• 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 Ten

Chapter Ten

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.

“This is going to get worse before it gets better, isn’t it?” Twilight murmured to Dresden, allowing herself to sag against his arm for a moment. She grimaced in sympathetic pain as Pinkie Pie pulled herself upright with a wince.

“Probably,” Dresden replied, his voice grim. They each climbed to their hooves and set about getting the group ready to move out. Twilight moved to rejoin her friends while the wizard pulled out his magic crystal to check for Spike. It was glowing brightly, and he grunted approval. Pinkie was trying to walk now, moving as stiffly as Twilight did the morning after one of their parties. The earth pony’s face was pained, but she still forced a smile as Dash encouraged her.

Twilight wouldn’t cry. She willed herself not to even though the memory of Pinkie falling to the ground, her face growing paler and her breathing erratic, was impossible to banish. Pinkie’s fine, she told herself, and we’ll pull through this together. I know we will. Her heart wanted to believe it, but her mind refused. In one corner of her psyche, a weeping Twilight continually replayed the sight of Dash and Applejack being bitten, screaming in pain and falling while she was helpless behind that barrier, unable to reach out, unable to help her friends as they were hurt. Meanwhile, the logical part of her noted the injuries sustained by her friends, their exhaustion, and the surprising amount of power Trixie seemed to wield. The conclusion wasn’t pleasant.

There were very few ways for a unicorn to boost her power so dramatically in such a short time. Using the Elements of Harmony was the first method that came to mind, but that option wasn’t open to Trixie. Twilight pressed a hoof to her heart, remembering the agony of the Element of Magic shattering. All of her friends had endured that pain as well, their Elements broken by some malign force. Dresden had been right; there was no way that the attack was mere coincidence to Spike’s kidnapping. But based on what Trixie’s projection had said, she hadn’t known they were on the way. If it hadn’t been a punishment for disobeying her demands, then what was it? Could the pain it caused to herself and her friends be incidental? Could Trixie have smashed the Elements for some other reason?

So: first assumption. If she had intended to destroy them permanently, she would not have stopped after a single attempt. Therefore, she got what she wanted the first time. What would the temporary destruction of the Elements accomplish? She fought the urge to jump to conclusions, listing possibilities. Disrupt their power, perhaps. Weaken me and my friends temporarily. Release something that they held imprisoned. Attempt to seize their power while their defenses were compromised.

The first hypothesis was too vague. She discarded it as unproductive. The second couldn’t withstand the empirical evidence. If it were true, she would have been on the offensive, hunting them down while they had been helpless. Instead she had barricaded herself in a fortress full of guardians and traps, buying as much time as she could. The fourth could be similarly disregarded. None of Trixie’s magic held the power of Harmony. Whatever dark well of power Trixie drew on, it was as different from the Elements as night was from day. That left the third hypothesis.

The Elements of Harmony had only been used twice in the past thousand years. Both times, they had been brought to bear against Nightmare Moon. The second time, they had stripped away a great deal of Princess Luna’s magic. The obvious conjecture turned Twilight’s blood to ice water, a chill racing through her veins.

Second assumption: Trixie is using Nightmare Moon’s dark power. That would explain the cruel nature of her spells, her amoral behavior, and her need for time. Corollary to assumption two: She has yet to fully master her new powers. It all fit. Back in Ponyville, Trixie had loudly bragged that she was the greatest. When Twilight had proved the showmare wrong, Trixie must have been willing to do anything to best her. I don’t know how she could have possibly known what to do, but it all adds up. Trixie, you foal, what have you got yourself into?

Twilight watched Pinkie lean on Applejack’s shoulder, gradually getting her hooves under her as the effects of the poison faded. Her friends were already tense, worried, and hurt. Maybe it would be better to keep this to myself, she thought. We’re already inside her castle, and Trixie still has Spike and the Elements. Our mission hasn’t changed. All it would do is scare everypony more than they already are. Rarity caught her thoughtful expression, but Twilight waved away the other mare’s concern.

Logical as it might be, she admitted she was rationalizing. The real reason she didn’t want to tell them was much simpler. What if her friends abandoned her? Just a few hours ago she would have laughed at the idea, but now? Her pain, fear and worries had fed her doubts until they grew to a monstrous size. Should she tell them, did she dare? Maybe it was better to say nothing.

…No.

Her friends had earned more respect than that. She wouldn’t doubt them. They’d already been through so much together, and they had stuck with her all the way. Knowledge is power. I know that better than anypony. I can’t leave my friends helpless and unprepared against whatever we might face.

“Everypony?” she said. Dresden stopped inspecting the passage, and her friends turned to look at her. Twilight swallowed nervously, her heart fluttering. “I have something to tell you,” she began. “I think I know how Trixie became so powerful. I wish I’d realized it earlier.” She paused, trying to find the right words.

“Well? Out with it, Twi. Don’t leave us hangin’,” Applejack said.

“Let me guess,” Dresden interrupted. “It’s the demon riding shotgun in Trixie’s head.”

“It’s the what doing what?” Twilight gasped, forgetting the rest of her speech.

“Demon,” Dresden supplied. “In her head.”

Twilight’s mouth dropped open, but not a word followed. She simply could not believe it. He’d known this all along and said nothing?

You thought about doing the same thing, she chided herself.

Rarity intervened before Twilight could shake off her shock enough to bite the wizard’s head off. “But Dresden, demons are just an old mare’s tale. You expect us to believe that some imaginary creature is responsible?”

Dresden raised an eyebrow. “Says the talking unicorn who’s friends with a dragon. Given that you’re talking to an intelligent primate from another world, can we just assume the wizard knows what he’s talking about?” He turned to Twilight. “I’m pretty familiar with demons from home. Want the Cliff’s Notes?” Twilight nodded, picking up the pieces of her shattered concentration as Dresden began. “Demons are hungry, violent spirits. They range from animalistic to deliberately evil, but none of them are good news. They can possess people, and apparently ponies, sharing their bodies. Usually they give power in exchange for something, often the soul of whoever they’re possessing.” He shuddered slightly at some memory. “I don’t recognize whatever’s in Trixie, but I’ve seen similar situations, and the signs are all there.”

Twilight considered the new information in light of what she already assumed, the cold spike of logic freezing her blood. Third assumption: Dresden and I are both correct. But that would mean…

Dash crossed her hooves and gave Dresden a doubtful look. “You’re telling me Trixie’s being controlled by some freaky spirit thing? I don’t buy it.”

Dresden shrugged. “Whether you believe it or not doesn’t change what I saw. But she’s still in control of her actions for the most part. I Listened in when she snuck off and I heard them arguing. Well, her half of the argument at least. It probably hasn’t had its claws in her for long, but eventually it’ll have her, mind and body.”

Twilight spoke up. “Trixie broke our Elements for a reason. What if this is it? Princess Luna was a different pony in every way after we defeated Nightmare Moon.” That got an interested stare from Dresden, but the rest of the group just nodded thoughtfully. “Luna’s jealousy must have opened her to this demon. This … Nightmare. We sealed it away, but Trixie freed it. And in return it gave her all the power that had once been Nightmare Moon’s.”

“So Princess Luna really isn’t a bad pony?!” Pinkie gasped. She smiled and clapped her hooves together excitedly. “I knew it! We should throw her a party!”

“I think you’re missin’ the point a mite there, Pinkie.” Applejack drawled.

Twilight swallowed nervously. “If that’s true, if she has that much power and a thirst for vengeance… Nightmare Moon just saw us as annoyances, but Trixie knows better.” She stopped, her voice failing her as images of her friends lying, injured and broken, at Trixie’s hooves flashed through her mind. With an effort she dispelled them, and tried again. “I don’t know if we can beat her without the Elements. At this point there’s a real chance I’m leading you all to your deaths. She only wants me, so… so if you want to leave, I understand. I can’t ask all of you to risk yourselves like that.”

“You don’t have to ask.” A quiet voice told her, before Fluttershy wrapped Twilight in a hug.

“Hey!” Rainbow grinned, “There’s no way we’d let you face Trixie alone, Nightmare or no.” She stopped hovering to join the hug.

“She’s absolutely right, Twilight. We could never abandon you.”

“You need us, and we ain’t going nowhere without you.”

“Of course we’ll stay, silly! What would you do without us?”

“Well, I’ve got nothing better to do right now,” Dresden said, smirking slightly. “I suppose I could help out.” Twilight laughed and he bent down, his long arms reaching halfway across the group.

Twilight blinked back tears, and shared the hug with her friends. Like the ashes of a phoenix, her hope was rekindled by their love, and it blazed within her, brighter than any spell.

“You’re right, everypony. I’m sorry I doubted you. So what if Trixie has the powers of Nightmare Moon? We defeated her once, and we can do it again, Elements or no. We have the magic of friendship, and there’s no power greater than that.” They separated a moment later, standing taller with renewed determination in their eyes, and set off through the treacherous corridors once more.

There was another pitfall trap, this one lined with spikes, and one of the statues began exhaling a pale green gas that Twilight recognized as toxic, but nothing on the scale of some of the earlier traps. Then they reached the second staircase. This one was another spiral but it was made of polished marble and much bigger than its cousin downstairs. This, Twilight thought, must be the main stair. It took up an entire tower, and its carved banister was so ostentatious that Rarity clucked her tongue in distaste. Twilight was on the 72nd step, an idle part of her mind counting as she ascended, when a blast of magic shook the tower and began to roll down the stairs like a wave from the ocean, an irresistible tide of power. The energy was a bleak gray, almost invisible against the stone surroundings. It frothed and heaved, pouring through the holes in the banister like water even as the body of the spell rushed down the main stairs.

“Group huddle! Now!” Twilight screamed only a beat ahead of Dresden. He’d been in the lead, and she’d take the rear guard with the rest of the group close between them. They jumped to the middle, Twilight preparing her shield as she went. In less than a second, they’d formed a rough huddle. Dresden was on the outside, the back of his enchanted coat facing the incoming wave of power. Twilight concentrated, and the moment everypony was close enough, she threw another purple dome over the group only a half a second before the energy of Trixie’s spell washed over and past them. It splashed against the dome and flowed past on every side, momentarily outlining Twilight’s mystical shield without harming it in the slightest.

Twilight peered curiously over Dresden’s shoulder as the wave of magic passed on down the stairs; the stairwell was unchanged. The stone walls were the same as they had been a moment ago, and the stairs themselves didn’t seem any different. The floor underhoof was still solid and stable. Everything looked, sounded, smelled and felt the same. If she hadn’t sensed the spell at work around them, Twilight would have sworn nothing had happened. Her friends had reached similar conclusions.

“So what happened?” Pinkie asked, struggling to get out of the tightly packed mass of pony.

“Was it a false alarm?” Fluttershy quietly wondered.

“I… I don’t know,” Dresden replied letting go of the group, a puzzled expression on his face that mirrored Twilight’s own.

“D’ya reckon she’s bluffing?” Applejack suggested. “Tryin’ to slow us down?”

Rarity sniffed and shook her head. “Unlikely, I don’t think Trixie knows the meaning of the word ‘subtlety’. ”

Rainbow Dash, glared at the steps distrustfully. “We gotta do something. We can’t stand here forever.”

Distantly, Twilight heard Dresden muttering. She leaned toward him, trying to catch the words of his spell. His incantations were often curiously similar to the language of ancient Roam, but he was speaking modern Equestrian this time. It only took a couple of words to set her ears burning and bring an embarrassed flush to her face. Some of the curses Twilight didn’t recognize, but she could infer their meaning from context. The string of expletives died out with a sigh. What did that mean? Bad news? Worse news?! Dresden turned to the group, clearing his throat.

“Everyone, be patient and don’t move. I’m going to have a look around using my Sight. That should tell us what’s up.” The emphasis on ‘Sight’ caught Twilight’s attention, but Dash just cocked an eyebrow.

“And what the hay will that do? I’ve been looking around since we stopped huddling. I haven’t seen anything yet, and I’ve got eyes like a hawk.”

“Great point, Rainbow,” Dresden retorted his voice light. “Maybe I should let you do the magic.”

Dash responded by sticking out her tongue, and the wizard replied with equal decorum.

“Can we please stay focused, here?!” Twilight burst out, aiming glares at each of the troublemakers.

Dresden rolled his eyes, but settled into the same expression and tone of voice most of her professors had used when they lectured. “The Sight is another of a wizard’s abilities, and it’s related to the Soulgaze. With the Sight I can see magic at work … among other things. I’ll be able to tell what exactly that last spell did. Just give me a second to concentrate.”

“Do you mean to say you could have been using this ‘Sight’ to reveal all of the traps before they activated?” Rarity asked indignantly.

Dresden grimaced. “Keeping the Sight open for too long is a good way to drive yourself insane. Raw truth is a cruel mistress, and you can’t ever forget anything you see with the Sight. Good or bad, recent or years ago, you remember it perfectly. Look at the wrong person or object and you can blow a mental fuse.”

With that he stopped and closed his eyes, his brow knitted in concentration. Rainbow opened her mouth to say something, but a combined glare from Applejack and Rarity made her shut it with only a grumble. After a moment his eyes reopened, but his face had an oddly distant expression. He peered up the stairs, his body language and expression indicating a studious stare. His head quickly snapped upward, glaring at the stone ceiling as a shudder went through him. He continued to stare even as his mouth twisted into a snarl and a growl rumbled in his throat.

“Dresden?” Twilight prodded him with one hoof. He didn’t react, his gaze fixed upwards and his expression growing more and more hateful. Alarm bells rang loudly in the back of Twilight’s head, his warning still fresh in her mind.

“Dresden!” she cried, jabbing him in the leg with her horn.

“Gah!” Dresden’s eyes snapped shut. They reopened, dazed for a second, but quickly focused on Twilight.

“Now what was that fer, Twi?”

“Whatever were you thinking?!

“Are you okay, Mr. Dresden?”

“Hey! How come you get to hit him?”

“I don’t know what we’re yelling about!”

Dresden shook his head like he was trying to dislodge an unpleasant thought. As he refocused on Twilight, his snarl faded into a tired frown. “Damn, that was nasty. Thanks for the wake-up call.”

Twilight nodded, “No trouble.”

Dresden nodded back, the anger still in his eyes giving way to gratitude. “Sorry I got caught up, but Trixie’s waiting for us in the room upstairs. She’s … not a pretty sight. But the more immediate problem is the trap we’re in now. Does anypony have a piece of fruit or something?”

“I’ve got a few apples but what do you need’em for?” Applejack asked.

Dresden just put out a hand. “It’ll be easier to show than tell.” Applejack grumbled slightly, but tossed him a piece of fruit.

Twilight watched curiously as he studied the stairs ahead. He threw the apple hard, giving it impressive velocity. The red fruit flew through empty air for a moment before splitting neatly in half, accompanied by a deep and resonant twang, like a chord from a giant’s guitar.

Dresden nodded, “They’re wires, hundreds, maybe thousands, of them. Invisible and sharper than a scalpel. Walk into one of those and you won’t even know you’re cut until you see the blood.” His face turned grim once more, “To make things worse they’re made like that barrier. Even if Twilight and I can disassemble them it’ll take hours and leave us exhausted.” He sighed and favored the deadly, unseeable wires with a dissatisfied glare.

Twilight thought. She was already forming an idea, a way past this trap, but it was dangerous. She could stand the loss of time if it meant a safer path. “Let’s just go back and find another set of stairs. Surely there’s a way around this.”

Dresden shook his head sadly, “No, the wires are stretched throughout the whole tower. And don’t call me Shirley.” He finished with a small smile.

“Oh no.” Fluttershy breathed, her eyes darting nervously around. “What will we do now?” She looked hopefully at Dresden, but for once he seemed to be at a loss for ideas. That didn’t matter; Twilight had one.

She cleared her throat, “Dresden? Just how strong is your shield?”

He blinked, then realized she was on to something, “It’s saved me and friend from a six story drop and withstood the attack of half a dozen pissed off vampires. As far as force goes it’s top notch. Why?”

She answered with another question, “Are these wires high tension? It sounded like that when the apple was bisected.”

He nodded with an annoyed frown, “Yeah. They’d have to be. All the sharpness in the world doesn’t do you any good if the blade doesn’t stay taut. So what’re you planning?”

“It’ll be easier to show than tell,” she replied haughtily, then had to fight to keep from laughing at the look on his face. Not all of her friends were as successful.

“This is for not mentioning the demon sooner, isn’t it?” Dresden said. The laughter redoubled.

“Pinkie,” Twilight said interrupting the pink pony’s giggling. “What did you bring with you?” If anypony had brought what she needed it would be Pinkie.

The easily excitable pony gasped, “What didn’t I bring with me?!” She startled to dig through her saddlebags listing an impossible number of items as rapidly as possible. One, though, caught Twilight’s ear.

“Pinkie, can I have your flour?”

“I was going to use it to make more cupcakes, but I gueeeeess we need to escape the deathtrap more, don’t we?” Pinkie pondered as she pulled a five pound bag out of one saddle bag.

“Thanks.” Twilight levitated the bag to her, and turned to the pony who hopefully held the key to her whole plan. “Rarity, did you bring a pair of scissors?”

The fashionista nodded, “I sharpened a pair of my sturdiest shears before we came.” She took them from her saddlebags and gave them to Twilight.

Dresden was nodding to himself. He seemed to have figured out what she was planning. “Not a bad idea, but those scissors aren’t going to cut it. Those wires are stronger than that.”

Twilight nodded, “I know, but I can enhance them enough to let them cut through at least one.”

“Now I’m curious,” Rainbow said. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Just wait, Trixie’s trap has a fatal flaw and I’m about to exploit it.” Twilight told them, trying to conceal her anxiety under a mischievous grin.

Applejack just snorted, unimpressed. “Dresden’s startin’ rub off a bit too much on you, sugarcube.”

“Hey, now—”

The farmpony glanced at the wizard. “No offense.”

That started a discussion of its own, but Twilight was too busy digging through her saddlebags to take much notice. At last she found the book she wanted. It wasn’t very impressive, simply an old paperback titled, ‘Handy Household Hocus-Pocus: Everyday Enchantments and Useful Utilities for Unicorns’. She leafed through it quickly, searching for a half-remembered enchantment. There! The spell she wanted to use was simple in and of itself, with little more effort required than that of lifting a rock, but it was one that she didn’t know by heart. Enhancing tools was an old spell – though not one in common usage – but she needed to enhance the scissors to a degree that no normal tool possessed. The effort required for that was akin to lifting a stone a hundred times the weight of that first rock. It didn’t take her long, but her exhausted mind ached with the strain of another large spell. When she was finished, the scissors glowed a bright violet and fairly hummed with all the power they held.

She levitated them carefully away from the group and threw the bag of flour at the stairs ahead. She concentrated, and with a soft poof the bag exploded into a cloud of powder, spreading flour all across the next several feet of stairs.

And more importantly, all of the wires. They were so thin, that even with the flour, Twilight could barely make them out. But with some concentration and effort she found one and levitated the scissors positioning the wire between the blades, careful not to close them.

“Everypony huddle up again. I’ll need you to shield us, Dresden, while I manipulate the scissors. Just tell me when you’re ready.”

The wizard stopped his explanation of something called ‘rock-paper-scissors’ and nodded seriously. The ponies pulled together carefully, so nopony got their tails stepped on this time. Dresden concentrated, the silvery bracelet on his left wrist softly glowing.

“Defendre, defendre, defendre,” he murmured, a dome of translucent blue energy surrounding them. Twilight looked to him, but he shook his head. The strange litany continued and Twilight could feel the barrier around them strengthening, becoming reinforced, shifting to spread impact across the whole shield. Dresden nodded to her, putting out a fist with the thumb sticking up. Twilight concentrated and forced the shears to snap shut.

There was a moment of resistance, but Twilight’s spell held and the scissors did what they were meant to do.

Cut.

The wire had indeed been under high tension, and the sudden release snapped the invisible blade across the tower with the force of a guillotine. Right into another wire. The second wire was hit with a force far greater than the first, and it snapped instantly, slingshotting into another. Trixie had strung hundreds of wires, filling the tower with death, but now all those blades just served to fuel the chain reaction. Phantom razors scored infinitely thin slices into the stonework around them, each impact digging a deep scratch in the marble. The shield shook with impact as wayward strikes found it. But Dresden was as good as his word; the barrier held, deflecting every blow. It took a long, uncomfortable minute before the frenzied snapping stopped, but at last the tower was silent once more. Dresden cautiously let the shield fall, but Twilight noticed that his bracelet hadn’t stopped glowing.

“Did it work?” Fluttershy wondered, breaking the fragile silence. All eyes turned to Dresden and he gave a sigh.

“All right, all right. I’ll check it out.” He shut his eyes once more and concentrated on the stairs above. This time he only stared for a moment before turning back to the group. He smiled like a manticore, predatory satisfaction in his eyes. “That’s done it. There’s one or two left, but they’re all at the edges of the wall. As long as we keep to the inside of the spiral, we’ll be fine.”

Twilight let out the breath she’d been holding, and let herself feel a small surge of joy. Her more pragmatic side quickly reasserted itself. Dresden had said Trixie was waiting for them at the top. They might be close, but she would be the biggest obstacle of all. Twilight readied herself mentally and magically as they climbed the stairs, Dresden in the lead.

The stairs ended at a short landing before an enormous pair of doors. Where the rest of the castle stone was various shades of gray, these doors were strikingly different. They were made of perfectly white stone, so polished it shone it the light of their horns. The doors stood almost a dozen feet tall, banded with thick lengths of steel every couple of feet. There were no hinges, and Twilight could feel the enchantments reinforcing it without even trying. Somehow, I doubt Dresden can knock this one down. Anywhere else, the doors would have been beautiful, even majestic. But here, surrounded by bare, gray stone, the white gleam just looked like bones bleached by a cruel desert sun.

Twilight shook her head. She was weary, and her thoughts were drifting off track. She nodded to her friends as they stretched and prepared themselves. Dresden had put away the crystal after checking it for one last time. He fastened his enchanted coat closed, gripping his wand (or 'rod', as he called it) in his right hand and taking up his staff in the left. Applejack readied a pair of lassoes, each hanging from one of her saddlebags, ready for a quick draw. Rainbow Dash shook out her wings and flexed them, wincing faintly. She looked nervous, but she still buckled a pair of bracers onto her front hooves. Fluttershy busied herself re-packing the first aid kit and hung back, clearly nervous. Pinkie just watched the door, scowling at the entry as she munched on a cookie. Twilight considered the door; there were no handles.

“Should we push?”

Dresden shook his head. His eyes had regained their hot anger, but his voice was colored only by light disgust. “No, I know Trixie’s type. She wants it to be dramatic. Just watch.” He stepped forward and rapped his staff against the door. As the booming echoes died away, he spoke, “Little pony, little pony. Let me come in.” The doors rumbled, then groaned, as they swung into a large, well-lit room.

A dozen stained glass windows lined the walls, each featuring the same unicorn. She was tall, with a coat so dark the blue was almost black, and her eyes and mane were a cruel, metallic gray. Every pose screamed arrogance and might, but not one of the expressions truly captured the sorceress awaiting them.

Twilight could hardly believe her eyes. Trixie had grown not only in power, but in stature as well. She was almost as tall as Princess Celestia, and her mane and tail had turned into ethereal banners of pure silver. Her eyes had changed as well, glinting the same unforgiving gray of a knife blade. She was beautiful; nopony could deny that, with her newfound curves and long-legged grace. But it was a merciless, predatory beauty; the terrible magnificence of an unsheathed sword.

There was a moment of silence as the tired group of adventurers finally faced their tormentor. Trixie regarded them in return, her expression thick with haughty unconcern. The ponies might have spent minutes staring one another down, had a certain wizard not been present.

“Fuego!” came the resonant cry. Dresden shot a screaming fireball, baring his teeth as it streaked across the short distance between him and the smirking unicorn.

A square of jet black formed between her and the incendiary, swallowing it without so much as a ripple in the inky darkness. Trixie smiled as the shield dropped. “And just what did you expect that to accomplish, my little human?” Her voice was calm, but Twilight noticed an odd twitch in Trixie’s left eye. While the giant unicorn continued her monologue, Twilight studied Trixie’s shadow, trying to figure out just what was so uncanny about the eerie way it twitched and shifted in the torchlight.

“Welcome, you pathetic little foals, to the Grand Ballroom of Castle Silverstar. This is where your story ends, and the rise of the Dark and All-powerful Trixie begins! Soon, all of Equestria will bow before their new mistress. Everpony will finally realize just who is the greatest unicorn in all the land. They will call me magnificent. They will call me divine. They will call me−”

“A pompous braggart,” Twilight interrupted. Trixie actually fell silent, staring in shock that anypony had such audacity. “Face it, Trixie. You’re the same petty loudmouth you’ve always been, and no amount of power could change that.

“YOU DARE?!” Trixie shrieked, all semblance of control gone. A lance of shadow shot from her horn, aimed at Twilight’s heart, but with a flash her prey was gone. Another flash and Twilight Sparkle was back, only a few feet from her original position.

“Everypony scatter!” Twilight cried and the group split, Dash and Applejack charging Trixie from the right while Dresden, Rarity, Fluttershy and Pinkie circled further to the left. Dresden’s mouth was moving, he was sharing some plan with them, but another bolt of darkness tore through the air, forcing Twilight into another hurried teleport. She didn't have time to worry about anypony else. A midnight blue aura had formed around the angry sorceress. She drew on the dark power surrounding her, and the rocks beneath Twilight’s hooves began to rumble and shift. Twilight teleported again, this time jumping closer to her opponent, but the rumbling stones lifted themselves from the floor to form a pony-shaped golem. It charged her, and after a moment’s shock, Twilight turned and ran to meet it. She knew Trixie would launch another attack; her exposed back would make a tempting target. The former showpony soon obliged with a roaring ball of eerie black fire. Twilight blinked out once more, leaving the stampeding construct to meet the flames head on.

She turned, tired yet ready to continue, but Trixie’s was busy with other matters. Dash and Applejack were only a few yards away, attracting Trixie’s attention as she turned to strike them down. Lances of shadow and balls of fire filled the air with death, roaring towards the charging ponies. The athletic duo continued their headlong rush, without the slightest deviation. Trixie’s spells slammed into them and passed straight through. Trixie reeled back, startled, but quickly recognized it as an illusion. The original Dash and Applejack were nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, Trixie turned toward the other group, saw Rarity’s horn aglow, and put two and two together. A snarled curse was quickly followed by another lance of shadow, but Dresden stepped between them, his shield flickering to life. The blue energy deflected Trixie’s strike, sending it through one of her windows with tinkle of shattering glass.

Trixie prepared another blow, but a pair of strong hooves, hardened by years of heavy labor, buried themselves in her side, breaking her concentration and stealing her breath away. Dash followed Applejack’s attack with one of her own while Trixie was stunned. She rained blows on all of Trixie’s vulnerable points. She may have lacked the farmpony’s muscle, but she had more than earned her black belt in the dojo. Dresden was shooting more lances of force at Trixie, but her inky barrier seemed to have a mind of its own, blocking all his attacks no matter how distracted the mare might be. He stopped, frowning, and instead held his staff aloft, concentrating. Twilight could feel the power of the spell he prepared, but more pressing matters demanded her attention.

The golem was back, having reassembled itself after Trixie’s misdirected attack, and it took an aggressive swipe at her. Twilight dodged its hoof and began concentrating on the counterspell. Her magic was getting more and more difficult to use, each spell taking more and more effort, but she couldn’t stop now. Between the living statue’s clumsy swings, she could still see her friends fighting. Trixie had recovered after Dash’s barrage, and she’d summoned a strangely shining hammer. Dash and Applejack were forced to circle her, trying to stay out of close range, fending off the occasional blow. Then their bodies seemed to twist and snap, and suddenly there were two of each pony where there had been one. They moved in together, forcing Trixie to defend herself against twice as many assailants, half of whom couldn’t even be hit. Trixie turned to the source of the problem at hoof, Rarity. The moment her eyes focused on his group, Dresden’s shield flared to life. But Trixie had learned from her last attempt. Her spell rippled through the ground and the whole section of floor beneath Rarity fell away. She barely had time for a startled scream before she began falling, her horn going dark as panic broke her concentration. Fluttershy gasped and dove into the darkness after her, her wings moving faster than Twilight had ever seen. The distracting illusions gone, Trixie began to pressure the two fighters. The hammer swung easily in her telekinetic grip, and no amount of speed, agility, or guts could protect them forever.

“Gravitus!” Dresden cried, slamming his staff down. For a brief moment, gravity ceased. Twilight tripped, disoriented, and the golem didn’t handle it any better. It crashed heavily to the floor, splintering into pieces again. But that was just a side effect of the spell’s true purpose. All of the gravity in the room had been concentrated in one place: right where Trixie stood. The dark unicorn buckled under the stress of the incredible force, but her new body must have been strong enough to resist simply being flattened. Still, the spell had rendered her motionless, and it wasn’t done just yet. The ceiling above screamed in protest as stone rained down, the rocks accelerating to impossible speeds, pulled by a far stronger gravity than any they’d ever felt before. Twilight took the opportunity to launch an attack of her own. She hurled pieces of the golem at Trixie, the chunks of stone flying nearly at bullet speeds. Between them, they should have buried Trixie in an avalanche, but dark magic didn’t seem to play by the rules. A cube-shaped shield surrounded Trixie, swallowing both the rocks from above and everything Twilight slung at her.

“Now that just ain’t fair.” Dresden complained, watching the black barrier.

As the hail of stones stopped, Trixie reappeared, laughing. She was breathing hard and there were lines under her eyes, but she didn’t have a scratch on her. “Anypony else want to try?”

“Sure!” Pinkie chirped, popping out from behind the maniacal madpony. Without hesitation she reached down, clapping pairs of hoofcuffs on Trixie’s legs. The pink pony ignored Trixie’s shocked expression, bumping her playfully and sending her stumbling. Pinkie scooted away as the outraged unicorn screamed and began wildly launching spells. Pinkie dodged left moments before a fireball flashed by her. She jumped as the stones beneath her shot up into wicked spikes, soaring through the air in with an impossibly long hang-time. Her tail twitched as her hooves touched the ground, and she stopped short just in time to let an enormous piece of rubble crash to the floor only a couple of feet ahead. Trixie shrieked in fury, enraged that she couldn’t hit a simple earth pony. Two globes of swirling darkness appeared at her horn. With a furious cry she released them, both expanding as they left her. It was the chance Dresden seemed to have been waiting for.

“Fuego!” he shouted, but instead of a column of flames, he used a jet of fire compressed into a bar barely thicker than his arm. The beam of flame burned an intense yellow-white, throwing the room’s shadows into sharp relief. His attack threaded the needle between the shadowy orbs to strike her in the side. She screamed in pain, and the black globes winked out of existence. Her shadow writhed as she tried to maintain her balance, still hampered by the hoofcuffs, and the hammer hung slackly in the air. This was their opportunity.

“Now!” Twilight screamed, pelting Trixie with rock after rock. The sorceress managed to deflect a few, but most hit their mark. A lasso shot out from behind one of the fallen rocks her shield hadn’t eaten, circling her neck and pulling her to the ground.

“Yippee-ki-yay, marebucker!” Applejack hollered, twisting the rope tight enough to cut off the sorceress’s air supply. Dash followed only moments behind with a double-hooved stomp kick to Trixie’s horn, a sight that made Twilight flinch. As a final precaution, Twilight focused on a spell of binding. Ribbons of purple light rose from the ground around her, streaking across the room to bind Trixie to the floor. There was a startled moment of silence during which Twilight really believed they had won, but sometimes the universe has a cruel sense of humor.

Muffled laughter came from the trapped unicorn and the violet light holding her shattered. The rope encircling her throat came to life, glowing faintly, and wrapped itself around its former master before Applejack could react. The bound farmpony was thrown into Dresden, interrupting his next spell and sending him stumbling over Pinkie. The hoofcuffs on Trixie’s legs splintered into dark shards that she sent flying toward Pinkie even as the earth pony struggled to rise.

“No!” Twilight screamed. Her horn glowed even though she knew she wouldn’t be fast enough.

But Dash was. Even without her wings she was quick. She threw herself in front of Pinkie just as the flechettes struck. Her damaged wing caught most of them, but a few were able to penetrate, burying themselves in her side, and the rainbow-colored pegasus screamed in pain.

“Dashie?” Pinkie gasped as her friend slumped to the floor, red staining her coat. “You. Big. MEANIE!” she screamed, charging with tears in her eyes. Trixie laughed again with maniacal glee.

A bolt of shadowy lightning lashed out, but this time Twilight was ready. With a flash Pinkie disappeared, reappearing several feet ahead, her charge uninterrupted. Twilight staggered as the spell drained her further. She teleported Pinkie once more, but it was no use. Trixie simply grabbed Pinkie in her telekinetic grip. In that moment, Fluttershy emerged from the hole in the floor, her wings beating frantically as she hauled Rarity past the edge and over solid ground. Trixie broke into a sadistic smile and threw Pinkie Pie into the yellow pegasus, sending all three ponies down in a heap of tangled limbs and pain.

Twilight raised her head just far enough to look around, tired beyond anything she would have believed. Dresden was dusting himself off, a murderous look in his eyes, but nopony else was getting up. Her friends were hurt and exhausted, and Trixie had only one small injury where Dresden’s flame had burned her. Trixie was still laughing, all restraint gone, drunk with her own power.

“I told you I could do it. They were only pathetic little mortals after all, and I am a goddess! You wanted me to hide like a coward, but look what I have done alone! Only Twilight and the wizard are left. When they fall I will have won. All will love and fear the Dark and All-powerful Trixie, the most powerful unicorn in all of Equestria!”

This is it. I can’t see any way to beat her, Twilight thought. None of my studies ever prepared me for this. I’m sorry, Spike, I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry, my friends, for bringing you into this. I’m sorry, Celestia, I’ve let you down. I’m sorry, Dresden, this wasn’t your fight; you shouldn’t have had to face this. If it wasn’t for Trixie’s stupid, petty pride…

Her pride.

Her pride!

Life returned to Twilight’s voice and she interrupted Trixie’s laughter with a sharp laugh of her own. “You? The greatest unicorn in Equestria? Don’t make me laugh.”

“What?!” Trixie screamed. “I’ve bested you and your friends on the field of battle. My magic reigns supreme! I am the greatest.”

“Oh really?” Twilight asked cocking an eyebrow. “Can you command the Element of Magic? Only the greatest unicorn in the land can control power on that level. If you’re so much better than me, why can’t you take my Element for your own?”

Trixie seethed. “I’ll show you! I’ll show everypony!” Her shadow went into a frenzy, and a screeching wind blew from the shattered window. Trixie shook her head. “No! I SAID NO! Shut up! I can do it. I’m the Dark and All-powerful Trixie!” There was a flash of light and a familiar tiara appeared. Trixie jammed it onto her head and concentrated. Dresden raised his staff, preparing a spell, but Twilight held up a hoof, and he paused.

A purple aura gathered around Trixie and she began to float off the ground, the power of the Element of Magic enveloping her. Her eyes opened; they’d turned neon white, glowing with the power flowing through her. She smiled, opening her mouth to speak, when the aura died. There was a horrific not-sound, a mental feedback worse than anything Twilight had ever felt.

Trixie had just touched the purest, greatest force in Equestria.

And she had been judged unworthy.

The tiara pulsed with light, and Trixie was suddenly bound hoof and horn by bands of glowing white. Her shadow twisted in pain, flickering across the wall independent of her movements. Sweat beaded Trixie’s brow as she fought the power holding her. After several moments of mental struggle, the glowing restraints shattered, accompanied by the soft tinkle of breaking crystal and an explosion of magic. Trixie was flung across the room to slam into one of the walls. The tiara floated down, gentle as a feather, onto Twilight’s waiting head. She closed her eyes, concentrating on her friends, and opened herself to Harmony.

Power flowed through her, but it wasn’t as simple as raw magic. This was something deeper and more profound. This was time spent happily with other ponies. This was a warm home where you were cared for. This was a good night’s rest and a hearty meal. This was loving and being loved in return.

This was the magic of Friendship.

Her exhaustion washed away in the flood of energy. New sensations filled her perceptions; she could feel each of her friends’ pain. Dash’s wing and side were raw agony, each motion driving shards a little deeper. Applejack’s muscles were sore from the damage inflicted by the lightning serpent, but more pressingly, the rope was wrapped around her throat, slowly choking her. Fluttershy had pulled a muscle in one foreleg catching Rarity, and Pinkie’s impact had covered them both with bruises and twisted Rarity’s ankle. But Pinkie’s were the worst by far. Though she seemed all right, Twilight’s new senses revealed damage to practically every organ. The wasp venom had injured Pinkie far worse than she ever suspected.

Twilight’s heart hurt so much she thought it would break. They were her friends, and she had led them to this. But that hurt was born of love, and from that love Twilight drew strength. With a thought, she brought them to her, erasing Trixie’s magic. Twilight concentrated, summoning their elements from the vaults Trixie had locked them in, and placed each necklace gently around each friend’s neck. Their injuries began to heal, their pain faded and their hearts joined hers, beating as one.

“NO!” Trixie screamed. A bolt of lightning more powerful than anything else she’d thrown that night gathered at her horn. She released it with a fevered cry, but Dresden was waiting for it.

He caught the lightning on his staff, the electricity arcing across his coat and flowing through him. He let it. Instead of resisting the spell, he directed it, letting it flow through his body from his staff to his rod. The tip glowed vivid yellow as he pointed the sparking length of wood at Trixie.

“This,” he began, his voice quiet but rapidly rising to a full-throated roar, “is my BOOM STICK! Fulminos!”

The lightning bolt was a blueish-white, flashing brighter than the sun. Trixie brought her dark shield to bear once more, but the thunderbolt tore through it like tissue paper, hardly even slowing. Trixie’s eyes barely had time to widen before her reflected magic struck her. She screamed, collapsing to her knees.

Dresden just about did the same. He slumped over, his tight grip on the staff seemingly the only thing keeping him upright. He turned to the glowing ponies as they opened their eyes and prepared their counterstroke.

“I swear to God,” he wheezed. “If you summon Captain Planet, I am outta here.”

“No!” Trixie howled over him. “No! No! How could this happen? I was meant to win. I am the greatest!”

Twilight’s heart hurt to see Trixie in such pain. But soon she would see the light. A thought, a breath of power, and the will of all six friends united. Pure, blessed light lifted them into the air together. A ribbon of color shot out from each Element, twisting into a spiral before combining to form a rainbow brighter and more real than any that appeared in the sky.

“Don’t!” Trixie screamed, struggling against nothing. “Don’t leave me!” The rainbow arced down toward her with a roar like an oncoming flood. She screamed, shrill and painful, as her shadow ripped itself away from her. It flowed like quicksilver across the floor, disappearing in the shadows of the stairwell. Trixie stared forlornly at the empty doorway. “Don’t you leave me too,” she whispered as the concentrated power of the Harmony washed over her.

After a long moment, the brilliant light faded. Trixie was restored to her normal appearance. She lay limp; the stress of the Nightmare’s removal followed by the pure power of Harmony had been too much. Even as Twilight watched, Trixie’s injuries began to heal, and the last remnants of her dark aura streamed away like smoke from a snuffed candle.

Twilight and the others let the power flow out of them, slowly drifting back to the floor as their hearts returned to themselves. Twilight opened her eyes, a soft purple once more, and her blissful smile instantly fell. Dresden had dragged himself over to Trixie. He clutched his staff like a lifeline in one hand, but the other was pulling something out of his pocket. It was a small, metallic device. From the hard fury in his eyes and the way he held it, it could only be a weapon.

“Don’t!” she screamed, trotting towards him as fast as she could manage. After a startled second her friends followed, Dash flying once more on her healed wings. Dresden paused, shocked at their reaction, but his face slowly set into an expression of determination.

“Don’t,” Twilight repeated more gently as they drew near. Dresden shook his head.

“I need to. I’m not going to let her hurt any of you ever again.” Rage flared in his eyes. “She chose this path, and now she pays the consequences.” His grip on the weapon tightened.

“You can’t! That’s murder!”

He smiled sadly, “Maybe, but I’m willing to do that if it keeps this place safe.” Twilight stepped back, her mind trying to comprehend. Dresden continued, “I’m not a nice person, but you all are. This whole world is so kind and caring; you shouldn’t have to deal with things like her. I’ll do it. Just don’t look.”

“No! We don’t kill in Equestria. She’ll be under guard for a while to be sure the Nightmare is gone, but she won’t be punished. She’s been touched by the power of Harmony, now. That’s enough to change anypony.” Dresden hesitated, his anger giving way to a tired expression.

“Please?” Fluttershy asked softly.

Dresden’s eyes flicked towards the shy pegasus. His expression shifted through sadness, compassion, frustration and ended in acceptance. He sighed, dropping the weapon back into his pocket. “It’s your world. I guess I should respect your ways.” There was a moment of silence.

“Great, now let’s find Spike,” Dash said. “You still got that crystal, Dresden?”

He nodded. “Of course. It’s−” He reached into a pocket, and scowled. “Wait a minute.” He checked pocket after pocket, many Twilight hadn’t even realized existed. But the tracking crystal wasn’t in any of them. “Great. It must have fallen out in the fight. I’ll look around for it, you all start searching for Spike. I’ll yell if I find it.” He pointed to the doors opposite the stairs at the far end of the room.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “And leave you alone with Trixie?” Dresden flushed, and some of his anger returned.

“I said I wouldn’t. Now get moving and be careful.”

Twilight gave him one last look, before gathering the rest of her friends to search for her assistant. Pinkie, however, stayed for a minute with Dresden. She was smiling again, and happily chatting about the party she would throw once they had Spike back. Dresden listened for a moment, before interrupting her.

“Are you staying here to keep an eye on me?”

She cocked her head, staring at him with a smile. “Of course not. I know you won’t do anything to her. I wasn’t even worried when you had the gun. You weren’t going to hurt her.”

Dresden stared at her, exhaustion mixing with skepticism. “Why would you say that?”

She giggled. “Because you’re a better person than you give yourself credit for.” She darted forward wrapping him in quick hug. “And don’t you forget it.” She giggled harder at his surprise and bounced off to join the search for Spike.

Dresden was left alone.

Trixie snored, and he shot her a hard look. But after a moment of glaring he sighed, and turned to start looking.

………

The search for Spike wasn’t having much luck.

There were still a few traps, so it was slow going. They searched room after room, checking everywhere for secret hiding spots, but Spike was nowhere to be found. Twilight's worry grew and grew as the search stretched on. It was a long and nerve-wrecking half hour until Dresden’s voice interrupted her concentration.

“I believe this is what you were looking for?” He stood in the doorway of the next room, shrouded by the hallway’s darkness. But here was no mistaking the purple and green dragon curled in his arm, peacefully snoozing.

“Spike!” Twilight screamed, joyfully dashing to Dresden’s side. The wizard chuckled and gently set the dragon on the floor. Unconscious or not, Twilight wrapped her little brother in a tight hug, never wanting to let go. Her friends gathered around, all happily talking over one another.

“Thank you, Dresden.” Twilight said, tears welling in her eyes.

“No trouble at all... and now I can get to the more important business at hand.” He turned to go. His voice had turned blunt, almost uncaring. It was enough to catch Twilight’s attention even through her happiness. Something wasn’t right.

“What business?” She relit her horn, dispelling the hall’s shadows. Dresden turned back, stopping, and Twilight’s heart stopped with him.

His pupils had expanded until they filled his eyes, turning them into orbs of polished obsidian. His skin had faded from peach-colored to a dull gray. His exhaustion was gone, and now he moved with a predator’s grace. He gave her a coltish grin, revealing far sharper teeth than he’d previously possessed, and replied.

“I’m going to kill Trixie, of course. It’s the only way to be sure.”

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