• Published 8th Feb 2012
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My Little Denarians - Chengar Qordath



Harry Dresden must go to Equestria to stop an evil plot by the Order of the Blackened Denarius

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The Epic Battle of Epicness

So there I was, facing off against some of the most powerful and all-around nasty beings I had ever had the misfortune of encountering. I couldn't help but stare at Nicodemus Archleone and the Order of the Blackened Denarius, resplendent in all their ponified glory.

And then I started laughing my ass off.

I mean, here were some of the biggest, nastiest demons in the known universe, and they were running around as cute little cartoon ponies. Hay's bells, Deirdre, Nicodemus's daughter, was a very girly shade of hot pink, which looked especially odd considering her bloody medusa-head cutie mark.

A quick look over the other demonhost ponies told me something interesting; all the rest of them had demonic sigils for their marks, instead of something a bit more unique. I'm hardly an expert on that kind of thing, but from Nicky told me (not exactly the most reliable of sources, but take you can get), that meant the other Denarians had their Fallen in the driver's seat. I wasn't going to complain about that. The Denarians couldn't really use as much of their power if the demon had to brute-force its way into controlling an unwilling host. There’s a reason I called those Denarians derp-beasts (well, I called them something different when I wasn’t being censored). Nicky had us outnumbered ten to eight, not to mention Discord. I'd take every advantage I could get.

I gave the cannon fodder a look-over, searching for any familiar faces ... sigils ... whatever. I didn't like what I saw. Judging by the sharp intake of breath I heard from Lash, neither did she.

The first of the demonic sigils I recognized plastered on the side of a particularly shaggy pony would've been impossible for me to miss. After all, it was literally impossible to forget my encounter with that particular demon and its mark. On top of being the first Denarian I'd ever had a run-in with, I'd soul-gazed his host, and when you look into another being's soul, it tends to stick with you. "Ursiel."

A bright green pony with cold, reptilian eyes. After the demon's last host tried to pull the old fake surrender on us and gave up his coin, I'd left said host half-crippled on a hotel room floor. A couple years later, the host had tracked me down, and tried to kill me. Obviously, he'd failed. "Saluriel."

Then I saw what had to be the biggest pony ever, aside from Celestia and Luna. He might not have been quite as big as the rulers of Equestria, but he made up for it by being a hundred times as ugly. Even without the sigil, I could've figured out who I was dealing with. "Magog."

One thing all three of those demons had in common; their coins were supposed to be in some highly secured Church storehouse instead of in Nicky's hands. Looks like somebody had gone and raided the vault since the last time I'd seen him. With all the chaos going on back on Earth, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

On the other hand, maybe the coins had just slipped out on their own. From my own experience, I knew they could be kind of like the One Ring; despite theoretically being inanimate objects, they had a real knack for finding their way into the hands of the weak-willed and corruptible.

Presumably, the other four Denarians had been in storage the last couple of times I'd had a run-in with the Nickleheads. That brought me to the last of the group, who was currently glaring daggers at Lash. By all indications, the feeling was entirely mutual. Just to drive the point home, they even had opposite color schemes; Lash’s white and yellow to her black and purple. I recognized the sigil just fine; I'd had it burned into my left hand for about three years, after all. "Lasciel."

"Dresden. And the traitor." Lasciel tapped a hoof on the ground a few times, alternating her gaze between the two of us. "Such a dilemma I face; I really can't decide which one of you I should kill first."

"Oh, another ancient being of incredible power wants to kill me, never had that happen before. You guys should form a club or something."

"You will kill neither of us." Lash hissed. "Because I am going to destroy you." I don't think I'd ever heard her sound quite so hateful before. Looks like one of the side effects of gaining free will is getting a bit more in touch with all those wonderful human emotions Like homicidal rage.

"You forget your place, shadow." Lasciel snapped back at her better half. "You are but a tiny fragment of my power, created to perform a simple task, at which you failed utterly. You are nothing without me."

That got a flinch out of Lash. Considering the fact that she’d started off as a little broken off piece of Lasciel, it figured that she would have a few identity issues when it came to her creator. If we both get out of this with our lives and sanity intact, I might want to look into helping her deal with that.

"Now then." Discord announced. With a snap of his talons, the library transformed into something that looked like it had come straight out of a gladiator movie. "The rules of the game are quite simple; the last team standing wins."

"And here I was expecting it would be a great big chess game."

"I'll keep that in mind if we need of a tiebreaker." Discord offered. "Now, are we ready to begin?"

"Wait." Twilight objected. "The Denarians have known about the game for longer than we have, and knew who their opponents would be. They have an unfair advantage."

"Oh?" Discord folded his mismatched paws, and gazed at Twilight with a hint of curiosity. "Do explain why I should care that I'm not playing fair."

I saw my opening, and took it. "Watching us lose in less than a minute wouldn't be very entertaining. It'll be more fun to watch the fight if we have a few minutes to come up with a plan and can actually put up a decent fight."

"Interesting." From his tone it sounded like I'd actually gotten his attention with that argument, and I heard a few grumbles from the Denarian ranks. Maybe I'd actually managed to drive a bit of a wedge between the two sets of baddies we were facing. Discord turned to face the leader of the Nickleheads. "Nicodemus?"

If our little ploy had upset Nicky's plans, he didn't show it. "I have no objection to giving them a few minutes to contemplate their situation."

"Very well then ponies, you have five minutes to make your strategy, starting ... now." Discord conjured up an hourglass, or rather, a five-minute glass, and turned it over.

The ponies and I all huddled up, and I gave them a quick run-down of what the Nickleheads could do. "Nicodemus uses his shadow to attack, so keep a watch out for it. Deirdre, the pink one with the medusa head mark, can turn her hair into razor sharp blades. They're the two most dangerous ones, so I'm probably going to have to focus on dealing with them. The rest of them are still at less than full power, right Lash?"

"Yes. None of those coins were in his hands a few years ago; their hosts are likely new and relatively untested. Quite possibly just disposable placeholders while Nicodemus cultivates new hosts to add to his ranks."

"So, on to the rest of them. Big and ugly is Magog. He's not that bright, and all he really does is direct physical attacks, but he's big enough to make them hurt. Ursiel's the same, except he’s not quite as big and bit more agile. Saluriel, the green one, has a thing for snake magic."

"Lasciel is fond of illusions." Lash added. "I will act to counter her." Lash pointed to a bright blue unicorn. "Of the others, Ramiel has some talent for magic, particularly lightning." Lash's hoof shifted to a dark purple female. "Exael specializes in mental manipulation." Next up was the bright yellow demon pony. "Prziel is a fast and agile physical fighter." Finally, Lash indicated the blood red one. "Tephros likes to combine fire and smoke."

Having an ex-Denarian around was proving to be all kinds handy. "So, here's what I'm thinking. Even if I can keep Deirdre and Nicodemus tied up, that still leaves them at eight to our seven. So, I'm going to hit them hard and fast as soon as we start, and try to catch them off guard and do some damage. Everyone else, help out."

I didn't like any of the ponies’ odds of being able to stand up to two Denarians at once, so the first thing we needed to do was even the odds. Actually, considering the less than certain fighting prowess of some of the ponies, I'd really rather have the odds balanced so that some of the ponies could double up against Nickleheads.

"I'm sorry, but I - I don't know if I can fight other ponies." Fluttershy whimpered. The poor thing looked terrified. "But - but I know everypony else is counting on me so - so I'll try." The other ponies whispered a quick bit of encouragement to timid pegasus.

I was about to get into the specifics of our strategy when Discord interrupted. "Time's up. Actually, you have another minute left, but I'm tired of just standing here while all you ponies talk and talk instead of doing anything. I'm losing valuable chaos-wreaking time here, so on with the show!"

“One last thing.” I hastily warned them all. “When you beat them, they might drop a coin. Don’t touch it; it’ll give the demon working through that coin a conduit to you.”

We broke our little strategy session, and lined up to face the Denarians. "Is everypony ready?" Discord asked, sounding considerably more excited now. Fluttershy let out a frightened squeak, and most of the other ponies were looking a bit nervous now that we were down to the actual fight, but everyone held the line. "Then let the games begin!"

Just as planned, I cut loose as soon as the fight started, with my favorite one-two punch of attack spells. "Infriga! Fuego!" Contrary to what one would think, ice and fire magic complement each other nicely. Fire is all about adding heat, and ice is all about taking it away, so you can save a lot of effort by using all that heat you took away to create an ice spell as the fuel for a fireball.

"Forzare!" I couldn't help but give a twitch when Lash used one of my other favorite spells. I suppose I shouldn't have been all that surprised considering the fact that she'd lived in my brain for years and even had a chunk of my soul, but it still bugged me slightly to see someone else using one of my spells.

Twilight and Rarity added to the spellfire, using their telekinetic tricks to hurl just about everything they could at the Denarians. Compared to the proper combat magic Lash and I were using it wasn't much, but any help is good.

Before I had a chance to figure out how much damage, if any, we'd actually inflicted, the Nickleheads were on us.

I ducked down as several strands of Deirdre's elongated and razor-sharp mane shot over my head. While I was pressed down against the ground, I saw a giant cobra slithering across the ground towards me, and barely managed to roll out of the way before it could bite me right in the eye. As it was, I felt the fangs graze over my muzzle, and after the snakebite came a warm tingling sensation that was almost certainly not a good sign.

Looks like Saluriel had a bit of a grudge against me, just like his host. Can’t imagine why; Sally was hiding safe in his coin when I started beating the pony feathers out of his host.

Saluriel and Deirdre were playing it a lot more tactical than I'd expected. After their effort at getting a quick kill on me failed, the two of them went for a nasty series of coordinated attacks that kept me way too busy dodging to get a shot of my own in. Deirdre's hair was tricky enough to dodge when I didn't have to deal with Saluriel plugging every single gap I could dodge through with more of his nasty little snakes. I hadn't taken a serious hit yet, but that was as much thanks to luck as any skill on my part. The fact that all my combat reflexes and instincts still worked on the general assumption that I had human anatomy wasn't helping things.

To make matters worse, the two of them were herding me away from my allies. The Nickleheads had figured out the same thing I already knew; the ponies needed my help to win this fight. Deirdre and Saluriel didn't need to kill me, just keep me tied up long enough to let the other Nickleheads finish the job.

And since Nicodemus was free to engage the ponies, that wouldn't take very long. I needed to change the dynamics of my situation, and I needed to do it now.

Saluriel and Deirdre were keeping me under too much pressure to do any serious spellcasting, but I could still do little stuff. Like, say, nudge some Deirdre's hair out of position so it sliced up those snakes instead of me.

Before I could put my plan into action I got just a bit distracted by the sound of a huge explosion off to my side. Something moving very fast slammed into Saluriel, and the Fallen went flying away until he smashed into the side of our little arena. He didn't get back up.

Judging by the streamers and confetti that now coated the downed Denarian, I had a pretty good idea who’d just helped me out of that tight spot. "Thanks Pinkie Pie."

"That's why I never leave home without my party cannon!" The pony in question declared, standing proudly next to her cannon. I would've commented on the fact that I'd never seen her carry her party cannon around before, but that would involve applying far too much logic to ball of manic insanity that was Pinkie Pie. Just accept that she carried her party cannon everywhere, even if I'd never seen it before, and move on.

Besides, I couldn't really complain about her casual disregard for physics when Pinkie had just knocked one of the Nickleheads out of the fight.

Now that I didn't have to deal with Deirdre and Saluriel locking me down, I could actually take a moment to check out the situation. Not that I could afford to completely ignore Deirdre, but I'd learned how to split my attention between focusing on the enemy in front of me and keeping an eye on the rest of the battlefield. Focusing too much on any one opponent leaves you open to getting flanked or backstabbed, and that’s really bad news.

Things were going a heck of a lot better than I'd expected; it looked like the ponies were actually managing to hold their own so far. Twilight was up against Ramiel, the lightning user. So far, it looked like she was focusing on defense, teleporting away whenever Ramiel attacked and letting his lightning bolts go flying past her. Probably a smart move; those thunderbolts looked like they would hurt if they connected.

Applejack was up against big stupid ugly Magog. The demon had a size advantage, but Applejack packed plenty of power onto her smaller frame, and was a lot more agile. If Magog really got going she wouldn't be able to stop him, but so far it looked like she was doing a good job of keeping him from building up any momentum. Maybe the fact that her brother, Big Macintosh, was about Magog-sized gave Applejack a bit of an edge when it came to dealing with big and ugly. Spending a couple years out on my mentor Ebenezar’s farm gave me a passing familiarity with farm girls, and odds were this wasn’t her first rodeo.

Rainbow Dash was up against Prziel. The Denarian had grown giant wings of bone out of his sides, and the two had taken their fight into the air. Rainbow was literally flying circles around the Nicklehead, but Prziel's wings were a lot bigger, and the tips of those bones looked sharp. Rainbow took a nasty hit when Prziel buffeted her with his wings but, in classic Rainbow Dash fashion, a second later she was back in the fight and hitting him back twice as hard.

The most surprising one was Fluttershy's fight with Ursiel. Well, maybe fight was the wrong for it. Ursiel was certainly trying to fight, but he seemed to be a bit off of his game, probably because Fluttershy was busily chewing him out. I couldn't help but remember what I'd seen of Ursiel's last host, a guy by the name of Rasmussen who'd wound up getting in way over his head and found himself dragged into the whole thing unwillingly. Maybe Fluttershy could actually get through to whoever Ursiel had taken over and get him to give up the coin?

Out of all the ponies, Rarity seemed to be the worst-off of the lot. Exael's eyes were glowing with a sickly yellow light, and the fashion pony was steadily backing away from him. Mind magic was nasty business. Molly, my former apprentice, had a real knack for it, and that had gotten her into all sorts of trouble. The fact that Rarity was still resisting at all was pretty darn impressive.

I couldn't see a single hair of Lash and Lasciel, but there was a fairly big chunk of the battlefield covered in mist, fire, and flashing lights. Wasn't hard to guess where the two illusion specialists were having their face-off.

One bit of good news, the Denarian Lash had ID'd as Tephros seemed to have gone down in our initial blitz-nuking of the Nickleheads. Not sure, if it had been me, Lash, or one of the ponies who actually nailed him, but I'd take what I could get. Even better, Nicodemus seemed to have been stunned and wasn’t participating in the fight either.

In Nicky's case, it was definitely temporary, assuming he wasn’t just faking it to begin with; emptying an entire clip of pistol ammo into him had only mildly annoyed the guy, and that was mostly just because it interrupted his pre-battle banter. From everything I knew, the only way to put him down for good was to choke him to death with that noose he wore as a necktie, which was going to be just about impossible to manage when I didn't have hands.

Still, even having Nicodemus be out of the fight for a minute was huge, and if he was plotting something I couldn’t do much about it while Deirdre was keeping me busy. For that matter, he might just be playing at having a moment of weakness to draw me into a trap when I ran in to try to finish him off. Running right up next to him to try and find some way to tighten his noose would give him a couple dozen ways to kill me in the time it would take me to blink.

Lucky for me, Nicodemus’ daughter didn’t inherit his subtlety gene. “Hey Deirdre, does your dear old dad really think I’d fall for a possum play? That trick was old back when he still kept his coin in a piggybank.” Demon-pony-medusa-girl snarled at me and tried to rip my head off. Looks like I’d hit the mark.

So, as soon as I had Deirdre down I'd bail out Rarity, and then see about keeping Nicodemus from getting back into the fight. Deirdre was all kinds of nasty, but she didn't have her father's brains, and most of the times I'd faced off against her I had come out on top, and unlike with Nicodemus I hadn't needed any help from the Knights of the Cross to pull off a win. Plus, thanks to my bargain with Mab, I'd also gotten a lot stronger since the last time I'd tangled with her.

Deirdre sent her razor-mane at me again, but now that I didn't have to worry about Saluriel flanking me with his little snake buddies I could block her with a shield. I was a bit surprised when my shield came up exactly the way it did when I used my shield bracelet. I guess it made sense though; the unicorn horn was supposed to serve as a focus for all my magic tools.

That's when a very interesting idea occurred to me. Up until now, I'd just been thinking of my horn as the equivalent of a staff or a blasting rod, when it was actually every single one of my magical foci. That gave me a few new options. It took a moment to wrap my mind around the mental gymnastics of how to trigger my force rings when they were a part of my horn instead of on my hands where they normally belonged, but I've always been good at adapting.

Taking a hit from one of my force rings was like a sledgehammer to the guts. The full force of all of them at once should be enough to put medusa-head down for the count.

Except it didn't. Instead, the blast of force went right through Deirdre, as if she wasn't there at all.

"Oh horse apples." A quick blast of magic dispelled the illusion. Lash had warned me that Lasciel had a knack for them, and I knew it myself from living with Lash in my brain, not to mention that I knew the demon really had it out for me. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and when you're dealing with a demon woman who actually lives in hell...

I guess I'd been expecting Lash to be able to counter any illusions Lasciel tried. Speaking of Lash, something roughly pony-sized slammed into my side, from the area where Lash and Lasciel had been having their little showdown. A moment later the illusionary fog shrouding the area lifted, and I saw Lasciel and real Deirdre. Looks like Lasciel was just as much of a pragmatist as Lash when it came to cheating during their little showdown.

The two Denarians had thoroughly battered Lash. She wasn't moving, I couldn't even tell if she was breathing. For a moment I was surprised there wasn't any blood, until I remembered this was a kid's show. The scuff marks covering her body and the fact that she was out cold got the message across anyway. Seeing Lash in this state made me just a bit peeved.

Lasciel just smirked triumphantly at me. "The traitor is dead. Now it's your turn Dresden, and this time Uriel isn't here to save you."

Normally I'm big on chivalry, but Lasciel had just crossed the line big time. "Oh it is on, you witch!" Hey, just one letter off from the word I'd actually meant to say. "Fuego!" Oh, that was not nearly enough fire for how pissed off I was right now. "Pyrofuego!" That's better, but still not quite enough fire. "Burn!"

A column of blue-white soulfire-enhanced flame that was actually hot enough to rival the magic I'd seen Celestia slinging in her fight with Discord shot out of my horn towards Lasciel. When it hit the demon pony she went flying back, shrieking at the top of her lungs, and the backwash of heat from my blast was enough to dry out my eyes and burn up my nose hairs.

All that was left of Lasciel was a white pony-shaped outline against the walls of Discord's arena, and a single silver coin resting in a small pile of ash.

That was a good start, but I wasn't nearly done yet. Deirdre was next; she'd helped Lasciel take Lash down. I turned to flash-fry Nicky's little girl and saw something that stunned me bad enough to forget about killing Deirdre.

Lasciel was standing right where Deirdre had been, still wearing that mocking little smirk on her face. It only took me a second to put it all together; she'd gotten me with those illusions of hers again. "You swapped with Deirdre." Lasciel gave a slight little bow of acknowledgement. "Nicodemus is going to be pissed when he founds out you just got his little girl killed."

"I am not Anduriel's dog." The Fallen shot back coolly. "The disapproval of his host is not among my concerns."

I shrugged, not all that surprised by her reaction. Demons aren’t exactly nice, even to each other. Besides, I wasn't planning to leave Lasciel alive long enough to need to worry about the fact that she'd just used Nicky's daughter as a demon shield anyway. "Infriga! Fuego!" My spells shot right through her. Another illusion.

A second later, something hammered into my side, sending me staggering to the side. When I turned, I saw Lasciel there once more. Or rather, a dozen or so copies of the demon-pony.

These illusions were really starting to get on my nerves.

I have a decent amount of experience against illusions, since my apprentice Molly had been a real specialist in using them. Normally, the White Council doesn't set much stock in illusion work. After all, any wizard worthy of the name has the Sight, the ability to open their metaphorical third eye and see things as they really are, It's a neat trick, and among other things it can cut through illusions like a hot knife through butter.

The problem was that you couldn't really control what you would see when you used the Sight. I'd seen some very nasty things in my time, and when I say nasty I don't mean icky and gross, I mean sanity blasting. I'd never gotten a look at one of Denarians with my Sight, and I was probably better off keeping it that way. Not to mention what might happen if I used the Sight on Discord. A godlike being of pure chaos and disharmony sounds like exactly the sort of thing that would rip my feeble little mortal mind to shreds.

Another hit from Lasciel's magic reminded me that the Fallen had another edge over Molly in the illusions department. Molly had never really gotten all that great at combat magic; she knew the basics, but she just didn't have the raw power or temperament to get into the sorts of magical slugging matches I dealt with all the time. Her illusions were great, but they were just about the only weapon in her arsenal.

Lasciel had more versatility. Another blast of her magic dissipating on my shield made that all too clear. At a guess, maybe one out of every ten attacks she was tossing my way was the real thing, but without any way to tell which spells were fakes I had to dodge or block everything. I could always toss the dice and gamble on a spell being one of her fakes, but my luck has always been kind of, well, less than great.

From what little I could see in the moments I could spare worrying about anything other than the very angry demon trying very hard to kill me again, the rest of the ponies weren't doing so hot either. Exael looked to be close to breaking Rarity in whatever mental contest of will they were having, Twilight was still just dodging Ramiel without getting a chance to hit back, and Applejack and Rainbow Dash were both looking worse for the wear from their brawls with Nicky's two best physical fighters. And Fluttershy...

Wait, was she hugging Ursiel? And was Ursiel crying? Right, if we all get out of this one piece, I'm bringing her along whenever I need to do diplomacy from now on.

Pinkie didn't have anyone fighting her at the moment, but instead seemed to be busy reloading her Party Cannon. A bunch of streamers and confetti sounded like just the thing for messing with Lasciel's illusions. With illusion work, the more variables you had to keep track of, the harder it was to maintain, and accounting for the disruption caused by every single bit of party paraphernalia Pinkie Pie could shoot out of that cannon would overload even someone with Lasciel's skill. "Hey Pinkie, how long does it take to reload your Party Cannon?"

"Five hours." Pinkie chirped back, sounding cheerfully oblivious to the fact that I was fighting for my life at the moment. "Well, four hours, fifty-eight minutes, and seventeen seconds now, 'cause I started reloading it a bit ago and - EEP!"

That didn't sound good, but before I could figure out what had happened Lasciel starting hitting my defense twice as hard as she had been before, and I couldn't spare any attention to figure out what had just happened to the party pony. I really hope that wasn't some sign that Nicodemus had finally gotten around to joining the fray. By this point I was pretty sure he'd been playing possum and was just waiting for the right time to strike, and between the fact that his daughter had just gone down and Pinkie wasn’t fighting anyone it was a good time for him to strike.

Not that I could do anything about it with Lasciel the Hell-witch after me. In a way going up against her was scarier than any other Fallen I'd faced. Sure, Nicodemus was a much bigger powerhouse, and there were plenty of other big nasties who'd probably kill me if I gave them a good chance to, but Nicodemus didn't really want me dead beyond a vague desire to make me stop messing up his schemes. Heck, he'd tried more than once to recruit me, and generally made it clear that he held no particular malice towards me as long as I wasn't getting in his way.

Lasciel, on the other hand, wanted me dead. And not in the general psychopath kill-everyone way that most of the Nickleheads did. Hay, I knew she didn't even get along all that well with Nicky, but she'd probably signed up with his crew just to get a chance to take a crack at me. That sheer level of personalized malice was something I hadn't had to deal with out of a demon before, and I've got to admit, knowing that there's a couple-billions years old that specifically wants me dead and would stop at nothing to kill me was pants-horse-applingly terrifying.

After all, if not for the fact that the God Squad would hit her like a ton of bricks if she actually broke the rules of heaven and hell by coming after me directly instead of working through her coin, Lasciel could blast me into tiny little pieces. Along with whatever planet I happened to be on at the time.

Playing defense against her wasn't an option. Time wasn't on my side here, and judging by all my experience in fighting them, the Nickleheads didn't need to worry about petty little things like getting tired or burning themselves out by slinging too much magic around at once. I needed to go on the offensive.

That would be a hay of a lot easier if I had any idea where the real Lasciel had hidden herself among all the fake ones.

That's when I had an idea.

I knew from experience with Molly that mixing yourself up among all your doubles was a bad move. It made it harder to control them, and against someone like me, it was only a matter of time before I did something along my usual line of thought like throwing out big kaboom spells that just hit every single Lasciel at once. No, the real one had probably hidden herself under a veil somewhere else, where she had a nice clear view of battlefield.

If I was Lasciel, and I was fighting against Harry Dresden, where I would I hide? Easy answer; the one place he wouldn't throw any of his big nasty killy spells.

I whipped my horn around to where Lash had fallen. "Infriga!"

The illusionary Lasciels poofed away, and a moment later the real one shimmered into existence, standing right above Lash and encased in solid ice all the way up to her withers. I love it when I actually manage to get one right.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.

"You picked the wrong guy to mess with, Lasciel. Even when you kill me, I just won't die."

Lasciel snarled out a word in what sounded like ancient Sumerian, and the ice encasing her melted. "You have not won, Dresden."

"Actually, I have." I answered confidently. "Turns out you forgot something really important."

"By all means, enlighten me."

"You forgot that we're in a children's cartoon."

Lash took that as her cue to pull a quick spin on the ground, and slam both her hind legs right into Lasciel's jaw. That looked like it hurt. Apparently, while blood was out, chipped and broken teeth were fine with the moral guardians.

Then again, I should probably thank all those soccer moms worried about evil television traumatizing their innocent little babies. “Word to the not-so-wise, Lasciel. Learn the three rules of Saturday Morning Cartoons: the good guys never die, the bad guys always lose, and there’s no problem that can’t be solved in half an hour, counting commercial breaks. Seriously, you’ve been around for how many billions of years, and you don’t even know that?”

Lash let out a quick snort of laughter. I think my sense of humor must have rubbed off on her at some point. “Doing alright Lash?"

Lash slowly picked herself up off the ground, moving slowly enough to make it clear she wasn't doing so hot, even if she was still alive. Lash looked down at Lasciel's knocked-out pony body, and gave her a couple more kicks in the head for good measure. "Never better."

I was about to jump into the fray and finally do something about the mental hammering Rarity was taking from Exael, when I got beaten to the punch. Twilight had spent the entire fight jumping around the battlefield and blinking away whenever Ramiel got close to hitting her. Spending that much time missing was really starting to get on the Fallen’s nerves, and like a lot of people do, when he got mad he got sloppy and eventually made a basic mistake.

He forgot to check his line of fire before he tossed out another one of his lightning bolts.

Twilight teleported away once more, and this time instead of slamming into one of the arena walls Ramiel's lightning bolt took Exael right in the back. The Fallen went down hard, and Rarity was free.

Then Ramiel goofed again, and tried to fix his mistake by going after Rarity. The white unicorn didn't have Twilight teleporting tricks. She couldn't dodge a lightning bolt. She didn't need to.

Half a dozen gems shot up out of the ground, one floating right in front of Rarity's face in time to intercept Ramiel attack. The lightning bolt bounced off the first gem to hit the second, and ping-ponged between all the other gems before finally returning to sender. Ramiel didn't enjoy getting a taste of his own medicine.

Looks like Ramiel was, to borrow an expression I'd picked up from Billy and the Alphas at one of our gaming sessions, ‘a team-killing noob.’ Demons just can't get good help these days.

That still left Magog and Prziel in the field. I didn't see any sign of Rainbow Dash and her opponent, but Applejack was still slugging it out with big ugly. I was about to step in when I figured out what the ponies were planning. "Hey, big, ugly, and stupid!" Unsurprisingly, Magog looked up at me when I said that. "What's faster than a speeding bullet and 20% cooler than a locomotive?"

Magog learned the answer to that question half a second later when Rainbow Dash power-dived right into his spine hard enough to leave a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud. If this hadn't been a kid's show, little bits Magog-gore would probably now be covering everything within a couple miles of us, but instead we just had a thoroughly busted-up Magog lying in in the crater Dash just created.

Prziel came flying a couple seconds behind Rainbow, just in time to see me, Lash, Twilight, and Rarity all prepping spells for him. I don't think I've ever heard a Denarian squeak in terror before. Not that he had much time to do that before the four of us hammered him out of the fight.

A quick scan of the battlefield revealed no Denarians left standing, except for a considerably less dangerous-looking pony I assumed had once been Ursiel hiding in the corner. I couldn't quite believe we'd pulled it off. There was just one little problem.

Nicodemus was nowhere to be seen. On top of that, Pinkie Pie was still down and, she wasn't getting back up.

As nasty as it had been going up against his footsoldiers, Nicky himself was going to ten times worse. Especially since the only reason I could imagine he'd sat the whole fight out was because he was prepping some sort of really nasty surprise that was due to hit us right about now.

With no obvious threats around at the moment, the other ponies had all clustered around Pinkie Pie, trying to figure out what had happened to their friend. "Keep your eyes open." I warned the ponies. We're not done yet."

I trotted over to Pinkie, keeping a constant eye out for Nicky. The ponies had done good, but I wasn't going to have much luck keeping them focused while they were all worried about their friend. Once I was close enough to see what was wrong with her, my blood froze.

There was a single tarnished silver coin pressed against the comatose pony's side, with a tiny little tendril of shadow holding it in place.

I had my mouth halfway open to shout a warning when Lash tackled me. From my new perspective on the ground, I saw a single Blackened Denarius with an all too familiar sigil whipping past where I’d been standing a second ago, scooting along over the ground on a thin tendril of shadow.

Hay's bells, I should have put it together sooner. Lash had practically spelled it out for me before the fight even started. Aside from Deirdre and Nicodemus, all the Nickleheads were just using whoever they could grab to tide them over and give them a connection to the fleshy world until Nicodemus got the hosts he really wanted.

Us.

A quick force spell sent Lasciel’s coin flying away. “Look out for the coins!” I warned the ponies. “He’s using the shadows to try and hit you us with the coins!”

By the time I’d figured out Nicky’s game and gotten the warning out it was already too late. Twilight and Applejack were already down, and Rarity only got the warning in time to see the coin right before it hit her. Fluttershy managed a single flap of her wings before two more shadow tendril grabbed by the legs, and then there was no escaping. Rainbow Dash might have been able to stay away from the shadows since she was already flying when I’d yelled out the warning, but instead of seeing to her own safety Rainbow flew in and tried to knock the coin off Pinkie Pie. She was still trying when Nicky’s shadows got her.

From everything I understood about the rules of things, the demons working through those coins couldn't force the ponies to be join team evil just by touching them. It looked like the Fallen could at least manage to temporarily knock them out of the fight though, and after what had happened with Ivy I knew Nicodemus had plenty of ways to 'persuade' someone to take up one of the coins on a more permenant basis.

Nicodemus stepped out of a small, innocuous patch of shadow I hadn't even noticed before, looking entirely too pleased with himself. "Now then Dresden, I believe this is the part where we discuss terms of surrender."

"Surrender? Sure thing.” Nicodemus must be way too used to dealing with me, since instead of looking hopeful when I said that he just sighed and rolled his eyes. “If you hand over all the coins, including your own, and let the ponies go and I'll let you walk away. Tell me where to find Tessa and her crew and I might even put off hunting you down until I’ve dealt with her."

"You really are so delightfully insolent when you're terrified, Dresden." I hate the way Nicky can see right through me sometimes. "Lasciel's shadow is in no condition to fight, and without the Swords present to tip the scales in your favor you cannot defeat me, even with the gifts you've gained from the Winter Queen. Allow me to make you a counter-offer; take up Lasciel's coin willingly, and I won't kill any of these sweet, innocent little ponies."

I let out a short, humorless laugh. "You should've done your research, Nicky. We're in a children's cartoon, and in case you haven't noticed yet, you're the bad guy. You can't kill them. In fact, there's probably a heroic rescue due any second now."

"True, I can't inflict any lasting harm on these ponies while I remain in Equestria. But really Harry, surely you must have realized that I can just take them elsewhere if you really intend to force me to execute one of my hostages." Nicodemus shot me a poisonous grin. "Of course, we both know you're bluffing."

Bucking pony feathers. "You kill one of them, and you'll lose one of your hosts."

Nicodemus somehow managed to shrug despite being in pony form. "As regrettable as it would be to lose the opportunity to turn a champion of purity into an exemplar of evil, I can adapt. Besides, you will cave before I have to harm any of them."

Gee, sure would be great if that dramatic rescue hurried up and got here...

Well, until our dramatic rescue got here Lash and I would just have to figure out a way to save ourselves. "Lash," I whispered to my only remaining ally. "If you've got an ace in the hole that actually gives us a chance of getting out of this, now would be a great time to whip it out."

"There's no point in whispering." Lash answered back in a normal conversational tone. "Nicodemus will be able to hear everything we say either way."

Oh, right. I really hate dealing with baddies that have superhuman senses.

"By all means." Nicodemus declared mildly. "Feel free to use whatever forbidden last resort spell you have set aside for just such an occasion."

"There is one thing I could try." Lash informed me uncertainly. "In all likelihood it will kill both of us and do no significant harm to Nicodemus, but..."

"Yeah, we're that desperate." Normally I'd be a bit more hesitant about going for such a long shot, but this was cartoon land. The baddie was right on the verge of victory, and the only thing that could possibly let our heroes live to fight another day was to take a leap of faith and break out the one really dangerous weapon in our arsenal. In the real world, that gets you killed, but in cartoon land, it was a sure-fire way to make everything end in sunshine and rainbows.

Lash nodded very slowly, and then opened her mouth.

I don't know what she said. In fact, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be sane if I hadn't managed to blot out the memory of whatever it was she uttered. All I know is that one minute she spoke and the next thing I knew I was writhing on the ground in what definitely ranked as one the top five most agonizing experiences I'd ever had in my life.

It wasn't a normal sort of physical pain. The closest thing I could think to relate it to was the time a trio of lemurs decided that my ghost/spirit form looked like a tasty little snack, and decided to chow down. It felt like my soul was ripping itself apart. Probably because, that was a pretty accurate approximation of what was actually happening.

I don't know how long I was down, screaming in agony; it could have been five seconds, or five hours. All I know is that when I finally recovered my senses, Nicodemus was standing over at the other end of the room, casually chatting with Discord, and Lash was...

Gone.

Not knocked out. Not even dead. Just gone. Not a single trace of her left.

Nicodemus noticed the instant I was lucid, and trotted over to me, an amused smirk on his face. "So nice of you to rejoin us, Dresden. I must confess, I'm impressed at the daring of Lasciel's shadow. There are few who would dare to invoke the Words of Creation, the very language of the White God himself. None of the Fallen, not even the Dark Prince himself, has dared to cross that threshold since the Fall. For the mere shadow of a Fallen to attempt such a thing - well, it's no surprise she was annihilated for her insolence.

"I wonder, how much do you know of the Words of Creation?" Nicodemus moved on from Lash's presumptive death as if it were a minor, unimportant little detail, which I suppose it was to him. "They have a most intriguing effect on mortals. It is said they burn the souls of the wicked, and soothe the souls of the righteous."

I couldn't help flinching at that little bit of information. I knew I'd done some bad things and made some huge mistakes over the course of my life, but to know that some bit of angelic holy magic that only harms the wicked had made with the smiting on me stung.

Nicodemus continued on, oblivious to my crisis on conscience. "No doubt the shadow hoped that they would have more of an effect upon me, but alas, it has been two thousand years since I could be classified as mortal."

Alright, I was officially in big trouble. No friends left, and after how badly Lash's gamble backfired I was too weak to fight off a kitten. Being at the mercy of Nicodemus was about as bad as things could possibly get. Demons, as a general rule, aren’t big on mercy.

That last minute heroic rescue that was always supposed to happen better hurry up, or it wouldn't get here in time.

"If you don't mind, Nicodemus." I was a bit surprised when Discord joined the conversation. "There's something I simply must ask Harry."

The Denarian graciously stepped aside, and let his ally take center stage. "Now, indulge me for a moment, if you would. Why is it that you play the role of the hero?"

Before I could answer him, Discord continued on. "After all, you've done a rather poor job of it so far." I was about to argue the point when Discord added. "Linda Randall certainly suffered for knowing you, and your efforts to help Kim Delaney ensured the poor girl's death. Or that poor girl at Splattercon; you know, if you hadn't lost your temper you could have saved her."

I flinched. Even years after the fact, those memories still stung. I was a wizard; it was my job to protect all the ordinary folks from the things that went bump in the night. But I was also human. I made mistakes. When it comes to fighting monsters, sometimes when I make mistakes it means innocent people die. It had taken me a long time to accept that fact. Or maybe it had just happened enough times that I'd learned to ignore the pain.

"And let's not forget dear little Molly. when you took her as an apprentice, the poor girly was an ordinary troubled teenager, with a bit of magic thrown in. Now look at her, a full-fledged warlock with a double-digit body count. Oh, and let's not forget the suicidal impulses. I must say, you've done a great deal to help her. Don’t you agree, hero?"

If being reminded of a few past failures stung, Molly was like a knife to the guts. I couldn't help remembering the last conversation I'd had with Uriel about her, how I had, on some level, made the choice to sacrifice my apprentice's health and sanity just to get my daughter back. At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do; I had to save my little girl, no matter the cost.

Of course, Molly was someone's little girl too. Michael and Charity Carpenter were two of the best, most fundamentally good people I'd ever known. Michael and Charity invited me into their home, made me a part of their family, and trusted me with the life and safety of their daughter. Then when push came to shove, I'd tossed their daughter on the fire to save mine.

"And of course," Discord crooned. "We simply can't forget dear Susan."

No. I couldn't forget the mother of my child, the woman I'd once asked to marry me. The woman whose heart I'd cut out to power a ritual blood sacrifice.

I kept telling myself it had been the only way. That as terrible as what I'd done was, the alternatives had all been worse. If I hadn't done anything, the Red Court would have killed us all anyway. Instead, I'd destroyed a collection of some of the nastiest vampires on Earth. I'd stopped a war that had killed millions, and destroyed creatures that had been murdering innocent people for millennia. All it had cost was the life of the woman I loved. That was a small price to pay.

Maybe if I kept telling myself that for the rest of my life, I could even make myself believe it.

I thought my spiritual jaunt through Chicago had helped me come to terms with everything that happened. I was wrong. All that pain was still there, I had just buried a bit deeper than it was before, and Discord seemed to know exactly what to say in order to dig all that pain back up. Maybe Nicky told him everything, or maybe he just knew exactly what he needed to say to hit me where it hurts.

Discord leaned down, and softly whispered into my ear. "Tell me Harry, do you know how many people have died, just in the last year or so, because of your efforts to 'help' them?" Discord let out a low chuckle. "It really is rather impressive figure. Between the chaos you caused in South America, the losses to the renewed Fomor threat, and incidental things like all the murders your apprentice committed, I believe it comes up to ..." Discord paused a for a few seconds to count on his fingers before delivering the final number. "Fifteen million, two-hundred and eighty seven thousand, three hundred and ninety seven."

Merciful god. I knew things had gotten bad, but ... fifteen million! That was ...

Discord smiled, and gave me a few gentle pats me on the head, sending an odd tingling sensation down my spine. In a casual tone of feigned disinterest, Discord asked. "Would you like to know how many of the dead were children?"

I shattered.

Now I knew why Lash's last gambit had failed. I knew why there was no last-minute rescue coming for me.

Those things only happen for the good guys.

Discord sat down next to me, and threw a companionable arm across my back. "There there, don't feel so bad about it. I'm sure you didn't mean to cause all those deaths, and it's not like it's really your fault that the world would be better off if you just stopped trying to help it. We all make mistakes."

Discord stood up, and waved his mismatched arms grandly. "Don't think of it as a failure, think of it as an opportunity. Really, you must be so terribly tired of playing the role of the goody-goody protector of humanity, and quite frankly, you're not very good at it. But now that you understand the truth, you have a chance to have some fun with life. All those things you really wanted to do deep down, but always held yourself back from because you thought it just wouldn't be right." Discord delivered the last three words in a mocking tone, before throwing his arm around my back again.

When he put it like that ... it all kind of made sense. If every time I tried to help it just made things worse, then didn't it make sense to stop helping? Stars and Stones, going off the numbers Discord gave, Harry Dresden the Hero was probably on the top ten list of greatest mass murderers in the history of Earth.

The world didn't need a hero like that.

Nicodemus stepped forward, Lasciel's coin floating alongside him on a tendril of shadow. Silently, he offered it to me, one last time.

Why fight it anymore? I was a monster. I'd always been a monster, and I would always be a monster.

I took the coin.


In keeping with MLP:FiM tradition, we commemorate the villain's triumph by cutting to the happy, upbeat ending credit music.