. I’m going to stay down here and hold the door shut.” I was almost drowned out by the wave of protests, but I bulled through. “You all take the stairs and when you’re gone I’ll follow. My coat’s strong enough to stop their stingers, and I can still use fire.” In actuality I wasn’t that well off. My coat couldn’t cover everywhere, and I could only use so much fire before I asphyxiated myself. But I had better odds than any of them. I put my shoulder to the door and readied myself when a cheery pink face popped up in front of mine.

“It’s okay, Mr. Dresden. I’ll hold the door. No bugs are gonna get the best of Pinkie no matter how shiny they are.” She grinned and set her shoulder against the door.

“Are ya sure Pinkie?” Applejack asked

“Super duper positive. I’ve got this one.”

“What? No, this is serious, Pinkie.” I told her.

She stopped smiling, and her face actually became solemn. “I am serious. Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

The rest of the group had already started towards the stairs, and only Pinkie and I were left at the door. Even through the thick wood I could hear the approaching hornets. We didn’t have any time. “But…”

“Sometimes,” she interrupted me, “you’ve just got to trust in your friends.” Her smile was slightly sad, and I had the feeling she’d learned that lesson the hard way. I considered staying at the door anyway, forcing her to leave and let me face the hornets. But what she said had struck a chord in me. How many times had I already asked her and the rest of the ponies to trust me? How many times had they depended on me without fully understanding what I could do? Trust is a two-way street, and I had to decide whether or not I really was her friend. It took me less than a second.

“Just yell if you need help. I’ll be there, and Hell itself couldn’t stop me.”

She nodded her smile turning cheery again. “I know.”

I turned from the door, leaving it to Pinkie, and I hated myself for doing it. I took the stairs two at a time; my long legs letting me move quickly upwards. I glanced back about halfway up. I could see Pinkie still standing there, bracing herself against the door. I told myself everything would be all right, but I didn’t believe it. I’d never been a good liar. I slowed as I approached the top of the stairs. Twilight and the rest were standing in front of a stone door.

“It’s safe now,” Twilight said, the door glowing a soft purple. Everyone filed through and I was took the back again. The door opened onto a grand corridor. Instead of the familiar unfinished rock walls in the rest of the castle, the stone around us had been polished and formed into arches. Windows overlooking the quarry lined one side of the passage, and there were even a few statues scattered here and there. All of them depicted an arrogant unicorn only a head shorter than me, with a horn that was long and wickedly sharp. I stared at the nearest one, fairly sure who the subject was.

“So,” I asked hooking a thumb at the statue, “is Trixie the pony version of a giant, or did she just need a statue big enough to fit her ego?” There was a startled beat as they stared at the statue, then Rainbow burst into laughter. Applejack and Twilight chuckled.

Rarity just stared at the statue with a bemused expression, and I thought I heard her murmur, “Who does she think she’s kidding with that horn?” I looked for our resident psychotic sending, but for once, she wasn’t there. I frowned. Maybe she had stayed with Pinkie, but I didn’t think it was likely. No, she was working mischief elsewhere. She was annoying, but I wished her sending was still here. When there’s a wasp in the room, I’d rather be able to see it.

The laughter died down after a moment, and I tried not to concentrate on how worried I was for Pinkie Pie. The group waited, watching the door, but the hall was silent as a tomb. I started pacing. One long minute stretched into two. When the third ended, I stopped pacing and moved to the door.

“Something’s wrong. I’m going back down there.”

“Wait.” Twilight said. “Pinkie said she could handle it. We need to trust her.”

“I know,” I growled, looking back to face six sets of anxious eyes. “But waiting here is killing me worse than the hornets ever could.”

“You can’t go, Dresden!” Pinkie cried, her expression pained. “It’s too dangerous!”

I sighed. “I don’t care, Pinkie. I−” Wait, what? “Pinkie?!” I yelped. I knew she hadn’t come through the door, and she hadn’t been there a minute before! But I was relieved enough to ignore my inner Spock for the moment. She was okay, that was all that really mattered. I hung back as her friends crowded her, but a gasp from Fluttershy made me hurry over. At the closer distance I could see Pinkie better, and the half a dozen angry red bumps beginning to swell all over her were obvious.

“Don’t worry, you guys. It was just this one little buggy that managed to wiggle in through a crack. I’m fine.” So she said, but she was starting to list to one side, her left legs folding. I dug through my pockets looking for a piece of chalk. I found it just as she hit the floor.

“Everyone move away from her!” I snapped as I dropped to one knee and started drawing a circle around Pinkie. Her breathing was already growing ragged as I dragged my chalk across the stone, moving as fast as I could without risking a smudge. My circle wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it was close enough. I rammed my will into the magic circle, mentally creating a division between the Inside and the Outside. Pinkie’s welts began to deflate and slowly lost their redness. “Done. Go ahead, Fluttershy.”

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Dresden,” she said, breaking the circle as she darted in to tend her new patient. I stepped back, leaning against the wall, and slid down to sit on the stone floor.

Twilight sat down beside me while the pegasus began bandaging Pinkie’s wounds. “Was that an antivenom spell?” she asked, her curious tone at odds with the frightened look in her eyes. I suspected only she and Fluttershy had realized how close we’d come to losing the bouncy pink pony.

“Nothing that fancy,” I said, turning from that unpleasant thought to play schoolteacher again. “Remember what I said about the Nevernever and magic circles?” She nodded. “Those hornets were creatures of the Nevernever. Trixie summoned them to your world, which means she’s supplying the energy to keep them here. Cut off the magic, and they go poof.” I nodded toward Pinkie Pie. “The venom was a part of the hornet, so I just blocked the power source. Without magic, the venom turned back into harmless ectoplasm. It won’t fix the damage that’s already done, but she should heal.”

“Fascinating,” she said, sounding just like a curious grad student. She looked up at me, giving me a tired smile as her expression turned serious. “Thank you for saving her. I don’t know what we’d do without Pinkie. You hardly know us, but you’ve already done so much. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

I felt my face heat, and I’m pretty sure I was blushing. I don’t get a lot of thanks in my line of work, and I wasn’t very good at accepting compliments. I fumbled for a reply. “Well… I wasn’t completely certain that was going to work, but you’re welcome. And it’s okay – I’m pretty sure it’s natural to be suspicious of an inter-dimensional wizard appearing out of thin air.” The unicorn laughed wryly, and we sat in companionable worry for a few more minutes.

“This is going to get worse before it gets better, isn’t it,” she asked softly as we watched Pinkie pull herself upright, wincing in pain.

“Probably,” I replied as I climbed to my own feet. My good feelings started to slip away… I’d never seen a group more happy and kind than these ponies. I couldn’t imagine them doing anything that warranted this treatment. I checked my crystal. It was still pointing up, but the angle was much smaller than it had been. I stared into the rock ceiling, wondering if Trixie could see me. Somewhere in this building was a young dragon she had kidnapped, and I was surrounded by ponies she had hurt all for the sake of her stupid, petty pride. I let the flood gates down, and my fury filled me. It burned away my exhaustion, hesitation and mercy. I lowered my eyes, looking for our next route. There will be a reckoning for this, Trixie. Or my name isn’t Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.

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