The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

by psychicscubadiver

First published

Sequel to the Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends. Everyone's favorite wizard returns to Equestria.

Almost a year has gone by for Harry Dresden since he left Equestria. He'd have written, but between saving his newly discovered brother and destroying a scourge of vampires he's been a little busy. Then out of the blue he receives a strange letter from Twilight asking him to return. With no cases at the moment he eagerly accepts, but his friends aren't the only ponies expecting him. There's been a lot of rumors since his last visit and some ponies aren't too keen on seeing him come back.

A sequel to The Dresden Fillies: Strange Friends.

Prologue

View Online

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Cover arrangement by: Novel Idea

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Prologue

Despite being its capital, Canterlot wasn’t the biggest city in Equestria. While places like Manehatten or Fillydelphia were busy around the clock, the ruling center of Equestria was asleep by midnight.

Sure, some guards still patrolled the castle, a few nobles threw parties until the early hours of the morning, and one Princess had even begun to hold the Court of Night again, otherwise the entire town was silent and still. Bookmark was especially glad for that as he hurried through the deserted streets, his hoofsteps echoing behind him.

The unicorn trotted along keeping an even, if quick, pace, careful not to break into a run. He resisted the urge to glance behind him, instead using the darkened glass of various storefronts as mirrors. Even though he didn’t see anypony following him, he still pulled his cloak tight and hunched beneath its cover. At least there was a light drizzle tonight, otherwise a cloak in midsummer would have seemed suspicious.

His destination didn’t look like much. Just a small, dimly lit storefront squeezed between two much larger and more prosperous shops. A small bell rang as he entered and peered around the tea shop worriedly. His concern was unfounded as the booths and tables were all empty.

The only employee visible didn’t seem to be overjoyed at the sight of her latest customer. She was a lovely earth pony, her charcoal gray coat accompanied by a bright red mane and a flank well-curved enough to make any stallion drool. Her expression, though, was such a potent mix of boredom and hostility that it was hardly surprising the small shop was empty. Bookmark ignored her irritated glare and took off his cloak, revealing his tan coat, dark green mane, and a closed book for a cutie mark. He laid the cloak across the counter and cleared his throat to get her attention, waiting at the counter for service. The look the earth pony gave him indicated that her customer mattered about as much to her as the dirt beneath her hooves, but she slowly made her way over to him.

With a heavy sigh she asked, “What can I get for you?”

Bookmark paused for a moment, shooting a look behind him just to be sure, but the door remained closed and the shop’s few windows were all made of frosted glass. He turned back and spoke. “Actually, I’ve got a question if you wouldn’t mind.”

For a brief instant the mare’s eyes brightened, but quickly dimmed, her expression becoming guarded. “Sorry, you’re not my type.”

Where most stallions would have been crushed by that news, this pony smiled and took it in stride. “No, not that. I just wanted to ask, what’s your favorite shape?”

“The triangle, I suppose.” She shrugged seemingly uncaring, but he knew she was paying close attention to him now.

“Yes, three lines, three points. A perfect harmony within one shape.”

She nodded, and dropped her mask of hostility. Smiling, she bowed and replied, “The Order Triune welcomes you, brother. Pass to the next gate.” She pulled a small lever hidden beneath the counter and a section of floor beside her lifted, revealing a winding set of stone stairs. Bookmark grabbed his cloak and hurried down the steps, disappearing from sight. The barista put the lever back to its original position, dropping the false floor back into place, the seam nearly invisible. Then she quickly wiped the floor and counter with a rag, removing the precipitation he’d brought in with him. She resumed her unpleasant expression, boredly flipping through a magazine. Within two minutes of his entrance, there was no evidence that Bookmark had ever been there.

The stallion in question carefully descended the unlit portion of the steps, hurrying once he reached the torch-lined lower levels. Bookmark saw numerous doors as he headed down, some wooden, some metallic, all of them shut and adorned with arcane symbols, but he didn’t stop. His instructions had been precise; he was to enter the door at the bottom of the stairs and no other.

The air grew colder as he descended, and he tugged his cloak back on and lifted its hood, grateful for its warmth. As he passed the tenth door, Bookmark couldn't help but stare. He’d been here once or twice, but had only been allowed into the upper levels. The lower floors of this place were some of the most secret and well-protected places the Order possessed. The stairs dug deep into the mountain, taking him more than a hundred feet below the streets of Canterlot. At last he reached the bottom and stood before an enormous door made of solid stone. It was huge, at least eight feet tall, and covered in runes. The symbols extended outwards from the door to the walls around it, surrounding anypony who approached the door with mystic power. While he’d never been here before, he had heard rumors of this door and its brothers. They were made by Clover the Clever in the earliest days of the order, long ago, when there was no Canterlot above their stronghold. Supposedly, they could even hold one of the Princesses at bay for a few minutes.

Bookmark swallowed nervously and stared at the barrier, remembering the pass phrase and what would happen if he got it wrong. Unlike the shop above, this ritual wasn’t the common greeting between members. This was a code specifically for this occasion. The instructions he’d received had told him to memorize it before burning. It should have been foal’s play, since his talent was perfect recall of anything he’d read, but when faced with the grim portal before him, Bookmark couldn’t help feeling unsure.

Reviewing his lines, Bookmark approached the door, trying not to think about what some of the runes surrounding him could do. He slowly knocked three times, letting the echoes die away each time before striking again. There was movement on the other side of the door, and two lines etched into its center shifted, changing into a pair of eyes. They stared at him, their gaze far more penetrating than he ever would have thought stone eyes could be. A pony’s voice, muffled by the stone between them, called out. “Where does the sun go when the night comes?”

“Over the mountains and beyond the sea, waiting to rise again.” The voice beyond the door hesitated on the next line and Bookmark felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck.

At last the guard responded. “And what of the moon when day reigns?”

Bookmark covered up his sigh of relief and gave the answer. “She plays with her children, the stars, patient until twilight falls.”

There was another moment of harsh silence, just long enough to make Bookmark consider running, when the carved eyes turned back into flat lines. The door groaned as it swung inward, slowly unveiling of the room beyond. The unicorn guarding it was hooded as well, but he would recognize that two toned mane anywhere.

Bookmark’s jaw dropped. “Romana?” he hissed. “You’re a member of this Council?”

“And I thought you had a funny expression at the door! You’re priceless, Mark.” She chuckled at his shock, and gave him a smile. “I’ve been part of it since our university days. C’mon, the meeting's about to start. You’re the last one here.”

Bookmark stepped through the portal, and Romana shut the heavy door, her horn glowing brightly. The stone slid back into place, the ancient enchantments reactivating while a heavy bar settled over it. The chamber was lit by strange green crystals; they weren’t very bright, but their soft glow was just enough to make out the rest of the room. Carved from the living rock of the mountain, the ceiling vaulted above him on numerous twisting columns. There were two more doors, twins to the one he had entered through, and several trapdoors descending further into the mountain. The focus of the room, though, was the table in the middle. It was a broad circle made of three pieces: one cold iron, strong and stubborn; the next silver, shining brightly even in the dim light; and the last aluminum, the metal of lightning and flight. Seven ponies already waited at the table, leaving two spots on the silver side empty. Bookmark and Romana took them.

“Three races and three ponies of each, all united by one purpose. I call this meeting of the Order Triune to business. May we protect our world’s fragile harmony,” said a voice from the iron side of the table.

With that, everypony removed their hoods to reveal a collection of serious, middle aged ponies. Bookmark and Romana were the youngest ones there by at least a decade. The wizened earth pony who’d started the meeting turned her eyes on Bookmark, and he struggled to keep a calm face under the intensity of her gaze.

“I believe you were the pony to call this meeting. You said important information had come to light.” The eyes of the door were nothing compared to the stare of the mare before him now. He had suspected that the Advisor would be formidable, but she could have carved granite with that glare.

One of the Pegasi laughed. “Give the poor lad a break, Hawkeye. Any more of that glare of yours, and he won’t speak for the rest of the night.” The earth pony turned her attention on the pegasi who’d spoken, but she seemed to be made of sterner stuff than Bookmark.

Still, he cleared his throat and began. “I was privileged to be delivering some reports to Her Highness when a sealed letter from her student arrived. I waited while she read it, but before she could get rid of it, a fortuitous crash,” he grinned at that and let his horn glow slightly, “from outside the hall distracted her. I was able to get a brief look. The letter was vague on some points, but it still had relevant information. He is coming back within the next week, and the ceremony the Princess has been organizing is to award him a medal.”

Bookmark couldn’t have gotten a bigger response if he’d told them he was one of the Princesses in disguise. All eye were fastened on him, and one of the Pegasi who hadn't spoken simply gaped.

“Surely the Princesses know his true nature. They can’t be that dense.” snorted a large earth pony standing to Hawkeye’s right.

“Of course they do. They’re nopony’s foals. The question is why they act this way when they know.” Hawkeye returned. As the Senior-most pony at this meeting, she considered her next words carefully. “You are certain there is no mistake in this. It truly referred to him?”

This time Bookmark withstood her piercing stare slightly better. “Y-yes, as sure as I can be. The Princess’s protégé suggested he use the pseudonym ‘Blackstone’ for the ceremony.”

The discussion devolved into anarchy at that news, wild speculation and urgent questions taking the place of reasonable communication. It took Hawkeye several minutes before the table was calm enough to continue. “Romana, are all of our members in Ponyville ready? I don’t want this to slip through your hooves like his rumored first visit.”

Romana grimaced at the reminder, but still saluted the older pony. “Of course. We will keep close tabs on all of the Elements. I won’t fail again.”

Hawkeye nodded, turning to stare into space. “Then we must prepare and do so quickly. Romana, if possible, examine him yourself. Perhaps we are worrying over nothing, but I fear not.”

She sighed, seeming to show her true age for the first time. “I declare this meeting over, but I wish to say one last thing before we leave. Be vigilant, my brothers and sisters; the Order Triune will not sit idle if Obsidian truly means to return.”

Chapter One

View Online

The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter One

I sat alone in my basement apartment with a bottle of beer, brooding.

An uncharitable asshole like my brother may have called it sulking, but what the hell does he know? I’m a wizard, damnit, and wizards brood. It’s a part of the mystic atmosphere shtick.

I was in a bad mood and the world seemed to be conspiring against me to make it worse. The day was gray and overcast, rain pouring down in a steady, monotonous stream. I was in between cases at the moment, mundane or otherwise, and without any private investigating to do I had nothing to keep me busy. That wouldn’t have been so bad except that the rent was due next week, and I wouldn’t make it even if I started selling plasma. And to top off the list my hand was hurting again.

I glanced down at the offending extremity and scowled. Now that I’d given it my attention, the next ache was even worse. It had been months since the bandages came off, but I suppose nearly burning your hand to slag wasn’t something you get used to. The doctors had suggested I amputate it and get a prosthetic, but I had refused. Vehemently.

Roasted beyond use or not, it was my damn hand, and I was keeping it. At least the glove covered most of the scarring. I sighed; the only good thing to come out of that misadventure was finding my brother.

Thomas is a half-brother, actually, and a vampire of the White Court, but you can’t pick your family. He certainly couldn’t. Thomas’s father had subtly tried to arrange his son’s death for years, just to ensure there could be no one to challenge him for control over the White Court.

Now, though, Thomas lived with me. He hadn’t had much choice otherwise. It made the small apartment seem smaller, but both of us had managed not to kill each other yet. Given my temper today, though, it was a good thing he was out. I finished my beer and debated whether or not to get another, when a slow, measured beat hammered my door.

With cat-like reflexes, no doubt assisted by the beer, I leapt to my feet and instantly tripped, trying not to step on the puppy that rushed past. I managed to catch myself on my good hand, which immediately informed me that was a bad idea, and I cursed loudly. The gray little furball just nudged the door, staring at me quizzically, as if to ask why I wasn’t answering it. Mouse was another consequence of my last case. It was either adopt him or throw a Foo dog into the streets. I didn’t know everything the little guy was capable of, but so far he’d shown a real talent for getting underfoot. The door rang with three more precise knocks, and I cursed again as I stood back up. Now the fuzzy little monster was grinning as he pawed the door.

“Don’t get smug,” I told him, “one of these days I’m going to feed you to Mister. How does getting made into kitty kibble sound?” He just yawned, seemingly unconcerned about his possible future as Fancy Feast.

The knocking continued, and I growled as I pulled my staff from its position next to the door. Some people would call such precaution paranoid, and I would admit it was entirely possible there was a non-sinister reason for a strange knock on my door on such a dreary day. Then, after I greeted the normal, friendly person waiting for me, we would sit outside and watch the pigs fly by.

I opened the door, leaving the wards active, and glared at whoever had interrupted my brooding. I stared what sat on my doorstep and quickly discovered that ‘whatever’ was more appropriate. It was a section of the night sky cut into the shape of a horse. Or, I realized in a flash of insight, a pony.

It snorted at me and stomped its hooves. I couldn’t see any eyes, but its mouth was occupied by a thin scroll sealed in wax. Without a word, the sending set the message on the ground and disappeared, leaving me staring at thin air.

It could have been a trap, but I didn’t think that was likely. I’d never told a soul about my adventure in the land of brightly colored ponies. All the Council knew was that I’d gotten lost in the Nevernever. Sure, I was gone for almost a week, but time isn’t necessarily constant between here and there. They had grudgingly accepted my explanation, and that was that.

I glanced up the stairs to be sure, there were no nasty surprises waiting for me to lower my defenses, but there was nothing but the drumming rain. Mouse wasn’t growling either, and he’d proven more adept at seeing – okay, smelling – danger coming than I ever had. I lowered the wards just long enough to grab the scroll, then ducked quickly back inside. I don’t know how the sending had done it, but the paper was barely damp. The letter was short and to the point.

Dear Mister Dresden,

Something is about to happen, and we need you to return. If you come back the same way you left, you will find me waiting at the ruins. Sorry for the vague letter but I couldn’t be certain no one else would see this.

Your friend, T. S.

P.S. We all look forward to seeing you again soon.

I scratched my head. 'Vague' was right. I couldn’t even tell if she talking about a pony apocalypse or a tea party. I grabbed a poker and stirred up the fire that had been dying in the fireplace. After I’d read through the letter a couple times and committed it to memory, I tossed the parchment into the flames, careful not to get my good hand too close to them.

That done, I moved one of the rugs and pulled open the trap door that led to my lab. It was really just a sub-basement, a gray concrete cube, but after years of filling it with various items of arcane purpose and mystical origin, the place actually looked like a wizard’s study. Well, it did if you turned your head and squinted, anyway. One wooden shelf seemed out of place, littered as it was with trashy romance novels, and old Playboys. In the middle of that shelf sat a human skull.

“Bob. Get your lazy nonexistent ass up. I’ve got a trip to prepare for,” I said, rummaging through some bric-a-brac to set up a potion-making rig. Twin orange glows lit in the eyes of the skull behind me, and it gave an exaggerated yawn.

“So, something actually managed to knock you out of your funk, sahib?” His eyes brightened. “Does Murphy have a case for you? I bet she’d be glad to see you again. Maybe glad enough to−”

“No,” I interrupted before the conversation turned X-rated. “I got a letter from Twilight and the sending that delivered it makes me think it’s legit.” I said I hadn’t told a soul, and that was the truth; Bob didn’t have one.

“Oh?” he said, drawing out the word. “So, going back to the land of ponies, boss? Alone?”

I snorted. “Who else would I take? It’s not like−” I stopped, the meaning of his words sinking in. “Oh, hell no. I am not taking you with me. I’m bad enough as it is, who knows what you’d do?”

How he can glare without a face, I don’t know, but it was as impressive as ever. “Maybe, but I know what I won’t do if you leave me behind. How much research do you think you’ll get done without my help?”

I returned his glare with one of my own. “Given your history of throwing fits? About as much as usual.” Bob was a spirit of intellect who had worked with wizards for hundreds of years. He was literally invaluable and probably illegal. Knowledge was power in wizardry, and Bob had more information at his metaphorical fingertips than the Library of Congress. Not to mention his ability to analyze, theorize and study magic and the shifting laws that controlled it.

Seeing that his threats weren’t getting him anywhere, Bob switched tactics. “C’mon, Harry! It’s a whole new world, a different brand of magic, and more information than I’ve added to my memory in a century. Why can’t I go?”

I considered that. True, Bob could actually tell me more about the mechanics and differences between our worlds than any three wizards I knew, but I couldn’t let him off that easy. “Yeah, like your motives are ever that pure. If you tell me the real reason you want to go, I just might take you.”

He replied without hesitation or shame. “You described the population as mostly female and entirely naked. I am not missing out on that.”

“They’re horses, Bob!”

His voice took on a condescending tone, and he slowly shook his skull back and forth. “Harry, Harry, Harry. I appreciate a good-looking girl no matter what species she happens to be. Not that I’m the only one. How do you think centaurs were made anyway?” It’s times like this I wish mental magic was legal, because now I had an image in my mind that was disturbing beyond all belief.

When I was finished repressing that particular bit of trivia, I sighed. Bob might be a pain in the ass, but he’s still my oldest friend. Besides, it wasn’t like he could tell anyone without my permission. “Fine. You can come, but only if you stay silent and don’t leave your skull. Same rules as being out in public.”

He cheered lustily in a few dead languages before changing back to English. “As long as I can watch, I’ll be as still and cold as your sex life. Speaking of which−”

“No, not speaking of which at all.”

“I’m just saying, if you get any in Equestria, can I ride along?”

I gaped at him. “I’m not letting you into my head, Bob and I am definitely not sleeping with a pony!” The idea alone was enough to drive a man to drink.

“I’m just saying if you get lucky.”

“I am not sleeping with anyone.” I growled.

Bob sighed. “Well, business as usual, then.” I glared at him, but it wasn’t worth pursuing. Bob would just make me regret bringing him along even more.

“The letter was vague, so I’m going to make a few potions. If there’s trouble, they’ll be handy, and if not, then it’s an object lesson in some of my magic for Twilight.” I rubbed a hand across my chin, thinking. “I’d probably better make a blending potion and an escape potion. Hmm. What else would you suggest?”

Bob didn’t have any eyebrows to raise, but that didn’t stop him from giving the impression that he did. “Really, sahib? You’re actually going to give me a straight line that obvious?” I glared at him again, and he sighed. “I’d include the wolf brew – you know, the sense enhancer – but nothing else. Those three should be good.”

“Isn’t wolf fur the main ingredient for the wolf brew?” I asked, trying to remember. Potion making was a delicate art, and without the proper formula, the mix would be more poison than potion. That was one place especially where Bob’s memory came in handy.

“Yep,” Bob confirmed. “Just call up Billy, he’ll help out.” His orange eyes glimmered. “Or better yet, try Georgia. Oh! Or Andi! I mean, they have to be naked to transform, and it wouldn’t really be your fault if you saw their−”

“Thank you, Bob.”

………

“You want what?” asked Billy the werewolf, leader of the Alphas. They were a pack of college age werewolves who had decided to go vigilante on some of the darker parts of the supernatural. You’d think that would end in disaster, but they were smart enough not to tangle with anything out of their weight class. Unless I was involved. Then they tended to do dumb things like follow me into a battle between the supernatural armies of the Fae courts.

I rolled my eyes. “You heard me, Billy. I need it for a potion I’m making.”

“Oh, gotcha. Is this that anti-gravity one you were talking about?”

“No,” I replied, “I’ll get that right one of these days, but this is for something more practical. On that note, I’m going to be out of town for a while. Not sure how long it’ll take, but you’ll probably want to step up the patrols while I’m gone.”

He paused for a moment. “Will we have a way to contact you if something crazy goes down? It’s not like you have a cellphone we can call.” Magic tends to disrupt technology, and the more complex the tech, the easier it breaks. That’s one reason I’m not worried about Skynet; even the weakest wizard could short out something like that with a sneeze.

“Yeah, just turn on the Bat Signal and I’ll show up at the commissioner’s window.”

“Really, you’re going to be a smartass? After you called me for a favor?” He paused. “Two favors, actually.”

I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I think it’s funny, and you’re still going to do both of them anyway, so it’s a win-win.”

Billy laughed. “Fine, but don’t forget to call Murphy too. If she found out you told me and not her … Well, I’d just hope your insurance was paid up.” I swore dark things under my breath, and Billy laughed again. “I’ll bring it over later. See you, Harry.”

I hung up the phone, then picked it back up and dialed a familiar number. After a couple of rings she picked up. “Lt. Murphy, Special Investigations. How can I help you?”

“Hey, baby. What’s shaking?” She’d kill me later, but it was so worth it. I hope she had me on speakerphone.

For a lady who’s five foot three on her tiptoes, Murphy can grunt like a linebacker. “Oh, it’s you, Harry. Well, I’m going to have a seven foot corpse to deal with if you keep that up. How’s the hand?”

“Still half-melted and totally useless, but I called to tell you I’m going out of town for a while and don’t know when I’ll be back. Try not to let any mysterious homicides happen ‘til then.”

“You’re going somewhere on a case? Or is it Council business?”

I briefly considered lying to her, but I’m a terrible liar. “No to both.”

“Are you actually taking a vacation?” She sounded like she couldn’t believe it. Then she caught on. “Or does this have to do with that week you just disappeared, then turned up in the middle of nowhere and never talked about it?”

I snorted. “What was there to talk about? I got lost in the Nevernever and fell out again a week later. I told you time flow there doesn’t always match up with the real world.”

Her voice was skeptical. “Yeah, but I’m a police officer, Harry. I can tell when someone isn’t giving me the whole story. Why are you holding back?”

I hesitated. Murphy was good people. She’d saved my ass more times than I’d care to admit, and I knew she wouldn’t betray anything I told her in confidence. But, at the same time, I had promised Twilight and the Princesses that I’d keep my mouth shut. If I told her, she might let it slip, or it might be overheard. The more people that knew, the greater the chance the knowledge would fall into the wrong hands.

I couldn’t risk telling her, and it definitely had nothing to do with the fact I’d be embarrassed to admit I was close friends with a bunch of pretty, colorful ponies. Or that I was going on a magical adventure with them. Nope, I am completely secure in my masculinity.

“Sorry, Murph, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Some secrets aren’t mine to share.”

She was quiet for a moment. “I swear, Harry, if you found Bigfoot and you're keeping it secret…”

I laughed. “That’s not it, but I did have a case like that once. I’ll give you the full story when I get back.”

“See you then, you bastard.”

I hung up still chuckling and got busy getting the rest of my gear together. My force rings were all charged up, and so was my latest and shiniest toy, a silver belt buckle. My cane sword, a few crystals, a tuning fork, a silver bell, and all other sorts of useful odds and ends joined them. I debated whether or not to bring a gun, but I reasoned that it was better to have massive firepower and not need it than to need it and not have it. Both the sawed off shotgun and my .44 joined the rest of the equipment. Of course I grabbed my staff, the symbol of a wizard’s authority and power. I would have taken my blasting rod, but I’d never gotten around to making another one after the last one was destroyed.

All in all, it took a couple of hours before I was ready to call what I hoped would be my ride. The Blue Beetle, my sixties Volkswagen bug, may be sexy, but it breaks down way too often for me to trust it on a trip that far.

“Hello, Harry,” said a deep and resonant voice on the other end. “How are you?”

“I’m okay, Michael. Are the wife and kids doing all right?”

“The children are healthy as ever, growing like weeds. Though Charity’s mad right now. Probably because you’re going to ask me to drive you hundreds of miles out into the middle of nowhere.”

My jaw dropped open, and with my mind otherwise occupied, it stayed that way for a good minute. Michael Carpenter was a Knight of the Cross, and he wielded a sword that supposedly had a nail from the Crucifixion set in its hilt. I’d seen him do things that were supposed to be impossible, seen convenient coincidences happen with ridiculous frequency, but last I checked owning a holy sword doesn’t give you telepathy. “How on Earth did you know that?”

He laughed out loud. “He works in mysterious ways sometimes.” And somehow he didn’t even sound smug, the bastard.

“Wait a minute,” I said, piecing it together. “Murphy told you, didn’t she? Mysterious ways my ass.”

“I don’t know about you, Harry, but I find women mysterious enough to give even the Lord a run for His money.” There was a sound of muffled impact, and Michael laughed again. Knowing Charity, she’d probably given him a thump on the head. I chuckled and relaxed. I don’t put much faith in religion (ba-dum-tish), but I have to admit Michael makes it look good.

“I hope Charity gave you what you deserved for that one,” I said, “but yeah, I could really use a lift. I don’t want to chance taking the Beetle that far, or leaving it there while I’m−” I stopped, realizing what I was about to say. “Elsewhere,” I finished lamely.

“I won’t begrudge you your secrets. Lord knows you’ve probably had enough questions already. It’s a bit late to make the trip today, though. Is tomorrow morning okay?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I wasn’t planning to leave until then. I’ve still got some prep to do, and I need to tell Thomas I’ll be gone.”

“I’ll stop by at seven. See you then, Harry.”

Freaking early risers. I hadn’t seen the dawn in weeks, and that wasn’t a record I looked forward to breaking. But I was getting a free ride, so I couldn’t say much. “I’ll be here.”

………

I’m not sure how late it was when Thomas came back, but Billy had dropped off the ingredients hours ago, and I’d started brewing my potions after dinner. The familiar sensation of my wards reacting to the charm Thomas carried caught my attention, but not as much as the feminine laughter that shortly followed.

“All right!” Bob cheered. “Thomas brought home another girl!”

I sighed, trying not to think unkind thoughts about my brother, but somehow I was less than successful. “Go to sleep, Bob. We’ve got company.” He grumbled slightly, but he was still too happy about going to Equestria to put up much of a fuss. I climbed the stairs up to the trapdoor and pushed cautiously, making sure nobody was standing on it.

For some reason, a seven-foot-tall wizard rising out of the floor surprised the woman who was getting one of Mac’s special darks, my favorite beer, out of my icebox. “What the hell?!” she yelped, clinging to Thomas. I hadn’t scared her that badly, but I think she just wanted a chance to grab hold of him. My brother was more than willing to be grabbed, and if I hadn’t cleared my throat noisily they might’ve have started right there. Not that it was her fault, really – my brother is an incubus, after all.

I glared at him. Most people would never guess we were brothers, but that wasn’t surprising. There may be a family resemblance between us, but humans and chimps kind of look alike, too. Not that I’m ugly, but Thomas has the kind of looks that belong on statues of Greek gods. He’s good-looking enough to make male models jealous and has a smile that kills inhibitions at fifty paces. In short, he was the perfect predator for his type of feeding.

I don’t begrudge him his necessities, but this was the fifth time this week I’d been kicked out of my own bed. Thomas at least had the good grace to look guilty.

“Uh, Monica, meet my roommate, Harry. Harry, this is Monica.”

I nodded curtly to her, then turned back to Thomas. “I just wanted to let you know to keep it down. I’m going out of town tomorrow, and I’ve got to get up early.”

He blinked at that. “Really? How long?”

I shrugged. “However long it takes. I’ll be leaving you the Beetle though. I’m catching a ride with Michael. Don’t forget to feed Mister and Mouse.” Thomas frowned; he and Michael didn’t really get along. I think it has to do with the time he took Michael to a strip club.

“Whatever. Just call me when you get in trouble.” He wrapped an arm around Mary, or whatever this one’s name was, and began heading to the bedroom.

I snorted. “You know I don’t have a cell phone.” In response, he flipped a quarter over his shoulder without even looking. I caught it and glared at the bastard. As much as I hated to admit it, he had style.

The potions wouldn’t wait, though, and I started back down the stairs to watch them brew. At least he hadn’t offered to share this time. I know that sex wasn’t much different from any other meal to him, but somehow I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of family dinner. Not to mention that, thanks to his description, the phrase ‘spit roast’ no longer reminded me of medieval cooking.

………

“We’re here, Harry.”

“Huh-do-wha?” I mumbled, trying in vain to return to the land of the living. The potions had taken longer than I’d thought, and the couch wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to sleep. How Thomas manages on it I don’t know.

Long story short, I was more zombie than human when my wind-up Mickey Mouse alarm clock informed me it was time to get up. A quick, cold shower later, and I still wasn’t much better. Michael had shown up right on time and helped me pack everything into his sedan. I gave him a map and the name of the town closest to the Way and promptly went back to sleep.

Now, though, the sun was at a much more reasonable angle, and I actually felt halfway refreshed. I yawned and stretched, bashing both hands and feet on the small confines of the car. We were in a small town that was remarkable only in how perfectly it matched the Midwestern stereotype. I blinked dazedly, relying on a memory months old, and directed Michael to the outskirts of the place. There, we followed the signs to the nearby cave. I’d looked it up after I got back to Chicago, and discovered a lot of interesting things.

The cave was called Snake’s Bend and had a lot of ghost stories, mysterious disappearances, and bizarre sightings associated with it. The town and cave were listed in several local books about the occult, but it had never become a popular spot. I wasn’t surprised. Most of the truly paranormal places never did. Humans may not admit that the supernatural exists, but when their gut tells them to avoid the dank cave or the old house, most of them listen. Sure, they tell themselves it’s for perfectly valid reasons. ‘It’s easy to get lost in that cave’ or ‘that house is just waiting to fall apart’. But when push comes to shove, they recognize a dangerous place for what it is.

We reached it before too long, and I wasn’t surprised to see that the small parking lot outside was empty. Hell, I wasn’t even out of the car, and I was already getting the heebie-jeebies. It wasn’t full-blown fear so much as a warning; I could tell the barrier between our world and what lay beyond was weak here. I didn’t doubt for a second that those disappearances had been real. Somewhere in that desert rested the bleached bones of anyone unfortunate enough to be in that cave at the wrong time.

I ignored my Spider-sense and began pulling gear out of the back of Michael’s car. He came around to help, and in short order we had everything in a neat stack. I stared at what I’d brought. At the time all of it had seemed not just smart but essential. Now that I actually had to haul it across a desert, though, I was a little doubtful. Michael noticed the look on my face and clapped me on the back. “You don’t do things by halves, do you, Harry?”

I just grunted, picked up the old pack I’d gotten at an army surplus store, and started hanging the rest of the bags off it. I was still young and could probably take the weight for an hour or two. My back, however, began protesting almost immediately, disagreeing with my assessment of its abilities. Tough. I was the one in charge.

“So, where are you off to now?” I asked Michael. “Back to Chicago?”

The knight shook his head. “No, I’ve got a job. Your trip was just on the way.” Somehow, I didn’t think he was talking about his contracting business.

I slung a duffel bag across one shoulder and ignored my body’s mutinous complaints. “Where are you headed? There’s not much around here.”

He smiled and handed me the last thing, a human skull in a black net bag. “I’ll know when I get there.”

I tied the bag to my belt and snorted. “Sounds like your head office is pretty lazy. Would writing you a note or using a little telepathy really be that hard?”

He laughed. “Thanks, but I’d rather not hear any voices in my head. God go with you, Harry.”

“I don’t see why he’d start now.”

Michael shrugged and began to climb back into his car. He paused. “I think you forgot something.”

I wondered what the hell Michael was talking about until I heard a couple of happy little yips coming from the back seat floorboard. “Mouse?” The terrier sized puppy was on the floor, tucked halfway under some newspaper. He smiled at me as he emerged from his hiding spot. “Damnit, you were supposed to stay home.” He just sneezed and started pawing at the car door.

I doubted that whatever eldritch horror Michael was going to confront was a fan of puppies. I didn’t really have much choice but to bring the little monster along with me. Something I’m sure Mouse had been counting on. I sighed. “Come on, then, you little stowaway.”

Michael frowned. “Are you sure he’ll be safe?”

I nodded. “Yeah, if there’s trouble, I know someone who’ll keep an eye on him.” Fluttershy would love Mouse, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the attention. “Could you give Thomas a call and let him know I’ve got the dog?” The big man’s frown darkened a hair, but he nodded agreement. “Thanks again for the ride, Michael. See you later.”

He smiled. “I’ll be here to pick you when you’re done.”

I paused, frowning. “But I don’t know how long it’ll take.”

“I know,” he replied, then got into his car and drove off. I watched him disappear around a bend in the road and grumbled to myself. I’m the wizard. I’m the one who’s supposed to have the mysterious powers and speak in arcane riddles. I stood there for a minute more, ignoring my aching back and Mouse’s whines.

“So, are we going to get this show on the road or what? Those naked ponies aren’t going to ogle themselves. Oh, but what if they did?” That was Bob, of course, practically drooling over thoughts I had never even wanted to consider.

“Oh sure, you’re plenty talkative now. What about when Mouse got in the car? You couldn’t have said anything then?” I glared at the skull.

“Hey, you weren’t the only one who was asleep, sahib. I didn’t notice until we were more than halfway here, and it was too late to go back at that point.” Logic, damn her traitorous heart, had sided with Bob this time. I made a strategic retreat from that battle.

“Yeah, let’s get moving,” I said, making sure Mouse followed as I headed toward the cave.

Snake’s Bend was chilly compared to the warm day outside, but my duster was enough to keep out most of the cold. I entered the cave only to be stopped a few feet in by a metal grill set into the stone. It looked like someone had transplanted the front of a prison cell, complete with a locked door. I grunted, setting down my pack. I’d been forced to blast open the lock on my way out last time, and I’d honestly hoped nobody had fixed it in the year since then.

Not that I’d counted on it. I fished out my lock-picking kit and went to work. The lock was a simple one, but having only one usable hand made the process more difficult that it had any right to be. It took me a full twenty minutes of frustrated effort to open the damned thing, and I was tempted more than once to just smash the door off its hinges.

I managed to get the pack back on with only a little difficulty and some heartfelt curses. I whistled for Mouse and waited for him to return from the bush he’d been investigating. When the party was finally assembled, we started into the cave itself. I drew in power, making my silver pentacle glow a soft blue-white as we explored. The deeper we went, the creepier the atmosphere felt. Mouse whimpered softly, but I gave him a reassuring scratch behind one ear. After about a tenth of a mile, we reached our goal.

Even if I hadn't been able to feel the obvious weakness in the veil between here and the Nevernever, the site itself was more than a little memorable. Two stalactites, or stalagmites or whatever the kids were calling them these days, had grown next to each other in almost perfect symmetry. Together they formed a pair of sinuous columns fifteen feet tall. They widened at both top and bottom, forming a tall oval between them. The wall a few feet behind the structure glittered in the weak light, tiny crystals making it seem to be covered in jewels.

The whole place looked pretty amazing, which may explain why the town thought it was necessary to put in a gate despite the cave’s reputation. I wasn’t impressed, though. Not only have I seen better, but I knew that the only thing on the other side was a drab and empty desert.

Opening the gateway startled Mouse a little, but after a moment’s hesitation he followed me through. We walked out of the shallow cave into the desert’s bright light. I let my eyes adjust then glanced around. The place looked the same as I remembered, barren except for a few stones and some scattered plateaus. I quickly spotted the first rock pattern in the hidden trail to Equestria and lurched into action. Mouse ran here and there sniffing at the ground, but after a while he lost interest and stuck close to me.

Without Twilight or Luna to talk to, the trip seemed a hell of a lot longer. Knowing I’d probably come to regret it, I decided to start a conversation with Bob. I figured if I stuck to the topic of magic I could manage to keep things PG. “So, Bob, what part of the Nevernever is this? I’m pretty sure we’re outside of Fae territory.”

“You’re right. This land doesn’t belong to either Summer or Winter. It isn’t even one of the lesser courts or kingdoms of the Wyld Fae. I honestly can’t tell you where we are.” Bob’s reply had an unusually flat tone. And he hadn’t thrown in a single insult or dirty comment.

I eyed the skull suspiciously and poked him. “Who are you and what have you done with Bob? You’re being suspiciously quiet.”

“I know,” he replied. “It’s this place. I don’t like it.” My heart damn near skipped a beat. He might not be saying it aloud, but I could tell Bob was scared. That wasn’t that big a deal for people, we get scared all the time. But as long as his skull was intact, Bob was immortal. That and his wealth of information gave him a fairly cavalier attitude to danger. I could count the number of times I’d seen Bob truly afraid without using both hands.

“Why? Can you sense something?” I could pick up on a good number of supernatural spectrums, but I was still mortal. Bob was made to feel more vibes than I ever could.

He shook his skull slowly. “That’s the thing, boss. I can’t sense anything.”

I pondered for a moment. “Then what’s the trouble?”

Bob twisted his skull to look up at me and glared. “That is the trouble! This place is empty, no animals, no plants, no ley lines, nothing. There isn’t even any background magic seeping in from other parts of the Nevernever.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I knew this place was barren, but is it really that bad?”

Bob sighed. “It’s like finding a hole in the ocean, or a vacuum in the atmosphere. And even without any ambient magic, there are still plenty of mundane things that should thrive here. But this place is just empty. We’re walking through a dead land, Harry, but that’s not what scares me.” He paused, because the ass just had to add dramatic effect to it. “What scares me is trying to imagine what killed it.”

I stopped walking and stared at the skull in shock. After a moment I started again, this time at a much faster pace. And I thought the trip was going to be boring. Thanks, Bob. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and I couldn’t help but scan the horizon for signs of our impending doom.

An hour later we reached the end of the trail at a small spring. Even here at the oasis, there was no life, a fact Bob commented on at length. I was just relieved that we’d reached the end with nothing worse happening than Bob’s paranoia. The exit was less obvious than the entrance in the cave, and it took slightly more effort to open. Still, less than a minute later, I stood breathing in the fresh air of Equestria.

Now that I didn’t have to worry about the dark maw of some abomination tearing open the ground beneath my feet, I could relax. I took off the heavy pack and stretched, enjoying the creaking sensation of my unburdened back. That, of course, was when the dragon charged me.

Chapter Two

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195 and Silentcarto
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Two

Definitely a classical style, Twilight Sparkle thought, examining one of the few columns left standing in the ruined castle. But is it late or early classical? She had given her letter to Luna’s sending two days ago, but she knew that a response would take time. So to pass the time until Dresden showed up, she’d been studying the ruins of the Castle of the Royal Sisters.

Currently, Twilight was trying to date the palace, most of the records of its completion having been lost to the sands of time. True, she could have just asked her mentor, but what fun was there in having the answer handed to her instead of solving the question herself? Twilight had just decided that the style of fluting most closely matched that of the early classical period when a startled, distinctly non-equine yell caught her attention. He’s here! she thought, shoving the reference book back into her saddlebags.

Twilight hurried down the old stone staircase and rounded the outer wall to reach the waterfall that marked the Way. She paused as she pushed through the last curtain of vegetation, pressing a hoof to her mouth to stifle a giggle. Beside the waterfall’s pool, Dresden was sitting on the ground, seemly having tripped over a large pack at his feet. He didn’t notice her, though; his attention was entirely focused on the small dragon he was dangling at arm’s length by its tail. A small dog circled Spike below, sniffing and panting happily.

Spike, despite being suspended upside down by a creature several times his size, seemed unfazed. Instead he chattered away, thrilled to finally meet the ‘alien’ who had helped save Equestria from the return of the Nightmare.

“This is so cool!” he gushed. “I mean, it’s so awesome to finally meet you. Everypony’s already told me so much about your adventure last time. You are such an amazing guy! You got possessed by the Nightmare, kicked it out of your head, joined forces with the Elements of Harmony and finally destroyed it once and for all with a huge fireball! That’s totally epic!”

Dresden was a little overwhelmed by the attention, if his uncomfortable frown was any clue. Twilight suspected he hadn’t been expected such a warm welcome. “That’s enough, Spike. You’ll have plenty of chances to talk to Dresden later.” Her purple aura surrounded the baby dragon and brought him back to the ground, pausing slightly to flip him right side up. He scowled at her, but she ignored it in favor of greeting their guest. “How’ve you been, Dresden?”

He chuckled and used one hand to push himself back onto his feet. “Not bad. Not good either, but hey… that’s life.”

Twilight frowned. He seemed tired, and not just physically. What could have happened to him? He looks so much older since the last time I saw him.

Dresden stretched, some alarmingly loud cracks and pops coming from his back. “But I’m here because you called, so what’s up? I couldn’t tell if something bad was going down from the letter, so I brought the big guns just in case.”

Twilight curiously examined his ‘big guns’. He’d brought back his staff, and with it a thin cane with a strange handle. There was a small dog sitting by his feet, its tongue lolling out as it panted. It acted like a puppy, but it was already more than half the size of any dog Twilight had ever seen. His pack, which was big enough for a foal to use as a tent, bulged with who-knew-what. Then she noticed the bleached, presumably human skull hanging from his belt and barely repressed a shudder of revulsion. And as if that wasn’t weird enough, Twilight had the unsettling sensation that it was somehow watching her despite its empty eye sockets.

Come on, Twilight. Think positive, she told herself. Maybe… humans engage in ancestor worship. That makes sense. And Dresden just wants me to… ugh… ‘meet’ one of his forefathers. So much for thinking positive, but it was the best explanation she could come up with. The skull was just flat out creepy, but she was polite enough not to say anything about it.

“Ewww. Is that a real skull? That’s just flat out creepy.” Spike, of course, was not as inhibited.

Dresden chuckled and addressed the skull. “You hear that, Bob? He thinks you’re creepy.”

“Spike,” Twilight said in a sweet, slightly strained tone, “Why don’t you go and get Mr. Dresden some tea and snacks?” Spike gave her an innocent smile, but Twilight wasn’t buying it. “Now, mister.” She glared until Spike sighed and shuffled off to their campsite.

Dresden cracked his neck with a grimace. “Nice kid. He’s a lot more energetic than I remember, though.”

Twilight frowned. “The last time you were here he was unconscious the whole time.”

“Like I said. More energetic.” The wizard grinned, and Twilight had to wonder if every human had such a strange sense of humor, or if Dresden was considered just as odd in his own world.

Twilight smiled anyway. Strange jokes or not, it was nice to see Dresden again. “I hope I didn’t make you worry. There’s nothing wrong; the letter was vague just in case it was intercepted or lost. The real reason you’re here is because the Princesses are holding a ceremony in your honor. I think they want to award you a medal.” Dresden’s mouth dropped open slightly and he flushed.

“Actual appreciation? Wow. There really is a first time for everything. But why’d they wait almost a year to do it?” He shrugged. “Is the bureaucracy around here really that bad?”

Twilight frowned. “Almost a year? Dresden, it’s only been two months since you left.” Unless years were much shorter in his world, he wasn’t making any sense. That didn’t seem to be the case; all of his other units of time seemed to match up with the Equestrian standard.

Dresden raised both eyebrows and pondered that for a moment. “Two months, huh? Well, that’s interesting. Almost twelve months have gone by in my world.” Twilight stared at him in shock, but the wizard appeared to be calculating something and didn’t notice.

“Really?” Spike cut in, his eyes shining. He’d returned with two cups of tea and a plate of cookies while they were talking. “So we could take a week’s vacation in your world and only one day would pass here? That would be awesome!”

Dresden shook his head and took a cup of tea. “I doubt the time difference is that constant. It’s probably more like a pendulum, with the imbalance moving back and forth, but keeping the worlds more or less in sync. At least, that’s how it works between Earth and the Nevernever. I’d have to study the time dilation for a while to tell you for certain.” He set down the cup and grabbed a cookie, breaking off a chunk to give to the small dog.

Twilight finally found her voice. “But that’s not how time works at all! It’s a linear progression. You can’t just distort the flow like that.” The power requirements alone for a spell of that magnitude left her boggled.

Dresden chuckled. “The first step to true wisdom is finding out how much you don’t know. Not only does it happen, it’s entirely natural. Well, supernatural, but the point stands.”

Twilight shook her head. It was astounding how much was out there that she had never even suspected. One of the greatest benefits to having Dresden back would be a chance to actually spend some time discussing his magic and world. The Princesses, Luna especially, had given her a few tentative lessons on the Nevernever, but they had focused mainly on the underlying mechanics. To be honest, she was as eager as Spike to hear about the creatures and places Dresden had seen. But that would have to wait for later.

“We’ll have plenty of time to discuss that later, but there’s something we need to do right away. Would you take off all your clothes, please? I’ve got a surprise that I think you’ll like.” Dresden’s eyes went wide with shock, and he started choking on his tea.

At the same time, the eyeholes in the skull on his belt flared to life. The formerly motionless bone suddenly animated and shouted, “Now we’re talking!”

Twilight shrieked and leaped back from the… the… whatever it was, suppressing her instinct to telekinetically smash it against the nearest rock. Cookies flew as Spike threw the tray and ran, screaming about ghosts. The dog chased after him, barking happily as they vanished into the ruins. Dresden coughed a few times, trying to clear his throat, while Twilight stared down the unnatural skull at his belt. She held a shield spell and three different kinds of energy blasts at the ready. If necessary, she could destroy the skull without harming Dresden. Hopefully.

“Damn it, Bob!” Dresden shouted past his coughing fit. “Ten minutes. We’re here less than ten minutes, and you open your damn mouth! Why the hell did I believe you when you said you’d behave?”

Twilight stared at the human as he chided the… talking skull, her ears burning from his language. It’s a skull. It’s talking! some part of her brain gibbered. How can a skull talk?!

Whatever the answer, Dresden didn’t seem surprised by the sudden disruption to Twilight’s world view. Again. He didn’t seem to be on friendly terms with whatever it was, but at least he wasn’t treating it as something hostile. Twilight hesitantly released her magic and took a small step toward the wizard.

“Come on, boss! She was coming on to you so hard, I couldn’t help it. I’ll be good for the rest of the trip, I promise.” Its voice dropped, and one orange eye light winked. “But have you reconsidered your policy vis-à-vis ponies? It sure sounds like she’s open-minded.”

Twilight wasn’t sure what the skull was talking about, but it sounded rude and a little dirty. Dresden’s flushed and horrified expression seemed to confirm as much. She cleared her throat noisily. “Umm… Dresden, what is that?”

Dresden gave the skull one final glare and sighed. “Twilight, it is my utmost displeasure to introduce Bob the Skull. He’s a spirit of air and intellect that serves as my assistant. He’s also a pervert of the lowest class and apparently can’t keep his mouth shut when he should.”

“Hey, now.” The skull replied in a hurt voice. “Just because I appreciate the finer sex as much as possible doesn’t make me a pervert.”

“No,” Dresden retorted, “but what you say about the ‘finer sex’ does. And that’s not even mentioning what you did the last time I let you out of your skull.”

“Everyone at that sorority was a consenting adult and the alcohol was just as much to blame as I was.”

“Stop bickering!” Twilight shouted over the argument, her glare flicking between Dresden and the skull. This visit was already turning out to be even more… interesting than she had expected. “Dresden, what is a ‘spirit of intellect’ and why is it a talking skull?”

Dresden raised his hands defensively. “Settle down, kid. Remember demons? Bob’s the flip side of that coin. He comes from the Nevernever, but instead of being focused on negative things like pain and death, he’s obsessed with knowledge. And, unfortunately, sex. The orange light is his actual form; the skull is just what he lives in.” Dresden lifted the skull so Twilight could see the tiny symbols carved into it around all of its orifices. She didn’t recognize them, but she could feel the subtle power they held. “Like all spirits, Bob’s made of pure magic, so he lacks a physical body and free will. Right now I own the skull, so he has to obey me. Mostly I use him as a research assistant. He knows more about magic and the supernatural world than even senior wizards of the White Council.”

Bob snorted. Or at least he somehow made a sound to that effect. “More like anyone short of the Archive. Credit where credit’s due, sahib.”

Twilight watched the orange lights in the eyes track her as she moved back and forth. “That’s… amazing, actually. Where did you get him?”

Dresden hesitated for a moment, his expression conflicted, but Bob chuckled. “Now that’s a story,” the spirit began. “You see−”

“Don’t say a word, Bob.” Dresden bit out, his eyes dark.

Bob glanced at him, somehow managing to look surprised. “Really? I mean, it’s been almost two decades since Justin−”

“That’s an order,” Dresden said calmly. Too calmly – lacking his usual jovial attitude or even the fierce anger she’d seen in him when Spike was kidnapped. Instead, he almost sounded bitter. Obviously, Dresden’s past wasn’t something he was comfortable discussing.

“Well,” Twilight said, trying to change the subject. “That’s interesting, but I just asked Dresden to undress. This won’t work right if he’s wearing clothes. What’s the big deal?” In fact, why is Dresden wearing so many clothes anyway? She had deduced that humans lost heat easily because they had no fur, so Dresden had preferred to wear them to avoid a chill even in late spring. And granted, the time difference meant that it was Spring again back in his world. But it was summer in Equestria, and the day was very warm. Not to mention the sweltering desert he had hiked through. Yet, he wore not just a shirt and pants, but that strange coat as well. Curiouser and curiouser.

Dresden blushed and coughed while Bob leered at her. “I don’t think I mentioned it before, but for a variety of social and environmental reasons, humans have a nudity taboo. We don’t usually get naked except for bathing and, er, mating. I don’t know why you need me to strip, but the way you phrased it…”

It took Twilight a moment to process. She’d never heard of such a thing as a taboo against nudity, but then the full meaning of his statement hit her. She blushed deeply, her lavender coat turning fuchsia as she tried not to stammer. “You mean what I said sounded like…” She trailed off unable to finish the sentence.

“An invitation to get down and dirty with Harry?” Bob chuckled. “You bet your sweet flank it did.”

Twilight wondered if anypony had ever died from embarrassment. Even if her blush wasn’t terminal, it was taking up valuable blood her brain could have been using to figure a way out of this. She tried visualizing a few comforting equations to calm herself, but something about the way Bob stared at her as she concentrated just made things worse.

Dresden came to her rescue at last. “I figured that wasn’t what you meant, but hearing it surprised me. So, why do I need to be in the buff?”

Twilight held back a sigh of relief, and tried to focus on her original purpose instead of her mistake. “Well, I mentioned your medal ceremony, right?” He nodded, and she continued. “It would be public, of course, and the Princesses still don’t want anypony to know about humans or your world.”

Dresden raised an eyebrow. “So you’re going to cast an illusion directly on me this time?”

“Not quite.” Twilight said. “You’re going to be the center of attention, and the chances of an illusion failing under close scrutiny are too high. So instead, I’m going to transform you into a pony. The change should be painless, and it will wear off naturally in about a week, though I can dispel it at any point. I need you to take off your clothes because they would probably be destroyed… in the…” She stopped. Dresden was staring at her in mix of doubt and apprehension. “What’s wrong?”

“You want to turn me into a pony?” He sounded dubious, as though hoping he’d misunderstood her.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Is there something wrong with that?”

“Yeah, it’s extremely illegal where I’m from! Second Law of Magic: Thou shalt not transform another.”

Twilight boggled. Again. “Wha— why? I’ve been through Magic Ethics class, and they never said there was anything wrong with transformation!”

Dresden shrugged. “According to the White Council, there is, and I’m not in a hurry to get a second offense.” He grimaced. “They’re not a real forgiving bunch.”

Bob laughed. “Harry, I think she’s a little outside of the White Council’s jurisdiction. Twilight’s not a human – hell, she doesn’t even live in the same world. And even if the Council still wanted to be pissy about it because you were involved, how would they ever find out? Unless you ring them up and start spilling secrets, they’ll never know it even happened. Just admit it, you big pansy. You don’t want to get turned into a pony.”

Dresden bristled at the insult. “Hey, I’m pretty darn attached to my current body. It’s not being a pony I object to, it’s changing at all.”

Bob grunted in disbelief. “Uh huh. What about the case with the werewolves? You used that Hexenwolf belt to transform without any hesitation. You just don’t want me telling anyone what a pretty pony you make.”

“That was a life or death situation! Totally different.” Dresden snapped back.

“Werewolves?” Twilight asked.

“There wolves. There castle.” Bob said in a strange accent, then laughed.

Harry just rolled his eyes. “Are you going to do that every chance you get?” he asked the skull.

Twilight shook her head. She needed to stop getting distracted and keep things on topic. “Then will you let me?”

Dresden frowned and crossed his arms. She tried again. “We can’t have the ceremony or show you around Ponyville if you don’t.” His frown got deeper. “It would mean a lot to me and all of my friends if you did.” The wizard remained silent. Twilight hesitated, thinking about his last visit, and at last an inspiration struck her.

Twilight widened her eyes, sniffed softly and stuck out her bottom lip slightly. “Please, Mr. Dresden?” He had repeatedly given in to Fluttershy’s pleas when nopony else could convince him. Twilight hypothesized he was extremely susceptible to perceived vulnerability. Or in more simple terms, he couldn’t say no to a mare in distress. She watched the resistance in his eyes crumble into dust and had to hold back a small cheer. Another theory confirmed.

“Fine,” he sighed, “But Bob, you’re never allowed to tell anyone about this. Ever. That’s an order.”

The skull snickered, but said nothing. Twilight smiled; finally everything was going according to plan. She checked the position of the sun and was pleased to note they hadn’t even used up all of the time allotted for ‘unexpected delays’ built into her schedule. “Follow me, then.”

Twilight’s horn glowed, and with a little effort, she levitated his pack into the air. She was surprised by the weight; had Dresden really carried this much across the Way from his world?

Luckily, it was a much shorter trip to their campsite, and Twilight didn’t even break a sweat bringing all of Dresden’s possessions with her. She set down the pack carefully and examined the circle she had etched into floor of the castle. It occupied a single block of stone, since Twilight had found that the ring needed to maintain integrity to be functional. The cardinal points had symbols carved into them, the result of mixing her own ideas with what Dresden had taught her of his own magic.

Dresden knelt and examined it. “You made a magic circle? Complete with focal symbols?” He sounded a little surprised.

Twilight grinned, happy to show off the results of her latest studies. “Yes, after you explained the concept to me, I did some research on them. Turns out their use was once widespread, but they slowly fell out of favor as unicorns began to specialize their spells. Just using a circle improved the efficiency of my bigger spells by an average of 33.4 percent.”

Dresden frowned in what looked like confusion, but motioned for Twilight to continue. “The symbols at the edges of the circle are something of my own design. They act as substitutes for concepts I would normally have to visualize and concentrate on while casting the spell. Now they’re already embedded into the magic’s matrix by visualizing the concepts while I carved them into the stone. I read about Clover the Clever doing something similar, so tried my hoof at it.”

Bob whistled, and Twilight visibly suffered a moment of cognitive dissonance trying to understand how. “Now that’s impressive. Not only has she trained her whole life doing magic with only pure mental constructs, but she’s actually creating her own symbols to build props from. Give me five weeks to teach her, and I'll bet she’d kick your ass to the curb, sahib.”

Dresden laughed. “Bob, I wouldn’t give you five minutes alone with her. I really doubt she wants the mental scarring that comes from learning with you.” He turned his attention from the skull to Twilight and grinned. “But you seriously came up with this on your own? Way to go, Twilight!”

Twilight grinned in response, trying not to preen. Nopony liked to hear boasting, even if she did feel like she’d just earned the title of The Great and Powerful Twilight. “Thank you very much. I wanted to get it done in time to show you, but it’s not really that impressive. Just a little applied research.”

Dresden nodded and sighed. “All right, let’s get this over with, then.” He set down his staff and started tugging at the glove on his left hand. Twilight watched curiously. She didn’t remember him wearing that two months ago. He finally got the stubborn thing off, and Twilight was unable to hold back her shocked gasp.

His hand had been cooked. There was no other way to describe it.

The flesh was melted and warped as if the extremity had been made of wax and twisted into a new shape before being allowed to cool again. His fingers twitched slightly, as if incapable of any further motion, and she realized with a start that she hadn't seen him use the hand since he arrived. The damage was clearly more than just skin deep. Whatever had happened to Dresden, it had hurt him deeply.

“Your hand,” she choked out, “it … it’s …”

“Hideous?” Bob suggested. Twilight glared at him, but Dresden made a placating gesture.

“It’s okay. It has that effect on everybody; that’s why I normally wear the glove.”

“But what happened?” Twilight asked. “Who did this to you?”

“It’s the price I paid to exterminate a scourge of vampires. We got the bastards, though.” He frowned. “Most of them, anyway. It was worth it.”

Twilight couldn’t understand, couldn’t imagine what he had gone through. “But you lost your hand!”

Dresden sighed and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “My world is a jungle, and humans aren’t anywhere near the top of the food chain. But that’s why we fight. It may not be pretty, but it’s our world and I’d defend it to the death.” He gave her a sad smile, and Twilight tried to smile back. Satisfied, he turned his back to her and resumed stripping. Twilight watched, mulling over the pain in his eyes, and what his latest battle had cost him.

He’s a warrior; what did you expect? she asked herself. That he’d never get hurt? She had read stories of vampires, of course, but that’s all they were: stories. It was hard to believe that creatures like that actually existed in Dresden’s world. The concept of evil wasn’t foreign to Equestria, but such a raw expression of it was.

“Twi? I’m done,” Dresden announced, interrupting her thoughts. Twilight blinked and realized that the wizard was already standing in the middle of her circle. He had lost his shirt, pants and thick boots, revealing skin that was slightly paler than his face or hand, but still just as smooth, except a small, thin patch of hair in the center of his chest. His feet, she was interested to note, were similar to his hands, but obviously modified to a bipedal gait. Instead of being round, they formed a long, misshapen oval terminating in five tiny – and probably vestigial – digits. His legs were well-muscled compared to his arms, and Twilight found herself idly wondering how their musculature differed from that of a pony, given his upright stance. Oddly, there was one piece of clothing he hadn’t removed. They looked like pants, but they were much shorter and made of a very thin material.

Twilight examined the strange garment. She couldn’t help but wonder what exactly its purpose was or why it was covered in little yellow smiley faces. “You know those probably won’t survive the transformation process, right?”

Dresden nodded. “That’s a price I’m willing to pay. The boxers stay on.”

“But−”

“Trust me; we’ll both be happier this way.” There was some booing from Bob, but by mutual consent both wizard and unicorn ignored him.

They stared at each other for a moment more before Dresden spoke again. “The boxers stay on.” He crossed his arms, his glare clearly daring her to disagree.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Fine. They’re your clothes. Just don’t complain to me afterwards.” Her horn began to glow as she focused on her spell, and inside the circle, Dresden shut his eyes. Even with her special preparations, this enchantment wasn’t easy. She needed to change Dresden at a fundamental level, and only the fact that he was willing even made it possible. It would have helped if she had been able to practice this, but since humans were in short supply, she only had theory to go on.

She grunted as she felt her will collide with the wizard’s natural resistance. He was a fortress, his essence stubbornly entrenched in bedrock a mile deep. But if he was a rock, her spell was the ocean. Little by little she changed him, eroding one point, building upon another. In a vague, distant way, she could feel him stirring uneasily at the alterations, but he restrained himself and she continued unimpeded.

The whole process only took a few minutes, but within the haze of magic, it felt like hours to Twilight. Finally, everything was done, and with one last surge of power she finished the spell. There was a flash of light brighter than the sun, and even through Twilight’s eyelids the world went white. Hopefully Spike hadn’t been watching them, or he might have been blinded.

When no cries of anguish were forthcoming, she heaved a sigh of relief. Slowly, she opened her eyes and found that the world was slightly out of focus.

She rubbed them with her hooves, blinking until her vision cleared. Thankfully, it didn't take long. When she could finally see again, though, her jaw nearly hit the floor. Some remote part of her mind was relieved that nopony else was present to witness her reaction.

Where Dresden had stood, a tall, lithe stallion now inspected himself. He was almost the same height as Big Macintosh, but instead of the heavy body of a farm pony, he had a runner’s build. Lean muscles lined his body, rounding out an otherwise angular frame. Set between his curious but cynical eyes was a horn longer than that any unicorn she’d ever seen. His coat was velvet black, contrasting with his ice-white mane, and his fetlocks were unshorn. As Twilight’s eyes traveled over his body, she sternly told herself that it was just to check that the spell was complete and nothing more.

But there’s no reason I can’t enjoy what I’m seeing, right? whispered one treacherous part of her mind before Twilight could silence it. On her second pass, Twilight began to notice smaller details. His irises were orange-red, with glints of yellow when the light caught them, like he had glowing embers for eyes. His front left hoof was scorched and cracked, though standing on it didn’t seem to trouble him. His abdomen held scars as well, faint white lines and ragged circles that stood out against his dark coat. Dresden spun himself in a slow circle as he stared at his new body, and finally all of his twisting and turning made the ‘boxers’ slide off his rear end, exposing his flank and the cutie mark emblazed upon it – a silver pentacle.

The loss of his final garment did not go unnoticed by Dresden.

“Don't look!” he yelled in a voice that was only slightly higher and smoother than his original. The former human rose quickly on his back hooves and tried to cover himself with his forelimbs. Unfortunately, his new form was decidedly quadrupedal, and with his ‘boxers’ still around his ankles, he overbalanced, and tumbled over backwards.

A startled moment of silence was quickly broken by gales of laughter from Bob. Dresden shot the skull a dirty glance, but he couldn’t do much more to stop the spirit. Twilight sighed and levitated her friend back into a standing position. “Well, let’s get started,” she said briskly. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, both culturally and physically. Oh – one more thing, though. The Princess wants you to go by a pseudonym during the ceremony, so I thought you could just use one of your other names.”

Dresden raised an eyebrow. “What did you have in mind?”

Twilight grinned, thrilled that everything was going so well. “I thought we’d call you ‘Blackstone’.”

The onyx unicorn glanced at his coat and gave a smirk. “Well, if the horseshoe fits.”

Chapter Three

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195 and Silentcarto
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Three

Learning to rely on the telekinesis from my horn instead of using my hands was the most difficult part of becoming a pony.

That is not a sentence any sane man should ever think, but I’d given up hope on sanity when we reached the lecture titled, ‘Cutie Marks and You: A Special Guide to your Special Talent’.

The lessons had taken the whole afternoon and most of the evening, starting after we finally got Spike back to camp. Finding him hadn’t been that hard; Mouse had kept him pretty close to the campsite, but convincing him that Bob was not a ghost and that we were not haunted took a while. Then, of course, Bob thought it would be funny to scream ‘boo’ in Spike’s face once he finally worked up the courage to approach the skull. In the end, Twilight had teleported Spike to the library so he could start preparing dinner.

The smartass skull was currently stuffed deep inside my bag, underneath my discarded clothes. I had told him on no uncertain terms that if he spoke again before I gave him permission I would drop him in Winter’s territory and call for Mab. Normally he would have called my bluff − I wouldn’t wish a pissed off Fae queen on my worst enemy (well, most of them, anyway) – but I think the way my left eye was twitching when I said it convinced him.

Now I was following Twilight back to Ponyville through the Everfree Forest. It felt weird and more than a little embarrassing to just walk around in the nude, but none of my old clothing fit my new body. I’d put my silver pentacle back on and slipped my force rings over my horn, but the rest of my outfit was packed away. The first chance I got though; I was going to Rarity’s for a set of proper clothes.

“You know, I could carry your pack for you if you get tired,” Twilight suggested from further up the trail. It was late evening, and the sun was almost at the horizon. She evidently wanted to get home before dusk fell. Given the kind of creatures that lived in the forest, I wasn’t eager to go for a nighttime stroll out here either.

Well, if she was in a hurry, she could have gone through some of the lessons a little faster. Twilight was a brilliant practitioner, no doubt about that, but she was also ridiculously verbose when it came to teaching. I know that we had a lot to cover – hell, just learning to walk on four legs took almost an hour – but she could have hurried things along. I didn’t need the entire life story of what’s-his-name, Starsquirrel the Bearded, just to hear about his theories on magic.

I snorted, and stared at the enormous pile of equipment she was already levitating. “All your camping gear has got to weigh twice as much as my stuff. Let me hang on to at least a little of my pride.” My pack wobbled a little as I fought to keep focus on it while talking.

She gave me a worried frown. “Sorry, Dres− er, Blackstone. I wasn’t trying to say you were weak or anything. I mean, you’ve been a pony for less than a day, and you can already lift as well as an adult unicorn! I just thought you might be worn out after all that practice.” I couldn’t tell whether she was telling the truth or trying to spare my feelings. It didn’t help that the only yardstick I had for my abilities thus far was a unicorn skilled enough to be apprenticed to an immortal sorceress.

I shook my head, still not used to the extra weight of the horn. “Thanks, but I got it.”

Despite the transformation, my magic seemed to have stayed pretty much the same. At first I thought I’d have to start from scratch, because none of my spells were working. Fortunately, once I stopped trying to use my hands – forehooves, now – to channel energy and started getting a feel for my horn (a line Bob would have jumped on,) everything came easily. It still felt strange to use, but I was too relieved that I wouldn’t have to relearn everything to really care.

One thing that had changed, though, was the built-in telekinesis. On the surface, it was pretty much like any levitation I’d done before: focus on the target, wrap some magic around it, and it floats. Ta-da! There wasn’t even much difference in the amount of weight I could lift, but the newfound endurance and control were unreal. I could manipulate objects longer and with a hell of lot more finesse than I ever had before. Normally, I used cushions of air to move things around; my control was better with wind than pure force. But apparently the whole ‘unicorn’ thing trumped my native skill. Back home, I’d have struggled to keep my pack airborne for five minutes, but I had been carrying it for the past twenty without any more stress than if I’d carried it on my back. It almost didn’t feel like I was using a spell; it was more like having an extra arm.

Which was damned handy (heh-heh), because my hooves were the next best thing to useless. Seriously, I’d gained a new appreciation for my hands after toasting one of them. But having one hand is so much better than having none that it isn’t even funny. I don’t know how the normal ponies or the pegasi manage.

There was one silver lining to losing my hands, though. My burned foreleg wasn’t pretty looking, but it was actually functional. Instead of having to hobble along on three legs, I could walk steadily on all four. The pain had dulled to nothing more than a small ache, so my new form of locomotion wasn’t the nightmare I had thought it would be.

And then, because I’d dared to be optimistic, my back right leg caught on a root and I damn near went down in a sprawling heap. Only a quick hop prevented me from going ass over teakettle, and the red-orange aura around my pack blinked out completely. I managed to catch it just before it hit the ground, and breathed a sigh of relief. I lifted the pack higher and hurried to catch up with Twilight. The downside of using telekinesis instead of hands was that I had to keep a constant mental focus on whatever I was lifting. Something which Mouse, who was even more underfoot than usual now that I had twice the number of feet to get under, was not helping with.

I gave him a short glare. “If you want someone—er, somepony to bother, go play with Twilight.” Mouse grinned at me, obviously enjoying my annoyance, but he obeyed and started tagging along just behind the purple unicorn.

Mouse turned on his doggish charms, and he had Twilight scratching under his chin and cooing over him inside a minute. I let her baby him for another minute before interrupting.

“Twilight, this is my dog Mouse. Mouse, that’s my friend Twilight.”

“Charmed.” She extended a hoof, which Mouse politely sniffed, then woofed softly in approval. Twilight chuckled at that. “Where did you get him? I don’t remember you mentioning a dog last time.”

I shrugged, which turns out to be a lot harder when you’re a quadruped. “He’s a souvenir from a case a few months ago. I rescued him and the rest of his litter, but Mouse decided to play stowaway when I took them to the client.”

Twilight gave me a bemused smile. “You were paid to find a basket of puppies? That doesn’t sound much like the dark, gritty wizard-for-hire you act like.”

I laughed. “Think again, kid. Mouse is a temple dog, which makes him all kinds of valuable.”

“What’s a temple dog?” she asked, scratching him under the chin with another glow of telekinetic power. All while she walked, talked, and maintained a perfectly undisturbed aura around her camping equipment. I grumbled a little to myself as my own load shifted.

“Well, supposedly, he’s the descendant of a divine guardian spirit called a Foo dog. The monk who hired me to get them back believed that Mouse’s bloodline has special powers.”

Twilight stared curiously at Mouse, and I could almost see the analytical gears in her head start turning. I think he could too, because Mouse suddenly became very interested in some of the bushes off to the side of the trail. Twilight considered him for a moment more. “Does he?”

“Hell if I know. I’m mostly the product of a European education in magic. Foo dogs are from the Far East, so I can’t tell you much.” Twilight tried not to show it, but her face fell in disappointment, her mouth curved in a slight frown. Inwardly, I sighed. “But, I can say this much, at least. Mouse seems able to sense danger – or evil, not really sure which – better than any wizard. And whoever took him and his siblings from the monastery thought they were worth setting half a dozen demons to guard them.”

“Really?” she asked, brightening. “Could you tell me a little more about that case? It sounds fascinating.” I nodded and launched into the story of how I got Mouse, pausing every now and then to keep my pack from drifting off. After that, she still seemed interested, so I told a few more stories, like when I saved a runaway little girl from a troll under a bridge, and the time I cleared the name of a gorilla who was accused of murdering a zoo guard.

We reached the end of the forest just as the sun vanished below the horizon. The golden light turned dull red over the forest, and the moon rose majestically into the sky ahead. We walked in silence, but I had trouble keeping my eyes on the path. The stars had begun to appear, shining softly beyond the gentle glow of a crescent moon. The more the light of day faded, the brighter and more numerous they became. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in the city. But if there’s anything I miss about Ebenezer McCoy’s farm, it’s the stargazing. There was a well-lit city in the distant mountains – Canterlot, I think – and Ponyville had a few lights of its own, but here on the edge of the wilderness, the sky was beautifully clear and the stars shone with a breathtaking glow.

I’d done a little astronomy with an old telescope in the loft, so I knew most of the constellations. Here in Equestria, a few were obviously missing, but there were dozens of unfamiliar stars to replace them. It was as if an artist had seen the night sky and decided that, while nice, it could use some work. The Milky Way was a bright river of light stretching across the heavens, and the North Star shone as though it was illuminated by neon. I let my imagination run wild through the strange formations of new stars, trying to envision the shapes they made. As I invented new constellations, a shooting star sailed sedately across the sky, leaving a glimmering trail like no meteor I’d ever seen. A few stars gleamed red or even blue instead of the usual white. I wondered idly if they were planets, or maybe some type of celestial body that didn’t even exist in my world. I stumbled twice and nearly dropped my pack three times, but the view was worth every bump I took. This place was beautiful.

Even as I was awed by the otherworldly view, Twilight was busy puzzling more earthly matters. I missed her question the first time and had to ask her to repeat it.

“I asked why magic isn’t public knowledge on Earth. You’d think everyone would notice after everything you’ve done. It certainly seems to be common enough to attract attention.”

“Well, for that, you need to understand two things about humanity. One: we’re very good at destroying anything we’re afraid of. And two: we’re very good at ignoring anything we don’t want to be true.”

What?” Twilight barked. She glared over her shoulder at me, her expression lit by the soft glow of her horn. “That doesn’t explain anything!”

I snorted derisively. “Not if you don’t let me explain. It’s my turn to lecture.” She fell silent and turned away. Knowing her, she was probably blushing. “The first point is the more important one. About ninety percent of the supernatural world views humans as pawns, playthings or food. A few centuries ago, humanity finally became strong enough to strike back. And they struck hard. Inquisitions, wars, and witch trials that history remembers as pointless bloodshed were all aimed at suppressing anything magical. Humans outnumber just about everything by at least a hundred to one, so most supernatural creatures went into hiding, wizards included.”

“But why?” Twilight interrupted. “You’re a human too, aren’t you?”

I shrugged. “Sure, but remember that magic’s a rare talent. Wizards were mysterious shadowy figures, and not all of them used their powers for good. People feared them, and most believed they got their abilities from the very creatures that preyed upon humanity. So everyone with even a scrap of talent hid it. After a couple centuries and a rise in the power of science and technology, magic and the occult became stories and rumor. Eventually, people started to believe the supernatural was just a myth. That’s were the second point comes in.” I paused to check on my gear and keep it from dragging on the ground.

“Nobody wants the world to be a scary place full of powerful monsters that like to eat humans, so just about any evidence that suggests otherwise is ignored or rationalized away. The supernatural stays in the shadows and humanity tries very hard not to see them. That way everyone is happy.” I injected as much sarcasm into the last line as I could. A sentiment Twilight seemed to share.

“That’s just stupid!”

“Yeah, but ignorance is bliss.” She had a few things to say about that particular aphorism, which made me laugh. After venting her spleen she calmed down, and I gave her the good news. “It’s not true for everyone, though. I know more than a few people who opened their eyes and dealt with a world that’s much more terrifying than they had ever believed. Most of them are my friends.”

I smiled, thinking of Murphy, the Alphas, Waldo Butters, and a few others willing to look past what they always been told. “It takes a lotta guts when most people think you’re crazy, but that doesn’t stop them. After all, somebody’s got to save the city.” I chuckled, but there was only silence from ahead.

We were drawing close to Ponyville, so I could see Twilight better in the light of the street lamps. She paused as if in thought, then peered over her shoulder at me, staring with a mix of curiosity, admiration and some emotion I couldn’t identify. After a few seconds I coughed awkwardly, and she snapped out of it. Twilight’s face immediately colored bright red and she spun around. She set off at a much faster pace, speaking a little too quickly.

“Our destination draws decidedly less distant, and discussion of such delicate and doubtlessly dangerous data doesn’t seem desirable in this district. We’d do well to use discretion, or some discerning denizens may develop dark deductions about you, Dresden. Er, Blackstone.” She forged ahead without pausing to see if I would follow.

I hurried to catch up, trying not to lose control over my telekinesis. I didn’t ask what was up with Twilight. She obviously wasn’t in the mood to talk, and I doubt I would have understood the answer anyway. Human women still confused me, so how the hell would I figure out what was bothering a girl from a dimension populated by ponies?

The pace Twilight set was hard, but I still had a little time to look at the houses we passed. The town hadn’t changed much since the last time I was here, but given that only two months had gone by for them, it wasn’t that shocking. The streets were almost deserted, but the few ponies that were still out waved and smiled. I waved back, surprised at the welcome. Most places this small were pretty insular and distrusted anyone who wasn’t native. I guess being so near to the capital had made Ponyville used to strangers, though I was abruptly glad I’d stashed Bob safely away. I doubt anypony openly carrying an exotic skull would have been greeted with open arms no matter how accepting the community.

Eventually we reached the tree house. House tree? Tree library? The place where Twilight lived, anyway. There was some commotion going on inside as we approached. One voice was Spike’s, but the other I didn’t recognize. When we reached the door their conversation finally became audible.

“When will she be back? I need to speak with her, the sooner the better.” That was the unfamiliar pony, and this time I could tell that it belonged to a woman. I mean mare.

Spike sighed. “She’ll be back soon, but that’s all I can promise. I don’t know when exactly.”

Twilight opened the door, and broke into the conversation. “Are you talking about me?”

The pony she’d addressed was a light blue unicorn with a silver and darker blue mane. Her tail matched, and her flank was marked with an hourglass. She saw Twilight and broke into a relieved smile.

A smile that evaporated the instant she spotted me over Twilight’s shoulder. Her face paled, almost turning gray. It would have been funny if she hadn’t been staring at me like I’d just grown devil horns. Her reaction wasn’t lost on Twilight.

“Is something wrong, Colgate?” The blue unicorn breathed deeply and visibly calmed herself. In the meantime I entered the library and finally set down my pack. I heaved a sigh of relief, rubbing gingerly at my horn. Increased endurance or not that hadn’t been an easy feat.

By the time I turned back, Colgate had herself under control. She offered me a hoof, and a nervous smile. “Sorry, you just gave me a scare. I’m Colgate.”

I arched an eyebrow at that, but shook her hoof. “I didn’t mean to, but sorry that I did. You can call me Blackstone.”

She shrugged. “It’s not your fault. You just look a lot like an ex-coltfriend I never thought I’d see again.” She grimaced, and turned to address Twilight. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t freak anypony out.”

I chuckled darkly. “I can empathize with that.” Both of my major break-ups had been a special kind of messy, but it was surprising to see that heartbreaking relationships could happen in a sugar bowl like Ponyville. Still, I wouldn’t have thought a black unicorn with a burned hoof was all that common. I wanted to ask more about it, but Colgate had already turned away.

“Twilight, I needed to ask if I could change your dental appointment from next Friday to tomorrow. Something has come up next week and this is the only time I can fit you in.”

Spike’s jaw fell, and he sputtered in anger. “That’s what you’ve been bothering me about for the past hour?! You couldn’t have just left a message?”

Colgate frowned. “I had to get her answer as soon as possible, Spike. Proper dental health isn’t anything to take lightly.”

Twilight levitated two planners and a binder over to her and flipped through them quickly. She bit her lip and sighed as she examined them. “I’ll have to reorganize my schedule, but if there’s no helping it, I guess I’ll have to.”

“Sorry for the trouble.” Colgate replied. “Is nine thirty all right?” Twilight nodded, marking the date in all three organizers with a quickly summoned quill and inkpot.

“I’ll be off then. See you tomorrow.” She turned to leave, but Mouse was in her way, wagging his tail and obviously trying to cadge a quick scratch or tummy rub. Colgate was just as vulnerable to him as any girl, and she bent down to nuzzle him. “Awww, this little guy is adorable! I didn’t know you had a dog, Twilight.”

“I don’t. Mouse belongs to Blackstone.” Colgate froze, her entire body going utterly still. It was only for a second, and I doubt Twilight or Spike noticed, but something made her hesitate. She was facing the door so I couldn’t see her expression, but even when she started moving again there was an undercurrent of tension in her body language.

I watched her, wondering what that meant. There was something odd about Colgate that I couldn’t quite pin down. Mouse seemed to like her, which was a vote in her favor, but she obviously feared me and I wasn’t entirely buying the ex-boyfriend story. Was it my looks? Granted, I was the only battle-scarred pony I’d ever seen, but my gut told me that wasn’t it. I stared into the night outside, scowling faintly as I tried to puzzle out Colgate’s problem with me.

“Blackstone. Equestria to Blackstone. Hello?”

I blinked, and found Spike waving a hand in my face. He hopped off the footstool he’d needed to reach high enough, and hooked a thumb at the back of the library. “C’mon, we’re having pasta for dinner and you don’t want it to get cold.” He paused and a worried frown crossed his face. “That is something you’d like, right? Twilight says you ate some at the palace, but I wasn’t sure.”

I smiled and nodded, turning to follow him into the kitchen. “Pasta sounds great.” I shoved my paranoid thoughts about Twilight’s dentist to the wayside. Come on, Harry, I chided myself. This is Equestria. No one’s out to get you here.

………

I ascended the stairs to Twilight’s guest room drowsily, hauling an already sleeping Mouse via wobbly telekinesis. I’d had a long day of travel, then been turned into a pony and walked here from the far reaches of the forest. I was ready to go to bed. The three pounds of rotini resting in my stomach wasn’t doing much to keep me awake either.

Dinner had been delicious. It was darned impressive that Spike could cook so well at such a young age. When I said as much, he’d laughed and claimed that he’d only learned how so he didn’t have to eat anything Twilight made. Or attempted to make, if his descriptions were accurate. I would have expected Twilight to get angry at him for that, but at the table she’d only seemed embarrassed. Maybe she didn’t want to seem harsh in front of a guest, but I’d be willing to bet that if Spike hadn’t already gotten an earful, he would soon.

Those stairs looked shorter from the bottom, but I finally reached the room. I levitated Mouse onto the foot of the bed and made a beeline for it myself, but some angry, muffled sounds from my pack made me pause. I considered leaving Bob in there for the rest of the night, but with a sigh I began to dig my laundry out of the bag to find him. He’d been in there long enough for his shenanigans today. Though, if he couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut, he’d soon get much better acquainted with the inside of my pack.

I stifled a yawn and set him on a dresser. “So Bob, have you learned your lesson?” I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

He muttered darkly for a moment before responding. “Fine. I’ll leave the kid alone.” He brightened and chuckled slightly. “But you’ve got to admit that was pretty damn funny.”

I rolled my eyes. “You only think that because you didn’t have to deal with all of the hysterics afterwards. Twilight was all for sinking you in a well.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, a smarmy grin coloring his words. “Speaking of Twilight, is that a large phallic object on your forehead, or were you just happy to see her?”

I glared at the skull, and sighed. “You’ve got thirty seconds to get those jokes out of your system, and after that you’re done. Got it?”

Bob chuckled. “Geez, Harry. Just because Twilight made you all horny doesn’t mean you should take it out on me.”

“Twenty-two, twenty-one.”

“At least now when you tell the girls you’re hung like a horse you won’t be lying.”

I groaned and resisted the urge to smash the literally priceless skull into fine powder. “I am running dangerously short on patience, Bob.”

“You may not want to toot your own horn, but I bet a certain unicorn would be willing to.”

“And we’re done.” I said, wondering what the hell possessed me to actually bring Bob.

Bob sighed theatrically. “Fine. Spoil my fun, but seriously. When are you going to finally get it on with her? You’re a pony, she’s a pony. You like her, she’s got the hots for you. And now you can’t use the whole ‘different species’ excuse.”

“No, Bob I’m still not sleeping with her. Besides, I don’t know where you got the idea she’s attracted to me.”

“Harry, I’ve forgotten more about women, human or otherwise, than you’ve ever learned.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Please, Bob. We both know you don’t forget anything.”

His voice turned smug and I’d swear the skull was smirking somehow. “Exactly.” Damn it. I walked right into that one. “You didn’t see her face after you first turned into a pony. I’m surprised she wasn’t drooling, the way she was checking you out. She was being less subtle than me. The way she blushes, she’s probably too inhibited to act on it, but if you came on to her, that would be a whole different story.” He turned the leer up to eleven. “Hopefully an X-rated one.”

I glared at Bob. “Regardless of my species, I’m not sleeping with Twilight, end of story. The only reason I’m like this anyway is because she’s mucking around with transformations.” I glanced down at my new hooves with a grimace. “I hope this doesn’t leave any kind of bad vibes on me. The last thing I need is to piss off the Council again.”

Not to mention what effects this magic could have on Twilight. Magic comes from within; you can’t do something without truly believing in it. If she started to believe it was okay to transform others, to change people into what she wanted … well, that could be the start of a slippery slope. She may have the best of intentions, but the road to Hell is paved in those. I’m sure Luna only wanted ponies to appreciate her nights more, at first.

“You know, boss,” Bob replied his tone thoughtful. “I’ve been looking over the spell Twilight worked on you, and it actually doesn’t violate the Second Law. Only on a technicality, but you should be used to those.”

I held back a sigh of relief. One of the few things that can drag Bob’s mind out of the gutter is shop talk. “Really?” I asked doubtfully. “How so?”

Bob switched to lecture mode, but didn’t lose his usual arrogance. “You know why the Second Law exists, right?”

I grunted and nodded. Transformation didn’t just twist the person who cast the spell. Transforming someone else inevitably destroys the person you change. Their mind is changed just as much as the body. Turn someone into an animal, and they’ll start thinking like one, losing their sense of self. Unless they’re turned back quickly, and I mean within hours in most cases, there’s no hope of recovery. Their mind is already gone. Within minutes of donning a hexenwulf belt, I nearly lost myself in the rush of bloodlust and adrenaline. Part of that had been due to the demonic nature of the belt, but just as much had come from the sensations and instincts of the new body. When I realized what it was doing to me, I ripped it off then and there and swore I would never touch anything like it again.

Werewolves – the regular kind, not the super-powered movie-monster version – and other shapeshifters were a different matter. Self-transformation instinctively protects the mind, essentially putting a human brain into an unfamiliar body. They had to learn all the ins and outs of being a different creature by themselves, but since it didn’t wreck the personality or memories it wasn’t as invasive or destructive as transformation from an outside force. But not even the most skilled neuromancer could understand someone else well enough to keep their mind intact while transforming them.

I raised an eyebrow and gave Bob a skeptic glance. “So are you trying to tell me that since Twilight transformed me into another sentient being it won’t destroy my mind? Or is it that she understands me so well from the Soulgaze that she could keep me intact during the transformation?” Frankly, I had a problem buying either of those.

Bob made a sound like the incorrect buzzer from a game show. “Wrong and wrong, sahib. You’re still thinking like a White Council wizard.” He paused like the grandstanding little bastard he is before continuing. “She didn’t actually transform you – not the way the law means it, at least. She just twisted your body into a new, more pony-friendly shape.”

I pondered that for a moment. “I fail to see the difference.”

Bob nodded as though he’d expected that response. “That’s because you don’t understand magic the way I do. Transformations actually destroy the original body. Even with self-transformation, the human body is destroyed and a new form is built from it, though part of that magic retains a blueprint of their proper shape so they can turn back. That’s also how shapeshifters get around the whole ‘conservation of mass’ problem. They either grab some ectoplasm from the Nevernever to serve as extra flesh, or if they’re turning smaller, exile some of their own mass when they’re rebuilding. Twilight didn’t destroy your body, she just changed it.”

Interesting, but … “That still seems like a pretty academic distinction. If the end result is the same why would the process matter?”

Bob sighed and rotated in place, then beat his skull against the wall a couple times. “The end result isn’t the same. Think about it, one of the first things Twilight told you was that this spell would only last a week.”

A light bulb went off above my head. “But transformations are a one-shot deal. Only continuous spells wear off over time.”

Bob nodded enthusiastically. “You got it. Your body is used to being a human, and that’s the shape it naturally ‘wants’ to be. Right now her spell is warping it into a new shape and holding it there, but when the magic gives out you’ll snap to being a human again.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” He sounded offended that I could ever have doubted him. “Your aura is unchanged, which wouldn’t be the case if you were transformed, and your new form feels foreign instead of natural. You probably still feel like you should be walking on two legs and eating meat even though that body couldn’t handle either of those.”

I thought that over. I doubt the Council would have bought it as an excuse, but I wasn’t planning on telling them anyway. More importantly, I wondered if it would affect Twilight the same way as performing a real transformation spell. She was still twisting other people into what she wanted them to be, but if it was inherently temporary and non-destructive did that change the mental repercussions? Of course, she wasn’t human anyway, so who’s to say that her mind was even built with the same weaknesses as a normal wizard’s? I needed more info.

“So how does her spell work? It sounds like a pretty interesting piece of magic.”

Bob couldn’t shrug, but the way he shook his skull conveyed the same feeling. “Hell if I know.”

“Really?” I asked incredulously. “You can’t tell me anything? I thought you understood magic in a way I didn’t.” It wasn’t exactly nice to nettle him like that, but believe me, Bob had it coming.

“That’s not a fair comparison,” he complained petulantly. “Whatever magic she uses it’s completely foreign to me, and doesn’t follow most of the rules I’m familiar with.”

“Yeah, but they’re not incompatible. Her stuff runs off the same energy as mine.”

Bob rolled his eyes. “That’s like saying a flashlight and radio are the same thing just because they both use electricity. Give me some time, sahib. I may not have the answer just yet, but believe me, I’m working on it. This place is fascinating. No wonder you wanted to keep it to yourself!”

Before I could respond I heard a dull thump from outside. I held up a hoof to silence Bob and went to the open window. I stuck my head outside and looked around, pushing will into the pentacle to provide light. I didn’t see anypony, and the noise had sounded mostly innocuous. I Listened anyway, closing my eyes and focusing on sound alone. The wind whistled through the tree, an owl somewhere hooted and a few crickets in the front yard chirped. I shrugged and ducked back inside. The breeze had probably just knocked one of the branches into another, but I shut the window anyway. My paranoia has seldom disappointed me, and if it was wrong, I could live with a slightly stuffy room.

I turned back to Bob to continue the conversation. “It wasn’t that I wanted to keep this place for myself. I just don’t trust you much. You’d be dangerous if I wasn’t keeping an eye on you.”

Bob scoffed. “Dangerous? I’m not the one who killed a faerie queen, incinerated an entire mansion and brought down the King of the White Court. Not to mention that fact that you’re a devoted carnivore.”

“Hey,” I replied, glaring at him, “I don’t have to eat meat, I just prefer to.”

Bob sniggered. “So should we be worried you’ll get hungry enough to eat a horse?”

I rolled my eyes, disgusted at the new low he had reached, but chuckled anyway. “Don’t tempt me.”

“So jokes aside, how long are we gonna be here, boss? I wouldn’t mind a couple weeks away from the normal grind.”

I shook my head and considered the question. “I’m not sure, but definitely nothing longer than a week. I’d be amazed if my cover lasted even that long.”

Bob chuckled again. “Yeah, about that. ‘Blackstone’? That’s not exactly the most subtle alias.”

“Bite me,” I replied, making him laugh. I glanced at the small clock on the wall and was surprised to realize it was already past eleven. I yawned again; today had been tiring. “All right, it’s late, and I had a long day. It’s bedtime.”

“Fine. One last thing to say before you tune out, though. I still think you should seduce Twilight.” I fought back a sigh. He really did have a one track mind.

“You can think whatever you want. Me, though? I’m going to bed.” Mouse had somehow managed to scoot all the way to the top of the bed. I briefly considered putting him back down at the foot, but the bed was more than big enough for the both of us. I shrugged and just shoved him to one side. I hoped Twilight didn’t mind dog hair on her furniture.

I sank blissfully to sleep, enjoying the soft bed despite my unfamiliar shape. There was only time for one last thought before I fully lost consciousness. Huh, why’s that window open a crack? I could have sworn I shut it.

Chapter Four

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195 and Silentcarto
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Four

Hawkeye was eighty-four years old. She had served the Order Triune for sixty-five of those years and had been named Advisor, privy to all its secrets, two decades ago. But in all her time protecting Equestria from hidden dangers and cruel shadows, she had never truly expected this day to come.

He was back. The Black Scourge. The Master of Death. The pony that the Order Triune had been founded to defeat.

Obsidian the Undying.

Hawkeye stared at the reports on the desk in front of her. Her eyes were still sharp enough that she needed only the small lantern hanging from the stone ceiling to read them. She almost wished she couldn’t, that she didn’t have to confront the truth they held.

Romana had met him, and her description wasn’t promising. He was a tall, black unicorn nearly overflowing with power. His body was covered with scars, several that were mysterious in shape and origin, and one hoof was burned and cracked. Despite all that, he had been handsome in a roguish sort of way, and Twilight Sparkle had seemed fond of him. Romana’s word alone wasn’t enough to condemn him, of course, but Wind Whisperer had gotten close enough to eavesdrop on a sensitive conversation. What he had heard explained Obsidian’s seemingly innocent behavior and the trust the Princesses and Elements of Harmony had in him.

He was pretending to be a reformed pony, and according to Romana he was quite a convincing actor, but beneath that veneer he was more depraved than ever. He spoke to his familiar, some sort of demon contained within the skull of an ape, about destroying his enemies, cannibalism and corrupting the Element of Magic.

He was supposed to be dead. Finally, truly dead this time. His last appearance had been almost seven hundred years ago, more than two centuries longer than any of his other reappearances. Most of the Order, including Hawkeye, had been convinced he was gone at last.

She glanced at the clock and bit back a curse. The Earth pony gathered her papers and her resolve at a speed that belied her age. This was one meeting that she had to make on time.

Hawkeye moved to a completely mundane portion of her office wall, pressing against it in just the right spot. A section of wall swung open, the door blending in so seamlessly that she couldn’t have fit a sheet of paper into the cracks when it was closed. She went inside, and the secret door closed quietly behind her. Complete darkness gripped the room, but Hawkeye knew the way by heart. She went exactly ten steps left and opened a trapdoor that was indistinguishable from the other eight present in the room. As soon as it opened she could hear the dull roar of running water. A lot of it.

She tightened the straps on her waterproof saddlebags and cursed the foresight and paranoia of the engineers who had built her path. Though treaties had been drawn and promises made between the Three Tribes, few ponies truly trusted their new neighbors in those days. The Order had been formed out of necessity, not fellowship, and that distrust had ensured that certain precautions were taken by each group when building their stronghold in the caves beneath Canterlot.

Hawkeye climbed down the narrow stone steps, stopping for a moment at the bottom. This part of the tunnel was lit by crystals whose weak glow reflected off the near-solid cascade of water that poured across the passage ahead. Her predecessors had somehow diverted an underground river to form the Earth’s Tears, the relentless curtain of water in front of her. They had been brilliant in their mistrustful way; not only would such an obstacle wash away the power of any spell and prevent Pegasi from flying, but the flow was fast and strong enough that few without the strength and resilience of an Earth pony could withstand passing through it.

Such precautions hadn’t been necessary for more than a dozen centuries, but even if the rules hadn’t stated that she must meet the rest of the Triumvirate within the Neutral Grounds, tradition would demand it.

And tradition was everything to the Order Triune.

After several deep breaths Hawkeye finally took the plunge, grimacing at the endless hammerblows of the pounding stream. Her world became nothing but drenching water, and even the heavy stone grill beneath her hooves seemed inconsequential to the raging power around her. She no longer heard the roar of the waterfall, she felt it in her very bones instead. Every one of her movements was slow, each step forward a battle.

She was getting too old for this nonsense, but there were more important matters at stake right now. Eventually she passed through, shaking and drenched, but otherwise unharmed. As she had ordered, there were towels waiting for her in an antechamber, and she relished the chance to dry off. While she may be required to soak herself to reach the meeting, there was nothing to say she had to show up looking like a drowned Diamond Dog.

She opened an iron door into a small, plain room lit by a single large crystal overhead. Three doors, each made of one of the three symbolic metals, and the flag of Equestria were the only adorments aside from the circular table in the center. Like the one in the larger meeting hall far above, it was formed from wedges of silver, iron, and aluminum. The silver side was already occupied by a distinguished looking unicorn, his bright gold mustache and goatee neatly offsetting his dark teal coat. He was waiting for her, sipping tea out of steaming cup. He made a small show of pulling out a gilded pocket watch and checking it.

“You’re late, Advisor,” he declared, hiding his smile by taking a quick sip of tea. Hawkeye snorted and eyed the much younger pony. Arcane Mind was one of the best spellcasters in Equestria, and he was quite proud of that fact. Æther Shade had hoof-picked him to be her successor, but he was still far too young to hold one of the highest offices in the Order in Hawkeye’s opinion. After all he was barely forty, and only had a paltry twenty-three years of service.

She was tempted to call him ‘Lord Mind’ just to annoy him, but protocol was to be respected. “That precious clock of yours must be wrong, Mage. I’m on time, you’re early. Probably because you only had to go through a few fancy doors.”

He arched an eyebrow and filled a second cup with tea. “I’d hardly call the Crystal Gates ‘a few fancy doors’. My path isn’t nearly as easy as you seem to think. Tea?”

Hawkeye nodded and reached for the delicate cup. “Thanks.” She took a sip, considered the flavor for a moment before adding a dollop of amber liquid from a flask in her saddlebags. Arcane winced as the earth pony slugged back the resulting mixture without regard for the temperature. “Mmmm. That’s tasty.”

The dignified unicorn sighed. “Must you add cider? Tea should be drunk naturally with nothing more than sugar to complement the blend.”

Hawkeye grinned internally, but didn’t let the expression reach her face. “Then there shouldn’t be a problem. Good cider complements everything.” Arcane Mind’s face twisted in an exaggerated grimace and the two verbally sparred for a few minutes. Hawkeye wouldn’t have admitted it to anypony, but she did enjoy Arcane Mind’s company. He was one of the few ponies who wasn’t intimidated by her glare. Add his quick wit to the mix, and it wasn’t surprising that she liked him despite his aristocratic habits.

Arcane Mind looked at his watch more causally than before and frowned. “It’s five past the hour. The Soldier actually is late.”

Hawkeye glanced at the aluminum door and tried not to worry. Tornado Watch had always been a strong flyer, as a life-long military pony she was more than a match for any common pegasus, but she was still almost sixty. The Tunnel of Spikes was an unforgiving path, and more than one leader had failed to cross it when they grew too old.

At last the door opened and a steely-blue pegasus walked through, hale but obviously tired. Her lilac mane was a windblown mess. Hawkeye regretted putting her friend through such hardships, but it was necessary. All of Equestria could hang on this meeting.

“Sorry I am late. I hope I did not inconvenience either of you overmuch.” The stoic pegasus declared as she approached the table. Over the years, Tornado Watch had almost managed to lose her accent, but it still wasn’t difficult to tell she was a Stalliongrad native. “What news calls the Triumvirate to council?” Among other clues was her utter bluntness.

Arcane Mind nodded to Tornado Watch. “Well, my dear Soldier, you’ll have to ask our Advisor about that. I’m afraid I’m rather in the dark as well.”

Hawkeye silently slid a copy of both reports and a summary of her own to each of her fellow leaders. Arcane Mind raised an eyebrow at that, but gamely began reading. His jaw dropped and Tornado Watch cursed before they finished the first paragraph.

Arcane Mind turned to Hawkeye, his jovial tone completely absent. “If this is a joke, I’m afraid it’s in very poor taste.”

Tornado Watch was more direct. “Is this true?”

Hawkeye sighed. “I wish it was only a joke, but I’m afraid it is true. Obsidian is back despite everything we had hoped. I’m sure you both heard the rumors and speculation about the events two months ago.”

“Of course.” Tornado Watch said, making a dismissive gesture with one hoof. “However, there are always rumors of one kind or another. I gave these little attention.”

Hawkeye nodded. “As did I, at first, but I directed our Agents to investigate anyway. We finally received confirmation earlier tonight.”

Arcane Mind had turned back to the reports carefully reading through both Romana’s account and Wind Whisperer’s. “Couldn’t we simply tell the Princesses the truth? If we confront him directly, it will be … costly.” Hawkeye nodded, but Tornado Watch just snorted.

“You mean it would be a slaughter. Even in the olden days he was a monster, and we have grown weaker this past century, believing him gone.” Arcane Mind glared at the pegasus, who returned it in kind.

“Enough!” Hawkeye said, giving them both a look far more fearsome than the one they had shared. “We cannot tell the Princesses. He has already fooled both of them, and they wouldn’t trust us anyway.”

“But it’s been a thousand years since the Order’s involvement in the Nightmare War.” Arcane Mind protested.

Tornado Watch sighed. “Yes, but alicorns have long memories. The Sun Princess does not love us for trying to kill her sister.” Hawkeye shivered. That had been the Order’s darkest hour. In those days they had worked with the Princesses, striving openly for the good of Equestria. But Nightmare Moon’s vicious attacks and the backlash from their retaliation had driven them underground. Driven them to secrecy and a stronghold unused in centuries.

Hawkeye broke the table’s silence. “This is actually better. Obsidian thinks he has gained an advantage by appearing to be innocent, but he doesn’t know that we’re already aware of him. He can’t use his full powers so long as he wishes to fool anypony, but our forces can hunt him in secret. If we can catch him unawares, we just might succeed without engaging him in open battle.” She turned to her comrades, her determination hardening. “Despite his bastard form of immortality, he’s as vulnerable as any unicorn. One well-placed knife could end this quickly and cleanly. I say we must rid Equestria of his evil once more. What say you, Mage? And you, Soldier?”

They mirrored her expression, both of their mouths set in grim lines. Arcane Mind spoke first. “I will notify the Keepers and begin searching the archives for ways to combat his spells.”

Tornado Watch nodded. “And I will prepare our Slayers.”

“Let the Agents try first. Even if they fail, he may still be unaware of our intentions.” The Earth pony drew herself up as the three made their decision. They would face the darkness without flinching and do what they must. Hawkeye sighed. “And so, the Order Triune goes to war with shadows and hidden knives. May Harmony guard us all.”

………

Pinkie Pie bounced happily down the street. Most ponies weren’t as energetic as her in the morning, but then most ponies didn’t have a friend waiting for them after not being able to see each other for two whole months!

The sun was just beginning to poke its sleepy head above the horizon. For now the air was crisp, but Pinkie could tell that today was going to be hot once the sun got going. It was still pretty darn early, though, and she waved at one of the newspaper delivery ponies as she went by. Other than that hardworking pegasus, the streets were empty, most ponies just now starting to get up.

It had come as a surprise to a couple of her friends that Pinkie was always up so early, but that was silly. Everypony wanted to have delicious treats for breakfast. To make sure everything was hot, fresh and ready for those hungry ponies, bakers had to get up extra early. Pinkie didn’t mind; after all, she got to see the sunrise almost every day. How many ponies could say that? Well, obviously Princess Celestia, but c’mon, she doesn’t count. She’s the one raising it.

And it came in handy sometimes! Right now, for instance. Twilight had gotten back into town last night and she’d brought a new pony with her! Well, he wasn’t a new friend, but he was definitely a new pony! Pinkie was bringing over some breakfast, four of her most scrumdiddlyumptious turnovers. An apple one, a chocolate one, a snozzberry one, and a ruby one just for Spike. She also had some coffee, but Dresden was the only one who would want any of that.

Pinkie made a face and stuck her tongue out just thinking about what was in the thermos she was carrying. Coffee was waaaay too bitter, and it wasn’t even the fun, tangy kind of bitter. It was just plain old yucky. Mrs. Cake had always tried to discourage Pinkie from drinking it for some reason, but she didn’t have to worry there. Dresden was welcome to it.

She frowned. Come to think of it, Twilight said we weren’t supposed to call him Dresden. There was another name everypony was supposed to call him while he was a pony, but what was it?

Marty McFly? No. Professor Layton? No, not that either. Foo-foo Cuddlypoofs? Pinkie giggled. That was just silly.

A tiny Pinkie Pie made of felt appeared on her shoulder and said in a teensy, piping voice, “It’s Blackstone, you silly filly!”

Pinkie gasped. “Of course! How could I forget?” She beamed at her fabric double. “Thanks, figment of my imagination!”

Her tiny copy smiled back. “You’re welcome, Pinkie. Just call whenever you need me.” Then it disappeared in a little poof of pink fluff. Pinkie turned her attention back to her journey. She couldn’t help but smile thinking about reuniting with her odd friend. Later this evening she would finally be able to throw Blackstone a ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party. She had already reserved Sugarcube Corner, but she would have to make sure he didn’t stop by and ruin the surprise.

She finally rounded the last bend before she reached the library and was surprised to find another pony already approaching it. Pinkie carefully snuck up on her unsuspecting victim, moving quickly and quietly on tippy-hooves. Finally, when she was in range, she pounced.

“Good Morning, Bon-bon!” Pinkie chirped loudly.

“Eeeee!” Bon-bon squeaked, jumping in the air like she’d been stuck with a pin. She whirled, coming face to face with a Pinkie who was less than an inch away. Bon-bon gulped and offered a wide, fake smile, though a cold sweat broke out on her brow.

Pinkie wondered what had her fellow confectioner so nervous. “Whatcha doin’ at the library so early? Twilight won’t open it up for another couple of hours.” Then she spied a small bag on the doorstep with a little note that said ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ on it.

“Ohhhhh.” Pinkie said giving Bon-bon a knowing smile. “Looks like somepony is sweet on the newest pony in town.” She pretended to swoon and shifted into a melodramatic tone. “But what will become of Lyra? How could you do such a thing to her? She’ll be crushed.”

Bon-bon flushed and lost some of her anxiety to anger. “For the hundredth time, we’re just roommates! Besides, I was just being neighborly. You know, a bag of candy to welcome him to Ponyville.” She paused and bit her lip. “Please don’t tell anypony? They might get the wrong idea, too.”

Pinkie knew that Bon-bon was still talking, but she stopped paying attention at ‘bag of candy’. Within that small bag sitting only a couple feet away were some of Bon-bon’s delicious, delightful, delectable candies. Pinkie felt her mouth water just thinking about it. Surely, Blackstone wouldn’t miss just one piece, not one little piece out of that whole bag. But she couldn’t just take one with Bon-bon watching.

Pinkie gasped dramatically and pointed behind Bon-bon with one shaking hoof. “Oh no,” she whispered, her pupils shrinking in fear. “It’s a distraction!”

“A what?!” Bon-bon cried, spinning around. Pinkie took the opportunity to filch a piece of candy (thankfully not wrapped) and quickly stuffed the sweet into her mouth. It was a piece of hard candy, thick with sugary goodness and flavored with a hint of raspberries and cream.

But there was something wrong with it. Beneath the sweet taste there was a harsh, almost metallic tang. It was faint, but Pinkamena Diane Pie knew her candy, and there was definitely something wrong with this flavor.

Bon-bon turned back around slowly, still confused. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but when she saw Pinkie considering the lump in her cheek with a thoughtful, slightly perplexed expression, the color drained from her face. “Pinkie!”

Caught in the act, Pinkie spat the jawbreaker behind the bushes and stuck out her tongue. “Bleagh. I don’t wanna hurt your feelings, Bon-bon, but I think there’s something wrong with that batch of candy.”

Bon-bon swallowed and gave a nervous laugh. “I-I guess I made a mistake.” She picked back up the bag and tucked it into one of her saddlebags. “Please, don’t tell anypony about that. I don’t want everypony to think I make bad candy.”

Pinkie winked. “Of course not, it’ll stay between us. I promise.”

Bon-bon heaved a sigh of relief and turned to go, but hesitated for a moment. “You’re looking pretty worn out, Pinkie. You might want to go home and take a nap.”

Pinkie waved the suggestion off. “I’m fine. I just had trouble sleeping last night because I knew today is going to be so much fun! Catch you later, Bon-bon.” The candy-making pony looked troubled, but she forced a smile and trotted off. Pinkie felt sorry for her. She had probably wanted to surprise Blackstone with those candies and snag him before any other mare had the chance. Good stallions were hard to come by with so many mares in Ponyville.

Pinkie stifled a yawn and tried the front door; it was locked, of course. She could have knocked, but she didn’t want to be rude and wake anypony that was still sleeping. She had her own way in, anyway.

Standing in the main room of the library, Pinkie rubbed her chin. Now, if she were a battle-hardened inter-dimensional wizard that had recently been transformed into a pony, where would she be? The guest room, of course! Pinkie began sneaking up the side staircase that led to Twilight’s small spare room, stifling another yawn.

That’s odd, she thought. Maybe Bon-bon was right. Yawning or not, though, Pinkie still managed to slink into the room without waking its occupant. She looked over her sleeping friend, humming a small tune to herself. Dresden made for an interesting pony, especially since so many of his features had carried over to his new form. He was tall, with long legs and an angular frame marred by several scars. He was a unicorn, of course, and his horn came to a wicked point. Even after being turned into a pony, he still looked lean and dangerous, but there was something about him now that softened it. The wizard had always seemed on edge, like a spring that was wound tightly and just waiting to let loose. But now there was a serene cast to his face, as though he’d had a weight lifted off of his shoulders. Really, it was almost shame to disturb him when he was so peaceful, but if he didn’t wake up, how could he enjoy her turnovers?

Pinkie stared at the prone unicorn, wondering how she should wake him. Cymbals were a classic, of course, but he might react badly to that. Spike had almost burned down the library when she did that to him, and Pinkie remembered Blackstone having just as much affinity for fire.

The party pony frowned, trying to come up with something that would be surprising, but not too surprising. She pondered that for a moment, fighting drowsiness, until something in the corner of one eye caught her attention. She spun around, but the orange lights in the eyes of the strange skull on the dresser winked out so quickly that Pinkie wasn’t sure they had actually been there.

Keeping a careful watch on the suspicious cranium, Pinkie approached it. It stayed motionless even when she carefully poked it with a sharp stick. She prodded it again slightly harder, but there was still no response. Pinkie frowned.

It had passed the stick test with flying colors, but there was still something about it she didn’t like. Somehow, the skull was setting off all of her instincts. She stared into its empty eyeholes and made a decision. She tapped one of her own eyes then pointed at the skull, her face set in grim determination. “Don’t you go anywhere, Skully McSkullerson. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

Pinkie turned, but stopped as she heard a quiet but distinct chuckle coming from behind her. She spun back around, eyeing the now quiet skull. “You may think you’re clever, but don’t get ahead of yourself.” There was a flicker of orange in the black recesses of the eyes and another ghostly chuckle.

Pinkie grinned in satisfaction. She knew she’d seen something, but if it laughed at her jokes it couldn’t be that bad. “Hi, I’m Pinkie Pie. What’s your name?”

The orange lights brightened, filling the whole eye sockets and banishing the darkness inside the skull. A pleasant male, baritone replied. “Well, ‘Blackstone’ over there calls me Bob. So that’ll do.” He turned in place, examining the room. “What happened to the stick?” he asked in a confused tone of voice.

“What stick?”

“The one you were poking me with. Where did it go?” He sounded unhappy, like somepony had pulled a trick on him that he didn’t think was very funny.

Pinkie shrugged. “Hay if I know.”

The skull stared at her intensely, as if he might somehow solve all the mysteries of the universe if only he stared hard enough. “But you can’t just...” he began before lapsing back into silence. He turned and murmured something to himself. Pinkie couldn’t hear all of it, but she did catch, “that way lies madness” among the mumbling.

“Are you okay?”

The skull cleared a nonexistent throat and faced her again. “Just fine. Though I have to ask what you’re doing sneaking into the room this early.”

“Oh, I was just bringing Blackstone a sweet little something to get his morning started off right.” Pinkie replied, pulling the bag of turnovers out of her mane. Bob, however had already started laughing. He was obviously trying to stop but just as obviously failing. Pinkie grinned curiously. She liked to make ponies laugh (even though Bob wasn’t exactly a pony per say), but she preferred it to be when she said something funny. She giggled along with him as his fit wound down, but her joviality was interrupted by another yawn.

Pinkie rubbed her eyes. The excitement over meeting Bob had kept her tiredness at bay, but now it was coming back in force. “I don’t know why I’m so tired. I guess I didn’t get enough sleep last night. Maybe I need a nap.”

Bob stared intently at her again, but this time there was some different about it. Something Pinkie wasn’t sure she liked. “You know,” he said very casually. “You could take a nap here. Even with Blackstone and Mouse on the bed, it has more than enough room for another pony. And I could keep an eye on your ‘sweet little something’ if you’d like.”

Pinkie frowned, but she was getting more and more tired. “Are you sure he wouldn’t mind?”

Bob chuckled. “Of course not. Blackstone is your friend, isn’t he? He’d be happy to help you out.” Pinkie yawned again and tried to kick-start her quickly clouding mind. There was something odd about Bob, but the bed really looked too comfortable to pass up. She stumbled over to the downy temptress, pausing only to set the bag of turnovers and thermos of coffee on the nearby nightstand. Pinkie eased into the bed carefully, trying hard not to wake Blackstone.

It wasn’t easy; he was in the center, so she had to get really close just so she wasn’t falling off. But she managed and let out a sigh of relief as she relaxed. Pinkie finally stopped fighting her exhaustion and let her eyes slowly close. Within moments the only sound in the room was the light snoring of two sleeping ponies. Bob laughed to himself, his eyes glimmering with anticipated mischief.

“And now we play the waiting game.”

………

Pinkie awoke to a startled, almost horrified gasp which was quickly followed by the sound of shattering ceramic. She sat upright, blinking and trying to remember why she was in a strange bed, cuddled up to somepony who definitely wasn’t Gummy.

Everything came back to her in a flash. Pinkie suddenly remembered baking some special treats to welcome Blackstone to Ponyville, coming over to the Library, and taking a nap when she got sleepy. She glanced around; Blackstone was still asleep and Bob hadn’t moved, but Twilight was standing in the doorway and kinda starting to hyperventilate. There was a broken tea cup on the floor at her hooves in a small puddle of steaming tea. The clock on the wall read seven ten; she’d slept for about forty minutes.

“Good morning, Twilight!” Pinkie chirped, stretching. She felt much better now. That little bit of rest had really hit the spot.

“Pinkie?” Twilight asked. Her breathing had slowed down, but the purple unicorn’s face was still upset. Pinkie wondered if maybe she should have asked Twilight before sleeping over. “What are you doing?”

Pinkie blinked in confusion. Wasn’t it obvious? “I was sleeping with Blackstone.” She giggled. “I didn’t mean to, but I came over here extra early to welcome him, and one thing led to another and it just kinda happened.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped and her face heated up. Her expression flickered through confusion, disbelief, and betrayal before finally settling on anger. Twilight’s eyes began to narrow dangerously and her horn glowed as she cast some sort of spell on herself. Pinkie only had to moment to wonder before Twilight demonstrated an amplification spell the equal to any of Luna’s.

“WAKE UP, BLACKSTONE! YOU’D BETTER HAVE A GOOD EXPLANATION FOR THIS!”

The black unicorn yawned and slowly sat up. He stared blankly at his surrounding, Pinkie still next to him in bed and Twilight glaring daggers, or maybe swords, at him. In a strangely calm voice he said, “Well, this makes an interesting change from flames and demons. I’ve got to hand it to them; my nightmares have gotten more creative.” Then he turned over and settled to go back to sleep.

Bob was convulsing with repressed laughter, but Twilight wasn’t nearly so amused. Her horn began to shine once more, and she yanked Blackstone out of bed, her purple aura glowing angrily. The former human stared into her enraged eyes and seemed to come to a realization.

“Oh, damn. I’m not dreaming, am I.”

Twilight either didn’t hear him or didn’t care. “How … how dare you. In my house! In my guest room! In my guest bed!” She shook her head, grinding her teeth. “I don’t know how they act where you’re from, but in Equestria what you did is inexcusable.”

Blackstone broke out in a cold sweat. “But I didn’t do anything! I went to sleep last night and didn’t wake up until just now. I have no idea how this happened!”

Twilight shook him in her fury. “Don’t lie to me!”

“OBJECTION!” Pinkie cried slamming one hoof down on the nightstand and pointing dramatically with the other. She was standing on her two hind legs behind the end table like it was a podium. The sudden shout and gesture startled both unicorns, and Twilight dropped Blackstone in her surprise. He managed to land on all fours, but not without a few muttered curses.

“Pinkie,” Twilight began. “What do you mean−”

“I mean,” Pinkie interrupted, “That my client is innocent and I can prove it.” She may not have understood just what Blackstone was being accused of, but she knew he was innocent. After all, he had been asleep the whole time. The party pony ran one hoof through her mane, dragging it into a set of slicked back spikes. She smiled confidently. “The prosecution has made its case. Now it’s my turn, and I call Bob the Skull to the witness stand.”

“Bob?!” Twilight and Blackstone said in unison. They both turned toward the surprised skull on the dresser.

“Me?” He asked incredulously.

Pinkie nodded toward the skull. “Yep, let’s hear some testimony. What exactly happened when I came over?”

Witness Testimony
What Happened when Pinkie Came Over

“This is ridiculous, but fine. I’ll do it if I have to.”

“I went to sleep shortly after Blackstone did. It was around 11:30 last night.”

“I don’t know when Pinkie Pie came over. I was asleep until Twilight freaked out.”

“HOLD IT!” Pinkie yelled slamming both hooves onto the nightstand.

“Pinkie!” Twilight snapped. “Please, don’t break any of my furniture. Again.”

Pinkie grinned. “Don’t worry, Sparklesworth. The only thing I’m going to break is the witness’s contradiction.” Pinkie shook her head slowly, still smiling. “That’s an interesting story, Bob, but you made one fatal mistake.”

Bob snorted. “What, just because I knew your name? Sorry, honey, but Blackstone told me all about you and your friends. Even if the description wouldn’t have clued me in, Twilight just called you Pinkie two minutes ago. That narrows the field pretty drastically.”

Pinkie made a tsking sound. “Looks like somepony needs to pay more attention to the profiles in the Court Record.”

“The what in the what?” Blackstone blurted, but Pinkie had too much momentum to stop and explain.

Pinkie nodded “Somepony knew a name they shouldn’t have, but it wasn’t you.” Bob blinked in surprise, then realization began to dawn on him. “It was me. If we hadn’t already met, how would I have known your name? Blackstone never told us about you during his last visit. Something which Sparklesworth herself can confirm.”

All eyes in the impromptu courtroom turned to the purple unicorn, and she nodded grudgingly. “True, you must have spoken to Bob, Pinkie.” She admitted, but with a glance at Blackstone her anger flared back to life. “But that doesn’t prove he’s innocent.”

Pinkie waggled one hoof back and forth. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. I just needed to prove Bob was lying so we could get to the real testimony. If you’d tell the truth this time, please?”

Witness Testimony
The Truth

“Okay, I didn’t want to snitch on either of you, but if you’re going to force me to…”

“Pinkie came over at about 5:30 this morning.”

“She and I talked for a bit then she climbed into bed with Blackstone.”

“I think she brought the pastries and coffee so she could pretend she had just arrived.”

“But Twilight woke up earlier than she expected and caught you two in bed together.”

At this news, Twilight’s anger went up another notch from ‘barely contained rage’ to ‘unbridled fury’. Flames were beginning to lick along her mane, and she was just seconds away from exploding. Blackstone wasn’t a lot calmer himself.

“You lying little bastard! I’ll get you if it’s the last damn thing I do.” The black unicorn stared down the skull with eyes that burned like red hot coals.

“Oh, you’re right about that being the last you ever do.” Twilight bit out, stalking across the small room toward the object of her anger.

“Wait, Twilight!” Pinkie commanded. “Bob’s lying and I can prove it! Or my name’s not Pinkie Wright.”

Twilight frowned in confusion. “But your name isn’t−”

“No time for that, now. Bob, when did you say I came over?”

The skull somehow seemed to frown. “5:30.”

“Oh really? TAKE THAT!” Pinkie shouted. Everypony in the room stared at her piece of evidence.

“It’s a bag of turnovers.” Blackstone said.

Twilight frowned. “I’m sure they’re tasty, but what do they have to do with anything?”

“It’s not the turnovers that are important. It’s what came with them.” Pinkie whipped a small slip of paper out of the bag and brandished it at the smirking skull. “Specifically, a receipt. I had Mrs. Cake ring me up for the turnovers at 6:15 this morning. A full 45 minutes after you claimed I arrived. I didn’t make my appearance at the library until 6:25 and I didn’t take my nap until 6:30.”

Twilight’s mouth dropped open. “Take your nap?”

Pinkie nodded. “Blackstone was sleeping like a log when I arrived, and if he had gotten up during my nap it would have woken me up, too. Therefore, he could not have done whatever he is being accused of!”

Twilight flushed until her face was a bright red. Her anger disappeared as quickly it had come and left only an awkward silence in its place. While Twilight was busy trying to figure out how to apologize for her accusations, Blackstone was doling out some justice of his own.

“Come on, boss. You know it was a joke. Just a joke.” The skull’s eyes were darting back and forth. “Besides I didn’t lie, Pinkie did get in bed with you. I never said anything else happened, did I?” Blackstone was technically smiling, but somehow the expression wasn’t very happy.

“That’s okay, Bob,” he said through clenched teeth. “I understand completely. Just like you should understand that you’re going to spend the next three months locked in the smallest, most uncomfortable box I can find.”

“Hold on, Blackstone.” Pinkie said, her happiness marred with a small frown. “I know Bob wasn’t being very nice, but please don’t be too mean to him.”

Blackstone’s eyes flickered to her, and he seemed to consider her plea for a moment. Then he came to a decision and gave a much happier grin, this one sparkling with mischief. “I tell you what, Bob. If you can beat Pinkie here in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe then you’ll be off the hook. If you can’t, then I don’t want to hear any of your backtalk or perverted ideas for the next month. Agreed?”

Bob gave a laugh of relief. “Really, that’s it, sahib? Okay! Sorry, Pinkie, but the boss man says I’ve got to beat you. Have you got some paper?”

“Uh-huh!” Pinkie said quickly grabbing a sheet and a pencil. Almost nopony wanted to play her in Tic-Tac-Toe, but now she finally had a new challenger! She had just finished drawing the familiar grid, when Blackstone went downstairs, followed by an excited doggy and an embarrassed Twilight.

Pinkie turned to ask him something, but Bob made his opening move and her attention darted back to the game. She studied the move carefully, so intent on her latest opponent that she completely forgot her question. Just what crime had Twilight had been accusing him of, anyway?

Chapter Five

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195 and Silentcarto
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Five

In my life, an apology is about as common as a white crow. Not the standard mass-produced ‘sorry’ you get with customer service, or when somebody bumps you in a crowded street. I’m talking about a sincere attempt to make up for something done wrong. I never get those because I’ve either already mouthed off to the person who owes me one, or because they’re too busy trying to kill me to bother with manners. On special days, it’s all of the above.

So with a background like that, you might understand when I say that I never thought there would come a day when I didn’t want an apology.

“But really, it was so thoughtless of me. I am really, truly, deeply sorry that I reacted like that, Blackstone.” Twilight’s face wasn’t beet-red anymore, but a light flush still colored it as she repeated herself for the sixth or seventh time.

I rolled my eyes as I dug into my fourth fried egg sandwich. Spike had picked up on my explanation of how to make them quickly enough, and between the two of us we had a towering stack dripping with real cheese and toasted to golden brown perfection in short order. It might have been a vegetarian breakfast, but there was more than enough cholesterol to coat my new arteries just as thickly as my old ones.

“It’s fine,” I mumbled through a mouthful of food. I swallowed and continued in a clearer tone of voice. “You thought I was taking advantage of your friend. I can understand why you’d be angry.” Not to mention, I had the feeling that even if ponies in general weren’t puritanical about sex, Twilight would be. She had ‘Victorian sensibilities’ written all over her. The fact that the very thought of me doing that with one of her friends in her house almost made her hulk out didn’t surprise me in the slightest.

I’m just glad she listened to Pinkie long enough to realize I was innocent. As utterly bizarre as the pink pony’s methods were, I couldn’t complain about the results.

“It isn’t fine. I should never have made an assumption like that, much less acted on it. Especially without any proof,” she said nervously, inspecting the sandwich in front of her. I wasn’t sure if she was too upset to eat it or just a lot more health-conscious than me.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again. “Twilight, I went on a demon-possessed rampage, used your True Name against you, and nearly killed somepony. And you forgave me. I think you’ve earned a little credit.” She looked ready to protest, but I cut her off. “The same thing you told me that morning in the palace still applies here. Forgiving is what friends do. Don’t make me hoist you by your own petard.”

She regarded me curiously, academic interest overriding social anxiety. “What’s a ‘petard’?”

“No idea,” I shrugged. “Point is, don’t make me use your own logic against you. If you really want to make it up to me, try the sandwich.” The look on her face told me she’d rather keep apologizing, and Mouse gave a few huffing little barks. I had sneaking suspicion that was his version of laughter.

Still, Twilight was game enough to try it, at least. She took a bite, and it would be generous to call her face ‘thoughtful’. I finished mine and reached for another with an orange-red aura. “Don’t like it?” I asked.

She shook her head somewhat hesitantly. “Not really. It’s not bad, but it’s so fatty that I can feel my heart slowing down already. I don’t even want to know how many calories were in that bite alone.” She put her plate on the floor and Mouse hurried over. He’d managed to polish off a pair of sandwiches himself, but he was a growing boy.

I grinned at Twilight. “What if I told you this was what I have for breakfast every day?”

She smiled in response. “I’d call you a liar. If you really ate five of these every day you’d be round as a ball.”

I raised both eyebrows and regarded her in my best faux haughty manner. “And when did you become an expert on human biology? We eat at least a third of our body weight in food every day.”

“What?!” she asked, completely buying into it. “I know shrews and some other small mammals are hyper-metabolic, but a creature your size shouldn’t have enough surface area for your volume to lose heat that fast. Of course, the massive expenditure could be by other means -- you never did display your maximum speed or strength -- but that should only be a high cost investment, not constant upkeep. Though, your scars would indicate a moderately impressive regenerative ability, so that…” Her physiological rant slowed to a crawl, and only then did she realize I was smirking at her.

Twilight glared at me. “And you were just messing with me again, weren’t you?”

I chuckled, and took another bite. “You got it, pumpkin.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed further, but her reply was cut off by a furious voice from upstairs.

That is quite literally impossible!” A full minute of cursing followed, and I tried to pick out the language Bob was using this time. My eyebrows rose nearly to my hairline when I realized it was Babylonian. His skull had almost been destroyed by an exploding potion the last time he used that. All of which, incidentally, wasn’t my fault no matter what he tells you.

Suffice to say, Bob was not a happy camper. I couldn’t help laughing at his anger, and Twilight chuckled along with me.

I finished off the last of the last of my sandwich and sighed. “I suppose he’s been punished enough.” Twilight gave me a doubtful look, but Spike seemed grateful. I suppose hearing a ‘ghost’ screaming ancient and terrible curses in a dead language could make it difficult to enjoy your breakfast.

I managed to get up the stairs before he went off again. I opened the door and stared at the pile of paper surrounding the two players. Bob was floating several inches off the ground wreathed in orange light. He was staring at the hastily scribbled group of lines with such intensity I couldn’t believe the paper hadn’t caught fire. Pinkie was concentrating just as hard, her brow beaded with sweat and her tongue sticking out of one corner of her mouth

They suddenly leapt into action, Bob opening with X’s while Pinkie defended with O’s. In a second it was over.

“Cat game!” Pinkie announced, tossing the used piece of paper to join the rest of its fallen kin.

Again,” Bob demanded, his voice empty of emotion. Pinkie nodded and began drawing a new square.

Obviously both of them were giving it their all, but for all their similarities there was an undercurrent of satisfaction and genuine happiness to Pinkie’s expression, while Bob seemed only a couple of games from losing it. Neither one of them had noticed my entrance so I coughed meaningfully, and knocked on the door.

After that failed, I grabbed Bob with my telekinesis and gave him a rough shake. I was given a refresher course in ancient Greek. Not the kind you’d say in front of ancient Greek children, but at least I had his attention.

“I know you two are having a fantastic time, but I want to get some new clothing from Rarity. And I don’t trust you enough to let you out of my sight, Bob.” I had expected resistance, arguments, and maybe some demands for ‘just one more game’. Bob managed to surprise me, though.

The orange magic surrounding him rushed back into his skull, which incidentally made holding him a lot easier. He seemed to deflate and the lights in his eyes dimmed to a soft glow. “Fine,” he said with a smoldering attitude. “But mark my words, this isn’t over.”

Pinkie beamed, oblivious to his vengeful tone. “Sure thing, Bob! Playing with you is a ton of fun! Nopony else is even a challenge.” I held back from laughing somehow, but Bob still fumed silently. Pinkie bounced out of the room, leaving the sea of used pages to scatter about on the floor.

I waited until Pinkie was out of earshot to needle him. “So Bob,” I asked in most falsely innocent tone I could manage, “what was the win-loss ratio?”

I had expected an incoherent response, something close to utter loathing, but Bob responded in a flat, dissatisfied tone. “Seventy-four draws and fifteen wins for Pinkie.”

Honestly, I was impressed. Bob had held her to a very narrow margin of victory… for Pinkie, at least. I couldn’t let him know that, though. “And how many wins did you get?”

He twisted his skull around to face me, somehow without disturbing the telekinetic field I was using to hold him. He glared at me, the orange lights in his eyes swirling angrily. “We played eighty-nine games. Do the math.”

I grinned like the Cheshire cat. “She’s darn good at that game. I could have warned you, but I thought you had it coming. A slice of humble pie never hurt anypony.”

Bob shook his skull slowly back and forth. “You can’t describe what she just did as ‘good’, sahib. Tac-Tic-Toe is one of the simplest strategy games in existence. It makes checkers look like three dimensional chess.” I stared at him in disbelief. Was there really even such a thing as 3D chess? Bob, though, didn’t pause.

“There are only a few dozen moves even possible; you can force a draw no matter what the other player does. At first, I even thought that’s what you were planning.” He sighed. “When I said what she was doing was impossible I wasn’t just being a sore loser. I have no idea how she won. In hindsight it was obvious every time, but as her moves progressed, it was impossible to see.”

I nodded sagely and pretended that I hadn’t lost every game I had played against her. “So what does that mean about your promise?”

The lights in his eyes swirled like miniature maelstroms and his tone turned petulant. “You suck. You suck many things. I’d give you a comprehensive list of just what you suck, but I’m afraid that would violate my promise to behave.” I chuckled, and he grumbled. Trust Bob to follow the letter of an agreement and ignore the spirit completely.

I set him down on my dresser and examined my possessions. The staff, my strongest focus and the traditional symbol of a wizard’s power, would be even more conspicuous here than Chicago. At least back home it was to scale with me instead of towering overhead. I’d only lost about two feet in height, but when you’re used to seeing the world from close to seven feet the adjustment isn’t easy. Shrinking down to Murphy’s height made me feel like a munchkin.

Regretfully, I decided to leave it behind; ditto for my sword cane. That would be even more difficult to explain in a world of quadrupeds. My familiar leather duster would be left behind also. It wasn’t anywhere close to being the right shape for my new body. Thankfully, I could still wear my shield bracelet, though it was further up my arm – foreleg now – than it had been. I debated on whether or not to take my rings and in the end decided to bring them.

I slid them onto my horn again, which made Bob snicker when I had difficulty lining them up with the tip. I hadn’t seen any other ponies wearing jewelry like that, but I didn’t want to go completely unarmed. My silver pentacle I hadn’t taken off. Outside of the shower, or using it to kill a rampaging wolf demon, I never did.

What I really needed were pockets. Chalk, crystals, a tuning fork and several other odds and ends I couldn’t wear made up most of my magical arsenal. I needed a belt, too, if my new belt buckle was going to be of any use. Hopefully, Rarity could rectify that for me.

A small movement caught my attention, and I realized that the window was swinging in the slight breeze. I shut with my telekinesis and frowned. There was something important about this window. Something I should remember, but the fog of sleep and events of this morning had driven it out of my mind. I shrugged, if it was really that important I’d remember it eventually.

I went back downstairs with Bob in tow and paused a moment before entering the kitchen. “I’m coming back in, and I’ve got Bob with me.” There was a brief scramble and a door slammed as Spike left the room. Bob snickered again. I walked in and found not just Twilight, but Pinkie as well.

The pink party pony as sucking down the remaining sandwiches at a rate that said she was even less worried about cardiac arrest than me. Twilight, on the other hand, had fixed herself some cereal in my absence. It was probably multigrain or some other ‘healthy’ concoction.

“Do you have anything I could stuff Bob into, Twilight? I don’t trust him to his own devices, but I think putting him on display would make a low profile hard to keep.” I gestured with the skull, which made Twilight flinch a little, but it certainly made my point.

Twilight nodded. “I’ve got a spare set of saddlebags. They’re mine, but if I let out the belt a little, they should fit across your flanks. At least, I think so -- I’m just eyeballing it, of course.” Bob burst into a full laugh at that, which of course made Twilight blush and stammer out yet another apology.

Those two needed to be separated; she definitely was not made to deal with Bob’s lechery. Twilight came back with a pair of saddlebags, and I crammed Bob into one of them. He fit, but just barely, which caused another round of complaints. Twilight and I ignored him, but Pinkie looked concerned.

“Are you sure he’ll be okay in there, Blackstone?” Pinkie pouted, worried over the fate of her newest playmate. “What if he runs out of air?!” I almost laughed at the suggestion, but one look at her expression and my flippant response died. I’d sooner have drop-kicked a puppy than laughed at the face she was making.

“He’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I promise.”

Pinkie studied me carefully, then brightened. “Okie dokie lokie!” she chirped before she returned to demolishing the last of the sandwiches.

I glanced around, suddenly aware that food was being eaten, but there was no puppy begging for the scraps. “Mouse?” I called. “Mouse? C’mere, boy!” An answering whine emerged from beneath the table.

Twilight and I leaned down together to peer at the little rascal as he lay motionless under the table. The way his stomach bulged told me Pinkie wasn’t the only one responsible for finishing off the rest of breakfast.

“How are you feeling, boy?” I nudged Mouse gently with one hoof, and he whimpered. “Great. I hope Fluttershy has something for indigestion, you little glutton.”

Twilight nodded. “She does. I’d take you there myself, but I’ve got that dental appointment this morning.”

Pinkie swallowed the rest of her sandwich without chewing, disturbingly like a snake eating its prey, and piped up. “Oooh! Can I do it? I know how to get to Rarity’s and Fluttershy’s!”

Twilight looked doubtful about the whole idea, but I shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

………

“You’re certainly taking this in stride,” I said to Pinkie as we left the smoldering wreckage of her mysterious ‘welcome wagon’ behind us.

Pinkie’s smile faded, and for a moment I saw a glimpse of real sadness behind her usual cheery antics. Then it was gone again, as quickly as it had appeared. She brightened up and giggled. “It’s just a wagon, Blackstone. I can always build another one. I’m just glad you weren’t hurt.

I don’t know if it was my usual effect on technology, or she just had a screw loose (whether literally or metaphorically), but the thing had exploded into fiery shrapnel about five seconds into the song. If I hadn’t been holding my shield ready, I’d probably be dead. I doubt the explosion had been the ‘surprise’ that Pinkie had promised me, but I hadn’t expected anything benign. Pinkie’s next words did nothing to disprove that particular thought.

“It must have been the fireworks; they weren’t supposed to go off that early. I wonder if I mixed the gunpowder wrong.”

“Gunpowder?!” I asked, my voice definitely not going high pitched and panicky at the thought of Pinkie having access to explosives. No, I pushed the thought away, it can’t be that bad. The town’s still standing isn’t it?

Pinkie giggled again. “Yeppers! I made some myself! Y’know, chemistry isn’t all that different from baking, all you have to do is get the right ingredients, mix them the right way, and you’ve got super colorful fireworks! Or jelly doughnuts! Awww, and there were jelly doughnuts in the wagon, too. Strawberry flavored ones! I thought you’d be a strawberry jelly kinda guy. Maybe grape, I gave some thought to that, but I knew it wasn’t going to something like peach or apple, and definitely not marmalade. I mean marmalade, really? I’ve never seen a pony who looks less like a marmalade pony than you. Well, maybe one pony but he wasn’t really a pony, he was a dragon and he was kind of asleep so I don’t really know him that well other than that he doesn’t have a very good sense of humor, I can tell you that at least−”

By the second or third run-on sentence I started tuning her out. It’s not that I didn’t like Pinkie, but trying to keep up with the sugary dynamo was too much to ask of anyone, man or pony. Unfortunately the dulled senses made paying attention more than a little difficult. At some point along the way I ran right into some poor guy headed in the opposite direction at an impressive clip.

I hadn’t seen him until he plowed into me, but I knew he must have been moving fast because of how deeply he managed to burrow his hoof into my ribs. I held back a string of curses that probably would have burned the ears of any pony nearby. The chestnut-colored stallion opposite of me, however, had plenty to say.

“Oh, ouch. Who put you in my way?” The speaker was a normal pony wearing a small vest with several pockets, and a small pair of goggles perched on top of his head. For some reason he spoke with a British accent. “My, they certainly grow them big where you’re from. Hmm, never seen a pony with your coloration before. Almost grim. The white mane sets it off a little but the effect certainly isn’t helped by all the scars. You’ve seen some trouble haven’t you? Ah, but who hasn’t had an eventful life here in Equestria? Fascinating place isn’t it? ” He wasn’t quite as bad as Pinkie, but it was still difficult to get a word in edgewise.

“Hi, Doctor!” Pinkie chirped, giving him a quick hug. “How’s business?”

“Hello, Pinkie. Same as ever, running here, there and everywhere.” He said giving her a boyish grin. Then with a gasp he seemed to remember whatever had put him in such a hurry. “So sorry about the collision, but I’ve got to run. Pleasure meeting you, Mister…?” He stuck out a hoof.

I shook it clumsily, still not used to doing so without hands. “Blackstone.”

“Really?” he asked. “This world’s a funny old place, then. I’d better leave before −” A silvery cylinder sticking out of one of his pockets burst into sparks and gave a shrill whine that made me grit my teeth in pain. I don’t know what it was, but I hoped it wasn’t expensive. The stallion yelped and trotted off nosing the pocket worriedly. “Don’t you dare break on me, again. I don’t have the parts to fix you this time if you do.”

I watched him curiously as he ran off. I don’t know what it was about him, but something set off all of my instincts. He didn’t seem dangerous, but somehow I knew in bold-faced type that he was trouble. I nudged Pinkie and nodded to the retreating figure. “Who was that?”

“That’s the Doctor.”

I frowned. He didn’t seem like a doctor to me, but maybe she didn’t mean the medical type. “Doctor who?”

She grinned. “Hooves, actually.”

“What?”

“What’s on second,” she replied, waggling her eyebrows. It took me a second to catch on.

“So who’s on first?” I asked, matching her smile.

“Exactly,” she said, and we both started laughing. I couldn’t help it. The whole situation was just too weird not to. I don’t know what caught my attention in the middle of all that hilarity, maybe a slight sound of whistling, the shadow that suddenly fell over me, or the way Pinkie yelled ‘Twitchy tail!’ but I looked upward just in time to see something plummeting towards us.

I reacted instinctively. There wasn’t time for a spell or a shield, but I was prepared for just such an occasion. I triggered one of the force rings on my horn and smashed the dark piece of metal with some serious power.

I didn’t change its trajectory by much but it was enough to keep it from smashing into my skull at several dozen miles per hour. The anvil hit the ground not three feet in front of me, cratering the ground with its landing.

I’m not kidding, an actual freaking anvil. Like something you’d see in a cartoon. But unlike Daffy Duck, I wouldn’t have walked away from that impact with a ridiculous bump on my head. It was only a small anvil, but it had to weigh at least a hundred pounds. My head would have been crushed like a grape.

I looked up, half expecting to see a safe or a grand piano falling next, but instead it was a hovering moving truck. Well, a large cart being pulled by pegasi that looked a lot like a moving truck. Down to the stencil on the side that said ‘Cloudsdale Moving Co.’.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” A burly brown pegasus in a baseball cap was yelling at the team of hovering pegasi around it. “You lazy idiots don’t even have Derpy around to blame this time!”

“Sorry, boss.” All of the free-flying pegasi chimed, looking ashamed.

The foreman dove down quickly to street level and doffed his hat. “Sorry about that. Nopony got hurt, did they?”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten, trying not to lose my temper. We were fine, no thanks to him or his crew, and it was struggle not to let the post-adrenaline anger out. I wasn’t sure what I would have said to him, probably something unkind, but of course Pinkie beat me to it.

“Yeah, we’re all right! I was all like, ‘Twitchy tail!’ and Blackstone was like, ‘Falling anvil? I don’t think so!’ and bam! It didn’t stand a chance!”

The mover looked just as confused as I felt. “Well, okay,” he said. “I'm glad nopony got hit on the noggin.” Though his expression said he thought that Pinkie might have already taken a few too many. He flew off and the dangerous air truck followed after a trio of pegasi returned the anvil to its perilous position.

We started walking again, but this time I kept a careful eye on the skies. The way the foreman had said, ‘this time’ didn’t fill me with confidence. “Either they have some amazing liability insurance, or their lawyer is a real shark in court.”

“Lawyer? Insurance?” Pinkie echoed. “What’re those?”

I stared at her. No lawyers or insurance companies? Equestria really is a paradise. I shrugged. “Don’t worry about. Just a couple of things from home.” And I hadn’t even said ‘my world’. Damn, I’m good at this low-profile thing.

We turned the corner and I saw the building that could have been Rarity’s boutique. The last time I had seen it we were busy sneaking out of town in the middle of the night on our way to rescue Spike. Still, even if the shape hadn’t been unmistakable, that was the only place that could have suited her sense of … style. In the light of day I could see all of the ornamentations, colorations, decorations and a whole bunch more ‘-ations’.

It was very … fancy. That’s a nice way to say unbelievably gaudy, right? I’m not trying to be a jerk, but come on. The whole thing looked like it had been designed to appeal to the aesthetic sense of a five-year-old girl. I wasn’t planning to say anything, but I don’t think I could have managed a decent poker face if anyone asked me for my opinion.

The bell tinkled as we walked in and a cultured voice from the other side of the shop trilled, “Welcome to Carousel Boutique. I’ll be with you in just a moment.” Rarity was busy as ever, working on an ornate dress hugging the curves of pony-shaped manikin.

The white unicorn drove a couple of pins into the dress to hold it in place, then turned to greet us. Her eyes lit up when she saw Pinkie, though I only rated a polite smile. “Pinkie! What a lovely surprise. And who’s your handsome friend?”

“Heya, Rarity! It’s our friend Blackstone, silly.”

“Blackstone?” Rarity seemed taken aback for an instant, but then something visibly clicked and her smile shifted from polite to sincere. “Oh, of course! My dear friend Mister Blackstone. How have you been, my fine sir?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes; going through the bother of courtly manners had always exasperated me, but at least they made Rarity happy. “Quite well, fair lady. But right now I’m in need of your help.”

“I should say so,” Rarity said, looking me over with a critical eye. Normally I’m not self-conscious, I wear things for comfort or function not fashion. But that penetrating gaze reminded me that despite my new coat of fur, I was still completely naked. She circled me a few times getting a good look from every angle. I’m aware it was probably just to get a rough idea for clothing sizes, but there was far too much of a predator’s stalking grace in her movements to let me relax.

Rarity mumbled to herself, obviously considering and discarding ideas. Pinkie wandered off while the seamstress was busy sizing me up, abandoning me to my fate without so much as a backwards glance. Nothing to do then but make the best of my current situation. I cleared my throat and said, “I was hoping you could−”

“Hush, darling.” Rarity interjected mildly. “I’m ‘in the zone’ at the moment, and I can’t abide interruptions.”

I heard a muffled chuckle from my saddlebags and fought back a snarky reply. I’d come here to ask her for a favor. I could hardly complain when she did it. Besides, I had the feeling that just bringing Bob into her shop would be more than enough payback for whatever indignities I was about to suffer under her care.

“Yes, definitely,” she said more to herself than to anyone else. “I apologize for the once-over, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to work with a stallion of your caliber.”

“Uh, thanks. I guess,” I mumbled. There was another muffled laugh from the saddlebags, and I resisted the urge to throw them across the room.

Rarity gave me another glance, far more appreciative than analytical this time. I swallowed nervously. “And I must say, either Twilight is very skilled in transformation, or you simply look marvelous as a pony. Whichever is true, the result is nothing short of fantastic.”

“That’s … great.” I managed before I remembered what I had originally come there for. “But I was hoping you could make me a coat, or some kind of outfit.” I glanced at my unclothed body and flushed slightly. “Preferably something that covered most of me and came with a lot of pockets.” Then thinking of the pastel colors adorning her house and dresses I winced. “And nothing really bright.”

Rarity sniffed delicately. “Not with a coat like yours. That would be garish, and I simply cannot stand anything garish.” I pulled off an Oscar-worthy poker face in response.

“Now,” Rarity said, levitating a tape measure and giving me a grin. “I’ll be needing some more precise measurements. Hold still please.”

I did my best to keep from twitching as she encircled me with the tape measure. Rarity went to work talking to me as she did so. “May I ask about your … accessories? The necklace is fine, but the bracelet looks somewhat damaged.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that happened back home. I ran into something that really tested my shield. I haven’t gotten around to completely fixing it yet. Still works, though, and that’s what counts.”

The tape measure moved from my back to one of my forelegs as Rarity murmured something to herself. She spoke without taking her eyes off her work. “And that’s what happened to your hoof?”

I grimaced. “Yeah, it was pretty well toasted.” The extremity throbbed in response to the attention, but it was nothing compared to the pain I was used to feeling from my damaged hand.

“Sounds ghastly,” she replied. “I do have another question, though. I know I’m not exactly privy to your personal life, but isn’t five wedding bands a bit much?”

Wedding bands? I thought before the odd notion clicked. “You mean my force rings?” The real implication of that sunk in, and I had to stop myself from shouting. “You mean you thought I was married?!”

“Well, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other ponies thought so. Traditionally, that’s the only jewelry a stallion wears on his horn. I’m surprised that nopony thought to say anything.” She gave me a sympathetic glance before turning back to measuring.

I sighed. “Twilight knows I’m not married, Spike’s a kid, and who knows what Pinkie thought of it.” Was that why ponies on the street had been giving me odd looks? I’d attributed it to my scars and height, but that was a possibility.

“Well if you insist on wearing them we could do something else with them. Maybe another bracelet to match the first? That would certainly fit what I’m planning, and offset the waistcoat nicely. Are you sure you want a lot of coverage in this outfit? It would be a shame not to display some of your fantastic physique.”

I harrumphed and coughed to hide a slight blush. Fortunately my dark coat aided me. “Thanks, but you can lay off the flattery.”

Rarity blinked and stared at me in surprise. “Whatever for?”

I shrugged. “I’m not used to compliments on my looks. I’m not hideous, but I fall pretty far short of the ‘handsome’ mark.”

Rarity looked positively mortified. “I never would have guessed. I don’t know what the girls from your home value, but you certainly look good now. Lean, strong and with a just a hint of danger about you.” She brightened and alarm bells started ringing in the back of my mind. “Why, when I’m done with you there won’t be a mare in Ponyville who isn’t glancing sideways at you.”

My life flashed before my eyes, but Rarity seemed to take my silence in stride. She beamed as her tape measure continued its work. Bob started up again and this time the muffled laughter from the saddlebags was finally loud enough to attract Rarity’s attention.

“Blackstone? Forgive me for mentioning, but your bag appears to be … laughing.” She gave me a worried expression, expecting an explanation.

I had hoped we could have gone through all this without introducing her to Bob, but of course, I wasn’t so lucky. “That’s my research assistant, Bob.”

Rarity cocked one eyebrow in a way that unmistakably said sure, tell me another one.

Sighing mentally, I reached for the saddlebag and lifted Bob out by telekinesis. “He’s a spirit that lives inside this skull.” Rarity’s face twisted with revulsion as she saw Bob, and she winced ever so slightly as his eyes lit up. “And he is going to be on his very best behavior, or I will make his pitiful little life hell.”

Rarity was the most prim and proper pony I knew, and I had no doubt that she would have zero tolerance for any of Bob’s usual antics. Hopefully I had headed that off, but there was really no way of telling with him. They stared at each other for a moment, one in lustful silence and the other in frozen horror. I’ll let you guess which was which.

“Hello, gorgeous,” Bob said. If he had lips I swear he’d have been licking them.

“It talks.” Rarity whispered, disgust growing on her face. But give her credit, once she had processed what he had said she regained her composure. “Yes. Hello.” She hesitated. “Nice to meet you, Bob.”

Bob chuckled. “Boy, I’ll say. You, my fair mare, are the single most attractive equiform I have ever seen. And I’ll have you know that includes several centuries of extensive experience. In fact, if I hadn’t promised the boss to be polite then I would’ve already made at least three indecent proposals involving you, me and your bedroom.”

“Aaaand playtime’s over. Back in the bag for you.” I said, stuffing Bob into the saddlebag before he managed to say anything worse. Bob protested the treatment with a few curses but I ignored them. You’d think an entity as smart as he claims to be could realize when discretion is the better part of not getting your ass kicked.

Rarity’s glare by all rights should have set the bag on fire, and I think we were lucky the only item she was holding was her tape measure. Her tone was icy cold as she spoke. “Please inform your assistant to keep his dirty thoughts, or even the suggestion of such, to himself next time. If there even is a next time.” Her voice lost its edge, and she regarded me with a baffled air. “Honestly, how can you associate with such a creature, Blackstone?”

A muffled voice from the saddlebags began to speak, “You know, I can hear−” but a quick, telekinetic jab restored silence from that particular corner.

“Yeah, Bob’s a pervert, but he’s also got several libraries worth of knowledge in that twisted skull of his. It’s a matter of function over form, for the most part.” I gave her a shrug. “And to be fair, you were the one who asked to see him.”

Rarity gave me a sharp look and the tape measure suddenly became much less gentle in its work. Before it had been smooth as silk, but now it was more than a little rough. I thought she had measured just about every inch of me, but now it wrapped around my neck none too gently.

I ignored it. “So what, exactly, were you thinking about making?”

Rarity gave me another look, clearly torn between wanting to stay mad and excited over my interest. Excitement won out, and she began to detail my ‘new look’. “We’ll start with a burgundy silk waistcoat. That will contrast nicely with your coat, and bring out the brightness of your eyes without clashing with your mane or your jewelry.”

I almost told her it wasn’t jewelry, but I’d just gotten back on her good side. Pointing that out didn’t seem like the wisest of moves. She continued uninterrupted. “It will cover most of your scars and provide a couple of pockets, but the main piece will be a black wool overcoat. It will be thin and leave most of your legs exposed, otherwise you’d simply roast in the sun. It actually will mostly cover your back and some of your sides, with a pair of tails of course, but there still will be more than enough room for pockets. I’m thinking a small collar with only a clasp to hold it closed. That will display the necklace and keep the front open to show off the waistcoat.” She paused and stared pensively at my hair. “How do you feel about hats?”

I snorted. “I never wear hats. They just look ridiculous on somebody my height.”

Rarity pursed her lips and shook her head delicately. “I’d disagree with you on that last statement but it’s just as well. I’ve got some plans for your mane that are just to die for!” I stared at her with the same feeling that drowning victim might have when he realizes that the rope he just threw away was his only lifeline. A nervous swallow was almost cut off by the pressure still encircling my throat.

I glanced downward in surprise. The tape measure was still wrapped firmly around my neck, and I hadn’t even realized it. I glanced at Rarity and almost asked her to cut it out, but the words died in my mouth.

Her horn wasn’t glowing.

I wasn’t completely familiar with unicorn magic, or really any kind of magic here in Equestria, but I had noticed one common thread: anytime somepony used magic, their horn glowed. I only had a small sample to work with, but I felt safe making the assumption that the former caused the latter. All of which lead to the conclusion that Rarity wasn’t using magic at the moment.

So who was winding the cord around my throat?

The pressure it was exerting was so slight that it was almost unnoticeable, especially when I was holding still. It dawned on me that whoever – or whatever – wasn’t trying to choke me to death. They were putting me in one of the most subtle sleeper holds I had ever imagined. Already I could feel a vague tiredness at the back of my mind, and given another minute, I would be out cold. All without knowing I had ever been under attack.

The adrenaline surge that came with realization banished the creeping exhaustion, and I tore the tape measure away from my throat with a panicked burst of telekinesis. It flew across the room, one end clattering against the floor. There had been no resistance when my magic grabbed it, and I couldn’t feel the touch of anyone else’s power on it. It was almost enough to make me wonder if I had overreacted.

No. That’s just what they want me to think. I didn’t know the motive just yet, but somepony wanted me out of the picture. The accident with the welcome wagon could have been happenstance. The falling anvil, the second accident, might have been a coincidence, but three times was a conspiracy.

My mind flew as I tried to puzzle out just what was going on. Was Trixie back for revenge? Did some xenophobic pony figure out what I really was? Was some other entity I didn’t even know about responsible?

I rushed to the window, but when I looked out, everything seemed normal -- for this world’s value of normal, anyway. A few ponies were chatting across the street, a couple was coming out of a merchant’s tent a few yards away, and a few were simply walking by. One blonde pegasus with crossed eyes even waved to me as I watched her. There were no skulking ponies in overly-large trench coats or suspicious unicorns twirling thin, black moustaches.

I growled and extended my more arcane senses, but I couldn’t feel anything dark or malicious anywhere nearby. One minute and a short sigh later I closed the window. My behavior hadn’t gone unnoticed by Rarity.

“Are you … all right, Blackstone?” Her expression was worried and somewhat gentle. Like she was afraid of somehow afraid of setting me off again. I briefly debated telling her the full story, but somehow ‘I was being slowly choked into unconsciousness in your boutique by some unknown pony who shouldn’t even know who I am’ sounded more than a little crazy.

I shook my head and gave her a disgruntled shrug. “I thought I felt something. Something more from my end of town than yours, but I can’t tell now.”

Rarity studied me and nodded. “Well, I’m glad it was nothing. After the excitement during your last visit, I would hope things are calmer this time around.”

I sighed. “Me too.” But I had the feeling that they wouldn’t be.

Something or someone wanted me dead, and it was subtle enough that I hadn’t even realized until its third attempt. I snorted, a smoldering anger growing behind my eyes. Not even here. Not even in Equestria could I get a break from all the deadly games people liked to play with my life.

I glared at the peaceful village outside the window. The subtle scent of brimstone tickled the edge of my nose, but I hardly noticed it. I was willing to be patient, willing to wait for their next move, but they had better make it a good one. Because the moment I knew what was going on, the moment I knew who was doing this, I was coming after them.

And hell itself wouldn’t be able to stop me.




Author’s Note: Well, I know my tagline is ‘I make no promises’, but here’s one I will make. None of the following chapters will take as long. Sorry to leave y’all hanging for so long, but on the plus side I did very well on all my tests. Also, to anyone confused that Dresden doesn’t recognize the Doctor after the reference in Strange Friends. I was the one making the reference not Dresden.

Chapter Six

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: frieD195 and SilentCarto
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Six

Twilight fidgeted as she sat in the empty waiting room, accompanied only by years-old copies of Equestria Today, Ponies, and the hideously misnamed magazine that was neither a digest nor aimed at readers. There wasn’t a single magical or scientific journal in the whole room. She had checked. Twice.

She sighed heavily and tried to still herself. There wasn’t anypony else in the room, or even a receptionist at the counter, but there was no way of knowing when somepony would come through the door that lead into the examining rooms. She was on good terms with Colgate, but they weren’t close enough for Twilight to treat this as an informal occasion.

Not that she would have anyway. Dental hygiene was a serious business. Not everypony thought so, but then not everypony had gone their whole life without getting a single cavity. Twilight flinched slightly as she remembered that and started fidgeting again, trying to find the nonexistent sweet spot on her bench. Her no-cavity streak was actually the cause of her nervousness. She feared breaking her perfect record far more than any drills, needles or other implements that Colgate would need to fill the cavity.

At least, that was what she told herself.

Twilight was just in the middle of calculating her average sugar consumption per periods between teeth brushings over the last two months when the door opened up and Colgate stuck her head out.

“Are you ready, Twilight?”

Twilight jumped, a little startled. The office had been so silent that the sound of another pony’s voice was surprising. “Sure,” she replied, trotting over to the door. She passed through and found that the rest of the building was just as quiet and empty as the front. “Where is everypony?”

Colgate shrugged and let the door to the waiting room close behind her. “You’re my only appointment today so it seemed silly to tell anypony to come in for just one patient. I kept the schedule light because I’ve got to leave as soon as we’re done.”

Colgate gestured to one of the chairs while she donned a surgical mask. Twilight settled herself into the seat and reclined it. She was never really comfortable in this position, but then, what pony was? “You’re leaving?”

“Yes. I’m going back home to Canterlot for a while. Not sure when I’ll be back, actually.” The dentist sounded unhappy, maybe even worried, about whatever she had to do. Twilight thought about pressing her for more information, but she quelled her curiosity. Personal matters were none of her business.

“But,” Colgate continued more cheerfully, “I’m here now, and we’ve got some teeth to look at.”

Twilight stretched her mouth open and tried to keep her tongue still as the blue unicorn examined her mouth. For the first few minutes it was the same as always: small talk from Colgate that she wasn’t expected to respond to, some poking around with a small mirror and probe, but then everything went horribly wrong.

“Uh-oh.” Colgate said, her words muffled by her mask. “Looks like we’ve got something here.”

Twilight’s heart began to pound. “Whagh uoo meme by ‘sumting’? Sumting bahd?!” Colgate withdrew her tools, more out of fear of losing them than anything else. Twilight sat up and looked her in the eye. “Give it to me straight, doc. What is it?”

Colgate hesitated, obviously uncomfortable in pushing her patient any further, but with a sigh she gave in. “It’s a cavity.” She raised her fore hooves in a gesture to forestall any panic. “But it’s just a small one. I think we caught it just in time. If I’m right, it hasn’t penetrated the enamel yet. I just need to do a little drilling, and we can patch it right up. It won’t take more than thirty minutes, I promise.”

Twilight slowed her breathing and steeled her nerve. She had known this day would come. She had known that, one terrible day, all her preparations would be for naught. Yet knowing something and living it were two very different things. A cold sweat broke out on her brow despite her best efforts.

The patient’s reaction wasn’t lost on her dentist. “There’s nothing to worry about, I promise. In fact, if you’d like, I know an anti-anxiety spell that works as a pain killer, too. I’ll need to walk you home afterwards, but I guarantee you won’t feel an ounce of pain during the procedure.” She solemnly placed a hoof over her heart. “Dentist’s honor.”

Twilight hesitated for a moment. Drugs and herbal medicine were more reliable than spells when it came to medical procedures. Magic tended to vary not just according to the power and ability of the caster but their condition and emotions regarding the patient. Twilight almost objected, but she stopped herself. Colgate was a professional; treating her like anything less would be an insult.

The scholar nodded her assent, but couldn’t help wincing when she felt Colgate’s horn touch her temple. The spell was complex, and the dentist took her time preparing it. Twilight was at once both grateful that Colgate was willing to take her time and do the spell correctly, and silently cursing every second of rising tension. But she held herself in check and carefully lowered her defenses. It was difficult in her current mental state, but Colgate’s spell was a delicate one. If Twilight didn’t suppress her innate resistance there was little chance of it succeeding.

Then a surge of power registered to her arcane senses and the spell took hold. Twilight shook for a second and closed her eyes. When she reopened them, the world seemed to have changed. Everything was distant, unimportant. It felt as though her mind had been partially disconnected from the rest of her. Her thoughts were moving slower, too; their hurried pace turning into a leisurely stroll. Twilight turned to Colgate and felt herself say, “It’s a bit strong, isn’t it?” The words were mildly slurred, but somehow she found that she didn’t really care.

Colgate gave her a sheepish grin in response. “Sorry, it’s a new spell, so I’m still getting the hang of it.” Twilight tried to frown, but there was no real anger behind the expression. While, yes, she had played a Charm Test Dummy for Colgate, she couldn’t honestly claim that she had never done the same thing to anypony else.

Colgate quickly changed the topic. “So, I didn’t know you had a coltfriend, Twilight. Is he an old flame from Canterlot?”

That, at least, struck a chord, and Twilight had to cover her startled expression with a fit of coughing. The blush that colored her cheeks, though, was impossible to hide. “You mean Dre− Blackstone?!” That had been close. She needed to watch herself. Fortunately, Colgate didn’t seem to have noticed the slip.

“No, I mean the other handsome stallion you brought back to the library with a load of camping gear.” Colgate winked and nudged the prone unicorn. “Were you two having a little getaway in the forest together?”

Even through the haze in her mind Twilight understood the implications of Colgate’s question. Her blush turned crimson in response. It wasn’t difficult to see how it may have looked to her. Hopefully, it had been too dark for anypony else to have seen what she had been carrying when they entered Ponyville or the rumors would already be flying.

“N-no. Nothing like that. We’re just friends, colleagues in a way. We were researching the ruins left from the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters.” Twilight sighed. “Not that I’d turn him down if he ever asked me on a date, but I don’t think he feels that way about me.” Wait. What did I just say? Not that it wasn’t true, but she hadn’t meant to share that with Colgate.

Twilight was too busy composing her thoughts to notice the long silence on Colgate’s part. After a moment the dentist spoke in a teasing tone, “So where did you find him anyway? I don’t remember seeing him at the university.”

“I’m not surprised. Blackstone never went to any university.”

Colgate looked curious. “Really? I would have thought an archeologist would have studied at Canterlot or at least Manehatten U. Is he self-taught?”

Twilight groaned and internally cursed herself. She searched for a proper explanation but the harder she thought the more her mind seemed to cloud. Twilight was facing the wrong direction to see the glow of Colgate’s horn or the intent expression on her face.

Better to say something than nothing though, right? “He’s not an archeologist, just interested in the castle. You know, details on the Princesses, old magic and such. I’ve been studying with him and some of the things he knows are just fascinating. Most of his abilities are a little violent for my tastes, but I still wouldn’t mind learning some of them.”

“So is he actually more powerful than you? I thought you were one of the strongest unicorns around, given that you’re the Element of Magic and the Princess’s protégé.”

Colgate sounded worried, so Twilight hastened to reassure her. Her speech was a more slurred than it had been a few minutes ago, but she didn’t let that slow her down. “Nah, if you’re talking pure magic we’re about equal. The difference is a matter of experience and training and because he’s actually from outside our −”, wait I can’t say that, “I mean from, uh, outside Equestria. He’s a, umm, foreign pony.”

Colgate was silent for a minute, and Twilight’s feeling of dizziness shortly increased. It felt like she’d entered that semi-delusional state that came from one too many nights of long studying and not enough sleep. She giggled softly and wondered just how exactly Dresden’s spell let him cross into the Nevernever. Celestia had refused outright to teach her that magic just yet, and Twilight had reluctantly seen her point. Still, she had a decent idea of the mechanics after her mentor’s explanation on the nature of the Nevernever. Maybe I could do it if …

Colgate coughed softly, interrupting the strange calculations and wild theorems Twilight had been playing with. “So what kind of magic is his special talent? You said it was kind of violent?”

Twilight nodded. “I don’t know what his cutie mark means if that’s what you’re asking but if I had to guess, I’d say battle magic. He specializes in channeling energy, although given that he seems to mainly use it in an explosive manner, waves of force, gales of wind, torrents of flame and other such things, my opinion may well be justified. In fact, he fought all six of us to a standstill during his last visit.”

“All six of us?” Colgate echoed, her voice confused. Then understanding and horror dawned on her at precisely the same time. “You mean he was equal to the combined power of the Elements of Harmony?!”

Twilight giggled again. “Not like that. You make him sound like some sort of demonic archmage.” She paused, reflecting in a dazed sort of way. “Which I guess he kind of was there for a while. But we zapped him with the Elements and now everything is hunky-dory again!”

Twilight rambled on talking about how Dresden had used the power of Harmony to destroy the demon that had possessed him, but Colgate had already fled the room to send a hurried, almost panicked, message to the rest of the Order.

Twilight continued, completely oblivious to the fact that her audience was gone and that there seemed to be strangely little dental work going on for a trip to the dentist. Eventually she reached the end of her monologue. “…and that’s the story of everything that’s happened since Dresden came back for his medal ceremony. So what do you think, Colgate?” In the silence she realized she was alone in the room. “Colgate?”

There was still no answer. Twilight thought about standing up and finding her dentist and confronting her over this outright dereliction of duty, but the something told her that wouldn’t be a good idea. Probably the intense vertigo, though the shaky knees might have had something to do with it, too.

Instead she just raised her voice. “Colgate! Paging Dr. Colgate! Get back here before I change from patient to impatient!” Twilight giggled again, partly at her joke, but mostly because she could hear the clatter of hooves as Colgate rushed back to the examining room.

Colgate came back in, her mane ruffled and a forced smile on her face. “Sorry, about that Twilight. Somepony knocked on the door so I left to answer it. Did you say anything else about Ob− uh, Blackstone while I was gone?”

Twilight narrowed her eyes and pouted. “Why are you so interested in him?” Colgate broke out in a cold sweat as Twilight pointed an accusing, though wobbly, hoof at her. “Are you looking for a new coltfriend, hmm? Because he wasn’t very impressed with you last night.”

The dentist forced herself to calm down, breathing deeply. Twilight didn’t know her real interest in the matter. But then a puzzled expression crossed her face. “What do you mean he wasn’t very impressed?”

Twilight lowered her hoof and shrugged. “He glared at you out the window when you left and asked a couple of questions about you at dinner.” Colgate’s face grew pale, the blood draining from it. Twilight failed to notice. “I asked why, but he wouldn’t say. He just mumbled something about you acting funny.”

Twilight turned to her dentist and glared. “But none of all this talking is getting my cavity filled. I’m as desensitized to the pain as I’m gonna get, so let’s have at the evil little thing.” She flopped back into the chair and opened her mouth expectantly.

Colgate took her time in coming over and some distant, unimportant corner of Twilight’s mind noticed that she was no longer wearing any of the proper hygienic gear for an operation. Instead she was holding a cup of something in a shaky telekinetic field.

“Actually I think I might have made that spell a little too strong. If you drink this it should reduce the effects a little.”

Twilight almost refused it outright. Mixing magic and herbal remedies was always a chancy undertaking. But the dizziness was still getting worse, and her mind was starting to ache. She eyed the light green liquid warily, and glanced at Colgate. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Colgate nodded. “I’m more certain now than ever.”

Twilight drained the cup in one quick gulp.

………

“So what do we do now?”

“I dunno. She ain’t movin’.”

“Maybe we should poke her with a stick?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sweetie Belle said. “Opal wouldn’t like that.”

The three fillies stared at the snoozing cat, weighing their options. Apple Bloom was worried that Rarity, and more importantly Applejack, would be mad at them. Sweetie Belle was more worried about what Opal would do to them if they interrupted her nap. Scootaloo had simpler problems.

“I don’t see any good poking sticks. Do you think somepony already took all of them?”

The earth pony and unicorn gave their friend a matched set of skeptical looks. “Who’d take a buncha sticks, Scoots? Do you know anypony that crazy?”

Scootaloo opened her mouth to reply, but she was interrupted when a pink pony tangled up in climbing ropes dropped out of the tree above them. “Was somepony talking about me?” Pinkie asked, her saddlebags stuffed with sticks.

The three fillies teetered on the edge between shock and laughter. Pinkie pulled herself out of the mountaineer’s apparatus with an audible ‘pop’ and grinned at them. “Because my ears were burning and that means somepony’s talking about ol’ Pinkie Pie.”

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle started giggling, but Scootaloo was still confused. “What do you need all of those sticks for? “

Pinkie winked at her. “Bob may have passed the one stick test, but to get the Pinkie seal of approval, he needs to go through the ultimate trial. The hundred stick gauntlet!” Pinkie turned and trotted off, as though that explained everything, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders hurried to follow her. Not that this was potentially any less dangerous than what they had been about to do, but it was almost guaranteed to be more entertaining.

“Wait!” Sweetie Belle yelled trying to keep up with the happily bouncing Pinkie. “Who’s Bob?”

“Oh, he’s nobody.”

Apple Bloom was confused. “Don’tcha mean ‘nopony’?”

Pinkie shook her head. “Nope, he can’t be a nopony, because he’s not a pony.” She paused and frowned. “But if he’s not a pony does that make him a ‘nopony’ by definition? Does my denial of his existence supersede his lack of ponyhood?” She stopped suddenly and sat down, and the Crusaders piled into each other trying not to run into her. Pinkie stroked her chin with one hoof and nodded.

“Bob is both a nobody and a nopony.” She turned around to find the three fillies sprawled out in a dog pile. “Come on! We’ve got to get to Rarity’s shop. I promised Blackstone I’d show him how to get to Fluttershy’s house.”

Scootaloo dug herself out from underneath her two friends and dusted off her coat. “Who?” she asked.

Pinkie giggled. “You three are starting to sound like Owlowiscious. Blackstone is a new pony in town. He’s getting an outfit made at Rarity’s. I’d love to stick around and tell you more, but I’m running short on time. I don’t even have all of the decorations for his ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party yet.” Her hair drooped slightly. “I may even have to cut a few corners on some of the baking to get it all done in time.”

The Crusaders pondered that for a moment while they followed the bounding earth pony. The tiny gears in their heads began to turn, and all three of them reached the same conclusion at about the same time. Scootaloo raced ahead of her friends and gave Pinkie her best grin. “What if we showed Blackstone how get to Fluttershy’s?”

Pinkie grinned and her mane poofed out to its full volume. “Could you really? That would help out so much!”

Apple Bloom cleared her throat. “But ya know, that would take some hard work right there. Such hard-workin’ fillies deserve a little somethin’ fer their trouble, don’t they?”

The party pony eyed the filly carefully. “Well played. I’ll pay to the tune of three cookies of your choice.”

Apple Bloom shook her head. “I dunno. That’s sounds like an awful lot of walkin’ fer one cookie apiece. How ‘bout three apiece?”

Pinkie gasped. “That’s highway robbery and you know it! I won’t go higher than four cookies.”

Apple Bloom looked at her pleadingly. “I’ve got three hungry fillies to feed and you’re offering me only four cookies? I thought we were friends, Pinkie. A friend wouldn’t give me anything less than eight cookies.”

“Six cookies, and I don’t tell any of your sisters about you three trying to earn your cutie marks in extortion. That’s my final offer.”

“Deal!” All three fillies chimed.

“Well then, later gators! I’ve got a party to plan and cookies to bake. See you at the party tonight!” Pinkie leapt in the air, yelled ‘Meep, meep!’ and dashed off at pace that would have broken a lesser pony.

The Crusaders watched her go, then erupted into chatter so loud that none of them could hear their own words, much less what anypony else was saying. In the end they managed to get organized and trotted back to the park to find their transport.

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle piled into the small wagon, singing a little nonsense song about what kind of cookies they would get. Scootaloo joined in now and then, but mainly she focused on getting her wings revved and ready to roll.

It was ten minutes, four verses, a heated argument, and four revised verses later that the Crusaders finally arrived at Carousel Boutique. Sweetie Belle marched up to the door, but stopped when she noticed that the sign had been flipped from ‘Open’ to ‘Closed’.

“Why’s she closed?” Apple Bloom asked. “Pinkie said Mr. Blackstone was here.”

“Well, somepony’s in there. I can hear talking.”

All three fillies fell silent, an act that would have amazed anypony who knew them, and pressed their ears to the door to listen in.

“Must you be so rough?” That voice was unmistakable. Rarity sounded like she was wincing, and Sweetie could just imagine the face her older sister was making.

A response came from a gruff, male baritone. “Sorry, but I don’t have a lot of practice. Just have a little patience, I’ll improve.” The stallion, probably Blackstone, sounded frustrated.

Rarity huffed, and the Crusaders could tell she was frustrated as well. “You can start improving now. Don’t just shove it in forcefully, line it up carefully and move gently.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll try it your way.” Then his voice rose to a shout and they could hear an exasperated anger in it. “And I swear to everything holy that if you don’t stop giggling, Bob, I will make your miserable little life a nightmare.”

Three pairs of eyes went as wide as saucers. The mysterious Bob was here, too!? There was a brief scuffle to see who could open the door first, and all three of them burst into the room trying to spot the elusive ‘nopony’.

Instead they found a tall, black unicorn holding a needle and spool in an orange-red aura. He was sewing a strange pattern into a long coat. The crusaders stopped and stared for a moment. Not only was he using a thick, black thread, one that Sweetie knew wasn’t for decoration, he was sewing the odd shapes into the coat’s lining where nopony would even see them. Rarity was watching him with concern from several feet away, just on the other side of a blue ribbon on the floor. The band of fabric lay in a wide circle around the weird stallion and the mannequine he was working from.

The black unicorn reacted quickly, his body tensing, and his horn charging with power as the door slammed open. For a brief moment Sweetie feared he was going to turn them in toads − or worse, bugs! − but when he saw it was only three little fillies he seemed to relax. Rarity reacted somewhat more melodramatically.

“Goodness, Sweetie Belle! There is no reason to treat the entrance to my Boutique that way. And didn’t you three see the ‘Closed’ sign? I’m in the middle of a very important session with Mister Blackstone.”

Sweetie Belle cringed. Interrupting Rarity when she was with a client was one of the shop’s cardinal sins. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were less than daunted, though. “But we heard Blackstone yelling at Bob!”

Blackstone’s eyes narrowed with suspicion and Rarity’s expression twisted in disgust. The stallion stepped over the ribbon, and Sweetie Belle felt a strange sensation, almost like a soap bubble popping. She didn’t have long to consider the feeling, though because Blackstone was towering over them. All three fillies stared up at him; he hadn’t looked that big just a few seconds ago. Rarity stood beside him, more distraught now than she had been when they had crashed through the front door only moments before.

Blackstone fixed the three of them in place with a piercing stare. “And how did you three hear about Bob?” The tone wasn’t angry, but something told Sweetie that they had better have a good answer for him. She wasn’t the best filly in her class when it came to magic, but even she could feel the power that radiated off the sharp-edged mage. Twilight was the same way when she was angry, and to a lesser extent so was Rarity, but there was something very different about this stallion.

“P-pinkie Pie. She mentioned him,” Sweetie Belle stammered.

“Of course she did,” Blackstone sighed, an annoyed expression settling on his face. His eyes stopped flickering like smoldering embers, calming down to something brighter yet more tired. Somehow, without moving an inch, he stopped looming and became just a tall, thin unicorn again. Sweetie looked him over, confused by the transformation. He was still just as big and strong, so why wasn’t he scary anymore? He glanced down at them. “Can you tell me what she said about him?”

“She said he’s a ‘nopony’!” Scootaloo said, eager to join in now that he’d stopped being so intimidating.

“That ain’t what she said,” Apple Bloom cut in. “She said he’s a ‘nobody’!”

The two of them seemed spoiling for a fight, and Sweetie was about to turn the impending brawl into a free-for-all by reminding them that Pinkie had really said he was a ‘nopony’ and a ‘nobody’ when they were interrupted by a chuckle from Blackstone.

“That’d be him, all right.”

Rarity looked relieved and gave the three Crusaders a warm smile. “Thank Celestia. But where are my manners? Girls, this is Mister Blackstone. He is my friend and a friend to the rest of the girls as well. Blackstone, these adorable little miscreants are my younger sister Sweetie Belle,” Sweetie Belle remembered just in time to curtsey as she was introduced, “Applejack’s sister Apple Bloom…” Apple Bloom stuck her hoof out in unknowing imitation of her older sibling, and Blackstone shook it with a small smile. “And their friend Scootaloo.”

The orange pegasus was staring at the black unicorn in mild confusion, her gaze alternating between his neck and flanks. After her introduction she spoke, “Why does your necklace match your cutie mark?” Sweetie and Apple Bloom glanced in surprise at Blackstone’s backside, and the small unicorn wondered how she could have missed something like that for so long. Hanging around the stallion’s neck and emblazoned upon his flank was a silver star made of overlapping lines contained within a circle.

“Didja get it for gettin’ your cutie mark?” Apple Bloom asked. Sweetie Belle didn’t think that was likely. She’d never heard of a pony getting jewelry that looked like their cutie mark before. Rarity had said that the Element of Generosity looked like one of her diamonds, but that was different.

Blackstone snorted. “I’ve had this my entire life. If anything, my ‘cutie mark’ is based on it, not the other way around.” The necklace certainly looked old enough, the silver tarnished from age and scarred by hard use. It resembled its owner in a lot of ways; both of them were strange, sturdy and just a little disfigured.

“Your whole life?” Scootaloo asked doubtfully. “Who gives jewelry to a baby? Especially a colt?”

Blackstone rolled his eyes. “It’s not jewelry. It’s a pentacle, a tool for channeling magic and casting spells.”

“Wow! I don’t know anypony other than Twilight who’s got anything like that!” Sweetie said. She wished she had something that made magic easier. “Who gave it to you?”

Blackstone’s ears folded back slightly, and his voice turned cross. “It was a gift from my mother. Now, sorry to cut your game of twenty questions short, but I’ve still got some work to do on my coat.” The black stallion turned away, his posture tense, and stepped back into his circle of ribbon.

Rarity winced as he took up his needle and thread again. “Are you certain I can’t help? You’re doing very well given your lack of … expertise, but there’s always room for improvement.” Sweetie was surprised that she was letting Blackstone alter her clothes at all. Normally she’d have a fit if anypony else laid a hoof on her designs. Not that she’s too far from one right now, Sweetie thought watching as her sister’s left eye began to twitch ever so slightly.

Blackstone shook his head, focused on his work. “Sorry, I’ve got to do this myself. Not only do you not know the spells I’m putting into the coat, but you don’t know any of the symbols I’m using to tie it all together. Don’t worry, I’ll be done in another twenty minutes, tops.”

“But we promised Pinkie we’d take you ta Fluttershy’s!” Apple Bloom said.

Blackstone frowned and his expression turned skeptical. “Really? She’s too busy to come herself? What, was there a pastry emergency down at the bakery?”

“Pretty much,” Scootaloo chimed in, “how’d you know?”

The black unicorn just stared at them a second more before sighing in defeat and turning back to his work. But Sweetie heard him mumble something that sounded like, “These life-forms appear to be immune to sarcasm, Captain.”

Rarity ignored his odd reaction and gave the fillies another smile. “That’s wonderful that you three were willing to help her out. That was very kind of you.” Sweetie’s smile became a little forced at that, but Rarity was still talking. “Let’s see if we can get Mr. Blackstone to let you live up to that promise.”

“You know, I’m literally five feet away. I can hear you talking about me.”

Rarity gave him a sidelong glance. “That was rather the point of it, darling.”

Blackstone snorted, before using his teeth to clip the end of one thread. “No dice. I’m not any good with kids.”

“Then it’s a good thing we aren’t goats.” Sweetie said, grinning up at him.

The black unicorn chuckled. “Okay that one was decent, I’ll give that to you.” He paused seeming to consider something. “I guess you three could show me the way, but you’ll have to wait’ll I’m done.”

Rarity sighed. “I suppose that coat is a lost cause by this point. Still, at least promise me that you won’t do anything to the waistcoat once I’ve finished it.” Blackstone opened his mouth to respond, but Rarity cut him off. “And that you will come to the spa with Fluttershy once Mouse is cured.”

“I don’t do spas.” The stallion grumbled, but there was a hint of desperation to it. Almost a plea.

“You do now. “ Rarity told him. Blackstone’s shoulders slumped, and it was all the Crusaders could do not to laugh at him. There might have been a few giggles, but for the most part they managed. Sweetie didn’t think Blackstone noticed.

“Can I ask you a question, Mr. Blackstone?” Apple Bloom said.

“You just did,” he replied. He was facing away from them, but Sweetie Belle thought she could see the curve of a smile return to his face.

“That ain’t what I meant,” the farm filly declared, pouting heavily.

The black unicorn chuckled and nodded. “Sure, but I can’t promise I’ll give you a straight answer.” The statement made the three more curious than ever. Who was this strange stallion? He’d shown up out of nowhere, but Rarity, Pinkie and apparently all their friends already knew him, even though they’d never mentioned him before. The whole thing was more mysterious than one of the Hardy Colts novels, and now he practically told them up front that he was keeping secrets from them.

All of a sudden, the three of them had even more questions, but Apple Bloom managed to get hers out first. “What kinda special talent does that there magic tentacle represent?”

Blackstone turned to look at them, horror and resignation warring for control of his expression. A ghostly chuckle echoed around the room, seeming to come from nowhere. The Crusaders squeaked in fear and huddled together, trying to spot just where the sinister sound was coming from. Rarity looked up from her work with a scowl of disapproval, but otherwise seemed unperturbed by the evidence that her boutique was haunted.

Blackstone was kneading his forehead with one hoof, muttering angrily. “Why the hell does this happen so damn often? Somebody up there has got to be having a laugh at my expense.” His voice rose and he addressed the room. “One more time, Bob. Just once more and I’ll give you to Pinkie Pie and tell her to go wild.”

The laugh cut off with a grumpy harrumph, and the three fillies slowly loosened their grips on each other. Blackstone cleared his throat, bringing their attention back to him. “It’s a Pentacle, not a tentacle, Miss Bloom.”

“O-okay.” The small earth pony said. She glanced nervously around the room and asked in a whisper, “Is Bob a ghost?”

“Nope.” Blackstone said with a finality that clearly spelled the end for that line of inquiry. He turned back around, picking up needle and thread again. “Next question?”

“So what does your pentacle mean?” Sweetie asked.

“Not sure. If you take the most general meaning it would be magic, but there could be more to it than that. The pentacle represents the five elements bound by will.”

“Like the Elements ‘a Harmony?” Apple Bloom interrupted. “There’s six of ‘em, not five!”

Blackstone shook his head. “No, I’m talking about the five basic elements.” The Crusaders shared a glance, but none of them betrayed any sign of recognition. Blackstone tried again. “You know, the forces of nature.” They just stared at him. “The five areas of magic upon which the entire universe is founded?”

“Ohhhh,” Sweetie Belle said, nodding her head. “Now I get it.” The other fillies nodded with her, apparently sharing in her realization.

Blackstone snorted, and gave them a flat stare. “No, you don’t.”

All three of them shrugged. It had been worth a try.

The black unicorn continued talking, suddenly reminding them of Twilight Sparkle as he lectured. “The five elements are Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Spirit, and all forms of magic are based on at least one of them. Sometimes the connection isn’t obvious, like entropy magic being based on water, but it’s there. Each of the five points on a pentacle represents one of those elements, and the lines that connect them are the harmonious flows between them. The circle is a symbol of control, the containment of magic within the will of a practitioner. Although, in all honesty, I have no idea just what my ‘special talent’ is, nor do I really care.”

His explanation had produced a couple of discreet yawns, but his last sentence immediately grabbed the Crusaders’ attention. “What do you mean you don’t care?! Your cutie mark is one of the most important things a pony has. Everypony knows their special talent, it’s what makes you you.” Scootaloo shouted.

Blackstone continued working, seemly unconcerned by their distress. When he finally responded, his tone was skeptical. “That’s ridiculous. Last time I checked, everypony here has free will and the ability to do what they want. Pinkie works as a baker even though her talent is partying, Twilight pulls librarian duty despite her mark having diddly squat to do with books, and Rarity is a seamstress, not a jeweler.” He grinned as he pulled the needle through another loop. “To steal a line from another wizard, ‘It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities’.”

The sudden truth and depth of his response floored the fillies. They sat back on their haunches in silence, considering his words of wisdom.

For a grand total of five seconds.

Then they were more than eager to give a rebuttal, all of them at once. It lasted a few minutes, mainly consisting of various repetitions of four key points: Easy for him to say when he already had a cutie mark, and they’d worked really hard to earn their own, and their special talents were going to be awesome, and they’d already waited too darn long to get them. Rarity ignored them with practiced ease, and Blackstone managed to tune them out after a while, too.

Without attention their rant slowed to a crawl and finally collapsed into silence. A minute or two of precious quiet followed while they watched Blackstone work.

“So what’re you doin’ anyway?” Apple Bloom asked.

“Enchanting my coat.” Blackstone replied. “If I’ve done it right, this thing will be rip-proof, fire-proof, water-proof, magic-proof and bullet-proof.”

Rarity turned to look at him quizzically. “What was that last one?”

“Magic-proof,” he repeated. Sweetie Belle didn’t think that was what he had actually said, but he was already rushing into the rest of his explanation. “Though magic-resistant would be more accurate. The symbols hold most of the power, but I’ve poured magic into the thread as well, reinforcing and focusing the patterns’ energy. It should, emphasis on should, be as strong as chain mail.”

“That’s amazing!” Sweetie exclaimed.

Blackstone gave a short laugh at that. “It’s a just a quick jury-rig. I’ll be lucky if it survives more than a couple of sunrises. Give me some time and the proper materials, and I’d show you three some enchantments worth getting excited over.”

“Then why did you make it?” Scootaloo asked, blinking in confusion.

The dark unicorn hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “I’m just more comfortable with a little insurance.” When that statement was met with puzzled looks, he added, “Not everypony likes me.”

Sweetie wondered if that addendum was supposed to make sense, or if he was playing with them again. She didn’t have long to ponder though, because Blackstone pulled the needle out one last time and announced, “Done.”

“As am I.” Rarity replied, holding up a thick, black band on which five silver rings were sewn. “It’s elastic, so it should keep your rings held firmly in place.” She stepped through the circle of ribbon and carefully fitted it onto one of Blackstone’s hooves. Then she levitated a black bag filled with something roughly spherical to his coat and tied it on. “And there’s that,” she said with no small amount of distaste in her tone.

“So can we go now?” Scootaloo asked. Blackstone was interesting and all but he couldn’t hold a candle to the thought of freshly baked cookies. Both of the adults in the room ignored her outburst.

“Hurry along to Fluttershy’s,” Rarity said, “and don’t forget your promise. I’m going to finish your waistcoat, then talk to Aloe and Lotus about your manecut.”

Blackstone sighed, then straightened his shoulders and gave her a bow like a fencer who’s met his match. “Rarity, thou art a beauty most cruel and terrible.”

The white unicorn laughed gently and gave him a mock curtsey in response. “You flatter me most dreadfully, my fine gentlecolt, but I think you should get going before your charges become too impatient.”

Sweetie pouted, an expression mirrored by her friends. They weren’t impatient! They were just ready to go while certain other ponies were busy being silly. At last, Blackstone and Rarity said their good-byes and he followed the Crusaders out of the Boutique clad in his new coat. Sweetie thought it was way too hot to be wearing something like that, but Blackstone didn’t seem to mind it.

They’d just left the building when Apple Bloom spotted Miss Cheerilee and waved at her. Their teacher looked their way and started to wave back, then suddenly paused with a stunned look on her face. Breaking out in a bright grin, she crossed the road to say hello instead.

“Good afternoon, girls. What are you three up to, today?”

Apple Bloom swelled with pride. “We’re showin’ Mr. Blackstone how to get ta Fluttershy’s cause he needs to…” She stopped, and turned to the black unicorn. “Why are we going there again?”

Blackstone cleared his throat. “I want her to take a look at my dog, Mouse. He’s not feeling well.” His voice and expression were odd; both of them polite but guarded. Sweetie wondered why he’d talk like that, but then it hit her. They hadn’t introduced them yet!

“Oh yeah! Mr. Blackstone, this is Miss Cheerilee. She’s our teacher. And this is Mr. Blackstone, Miss Cheerilee. He’s Rarity’s friend.”

“Charmed.” Cheerilee replied, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. “If you don’t mind me asking, though, are you Rarity’s friend or…” She left the sentence hanging and the Crusaders tried to figure out what she meant. They didn’t have much luck.

Blackstone, however, seemed know exactly what she meant. He coughed and averted his eyes. It was hard to tell because of his dark coat, but Sweetie thought he was blushing. “I’m just a friend. My old coat didn’t fit anymore, and Rarity was kind enough to accept a rush order for a new one.”

“She did a wonderful job.” Cheerilee agreed, looking over the coat and its wearer with unabashed interest. Though, she did linger more on the unclothed portions than the coat itself, much to Blackstone’s embarrassment.

“Yeah, and Blackstone entranced the coat, too. We had to sit around while he was sewing and putting spells in it and everything.” Scootaloo offered.

“That’s enchanted, dear.” Cheerilee corrected gently, before turning to Blackstone with a smile that looked almost … hungry. “You must be quite accomplished at magic then. If it’s not too much trouble, could I ask you to come by the schoolhouse sometime this week and give a lesson? I’m afraid we don’t have many magic teachers for our little unicorns. Any help you could provide would be invaluable, Mr. Blackstone.” She leaned forward ever so slightly as she spoke and the object of her interest grew ever tenser as she did.

Blackstone was at a loss for words for a moment, but eventually he managed to speak. “I’m afraid I won’t be here in Ponyville for very long, but I’ll see if I can spare the time.”

Cheerilee’s smile grew wider and she flicked her tail, drawing attention to the sway of her hips as she turned to leave. “I hope to see you soon, then, Mr. Blackstone.”

Blackstone managed not stare, but it brought a blush to his cheeks that even his coloring couldn’t hide. He sighed in relief as the schoolteacher left them. Until he noticed the huge grins of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. They had finally gotten the gist of their teacher’s conversation, and found Blackstone’s discomfort nothing short of hilarious.

“Awww, do you like Miss Cheerilee?” Scootaloo teased, between laughs.

“Not any of your business, short stuff.”

Sweetie gasped and her eyes lit up. “Do you want to be her special somepony?”

“That’s enough.”

“Are you two gonna get hitched?” Apple Bloom asked, still shaking with laughter.

Blackstone gave them a look, and replied scathingly, “I don’t know. Are you three going to pick up on a hint delivered with anything less obvious than a sledgehammer?” He began to stalk away angrily, muttering as he went. “I doubt you bunch could figure out the meaning of ‘subtle’ if you had a dictionary.”

He moved in the direction of the market place, ignoring just about everything and everypony in his path. The Crusaders hurried to catch up with him, but he had a head start and much longer legs. They were just outside the market when the three fillies finally reached him.

Blackstone stopped outside of the busy bazaar and frowned down at the winded fillies beside him. His eyes betrayed a flicker of concern, and he waited for them to get their breath back. Sweetie sat up and wiped the sweat off her brow. She turned around, planning to give Blackstone a piece of her mind for leaving them behind, but instead she gave him a scream of terror.

Blackstone spun to face the huge, heavy cart. It was the kind of vehicle that would have taken two stallions the size of Big Macintosh to pull, and it was bearing down on them at a breakneck pace with a sickly yellow glow, likely the evidence of a spell gone wrong, surrounding its wheels. There was a gasp from the marketplace crowd as the cart closed the scant distance.

The Crusaders were frozen in terror, and only one thin unicorn stood between them and certain destruction. Blackstone’s eyes flashed with a terrible anger, and his horn erupted into furious light. A lime green shield flared to life, surrounding the Crusaders even as Blackstone cast his spell.

Forzare!” he bellowed, slamming his right hoof into the ground in front of him. There was a crunch unlike anything Sweetie had ever heard, and before her eyes the cart was destroyed.

No, that didn’t quite capture what had happened. The cart had been about ten feet from turning them into pony pancakes when it was slammed to the ground by an invisible force so powerful that it turned the heavy-duty vehicle into kindling and made a shallow crater in the street beneath it.

The barrier surrounding the three trembling fillies vanished, and they, along with everypony in the market, were stunned into silence.

The faint smell of sulfur hung in the air as Blackstone inspected his hoofiwork. “Oops. I might’ve put a little too much into that one.”

Chapter Seven

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Seven

At first there was only silence after I destroyed it. Wincing, I braced myself for what was to follow. Usually the shock takes a while to set in, but once it does, then comes the fear.

There’s a reason why so many storybook villains are wizards. We deal in forces and powers that normal people can’t even imagine. We can do the impossible, leaving them to gape in wonder or horror at what magic hath wrought. People fear us not for what we do, but what we could do. And that fear leads to hatred for making them feel small and afraid.

Magic might be common here in Equestria, but I doubted that what I had done fit even a loose definition of ‘normal’. The thick smell of brimstone from the Hellfire that kept turbo-charging my spells didn’t help. Still, at least it was more likely to be a cold shoulder and mild cowering than outright panic, if I was judging Ponyville right.

“Did you see that!?” screamed somepony in the market, his voice shrill. So much for the hope that things would work out quietly.

I ground my teeth together and felt a hiss of frustration slip out between them. I still wasn’t comfortable running in this form, but it looked like I was about to get some serious practice.

“He just saved those fillies!”

Maybe I can claim sanctuary in the library − wait. What?

I was quickly surrounded by a teeming mob, but instead of greeting me with torches and pitchforks, they did it with cheers and energetic hoofshakes. In short order they treated me to more compliments and pleased introductions than I’d gotten in the past three months. I flushed, uncomfortable with all of the attention, but it was better than what I had expected. Equestria had a way of doing that.

I spotted a familiar-looking Stetson forcing its way through the crowd, collecting a fair share of sharp glances. Applejack burst from the throng and wrapped me in hug that cracked at least three of the vertebrae in my neck.

“Well ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?!” she exclaimed, putting even more pressure into the embrace. I responded with just as much enthusiasm and decorum.

“Jesus! My neck!” Okay, so maybe it was difficult to be polite with the blood being cut off from my brain.

The farmpony let me go and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry ‘bout that, partner. I was just tickled pink to see you, even before you saved Apple Bloom. Me n’ the girls wanted to thank you.” The three fillies, having apparently made good use of the path Applejack had cleared for them, popped up beside her, their faces sporting enormous grins.

“That was amazing!” Scootaloo yelled, staring at me with stars in her eyes. “You act so weird, I never would have thought you’d be almost as awesome as Rainbow Dash!”

Wow, thanks kid.

“If you hadn’t been there that cart woulda smashed us flatter than a flapjack. Thank you, Mister Blackstone.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle piped in. “I don’t think anypony else could have done that, especially not with the shield, too!” She was wrong there; plenty of wizards, and I’d be willing to bet more than a few unicorns, could have gotten the job done. I’d just done it in one of the more flashy ways possible. It took a second, though, for the full impact of her statement to sink in.

“Wait a minute.” I said, focusing on the last comment. “What shield?”

Applejack and all three of the Crusaders frowned, their expressions confused. “The shield you put ‘round us when you were dealin’ with the cart.” Apple Bloom said.

“I never put up a shield.” I turned to Applejack, hoping that she’d had a clear view. “What color was it? Was anypony in the crowd using magic?” I kept my voice low, but I probably didn’t need to worry. The murmur of the crowd around us was already an unintelligible mess; I doubt our voices stuck out all that much.

Applejack brought a hoof to her chin and rubbed it. She frowned as she thought back, and I tapped my hoof impatiently while I waited for the results. “You know. It does seem funny that it was green when the light coming off your horn was red, but I didn’t see nopony else doing magic so I thought it was you. I couldn’t see the whole marketplace, but you’d figger that somepony woulda spotted ’em an’ said somethin’. O’ course, maybe they just don’t like attention, or they felt silly because they weren’t needed.”

Both of those explanations were plausible, especially if you thought it had only been an accident, but I suspected otherwise. Back home there were entropy curses that could give you a fatal case of bad luck, but I hadn’t felt anything like that, and an entropy curse subtle enough to avoid my notice wouldn’t be strong enough to give you more than a stubbed toe. Or hoof, whatever. No, I was positive that every 'accident' had been carefully orchestrated.

That was a bit of relief, since entropy curses that strong also tended to do a lot of collateral damage, but the flipside of that coin made my blood boil. The girls had been used as bait, as an anchor to ensure that I didn’t just run. Whoever my mystery assailant was, he or she wasn’t afraid to endanger my friends, even if they stopped short of actively seeking to harm them.

But why were they trying to kill me in the first place? Who were they? How could I find them? I briefly entertained the thought of one of my enemies from back home being behind all of this nonsense, but the keyword there was ‘briefly’. Even if one of them had somehow followed me without being detected, they wouldn’t have pussyfooted around like this. Or bothered to protect the Crusaders. Everything pointed to a pony, or ponies, that had a grudge against me, and me alone. But that just left me with more questions and zero answers. I needed to figure out what was going on, and fast. My assassin clearly wasn’t an expert, but he only had to get it right once.

Applejack cleared her throat, and interrupted my musings. “I hate to run out on ya, but I’ve got to get back to my stand. Them apples ain’t goin’ to sell themselves. I’ll leave you to your fanclub for now, but come on over when they’re done with you.” She dragged all three little fillies with her, ignoring their pleas and shouts that they wanted to hang out with me a little longer.

Fanclub? I thought. Then I noticed the crowd still around me. Most of the stallions, all of them actually, had wandered off. The only ponies surrounding me now were mares, and they were all watching me, covertly or openly, with flushed faces and intent expressions. For all the variations between them, each pony was very clearly conveying one emotion: desire.

All of sudden it hit me. Ye gods, I’m the pony version of Thomas.

There was no comfortable way to come to that realization, but the evidence was indisputable. Rarity’s warnings (or compliments, from her point of view) had sounded unbelievable, and I was willing to write off that meeting with the teacher as an anomaly, but the point had been driven home at the marketplace.

I kneaded my forehead with one hoof while my razor-sharp deductive skills lumbered into action. Only two possibilities came to mind. Option one: the current me, despite being a moderately accurate analogue to my real form, fulfilled the equine stereotype of ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ by pure chance. I hoped that was the case, because option two was less pleasant. Among other horrors, it meant Bob would actually be right about something.

Magic, even unicorn magic, I suspected, was tied strongly to emotions. That was one of the dangers of performing spells on a person. It was possible that Twilight had unconsciously tweaked my transformation here and there to make me more physically attractive. To a pony, at least. Which would mean, of course, that she really did have a crush on me.

I grimaced mentally. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her; hell, I thought she was cute as a button. But it wasn’t the same kind of affection I felt for an attractive woman. In my mind, Twilight was somewhere between adorable niece and junior colleague. Was that analogy insulting? Probably, but that didn’t stop it from being true. Maybe if she were a human, and a few years older, there’d be something there, but as things were? Turning me into a pony might have solved the cross-species thing for her, but it just made it exponentially more awkward for me.

I shook my head and shoved all of that nonsense on the back burner. Someone was trying to kill me, and I needed to find some answers. I could explain to Twilight why I wasn’t her knight on a white horse, if she was somehow suffering that delusion, later.

I hadn’t spent long in contemplation, but it was long enough for Applejack and the three fillies to get gone. I glanced around, looking for clues. The fact that I was a head taller than any of the ponies surrounding me helped. If I was lucky, the would-be killer would have left a cryptic note revealing their identity and location if I could puzzle out the clue. It hadn’t happened yet in a decade or so of investigation, but a guy had to hope, right? I did spot something useful, though. A yellow unicorn was being grilled by what had to be a police officer. She wasn’t wearing a uniform or anything, but I recognized the look.

I turned to my crowd and zeroed in on the mare I thought would be least likely to proposition me, but would still be bold enough to answer my question. I’d been introduced just a few minutes ago, I’d already forgotten her name.

“Excuse me, Miss…” she turned slightly and I caught sight of her mark. That helped. “Roseluck. Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

She giggled and gave me a smile. “Only if I get to ask you one in return, Mr. Blackstone.”

Thank God that didn’t sound like lead in. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and nodded. “Sounds fair. Is that unicorn over there,” I pointed more or less accurately with one hoof, “the owner of the cart that went out of control?”

She craned her head to see who I was pointing to and her face lit up with recognition. “He sure is! That’s my cousin Axle. He’s the only unicorn in Ponyville that does any shipping. Do you want to know anything else?” She batted her eyelashes and smiled demurely. I’m not even kidding. All she needed was little hearts floating around her head to make this into a cartoon.

I felt a headache coming on. “His name is Axle Rose?”

She laughed again. “Of course not, that would be silly. His real name is Rear Axle, and his twin is Front Axle. But he doesn’t like his first name much, so everypony just calls him Axle.” I fought down a groan, but honestly, that was par for the course in Equestria.

“Thanks. I want to have a talk with him.”

She frowned, and gave me the first non-infatuated look since I had met her. “Don’t be too harsh on him. He’s usually a great driver.” I nodded and turned to leave. “Wait,” she called. “You still need to answer my question.”

A bargain’s a bargain, so I turned around and came face to bloom with a beautiful red rose. All of the thorns had been clipped off the short stem and the rosebud was just beginning to blossom. I was speechless. Roseluck wasn’t. “Would you like a rose?”

There arose a great murmur from the dozen or so mares around us, and Roseluck blushed deeply. I’ve said no to women before, even to insanely beautiful women who, believe me, had quite a lot to offer. But every one of them had been A) evil, B) inhuman, C) manipulative or D) all of the above. Saying no to Roseluck would have been like kicking a puppy when it was hoping for a tummy rub.

Besides, it was just a flower. Unless Twilight had missed some major part of Equestrian culture during her lessons, it didn’t commit me to anything. What the hell, why not? “Yes, thank you.” I took the flower and tucked it into one of the front pockets of my coat. There, polite but non-committal.

Roseluck stared at me. “Aren’t you going to eat it?”

Only my lack of hands kept me from facepalming. Of course she’d meant it as a snack, they’re herbivores. My altered digestive tract might have been able to handle the rose, but I wasn’t in any hurry to test just how thorough the transformation had been. I needed a decent explanation. My mouth, though, tended to move faster than my brain. “No. I’d rather keep it.” She blushed even deeper than the first time, and the crowd responded in kind. That had not been the smoothest thing I had ever done.

After seeing Roseluck’s success, another mare, I think her name was Daisy, had to give me one of her flowers. I couldn’t tell her no without hurting her feelings, or looking like Rosie’s boyfriend, so I said yes. Then it seemed like everypony had something to give me, most of it edible. By the time I had finally accepted the last gift and added it to my growing pile of swag, the police pony was gone, and Axle was sitting beside the remains of his cart.

I waved goodbye to my – shudder − groupies, and headed over to the unicorn I hoped he could give me some answers. There was a small sound of protest from Bob, but I shushed him and after a little grumbling he stayed quiet. Now that I was closer I could see the wooden wheel emblazoned on the unicorn’s flank. “Hey. I hear that was your cart.”

“Wagon,” he corrected absentmindedly. Axle glanced up at me and sighed. “Are you going to chew me out, too?”

I sat next to him and let my collected treats settle to the ground. “That depends. I wanted to hear what happened before I said anything.”

He grunted and chucked the fragment of wood he’d been examining into the splintered remains of his vehicle. I frowned, but sometimes you’ve got to give a little to get a little.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” His eyes flashed to me, confused, but I continued. “I didn’t mean to destroy it. The whole thing just caught me by surprise and I reacted without a lot of thought.”

There was a moment of silence, then he chuckled. “That’s one hay of a reaction. I bet you’re really popular on Nightmare Night.”

I didn’t get the reference, but I nodded anyway. “Usually I’m more controlled, but I’ve been having a bad day.”

“I can understand that,” he said dryly, which made me chuckle. “Thanks, though. As far as everypony else is concerned I got what I deserved for being careless. Officer Sharp came this close to dragging me in for reckless endangerment.”

I nodded and made polite noises. “That’s why I wanted to hear what happened. You don’t seem like the careless type.”

Axle shook his head. “Not much to tell. I’d just finished a delivery, so I was bringing the wagon home. Usual speed and strength on the spell for motion.” He glanced at me sideways. “And that spell’s my own invention, not that sloppy ‘come to life’ most unicorns learn. Mine lets me control the wheels directly, and I’ve had almost a full decade of practice with it. Believe me, when pegasi ship so much by air and earth ponies have a lock on the ground, a unicorn needs a flawless reputation to make it in this business.”

He sighed. “And until today, I had one. But something went wrong with the spell, and I still don’t know what. The whole thing just overloaded and went completely out of control. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.”

I considered the stallion carefully. Either he was one of the greatest actors I had ever met or he was on the level. I’m damn good at spotting a lie, and I wasn’t picking up anything sinister from him. It made sense, though. Whoever had been doing all of this had taken pains make sure that nothing could be traced back to them. My deadly stalker just messed with this guy’s spell and left him holding the bag.

I added another entry to my quickly expanding list of why I hated the Shadow Pony. They weren’t just trying to kill me; hell, dodging a would-be killer described a typical weekend for me. This asshole was callous enough to ruin this poor guy’s reputation and possibly his life. And for what? The off chance that his stupid scheme might actually have worked?

He might not have the execution (heh-heh) down pat, but I had to give the slimy bastard points for stealth. This was getting ridiculous. Hell, the White Court was famous for using cat’s paws to do their dirty work, and even they weren’t this cagey. Still, Axle might have seen something.

“Did any of your competitors give you a warning lately?” He gave me a puzzled look, not making the connection. “Maybe somepony was trying to mess with your spell a little. You know, make you run into a building or something, just to damage your reputation, and things got out of ha− er, hoof.”

He stared at me oddly. “I might not be the most beloved stallion in Ponyville, but that doesn’t mean anypony has it out for me.”

My friendly smile melted away and my face turned grim. Axle looked surprised, maybe a little frightened even, and started to lean away from me. I tried to still my expression. “Look. I’m not trying to imply anything, but there’s something suspicious about all this, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Either somepony has it out for you … or they have it out for me.”

His eyes widened with understanding and the tension between us was thick enough that you’d need a chainsaw to cut it. At last he sighed and shook his head sadly. “Sorry, but I didn’t notice anything strange. I don’t know what else to tell you.” Damnit. My instincts told me that he was playing me straight.

“Just one last thing, if you don’t mind.” I said. “Would you lift that piece of debris with your magic?” He looked confused but obliged me. The glow surrounding it was a soft gold, similar to but not quite matching the sickly yellow that had encased the wagon’s wheels. Either the second color was the perpetrator’s aura or, more likely was just the result of mixing the two. So I was back to square one in terms of information. Great.

I sighed and rose to leave, careful to shake the dust off my coat. Rarity would kill me if I messed it up. As I shook it I noticed something stuck in the side. At first I tried reaching for it, and after that failed miserably I used a little telekinesis to pull it out. It was difficult to work with an item that small, but after some concentration I managed.

It was a pin, the same kind you’d find in any tailor’s shop, but the sight of it sent chills down my back. Perhaps that sounds like an overreaction, and on a normal day it might have been. But someone had been trying to kill me all day, and I doubted that the dark stain on the tip was due to rust. It hadn’t pierced the inner lining, I could tell because the tip was bent (and, more importantly, I was still breathing), but what if they hadn’t been so worried about being subtle? I could be dead right now. I wondered if that hadn’t been the real plan. That entire debacle with the wagon could have been nothing but a set up for this: a plan with a higher percentage.

I’ve been closer to death. I’ve seen and fought things that by all rights should have killed me, but that was different. Even when the odds had been terrible, even when standing and fighting was the dumbest option on the table, I’d been able to face my enemies head on and confront that death. This new foe was a creeping, faceless one, and I couldn’t fight them any more than I could a shadow.

He or she must have been right beside me to have done it. During a quick pat on the back, maybe, or just an innocent jostle. Frustration rose in me. I had been right beside them, I had seen them and probably even spoken to the bastard, but I still didn’t have a clue about who was doing all this. One of those ponies, hell, maybe one of my admirers had been trying to kill me. It isn’t often that I berate myself for not being paranoid enough, but this time I really had to assume that everyone was out to get me.

I suddenly glared the small hill of assorted gifts and wondered how many of them were poisoned. My eyes narrowed dangerously, and I twisted the pin I was levitating into a mangled mess. Axle didn’t miss my reaction.

“Are … um. Are you okay?” I don’t know what face I was making, but he sounded hesitant. I tried to shake off the expression, and I might have managed a tired smile.

“Sorry. I’m not fond of pins and needles.”

His face brightened with understanding. “Oh, a phobia, huh? That’s got to be tough.” Then his eyes widened and he took a step forward. “In that case take a deep breath.” His voice was subdued, like a man trying to calm a spooked horse. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.

“Okay,” I told him, “I’m calm. What is it?”

“You’ve got two more pins stuck in your coat. Do you need me to take them out for you?” I jerked my head around and searching for them. He hadn’t been kidding, there were another two jammed into one of my flanks. I let out a deep breath in an exasperated rumble.

“Thanks, but I can manage it.” I sighed. “This just hasn’t been my day.”

Axle laughed. “I guess not. Thanks for the apology, but I’d better get going. I’ve got a job tomorrow and getting a new wagon will take time.”

I waved goodbye to him as he wandered off. A little bit of telekinesis later and I removed a pair of pins, both of them bent at the tip and covered in the same strange stain. I crumpled them as well, and regarded all three of them unhappily. I couldn’t use them for any tracing, but I didn’t want to leave them lying around where anypony could accidentally poison themselves. What if I melted them down to slag?

A cold sweat broke out on my brow at the thought of wielding fire. I pushed myself angry at my reaction. Come on, damnit! I don’t even need flames for that, just some heat. I can do that, can’t I? I’m freaking wizard of the White Council. I reached for my power and almost threw up. Phantom flames wrapped themselves around my arm and my breathing became short. I knew the fire and the smell of cooking flesh weren’t real, not to mention that my hand was currently a hoof, but that didn’t stop the feral terror from rising within me. I stopped trying and the fear slowly receded. My breathing was ragged, and I silently hoped that nobody had noticed.

I glared harder at the deadly pins, unsure what to do with them. For lack of a better option, I stuffed them into one of my smaller pockets. The inner lining of my coat would protect me from them; I just had to remember not give anybody a hug. Despite the intentions of half the town’s female population, I was pretty damn sure that wouldn’t be much of a problem. I trotted over to Applejack’s stand, hauling my gifts behind me. I needed a bag for them. Until I was certain they were safe, I couldn’t let anyone eat any of them. Or maybe I should stoke up a natural fire somewhere and toss the whole lot in just to be sure.

“Applejack.” I said, once I was within earshot. “Have you got something I could use to haul all of this around?”

The farmpony chuckled and pulled out a burlap sack. I gladly deposited my probably poisoned presents and cinched the sack shut. Applejack tilted her hat back and studied me curiously. “I figgered you weren’t comfortable with all those mares after you, but now you look like somepony just kicked your puppy. What’s going on, Dresden?”

“I’m going by Blackstone at the moment,” I said, then paused. Lying to Applejack wasn’t a good idea, I knew from experience, but I wasn’t sure how to introduce this topic. Somehow, ‘everyone’s trying to kill me’ lacked … sanity.

I sighed, which was fast becoming a habit, and answered her. “What would you say if I told you somepony was trying to kill me?”

Her mouth dropped open and her hat slowly slid off the back of her head. She recovered just in time to keep it from dropping to the ground, but it was a close save. “You think Axle was tryin’ to kill you?”

I shook my head. “Nah, I checked him out and I’m pretty sure he’s innocent. But somepony messed with his spell, probably the same pony who put that shield around the girls.” Her skeptical glance told that me that my sanity was in doubt, so I bit the bullet and went all in. “And that’s not the first time I’ve nearly died today. Pinkie’s welcome wagon exploded in my face, an anvil almost crushed my skull, somepony tried to choke me with Rarity’s tape measure, then the thing with the wagon. Not to mention three attempts to stick me with poisoned needles. For all I know, one of those gifts is soaked in strychnine or something. Maybe it sounds crazy, but that’s just how my day’s been.”

Applejack was hesitant to respond. She gave it some thought, only then did she open her mouth and respond. “That sure don’t sound like coincidence, I’ll admit, but why would anypony want to kill you? Even if Trixie were crazy enough to go looking for a little payback how would she recognize you, or know you were back? It just don’t make any sense.”

It was frustrating, but I knew what she meant. “I know. Believe me, I’ve been trying to figure this out since I realized it. Do you think somepony discovered that I’m actually−”

“Well hey there Apple Bloom!” Applejack shouted, drowning out the rest of my sentence. “I didn’t think you and an’ your friends would get back that fast.”

I turned around and saw the three fillies approaching, Apple Bloom carefully balancing a delicious looking muffin on top of her head. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were trailing her. The leader of the little trio set the pastry on the edge of the market stand and looked her big sister in the eye. “So why did all three of us need to go to Sugarcube Corner to get you a muffin?”

Applejack stared right back at her. “So you three’d be outta Dre- Blackstone’s mane while he was talking to all those ponies. What they were saying weren’t none of y’all’s business.”

“Fine,” the young filly grumbled, “but what were y’all talking about just now?”

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle chimed in. “what if somepony discovered what?”

Well, being a wizard, so smart and so slick, I thought up a lie and I thought it up quick. “That I bleach my mane.” Not a good lie, but objectively speaking, the Grinch hadn’t done much better.

Apple Bloom furrowed her brow and pouted. “Really?”

“Who cares?!” Scootaloo exclaimed her head muffled slightly by a thin layer of burlap. “Look at some of the stuff they gave him! Sugar Leaf’s molasses candies, Carrot Top’s carrot cake, Lily’s caramelized lily petals and tons more. Oh wow! Honey Drop gave him some of her special Almond Honey Crunch Bars. Can I have one?”

Only mild shock had kept me from reacting for so long, but with that relatively innocent question I snapped back in a hurry. My horn lit up and I jerked the bag away from Scootaloo fast enough to make her head spin. I then tied it shut again and levitated it up to ten feet just to be safe.

Scootaloo shook her head to clear it and gazed longingly at the floating sack. Sweetie Belle stifled a giggle. “So I guess that’s a no.” Scootaloo glared at her, but Sweetie just smiled innocently in response.

“Don’tcha think that you’re overreactin’ a mite?” Applejack drawled from behind her counter. She tried to disguise her chuckle with a cough, but it wasn’t fooling me.

I turned to look at her and cocked one eyebrow. “Whether you believe me or not, do you really want to take that chance?” Her smile faded, and I could see doubt in her eyes. I don’t think I’d convinced her, but she was smart enough not gamble anyone’s life on it.

“Why can’t we have some?” Apple Bloom huffed, glaring at us. Either an eye for truth ran in the family or she’d learned well from her big sister’s example. “Y’all ain’t telling us somethin’.” Sweetie Belle’s and Scootaloo’s ears perked up at that and they gave a couple of searching looks as well.

Applejack’s jaw set in an immovable line and her eyes hardened. She returned her sister’s glare with interest and then some. “If it was any of your business, we’d a’ shared it with you. You three need to break that habit of stickin’ your noses where they don’t belong.”

Apple Bloom winced at the rebuke, but when she lifted her head to protest, I could still see the stubborn defiance in her eyes. “But Applejack−”

“But nothin’.” She retorted. I was careful to stay quiet. Maybe I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but even I know better than get involved in a family argument. Not everypony was quite so wise.

“Ah, give her a break, AJ! Hay, I’m kinda curious too. I mean, you’re cool and all, Blackstone, but you can’t keep all that good stuff all to yourself.” All eyes flashed upward to see a light blue pegasus with a polychromatic mane and tail lying on a low hanging cloud. I had no idea how long Rainbow had been there, but I didn’t really have time to worry about that. Not when she was trying, with increasing frustration, to untie the knot on my bag of gifts.

The sight of her picking at it with a combination of hooves, teeth and even a wing would have been funny if it weren’t for the (probably) deadly treats she was trying to get at. With a quick burst of telekinesis I jerked the bag out of reach, almost making her fall off her cloud.

Applejack swelled up with indignation. “Darn it, Dash. I’m tryin’ to teach them somethin’ and you’re ruinin’ the lesson. An’ it’s especially bad comin’ from you, seein’ that you’re supposed to be a role model−. Are you even listenin’ to me at all?!”

I severely doubted it, but then I wasn’t paying close attention either. I was too busy trying to keep the treat sack out of Rainbow’s hooves as she put up a determined pursuit. I was treated to a series of aerial acrobatics that previously I hadn’t thought possible for any creature other than a hummingbird. Seeing as how I wasn’t going to outpace her, I switched tactics, dropping the bag to the ground then tucking it underneath my body.

That might have ended it, but I made the mistake of looking her in face and slowly shaking my head. I’d meant to signal that the game was over. She took it as a challenge and accelerated toward me instead. Cursing, I began to power my shield bracelet. A small but steady stream of sparks began to rain from my outstretched hoof. I tried to make my shield as flexible as possible, but still, she wasn’t giving me much in the way of options.

Riflettum.” I said, bringing to life a quarter-dome of blue light between me and the speeding mare. Unfortunately, she seemed to have planned for that. Rainbow flared her wings and twisted, both reducing her speed and letting her shoot past the edge of my shield. She had killed all of her momentum, but she’d gotten behind me far too quickly for me to react, and she used that opportunity fully to her advantage. Her hoof shot forward, and, well…

She gave me a hard smack on the ass.

I don’t know if it was the natural equine reaction or just the shock of what Rainbow had done, but whatever the cause, I reared back and skittered away from her. Which, of course, was exactly what she’d been counting on. My bag of gifts was exposed and unprotected, and I wasn’t anywhere near the right frame of mind to defend it.

Forsaking the restraint of her earlier attempts, Rainbow ripped a hole in the top of burlap sack and shoved one hoof inside, digging around for something. “Come to momma,” she said, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She was so intent on her searching that she never noticed the lasso until it had fallen over her. Rainbow only had a moment to realize just what had happened before there was a mighty tug on the rope and she shot back to rest at the hooves of an angry Applejack.

“I said,” the farmpony stated through the rope in her mouth, “that your s’posed to set a proper example, not stir up more trouble!”

Rainbow glared at her from her position on the ground. “C’mon, AJ. You heard what Scoots said. Almond Honey Crunch Bars! Honey Drop sells out of those every time she makes them. Don’t you want one?”

Applejack relaxed slightly, but she still gave her friend a frown. “Of course I do, but that don’t mean you can just take somethin’ that ain’t yours. Especially when you don’t even know why somepony ain’t sharing.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and collected my gifts again. Most importantly, I pretended that I hadn’t just been smacked like a race horse in the home stretch. I wanted to keep what little dignity I still had. “If we’re done with the after-school special, I need to get moving.” And I needed to do it without the three fillies tagging along. I doubted that my stalker with done with me just yet.

Applejack was busy here, though, and as far as I knew everypony else was too. That only left one option. “Would you mind coming with me, Rainbow? I’ve got something I want to discuss with you.”

“Really?” Scootaloo said, popping up right in front of me, her tiny wings buzzing with excitement. “What?”

I snorted. “Secret stuff.” I wasn’t going to make another half-assed attempt to sideline the question. They just weren’t going to get a straight answer out of me. “Something that you three don’t need to hear.”

Next came the inevitable cries of protest. I ignored them for the most part and checked one of my pockets for money. Twilight had given me a few coins so I could buy lunch, but it was well worth the cost of a meal to get them off my back. Literally, in Scootaloo’s case. The pint-sized pegasus had jumped up there to entreat me while her friends gathered at my hooves.

“Hey, you three!” I had to raise my voice, but at least it cut through their chatter. “How about you get some ice cream or something on me?” I pulled out all ten of the coins Twilight had given me. “That’s enough for the three of you, right?”

Applejack huffed, but I could tell she was hiding a smile. “More than enough. You’re spoilin’ those fillies.”

Their eyes went round and their talking ceased. I could tell they were thinking about the treats they could get. Apple Bloom shook her head, and pouted. “But we told Pinkie that we’d show you how to get to Fluttershy’s.”

“That’s all right. Rainbow will show me the rest of the way.”

The blue pegasus looked startled. “I will?”

I fought down a groan. “Yes, you will. Anyway, you three did a great job, thanks for all of your help.” The truth of that statement was debatable, but it didn’t hurt to be nice to the kids. They glanced at the floating coins I was offering them, then gathered together in a little huddle.

I was about to just put the money down and go, but they broke their circle and gave me a smile before I could. “Deal,” all three of them chimed, and with the swipes from three hooves the coins were gone. Within a minute so were the girls.

I let out a heavy sigh. “Thank God. I am not good with children.”

Applejack chuckled. “I dunno. They seemed to like you plenty. And at least you weren’t actin’ like a foal yerself.” She gave an exasperated sigh. “Unlike some ponies I know.”

Rainbow was preening in the literal sense, getting the dirt and such out of her feathers. Being lassoed and pulled to the ground probably hadn’t done her wings any favors. She looked up from her task and glared at Applejack. “Fine, I got the point. Jeez.” She walked over to me and frowned at the now floating bag. “So, why can’t I have one?”

I considered her for a moment before speaking. “Because they’re poisoned.” Rainbow’s jaw dropped almost to the ground, and honestly, it was difficult not to laugh at her. “Well, we’d better get going,” I said. “Bye, Applejack.”

“See you later,” she replied. I trotted off, hopefully the right direction.

Rainbow came back to her senses about then and quickly caught up with me. “Full story,” she demanded. “Now.” I chuckled and started telling her about my morning.

………

I had suspected for some time that pegasus flight was a matter of innate magic, like it is for pixies and sylphs. While Rainbow and Fluttershy were lighter than the other ponies, they were still too heavy for their wingspan. Besides, ponies weren’t built to be aerodynamic, yet I’d already seen Rainbow reach speeds that would make a falcon proud.

What she was doing now clinched it. I trotted forward at an even pace while she floated lazily beside me, doing something I could only call a backstroke. I might not have a degree in physics, but even I could tell there was no possible way she was staying up without a little supernatural assistance.

“So,” Rainbow said, snapping me out of my musings, “you really think somepony’s trying to bump you off?”

I snorted derisively. “I don’t think, I know. Trust me, kid. When you’ve made as many enemies as I have, you develop a sixth sense for this kind of thing. Or you get dead.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, thank Celestia that doesn’t sound paranoid.”

I smirked. Twilight was the best pony when it came to banter, but Rainbow made a decent second. “It’s only paranoia if you’re wrong. Ten bucks says the Shadow Pony strikes again.”

“I don’t care how many deer−” she began but her sentence quickly came to a screeching halt. She gave me a look which ‘amused disbelief’ does not do justice. “The ‘Shadow Pony’? Really?”

I shrugged, then had to take a quick step to keep from falling over. “Why not? They sure as hell aren’t giving me a name, so I might as well make up my own. Besides, it fits.”

“I’m just saying, why would anypony want to kill you? Other than the way you run your mouth, I mean.” Her eyes narrowed, and her face grew serious. “Unless it’s something instead of somepony.”

I hadn’t considered that. It was entirely possible that it was something from one of the darker corners of Equestria. That brand of darkness wasn’t common in this sugar bowl, but that didn’t mean that it was nonexistent. Anyplace that had given rise to a demon like the Nightmare couldn’t be entirely pure. Still, my instincts told me it was a pony, and the presence of the shield seemed to back that up. Not that I’d dismiss the theory entirely.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think most ‘somethings’ would worry about hurting innocent ponies. Still, I’ll keep the option open.”

She frowned and flew in silence for a moment, but the grim talk didn’t seem to weigh her down. Her face brightened and she said, “Hey, we’ve still got a few minutes before we get to Fluttershy’s. Just enough time for me to show you some of my tricks!”

“I, for one, would love to watch you turning tricks,” said a near-perfect impression of Groucho Marx from my saddlebag. I groaned and planted a hoof on my face. Just when I thought Bob was actually going to behave for once...!

Even if Rainbow didn’t understand Bob’s slang, there was no mistaking his intent. The speed demon’s face turned crimson from a mix of fury and embarrassment. Some might have called the color ‘cherry’ or ‘tomato’ red, but somehow, ‘volcanic’ seemed like a much better fit. She opened her mouth and I winced. She might start off with words but I was damn certain that things with her would turn physical. And not in the way Bob was hoping.

Whatever she was going to say it was lost as an ear shatteringly loud howl came from a short distance away. We both spun towards the sound in time to see a gigantic creature with four heads charging us, murder in all eight of its eyes.

Oh thank God, he’s trying to kill me again. Is it insane that I was relieved by the arrival of a three story monster so long as it distracted Rainbow from smashing Bob’s skull into powder? Don’t answer that.

I’d never seen a hydra before, but I was familiar with the legends. Cut off the heads and more grow back. Supposedly, one of them was indestructible, too. Its breath was deadly and its blood was poisonous. I wasn’t sure how this version stacked up to the one Hercules fought, but after my failure to even warm up a couple of lousy pins, his method of cauterizing the stumps before a new head could grow back didn’t sound like a great game plan.

The huge bastard lumbered towards us. It looked slow, but it had the momentum and stride length to eat up that distance fast. I wished briefly for my staff and resolved that, after this, I wasn’t so much as going to the bathroom without it.

“Dresden?” Rainbow said, her anger gone and her voice turning to worry.

I lined up the shot carefully, and the moment one of the hydra’s giant feet slammed into the ground, I screamed “Forzare!” One thing I’d never understood about that legend was why Hercules never thought to attack any part of the body other than the stupidly overpowered heads. Maybe he had something to prove, but I just wanted to survive this.

I heard bones creak, and one snapped like a gunshot as the spell slammed home. I’d caught him in mid-stride with all of his weight on one comparatively small foot. The power I’d used was just the trigger; the real force came from his own weight and speed. Several tons of scaly flesh crashed into the ground and rolled, crushing a few small trees and tearing a trench in the earth behind it. The thing finally stopped then began to slowly pick itself back up.

I scowled. Even the meanest predator on Earth should have been crawling away to nurse a broken leg. Then all four heads turned to me, and everything became clear. The Shadow Pony was using it a lot more directly than he had any of his other pawns. The faint glow in the eyes overlying glassy anger meant that it was being compelled. I’d have to do a lot more damage to the thing before it gave up. Maybe even kill it outright, if the caster had been strong enough.

Compelling animals wasn’t quite a violation of the Laws of Magic, but it was still really damned gray. I know I’d be quick to go for my revolver if I ever met a wizard who roped dumb animals into doing his dirty work.

It roared and Rainbow dashed into action. Swooping around one head, she kicked another with both hind legs, making its eyes cross. The third dove at her, fangs extended, but she just zipped out of the way and let it crash into one of its brothers. Both heads bellowed in pain, and soon all four were firmly focused on her.

That, of course, was when I broke the other leg. The log was either hard wood or just hadn’t started to rot yet. I was sweating and shaking while I did it, but I managed to levitate the improvised club long enough to get in one good swing, and that was all I’d really needed.

The creature screamed again, but this time there was an almost piteous tone to it. The hydra wasn’t intelligent, and it couldn’t reconcile the pain it was feeling with the tiny creatures it was facing. I’m sure a lot of the monsters I’ve fought have had similar feelings. It fell to the ground with a mighty crash, and I think I heard ribs break under the strain this time.

Credit where credit is due: the beast still tried to inch its way toward me. When it was within range, one head shot forward and released a huge cloud of noxious vapor.

Ventas servitas!” I almost felt guilty about how easy it was to use the wind the turn its own attack against it. The hydra may have been immune to the more deadly effects of its own breath, but it still hacked and coughed in the thick miasma. Must have been the smell.

Rainbow landed beside me, but continued to watch the hydra warily. “Now what? Can you put it to sleep?”

Not a chance, but that did raise an interesting tangent. If I could put one head to sleep, would that knock out the other ones, too, or were their nervous systems independent enough to function autonomously? I shook my head, both to clear it and in answer to her question. “No, I’d have to make physical contact, and even then it would be a chancy thing.” Then I felt my mouth curve into a sly smile. “I do have an idea, though.”

I stepped forward, and of course all four heads oriented on me. Not as quickly as they once had, but still fast enough to be dangerous. The Shadow Pony’s control was breaking down under the massive trauma the hydra had taken. Hell, I was amazed they had any control at all at this point. The creature winced in pain as it moved to follow me and I actually regretted what I was about to do. The hydra wasn’t evil, any more than a shark or a wolf, and in a lot of ways it was another victim. But even if I could break the Shadow Pony’s hold on it there were few things as dangerous as a wounded animal. Especially one as large and powerful as this one.

“That’s right, you great big ugly bastard. You know you want to.” The moment I was within range of one of the heads, it shot forward, jaws open wide to rip me to pieces. Even with the magic-dense atmosphere, the force spell and telekinesis had been hard, especially on top of the nonsense with the cart. But I wasn’t close to my limit just yet. With speed that would have done a baseball pitcher proud, the bag of gifts shot straight down the gaping maw in front of me.

The hydra sputtered and began to choke on the blockage. It faltered for a moment, but lunged again despite the damage I must’ve done to its esophagus. I prepared my shield, but for a change, I didn’t need it. Rainbow dove in, blindsiding the enormous skull and smashing its mouth closed so hard its enormous teeth clicked.

“Are you stupid?!” she screamed as she grabbed me at a speed just short of giving me whiplash. “You had to use all of the treats?”

I laughed, possibly manically. I was too full of adrenaline to care. “Now we’ll find out if they were poisoned, won’t we?” Her glare told me I was an idiot for multiple reasons, but I laughed it off. Something about narrowly escaping from the jaws of terrifying monsters tended to do that to me.

The hydra was shuddering, but whether it was from pain or pleasure I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t crying or howling anymore, but instead was making these strange mewling sounds. It was like no noise I had ever expected to hear from a reptilian throat. Whatever they had used, it was fast-acting, and the Shadow Pony had packed a lot in there. One by one, the heads of the hydra stopped moving. Their eyes slowly closed, and finally the whole beast lay quiet. Its chest was moving, but the slow pace told me that it was just a matter of time.

“So remind me,” I said, my previous humor disappearing beneath a heavy scowl. Scootaloo and Rainbow had come within inches of eating some of those treacherous gifts. “Who was being paranoid?”

Chapter Eight

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Eight

“Twilight, Twilight, give me your answer do.”

His voice echoed throughout the ruins of Canterlot castle. The once-proud palace was now an unstable death trap, full of crumbling walls and guttering fires. The rest of the city was in even worse condition, if that was possible. Many of the supports had failed after the massive damage they had taken, and whole neighborhoods lay in pieces strewn down the side of the mountain.

“I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.”

Twilight kept running, but she knew she couldn’t make it far. She rounded a corner only to find her way blocked by a towering mound of rubble. She was too tired, too injured to outrun him anymore. Hiding was her only real option. She ducked inside a half-collapsed room and searched desperately for a place to conceal herself. The old wardrobe in the corner was the only place that looked even slightly promising, even though its door was split down the middle.

“We’ll have a plain ceremony; I’m not the richest pony.”

It’s just a dream. Twilight thought, trying to still her beating heart. He could never have actually done all this. She knew him, she trusted him, and he wasn’t the type to take trust for granted. She had seen his soul, and this wasn’t him. It had to be a dream; there was nothing else it could be.

“But I don’t care, ‘cause you’re my mare, as long as you love me true.”

But no matter how often she repeated that mantra, no matter many times she told herself this was all an illusion, the heart-stopping fear that clawed at her was undeniably real.

The hoofsteps following her stopped and the wrecked city fell terrifyingly silent. Twilight strained to hear something – anything − that would betray his presence. But there was nothing. The only sound she could hear was her own labored breathing and the distant crackle of flames. She pressed herself against the back of the wardrobe she had hidden in, staying as far away from the cracked door as possible.

Twilight refused to let herself believe that he was really gone. That was the biggest mistake every idiot ever made in a horror story. She just needed to keep her cool and stay hidden. She could rest and recover, then figure a way out of this nightmare. Supposedly, you always woke up before hitting the ground in a dream. The thought of throwing herself out of a tower had terrified her at first, but it was looking more and more attractive.

“I know you’re in there,” he suddenly said from the other side of the broken doors, less than a yard away. “Why don’t you come out?” He spoke calmly, which only made everything he’d done even more terrifying.

Because you’re a psychopath, Twilight thought. He hadn’t gone wild, his rage hadn’t gotten the better of him. Every death, every atrocity had come with a detached, almost businesslike air. She pressed herself against the back of the wardrobe, wishing she could pass through the wood and stone behind her. Her eyes frantically roamed the inside of the little box, searching for some other way out, but there was nowhere else to go.

So she stepped forward instead, nudging the door open with all the resignation of a prisoner approaching the gallows. A concept, she thought with a flash of resentment, that she had been unfamiliar with until he had brought it with him. Twilight stepped slowly out of the wardrobe, knowing what she would face, knowing who was waiting there.
Dresden.

Or Blackstone, to be more accurate, seeing that he still wore the shape of a pony. He gave her a slow, predatory smile as she stared at him. His teeth were stained reddish brown, and the stench of raw meat hung on his breath. “So what do you say, Twilight? Will you become the queen of this brave, new world and rule by my side? Think of what we could accomplish together!” His expression shifted to a lascivious grin. “Think of what we could do together…”

Twilight shuddered even as she gathered her resolve. “No.”

Blackstone stared at her, his expression hurt. “I thought you loved me, Twilight. Is this about all the deaths? I tried to keep them to a minimum, but you know what they say.” He chuckled darkly. “You can’t make an omelette without murdering a few ponies.”

This isn’t right. Anger began to boil underneath the fear. “No,” she snapped.

“Is it because I killed Celestia? Or Luna? Surely you realize that the alicorns had to die in order for us to rise to power. I wouldn’t even have needed to destroy Canterlot if they hadn’t resisted so powerfully. And I spared your brother, even after he refused to serve me. What more could you ask from me?”

“No.” Twilight said a third time, her eyes ablaze with fury. The cold dread in the pit of her stomach was gone, burnt away by the power that rose within her. “This is a dream − my dream − and I deny you. You are not my friend. You are not even a reasonable facsimile. You are a twisted parody that should have never even come into being.”

The room began to glow with a sourceless light. The radiance pulsed in time to her words, and the grim, fire-lit ruins receded before her will. Suddenly, her mind was clear for the first time in what felt like days. Blackstone hardly seemed to notice, though. His mouth stretched into a mad grin full of teeth no longer those of an herbivore, but the needle-like dentition of a monster.

“Is my existence really my fault, then? If I’m just a part of your dream, then you made me. Admit it. I’m the truth about ‘Blackstone’ that you try to hide. The darkness in him that you refuse to see. I’m only here because your subconscious knows him for what he really is. Because deep down, you fear him.”

Twilight stared into the warped face of her most dangerous friend, and realized that she was afraid. Another shudder went through her, and her light began to dim.

“I do fear him.”

The abomination smirked and moved forward. He only managed that one step before gleaming shackles erupted from the ground and wrapped around his legs, binding him to the spot. He let out a monstrous cry of surprise and anger, but they held him fast. Twilight stared into his eyes; the red of his irises had deepened to a blood-like crimson and expanded until there was no white left. Her gaze never wavered, and the creature looked away first.

“But I won’t let that stop me.”

The room began to glow again, softly but steadily.

“When I was younger, I never had any friends. I thought they simply weren’t worth the effort, but I was wrong. It was one of the most difficult lessons I ever had to learn, but it was also the most valuable. I can’t imagine my life without them. Any of them.”

The entire castle began to glow as she spoke. Rubble disappeared and walls reformed. Bloodstains vanished and tapestries re-knit themselves. Entire city blocks rose from the bottom of the mountain and reattached themselves in their proper places. And in the middle of it all was one little unicorn, her whole body glowing neon white.

“Blackstone and I are friends, and that is a bond that no fear can break. This is my mind, and you seem to have forgotten something.”

The false Blackstone deformed and melted as she spoke. It didn’t look like her friend anymore; it didn’t even look like a pony. It was an amorphous blob, a shapeless darkness penned in on all sides by her light.

“If I made you, then I can unmake you.”

………

Arcane Mind rocked backwards, as though he had been struck in the face. His attendants hurried toward him, their expressions worried. He brushed aside their concern and stared at the sleeping unicorn before him with a look that was equal parts admiration, frustration and resignation.

He gave a deep sigh and his horn lit as he gathered his power again.
………

Silence lay thick in the small room, until a small unicorn broke it.

“My head,” Twilight groaned as she came to. Her senses screamed that something was amiss, but it paled in comparison to the merciless drumbeat inside her skull. Something … something had gone wrong. Something bad had happened, but Twilight had no idea what it was. Did it involve Blackstone? Or Colgate? For some reason those two were the only ponies that came to mind.

She tried to open her eyes, but the light stabbed into them with a cruel ferocity. It would have being easier to stare into the sun than keep her eyes open. Her small cry of anguish went unanswered. She listened for a moment, but there was no sound to suggest any ponies were nearby. Twilight began to breathe slowly and to assess herself.

Physically? She was hungry, thirsty and needed to empty her bladder, but she seemed unharmed.

Mentally? The resounding thud of her pulse made it difficult to focus, but her mind was functional.

Emotionally? She was angry, hurt, and afraid without the least clue why.

Slowly Twilight began to piece together as much of her day as she could. She had woken up, made tea, found Pinkie in bed with Blackstone, found out it wasn’t what she thought (a blush still came to her face as she remembered), apologized, had breakfast, left to go to her dental appointment, and sat alone in the waiting room. After that? Everything was a blur, nothing more concrete than vague emotions and fleeting images.

Twilight tried to open her eyes once more and was rewarded by another stab of pain. But this time was weaker than the first, and the third try hurt even less. Lavender eyes fluttered open and she forced them to stay that way.

Twilight was lying on an unfamiliar bed. It was clean and smelled pleasant, but it was both smaller and less plush than where she usually slept. There were no windows in the bleak rock walls that made up her room. The only light came from a large green crystal set into the ceiling. There was a bookshelf in one corner, packed full of novels and board games. A simple desk with a small lamp sat next to it. A square mirror, barely large enough for a pony to see their whole face, hung on the opposite wall. And that summed up the entirety the room’s furnishings. It was spartan in the extreme, and it immediately put Twilight in mind of a prison despite the lack of bars or guards.

The door across from her didn’t blunt that impression. The protective spells on it were as powerful as any she had ever seen. Wherever she was, she evidently couldn’t leave by choice, making it unlikely that she had come here by choice, either.

The lavender unicorn sighed. “Well, this isn’t the worst thing I’ve woken up to.” She never had found out where Rainbow Dash got that many rubber snakes, but her first April Fool’s Day in Ponyville had certainly been a morning to remember.

“Good. You are awake,” said a quiet voice less than three feet behind her.

Twilight screamed and spun around. Magic flowed into her horn as she began to cast a spell of binding. Then her world went white and she screamed again, this time in pain rather than surprise. Tears flowed from her eyes and Twilight sank to her knees. It felt like Big Mac had just taken a sledgehammer to her skull.

It didn’t take a genius or a quick glance in the mirror to realize what had happened. There was an inhibitor ring around the base of her horn. Twilight felt a cold sweat break out on the back of her neck. Inhibitor rings fed off the power of the pony they were attached to; the stronger the unicorn, the more powerfully the ring resisted. If she had tried to use something more powerful than just a binding spell, the backlash would have been even worse.

“I would not suggest doing that again,” the voice said. It was almost infuriatingly calm and collected. The pain faded quickly and Twilight blinked away her tears. Standing at the corner of bed was a pony in a black robe, complete with a large hood. Twilight suspected it was an earth pony, since there weren’t any bulges in the clothing to indicate wings or a horn. Other than that, she was at a loss. The robe covered everything down to the pony’s hooves, and in the dim light of the room, she couldn’t penetrate the shadows beneath the cowl. The voice sounded like a mare’s to her, though in theory it could have belonged to a stallion, and the pony was slightly taller than her. The loose garment itself gave her no more clues than did its strange owner.

“What are you doing here? What am I doing here?! Where are we?! And most importantly why do I have an inhibitor ring on?! ” Twilight glared at the strange pony, but she (?) seemed unmoved by the tirade.

When her guard spoke, it was in the same monotone as the first sentence. “I am afraid I cannot answer most of your questions. I was only told to monitor you. Now that you are awake I will fetch somepony who can tell you what you need to know.” The mysterious pony moved toward the door in perfect silence. There was no sound of hooves upon stone and no rustling from the robe. But more impressive than that was how she simply seemed to blend into the background as she left, no more noticeable or interesting than a stone at the side of a path.

Twilight shook her head and focused on the odd pony. No wonder she hadn’t noticed her until she spoke. It was almost as though she was invisible. “How are you doing that?”

The black clad pony started, betraying the first hint of emotion since Twilight had woken up. “I am surprised you realized, Miss Sparkle. When I dismiss myself, very few ponies take notice.”

None of which answered Twilight’s question, but something told her she wasn’t going to get any further response. Not just yet, anyway. “At least tell me your name, since you apparently already know mine.”

Her guard hesitated for a moment then nodded. “You may call me Watcher.” Eyes glimmered for a brief second within the deep hood, and Twilight realized that even if it wasn’t a real name, it was likely to be descriptive enough.

Still, she snorted. “‘Creepy’ would fit even better.”

Her custodian shrugged, but Watcher’s voice sounded faintly amused. “If you prefer.” The pony touched the door and it glowed a faint blue in recognition. As it opened, Twilight briefly considered charging forward and attempting to force her way out. She just as quickly discarded the notion. Even if she could get past Watcher, an unlikely feat with her horn bound, there were likely to be several more ponies waiting. At least one unicorn was involved in all this, and maybe more, if the strength of the door’s spells were any indication. Then the door boomed shut, cutting off the opportunity. Her breath began to come quickly.

She was all alone somewhere strange surrounded by strange ponies who had almost certainly kidnapped her. They’d taken away her magic and locked her in a room, and now they were coming for her and… Panic rose in Twilight’s chest as she hyperventilated.

It was only through determined effort and a continuous chant of the thirty-first precept of magic that she was able calm herself. I will not fear, for fear is the death of magic. Knowledge banishes fear, and the terrors of night flee the revealing light of day. She wasn’t sure how long it took for the panic attack to pass, but she was still alone when it subsided.

Twilight focused more closely on the room around and began to analyze her situation. If knowledge was the cure for fear, she needed to gather as much as she could. A small shiver ran down her spine, but she stilled herself with another effort. Part of the reason for her shudder was the temperature, though. It was much cooler than summer had any right to be. That meant she was underground, probably deep underground.

All of the furniture was old, and it looked as though none of it had been moved in decades. Wherever this place was, it hadn’t been constructed recently. Another door in the corner of the room, this one smaller and plainer, led to a bare-bones bathroom. It was more than she would have expected from a prison cell, at least. A shallow basin on a pedestal acted as a sink, while a simple-looking seat served a much more basic purpose. Lifting the lid, Twilight heard the sound of fast flowing water echo distantly. The… plumbing… was evidently connected to an underground river.

The hole was too small even for a foal to have squeezed through, but somehow, Twilight didn’t mind removing that particular route of escape from the list of possibilities. Even ignoring the ‘ick’ factor, she knew enough about hydrogeology to realize that a subterranean waterway was a more likely route to suicide than escape. Setting that aside, Twilight wandered back into the room and checked over the desk. A basic stationary kit and couple of blank scrolls were its only contents. Most of the drawers were empty. She drifted over to the bookshelf next. It was full of books, but they were all fiction without a single reference, history or guide among them. Twilight frowned. Novels were entertaining, but it was unlikely they would offer any information or advice that would be helpful in this situation. Yeah, she thought with a brief snort. If only I had a copy of ‘One Hundred and One Things To Do When Kidnapped’. I’m sure that’s something mysterious ponies usually stock in their underground prison cells.

That thought brought back her mind to her captors. Whoever these ponies were, they had the resources to kidnap her, bind her magic, transport her in secret, and maintain some sort of underground lair in which they could hold her prisoner. None of that was the work of two or three ponies, however skilled. This could only be an organization, but who they were and what they wanted was a complete mystery.

A quiet anger began to smolder somewhere in Twilight’s chest. When Watcher returned, a certain lavender unicorn was going to get some answers. Nopony, and she meant nopony, treated her like a damsel in distress. She was the student of Celestia herself, and even without magic, she was a force to be reckoned with. The flame in her heart blazed like a real fire, but with a deep breath she made herself cool down. The anger was better than the fear, better by far, but she couldn’t let it control her either. She needed to be levelheaded enough to think her way out of this.

Twilight allowed herself a sardonic grin. If there was one thing she was good at it was thinking.

Less than a minute later, there was a soft knock on the door followed by an increase in its glow. The door opened, and Watcher stepped in without waiting for her to respond. The kidnapped scholar frowned, but she supposed that she was lucky that they had knocked at all. She could, and would, remain calm. Several more ponies walked in, clad in robes just like Watcher’s. Twilight tried to keep her face as blank as possible, but concealing her emotions was difficult. She was decent at poker, but that success came more from her ability to calculate probabilities and count cards than any skill in bluffing.

The last pony that came through the door didn’t have a hood on. Twilight had no trouble recognizing this pony: it was Colgate, her dentist. The sight of the blue unicorn made something click in Twilight’s head, and out of the confusing blur of memories, one image became clear. A nervous Colgate giving her a cup of something to drink. Twilight connected the dots and suddenly there was no chance of hiding her feelings.

“You,” she hissed, glaring at her betrayer. Colgate flushed slightly but she didn’t back up from the angry mare.

“Hello Twilight. How are you feeling?” Colgate sounded both nervous and hopeful. The rest of the group, two more unicorns, a pegasus, and Watcher, remained silent.

Twilight gave the most insincere smile she could manage. “Oh I’m just great. I love waking up in the underground lair of a bunch of nutcases! And there’s no better way to start the day than with a raging headache and the discovery that you’re wearing an inhibitor ring. Ten out of ten on hospitality, too; I love having a creepy freak watching me while I sleep. That just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!” She’d layered on the sarcasm as thick as possible, but even that didn’t fully vent her spleen. Colgate had turned a bright red in embarrassment, and the rest of the group was shuffling uncomfortably, as though they were fillies who’d gotten caught with their hoof in the cookie jar. Watcher was the only one who seemed unaffected.

“Well,” Colgate finally managed. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I was really desperate and−”

Twilight arched an eyebrow and interrupted her. “You can’t be that hard up for a date. And even if you are, I’m afraid I don’t swing that way.”

Colgate’s face colored again, this time with anger as well as embarrassment. “Damn it, Twilight we’re trying to help you!”

Twilight lazily inspected her prison. “Funny. Because from where I’m sitting it looks like you just kidnapped me and threw me into a dungeon. Or is that a part of the Hippocratic Oath I’m just not familiar with?” A low chuckle came from one of the ponies present, but Twilight couldn’t tell which.

Colgate apparently couldn’t either, because her glare swept across all of her fellows before she turned back to face Twilight. “I suppose some explanations are in order.”

About time, Twilight thought, but otherwise she stayed silent.

“What do you know about Obsidian?” Colgate asked the name visibly leaving a bad taste in her mouth. The lone pegasus shuddered and even Watcher backed slightly away.

Twilight frowned, she’d wanted answers, not more questions, but at least this was something she knew. “He was an ancient unicorn warlord. He opposed the unification of the three tribes and the founding of Equestria. He was a powerful mage and commanded the loyalty of many of the lesser nobility. It wasn’t until Clover, Smart Cookie and Private Pansy founded the Order Triune to combat him that he was defeated.” Colgate nodded expectantly and Twilight frowned. It wasn’t the most commonly known piece of history, but it was hardly secret knowledge. She continued. “For centuries afterwards there were imitators who used his name to inspire terror in their enemies. They also opposed Equestria, and one of them nearly conquered the entire nation during the Age of Darkness.”

“That might be the ‘official’ history, but… they weren’t imitators, Twilight.” Colgate shook her head sadly, but her eyes were hard. “They were him, back from the dead. That was where he got his title: Obsidian the Undying.” That appeared even harder for her to say, but she continued. “He can’t be truly killed. Believe me, we would know better than anypony.”

Twilight opened her mouth to refute the obviously insane statement that Obsidian had somehow not just risen from the dead but had done so several times over the course of centuries. However that line of thought died suddenly when she realized just what Colgate had implied. “Wait, we would know? You can’t mean…” She trailed off. The look on Colgate’s face said that she meant exactly that.

Twilight’s mouth dropped open. It took a moment before her mind rediscovered how to use it properly. “But that’s impossible! The Order Triune was disbanded almost a thousand years ago! You couldn’t possibly be them.”

Watcher stepped forward and gently shook her head. “Being ordered to disband and actually doing it are two different things. As far as the rest of world knows, the Order disappeared after the Nightmare Wars, but they continued in the utmost secret as we still do.”

“But there hasn’t been any evidence for centuries. Conspiracy theorists have been debunked time after time.” Twilight knew she should be gathering more information, but she was stuck on this one impossible fact. How had any of this gone on without anypony knowing?

Colgate gave a slightly boastful grin. “A number of those conspiracy theorists worked for us. It’s a lot easier to get debunked if you muddy the waters with obvious absurdities. We’ve learned to move with stealth and never leave evidence behind.” The second half of that sentence had an ominous ring to it, one that Twilight did her best to ignore.

“But at the height of its power, the Order Triune had thousands of ponies. It was a force almost as large as the army! How did that many ponies hide? They couldn’t have.” She paused as a light dawned behind her eyes. “But they didn’t, did they? They really did disband and leave the Order behind. Only the truly dedicated, only the zealots remained.”

One of the hooded unicorns snorted angrily. “Don’t call them zealots! They were loyal beyond all others. They held to their vows despite all they had been through. They were sworn to serve and protect Equestria, not the Princess. Not either of them. As are we.”

Twilight studied the bristling pony carefully, intently. As though she were a bug beneath a lens. “And you’re doing a fine job of it. So tell me, brave and noble protectors of Equestria, just how kidnapping me saves the world.” She’d meant it as sarcasm, but the look on Colgate’s face said it otherwise.

“Like I said. You’re in danger. He has risen again, and he has wormed his way to your side and into your heart. We believe he means to corrupt the Elements of Harmony from within before revealing his true power.”

The words sent a chill down Twilight’s spine, but her analytical side, the larger part of her by far, refused to believe it. “Even if the Order Triune survived in secret that doesn’t change the fact that Obsidian the Undying is just a legend. There is no concrete evidence that he ever came back from defeat, much less from the dead.”

The pegasus grunted doubtfully. “So all those black unicorn stallions who claimed the same name and tried to conquer Equestria with flames and demons were all coincidences?”

“Given that they were six different ponies with six different cutie marks? Yes. They all used the same name because they wanted the same thing: power. And names are one of the greatest sources of power. Obsidian was a pony of legend, and he claimed that he could not be killed. What better way to make ponies fear or follow you than to take his name for your own?” Twilight glared at them. Anypony with even the most basic degree in magical study knew that the kind of magic they were talking about was impossible. More than that, she felt like she was missing something. The pounding in her head had lessened, but it was no less distracting than it had been before. There was an important connection that she hadn’t made somewhere. The persistent feeling irritated her almost as much as the Order’s ridiculous claims.

“True, we don’t how or why he has a new body and a new cutie mark every time he returns.” Colgate conceded. “But you’re wrong about the number. He has returned more than a dozen times. It is only through careful vigilance and the tireless work that the Order has caught him so many times before he rose to power.”

“What does that mean? Do you investigate everypony?” Twilight asked, unsure whether or not she wanted the answer to that.

Colgate shook her head. “Not everypony. We just keep tabs on any unicorn stallion who is black or especially skilled in magic. And the most likely mares too; just in case he attempts to trick us that way.” Colgate brightened slightly. “That’s why I’ve been your dentist for years. Of course after you became an Element of Harmony the mission changed from suspicion to protection, but even before that I never thought you were him.”

Twilight was livid, not the least by the revelation that Colgate had been watching her. “So you spy on ponies and act as judge, jury and executioner when they don’t meet your standards?! You don’t even realize how much of a self fulfilling prophecy that is? The Order never did that before they fell.”

“They never did it openly.” Watcher corrected. “We have only seen one return since the Nightmare Wars, and that was almost seven hundred years ago. Even then the Order was stronger than it is now. They did not find him until he was a full grown stallion. Did you ever read about the Gigantic?”

“The largest merchant ship ever built. It sank due to unknown reasons and the hoofful of ponies that actually managed to reach the life boats were all mad from thirst and sunstroke by the time help arrived.” She replied automatically. “But that’s stupid, you can’t be saying−” she began.

“That he was responsible?” One of the hooded unicorns, the same who had bristled earlier, interrupted. “He was. Fifty seven members of the Order got on that boat after we traced him to it. Then the ship sinks mysteriously? Those sailors who survived weren’t driven mad. Everypony only thought that because they blamed demons for the death and destruction, but we believed them.”

Twilight suspected that the survivors’ medical records would tell a different story, but she didn’t have the references to prove it. She also found it hard to deny the existence of demons after seeing one herself. There were other tacks she could try, though. “What about Princess Celestia?” Twilight asked. “Don’t you think she would have noticed if it was the same pony? That, just maybe, she would have said something to that effect?”

Watcher gave a coarse laugh, one deep enough to make Twilight doubt her gender again. “I am sure the Sun Princess knows, but the better question is whether or not she would share that knowledge.” Taking note of Twilight’s expression, she continued. “It would not be the first secret she has kept from the general population. Did you learn about demons and the Astral Plane from a public library or a book from her personal collection?”

For a moment Twilight was confused. “Do you mean the Nevernever? Princess Luna calls it the Outer Realm, but ‘Astral Plane’ is a new one to me.”

Colgate cocked her head sideways. “I’ve also heard it called the Outer Realm, but I’m not familiar with your name for it. Where did you learn it? One of the Princess’s books?”

Twilight shook her head. “Actually I learned about it and demons both from Blackstone.” She paused for a moment in thought. “Sometimes I wonder if Princess Celestia would have even mentioned them if I hadn’t found out on my own.” She stopped, not because she was done speaking, but because her audience was ignoring her. They had gathered into a huddle and were speaking urgently in low voices. Something she just said had evidently upset them.

The nagging feeling at the back of her mind intensified at that, and it reminded Twilight of a colt that wouldn’t stop chanting his mother’s name until he got attention. With a short breath she finally stopped resisting and began to review the previous conversation, trying to pinpoint the problem. Finding it didn’t take long. They claimed that not only had Obsidian returned, but that he was close to her.

A black unicorn stallion that was close to her.

“Dresden.” The name was a whisper on her lips, but Watcher still heard it.

“Who?”

Twilight looked up and her eyes flashed with fear and rage. “You’re talking about Blackstone. You think he’s Obsidian.” The purple unicorn’s tone left no doubt that it hadn’t been a question.

“We don’t think, we know,” said the other unicorn the one who hadn’t spoken until now. “We didn’t want to believe it at first, but after what we’ve seen he couldn’t be anything else.”

“That’s why we’ve had to get you away from him.” Colgate said, stepping in. “He tricked everypony into thinking he’s good, but we know what he really is.”

Twilight’s tongue nearly tripped over itself in her rush to speak. “But he’s not! I know him! He might be a little scary, but he’s not evil. He saved me, Spike, all of my friends and maybe even all of Equestria the last time he was here.” It took surprisingly little convincing to make her jailers listen to her story.

Twilight began from the moment she met Dresden, omitting only the fact that he was human. Hopefully, she could at least keep that a secret, even if convincing them took revealing everything else. The story took longer than she would have expected, but her audience listened attentively the entire time. One of the unicorns even began taking notes. At last she reached the end, abbreviating it to a good-bye at the entrance to the Nevernever rather than at its exit. With a weary, but satisfied, sigh she addressed them. “Now do you understand why he isn’t Obsidian?”

The hooded ponies exchanged glances. Something about their reactions failed to reassure her. It didn’t help that none of them answered her question.

“Do you understand?” Twilight felt herself becoming cross again. Normally she hated to feel this way, but right now it was welcome distraction from the cold fear that had begun to churn in her stomach.

The pegasi cleared his throat. “We understand how it would look that way to you, but …” Twilight’s insides clenched painfully tight at those seemingly innocuous words. “We view it a little … differently.”

“How?!”

The arrogant unicorn, the shorter of the hooded ones, laughed. “You don’t find it even slightly suspicious that this demon shows up at the same time as your friend ‘Blackstone’. Or how intent he was on killing Trixie? She was a loose end, a pawn that turned on him. He gave her the demon, and she helped him get closer to all of you. Did you really believe that he could use a spell even you have never heard of to track down your missing dragon?”

“He saved my life after I took the attack he’d meant for Trixie!”

“Well of course he did.” Watcher replied. “The Princesses would have hunted him without rest if anything had happened to you. Besides, now that he has, both you and they treat him like a hero. It was the only sensible choice at that juncture.”

“Really?” Twilight sneered. “I suppose being hit by the Elements of Harmony and destroying the Nightmare was part of his plan too?”

Here Colgate and a couple of the others seemed doubtful, but the taller of the hooded unicorns nodded. “Why not? It gave you a reason to trust him.”

Twilight cocked one eyebrow and stared at him incredulously. “And you think he could still be evil after feeling the power of Harmony?”

“I don’t think you really understand evil, Twilight.” The hooded unicorn stared at her from the shadows of his cowl and Twilight felt a shiver run down her spine. “Evil isn’t a stain the Elements can wash off somepony’s soul. It isn’t a disease that Harmony can cure. Real evil is a choice. The choice to do that which is wrong even though you know what is right.” His voice turned cold, and even though she didn’t show it, Twilight winced at his words. “And unless you can take away a pony’s ability to choose, you can’t stop them from being evil.”

“He’s not evil!” Twilight shouted. “I told you about the Soul Gaze! Do you really think he could hide something like that from me after I saw so much of him?”

Watcher shook her head. “That is only true if you believe him. There is no such thing as a Soul Gaze, Twilight. The Order Triune has records stretching back for thousands of years and there has never been any magic like that. It is hard to accept, but he tricked you.”

Twilight felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. Acidic bile began to rise at the back of her throat. “Don’t say that. He could never have done something like that.”

Watcher continued, heedless of her words. There was a hidden anger in the earth pony’s voice, directed not at Twilight but at Blackstone. “He is using the power of friendship against you. He is just using you to get what he desires then he will toss you aside. He is just waiting for the right moment and if we let him, he will rain death and destruction upon all of Equestria.” Her voice turned gentle, almost apologetic. “I am truly sorry for what we have put you through, but he must be stopped. No matter what the cost.”

There it was. Somewhere in her mind, in some dark corner, Twilight knew that this was what they had meant. They were convinced they were in right and nothing she could say or do would shift them. Their minds were already closed.

They were going to kill Dresden.

“NO YOU WILL NOT!” Twilight said, her voice so powerful that it was felt rather than heard. It wasn’t a question of volume; it was a matter of presence. The room shook and dust fell from the ceiling. All of the ponies present assumed defensive positions, but none of them looked optimistic about their chances.

Twilight felt her power gather, and was shocked by how much she had. Her magic, normally a placid reservoir, was a raging sea of mana. It was so much wilder and angrier than normal, but then she had a good reason for it. Her confrontation with Trixie was the first time she had ever truly feared for her friends’ lives. Twilight had sworn then and there that nopony would ever threaten them again so long as she drew breath. Lightning crackled along the length of her horn as she prepared to charge.

But before she could cast even a single spell, thunder tore through mind. Pain unlike anything she had ever known ripped through her, and her power winked out like a snuffed candle. Twilight screamed long and loud until it felt like her throat would break. She wished she would black out, the pain was already more than strong enough to have guaranteed that under any other circumstance, but the inhibitor ring kept her conscious. Eventually, though she couldn’t tell whether it was minutes or hours later, the raw agony subsided into a lesser torture and her strained vocal cords finally gave out.

Her legs folded as her tense muscles relaxed and she dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. Her eyes slowly closed, but she remained conscious. Sort of, anyway. Everything was very strange, more like a lucid dream than anything real, but Twilight thought she heard voices speaking. Somepony lifted her gently and laid her on the bed. She tried to open her eyes, but they refused her weak attempts. At least her ears still worked.

“Sweet suffering Celes−” one voice (the pegasus?) began.

“Don’t,” another commanded. The taller unicorn, Twilight thought

A pause.

“Sorry. It’s just…” another pause. “She nearly overloaded the inhibitor ring. I don’t think they were designed with somepony like her in mind.”

“Maybe, but it did its job.” That was Colgate. She almost sounded … regretful? “Almost too well. Will she recover?”

There was another uncomfortable silence.

“The pain is only supposed to last a few seconds, but I have never heard of anypony pouring that much energy into a ring before. Either she forgot she was wearing it, or she was just angry enough not to care.” Watcher, maybe.

“It’s probably the second. She was not happy after she realized what will happen to Blackstone. I hope she didn’t hurt herself.” That time Twilight couldn’t tell whose voice it was.

There was some shuffling and a mutter that Twilight couldn’t make out. Apparently she wasn’t the only pony.

“What was that?”

“I said,” Colgate stated challengingly, “‘and if she did, isn’t that our fault?’ I never thought we’d lock her up and clamp a ring around her horn when I brought her in. She’s the Element of Magic! We should be helping her!”

Twilight’s ears perked up at that statement. The pain had subsided into a persistent, but dull, ache and her mind had finally started to clear. Can’t let them know I’m awake, was the first cognizant thought she had. Her eyes stayed shut and breathing remained as slow and regular as she could manage. Twilight’s burning anger had been quenched by the pain of the ring, though it had left more than a few embers behind. Overreacting and getting hurt wouldn’t help Dresden. No matter how difficult it was she needed to remain calm and think of a way out of this.

The conversation her captors were having right now certainly sounded interesting. Did Colgate actually regret working with these maniacs?

“We are helping her.” The shorter unicorn returned angrily. “Would you rather we chained her beneath a waterfall to stop her from using magic? She’s convinced that Blackstone is her friend, and knowing her, she’d stop at nothing to defend him.”

“And what if she’s right!?” Colgate shouted.

There was nothing but a shocked silence for several seconds. Then Colgate broke it in almost babbling hurry. “It’s just … I’ve met him, he doesn’t act evil. He isn’t normal by any stretch, but I –I’m starting to have doubts.”

There was more silence, this time heavy and judging.

“You’re right, Romana. He doesn’t act evil.” The taller unicorn had started with a gentle voice, but it suddenly became hard and unyielding. “But that’s only an act. He is Obsidian, and we’ve got more than enough proof at this point. Anything that suggests otherwise is just an attempt to confuse us.”

“ But Mark…”

“But nothing. You’re falling for his trap and you can’t even see it. Don’t say anything like that around anypony else. They might not be so understanding.”

Another harsh silence fell until somepony stomped towards the door and slammed it open.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to find her a doctor. The Order is more than a gang of thugs, and it’s high time somepony acted like it.” Colgate slammed the door on her way out hard enough to rattle the books in their shelves. Somepony let out a deep sigh as she left.

“Do you think he got to her?” the shorter unicorn asked. The tone of her voice suggested that there were several unpleasant things in Colgate’s future if the answer was yes. Twilight remembered them mentioning being chained beneath a waterfall, and she couldn’t suppress a shudder.

“No.” Watcher said. “She is herself. She is just angry after what happened to Twilight. Still, we should find her before she does or says something she will regret.” There was murmured agreement at that and the group left Twilight’s room. Twilight waited patiently, lying still until she was sure they were gone. Of course, Watcher could still be there and she’d have never known.

The tired scholar bit her lip and tried her hardest to listen. She heard nothing, but that was hardly a guarantee. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Twilight sat up slowly and stretched, faking a large yawn. Her act was wasted since there was nopony in the room, but it was just as well. She wouldn’t have fooled anypony with a routine that forced.

The light made her eyes hurt, but after she blinked away a few tears her vision returned. The room was the same as she had left it. The members of the Order had not brought or taken anything. Her legs were asleep and she nearly collapsed to the floor when she tried to get out of bed. Several seconds of unladylike cursing didn’t help find her balance, but they did make her feel better.

Twilight paced back and forth, trying to restore feeling to her limbs, when she caught her reflection out of the corner of one eye in the small mirror. She wasn’t a vain pony but any means, but she couldn’t resist taking a look at herself. What she saw didn’t please her.

Her face was sallow and drawn. She was feeling mostly okay now, but it was obvious she’d been through an ordeal. Her hair was sticking every which way, but whether that was due to her stress or the shocking power of the inhibitor ring, she couldn’t say. The ring was locked just as tightly around the base of horn, but the strain of reflecting her magic had taken a toll on it.

Veins of silver, and other, odder metals, had risen to the surface of the restraint. Or maybe the stolen power they pulsed with had simply burnt away the insulating alloys around them. The inner workings and construction were exposed now, not terribly different from the ancient ones Twilight had studied.

A new thought sparked behind her eyes, and for the first time since she had awakened, her smile was neither forced nor sarcastic. She rushed to the desk and found that it had plenty of ink, paper and several quills. Good, that was everything she needed. An abacus would have been nice, but she could do without one.

Twilight returned to the mirror, inspecting the delicate tracery of metal inside the ring more carefully. Her face lined in determination, calculations and formulae already darting through her mind like fish in a great school. The Order Triune had underestimated her. Impressive as her magical ability was, that wasn’t why Celestia had accepted her as a personal student. It was Twilight’s mind that set her apart, and that was one thing they couldn’t take away from her.

Her smile widened as she planned her escape. She had seen their best, now it was time to return the favor.

Chapter Nine

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony; that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Nine

Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, Rainbow Dash had tried to teach her friend Fluttershy how to cheer. The timid pegasus had plenty of enthusiasm, but she was quiet as church mouse. Dash had done her best, but her best just hadn't been good enough to get even a decent shout out of Fluttershy.

“AND YOU JUST LEFT HIM THERE?!”

Things were a little different now.

Rainbow Dash wasn’t afraid of anything, especially not a shy mare like Fluttershy, but when the little animal lover got into one of these moods... well... Dash had handled easier storm clouds. Dresden, or Blackstone, as they were supposed to call him (and Dash had to admit the new name was cooler) was holding his own against the storm, but just barely.

“No, Fluttershy. I carried a ten ton hydra almost two miles, just in case you could do something about the poison.” Dash noticed that, despite Blackstone’s backtalk, he was careful to stay out of reach of the frantic pegasi as she gathered her first aid kit. She smiled to herself. He was pretty darn mouthy, but he wasn’t stupid, and turning into a pony hadn’t changed that a bit.

Fluttershy hadn’t known what to make of ‘Blackstone’ at first. She had been even shyer than usual, even after Dash had explained that it was just Dresden. The constant blushing and inaudible sentences had been annoying, but Blackstone must have had some freaky powerful hearing, because he picked up on every word. Not that hearing her was currently a problem.

“You should’ve said something the moment you came in! Every second counts when you’re dealing with something like that!” The yellow pegasus glanced into her basket, nodded to herself and shot out the door without a backwards glance. Rainbow Dash let out a heavy sigh, as Blackstone stared after her incredulously.

“Is she serious?” the black unicorn asked. “The manticores were one thing, but she wants to take care of a thirty-foot rampaging hydra?”

“Hey, that’s Fluttershy’s thing. Don’t knock it,” Dash said, poking Blackstone in the flank with none-too-gentle hoof. Okay, yeah, she was kinda weird about animals, but that didn't mean Blackstone could make fun of her for it.

Blackstone shook his head and moved to follow the cottage’s owner. “I’m just saying that girl shouldn’t be so quick to jump to everything’s aid. She wouldn’t last ten minutes in the Nevernever.”

Dash shot through the open door ahead of him and banked into a sharp circle to hover beside him as he hurried down the track. Once they were eye-to-eye, or as close as they were going to get, she gave him a glare. “She may not be tough, but nothing can stop her when something needs her.”

“And that’s what would get her killed,” the dark unicorn replied. That made no sense, and Blackstone must have seen it in her expression, because he went on explaining. “It takes a hell of a lot more strength to be kind than to be cruel. Every time she treats a dangerous animal she’s putting her life in its hands, or claws, or whatever. Most Fae creatures have no concept of kindness; they only see it as weakness. Those few who do understand compassion, exploit it. They wait for you to lower your defenses, then they strike.” His voice was hard and flat, with a rumble like a distant storm underneath it. “Trust me. I’ve dealt with more than enough faeries to know.”

Dash fought to keep herself from shuddering. Blackstone was cool, no denying that, but sometimes he could be really scary too. Beneath that relaxed cynicism was a pony of steel and fire. One who wasn’t afraid to do what he thought was necessary.

The crack of breaking bone echoed in her head as remembered him bringing down the hydra. He’d laughed like a madpony as they barely escaped the massive jaws of one head, then sounded nothing more than coldly satisfied when the poison started to take effect.

Don’t get me wrong, she thought to herself. You don’t get to be as awesome as I am without knowing how take care of business. But Blackstone went beyond that. It wasn’t hard to believe that his entire world was basically one giant Everfree Forest. How does anypony live in a place like that? Blackstone had already given her the answer to that, even if it wasn’t in words. Be the toughest, strongest creature in the forest and trounce anything that challenged you.

Dash couldn’t help but glance at him, wondering why he ever went back. She hadn’t known him for long, but she knew that he deserved better.

Blackstone turned to look at her just in time to catch her staring. Dash flushed slightly in embarrassment and quickly broke eye contact. She almost looked back when he groaned in put-upon anguish. “Hell’s bells, not you too.”

Dash blinked. “What?”

He sighed. “Thus far, ninety percent of the female population seems to think I’m the hottest thing since toasted bread. Please, please tell me that you aren’t one of them.”

Dash’s jaw dropped and for a moment she speechless. Then she started to laugh, so hard that her stomach hurt and she looped and wobbled across the sky. She struggled to gain some altitude before her erratic flying took her into a tree. It took a minute for her to calm down, but Blackstone waited. When she was finally able to look at him without breaking back into laughter, she hovered down to his side.

He raised an eyebrow. “Should I take that as a ‘no’?”

That almost set her off again, but she managed to keep it under control. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re one of the last ponies I’d date. And not just because you’re really a great big monkey behind that magic.”

The black unicorn let out a deep breath. “Thank God. If you were, I don’t think I could run away fast enough.”

Dash shrugged, but the gesture came with a cocky smirk. “You couldn’t, but there's nopony who could if I was after them.”

Blackstone laughed at that, but he wasn’t the only one. That voice from before, the rude one, was laughing with him. Dash bristled, her face heating up as she spun toward the sound. “Who, or what, is that?!”

“Way to go, Bob,” Blackstone said through a facehoof. With a short sigh, he squared his shoulders and stared back, somehow without quite meeting her eyes. “That’s Bob, my assistant.” The following explanation was one of the weirdest she’d ever heard, and knowing Ponyville, that was saying something. In the end, Blackstone had to show her Bob’s skull before she believed a word of it.

“Woah.” Dash said. When she moved the orange lights in the skull moved to follow her. Almost like a pair of real eyes. It was hard to tell whether Bob was the coolest or creepiest thing she’d ever seen. It was a tough question, but she was leaning toward creepy. The whining certainly didn’t help the case for cool.

“Now you’re going to apologize for that crack you made before the hydra showed up. You’re not the only one who doesn’t forget stuff.” Blackstone said, nettling the skull.

“Do I have to?” Bob complained petulantly. His employer wasn’t amused.

“Yes, because there isn’t enough superglue in the world to fix you if you don’t.”

Bob muttered something about knowing a good source of glue, but after some hem-hawing he finally spoke up. “I’m sorry for insinuating that you performed carnal favors for recompense.”

Dash blinked, then turned to Blackstone. “What’d he say?”

Blackstone sighed. “He said he’s sorry, and let’s leave it at that.”

“Though I do have one question, if I may,” Bob said. Blackstone’s eyes widened and he hastened to silence the spirit, but Bob hadn’t waited for a reply. “If you aren’t attracted to Blackstone, what kind of pony do you like?”

The blue speedster shrugged and replied easily. “Well, I like big wings.”

Blackstone’s expression changed from one of mild panic to the look of a little colt who’d just seen the pile of presents at his birthday party. Dash had seen him do that before -- it meant he was about to say something weird. She wasn’t disappointed. “So, you like big wings and you cannot lie?” he asked trying to hide a smirk.

What the hay was that supposed to mean? “I don’t see why I’d deny−” she started, glaring, only to be interrupted by gales of laughter from both Blackstone and his creepy friend. The black unicorn was laughing so hard he had to stop walking for a second to collect himself.

Bob recovered first. “That was funny, but it didn’t really answer my question.”

Rainbow Dash thought about it as she hovered. She tried to think fast; they were almost back to where they had fought the hydra. And Bob would talk to Fluttershy only over her dead body. “I dunno. I’m not really interested in romance, but if I did find somepony, they’d have to be athletic. Somepony who could soar with me for miles. Just the two of us and the endless sky.” She couldn’t help but imagine the crisp scent of high atmosphere, the roar of the wind in her ears and the warmth of somepony nearby. Dash flushed slightly trying to banish the thoughts from her mind. She was way too cool to get caught up in a mushy fantasy like that.

Surprisingly, Bob didn’t mock her statement, but he didn’t seem happy with it either. “That’s great, but I wanted to know−”

“More than what’s appropriate.” Blackstone interrupted. “Now shut the hell up.”

They had just crested a small rise, from which they could see the fallen hydra and the yellow speck of a pegasus flitting around it. Fluttershy seemed very busy as they approached, darting here and there. She had just finished splinting one of the hydra’s enormous legs. Dash puzzled over that for a moment. Blackstone came to the realization a bit sooner.

“Wait a minute. That thing isn’t dead?” He sounded surprised, and maybe even a bit relieved.

He,” Fluttershy corrected firmly, “will be fine, given some time to heal. All of the breaks seem clean, and nothing pierced his scales, though it was close in a couple of places. It will be a while before he can walk again, but he’ll be okay.”

“Yeah, but what about the poison?!” Dash burst out, throwing her hooves in the air. “That’s what knocked him out the fight. Blackstone threw the whole bag of treats down his throat -- not cool, by the way -- and down he went.”

Fluttershy glanced over at Blackstone, suddenly noticing how close he was. She blushed slightly, her voice growing more restrained. “Well, not to be rude, but it wasn’t poison, exactly.” Dash strained to hear her and fought back a sigh. Now that her ‘patient’ was safe and Blackstone was back, Fluttershy acted as timid as ever.

The yellow pegasus floated over to the nearest hydra head and lifted one huge eyelid. “See?” The eye was blank, but not glazed over. A rumbling snore from one of the other heads just confirmed what was already obvious.

“It was a sleeping drug?” Blackstone said, sounding, if possible, more surprised than when he had found out the hydra was still alive.

Fluttershy retreated further behind her bangs, and her voice grew softer still. “Sort of. Take a closer look at his eye.” Both unicorn and pegasus moved forward, but once they started to examine it, the anomaly was obvious. Some of the veins in the white of the eye were a dull green, instead of a normal red or blue. As they watched, more of the tiny blood vessels changed colors, the shade tracing its way slowly from the edge inward.

Dash didn’t bother to hide her shudder. “Okay, so that’s creepy as all get-out, but what does it mean?”

Fluttershy cleared her throat and actually spoke up slightly. “That’s what happens when an animal eats a Slumber Shroom. It’s a little blue mushroom with orange spots. There are a lot of them in the Everfree forest, but you can find a few around Ponyville too if you look hard enough. Most animals know better than to eat it, but every once in a while a baby bunny or hungry badger tries one by accident.”

Blackstone rubbed his chin with one hoof, his balance wobbling slightly. “And it works that quickly, huh? What happens if you eat too much?”

Fluttershy nodded. “Well, depending on how much they ate, some animals will sleep for days, but I’ve never had any last longer than a week. I’ve never heard of an antidote, either.” Her face grew troubled and she ducked behind her bangs. “It can be dangerous. I almost lost a pair of bunnies to dehydration because nopony found them until a couple days after they tried some. But as long as I give them food and water, there aren’t any other ill effects.”

Dash let out a breath. That was a huge weight off of her wings. Fighting the hydra was one thing -- she had no problems kicking flank when she needed to -- but killing it had been something else. Blackstone had been willing to do it because he thought it was necessary, and Dash had a hard time saying he was wrong. Whatever had been driving the hydra wasn’t going to stop until Blackstone, or maybe both of them, were dead. They’d dodged a bullet this time, but what if it was necessary again? What if she was the pony who had to make that call? What if she had to choose between... killing... somepony else, or letting them kill Dresden?

While Dash was struggling with a burgeoning moral dilemma, Blackstone seemed occupied with other thoughts. He stared at the hydra, mumbling slightly to himself, then he patted the front of his coat. His eyes widened and he came to some type of realization. He spoke in a slightly breathless voice. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing.”

Then he stomped the ground with a sudden fervor, making Fluttershy ‘eep’ and jump into a bunch of nearby bushes. He didn’t notice. “Of course, that explains so much!”

Dash snapped out her thoughts and landed next to him. Somepony needed to keep her hooves on the ground, though she couldn’t believe it was her. “What are you talking about? And what was that about hands?”

He answered in a rush. “It means that there’s been a breakdown of communication. Two groups that should be cooperating aren’t working together. Case in point, my assassins.”

That elicited a gasp from the bushes, and Fluttershy struggled out of them a few twigs and leaves stuck in her mane. “A-a-a-assassins?” Her eyes were wide, and her mouth began slowly drop open in horror.

Blackstone was oblivious to her surprised statement, but Dash realized with a start they had never explained to Fluttershy why the hydra attacked them. And after that they hadn’t had the time to mention any of the other attempts. Before she say something though, the full impact of Blackstone’s statement hit her. “Wait a minute. Assassins, as in plural?”

Blackstone nodded. “The styles are too different to be the same bunch. I should have noticed that right off. Half the attempts, while untraceable, were still really blatant and unrestrained.” He ticked off points with successive gestures. “Exploding welcome wagon, falling anvil, crashing cart and a compelled hydra. No matter how much skill they took, they were still really messy. Any one of those could easily have hurt a lot of other ponies. It’s as though they wanted to kill me no matter the cost.”

“But at the same time there were several far more subtle attacks. The sleeper hold in Rarity’s boutique, the pins in marketplace, and the drugged candy were all restrained, and most of them weren’t even deadly.” He glanced down at his front pocket and frowned. “In fact, I’m starting to doubt that the pins are tipped with poison. It’s probably more of that sleeping drug. Even if they accidently pricked someone else, it wouldn’t be fatal. And that mysterious shield in the marketplace probably wasn’t from the same pony who messed with the cart; they would already be long gone. This was done by somepony who wanted to bring me in quietly and without hurting anyone.”

Dash was starting to follow him better; it made sense when he put it like that. “So there are two different ponies trying to kill you?” she asked.

He gave a curt shake of his head. “More likely it’s several. We’re probably dealing with two groups, or two separate parts of the same group. That’s what my instincts say, at least.”

Fluttershy shivered in fear. “That’s terrible! How could anypony want to hurt you, Mr. Dresden? Much less k-k-k−” she couldn’t finish the word, and let out a soft sob. The yellow mare bowed her head and started to cry softly.

Blackstone winced, his face betraying a guilty pain. It was the first crack in that stoic mask of his that Dash had seen. He wrapped the shaking pegasus in a gentle embrace, his long forelegs easily circling her, and made reassuring noises as she cried. Dash hesitated for only a moment then she hugged her shy friend too. Gilda would have laughed at her for acting so soft, but if Fluttershy really needed her, then that cool image went right out the window. Her friends were a million times more important than something like that.

“I’m s-sorry.” Fluttershy said, her words coming between fresh lines of tears. “I shouldn’t be crying like this. I-It’s just that the night in T-trixie’s castle was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. I’ve had n-nightmares ever since. Nightmares where she won, where the traps worked, where I had to watch…” She let the sentence hang incomplete, but continued on. “I thought it was all over. I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about my friends like that ever again.”

Dash’s stomach wrenched as she squeezed her friend, holding back a few tears herself. Why didn’t she ever say anything? Fluttershy had never seemed any different, and Dash hadn't suspected there was anything wrong. But seeing her now it was obvious the toll their terrifying adventure had taken on the innocent mare. It… hurt to see her friend like this, to know that she hadn’t been there for her.

The blue daredevil had had a few nightmares, waking up screaming and covered in her own sweat, but she thought she’d been the only one. Even then, it was only a few, and they had faded after the first couple weeks. Had Fluttershy really been suffering like that the whole time? Rainbow Dash wished she knew what to say, but she wasn’t any good with words. She just held Fluttershy even tighter.

Blackstone spoke after a moment, and his voice was serious as a heart attack, solid as steel. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’ll protect all of you.” Dash snorted, letting him know how much she needed that protection. Both her friends chuckled slightly at that, but Dash knew it wasn’t enough.

Blackstone seemed to realize that as well. He paused and let go of Fluttershy, pulling himself away from her. “And I’m sorry to ask you this, but I need you to be brave again. It won’t be as bad as Trixie’s castle, but it’s still going to be dangerous.”

Fluttershy blinked back a couple tears, shaking slightly. “But I’m not brave. I’m a scaredy pony, a coward.” Her eyes dropped to ground, and her voice fell to a whisper that Dash could barely hear, much less understand. “You don’t need me.”

“Horse crap!” Dash shouted, startling both Fluttershy and Blackstone. She let go of Fluttershy and hovered angrily nearby.

“Rainbow!” Fluttershy gasped, her mouth wide open.

Dash glared at her. “Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t swear, but that was nothing but the truth. You’re one of the bravest ponies I know. Who stood up to the giant dragon and made him leave town? Who stared down a cockatrice and made it change back everything it’d turned to stone? Who stopped a giant stone snake in its tracks and held it there?” Dash smiled, her tough demeanor disappearing. “You did. And you can do even more. I’m sure of it.”

Fluttershy stared at her friend, hope and fear warring in her eyes. “But I’m scared,” she said breathlessly.

Blackstone put a hoof on her shoulder. “Not being afraid isn’t courage, that’s insanity. Or maybe stupidity. Being brave is doing something despite the fear.” He gave her a smile of his own, tired and sad, but one that still said he believed in her. “And by that definition, you’re the bravest pony here.”

Fluttershy blushed, her cheeks turning bright red, but for once she didn’t try to look away or hide herself. She was quiet for a long moment before she rose to her hooves and brushed away any lingering tears. “You’re right. I can’t just sit here and cry. You said your puppy needs me.”

The yellow pegasus began to pack up her kit again. Dash and Blackstone were waiting on the other side of the unconscious hydra as she hurried over to them. They started off at a fast trot, though it was still a slow pace for Dash. She caught her friend glancing back worriedly at the sleeping reptile, and Dash rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry, Fluttershy, he’ll still be there when you come back.”

Blackstone raised an eyebrow as if to say, Where else would he be?

Dash responded by sticking out her tongue.

Fluttershy ignored the by-play and sighed. “I sure hope so. But if we find the pony who did that compelling I’m going to give her a piece of my mind.”

Dash was certain she would, and for a brief second she actually felt a tinge of sympathy for that pony if Fluttershy ever caught them.

………

The Books and Branches Library wasn’t anything special in Dash’s opinion. Books were for eggheads, and while trees made good places to nap, the beehive hanging on one of the branches made that a grade-A bad idea.

But she’d never been so glad to see it before. Blackstone wasn’t at the door just yet, but his pace would bring him there before too long. She itched to catch up. He had insisted on going first once they entered Ponyville, just in case the Shadow Ponies made another move on him. That way she and Fluttershy wouldn’t be in danger. Or at least farther from it than standing right beside him. Her tail twitched in annoyance. She hadn’t wanted to trail him, but he pointed out that from behind they would spot anything he missed and they were close enough to come to his aid in case anypony made a try for him.

Luckily nothing had happened. There had been a lot of ponies looking at Blackstone, but none of them had done anything. Dash had thought it was his ego talking when he mentioned how many mares thought he was a top stud, but the evidence backed him up. There were a lot of mares who just outright stared at him as he went by. It was like when Big Mac came to town. Times ten.

Dash shook her head. “Can you believe that, Fluttershy?”

Her friend started at the sudden question. “Believe what?”

“All of those fillies drooling over Blackstone. I mean, he’s cool guy and all, but still.” The town stallions didn’t seem to know whether to hate or admire him. Though a few of them had looks that were very similar to the mares’ expressions. Maybe the sleeping potion wasn’t an attempt to kill; Blackstone might just have a really creepy fan. One who wanted to keep him all to herself.

Dash made a disgusted noise and tried to shake the thought off. Then she realized that Fluttershy hadn’t responded to her question yet. She turned to find the shy pegasus blushing and staring at the ground. Thinking quickly, Dash put two and two together and got five.

“Oh. Sorry, ‘shy. I should’ve known you don’t like talking about stuff like that.” She paused but bulled ahead anyway. “It’s just weird, especially knowing what he really looks like.”

“It’s not that weird.” Fluttershy murmured. Her voice as loud as a butterfly’s wing beat.

“Sorry, what didja say?” Dash asked leaning over and cupping a hoof to her ear.

Fluttershy shook her head. “Nothing.”

Up ahead, Blackstone had finally reached and entered the library. At last. Dash grinned and raced forward, her friend following at a more restrained speed. There weren’t many ponies hanging around the library today. Not even anypony enjoying the shade from the huge tree.

Dash glanced at the sign as she entered and saw that it was flipped to ‘Open’. She almost ran into Blackstone’s rump; the black unicorn had stopped cold only a couple feet past the door. Glancing over his shoulder, Dash saw that the library was as empty as the street outside. Well, almost, anyway. Spike was dusting the shelves of a spotless room. The little dragon grinned when he saw them. “Hey guys! How’d Twilight’s appointment go? Does she still have that perfect record?”

“She isn’t here?” Blackstone asked, his voice tight with concern.

Spike looked confused. “She never came back after her dentist appointment, so I thought she was with you. You know, showing you around and everything.”

Blackstone closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay, so we don’t know where she is. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anything went wrong.” It sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than anypony else, but Dash didn’t say anything. He turned away from Spike, his dash up the stairs giving lie to his previous reassurance.

In the meantime, Fluttershy had already found Blackstone’s dog, if the cooing and baby talk from the opposite side of the room was any clue. With Blackstone gone, a confused Spike turned to Rainbow Dash for answers. “What’s going on? Why does Blackstone look so worried?”

“Somepony’s trying to bump him off.” Dash’s mouth stretched into a thin tight line. “And considering that, no wonder he’s upset that nopony knows where Twilight is.”

Spike’s eyes grew until they were the size of saucers. “Is it Trixie again? Did the Nightmare come back? Is it zombies!?”

Dash shook her head. “He doesn’t think so and I’d agree with him. This is somepony else.” She reflected on the past conversation, and frowned. “More like several someponies. And if they even touched Twilight,” she growled, “I’m gonna give them a beating they won’t ever forget.”

“You’re damned right about that.” Blackstone said as he thundered down the stairs. His pockets bulged with strange items, and he was holding his scarred staff. His face was grim and his eyes flashed with anger. “Here’s the plan. I’m heading over the dentist’s office to see if I can pick up her trail. Rainbow, I need you to check with the rest of the girls and find out if they’ve seen her. If they haven’t, send them over to the library. We might be overreacting, but it’s more likely that we’ve got a full-blown emergency on our hands.” He yanked the door open with a burst of telekinesis and marched towards it.

There came a low growl from the back of the room, followed by a weak, but still fierce bark. The little dog Fluttershy was treating tried to stand up, glaring at the front door.

“Oh, what’s wrong, boy? Does it hurt?” Fluttershy asked, trying to calm him.

Blackstone didn’t even glance at his dog, his eyes immediately widened, and his bracelet began spitting sparks again as he charged it with magic. “They’re waiting for us outside.” He said his voice hard. “We’ll rush them in three.”

But Dash wasn’t willing to wait that long. The blue speedster gritted her teeth and stretched her wings in a series of quick exercises. “No way. These bozos are getting what’s coming to them now!” Before the black unicorn could say anything she had already shot through the open door like a bullet. The second Dash was clear of the door frame her wings shot out to their full span and gave one gigantic flap, launching her into the air. Dash glared downwards, using her altitude to get a good view of the ground around the library.

She had outmaneuvered half a dozen ponies on the ground dressed in plain, unremarkable armor. Dash grinned to herself, they’d been caught off guard and now they were easy pickings. The best chance earth ponies or unicorns had against a pegasus was if they caught her on the ground. Now she was untouchable and could attack them at speeds they couldn’t come close to matching. Altitude was the best weapon a pegasus could have.

Unfortunately, the enemy understood that principle just as well as she did. Three pegasi burst out of a concealing cloud above her. Dash barely had time to glance upwards at the sound before they released a weighted net right on top of her. She twisted to the side, but the movement came too late. The net curled around her from every direction at once. The thick strands cut into her wings, strapping them to her sides. Dash began to drop like a stone, and her opponents, all of them clad in armor similar to the ponies on the ground, quickly surrounded her.

A wave of panic shot through her and every instinct screamed at her to fight for altitude. Dash ignored them. She was a strong flier, but trying to fly with the net over her would only tangle up her wings and drop her that much faster. Instead she carefully spread her wings, forcing the net off of her body and giving her some breathing space. That wouldn’t work forever. Her muscles were already beginning to scream in protest as they fought against the heavy weights, but it was long enough.

Dash pointed her nose to the ground, snapped her wings shut and dove. The net began to close on her again, but she’d held it open just wide enough. The blue pegasus cleared the bottom strands of the net right before it closed again. The pegasi chasing her didn’t move to intercept, but then the ground was really close and she was going really fast.

This is gonna be a close one, Dash thought, licking her lips nervously. She pulled back on the angle, spread her wings, and tried to pull out of her headlong dive. A few longer blades of grass lashed her stomach as she streaked past, and then she was rising again. She’d managed to regain fifteen or twenty feet of height, but her opponents were in hot pursuit and still had the advantage. Dash didn’t have the speed or altitude to fight them head on. Luckily, she didn’t need to.

Vento Servitas!” roared a powerful voice from below. A fierce gust of wind suddenly hit the trio of pegasi from underneath, catching them by surprise and tossing them like leaves in the wind. Dash glanced down to where Blackstone was fighting the ponies on the ground. One of the unicorns was already down, hopefully just stunned, but the earth ponies and the other two unicorn were pressing him hard as he defended the door way. One of the pegasi dove to surprise him from the air, and Dash caught a glint of metal hidden among his feathers. But Spike, who was riding on Blackstone’s back, for some reason, puffed out his cheeks and sent a burst of flames toward the aerial enemy. It couldn’t have done more than singe him, but it was still sufficient to hurt and confuse the attacker long enough for Blackstone to grab him in a red-orange aura and slam him to the ground.

The entire sequence took only a few seconds, during which Dash gained some altitude, trying to keep an eye on both the two remaining pegasi at the same time. It’s wasn’t until she felt a rope draw tight around one of her legs that realized that only two of earth ponies were still fighting Blackstone. The third had pulled out a lasso and had snagged Dash with a throw that would have done Applejack proud. The heavily-muscled stallion gripped the rope tightly in his teeth, hoping to hold her still while his friends moved in for the attack.

Dash didn’t fight the pull. She’d been in more than enough fights with Applejack to know that you didn’t beat an earth pony in a contest like that. The best Dash had ever managed was to pull her off the ground by a few feet, and even then, the effort had been torture on her wings. This bruiser was closer to Big Mac’s size than Applejack’s, and he was wearing armor. His eyes widened in surprise as she flipped and raced toward him, but he stubbornly held onto the rope. That suited her just fine.

Dash whipped around him in a tight turn, the circular movement jerking him off his hooves. She powered forward, pushing through the pain of towing him. She couldn’t let him get any traction or he’d stop her cold. She moved toward the battling ponies and shot past one of them so close that she swore she could see the nicks in his armor. Either her baggage didn’t realize in time to let go of the rope, or he had too much forward momentum to stop anyway. The stallion holding her tether crashed into the one she had just passed and they went down in a heap. Free of her constraining weight, Dash moved even more quickly. Blackstone was beating the stuffing out of the remaining ponies, but Dash wasn’t going to let him have all of the fun. She skimmed the ground, putting her hooves down and twisting her entire body around only a couple feet from her target. Her hind legs shot out, transferring all the force of her breakneck speed into a kick that sent a lightly-armored unicorn mare flying and her sword skidding across the ground.

The last earth pony standing charged Blackstone head on, ignoring the flames that Spike sent his way. The poor idiot never realized that those were the least of his obstacles. A hardwood staff snapped up catching him across the chin, then spun around and delivered a crushing blow to his back. “Forzare!” the black unicorn cried, as he smashed the charging warrior to the ground. Dash flapped her wings, gaining some height though the rope still dangled from her left hind leg. Their attackers were beginning to get back up, all except for the stallion at Blackstone’s hooves. They were bruised, and a little bloody, but not yet beaten. One of the pegasi gave Blackstone a smoldering glare, but his ears twitched at the distant shouts of other ponies.

Dash wasn’t surprised. The fight had been loud enough for ponies in Canterlot to notice. From the noise, half the town was headed their way. The pegasus glaring at Blackstone was evidently in charge, because he barked out a quick order and the rest of them converged on him. The unicorns lit their horns, and before Dash realized what they were doing, all eight ponies disappeared in a flash of light. They had gotten away quickly, but only by leaving behind the fighter Blackstone was all but standing on.

Dash’s mouth dropped open as she realized that they had sacrificed their friend for the clean getaway. The shock faded as her blood began to boil. “What a bunch of weak-winged cowards!” she screamed at the empty air. “Get back here, you backstabbing sons of nags, and take what’s coming to you!” Nopony appeared to answer Dash’s insults, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to disparage their characters and ancestry.

Blackstone was more occupied with their captive. With his telekinesis, he dragged the beaten warrior into the library, pausing only to strip him of his bladed bracers. Dash finally gave up her tirade and moved to follow, not because she was any less angry, but because she had run out of insults. She eyed the weapons as she passed, privately glad she hadn’t faced the nasty-looking blades head-on.

As they entered, Fluttershy rushed forward with her first aid kit. “Oh goodness, are you three okay?” The yellow pegasus was worried, but thankfully not panicking. Dash shook her head. She was sore all over, but she didn’t have any injuries.

“I could use a throat lozenge.” Spike said hoarsely, rubbing his neck. “I’m not used to breathing that much fire that quickly.”

“Nothing critical.” Blackstone said. Her friend wasn’t even breathing hard, but for some reason he was covered in sweat and shaking slightly. “Besides, we need to deal with this guy before we do anything else.” He glared as the pony at his hooves tried to rise. A swift blow with the staff stopped that, and the large stallion collapsed back to the floor.

Dash stared at him, getting a good look for the first time since the fight had begun. She’d already noted his color, a strange kind of greenish purple, but now she could tell that his mane was metallic blue, and his eyes were a bright gold. Dash didn’t make a habit of memorizing everypony in Ponyville (unlike a certain friend she could name) but, this guy didn’t spark even a flicker of recognition. He wasn’t focused on her, though. Every ounce of his hate filled gaze was fixed on Blackstone.

The black unicorn was regarding him with open hostility in return. Blackstone leveled the staff at his face and spoke in a measured, but still furious tone. “Answer me three questions honestly and I swear to you on my power that you will be treated well and released after this is all over.” He leaned down, the red in his eyes making them look like two burning coals. There was just as much heat in his voice as he bore down on the motionless earth pony. “But if you lie to me or refuse to answer I will make you suffer in ways you can’t even imagine. Where is Twilight, who are you idiots, and why are you trying to kill me?”

Blackstone leaned back watching him warily. “And I want answers in the next thirty seconds. Tick tock, buddy.”

The downed stallion gave Blackstone a look of utter loathing and replied. “Go to Tartarus, Obsidian.” Then he bit down on something. There was a flash of light, and Dash backed off instinctively, but there wasn’t any damage and the light hadn’t been bright enough to blind anypony. The only difference she could see was that the earth pony’s expression had gone from one of absolute hatred to one of intense confusion.

Gold colored eyes blinked innocently, inspecting the world around them without understanding. “W-where am I? Who are you?” He suddenly seemed to choke and spat out a cracked piece of wood, scarred lines running throughout it.

Blackstone slammed the stallion against the wall, holding his staff in the hollow of the pony’s throat. “That’s not what I asked. Where. Is. Twilight?”

The dumbfounded pony sputtered helplessly, “Wha- what?”

“Where you from?” Blackstone roared.

The previously threatening fighter looked close to crying. “What?!”

“What ain’t no country I ever heard of!” he yelled. Dash almost stepped forward. He was being really tough on this pony, but then it was hard to blame him given what they had been through.

“What?”

“Do they speak English in ‘what’?” Dash almost felt sorry for the strange pony as Blackstone continued his bizarre verbal assault.

“What?”

“English! Do you speak it?!”

“No! I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where your ‘Twilight’ is, I don’t who I am and most importantly I have no idea what an ‘english’ is!” The terrified pony closed his eyes tightly and cringed away from the threatening unicorn, obviously expecting the worst.

Only for Blackstone to start laughing. He didn’t remove the staff or back away, but somehow the interrogator from Tartarus image disappeared, all with a few weary chuckles. “None of you ponies can ever get the quotes right, damnit. Just when I thought I’d finally gotten one, you mess it up.” The dark unicorn sighed, brought out the black mesh bag that had been hanging at his side, and pulled out the freaky skull inside. She glared at him, but held back. Now wasn’t the time for arguing.

Blackstone positioned Bob so that his orange eyes were staring into the gold ones of his captive. “Tell me what just happened, Bob.”

Bob whistled, though how he did it in the absence of lips Dash had no idea. Fluttershy was staring in ill-disguised horror at the macabre sight, her mouth hanging slightly open.

“Damn,” the skull commented, its tone intrigued. “That is one hell of a memory charm.”

Fluttershy fainted, and if Dash hadn’t moved quickly, the shy pegasus would have just dropped to the floor. The captured warrior followed her example and hit the ground only seconds later.

“So what are we dealing with? What was that flash and why did he go from Sergeant Slaughter to Pansy the Wonder Wuss?” Blackstone asked, moving the skull so it could inspect their prisoner’s head from multiple angles.

“I hope you realize that you’re asking me to theorize on a completely foreign type of magic, at short notice, right after an intense combat situation−”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Blackstone interrupted. “You’re hell on wheels with a flaming chainsaw when it comes to this stuff. Ego stoked, now give me the analysis.”

Bob let loose with an overly dramatic sigh. “Fine. The charm, rune, or whatever equivalent the unicorn magic system has, just wiped this guy’s mind. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have even the slightest personal memory. The subconscious stuff is untouched, but you couldn’t pull anything useful out of there without a lot more time and trouble than it’s worth.” The skull grunted in an almost admiring tone. “Whoever did this was good. Fast, clean and with barely a trace of residual magic. I guess it beats giving them cyanide pills, but that gets into moral territory, and I can’t really judge there.”

“Damn.” Blackstone said with quiet vehemence. He glared at the unconscious stallion for a second before rolling his shoulders and turning to face Dash. “Okay, new plan. I need you to handle the police and anypony else who shows up here, I need Fluttershy to take care of this idiot and keep him safe just in case he is useful somehow, and I need Spike to research anypony named Obsidian, maybe fictional, maybe historical.”

The sound of approaching ponies was growing louder by the second and at this point a knock at the door was all but inevitable. Dash still glared at Blackstone, letting out her breath in a huff. “And where will you be during all of this?”

Blackstone gave her a daredevil smile and picked up his oaken staff. “I’ve got an appointment with the dentist.”

Chapter Ten

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Ten

“It’s like the bad guys around here have a hard-on for kidnapping.” I snarled under my breath. After the adrenaline from the fight faded, all of the emotions it had shoved to the wayside came back in full force.

Have you ever seen a father after his child goes missing? They somehow combine desperate fear with boiling anger yet still have that quiet hope that they were wrong and little Sally is just playing next door. Any parent worth the title went through that. When I started out as an investigator, I worked for a man who specialized in lost kids. After a few cases, after seeing what could happen to those kids, or never finding them, I thought I understood what it felt like to have someone you loved go missing. I hadn’t known how wrong I was until now.

Twilight wasn’t my daughter, or even my apprentice, but that didn’t stop a cocktail of unpleasant emotions from slowly filling me. Bitter rage and several helpings of guilt churned in my stomach. I growled in frustration, making the mare across the street back away, trading her admiring glance for a nervous one. I wanted to growl again, just to let her know that I was in a mood foul enough to deserve a warning from the Surgeon General. Instead I tried forcing my expression to change into something a bit less grim. Acting like that wouldn’t help me find Twilight. If anything, it could hurt the investigation. I know I wouldn’t volunteer any information to a guy who acted like he was looking for an excuse to break something.

I don’t know how well I managed, but nopony reacted like that first mare, so I must have done all right. The dentist’s office was only a couple streets over, so finding it wasn’t that hard. I’d never seen the place before, but something told me I had the right place -- maybe the huge tooth-shaped sign that said ‘Colgate’s Dentistry’. The first thing I did was walk past without even looking at it. Peripheral vision told me that the windows were shuttered, and the sign on the door was flipped to ‘Closed’. I stopped at a small café a couple stores down.

Some subtle questioning and a friendly waitress, who to my pleasant surprise didn’t act as though I was her dream date, gave me all the info I was likely to get. The waitress, Misty Dawn, had seen Twilight arrive this morning and enter the office. Sometime between one or two hours later, the sign had been flipped to closed, but she wasn’t certain when. Mostly importantly, Misty hadn’t seen Twilight leave. She blamed a mid-morning rush that caught the café by surprise, but I had darker suspicions.

She hadn’t seen anypony other than Colgate arrive at the office this morning either. I smelled a trap, but I couldn’t tell whether it had been one for Twilight, or if she was just the bait to draw me in. I belatedly wished that I had brought Mouse along, but I doubted Fluttershy would let him go anywhere until he was well. I left the café and walked aimlessly, pretending to be lost. Really, it was just a ploy to check for any shadows.

If anypony was tailing me they were much better at hiding than I was at seeking, because not even my jumpiest instincts were saying anything. Given that their ambush squad had retreated less than half-an-hour ago, I figured I probably didn’t have any eyes on me at the moment. I circled around the block once more and came at the office from behind. Mouse outclassed me when it came to sensing danger, and Bob could read patterns of magic with the same ease that I could read written English, but none of that meant I was helpless on my own. I closed my eyes, and with a subtle effort of will, I opened my Sight.

The Sight is complex in the same way that the sun is hot. I had tried explaining it to the ponies on my last trip, but I don’t think they had really understood it. The Sight shows you the truth with a capital ‘T’. Plenty of famous and well-quoted people have said wonderful things about the truth, but that just goes to show that they’ve never really seen it. Truth tears away every mask, every lie about what the world really is, stripping bare the walls of reality itself. You can see things of such breathtaking beauty that you cry for hours afterwards, and you can watch horrors so unspeakable that they’d give Cthulhu nightmares. And you can’t forget them. Not ever. You can keep them out of mind for a while but when you do think of them, there they are: as vivid and detailed as the minute you first saw them.

All of that is a long way to explain why I seldom use the Sight despite the ability’s power. ‘Mental stress’ doesn’t even begin to cover the madness that can result. A while ago, I shut down this warlock who was making a potion that opened the Sight in magic-less humans. It hooked harder than crack even as it drove them crazy. That was half a decade ago, and not one of them has ever shown any signs of returning to the land of the sane.

When I opened my eyes, all I could see at first was fear and pain. The office was wrapped in a bluish miasma of psychic energy that reverberated faintly with the screech of a dentist’s drill. Squat, shadowy forms ranging from baseball to basketball size crawled over the roof and walls of the building, chittering to one another as they sucked in the miasma through round, jawless lamprey-mouths. Shades were generally harmless, too small and weak to really deserve to be called ‘demons’. The worst they could do was give you a brief chill and a twist of nausea, but a crowd of the hideous things gave the place an aura of menace.

I wasn’t unnerved or even surprised. That was par for the course for a dentist’s office. This particular dentist’s office, though, had more underneath. In the Sight, the walls were built from interlocking symbols and patterns, twisting and reforming in endless cycles. It was a Byzantine mosaic, a fractal design that hinted at secrets within secrets. I frowned at that. For all the layers of misery and mystery hidden within the structure, nothing I saw hinted at anything overtly sinister. That would square with the ‘get thee behind me’ attitude from the mind-wiped moron, but not with the more reckless attempts to kill me. Unless, of course, they thought I was dangerous enough to warrant the risk.

Great, I thought. Another group of self-righteous zealots. Like I don’t deal with enough of those already. The White Council was instrumental in defending humanity from the darker parts (i.e. the majority) of the supernatural, and I’d defend it to the death, but that didn’t mean I loved the assholes that made up most of the organization. Not after how many times they’d tried to string me up.

Abstract analysis aside, the office was empty. I don’t think the windows were actually broken out, the door boarded over with plywood or the yard choked with weeds, but the Sight was never so direct as to put a ‘this place is abandoned’ sign on anything. Colgate wasn’t just out at the moment; she was gone for good. I shut my eyes, and with them the Sight, giving myself a moment to recover. I hadn’t brought my lock-picking kit (how the hell would I use it?) but a small crowbar served me here just as well as it had in Chicago. If anything, the lock on Colgate’s back door was easier than anything I’d faced in the Windy City.

There weren’t any wards, but I wasn’t that surprised. Their bases and safe houses probably had them, but I doubted that their homes or businesses did. Anonymity had been their best card; if they acted unusual, they’d attract attention. It was a decent strategy and might even be a good defense most of the time, but I prefer a good set of wards and a shotgun myself.

I searched the office quickly and quietly for anything that hinted at their agenda. I doubted it would be out in the open, but a secret room, a locked drawer or an encoded day planner might be the key to finding Twilight. Unfortunately, Colgate was evidently aware of that. Given the mess she’d left behind, I was betting she had taken anything helpful with her when she bugged out. And if she had missed something odds were slim that I could pick it out of all the debris she’d left behind. I gave the place a once-over away looking for a hairbrush (manebrush?) or anything else I could use to track her with. So long as it had a recent hair or two, I could establish a thaumaturgic link.

I didn’t find one, but I hadn’t counted on that. I cleared away a good portion of the floor, which thankfully was wooden instead of linoleum, and drew a large circle with a piece of chalk. It wasn’t perfectly round, but then my telekinesis wasn’t exact enough just yet. Once that was settled, I pulled out a brush I had taken from the library. Unless one of her friends was in the habit of leaving their stuff in Twilight’s bedroom, odds were it was hers. Of course, all of the purple hairs in it narrowed the list of possible owners even further.

Selecting a few of the topmost (and hopefully most recent) hairs, I sat down and began my spellwork.

………

“Not a damn one!” I snarled, slamming my hoof to the floor hard enough to splinter the wood beneath. It also made my hoof hurt like a bastard, but I had at least been smart enough to use my unburned extremity.

In a way, the pain was a welcome distraction from my abject failure to successfully cast any of my best spells. Not every wizard can trace things like I can, and I’d always taken some pride in that ability. But there were limits to everything. No matter what I tried, it couldn’t find her. Hair wasn’t the best possible focus -- that would be blood or actual tissue -- but it still created a decent link. Not to mention that I’d used it often enough to be well familiar with its strengths and limitations. I tried several various spells, everything from a compass enchantment to a dowsing locator that would have given me distance and a bearing, to a charm that would let me follow her spiritual footprint like a dog chasing a scent trail.

None of them came through. Either the spell failed or I threw too much energy into the focus and burnt it out. The attempt at dowsing had done the best, and all it had given me was ‘north-ish’. Not northwest, not northeast, not ‘due north’. Just ‘north-ish’.

The problem could be as simple as Twilight being out of range, but the maximum distance for one of those spells was a couple hundred miles. It was possible that she had been moved that far in a few hours, but unlikely. Unless one of the Shadow Ponies could do extremely long range teleportation, I didn’t see how they would have transported her that far that fast without giving themselves away. So, either she was behind a decent set of wards or somewhere that naturally canceled magic. There weren’t a lot of candidates for the second, which would take a lot of running water or certain types of crystal, so the wards seemed more likely.

I’d been hoping that I’d be able to pick up Twilight’s trail, but it was obviously cold. I doubted Colgate’s house held anything helpful. Even if she had left behind something I could use to track her, odds were good that she was behind the same wards. The only thing to do now was head back to the library. Hopefully Spike had dug up something useful. If not, I’d try to trace down our memory-challenged captive. The guy looked pretty distinctive. Somepony had to know who he was.

I gathered up my supplies, erased the chalk circle, and scattered some papers back over the space I’d cleared. If anyone else showed up, I didn’t want to leave any trace that I’d stopped by. The busted lock made secrecy an exercise in futility, but the less connecting me to the scene of the crime, the better. Especially since it looked more like a robbery than an investigation.

I left the same way I had came, pausing only to make sure I wasn’t walking into another ambush. The coast seemed clear, so I made a beeline for the library. I tried to keep to the alleyways, partially because I figured the Shadow Ponies would be looking for me on the streets and partially because my temper was stormier than ever and I didn’t feel like trying to hide it from anypony. My options were hardly exhausted, but the group hunting me wasn’t going to just sit around while I played detective. It wasn’t just the attempts on my life, now they’d taken Twilight away, and who said she was their only target?

I stopped short, wishing that thought hadn’t just occurred to me. It wasn’t that I thought none of them could handle themselves; after some of the stuff they’d done in Trixie’s death trap, I’d never think that. But Twilight was a pint-sized powerhouse, and the Shadow Ponies had still managed to spirit her away. I kicked my ass into gear and hurried towards the library. Hopefully Mouse would be feeling better, because his spider-sense was the best insurance against nasty surprises I’d ever seen.

I reached the library without any sudden attacks, though the hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle about halfway there. I didn’t catch anypony looking at me, but my gut told me I was back under surveillance. I ignored them as best I could. With any luck, they didn’t know I was aware of them. Strangely enough, the feeling faded once I reached the library. Assuming it was based on more than just paranoia, why weren’t they watching me here? This was my de facto base of operations. The crowd had dispersed over the past hour, and though there were still a few ponies hanging around, the streets were hardly packed. So why were they pulling back?

This just screams ‘trap’. I thought grimly. What else could make them retreat?

I got my answer when I opened the front door and was bathed in light. For a second I was blinded. Instinct made me pump energy into my shield bracelet even as I levitated my staff into a defensive position and dove to the side. It wasn’t until I heard a beautiful, regal voice that I realized what was going on.

“Ah, I was wondering when you would reappear, Mr. Dresden.” Princess Celestia said, the brilliant shine from her horn dimming.

I blinked as the revelation settled in. My first thought was Please tell me she hasn’t talked to Bob. My second was Oh yeah. Why not ask the immortal pony queen for help? Seeing that it’s her student who was kidnapped. Still, I was more than a little nervous. Not just because I was facing a creature that had the power of a Fae queen without any of their constraints, but also because Twilight had been taken by the nutcases gunning for me. I wasn’t to blame, but I doubt she excused me entirely.

“And a good afternoon to you too, your majesty.” I said, stepping in and closing the door behind me. The Princess was the only one in the main room at the moment but I could hear movement coming from the kitchen and upstairs. I crossed the room and set down my staff before turning to face her. “Shouldn’t you be calling me Blackstone, though? I thought you were the pony who wanted me to go by that.”

She frowned slightly, and suddenly looked through me instead of at me. I felt a cold sweat on the back of my neck, and I couldn’t look away, despite every fiber of my being telling me to do just that. Whatever she was doing, it was obvious that she was examining me with more than just normal vision. According to Twilight, ponies didn’t have the Sight, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if the Princesses were capable of much more than their subjects even knew was possible. Whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her, since I wasn’t blasted to pieces or forced into a telekinetic submission hold.

A gentle smile lit her face again, and she answered my question. “Is that what she chose to call you? I asked Twilight that you take on a pseudonym, but I never specified what name you should use. How … interesting.” She said with the air of someone fitting a puzzle piece into place.

I bristled, but did my best not to show it. “Now isn’t exactly the time to play cryptic games. I’m assuming that Spike and the girls already filled you in on the situation. Twilight is gone and even my most reliable spells were useless. Unless you can fix our prisoner’s head, we don’t have a lead.”

“I am well aware of Twilight’s absence. Spike sent me a letter shortly after you left and I arrived as quickly as I could. I sent orders back to Canterlot and even now my guards are beginning to comb all of Equestria in search of her. As soon as Rainbow Dash returns with Applejack and I am certain of the Elements’ safety, I will leave to lead them in their search.” Celestia let out a regal sigh, and folded her wings. “As for that poor pony… I examined him, and I’m afraid that the damage is irreversible. His memories were not suppressed or taken; they were destroyed. I could no more restore them than I could recreate a book from its ashes after somepony burned it.”

I swore under my breath at that news. From the way her ears flattened slightly I think she heard me. I cut short the muttered expletives and focused on the problem at hand. Nothing came to mind, but if anypony knew what was going on it was Celestia. “Do you know who these crazies are? Something about them just screams ‘ancient cult’ to me. Maybe an Illuminati-type group, but I’m leaning more towards cult. They aren’t skilled enough for a group with any real power, and the loathing when that pony called me ‘Obsidian’ just screamed ‘zealot’.”

Celestia’s face changed to a neutral, thoughtful expression. “I have my suspicions, but I must hope that they are wrong.” She shook her head softly. “Even if I am correct, that gives me no clue of Twilight’s whereabouts. All of the Order’s fortresses were demolished centuries ago; I oversaw their destruction myself.”

I frowned. I didn’t like it when people were cagey, but she had slipped enough to give me one piece of info. “The Order, huh? So what’s the scoop on them?”

The Princess made a mildly dismissive gesture with one hoof. “It does not matter. I would ask that you stay here and assist my soldiers in guarding the other Elements of Harmony. They cannot keep Twilight hidden from us for long, and until then, the safety of her friends is the highest priority.”

I snorted derisively, which incidentally isn’t a good idea when the creature you’re snorting at could vaporize you with an angry word. But then I never had much of a track record when it came to good ideas. “Yeah, right. They may be amateur assassins, but if they’ve hidden from you this long, odds are they’re pretty damn good at staying undercover.” She blinked in shock. I doubt anyone had spoken to her like this in centuries, if ever. I pressed my advantage, giving her a stony stare. “A manhunt might work for normal fugitives, but not these ponies. You need me. My spells may not have worked, but I’m a trained investigator. Even without magic, I can find her.”

Celestia frowned, this time more severely, and while I’ve seen expressions that were scarier, none of them had been delivered by anything as powerful as her. She got rid of the expression before my suicidal half made me mouth off, but her tone was still stiff and formal. “I am aware of your abilities, ‘Blackstone’. More so than even you are yourself, I suspect. But I will find my student myself.”

A wise man would have taken the hint and kept his mouth shut. “But your best spells have already failed, haven’t they? If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be talking about searching for her. They know how to hide from you. But they have no idea what I’m capable of.”

“And that,” she said, with more sadness than anger in her voice, “is why I will not let you search for Twilight.” It was my turn to be surprised, and she fixed me in place with a stare unlike any other I had ever known. Even Fluttershy’s enigmatic ability was nothing compared to this. “You are a good man, but you are also a product of your environment. The last murder in Equestria happened over thirty years ago. The pony guilty of the atrocity was a deeply disturbed individual, and his actions shocked and horrified the entire country. Conflict is no stranger to Equestria, but lethal force is.”

She continued staring into my eyes with a relentless power that completely paralyzed me. I felt the beginnings of a Soul Gaze, but my mouth refused any effort to voice a warning, and my eyes refused to close. Then, with a sudden and painful mental impact, the sensation stopped. Celestia didn’t even seem aware of what had just happened, meaning that she probably wasn’t seeing any more of my soul than I had seen of hers. It wasn’t that she didn’t have one; I’ve felt that before when locking eyes with the Fae. She had a soul, but something in her very nature prevented me from seeing it. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more for my protection than hers.

What are you? I thought. While I was stunned, my mouth opened of its own accord. “I don’t understand.”

Celestia sighed, finally releasing me from that overpowering stare. “I am not calling you a murderer, but you have killed before. I fear that your anger at those who stole Twilight would lead you to do so again. It would even be justified, after their attempts on your life and their disregard for the safety of those around you, but I wish this to be resolved with as little bloodshed as possible. Giving you free rein would only aggravate the situation.” She paused and glanced over my shoulder. The Princess broke into an indulgent smile and she raised her voice, injecting a small note of humor into it. “And if you’d like to join the conversation, all four of you are welcome.”

I turned to see Pinkie, Fluttershy, Rarity and Spike peeking around the edge of the kitchen door. The last three flushed in embarrassment at being caught, but Pinkie seemed immune to shame. She took the invitation at face value and bounced into the main room, eager to add her two cents. “Don’t worry, Princess! Blackstone fought all of those soldier-y ponies that showed up at the library without hurting anypony.”

Everyone, me included, just stared at her.

“Okay, without hurting them much.”

All we needed were crickets chirping in the background to complete the silence.

“Weeellll, he didn’t send anypony to the hospital, and that’s what counts, right?”

I was grateful for Pinkie’s efforts, but I really wished she would stop digging my hole even deeper. I wasn’t going to stop my investigation for anything, but doing it without pissing off a being of phenomenal cosmic powers would be a major plus.

“Umm… if you don’t mind me saying so--” All eyes turned in surprise to Fluttershy and she squeaked, shrinking back. After a moment, though she gathered herself and spoke. “I-I trust Mr. Blackstone. He listened to us when we told him to leave Trixie alone, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt anypony. He’s a friend, and sometimes you need to believe in your friends, even when you’re afraid to.” She stopped, but she didn’t look away or blush. The little pegasus just watched her ruler with steady, hopeful gaze.

“I would agree,” Rarity said, moving forward to stand at Fluttershy’s side. “Blackstone helped us find Spike even though he hardly knew us. I won’t deny that he has some … less than admirable qualities, but nonetheless I’m certain his efforts could not hurt, your Majesty.”

Princess Celestia considered their words, her eyes closed. I crossed my fingers (mentally, at least,) hoping that she’d come around. For once I was smart enough not to say anything.

“What do you think, Spike? Of all of us, you are the closest to Twilight and likely the one hit the hardest by her absence.” Celestia said gently, and only then did I realize that I’d been more than a little preoccupied with looking for Twilight to realize what her kidnapping might have done to him.

Looking at him with fresh eyes, I thought he might have been crying recently. It was tough to tell thanks to his scales, but something in the lines of his face told me that he had been hit hard. Whatever sadness he felt, though, had been put aside for the moment. Now, he looked frightened, but determined. “I think we should do whatever we can to find her. The more ponies looking for Twilight, the better.”

The Princess nodded slowly. “Very well.” Pinkie let out a small cheer, and Fluttershy quietly congratulated me. “However,” she continued. “I expect you to take every precaution and limit your investigation to Ponyville, and I shall send a squad of my finest guards to protect and assist you. Should you discover anything important, you must contact me before proceeding farther. In return, I will keep all of you notified of my movements and let you know the moment I find anything important.”

I shrugged. “That sounds reasonable.” It actually sounded needlessly restrictive, but from her point of view I’m certain it was reasonable. A minor shading of her eyes informed me that she was aware of my less than enthusiastic opinion, but she didn’t say anything about it. Despite my popularity with most of the ponies I don’t think I was her favorite wizard.

I could hardly blame her, though. If I was in charge of the local utopia and some wizard of questionable morality started blundering around and stirring up ancient conspiracies, I’d probably shoot first and ask questions later. Which would hardly be in keeping with the whole paradisiacal set-up. No wonder I don’t run things.

We spent the next several minutes discussing various strategies. She filled me in on the capabilities of her forces and I made some suggestions on their movements. I also discovered what was and wasn’t considered appropriate behavior during interrogation. Apparently my treatment of our captive, who I decided to name Pansy until we discovered his real identity, was too rough. Instead I was to treat any further prisoners as gently as possible while still keeping them from escaping or erasing their memories until the Princess could show up and perform her Jedi mind tricks. Personally, I saw opening up someone’s mind with magic as way more harmful (there’s a damned good reason mental magic is punishable by death back home), but if the ponies had different rules, I could play by them for the time being. Especially if that was the price of searching for Twilight.

Eventually, our two missing ponies showed up in a thunder of hooves. “I came quick as I could.” Applejack said as she and Rainbow burst into the library. “Sorry, ‘bout the wait, but we’re here now.”

“Excellent.” Celestia said as she charged her horn. “Then I must take my leave. I wish you all luck.” Before anyone could respond there was a blinding flash of light and she was gone.

Both Applejack and Rainbow stared at the now-empty section of library. After a moment of confused silence the farmpony asked, “Uh, what?”

“Double for me.” Rainbow added. “I thought we were going to look for Twilight.”

“Allow me to explain.” Rarity said drawing out newest arrivals aside.

“Me too!” Pinkie chirped. Ostensibly she wanted to help, but I wouldn’t put any money on her ability to cast light on the situation. Fluttershy was already halfway up the stairs, though whether she was hurrying to treat Mouse or Pansy I didn’t know. Still, a chance to speak to Spike alone suited my purposes just fine.

“So, dig up anything on Obsidian?” Hopefully I could find out what I needed and get moving before the guards showed up to assist. I’m hardly Mr. Subtle, but a single unicorn, even a very distinct one, was far stealthier than an entire squad of royal guards. Even if she sent me Equestria’s covert ops, I doubted that they’d follow my orders and let me run the investigation the way I wanted. I know cops, and if there’s one thing they hate, it’s someone outside the normal chain of command running the show. Of course, a psychologist might say that my reluctance to rely on them stemmed from a deep seated distrust in people of authority. But since I have yet to meet a psychologist who sees mild paranoia as a survival mechanism rather than a problem, who cares what they think?

“Yeah,” Spike replied, leading me towards what appeared to be a small reading room. It was cozy, verging on cramped for a pony of my size, and was furnished only a plain desk and small lantern. I couldn’t tell much more about the desk because it was covered in books, at least two dozen huge volumes. A couple looked modern but most of them were unmistakably old. Hell, one was even a monster of a grimoire that only needed a leather cover to fit the RPG cliché.

I stared at the modest mountain of books and felt a headache coming on. All of this would be perfect if only I had the time for it. As things were, I wouldn’t have a chance to even scratch the surface.

“Any chance you could give me the Cliff Notes version?” I asked hopefully.

Spike stared at me in confusion. “Cliff notes? Like geology? I thought you wanted something on Obsidian the Undying.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, and shook my head. “It’s just an expression. I wanted to know if you could summarize it. Is there really this much on the guy?”

Spike shrugged. “Not really, only a couple of those books are about him. Most of them are histories of the Order Triune.”

That is what we detectives call a clue. Even if Celestia hadn’t mentioned ‘the Order’ in conversation, I still would have been suspicious. It wasn’t a lead just yet, but it was the first hint of the identities of those nutcases. “Even better. Could you tell me about them, especially the bit about Obsidian?”

Spike nodded. “Before Equestria was founded, the three tribes lived separately. It wasn’t until the first Hearth’s Warming Eve that they formed a common bond.” His tone and delivery were similar to Twilight’s lecturing, but I suspected he would deny it ferociously if I ever told him so. “But not everypony agreed with their leaders. Obsidian was one of the most outspoken unicorn nobles against uniting the tribes. When Equestria was formed, he broke out into open revolt and vowed to conquer all three tribes and rule with an iron hoof. Most of the nobles stayed true to Princess Platinum, but he still had a lot of supporters and disciples. At first the loyal nobles tried to fight him, but thanks to dark magic and deals with evil spirits, Obsidian was more powerful than any other unicorn. Clover the Clever went to the other tribes and to get the help of her friends Private Pansy and Smart Cookie to beat him.”

I was well aware that the ponies he was listed were the equivalent of America’s founding fathers and probably some of the most respected and revered historical figures Equestria had. Even knowing that, I really had to fight not to laugh at their names. I did chuckle a bit, but a hasty fit of coughing covered that up.

Spike gave me a skeptical glance that told me I hadn’t been entirely successful, but he cleared his throat and continued anyway. “So they formed the Order Triune, and together they defeated Obsidian. Afterwards, they kept the Order around to keep the peace between the three tribes. At first they weren’t all that popular, but that changed after all of the attacks on early Equestria. The dragon treaties hadn’t been signed yet, the griffins raided the coast, the changeling legions were on the march, and there were even ponies who still opposed unification. In pre-modern times they were the most important and influential group in Equestria, but after Nightmare Moon was banished, Princess Celestia ordered them to disband. Most historians don’t know why, but some of them suspect it was because they tried to kill Nightmare Moon.” His voice dropped to conspiratorial whisper and he leaned towards me. “And because they came so close to succeeding.”

I nodded slowly, trying to process everything. Most of the history was useless without context, but I’d gotten the gist of it. The only problem was the part where they disappeared a thousand years ago. I’d needled Celestia about them hiding from her, but had they really stayed undercover for that long? “And that’s the last time anypony’s ever seen them?”

He snorted and waved a claw dismissively. “Well there’s always been conspiracy theorists who claim that they aren’t really gone, but they’re the type that believe in sea ponies and go searching for Bighoof. Nopony takes them seriously. I mean anypony with sense…” He trailed off then stared incredulously at me, starting to put the pieces together himself. “Wait a minute, are you telling me−”

“Yes, I am.” I interrupted, grinning broadly. “So, who’s the town crackpot? Because I’d bet my ass that they’re the only pony with the info I need.”

………

“Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?” I groused as I stood still along the edge of an otherwise busy street.

“Yeppers.” Pinkie said. Had anyone told me that she could stay in place for even a minute I never would have believed them, but Pinkie had well and truly proved me wrong. I had a moderate amount of patience, but ten minutes without moving was enough to strain my limits.

I shifted, trying to keep my legs from falling asleep, and damned near jumped when she suddenly barked. “Okay, now!” We started moving again, me at a casual walking pace and her cheerfully bouncing along in that bizarre hopping gait of hers. I had been tempted to come by myself, but not knowing the way was a bit of a problem. The clock was ticking, and I wanted to get there without attracting too much attention or taking too much time.

Pinkie’s strange method of odd ‘shortcuts’ and long pauses had all but killed the second objective, but I had to give her credit. I hadn’t even felt the hint of a shadow, or more importantly, been attacked again. I was still getting the occasional appreciative look, but even those seemed to be slacking off now that the ponies were more used to me. However Pinkie’s instincts worked, they had certainly got the job done.

Another few minutes of what looked (and felt) like random wandering and we arrived outside of an ordinary house. The only thing that distinguished it from any of its neighbors was the presence of a large eye-slit in the middle of the door. Pinkie sprang forward and pounded on the door enthusiastically. After a moment the slit slid open and a pair of amber eyes gave me a suspicious stare.

I opened with a simple, ‘hello’ and nodded. I didn’t bother smiling. If this pony was anything like the conspiracy nuts I’d known, she’d see it as either patronizing or suspicious. Pinkie had other methods.

“Hi, Lyra! How’re you doing? Did you finally get that sonata you’ve been practicing?” The amber eyes swung from me to her and instantly lit up.

“Hi, Pinkie Pie. Did you bring me any cookies? Oh, and who’s your friend?” Pinkie started digging around inside one of her saddle bags, where she no doubt had a lot more than just cookies. I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

“You can call me Blackstone. And I’m here because I believe you are the only one who has the information I need, Miss Heartstrings.” I hoped so, at least. The rest of the group had been less than enthusiastic about depending on her, which, luckily enough, meant they required very little convincing not to come. Their opinions hadn’t been promising, ranging from Fluttershy’s ‘very nice, but easily excitable’ to Dash’s ‘complete screwball’. Still, I had the bruises to prove that there was some kind of secret society at work, so with any luck she’d know something useful.

Lyra considered me for a moment more, but it wasn’t until Pinkie presented a wrapped plate of cookies that she replied. “Okay, you can come in.”

The door opened and I got my first look at Miss Lyra. She was a mint green unicorn with a messy two-tone mane and tail of green mixed with white. Most importantly, she looked well groomed, and she wasn’t wearing a tinfoil hat. That didn’t prove anything just yet, but both facts were points in her favor.

“Thanks−” I began, but she cut me off.

“Hang on, don’t say anything until we’re in my room.” I raised an eyebrow and explained further. “All of the walls are soundproof and I sweep the place for listening spells every other week.” Her expression dropped into a frown. “I haven’t found any yet, but I know they’re keeping tabs on me somehow.” On the surface that sounded more than a little crazy, but remember -- it’s only paranoia if you’re wrong.

Most of the house was spotless, but the room she led us to couldn’t even come close to that standard. It wasn’t dirty, but it was cluttered and disorganized enough that at first I couldn’t even tell it was her bedroom, with the stacks of books, piles of scrolls and pyramids of newspapers burying every piece of furniture except the unmade bed. She didn’t have the classic “I want to believe” poster with a UFO, but she did have a large corkboard, complete with newspaper clippings and pieces of yarn connecting seemingly unrelated stories. Evidently, she believed there was some connection between a ‘parasprite’ infestation and the unexpected retirement of a prominent building contractor.

Pinkie shut the door and we got down to brass tacks. Or, at least, I told an abridged version of the Order’s efforts to kill me while Lyra and Pinkie snacked on the plate of cookies. The unicorn was sitting oddly, using a slouched position that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a human teenager. How she managed it with an equine skeleton was a mystery to me. Personally, I suspected it involved a lot of trips to the chiropractor. Lyra asked a few questions as I told my tale, but otherwise she seemed content just to listen, her eyes almost shining. She was awfully chipper for hearing about multiple attempted murders, but I suspected this was a major breakthrough for her.

When at last I finished, she only had one last question for me. “And you are absolutely sure that he called you, ‘Obsidian’?”

I chuckled. “Without a doubt. Until he let that slip, I hadn’t even heard of them.”

Lyra nodded, a grin slowly stretching across her face. “Then, it’s them! Oh, I’ve been waiting for proof like this.” Her horn flashed a light gold, and a quill, inkpot and small notebook hurried over to her. She immediately began writing, the quill scratching across the paper as she worked. I waited a moment for her to say something more, but she was engrossed in whatever she was doing.

I gave a short, expectant cough to get her attention. It failed miserably. Two more didn’t get me any further.

I rolled my eyes and tried clearing my throat instead. From the way her ear flicked I think she might have actually heard that, but it didn’t make her stop writing.

Pinkie finished off the last of the baked goods and gave me a worried glance. “Do you need a cough drop? I think I’ve got one here somewhere.” she said, digging around in her mane. I did my best to reassure her I was fine, mostly because I was terrified of having to eat something that had been in her hair for God-only-knew how long.

Pinkie frowned, but at least she ceased searching. “Then why were you coughing?”

“I was trying to get Miss Lyra’s attention.” I didn’t bother whispering, but our hostess remained oblivious. I was more than half-tempted to pull the quill away from her and see if she could ignore me after that.

A fit of giggles distracted me from getting us kicked out. The source wasn’t hard to guess. Pinkie tutted as though I was a particularly dull student. “That’s not how you get somepony’s attention, silly! You’ve got to be firm, but polite. Watch me.”

I did so with a growing feeling of trepidation. Pinkie marched over to Lyra and drew in a breath that expanded her chest cavity further than her rib cage should have allowed. “HEY LYRA! Blackstone wants your attention!” That, at least got through to the unicorn, but there was every chance that Pinkie had just destroyed her hearing in the process. “Please?” she added a second later.

I shrugged and rolled with it. “Anyway, I want whatever info you have on the Order. Right now I’ve hit a dead end in terms of leads. Any idea where they might have taken Twilight?”

Lyra planted one hoof on her chin and leaned forward, capturing the classic ‘Thinker’ pose perfectly. I gave it a couple of chuckles, but from the expression on her face she really was thinking hard. “I can’t tell you anywhere for sure,” she with a pensive frown. “The Order had a lot of hideouts and secret strongholds. The Princess destroyed all of the ones she knew about, but there are references to plenty of hidden bases in the documents that survived their destruction.

“You know, it’s funny.” Her expression changed, becoming more thoughtful. “Until now I had always thought the Order was secretly working for Celestia. Of course, if your theory about there being two factions is correct, then it would still make sense.”

I stared at her. Making sense was the last thing she was doing right now. Even Pinkie looked confused. “Could you run that by me again? I think I missed something,” I asked.

“Yeah,” Pinkie interjected. “Why would the Princess hire a bunch of meanies like those?”

Lyra shook her head sternly. “That’s what everypony says, but think about it. Celestia keeps secrets from the public, and she has for centuries. She has to have somepony to keep everything hushed up.”

I grimaced, this was more along the lines I had been afraid. Pinkie just giggled. “That’s silly. The Princess doesn’t do that.”

Lyra arched an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Then why do we know so little about our own history? Everypony thought Nightmare Moon was nothing more than a myth until she returned. And the Crystal Empire vanished without a trace a thousand years ago, but how many ponies have even heard of it? Why isn’t it covered in any history class? Sure, the information’s there if you know where to look, but it’s obvious that somepony doesn’t want us to know. How many books have you seen that cover Discord’s reign in terms less vague than ‘it was bad and a long time ago’? No details, no information, as though historians just decided to take the century off. And all that’s just the tip of the iceberg, some stuff is actively suppressed.”

She hesitated, glancing around as though she was afraid somepony might overhear her. Whatever she saw, or didn’t see, satisfied her because she leaned in and continued. “I have books hidden away that talk about worlds beyond our own. Places of raw magic and lands of powerful beasts. Things that used to be common knowledge until we forgot them. Tales of spirits known as demons, creatures called the Fae, and a mysterious race named ‘humans’.”

It’s time like this I envy my brother, because he has a poker face that wins tournaments. Lyra didn’t look like she was buying my bluff, but it was a wasted effort anyway.

“No way!” Pinkie gasped. “You know about humans too? We should make an ancient secrets club or something. That would be so cool!”

I saw excitement, along with a couple happy tears, begin to well up in Lyra’s eyes. I moved to cut her off at the pass before this conversation went completely off the rails. “Yeah and that’s great but I’d be more satisfied learning some ancient secrets about the Order.” I cast a skeptic glance at Lyra. “That is what we’re here for.”

The mint green unicorn didn’t blush at the cut of my rapier wit, but she did let the topic drop. “Okay, well, among other things, I think I know why they’re after you.”

“They think I’m Obsidian back from the dead.” I interrupted. “Given that they called me Obsidian, and his title was ‘the Undying’, that’s not much of a stretch.”

Lyra pouted briefly but bulled ahead. “Yes, but did you know that you aren’t the first? There have been six recorded attacks of a black unicorn calling himself Obsidian over more than a thousand years. It was a different pony each time, but they all had cutie marks related to magic and used similar spells. The Order believes that Obsidian somehow reincarnates with his memories and powers intact, and their primary mission is to keep watch over Equestria to make sure he never threatens it again. If they think you’re him, they aren’t going to stop until you’re either dead or gelded.”

My eyes widened to the size of bread plates, and I fought the urge to cover myself in a sensitive area. I may not have gotten a lot of use out of that particular piece of anatomy any time recently but I’m still pretty damned attached to it.

Both Lyra and Pinkie divined my thoughts from my expression. That set Pinkie off to laughing again and Lyra blushed. “I meant magically gelded, not literally!” She let out a breath in a huff and gathered herself. “But yeah, you’ve got a lot more to be worried about than Twilight does. They see the Elements of Harmony as sacred to their cause, so they shouldn’t hurt her. They might be interrogating her for information on you, or maybe trying to convince her that you’re evil, but they should treat her well.”

I wasn’t as certain, not after the hydra. He was perfectly willing to attack Rainbow, and she’s impossible to mistake for anypony else. “Yeah, but how do I find them?”

Lyra shook her head. “I’ve been trying for years just to get proof they exist. You’re not going to find them.”

Well, this trip was a bust.

“But,” she said, “you don’t need to. Keep in mind that they’re coming for you.” She shrugged. “You’d have a lot more luck drawing them into a trap than trying to ferret them out once they’ve gone to ground.”

That... was actually pretty damned smart. Not my preferred method for dealing with assassins, but you don’t always get what you want. I was about to ask a follow-up question, when I was interrupted by the sound of a slamming door. “Are you home, Lyra?” shortly followed it.

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple friends over. We were just talking about stuff.” Lyra yelled back.

The voice harrumphed and replied, “You aren’t boring them with those theories of yours again are you?”

Lyra frowned in a put upon manner. “They aren’t boring! Pinkie even thought we should form a club.”

“Well, come out to the kitchen and I’ll provide refreshments. How do tea and scones sound?”

“Great!” Pinkie yelled, springing up and hurrying downstairs.

I raised an eyebrow at Lyra. “I thought you said this room was soundproof.”

Lyra blinked for a moment then realized what I’d figured out before the first sentence. “Darnit. I thought for sure I’d gotten the spell right that time.” This did not fuel my confidence in her analytical abilities, but she had given me some interesting ideas.

“So who does the voice belong to?” I asked. “Your roommate?”

Lyra sighed, her morose expression surprising me. Her voice matched her face as she replied. “Yeah, just my roommate. That’s all.”

I filed that suspicion away, though it wasn’t any of my business. I shrugged and followed her into the kitchen. It turned out, Lyra’s roommate was a cream colored pony with a curly mane and tail. The mark on her flank was three wrapped candies. Her name was Bon-bon, and she was a confectioner. I knew all of this because I had already met her. She was one of the admirers I had accepted gifts from after that debacle in the market place.

“Hey Bon-bon, say hi to my new friend.” Lyra said.

Bon-bon turned around to reply, and then she saw me. There was a second of hesitation, the briefest flash of fear behind her eyes, and I knew she was one who had slipped me the spiked treats.

I gave her a smile that had far too much in common with a shark to belong to any real pony, and quickly began to empower a binding spell.

“Hello, Bon-bon. I think you and I need to have a talk.”

Chapter Eleven

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Eleven

Twilight could see a bright light and nothing else. She didn’t try to go toward it, but it moved closer of its own accord until it filled her vision. She remained calm; this had been inevitable, after all. She only wished she’d had a little longer before it happened.

“Pupil response is good,” the old earth pony said, moving his flashlight away from her open eye. “I don’t think you sustained any brain damage, Miss Sparkle.” The doctor had arrived promptly after Colgate stormed out of the room, and while she was grateful for the attention, Twilight wished he would hurry up and finish. She hadn’t had the chance to even get started on cracking the inhibitor ring before he barged in with a pair of cloaked ponies in tow.

He was the only pony other than Colgate that Twilight had seen without a hood. It could have been because he was near-sighted and needed plenty of light, or merely because he wasn’t concerned with being recognized outside of the Order. Whatever the reason, she found herself relaxing in his presence even though she knew, intellectually, that he was also one of her captors, “Do you mind if I examine a few of your joints and muscles to make sure you didn’t strain anything during the episode?”

Twilight hesitated for a moment, but impatient as she was, it was difficult to tell the kindly old stallion ‘no’. She nodded her assent. Her vocal cords were still raw and aching from her screaming. The doctor said they would regain functionality in a day or two, but until then she was forced to remain silent.

She wished the same was true for another pony. “You don’t have to ask her, Doctor No. She might be staying in a saferoom instead of a cell, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t our prisoner.” That was the pegasus guard set to watch her while the doctor preformed his examination.

Doctor No snorted. “Prisoner or not, she’s still my patient, and I will treat her as such.” The guard didn’t seem happy with that answer, if his dissatisfied grunt was any indication, but thankfully he didn’t say anything else.

The kidnapped scholar didn’t want to harm anypony when she made her escape, but she had already decided that she would do it if necessary. And if the loud-mouthed guard was one of those she needed to hurt? Twilight wasn’t terribly upset by the possibility.

“I have good news and bad news on the ring front,” said the last member of the trio. “Which do you want to hear first?”

The short unicorn mare hadn’t spoken much since she started examining the inhibitor ring, but her size and youthful tone seemed to mark her as several years younger than Twilight herself. She wasn’t sure what to think of that -- did the Order really recruit ponies that young? On the other hoof, it wasn’t unthinkable that she was just a short mare with a young-sounding voice. At any rate, she seemed very intelligent and quite skilled with magical devices. Kind of a pity, she thought, I think we might’ve been friends in better circumstances.

The pegasus shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We need to replace the ring, no matter how harmless the damage looks.”

The young unicorn stopped her work to stare at him. “Did I hear you right? Because, no offense to you, Miss Sparkle, but I’m pretty sure once that ring comes off she isn’t going to let us put another one on her.”

The guard snorted disdainfully. “So drug her again. What’s she going to do while she’s unconscious?” Twilight worked hard to suppress the tremor that his statement caused. Her hooves shuddered for a moment, but she brought them under control even as her mind raced. She couldn’t let that happen. She needed to be able to see the inner working of the ring to calculate the correct frequency and amount of magical energy that would unlock her ring. Each one was unique, of course, and with a new ring she wouldn’t have a chance.

“Try it, and I’ll tear off your wings and make you eat them,” Doctor No replied without looking up or even changing his tone of voice. The causal sound of his threat would have lessened its menace if he hadn’t stated it in such a direct, certain manner. Twilight stared at him, her shock mixing with a healthy dose of fear. Despite his kind demeanor, she had no doubt that he meant his threat literally. The guard must have reached the same conclusion because he took several respectful steps back from the busy earth pony. Doctor No didn’t seem to notice the discomfort of either pony. “Her body is already under strain after everything she’s been through, and I will not permit anything that could harm my patient further.”

An awkward silence followed until the small unicorn spoke. “Besides, if you’ll let me finish, you’ll know we don’t need to. All she did was cook off the insulating metals around the core. It’ll still function perfectly well. If anything, it’ll perform better with all the magic she’s pumped into it.”

Brute, as Twilight decided to name the guard, frowned. “Then what’s the bad news?”

“Well, I said the insulating metal is gone, didn’t I?” she huffed, as though anypony with common sense could spell out what that meant. The room remained silent as the technician waited for the guard to have a realization that wasn’t actually coming.

“Perhaps,” Doctor No said as he experimentally flexed Twilight’s left elbow, “you could explain the significance for those of us who haven’t spent our whole lives studying the intricacies of metal and magic?”

Even though Twilight couldn’t see the other unicorn’s face, her eye roll was clear in her voice. “Fine. It means that while the ring is fine in the short term, it will eventually begin to corrode. In about twenty years, or fifteen just to be safe, the inhibitor will have taken too much exposure to continue working. That’s something you can’t fix even under the best circumstances, much less when she’s still wearing it.” She paused, rubbing her chin with one hoof thoughtfully. “Though this is the first time I’ve seen it myself. Normally, this kind of wear and tear comes from months of prolonged use, not a single day.”

Brute mulled that over for a few seconds, but he clearly wasn’t ready to give up yet. “Yeah, well, what if she uses another big spell? From what I heard, the ring just barely shut her down the first time. Won’t more magic break it?”

The small unicorn gave a sigh that spoke more about the lesser minds she was forced to work with than any scathing remark could have. “No. The ring is at capacity already. It’s supposed to store excess magic to keep the shock painful rather than lethal, but now...” She turned to glance at Twilight, and the captive unicorn could just barely make out a worried face hidden within her hood. “The shock you received the first time was less than a tenth of the power you fed into it. If you try anything even close to that again, I don’t think you could survive the backlash.”

Twilight’s cynical side said that the Order was trying the classic good pony/bad pony tactic, an old favorite of mysteries and detective novels, but something told her the young unicorn was being sincere. And even if they were playing her false, overpowering the ring through brute force still wasn’t an option. Not while the memory of that excruciating pain was still fresh.

“You don’t have to coddle her, Cog.” Brute replied. “If she’s dumb enough to try that again, she’ll deserve what she gets.”

Cog arched her back like a cat and glared at him. If she had hissed, the likeness would have been perfect. “It’s not her fault Obsidian brainwashed her into following him!” She laid a hoof over Twilight’s and patted it sympathetically. “I know you don’t like us much right now, but don’t worry. They’ll find a way to reverse what he did to you and you’ll be right as rain.”

Twilight frowned and tried to speak despite the pain it caused her. “Tha… thas…not…” she fell silent again, her throat aching.

Doctor No gently touched her throat and scowled. “Don’t do that. You’ll just delay your recovery.” Twilight let out a sigh and relaxed as he continued his work. She was keeping her ticket out of here, so what they thought about her didn’t really matter. Hopefully, she could convince them that Dresden was innocent at some point, but for now getting out of here was all that mattered.

Brute still wasn’t satisfied, though. “And what if she messes with the ring directly?” He glanced around the room as though he expected to find a convenient hacksaw or chisel lying around. Twilight had already checked the room twice over, and the tiny blade screwed into the quill-sharpener was the only tool present.

“That…” Cog enunciated slowly, “would be a very bad idea. If anypony destroyed any part of the core, all of the stored magic would escape at once.”

The thought made Twilight’s blood run cold, and even the allegedly magic-ignorant doctor’s hooves shook for a second, but Brute needed it spelled out for him. “And that would be bad?”

“There wouldn’t be enough of her left to bury,” Cog informed him. “It could even collapse the room, given how much power is stored in there.”

Brute glanced at the small band of metal around Twilight’s horn with the first flash of fear she had seen from him. “Oh. Um, okay then. I’ll just... get out of the way so you can finish up. I’ll be outside, so just, uh, yell if you need me.” He didn’t quite run to the door, but his pace was quicker than it might have been ordinarily. Twilight watched him leave with something approaching satisfaction.

Doctor No shook his head and clucked disapprovingly as the door closed. “When I was one of the Slayers, we weren’t afraid of anything. Getting blown up would have been a picnic compared to some of our training.” Twilight wasn’t certain what to make of that, but Cog took the complaint in stride.

“And you had to hike thirty miles uphill in flank-deep snow to get to school even in summer. And Celestia only kept the sun up half as long even though everypony needed to grow twice as much food because families were bigger, and that meant everypony had to share, unlike the selfish brats we’re raising these days. And−”

“And that’s more than enough,” the old stallion huffed. “One thing that’s true, granddaughters showed more respect when I was your age.” Cog giggled in response, while Twilight boggled. These were the ponies who had kidnapped her. They dressed in weird robes, they wanted to kill her friend, and the very existence of their Order was a direct violation to one of Celestia’s commands. They weren’t supposed to have families or make silly jokes.

That made them too … normal.

Twilight desperately wished that she could speak, or even write, but without magic, her writing was practically illegible to anypony but her. Trying to communicate with them, trying to actually find the real pony beneath all of that Order nonsense, wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So she remained silent while Doctor No finished his work. Cog went with him as he left, pausing only to wish her well and express hope that ‘they could fix her brain’. While Twilight didn’t want anypony messing with her head, she was grateful for the spirit in which it was intended.

Once they were gone and Twilight had waited a few minutes to make certain, she went to work. One benefit to her lack of skill with a pencil was that even if somepony came into her room without warning, they wouldn’t understand anything she was writing. Numbers and symbols danced through her mind and she translated them into formulae and notes on the paper.

What she was attempting was not only difficult, but given Cog’s warnings, extremely dangerous as well. While it didn’t take a staggering amount of power to open a ring, every measure of it would reflect back on her if she got it wrong. She brought over the mirror and produced tiny sparks of magic, watching the shift of energy through the veins of the ring. The price for such experiments wasn’t pleasant, but compared to what she had already been through, the tiny shocks were nothing.

Twilight was merely writing when a pony opened her door unexpectedly, but she wouldn’t have known it from the hammering of her heart. “What?” she barked, trying to keep a calm expression. The word hurt her still healing throat but she was too panicked to care at the moment.

Twilight couldn’t see the hooded unicorn’s expression, but his reply carried a mild note of resentment. “I just want to see if you had a preference for dinner. They’ve got herb and veggie soup with fresh cornbread in the mess hall, but I could get you something else if you don’t like that.”

Twilight’s pulse slowed to an even pace as she realized he wasn’t here to drag her away and chain her beneath a waterfall. She gave him an apologetic smile and nodded enthusiastically. The moment the door shut behind him she began cleaning up her work. He hadn’t seemed suspicious, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

Twilight was just starting to get impatient when the door opened again. A steaming bowl and a plate of cornbread glistening with melted butter floated on a tray beside the unicorn. Twilight’s stomach rumbled at the scents of basil and sage and fresh bread. It was hard to measure the passage of time in the windowless room, but she had definitely missed at least one meal. She wasted no time in digging in.

Corn and butter and just a touch of honey melted in her mouth. Whoever’s cooking for these hooded hooligans really knows their stuff! she thought, wolfing another bite. It certainly wasn’t what her imagination conjured up when she pictured the phrase “jail food”.

The cornbread was simple enough, but eating the soup without any magic to help her offered a bit of a challenge. She hesitated over the bowl, her brow furrowed in concentration. There were number of different ways to approach the problem and she wasn’t sure which would work best. The unicorn gave a low chuckle. “I guess soup isn’t the best meal for a unicorn who can’t use her magic,” he said apologetically. “Might I offer a helping... er.”

He stopped and actually stepped back from the glare Twilight aimed at him. It might have been stubborn of her, but Twilight had been feeding herself for a long time and she wasn’t about to be spoon-fed like a little foal. She might not have had an earth pony’s practice manipulating objects with her hooves, but she managed to lift the bowl and sip from it without spilling soup on either herself or the floor. It tasted as wonderful as it smelled.

As the unicorn started collecting the dirty dishes, Twilight let out a contented sigh and sat back. Now that her stomach was full, her body began demanding sleep. She shook her head vigorously, but her fatigue refused to fade. Obviously, she would need some botanical assistance.

The unicorn started for the door, but Twilight flagged him down with a few clops of her hoof on the desk. “Do you need something else?” he asked. Twilight nodded, and attempted to mime drinking some tea. “You want some dessert?”

Twilight stared at him. Either he was thicker than the door, or she was terrible at charades. Sighing, she shook her head ‘no’. Picking up a piece of paper, she drew a messy sketch of a pot of tea accompanied by a cup.

Her waiter puzzled over the ‘artwork’ for a moment before exclaiming with the air of scientist coming to a brilliant realization. “Oh, you want coffee!”

Twilight buried her face in her hoof. What kind of pony serves coffee in a teapot and teacup? She shook her head even harder and drew a large letter ‘T’ with exaggerated slowness. If he got it wrong this time, she wasn’t sure how to make it more obvious.

“Oh, some tea? I can do that. I’ll be right back, Miss Sparkle.” Twilight rolled her eyes as soon as his back was turned. It was a bit mean, but she couldn’t help wondering if he’d get lost on his way back.

The tea took longer to arrive than the soup had, but it was still hot, which was all Twilight could really hope for. Breathing in the delicious aroma while she poured herself a cup, she realized that it was Earl Grey tea, her favorite. She hoped it was a pleasant coincidence, but after what Colgate had said, it was possible they already knew that. Whichever it was, she wasn’t going to refuse the delicious brew. A few cups later, she was fortified against the lures of Morpheus and ready to return to work.

It was hours later, long hours of tiring effort, when Twilight finally put down the pencil, but she had done it. Sort of. She thought. She triple-checked her figures and reevaluated the assumptions she’d had to make. In a perfect world, she would have arrived at a sure answer, but because she had only limited data, there were half a dozen possibilities. Some frequencies were more likely than others, based on the assumptions she’d made and some uncertainty about the more esoteric constants she had needed, but she managed to rank them with a few more calculations. The first was about forty percent likely, the second a strong twenty-five percent, and the rest followed in descending likelihood.

Twilight bit her lip. The pain from her ring had not been permanent, but it had made a lasting impression, as it was meant to. If she got it wrong the first time, she wasn’t sure she could try again. It wasn’t just that she was afraid of the shock, but even the minimum power for the key spell would be enough to make her scream. While Brute hadn’t shown himself to be most caring guard in the world, she was certain he would investigate that, and she doubted they would let her keep the same ring regardless of Doctor No’s objections. If she were at her best she could probably recover quickly enough for a second try, maybe even a third, but that was under ideal circumstances, not injured and running on caffeine. Realistically, she suspected she only had one chance.

Logic dictated that she try the most probable answer first. Theoretically, she was ready to go, but Twilight hesitated, pausing to check her math a fourth time. The first answer, despite all of her checks and reassurances, didn’t feel right. Neither did the second or the third. She couldn’t explain why, but the fourth, in spite of its twelve percent chance, was the one she kept coming back to.

Really? She thought to herself, her rational side annoyed by her stalling. I need to get out of here and I don’t have time for this nonsense. Objectively Twilight agreed. There wasn’t anything logical in being fixated on an unlikely possibility, but at the same time, she couldn't let go of it. She knew it was stupid, but something in her gut told her she was right and logic be damned.

A small part of her mind, the same part of her that had struggled to understand Pinkie’s bizarre precognition, recoiled in horror at that thought. But the rest of her remembered…

………

“Today you will learn something very important, my dear student.” Princess Celestia said, beaming at her protégé.

A ten year old Twilight Sparkle grinned in response, barely holding in her excitement. Something very important? That sounded even better than the alphabetizing spell she’d learned for sorting her books! “What is it?”

Celestia chuckled at her student’s enthusiasm. “We will get to it, but first I want you answer two questions for me.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Is this a test?!” She hadn’t been expecting that. She hadn’t studied!

Celestia shook her head. “Not quite. There is no right or wrong answer; there is only your answer.” Twilight puzzled over the statement, but her teacher went on. “What is magic?”

The little unicorn smiled. This one was easy. “Magic is the energy that permeates the entire world, a natural force like wind or gravity. In its natural state, magic is formless, but it can be expressed, given shape and meaning, by the pony using it.”

The Princess considered her response and nodded, an amused gleam in her eye. “Somepony has been studying. Yes, Clover the Clever was one of the first ponies to give magic a working definition, but in many ways she summed it up too neatly. While accurate, her explanation does not, and cannot, cover all of what magic is.

“Magic is more than a natural force. It is primal part of who and what we are. There is not a single creature on the face of the world that is not touched by this amazing power. Magic existed within the darkness before the sun was lit, and it will remain after the last pony takes her last breath. I have studied magic for more than a thousand years and many of its mysteries still evade me. All of that, however, is only a lead-in to my second question. How do you use magic?”

Twilight hesitated before replying. On the surface, this question was even easier than the first, but if it was really only what it appeared to be, then why had the Princess explained so much beforehoof? Still, using big words had never failed Twilight before. “Through concentration, I channel thaumaturgic energy from my environment through my horn, transforming it into the desired form by visualization and mental symbolism, and thus produce a spell.”

Celestia shook her head. “That is an excellent example of what you do with magic, but it doesn’t tell me how you use magic.” She rose to her full height and flared her wings, letting loose the aura she normally held in check. Power, raw, terrible and beautiful danced in her eyes and arced across her alabaster skin. When she spoke it was in a voice old as a mountain, gentle as a breeze and warm as a summer evening. “How do you take in something that is more ancient than the world and bend it to your will? How can you use a power so vast and complex that you can never hope to fully understand it?”

Twilight watched her teacher in awe, mesmerized by the display of might. It took almost a minute for the meaning of her questions to sink in. The tiny unicorn thought and searched her mind but she found nothing. Never, not in any of her lectures, not in any of her books had anypony even asked that question. Twilight didn’t even know where to start looking for an answer.

“I-I don’t know.” Her voice was small and weak compared to that of her teacher’s, but the confession of ignorance still seemed to echo in the quiet room. Twilight bowed her head in shame.

The lightest touch of magic, something no more substantial than a sunbeam lifted her chin and she found herself staring into the eyes of the Princess. Enormous wings of velvet soft feathers cupped her gently and lifted her off the ground, bringing her within inches of her mentor’s face. Celestia smiled, and warmth began to spread throughout Twilight’s body even before she spoke. “But you do, even if you don’t know that you know. You are more than flesh and blood, Twilight. More even than word and thought. Search the parts of yourself that only you can know. You will find your answer there.”

Twilight would have protested this impossible task, but she was entranced by Celestia’s eyes. They slowly shifted through all the colors of the rainbow, and above those fleeting shades of power she could see herself reflected within them. She relaxed, all of her tension leaving her. The pressure she had felt to give the right answer faded away, and her mind drifted. She didn’t know how long she stared. The Princess didn’t seem to blink, but neither did she. Eventually it came to her. Not the correct answer, but her own answer.

“Because it’s a part of me deep down. Magic isn’t some distant, unknowable thing.” Twilight raised a hoof and pressed it to her heart. “It lives in here.” Her hoof moved to her head. “And here.” Then to her horn. “And here.” She blinked, breaking eye contact with her teacher. “Umm… at least, that’s what I think.” She glanced down shyly.

“Very good, my dear student,” Princess Celestia said. Gone was her aura of power, but the loving smile she wore filled Twilight with pride. “You’ve taken your first step on the path of wisdom. But no matter how far you travel on that path, always remember this day.” The Princess’s horn began to shine, and she picked up Twilight in a golden glow, drawing her into a hug. “Always remember to trust yourself.”

“Even when I’m not sure?”

“Especially when you aren’t sure.”

………

Twilight blinked, returning to the present. Already the memory was fading, but for a moment it had been as vivid and solid as if she had been living it again. Her eyes swept over the fourth entry on her list, and before she could stop herself, she began her spell.

Most key spells were very simple in design and gave the user a fair amount of leeway. A range of frequencies were typically accepted, both because the number of possibilities was nearly infinite, and because most unicorns had a hard time focusing their magic on a single, precise frequency.

The enchantments in the ring, however, were anything but forgiving. Twilight focused with every ounce of her concentration. She had to get the perfect frequency on the first try, without using too much power in case she was wrong, and do it all before the ring reacted to her use of magic. Magic surged into her horn, a short, sharp pulse lasting less than a second. She braced herself for the retributive shock, but the moment passed without apparent response. Then, with a small click, the inhibitor ring snapped open and fell off her horn.

So long, Order Triune! Twilight thought happily. Sorry I couldn’t stay any longer, but I’ve got friends to protect and a Princess who needs to hear about all this. Focusing on her library in Ponyville, she quickly envisioned the place and began feeding power into her spell. Twilight wasn’t sure how far it was, but familiar places were the easiest to reach when the spell wasn’t line-of-sight. With a familiar stomach-rolling sensation Twilight felt herself wrenched sideways through reality, then reflected backwards as though she had run into a wall made of rubber.

Snapping back into reality was more disorienting than painful, but staggering heavily into the bed frame in her daze hurt quite a bit. A quick assessment told her that nothing was broken, though she expected she’d have a bruise or two on her shins. After glaring at the ceiling for a second, Twilight lit her horn and probed her room for the spell that had stopped her from teleporting. Every pulse she sent into the plain stone around her twisted, bent and refracted only a few feet into the rock.

Whatever substance or spell was in walls reflected her magic with ease. Ironic -- Brute had called this a saferoom; it was probably intended to keep hostile magic out rather than keep the occupant in.

Twilight scowled. She wasn’t getting out that way, at any rate. Not unless she tore out several feet of solid stone across an entire wall. Somehow she doubted she could get away with that without being noticed. She needed to get out of her cell, but that meant getting through the spelled and guarded door.

She stared at the glowing barrier, considering the spells layered across it. She could probably smash through the defenses if she had to, but that would take far more effort than she wanted to expend. Especially since she’d have to fight her way out after the huge noise from destroying the door woke up every pony in the entire base. At least the excavate-a-wall plan didn’t involve taking on an army single-hoofed after she made a lot of noise.

She thought she could probably deactivate the door’s wards, but doing so would take hours. Assuming she had eaten ‘dinner’ at its normal time, it was now late night or early morning, so unless a majority of the Order kept a schedule similar to Luna’s, this was the best time to escape.

That meant she had to get somepony else to open the door. Trickery seemed promising so long as Brute was still her guard. She didn’t have an overabundance of respect for the intelligence of any of the Order’s guards, but Brute scored even lower than the rest in her opinion.

Her ears flicked sharply as an unexpected noise came to her: the turning of the heavy bolts in the door.

Twilight focused her newly-freed magic on the shining crystal in the ceiling, pulling apart the enchantments laid on the magical stone until it went dark. The room plunged into shadow, lit only by the weak glow of the spells on the door. Twilight backed into the corner as quietly as she could. When door opened she would be behind it, giving her the perfect opportunity to take her ‘visitor’ by surprise. On one hoof, this was practically a free ticket out of here, but on the other, what would anypony want with her this late? Especially without knocking.

The door cracked open slowly, moving smoothly on its well-oiled hinges. A hooded head stuck itself into the room, then the rest of the pony followed. Twilight had a brief moment of panic as she realized the bed was conspicuously empty, but the pony ventured cautiously into the room anyway. That hood of theirs must obscure their vision, Twilight thought. That’s good to know.

She waited until her strange visitor was entirely in the room. The front part of their hood gave a subdued glow and Twilight realized it was a unicorn. A deep red, almost maroon, aura surrounded the door handle; they were about to shut the door.

Twilight lit her own horn, and a quick burst of magic grabbed the pony, dragging them into the shadows where she was hiding. They almost yelled, but Twilight focused her magic and conjured a large zipper across their mouth. The pony struggled with the spell for a moment, but the only sound they produced was a muffled grunt. Normally that was a skill reserved for Pinkie, or for Spike on occasion, but it served her well here.

The angry mage stared into the hood of her captive, but in the dim light of her horn she still couldn’t make out any features. Still, the pony could see her. Twilight’s eyes narrowed and she growled. After couple of painful attempts to speak, she instead grabbed a spare piece of paper and scrawled a quick message. Thankfully, her horn writing was neat enough to read even in the low illumination. The note read: I’m going to let go of your mouth now. If you try to scream or use magic I will hurt you. Believe me, after everything I’ve been through I’m just looking for an excuse.

She wasn’t, actually. The thought of violence against a helpless pony, even one of the headcases who had kidnapped her, was unpleasant. But that wasn’t what you said when interrogating a suspect. She’d read enough detective novels to know that you had to be tough when dealing with somepony you wanted to talk. Her captive nodded, and Twilight let the zipper disappear. She remained tense, holding the rest of their body in a tight grip, ready to take back control if they tried anything.

For the moment, at least, they were compliant. “Don’t worry, Twilight.” The words were distorted, unnatural deep, as if the unicorn were using a voice-changing spell. “I am a friend, and I’m here to rescue you.”

Twilight scowled and wrote out, Oh really?

“Yes, really.” The pony said emphatically. “I disabled the guard and I have the frequency for your inhibitor ring, not that you seem to need the second.”

That was either a spur-of-the-moment lie or some substantial proof. Twilight hadn’t heard Brute say anything, which was an argument in favor of the pony’s honesty, but there was a better way to be sure. What was the frequency? she wrote out. There was no reason her captive needed to know that piece of information unless they really were planning to release her.

“Fifty-two point six cycles per second,” the mysterious pony rattled off without hesitation. Twilight nodded in satisfaction and released her captive. She had a strong suspicion about who was underneath that hood, but even if she was the pony Twilight thought she was, that didn’t mean trusting her was a good idea. Twilight gestured impatiently with her horn and her would-be rescuer exited the door first. When that didn’t raise a great hue and cry, the lavender unicorn followed her out. Brute was standing still, his hood down and his eyes unfocused. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t an escaping Twilight Sparkle.

“Here, these should be your size,” the mysterious benefactor said, throwing a long robe and hood at Twilight. She wasn’t thrilled about wearing somepony else’s laundry, either, but she shrugged it on without complaint. The robe fit well, but she found to her displeasure that she had been right -- the hood did reduce her field of vision. Still, it was a fair trade for the disguise.

The strange pony gestured from further down the tunnel. “Hurry, we’ve got to move quick.”

You mean ‘move quickly’, Twilight thought, but correcting the grammatical mistake wasn’t worth the pain it would take to give it voice. Heaving a small sigh, she followed. Plain, utilitarian stone made up every surface, and beyond a rough finish, there was no ornamentation to it. The corridors were lit by more of the strange crystals that had illuminated her prison, and while Twilight would have liked a chance to examine them, she was too busy keeping an eye on the pony ahead of her.

The purple unicorn didn’t think she was walking into a trap, but then, she hadn’t thought so at Colgate’s office either. Still, she couldn’t see any benefit in helping her escape only to lead her into an ambush. But after everything she’d been through, she knew that her good luck couldn’t last. Less than a minute later, her cynicism was proven correct.

Loud and angry voices echoed from the halls they had come from. Somepony had found Brute and discovered that their prisoner was gone. The mysterious pony cursed. “They must have changed the guard rotation. Come on, we have to keep moving, but whatever you do, don’t run.” The thought of breaking into a full gallop was tempting, but running would attract more attention than she wanted. She lowered her head and walked at an even pace.

The mask of apathy was difficult to hold when her entire body was singing with adrenaline. Nervous energy raced through her mind and limbs. Twilight was hard-pressed to contain herself, and the clatter of heavy hooves approaching behind them didn’t help.

“You two!” A deep, masculine voice cried. Both of the hooded ponies nearly jumped out of their robes. Twilight spun to see a large earth pony, his face marred by scars and an eye patch. His remaining eye was a piercing gray and he looked like nopony’s fool. “Remove your hoods and state your names. We’ve had a breakout.”

“I’ll handle him.” The shrouded pony told her in a rush, the distortion spell making the words hard to understand. “You go ahead. Just remember that all of the stairs eventually lead to a door out of here.”

Twilight nodded. “Thanks, Colgate,” she croaked. Those words were difficult, but Twilight knew they were worth it. Colgate deserved to know that Twilight had realized what the false dentist had done for her.

At first there was a startled silence from Colgate, but a second later she chuckled. “Yes. You’re welcome.” She chuckled again. “But you need to hurry. Run.”

Twilight hesitated for a second, though she couldn’t say why. Then her baser instincts took over and she bolted, the hood whipping back in her flight. The scarred guard gave a surprised yell at her sudden dash, but then Colgate was on him. The sounds of the struggle faded quickly in the labyrinthine halls of the Order Triune.

Twilight wished that Colgate had given her better directions, or at least that the Order had clearly marked their corridors for easier navigation. She tested the walls with a quick burst of magic, but they reflected her spell just as easily as her cell had. The entire compound seemed to have been built to deflect spells, which was probably why nopony had noticed it for so long. Twilight grimaced. The only way she was getting out of here, it seemed, was on hoof. She willed motion into her weary legs and kept running. Maybe it was fatigue that caused her to miss the warning sound of hooves on stone ahead, or perhaps she simply couldn’t hear over her own breathing. Either way, she was caught completely by surprise when she rebounded from the chest of a large stallion leading an entire patrol of robed guards.

At first there was only a startled silence from both sides. Then the lead guard, a tall unicorn with a sharp horn poking out from beneath his hood, barked, “Halt!”

Twilight panicked, her mind already envisioning heavy chains and the merciless, hammering cold of the waterfall. The fear paralyzed her for a moment, locking her in place. The squad took the opportunity to spread out and encircle her, but Twilight felt power rising within her. She was Twilight, daughter of House Sparkle, student of Celestia, and Element of Magic. They may have taken her by trickery before, but there was not a chance that they could take her by force.

Her stance solidified into a defensive position instead of one meant for running, her body preparing to fight. Her expression changed from the fearful stare of the hunted to the measuring glare of the hunter. Only two of the guards realized what this change meant, but even then it only gave them a second of warning. Far too short a time to voice any alarm.

Violet light filled the corridor as Twilight lifted the entire squad of guards and slammed them into the wall. Most of them stopped struggling at that, though they were more likely stunned than unconscious. A couple, including the tall unicorn leading them, still fought her hold. His horn began to glow with a beige aura, but Twilight slammed them into the wall again and the light faded.

Twilight dashed past the stunned squad and galloped along her chosen path, scanning the hallway for any sign of stairs. Behind her rose cries of pain and shouts for help. She glanced back, her pace slowing for a moment as her stomach twisted. In some ways she was proud that she had overcome her fear and defeated an entire squad of trained guards, but she had also hurt somepony. Maybe badly. Several someponies who each had families and friends. Who laughed and joked. For all their craziness, just how different were they from herself and her own friends? They even thought they were doing the right thing.

But in the end there was no question of going back to help them. Twilight turned around and began running again. Whether or not they meant well, they still wanted to hurt her friend, and she was not about to let that happen. Ponies hadn’t run in herds for thousands of years, but somewhere in Twilight’s mind, ancient instincts still spoke. Dresden might not have been an actual pony, but he was her friend and she would defend him against anything that wished him harm. It didn’t matter whether they were monstrous predators or misguided ponies.

She thundered through empty passages, though she could hear movement here and there. Alarms began to go off, screeching klaxon spells stirring the Order to wake. Twilight knew her time was growing short. She had dealt with those guards easily enough, but nine to one were far better odds than a hundred to one. A large pair of double doors looked promising, so she charged through to discover the mess hall on the other side. By itself that wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was apparently used as a gathering place during times of emergency.

For example, if a dangerous prisoner was running loose.

Several dozen heads turned her way all at once, all of them hoodless. Reactions to her varied, but fear and determination seemed to be the most common. “Seize her!” somepony cried. And afraid or not, the mob rushed her. She could see a large stairwell on the other side of the room, but that meant getting through the crowd in front of her. Twilight focused her magic. Teleporting to the surface might have been out of the question, but fifty feet in line-of-sight was foal’s play. She broke into a run, horn lowered, and cast. The stampede slid to a halt as she disappeared in a flash of lavender sparkles. She reappeared next to the stairs with a muffled bang, not even breaking stride as she charged up them.

Cries of confusion were shouted down by the few who spotted her racing up the stairwell, but Twilight wanted no part of that. Her horn burned as brightly as it had the night she had faced the Ursa Minor. Dresden was more experienced in demolition than she was, but an overabundance of energy would make up the difference.

A ball of lavender light streaked from her horn like a cannonball. The magic was so densely compacted that it was almost solid. The spell crashed into the wall of the stairwell above the door, smashing through mortar and stone before finally exploding with a thunderous detonation. If there was anypony who had slept through the alarm spells, they were awake now. The wall shattered into rubble which began pouring down, burying the doorway beneath with tons of stone. Twilight sat down on one of the higher stairs, coughing as the dust from the demolition rolled past her.

She wanted nothing more than to stay there and rest. All of this magic was exhausting, but the physical exertion was even worse. Twilight would admit to herself that she might have let herself get a little out of shape since training for the Running of Leaves. The tea was long gone and she had ignored her body’s demand for sleep for hours. Even adrenaline was beginning to fail her. Twilight leaned against the wall above her makeshift barricade, waiting for her breathing to steady before she attempted the climb to the surface.

A heavy impact against the barricade rattled the stones, snapping Twilight out of her drowsy state. With a shiver, she realized she had almost dozed off. Her spell might have bought her some time, but it wasn’t going to stop a determined mob of ponies forever. With a weary sigh, she rose to her hooves and began climbing again. Her legs burned with the effort, but sheer will kept her moving. She didn’t dare sit down again until she was safe.

The stairway ended after only a few turns, mocking Twilight’s hopes of it carrying her clear to the surface. At the top, a doorway led into yet another utterly identical corridor. Twilight stuck her head into the hallway and saw a robed figure hurrying towards the stairs. Her hood wasn't on straight, and she was trying to fix it with one hoof while she ran on the other three. It wasn’t until the mare was only ten feet away that she finally got it on right and saw the purple unicorn. The hooded pony gave a startled squeak and slid to a stop, drawing in a deep breath.

Twilight didn’t wait for the pony to get over her shock; five ribbons of purple energy spiraled out of her horn, surrounding the stunned mare. All four legs were quickly wrapped in the magical bindings, anchoring them securely to the stone floor. The last one sealed her mouth shut, just in time to cut off a scream. The pony struggled for a bit, but Twilight’s spell held strong.

Sorry. Twilight thought as she dashed past her immobile foe. There were four passages to choose from, none of which had any kind of indication as to their destinations. That was both inconvenient and inefficient. How often did their own member get lost in the twisting maze of corridors in their stronghold? But complaining wasn’t going to fix anything at the moment, so Twilight picked one at random. A couple of twists later, she found that the passage stopped at a dead-end.

Fuming, Twilight turned back. As she hurried, a slow, rhythmic pounding sound caught her attention. It sounded distressingly like a battering ram striking rock. Twilight choose her next passage without hesitation and sprinted down it. This one ended in a stairwell, but unfortunately, it went down instead of up.

Grumbling about Colgate’s promise that all stairways eventually lead outside, Twilight returned to take the only option remaining. At first she didn’t realize what had changed when she reached the juncture. Then it hit her – silence. The battering ram had stopped. Which meant either they had given up (and Twilight almost laughed at that thought) or they didn’t need it anymore.

Fear gripped her again and she prayed that Colgate’s assurance had been correct. The final corridor, one of the dimmer halls, was longer than the other two put together, but at last a lone archway loomed ahead. Within, she could make out stairs leading upward. Tired as she was, Twilight pushed herself to keep moving. Just one more step. One more. One more.

Five minutes into her climb she was rewarded with what seemed like the greatest smell in the world: fresh air. Hope flared within and she renewed her flagging pace. The stone walls gave way to plastered brick and hanging lanterns replaced magical crystals, as if she were now climbing up through somepony’s basement. But what it looked like didn’t matter; she was almost free.

Beyond a short landing, a pair of cellar doors blocked her way at the top of three short steps. She blasted them off their hinges and ran off into the night. She was free! Free! The grey light of pre-dawn was just beginning to peek above the horizon. Twilight glanced around herself and realized that she had emerged in middle of a residential neighborhood. It was still too dark to tell where she was, exactly, but that didn’t matter. She could find that out at the nearest guard station. Finding that was only the first of a thousand things that still needed to be done; she had to find and warn Blackstone, let Celestia know that she was safe, and tell her everything that had happened. Her struggles weren’t anywhere close to being done, and it seemed she wouldn’t see a bed for hours yet, but she couldn’t help smiling at the sight of beautiful world around her. She blinked back tears of happiness.

She had escaped.

That was when, with a small ‘click’ behind her eyes, the spell activated. Wave after wave of exhaustion washed over her, threatening to send her to her knees. Twilight shook her head, her trot slowing to a walk. She couldn’t keep going. There was something in her head, something more than natural fatigue forcing her to sleep.

The purple unicorn bared her teeth in a snarl. She struck back at the spell, fighting it with every ounce of power she had, but whoever had laid it was no amateur. Violet fire flickered through her mind as she battled the complex enchantment, but she was losing, her eyes growing heavy and her body slowing down.

With one last desperate effort she struck, but it did nothing but delay the inevitable. Twilight glanced hopefully towards the horizon. The first light of dawn destroyed any spell that was not guarded against its power, but the dawn was still far away. The sun was moving in the east, but it was not yet in position. Princess Celestia would not raise it until far too late.

Twilight stumbled onward, but it wasn’t long before her knees gave and she collapsed. In her waning consciousness, she saw a pony approaching her. With her eyelids struggling to close, she couldn’t see anything about them save that they weren’t robed.

She steeled herself and forced her damaged vocal cords to cooperate one last time. “Help me. Please...” Her voice was a raspy croak, made all the worse by her exhaustion. Her eyes fell fully closed, but she could still just barely hear the pony’s response.

“Don’t worry, Twilight Sparkle. I’ll take care of you.”

Then there was only blackness.

Chapter Twelve

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Twelve

The neat and tidy little kitchen was wrecked. The table had been broken in half, there was a hole big enough to swallow my fist in the wall, the sink had been turned into a small fountain, and there was a rubber chicken imbedded in the ceiling. I’m not sure how that last one happened, but I’m willing to bet that Pinkie was to blame. Luckily, I was in much better shape than the furniture. The worst I’d gotten was a bruise from the kick that started the fight. My shoulder was sore, but I’d had worse. Usually a lot worse.

I’d also like to point out that I had neither destroyed the house nor set it on fire. With my track record for property damage, confining the destruction to one room was actually pretty commendable. I doubted anyone else saw it that way, but I didn’t really care. At the moment, I was engaged in a standoff.

“I know you know where Twilight is, Bon-bon.” My eyes narrowed to slits and I saw a line of sweat break out on her forehead. Her eyes flickered from her devastated kitchen back to me. “Right now I’m only annoyed, but if you don't tell me what I want to know, I’ll get angry.” I put my face only inches away from hers and stared her down. “And you won’t like me when I’m angry.” She lowered her eyes and tried to flinch away, but I had trapped her good. It wasn’t the most subtle or flexible spell, but a straightjacket made of hardened air makes for a decent prison. It wouldn't have been much good against most of my foes; the monsters could smash through it and anyone magic-savvy could dissolve it, but in this case it worked just fine.

“Don’t you hurt her! Don’t you dare!” Lyra had gotten the same treatment as Bon-bon, and I had added a circle around her to prevent any magic use while she was immobile. Her voice was muffled and dull thanks to my spell but still understandable. The conspiracy theorist had jumped in on Bon-bon’s side as soon as the fight started. She couldn’t hold a candle to Twilight, or even Rarity, but subduing them without hurting either one, or Pinkie, had not been fun.

“Blackstone isn’t going to hurt anypony.” Pinkie said trying to reassure the bound unicorn, and herself, I suspected. “This is all just some big misunderstanding!”

I shook my head slowly. “Not in the slightest, Pinkie. Bon-bon knows where Twilight is; she’s a member of the Order Triune.” Pinkie gasped, her mane flying straight up as though she’d been electrified.

“That’s crazy!” Lyra shouted. “You’re crazy!” Bon-bon didn’t say anything, but her eyes darted nervously back and forth.

“Really? Even though she attacked me first?” Her sudden charge had taken me by surprise, but Bon-bon obviously wasn’t much of a fighter. Going one-on-one with me was a bad plan, even with that lucky first shot. I had expected her to run, or at least try to fake innocence.

“You scared her!” Lyra retorted, as if assaulting someone who looked kind of scary were a completely normal response. It was becoming clear that the mint-green unicorn was somewhat divorced from reality when it came to her roommate.

I rolled my eyes. “Then why won’t she say anything? If it’s so crazy, why doesn’t Miss Bon-bon speak up?” I gave her a gimlet stare. “Is it because you’re afraid I’ll realize you slipped that memory charm into your mouth?” Bon-bon tried to shake her head no, but the binding held her fast. Lyra continued to deny everything, and Pinkie tried running interference again, but I tuned both of them out.

I was missing something; Bon-bon’s behavior wasn’t adding up. She had to know that even with Lyra’s help she didn’t have a prayer of overpowering me, but she had stuck around to fight anyway. If she had left while I was distracted by Lyra, I’d have given her even odds of escaping. I'd have found her anyway with a tracking spell, but I doubt she knew that. And even if she had thought they could take me, she had to know it was a lost cause now. But she still hadn’t used the memory charm between her teeth. Pansy hadn’t shown any hesitation. What was holding Bon-bon back?

I scowled and Bon-bon flinched again. She was afraid of me, but not enough to start talking. The frustration was enough to make me feel like screaming, but despite her refusal to talk, I didn’t want to hurt her. I’ll dive into a fray and dole out justice like nobody's business, but I’m a hot-blooded fighter. Seeing violence done to somebody who can’t hit back makes my temper flare. Violence against a helpless woman or child? That makes me reach for my staff and start murmuring phrases that can crush skulls.

Is that chauvinistic? Probably, but I don’t give a damn.

The only game I was left with was intimidation. My normal glare and threats weren’t working, though so I suppose it was time to up the ante. “Pinkie!” I barked startling everypony else in the room.

“What?” She asked in surprise.

“Do you think you could leave and return without anypony noticing you?” Bon-bon began to sweat as she realized I was sending Pinkie away, but that was only my opening move.

“Sure,” Pinkie said, confused, but happy to help.

I grinned. “Thanks. Would you bring me Bob?”

The pink mare frowned. “But I thought you said−”

“I know.” I interrupted. I couldn’t let her give away that Bob was mostly harmless. “But this is a special occasion. I’m going to need his help.”

Pinkie shrugged. “Okie dokie lokie. One express Pinkie delivery, coming right up!” She left the kitchen in a hop. I waited and watched my captives without saying a word. Speaking would have ruined the moment. Instead I let the fear sink in.

Eventually Lyra broke the silence. “Who’s Bob?”

I chuckled darkly. “I think you mean ‘what is Bob?’.” Lyra waited for more explanation, but I didn’t oblige her. The stillness in the room stretched unpleasantly as their imaginations went to work, suspecting the worst.

Any cop who has done interrogation knows that patience is the key. You didn’t try to scare anyone; you let the target scare himself. I'd have preferred it if Bon-bon had been the one asking the questions, but I thought I could work it this way too.

Lyra tried again. “What is Bob?”

“He’s a … spirit of sorts that I keep inside an old skull.” I replied casually. Bon-bon shuddered visibly at those words and I wondered if I had struck a nerve. I kept going. “Normally, I don’t let him out, but since Bon-bon isn’t talking, I’m going to need his help to find out what happened to Twilight.”

Lyra bristled again at the implication that her roommate was any less pure than the driven snow, but morbid curiosity, and a large dose of fear, killed her angry response. “What do you mean his ‘help’?”

“You’ll see.” I promised, giving her a smile that couldn’t have belonged to anybody sane. Lyra’s eyes widened and she fell silent, the fear settling in. I had to work not to grimace. It wasn’t fair that I had to scare her to get to Bon-bon, but it was necessary for now. Besides, Lyra might have been scared, but Bon-bon was terrified. Her ears were twitching uncontrollably, her body jerked back and forth as she fought against my spell and her breathing was fast and shallow.

I mimed a yawn and rose to leave, careful not to look at either of them. Bon-bon’s eyes tracked me like a mouse watching a cat until I had left the room. Once out of their sight, I quickly moved through the living room, almost tripping over a chair that had somehow been knocked over. Bon-bon had her back to the kitchen’s other door, which was also outside Lyra’s field of vision. I circled around to that door, opened it, and slipped in a softly as I could. On two legs I can move quietly, especially for a guy my size. On four legs I was less skilled, but Bon-bon’s breathing was loud enough to mask any mistakes I made.

The plan was to sneak up on Bon-bon and give her another scare. I was certain she’d crack with just a bit more pressure. However, I was almost directly behind her, just barely out of Lyra’s sight, when Bon-bon did about the last thing I expected. She started talking.

“I’m sorry, Lyra. I’m so, so sorry. I never meant for this to happen.” Her voice was low and frantic, slurred by fear and the charm she still had in her mouth. I could understand her, but just barely.

I stepped back, curious to hear what she had to say. Did she really think I had just left them alone? I guess so, because Lyra was equally unconcerned about the possibility of being overheard. “Don’t apologize, Bon-bon. This isn’t your fault. I’m the one who let that crazy freak into the house. Please don’t cry.”

Bon-bon made a sound that was equals part sob and laughter. “It is my fault. If it wasn’t for me, he never would have come here. I-it’s true; all that stuff I told you was nonsense is really true. And I always denied it because I’m a member of the Order.”

There was a note of wonder in Lyra’s voice as she replied. “Wait, all of it’s true? Humans and faeries and Bighoof are all real?!”

A fit of tearful giggles from Bon-bon followed her question. “Oh, Lyra. Only you would ask that. We’re trapped by a dark sorcerer, he’s about to feed us to his demon after it rips what he wants to know out of my head, and you want to know if faeries are real.” She smiled, and some of the fear cleared from her voice. “All of it. Except Bighoof. That really is just an urban legend.”

Lyra didn’t laugh with her, and the silence between them quickly became uncomfortable. I rolled my eyes. I had been hoping to overhear something useful, or failing that at least get a cue for a good entrance. Still, I might be able to salvage this. I was about to say something when Lyra’s voice cut the air like a knife. “And you lied to me.”

The silence that followed her statement was sharp-edged and brittle as a shard of glass.

“Three years," she said desolately. Her cheerful energy and eccentricity was gone, leaving nothing but emptiness behind. “I’ve roomed with you for three years and you lied to me each and every day. I trusted you.”

Her voice was quiet and halting, but she didn’t let herself stop.

“I thought you were my friend.”

Bon-bon flinched, but Lyra didn’t sound angry.

“I thought you cared about me.”

She didn’t even sound bitter.

“Was it all just a lie?”

She was only hurt.

It took all of my self-control not to step out and comfort her. I had known her for all of about three hours, but that didn’t matter. She was in pain, and it killed me to see her like that. I know what it feels like to realize the person you thought you knew had lied to you. That someone you had always trusted wasn’t who they pretended to be.

Ebenezer McCoy was one of maybe three people I respected enough to call ‘Sir’ and mean it. He was everything I thought a wizard should be. After everything that went wrong with Justin, he taught me what magic was supposed to be. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered he was the Blackstaff, the White Council’s secret assassin. Whether or not he worked for the ‘greater good’, there was enough blood on his hands to make Jack the Ripper’s look clean by comparison.

I hadn't wanted to get back up after I learned that, but Mouse had helped me laugh, helped me remember that I had something worth fighting for. Even before I had decided to keep him, he’d been there for me. But who would be there for Lyra? Pinkie was gone, and I’d already made myself into the villain. But, dammit, she needed somebody.

“No, it wasn’t.” Bon-bon replied. “I was supposed to watch you and keep you from finding any evidence about us. It was never part of my mission to be your friend, but that’s the part that meant the most to me. I know I lied to you, I know I kept things from you, but it’s not because I didn’t care. It’s because I couldn’t tell you.”

Lyra stared at her roommate, hope and confusion warring for control of her expression. “You couldn’t?” Anger made a surprise appearance, taking out both of the previous emotions, and leaving her with a scowl. “And why not?

“Because I took an oath, Lyra. I promised to protect Equestria from darkness, to keep the ancient secrets and to uphold the Order. I can’t tell anypony. If the Princess ever found us, she would banish every member without hesitation.”

“And you thought I’d turn you over? After all of my theories about Princess Celestia?” Lyra was back to confused, but there was an undertone of pain in her questions.

Bon-bon shook her head, or tried to at least. “I never thought that, but it didn’t matter. I swore on wind and water, on stars and stones, on sun and moon to never tell anypony. A promise from the heart has its own kind of magic, Lyra. ‘Should an oath-breaker never make amends, she is seldom met by pleasant ends’. My grandfather taught me that.”

Interesting, I thought, nodding in agreement. In the supernatural end of things, words are binding, sometimes literally. The Fae, for instance, are physically incapable of breaking their promises. They’re masters of squeezing through loopholes, no matter how small, but the letter of their agreements are ironclad. The same is true of wizards, to a lesser degree. Not that we can’t go back on a deal, but karma’s a bitch, and she’ll come back to bite you in the ass. It doesn’t take much more than a couple rounds of oath-breaking for a wizard to find his powers reduced to a shadow of their former strength.

“Oh,” Lyra replied her voice small. “Then, why tell me now?”

Bon-bon sighed. “Because you deserve to know, because I’m tired of lying to you, and because I don't think I'm going to see another sunrise.” For a moment her posture sagged in defeat, only her binding keeping her upright, but then she straightened herself. Steel entered her spine and fire entered her voice. “And I’ll make you this promise, Lyra, from the bottom of my heart. No matter what happens to me, I swear that you’ll live through all this. No matter what he does.”

I almost missed the lead in, but thankfully Lyra was speechless for a moment afterwards. Pausing only to wipe away a couple of manly tears that had somehow leaked out, I stepped out from behind my cover. I was still behind Bon-bon, but now Lyra could see me. She had been blushing, but her flustered expression evaporated the instant she saw me. Bon-bon didn’t have enough time to notice the change in her roommate before I leaned down and asked in calm, non-sinister tone. “No matter what? Do you really think that’s something you can promise?”

If Bon-bon had been a fan of fatty foods, I think she would have had a heart attack right there. She stopped breathing, her body went ramrod stiff and her pupils shrunk to the size of pins. I wasn’t sure how to perform CPR on anything other than a human, but after several seconds without her chest moving I almost dropped my spell to give it a try.

“You,” she whispered, all of the fear she had been holding at bay rushed back in. She began to fidget with the memory charm still between her teeth and her speaking became more slurred.

“You!” Lyra shouted.

“Me,” I agreed.

“You can’t. Not her, please not her.” Tears filled Bon-bon’s eyes and she started begging.

I kept my face as stony as I could make it. I hated this, but I needed that information. And it finally looked like I was going to get it. I turned my neutral expression into a glare. “Tell me where Twilight is and I won’t hurt anypony.”

Bon-bon returned my glare with one of her own, but she didn’t quite dare to raise her voice. “Of course you will. That’s who you are. That’s what you are.”

I all but rolled my eyes. “Do you want me to make a promise from the bottom of my heart, too?”

“That won’t fool me. I know you traded your heart for a demon’s gift.” Bon-bon didn’t quite sneer, but she came close.

I blinked. That was actually a bit intriguing. It was possible that she was being poetic, but somehow, the way she said it made me think she was being literal. Still, I didn’t have time to go off a tangent, no matter how interesting. “Then what would you trust?”

She paused, seemingly surprised by how reasonable I was being. I lowered my brows into a scowl as she hesitated, hopefully making up for my sudden lack of villainy. She flinched, but managed to stammer out. “T-there’s only one thing I would trust from you. You’d have to swear by the sun, the moon and your own magic.”

“What?” Lyra asked, blinking. “How's that supposed to make him trustworthy?”

Wow, thanks for the compliment.

Bon-bon’s eyes darted toward the unicorn as she spoke. “You’re not the only one who knows a few ancient secrets, Lyra. He’ll be bound by that promise. Demonic magic is ruled by words, and creatures like him have to hold to an agreement or their own dark powers turn against them.” She looked at me, still shaking, but there was a spark of defiance in her eyes. “So, are you still willing to make that promise?”

My eyebrows rose for a fraction of a second, but then I smiled. The info I wanted in exchange for something I would never do anyway? Perfect. “Deal. So long as you tell me everything you know about Twilight’s location, I swear by the sun, the moon and upon my very magic not to harm Lyra in any way.”

Bon-bon eyed me cautiously, perturbed by how readily I had accepted her demand. She thought for a moment then frowned. “Or for any creature or spirit under your command to harm her.”

“Or anything under my command to harm her.” I agreed.

Bon-bon stared at me, still trying to figure out any way I could weasel out of our deal. “Or using your magic to imprison, control or influence her.”

I rolled my eyes and parroted her. Still she hesitated. Frustrated, I growled, “Do we have a deal or not?”

At last she nodded. “We have a deal.” There was a finality, a certain power, to the words that most people wouldn’t have noticed, but to my senses it was clear as day. I grinned widely, letting any pretense of threat drop to the wayside.

“Great. So where are they keeping her?”

Bon-bon’s eyes turned sad, and she looked past me, speaking to her roommate. “I’m sorry, but this was the best I could do. Good-bye, Lyra.” That comment didn't seem to follow, but then I saw her jaw muscles tighten and I realized what she was doing. My promise had been based on her telling what she knew. The memory charm would erase all that, and when she told me nothing, she’d technically be fulfilling her part of the bargain and I’d still be bound by my end.

Some distant corner of my mind was impressed by how she’d played me. I’m not the cleverest of guys, but I’ve pulled fast ones on things that have centuries of experience tricking people. That corner, however, was only a small part of me. The rest was caught somewhere between shock and outrage. But my growing anger was spoiled before it could gather any steam.

Bon-bon was crying.

Her mouth was shut and her jaws were clenched, but she hadn’t finished biting down. There had been no flash of light or sudden burst of magic. She hadn’t used the memory charm. A sob escaped her and she spit out the tiny chip of wood. It would have worked better without my spell bouncing it back into her face, but as a gesture it was clear enough. I stared at her in confusion; she’d gotten the best deal possible without calling my bluff. Why had she thrown it away?

Lyra stared as well, seeming to forget me in her concern for Bon-bon. “What was that? What were you about to do?” Bon-bon just broke into fresh tears.

Rather than leave the question hanging, I answered it. “It was a memory charm. If she had broken it, it would have erased all of her memories, preventing me from getting any information out of her. I’ve already seen one pony do it without hesitation. I don’t understand why she didn’t.”

Lyra glared at me again before turning her attention back to Bon-bon. “Is that true?”

“Yes,” Bon-bon choked out. She raised her head, meeting Lyra’s eyes, her own still watering. “Never give anything to the enemy, never reveal the Order, and never leave a trace. I was supposed to use that the moment he caught me. But I couldn’t.” She drew in a shaky breath and blinked away her tears. “I couldn’t forget you, Lyra. These last three years have been the best of my life. I … I … I love you.”

Lyra all but melted at those words and burst into tears of her own. “Oh, Bon-bon! I love you, too!” She spoke in a rush, far more cheerful than anyone trapped inside a binding spell and magic circle had any right to be. “All this time, I thought it was only me. I had hoped, but I never really believed…” She trailed off giving a small chuckle. “When did you realize?”

Bon-bon blushed. “The night my gran-gran died and you held me while I cried. S-she was everything to me and you were the pony I needed. The only pony that could make everything right. That’s when I knew. You?”

Lyra smiled. “From the moment we met. Why else would I have been so eager to room with somepony I didn’t even know?”

Bon-bon blushed again and giggled.

Meanwhile, I felt incredibly awkward and mildly annoyed. I’m not going to pretend that I make the greatest villain, but I’d damn well like to think that when I intimidate somepony, it leaves an impression. Apparently not, since the two lovebirds were sharing a happy chat as though they were holed up in the confines of some romantic café. The only reason they’d got so far into this conversation undisturbed is because the strange confession had caught me by surprise. In hindsight it sure as hell explained the way Bon-bon had been acting, but for that first minute I was gaping like a fish.

Shock and awww only lasted so long, though.

“Fan-frigging-tastic. Everypony loves everypony. What I would love to know, though, is where Twilight is. We have a deal, candy ass, and you’re damn well going to live up to it.” I was seriously peeved, and I used every inch of my, admittedly reduced, height to tower over Bon-bon.

“And you'll hurt her if she doesn't?” Lyra challenged.

I felt a headache coming on. I had them both dead to rights, but some ridiculous, irrational defect in her brain told Lyra they still had a chance. I’d already taken them in a fight, and at this point if I got mad there wasn’t a damn thing they could do to stop me. Not that the thought seemed to have occurred to the mint-green unicorn. I wondered if any of my enemies ever felt this way while fighting me.

“Of course he won’t, silly!”

I jumped almost half a foot in the air. Pinkie hadn’t been kidding when she claimed she could move unnoticed. Holding on the tattered remains of my dignity, I sighed and rubbed a temple with one hoof.

She was still chattering away though. “Don’t let that grumpy face fool you, Blackstone’s a good guy! He’d never hurt you. I mean, you guys did that whole ‘battle’ thing and all he did was tie you up!”

The light was starting to dawn in Lyra’s eyes, even though Bon-bon wasn’t convinced. I sighed again. “Thank you, Pinkie. I almost had the info, until you arrived.” I know she was just being herself, but sometimes that was more than enough to be annoying.

“You’re welcome!” she beamed, my sarcasm bouncing off her happiness without even leaving a dent. I was glad she was having fun, but right then her positivity was giving me a headache.

“Wait…” Lyra said, beginning to put the pieces together. Bon-bon made a plaintive expression, silently begging her girlfriend(?) to stay quiet, but Lyra ignored her. “You mean that whole thing was an act? You were just bluffing?”

I shrugged. There wasn’t any point in denying it. “Yeah, that was a bluff. I wanted Bon-bon to tell me where they took Twilight, and I didn’t think appealing to her better nature would work. I already told you they’re convinced I’m Obsidian.”

“Because you are!” Bon-bon yelled, glaring daggers at me. “Don’t try to pretend you’re innocent after everything you just did.”

I snorted and locked eyes with her. It was time for a gamble. “I’m pretending to be innocent? You screwballs have spent all day trying to kill me, kidnapped one of my friends and then you expect me to play nice? News flash, I am going to get Twilight back and you’re going to tell me where she is.”

Bon-bon’s eyes narrowed further, and she didn’t turn away. “And what makes you think that?”

I could feel the magic beginning and I braced myself. “Because I’m not Obsidian, and I can prove it.”

“How−” she began, but then the Soul Gaze started and her mouth just stopped.

………

I was still in the kitchen.

It wasn’t exactly like the kitchen I had just left − this one wasn’t wrecked, among other differences − but it was obvious that what I was seeing now was based on the homey little room I had just been in. Bon-bon’s soul was … cutesy, if that’s the right word. There were matching salt and pepper shakers, a little napkin holder shaped like paired hearts, a cuckoo clock hung on the wall right next to a framed picture of Lyra and Bon-bon on a small Ferris wheel.

I frowned, and peered around the room for a second look.

Everything was a little out of place; a picture of an old mare with thick spectacles slanted to one side, the clock was slow by a couple minutes, and a few other things were just a bit off. The room wasn’t messy; in fact, the whole place was squeaky clean, but there was a sort of casual disorder that comes from having a busy life and no time make the place perfect. All in all, it didn’t look like the soul of someone who belonged to an ancient order of nutcases. It looked like something straight out of The Brady Bunch; the kind of atmosphere that came from a dedicated homemaker.

The only thing that didn’t fit that otherwise idyllic image was a thick padlock on the pantry door.

It was a heavy-duty lock, old and slightly discolored, but still more than capable of keeping the cookie jar safe from the kids... or a hungry bear. I mean, forget bolt-cutters, this thing looked like it could take on a welding torch and win. Thankfully, I didn’t even need to try breaking it. The lock was already open and the door was ajar.

I hesitated before reaching to open it, uncertain what I would find. For all I knew, she had literal skeletons in her closet. I went ahead anyway. Curiosity may have gotten its share of cats, but wizards are a bit tougher to take down. The hinges squealed like a stuck pig, and I had to tug hard to get the thing to move. Inside was a surprisingly normal pantry. Row upon row of small canisters, bottles, and jars full of leaves, powders and liquids sat on neat shelves thick was dust. The smell hit me next, bitter herbs and sharp spices mingled with old dust and faint incense. I took a curious sniff, trying to identify some of the scents, but all they did was make me sneeze.

The sudden wind stirred the dust up, revealing a label on one of the nearest bottles. The precise handwriting on it said, ‘Nightshade’. Picking up another, I saw it was labeled, ‘Curare’. I scanned the nearest shelf seeing some names I recognized, Slumber Shroom and Hemlock for instance, but for every jar I recognized there were a least a dozen more unknowns. I looked at the unassuming pantry with new eyes; there were hundreds of containers, all of them lined up in perfect, sterile rows just waiting to be used.

But Bon-bon didn’t want to use them; she despised her abilities and locked them away with all her strength. It struck me suddenly that even though her hatred for me was based on ghost stories and paranoia, its real strength came from somewhere much closer to home. She had all but left behind her shadowy skills and duties, but now she’d been forced out of her comfortable niche. She’d been forced to face the lies she’d told and the past that she wanted to forget.

Bon-bon hated me because I had stomped into her ordered life and broken her illusion of normality.

………

I snapped back to the real kitchen with a twitch, still seeing the poison pantry in my mind. Interesting as that had been, seeing Bon-bon’s soul hadn’t been the point of the exercise. It had been the cost.

I had met the earth pony’s eyes so that she could see my soul, but that’s where I was gambling. My soul was not pretty. I’ve never seen it myself, but the reactions of the people who have tell me that few enjoy the experience. Most people go white and get nervous, like someone who just realized the dog next to them is really a wolf, but some have more extreme reactions. One man dropped his weapon and panicked, screaming that he didn’t ‘believe in Hell’. Hopefully, good or bad it should convince her I wasn’t Obsidian. The real question is whether she would fear me less … or more.

Bon-bon raised her eyes to me and spoke in a hushed, awed tone. “Y-you.”

I nodded. “Sorry, but I needed to show you that. I told you I’m not him.”

The cream colored pony shuddered. “No, you’re not. You’re a man of iron and blood, stone and fire.” Her eyes lost focus as though she wasn’t seeing me anymore, but instead something within her own mind. Still, she spoke, “touched by darkness, but not overcome by it. Beaten and damaged, but unbowed. Unrelenting in word and deed, in thought and creed. You would lay siege to Tartarus itself if that’s where Twilight had been taken.” She snapped out of her trance, and her eyes watered.

Her voice fell to a whisper and I had to lean in to hear any more. “And all because she’s your friend. Because you would do anything to keep her safe. Because you care.”

There was a silent moment where everyone in the room held their breath. Lyra stared at Bon-bon and me in confusion, but Pinkie was nodding along as though she understood perfectly. Bon-bon broke the silence, her voice and expression becoming determined. “I’ll help you get her back, Blackstone, on two conditions: you can’t tell either of the Princesses, and you can’t hurt anypony.”

I blinked. That was … interesting. I thought she might cough up the information, but I had never expected her assistance. The conditions made sense, though, assuming she wanted to help me without ‘betraying’ the Order. I paused a moment, thinking it over. So long as I got a clause for self defense, I didn’t see any trouble accepting. I nodded and released the spells holding Bon-bon and Lyra. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

The two of them promptly fell over, and I winced. I probably should’ve said something first. Lyra didn’t stay down long, though. She pushed herself upright and hurried over to Bon-bon, nuzzling her gently. Bon-bon returned the gesture, and for a moment the two just held each other softly before sharing a small kiss. It was a sweet, touching moment, so of course Bob had to choose that second to open his mouth.

“Nice. Thanks for the invite, Boss. Getting to watch two lesbian ponies get frisky is well worth the trip.”

I groaned and turned to find Bob peeking out of Pinkie’s saddlebags. After that business with the Soul Gaze I’d forgotten that Pinkie had gone to get him. Great. He shouldn’t have just spoken up like that, so either she told him I’d been planning to show him to Lyra and Bon-bon, or the opportunity to be a pervert was just too strong to resist. Pinkie just giggled and pulled him out.

“Don’t be silly, Bob. If they want some time together we wouldn’t watch. That’d be rude! Believe me, Mrs. Cake already had a long talk with me about that.” I grimaced, trying desperately to ignore the implications of that, and turned back to apologize for Bob.

Bon-bon’s expression was more or less what I had expected: anger, disgust, and some mild horror. Lyra, however, didn’t even seem to have noticed what he said. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked breathlessly.

I frowned. “Only if you think he’s a loud mouth that needs to get his non-corporeal ass kicked.”

Lyra’s shook her head, her eyes shining. “No, I mean, is that a human skull?”

Pinkie grinned, and jumped in before I could answer. “It sure is. I told you we should have an ancient secrets club! You know all kinds of neat things, Bob’s full of eldritch knowledge, I’m me, and Blackstone−”

“Isn’t ready to share any secrets just yet,” I cut in, glaring at both Pinkie and Bob. I shudder to think what those two could do if they teamed up. Getting Lyra involved in that equation didn’t seem like a winning idea either. “Go to sleep, Bob. We’ll hold a meet-and-greet later. Right now, I want to know what we’re doing to get Twilight back.” Bob grumbled, but his eye lights winked out. Not that this even slightly reduced Lyra’s wide-eyed interest in him.

Bon-bon nodded with a serious frown. “Yes. It’ll be difficult, but I know where they’re holding her and how to get in. The real problem will be getting there without being noticed. The Order is going to have ponies watching the library and trying to find you.”

She was right. So long as they had me under surveillance, surprise was impossible. If Bon-bon wanted us to do this without hurting anypony, we were going to need some serious stealth. Not to mention I’d have to ditch the guards Celestia wanted to babysit me. An idea sparked in the back of my mind and I felt myself smiling.

“Hey Pinkie,” I said, “have those royal guards arrived at the library yet?”

“Yep, a whole squad of ‘em.” Pinkie replied, playing ‘keep away’ with Bob’s skull much to Lyra’s frustration. Bon-bon looked worried at the announcement, but I just smiled.

“Good. I’ve got a plan, but I’m going to need a little help.”

………

The door slammed into the wall with a bang like a gunshot. I walked – strike that, strutted – through the door of the library like I owned the place. Pinkie followed me with her normal bouncing pace, keeping Bob hidden in her saddlebags. The main room of the library was full of soldiers, and all of them instantly focused on me, tensing for a fight. They were a mix of huge earth ponies, buff pegasi and large unicorns. I was beginning to sense a trend in Celestia’s choice of guards.

I stared at all twelve of them with undisguised contempt. “If I was one of the ponies trying to hurt the Elements, all of you would already be dead. Way to go, guys.”

All dozen guards glared at me with an intensity that told me the barb had sunk deeply. They saw their position here on the sidelines under the command of an unknown like me as an insult. From the descriptions I’d been given of Equestria, I figured soldiers were rarely needed. This bunch felt like they were missing out on one of their few chances to shine, and I had just tweaked their collective nose. They wanted action and they didn’t like me. That combination was going to work beautifully. Isn’t making new friends fun?

One of the pegasi, a scarred, cobalt blue bruiser that practically breathed menace, straightened from a fighting stance to what I think was the equine version of ‘at attention’. He lifted his foreleg to salute, but stopped midway, the limb never touching his dull pink hair. Something told me he’d done that intentionally. “A pleasure to meet you, Mister Blackstone. I’m Blue Surge, a Lieutenant of the Air Combat Elites and I’m the officer in charge of this group. I’d like to thank you for your civilian assessment of our readiness. I’m certain you would have done a better job defending the Elements if you had actually been here.” He raised one eyebrow, and continued in a condescending tone. “It’s a shame you were too busy to show us the proper way.”

There were a couple sniggers from the peanut gallery, but I acted as those I hadn’t heard the sarcastic tone in his voice. “Damn right I would have. The only reason I wasn’t here is because I was counting on you screw-ups to keep a lid on things while I did some investigating.”

There was no laughter at that. Instead Surge’s voice tightened with carefully restrained anger. “Really? And did you find anything useful, sir?” The glares intensified, but I ignored them with impunity.

“I found out where they’re holding Twilight.” I said casually. “Do you think that might just be useful, scooter?” About half of the jaws in the room dropped, but Surge managed to limit his reaction to a mere widening of the eyes.

“Really!” Rainbow cheered exploding from her hiding place behind a door down the hall. The rest of the girls and Spike followed her out, having obviously been eavesdropping on the conversation. Rainbow was doing triumphant loop-de-loops despite the crowd. “This is great! What’re we waiting for?!”

Surge cleared his throat noisily and Rainbow frowned down at him. I could tell they’d already butted heads, and I doubted either of them had enjoyed the confrontation. Surge ignored her in favor of questioning me. “Are you certain of this information?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. My source is certain the entrance is hidden in the lowest cave on Dragon Mountain. I just came back to gear up and grab the girls before heading out and knocking the place over.” Rainbow began to cheer, Applejack got a dangerous grin, Rarity smirked, Spike looked both worried and determined in equal measures, and Fluttershy started nervously playing with her mane. Then I added, as if it was an afterthought. “Oh yeah, do you guys want to come too?”

Surge, however, was not having any of that. “None of you are going anywhere. The mission is clear that you are to remain here and assist us in defending the Elements in case of an attack. You do not have the authority to leave.”

Applejack snorted. “The hay he doesn’t. The Princess put him in charge of lookin’ for Twi here in Ponyville.”

The large pegasus refused to back down. “And now that he’s found her, he needs to back off and allow the professionals to handle the situation. We are trained for this and he is not. If Mr. Blackstone is so certain of his information, then we will scout out the target and report back if he is correct.”

“You bastard.” I hissed, not bothering to hold back my anger. “I’m going and you can’t stop me.”

Surge smirked. “You’d be surprised. Privates Hammer, Prime, and Short. Front and center!” Two earth ponies and a unicorn stepped forward and saluted. “Stay here and make sure Mr. Blackstone and the rest of the Elements don’t leave. Restrain him if necessary.” The three saluted and Surge turned to leave, the rest of the guards forming up behind him.

“You can’t do that!” Rainbow shouted. “You think these three could stop us?”

“I think,” Surge replied over one shoulder, “that none of you would assault soldiers who were only following the lawful orders of their superior officer, but if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me.”

He didn’t get any answer to that.

“Good. Now don’t worry, we’ll have Twilight rescued and back home before you know it.” Then with the beating of wings and the thunder of hooves the guards took off. Applejack and Rainbow were still outraged, but I had to work to keep myself from smiling.

“These bozos think they can hold me?” Rainbow muttered. “The minute I’m outside they’ll be eating my dust.”

“I hear you there, Dash.” Applejack agreed.

“Oh, stop it, you two.” Rarity said. “The last thing we need to do is go off half-cocked. I’m certain a little charm would go a long way toward convincing those guards to work with us instead of against.”

I chuckled, and lowered my voice to a whisper. “Not quite what I had in mind, but c’mon. I’ve got info I didn’t share with Lt. Bluey that you need to hear.” I eyed the remaining guards, but since they weren’t watching me with suspicion, or watching me at all really, I doubt they’d heard.

Instead I started herding everypony towards down the hall, only pausing to nod to Pinkie. The pink pony took her cue with a giggle and wandered casually over to our guards. “Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie! I know you three are supposed to keep us here because Major Meanie ordered you to, but we shouldn’t let that cause any hard feelings.”

“Er… no ma’am. No hard feelings at all.” Hammer, or maybe Prime replied.

Pinkie gave a comical sigh of relief and wiped some invisible sweat off her brow. “Good, because I love making new friends, and it’d be super awesome-tastic if we could all be friends!”

A squat pony that I suspected was the one called ‘Short’ looked confused, but willing to play along. “As long as everypony follows the Lieutenant’s order I don’t see why not.”

Despite various protests, I almost had everypony out of the room. I had just enough time before leaving to see Pinkie give them a perfectly genuine smile and pull a bag of brightly colored sweets out of her saddlebags. “Great! Say, do any of you like candy?”

Chapter Thirteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Thirteen

Shooting Star was bored.

He had been warned time and time again before he had finally been accepted into an active post: the hardest part of a stakeout was the waiting. His instructors had tended to exaggerate, so he hadn’t really believed them when they said it. Surely any mission would be chock-full of action. Reality, in her typically callous way, had proven that if anything, his teachers had understated how much of a mission was spent doing nothing.

Shooting Star let loose a soft yawn, glad that his seat was in the shade. Normally he preferred to read inside, but since he was just pretending, the public bench across from the library would have to do. Star checked his detection spell, making sure nopony had left the library in secret, but they were as still as a stone. That responsibility satisfied, he let his mind wander for just a moment.

Shooting Star was in the midst of contemplating whether ‘the Wise’ or ‘the Awesome’ would make a better title when he was rudely jerked out of his thoughts by the library door slamming open. Everypony out and about on the street, and a few in nearby houses, stopped to stare at the commotion. All sorts of strange things had been happening at the library today; they obviously had no doubt this next disturbance would prove just as interesting.

If only they knew just how strange, Shooting Star thought, tensing himself for whatever was to follow. Most of the guards had left about an hour ago, but there were still three of them left along with (ugh) Obsidian, and the rest of the Elements of Harmony.

A cyan hoof shot out, grabbing the top of the door frame and pulling hard as if the pony inside were trying to climb out against some powerful force. The situation became clear as Rainbow Dash dragged herself further out and revealed the blue aura surrounding her tail, trying to pull her back into the library.

What do we do?! Night Shade thought. Shooting Star sighed, hoping their resident telepath could keep herself under control. She always got skittish working in the field, but her ability to transmit thoughts between the whole group was too valuable to leave behind.

We wait and we watch, Golden Harvest replied coolly. Her life isn’t in danger, and we cannot give ourselves away.

Something interesting? Wind Whisperer asked.

Rainbow Dash appears to be struggling to escape from a unicorn, but we aren’t sure who. Though it doesn’t look like his aura, Flitter – or rather, Dragonfly – replied.

What about you two? Golden Harvest asked. Are those guards up to something?

Maybe. Lucky Clover said. They’re headed into the Everfree forest, and I think I heard one of them mention Dragon Mountain. He paused for second to let that news sink in. That might be bad, he said, his tone as serious as ever.

Very funny. Golden Harvest replied, her sour tone evident even without her real voice. Wind Whisperer, fly ahead and give them warning just in case those guards actually find the entrance. Stay out of sight, I don’t want you giving away their location.

Please, Windy replied. Like there’s anypony sneakier than me. Shooting Star chuckled at that, waiting for Golden to take him down a peg. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Heads up! Dragonfly thought forcefully.

Shooting Star looked up just in time to see Rainbow Dash shoot free of the constraining magic, rising at least thirty feet above the library. “Hah!” she yelled. “I toldja nopony can hold me! So long, chumps!” She zoomed off into the distance, headed north. Two guards, the squat unicorn and one of the enormous earth ponies, rushed out of the library. It took the pair a moment to realize their quarry had gone, but the rainbow trail she left made it foal’s play to track her in the clear sky.

“Stop!” bellowed the huge stallion, his legs pumping as he gave chase. His shorter companion only panted at the unexpected exertion, though he might have found it easier if he hadn’t brought along his spear. Shooting Star had to work hard to keep contempt off his face. Those two were unlikely to keep up with an average pegasus, much less a noted athlete like Rainbow Dash.

Well, that was strange, Dragonfly offered. Shooting Star was about to agree when Golden Harvest interrupted.

Tell me none of you took your eyes off the library just now. Not for a distraction that obvious. The exasperation in her tone was evident.

Okay, Shooting Star replied. We didn’t take our eyes off the library to watch Rainbow Dash show up two royal guards. He knew he was being foalish, but joking always helped him deal with the tension of an assignment.

In that case, I’m certain all of you noticed the group of ponies -- including the tall, hooded one -- who snuck out the back door and are currently making their getaway.

Golden’s statement was met with awkward silence until Windy started laughing. He played you ponies like a fiddle!

Shut it, Golden ordered. The group is three ponies, the dragon and the dog, so we’re missing two. Dragonfly and I are going to follow them, Nightshade and Star are staying here and keeping the library under surveillance in case this is a trick. Sensed any teleports, Star?

Shooting Star shook his head, confusing the pony next to him on the bench. Nothing. Maybe he doesn’t have the skill yet in this incarnation. Are you and Dragonfly going to try anything else? Even without the risk of being overheard it was better to discuss their more aggressive tactics indirectly.

No. Golden returned. We had our chance, and we missed it. He’s onto us now, so it’s the Slayers' turn. We just have to keep an eye on him until tomorrow.

The conversation lapsed as the members of the group felt a pang of regret for their brothers and sisters in arms. The Slayers were as subtle as a hammer, and this wasn't a remote orc nest or an isolated troll bridge. Even if they survived the battle, they would still be lost to the Order.

This is going to cost us dearly. Lucky Clover said, his tone somber. His sister was one of the Order’s warriors, though nopony knew who had been chosen yet. Shooting Star thanked everything holy that none of his family were in consideration for that duty.

But whatever the price, we will pay it, Golden offered, her tone changing from cold detachment to gentle encouragement. She had lost her father to a rogue manticore years ago and knew what that kind of pain felt like. No matter what, the good of Equestria comes first.

Silence greeted her words, but it was a comfortable one. Everypony knew their sacred duty, handed down from the founders of Equestria themselves. To punish evil and hold the darkness at bay.

As Shooting Star settled in to maintain his surveillance he flipped to the next page of the book he was pretending to read. It was a shame he was so busy in his careful observation that he never saw the pony in the shadows watching him.

………

If Lyra was surprised to find two Royal Guards at her back door, she hid it well. Her amber eyes narrowed as they peered through the door slit, but she always seemed to do that. “Can I help you, officers?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to respond, but the short, stout guard to my right beat me to it. “It’s us, Lyra,” my companion said in an incongruously feminine voice. “Do please let us in. This spell is rather difficult to maintain.”

I glanced around, worried that somepony might have overheard her. I doubted it was common for Royal Guards to sound like aristocratic ladies, but I was pretty sure we’d lost any pursuit. Neither my eyes nor my gut said anypony was watching us. By the time I turned back the door was already open and Rarity, still awkward in her too-large armor, shuffled inside.

“Hurry up!” Lyra hissed. I hurried.

The moment we were inside, Rarity sighed with relief and let the illusion spell drop. “Thank Celestia,” she murmured with all the sincerity of a preacher in church. The image of two Royal Guards faded away, revealing the ponies underneath. As a final touch, the spear Rarity had been holding changed into my familiar staff.

“Goodness.” Rarity said, removing the borrowed armor and stretching out. “That was exhausting. Would either of you mind if I took a brief leave of absence? I need a moment to make myself presentable again.” I halfway wanted to roll my eyes, but we had just run half a mile in ill-fitting armor while she held a complex illusion in place. She was a bit of a mess even by my standards.

“Sounds fine to me,” I said. “As long as you’re fast.” The sounds I heard from the kitchen told me Bon-bon was still cleaning up, so it was likely we’d be waiting whether I wanted to or not. Given that the inside of Bon-bon’s soul had looked like that kitchen, odds were it was important to her. I didn't regret wrecking it in the fight, but I could give her some time to set it right. Lacking any more productive ideas, I moved into the small living room and took a seat. Lyra followed me.

We sat in silence for a minute or two, and I could practically feel her stare. I didn’t look at her directly, but my peripheral vision told me that she was examining me and every one of my belongings (though her eyes kept darting back to Bob’s bag) with a single-minded intensity. It was curiosity more than anything else, but it still got uncomfortable fast. I didn’t want to talk about any of Lyra’s favorite topics, but I felt awkward just sitting there and while she analyzed everything.

“How’s Bon-bon doing?” I asked, hoping to deflect her interest. The confectioner had seemed dazed after the Soulgaze, which was unsurprising, but I hoped that hadn’t lasted. Most people adjust within an hour. People who don’t believe in the supernatural usually manage it by going deep enough into denial to strike oil. I didn’t think Bon-bon would do that, but given my luck, it didn’t hurt to check.

Lyra stopped inspecting the carvings on my staff. “She seems a little shaken, but otherwise she’s fine. But I still don't understand why she suddenly trusted you after practically declaring you the spawn of Discord.” The unicorn gave me a sidelong glance, waiting for an answer. When I didn’t oblige her, she bulled ahead. “We had a long talk, but she still didn’t tell me what happened.”

Aesop said that few men had ever made fools of themselves by keeping their mouths shut. Unfortunately, Aesop had never met Lyra. Unperturbed by my silence, she frowned and tried, locking eyes with me. Dodging her look wouldn’t have been that difficult, except that she seemed to have the same ideas about personal space as Pinkie Pie. It was hard to keep from meeting her stare, but I managed. That didn’t stop her from talking.

“You stared right into her eyes and the two of you went still as statues. I don’t think either of you even breathed for a couple seconds. And now she’s certain you aren’t Obsidian, when she wouldn’t even consider the idea before. What did you do?” She didn’t add ‘to her’ to the end of that question, but her intense tone of voice implied it.

I frowned. Trying to explain a Soulgaze to someone who had never been through one is like describing a painting to a blind man. You tell them what it looks like, you explain what’s in it and what it means, but you can’t ever convey even a tenth of the emotional impact or depth that it contains. Still, I had to at least give it a shot. “Only if you sit down over there.” I said pointing out a chair across the room. “I usually insist on dinner and a movie before I let anypony as close as you are right now.” She flushed, showing that she did have a sense of common decency even if she didn’t always pay attention to it.

I waited until she was seated and least somewhat calm before I began. “It’s called a Soulgaze. Ever hear that the eyes are the windows of the soul? For someone like me, that’s literal, but it goes both ways. When I lock eyes with anyone, I see them for who and what they really are. I see their true self, and no mask or lie can hide anything from me.” I paused and let that sink in. Lyra looked surprised, and maybe doubtful, but she was rolling with it for now. “And in return, they see me in the same light. I needed to prove to Bon-bon I wasn’t Obsidian and that was the fastest and surest way to do it.”

Lyra raised an eyebrow. “And she believed it?”

I nodded. “You’d doubt whether the sun rises in the east before you’d question a Soulgaze. That stuff is capital-T Truth. Once you’ve seen it, you just know.”

Lyra sat for a moment, mulling that over, then out of blue said, “You aren’t a pony, are you?” That was technically a question, but it had all the certainty of a statement. She might have been eccentric and more than a little stupid where love was involved, but Lyra was nobody’s fool.

My eyes narrowed almost of their own accord. This was treacherous ground. “What makes you say that?”

She just smiled. “You only use somepony or anypony half the time. It’s obvious you aren’t used to them. You carry around the skull of a mythical creature inhabited by a spirit that’s just as rare as its container like it’s no big deal, and you’re hiding something.” Her grin got even wider at that. “I can practically smell the secrets on you. The real proof, though, is that soul-gaze ability. You said ‘someone like me’ when you were talking about it, meaning it isn’t something unique to you. And your horn didn’t even flicker when you used it. That wasn’t a spell, it was you.” She stared at me her smile gone; curiosity and amazement ruled her expression now. “But that leaves the question: what are you?”

The question was as blunt as they came, and if there’s anything a wizard hates it’s a question he can’t dodge. Guys like me aren’t actually that special. In raw power I’m one of the strongest wizards around. Even if you consider experience and skill, I’d still put myself in the top fifty when it comes to a fight. But I can still get killed by a guy with a shotgun, or hell, even a rock if he can cave my skull in with the first blow. Physically, wizards aren’t much better than any other human, and magically, our defenses are laughable compared to some of our enemies. The real thing that makes us powerful is what we know. Faeries are fast, powerful and devious, but a little cold iron evens the odds. Black court vampires are nightmares, more resilient than your average terminator... unless you’ve got garlic or a wooden stake on hand. A hob will rip you to shreds in the dark, but introduce the little monster to light, and it’ll burst into flames. A demon can do things that make you wish they would only kill you, but with its name, you can turn it into a servant on a short leash.

Knowledge is power, and wizards hoard information as zealously as a dragon gathers gold.

Most of the people I know in Chicago think I like keeping secrets, but compared to other wizards, I’m the town gossip. Despite my relative chattiness, I had promised Twilight, and by extension the Princesses, not to tell anypony what I was. That, however, assumed a certain level of ignorance on behalf anypony I was talking to. Telling Lyra anything was dangerous, but not telling her could put at even greater risk. She knew enough to get herself in trouble, but not enough to get herself out of out it. If she figured out how to reach the Nevernever without understanding how dangerous it was then a sudden death would be one of her luckier outcomes.

“Fine.” I sighed. “But this doesn’t leave this room.”

Lyra’s eyes sparkled and her grin widened until she looked like a bubbly Cheshire cat. “Of course!”

I scowled and leaned back, crossing my forelegs. “You’re not taking this seriously enough. I mean nobody hears about this. There’s a reason Princess Celestia keeps all of this a secret.”

That curbed her enthusiasm a little, but I recognized a losing battle when I saw one. Once again I questioned the wisdom of sharing anything, but in the end I sighed and went for it. “First off,” I began, “you’re right that I’m not a pony. I’m a human−” That was as far as I got.

“SQUEEEEEEEEEEE!” Lyra yelled, or maybe squealed. I’m not sure how to define the noise she was making. The only thing I was certain of is that it was loud enough to give Luna a run for her money.

The sound immediately drew Bon-bon out of her kitchen like a shot. I started preparing a shield spell just in case, but she took stock of the situation quickly enough, probably helped out by Lyra’s repeated chant of ‘I knew it!’.

Bon-bon gave me a disgruntled eyebrow. “You just had to tell her, didn’t you? I didn’t say anything about that for a reason.” She spoke in a hushed voice, but I doubt Lyra would have heard her even if she’d been speaking normally. That mare had dived back into her notes and her quill was moving fast enough that I was worried about the paper catching fire.

Not to be outdone, I arched an eyebrow of my own. “She’d already figured out I wasn’t a pony, so telling her was safer than leaving her ignorant. I doubt whatever speculation she came up with would have been helpful. Besides, I thought you were done keeping secrets from her.”

The look Bon-bon gave me was about nine-tenths venom, but she shook her head and sighed. “You’re right. You’re a first class jerk, but you’re right this time. Old habits are hard to break.”

“Like eavesdropping?” I asked innocently. Her face was briefly touched with red before she regained control of her expression. I grinned. “You moved a bit too fast for somepony who was supposed to be busy cleaning.”

Bon-bon nodded like a fencer acknowledging a blow. “Very well, but I’d like to make something clear. I know you aren’t him, and I’m willing to right the wrongs we’ve done to you, but I don’t like you.” Her expression deepened from a mild frown into a scowl. “If even a fourth of the ancient legends are true, you’re a bigger danger than half of the creatures in the Everfree. And from what I saw inside of you, those myths were hardly overstated.”

“Really?” Lyra cut in with a frown, surprising both of us. “I know my research is incomplete, but why would he be a danger?”

I appreciated the vote of confidence, but Bon-bon wasn’t far off the truth. Really, she had only been wrong about one thing. I wasn’t more dangerous than half of the forest’s beasts. I was more dangerous than any of them.

The human race is a lot of things, more good things than bad in my opinion, but history has shown that what we are capable of is terrifying. And I have access to the kind of abilities the average Joe can only dream about. Lyra seemed willing to forgive and forget after the scene in the kitchen, maybe because she liked Bob, maybe because I had been just bluffing, but Bon-bon had gotten a different message. If I ever chose to cross the line, then ponies would die, and there wouldn’t be a damn thing she could do to stop me. Not that I ever would, but as long as the possibility existed, I doubted she and I were going to be friends. Allies maybe, but that’s not the same thing.

“Find the right button and anyone is capable of violence,” I told Lyra before turning a gimlet eye on Bon-bon. “And the Order has been jumping on mine all day.” Bon-bon’s expression didn’t change, but I thought I could see another faint tinge of red coloring her cheeks. “But, that’s water under the bridge at the moment. Let’s talk strategy.”

“Very well. You sent the guards to Dragon Mountain?”

I grinned. “All but three of them. I turned on my charm, and the commanding officer went off half-cocked without looking back. Even if they figure out there’s nothing there they’ll be gone for hours at minimum.”

Bon-bon snorted. “I imagine they’ll be gone longer than that. We store part of our Archives in the caves there, and an intruding group of guards should provide quite the distraction while we make our move.”

Lyra raised her hoof like a schoolchild asking a question. “Uh, not to butt in on the secret spying business, but why don’t you just tell the rest of the Order Triune that Blackstone isn’t Obsidian? That sounds a lot simpler than all of the cloak and dagger nonsense.”

“Simpler maybe, but not smarter.” I said.

“Huh?”

Bon-bon shook her head. “What he means is that the rest of the Order is unlikely to believe me. They’re more likely to think he has brainwashed me somehow.” Lyra opened her mouth, but Bon-bon continued already anticipating the next question. “And he can’t Soulgaze everypony, not just because it would take far too long and violate the privacy of hundreds of ponies, but also because from the outside it would look like some kind of compulsion or mental magic.”

I nodded. The confectioner was right, though she was leaving off a part. If they thought I was messing with their heads, they’d go straight for whatever weapon they could get hold of and try their damnest to kill me.

Lyra mulled that over for a second before frowning. She gave me an apologetic glance, then turned back to Bon-bon. “Then how are you sure he hasn’t used mental magic?” She put up her hooves in very human-like gesture to forestall an argument. “I’m not saying he did, but if something makes you certain that he’s being truthful, couldn’t you use that to prove it to everypony else?”

I rolled my eyes, mostly because I’d already explained how the Soulgaze works, but Bon-bon gave a different answer than the one I’d expected. “I know he hasn’t because we’re trained to recognize and resist mental magic. The Mage and his apprentices spend weeks teaching everypony how to defend themselves. Even if he had beaten me, it couldn’t have happened that quickly, and thanks to you and Pinkie, among other tells, I know he didn’t alter my sense of time to trick me.”

Bon-bon shot me a sidelong glance with a trace of amusement in it. “And because anything powerful enough to break my will would set off half a dozen silent alarms once we reached the stronghold. He’d be signing his own death warrant.”

I snorted, and gave the cream colored pony a chuckle. “Not to mention that I know about as much mental magic as a frog. Neuromancy is a capital offense where I’m from. Mess with somebody’s head, and the Wardens will lop off yours.”

Both of the ponies turned green at that grisly mental image, or a shade darker than her normal hue, in Lyra’s case. I was surprised that Bon-bon was squeamish, but I guess she only mixed the poisons. I doubt she usually had to deal with the unpleasant results of her concoctions. Or maybe her main stock-in-trade was the sedatives she used against me. There were a lot of different jars in that pantry.

“So,” I said clapping my front hooves together (nearly falling over in the process). “Back on topic. The guards are going to go poking around some outpost which should keep them busy and distract the Order. Meanwhile, Pinkie is currently playing decoy for me. She’ll drop the cloak in about thirty or forty minutes, so until then, the rest of my fan club should be occupied too. We’ve got a small window of time until they start looking for me again. Wherever we’re going, we’d better outline the plan and get moving.”

Bon-bon nodded. “Agreed. The next train to Canterlot is in thirty minutes, which should give us plenty of time. Once we get there, we’ll head directly for my family’s home. My mother and father are in Hoofington for another three weeks, so it should be empty.”

“Wait.” I held up a hoof. “Why are we stopping by your house instead of going directly to where Twilight’s locked up?”

“Two reasons. One: everypony in the Order wears robes, and that’s where I keep mine. Two: we need to wait until morning before we can actually enter the stronghold.”

The first made sense, but as for the second… “And we can’t enter at night because?” I asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Because everything shuts down at night. It’s easy to lose track of the daily cycle underground, so they keep a strict schedule. The only ponies awake then will be ponies with urgent business and the gatekeepers and guard patrols. They’ll pay us a lot more attention then, and a group showing up at such an odd hour would look suspicious.”

I grumbled slightly, but she was the one who knew the ins and outs of our target. It didn’t help my mood that I couldn’t find a flaw in her logic, either.

“Are you going to have enough robes for all of us?” Lyra asked, almost bouncing in place.

There was a startled second of silence before both Bon-bon and I both said, “You aren’t going.” We blinked at each other, surprised that we’d spoken in stereo, but at least we agreed.

Lyra’s face fell, and while I expected a pout, her frown was a lot more serious. The eccentric unicorn reached out, putting a hoof on top of Bon-bon’s and looked her in the eye. “What do you expect me to do? Sit here and worry while the mare I love is in danger? I want to be there for you. I’m going.”

Bon-bon teared up, but she still shook her head. “I wish you could come, Lyra, but I need you here. After I leave, ponies will come by asking to place orders for candy, but they’ll actually be looking for me. I need you to tell them I went to Canterlot to get more supplies.”

Lyra’s ears flattened in irritation. “But that’s just what I do every time you’re out of town. Why would−” Then a little light bulb went off behind her head and her mouth fell open. It was difficult not to laugh as she came to her realization. “You mean,” she began, “I’ve been passing codes to the Order Triune for years, and I never even realized it?”

Bon-bon winced, and I could see that she was tempted to lie. Eventually, though, she came through. “Yes.”

“That. Is. So. Cool!” Lyra’s enthusiasm bubbled over again, and for a moment I was afraid she was going to derail the entire conversation. It took some effort, but Lyra brought herself back to an even keel. Once she did though, her frown returned. “Are you sure I need to stay here? I’d rather come with you.”

“I need you to.” Bon-bon said. “Keeping my teammates from looking for me or getting suspicious is very important.” Lyra was silent for a moment, but with a sigh she relented.

That settled, I glanced at the clock. We needed to hurry. “Okay, so do you have enough money on hand for two tickets to Canterlot? Because I doubt the train station accepts American dollars as legal tender.”

The door to the living room opened with a creak, and Rarity, back to her usual pristine appearance, walked in. “I believe you mean three tickets, and even if our dear Bon-bon is short of funds, I have a sufficient amount.”

I had been hoping we could get away before Rarity was done, but I should have known better. As much value as she puts on her appearance, I had never seen the seamstress let that interfere with anything truly important. I squared my shoulders, ready to give her a whole laundry list of why she shouldn’t come, but I never got the chance.

Rarity’s eyes narrowed as she read my expression, and she cut me off with a sharp tone. “Oh, no you don’t, mister. Our friends may be ill-suited for this particular enterprise, but I am not. I was more than willing to help you convince them to play their parts, but I am coming with you. Twilight is my friend, and the others are providing a more than adequate distraction.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it without saying anything. She was right in a lot of ways. Rainbow would’ve gone in looking for a fight, Applejack was an even worse liar than me (and forget trying to disguise that accent), Fluttershy was too timid, and I needed Pinkie here to play my decoy. I figured Mouse would be able to spot any danger before it pounced on them, but even if something got past him I knew she’d catch it. If Pinkie didn’t have some version of Spider-sense, I’d be amazed. Rarity, however, had the right skills, and her illusions could be the thing that changed this jailbreak from insanely difficult to just plain hard. But aside from those abilities, she hadn’t shown herself to be combat capable. If everything went as planned, that wouldn’t matter, but the first time one of my plans went as expected I might just die of shock. She was putting herself in danger, no question about that, and I shuddered to think of the things the Order might do to ‘purge’ her of my ‘brainwashing’.

I wanted to tell her no. If she didn’t accept that answer, I had the power to make sure she stayed anyway. I wanted her to be safe. As much as some her prissy manners irked me, I was her friend and it would kill me to see anything happen to her. But then, didn’t she feel the same way about Twilight? Did I really have the right to enforce my desires without any regard for her own? Rarity was grown woman, and she’d stood three times against one of the nastiest demons I had ever fought. I felt a wry smile creep onto my face. Hell, I thought, I may have to protect the Order Triune from her.

“Three tickets, then.” I said, glancing at the clock. “But we’ve got to get moving.” Bon-bon gave me a disgruntled glance, probably because I hadn’t asked her opinion, but if she didn’t like it then too bad for her. This was my party.

A huffy sigh drew my attention away from the Earth pony and towards the remaining member of our pow-wow. Lyra didn’t pout, but she came close. I suppose after everything she’d been through today she had a right to be sullen, especially since we’d shot her down instantly, but let Rarity join up. I wasn’t the only one to notice Lyra’s foul mood either. Bon-bon sidled up to her while I ducked into the kitchen for an extra canister of salt, just in case. As I was returning I heard what she was promising her girlfriend.

“And you can have a whole day with Blackstone’s familiar. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t want a chance like that.” Bon-bon said stroking Lyra’s hoof with one of her own. I swelled with indignation, and almost called her out on making promises she sure as hell couldn’t keep. But seeing Lyra’s face light up, despite the way she tried to hide it, convinced me that this was an issue better broached after I trusted Bon-bon with Twilight’s safe escape.

Once that was settled, we finally got underway. I headed for the backdoor, ready to leave the way we had come, but Rarity had other ideas.

“No need to skulk around town, darling,” she said, a hint of amusement in her tone. “Just keep close to me, and I’ll keep us out of sight.” My eyebrows planned an expedition to the upper reaches of my forehead, but I managed to talk them down before either of my companions noticed. I knew Rarity had already given herself a workout holding our illusions on the way over, and I hadn’t expected her to start slinging more magic again so soon. If she could do it, a good veil would cut our travel time in half. If she couldn’t, our cover would be blown and we'd attract plenty of attention. I weighed our options and decided that arguing with her would take more time than it was worth. So instead of saying anything, I just stood next her, as close as was comfortable. That way she’d have a smaller area to cover, and use less power. With a small, but unladylike, grunt of effort the veil sprang to life around us, rendering everything inside the small bubble of magic invisible.

The trip to the train station wasn’t easy, but we made good time. Which turned out to be very important, since our ride to Canterlot (a name that still makes me wince) was pulling in just as we arrived. Bon-bon bought the tickets, and all three of us quickly boarded the train, hopefully before anyone was the wiser.

After all the difficulty and scheming involved in getting away from Ponyville and the Order’s watchful eye, the train ride was almost anticlimactic. The cars were laid out in an old English style, and we had a compartment all to ourselves. Rarity fell asleep within the first ten minutes, exhausted from all of her magic use. I laid my coat over her, much to Bon-bon’s amusement, but the little unicorn had more than earned it. Rarity’s light snoring formed a gentle counterpoint to the rhythm of the tracks, making the quiet in our compartment something more cozy than awkward.

Bon-bon spent most of the trip staring out the window without saying a word. From her expression I suspect she was worried about Lyra, but whatever was eating her she evidently didn’t feel comfortable discussing it. As for me, I divided my time in between obsessing over every way things could go wrong and trying to come up with a better nickname for those idiots in the Order Triune. So far the best I had come up with ‘tri-hards’, but I knew I could do better.

Bored, and with nothing else to do, I decided to open a dialogue with Bon-bon. “So what the hell convinced those morons that I’m secretly an evil overlord back from the dead? I left my throne of skulls at home, and haven’t hatched any nefarious schemes since I got here.”

Bon-bon glared at me, whether for interrupting her train of thought or calling everypony in her organization a moron, I don’t know. Either way she at least answered the question. “Quite a few things, actually. Your name is Blackstone; his name is Obsidian. You’re a black unicorn stallion covered in battle scars and evidently used to combat. I’m told that you’ve got more than enough power to put you on par with the highest level unicorns. Until your adventure two months ago, there was no information on you at all, and even finding out anything about what happened then is almost impossible.”

“Well, when you say it like that of course it sounds bad,” I offered, chuckling a little.

She continued on as though I hadn’t spoken. “Even then we weren’t certain. The most damning testimony came from a conversation one of our pegasi overheard between you and your familiar.”

Bob isn’t my familiar, not in the literal or figurative sense of the word, but I let that slide for the moment. Call me paranoid, but I didn’t want to tell Bon-bon that Bob’s loyalty belonged to whoever owned his skull. And in the supernatural world, possession is ten-tenths of the law. “What did I supposedly say that was so damning?” I motioned for her to elaborate.

Bon-bon hesitated, then acquiesced. “I didn’t hear the report myself, so this is all second-hoof knowledge, but I heard that you spent the conversation discussing the many things you were planning to do.”

“Which were?”

Her mouth twisted as though she’d bitten into a lemon. “Killing and eating thousands ponies to increase your dark powers, murdering all who stood in your way, letting your familiar go on a lustful rampage of debauchery and corrupting the Elements and Princesses into serving as your harem and/or personal bodyguards.”

I blinked. Twice. I don’t think that reaction was enough for the news I had just been given, but I failed to see how anything else would have covered it better.

Bon-bon flushed as I continued to stare. “I figured it wasn’t entirely true,” she protested, “but even exaggerations start somewhere.”

I sighed. “You have got to be kidding me. How did any of you believe that?”

Shaking her head Bon-bon leaned forward and spoke in a hushed tone. “Other than all of the seduction, it wouldn’t be very different from anything he has done before. He wasn’t the most powerful enemy Equestria has ever faced, but he was unquestionably the most vicious. You wouldn’t believe some of the legends about him.”

I tried not to roll my eyes. “Try me.” I replied.

“The list of his atrocities stretches across centuries. Where do you want me to begin?”

I suppressed a smirk, but couldn’t help adding some snark to my response. “How about the beginning?”

“Okay, then,” she said, either ignoring or missing my wisecrack. “He began life as a Prince of the Unicorns. In fact, he was Princess Platinum’s youngest brother. He quickly became one of the most gifted mages of his time, even rivaling Clover the Clever in power. Unfortunately, their competition was not a healthy one. The prince was contemptuous of any common unicorn, and he saw the other tribes as lesser races fit only to serve the unicorns.”

I blinked. Is she telling me this guy is pony Hitler? Magic zombie pony Hitler, even? I fought the urge to laugh, and though it was a close battle, I eventually prevailed.

“That wasn’t an uncommon point of view among the unicorn nobility in those days, but the prince believed in his ‘natural superiority’ more strongly than anypony else. It was an unpleasant shock to him when Clover was chosen to be Starswirl’s student instead of him. It didn’t help that the rest of the royal family supported the decision, pointing out that Clover could hardly afford the tutors and training which the prince had readily available. That is what started the schism between the prince and his siblings. The divide only worsened when Princess Platinum chose Clover to accompany her in their search for a new homeland. Of course, then the events of Hearth’s Warming Eve happened and the three leaders began plans to form the united kingdom of Equestria. When Princess Platinum returned home and announced her intention to join the Unicorn Kingdom to those of the Pegasi and Earth ponies, the prince refused to accept it.”

I wanted to make a little rolling gesture and tell her to move the story along. All of this, for the most part, was details I already knew. She was finally telling me something, though, so it was probably better that I didn’t interrupt her. I was still tempted.

“A sizable minority of the unicorn nobility supported him, but it wasn’t enough. He attempted a coup, but his forces were defeated before he could seize the throne. Even if they didn’t agree with her, most of the nobles remained loyal to their Princess, and none of the common ponies were willing to side with her brother. The prince was forced deep into the mountains, and many thought his rebellion all but crushed.”

Her voice dropped in tone and I almost had to lean in to hear more. “But he was not willing to surrender. How he discovered the means to summon demons, or why he sought their help so readily, nopony knows. But he did it. The full details are a mystery, since he never wrote down exactly what happened in any of the notes or journals the Order found, but one fact was clear: in exchange for his heart, he gained dark and terrible powers, and so did all those who followed him. His deals with demons made some unicorns leave his ranks, but many of them were already marked as traitors to the crown and saw no choice but to follow him. Within months of his retreat, he had an army of demons and a cadre of powerful sorcerers at his command. At first, the troops of the unicorn kingdom didn’t believe the reports of his supernatural army, but the slaughter at Greystone Peak convinced them otherwise.”

I nodded. At first glance, Obsidian sounded a lot like your typical warlock. Arrogant, self-centered, angry at the world. It wasn’t hard to see how he’d gotten started on that path. Unlike most would-be dark lords, though, he seemed to actually have power and cunning. Most of the people who summon demons bring forth something they can’t handle, and it consumes them. Often literally. If Obsidian was smart enough and strong enough to control the denizens of the netherworld, and to lead a group of similarly-minded mages, no wonder he became a nightmare.

I suddenly realized I’d zoned out and missed a good chunk of Bon-bon's speech. “And so the war finally ended at the Battle of the Lonely Mountain, where the pegasi created a storm so heavy that it made magic nearly impossible and melted the bodies of the demons like snow. Even then, casualties were in the hundreds, and it supposedly took dozens of ponies to finally kill him.”

She paused for a breath and her tone became cold as nuclear winter. “Until then, he was only a monster. What came next is what made him a legend.”

That piqued my interest.

“One of the knights who finally killed him decided to kick the corpse. The moment his hoof hit the body, the knight was destroyed. His entire form was consumed in a flash of heatless fire. There was a sound somewhere between the hiss of a lit fuse and the scream of a manticore, but the poor fool didn’t even have the time to cry out before he was reduced to ash and armor. At first his companions were in shock, then they noticed the tendrils of black vapor coming from the corpse. One of them wasn’t fast enough, and another tendril claimed him with its deadly touch. The rest retreated, spreading dire warnings among all of the united forces. Not everypony believed them, and it wasn’t until the fifth victim that all were convinced. They tried moving his body by magic, but the darkness that inhabited him resisted their efforts, sapping their energy whenever they tried. Eventually he was left to rot, and everypony moved on with their lives.

Fifty years later he returned. He wore a different body, but he came with the same army of demons. He was still full of hatred for the land the three tribes had built together, and this time, he managed to catch them off-guard. He came much closer to his goal, even laying siege to Canterlot itself, but after much bloodshed his army was once again defeated. Thorn Hoof the Mighty led the forces of Equestria to victory, and it was he that fought Obsidian alone at the end of that battle. Thorn Hoof received many wounds, but at last he delivered a fatal blow. His enemy just laughed, and told him that this was only his first resurrection, and that many more were yet to follow. As Thorn Hoof lay dying from his wounds, his last words were a warning that he would return yet again. The Order burned the corpse, but the black mist still lingered and he returned in a new form only three centuries later. In later incarnations the Royal Sisters defeated him, but even they did not dare to touch his body. It is said that Discord commanded the Earth itself to swallow the corpse after their battle, and that country was barren for decades afterwards.”

I felt the skeptic within me rising, and I did not deny it. “Are you telling that in over two millennia of this joker coming back from the dead, nobody has ever figured out how he was coming back? Or what was going on with that black vapor?”

Bon-bon shrugged. “We believe that Discord and the Princesses know, though it has never been confirmed. The last king of the Crystal Empire actually went insane attempting to re-create the power of the black vapor.”

“But nopony in the Order even tried to figure it out?”

At that she shook her head. “Dozens of ponies have tried, and without exception it has driven them mad. The most recent was twelve hundred years ago. The Mage, head of the Order’s Keepers and most powerful unicorn of that age decided she would succeed where everypony else had failed. Within five weeks, she began referring to herself in the third-pony, talked to ponies who weren’t there, claimed that the shadows were watching her, and carried around a tiny box that she claimed held his true heart. When her disciples tried to talk sense into her, she refused to listen, claiming that only she could prevent his next rise. The next day she opened a path into the Astral Plane and marched in, never to be heard from again.”

I mulled over everything she’d said, and after a few minutes of thought I asked incredulously, “And you thought I was that guy?”

Bon-bon ignored me at first, staring out of the window of our compartment. I followed her gaze and realized with some surprise that the sun was already on the horizon and we were pulling into a train station.

“Yes, and we were wrong,” she returned with a sigh. “Yet somehow I suspect you’ll bring even more trouble to the Order than he ever did.”

Chapter Fourteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: SA

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Fourteen

I destroyed the alarm clock without a second thought.

It was only doing its job, but I didn’t care. No sane person wants to get up at five in the morning, and for that matter, neither did I. Only afterwards was I struck by sudden panic. My Mickey Mouse alarm clock had served me faithfully for years, and I had returned its loyalty with fair treatment and the occasional maintenance. Had I finally crossed the line and damaged the one machine that had never betrayed me? Had I become the kind of man who would crush an innocent cartoon mouse without regret? I shot to my feet and promptly fell over, unable to balance. That’s when I remembered that: A) I was at Bon-bon’s family home in Canterlot, and B) I was a freaking pony.

I glanced at the mangled clockwork in relief. It was only Bon-bon’s clock, not my Mickey. Even in its broken state it was still trying to ring. I couldn’t help but be impressed, and a little annoyed, by the clockmaker who had created it. A groan of despair came from the bed at the continued noise and Rarity burrowed herself deeper into the covers. I was tempted to go back to my sofa as well, but unfortunately, the clock had done its job. I was awake, regardless of my desires. I grunted, trying to decide whether or not to pull Rarity out of bed. Then I remembered that I wanted to live long enough to find Twilight. Bon-bon had offered me a room of my own, but my instincts, or maybe simple paranoia, told me that was terrible idea. If Arcanos had taught me anything, it was that you never split the party.

I let out a yawn and moseyed my way over to the closet. My coat and a pair of robes that Rarity had altered for us were the only items hanging in there. My project from the past evening’s work lay on the floor, but I wasn’t one who would be wearing that.

I shrugged on my coat, patting the pockets to make sure everything was there. My staff and my sword cane were leaning in the corner of the room, but for the moment I was going to leave those where they were.

“I can’t believe you.” Bob said, glaring at me coldly.

I mumbled something in response. I’m not certain what exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was threats of a dark and ominous nature. I needed caffeine before I could put up with Bob’s usual level of nonsense. He remained unimpressed, mostly because he knew I also needed caffeine before I could make good on any of my dire promises.

“You had a perfect opportunity, she agreed to let you spend the night in her room, and you didn’t even come close to capitalizing on it. When you told me to keep an eye out, I thought that was an unexpectedly subtle way of saying, ‘Hey Bob, I finally took the stick out of my ass, and you get to see some pony-on-pony action’.”

I just mumbled again, something along the lines of ‘you know she’s right here, don’t you?’. It doesn’t really matter if he didn’t understand me, because Rarity made that point very clear in short order.

“You thought what?!” she shrieked, bolting upright. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes, once she’d ripped off her sleep mask, were narrowed to razor-sharp slits. “Mr. Blackstone is a gentlecolt, unlike you!”

My face didn’t change expression, caffeine withdrawal had it locked into a scowl, but mentally I chuckled. I always knew Bob’s comeuppance would come some day, and Rarity’s imminent tirade sounded like a legend in the making. As interesting as that might prove to be, I wanted my morning addiction above all else. I faced the huge dresser barricading the room’s only door, with more than a little trepidation. Last night it had seemed like a great idea, a little extra insurance just in case Bon-bon was planning to stab us in the back, but now that it was between me and coffee I was re-evaluating the wisdom of this particular plan.

Thankfully, I managed to shove the dresser out of the way without giving myself a hernia. Rarity was still listing Bob’s numerous faults when I slipped into the drab corridor that was our link to Casa Bon-bon. Why they had half a dozen guest rooms, and why they were all underground were mysteries to me, but at least that meant I didn’t need to worry about windows last night. You could argue that I was just being paranoid, but seeing that I was alive to wake up, I’d just call it a point for team Dresden.

I stumbled into the kitchen, blinking blearily. Bon-bon was already waiting there with a steaming pot of tea and a mug of the heavenly brew. I stared at her and the drinks for a second before moving past her to rummage in the cupboards. Bon-bon sent a pointed stare after me, but my skin is so thick that it just bounced off.

“Good morning to you, too,” she said. I grunted in response, then finally found the object of my desire. She frowned as I pulled out the bag of ground coffee. “I already made you some coffee.”

It took real effort, but I managed to say. “Duly noted.” Then I went back to my work. Bon-bon didn’t have a Mr. Coffee, a fact that didn’t slow me down at all. Given that my apartment doesn’t even have electricity, I was used to making my stuff the old fashioned way.

“I didn’t poison it.” Bon-bon said, her tone as brittle as glass.

I waited a minute to respond, breathing in the smell of the percolating perfection. “Never said you did.” But it would have been lying to say that I hadn’t remembered the hundreds of bottles and jars in that metaphorical pantry after seeing that steaming cup. I decided to change the topic to something more positive. “I destroyed your clock. Sorry.”

Okay, so maybe I’m not the smoothest conversationalist in the morning.

“You broke my clock? Why?” Bon-bon asked. It seemed to have caught her off-stride and her brow was knit in confusion. Or maybe ponies just treat their timepieces better than humans, who’s to know?

“In my defense, it was really annoying.” I said, as I poured myself a fresh, scalding hot cup of java. One nice thing about a telekinetic grip is that you can’t burn your hands if you aren’t using any.

Bon-bon swelled with anger, but sighed and deflated a moment later. “Look. Would it kill you to have a little faith in me? I’m taking a huge risk by helping you and you’re still acting like I’m an enemy.”

I took a sip and was surprised by the flavor. I don’t know if Bon-bon only buys the high quality stuff or if the beans in Equestria are naturally superior to the things we mere mortals grow, but this coffee was divine enough to deserve its own shrine. I took another sip, considered Bon-bon’s question, then went with my first impulse anyway. “Distrust is a two-way street, sweetheart. You aren’t here because it’s the right thing to do. You were afraid I would destroy the Order if you didn’t offer a better solution.” I gestured towards her with my cup, careful not to spill a drop of the delicious nectar inside. “And if you found a better way of insuring the safety of your club, like bumping off the guy threatening it, I don’t doubt that you’d take it. Hell, I’m half-expecting an ambush the moment we walk in the door.”

The room was silent other than the soft sound of my sipping. I glanced at Bon-bon, and got a surprise. She wasn’t glaring at me, shocked at my cunning wit, or afraid of my insight. Instead, she just looked sad.

“I should have. Everything in my training told me to do just that. Told me that the means justified the ends. Told me that I needed to protect the Order no matter what. But I didn’t.” She picked up one of the teacups and blew on it before taking a drink. “You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m not much of an agent. I’ve got the right skills for it, but I still have the wrong mindset.”

The thought had crossed my mind I’ll admit, but that left me puzzled. “Then why did you even join the Order in the first place? And if you want to get out so badly, why do you even care what I do?” Honestly, the combination made no sense.

Bon-bon stared at me in a mixture of disbelief and amusement. After a second, amusement won out and she started laughing. “You really haven’t figured it out? Okay, now I really do believe you aren’t him. There’s no way you could be that slow if you were.”

I just finished my drink before replying. With patience that I firmly believe would earn me the title of Zen Master elsewhere, I said, “Then illumine me, oh wise one.”

Still chuckling, Bon-bon shook her head. “Nopony joins the Order. Well, almost nopony. We are the single largest secret society in all of Equestria, and the only reason we continue to operate is that nopony outside of the Order knows we exist. Some ponies like Lyra believe it, but without proof, nopony believes them. The moment the Princess discovered us, we’d be rooted out and thrown in prison. You don’t take risks in recruitment when it could mean the end of the whole organization.”

I frowned, my brow furrowed and mental gears grinding until caffeine worked its way in to lubricate them. Then, it just clicked. If they weren’t getting new ponies from outside their organization…

Jeez, no wonder she was so damned conflicted.

I sighed and rubbed one temple with a hoof. “I should’ve realized. Hell, you even told me the Order is all about tradition. It’s a family business, isn’t it? You’re all the descendants of the ponies who refused to abandon the Order after Celestia shut it down. You were raised to be a member, not trained.”

My unwilling ally sighed and nodded. “Yes, but there was a lot of training too. Unfortunately, I had an aptitude for it. I know hundreds of poisons, soporifics and paralytics and dozens of ways to introduce them to the victim’s body. I’ve got skills that would put the assassins in historical novels to shame, but when I asked to be transferred to Ponyville my application was accepted. Would you mind if I told you a story?”

I took another quiet sip of coffee. “No.”

“Gran-gran’s ‘final exam’ was simple on the surface: create a brand new poison for the Order. I quickly discovered how difficult it really was, but I wanted to succeed more than anything else. Eventually I discovered that mixing blackthorn sap and honeyviper oil, two mild paralytics, yielded a poison that could stop the heart. Not content to stop there, I mixed the toxin into a special candy designed to appeal to predators. The chief ingredient is blood, among other things, but the point is that it attracted them like moths to a flame. I’m told chimerae are especially fond of them, even fighting to the death over one. When Gran-gran told me she was proud, that I’d gone above and beyond her expectations, I was so proud of myself. It wasn’t until the reports of confirmed kills, until the commendations from the higher-ups came, until I found out how many creatures had died because of my cleverness that I realized what I’d done. It didn’t matter that they were monsters; I was responsible for every one of those dozens of deaths. I stopped working, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to make any more poisons. My family was confused, but they stood by me when the rest of the Order called me a coward. Even if they couldn’t understand why I was so upset, they were my family. I was quietly transferred to Ponyville as Lyra’s handler, and that’s where I finally found my own happiness.”

She locked eyes with me and we stared into each other. We were both silent for a moment until she spoke in a low, impassioned tone. “I won’t let you hurt them, Blackstone, but I don’t want to hurt you either. I’m trusting you not to run wild once I let you into our stronghold, and I need you to trust me in return.”

Well, damn.

That explained a lot, like why Bon-bon’s house had so many ‘guest rooms’ and why they were all underground. Hereditary membership made so much sense I couldn’t believe it hadn’t seen it myself. Why risk recruiting when you can produce your own soldiers? Kids are impressionable and eager to prove themselves to mom and dad. I bet they even did a lot of adopting to increase their numbers and add a little genetic diversity. It might have been a cynical way to look at it, but that’s exactly what it was.

I’d bet my bottom dollar the Order had a different spiel about it. Probably something along the lines of honor and duty, praise for the noble sacrifice they were making. As though they’d ever been given the choice. After all, it was the job they’d been born to, and who would ever want to go? If that was the only life you knew, if that was where your family and friends were, everyone who understood you, would you leave?

Bon-bon wanted to, but it was clear she cared about the ponies she’d left behind. They were her family, and there is nothing so meaningful, so irrationally important as that.

However, that only meant I should trust her even less. People, even decent, ordinary people, are more than capable of murder when their loved ones are in danger. In a lot of ways, this was the limitation of the Soulgaze. I knew Bon-bon down to her truest nature, but that couldn’t tell me what she would choose to do. Killing me was the fastest, easiest and most certain way to protect everypony she cared about, but she hated her poisonous skills. She had a decision to make, and if I was going to trust her, I had to be certain she was going to make the right choice.

I finished the coffee and poured myself another cup, remaining silent. This was the kind of situation I hated. I’m a brute force kind of guy. Put a wall in front of me, and no matter how big or strong, I’ll smash my head into it until something gives. (Hint: it’s usually the wall). But this was a forest of thorns and brambles in comparison, something I had to pick my way through with caution and delicacy.

I settled back into my seat just as Rarity sauntered into the room, her mane un-styled and her brow creased with fury. It did not take a genius to see that she was still angry at Bob. Just in case I had missed the subtle cues, though, she apparently felt the need to inform me. “I cannot fathom how that thing’s twisted little mind works. Do you know what he said to me after I was done berating him?” I had a couple of guesses, but Rarity didn’t give me a chance. “He said, ‘Wow, you’re even hotter when you’re angry.’ Can you believe that?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” I replied. “Putting up with his mouth is the price for keeping him. He’ll stay quiet once we’re out of the house, though. He knows that if the Order catches us, they’ll smash his skull to pieces and let the next dawn tear him apart. And that’s if he’s lucky. If he gets sent back to the Nevernever, it’s only a matter of time until Mab finds him. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone.”

Bon-bon had been listening with a bored expression, but that woke her up. “The fabled Queen of Air and Darkness? Your familiar is powerful enough to escape her wrath?” Her stare became calculating. “If so, his lechery is probably just a front to make ponies underestimate him.”

Rarity snorted derisively. “I find it more likely that his ‘front’ is what earned her animosity. Oh, is that tea for me?” Her change in direction caught me off guard, and by the time I realized what she had said, the cup was already floating toward her mouth.

I opened my mouth to warn her, but I was too late. Rarity had already sipped deeply from the small cup. I waited for something to happen, not certain just what that would be. Nothing happened, other than Rarity drinking more tea. I glanced suspiciously at the principal culprit. Bon-bon hadn’t even blinked when Rarity took the cup and certainly didn’t seem concerned now. Nothing continued to happen, and she finished the tea with an obvious relish. “That was just what I needed. Thank you. I’ll go fix myself up – only the essentials, I promise – and then we can be on our way.”

I watched her leave without saying a word, gears still spinning in my head. Bon-bon seemed to be innocent. Of course, that hardly proved she was pure as the driven snow, but in this case at least, I had been wrong. The smirk on Bon-bon’s face told me that she had some idea of how much that irked me.

“I told you I didn’t poison anything,” she said triumphantly.

I grumbled out something that could have been an apology. Bon-bon seemed to accept it, and the silence between became less frigid. All the same, I didn’t drink from the cup of coffee she had prepared, and she didn’t offer it again.

………

Rising with the sun is unnatural. Rising before the sun is the next best thing to blasphemy.

Still, it was for a good cause, so I followed Bon-bon through the dim light of pre-dawn without complaint. Rarity followed, her saddlebags bulging. The streets were almost deserted, but it was better not to take chances.

The plan was simple enough. Use Bon-bon’s knowledge to get in, sneak down to the Order’s holding cells, knock out the guard or guards, release Twilight, put her in a robe, and sneak out. It was a good plan, but it did hinge entirely on Bon-bon’s whole-hearted participation. So just in case, I had a back-up plan, and it was even simpler. Break down the door, kick in the teeth of anyone who got in my way, and generally just make a spectacle of myself while Rarity snuck in through the confusion and rescued Twilight. In all honesty, I preferred Plan B. Not because it was less risky, but because I’d get some payback for the all the trouble those idiots had put me through.

It broke my heart, but I had to leave my staff behind. It was too big and too conspicuous for stealth. I was hardly helpless without it, but my staff was my most versatile weapon. If things turned ugly, I’d be fighting with a handicap. Of course, if things went to plan, I wouldn’t be fighting at all. And plans always work out just right, so what was I worrying about?

“Stop,” Bon-bon whispered. I brought myself to a halt just in time to avoid running into her. “It’s the bookstore over there.”

“Which one?” Rarity asked peering at the small line of shops across the street.

“I’m not going to point,” Bon-bon said, exasperated. “It’s the small, used one.”

“I see it.” I nodded. It was barely more than a doorway and sign squeezed between its neighbors. Almost unnoticeable, though I was certain that was just a coincidence, and not a calculated effort to conceal the entrance to their secret hideout . “So how are we doing this?”

“Put on your robes and follow me. I’ll do the talking.” I rolled my eyes at the cliché, but complied. Rarity had done her work well. The hood hung far forward, cutting off most of my peripheral vision, but concealing my face from sight. It also masked the sword cane I had strapped to my side, hopefully without any telltale bulges. I had practiced drawing and wielding it with telekinesis in between working on Rarity’s saddlebags. Any unicorns we faced probably had a lot more experience with levitating swordplay than I did, but at least I understand the basic principles. Bon-bon examined Rarity with an air of satisfaction, but her expression soured when she turned to me. The robe couldn’t hide my height, and I hadn’t seen any unicorns with a horn as big as mine either. I doubt my identity was obvious, but anything out of the ordinary was likely to rouse suspicion.

“This can’t end well.” Bon-bon mumbled under her breath.

I just grinned. “Wait a second, and I can do something about that.”

A frown crossed the earth pony’s face. “Are you talking about an illusion? That won’t work; the spells at the door would rip any disguise to shreds. And set off some alarms in the process.”

I shook my head. “Not quite, and I doubt your wards would do anything about it.” I frowned. “Unless they can affect potions.”

“Zebrician magic?” Bon-bon asked. I shrugged, unsure how similar my concoctions were to Equestria’s type of potions. She sat back and thought. “I don’t think so, but we wouldn’t know until it’s too late to turn back.”

Why can’t things ever be easy? “If that happens, I’ll wreak some havoc and cause a distraction. You two can find Twilight while everypony’s attention is focused on me.”

Bon-bon glowered at me. “That is not an acceptable plan.”

I shrugged. “Do you have a better one?”

“Yes. If your disguise fails, then start running and don’t turn back. They’ll chase after you, but you’ll have a head start and should be able to lose them. That creates a distraction without causing any mayhem.”

“I believe causing mayhem was rather the point.” Rarity interjected, with a glare of her own. Bon-bon seemed surprised by Rarity’s attitude. Did she think we had forgotten who had taken Twilight? Rarity smoothed her expression before continuing. “While I agree with you on the principle that violence should only be a last resort, I can more than understand Mr. Blackstone’s desire to vent his frustration.”

Bon-bon looked more than ready to respond, but I managed to cut her off. “Okay. Fine. Plan B is pulling a Roadrunner. Once dawn hits, I’ll use the potion and we can get going. Sitting here arguing is only going to draw attention to us.”

A certain earth pony wasn’t happy with that decision, but thankfully she saw the logic in it. Instead of starting a row, she grumpily asked, “When is sunrise?”

Rarity yawned. “It shouldn’t be long now.”

I stared at the eastern horizon, but there wasn’t even a hint of pre-dawn brightening the sky. “How can you tell?”

To my confusion, she pointed westward. I turned around, wondering if she was referring to a clock, but her hoof directed my gaze beyond the rooftops of the town.

In the distance, a huge castle clung to the side of the mountain. I had been inside it during my last visit, but only now could I see it in all its splendor. The palace looked like a medieval architect’s wet dream, with dozens of turrets, towers, domes, banners and every other kind of fancy architecture done in gleaming marble and beaten gold. Waterfalls cascaded around it, forming a moat, before pouring further down the mountainside. The whole thing was staggeringly beautiful, but it didn’t answer my question. Until I realized that the light shining from one of the higher balconies was not a lantern.

Realization hit me when I made out the long-limbed figure beneath the light. Princess Celestia’s horn flared to a brilliant point and the sun roared into motion, climbing the eastern hills within seconds.

Dawn has a powerful effect on the supernatural. That should come as no surprise; the sun is a giant ball of nuclear fire capable of supporting all life on earth with only a fraction the energy it produces. Much like mundane fire, daylight is a force of both cleansing and destruction. True, most the things harmed by it like to eat humanity, but dawn degrades mortal magic just as quickly as the inhuman variety, and friendly spirits are no safer than poltergeists from its rays. I have never heard of anyone, not even Merlin − the freaking Chuck Norris of wizards − trying to affect the sun, much less control it. And the pretty pony princess from her shiny mountainside castle has been doing it every morning for untold centuries.

I suddenly felt very insecure about that scene in the library. Probably because I was missing my staff, i.e. the best security blanket a wizard could have.

The light raced across the land, and I felt it as day broke. There was a sort of intangible pressure that washed over everything, subtle but powerful. The enchantments woven into my coat and the saddlebags frayed slightly, but neither one fell to pieces just yet. The rest of my gear was fine, but then I’d spent weeks, or even months on all of them. More importantly, I could finally drink my blending potion. This was the last day of its shelf life, but it shouldn’t have lost much in the way of potency. The flavor was bland, about as unremarkable as you could get, but I wasn’t drinking it for the taste.

The colors of the world around me slowly bled out as the potion went to work. Once everything was reduced to shades of gray, I knew it was finished. I wasn’t invisible, that’s too tall an order for someone without any skill in illusions. Instead, what I had now amounted to an aura of unimportance. I would just fade into the background, as far as observers were concerned. With enough attention anyone could see right through it, but so long as I remained inconspicuous the potion would keep anypony from even realizing I was there.

“How about now?” I asked Bon-bon, my voice reduced to mumbling monotone.

Her eyes slid past me to focus on Rarity. “Did you say something?”

Rarity shook her head and I rolled my eyes. Wouldn’t it be just my luck to have the potion keep them from noticing me? I tapped Bon-bon on the head with one hoof. That finally got her notice, but even so, it took her a second to fight through the effects of the potion. As Bon-bon focused on me, her eyes flashed from light gray to a cool blue.

“Wow,” she said. “That should work.”

I don’t know if it was Rarity’s eye for detail or just because she knew me better, but she returned to full color as soon as she turned to see who Bon-bon was talking to. At least, I hoped it was one of those two things, not a defective potion. Rarity gave me an impressed glance, then returned to scouting the street outside our alleyway.

We waited for a newspaper pony to pass by, then crossed the empty street and entered. My heart accelerated from its normal speed to a beat more appropriate to a jack hammer. Other than my companions, the world around me remained gray, indicating that the potion was still at work, but Rarity had pierced it so easily. The tension mounted. We needed to at least get into their headquarters, but if my disguise didn’t pass muster with the guy at the door, all of this preparation would have been for nothing.

I felt my brow furrow. I had promised Bon-bon I’d follow her lead, but if Plans A and B fell through, I then considered myself a free agent. Not that I was going back on my word; after all, I had promised her not to smash through any of the Order’s members.

I hadn’t said anything about the walls or doors, though…

The sign on the bookstore said ‘closed’, but the door was unlocked. We entered the shop to the tinkle of a small bell, which got the attention of the pegasus at the counter. For second her eyes changed to a faint pink as she looked over us, but the color faded away quickly. I heaved a sigh of relief. Bon-bon marched over to the counter and lowered her hood. “What’s your favorite shape?”

The unnamed pony flicked her wings. Nervously, I think, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to read body language on limbs I didn’t have. “The triangle,” she replied in a rush. “Now, hurry and follow me. I’m expecting another group any minute now.”

That raised my eyebrows, and for once, I wasn’t alone in that reaction. “What?” Bon-bon asked, clearly taken aback. However, our guide hadn’t stuck around to chat. She was already moving between the shelves of the deceptively large bookstore. Bon-bon followed her, still trying to ask questions. After a moment of hesitation, Rarity and I hurried to tag along. I caught up when the pegasus paused to unlock a door marked ‘Employees Only’.

“So tell me,” Bon-bon gasped, her voice verging on anxiety, “why we skipped the rest of the ritual. Why are you expecting another group so soon? What’s happened?”

The response was genuinely surprised. “You don’t know?”

“No?” Rarity ventured, deepening her voice a shade. Good idea. I was planning to stay silent, since all I needed was to slip up once, say ‘somebody,’ and we’d all catch hell. Still, I doubted that both of us could get away without talking.

“Everything that could go wrong, has. The only thing that could make it worse was if the Princess, or Harmony forbid him, found the stronghold.” I had to hold back a chuckle at that, but her fear-stricken expression made that less difficult than it might have been. She continued, “Just hurry in and find your superior. Whatever you were here to do, they’ll have different orders, I guarantee it.”

She ushered us down some creaky stairs into a dimly lit basement. It was for the most part unremarkable, just more shelves and books, but in one corner there was a huge minting press, several low-tech machining tools, a few stacks of coin-sized blanks, and a pile of finished gold coins. I almost did a double take at the sheer amount of (presumably counterfeit) money, just sitting there like so much merchandise.

Unfortunately, we never got close enough for me to take a sample of one from one of the golden hills. Our guide shepherded us along one wall and gave one of the books on the shelf a solid yank. With a low rumble, one of the massive bookcases slid aside, revealing a set of stairs.

I’m not kidding. I wish I was, but Equestria apparently runs on clichés.

I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Bon-bon moved quickly down the stairs, still wearing a confused frown. Rarity followed her, and I brought up the rear. The bookcase trundled back into position, but over the noise I just barely heard the pegasus say, “Good luck.”

That’s not ominous at all, I thought sourly. Glaring at the concealed doorway didn’t do much to dispel my apprehension, but it did make me feel a little better. Something strange had happened to the Order, even if she had been frustratingly vague on the actual details. Would it have killed her to be more specific? Bon-bon’s surprise at the news felt genuine, which made me doubt she was leading us into a trap. Unless they knew about us from another source, and they already thought Bon-bon was comprised.

That pleasant thought made me inspect my surroundings as closely as I could, but since we were in complete darkness, that was more wishful thinking than action. Rarity called forth light from her horn easily enough, and I pulled out my pentacle to do likewise, but the darkness didn’t seem to bother Bon-bon. Somewhere around the third story underground, the stairwell began to change. Brick walls were replaced by finished stone, and some type of crystals fused to the ceiling provided illumination. They weren’t very bright, but it was enough. I peered at the glowing crystals as I tucked away my pentacle, but some odd patterning on the stone above me caught my eye. It was difficult to get a good look, but I managed, even if the attempt almost cost me my balance. When I realized what I was seeing, though, my mouth dropped open and I stopped walking.

The ceiling was lined in runes. They looked old enough to give Stonehenge a run for its money, and I could definitely feel the power radiating off them, but that wasn’t what impressed me. The part that left my jaw hanging in the breeze was that each rune was made of dozens, maybe hundreds, of tiny, perfectly-interlocking symbols that shifted and changed while I was watching them.

I think the pony responsible for this deserved a more badass title than ‘the Clever’, but that was just me.

I hurried down the rest of the stairs. The warding symbols continued down the entire length of the stairwell. I know this because I’m observant, not because I glanced at the ceiling every five seconds out of fear. Whatever they were, thankfully, they didn’t seem interested in me. I don’t know if my magic was foreign enough not to trip any alarms, or if the latent protections were just better at detecting the difference between “strange” and “evil” than the Order they protected. I wouldn’t have been surprised in either case.

As we continued to descend, I tried to put the dangerous wards hovering above us out of my mind. I doubt I would have succeeded if it hadn’t have been for the noises we started hearing. At first they were just a low rumble, barely loud enough to hear, but a couple twists of the stairs later and they were discernible as individual sounds. Hooves rushing on stone was the main component, but multiple conversations, the thumps of heavy objects on a wooden surface and the rustle of hundreds of pages created a varied background. The stairs ended just as the noises reached a conversational level, and I got my first look at the secret headquarters of the Order Triune.

After a short landing, the stairway opened onto something that looked like a cross between the reading room at the New York Public Library and a Victorian business office. Enormous bookcases lined the walls, the smallest of which was easily two stories tall, holding thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of tomes, scrolls, grimoires and any other kind of book you could think up. The shelves were aglow with the auras of a dozen or so unicorns drawing the books off them as quickly as possible, creating a severe air space hazard to the pegasi darting in and out of the giant room through its doors. Some of the books were going to desks manned by a mix of unicorns and earth ponies to be flipped through in furious study, but most of them gathered into teetering stacks, which vanished in flashes cast by a pair of exhausted-looking unicorns. Maybe half the ponies I could see wore hoods, but the rest were bare-headed, their faces showing the strain of panic channeled into frantic activity.

The grayscale circus was held barely under control by one dark gray unicorn with steely hair shiny enough to show your reflection. He consulted with the messengers and a circle of ponies around him, but he still managed to bark orders to the rest at the same time.

“They’re evacuating.” Bon-bon said a hushed tone. Fear touched her voice, winding itself into her words. Whatever explanation she had expected for the interruption of routine, it hadn’t been this. “But why?”

“Does it matter?” Rarity whispered back. “We need to find Twilight. You can find out what’s going on afterwards, if you’d like.”

I nodded in agreement. Our entrance had been ignored in all the activity, but three ponies just standing and watching would draw attention eventually. We needed to move.

Bon-bon bit her bottom lip, chewing on it nervously, but sighed and began to lead us once more. Unfortunately her path went right through most of the activity and skirted far too close to the gesticulating boss for my comfort. One benefit to diving into the mess is that I could actually discern some snippets of conversation, instead of just hearing it all as crowd noise.

“−find the accounts on his fourth incarnation. I think he did something similar when he−”

“−and even if the Agents’ covers were blown, how did he−”

“−obvious she couldn’t have deactivated that ring by herself. She had help, and I think−”

“−looking through Romana’s transcripts, but−”

“−like a complete madpony. I was barely out of my room, rushing towards the mess hall, when−”

“−because we’ve lost contact with them doesn’t mean−”

And all too soon, we were sidling by the boss unicorn and his entourage. He had a commanding tone, and was clearly used to being in charge. I wondered how high he was in hierarchy here, but at any rate, I paid close attention to what he was saying.

“−Bookmark, I need you to begin clearing the Level Six archives. They need to go into cold storage.”

“I thought the archives were only five levels?”

He sighed. “Midnight, the Keepers store many secrets. I’ll need you to keep that knowledge to yourself. Now, how many Agents are confirmed missing, not just out of contact with−” And then, sadly, I was out of earshot.

I puzzled over the fragments of chatter as we scooted out one of the doors. At the least, I could glean that somepony was taking out their hidden spies, and that they thought it was me – well, Obsidian, but as far as they were concerned, we were one and the same. Personally, I suspected Luna. She seemed more likely to use subtlety than her sister, but either way, the Princesses had evidently opened season on the Order. Between the two of them, the organization probably wasn’t long for this world, but whatever ways Celestia had of making them talk evidently weren’t effective. If they were, I doubt there would have been an Order left to panic.

“I don’t understand.” Rarity hissed to Bon-bon. “What is going on?” I glanced around to ensure nopony had heard, but the hall we were moving through was mostly empty.

“They’re evacuating, but I don’t know why. I heard something about missing Agents, but I don’t understand why that would cause panic this wide scale.” She shook her head, mind evidently made up. “I’ll find out soon enough. We need to hurry and find Twilight before they move her. She should still be there. Preparing a new place capable of holding her wouldn’t be easy, but I don’t know how long they’ve been at it.”

“Where will she be?” I asked. The halls were unmarked, there were no signs on any of the walls, and the ceiling had been devoid of anything but light crystals since we had left the stairwell. Apparently, you had to memorize the layout. Annoying if you lived here, but a nightmare to any intruders.

Both mares startled and spun around as if they had forgotten they weren’t alone. Rarity touched her chest like she was trying to stop her heart from jumping out and Bon-bon let out a relieved breath as she realized it was just me. Once she had calmed down, Bon-bon answered. “Further inside. She should be in the safe rooms, or – no, she’ll be in the safe rooms.”

I didn’t like that verbal stumble on Bon-bon’s part, but making a scene here was not a good idea. If Twilight wasn’t in a ‘safe room’, we’d burn that bridge when we came to it.

We hurried through the secret stronghold, down more stairs and across more rooms. No matter where we went, everypony was in a hurry, packing up everything that wasn’t nailed down or running here and there with messages. Nopony paid any attention to us, and fifteen tense but conflict-free minutes later, we had arrived at our destination. But, much like the rest of the place, it wasn’t anything like what we – or at least I – had expected.

Instead of a long line of cells, or even barred doors, it looked more the hallway of guest rooms at Bon-bon’s home. It was carved out of solid rock and lit by crystals, but the resemblance was there if you looked. Oh, and instead of a couple of guards, there were about a dozen pegasi milling around without any sign of purpose. That was odd. Everything else had been running like clockwork, frantically paced, but still with a sense of precision. And why were there so many of them? Something wasn’t right.

“Something’s not right,” Bon-bon echoed my thoughts. I gave her a glare for stealing my line, but the obscuring hood kept her from noticing.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Rarity observed dryly. “How are we supposed to spirit away Twilight in all this mess?”

Bon-bon stared for a moment then rolled her shoulders with a crack, and shrugged her hood back on. “Let’s find out. Follow my lead.”

Okay, because that’s worked so well this far, hasn’t it? I groused. I was sorely tempted to vocalize that piece of snark, but I still couldn’t afford any attention. Man, this stealth thing sucks.

“Excuse me,” Bon-bon demanded, her voice and posture reflecting a self importance not normally found outside of a Fortune Five Hundred boardroom. Her haughty gaze settled on the nearest guard and she marched up to him, bold as brass, Rarity and me flanking her. “We are Keepers First Class, and we’ve been given the task of interrogating Twilig−”

“She is to be referred to as Prisoner T.” The guard corrected brusquely. “And you’re on the wrong floor. She’s being kept down below.”

The breath seemed to catch in Bon-bon’s throat. “You mean the holding cells? Nopony told me−”

“I don’t give a flying feather what you were told,” he replied, growling like a wolf. “We’re busy, and we don’t need a trio of arrogant Keepers interfering with Slayer business. I don’t care if you’re first class or last class; get lost.”

Bon-bon puffed up in indignation and for a moment I thought she was going to let him have it. Instead she just let her breath out in a dissatisfied huff and spoke the six words that all bureaucrats fear most. “Your superior will hear about this.” She turned to Rarity and me, acting like a petty demagogue with a new enemy. Though in a workplace like this, where the regular business seemed to be brainwashing and assault, I imagine enmity in the office was a lot deadlier than normal.

Bon-bon lead us on without looking back, but once we turned the corner and were out of sight, her composure broke. Sweat beaded across her forehead and her pace changed from purposeful to rushed. I still couldn’t gallop very well, but with my long legs, her walking speed wasn’t any trouble at all. I pulled up alongside her and without pause asked, “What did you mean ‘holding cells’? Where. Is. Twilight?” My tone was cold as Antarctic winter, but even less forgiving. Bon-bon winced; my anger had carried even through the potion’s monotone.

“Unicorns are … difficult to keep secure. Magic was difficult to counter for centuries. About eight hundred years ago, inhibitor rings solved that problem, but before then the Order had to use other measures to contain dangerous unicorns.” Her head dipped to the floor in looked like embarrassment. Or maybe it was shame. “If they put her in ‘down below’, then she’ll be in the dungeon.”

I lifted an eyebrow, silently waiting for her to finish.

“Chained beneath a waterfall,” she said in a small voice. “But I swear to you, I never thought they’d do that.” She slammed one hoof violently to the floor, her own fury growing. “Nothing makes sense! What is going on?!”

I raised my head, checking to make sure that nopony had heard her outburst. We’d been fortunate that everyone was too busy to check our credentials, but Lady Luck, as I have previously stated, is a bitch. In hindsight I am firmly convinced we only got so far because she wanted us in fully over our heads before stabbing us in the back. And don’t ask how we’d get stabbed underwater, weirder things have happened.

“Sweetie?! Oh, Sweetie, it is you! I was so worried!”

A tiny pony, barely three and half feet tall, plowed through me like a NFL linebacker. At first I thought she was a filly, maybe a little older than the Butt Tattoo Brigade, but on closer inspection she had faint lines around her eyes, leading me to realize through clever deduction that she was actually a middle-aged adult.

“Mother?!” Bon-bon yelped, which was entirely unrelated to my aforementioned deduction.

“My little Sweetie Drops! I was so worried when the reports of missing Agents started to come in. Nopony had seen you since yesterday morning. I thought I’d lost you!” She hugged her daughter closer seemingly at the edge of tears.

“Mom! What are you doing here?” Bon-bon demanded, the horror in her voice making her sound more like a petulant teenager than a world-weary secret agent.

Her mother chattered away, doting her full attention on her ‘baby’, and in the meantime I picked myself back up and dusted myself off. As funny as it was to see Bon-bon (or Sweetie Drops, which I supposed was her real name) brought low, we needed to lose her mom and keep moving. This was not the time to delay, but her mother didn’t look to be in danger of running out of conversation just yet. I glanced at Rarity, but she was as hesitant as I was to get involved.

Instead, I took the opportunity to study Bon-mom. She was a light gray color with hair that looked like styled steel. I still couldn’t see any colors, but her mane shone like some kind of metal. She didn’t have a horn, so I assumed she was an Earth pony. Sure, she could have been a pegasus, but with all the mass she had hit me with, I doubt she could ever have gotten off the ground. The robe made it difficult to tell, but she’d felt like a solid slab of muscle when she bowled through me. And no, I was not making excuses for my tattered dignity, thanks for asking.

“And who are these ponies? Friends of yours? Did you get a new team? Is it a special mission? Or is he that colt you’re so obviously obsessed with, but never talk about?”

I was about to butt into their conversation, reminding ‘Sweetie Drops’ that we still had a mission and blatantly hint for her mom to leave, when I realized three very important things. One: the flow of chatter had cut off and both ponies were staring at me. Two: my hood was on crooked thanks to the collision, revealing part of my face. And three: Bon-mom’s hair was as bright as a new penny.

I processed all of that and the contents of her last statement in less than a second. Considering that my potion doesn’t actually hold up under close scrutiny, it was not a fun combination. And there is no closer scrutiny than a doting, overprotective mother examining the boy she thinks her daughter is dating. Her stare pierced my disguise with all the ease of a fire hose going through a paper towel. From there the widening eyes and terrified gasp told me the rest of the story.

Oh, damn.

“Listen,” I said, “I know what this looks like, but−” and then she punched me.

Unlike her daughter, Bon-mom definitely worked out, because she delivered a jab to my face that rung my bells. I was still standing, but for the moment I was seeing stars. Maybe it was my brand new head injury speaking, but I couldn’t help thinking, What is it wrong this family?! Why is their first reaction always a punch?

“Run, Sweetie! I’ll hold him off!” she yelled, winding up for another punch. A shimmering blue aura caught the hoof mid-swing, though it cost Rarity a surprised grunt of effort. I began gathering my wits, and my power, as Bon-bon tried to explain.

“Mom, this isn’t him. We’ve got the wrong pony.”

For about three-tenths of second, Bon-mom actually considered that then her face twisted in absolute horror. “You poor girl. He got to you just like he did that nice Miss Sparkle.” Her fury boiled to the surface and she fixed me with the kind of stare that only an angry parent can produce. “If you hurt one hair on her head, Obsidian, you won’t live another day!” Luna would have been jealous of the volume she reached, as her announcement echoed down the corridor.

Great. Just what I needed. She was gearing up for more, but I had had enough. “Inflexia!” I shouted, encasing her in the same spell I’d used yesterday. Bon-mom froze in place, the cocoon of hardened air muffling her words even if it couldn’t silence her entirely.

“Blackstone!” Bon-bon yelled, her worried frown changing into a scowl. “This was not part of the deal.”

I rolled me eyes. “I didn’t hurt her, that spell will last an hour tops, and I’m not going to just stand here and let her hit me.”

“She’s my mother!” My logic didn’t seem to be penetrating her thick head. Or maybe she was just angry. I could identify with that, especially since I was starting to feel that way myself.

“Which is just about the only reason I didn’t throw her into the wall after she punched me in the face!” I roared back. We went nearly eye to eye, tempers frayed to bloody shreds.

“I hate to interrupt your moment, but our presence was just announced rather loudly. I would suggest we get moving.” Rarity intervened. The sound of shouts and hooves on stone just reinforced her sensible suggestion.

“She’s right. We don’t have time for this.” I fixed my hood, and started moving. I could see stairs at the end of this corridor. Assuming that ‘down below’ wasn’t metaphorical, I had an idea where to go.

Bon-bon, though, wasn’t moving. “And what if I’m not coming?” she asked coldly.

I chuckled darkly. “Then, I’ll have to find my own way.” I didn’t look forward to getting lost, but there were some benefits to abandoning her help.

In another circumstance the face she made would have sold tickets. Even in the middle of all this I was tempted to laugh at the shocked horror my statement had produced. Rarity glanced at me apprehensively, but remained silent. That deflated some of my levity. Just what did they think I was going to do?

“Fine,” Bon-bon bit out, rushing past me towards the stairs. “But I’m not going to forget this.” I rolled my eyes again, which the hood thankfully concealed. Somehow the threats of a pony half my weight and a foot shorter than me weren’t exactly intimidating.

And if I acquired a food taster for the rest of my stay in Equestria, that was just a coincidence.

The sounds of pursuit echoed as we hurried downward. Or at least that was how it felt. I doubt they could organize anything that quickly, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. We were on a ticking clock and didn’t have time to waste.

Six stories’ worth of stairs later, the sound of other ponies had died out entirely. We hadn’t passed a single pony, and I got the feeling this wasn’t an area anyone wanted to visit. The atmosphere darkened as we continued down what Bon-bon promised was the final hallway. The light crystals had dimmed, the walls showed more rough stone than masonry, and there were even some jagged crystals sticking out here and there. I had no trouble believing that this was the dungeon.

We rounded the corner to find a massive stone door, lined with even more of the Equestrian runes of unknown purpose. They might just make the door stronger and more durable, but I wouldn’t put money on that. It was more likely they were a set of wards designed to reflect the power of whatever hit them. Given enough time, and Bob’s assistance, I could probably disassemble them, but I didn’t have a day or two to waste on that. Besides, I doubted any of the guards standing watch would just sit back and let me try.

“You there!” Bon-bon shouted and the guards snapped to attention. “We’re here to interrogate Prisoner T. The Mage believes she has information about the disappearances.”

The guards glanced at each other. One stepped forward, and asked, “And you are?” I got nervous then. The world had gone gray again after we left Bon-mom behind, but there were flashes of color here and there. The potion was giving out on me, and I could only hope it would hold for just a little bit longer.

Bon-bon pulled out a silver coin marked with some kind of symbol I couldn’t make out. “A Keeper First Class, and that’s all you need to know.” Whatever trick she was running, the guards bought it completely, and the one who had questioned her bowed in deference.

“Of course, ma’am. We’ll be ready momentarily.”

He retreated and the rest went to work opening the door. Rarity took the opportunity to lean over and whisper, “Impressive, my dear. Here I thought you were bluffing when you acted like somepony important.”

Bon-bon hissed back. “Don’t say anything else, because I am. The whole reason we had to enter through the first level Archive was so I could swipe the badge of office from one of the Keepers.”

I wrestled briefly with the question of how it was possible to pickpocket with hooves before giving up. Some things are just inexplicable. The door screeched, stone scraping against stone as the giant door opened. Most of the guards resumed their positions around it, but one walked through, gesturing for us to follow him.

The rest of the dungeon was just variations on the theme. I kept track of our turns and the intersections, but I didn’t pay any attention to the tunnels themselves. The monotonous walls began to blur together as I became lost in my own thoughts. I tried to suppress the anger boiling inside me, but in was becoming more and more difficult. One phrase echoed in my mind refusing me any peace. They chained her beneath a waterfall.

A low growl, something almost inaudible, stirred at the back of my throat. I’ve been strung up in a similar situation, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It doesn’t sound that bad at first. After all, everybody’s taken a cold shower before. But allow me to enlighten you. The water is colder than anything you can imagine, colder even than ice. Groundwater saps just enough heat to make you cold without the mercy of numbness, ensuring that every part of you is chilled to the point of agony. Factor in gravity, next. The water is falling and you’re what it hits. At first it isn’t much, but it only takes a few hours before you feel like you’ve gone a dozen rounds with Mike Tyson.

Then you have to deal with the helplessness, a sensation few mages have ever experienced. Magic is central to a wizard’s life; it’s as much as part of them as their name or voice. Even if we aren’t a match for something, a death curse is nothing to laugh at no matter how powerful the enemy. But take their magic away, and a wizard is at your mercy. And the kind of creatures who would do that in the first place aren’t exactly known for their compassion, which makes the situation even more nightmarish.

Back then, I had been given the choice between having my throat slit or turning into Darth Dresden. If a friend, one of the best men I have ever known, hadn’t sacrificed himself for me, I would have bled out beneath that cold curtain of water, incapable of anything beyond token resistance.

But the worst part was that the sensation would be completely, horribly new to Twilight. She had graduated the school of hard knocks with the rest of her friends after Trixie’s insane little gambit, but this would be PhD material. Waking up to the cold and pain, helpless to fight back, to do anything to her tormentors, must have been terrifying. And that’s not even considering whatever they would try as ‘reverse brainwashing’. I’d already seen that mental magic wasn’t illegal here.

Suddenly, ‘anger’ seemed like a mild way to describe what I was feeling.

Finally, we reached a corridor lined with doors instead of blank walls, the sound of roaring water now audible. They were smaller, and made of wood, but otherwise identical to the enormous door that had guarded the entrance. The guard pulled a large ring holding dozens of keys from a clip on his armor, and solemnly unlocked the door, pulling it open.

At first I thought there was a second door, one made of some shimmering, moving metal. Then I realized it was the waterfall. It reached all the way to the edge of the cell, and there was enough water pouring past to make it seem almost solid. I peered inside, but couldn’t make anything out. The inside of the cell seemed to be unlit.

The guard grunted in distaste. “Can any of you give me some light? It’s bad enough I’ve got to go in there and unlock her, doing it in the dark ain’t any fun.”

Not just under a waterfall, but in complete darkness too, I thought, stomach knotting like a fist. I didn’t trust myself enough to speak, much less perform any spells.

“Certainly, darling,” Rarity said, her horn flaring to an almost painful level of brightness.

The guard yelped in response dragging a hoof across his eyes. “Not that bright!”

“Sorry,” she replied sweetly. If I hadn’t known her, it would have been difficult to hear the venom beneath her seemingly innocuous words, but it was there all right. She lowered the illumination to a normal level and the guard entered the pouring curtain of water.

It took him less than a minute, but time seemed to drag on for me. He finally emerged, a shaking pony wrapped in a thick, dripping blanket following him. “There you go,” he said. “You’ll want to put a ring on her horn before she recovers, though.”

We didn’t have an inhibitor ring, but Rarity had removed one of my force rings from its elastic band the previous evening. I fished that ring out of my pocket, hoping that the guard didn’t notice what it really was. His colors didn’t even flicker from dark gray. He hadn’t noticed. Confident, I pulled off the blanket, ready for whatever Twilight did.

Only it wasn’t Twilight.

This pony was a unicorn, yes and definitely a she, but this was not the Element of Magic. I recognized her, but honestly she was about the last pony I had been expecting.

“Trixie?!” Rarity gasped, reflecting my surprise.

The guard turned to stare at her in suspicion. “You know her?” Then the light began to dawn in his eyes. “Wait, aren’t you−”

I slammed him into the wall, my telekinetic aura engulfing his entire body. Trixie began backing away, clearly terrified. I didn’t care. I had bigger fish to fry. Color flooded past, the burning red-orange of my magic, the dull green of the guard’s eyes, the glistening pink of the jagged crystals. My blending potion had given out, but I didn’t care.

“Where is she?! Where is Twilight?” I bellowed, shaking him as I roared.

“Stop that!” Bon-bon yelled.

I turned my glare on her and she wilted visibly. “You told me Twilight would be here. I followed your lead and did everything you told me, but we still didn’t find her. Now I’m doing this my way.” I slammed the guard, who had started squirming, against the wall again. I stared into him and without any attempt to disguise the anger rampaging inside me. “You will tell me where she is or I will break you.” I didn’t bother with elaborate threats or bluffs and the simple certainty in my statement broke his resistance.

“Last I heard s-she was upstairs in the safe rooms. W-we’d never put her down here. This place is for criminals and monsters.”

Synapses fired faster than lightning. The group of guards with an unclear purpose and bad attitude weren’t just there by chance. Those bastards had been moving Twilight in secret; she was already gone! I growled again in frustration, but my unholy fury began to evaporate away. I was too relieved to stay mad, knowing that Twilight hadn’t suffered in one of those dank cells. If she was on the move, she wasn’t behind their wards, and if she wasn’t behind their wards I could find her. I just needed to get out of here in one piece.

I cracked a smile, which for some reason just made the guard shudder even more. “You said this place is full of crooks and monsters, right?”

He whimpered and nodded.

“Good. I’m going to need your keys, then.”

Twenty seconds and one of Bon-bon’s candies later, he was out like a light. My scheme, if you wanted to call it that, was simple: unleash as many prisoners as quickly as I could, stage a prison riot/mass breakout, and slip away in the chaos.

Of course, there was a major stumbling block in all that. One named Bon-bon.

“We may not have Twilight, but I upheld my end of the bargain. I led both of you down here, and helped you past every sentry on the way. I’m expecting you to keep to our deal.”

I sighed, and continued in my efforts to unlock the next closest door. “Then offer a better plan for getting out of here, because I never promised to sit back and hand myself over. I said as long as we got Twilight I wouldn’t tell Celestia or hurt anypony.” I gestured to our little group. “Let me know when you see Twilight.”

She fell silent, but I knew that wouldn’t last for long. One way or another she was going to cause trouble, and unless I could get rid of her, I didn’t like our odds of escape.

Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Rarity approach Trixie, trying coax her back towards the rest of the group. “Come on. You’ll be safer with us than wandering these halls alone. Whatever were you doing in there anyway? I thought you were still under the Princess’s care.”

Trixie got to her hooves slowly and hesitantly moved to Rarity’s side, keeping a careful distance from me. Was she scared of me because of what I had just done do the guard, or was it something else? How much did she remember from her night of madness?

“Trixie’s … recovery was completed more than a month ago, and she was given a new wagon. She was booked for a job within a week of her release, and put on an excellent show. Trixie’s employer offered her a drink after the show, and the next thing Trixie knew, she woke up in that cell.” She gestured to the closed door and shivered. I doubt it was a lingering chill from her soaking.

“Why?” Bon-bon asked. Her expression was twisted in confusion. “I know you were to blame for that thing with the Ursa Minor, but why would that put you under the Princess’s care? Why would the Order capture you and hold you here, of all places?”

Trixie didn’t answer. I tried key number twenty.

“It’s a long story, and I’ve no idea how your comrades learned of it,” Rarity said at last. “To be brief, she was possessed by the same demon that transformed Princess Luna into Nightmare Moon. There was some... unpleasantness, but we ultimately defeated the demon and turned Trixie over to Princess Celestia to recover from the experience.”

Trixie’s face reddened in shame. “Yes,” she whispered, “they kept asking me about what had happened, but I couldn’t tell them anything. I remember stealing the Elements and breaking them with the hammer, but everything afterwards is just whispering voices and flashes of emotion.” She sunk to her hooves, shivering again. “I told them I didn’t remember how Twilight and her friends stopped me, or anything about the stallion who helped them, but they wouldn’t believe me.”

Rarity clucked and pulled a hairbrush out of a saddlebag. “Now, now. You’re past all that. Here, let’s get some of these tangles out of your mane.”

Bon-bon seemed caught somewhere between empathy and horror. I wondered darkly what they would have done to Trixie if they hadn’t wanted information out of her. That might be the pot calling the kettle black, but it didn’t do anything to raise my opinion of the Order Triune.

With a small shake of her head, Bon-bon turned her attention away from Trixie and refocused on me. She walked over and lowered her voice, speaking in an almost inaudible tone. “We shouldn’t take her with us. Not only will she slow us down, but I wouldn’t trust anypony who did something like that. She’ll abandon us the first chance she got.”

I almost called out her hypocrisy then and there, but instead I got an idea. I’m talking about a plan that would have impressed Machiavelli. “True, and if we leave her behind I’ve got a quick way out of here.” I turned, stopping my fiddling with the keys. “Rarity, huddle up; we’re talking strategy.” Rarity frowned at me for interrupting Trixie’s grooming session, but with a sigh she rose and came over.

“What?” she asked.

“Okay,” I said, I’ve got something that will get all three of us out of here, but you’re going to have to trust me.”

Bon-bon frowned. “Trust you?”

In answer I fished three sports bottles out of my coat pockets and gave her one of them. I could practically hear Chekov clapping in approval. “I made these before I left home.” I shook the one I was holding, and grinned. “This sucker’s an escape potion. Focus on where you want to go, then drink it.”

“There are only three.” Bon-bon said raising one eyebrow. Her expression was not amused. “Were you planning to leave me behind once we found Twilight?”

I rolled my eyes. “No, if you’ll remember I wasn’t planning on Rarity coming along.” I passed her the last sports bottle, only for Rarity to blink in confusion as she took it from me.

“Blackstone, isn’t this−”

I didn’t let her finish. “Dishonest? Look, we didn’t come here for Trixie, and it’s not like they’re killing her. We need to get moving, pronto, and these will get us where we need to go.”

Bon-bon sniffed at her potion suspiciously. She knew something was up, but she couldn’t tell what. With a thoughtful look she recapped the bottle then passed it back to me. “Agreed,” she said, “but only if we switch bottles.”

I shrugged, and gave her mine. “Deal. I’ll even drink first. The destination is your house.”

She looked shocked, but thankfully she didn’t let the potion hit the floor. Once I was certain she had it, I chugged the potion she had given me without hesitation.

“Well?” I asked her, the potion within me churning into action.

For all my criticisms of Bon-bon I’ve never claimed she lacked bravery. One look at me, and she slugged back the whole potion, grimacing at the taste. “Yuck. So when−” was all she got out before she disintegrated.

The prison corridor became absolutely silent.

“What she didn’t know is that I’ve spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder,” I said, breaking the horrified silence.

Then the screaming started. It was loud, piercing and shrill. I turned in surprise to my remaining companions before realizing it was coming from down farther down the hall. A huge, burly guard was screaming like a little girl. The moment he realized I was looking at him, he bolted tail literally between his legs. While that sight was certainly ego-boosting, I would have rather been attacked. I could have knocked him out in that case. Now every guard in the compound was going to find out where I was.

“Y-you… you killed her.” Trixie’s voice was a reverent hush, and her pupils had shrunk to tiny specks of black.

I snorted, and shook my head. “Not even close. That was my escape potion.” The two ponies were still staring in confusion, so I hastened to explain. “It turns you into the wind for five minutes, but you have to focus on the destination beforehand because the change is really disorienting.” I went back to trying different keys in the door. Trixie wasn’t in any condition to leave yet and even if I could only get one extra pony on my side, that would be better than nothing.

“Some warning would have been appreciated, then.” Rarity huffed, passing me back the empty bottle that had contained my Blending potion earlier this morning. She acted upset, but I could see some amusement lurking in her eyes. “But that was clever.”

“If that’s what happened, why are you still here?” Trixie interrupted curiously.

The door clicked as I finally found the right key. The only one I hadn’t tried yet. “Aha,” I exclaimed, then glanced over my shoulder at Trixie. “I bluffed. I only had one escape potion, so I gave her my other brew, a senses enhancer. Paranoia is a trait she and I share; I figured she’d demand the one I was holding.” I opened the cell door and stared in. My ears flicked as they detected movement within the cell. The potion didn’t do much for my sight, but my hearing was vastly improved and smell had gone straight off the charts.

Trixie looked puzzled. “But what if she hadn’t?”

“Then we would have been boned,” I responded eloquently. I was about to dive headfirst into the biting cold and pounding disorientation of the waterfall, but then I remembered in a panic that, if I did, Twilight’s transformation spell would melt like a snowball in Hell. Stealth was already a lost cause, but I really didn’t want to turn back into a human just yet. Among other problems, I didn’t have any clothes that would fit, and I didn’t feel much like fighting my way out naked.

I slid to a stop scant inches from the edge of the pouring water, almost tripping flat on my face. I managed to avoid that, but at the cost of a fit of giggles from the pair of ponies watching. My revenge, however, was swift. “Rarity,” I said sweetly, “could you go in there and free whoever they locked up? I’d do it, but the running water would cancel out Twilight’s spell.”

The laughter died as though I had strangled it. Rarity was wearing a hesitant smile as she replied. “Are you certain that’s necessary?”

“We could use all the help we can get.” I reminded her with a satisfied grin. “Besides, you’ll be freeing another unjustly imprisoned pony.” I shook the key ring, picking out the key marked for ‘hoofcuffs’.

Rarity grumbled, but give the girl credit – she marched right into the cell with the key protruding from her frown.

Trixie and I waited in the hall as muffled voices came from beyond the doorway. Trixie kept glancing at me, but her eyes darted away each time I looked toward her. Ignoring her, I focused my heightened senses on the cell, trying to hear what was going on. So when Trixie finally spoke, it caught me by surprise.

“Intentional or not, you saved Trixie from that awful place. You have earned Trixie’s vast and undying gratitude, Mister...” she trailed off, a faint pink coloring her cheeks. “Sorry, Trixie never caught your name.”

“You can call me Blackstone,” I answered, utterly failing to pick up on the tone of the question.

“Blackstone,” she repeated, as though she relished the sound of my name. “Thank you, Mister Blackstone. If there is anything Trixie could do for you... anything at all... please don’t hesitate to ask.”

I started as the unspoken intention finally sunk in. Once more, I silently cursed Twilight for my appearance. Out loud, I sighed. “You’re welcome, but that won’t be necessary.”

She flinched at my refusal. “Why not?” she demanded, a bit of her old fire returning.

There were dozens of reasons, starting with the species difference, but even if she had been a bombshell of a human woman I would have said no. “I was there that night,” I responded softly. “I helped Twilight and the girls fight the Dark and All-powerful Trixie. Maybe it’s petty for me to hold that against you, but a first impression like that is hard to shake.”

Trixie’s face burned bright red and she clammed up. That silence was more awkward than the time I had walked in on Thomas when he was, ahem, ‘busy’ with a mime. In my defense, she hadn’t been making any noise, which was usually the only warning I got.

I started down the hall, thinking that I would keep watch around the corner. I was halfway there when a pony bounded out of the sodden cell. I had expected a mare from the sound of her voice, but recognition was a shock of its own. It was another blue unicorn, but this one had a two-tone mane of white and dark blue.

“Trixie?” Colgate asked in confusion.

Rarity shook the water out of her eyes, then they widened with recognition. “Colgate? What are you doing here?”

“Rarity?” Colgate looked even more aghast. “What are you doing here?!”

“Rarity, who is this?” Trixie asked.

“Dr. Scott!” I said, chuckling.

Colgate spun to stare at me. Her pupils shrank to points and her ear flattened against her head in fear. “Blackstone! W-what are you doing here?!”

Well, there went my mood. I bit back a few more vicious comments and settled for, “I’m here to rescue Twilight after you made off with her. And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not Obsidian. Now answer Rarity’s question.”

Colgate winced, and Rarity offered a spare robe for her to dry off. “Sorry, it’s just that you were the last pony I expected to see,” she said as she rubbed herself down. “I-I have to admit, though, I don’t think you’re him anymore. Even an idiot could tell you’re dangerous, but Twilight believes in you, and I’ve known her for a long time.” The dentist sighed. “She thinks you’re all right, and my instincts said the same thing even when I didn’t want to listen to them. As for the cell?”

She shook her head sadly. “I wish I knew. The last thing I remember is going to bed, then I woke up in there a few hours ago.” Fire entered her eyes, and she straightened her spine. “But I’m going to find out.”

I raised an eyebrow. “So how willing are you to fight? Because we’re not getting out of here without cracking a few skulls.”

Her anger faltered, and her mouth twisted into a grimace. “You’re aren’t going to, y’know, kill anypony, are you?”

I scowled at her. “That’s not what I do. They’re going to need a good hospital after I’m done with them, but I don’t kill ponies. Not even assholes like these.” I was going to say more, but I stopped as my enhanced ears caught a sound I didn’t like. The clatter of hooves and crash of metal. I dropped the keys and got ready to run, as much as I didn’t like the idea of leaving any other prisoners behind. “Time’s up. Lock and load.”

Colgate frowned. “What are …”, but she trailed off as the sound became loud enough for everyone else to hear.

The pack of guards rounded the corner at a gallop. They were unicorns clad in glimmering plate armor. I cursed and began to gather my power for an attack. That died the moment I caught sight of the insignia stamp into each helmet. My thought processes ground to halt and my breath caught in my throat. A chill washed through me, turning my blood to ice water as feelings of dread mounted. Every one of the guards, all twelve of them, wore an insignia of a flickering flame, and to prove me right, their horns lit with fire as they charged.

“Any ideas, Blackstone?” Rarity asked, trying to hide her worry beneath a calm façade.

I didn’t reply. I was frozen in fear, reliving that godawful sensation of burning.

“Blackstone?!” she yelled

The guards were twenty feet away and they showed no signed of slowing. The fire had spread to encompass all of their upper body, making them look like a pack of comets screeching towards us. Rarity’s horn was glowing, but whatever she cast, they wouldn’t be fooled by an illusion now. Colgate was still as a statue, disbelief mixing with fear in her expression. Trixie’s horn was glowing, but whatever she planned to do it wouldn’t be enough. Not after how long she had spent under that waterfall.

I’d like to say I snapped out of my fear and heroically saved the group, but that’s not what happened. My natural reaction has always been to lash out at whatever scares me, and with those giant fireballs closing I acted on my instincts. Which is a nice way to say I panicked, and well …

I kind of threw a river at them.

Aquilevatus!” I screamed in manner that was definitely manly and not at all high pitched. Water isn’t my favorite element, but hey, I was already standing right next to a raging torrent of it. It was really just a question of redirecting the massive flow. Working with water is a major power sink, but at the moment I didn’t care how much of my reserves I burned through.

The underground river poured through the open door like a tidal wave, smashing into the oncoming ponies and destroying their charge. The unicorns were tossed ass over teakettle by the force of the blow, but their armor should have protected them from any serious injury.

All three of my companions turned to stare at me. My breath was coming in ragged gulps and only then did I realize I was still holding the spell, pounding the soldiers with more and more water. I let go of the spell, an enormous weight off of my shoulders, let me tell you, and tried to slow my breakneck heart rate.

“I’m not … as fond of fire … as I used to be.” I said between gasps for air.

Trixie glanced at the battered and disoriented guards, scattered along the hallway. “Trixie will take note of that.”

Rarity looked impressed as well, but hers was tinged more with gratitude than fear. “Very well. I’d suggest, though, that we run rather than sit around admiring your work.”

“Seconded.” I said, pausing to sniff deeply. Few ponies had walked in these stone corridors and our trail was easy to pick up. “That way,” I pointed, rushing in the chosen direction.

Rarity followed, and with a squeak of alarm so did Trixie. Colgate hesitated, but she was up and running after us before I rounded the first corner. I slowed to gentler pace, both to let our tag-a-longs catch up and so I could get more information from my nose and ears as we ran.

Twice, my hearing warned me about incoming guards long before they were in sight, letting us dodge the patrols on our way out. There was one obstacle we couldn’t get around, though: the door of the prison. They had shut and relocked it, and I didn’t see any means of opening it from the inside. Well, duh, I thought, pissed at myself for not realizing it sooner. It’s a prison. It’s made to keep people inside.

The up side, though, was that the door was way too thick for an eye slit or anything else. I cleared my throat and banged on the door. “We need more soldiers!” I yelled trying to deepen my voice, but keep it panicked. “He took out my squad and he’s freeing the prisoners, enlisting their help! We have to move fast before he gathers an army!”

There was silence on the other side of the door, and when the reply came it was not what I had expected. “Understood, passcode?”

“Uhh…” I stumbled, but luckily somepony covered for me.

“By the sun, moon and Harmony
I call now for aid from thee
Let us stand, the races three
Against the dark one’s vast cruelty.”

I blinked at Colgate. That was the first time I’d ever heard a poem barked in an authoritative tone. The guards were apparently fans, though, because barely a minute later the door began to rumble open.

I wanted to rush the door the moment it opened, but I waited for the crack to widen from a foot, then two, once it was five feet across I nodded to the rest of the group and we all charged forward. One guard moved to enter as we rushed the opening. I had left the robe behind – the time for secrecy was past – so he had no trouble identifying me. His eyes widened and he shouted a warning to his fellow guards that made him my favorite faceless mook ever, hands down.

“It’s a trap!”

I almost felt bad about slamming him into the wall with a burst of telekinesis and plowing past. Unfortunately, turnabout is fair play, and I was barely through the door when a train crashed into me, tossing me to the side. I hit the wall hard, and it hurt. I got back up in time to see the guard charging for another round. Punching didn’t feel natural as a pony, but while the motion felt odd, the magic I used to trigger one of my force rings was still familiar. I hit him in the chest, denting his armor and killing his momentum. The moment he slowed I slammed him to the floor with more telekinesis.

I looked up, ready to be rushed, but I was surprised to see the rest of the group holding its own for the moment. Colgate was holding off two guards with blasts of magic, and while she hadn’t knocked out either of them, at least she was keeping them busy. Trixie had gotten a rope from who-knows-where and hogtied one guard while she fought another with a sword she’d evidently taken from the first.

Rarity, though, was the one who deserved the award. There were a total of twenty-four earth pony guards, so if you do a little math, you’ll realize that while the rest of us were taking two apiece Rarity was left with eighteen trained, armored fanatics about twice her size and weight.

They didn’t stand a chance.

Held in her dexterous telekinetic grip, a ball of thick white thread unspooled rapidly. The strand darted with the speed of a striking snake, tangling and tripping the guards, tying all of them into a giant web of thread that grew more and more complex as the ball continued to dart and weave, connecting pieces where guards had broken through or pulled loose. By itself, the thread was only an annoyance, but as a delaying tactic, it was masterful. And that was all we needed to escape. A couple telekinetic body blows later, Trixie’s and Colgate’s opponents were down for the count.

“Let’s get moving!” I yelled, pointing out the way we had come. Once we were past the guards, the hallway was deserted. Confident in our escape, I galloped towards the stairs. Through both memory and smell I found the floor we had come from and dashed into the next hallway, listening carefully for any company. I couldn’t hear anything except for the three ponies with me. Our way was as clear as it was going to get.

Suffice to say, I did not expect a pony to step out of the shadows and bury a hoof in my side, fracturing one of my ribs. I grunted in pain, but I didn’t trip or stumble. Another blow caught my flank, but I had already begun to turn and face my attacker, making the hit glance off with nothing more than bruise. The pony I was facing was shrouded in one of the robes, but was otherwise unimpressive. Average height, and build, no other clear details about them. He, or maybe she, was an earth pony, but unlike the bulky bruisers we had left behind, this pony clearly relied on skill and speed over power.

Not that he’s missing any of that last one either, I thought nursing my damaged side. For a moment I thought my potion had given out on me. This guy had come out of nowhere, but my magic proved to be working just fine as I heard the faint rustle of cloth from behind me. I dived to the side, barely dodging a mule kick from another pony in black. That was when I realized what I was facing.

“Come on! Ninja ponies? Really?!”

Ridiculous or not, my opponents clearly had the training and grace of lifelong martial artists. Not the kind who go to the gym once a week and only spar in tournaments. I’m talking about the people who live for their art, the ones who practice styles of fighting that are meant to put their enemy down. The first ninja moved in as his comrade missed, and I was forced to back up to avoid another barrage of blows. I managed to draw my cane-sword and parry his jabs, but the ring of steel on steel told me that he was wearing some kind of metal gauntlets over his hooves. The second rushed back into the game, and I had to abort an attack to defend myself from him.

The two were faster than they had any right to be, and they weren’t easing up on the pressure at all. They rushed me together or alone, steadily forcing me to retreat. They worked together to split my focus, but I was wise to them and a sword with a telekinetic grip has a hell of a lot of reach. I cleared out some space and gathered my will for a force spell to throw them back. I had barely begun when a ton of bricks landed on my back, driving me to the floor. Two more of the hooded attackers had struck from the shadows, forcing me to my knees and disrupting the spell I was charging. I grasped for my magic, trying to get off another spell as quickly as possible, but my first attacker had closed the distance and his hoof connected with my horn.

Channeling magic apparently made the horn sensitive as hell, because it felt like he had just kicked me in the balls. My power winked out, and I gasped in pain.

“I have you now,” he said, his voice curiously androgynous. Later I would have to wonder about his gender, but for now I was sufficiently distracted by the sensation of ropes being wrapped around my ankles. I started to struggle and I reached out with my telekinesis again, only to receive a blow to my horn that told me he had pulled the first punch.

“Son of a bitch!” I complained. “You assholes don’t play around, do you?”

The leader of the group pulled me to my hooves and held me there, displaying more of that surprising strength. “I would not be flippant if I were you. The only reason you are not dead is because I need you. The moment I am done, so are you.”

I blinked. That’s interesting. He needs me? So far every pony in the Order had been more than happy to try killing me. What made this guy different? I stared into the hood trying to see his face, but there was only darkness. “Who are you?”

At first I didn’t think he would answer, but he finally replied, “You may call me Watcher.”

That didn’t sound hopeful, but I could still hear the sounds of fighting, so Team Dresden wasn’t out of the game just yet. I glanced over his shoulder at the rest of my group. They hadn’t been caught by surprise like I had, but these nutcases were good, even without an ambush. Trixie was down, one pony fixing her into ropes similar to mine. Colgate was still on her hooves, but she had a split lip among other wounds, and her opponent looked untouched. I doubted she’d last much longer. I turned with fear to the last member of our crazy band, just in time to see Rarity uppercut her opponent like something out of a video game. The hooded pony went flying, and I would be surprised if he got up from that any time soon.

The hall went silent as the ninjas turned in shock to stare at their fallen brother. Except Watcher. He moved like a mongoose, darting towards Rarity. Fast as he was, though, he still had almost twenty feet of distance to cover, and Rarity wasn’t wasting time. A tiny streak of silver, followed by more of that white thread, shot from her saddlebag. Watcher dodged to one side but the needle and thread followed unerringly. The needle moved through the thick cloth like it was water, and with a speed that bordered on supernatural, it stitched his robes shut. Within seconds, Watcher’s voluminous clothes were sewn together at the hem and hood. He might have been a master-class ninja, but I’d love to see him try to run like that.

Watcher crashed into the ground, and not wasting the moment, I crashed into the ponies holding me. They definitely had me outclassed in skill and probably in muscle, but a body blow depends on mass, not technique. Every one of the ninjas were a lot smaller than me. They reacted quickly after the fact, but I’d gotten all I needed, some distance. None of them were close enough to hit my horn again, letting me put it to good use. Even then, the five of them working together might have beaten me. Too bad for them that Rarity still had plenty more thread.

Thirty seconds later we’d bagged (ba dum pish) all of the ninjas, and I was pulling myself free of the ropes. They hadn’t had enough time to tie my bonds securely, and my sword made short work of them.

“And mine?” Trixie demanded, almost toppling over as she hopped toward me. I snickered at her, which she didn’t appreciate, and cut her free, which she did. Trixie had been put down quickly and it didn’t look like she’d suffered anything worse than having the wind knocked out of her.

“What next?” Colgate asked. Her voice and expression were calm, but I could tell she was nursing one leg.

I grimaced. She was trying to hide her pain, but it was obvious she’d been hurt badly. Can she run on three legs? Do we have the time−

A dark-coated hoof clad in a metal gauntlet burst through Watcher’s robe, and that made my decision awfully fast. “Run!” I barked, leading back the way we originally had come. It was difficult to follow the scent trail, since there had been some traffic in this hallway since Bon-bon had first lead us down it, but the potion was doing its job and I didn’t entirely lose it in spite of the chaos.

I tried to keep the pace slow, both for Colgate’s sake and for mine. I wasn’t as bad off as her, but they hadn’t been giving me love taps either. Rarity drew even to me, her sharp eyes watching for another ambush.

“That’s twice you’ve saved our collective asses in the past twenty minutes.” I grumbled. “I don’t know if you missed the memo, but I’m supposed to be the hero. You’re making me look bad.”

Rarity chuckled and gave me a faux apologetic smile. “So sorry, Blackstone, whatever was I thinking? But, never fear. That was the very last of my spider silk thread, so I won’t be saving the day again.” Her mocking smile faded into a worried frown and her tone changed to match. “That is unfortunately true. I used the last of it on those hooded fellows, and nothing else I brought with me will serve half so well.”

I nodded. That was par for the course. “If we do run into more trouble, you’ll probably just use more of that Crane Fist or whatever you were doing. Seriously, where did that come from?”

Rarity tittered. “Classes from the local dojo. Funny enough, I only attended them because Rainbow Dash convinced me it was a good way to stay in shape. I never expected to be any good at it. Or for any of the training to be useful.”

“Right, because you’re never in life or death situations where secretly being a fighting guru could be helpful.”

“Sarcasm is hardly becoming for a hero,” Rarity quipped back, threatening to edge out Rainbow for second-best banter pony.

Still, the pace was beginning to take its toll on me. I didn’t have enough breath to waste much of it. We barreled along, following my nose. We ran into more Order ponies, but these were alone or in pairs. The moment they saw us, or more specifically me, they tended to scream and run. They were going to draw down more guards, but trying to subdue or knock them out would more trouble than it was worth. We were already running short on time, and if they weren’t in our way, I was willing to let them go.

My ears flicked again as I heard ponies ahead. There were a lot of them, but they weren’t moving towards us. With a glance to the group – and a wince at Colgate’s pained expression – I drew my sword and dashed around the corner. We were back at the ‘safe rooms’, and there were still a dozen guards just milling around. Surprisingly, only one of them looked up when we crashed into view. The rest just continued their wandering.

That was weird, but the stillness didn’t last long. The lone pegasus staring at me bellowed, “Obsidian!” Every head in that hallway snapped up, as the guards lost their distracted expressions. The guard who had misled us earlier was not present. Strange.

I floated my sword into a defensive position and began preparing a spell as they bit down on the hilts and drew their own swords. They were even faster than the ninja ponies, but these guys weren’t catching me by surprise. Normally, I would have blown them off course with a blast of wind, but this deep underground, Earth magic was easier. I was really only practiced in one branch of the element, but it was one hell of a specialty. As I finished the spell, invisible lines of electromagnetic power snaked out from my sword into all of theirs. I didn’t try to take them away – pulling the weapons from a dozen of them would take a too much effort. Instead, I just yanked on the tips, pulling each sword into a sudden slice.

They resisted, which prevented a couple cases of maiming, but none of them could stop it. The packed rush turned into a mess and three of them lost their swords. I was quick to capture the loose blades and pass them to my companions. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Colgate wouldn’t stab me in the back, her earlier words notwithstanding, but my enchanted coat should at least hold up to the first cut.

The pegasi recovered quickly, but they no longer had the time or distance to build up a head of steam. I led Team Dresden into the fray, using my sword to parry and disarm, inflicting some damage wherever possible. I took a couple small cuts in the process, but I was fighting two or three times as many as anyone else. Trixie didn’t have much in the way of training, but the tiny fireworks and explosives delivered from the end of her blade kept opponents at bay. Rarity seemed to have some experience, she struck a pose that I was certain came from fencing, but it was obvious she didn’t have much in the way of practical ability. Colgate surprised me, though. She was wielding two swords, and though she didn’t move much on her injured leg, her weapons danced and twisted among the guards, blocking attacks and inflicting painful, but shallow, wounds.

We were winning, but the fight was taking too long. With a surge of magic I pulled away the swords of the last six who still had them. They bit down and tried to hold on, but swinging a three-pound chunk of metal for several minutes is tough work. By the time I decide to play tug of war, they were too tired to put up much of a fight. Grinning, I picked up each of the stolen blades in my telekinetic grip and aimed them at the remaining guards. Magnetic magic is a lot of fun, and not just because I can pretend I’m Magneto while using it. You can, for instance, create an attraction between two metallic objects, like maybe a piece of armor and a sword. Six swords oriented point-first toward the breast plates of the guards. I released the spell with a shout, and the blades shot towards the pegasi like I’d fired them from a gun.

I don’t care who you are, when a sword is coming at you, you run. Or in the case of these ponies, fly. They bolted, each trying to escape his own sword, which followed in hot pursuit. I wanted to laugh, the sight was certainly funny enough, but I had work to do. After a quick cleaning I sheathed my own blade and searched my pockets.

“What are you doing?” Trixie asked.

“Looking for the key to our escape,” I replied. When I triumphantly pulled out Twilight’s hairbrush seconds later, I was treated to some less then enthused looks.

“What’s that?” Colgate asked, her tone indicating a disturbing lack of faith in my sanity.

“It’s Twilight’s hairbrush,” I retorted. “With this I can track her scent out of here and to wherever the Order moved her to.” I had originally brought the hairbrush to give me hair for tracking spells, but I figured it should hold her scent as well. I took a deep whiff and, following my nose, pointed in the direction of a new hallway. She had been here, all right, and she had left recently, too. How recently, I couldn’t tell, but she couldn’t have moved far. There were some other interesting scents I would have liked to examine, but we didn’t have the time. I could already hear reinforcements coming from behind us.

“We’re about to have company,” I growled, staring down the hallway we had come from.

“You all go ahead. I’ll stay behind and hold them off,” Colgate said, an icy detachment flavoring her words.

“We aren’t leaving anypony behind,” I growled. “Even if they’re a kidnapping nutcase.” My ears swiveled, trying to figure out which hall the guards were coming from. Damn echoes.

“Thanks, you violent jerk, but I’m choosing to stay. I’ve got friends who will help me get to the bottom of all this.”

“Are you sure?” Rarity asked, brushing an errant lock of hair back into place. “It’s brave of you to offer, but what if they lock you in that horrid cell again?”

Colgate shrugged. “It’s possible, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t run anymore. This way, at least you three will escape. Without Twilight here, it’s the best payback I can give for taking her in the first place.”

“Trixie will never forget you.”

“I wish you the best, Colgate.”

“This is the most−” I wasn’t sure whether I was going to call it noble or cliché but the arrival of the guards cut my sentence short. Actually, the twang of their crossbows and the arrow that went through one of my ears cut me off, but, y’know, same thing.

“Dammit!” I roared, turning my hate filled glare on the ponies responsible. They retreated back around the corner, probably just to reload, but for the moment they were gone.

“Go!” Colgate yelled, and we ran. I didn’t like leaving her there, but she was right about slowing us down. I had my own suspicions about who had put her in that cell, and it was just as well she was staying here. There were more secrets to the Order than it had first appeared. Wheels within wheels.

Further down the hallway, we paused so I could examine an intersection. Trixie took the chance to perform some first aid. The arrow hadn’t hit anything vital, but it was bleeding more freely than I would have liked. Blood is a powerful symbol, in addition to being potent in magic. If they gathered enough of mine before it dried out, the Order could do some very nasty things to me that my defenses wouldn’t do a damn thing to stop.

“Do we have anything Trixie can use as a bandage? You’re still, ungh, leaking.”

A thought occurred to me and I grinned. They weren’t the only ones who could use blood to power a spell. “Sure, but first, I’ve got an idea.” Both Trixie and Rarity took a step back at that, which was insulting, but I could understand their trepidation. This spell, however, was one of the least dangerous ones I knew.

Ventas veloche, ubrium, ubrium.” I mumbled, concentrating my power through the spilled drops on the ground. It began as small wisps of mist, but as the spell consumed the power in my blood it began to billow out of the tiny dots of liquid, filling the corridor with a light haze. Every drop of blood was now a miniature fog machine, which should confuse and delay any pursuit from behind. If Colgate was still fighting, it would give her a thick veil of cover, which she desperately needed against enemies armed with bows.

I caught the scent again and began to follow it, my ear safely bound and the rest of my blood consumed. We followed the trail once again, only meeting one or two ponies before halting outside of a large pair of double doors. We burst through them at a run, then slid to a stop.

We had just entered a mess hall, and given its size, probably the mess hall for the whole compound. There were roughly a hundred ponies in there. They were neatly divided into two groups, those eating and those packing food and other goods. It was a scene of hectic activity, just like the library we had seen earlier, but unlike our earlier experience, our appearance did not go unnoticed.

Every pair of eyes was focused on us and I could hear the quiet sound of knives being drawn. Twilight’s trail crossed the room, and I knew that I had to get through these all of these jokers to follow her. My anger rose to the fore again, white hot and fierce. They were between me and Twilight, which is a suicidal tendency if I’ve ever heard one. I stepped forward, meeting the eye of any pony in there brave, or stupid, enough to look at me.

“Let’s get this straight,” I told them breaking the tense silence. “I only want to leave.” I paused. “No, that isn’t true. I want to beat the living shit out of each and every one of you. I want to find the ringleaders of this moronic little club, throw them into the Nevernever and let them see what real evil looks like. I want to tear this place down, blow it to pieces, and then set the remains on fire. But I’ll be satisfied with just getting out of here.” My voice, which had been reasonably calm and conversational, rose to a full-throated roar.

“So if any of you idiots − and I mean any − try to stop me, I promise you this: I. WILL. END. YOU.”

Forzare!” I bellowed, slamming the table in front of me, a solid piece of furniture that had to weigh at least four hundred pounds, to the side. An invisible force hurled the table out of my way with a crack of breaking lumber and a hot wind that smelled like fire and brimstone. The table flew through the air, easily clearing forty feet to smash into kindling against the nearest wall. I was done playing games, my ribs and ear throbbed with pain, and I think I’d finally gotten the message across.

At first there was only silence, but panic set in suddenly and the ponies began to flee, pouring out of the room as quickly as their hooves would carry them. I snorted and moved forward before they noticed how damn tired I was after that stunt.

The trail was almost impossible to follow through a formerly-crowded room still full of food smells, but I was pretty certain Twilight had used the shattered and freshly-excavated doorway. They might have taken her away, but she hadn’t gone easily. I felt a tear come to my eye. Already, my love of property damage was beginning to rub off on her.

There were stairs and more stairs, but no more ponies. Which was good, I had been slinging around a lot of magic and I didn’t want another big fight. One intersection was a bit confusing, because Twilight had been down each of the three halls, but after a moment I managed to suss out the corridor she had ultimately taken.

That’s when we ran into trouble.

There weren’t any more guards, and I couldn’t hear the sound of pursuit, though I knew it was coming eventually. The stairwell that Twilight had taken was lined in the same complex runes as the one we had used to enter, but these blazed with green light, and I could feel the power they were giving off from fifty feet away.

I had no idea where to even start analyzing these things, but thankfully I had brought someone who could. “Rarity, would you get out Bob?” I asked gesturing to the saddlebag that had remained clasped tight throughout our entire escapade.

Rarity grimaced, and gave me the bags. “You can, but I’m not touching the little beast.” It seemed she hadn’t quite forgiven him for earlier this morning just yet. I rolled my eyes, but went to work on the clasp.

“Trixie doesn’t understand. Who is Bob?”

Rarity let out a dissatisfied huff. “You’ll see soon enough, unfortunately.”

The top finally popped open and I pulled the skull out of the specially lined and prepared bag. I had spent several hours last night warding the bag to make him undetectable. Between that and the more skilled enchantments on the skull itself, I was certain he wouldn’t set off any alarms. Well, I had hoped at least, because there was no chance I was leaving him behind at Bon-bon’s house.

“Tell me what we’re looking at.”

Orange lights flared to life within his eye sockets. Bob whistled, “Now that’s a ward.”

Trixie’s face twisted in disgust. “It talks?!”

Rarity laid a consoling hoof on her shoulder. “I know. It gets easier to accept with time.”

Bob’s eyes pulsed brighter, and for once he ignored not just a pair of insults, but a new girl. I frowned as he remained silent. “Anything yet?”

“Be patient. This is a toughie.”

I sighed. If it were up to me, I’d give him all the time he wanted. Hell, I was curious about what those things were. Unfortunately, we needed to be gone as fast as possible. “We don’t have the time. What do you know so far?”

Bob grumbled. “I can’t tell you much about the runes themselves, but I can give you a rough description of what they’re doing. It’s a selectively permeable reflective enmeshment barrier utilizing a conceptual filter.”

Three sets of eyes blinked in confusion. Bob continued studying the strange symbols.

“Okay,” I replied, “I get the first part, but what do you mean by ‘conceptual filter’?”

Bob sighed. “It’s what happens when you mix morality with magic – a combination I could do without. The caster creates a spell that is triggered by some quality or trait in a person or object, like that whole Sword in the Stone thing with Arthur. The stone was enchanted not to let go of the sword until someone ‘worthy’ tried to pull it out. Of course, who’s ‘worthy’ is completely subjective and it depends on both the caster’s definition and the spell’s ability to sense the quality he defined.”

He snorted derisively, but didn’t stop studying the ceiling. “Not a branch of magic I’ve ever liked. Unreliable, and it depends too much on a ‘good vs. evil’ viewpoint. Whoever built the ward that powers and protects this spell is a genius. I don’t understand why they’d waste such a beautiful set-up on something so intrinsically mediocre.”

I turned over Bob’s comments in my mind and thought through a couple of them. I didn’t like what I’d come up with. “So, this is a barrier that only lets through ponies who have some undefined quality?”

Bob nodded. “Exactly, only I think it doesn’t just repel the unaccepted. That’s where the reflective enmeshment comes in. If you try to enter it and trip the filter, it should freeze you in place. Any movement you make, any spell you use would be absorbed and used to restrain you further. I don’t know its limits yet, but it’s possible you could kill yourself if you kept trying to move and the spell continued to apply pressure.

Ick. I didn’t want to think about what that would be like.

“But what quality does it look for?” Trixie asked, her expression tinged by more curiosity than fear.

“Dunno.” Bob replied calmly. “Something like that would take at least an hour, and that’s assuming I could even understand whatever ‘virtue’ it depends on. You’re lucky I was able to get as much as I did.”

Trixie pouted and glared at Bob, but I was rubbing my chin thoughtfully. “Do you think the saddlebag would hold up if we took you through?”

For a second Bob was silent. Then he turned to stare at me like I was not just an idiot, but an idiot in the midst of a particularly stunning piece idiocy. “You want to just walk into the possibly deadly and definitely dangerous barrier, just taking it on blind faith that you’ll match whatever this thing’s key is? Harry, you’ve come up with some dumb plans but this would be your crowning moment of stupidity. Why not take another exit?”

I shook my head. “Our entrance had the same runes. I’m willing to bet the same is true for every door. You don’t build the Great Ward of China, then leave a giant hole in it. The only other option is trying to hide inside the stronghold, but that’s only a delaying tactic. Even if we can move fast enough to keep from getting overwhelmed by numbers, everybody has to sleep sometime.” I glared at the glowing runes. “We’ve at least got to try.”

“Have you considered tunneling?” Bob asked weakly.

“We’re at least fifty feet underground, probably more, and this is solid rock. I’m gonna go with ‘no’ on that one.”

Bob squeaked, presumably in fear even though I knew he’d deny it if I ever asked him. “In that case, put me back in the bag; I’m going dormant.”

“You’re doing what?” Rarity asked. I think she was repressing a smile at his reaction.

“For the next twelve hours,” he said, “I’m going to be the next best thing to dead. Just promise me before I go under that if we get captured, I have your permission to leave the skull, no strings attached.”

I sighed, but in the end I couldn’t refuse him. “You have my permission to do whatever you deem necessary to escape if we get captured.” I hoped that wouldn’t come back to bite me, but I refused to leave Bob out to dry. He was a perverted, arrogant asshole, but he was my perverted, arrogant asshole. Wait…

“I think,” Rarity said as I stuffed Bob back into his saddlebag, “that one of us should test it first. That way, if we don’t qualify, the other two can try another avenue of escape.”

“Not it!” Trixie yelled, earning a glare from Rarity.

“It’s my idea. I was planning to volunteer,” she replied bitingly.

Trixie flushed, her shoulders hunched, and her tail tucked in. I could practically feel the shame radiating off her. Not that she had been especially tactful or brave just now, but it was easy to see the effects of her time in that cruel cell.

Rarity shook her head, and when she looked up again it was with a much softer expression. “I’m sorry, I suppose we’re all a little tense right now. Blackstone, if I am trapped, I want you to leave me. Try to find Twilight another way.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I didn’t like letting her go first, but that was the logical choice. I had a better chance of finding Twilight than she did, and the Order wouldn’t hang her from the nearest tree. Reason told me to do one thing, but my gut disagreed. Reason was winning for now, but only just. I hoped she moved quickly.

Rarity approached the foot of the stairs just as my ears picked up the sound of distant hooves. I glanced down the hallway, seeing nothing yet. When I turned back Rarity had already taken several stairs without any trouble to her movement.

“That was anticlimactic.” I declared, mumbling under my breath about melodramatic skulls and seamstresses.

I stepped forward, Trixie moving hesitantly at my side, and pushed into the invisible barrier. It felt like moving through molasses. I’ve never actually tried moving through molasses, but I’ve got a vivid imagination and it agreed with the metaphor. The air around me was thick against my limbs and even breathing felt like a serious labor. I stared up the stairwell, wondering how far it was to the surface. I doubted my ability to go two floors under this pressure anything more than that seemed like a pipe dream.

“How,” Trixie gasped her mouth moving comically slow, “can you move through this spell?”

I glanced up in time to see Rarity frown and began walking back down the stairs towards us. She was moving normally, obviously unaffected by whatever was weighing down Trixie and me. It was difficult to move, but that was a far cry from impossible, which didn’t seem to match Bob’s description at all. The runes overhead glowed and swirled, but didn’t give me a clue about what was happening. Were we trapped in the barrier? Was the spell broken? Had we partially activated it?

“What’s wrong?” Rarity asked concern shining in her eyes.

“Don’t know,” I replied the words drawn out.

“Can I help somehow?”

I shrugged at one quarter speed. It couldn’t hurt. At least I hoped it couldn’t.

Rarity pouted in thought. Her horn lit up and she tried pulling on one of my forelegs. That moved me forward, but still at the reduced speed, and it felt like she was pulling my leg off. She tried going behind me and pushing, but that didn’t work any better and she almost slipped on the stairs.

Trixie and I had almost reached the first turn, but the effort was wearying on top of everything else we had been through. We were still moving upstairs, but the sound of pursuit was closer. Rarity could hear it now too, if her worried glances down the hallway were any indication. Out of ideas for the moment, she flounced down on the stairs in front of me.

I nodded; sweat beading on my brow as she watched. “You’ll think of something.” I reassured her.

Rarity gave a small chuckle. “Thank you, darling. That’s kind of you.” She reached forward and ruffled my hair before giving me a small hug. Then I ruined the moment by falling on her. The important thing in that, though? I fell at normal speed. Hardly able to believe it, I picked myself back up, still moving without restraint. At first I thought the spell had given out, but the runes were still glowing and Trixie wasn’t moving any faster.

“What happened?” Rarity asked her tone an odd mix of cross and happy. She stood back up as well, fixing her mane after I had knocked it askew.

“I have no idea.” I replied. “If I did, we could do the same thing to Trixie.”

“I could certainly try the obvious.” Rarity said, moving to hug the struggling unicorn. It didn’t work, though I’m certain Bob would have enjoyed the sight.

Trixie continued to struggle upwards, and we tried everything Rarity had done for me, and a few new attempts. Nothing worked. Exhausted, Trixie sank to the stones. “Leave me.” Trixie said, her bitterness audible even through her slowed words. “You came for Twilight; go get her. I don’t need you. I don’t need anypony.”

“Horseshit.” I said, plopping myself in front of her on the stairs.

“Language!” Rarity gasped, looking thoroughly scandalized.

Trixie glared at me, moisture beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes. “Don’t talk like you know−”

“You’re right, I have no idea what happened to you. But I can tell you this, you aren’t going to fix it with self-pity. And if you knew anything about the pony I’m trying to save, you’d never tell us to just leave you.”

“That’s not−”

“No, I’m talking now. I know you said you don’t remember much about that night, but let me tell you something, Trixie. I tried to kill you after the girls blasted you with the Harmony ray.”

The silence is the stairwell was absolute after that statement. Trixie stopped trying to interrupt me and instead stared up at me in fear.

“There was a demon running around, and it certainly influenced me, but I had control of my own actions. I wanted you dead, because of everything you’d done to my friends and everything I feared you would do in the future. The girls tried to convince me not to do it, and eventually, when I refused to see reason, they fought me. To protect you. The demon stoked my rage and I returned the favor. I won. I beat all of them and then I went to kill you. Twilight teleported in front of my attack, trying to save you, and it nearly killed her. She went to death’s door to keep your sorry ass safe even after everything you had done to her. I will be damned before I let her pain and courage go to waste.”

I put a hoof under her chin and lifted Trixie’s head, straining against the feeling of molasses.

“I am not letting you lie down and die. You are coming with us, whether you like it or not.” Then, without a trace of magic or any other warning, the power holding Trixie back vanished and I stumbled on top of her.

“That was certainly a … unique motivational speech.” Rarity said, but I detected a small tear at the corner of her eye. “But perhaps we should began moving again.”

Trixie pulled herself upright, flushed bright red, and followed Rarity up the stairs. I rolled my eyes and hurried to catch up. As we climbed, the sounds of movement below died away.

Only a few floors later, the runes vanished and the stairwell changed to something that would have looked more at home in the cellar of an old manor. The walls were brick and light came from lanterns instead of crystals. The three of us burst through a damaged and hastily repaired cellar door into daylight and a busy street. I howled in pain as daylight stabbed into my eyes, but my nose still worked, and Twilight’s trail was as fresh as it had ever been.

Thankfully, pedestrians made up most of the traffic, because I moved half-blind through the crowd as I tried to keep track of Twilight’s scent among the smells of hundreds of other ponies. I thought I was doing a pretty good job at first, but when the trail began to wobble back and forth, weaving across the road, I started to doubt my ability. Then the path just ended.

I sat and stared in shock for a moment. I’d had her. She had been so close, and the only lead just vanished?

“Clear some space,” I ordered. No doubt I looked like a madman, sniffing at the ground and growling at the crowd, but nobody, human or pony, wants to make a crazy person mad. Everypony within earshot did as I said, and soon I had more than enough space for a circle. It wasn’t the cleanest figure I had ever drawn, but I was in a hurry. They weren’t getting away with her again.

I pulled several long purple hairs out of Twilight’s brush and set to my spellwork. It was rushed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t effective. Thirty seconds later, I had a link and a new heading.
“I hope you assholes had fun,” I muttered, glaring into the distance, “because I’ve got you now.”

Chapter Fifteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Fifteen

Twilight Sparkle floated alone inside a vast pillar of white light. Looking up or down along the column, she could only see blinding brilliance, but to the sides it hardly obscured her vision at all. Not that there was anything to see. The ground was gone, the sky had vanished, and there was no trace of anything, living or inanimate, within this strange place. Nopony and nothing existed here; beyond her prison, everything was dark, foreboding and formless.

There was only her and the pillars of light.

From her vantage within the central pillar, Twilight could see many other columns of light surrounding her. They looked like the beams from giant spotlights, but no natural light could behave the way they did. Instead of being perfectly straight, they bent like bows, touching the central pillar miles above and below her. Together, they formed a cage in the shape of a sphere. The distance between each bar was vast, more than large enough for an Ursa Major to walk comfortably between them. It was a prison meant to hold a leviathan, and she was barely a speck compared to the enormity around her.

Twilight could have moved; the light was not holding her back. But she didn’t. Instead, she laid still, her stare blank. She knew nothing, thought nothing and felt nothing. Why should she? She was as empty as the featureless void around her prison. There was nothing within or without. There never had been and there never would be.

Time had no meaning to her, so Twilight could not say just when the wind had begun to blow. There was a faint whistle, something barely at the edge of hearing, and for a brief moment she almost saw a rush of motion outside her pillar. Blinking blearily, she stared into the darkness, but the sound and movement were already gone. Seeing nothing, her eyes began to glaze over once more.


For a time, the emptiness was still, but the low whistle began to rise again and a hint of luminosity danced in the corner of her eye. Twilight’s head rose again, and this time she caught sight of a long ribbon of light, so faint she wouldn’t have noticed it without the utter dark and stillness of the void around her. It twisted and swept around her pillar as the wind grew stronger. The ribbon turned suddenly and struck the pillar of light, but the vast column did not even quiver. Rather than dissipate, though, the ribbon seemed to gather strength from its defeat. The moving air picked up speed and the whistle rose to a roar as the light and wind, somehow intertwined, circled the pillar, striking it with every pass.

Twilight watched as the luminous gale broke again and again on her prison, brightening almost imperceptibly with every failure. Her expression was indifferent, but deep within her, a quiet curiosity had sparked. She looked on, the sound and motion captivating in that place of nothing.

The glowing wind accelerated faster and faster, racing around her pillar, attacking it hundreds of times. In what seemed like no time at all, a howling tornado had formed, stretching the entire length of her cage. The central pillar now shuddered and shook as the incredible force threatened to rip it to pieces. Twilight felt something stir deep within her, something that resonated with this wind. A muted sense of panic gripped her, but despite this new feeling, she remained still, staring into the whirling behemoth. She did not remember tornadoes, but something told her they did not normally glow bright purple or pulse in time with your heart.

As the windstorm’s assault intensified, it grew denser and denser, until Twilight could no longer see beyond the purple glow. She was safe within the eye of the storm, but elsewhere, the pillar of light began to splinter, cracks spreading through it as if it were thin ice. With a sound closer to the twang of a snapped cable than the crash of breaking glass, the top half shattered into glimmering shards that vanished as they floated away. Only moments later the distant bottom snapped free as well.

With the sinuous speed of a racing serpent, the purple fissures shot downward, whittling the mighty column down to a slim spire. The glow brightened, and Twilight felt a sense of frustration from the tornado, but what remained of the pillar stood resolute. She waited within her shrunken circle of light as the wind raged impotently outside.

Her earlier apathy gone, Twilight rose to her hooves, somehow finding ground where before there had been nothing. She stared in open wonder; the storm was both terrifying and amazing. What is it? She wondered, her first conscious thought within the prison of light. Curious, she stretched out a hoof. As she did, a new crack appeared, racing through the light towards her outstretched hoof.

The gentle breeze didn’t ruffle her coat or stir her mane. Instead it sunk into her, filling her veins with something strange, yet familiar. The light around her fragmented and fell away as the tornado poured through the thin fissure and into her. The sensation was wonderful and frightening at the same time. She could feel herself changing, her mind growing like it was trying to drink the ocean… and somehow succeeding. New terms, thoughts and emotions coalesced at a rate that would have given a heart attack to her apathetic self from only a short time before. It wasn’t until the last gust had disappeared and silence once more ruled the emptiness that she realized what she now held.

It was faith and fear, hope and despair, love and loss.

It was Twilight.

Memory and understanding flashed through her mind. She had been running down the streets of Canterlot, having just escaped from the clutches of the Order Triune. Then a spell in the back of her mind had suddenly activated, bringing her to her knees. With no small measure of difficulty, Twilight recognized it as Litwick’s Lucidity-Leashing Lethargic Luminosity, a spell from one of the restricted parts of the Royal Library. Litwick had been a prison warden centuries ago, and his spell was intended to utterly seal a prisoner’s mind if they managed to escape. Unless a pony knew how to counter it, they remained in limbo until the original caster released them. These days, only the most dangerous and depraved ponies were subjected to it. That thought brought a flush of anger to her cheeks. What gives them the right to mess with my head? Who do they think they’re playing with?

Lavender eyes opened again, staring into the void around her, but this time they held a calculating gleam. Twilight was surprised to see the glowing bars of the cage less than a foot away from her, and far less massive then they used to be. Either she had grown, or her prison had shrunk. Whichever was true, the beams of light no longer dwarfed her; if anything, they seemed small and frail now.

She concentrated, feeling the threads of the magic woven deeply into her psyche. Whoever had done this was good, but Litwick’s spell, though powerful, was not unbreakable. Twilight’s horn began to glow as she delved into the sorcery containing her. She had already broken the core of the spell, but the remnants were still stubbornly holding her unconscious. With a surge of power, she struck those final pieces a solid blow. The fraying magic couldn’t stand against her, and purple cracks began to race through the bars of light.

The spell fell to pieces around her and the emptiness slowly faded away. Next time, Twilight thought, her words flavored with a mix of anger and satisfaction, try building a cage that can hold me.

………

Twilight hadn’t been certain where she would wake up when she broke the spell. She had hoped she would wake up in the palace, as would certainly be the case if any of the Royal Guard had found her, but she hadn’t expected it. A hospital bed was far more likely, assuming that she had been lucky. If she wasn’t, the Order had likely returned her to one of their ‘safe rooms’ this time with a new inhibitor. Twilight tried not to think about that possibility, but a shudder ran through her. She also knew that the Order had far worse cells than the comfortable room she’d been kept in before.

Whatever she had hoped or feared, she had not expected this.

There was a face less than four inches away, close enough to count every wrinkle in the elderly stallion’s skin. His mouth split into a grin. “Good afternoon.”

“Ahhhhhh!” Twilight screamed in response, reacting instinctively. Without thinking she grabbed the strange pony in her telekinesis and threw him away from her. The old pegasus only had a moment to spread his wings before he hit the wall and bounced, the creaking of old springs an accompaniment to his fall.

Twilight blinked in confusion, taking note of several facts: she was in somepony’s house, she was sitting on a very comfortable bed, the far wall was lined with mattresses, the strange pony she had just thrown was lying at the base of one of them in a pile of pillows, and he wasn’t moving.

“Oh my gosh!” Twilight yelped, scrambling to the pegasus’s side. “Are you all right? I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

“Murmur murmur murmur,” came the muffled reply as the stallion remained face down in the pillows.

Using her magic, Twilight gently picked up the older pony and checked to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. His coat was the color of faded red bricks, and despite his age it was in excellent condition. His mane, tail and short beard were gray, but the few rust colored strands mixed in suggested that they hadn’t always been that color. He seemed to have survived his unexpected flight without injury, Twilight noted with silent relief. She set him carefully on his hooves, pausing to be sure he could support his own weight before she let go entirely. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” His voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place him.

The old pegasus looked at her oddly. “I said, ‘Murmur murmur murmur.’ I thought that was plenty clear.”

“What?” Twilight asked, baffled. Her … “host” moved on without pausing to explain.

“Would you like coffee or cider?” he asked as he began picking up the scattered pillows, throwing them casually over his shoulder into a hammock hanging from the ceiling. Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off, “And before you ask, I don’t have tea. Can’t stand the stuff.”

Twilight frowned. “I was going to say cider would be fine.”

The old stallion turned to look at her, showing surprise for the first time since she had woken up. “Really? Huh, and those were pretty good odds.” As he stared at her, Twilight realized that his eyes weren’t focusing. In fact, they looked dull and lifeless. It took her longer than she’d have preferred to admit to realize that both of his eyes were glass replicas.

“Your eyes…” Twilight whispered in horror, then cursed herself the moment the words crossed her lips. That was not the most tactful way to introduce such a sensitive topic.

“What? Is one of them backwards? And I thought these were my most reliable pair. Oh well.” He shrugged and tossed the last pillow over his shoulder before shambling over to the room’s door. The door, much like the ceiling and the pieces of wall not covered in mattresses, was made of wood. Evidently she wasn’t in a traditional pegasus home. So where am I, then? she wondered. Curious, Twilight detoured to take a peek out the window. She gave a relieved sigh upon seeing ordinary streets just outside and Canterlot Castle in the distance. She didn’t recognize the neighborhood, but it was evident she was in one of Canterlot’s many suburbs.

“Are you coming? No seriously, when you’re quiet like that I can’t tell.” The old stallion asked from down the hallway.

Twilight moved to follow him, mildly unnerved by the strange, and apparently blind, pony. Still, he seemed harmless enough, and he’d been kind enough to care for her while she was out. That thought made a small piece of memory fall loose and Twilight suddenly realized where she had heard his voice before.

“Don’t worry, Twilight Sparkle. I’ll take care of you.”

Twilight stopped, no longer so ready to go wherever he was leading her. “Who are you?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “How do you know my name?”

The pegasus turned to face her and shrugged. “I guess we can do introductions here. My name is Keen Vision. Yours?”

The irony of his name did not escape her, but Twilight was not in a mood to ask about it. “Twilight Sparkle, but you already knew that. How?”

“My grand-niece,” he replied. He shrugged and started down the hallway again. “She talks about you a lot.”

Her curiosity driving her, Twilight followed him. “But how did you recognize me? Aren’t you, well, blind?”

“Yeah, but I try not to let it slow me down.”

They had finally arrived in the kitchen. The icebox in one corner was an older model, something that used actual ice to keep food cold instead of magic, marked with the dings and scrapes of many years. One of the table legs was propped up by a thick book, the sight of which made her left eye twitch. The chairs were cracked and spotted with ancient stains that no amount of cleaner could get out. Twilight wrinkled her nose slightly, but the room didn’t smell, and she couldn’t spy any dust lurking in the corners. Gingerly she lowered herself into a chair. It creaked under her weight, but it didn’t wobble in spite of its protests, and she couldn’t complain about its comfort. Mr. Vision opened the icebox and took out a pair of dark bottles.

Both were capped, but Twilight didn’t open hers. According to the label, it was bottled cider, but she still wasn’t certain she could trust her host. Keen Vision popped his with a small bottle-opener and took a deep draught. The smell of fresh cider filled the small room, and he sighed contently.

“Okay,” Keen Vision said, after another brief drink. “I’ve had my fun, I s’pose. I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve got.” He frowned suddenly, and snorted. “Except that one. How I get fresh cider out of season is none of your business.”

The question died on Twilight’s lips and she stared at him in shock. It was trivial thing to ask, especially given her many other questions, but she had been curious. “How are you doing that?”

He put a hoof to his chest, a mockery of innocence etched on his face. “Doing what?”

Twilight harrumphed, but gears began to turn it her head. She reviewed their interactions from the moment she and woken up to this. There was a common thread among them. He always, or almost always, considering his comment about tea, knew what was coming. The mattresses on the wall, the pillows on the floor, and his calm, non-reaction to being thrown all said that he had not just expected it, but had prepared for it.

“But that’s impossible.” Twilight said shaking her head violently, as though the movement could drive the thought from her mind. Her mane caught the bottle of cider still waiting in front of her and knocked it off the table. Right into Keen Vision’s waiting wing. Without a word he set it back on the table. Twilight’s eyes widened to the size of saucers.

“Bah,” he snorted. “Impossible is just a word ponies use when they don’t want to admit something’s real. Why do you think I let you figure it out instead of telling you?”

“Well, isn’t that something?” Twilight said, trying to move past her shock. She had come to terms with Pinkie’s strange abilities, but the party pony had become a special exception to any form of reason in Twilight’s mind. Trying to place anypony else in that category was difficult. “So, you knew where I was, who I was and what I’d do because you can see the future?”

Keen Vision grunted and made a semi-dismissive gesture with one hoof. “That’s oversimplifying it a bit, since it’s more a matter of what might happen, but yes. Essentially. Maybe.”

“Could you explain that? What do you mean by ‘what might happen’?”

Keen Vision gave a mad chuckle, almost verging into a cackle. “The future is never set in stone. In balsa wood, maybe, since it isn’t perfectly fluid either, but nothing so solid as stone. I see several different possibilities, then have to figure out which is most likely from their feel. For example, if I hadn’t shown up, there were eleven chances out of seventeen you’d have been found by the next newspaper pony, seven in twenty three that one of the Order Triune would recapture you, and five to nineteen odds that the royal guards or your friends would collect you.”

Twilight did some quick mental arithmetic, an idle part of her mind annoyed that Keen Vision had only used prime numbers in his fractions. “Wait a minute, that’s more than one hundred percent. Percentages of probability don’t work that way.”

Had he been capable of the feat, Twilight suspected Mr. Vision would be rolling his eyes. “Right now I’m trying to keep track of everything that has happened, might have happened, is happening and might yet happen. It’s not like I get to choose what I see. Some days are completely blank and others, like today, are non-stop.” He paused to balance the salt and pepper shakers on top of his head before continuing, “You’re lucky I’m still sane after decades of this.”

A deeply ingrained respect for her elders was the only thing that kept Twilight from giggling at him. But any levity she felt faded away as his expression changed. The kindest word she could find for this new emotion was ‘haunted’.

His voice grew quiet and somber. “Especially after some of the things I have seen. I know far too well what would have happened had you and your friends failed to stop Nightmare Moon or the Dark and All-powerful Trixie. Both of those futures were too horrible to contemplate, but I have seen even worse than that. In the depths of the night, when the hungry darkness whispers and the winds howl cruel melodies, I see things that must not be.” The old stallion shuddered and chill raced down Twilight’s spine.

“Why are you telling me this?” Twilight asked fearing that she already knew the answer.

“Because last night I had a dream. One involving you,” Keen Vision gestured to the door behind her, “and your friend, Mr. Dresden.”

Twilight jumped like somepony had lit a fire under her and spun to face the door, nearly knocking her bottle off the table again. “Dresden?!” she gasped, fully expecting to see her towering friend in his long, black duster.

There was nothing behind her but an empty doorway. Confused, she turned back to Keen Vision who was nodding sagely.

“Don’t be surprised I know your real name, ‘Blackstone’. I know you weren’t here for the earlier part of our conversation, but−”

“He isn’t there,” Twilight interrupted.

Keen Vision blinked, and his mouth flapped open and shut, reminding Twilight of a beached fish. “He isn’t? Are you sure?”

Twilight snorted. “Unless he’s suffering from a combination of invisibility and muteness, yes, I’m sure. There’s nopony there.”

Keen Vision continued to stare at the empty doorway, truly staggered. “The odds of him missing that cue were one in a hundred and thirteen, and he still managed to mess it up?” The old pegasus growled and sulked. “Fine, if he can’t bother to be on time, he doesn’t get to hear.”

“Maybe we should wait a moment. He might be here soon,” Twilight suggested in a reassuring tone. If she were to be completely honest with herself, she wasn’t very keen to find out her part in whatever apocalyptic prophecy the addled old stallion had seen. She would listen anyway, but having a friend at her side would make whatever he had to say much easier to take.

“No,” Keen Vision sighed. “If he’s late that’s his fault. You’ll have to bear this alone, Twilight.” His brows lowered and he became serious once more. “Darkness is coming. A greater darkness than anything ponykind has ever known. Both of you will make decisions, that combined, will decide the fate of worlds.” His glassy eyes bored into her, leaving Twilight wondering if he was really as blind as he seemed. “All of the worlds. The two of you are nexuses, linchpins upon which everything turns.”

Twilight was no stranger to responsibility. She was not just the personal protégé of Princess Celestia herself, but also the Element of Magic, the keystone of Equestria’s greatest defense. When Nightmare Moon had returned, she had been certain the fate of the country rested on her shoulders. She had been wrong, then. It had taken and all of her new friends combined to defeat the wicked mare, but she had still taken up that burden willingly.

This, however…

This was orders of magnitude larger, even if Dresden shared half of it. She was one small mare without the wisdom, experience or power of her mentor, a pony far better suited to be the savior of worlds. What if she failed? What if she doomed everypony and everything to a fate worse than eternal night?

Twilight shook her head, holding her panic at bay. She would meet this new problem the same way she had met any other – armed with knowledge and reinforced by a plan. “When do we make our decisions?”

Keen Vision shook his head sadly. “I don’t know.”

Twilight frowned. That bit of data would have been invaluable, but she could press on without it. “What are we deciding?”

“Not certain, I’m afraid.”

“What choices are we given?”

He shrugged.

Twilight felt a frustrated growl rising in her throat. With some difficulty she forced it down. A lock of her hair sprang out of place, and sweat began to bead her brow. “Do you know when the ‘darkness’ will arrive?”

“No.”

“What about where it comes from?”

“Not that either.”

Exasperated, she shouted, “Can you tell me anything about this ‘darkness’?!” Her pupils were the size of pins and she was showing an unhealthy number of teeth.

At that he finally nodded. Twilight felt a wave of relief wash away the madness that had been building within her. Her hair slowly resumed its normal shape as she calmed down. “Great. What can you tell me?”

“It will bring destruction upon Equestria like nopony has ever seen before.”

Twilight waited a second before asking, “Anything else?”

The elderly pegasus rubbed his chin with one hoof. “It’s also really, really big. And very dark.”

“So, nothing useful?”

Keen Vision nodded. “Not even remotely.”

Twilight almost screamed in pure frustration. The sound rose within her throat like a tidal wave, and it took every ounce of her considerable willpower to force it back down. Keen Vision just continued sipping his cider, and if he had noticed her reaction, he didn’t show it.

True clairvoyance was a thing of legend, but as Mr. Vision had demonstrated, it was imprecise. Supposedly, those who had the gift were as cryptic as possible so that they could be right for multiple outcomes, but there was a difference between a vague description and none at all. Twilight glared at her host. He couldn’t see the expression but her tone carried the same emotion. “I know I’m basing this off myths, but when there is some kind of world shaking prophecy, doesn’t it usually come with at least some details? Are you certain this even involves Dresden or me at all?”

Her host nodded sagely. “Yes. That is the one thing I am…” He trailed off and his body went almost rigid. Twilight glanced around the room, but she couldn’t see or hear anything. She wondered if this was related to his ability. Or maybe he really it was proof that he was just a crazy, old stallion.

“Oh, dear,” he said. Keen Vision finished his cider in one quick drink and fumbled at the window sill to open it. Confused, Twilight undid the latch and opened the window.

“Thank you,” Keen Vision said, breathing in the fresh air with obvious relish. “I’m afraid this is where our paths diverge, Ms. Sparkle. I can’t tell you anything more, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to tell anypony else about me.” His grin would have earned him a straitjacket in any mental hospital worth their certification. “After all, only a crazy pony would believe some blind, old pegasus can really see the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to leave before your friends destroy my front door. Oh, and tell my grand-niece her great-uncle Keeny says hi.”

Still reeling at what the strange stallion had just told her, Twilight could only watch as he calmly walked out the window and into thin air. She gasped and leaned forward in time to see him soar placidly away. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought he would crash without his sight to guide him, but he seemed fine. Either he had the local airspace memorized or he was adept enough at reading air currents to avoid large objects. Puzzling over this unexplained ability, it took a moment for what he had just done to sink in. When it did, her mood soured considerably.

“Does that crazy old crackpot really think−” but Twilight’s incipient bashing of Keen Vision’s character and ancestry was interrupted by a thunderous detonation from the front of the house.

Out of the corner of one eye, Twilight saw a large, well-built door shoot down the hallway as though it had been launched from a cannon. Her horn was immediately sheathed in a nimbus of purple light. Whoever the Order had sent, she could deal with them. She flicked her ears forward, straining to hear any movement. Instead she was treated to a pair of very familiar voices.

“That is not what I meant by ‘precision’!”

“There’s less than an inch of wall missing around the entire door frame. I don’t know how you expect anything more precise than that.”

Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat and the spells she was focusing on, some defensive, most of them decidedly more offensive, vanished from her mind. Her more cautious side warned that it could be trick, but the rest of her was certain. That was her friends, they were all right!

“Blackstone! Rarity!” Twilight shouted happily, stumbling as she dashed for the door. Her legs were still unsteady after her strenuous escape, and her short rest had only done so much for them. Twilight caught herself and charged forward, hardly paying attention to her body’s protests. The pair of ponies in the doorway were frozen in place, staring at her. Twilight launched herself towards them in a flying hug.

Most unicorns, provided they were strong enough, could catch a pony leaping towards them. In fact, Twilight had been counting on her friends to do just that. Unfortunately, she had underestimated how much her appearance had astonished them. Twilight realized this just a second too late as she crashed into both ponies and sent all three tumbling down the small set of stairs leading up to the door.

Twilight sat up, blinking at the prone friends she was sitting on. “Oh no! Rarity! Blackstone! Are you okay?” She hurriedly scooted off them and lifted the pair to their hooves. The black-coated stallion winced as he was set down.

“Who replaced my spleen with a bag of broken glass? There’s no other way this could hurt so much,” he complained, but she could see relief in his grin. “Hey there kid, been busy?”

“I’ve been better,” Rarity said, giving Twilight a dazzling smile. “But it’s worth it to see you again. We were so worried about you.” Rarity drew her friend into a hug and Twilight happily responded, a small tear leaking out of one eye as she did.

Once they separated, Twilight chuckled, and used her telekinesis to drag Blackstone into a hug. She squeezed him just as tightly.

“My ribs!”

Okay, maybe a little more tightly, but it felt so good to have them back. Twilight wondered where the others were, but two friends were more than enough to lift her spirits.

“Trixie does not wish to interrupt, but shouldn’t we keep moving? Half the neighborhood is watching us, and Trixie suspects somepony has called for the guard.” The speaker may have been missing her trademark hat and cloak, but Twilight would have had no trouble identifying her even without hearing her name twice.

“Trixie?”

Trixie winced even though Twilight’s voice had only sounded surprised. She nodded in response with little of her usual arrogance. “Hello, Twilight. You’re looking very… well for somepony who was kidnapped.” She didn’t overtly suggest anything, but there was an undercurrent of suspicion in her voice. Rarity immediately shot her a glare, but Blackstone hesitated and glanced surreptitiously at the pony hugging him.

Twilight scowled. After all the stress and danger she’d been through, this was the last thing she wanted to deal with. It grated on her last nerve to have Trixie, whose slate was hardly clean, suggest that she was an imposter. Given the deceptive nature of the Order, her friends would be justified to ask for proof, but it still gave her the brief, but powerful urge to ask Trixie if that was her extensive experience in kidnapping speaking.

“I escaped, then got some sleep. If you want, I can prove I’m me.” She motioned Blackstone over, and put a hoof to his ear. He bent over, allowing her to reach his head without resorting to balancing on her hindlegs. “Your true name,” she whispered, “is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.”

Blackstone broke into an unabashed smile and pulled her into another hug. “She’s the real McCoy,” he announced proudly. “Now, let’s get going.”

“Wait.” Twilight said, her brow creasing with worry. “Before we do anything I need to tell you something.” All three sets of eyes turned towards her. Twilight lowered her voice just in case anypony from the small crowd watching them had ulterior motives. “This may sound unbelievable, but there’s a group of ponies that’s planning to kill you, Blackstone.”

For the life of her, Twilight could not understand how this terrible news made Blackstone erupt in laughter.

………


The crystals in the ceiling flickered occasionally, proof that their upkeep had not been attended as often as it should have. Hawkeye, Advisor of the Order Triune and its spymaster for going on three decades, wanted to have words with the ponies responsible, but she didn’t have the time. Even if she did, it was hard to blame them; who could have expected the loss of their greatest stronghold? While they had many bases, the one under Canterlot was the original. In their seclusion, it had become the heart of the Order Triune.

Even if it was lost for good, which was a foregone conclusion now that the Princess knew its location, they had to soldier on. Even if that meant holding meetings in Arcane Mind’s dimly-lit new office, sharing the small space with unstable towers of books, boxes of scrolls and piles of papers.

“Disgraceful!” Tornado Watch roared as she stormed through the room, scattering loose papers in her wake. The Mage did his best to gather them back with his magic, but the agitated pegasus was disturbing too many too quickly for him to keep all of them under control.

“If we needed not every hoof left to us I would throw into stockades those failures for their pathetic display!” Her normally faint accent grew stronger as she paced to and fro.

Arcane Mind finally gave up collecting the fluttering papers and just started tucking them back into their folders. “I hate to ruin such an engaging fantasy, but we don’t have any stockades, Soldier.”

“Then I will be making them build some before locking them up! We had him − had him − and those bunglers let him slip through their hooves.”

Hawkeye sighed as her old friend continued to rant and rave about how her Slayers had failed. In truth, they had not done that badly, not compared to the creature they were facing. He had fought very few of them in open battle, avoiding most guards and tricking or intimidating the rest. Likely, the presence of Rarity, the Bearer of Generosity, had prevented him from showing his true colors. However, even with a handicap, he had been more than capable. Twilight was already gone, but he had freed Trixie and escaped with her. Which raised some interesting questions.

Trixie was the pony who had brought back the Nightmare and almost killed the Elements of Harmony; a pony he had supposedly helped to defeat. Yet, why then would he risk freeing her, if she was really that horrible?

This confirmed some of their worst suspicions: Trixie was his willing servant. Everything from then until now had been orchestrated by Obsidian to ease his return, allowing him to worm his way into the trust of both the Elements and the Princesses.

Almost as disturbing was the mounting evidence of betrayal within the Order. Not only Sweetie Drops, but Romana had assisted him in his flight. One terrified witness had seen him kill the first with his own hoof, dissolving poor Sweetie Drops into dust. Romana, he had left behind to cover his retreat, and even now she raved that the Order had locked her up and ‘Blackstone’ was innocent.

It was possible that he had enchanted both members of the Order, then disposed of them before anypony noticed the magic he had worked on his ‘friends’. Yet that didn’t explain how he discovered they were members of the Order. There was still the mysterious pony who had assisted in Twilight Sparkle’s escape and the missing agents to consider as well. In one way or another, he had found a source of information on his ancient foe, and was using it to distract and dismantle the Order piece by piece. Their sources said he had even managed to convince the Princess that the Order still lived and was at fault for Twilight’s disappearance. Both charges were true, but it was hard to believe how much they listened to him already.

He’s outplayed us. Hawkeye thought sadly. It was a bitter irony that the Princess had forced them to become masters of under-hooved tactics, only to be beaten at them by their greatest enemy.

“− until they won’t sit happily for a week!” Tornado Watch finished angrily. She took a breath to launch into fresh abuse of her troops, but Hawkeye had been waiting for a break in her yelling.

“Yeah, he caught our colts with their armor around their hooves, but hold off on the piss and vinegar. He picked just the right time to do it. With the best troops gathering around Ponyville to attack him, and everypony else busy with the evacuation, his work was as easy as it could get. As unnaturally powerful as he is, this is hardly the first time he’s run through us like a scythe through wheat. I’m surprised none of the guards got themselves killed.”

The old warhorse refused to be pacified. “They are Slayers, born and bred. They could do better, and I will accept no less with so much at stake!” She snapped her wings, attempting a militaristic pose to emphasize her statement. Instead her right wing caught a box which then cascaded her with scrolls. “Solntse moye! Why are there many boxes and papers in here? How do we meet in such a mess?”

“Sorry,” Arcane Mind said, gathering more of the loose papers, gingerly grabbing those Tornado Watch was close to shredding. “Some sort of miscommunication sent part of the Level Six archives here.” He scowled. “Now I have to go through every piece to find out which storage facility should hold them. As though I don’t have enough on my plate already.”

Hawkeye cocked one eyebrow at the younger pony. “If you two are done complaining and fiddling with your papers, then be quiet for a second and listen. I’ve had word on two of the missing Agents.”

Both ponies froze. The Soldier recovered first and her grin banished all of the worried lines that had etched themselves in her face over the past two days. “Excellent! Why did you not share this good news earlier?”

“I would concur,” Lord Mind added, still attempting to enforce some semblance of order on the loose pages. “It’s nice to find a silver lining among all these storm clouds.”

Hawkeye’s grim stare bored into the both of them. She could watch the happiness slip from their expressions to be replaced with puzzlement. “They were nearly dead when we found them, tangled in wires and hooked into tubes that drained their blood.” She went on to share all of the details the reports had given her: the withered and drawn skin around their mouths and eyes, the shuddering, ragged breaths, the sallow color of their coats and so much more. Night Shade and Shooting Star, two strong and capable ponies, had been reduced to frail shadows, ready to crumble at the touch.

The looks of horror on her comrades’ faces hardened into anger, even the normally calm Mage growling under his breath.

“Who did this to them?” Watch bit out.

“I don’t know,” Hawkeye replied. “They were found unconscious, and I doubt they will be capable of telling us anytime soon. It doesn’t matter, anyway. We may not know which of his minions did it, but we know the pony ultimately responsible. Cut off the head, and the rest of snake won’t last long.” Trixie would, of course, return to her cell, and so would any other servant of his they caught. The interrogation to follow would not be pretty, but it would be necessary. There were still two dozen ponies missing, and the Order had barely reached these two in time. Hawkeye would do whatever she had to for the lives of innocent ponies.

Arcane Mind had lost his furious tension and now seemed listless. “A pithy solution, but there’s one problem: how? He’s already survived our, admittedly inexpert, attempts at assassination, then plunged directly into our lair and escaped unscathed. Consider also that he is protected by half the Royal Guard, both Princesses, and the Elements of Harmony, while the rest of the guard searches for us. He has won this exchange, and holds nearly every advantage.”

“We have ponies among the Castle’s staff, and a few are even part of the guard. One of your apprentices is even an aide to the Princess herself,” Hawkeye retorted.

“Yes,” he admitted, “but how many of them are capable of destroying him? He is alert, prepared and no fool. His food will be tested, and he’ll suspect everypony who isn’t already under his hoof. Even if we did get somepony close to him, do we have any guarantee he wouldn’t alter their mind? The last thing we need is another turn coat.”

Tornado Watch snorted and stamped her hooves, making the stacks of books next to her tremble. “But we must think of something! I refuse to let his darkness spread.”

“Then let’s brainstorm,” Hawkeye suggested.

The three of them traded ideas back and forth, trying in vain to come up with a successful plan. Anything practical he would expect. Anything unexpected was too unfeasible. Anything powerful enough was too obvious. Anything stealthy enough wasn’t strong enough. They all took turns coming up with ideas and shooting down other plans. Less than an hour into it, Arcane Mind cracked open a few of his books and started sorting them for relocation.

“Can’t you do that some other time?” Tornado Watch asked irritably.

“I’m very skilled at multi-tasking, thank you,” he retorted. “Besides, I’d like to make progress on at least one front.”

Naturally, Tornado Watch objected.

After three shouting matches, several threats of bodily harm, three tenuous truces and far too many hours, they were no closer to a solution than they had been at the beginning of the meeting. Grimly, they pressed on, but at this point none of them expected a miracle.

The first sign of a change was the faint tinkle of Arcane’s monocle falling out of his eye and landing on the desk. Hawkeye zeroed in on the reaction, ignoring Watch’s latest plan, which involved infeasible amounts of explosives. The Mage had been flipping through the classified books with a general air of disinterest, but now his eyes raced across the page.

“What have you found there?” Hawkeye asked, interrupting her old friend.

Tornado gave her a glare, but once she noticed Arcane Mind’s sudden interest in his texts the expression faded. “Yes, what has captured your interest?”

Arcane Mind didn’t answer for minutes and Hawkeye’s patience waned dangerously. She was seconds away from snatching the book out of his hooves when he finally put it down. His face was grim as ever, but there was a determination, a hope, that had recently been missing.

“What do you say,” Arcane Mind asked, a mad gleam in his eye, “to fighting fire with fire?”

Chapter Sixteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Sixteen

“I’m not getting in that bed. I don’t care what you say,” I told the mare.

She scowled. “You’ll get in and stay there if I have to tie you to the bedposts myself!”

I rolled my eyes; thank God that didn’t sound suggestive. “Look, lady, I’m perfectly fine. I don’t need any medical attention. I definitely don’t need to be stuck in a hospital bed all day. Thank you for the offer, but I’ll be on my way now.”

I don’t spend a lot of time in hospitals – well, not willingly, anyway – but every once in a while, I have an injury that I can’t heal off at home. Then I spend my entire visit worried sick that my magic is going to blow out some extremely delicate medical technology and cost somebody their life. It isn’t a fun experience. I’m aware that a pony hospital probably wouldn’t have the same problems, but by this point, just the sight of patients and the ever-present antiseptic smell makes my stomach churn with anxiety.

“For the third time, my name is Nurse Ratchet. And you most certainly do need our help, no matter how much you want to deny it.” One of her wings snapped forward, a clipboard balanced between several feathers. “Three fractured ribs, two black eyes, several shallow cuts along your barrel and forelimbs, a hole through your ear, and you’re showing the symptoms of a mild concussion.”

I nodded, unsurprised at the list. “So, nothing major. Like I said, I’ll be fine. Just return all my stuff and I’ll be out of your mane.”

The dull beige pegasus didn’t glare or bluster at that as I’d expected. Instead she gave me a smile that promised much worse than the mere threat of physical harm. “Of course, we wouldn’t want to hinder you, Mr. Blackstone. I’ll leave right now to get your cane and saddlebags.” She turned and began walking slowly towards the hallway. The eyes of several ponies followed her down the length of the ward. Almost none of the privacy curtains in the long room were drawn and most of the patients were watching us. I had no doubt that our argument was a rare source of entertainment, since they didn’t have TVs yet. I heard a grumble or two as the ‘show’ ended, but I wasn’t as certain as my fellow inmates. I just knew that the other shoe had yet to drop. Nurse Ratchet didn’t disappoint.

She stopped in the doorway and looked back at me. “Though it would be tragic if I was so upset by an unreasonable patient that I wasn’t careful enough getting his belongings out of storage. Why, I might drop them. Something could get broken or even get lost if it rolled somewhere out of sight.” Her eyes flickered with malicious glee as she waited for my response.

I glared at her, but she had me over a barrel. I couldn’t break into the storage room without pissing off the palace guards, and they were already looking for some payback after that scene at the gate.

In hindsight, opening the conversation with, ‘I’ve got Twilight’ wasn’t my brightest idea. The rest of the group caught up in just a couple of minutes, but by then, things were well and truly out of hand. By which I mean I’d already been tackled, pinned, and hoofcuffed. They also tried to slap some kind of ring on my horn, but they weren’t quick enough at it. Four of the ponies in this ward were proof of that.

Still, I was more willing to tussle with them than waste my entire day in here. Twilight and Rarity had been taken straight to Celestia, but Trixie and I had been waylaid and dragged into the medical wing of the palace. ‘Twenty minutes,’ they said. ‘Just to make sure you’re all right,’ they said. That was forty-five minutes ago.

“Two hours,” I declared. “I’m yours for two hours, but only if you return with everything. If you aren’t back in half an hour I’m going to go looking for my stuff.” I gave her the smile I normally reserve for the staff at the DMV. “And I won’t let little things like guards or locked doors stop me.”

Nurse Ratchet nodded. “Very well. Just take off your coat and take a seat on the bed.”

I snorted at her, but complied. Soon, I was naked again save for my pentacle. To preserve my modesty I crawled into the hospital bed and pulled the sheets up. Our argument had attracted more than a few staring eyes along the ward, from patients and nurses alike. I glared at everypony looking my way, daring them to keep watching. With only one exception, they flushed and pretended they hadn’t been staring.

“Trixie doesn’t understand your reluctance,” the exception said, relaxing in the plus-sized bed she had demanded. “A comfortable bed, food from the royal kitchens and an entire staff to wait on you, horn and hoof. Trixie admits she would prefer a private room with better furnishings, but she is well used to receiving things below her station and has learned to make do.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, but things are a bit too busy for me to just kick back and relax right now. Those jokers aren’t going to quit any time soon, and I should be in on whatever briefing Twilight and Rarity are giving the Princess. Besides, if I wanted to relax, a hospital is the last place I’d go.”

Trixie shrugged. “Then why didn’t you simply leave, regardless of the Nurse’s orders? It isn’t as though the Royal Guard could stop you.” This earned her a trio of scowls from the bedridden stallions across the aisle. I suspect the fourth guard agreed with them, but it was difficult to see his expression beneath the bandages circling his jaw.

“You know what I told Nurse Ratchet was a bluff, right? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. With great power comes great responsibility.” I was so damn pleased with myself for working a Spider-Man quote into a serious discussion that I could practically hear Stan Lee yelling ‘Excelsior!’ in approval.

“Right,” Trixie said with a nod. “The responsibility to show everypony how great and powerful you are. This is why you and Twilight Sparkle confuse Trixie. Everypony should be in awe of your powers and eager to do your bidding, but you always act so … modest. You never receive any of the recognition you deserve.” Trixie’s eyes lit up like stars as spoke her forelegs spreading in an expansive gesture. “Why, if Trixie was the Element of Magic, her face would have appeared on the cover of every newspaper in Equestria, and there would not be a pony in the land who did not recognize her by name or sight.” She gave a contented sigh, evidently pleased with her fantasy.

Which probably goes a long toward explaining why you aren’t the Element of Magic, I thought crossly. “That’s where you’re wrong. Power isn’t a gift, it’s a burden.” That brought Trixie out of her happy place awfully quick. She gaped at me, but I didn’t let up. “You don’t use your power, especially not when you have as much as Twilight or me, unless you have to, unless it’s important. It isn’t hard to love having power. A little grandstanding to stoke your ego doesn’t seem like much at first, neither does using your magic to apply some pressure when somepony’s being unreasonable, but power corrupts and the more you love using it, the more of it you’ll want.”

I shook my head sadly. “It’s a slippery slope and I’ve seen what happens to those who fall.” My mind flashed to my late foster father, but I shook the painful memory off. “It might start small, but it’s an addiction that can’t ever be satisfied. It doesn’t take long until you start doing things that you never would have even considered before.” I dropped my voice so that only Trixie could hear me, “Things like destroying the Elements of Harmony or trying to kill innocent ponies.”

Trixie could not have flinched harder or with more shock and pain than if I had slapped her. “How could you say that? I’m not like that anymore. I’ve changed!” Her nearly hysteric tone attracted more than a few eyes, but I glared until they turned away again in embarrassment. The pause, though, gave her a moment to recompose herself.

“I’ve changed,” she repeated desperately. I don’t know whether she was trying to convince me or herself.

I frowned, but I didn’t argue with her. In some ways she was right. The caustic hatred that had driven her to insanity was gone without a trace. She hadn’t been all that friendly to Twilight after we had found her, but I hadn’t detected any of the bitter envy that she had practically seethed with last time. I’m certain that the Nightmare had ratcheted up her negative emotions, playing the same game as it had with me, but it had to start somewhere. Being a private detective is all about reading people, and everything I’d learned over the years was telling me that Trixie’s jealousy had taken a leave of absence. It was possible that it wasn’t really gone, though I would be surprised if Trixie was just repressing her envy. Something like that would require a level of mental and emotional discipline that I doubted she possessed.

Whether it was the Harmony beam or Celestia’s tutoring, she really had changed. The real problem, however, went much deeper than mere jealousy. The heart of the matter was that Trixie wanted power; she wanted to be famous and respected. Her entire feud with Twilight came from when the purple mage had ‘upstaged’ her by saving the town when she couldn’t, destroying Trixie’s delusions of grandeur. Even after going through villain rehab, she still wanted that power, and what seemed harmless could easily spin out of control just as quickly as her foray into demon summoning.

“T-trixie would l-like to change the subject. Please?” she asked, bravado gone. It took a moment for her request to sink in, and only then did I realize that I was staring. My glare pierced her, focused not on who and what she was, but on what she could become. It was a stare that went beyond judgment, a look that bypassed any sort of kindness or compassion, using only cold pragmatism to decide her fate.

It was the same look the wizards of the White Council had given me at my trial.

A part of me recoiled in horror at the thought of becoming anything like the merciless wardens that had dragged a teenaged Harry into that stone room, a black bag over his head. The rest vehemently disagreed that I had been anything like her, even at that age. That thought gave me pause. True, I acted in self-defense while she definitely hadn’t, but both of us were guilty of being young, stupid and willing to make deals with the first creature to offer us power. I never thought I would be thankful to my Faerie godmother Lea after the hell she had put me through, but compared to most of the things I could have ended up with, she was an angel.

Trixie had gone farther down that dark road than I ever had, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never taken a step on it. Maybe that was the reason I was so quick to judge Trixie. Maybe I had been ready to go along with the Nightmare’s desire to bump her off because she reminded me too much of what I might have been.

The little sigil of unburned flesh on what used to be my left palm itched with unnatural intensity. The symbol was the same one carved into the silver coin I had accidentally touched a year and a half ago. A coin that contained a Fallen Angel.

And what I might still become.

I shook my head, trying to banish the unpleasant thoughts. I was only partially successful. “Sorry, I was thinking about something,” I offered. “I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

“Trixie was not f-frightened,” she said flushing angrily. I thought her stammer gave pretty good proof to the contrary, but I didn’t press her on it. She looked ready to continue, but the arrival of a certain nurse, and more importantly the rest of my stuff, took my attention.

“Here you are, sir,” Nurse Ratchet declared, putting the saddlebags on a nearby chair, leaning my cane sword against them. “Now, do you mind if I run some tests?” Even if her expression hadn’t told me the question was rhetorical, I think I could have figured it out. Maybe because she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my foreleg before giving me a chance to respond.

Next came the stethoscope, followed by an examination of my eyes with a small flashlight. A bottle of peroxide, or whatever the ponies used, stung like fire, but I managed not to whine as she cleaned all of my cuts. Then I got a cold compress for my eyes, and she changed the bandage on my ear, giving it a thorough scrubbing with the disinfectant. As much as it hurt, I was grateful for those attentions at least. Wizards may have hardier immune systems than your average Joe, but we aren’t untouchable, and I was pretty certain I was behind on my tetanus shots.

Not content with working quietly and actually raising my opinion of her, Nurse Ratchet tried proving that she was the boss again. She chose a poor way of doing it. “You need to remove your necklace, Mr. Blackstone. I need to wrap your chest and the hospital has a policy forbidding jewelry on its patients.”

I snorted. My pentacle hung too high to interfere with any attempt to bandage my ribs even assuming they needed it. “Oh, it isn’t jewelry,” I replied. “It’s a bullshit detector. Here, let me turn it on.” With Nurse Ratchet less than five feet away, it was child’s play to empower a quick tracking spell linked to her aura. My pentacle began to glow a bluish-white and rose to point directly at her. There were some startled laughs from ponies close enough to see, but most of the ward seemed more offended than amused by my language.

My nurse flushed in anger and began unraveling a roll of bandages without another word. Trixie giggled as Nurse Ratchet moved to the other side of my bed and the pentacle followed her, which just made the pegasus scowl even harder.

I probably – no, I should have stopped there, but I couldn’t resist. “Any more ‘rules’ you want to share with me? If this thing gets any brighter, I won’t need a bedside lamp.”

For some reason, she was less than gentle as she wrapped my fractured ribs. After the third or fourth ‘accidental’ bump against my fractured bones, all of which were followed by a hiss of pain and a couple heartfelt expletives, she finally finished.

“So, can I leave now?” I growled, impatient to out from under her tender, loving care.

“In a while,” she promised, somehow using her wings to snap a pair of rubber gloves onto her fore-hooves. She dug around in a small cabinet for a moment to re-emerge with a large thermometer carefully held between her latex covered hooves. “First, I need to take your temperature and run some more tests.”

I told her in no uncertain terms where she could stick that thermometer, drawing a gasp from a few ponies. But Nurse Ratchet just smiled.

“That is the general idea. I’ll just need you to bend over for a moment. If you’d like, we can draw the privacy curtain.”

Then somehow – mysteriously − the thermometer floated out of her hooves before being crushed into a tiny ball of glass shards and mercury. These were safely disposed of in a nearby ‘Hazardous’ box by the same mysterious force. For some reason Nurse Ratchet assumed I was involved.

“Those are expensive,” she informed me coldly. I tried to let my expression show how much that fact broke my heart, but I don’t think I looked properly contrite. Nurse Ratchet stomped off, presumably to find another medical instrument to abuse me with. Trixie started giggling again, as my pentacle followed Ratchet’s progress out of the room and down the hall. With a thought I dismissed the spell and leaned back in bed, mostly satisfied. The clock on the wall told me I needed to stick around for another hour to fulfill my promise. Other than that annoyance, I was pretty well pleased with myself.

“So,” Trixie began once she was done laughing, “what is that amulet of yours really? Your horn wasn’t glowing at all while it moved.”

I frowned. She certainly seemed eager to put our last discussion past, but with a shrug I relented. I’d already said everything I needed to, and I didn’t see the harm in giving her an explanation.

“It’s a pentacle, not an amulet. Anyway, it’s my focus, or one of them at least.”

Trixie’s head cocked sideways in a mix of confusion and curiosity. “What’s a focus?”

“Just what sounds like,” I shot back, but before she could complain I elaborated. “It’s an item enchanted to help me focus my magic. They make my spells more efficient, and easier to perform. You can use them to boost your power as well, but I’ve got more than enough of that so mine help out with control for the most part.”

Her eyes lit up, and she gave me her full attention. “Interesting, Trixie feared such artifacts were only myth. How do you make such an item?” Naturally, I was reluctant to tell her. Secret-keeping runs deep in wizards, but I needed something to pass the time and staring at the clock wasn’t making it move any faster. Besides, it wasn’t like she could pick one up at the local Walmart.

“It takes years to learn how to craft them, but once you know the spells, it isn’t that tough. My staff took about three months to enchant, but it’s both powerful and versatile. Something simpler can take as little as two or three weeks of work.” Obviously, the process was more complicated than that, but giving her the Reader’s Digest version was for the best.

Her frown loudly proclaimed that she had been hoping for a more technical explanation, or maybe an entire ‘How-to’ course. I shook my head. Not even if she paid the fifteen easy installments of nineteen ninety-nine, plus tax.

She didn’t take the hint. “What about your pendant then? What does it do?”

“Not much,” I shrugged. She waited for me to continue. With a sigh, I did. “Mostly I channel light or tracking spells through it.”

“Really?” Trixie asked. I nodded in affirmation. She rolled her eyes and let out a huff. “Trixie expected it to be a legendary artifact of power that boosted your magic beyond that of any mortal pony.” I raised an eyebrow, but she ignored me, leaning back into her pillows, her eyes full of stars. “Though it’s disappointing, Trixie supposes it is for the best. After all, what sort of story would it make if Trixie reached her goal so easily?”

A comparison between her, my pentacle, and a brain-dead monkey in terms of utility died on my lips, as the meaning of her last sentence sank in. Maybe it was just another bout of paranoia, but something about that just rubbed me wrong. Sure, she could have been talking about playing to Caeser’s Palace, or whatever equivalent Equestria had, but somehow I doubted her ‘goal’ was quite so benign.

I was about to press her on the issue when a glittering silver aura yanked my privacy curtain shut. The logical part of my mind noted that if it was somepony hostile they probably wouldn’t have wasted time pulling the curtain before stabbing me in the back, but an equal portion grunted like a Neanderthal and bellowed that anything sneaking up on me had to be bad and a club to the head was really the only sensible option. Tired of listening to them argue, my reflexes twisted me around to face this possible threat without waiting for a conscious order.

The mysterious curtain-closer was a tall, slim, silver unicorn wearing a lab coat. When I say silver, I don’t just mean her coat, either. Her mane, eyes, horn, magical aura, and presumably tail were all the same exact shade of shining silver. I noticed her eyes crinkle with amusement as I inspected her, though her professional smile remained undisturbed. “Hello. Sorry to startle you, Mr. Blackstone. I’m Starry Skies, your doctor.”

“That,” I declared with a certainty born of long experience, “is the worst disguise I have ever seen.” I lowered my voice, and continued. “Seriously, Luna? Does that actually work on ponies?”

There are no words to describe my feeling of satisfaction as her jaw dropped in shock. It more than made up for the way she had surprised me. Luna’s horn glowed silver again, and the rest of ward fell dead silent, as though every noise from beyond the curtain came from a radio that somebody had just turned off. Color me impressed. A sound-proof ward isn’t all that difficult, but the same spell would have taken me three times as long, and that’s not counting the time it would take me to draw the circle. If I’d had any doubts before, that display of power would have capped it.

“How didst thou see through our disguise?” Luna asked, pouting slightly. Thankfully, she’d left the megaphone spell behind. “We even mimicked perfectly the modern mode of speech; no easy task in its own right.” As she spoke, the illusion bled off of her. The glow around her horn shifted from silver to dark blue. The lab coat disappeared, revealing a midnight coat and a nebulous tail made of what looked like a section of the night sky. She grew several inches and her body filled out some, though she remained slim in proportion. Her horn lengthened, and aquamarine flooded into the eyes beneath it.

I grinned like the cat that caught the canary. “Magic.”

“Has anypony ever told thee how aggravating thou art? We could deliver a soliloquy which would last from now until three days hence upon the subject.”

Most people would have been intimidated by an immortal sorceress with a history of madness and enough power to crush them like an insect. “It’s nice to see you too, Luna.” I’m not most people, and I think that was one of the reasons she liked me.

She flushed slightly, her frown changing into a sheepish smile. “Where hath our manners gone? Indeed, let not my annoyance at your skills of perception blind you to my exuberance upon your return. We only wish it had been to a better reception.” Dark storm clouds began to gather in her eyes, and her brow lowered in fury.

“Yeah, I’m not the biggest fan of the Order Triune, either. What’s the news on that front?”

With some effort Luna curbed her anger, and her arctic expression warmed a few degrees. “Twilight acted with commendable alacrity. As soon as our sister released her from their embrace, she and Rarity detailed the known entrances to the blackguards’ stronghold. Within the hour, Captain Armor led a full platoon of cavaliers in a raid upon the rat-hole those curs nest in. Though we have little doubt that he shalt find naught but an empty lair for all his trouble. They are a furtive, cowardly lot.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Maybe, but they’re more than willing to strike from the shadows. I would hope you aren’t discounting that possibility.”

“Of course not. Already we set to securing the castle most tightly. Our sister will convene with the guard to ferret out any creeping corruption, and we shall see to it that any poison is cleansed from every crumb of sustenance and drop of liquid within these walls.” Luna nodded with satisfaction, then seemed to remember something. “Do not relax thy vigil overmuch, though. Any vipers hidden amongst the staff may still wield knife or spell against thee.”

A short snort expressed my feelings on that matter. “They wouldn’t be the first, and sure as hell aren’t the most dangerous pack of nutcases to come after me.” Though they were the first mortal group, which was a weird shift. Extermination with extreme prejudice is my standard reply to anything that tries to kill me, but with idiots hunting me instead of monsters, I had to hold off on any lethal magic. And if Celestia’s commands had been anything to go by, she wouldn’t be happy if I used my guns either. Talk about having your work cut out for you. Still, I’d rather be alive to worry about the possibility than the opposite. “I’m more worried about the girls. They already captured Twilight once, and it’s likely that they’ve got plans for the others as well. I told them to stick together, but I doubt they’re all that familiar with the concept of ‘stranger danger’. I’d feel a lot better if we could get everypony under guard here.”

Luna began smiling. It was a small, almost smug expression that practically sang ‘I know something you don’t know’. I’m very familiar with the look, since not only have I worn a similar grin on occasion, but because it’s also standard issue to every one of the sidhe. Damned condescending faeries.

Anyway, I was just about to give Luna the third degree and figure out just what that self-satisfied smirk was about, when somepony jerked the curtain open, popping Luna’s sound barrier. No points for guessing who.

“You can’t hide from me that easily, Mr. Bla−” Nurse Ratchet froze still as a statue. Her shiny new thermometer rolled off of her hoof as its motion came to a sudden stop. A midnight blue aura gingerly grabbed the instrument, careful not to touch the business end.

“Thou must show greater care with such a delicate implement. We are told these devices are quite costly, though why you might have brought one here mystifies us.” Luna examined the thermometer, her puzzlement clear. I rocked with silent laughter as my nurse unfroze long enough to turn bright red.

Nurse Ratchet scrambled for an excuse. “Y-your highness. I was just … um, I needed to check his temperature to ensure that he doesn’t have a fever.”

Luna looked at me, and I grinned to show her that I was in perfect health. Aside from all the bruises and damaged bones, that is, but eh, I’ve had worse. The princess of night turned back to Lil’ Miss Malpractice and arched an eyebrow. “We sense no trace of fever upon him. If his wounds have been seen to, then we require his presence elsewhere.”

“But Royal medical procedure−” Nurse Ratchet began. Just a look, not even a glare, just a curious frown from Luna made the nurse’s mouth shut so quickly that her teeth clicked.

“Dost thou have any objections?” Luna asked. Her tone wasn’t the least bit accusatory, but Nurse Ratchet still flushed as she shook her head. I could hardly believe it was that easy after all the fuss she had been making before. “Then we shall be on our way.”

I gathered my things together quickly, throwing my coat back on. I glanced at Trixie, but she seemed to be snoozing away. It was likely the first peaceful sleep she’d gotten since the Order had laid hands, er, hooves on her. I was torn between sympathy for her and a lingering distrust. Maybe I’d have a word with Twilight, but there wasn’t anything I could do right now. I had bigger fish to fry, anyway.

I had been inside a couple of rooms in the castle before, but there had been several distractions at the time – namely breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The forced march to the medical ward hadn’t given me much time for sightseeing, either. Now that I finally had the chance, I took a good look at what appeared to be one of the main passageways of the Canterlot Castle. I was suitably impressed.

The inside of the castle couldn’t have looked more Disney if it had tried. Proud, flowing banners covered the walls wherever they weren’t broken by gracefully arched windows. Empty suits of armor were interspersed with real guards standing stiffly at attention. Everything was immaculate, buffed, polished, and in perfect condition. Servants bustled here and there, either carrying things or hard at work keeping the hall pristine. Most of them went au naturel, but a few wore simple, well-kept clothing. Couriers were easily identified by their box-shaped hats. They were mostly pegasi, soaring overhead in the ample space provided by the high, vaulted ceiling, but a few earth ponies also hurried up and down the corridors, juggling books, scrolls and other sorts of paper as they hurried from place to place. Bureaucrats moved under similar, if lighter loads, but they weren’t nearly as rushed. The cogs in the machine exuded a placid sort of satisfaction, confident that whatever they did was not just important, but vital to the well-being of Equestria. Anything they wore, except a few hats, was strictly practical. The few nobles who drifted about, either on their own or surrounded by a fawning entourage, were easy to spot. Even the ones that weren’t wearing ostentatiously expensive accessories were obvious – a neon sign flashing the word ‘Ass-hat’ couldn’t have marked them more clearly than their haughty expressions and mannerisms.

Even the nobles, though, paused to bow and offer greetings to Luna as we passed. The couriers mostly ignored both of us, but the rest earned approving nods from Luna. Sometimes she gave a greeting in return, delivered with her megaphone spell at full force.

The reactions of the various ponies to me were more interesting to note. All of the servants and most of the clerks ignored me. The guards watched me carefully, but their stares weren’t hostile, just attentive. Calculating looks flashed across the aristocrats’ faces as they surreptitiously eyed me. I had the distinct feeling they were trying to figure out who I was, why I was accompanying one of the Princesses, and how they could fit me into their games of flattery and backstabbing. Even adorable technicolor ponies have politics, it seems. That’s one universal constant I could have done without.

We eventually left the main passage for a smaller one, leaving the other ponies behind. Luna’s horn flashed again, and we were once more surrounded by a bubble of silence. One major difference, though; this one moved with us. At this point I just accepted the incredible spellcraft without comment. With no fear of being overheard, Luna continued our earlier conversation. “Worry not, Twilight Sparkle and all of her friends shall be here for thy ceremony. And−”

Like smoking, interrupting superpowerful entities is a habit that will kill you eventually. And by the time I got out of my stupid teen phase, I was already hooked. “Hold on, isn’t that a week away? Shouldn’t we catch everyone from the Order before just opening up the castle to a public event?”

“The ceremony shall not be open to the public. We desired this to be more private even before any security concerns arose. The only guests other than your friends will be the elite of the Royal Guard and a few of the greater nobility.” Luna replied. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Though calling them great or noble is often a heinous misuse of those words. We shan’t allow those zealots to disturb this occasion. However, we are in accord with Celestia that we must perform the rite no later than tomorrow. She means to restore thee to thy home on the following day.” If immortal goddesses don’t sulk, then Luna was doing a pretty good imitation. “We desired that thy sojourn last ‘til the new moon at least, but our sister has convinced us that you should go. For all the defenses we can offer, we are not perfect, and so long as the Order remains, they shan’t cease their atrocious efforts.”

I mulled that over with a frown. My first instinct was to say ‘screw the Order, I do what I want’, but the small part of me where my common sense lives made me stop. What good would sticking around be? As long as I was here, they’d keep gunning for me, and the longer that went on, the greater the chance that somepony would get caught in the crossfire. Take me out of the equation, and they’d likely go back to hiding, only now the Princesses knew they were out there, and I had no doubt that their highnesses would eventually find the rest of those nutcases. Leaving a problem for somebody else to solve went against every one of my heroic/suicidal tendencies, but if I was the problem, wasn’t that the fastest way to fix it?

“I don’t like it, but yeah, I see the sense in it,” I grumbled. Luna only nodded in response. The silence that settled in afterwards felt awkward, but I wasn’t sure whose fault that was. Trying to think of a good conversation starter piqued a little of my own curiosity. It’s not often you get to talk shop with an immortal spellcaster… not without putting your soul in hock, at least. “How’s the spell work going? The shrouding and other stuff, I mean.”

Her face lit up at my question. “Most excellently. We have renewed several score of the old spells, and most of those were within the most perilous portions of our borders. We are fortunate that much of the Outer Realm – that which thou called the Nevernever – turns benign close to our world.”

“Like the giant desert on the Way you showed me?” The question popped out before I even gave it any thought.

The only response was silence. I glanced in surprise at Luna; she seemed to be lost in troubled thought. We continued walking down near empty corridors, and I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was or how we’d gotten here. There were no more windows; instead the hall was lit by gently glowing blue orbs in silver brackets. The air had also become much cooler, which was a relief since I was still wearing my coat. Taking all those facts together, though, I surmised that we were in an underground section of the castle that was seldom visited.

“We aren’t certain,” she finally responded.

I arched an eyebrow at her. “About…?”

She made an impatient gesture with one hoof. “Whether the Vast Waste is benign or malign. ‘Tis an anomaly of great proportions, and has been ever since we discovered it. Yet, for all its foreboding nature, never have we been threatened while walking upon its path. Mayhap it was the place of some great battle eons ago and has yet to recover.”

“You mean you mapped a Way to Earth and set all kinds of enchantments there, but you don’t even know what that place is?” My eyebrow remained arched, and its brother was threatening to climb to a similar altitude.

“Pardon, but do your kind explore the Outer Realm out of curiosity?” she asked in a half-amused, half-disbelieving tone of voice. The question was phrased politely, but its real meaning was clear: ‘Are humans really that stupid?’

I shook my head. “No, we mainly use the Ways of Faerie, or other well-mapped paths. I just figured that since you and Celestia are major league material, you’d be free to poke around a little more.”

Luna thought for a second then dipped her head in admission. “True, seldom is there a creature capable of threatening either of us, but even so, ‘tis not wise to test fate. Not when those few beings capable of overcoming us would most likely rip the knowledge of Equestria from our minds and seek dominion over all this realm.”

I had the brief, disturbing vision of Cthulhu erupting from the small lake on the edge of Ponyville. That was enough to send a shiver down even my spine. Until an imaginary Pinkie somehow put a colorful hat on him and started throwing a party, at least. Jesus Christ, my mind is weird.

“I can see where that would be a problem. Still, you must’ve done a lot of exploring a while ago if you’ve got a couple dozen safe Ways to Earth.”

A longing, almost nostalgic, smile crossed her face. Luna smoothed it away, but not before I noticed. “Yes, but we ceased such activities a long time ago, even as we reckon such things. Ah, what a joy those times were, when we were but a filly. We bore not such responsibilities, and all of existence was our playing field. But, however much we loved those nights, they are past, and it does little good to dwell upon them.”

That has to be hard, I thought. I’m young for a wizard. By the time I finally come into my full power, making the big assumption that I haven’t gotten myself killed in the meantime, my friends will all be dead and gone. When I’m old, their great-grandchildren will be taking dirt naps. Some wizards cope by never getting attached, some find solace in their beliefs. I’m not really good at either of those. And hell, that’s only a couple extra centuries on everyone else. What would it be like if you measured your life in millennia?

I shook my head. Maybe Nurse Ratchet had point about the ‘mild concussion’ thing. I’m way too hardboiled to get maudlin in the middle of a case. It was a good thing I dug my way out of those tangled thoughts just then, too, because when I looked up, I was about two feet away from a door and still on autopilot. Thanks to my quick reflexes, the malicious door didn’t catch me off-guard, but it was a near thing.

Luna made a sound that I choose to believe was an expression of concern, no matter how much it sounded like snickering. The coolly lit hall ended at a large pair of double doors. They were at least ten feet tall and made of what looked like obsidian. Only they couldn’t be, because they were each a single perfectly flat piece of crystal, somehow banded with silver belts and inlayed with thousands of tiny, sparkling lights. A pair of bat-winged, cat-eyed ponies in armor stood at attention on either side of the impressive entry.

I started to peer closer at the… stars… inlaid in the door, then my mind backtracked. The pair of what standing at attention? I checked again, and sure enough, they still looked like a couple of Halloween-themed piñatas. I tried not to stare, though neither of them paid me any mind. Either Luna took her ‘Princess of Night’ thing seriously enough to require heavy-duty illusions on her guards, or there was a whole other race of ponies that nopony had ever mentioned to me before. I thought the first scenario was a bit more likely, but I wouldn’t put anything past Equestria at this point.

I brushed the irrelevant train of thought aside and closed my mouth. Standing in a manly, dignified fashion, I gestured to the closed door. “So I take it we’re here. Wherever ‘here’ is. Nice doors, by the way.”

Luna preened a bit (not in the literal sense, mind you) at the compliment. “Thank thee. We patterned them after our apartments in another palace, long ago.”

That took a moment to sink in. “Are you saying,” I asked in as neutral a tone as possible, “that we’re outside your bedroom?”

“Most verily,” Luna answered with a smile. One that, to me at least, looked … hungry. Her horn shimmered and the doors swung inward on perfectly oiled, and soundless, hinges. They opened into darkness, but the light from the hall was enough to let me see the focal point of the room: a giant, sumptuously decorated bed.

“Won’t thou come inside?” asked the black widow.

“Umm … are you sure?” I edged backward slowly. The hallway was very long and devoid of cover. We were deep underground, and far from anypony except her guards. If I screamed, nopony would hear me. The idea of outrunning her was laughable. I had to talk my way out.

Shit.

“W-why don’t we just talk out here in the hall?” I asked with a large, fake smile.

Luna frowned in a way that was supposed to be playful, but revealed quite a bit of real irritation. “We should be more comfortable within our quarters. Besides, though we would trust our guards with our life,” she said, her eyes sliding to the stoic pair, “we desire a more private discourse.”

I knew exactly what ‘course’ she wanted to have, and ‘dis’ was the wrong prefix. “Okay, sure. Just let me run by the kitchens really fast for a glass of water and I’ll be right back.”

The transparent lie didn’t fool anybody, and one of the stolid guards actually scoffed under his breath. “We haven’t time for your incomprehensible jests. Come along,” she ordered.

I was about to voice my concerns, when a felt a strong tug on my tail. A midnight blue aura had engulfed it, and Luna was already walking into the darkened room. The pull was slight at first, but it had the inevitable insistence of gravity. Far too late, I turned and tried to run, but my hooves couldn’t find enough traction on the stone floor. With inexorable slowness, I was being drawn into Luna’s bedroom. In desperation I grabbed the doorjamb, attempting to delay my unavoidable fate. How I grabbed it with hooves, I have no idea. Things were a bit hectic at the moment.

“Help me,” I whispered to the guard standing beside me. I was hanging horizontally now, only my inexplicable death grip on the doorway keeping me from falling into the room. Already my forelegs were beginning to tire.

“No can do, buddy,” he replied, sotto voce. “Just relax and try to have fun.”

An extra-strong tug tore my hooves free from their hoofhold, and I was yanked into the darkness. “I regret everything!” I screamed as the doors slammed shut.

My only consolation was that Bob would still be unconscious for several more hours. At least he would never know. I braced myself for what was to come.

“SURPRISE!”

The room burst into warm brilliance as Pinkie launched herself from behind a nearby dresser to hug me. All six of the Elements, Spike, Mouse and both of the Princesses were waiting along the back of the room where all the trimmings of a party had been set up. Confetti and streamers poured from the ceiling in all colors of the rainbow. In one corner of the room I saw a huge banner that had ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ crossed out and ‘Welcome to Canterlot/Equestria/this plane of reality’ hastily scrawled across the bottom. There were piles of cupcakes, a bowl of punch, and trays of tiny pies taking up every inch of three tables. A jaunty tune started up from an unseen gramophone.

I blinked once, twice.

“What?”

“It’s a party!” Pinkie shouted, releasing me from her surprisingly gentle embrace. Somepony must have told her about my ribs, or maybe it was just more proof of her mysterious powers. “I told you I was planning a party for you. The Princess said it had to be a private party because of the murderous madponies trying to kill you, and switching it to Canterlot at the last minute was really difficult, but it was worth it!” I opened my mouth to ask one of several thousand questions, but she didn’t give me a chance. “And I got you a present!”

She pulled out a long thin something wrapped in bright pink paper. Silent with disbelief I opened it. It was exactly what I expected, though I had no idea how. “My staff? How did you get this?”

“Oh, I know some ponies,” she replied with a smile.

This could only end badly. “Who?” I asked, fearfully.

Pinkie just giggled, but Applejack rolled her eyes and came to my rescue. “After playing stalkin’ horse for ya, we went to Lyra’s and convinced her to tell us where y’all went. This morning, we rode in on the early train and stopped by Bon-bon’s house to look for y’all. You’n Rarity weren’t there, but Bon-bon was, and madder than a wet hen! It took some doin’, but thanks to Lyra, she calmed down an’ let us in. They’re both here in the castle under the Princess’s protection, and we picked up the stuff y’all left behind.”

“Not cool, by the way,” Rainbow growled. “Leaving all of us behind so you and Rarity could go be the heroes! You should’ve given me a shot at those Orderlies. It woulda been like, pow, bam! Dodge, punch! And I’d have taken out like a dozen of them.”

I couldn’t help grinning as I informed her, “Rarity took out more than two dozen.”

“What?” Rainbow yelped, zooming over to her friend to press her for the details.

“Might we begin feasting on the tasty confections?” Luna asked, her hungry expression back. “A party hath started, has it not?”

“Sure!” Pinkie giggled. The princess of night wasted no time taking her up on that offer, snatching one up to take an enormous bite. Only after crumbs began to spill from her mouth as she blissfully chewed did she remember that little thing called manners. Her mouth slowed and Luna self-consciously brushed herself clean. Her next bite was small, dainty and regal, but you could tell she still wanted to just dive right in. It was difficult not to laugh, but somehow I managed. Then, an unpleasant thought wiped the smile off my face.

“Are we sure those are safe?” I asked. “The order has been slipping stuff into everything they can get their grubby little hooves on.” And a Bon-bon who was still pissed at me was in the castle, after a chance to pick up certain … ingredients from her house.

“Don’t worry,” Celestia said, levitating one to herself and taking a dainty bite. “I checked them myself. Here.” With a moment of consideration, she chose a cupcake and floated it over to me. “Have one,” she suggested without even a trace of malice in her voice.

That and her beatific smile only served to unnerve me further. I knew in bold print that she was unhappy with me. This wasn’t just an assumption based on what we’d said in our last conversation; it was a gut feeling that went right to the core of me. The Princess was relieved and happy at Twilight’s safe return, but I had not just sent her babysitters off into danger, I’d also disobeyed her. For a good cause, true, and I had no doubt that she could see why it made sense, but still, I had crossed her.

I’m a terrible poker player. Despite my best efforts to conceal that train of thought, Celestia read me like an open book. Her smile relaxed into something less picturesque and more personal. One enormous wing and unfolded to gently pat me on the back. “Don’t worry, wizard. Though there will be consequences for your actions, they won’t be as terrible as you seem to fear. Besides, that is a matter for later. Right now, we have a party to enjoy!” With that, she left me still holding the cupcake, and uncertain what to do. Pinkie was jabbering away a mile a minute about one thing or another with Applejack, Rainbow was trying to badger Rarity into a hoof-wrestling contest, Fluttershy was playing with Mouse, and Spike was sticking to Twilight with all the attachment of a puppy.

Everything over the past twenty-four hours had been one emergency after another. Maybe the Princess was right. Maybe it was time for break, time to let the guards take care of the problem and relax. Maybe I didn’t have to be the hero, just this once.

It wouldn’t happen. As much as I’d like to just forget about the Order, I knew they wouldn’t give up this easily. They were coming back in one way or another, and I doubted they would be worried about collateral damage this time.

Still, I took a bite of the cupcake. Flavor exploded on my tongue and I almost let out a moan of ecstasy. Damn, these ponies could bake! The rest of the pastry disappeared just as quickly and I wondered if I should try another. Just to make sure the entire batch was this good, of course.

I moved into the fray, grinning. There might have been a group of insane, slightly-to-moderately amoral zealots who wanted nothing less than my body swinging from the nearest lamppost, but you know what? Screw ’em. I’d handle those idiots when they popped their ugly little cowls out of hiding. Until then, I was going to have a good time with my friends.

Chapter Seventeen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Seventeen

Applejack fought down a yawn big enough to let anypony in the throne room count her molars. She had a hard time keeping it in, but somehow or other, she managed. She glanced around as sneakily as she could, trying to make sure nopony had noticed. Nopony had, but her frantic glancing around turned a few heads, which made her flush.

Of course, she and her friends all had front row seats. Thankfully, the whole thing wasn’t too formal. She hadn’t had to wear a dress or do her mane up. The Element of Honesty did twinkle at her throat, but that was one bit of fanciness she didn’t mind. Applejack snorted. She’d have bet her last bit that none of those fancy ponies in the crowd would have recognized her without it. She bit back another yawn and tried to shake the cobwebs out of her head.

It wasn’t really her fault she was yawning, though. Not only had the whole gang stayed up late last night, but Princess Luna had insisted that the Court of Night be the place for awarding Dresden his medal. Work on the farm meant getting to bed early, and right now her internal clock was telling her that bedtime was long past.

“− and it is an honor, a singular honor indeed, to speak at the ceremony of such a hero as Mr. Blackstone. Far too often, ponies will choose what is easy over what is necessary, but among us sits a pony who refused to do such a thing. A pony who knows better−”

Then again, Applejack mused. I’d likely be yawning through this windbag’s speech any time a’ day. Applejack had a low opinion of politicians, the Mayor of Ponyville excepted, and this slick-haired unicorn wasn’t doing much to change her mind. Bronze Tongue was only supposed to get ten minutes, but his empty chatter made every one of them seem like an hour. Some stuffed-saddle who called herself a noble had already spoken, and her speech had been just as long and pretentious.

Applejack suspected most of these ponies couldn’t have been entertaining if they were getting paid, but the dullness was also because they didn’t know much about why Dresden was getting a medal in the first place. That brought a smile to Applejack’s face for the first time in almost an hour. She had been present when Luna had briefed the speechmakers at lunch.

………


“− and I must say again, your Highness that I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to speak at such an august occasion.” Bronze Tongue drew in his breath ready to continue rambling, the same way he had been for the past five, but Dresden used the momentary lapse to interject in a stage whisper to Twilight.

“August? Wasn’t it June when he started talking?”

Most of the ponies at the table chuckled, and even Bronze joined in after a second. Countess Well Bred gave a polite titter, but the laughter never touched her cold eyes. Lt. Surge, the guardspony that Dresden had sent off on a wild goose chase, just glared. That was pretty much how he’d acted the entire meal, except when he took a time-out to trade scowls with Rainbow Dash.

Luna finished off another parfait with a flourish of her spoon and smiled benignly, as though she hadn’t noticed either Bronze’s blather or Dresden’s wisecracking. “We are most pleased to host this luncheon, all the more so because all three of you answered our summons.” Countess Well murmured her thanks, and Surge kept glaring. Bronze opened his mouth to launch into a fresh monologue, but Luna cut off him smoothly. “We sought your attendance to ask a favor. Blackstone, our guest of honor, shall be awarded a medal this evening and we are hopeful that each of thee could orate upon the occasion.”

“Most certainly, your Highness,” Countess Well offered. “Though, I must confess I have heard little of Mister Blackstone,” Applejack frowned at the subtle stress she had put on ‘Mister’, but the noblemare had already moved on. “I would love to hear more about him.” She tittered slightly. “It would, after all, be rather difficult to speak about somepony I scarcely know anything about.” Bronze nodded in agreement, leaning forward like a colt expecting a cookie. Lt. Surge just grumbled.

“Oh, oh, oh!” Pinkie shouted waving one of her hooves in the air like a schoolfilly trying to answer a teacher’s question. “Pick me, I know about Blackstone!”

“That you do,” Rarity interjected quickly, “but perhaps we should let our friend speak for himself.”

Applejack nodded, breathing a small sigh of relief, as Pinkie pouted, but slid back into her seat. The farmpony knew better than to open her mouth. Keeping things secret wasn’t an easy trick for her. Bronze and the Countess watched both ponies with interest, one of them openly curious, the other calculating.

Dresden chuckled. “Not much to tell. I’m a private investigator and occasional consultant for magical crimes. As far as my personal life goes, I have a dog and cat and enjoy reading. Fiction, mostly. The medal is for helping out during that mess a couple months ago.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Hell, those six deserve more recognition for it than I do. They did more than half the work.”

“Really?” Bronze asked. “So just what did you do? The only thing I heard about that incident was that some crazy pony tried to kidnap the Elements of Harmony.”

“That’s all you’re going to hear,” Lt. Surge barked, drawing shocked stares and glares from everypony at the table, but he didn’t waver until Princess Luna frowned at him. Under her stare, he unbent just enough to add, “It’s classified information.”

“So what do you know about it, buddy?” Dash asked challengingly.

Lt. Surge’s ears laid back in annoyance. “Nothing. I don’t even know what level of clearance you need for it. I suspect that there are only three or four ponies outside of those directly involved who know what actually happened.” He cast another glare at Dresden. “Assuming certain ponies know how to keep their mouths shut, that is.”

“You’re awfully cute when you’re angry,” Dresden replied with a mocking smirk. The tension in the room skyrocketed as the two stared each other down. The rest of the table was silent. Reactions ran the gamut from Fluttershy’s uncertain confusion to Luna’s icy glare.

The sound of a throat being cleared broke the silence. Twilight’s frown was mild, but Applejack could tell she was repressing a stronger emotion. “Lieutenant Blue Surge, I’m told that you and Blackstone didn’t meet or part on the best of terms, but he has saved not only my life, but the lives of my friends as well. He did that voluntarily, without expectation of reward or prestige, at great risk to his own life. I’m not asking you to like him, but you will respect him.”

Lt. Surge’s scowl grew deeper and he almost – almost – replied with something heated. Applejack didn’t know what he would’ve said, but her hackles rose all the same. “Yes ma’am,” he finally replied.

“Indeed,” Luna added, her eyes still cold as a winter night. “We were most doubtful when our sister suggested that thou shouldst speak for the Royal Guard. Do not prove us correct.”

The quiet afterwards was disturbed only by the sound of Pinkie eating popcorn as she watched with unashamed interest. Applejack didn’t know what the flimsy-looking glasses were for, or why one of the lenses was red and the other one blue, but where Pinkie was involved, she’d stopped questioning things like that a long time ago.

“Yes, your Highness,” Lt. Surge said through clenched teeth, his ears folded submissively.

“And you need to stop baiting ponies,” Twilight told Dresden.

“Yes ma’am,” Dresden said with a smile.

“So…” Bronze said trying to ease the conversation back on track. “The rest of the information is classified? If we don’t know anything about Mister Blackstone, or what he has done, it will be quite difficult to write a speech about him.”

Applejack almost found herself nodding. That was a fair question. One that she had wondered about herself.

A secretive grin flashed across Luna’s face before she changed it to a much more modest smile. “We suppose thou must get creative, then.”

………

Applejack frowned faintly at the memory. All three of the speechmaking ponies were more than a mite self-important, but she understood their frustration. She didn’t like keeping secrets any more than they liked not knowing them.

Her family had only gotten the basic details: Trixie went crazy with power and kidnapped Spike, and they had gone to rescue him and almost bitten off more than they could chew. Granny had just been relieved that her granddaughter was home safe and more-or-less sound. Apple Bloom had been full of all sorts of questions, but with Big Mac’s help, she had convinced their younger sister it wasn’t the sort of story she could share with anypony.

Big Mac might have worked out more than a few of the details she left out, though. He was sharp like that, even if he didn’t seem like it at first glance. He never brought the topic up again, which was a relief to Applejack. It didn’t make the guilt of keeping the whole story from her family any lighter, but it kept her from thinking about it as often.

She understood why she couldn’t tell them; that wasn’t something she questioned. The moment Apple Bloom learned about other worlds and Faeries and all that stuff, she’d run off to earn her ‘Faerie Catcher’ or ‘Other World Explorer’ Cutie mark. And if she ever found a way into the Nevernever, which she just might, given her single-minded determination, she would get herself killed.

Applejack shivered. She had fought monsters. Manticores sometimes came out of the forest, and Timberwolves were a constant around Zap Apple Season. She’d climbed a mountain to tussle with that red dragon and followed Spike into the Diamond Dog mines to save her friend. She’d even stood up to Luna, Trixie, and Dresden when they’d been possessed, and they were scarier than anything the Everfree forest could serve up. Applejack knew it wasn’t bragging to call herself brave.

But Dresden had said, and the Princesses had agreed, that none of the things they’d faced even came close to some of the stuff lurking out there. Not that everything outside of Equestria was evil, of course. Dresden was more than enough proof of that. But Applejack didn’t want to meet even one of his unfriendly ‘neighbors’.

This wasn’t some ‘surprise party’ kind of secret. This was knowledge that needed to be kept locked away for the safety of Equestria. If everypony knew about the Nevernever, it wouldn’t even take a bad pony to use that knowledge. Just somepony who was curious or overconfident, and Equestria had more than its share of those. Applejack wasn’t keeping things from anypony out of spite or malice. She was doing it to protect both them and the entire country.

If only that actually did something to ease her conscience.

“Thank you for your speech, Minister Bronze,” Celestia said, interrupting Applejack’s wandering train of thought. The Princess then led the hall in a round of polite applause. Applejack doubted the long-winded politician would have gotten even that without the Princess’s example. “The final speech will be given by Lieutenant Blue Surge of the Air Combat Elites.”
Lt. Surge walked up to the podium, his face blank as stone. He bowed to Celestia, and she drew back to let him speak.

“Until two days ago I had never heard of Blackstone. My only contact with him was during what is now termed the Order Incident.” There was a soft murmur at that. The public had gotten the bare bones of the story, the Order coming back and stealing Twilight away, but Applejack figured most of the ponies in this room knew a little more than what was in the newspapers. Still, they seemed surprised to hear Dresden’s name connected to it. Applejack wondered if anypony other than her friends and the Princesses knew that Dresden was the real target.

Not waiting for the noise to die down, Lt. Surge continued. “Less than an hour after Princess Celestia received news of Twilight Sparkle’s disappearance I was given my orders. My squad was to assist a unicorn named Blackstone in his investigations and see to it that the remaining Elements of Harmony were guarded. I pride myself on knowing every officer in the Royal Guard, both those above and below me in rank. I knew, therefore, that Blackstone was not a military pony. However, he was described as powerful, stubborn and eccentric. Commander Mason told me that the description came from Princess Celestia, but I had my doubts. I found it far more likely that this ‘Blackstone’ was the arrogant son of somepony important, looking to use this tragedy to advance his own agenda. When I arrived in Ponyville and discovered he had left the remaining Elements alone except for one he had taken into danger with him, my opinion of him sank even lower. Then I met him.”

He paused to sip from a glass of water on the podium. A few of the audience members looked insulted at the mention of an ‘arrogant son’, but an equal number looked amused. Applejack frowned as she inspected the audience. There was something odd about everypony gathered here, but she couldn’t put her hoof on it.

“That did not improve my opinion of him, either. He burst into the Twilight Sparkle’s home like he owned the building, and his first words were an insult directed at both me and my entire squad. Blackstone claimed that his investigations had turned up a valuable lead. I ordered him to stay put with the Elements and I left a group of guards to protect them. The lead proved false, and on our return, I found all of the ponies I’d left behind unconscious and bound. The ponies I had been sent to protect were missing without a trace. It was not until much later that I discovered that Blackstone had intentionally provoked me, then lied about his lead. Once he had tricked me into leaving him behind, he convinced the remaining Elements to assist him in his plan. They subdued my soldiers and left to follow his real lead.”

In Applejack’s opinion, that re-telling was more than a mite biased in favor of the pony making the speech. Rainbow Dash was muttering something under her breath, and judging by Fluttershy’s blush, it was rude. Rarity was eyeing Lt. Surge with just a bit of scorn. Twilight looked impassive, but her jaw was clenched tight and her stare was too intense for somepony just interested in the speech. Pinkie was asleep, same as she had been since three minutes into the first speaker.

“Blackstone is reckless, flippant and overconfident. Despite that, he is also powerful, brave and more cunning than anypony would expect. There is no doubt in my mind he has earned this medal. However, I am surprised that he did not get himself, or anypony else, killed in the process. Twilight Sparkle told me that he saved her life, and I believe her. It is probably clear that I do not like Blackstone, nor do I approve of his methods. Do not think that blinds me to the good he has done for Equestria. I appreciate the ends, even if I deplore his means. Thank you.”

Applejack blinked, uncertain whether to be thankful for the short speech or ticked off at Lt. Surge’s description of the day’s events. After a moment’s thought, she decided there was no reason she couldn’t be both. Luna had come down solidly on the angry side, though she hid it pretty well. Celestia seemed as impassive as always, but one corner of her mouth tugged upwards just a fraction. Dresden didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Instead, he seemed to be staring at the rest of the audience with the same expression she would give a smiling timber wolf. Applejack craned her neck to look behind her. Whatever she had thought was off with the crowd, he had noticed it too.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Blue Surge,” Princess Celestia said, once again starting a round of applause. This was a bit more hesitant, but most ponies joined eventually.

The stamping was deeper, heavier, than it would have been at most events. Applejack’s eyes flitted across the audience, just a mix of stallions and mares, maybe a little heavy on the stallions…

Wait one minute, she thought. It was actually a lot heavy on the stallions. That wouldn’t have been too surprising if it were just the Royal Guard, where the normal population imbalance was actually reversed in favor of males, but among nobles and politicians too? Most politicians were mares, and that went double for nobles, who preferred a female heir. Twilight had even pointed out a few of them who were known for their magical abilities or research. It had gone over Applejack’s head, but now, that seemed important for some reason.

“And so, we come to the crux of this ceremony. Mister Blackstone, would you please approach the podium?”

Then there was everypony’s age. Most ponies present were only a decade or so older than her and her friends, and anypony beyond that was either a grizzled veteran or a unicorn, often both.

Applejack might not have gotten a fancy education, but she had plenty of common sense. Right now it was trying to tell her something, if she could just figure it out. She settled back into her seat at the same time as everypony else, her mind still chugging away at the problem.

Dresden’s eyes lit up with understanding, and a troublemaker’s grin flashed across his face. It was gone in a second, but Applejack was certain he’d figured it out. She peeked at the audience behind her again, scanning young faces and heavy bodies.

The answer struck her before Dresden even reached the podium. This whole darn ceremony’s a setup, she realized. The Princesses knew those Order ponies wouldn’t pass up a shot at Dresden, and the entire audience is made of ponies who can fight! We’re even wearing the Elements of Harmony.

Applejack’s mind raced, running off on tangents as the excitement of the realization washed away her fatigue. Shoot, they probably talked about some of the security around the palace on purpose, letting the Order figure out the best way to attack. It was one of the oldest hoofball tactics in the book. Leave an obvious weakness, and you know exactly where the other team will try to break through. They’re letting them think they’ve actually got a shot before catching ‘em in the act. It ain’t like they’d have a crowd of innocent bystanders to worry ‘bout. Most of these ponies probably even been through a tour or two with the Guard.

Part of her was annoyed that she hadn’t even suspected anything until now, but the rest of her was hopeful those crazy ponies would actually try. After what they’d put everypony through, she was looking forward to giving them a piece of her mind, and a couple of her hooves, too.

A quick nudge got Twilight’s attention at the price of her scowl. “What?” Twilight whispered.

“Get ready for a fight. I think the Order’s gonna try somethin’. Wake up Pinkie and pass it on,” Applejack hissed, trying to keep an eye out for anypony acting suspicious.

Twilight’s jaw started to fall open, but she quickly took control of herself. “Thanks,” Twilight murmured, leaning over to rouse Pinkie Pie. She seemed to have a lid on everything, but Applejack did notice a lock of purple hair spring wildly out of place.

Dresden mounted the dais and Luna followed him to the podium, holding a velvet box in her aura. Fancy clothes weren’t Applejack’s kinda thing, but she had to admit the outfit Rarity had put together for him looked mighty spiffy. His coat had needed some cleaning, but it was spotless now. That dark red shirt he was wearing underneath suited him pretty well, too. The manecut made her want to laugh, not just because it looked silly on him, but also because of the way they’d had to practically drag him into the salon. He was almost as bad as Dash.

Princess Luna started speaking next, her voice set on ‘booming’ again. “It is with our utmost gratitude and respect that we confer upon Blackstone one of the highest honors the Court of Night can bequeath: The Bright Star of Bravery.” With that she opened the box and everypony in the room gave a small gasp of wonder. Nestled within the velvet box was not a piece of metal, stone, or crystal worked into the shape of a star. It was a tiny glowing orb of the purest, softest white light Applejack had ever seen. A real star.

Dresden took the box gently, wonder etched into his face. He usually acted like he had seen it all, but right now, he was as awestruck as anypony else.

The Princess of Night’s voice dropped to something more personal. Most of the room couldn’t hear her, but Applejack was close enough to catch it. “We are afraid it is not the sort of accolade one might pin upon your chest, yet we believe the greatest honor should consist of more than metal and cloth.” Luna smiled mysteriously, softly shutting the lid of the box. She gestured to the podium and stepped back towards her seat with Celestia.

Dresden got the message clearly enough, gulping as he delicately set the box on the podium. “Thank you,” he began, without a trace of his usual joking. He took a deep breath, like a swimmer preparing themselves for a plunge.

Then the lights went out.

Instantly, or close enough not to make much difference, Dresden’s pentacle lit up. So did the horns of just about every unicorn in the place. Princess Celestia had raised a light of her own, though Luna seemed just as comfortable in the dark. A low murmur rose among the audience, but nopony was panicking. The Princesses’ gamble had paid off. Instead of a frantic mob, the audience was calm and alert.

Applejack nodded in approval, trying to keep an eye out for bad guys. She glanced at the stage and everypony on it. The podium was in front of a wide window. Instead of stained glass, like the throne room, this one was clear, made for viewing the night sky outside. At least, that’s what it normally did. Right now, with all the moving lights, it was showing a distorted reflection of the room.

Applejack tried in vain to see past the glare, but then she saw something in that mirror that didn’t belong. Something huge, malformed and just plain wrong was rising out of Dresden’s shadow. It was bipedal, like Dresden’s real shape, but that’s where their similarities ended. Its shoulders were too broad, and the head was a lumpy mass that barely even had a neck. Like a zombie pulling itself out of the grave, it staggered upright. If the towering thing wasn’t eight feet tall, it wasn’t for lack of trying, yet its arms still almost reached the ground. Applejack opened her mouth to give Dresden a warning, but it moved so darned fast. The shout died in her throat, and it wasn’t the only one. Every sound in the room guttered out like a candle in the wind as the thing opened its jagged mouth.

Out of nowhere, a new sensation swept over and through her like an irresistible tide.

Hatred.

Cold, precise, unrelenting hatred. It was an emotion that didn’t have any reason, any decision, any motivation behind it. It was simply, unquestionably evil. Applejack’s stomach twisted on itself and she came close to violently losing her dinner. From what she could see in the dim light, not everypony was as lucky, including poor Rarity. And still there was no sound, not even her own heartbeat.

Every inch of the country mare felt stained just to stand in this thing’s presence. Hay, just knowing something like it even existed was enough to make bile rise at the back of her throat. There wasn’t any recovering from this. There was no balm or ointment that could heal a defiled soul. Whatever that thing was, whatever magic it had, she didn’t stand a chance. She was already soiled just by feeling its greasy touch.

It was tyranny, corruption, and treachery given form, an endless void of despair, cruelty and greed. The Elements of Harmony were worse than useless against this thing. The necklace around her throat was a dead weight, an anchor that dragged down even as it choked the life from her.

There was no point in resisting, no point in even trying to fight the thing. It was a darkness so vast, so old and powerful and terrifying that there was no possible way she and her pathetic friends could hope to beat it. How could she believe Harmony was even possible, anymore?

The bond she had shared with her friends was broken.

They were broken.

It had won.

That’s a lie!

Warmth spread through her body, starting from a small point on her chest. In the darkness her necklace gleamed brightly. Applejack shook her head, driving out the horror and despair that had overwhelmed her.

Maybe this demon really is that bad, but it don’t matter. You ain’t lost until you’ve given up. We ain’t even started fighting yet!

Small sparks lit the inside of her friends’ Elements has they fought against the creeping darkness. Everypony struggled to free themselves, as righteous anger began to replace helplessness.

Less than five seconds had passed since the demon had first appeared.

A thin shape that might have been a tail, or maybe a tentacle, snapped forward to impale Dresden’s left foreleg. His mouth opened in what looked like a scream of pain, but no sound came out. Applejack stared at the sight. In the murky mirror, the demon could be seen, but looking at Dresden directly, there was nothing but a thin hole in her friend’s body. The limb moved suddenly, dangling Dresden by the impaled leg. It hung him close to the lump that might have been its head, and its mouth began moving.

“I told you our business was unfinished, little mortal,” the demon said in a calm Trottingham accent. “None can escape He Who Walks Behind.”

It twisted, throwing Dresden into the window behind them. The window must have been reinforced, because instead of crashing through it and falling to his death, Dresden just slammed into the glass and collapsed.

That’s when the dawn came.

A light as strong and beautiful as the morning sun erupted from Celestia’s horn, banishing the darkness and outlining the hideous thing in a stark black outline. Applejack almost wished it had remained a half-seen reflection in the window. Now, its hideous, deformed features were clear as day. She hadn’t noticed the glowing violet eyes, the disgusting fungal fur, or the mouth that stretched across its entire head. It turned to face Celestia, but as it did, blue-black cords sprang from its own shadow, dragging it to the ground. The horrible, sickening pressure eased, and sound returned to the room. Applejack had expected to hear screaming, but most ponies only whimpered.

The demon seemed unconcerned with its apparent helplessness, even going so far as to chuckle. “Ah, so this is the realm you call home now. Do these pathetic mortals even know what you truly are?”

Princess Celestia, on the other hoof, was not laughing. For the first time Applejack had seen, or even heard of, she was furious. Fire danced in her eyes and licked across her coat. There was power in her, the kind of power that formed worlds and ground mountains to dust. Luna stood on the demon’s other side, mist pouring off her body, frost forming where her hooves touched the floor. Together they stood tall, resolute, and unshakable.

“This is not your place, Dark One. What fool gave you permission to enter?” Princess Celestia’s voice hummed with power and everything in the room thrummed in response. Applejack’s hair stood on end from the sheer authority her Princess carried.

The demon, however, wasn’t impressed. “All places will be ours in time.” Its head twisted with unnatural crack to stare at Luna. “Tell me, Mistake, has exile erased the hatred you feel for your precious sister, even though she still outshines you?”

Luna didn’t answer, but the temperature in the room dropped several degrees. Shards of blackness, equal parts ice and shadow, burst from ground beneath the demon, stabbing through its body. There was no blood from the wounds, making the demon look more like some sort of unnatural pincushion than any real creature. The sight was enough to make Applejack gag again, but the thing didn’t even flinch.

Princess Celestia growled and as she stepped forward, resting a hoof clad in molten, shifting gold only inches from the demon’s neck. Her hoof hovered over where the hollow of a pony’s throat would be. Her threat was crystal clear, but she vocalized it anyway.

“Tell me, or I will return you to the foul pit that spawned you. Who brought you here?”

It grinned, and Applejack could see what looked like oily sludge dripping from long, serrated teeth. Far, far too many teeth. “You have grown powerful, but no matter how strong you become, you will never be a true immortal.” Too quickly to see, its neck lengthened and twisted. Nightmarish teeth latched onto Celestia’s leg and tore into her.

Princess Celestia, the undimmed daystar and sovereign of Equestria, screamed. It was a sound of near primal pain and rage. Her other hoof flashed downwards like lightning, smashing the demon’s head to the floor. Its skull shattered in a thunderous detonation that rattled the huge window. The room fell silent as the echoes of the strike slowly died out.

“Wow…”

Applejack didn’t know who said that, but she sure as sugar agreed with them. The body of the demon transformed into some kind of clear jelly that spilled across the floor. Rarity and Fluttershy weren’t the only ponies to jump on their chairs with a squeak of fright. Applejack was half considered the same response, when the transparent substance began to evaporate, fading away like fog under the rising sun. The lights flickered back on with a static-y sound of the magic reactivating.

Then Princess Celestia fell to her knees, her breathing labored.

“Princess!” Twilight screamed, and she wasn’t the only pony yelling it either. She rushed forward and Applejack followed close on her hooves. The room was full of noise now and full-blown panic seemed close at hoof.

“Calm thyselves!” Luna demanded, her voice a powerful roar. “Soldiers of the Royal Guard, gird thyselves for battle. The Order may seek to capitalize upon the damage this foulness hath wrought. Alert your brethren and ready the castle! We shall deliver our sister and Blackstone to the infirmary.”

A few ponies were still frantic, but most of the room and almost all of the Royal Guard responded to the authority in her voice. The soldiers fanned out to follow Luna’s orders. The Princess of Night nodded, clearly satisfied with their actions. Twilight had pressed herself to Celestia’s side, tears streaming down her purple muzzle, when Luna’s horn flashed and the world disappeared.

Applejack’s poor stomach, already queasy from the sickening presence of the demon, decided that a sudden teleport was the last straw. As soon as the group blinked back into existence, it rebelled. Thankfully, there was a garbage can nearby.

Her heaves distracted Applejack for a moment, but the smell of antiseptic hit the moment they stopped, barely overpowering the coppery scent of blood. The farm pony raised her head, blinking blearily. They were in the infirmary, and Celestia was already laying back in an over-large bed. Doctors were crowding into the room with nurses watching fearfully from the door. All of the physicians were speaking at once as they began their work.

“We’ve got to get clean the wound first. Nurse Test, get me−”

“This is horrible! What could have−”

“That black substance is everywhere, we need to−”

“Do not touch it!” Princess Celestia shouted, freezing one of the doctors in place. Her hoof was less than an inch from the oily sludge still coating the wound.

“Your Highness,” the doctor replied hesitantly. Her tone was respectful, but it was obvious she disagreed with the order. “With all due respect, we must clean this contamination out of the wound. Everypony here is wearing gloves. We can use magic to draw it out if necessary, but without knowing what it is, we risk an adverse reaction to your system.”

Celestia gave an exhausted chuckle. “That would be a very mild description of what it would do. Anypony who touches this, no matter what they wrap their hooves in, will die. Only my sister and I may cleanse this wound, and it will not be easy. Draw the curtain, we will be finished soon. You can tend to me then.”

Before any protest could be made, a midnight blue aura seized everypony around the bed and pulled them away. Luna strode forward, not bothering with the curtain. She erected a hemisphere of darkness to surround them.

There was a silent moment as everypony anxiously stared at the dark barrier.

“You know,” a gruff voice said from the other side of the room, “I would love some help fixing this dislocated shoulder, if you’re not too busy.”

Dresden! Applejack had almost forgotten her injured friend in all the excitement over Celestia. He was lying on a more modestly sized bed, grimacing in pain. Blood trickled from the wound on his foreleg. The white cloth he was pressing to it was already stained deep crimson.

The doctors glanced at each other uncertain what to do for a moment. Then one of them shrugged and the entire group mobbed Dresden. The black unicorn yelped as they descended upon him, then switched to a string of half-muttered, half-shouted curses.

Twenty minutes. Only twenty minutes ago Applejack’s biggest worry had been boredom. Since then, the ceremony had been wrecked, Dresden had been attacked, and the Princess had been wounded, maybe poisoned too. How had things gone so wrong so quickly?

Twilight’s tears had dried, but she still glanced nervously between the black shield around her mentor’s bed and the crowd of doctors around Dresden’s. Fluttershy was trying to comfort Twilight, stroking her mane and murmuring reassurances. The shy mare’s red-rimmed eyes said that she had been crying too, but she hadn’t let that stop her.

Rarity seemed to be in shock. The doctors had cut away that fancy coat she had worked so hard on and thrown it by the wayside. There was a clear hole, stained with blood where the demon had impaled his arm. Rarity stared sadly at it, mumbling to herself. “I told him not to alter his coat after I finally got it clean again. Would it – would it have changed anything if I had let him? Did I do this to him?”

Pinkie was trying to keep the fashionista’s spirits high even though it was clear hers were just as low. She’d already prepared a ‘Secret Farewell’ party for tomorrow morning, but Dresden had nearly had a more permanent farewell less than an hour ago.

Rainbow, in contrast, was livid. She stalked back and forth, seething. It was a reaction that Applejack could understand. The more her shock faded, the more time she had to think about what those Order yahoos had done. Anger bloomed bright and hot inside her. Until now, she’d been at the sidelines of everything. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe her friends, but craziness on the level of these crackpots was pretty darn hard to swallow.

Applejack had thought all this nonsense was a bunch of ponies who were long on spirit but short on brains latching onto a stupid idea. That thing, though, smashed that into dust. Nothing good could come from a monster like that. These crazies just wanted to kill, and they didn’t care who got hurt in the process. Her blood started to boil at the very thought. If Dash went off looking for trouble, she wouldn’t be doing it alone.

Before either pony could do anything more than stew, the dark barrier around Princess Celestia’s bed dropped, revealing two exhausted alicorns. Luna only looked like she needed a good night’s (or maybe day’s) sleep. Celestia didn’t look half so good.

The Princess of Day was worn and weary, like she’d gone days with no food and little water. Her face was thin, and there were bags beneath her eyes. Instead of majestic, snowy white, her coat was a sallow ivory. Her mane still had all of its colors, but it only hung limply. For once in her reign, Celestia no longer seemed ageless. She looked like a mountain finally worn down to a bleak crag by time and rain.

She looked old.

Despite what had to be terrible pain, she smiled. “Thank you for your patience. I’m ready to be treated.” The Princess lifted her torn leg, the gruesome injury making Applejack’s stomach turn again. With an effort, she kept herself from being sick. The only good thing about the sight was that the black ooze was gone, not a speck remaining.

Without hesitation, most of the doctors abandoned Dresden and rushed to surround Princess Celestia. The only pony left at his bed was a younger doctor wrapping the damaged foreleg in bandages. Rainbow eyed the physician suspiciously. Applejack’s first thought was that Dresden’s paranoia had rubbed off on her, but it made sense. After all, it isn’t paranoia if there really is somepony out to get you.

“We shall take our leave,” Luna announced, this time at a reasonable volume. The doctors didn’t even look up, but she had the attention of everypony else. “We must assure everypony that our sister yet lives and organize a hunt for the ponies responsible for this atrocity.” Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but with a whisper of magic, Luna was gone.

There was nothing to do now but wait. Fortunately, Dresden’s treatment didn’t take long. “There,” the medical mare said with an air of satisfaction as she finished tying the final knot. “Now don’t get it wet, or move it too much. I’ll be back with a sling for that in just a minute.”

“And then I can get out of here?” Dresden growled.

The doctor frowned, her expression becoming exasperated. “You can’t walk with a wound like that. You’re lucky that none of your tendons or ligaments were permanently damaged. Not to mention the stress of a dislocated shoulder or your older injuries. I’m ordering you to stay at least one night, though a full week would be for the best. If you have to leave tomorrow, you’ll use a wheelchair and return in a week to get those stitches checked out.”

Dresden grumbled something that could have been mistaken for consent. The doctor trotted off, apparently satisfied. The moment she was gone, Pinkie, Twilight, and Fluttershy all rushed Dresden.

“Are you okay?” all three of them asked at once at three different volumes. Despite the circumstances Applejack almost laughed as Dresden was overwhelmed by her friends.

“Ahem,” Rarity interrupted. “Perhaps we should give him some space to breathe?” Fluttershy and Twilight each flushed and took a step back.

Pinkie had already hopped onto the bed next to him, and she just stared at the fashionista in confusion. “I’m not using up that much air, am I?”

Most ponies would have just gotten confused, but the five of them had been Pinkie’s friends long enough to just roll with it. Rarity shook her head and replied. “No, but I would suggest moving back a little anyway. You may jostle his wounded leg if you stay there.”

“And it will make getting this sling on him more difficult,” the doctor said as she returned, a navy blue sling floating in her telekinetic grip. She hurried past the bustling crowd around the Princess’s closed privacy curtain and made a motion to shoo Pinkie away. Pinkie pouted, but in the end she moved and the doctor went to work.

The murmuring from the other doctors began to quiet and in ones and twos they started to drift off. Applejack studied a few of them, but she didn’t get much. They didn’t seem especially happy or sad, just guarded. The farmpony couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or not.

“Twilight Sparkle?” one of the doctors, a heavyset earth stallion a little bit past middle age, asked.

“Yes?” Twilight replied, her voice tense. Applejack reached out and gave her friend a pat on the back. Whatever had happened, they would be there for her.

“The good news is that Princess Celestia’s life does not appear to be in danger. She’s sleeping right now and in a stable condition. Whatever that substance that coated her injury was, it’s all gone. Beyond that, it is only a normal, though savage, bite wound.” The room became silent, waiting for the other horseshoe to drop. “The bad news is that its magic already did quite a number on her, and whatever she did to remove it has left her exhausted.” He shook his head, and paused for a moment. “No, exhausted is the wrong word. Debilitated, maybe?”

“Long story short,” the younger doctor added without glancing away from Dresden, “the Princess is in a delicate condition and she needs rest. As much of it as she can get. And there will be a pair of doctors on standby for her.”

The aged earth stallion harrumphed at the interruption but didn’t move to correct his younger colleague. “Yes,” he continued. “Dr. Manner and I will be here for the first shift. Now that all the excitement is over, however, I’d like an explanation of what happened.” His impartial expression faded into a worried frown. “What in Equestria is capable of this?”

The room fell into awkward silence as everypony rushed to be the last to answer the question. Not just because Celestia wanted them to keep their traps shut about demons, either. Talking about that thing, even thinking about it, made what had happened feel real again. Applejack shuddered, and she wasn’t the only one.

Finally, Twilight cleared her throat and described the attack in a trembling voice. The explanation was swift and she was careful to report only the facts that anypony in the room could have shared, but it was still just as unpleasant as Applejack had feared. Fluttershy shook like a leaf and even Pinkie looked solemn, maybe even sickened, by the retelling.

The younger physician, Dr. Manner, shook her head. “I’d say that’s unbelievable if I wasn’t looking at the aftermath right here. Where did it come from?”

“I can’t say for certain, but I believe it was those Order Triune ruffians.” Rarity heaved a sigh of relief. “Unpleasant as the experience was, at least we won’t have to face a creature like that again.”

“Yeah!” Dash added. “The Princess kicked its butt good.” Applejack could see the fear beneath her friend’s bravado, but she didn’t say anything. She could feel the same terror still lurking in her own chest. “We won’t be seeing that jerk again!”

“Not quite,” Dresden said.

The two simple words sent a shudder up Applejack’s spine. She could see her own horror reflected in her friends’ eyes as they turned toward the black stallion. Dresden’s face was grim and grey. The last time Applejack had seen him this serious was in Trixie’s crazy castle of death. Now that she thought about it, there hadn’t just been fear and anger on Dresden’s face when that demon had appeared. There had been recognition, too.

“I told you our business was unfinished, little mortal,” it had said.

Dresden hesitated, then grunted. “Yeah, this is something you all need to hear. But not you two.” He shooed the two doctors away with one hoof.

“Excuse me,” Dr. Manner replied with a scowl. “Dr. Condition and I are not leaving.”

The well-padded earth stallion, Dr. Condition, hastened to relieve the growing tension in the room. “Please, both of you, be reasonable−”

“Yes, you are.” Dresden asserted, his glare fully leveled. “Information about the de− creature is a matter of national security. I’m under orders from Princess Celestia herself not to tell anypony about it.” Dr. Manner opened her mouth to respond, but Dresden cut her off. “Knowing more wouldn’t change her treatment, and I’m not kidding about it being a secret.”

“Who are you?” Dr. Condition asked, his eyes wide.

“A friend,” Fluttershy said, surprising everypony. She’d been so silent this whole time.

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said to the doctors. “He is right, though. If that thing was what I think it was, then it is secret. Could you go find that wheelchair for Blackstone?”

The doctors left with a couple grumbles, but they still left. Applejack glanced outside the door to the room to make sure they weren’t hanging around. There were a couple of guards stationed nearby, and more probably on the way, but that was it.

“They’re gone,” she announced, shutting the room’s heavy door and locking it, just in case.

“Spill already,” Dash demanded. “Whaddaya mean, ‘not quite’?”

“Have you met that meanie before?!” Pinkie said, almost shouting.

“So just what was that thing?” Twilight asked, her brow furrowed and expression concerned.

“Hold on,” Dresden said, making a calming motion with his uninjured hoof. “He Who Walks Behind is some kind of super hunter-demon that my... that somebody sent to kill me once.” Applejack cocked an eyebrow at the slip, but didn’t interrupt him. “It was years ago, and I was lucky to survive the encounter. Even then, he still marked me, and anyone with the Sight who looks at me can see that stain.”

“How did you ever endure such a thing?” Rarity asked breathlessly.

Dresden shrugged. “I got lucky. Like you saw, he gets off on playing with his victims. If he had just wanted me dead, I’d have been dead. No questions. The memory is kinda hazy from the head trauma he gave me, but I remember blowing up a gas station to stop him.” At everypony’s confused stares, he facehoofed. “Right. Point is, I set off several thousand gallons of highly flammable oil.”

“Shoot, how’d he survive that?” Applejack could hardly believe it was that tough.

“He didn’t,” Dresden said. “I tore the hell out of him, but that’s the problem. He isn’t like the Nightmare. That thing was part of this world. This guy is more like the quartz hornets that stung Pinkie back in Trixie’s castle. He’s from somewhere else, and somebody in this world plunked down the energy to bring him here.”

“So?” Dash demanded.

A fierce scowl met her words. “So, that’s not even his real form. Demons don’t have solid bodies in the real world. They’re more like a spirit wearing a body-shaped suit made of ectoplasm. Killing the body doesn’t actually destroy the demon, it just banishes them.”

“Which means,” Twilight gasped, her eyes sparking with horrified realization, “that thing can just come back if the Order invests enough energy again.”

The mood of the room plummeted as the news sunk in, but Dresden wasn’t done. “Not if. When. The only reason I got away with blowing him up the first time is because the person who sent him didn’t know I survived. I guarantee the Order is responsible for this, and they’ll know it failed. The only silver lining to all this is that summoning something as powerful as that bastard takes time. We should have a day or two before they can bring him back for Round Two.”

Suddenly there came the sounds of a scuffle from outside the room. One voice finally rose loud enough to be heard through the thick door. “I demand to be let through! I am an aide to her Highness, I need to see her! Princess Luna is suddenly giving orders, Princess Celestia is nowhere is to be seen, and the worst rumors are flying around. Let me into this room!”

“Sorry,” one guard growled not sounding as though he meant it in the slightest. “The Princess is recovering from the attack and nopony except her doctors are allowed in and out of that room.”

A purple aura rapidly unlocked the door and pulled it open. Two guards in heavy armor were blocking the door, preventing a tall, tan unicorn stallion with a disheveled green mane from entering. “It’s okay,” Twilight said, a strange expression on her face. “Let him in.”

The guards went silent in surprise. “Are you sure?”

The looks from everypony else in the room echoed the question, but Twilight nodded. “Quite sure.”

There was another moment of silence, but the guards moved aside to let him in. His eyes immediately zeroed in on the shrouded bed, but he stopped short of simply plowing through the curtain. Instead, he turned his attention to the pony that had invited him in. “Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. I don’t know if you recognize me, but I’m one of Princess Celestia’s aides, Novel Notion.”

“Oh, I recognize you all right,” Twilight snarled, her face suddenly contorting with fury. “You were the tall unicorn who visited me while I was locked up in the Order’s dungeon. I know your voice!”

Everypony is the room tensed at the accusation, but Novel’s face went blank with surprise. “I was what? In where?! I think you’ve got me confused with somepony else,” he said, scratching his green mane in confusion. The two guards had been about to jump him from behind, but at this they hesitated.

Twilight’s fury seemed to stumble in the face of his reply. “But … aren’t you? I was sure…”

Novel Notion shrugged. “You must be mistaken. If it was only a voice, are you really sure? I’ve been Princess Celestia’s aide for years! I’m not a part of any Order.”

Twilight flushed in shame and most of the group, though not Dresden, began to relax.

Applejack considered herself more than just a good judge of ponies. It wasn’t some kind of magic, like the Pinkie sense or Fluttershy’s stare, just some good instincts. And right now every one of them was telling her that this Novel Notion wasn’t on the level. Sure, he sounded good, his explanation made sense, but he had brought it out too readily. Everything from his surprise to his reply was so smooth that it had to be practiced. He was lying; Applejack would’ve bet the farm on it. Her vision clouded with red. “You think you’re mighty slick, don’tcha?” she demanded.

“Huh?”

The farmpony ignored the genuine shock on his face, moving in like a wolf. “You’re a good liar all right, one’a the best I’ve ever seen. An’ you might be Celestia’s aide, but I’m dead certain you’re member of the Order.” Everypony’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and the guards glanced uncertainly between Applejack and Novel Notion.

“What are you−” ‘Novel Notion’ began, but a reddish-orange aura grabbed his jaw and forced it open.

“Quick,” Dresden barked, his horn glowing brightly. “Check his mouth for one of those memory charms.”

“Must we?” Rarity whined, but Pinkie already had her muzzle nearly inside Novel’s mouth.

“Mhhmm hmm!” Novel yelled inarticulately, struggling against the magic holding his mouth in place. A purple glow froze the rest of his body, Twilight glaring daggers at him. Pinkie shoved a hoof in and started rummaging around, her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth in concentration.

“Found it!” she cried, holding up a tiny chip of wood like it was some kind of special treasure. Dresden held a hoof out, letting the aura around Novel’s jaw fade away. Pinkie tossed the wood chip to him, and though he fumbled the catch, it thankfully didn’t go far.

“Well, well, well,” Dresden said, grinning at the trapped unicorn. “If you aren’t a member of the Order, what are you doing with one of their memory charms?” The tan colt remained silent, but Applejack could see sweat beading on his forehead. “I’ve got some questions for you, Orderly.”

Twilight glanced at Dresden. “Orderly?”

The black unicorn nodded with a grin. “Why not? They both belong in a mental hospital.” A few groans and eye rolls met that joke, but Dresden ignored them. “You’re going to tell me everything I want to know.”

“And if I don’t?”

Dresden’s grin widened and his left eye started to twitch just a little. Whether he’d done that on purpose or not, Applejack felt a chill go down her spine. “Then I’m going to ask the girls to leave the room, and I’ll make you tell me.”

Shoot, Applejack thought. He ain’t bluffing. She knew Dresden could be a touch more rowdy than most ponies, but it was always a shock to be reminded just how scary he could be when he put his mind to it. Even as a pony, there was something dangerous and predatory in those fiery eyes.

Novel’s color changed from tan to cream as the blood drained from his face. “I hope you know that it is against the law to coerce information from anypony. Even convicted criminals are protected from cruel and inequine treatment.”

“Good thing I’ve got diplomatic immunity,” Dresden said, chuckling darkly.

Novel’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and he deflated like a leaky balloon. “I’ll talk,” he squeaked.

“Good,” Dresden nodded, his expression coming a few degrees closer to sane. “Fluttershy, could you check on that wheelchair? We’ve got places to be and new friends to make.”

He might have seemed pleased with the prospect, but somehow, Applejack doubted that any of these ‘new friends’ were going to be half so happy to make his acquaintance.

Chapter Eighteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Eighteen

Surprising no one, the Order had another base close to the castle. This one was higher on the mountain, located on the eastern slope, facing away from the city. Novel Notion had been happy, sort of, to tell me where it was and how to get inside. A warning about the guards in the room just past the entry hall would have been nice, though.

The room looked like some kind of staging area for troops. It was about the size of a basketball court, or maybe a little bigger, but not by much. Its spartan design and relatively low ceiling made me think it was a practical and efficient place, the kind of place that had never heard of ‘casual Fridays’. Getting here hadn’t been easy, and getting past the ponies guarding it was proving just as difficult.

Creak, creak.

Rainbow buried her hoof in another guard’s face. She didn’t have the room to build up speed, robbing her attack of most of its power. Rainbow didn’t let that stop her. The first blow was followed by three or four more all launched before the pegasus guard could react. He reeled back, stunned, and she followed with a pair of kicks that brought him down. Even in close quarters, her agility still gave her a ridiculous advantage.

Creak, creak.

One pegasus darted toward a back door. She was too far away for anyone to reach in time, even Rainbow, and just one door away from warning the entire hideout we were here. If that happened, best case scenarnio, Arcane Mind would bolt, rendering this whole trip pointless. Worst case, we would get overwhelmed, captured, and I would get lynched. She yanked open the door, already opening her mouth to belt out the alarm. Then there was an enormous bang, and she was thrown back into the room by a torrent of confetti and streamers.

“Surprise!” Pinkie shouted, gleefully bouncing on top of the stunned guard. She didn’t get long to celebrate her victory, though. A heavy earth pony charged her once he’d picked his jaw up off the floor. Pinkie squeaked in comically over-played fear and ducked into the hallway, shutting the door behind her. By the time he reopened it, she and her little ‘party cannon’ were gone... only for her to drop on top of him, dressed in a catsuit fit for a very strange James Bond flick. He tried to buck her off, but she pulled out a cowboy hat, put it on, and started riding like it was a rodeo.

Creak, creak.

A guard who was at least four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Applejack plowed right into her with a powerful body blow. She met the charge with one shoulder, sliding back with the screech of metal on stone, but her stance didn’t change as she held him back. The guard rose up to deliver a double-hooved stomp, but the farmpony slid to one side, dodging him easily. With a quick, practiced movement, her muscles bunched as she shifted her weight to her front hooves. Applejack unleashed a mule kick that had every ounce of her strength behind it. The guard turned, barely managing to catch her attack on his shoulder, but it still dented his armor and flung him halfway across the room. He wasn’t unconscious, but he sure as hell didn’t look eager to jump back into the fray.

Creak, creak.

Twilight was handling three unicorns at the same time, and for once getting a challenge. She was more powerful than any of them, but not laughably so, and all three easily outweighed her in combat experience. The purple mage was teleporting quickly and often to avoid their spells, but they weren’t too shabby at anticipating her moves. After several volleys back and forth, they had her surrounded. I was about to step in, when she disappeared again. I’ve seen cats that reacted more slowly than those guards. Each one spun around, horns already glowing with a new spell. They were ready to counter Twilight from any direction.

Then she reappeared about two inches to the left of her previous position, the one place none of them were facing. They didn’t last long after that.

Creak, creak.

Twilight took a breather, while Rarity began tying up the unicorns her friend had downed. We hadn’t waited for the fashionista to find more spider silk, so she was making do with some stout rope we’d found in the armory. Without warning, a midnight blue earth pony exploded out from behind one of her immobilized comrades, charging towards Twilight. She was fast, lightly armored, and Twilight hadn’t even begun to see it coming. There was nothing anyone could do as the speedy mare plowed into Twilight -- and passed straight through her. The surprised guard stumbled as she failed to meet the impact she had expected. The illusion continued to stand motionless behind her as the guard began to climb back to her hooves, but it was too late.

“Sorry, darling, but appearances are apt to be deceiving,” Rarity said before sucker-punching the prone pony. Her bell thoroughly rung, the earth pony slumped back to the ground, where Rarity went to work with more rope.

Creak, thud.

“Sorry, Blackstone,” Fluttershy mumbled as she moved to steer my squeaky wheelchair around the small rock we’d bumped into.

“That’s okay,” I told her, busy lining up another force spell. Right now, with my staff floating threateningly above my head and my body confined to a wheelchair, I felt like the unholy offspring of Doctor Strange and Professor X.

Three of the room’s twelve guards had zeroed in on me instantly. If they weren’t regretting that choice now, then I wasn’t doing my job. The pegasus had a goose egg big enough to bump him up a hat size, but Rarity had tied him up anyway. The earth pony was mostly inside a crate, having entered through a hole that didn’t exist until I had introduced the two. Occasionally, one of his legs twitched. The unicorn was keeping his distance, scared but determined. These bastards were tougher than the skeleton crew we’d faced in the main base, but I wasn’t in the mood to play around anymore. I’d been pissed when we crashed that rat hole, but after our run-in with He Whose Ass Shall Not Be Kicked I was at whole new level of angry. The Order had just crossed the kind of line that makes wizards with even a shred of decency shoot first and never bother with questions later.

Unless, of course, I thought darkly, they weren’t the ones who summoned Him. There were too many details that didn’t add up, too many coincidences and miscommunications. The blatant assassination attempts, the missing Agents, whoever locked up Colgate, and so many more clues. There was another group in the background. Someone was still hiding in the shadows and pulling the strings. My gut said they were already inside the Order, and the rest of me agreed.

Not that this excused any normal guards from a well-deserved ass-kicking, but a majority of my anger was reserved for those shadowy bastards. They’d pulled one too many strings and now I was ready to hunt down the puppet master. If I’d gotten the information differently, I might not have suspected anything, but Novel Notion’s appearance had been a little too convenient to be a coincidence. I hadn’t decided whether he was in on the plan or just a pawn, though I was leaning towards the latter. It wasn’t just chance that brought us an easily intimidated pony who knew just where to find the Order’s head mage. Novel had even given me a name and description. Arcane Mind: dark teal coat, bright gold hair, one of the Order’s ruling trio and their top unicorn.

I summoned a translucent shield of force, bouncing an orange beam of light from the unicorn into one of his fellow guards. My scowl turned into a hidden smirk.

The Shadow Ponies had pointed me at the Order like a missile, counting on me to carry on my fine career of massive property damage. And, to a point, I was going to. But the moment I found Arcane Mind, there was going to be a slight change of plans.

I wasn’t going to take him out for these assholes.

I was going to tell him the truth.

The Princesses might not be thrilled with that decision. Hell, I wasn’t thrilled with that decision. My inner caveman was bellowing for a swift vengeance, preferably one that involved as much smashy-smashy as possible. But this was the best way. Those bastards in the background wanted us at each others’ throats. They wanted both groups too busy fighting to notice what they were secretly up to. I don’t know what the evil plan was just yet, but anything involving a demon as badass as He Who Walks Behind couldn’t be good.

So, as much as it pained me, I was going to try working things out peacefully with the Order. If I could convince them to work with us instead of against, we could root out the pony responsible for this whole mess.

And if they didn’t listen? Then, it was time for smashy-smashy, and the consequences be damned.

“Done,” Rarity said coolly, finishing the last knot on the last guard. There were a few bumps and bruises from the fight, but everypony appeared to be in good condition. We needed to get moving. The sounds of our scuffle had probably alerted everypony in the hideout they had visitors. We had to find Arcane Mind before he escaped.

According to Novel Notion, the mountain Canterlot sat on was riddled with cave systems and old mines, a legacy of gem hunters called Diamond Dogs and the Unicorn miners who'd kicked them out. Once the jewel seams were played out, the Order moved into the left over tunnels, shaping and expanding them before Canterlot was founded above them. Even though this hideout was relatively isolated, I had no doubt it was connected to a labyrinth of tunnels and God knows what else.

“Let’s get moving, then,” Twilight said, echoing my thoughts perfectly. She’d calmed down a little since her scene with Novel, but she still smoldered. The rest of the ponies were a collection of different emotions. Rainbow was equal parts angry, nervous and excited. Fluttershy shook with fear, but she pressed on, steering my wheelchair towards the door at the back of the room. Rarity was affecting an air of detachment to hide her icy fury. Pinkie was strangely solemn, sometimes reverting to her more typical antics, but more often silent. And Applejack just seemed grim.

The hallway beyond the heavy door was plain but well-lit. There were a dozen doors to either side of the corridor, each of them identical to the large slab of hard wood we had just passed. It would have taken far too long to check each of them, but thankfully, we didn’t have to. Novel had already told me that Arcane Mind was on the bottom floor. The staircase at the end of the hall made us pause for a second. Or at least I paused, seeing as how wheelchairs and stairs don’t exactly get along.

“Oh dear,” Fluttershy murmured staring at the steep steps. “I don’t think it’s big enough for Dash to fly you down.”

Twilight opened her mouth, but got cut off before she could make a sound.

“What?” Rainbow exclaimed. “It might not be easy, but who are we talking about here? I can do it, no problem.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got to go with Fluttershy on this one,” I said. “One wrong move and we’d both go down. And the stone floor doesn’t look all that soft to me.”

We pondered for a second more, and Twilight began again. “I could−”

“I got it!” Pinkie interrupted. “Why doesn’t Applejack carry you? She’s got crazy strong legs from all that apple bucking,”

“Not a bad idea, but I’m worried that he’d slip off,” Applejack said.

“I’ve still got some rope,” Rarity suggested. “We could tie him on.”

I was suddenly enveloped by a purple field of energy as Twilight lifted me and the wheelchair together. “Or we could do this,” she stated with a faint trace of irritation in her voice.

“Or we could do that,” I agreed. The rest of group fell into an awkward silence as they followed Twilight and me down the stairs.

The first flight was uneventful, but we remained alert anyway. We still had another three to go down. If this was a set-up, then the stairwell would be a good place for an ambush: little cover, unstable footing, and the risk of falling. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but this whole situation reminded me all too much of Trixie’s crazy castle of death.

Nothing jumped out at us, though, and we reached the bottom floor without incident. Somehow, that failed to ease the tension. The corridor before us was empty. The sound of an indistinct but heated conversation came from a half-open door barely fifteen feet away. Other than that, everything was eerily silent.

This isn’t right, I thought glancing worriedly from side to side. Why weren’t there more guards? Was the room above really far enough away to mute the sounds of our fight? Why did this feel more and more like a trap?

I opened my mouth to discuss some last second strategy with the group. Walking in and offering to parley was the ultimate goal, but if this was a trap, that could get us killed. I wanted to hear what everypony thought before committing us to anything. The first syllable hadn’t even passed my lips when Rainbow shot forward.

“IT’S GO TIME, PONIES!” she bellowed as she charged the cracked door. Conversation stopped in the nearby room and everypony in the hall, except for one obvious exception, froze.

“Oh my goodness, she just flew in there,” Rarity said, breaking the silence. Rainbow was already in the room, and if the grunts of effort and clang of hoof on metal were any clue, she was already fighting somepony.

“Darn it, Dash,” Applejack swore as the rest of the group followed her wild charge. The farmpony cleared the door no more than ten seconds after the flying daredevil. Most of her friends were close behind. Notice that I said ‘most’. Fluttershy was trying her best, but my wheelchair wasn’t built for speed, and she wasn’t exactly in contention for the title of Equestria’s strongest mare.

“Didn’t we agree to try talking first?” I grumbled. “I know Rainbow was there when we discussed the plan.”

“You’re right,” Fluttershy agreed quietly as we neared the door. “but she sort-of, kind-of might not have listened.” I bit back a sarcastic reply to that and settled on trying to figure out a way to fix this mess.

We were only ten seconds late to the fight, but in combat, ten seconds is a long time. The room was ruled by chaos, or least a close relative. Papers were flying through the air, scattering everywhere. Between the floating pages I saw Rainbow engaged in hoof-to-hoof combat with a lightly-armored pegasus stallion. He couldn’t quite match her in speed, but strength and experience were letting him hold his own. Rainbow already had a pair of bruises that almost perfectly matched the dents in his breastplate. Both combatants were wearing confident grins, tempered only by a small edge of fear.

Applejack and Pinkie were double-teaming a single robed pony. They charged together, the farmpony lowering her shoulder into a rush and Pinkie swinging an over-sized candy cane like a battle ax. I thought for sure they’d have this guy. Then he chuckled and I recognized the voice. It was Watcher. He sidestepped Applejack’s charge, launching a quick jab she had to jump back to avoid. That should’ve left him open to Pinkie’s attack, but he spun like a top, shattering her candy cane with one metal clad hoof. All without disturbing the deep shadows of his hood.

The last enemy was a small unicorn, almost a kid, really, with a gear or cog marking on her flank. She was facing off against Twilight and Rarity, and to my surprise, she wasn’t getting her ass handed to her. Two bandoleers stuffed with dozens of glimmering little crystals lined her chest. Her horn glowed brightly as she moved the gems in and out of little slots on her bracers. A stream of green-grey energy shot from one of the gauntlets as she fought, leading me to the brilliant deduction that she was powering her spells with magic stored in the gems. Unlike her pegasus comrade, her expression was conflicted, edging towards sad. “I’m sorry!” She yelled as a trio of flashing white balls homed in on Twilight.

Twilight batted them away into a stack of paper just in time to raise a shield against a spear made of neon orange light. The spear exploded, ripping apart a pair of illusions Rarity had cast, revealing her true position. The scattered pages rose from the ground in the form of a barred cage, but Rarity managed to jump back, dodging the spell. I was impressed that the kid could stonewall both our unicorns, even though Twilight didn’t look to have her heart in the fight for some reason, but at the rate she was using those crystals, they weren’t going to last very long. The little unicorn was purchasing time at a premium, but why?

Then, through the fluttering paper, I saw the reason. A dark teal unicorn with bright gold hair was escaping. Behind an impressively large desk, there was an open door. A door that Arcane Mind was currently passing through.

I gathered my will, pouring power into my voice. “STOP!” I bellowed, putting every ounce of authority I had into it. My enhanced voice rebounded in the small room, despite the muffling effect of the paper. Somehow, luck was on my side, and everyone actually listened to me for once and stopped.

Arcane Mind was frozen in the doorway of his bolt hole, a bespectacled unicorn next to him. The unicorn was probably an assistant of some kind; he certainly didn’t look like a fighter. The loose pages had settled to the floor, no longer stirred by furious action, by the time he spoke. “You,” he said, pronouncing the word like it was the vilest curse he knew.

“Who else?” I asked sarcastically. Before he could respond I shook my head and sighed. “Look, I know you think I’m some kind of evil zombie pony hell-bent on world domination or something, but I’m not here to fight. First impressions aside,” I said with a glare at Rainbow. She didn’t even have the grace to look guilty.

“Then what are you here for?” His tone was still cold and hostile, but there was an undercurrent of genuine curiosity in it.

“To talk,” Twilight said, shaking her head sadly. “All of this craziness has been nothing more than a misunderstanding.” She paused a moment to let that sink in before continuing. “He isn’t Obsidian.”

“So you have told us,” Watcher stated, voice empty of emotion. “But somehow, we remain unconvinced.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Rainbow shouted, throwing her hooves up in anger. “How thick can you ponies be? Do you really think the freaking Elements of Harmony and both Princesses can’t tell if somepony’s a super evil bad guy? Really?!”

“I think he’s more cunning than you give him credit for.” The pegasus stallion added challengingly. “Both you and the Princesses are overconfident. You’re so certain of yourselves that you let his lies fool you, because they sound sweeter than the truth.”

“Actions speak louder ‘n words,” Applejack cut in. “And last time I checked Dresden weren’t the one who kidnapped my friend, almost killed my sister, and sent a demon that took a bite outta the Princess.”

“It was supposed to kill him,” Arcane Mind bit out. “We wanted to summon it somewhere that we knew the Princesses would be together with him. That way they could deal with it before things got out of control. We didn’t expect him to survive, and we certainly didn’t expect one of them to be injured.”

“So the ends justify the means?” Rarity responded arching an eyebrow disdainfully. “How high of a price are you willing to let other ponies pay to satisfy this vendetta of yours?”

“It’s not like that!” the small unicorn cried, her expression troubled. “We’re trying to save Equestria! We’re the good guys!”

“That’s what’s so super confusing!” Pinkie chimed in. “I mean, you think killing Blackstone would keep Equestria safe? Or locking up Trixie? Or how you shadowed Lyra? How many ponies do you have to hurt to keep everypony safe?”

“Just one,” Watcher said, glaring at me. The room fell silent after that. The loose sheaves of paper didn’t even rustle without wind to move them.

Arcane Mind sighed. “If that’s all you have to say, you’ve wasted both our time and yours. We are gathering the reagents to summon that demon again.” Expressions of horror and shock spread through every face in the room. Even the small unicorn and her pegasus comrade looked fearful and uncertain. Watcher seemed as impassive as ever, but with his face shrouded that wasn’t difficult to pull off. “Right now with the Princesses, the Guard, the Elements and the rest of Equestria on your side, it’s the only way we can even reach you. Perhaps if we had more ponies, we could make a stand right now, but you knew how few of us were here before you ever considered coming, didn’t you?”

“Are you insane?!” I barked, hardly able to believe what I was hearing. “You saw what that thing did. I know you had spies in the audience. You know that creature is the closest thing to pure evil that Equestria has ever seen. Why in Hell would you ever bring it back?!”

“Because it knows you, Obsidian,” he sneered. He took a moment to compose himself adopting a calmer pose, but the anger and contempt remained lurking just beneath the surface of his cracking mask. “You’re right, we did have ponies in that audience and they heard what it said. Something about ‘unfinished business’ between the two of you. That’s not even the most convincing evidence we have against you, but I am curious how you would explain that in any other light.”

I felt a vein in my forehead begin to throb, but I had to admit that he had a point. From his perspective that had to look pretty damn … damning, I suppose. Still, that didn’t matter. It just meant that the time to play my trump card had come. “Very well,” I replied. “Twilight, cancel your spell, please.”

It took her a second to realize what I was talking about then her eyes went wide. “Are you sure we should…” she trailed off, then shook her head. “No, you’re right. If we want them to believe us they should have the full truth.”

Her horn began to glow and I could feel her spell in and around me. It was a presence I’d gotten so used to, I had forgotten about. I could feel it holding me in place, not physically, but on some deeper level. It was kind of like a tight suit or costume that you had to contort yourself to fit into. There was a blaze of purple light and with that the spell was gone. There were none of the careful, slow changes that had accompanied my equine transformation. This was like releasing a stretched rubber band; I snapped back to being human all at once.

My first sensation upon return to my real form was discomfort. The jacket that Rarity had made for me, which I hadn’t thought to take off, wasn’t made to fit a human frame. Especially not one as tall as mine. I shrugged it off as I rose from the wheelchair, straightening my spine for the first time in days. My head nearly brushed the ceiling, and there wasn’t chance that I could stretch my restored arms, but I was just happy that I didn’t have to hunch to stand.

Damn, that feels good, I thought almost sighing in satisfaction. With effort I focused on the mission at hand. Yes, at hand. Damn, it was nice to have those back, even if one was still useless.

“As you can see,” I told the shocked ponies staring at me. “I can’t be Obsidian because I’m not even a pony. My species is called ‘human’, and I come from a world on the other side of the Nevernever, or Astral Plane, whatever you call it.” I actually wasn’t a hundred percent sure how our two worlds worked in relation to each other and the Nevernever, but that sounded as good as anything. Besides, that wasn’t the important part right now.

“My name is actually Harry Blackstone Dresden.” I carefully left out ‘Copperfield’, just in case. No sense giving away your True Name to people who may or may not still want to kill you when introductions were over. “You can call me Harry.”

“But you’re not,” the near-sighted assistant mumbled, his face red as a beet.

With willpower that should have earned me a Green Lantern ring, I ignored his statement and continued. “Anyway, you wanted an explanation for the demon. Well, in my world, our semi-divine entities aren’t nearly as nice as your Princesses. That, and the swarms of supernatural predators make my home a much rougher place. Among those predators are humans who give in to darker emotions. People who let hatred or ambition rule them. Those kind of humans with magic are called Warlocks. When I was young, one of them summoned He Who Walks Behind and sent Him to kill me. I was lucky to survive.” My face fell in an expression of cold fury. “He toys with people before destroying them. When I tried to run away, He ripped an innocent bystander in half just to prove a point.”

I pulled my arm out of its sling, ignoring the flash of pain that came with it. The dislocated shoulder hadn’t left much of a mark, despite the horrendous pain that came with it, but the razor tentacle hadn’t been as kind. I ripped the bandages off to show the rows of stitches, bleeding and twisted out of place by my transformation. They looked messy by themselves, but it was the mottled purple bruises around them that really sold the image. “This is what He does; He brings nothing but pain, suffering and despair. He came close to killing Princess Celestia, and He’ll do worse if you bring him back.

“You accused me of being Obsidian, but I haven’t done a damn thing since I arrived other than bust up your stupid stronghold looking for Twilight. Even then, I didn’t kill a single pony. You’re the one willing to re-summon one of the darkest demons in existence, despite what He’s already done. Remind me which one of us is the ‘bad guy’, again.”

There was silence, but only then did I realize it wasn’t quite for the reasons I had expected. Everypony in the room, with three exceptions, was blushing and very carefully staring at anything other than me. Arcane Mind was instead glaring at me in disgust, Watcher was still as stone and Pinkie was just barely holding back gales of laughter.

That’s when it hit me. I looked down to be certain, but really there wasn’t any way to mistake it. I was naked and, unlike ponies, human equipment hangs out on display. Personally, I blame pony society for its lack of proper clothing. I’d gotten too used to walking around half-naked to realize immediately after changing.

“Oh, come on! Really?!” I burst out.

“So that explains the ‘boxers’ then,” Twilight murmured.

A black bag tied to the side of the wheelchair shook with mirth. A voice that was pitched too low for anyone else to hear floated from it. “Remember, boss. If they’re blushing that means they want it.” He paused. “Though, given the temperature in here you might want to reassure them that it does get−”

“Shut up, Bob,” I growled. My face was as scarlet as anyone’s and I wanted desperately to cover myself. There had to be some way to preserve my modesty without looking like a total idiot, but after spending several minutes explaining who I was and where I came from completely nude I couldn’t think of one.

Rarity came to my rescue and not a second too soon. “Here, darling,” she said, tying a crude kilt around my middle. If it looked suspiciously like a hastily-transformed sling, then so be it. As long as I had something to wear, I wouldn’t be ashamed.

“Sorry,” Rarity said. “Given time I’d have done better, but at least that skirt complements your mane.”

I choked down the last remnants of my pride and replied in a neutral tone, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you,” Arcane Mind said, his expression of disgust unchanged. “I’m not certain what that vulgar display was meant to accomplish, but I’m glad it’s over.”

That vein in my forehead started throbbing again. “My species normally wears clothing, but transforming into an entirely different creature is tricky like that. Please tell me you weren’t so distracted by my nudity that you didn’t listen to what I was saying.”

“Oh, I was listening, all right, and congratulations. I’ll admit that it’s possible that you aren’t Obsidian in some freakishly hideous new form.”

Freakish? I thought. Isn’t he Mr. Diplomatic? Still, he was at least considering the notion that I wasn’t the boogeyman. So, why do I feel like the other shoe still hasn’t dropped yet?

“But that doesn’t change what you are,” he concluded.

Oh, right. Because he’s an asshole, I grumbled mentally. “And that means…?”

“It means everything!” Arcane Mind roared, smashing his hoof to the ground. His calm, superior composure broke, and I was seeing the anger and desperation that had seethed behind his mask the entire conversation. “Two nights ago my niece, my sweet little Romana, came to me on her knees and begged my forgiveness. She was in pain, and I had to watch her contort in agony. I had to hear her screams as she fought the compulsions you placed inside her. But she withstood it long enough to tell me what I needed to know. She told me everything that you forced her and others like her to do and everything you let slip about your plans for the future. Before her strength faded she made me promise to lock her away, to chain her beneath a waterfall! All so that she couldn’t be forced to hurt the ponies she loved doing your bidding! If you truly aren’t Obsidian it would at least explain why she only referred to you as Blackstone, but it doesn’t matter anymore. You are a cancer growing and festering in the heart of Equestria. Even if you aren’t him you’re just as bad!”

I was silent, shocked by this revelation. The Shadow Ponies were two steps ahead of me. They’d already guaranteed that no matter what I did the Order was fixed against me. Those bastards had tapped into the worst fears of these ponies and kept feeding them.

“And that doesn’t sound like a set-up to you?” I challenged. There was only one way out of this, but I didn’t like my odds. “Somepony you trust stumbles up, obviously under the effects of mental magic, and you actually believed what she says? Somebody else is behind that and they played you like a cheap violin. Whoever messed with her head wants us to fight, they want you to summon that demon and you’re letting them win. In fact, where did you get the knowledge to summon Him anyway? I’m willing to bet that info conveniently showed up just when you needed it.”

He grimaced and I could tell my words stung him, but he shook his head erasing his doubts. “And to think I was surprised you managed to talk your way into the Princesses good graces. Silver tongue or not, you won’t convince me.”

“Really? Why don’t you look me in the eye and tell me I’m lying?” This was my last shot. The Soul Gaze couldn’t be faked and couldn’t be doubted. He might still hate me after seeing my soul, but whatever it showed him, I’m damn sure my soul wouldn’t make me out to be a brilliant Machiavellian schemer. There was no way I could’ve come up with a plan this subtle and layered, and he’d see the proof.

“I think not,” he said his expression darkening into a grim scowl. “Miss Sparkle detailed your ‘Soul Gaze’ and I have no desire to expose myself to whatever magic you used on her. My mental shields may be better trained, but a fight avoided is only one you can’t lose. Let me say just one thing before I go. If you’re really as innocent as you pretend, you’d face this demon alone, somewhere far away from innocent ponies. If you actually care about the Elements, if you’re really friends with the Princesses, you won’t make them fight this battle.” He shook his head, his eyes heavy with condemnation. “I know you won’t. I know you’re willing to let them die in a pathetic attempt to save your own life, but I can only hope that they’ll realize what you’re really doing when you ask them to defend you.”

Shit.

He began to turn away, finally stepping through the heavy stone portal behind him, and my mind started racing. I only had enough time for one spell before he went through that door. I searched my mind desperately, trying to find a solution. We were too far underground to pull him towards me with wind. Any breeze down here would only ruffle his mane. He wasn’t wearing any metal so magnetism wouldn’t work, even if my sword had been in hand. A force spell could knock him out, but what would that accomplish? Even if the blow didn’t throw him into the next room, his unicorn assistant would. Then it was just a matter of shutting the door.

In the corner of my eye I saw light gather at Twilight’s horn. Before I even got the chance to feel relieved, Watcher’s hoof blurred in tiny, perfectly practiced movement. A stone the size of a golf ball smacked into Twilight’s horn and she yelped in pain. The purple light extinguished as Applejack began to charge, more than ready to resume her fight. The exchange had barely taken a second, Arcane Mind was still framed by the doorway. But time was slipping away and I couldn’t think of a way to stop him. He was going to get away scot free and bring back He Who Walks Behind. I had to stop him, but I couldn’t. Unless…

Unless I did more with a force spell then knock him out. I’ve broken stone with my power, a skull would be nothing.

He’s a murderer and a scumbag, a part of me thought. This world would be better off without him, even if he wasn’t trying to kill me.

My right arm was extended and my power ready. One word, and I could end him. The war with the Order would remain, but I doubted they could summon He Who Walks Behind without their head mage.

His life was in my hands, and the power felt good. Intoxicating, even.

Until I realized that was exactly what it felt like. Bile began to rise in the back of my throat, and I nearly threw up. I lowered my arm, power draining away. The door slammed shut with a resounding boom that carried even over the renewed sounds of combat. Following Applejack’s charge, the rest of my friends had jumped back into battle.

I’d almost killed him in cold blood with his back to me. What made matters worse was that I still wanted to. It would’ve been so damned easy to just give in to that anger and kill him.

“Dresden!” Applejack shouted in warning. My head snapped up in time to see Watcher slip past her in a direct charge towards me. Survival instincts kicked in, banishing my guilt for the moment.

I pulled my staff to me with a quick burst of will, even as I prepared a shield. The barrier flared to life just as Watcher neared me. He kicked the shield and I slid back a couple inches from the impact. He hit hard, at least as hard as a black court vampire, and they can rip someone literally in half.

“What did you think that would accomplish? Talking to him? Even I did not think you were that stupid.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I replied letting the shield drop so I could level my staff at him. I managed with one hand, but it wasn’t easy. “Are you telling me, you still think I’m Obsidian too?”

“Of course not,” he actually sounded insulted. “I have never once thought you were actually Obsidian.”

For a moment I couldn’t understand it, but then it all clicked. Somepony within the Order who knew I wasn’t Obsidian. “It’s you,” I realized. “You’re part of the third group in all this mess. You’re with the ponies who tried to kill me in Ponyville.”

“I ordered those ponies to kill you,” he corrected. His voice turned sour and I could almost imagine his grimace. “I still find it difficult to believe that they failed so completely.”

“Oh, it is on,” I growled.

He dodged my first spell by jumping back, but that put him in range of Applejack’s hooves. He took her kick like a beast, barely staggering from the powerful blow. A quick glance told me that Pinkie was busy helping Rainbow mop up the pegasus, and our unicorns were still busy with the half-pint. That’s okay, AJ and I had this guy.

After a furious exchange of blows, he withstood not just Applejack’s kicks, but my spells as well. The ones he didn’t dodge, at least. I wasn’t exactly giving him love taps, either, after seeing him withstand Applejack’s kick. The biggest problem, though, was actually hitting the bastard. He moved like oiled smoke, and neither Applejack or I were exactly known for our finesse in combat. Still, with two on one we were wearing him down, he couldn’t focus on just one of us of the other would have him.

I started to let myself ramp up the amount of force in each spell. Normally, I hold back, especially when the opponent is a mortal, but he was already shrugging off every hit I landed. If he could take what I was throwing, there wasn’t any reason not to hit him harder. Anger began to grow inside me, slowly but surely. I was angry at myself, angry at the world, but mostly angry at this stupid, evil asshole. Everything was his fault. He had set all this up, and if I could only take him out, I could fix everything.

Forzare!” I yelled for what felt like the hundredth time. The wave of heat washed down my arm and the scent of brimstone erupted from my staff as the spell was unleashed. What had been intended as a lance of force turned into a wall, one of that had lost none of its massive strength despite the sudden increase in area. Watcher lowered his body, bracing himself against my power, but this time it was too much for him. He was thrown backward through a couple stacks of paper to slam against the stone wall. He gave a cry of pain that was surprisingly high-pitched. His hood had been ripped off by the wave of energy, and for the time I finally saw the true face of my enemy.

Equine faces are roughly similar to human ones. There are differences, of course, but once you’ve spent some time with ponies, you learn to work past those. Or, at least, that’s what I had thought, but now I was starting to question how well I could read them. Watcher not only appeared to be female, but she didn’t look older than her early twenties. Her coat was pitch black, and her mane was deep gold even though it was close cropped. She didn’t have a horn, which I actually had been wondering about since she never removed her hood. I felt my fury start to cool; somehow she just didn’t look like an evil mastermind. Her eyes flew open, letting me see that her irises were bone white, blending almost perfectly into the rest of her eye. I was treated to a brief hateful glare, before she yanked her hood back on.

“Cog!” she yelled. “Time to go!”

“Thank Harmony,” the small unicorn said from the other said of the room. “I’m down to my last five crystals.” A lance of purple light forced Cog to call up a navy blue shield. “I mean, four.”

“Do it!”

I brought my shield to bear, uncertain what ‘it’ would be. I turned towards the small unicorn ready to stop her. That, unfortunately, was the wrong reaction. A pulsing white crystal slid into her gauntlet and the world flooded with light. It felt like someone had shoved my face into a searchlight. The light was everywhere, and it was so painfully bright. Even when I shut my eyes and pressed both hands over top of them, there was only blinding light. I could still hear just fine, but between the shouts from the rest of my friends, and the constant rustling of the paper underfoot, that sense wasn’t much help. It took a couple minutes before I could see again, but I wasn’t surprised by what I found.

Watcher and Cog were gone without a trace.

“Dammit!” I swore trying to rack my brain where they had gone. I don’t know if the magic hadn’t affected them, or if they were simply trained to navigate these tunnels without the benefit of sight, but either way they weren’t hanging around. At least they had only cared about getting away, I wouldn’t have liked trying to fight sightless. I briefly considered giving chase, but we didn’t know where they’d gone. I’d bet my original Stars Wars movie poster that there were more secret exits and trapdoors in this compound and I didn’t feel like going on a wild goose chase. At least we knew where Arcane had gone, even though the warded door made for a daunting obstacle.

I glanced around the room. Okay, we’ve still got both unicorns, two earth ponies, all three pegasi and the wheelchair with Bob’s bag tied to it. Wait… three pegasi? I wondered, inspecting our group more thoroughly.

“One of them rattlers are still here!” Applejack shouted, coming to the same conclusion that I had.

The olive colored pegasus stallion jumped into the air with a quick flap of his wings. “Rattlesnakes? Where?” He nervously inspected the floor. It would have been comical if I were in a better mood.

“There aren’t any snakes. Now get down here,” Rainbow commanded.

“Oh,” the pegasus said, flushing in embarrassment. “So does anypony know where I am? Or who am I? That eye-searing light went off and now I can’t remember anything.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I growled.

“Nope,” Pinkie said shaking her head side-to-side in an exaggerated motion. “I jumped on his back, which somehow brought him down even though I haven’t eaten nearly as many triple-fudge heart-stoppers this week as normal. Then Dashie hit him again, which isn’t really fair since I‘d already put him in a double wing lock, but I guess it’s fine because he’s a bad guy so then he started mumbling ‘you’ll never take me alive’ or something like that, there was a crunch and Watcher yelled ‘do it!’ and light started coming from everywhere and blinded everypony. I think he lost his memories just like that other soldier you and Dashie beat up.”

“Great,” I snapped. Pressing him for information would have been nice, but there was no sense crying over spilled brains. Besides, something told me we weren’t likely to have gotten anything out of him even if he hadn’t scrambled his mind.

My mind moved onto more pressing priorities. Things had been hectic with the Order still here, but I had gotten a good look at the door before they shut it. The thing was solid stone, six feet tall, three wide and at least four inches thick. It also opened into the next room, so there weren’t any hinges on this side to mess with. It was a solid, formidable piece of architecture that could take some serious damage. That said, I’d broken bigger doors than this one. The problem here was that there was more than just stone reinforcing it. While not as powerful or elegant as the ceiling runes I’d seen in the main stronghold, the wards laid over this backdoor were nothing to sneeze at.

Twilight was already examining the door along with me, muttering something under her breath. I wasn’t much use here, so I decided to grab somebody who was. “Time to earn your keep, Bob,” I said, pulling him out of the black mesh bag.

“Yeah, yeah,” he groused. “What do you need?”

“Land sakes! I thought you were pulling my leg, Dash,” Applejack exclaimed, marveling openly at Bob.

“Is that skull talking?” random Order member #47 asked in a combination mild horror and keen interest.

“Yes. Bob meet Applejack and Rom 47. Applejack and Rom 47, Bob. Now be amazed elsewhere, he has work to do.” I crossed the room in three steps and all but shoved his skull into the door. “Tell me how to get through these, ASAP.”

Bob’s eyes dimmed, then focused, becoming two pinpricks of intense orange light instead the usual swirling orbs. A tense silence settled over the group, or it would have if Pinkie wasn’t busy explaining to Applejack, Rom 47 and anypony else who’d listen that Bob was apparently a ‘super-riffic’ friend of hers.

Two or three minutes later, Twilight shook her head in disgust and stepped back. “I can’t get a handle on these spells. Some of the magic in this door is centuries old, and they’ve added, renewed, and changed it year after year since. Maybe I could get somewhere if I had the instruments from my lab and a couple hours to study, but it isn’t possible right now.”

I nodded, trying to hide my disappointment. “Looks like everything rests on you, buddy,” I told Bob.

“Then I’ve got bad news for you there, boss,” he replied still staring intently. “Remember how I said I’m still learning this world’s magic system? Yeah, something this old and this detailed isn’t the type of spell I can unravel off the top of my head. Give me some time to work, some assistance from Twilight and some decent incentives, and I might be able figure out how to disarm this.”

“How much time?” I asked, already fearing the worst.

“Hmmm…” Bob considered the question. “Ballpark it at four or five hours.”

“Why don’t you just break it down the same way you did Trixie’s doors?” Rainbow asked, stretching her wings and yawning.

“The door is very strong,” Rarity answered for me. “I can almost feel it from here. Besides, even if Blackstone, or… Dresden, now, I suppose, were to gather enough power, the resulting spell would likely bring down the roof.”

“You mean…?” Fluttershy asked nervously, her eyes drifting upwards.

“Splat!” Pinkie shouted, giggling a little as her friend jumped.

“But we aren’t doing that,” I said, giving Pinkie a stern look. “Even if Bob’s only half as smart as he thinks he is, that still makes him twice as intelligent as your average Mensa member.” I clapped him on the skull. “C’mon, we needed to be past that door ten minutes ago. I don’t usually ask for a rush job, but this is time critical, Bob. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t believe you could do it.”

“Oh joy. My very own cheerleading squad,” Bob groused, “but that doesn’t change the facts. This is like asking someone to solve a riddle in a language they don’t speak. Bare minimum, if everything goes perfectly, it’s a three hour job. Anything faster just isn’t realistic.”

I growled and shook my head. “We need to get this guy now. You have to find a way past this.”

“Don’t put this on me,” Bob replied bristling at my tone. “It’s your fault he got away. You had a clear shot, and you didn’t take it.”

My teeth ground together as my jaw clenched dangerously hard. My voice came out low and threatening. “The only way to stop him there would have been to kill him, and in case you’ve forgotten, that goes against the First Law.”

The first law of the White Council is simple: ‘Thou shalt not kill by use of magic’. The punishment for breaking it is decapitation. If you’re guilty, and they’ll know if you’re guilty, then the trial, sentencing and execution won’t take more than fifteen minutes. The only thing that can change that is a case of self-defense and even then you’re placed under a zero-tolerance probation that can just as easily end in beheading. If it sounds extreme that’s because it is. The kind of magic a wizard uses is a part of who and what he is. If you’ve killed once, no matter what your reasons were, you always carry the temptation to do it again.

I should know better than anyone. I killed Justin when I was just sixteen.

I still hated the Council for the way they treated me after that, and still treat me in a lot of ways, but I understand it now. I had been so damn tempted to kill Arcane Mind then and there, and this wasn’t the first time. I had almost burnt down the Shadowman’s lake house. I almost ripped out Agent Denton’s throat when I wore that hexenwolf belt. Aurora had died in my arms, bleeding from a thousand cuts. I beat Cassius within an inch of his worthless life after a better man than me forgave him. I tried to shoot Trixie after the Elements of Harmony knocked her out and that was even before the Nightmare had crawled into my head.

I’m not a nice person. I’ve made the wrong choice before, but I refused to do it again here.

“So?” Bob retorted with a snort. “We’re in another dimension, man! How are they going to find out? Besides, didn’t he just say he was going to summon He Who Walks Behind again? Even Warden Morgan would give you a high five for taking this guy out, and he hates you.”

“That’s not what this is about, Bob!” My voice rose to a roar, my temper fully lost. “There are lines I don’t cross, stuff that I just can’t do! It doesn’t matter that he’s a demon-summoning scumbag, I’m not using magic to kill him!”

“Why not?” Bob said. His voice wasn’t any louder than normal, but I could feel the heat behind it. “Seriously, why not? You killed Justin for the same thing, and he was your foster father.”

The room fell dead silent.

I shut my eyes, unable, or maybe unwilling, to face my friends. I know I’m not a good person, but they didn’t. They thought well of me and I didn’t want to know what they thought now.

Justin had been a monster, who needed to be put down. That didn’t mean it had been easy to kill him. He’d never been the most loving guardian, but he’d been there when no one else had. He’d pulled me out of that orphanage and told me that I was special.

“Dresden,” Twilight said, her voice hushed. “Did you really…”

She trailed off and I didn’t respond.

“Uh … Harry?” Bob asked, his voice uncharacteristically subdued.

Eventually, I stood up. “I’m going,” I said. I grabbed my staff and coat, but left the skull behind.

“Dresden, wait!” one pony shouted, but I couldn’t tell who. I continued down the dim hallway without pausing. Nopony followed me, and I didn’t blame them.

Chapter Nineteen

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Nineteen

“Dresden, wait!” Pinkie shouted as he stalked out of the room, pausing only to grab his coat and staff. He’d left his… skull behind, but that didn’t surprise Fluttershy. Not after what Bob had just said.

Despite Pinkie’s plea, Dresden didn’t stop. They could all hear his angry footsteps in the hall. The pink party pony looked ready to go racing after him, but Rarity put a consoling hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder and shook her head. “Let him go for the moment, dear. I think he wants to be alone.”

“Then I’ll be alone with him!” Pinkie protested. “He’s our friend and nohuman should have to be alone when they’re angry like that!”

“That was more’n just angry, Sugarcube,” Applejack replied. “That was a whole mess a’ hurt, and that’s enough to make me think that his skull ain’t just spinnin’ tales.”

“No way!” Dash yelled, making a slashing gesture with one hoof. “Blackstone might be rowdy, and yeah, he’s kinda scary when he wants to be, but come on! Killing his own dad? No way he’d do that!”

“I hate to disagree, Rainbow Dash, but I fear that Applejack is correct,” Rarity added. “He refused to meet our eyes before he left. He… he looked like somepony who’s done something he isn’t proud of. Something that makes him ashamed to face his friends.”

“So… change of topic, but is my name really Rom 47?” the olive green pegasus asked. He’d pulled off most of his armor and was examining it curiously. “I’m just saying that sounds like a stupid name, and I don’t know if I believe that Dresden guy.”

“You're a weird pony so you get a weird name. Now shut up, Rom,” Dash said without paying him much attention. “The big ponies are talking.”

“He did seem really upset,” Fluttershy whispered. She had been watching Dresden’s face just as Bob said it, and his first reaction, before the anger or shame, had been pain. Not physical pain of course, but emotional pain. Something between Dresden and his foster father had hurt him deeply enough that he still carried those scars in his heart. A part of her was afraid to think that Dresden was capable of… killing somepony. Maybe she was even… afraid of her friend. But at the same time, she wished he was still here. Whatever had happened, no matter how scary it made him, Dresden was in pain right now and she wanted to help him.

“I think,” Twilight declared, cutting through the chatter that had began to grow, “we should hear the whole story. It sounds like Dresden did something terrible, but it’s impossible to say without all the details.”

“I’m pretty sure killing somepony, especially a parent, is pretty bad no matter what,” Rom 47 said decisively.

“Shut up, Rom,” Applejack said, giving him a brief glare. “Sounds about right to me, but are we sure we wanna do this now?”

Pinkie shrugged. “Why not? We can’t get through the door and we can’t leave while Dresden’s all mopey.”

The group’s consensus came in a few traded glances and subtle nods. Twilight picked up the skull, which had fallen silent, the hazy orange light in its eyes swirling lazily. “Bob, tell us the full story about… what you just said.” She paused bracing herself, then plunged forward. “I want to know why Dresden killed his foster father.”

The hazy lights in his eyes stopped swirling and refocused on Twilight. They flickered purple before returning to their normal orange hue. Fluttershy shuddered a little, but at least this time she didn’t faint. S-skulls shouldn’t talk, she thought. That’s too spooky to be fair.

“As you wish, Mistress,” Bob replied, his voice more solemn than it had been before, and touched with what sounded like a faint Trottingham accent. Twilight gently set him down, and everypony gathered around in a semi-circle. “The roots of this story go back to before Dresden’s birth, but I will endeavor to be as concise as possible. Harry’s mother was a powerful mage who didn’t get along well with the White Council, the ruling body of wizards. In time she left behind the supernatural world and met Malcolm Dresden, a small-time stage magician. They married, and she soon became pregnant with Harry. She died in childbirth, though it has been speculated that a curse from one of her enemies is what really killed her. Malcolm was left to raise Harry alone until he suffered an aneurysm, which left young Harry alone in the world.”

“Oh, poor Dresden,” Fluttershy murmured.

“He was an orphan?” Applejack asked softly, her voice rough. “There weren’t any relatives to take him in?” Her head hung low, and she quickly pulled her Stetson down to hide her eyes. Fluttershy put a consoling hoof on her friend’s shoulder and felt a subdued shaking that nopony else could see.

Fluttershy didn’t know the details about Applejack’s parents – it wasn’t something she talked about, and Fluttershy had never asked. But it wasn’t hard to notice that her family was missing two very important someponies, and from what Fluttershy had gathered, Applejack had grown up without them.

“There were not,” Bob replied dispassionately in his strangely cultured accent. “His parents were both single children, and any grandparents were either deceased or unknown. He became a ward of the state, and for several years resided in an orphanage.”

“But he didn’t stay there,” Twilight predicted.

“Correct,” Bob said. “Justin DuMorne, my owner at the time, adopted him and another young orphan, a girl name Elaine. Justin was a Warden, one of the soldiers – or perhaps, police − of the White Council, and they were his apprentices. He was a hard man, but fair in most respects. He never punished them unduly, nor did he neglect any aspect of their upbringing. Of course, that just made it harder on Harry when he betrayed him.”

“You’re lying! Dresden wouldn’t do that!” Rainbow Dash yelled, pointing an accusing hoof at Bob.

“Yeah, Bob that isn’t funny,” Pinkie said, pouting heavily. “And why so serious? You’re all stuffy all of a sudden.”

“You’ve misunderstood me,” Bob said with a huff. “Justin betrayed Harry. Beneath his honorable veneer, Justin was a Warlock, and he had adopted both Harry and Elaine with the intention of making them into his enforcers. Harry was sixteen when Justin enthralled Elaine -- enslaving her to his will, but keeping her mind for the most part intact. He intended to do the same to Harry, but Harry returned home before Justin had completed the process on Elaine. He didn’t fully understand what was going on, but it was enough to send him running despite Justin’s angry demand that he return. Justin summoned He Who Walks Behind and sent Him after Harry. Harry survived the encounter, then managed to make contact with his faerie godmother.

“The Leanansidhe finished his training, and he returned to Justin’s home with the intention of rescuing Elaine. Justin caught him in the act and they dueled, during which Harry killed Justin and set fire to the building. Elaine’s enthrallment faded after Justin’s death, and she ran from the burning house. Harry, unaware that she had escaped, searched the burning house for her. That’s when he found me and became my master.” Bob gave a rich, dark chuckle at that. “Certainly fitting, considering that I came into Justin’s possession after he plucked me from the ashes of another wizard’s lair.”

“But did… did Dresden have to kill him?” Pinkie asked hesitantly.

“Well, of course.” Bob responded without hesitation. “Harry is quite powerful, but Justin had the skill and experience of decades. It was already a close battle, and if Harry had held back, Justin would have certainly killed him. Even avoiding a fight was hardly an option. Eventually, Justin would have hunted Harry down and either broken his will or murdered him. It was the only logical solution.”

Silence greeted his words. Fluttershy felt her heart ache; no wonder Dresden still hurt even after all these years. To lose both of his parents, then to discover that the new father he had had come to love and trust was a monster? It was like something from an ancient tragedy. Some wounds never really go away, she thought sadly. The cruel taunts from her childhood still echoed in her ears when she felt low, but she had always had the love of her family to depend on. A betrayal as cruel as Justin’s would have shattered her.

“That’s how the Nightmare got to him,” Twilight murmured softly. The rest of the group, Bob included, stared at her, waiting for her to continue. Twilight met their gazes and her eyes teared up. “While he was possessed, Dresden accused us of sticking a knife in his back, of trying to brainwash him. I never understood that, but now I do. The Nightmare brought out all the pain and anger from Justin’s betrayal and convinced Dresden that we were doing the same thing.”

“That is quite likely,” Bob replied. “Harry didn’t say as much to me, but then, I doubt he wanted to share many details about the experience.”

“Then we need to find Dresden and tell him that it doesn’t matter!” Dash shouted, rising to her hind hooves and flaring her wings. “He didn’t want to do it, he had to! It isn’t his fault, so he can stop being a drama princess and we can get back to finding the Order!”

Twilight’s ears flattened back and Rarity looked less than amused, but Fluttershy smiled. She could tell what her friend was trying to say through her bluster. “I think Dash is right.” That caused more than a couple heads to jerk towards her in surprise. “We should find Dresden and tell him that we understand. He’s still our friend, and he doesn’t have to face something like that alone. He needs to know that we’re here for him.”

Dash blushed and backpedaled verbally. “Woah, woah. That's not what I said.”

“Maybe not in those words, but I think ‘Shy hit the mark,” Applejack said with a small smile, her voice steady once again.

“Then let’s get looking!” Pinkie shouted. “And once we find him he’s getting a super deluxe Pinkie hug, and I’m not letting go until he smiles again.” There was a pink blur somewhere in the vicinity of the door as she raced off before anypony could say anything to stop her.

“Wait! We need to form teams and sweep this place systematically!” Twilight cried futilely as Pinkie’s hoofbeats faded into the distance. She sighed when she realized her pleas had done no good.

“Don’t worry, Twilight. I’ll catch up to her,” Dash promised before shooting through the open doorway.

“But that doesn’t−” Twilight began before realizing the pegasus was already out of earshot. “Fine. Applejack, will you follow those two and keep an eye on them? The rest of us will head back the entrance. When you find him bring him there. I’ll cast another transformation spell and we’ll head back to Canterlot. Novel Notion may know where Arcane Mind went.”

“Sure thing, Twi,” Applejack said with a wink. “But it might take a bit ‘fore we get back. I don’t think Pinkie was joking when she said Dresden wasn’t getting outta that hug 'til he smiled.” With that the farmpony dashed after her long gone friends.

Twilight sighed again, then broke into a yawn. Rarity put a consoling hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, darling. Those two may be reckless, but I doubt there’s anypony else here. If there were more Order ponies here, that brutish Mr. Mind would have called for them. Let’s just get to the entrance and wait there.”

Twilight smiled, but shook her head softly. “That’s not what I was worried about, actually, but you’re right. We should get moving.” She picked up Dresden’s wheelchair, shaking off the papers that had fallen on it. Twilight hesitated, but after a moment she picked up Bob as well. She began to move towards the stairs across the hall, and everypony who was left followed her.

Fluttershy wondered what her friend had meant, but she didn’t say anything. Then a hoofstep sounded beside her, driving thoughts about Twilight out of her head. That strange pegasus stallion was following them. Fluttershy kept a nervous eye on him, uncertain what to do. He didn’t seem to be dangerous anymore, but he was still a stranger. And he was strong enough to stand up to Rainbow Dash. That alone made him a little scary. He suddenly noticed Fluttershy’s wary stare and turned to look at her.

“Eep!” Fluttershy squeaked, turning to stare at the floor. Nervous as she was, she still watched him out of the corner of her eyes. It was tempting to hide behind one of her friends, but she needed to be brave.

Rarity glanced over to see what had startled Fluttershy, and her gaze landed on Rom 47 with slight surprise, as though she had forgotten he was there. Her eyes narrowed, and her mouth twisted into a picturesque frown that still conveyed her distaste perfectly. “What are we to do with you, Mr. Rom?”

The stallion shrugged. “Actually explaining a few things would be nice, but after the first five times I was told to ‘shut up’, I gave up on that. Right now I’d be happy just getting out of this place and finding somewhere to grab a bite.”

“We’ll take you to Princess Luna once we’re back in Canterlot,” Twilight decided, as she climbed another couple of steps. As they passed the entrance to another floor, Pinkie’s distant call of ‘olly-olly-oxen-free!’ echoed from somewhere in the compound.

They reached the entrance without further incident, but by this point everypony was yawning. It was almost morning, and this was after another late night from the day before. The adrenaline rush had thoroughly worn off, leaving everypony exhausted. Fluttershy was no stranger to the occasional late night, whether it was staying up with a sick animal or helping a nocturnal one, but she could feel the stress and exertions of the day starting to catch up with her.

They waited for a several minutes, fighting the desire to sleep. Twilight paced back and forth, staring impatiently at the door to the rest of the compound. Nopony had heard anything from the searching ponies for a few minutes. “Where are they?” Twilight grumbled under her breath.

“It is possible Harry does not wish to be found, Mistress. He has some very strange notions of personal honor, and my thoughtless comment may have driven him to desire a more than momentary seclusion. If that is the case, they will have a difficult time locating him.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Rarity added, her expression curious, “but I must ask about your change in demeanor, Bob. You almost seem to be another person. Then there is also the fact that you’re referring to Twilight as ‘Mistress’.”

Twilight blinked in surprise, having apparently not considered the question among her other worries. Fluttershy had noticed, but it wasn’t something she wanted to think about. Not when Bob was sitting right there, his spooky orange eyes swirling like slow whirlpools. The kind pegasus fought to hold down another shiver.

“That’s because she is my Mistress, now. Harry deliberately left me behind, then Twilight took possession of my skull and gave me an order. Whether my skull changes hands through fate, force, or fortune, I belong to whosoever owns my container.”

“You ‘belong’ to me?” Twilight asked with an uncertain frown. She lifted him in her purple aura and began to examine him, as though searching for evidence of his claimed connection.

“Yes,” Bob stated simply. “To answer the rest of the question, my surface personality is strongly influenced by my current owner. Twilight believes that this is how a spirit of intellect should sound and act, thus my change in demeanor. It is curious that I would change in this instance, however. When a person meets me before becoming my owner, I typically retain the personality with which they are familiar. My Mistress apparently has rather stronger opinions than can be erased by a first impression.”

“Are you claiming,” Rarity began in disbelief, “that Dresden is to blame for your arrogant, perverted, loud-mouthed personality from before? He may not be a perfect gentlecolt at all times, but I have a difficult time believing that claim.”

“Well, he is at fault for my ‘loud-mouthed’ quality and for my… directness, but make no mistake, those are only surface traits. Everything else about me runs much deeper.” Bob’s voice dropped and took on a smoky tone. “My self-confidence and appreciation of the female form remain, no matter how I change.” Fluttershy shuddered again, this time more in revulsion than fear. “And I’d like it known that I appreciate more than just your delicious physical form, Mistress Sparkle. The sensation of your magic caressing my skull feels amazing. I can sense your every desire through this aura, and I cannot wait to help you fulfill them. I believe our… partnership will be quite mutually beneficial.”

Twilight’s face drained of color and the glow surrounding Bob’s skull dissipated instantly, dropping him to the uncaring stone below. Unfortunately, Rarity thought quickly enough to catch him. She held him awkwardly, her aura clinging only to the smallest corner of his mandible.

“Get the bag, get the bag, get the bag,” she demanded, and Fluttershy hastened to respond. Twilight was still frozen in shock. The black bag was opened in record time, and Rarity practically threw the skull into it.

“Don’t be so closed-minded,” Bob replied, his voice muffled slightly by the bag. “Just think of all the knowledge we could unlock together. The secrets we could discover. The experiments we could perform.” His voice turned husky once more. “Either magical or… otherwise.”

“I would smack you if I could find a way that wouldn’t sully me by touching you,” Rarity declared. Fluttershy hadn’t seen that mix of disgust and anger on her friend since the Grand Galloping Gala.

“Stop,” Twilight said, her shoulders sagging. “Bob’s the same as he’s always been. It just caught us by surprise. That said,” her expression soured, “I am not interested in any offer you can make me, so I’d suggest – no, make that order – you to be quiet. The moment we find Dresden, you’re his again. And good riddance,” she added under her breath.

“So, talking skulls may not be your thing,” Rom 47 said with an easy grin, “But how about a studly pegasus who’s−”

A single glare halted the awkward pick-up attempt like a baby bird before a snake. And unlike that incident with Miss Hissy and Elizabeak’s chick, Fluttershy had no intention of intervening here.

The awkward tableau lasted for several seconds until Pinkie exploded into the room shouting at double her normally impressive volume. “He’snothere!He’snothere!He’snothere!!” She grabbed Twilight by the shoulders and shook her back and forth even as she continued her incomprehensible rambling.

“Pinkie! Calm down and tell us what’s wrong,” Rarity said, but Fluttershy already feared that she knew.

“He’s not here!” Pinkie bawled, tears gushing in a pair of almost comical waterfalls. “I let him walk away and now he’s gone and the Order probably got him and we’ll never see him again and he’ll never know that we still love him and don’t hate him for what he did and that we could help him put that sad past behind him and I’ll never throw him another party or see him smile ever again, because they must have taken him and I sat back and let it happen!”

Everypony in the room blinked in surprise as they tried to understand just what Pinkie meant. It didn’t take long, until Rarity reached the same conclusion as Fluttershy. She gasped dramatically, sweeping one hoof to her forehead in overstated distress. Twilight was more practical. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t know if all that’s true,” Applejack said as she entered the room, “but she’s right about one thing. Wherever Dresden is, he sure ain’t here.” The farmpony sighed and scratched the back of her neck. “Dash didn’t want to believe it either so she’s re-checkin’ the whole place.”

“But he isn’t here,” Pinkie mumbled sadly. “I’m super good at hide and seek, and I didn’t find anything.”

“How?” Twilight said, her expression troubled and confused. “Even if there were more ponies left behind, he wouldn’t have been taken without a fight and that’s assuming they could overpower him in the first place.”

“I think−” Fluttershy began.

“But what if they doubled back and used a secret entrance and got him?” Pinkie shouted, waving her forelegs wildly.

“I think−” Fluttershy tried again.

“I’d doubt that,” Rarity offered. “Arcane Mind had very few ponies with him, and there simply wasn’t time for him to find reinforcements and return.”

“I think I know!” Fluttershy shouted drawing the surprised stare of everypony in the room. She shrank a bit under their scrutiny, but pulled herself together. “Does anypony remember the last thing Arcane Mind said to Dresden?” There was a moment of silence as all of her friends thought. Twilight got it almost instantly and her eyes widened in understanding.

“He told Dresden that if he really cared about us, he’d fight that demon alone, so we wouldn’t get hurt,” she said, almost breathless with disbelief. It vanished beneath a wave of anger. “I cannot believe he would do this! That idiot!”

“You don’t mean…” Rarity trailed off as she too understood.

Fluttershy nodded. “I think Mister Dresden sort of believed him, and what Bob said only made him feel worse. If he had… killed… Arcane Mind, we wouldn’t have to worry about fighting. I think… I think he’s trying to protect us.”

“I wish you were wrong, but that’s making way too much sense,” Applejack growled. “It’s just like him to try somethin’ that foolhardy all on his lonesome.”

“Then we need to find him!” Pinkie shouted, her eyes dry and full of determination.

“You’re right,” Twilight agreed, her face etched with grim lines. “Find Rainbow Dash and bring her back. We’ve got to find him in a hurry. The Order isn’t going to waste time, and neither are we.”

Pinkie sketched a quick salute then vanished into the bowels of the hideout, calling Dash’s name this time. Twilight watched her go, then turned her attention to the exit, staring at the lights of the city below her.

Fluttershy joined her, trying to find some sign of their friend out there in the darkness. The night winds were cold despite the season, but they weren’t the reason she shivered. A trip to Zecora’s for tea was as much adventure as she had ever wanted. If this were a fairy tale, then a courageous knight would have shown up by now and defeated the demon with a single blow. But there were no knights, this wasn’t a fairy tale. There was only Fluttershy and her friends, and the villains they faced were terrifyingly real.

Normally, that kind of pressure would start another panic attack, but this time the realization stopped her from shaking. She had to be strong. Her friend needed her, whether he knew it or not, and she was going to be there for him. Fluttershy wished she was as brave as her friends, Rainbow Dash especially, but brave or not, she had to do this.

………

It was six in the morning, but the palace already bustled with noise and confusion when it should have been just waking up. Twilight cast a worried eye at the horizon. The sun was due to come up soon, but it might not rise at all. Luna’s long years under the Nightmare’s thrall had weakened her, and bringing the dawn might well be impossible for her, even with Celestia’s guidance.

The word of the attack must have gotten out, because the front of the palace swarmed with nobles and common ponies alike, including a crowd of reporters from every publication in the city, all of them frantic to know what had happened. Princess Celestia was in many ways the foundation that the entire nation rested on. In the past thousand years, she was always there to guide Equestria, and the thought of her absence was terrifying.

Twilight knew that her mentor’s life wasn’t in danger, but the image of the Celestia in that hospital bed was still chilling. Those ponies at the gates didn’t even have that much. For all they knew, the country they loved was about to crumble. Princess Luna would be doing her best, of course, but she was still a stranger to most of Equestria. While her presence and reassurances could stem the tide of panic, only Celestia herself could calm them. It didn’t help that many ponies remembered Luna’s time as Nightmare Moon and were more than capable of drawing their own conclusions. Hopefully, few would take those rumors seriously, but if the sun failed to rise, then that hope was bound to be in vain.

Twilight wished that they could explain everything to those worried ponies, but they didn’t have the time. Even if they did, there was no guarantee that anypony would believe her. Not when there were all too many questions she couldn’t answer. So instead they circled around to a smaller gate set between the castle and the mountain, away from the more prominent front or garden gates. The small walkway they were on looked deserted, and so did the guard post next to the gate.

“Hey?” Pinkie asked in confusion as she scooted towards the closed door. “Where’s the−”

The Night Guards appeared around her as quickly as if they had materialized out of the shadows -- a metaphor that was entirely literal to the pair of unicorns that emerged from the darkness behind Twilight.

“Halt and identity yourselves,” commanded one of the dark-hued ponies. The sword he brandished looked sharp enough to split hairs, and his demeanor said he was ready to use it.

“I’m Twilight Sparkle, and these are my friends, the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight stated firmly, meeting him glare for glare.

The eyes of the Night Guards widened at that, but their leader didn’t look impressed. Unimpressed or nor, at least he sheathed his sword before replying. “And what about him?” he asked, pointing to the lone stallion in the group.

“Me?” Rom 47 asked. “I have no idea. They keep calling me Rom, but that sounds like a stupid name. All I know is that my memories are gone, and nopony wants to tell me anything.”

“He’s a member of the Order,” Applejack said. “We caught him, but he used one ‘a those memory charms to wipe his brain before we could question him.”

Rom 47 stared at her in amazement. “Okay, hang on. Why am I only hearing about this now?”

“Shut up, Rom,” the scarred bat-pony rumbled before turning his attention back to Twilight. “What is tonight’s passcode for this gate?”

“Passcode?” Twilight echoed, the uncertainty in her voice plain to hear.

The… sergeant, if Twilight was reading his insignia correctly, snorted at that, but lowered his weapon. Almost as though answering correctly would have earned them more suspicion.

“In that case, give me information that only Twilight Sparkle would know. Something easily verifiable,” he replied.

“Get real!” Dash shouted. She was impatient even at the best of times, and in the current situation, they were lucky she had waited this long to object. “Why should we have to prove anything to you?”

“Because I am in command of this gate, and until I’m certain of your identities, you aren’t setting hoof onto the castle grounds,” he stated matter-of-factly, though the look in his eyes dared Dash to try. “Or maybe because the Elements of Harmony showing up unannounced and unexplained at one of the quietest and smallest gates of castle at six in the morning is more than a little suspicious.”

Dash started seething, but thankfully she seemed to see the sense in his words. She hovered in place without doing anything more than grumble.

Twilight spoke quickly hoping to take back control of the situation. “I believe I know something that will satisfy you, sergeant…”

“Quiet Shadow. I go by Quiet.”

“Thank you, Sgt. Quiet. The first two physicians on watch for Princess Celestia were Doctors Condition and Manner. One of your guards can check that easily, but I insist that you hurry. Our business is urgent.”

Sgt. Quiet grunted at that, but called out in the same breath. “Go check on that, Shield. Double time.”

“Yessir.” One pegasus saluted before dashing through a smaller door set into the guard post.

“He’ll be back soon, and if your info checks out you can be on your way.”

“And if it don’t?” Applejack asked.

Sgt. Quiet snorted again. “We’ll demolish that bridge when we come to it.”

“I believe the phrase you meant was ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’.” Rarity offered helpfully.

“I know what I said,” the guard pony replied in way clearly meaning to end the conversation. Most of the ponies present took the hint.

“Soooooo…” Pinkie said, sidling up to Sgt. Quiet in a movement stolen from any number of bad espionage plays. “Anything suspicious happen tonight?”

He stared hard at her as she batted her eyes in some of the worst faux-innocence Twilight had ever been witness to. Eventually he spoke. “You mean besides the horrific creature that attacked the Princess during the awards ceremony, a moronic, amnesic stallion who is supposedly a member of the dreaded Order Triune, and six mares claiming to be the Elements of Harmony, trying to get into the castle at six in the morning?”

“Yeah, besides those.” His sarcasm bounced off her without visible impact.

Sgt. Quiet sighed, but gave in to the inevitable. “About thirty minutes ago, or maybe a little less, there was a disturbance in the gardens behind the castle. I sent Privates Shield and Umber out to investigate, but they didn’t see anything.” He gestured to one of the unicorns positioned behind the group who nodded in confirmation. “Why do you−” Sgt. Quiet turned back to look at Pinkie but she was already gone.

“Soooooo…” Pinkie repeated, this time eyeing the dark brown unicorn, who seemed surprised to find her so close. “You didn’t see anything?”

He glanced at his commanding officer, but answered her question. “No ma’am. The animals had settled down by the time Shield and I arrived. We swept the area, but found no sign of ponies or hoofprints to mark their passage. My detection spell didn’t sense any active magic so they weren’t hidden by illusions either. We returned here shortly before you and your friends arrived.” He paused, then shrugged. “I suppose there was one thing out of the ordinary, but it’s trivial. Just that one of the garden’s animals could use a visit to the doctor.”

Fluttershy let out a small gasp and darted forward. “Oh no! Was one of them injured?”

The guard shook his head. “Not injured, but it probably has a disease or something. I’m no veterinarian, but I can’t imagine losing your fur to be healthy for an ape.”

Twilight had only been half paying attention to the odd conversation behind her, but the last statement almost made her start in surprise. She repressed that instinct, but only just. Her ears swiveled almost of their own accord towards the ongoing conversation.

“Lost all its fur?” Fluttershy asked, seeming to have not made the connection just yet. “Are you sure?”

Umbra nodded intently, then seemed to hesitate. “Well, I only got a quick glance before it ducked back into the brush, but I’m reasonably sure about what I saw. It was tall and thin with gangly limbs and there was only a sparse layer of hair in some places and nothing in others. I can’t tell you the species, but I recognize a primate when I see one.”

So Dresden had come back this way. How he had entered the castle was a mystery in and of itself, but that was a question for later. They needed to get inside and find him. The only problem was that since he was still a human he’d be taking pains to avoid anypony. Still, she could predict where he was going, which should make their job much easier. There were only two things in the castle he would care about: his equipment, which was in the guest room, and more info on the Order, which he could only get from Novel Notion.

Twilight was so intent on her thought process that she never even noticed Sgt. Quiet’s stare until she glanced up and came face-to-face with him. Twilight took an unconscious step backwards, surprised at both his proximity and intensity.

“Why was that so important?” he asked, his glare moving to inspect every one of her friends as well. “I thought the pink one was just being weird, but you all reacted to that particular piece of information.” Twilight felt a small but growing sense of anxiety as Sgt. Quiet turned his attention back to her. “So, tell me why the health of one garden ape matters to the Elements of Harmony.”

“We, uh… we…” Twilight struggled to come up with a response, but nothing was coming to mind. Nopony spoke. The rest of her friends were apparently in the same predicament.

“Sir! Look!” one of the unnamed guards shouted interrupting the frozen tableau.

“Not now,” Sgt. Quiet bit out, never taking his eyes off Twilight.

“But sir! Look, it’s−”

“Unless somepony is on fire, bleeding, or breaking into the castle there is nothing happening that could possibly−” The impending rant halted in its tracks as Sgt. Quiet was blinded by the sudden light peeking over the horizon.

Everypony present fell reverently silent as they turned eastwards. Even the distant commotion of the crowd at the front gate dropped to nothing as every eye watched the horizon. The sun moved slowly, more slowly than Twilight could remember, but it climbed steadily, never once moving backwards.

Hope began to well inside Twilight as she watched. She was tired − so tired − after all that had happened, and their work was far from over, and yet… there was something in the light of this new day that uplifted her spirits. The problems that had seemed so vast and insurmountable in the fear-filled darkness were nothing before the sun. Her exhaustion didn’t vanish, her body was not magically rejuvenated, but a new fount of power seemed to form inside her. The demon had done its worst, but life and light still stood in defiance of that old, cruel evil. Even before the sun cleared the horizon cheers began to ring out from the front gate, terrified ponies relieved of their fears.

“Okay, maybe I’m missing something here,” Rom 47 said regarding everypony with confusion, “but what’s with the cheering? Doesn’t the sun come up every day?”

“Sir!” Private Shield called as he emerged from the castle. Sgt. Quiet snapped out of his trance. “Miss Sparkle’s story checks out, and the medical wing confirmed that the information she provided was not commonly available.”

Sgt. Quiet lived up to his name as he processed this news with a sour expression.

“Well?” Applejack asked. “We told you the truth, and we ain’t got the time fer you to spend all day hemmin’ and hawin’ over this. I’m going through that door, and at this point I don’t much care if it’s as a guest or trespasser.”

The guards glanced at her in alarm, but didn’t move into formation. They were clearly uncertain about arresting a national hero and their commander’s continued silence wasn’t helping their confidence.

“Yeah!” Dash cheered, a daredevil’s grin splitting her face. “We’ve got a friend to save and some Order Triune butts to kick!”

Sgt. Quiet gave a heavy sigh and stood aside. “Open the gate and let them in. Private Steel, take Mr. Rom into custody and deliver him to the medical wing, and remain there. He is to be held under watch, but not under restraint.” The guards hurried to obey him, and everypony hurried through the heavy double doors as soon as they opened.

“Bye,” Rom 47 waved as he turned down a different hallway. “I hope things work out for you and your monkey.”

Twilight turned her head, uncertain whether to thank Rom for the sentiment or tell him one last time to shut up, but surprise stopped her from speaking. “Really?” she asked, her irritation rising to the fore.

“Really,” Sgt. Quiet answered, shadowing them with an eerily silent canter. As they stopped, so did he.

“What an unexpected pleasure,” Rarity said the sarcasm in her voice evident. Everypony else settled for scowls, or a mild frown in Fluttershy’s case. “However, I am surprised that you would abandon your post so readily just to escort us.”

“My ponies can take care of themselves,” the guard answered flatly. “In the meantime, there’s still plenty you aren’t telling me and after everything that’s happened I don’t appreciate the mushroom treatment.”

“Mushroom treatment?” Twilight asked, confused by the odd phrase.

“Kept in the dark and fed horseapples,” he replied bluntly.

Twilight’s ears folded back at his rude language, but a small grin worked its way onto her face as she had an idea. “Very well,” she said, surprising both her friends and the inquisitive sergeant. “Pinkie will be more than happy to talk with you. We’ll be in our rooms when you two are done.” Twilight said turning to her energetic friend and giving her a small wink.

“I’d love to!” Pinkie said bouncing over to Sgt. Quiet and immediately violating his personal space. “Let’s start by talking about my great friend Bob, he’s a super-fun-a-riffic guy even though he says some really weird stuff sometimes and I don’t always get why he thinks things are funny, but I knew from the very first time I poked him with a stick that we were going to be friends for life! Or whatever you want to call his state of existence.”

Twilight motioned quickly with her head and everypony slowly moved away from the pair as Pinkie continued to chatter away and Sgt. Quiet tried to process her statements and separate fact from nonsense. His eyes were beginning to glaze over as they rounded the corner at the end of the hall. Still, he tried his best to find out something useful.

“So who is this Bob? What does he look like?”

“Oh, he’s a nobody.”

“But… you… Don’t you mean ‘nopony’?”

“He’s that too, but reaching that conclusion wasn’t easy. In fact I had to have a full tiered debate with every one of the Council of Mental Pinkies to settle that issue. You wouldn’t believe how long the Responsibility Pinkie can talk. Good thing I can tune her out most of time, speaking of which…”

The party pony’s voice faded into the distance as they continued on their way. Rainbow Dash started laughing the moment they were out of earshot. “How long until he gives up? Twenty bits say he doesn’t last ten minutes.”

“It is the height of rudeness to imply that one of your friends is insufferable, even when she means to be,” Rarity replied, through her speech was ruined by her amused grin. “That said, I’ll wager thirty bits he doesn’t pass the five minute mark.”

“Focus, girls,” Twilight reminded them. “We need to find Dresden. Rainbow Dash, will you and Fluttershy check our rooms? He might have gone there for his clothes and other stuff. The rest of us will see if he’s checked in on Novel Notion. If his gear is still there, stay put in case he arrives. If he isn’t interrogating Novel, we’ll be back to meet you soon.”

Rainbow and Fluttershy nodded and took a right at the next hallway, while Twilight, Applejack and Rarity took a left. Twilight had only been to the castle dungeons twice, and both times it had been to study the ancient architecture in them. The old cells were rarely used to hold criminals these days. Tradition dictated that they be maintained, but there had been very few crimes against the Crown in the past century. Modern jails took care of the more mundane criminals, and many ponies never knew about the ancient and powerful prison that descended from the castle into the mountain it rested upon.

Still, Twilight couldn’t help but wonder if these cells would soon resume their forgotten duty. There were too many ponies in the Order Triune for the modern penal system to handle, and many jails were ill-equipped to deal with ponies that powerful and well-trained.

Twilight slowed as she approached the almost hidden hallway that gave entrance into the dungeons. She expected to have to explain herself to another set of guards as she neared the heavily barred door, but curiously, nopony stepped forward to challenge her.

“What’s wrong, Twi?” Applejack asked as she stopped in front of the door.

“There should be more guards here. Luna commanded that Novel Notion be ‘thrown into the dungeons’ and told that entire squadron to watch him.”

“Yes, she was rather incensed when we explained what he had done, but perhaps you are worried over nothing,” Rarity reassured her. “If they are keeping an eye on him, they are probably within the dungeon itself.”

“Maybe,” Twilight admitted as she opened the door and began to descend the long staircase ahead of her. The walls were made of smooth cut and fitted stone, rather than just carved out of the mountain. Sconces held torches that appeared to be on fire, but gave off a steady golden light rather than the flickering illumination of real flame. Celestia had made those herself, and Twilight had always liked the atmosphere they gave the subterranean passages. Every hallway, despite being dozens of feet underground, had the same warm glow as late afternoon. It changed what could have been a dreary and spooky part of the palace into one that Twilight had never minded visiting, even though she had hated her home’s basement in childhood.

The lighting wasn’t the only part of the dungeon that failed to meet the stereotypical expectations of such places. No water dripped from the ceiling; in fact, the entire area was comfortably dry, though a bit chilly. There were no rats, spiders or other vermin scurrying in the shadows. Every corner was clean and maintained. The stout metal bars at the entrance of each cell were not rusted or stained, looking as strong as the day they’d been placed. The entire dungeon lacked the air of despair and darkness that was normally synonymous with the term, a fact that had always made Twilight a little proud of her hometown. After all, like Dostrotevsky once said, ‘you can judge a society by entering its prisons.’

That tangent aside, Twilight wondered where their captive pony might be. She hadn’t heard anypony mention which cell he was going to be kept in as the guards had taken him away.

“Hello?” she called, hoping to get a response from his guards. Her shout echoed down the empty hallway until the sound died out. There was only silence in response.

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” Applejack said, stating exactly what was going through Twilight’s mind. “Looks like you hit that nail on the head.”

“I wish I’d been wrong,” Twilight replied. But it didn’t look like she had been. The three ponies charged through the empty corridor, glancing down each branching hallway as they passed them. They continued calling as they went, but still got no reply. It wasn’t until the fifth branch that they found their goal, and not in the manner any of them would have preferred.

In front of one cell in the distance were several ponies, lying unmoving on the ground. Twilight feared the worst as she approached. The Order had never seemed overly worried about ‘collateral damage’, an innocuous phrase for so cruel a concept. Fortunately, the first guard she checked had a pulse, and so did each of the others. They were unconscious, not dead. Only after she was sure all of the guards were fine, did she look into the cell they were slumped around.

The door hung open, unlocked and apparently undamaged. There was no sign of Novel Notion, not even a hint that he had ever been there.

Twilight stared at the empty cell as though she could force Novel Notion to reappear by sheer willpower alone. Sadly, he didn’t materialize out of thin air.

“That’s odd,” Rarity said looking over the unconscious guards and frowning. “There are only seven ponies here. Aren’t there eight ponies to a squadron? I remember eight of them when Novel Notion was taken away.”

Twilight stared at the prone stallions and realized that Rarity was right. One of them was missing. That fact coupled with Novel Notion’s quiet disappearance suggested something Twilight had feared. The Order Triune had members inside the Royal Guard as well. A spike of fear struck her heart as she remembered leaving Pinkie alone with Sgt. Quiet. Her ‘clever idea’ could easily have dropped her friend into the ruthless clutches of those fanatics.

“We should go. Now,” Twilight said. “Pinkie and Dash won’t wait forever and Princess Luna needs to hear about Novel Notion’s escape.”

Without further conversation the three turned and galloped from the dungeon, taking the stairs two at a time in their rush to get out. Twilight was pretty sure they set a new record crossing the castle and in minutes they were back at their rooms. Twilight opened the door and was relieved to see Pinkie chatting happily with Fluttershy as she stroked Dresden’s puppy. Spike lay in bed snoring, unaware of everything that had happened this past night. He had wanted to attend the ceremony, but had fallen asleep hours before it had started. Dash paced impatiently, reacting instantly to their arrival.

“Was he there?” she demanded the moment they entered.

Twilight was breathing too hard to answer, but Applejack was up to it. “Afraid not. I take he wasn’t here either.”

“No,” Dash growled, miming a quick punch. “If he was, I’d have beaten some sense into him. Worst thing? His stuff isn’t here, so either somepony got curious or he’s already come and gone.”

“So, we have no idea where he is,” Twilight groused, her happiness at seeing her friends safe starting to fade as her frustration resurged. She fought a yawn, unwilling to give in to her body’s insistent demand for sleep. Eventually, she would succumb. She could already see the signs of exhaustion in her friends, but they couldn’t afford to stop now.

The room was silent, except for one dog’s happy panting. “Well,” Fluttershy began hesitantly, “we have Mouse. He might be able to track Dresden.”

“Or,” announced a new voice, as the door to the room swung open, “I could tell you where he’s gone.”

Chapter Twenty

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Twenty

This is a stupid idea, I told myself. That statement could define about seventy-five percent of my life, but this instance was especially dumb.

I was lurking in the shadows of the palace gardens, almost naked, with nothing but my staff, my pentacle, and a jury-rigged kilt. I was a bit far into this particular venture to be having second thoughts, but this was my last chance to turn back. Once I left the protective cover of the thick vegetation, I was committed.

I bit my lip, careful to stay perfectly silent and perfectly still, as I watched another guard patrol walk past. On one hand, all of my equipment and gear was still in the castle, and I could sure as Hell use a change of clothes. Not just because my duster was enchanted to give more protection than your average suit of plate armor, but also because it’s tough to stare down pure evil in just your birthday suit. There was also a certain pony I wanted to press for more information locked up in the dungeon. On the other hand I was fully human now, terrible at illusions, not particularly stealthy, and the guards were thick as flies on … honey.

The major gates were swamped with civilians on the verge of panic, and the minor gates only looked unguarded. The misadventures of one unlucky journalist had already proven that last fact to me. My best bet was the window currently across from me; the shutters were open and the room was dark. With any luck, that meant it wasn’t occupied. The only downside was that it was on the second floor.

As much as I had bitched about transforming into a pony, I had to admit it made getting around a lot easier. Having to hide and skulk, not being able to let a single pony catch sight of me, was a real pain in the ass. I had been tempted to ask Twilight for another transformation spell. She could have−

No, I thought to myself. If I’m lucky, they know I’m a murderer and never want to see me again. If not…

I had gotten lucky as a teenager. He Who Walks Behind was too busy toying with me to finish the job before I blew up the gas station. I saw what He’d done to Celestia when He was playing serious, and I didn’t begin to match her level of power. True, she’d been surprised, while I had this chance to prepare, but I didn’t fool myself into thinking that that made any real difference. No matter how many advantages I wrung out of the situation, it was still going to be a mouse fighting a lion. Arcane Mind was an asshole, but he had been right about one thing: bringing my friends to this fight would be signing their death warrants.

This was the best way, the only way, to keep them safe.

Another guard patrol passed me by, and I prepared myself to run once they were out of sight. I’d made my decision, and heaven help anyone who got in my way. The ponies rounded the corner and I shot out of the woods at a dash. The castle wall was fifty feet from my hiding spot, and I needed to cover that distance before any of the pegasi on watch above spotted me.

I’m faster than most people think, if you give me a straight path. My height gives me a naturally huge stride, and I’ve practiced running for years. I’m not claiming I’d ever make it to the Olympics, but when I want to, I can move. My feet thudded into the soft, landscaped lawn, propelling me forward faster and faster. My right hand clutched my staff like a vice, my wounded left arm hanging more or less uselessly. My fractured ribs groaned with pain, and my scarred left hand throbbed in sympathy. About ten feet away from the castle wall, I gathered my will and jumped, trying to angle myself just right.

Ventas Servitas!” I hissed, willing the wind to throw me upwards. At first I thought I had aimed too high as the unforgiving stone above the window loomed into my field of vision, but I started to come down just as I shot through the opening, just barely grazing the top of the window frame.

In an alternate universe where I’m a suave, debonair, James Bond kind of wizard, I rolled to my feet instantly upon landing, already alert for any sign of danger. Since I’m me, I crashed to the floor in a roll that was about as precise and controlled as a kindergartener with finger paint. I only stopped tumbling when I ran into something large, heavy and unyielding. The curses that followed were vicious, but quiet. That done, I laid still on the floor, trying to get my breath back and listening for any sign that I’d been spotted.

Everything seemed quiet, which was good. If the guards had spotted me, there would probably have been plenty of yelling right now. Just in case they were trying to get the drop on me, I held still for another couple minutes. And no, it wasn’t because of my aching ribs or throbbing left arm. Eventually, I pulled myself together and got to my feet. The room was dark, but I didn’t summon any light. That would give away my presence in a heartbeat. Besides, my eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, giving me a decent picture of the room. It looked like a bedroom of some kind, but the sheets draped over the furniture said it was an unused one. Which made the open window a little odd, but maybe the latch had broken… or maybe I wasn’t the only one sneaking into − or out of − the castle tonight.

I pushed that thought to the back of my mind and moved towards the door as stealthily as I could manage. A small breeze from the still open window informed me that I had lost my only piece of clothing somewhere in the adventures of the past few minutes. I bit back a curse, and shook my head. I didn’t have the time to waste looking for it, and I had actual clothes waiting for me at my goal. The wooden door separating this room from the hall looked thick and strong. An experimental tap with my knuckles confirmed that. I placed my ear against the hard wood and Listened.

Listening is less a magical skill than a personal one. Years of training had allowed me to focus my hearing to the exclusion of my other senses. I didn’t hear anyone coming, and the clip clop of hooves on stone was pretty distinctive. Cautiously, I opened the door to an empty hallway. Thankfully, it was one I recognized from my tour yesterday.

I crept into the corridor, still alert for the sound of any approaching ponies, and closed the door behind me. In stark contrast to the outside, the hallway was barren and silent. The servants had either gone to sleep after the hectic night, or were just staying out of the guards’ way. I figured those soldiers not guarding the doors or out searching for the Order where probably gathered around the more strategically important parts of the castle. If I was lucky, these residential halls would be empty. Getting into those dungeons would be trickier, but I was certain I’d come up with a plan when it became necessary.

First things first; my gear and clothes. I prowled through the silent corridors for several minutes, encountering no resistance. It looked like my suppositions had been correct. Only one flight of stairs and another long hall separated me from the small suite of rooms that the girls and I were sharing. It was on the landing between the two floors that my suppositions slipped up.

The distinct sound of hooves came from the floor above, and they sounded close, too. Way too close to get off the stairs before I would be seen. The thick curtains on either side of the large window behind me were my only option. I shoved myself behind one, trying to rearrange it so my entry wasn’t horribly obvious. I stood perfectly still as the sound of hoofbeats neared me, relieved that my lanky build gave me small profile. If I was lucky, they wouldn’t notice anything and would just walk right past me.

Yeah, I know how likely that is, I thought sourly, my knuckles tightening on my staff.

“It’s just like I always said,” a voice claimed, as it came into earshot. “The monster that the Princess captured two months ago escaped and came back to get revenge. Even you’ve got to admit that it’s possible, Skeptic.”

A gruff snort came from somewhere at the top of the stairs, and my tension ratcheted up several notches as I realized my feet were poking out beneath the hem of the curtain. Another voice spoke in response to the first. “ Have you got a screw loose, Nancy? I know one of the oldest conspiracy theories in Equestria turned out to be real, but that doesn’t mean every fool notion you come up with is true, too.”

They were coming down the stairs, absorbed in their strangely familiar conversation, but they had to notice sooner or later. Murphy’s Law, a statute with which I am very familiar, demanded it.

“Private Colt, if you please,” Nancy corrected sullenly. “You know I hate my first name.”

That was met with another snort as they finally reached the landing, and walked right past me. They continued down the stairs, bickering like an old couple, without so much as a glance backwards. I was frozen in shock as they walked away. Had the Universe just let a prime chance to screw me over pass by that easily?

Questioning my good fortune could wait until later. I disentangled myself from the curtains and started back up the stairs. The hallway above was just as deserted as all of the others, and I reached our room without any more troubles. Once inside, however, I was assaulted by my vigilant guard dog. Mouse panted happily as he bounced over and gave a few playful growls. He didn’t bark, for which I was extremely grateful. I ruffled his ears, gave him a belly rub and generally told him that he was, in fact, a very good boy. He seemed to take my nakedness in stride, though there were a few chuffing little breaths that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

Spike snored on through the whole thing. He had stayed up until dawn the previous night, and the need for sleep had caught up to him hard. Not that I was complaining, since it made my job easier. I moved over to the closet where I was keeping my stuff. The girls had brought it with them when they hopped a train for the castle, which worked out great. If they’d left anything behind, it would have been in the clutches of the Order by now. Here, nobody would bother it… or so I had thought. As I opened the door, I saw two items that I hadn’t left there. Two items I immediately recognized.

One of them was the velvet case I had been presented with at the awards ceremony. The same case I had dropped in all the confusion. I opened it hesitantly, confirming that the star Luna had given me was still nestled within. I closed it gently, but didn’t turn the latch or lock it. The most simple explanation for its appearance was reasonable. Some of the castle staff had likely brought my ‘award’ here after cleaning up the disaster at the ceremony. But then why was it tucked away in the closet, instead of just left out in the open?

The other item was something I remembered, but it had been a year since the last time I had seen it. Leaning against the wall of the closet was the hammer that Trixie had fought with after we had finally cornered her. I didn’t remember what had happened to it after the fight, and nobody had ever mentioned it again. I thought it had been destroyed or lost, but there it sat. Silent and strangely gleaming. Who had left it here was almost as much a mystery as why they had done it.

I stared, pondering both of them as I got dressed. Two supernatural and super-powerful artifacts. One old, one new. One given openly, one left hidden for me. Luna’s gift was a Lodestar, a tracking spell so complex and powerful that I had only ever heard it described – but the mere description made it unmistakable. So long as I held it, I would always know the way home, no matter how far away it was, whether I was in this world or the Nevernever. Hell, it might even work across the Nevernever between different worlds. There was supposedly no limit to the distance you could travel and still find your way home.

You’d think I would already know if it worked across worlds, but neither my apartment nor the city of Chicago had been set as the Lodestar’s ‘home’. It was linked to Luna herself. What she had given me was not just a mind-bogglingly complex and beautiful piece of spellcraft, not just a personal ticket back to Equestria no matter where life took me. It was a tacit promise of safety and shelter.

I had been awed when I had first opened the velvet box, and it was still humbling and so very tempting to take her up on that offer right now. The star could lead me straight to Luna, and with her help I could easily slip out of reach of any wannabe sorcerer in Equestria. It wasn’t like I was hurting for enemies back home. But I couldn’t. Instead, I turned my eyes to the softly shining hammer. It looked like a medieval weapon, barbed along the sides with a jutting point on the top. Unlike any hammer I had ever seen, it was made entirely of the strange metal, head and shaft all one continuous piece. Its looks, however were nothing compared, to what I felt from it.

It was alive, and it was hungry.

That’s not to say it was intelligent or even aware, but in some inexplicable way, it was actually alive. And just like any living thing, it needed to eat. I reached out to confirm what I already suspected. A tiny spark arced between hand and haft as I touched it. I felt my power, what little I had left after this crazy night, seep out and into it. I lifted it, finding it far lighter than should have been possible. I swung it experimentally a couple times, feeling almost no physical exertion to the action. That’s not to say it was without cost. As I waved it around, that siphoning feeling intensified to an almost painful level. I put the hammer back down, and it emitted a faint sensation that was almost mournful.

I finished dressing, still watching the two artifacts uncertainly. One of them represented home and the illusion of safety. The other represented battle, and my own self-destruction.

I had a choice.

If I took the Lodestar, there was no sense lugging a magic-draining hammer all the way back to Chicago. Not when somebody else could put it to better use here. And if I took the hammer, I wouldn’t need to find anyone. He Who Walks Behind would be the one finding me.

“Hello?” A voice echoed from the hallway, interrupting my reverie. It was a curious, almost whimsical voice, and it had a faint British accent. “Is anybo- anypony here? Just that I’ve been wandering these halls for a good ten minutes, and haven't had anyone try to arrest me or throw me into a dungeon or something yet. Actually, thinking about it, someone might want to file a complaint with Castle Security really, because they seem to be sleeping on the job. Hmm… I’m reading some life forms in that room, at least.” An odd high-pitched whir sounded from just outside the door, and the lock popped open.

With a small effort of will, my staff shot to my hand and the carved symbols lining it began to glow orange-red. The door creaked open, and a pony wandered in. He was wearing a vest with plenty of pockets, and a pair of goggles were perched on his head. “Hello?” he asked again. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m in a bit of a pinch. Popped off the rails so to speak. I don't suppose you would have about two ounces of silicon, three crystals, and a silver fork perchance?”

“Don’t move,” I commanded, leveling my staff at him. I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be, but fear, hostility or shock would have been my first three guesses. Instead, he blinked in surprise as though he hadn’t noticed me until I’d spoken up. Then he started talking.

“A human? In Equestria? Hmmm, if the accent is right, mid to late twenty-first century America? Yes, No? Yes!? Annnnnnd you’re pointing a glowing thingy at me, which, judging from the first two points, is probably a weapon of some kind.” I had a spell ready that would bury him three inches into the opposite wall, but from the tone of his voice you’d think I was kid with a slingshot. “Well, that’s hardly polite.”

Mouse shuffled over to him, sniffing carefully. Both the strange pony and I remained silent as he completed his inspection, though the stallion seemed more amused than concerned by Mouse’s actions. Eventually, the puppy seemed satisfied and began to pant happily again. That relieved most of my tension. If Mouse liked this guy, he couldn’t be too bad.

My reaction didn’t go unnoticed. “So now that I’ve passed your intensive and no doubt sophisticated security measures, would you be ever so kind as to point the dangerous glowing things elsewhere?”

I lowered my staff and let the glowing sigils go dark. “Forgive me, your Lordship,” I replied sarcastically, “but after the last ten attempts on my life, I’ve gotten a little jumpy.” My mild scowl deepened as the full impact of his early statement hit me. “More importantly, how do you know what humans are?” He seemed familiar for some reason, though I couldn’t tell you why.

“Oh, I’ve met plenty of humans in my time, though none that wielded glowing sticks. Well, none that were literally sticks, anyway. That’s new, but strange universe and all; you’ve got to expect some surprises. Say, is that some kind of perception filter?” With that he pulled a silvery cylinder out of one of pockets and pointed it at me with a thoughtful expression on his face.

That was enough for me to connect the dots. “Hey! I remember you. We met in Ponyville a couple days ago. You’re that guy… Doctor something.”

At this he started in surprise, as though that news was somehow the most shocking part of this conversation. “DID we? Oh, something to look forward to I suppose. And no, not Dr. Something, it’s just ‘the Doctor’, but are you quite certain? I wasn't planning on sticking around once I get ahold of some materials to help with the recalibration,” he said, as the silver cylinder started making the high pitched noise I’d heard just a few minutes ago. Then it exploded into sparks, and the noise died out.

“Yep,” I confirmed. “The same thing happened last time. I mean, I was a unicorn then, so I’m not surprised you don’t remember me, but I’m Blackstone. Pinkie Pie introduced us, sort of.”

Doctor stopped fiddling with the smoking remains of whatever technology was my latest victim to react with a little more surprise. “Pinkie Pie knew me? How? I haven’t even met her in this univ−” He stopped as I regarded him curiously, then shrugged. “Well, this is quite awkward. I don't mean to sound rude, but let's try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, shall we? I haven't gotten that far yet.”

"Spoilers?" I just stared at him, the implications raising a dozen red flags in my mind. “Now... hold on, that... sounded a lot like you were just talking about time travel.”

He stared back, seemingly surprised that I’d noticed. “Oh… oops. Can we pretend I didn’t say that and just shrug it off instead? You know, ‘Oh, imagine that. This world’s a funny old place, isn’t it?’ and all the rest.”

My eyes rolled almost of their own accord. “It’s a bit late for that. Besides, not if Chronomancy is involved. Jesus Christ, I thought all the Transformation was bad enough, but this takes the cake.”

“Chronomancy?” Doctor stopped and sputtered as realization seemed to strike him, standing at attention as if I had insulted his honor. “I'll have you know, I happen to be a professional. Isn’t the difference obvious?”

I shrugged, not sure what he meant by ‘professional’. “Not really, but you’re the first I’ve ever met. Not only is time magic insanely difficult, but where I’m from, there’s a Law of Magic against it.”

“Against the law?” he asked with a trace of humor in his voice this time. “What do they do? Fine you?”

“Yeah, the first offense only costs your head. They’re pretty serious about preventing paradoxes.” Hell, I’m pretty sure even attempting time travel buys you a short appointment with a long sword. The only Law the Council enforces even more zealously is the Seventh, the final Law.”

“How very draconian,” Doctor replied, wearing a mildly perturbed expression at that news. “Remind me not to visit.”

An awkward silence fell between us as we each studied the other. Either Doctor was from some alternate world of ponies who were not only aware of humans, but had achieved time travel through technology instead of magic, or he was from some point in this world’s future. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if either explanation made sense. That old chestnut from Mark Twain about truth being stranger than fiction had never seemed more right to me. Seeking to break the awkward impasse, I reached into the deep pockets of my duster, and withdrew a few of the pieces of quartz I keep on hand for various spells.

“You said you needed crystals, right?” I asked, offering him a few. “Would these work?”

Frowning intently he studied them, tapped them with a tiny hammer and even sniffed one of them. “Yes,” Doctor said cheerily, deftly tucking them into one of his many pockets. “Those should do nicely. No silicon or silver forks, by chance?”

I shook my head, mildly amused by his actions. Amused or not, I was hoping this would get rid of him. He was a distraction, albeit an interesting one, and I still had too much to do for any time wasting.

Doctor shrugged at my response. “That’s all right. I think I’ve got an inkling about where to find them.” He paused. “I don’t have any bits or other local currency to pay you back, but I can offer you some advice.”

I was about to refuse his offer until I caught sight of his expression. The words never came. His odd mannerisms and cheerful weirdness were gone, replaced by a look of unashamed sorrow and empathy.

“Don’t,” he said, simply and powerfully. His old, sad eyes drifted from me to the unearthly hammer resting behind me. “I don’t know the details, and it’s really none of my business. I am not getting involved, but I know desperation when I see it. I know what it’s like to be alone with the weight of a world on your shoulders.”

His eyes met mine and I didn’t need a Soulgaze to feel the years they carried. I know wizards older than three centuries, and not one of them carried the same heartbreaking combination of age, regret and exhaustion in their expression. I tore my eyes away before the Soulgaze began, and this time it wasn’t because I was afraid of what of the other person might see.

Doctor didn’t seem put off by the break in eye contact. He continued speaking, almost rambling, but with a subtle intensity to each of his words. “That weight can and will break you, if you let it. It can change you, convince you to do things that you would never dream of otherwise. Things that you spend the rest of your life regretting.”

My first response, as was typical when outside my comfort zone, was snark, and a reply was already brewing in the back of my mind. I forced it down, but it wasn’t as hard as it was normally. There was a sincere and honest solemnity in what he had said. Besides, I was too well acquainted with the same emotions. “I know,” I said. “I’ve been there, too. I know rage and fear and regret. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. I’ve failed those who depended on me.” An image of Susan, my former girlfriend, flashed through my mind. “And that’s why I’ve got to do this alone. This isn’t like any of the other times. If my friends come with me,” And if they’re even still my friends… “they’ll die.”

He raised an eyebrow and glanced at Spike’s snoozing form. “Forgive me for assuming, but if that little fellow there is who I think he is, I’d guess this universe’s Twilight Sparkle is one of the friends you’re talking about.” My expression gave Doctor all the confirmation he needed and he smiled. “Then I think you’re underestimating her quite a bit.”

I scowled. “Or you’re underestimating the threat we’re facing. This thing already put Celestia in the hospital. I’m not under any illusion that I’m going to win, but I can buy the time they need to put down the pony behind all this.”

Doctor shook his head. “Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like an awfully expensive exchange.”

The thought of facing He Who Walks was still terrifying, but not half as bad as imagining what He would do anyone else. “I’ve been living on borrowed time since I was sixteen. I’ve made peace with my death.”

“Do you think Twilight has?”

The question was delivered in a gentle tone of voice but it struck me a blow that twisted my stomach into knots. Images flashed through my mind, the shock of our first meeting, her early fear and suspicion, her heartbreaking sorrow at Spike’s kidnapping, that moment when suspicion first gave way to trust, her brilliant gambit that brought Trixie to her knees. But most of all, I remembered when she took the fatal strike I had meant for Trixie. I remembered her sad, gentle smile as she lay dying and the raw anguish I had felt.

There were tears in my eyes when I raised my head to look at him. “You don’t fight fair,” I retorted.

“Never have,” Doctor chuckled softly. I had no reply, and he continued. “Dying is easy, leaving others behind is what's hard. Believe me, I know. When everything is at its bleakest, that isn’t the time to push your friends away. You’re only giving into despair, admitting defeat before the battle even begins. A good companion can give you something that lets you win any battle.” He paused as light flooded into the room from the windows.

Dawn is significant, and not just magically. Get up early, watch the sun rise, and tell me that it doesn’t mean anything to you. Something in the first light of day strikes a chord inside every person. It’s a testament to the fact that no night lasts forever. It’s the promise of a new day and a new beginning. The subtle power of daybreak washed over me as the cheers began in the courtyard outside.

“They can give you hope.”

Doctor was smiling. The sorrow and regret still lurked beneath the surface of his expression, but they were submerged by a simple, honest joy in life. Then he ducked his head, his foolish and whimsical grin reappearing. “At least, that’s what I’d like to think. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to get moving before I run out of fuel and get stranded in this universe.”

I made a shooing gesture with one hand, and he left. I turned back to the two objects that I had been unable to decide between. The choice now seemed obvious. My hand stretched out as I made my decision, only to be interrupted as Doctor popped his head back into the room.

“Besides,” he added his eyes pointed in my direction but, for some reason not focused on me. “If you take a moment to think, I believe you’ll find that somebody’s already lending you a hand.” He paused. “Or hoof, I suppose. Horn, maybe? I’ll have to ask Twilight about that one.”

His words, and more importantly his actions, sunk in. I spun to look outside, the sunlight making everything clear. Chains of logic cascaded in my mind and I was pretty sure I’d figured out at least part of the puzzle. “Clever girl,” I chuckled. This changed things. This changed everything.

I picked up both the velvet box and the hammer.

………

The hall leading to the throne room was three deep in guards, and that was only the ones in plain sight. There were probably who-knew-how-many still in hiding. They were ready for just about anything, though it was obvious that they were nervous. From the sidelong glances a few of them exchanged, they weren’t entirely sure they could trust their fellow guards either. Paranoia was setting in as the reality of the situation became apparent. If anyone could be an enemy, and there was no way to tell, who did you trust? That hallway was a powder keg that only needed a single spark to go off.

I sauntered into plain view, my staff in hand, massive hammer and cane sword on my belt, duster billowing out behind me, and an ephemeral ball of silver light leading me towards their only ambulatory ruler.

Not one of them noticed. A few even subconsciously shuffled a step or two out of my way as I approached them. Unfortunately, the doors weren’t as obliging, so I stopped and waited impatiently. I couldn’t open the doors myself without giving the game away, but how long could I go unnoticed? The world may never know, because after ten minutes of waiting, somepony new finally showed up.

All of the guards drew themselves to attention as he approached, and I knew this guy was my ticket in. His two-tone blue mane looked messy for an officer, but I hadn’t seen anyone sporting a crew cut, so they probably had a pretty loose dress code. His eyes passed by me, just like everyone else, but then they darted back. My heart immediately went on strike, demanding that my lungs start working again before it pumped any more blood.

“Sir?” One of the guards asked.

“Nothing,” the officer replied turning to look at the doors, but still with a puzzled frown.

Negotiations with my heart concluded, and I let out a relieved breath. The massive doors swung inwards and I quickly slipped in behind the white-coated officer. “I’ve got the latest reports from the field, your Highness,” he said, “but I’m afraid we don’t have much.”

“We are most grateful, Captain Armor,” Luna replied before glancing up from the mountains of paperwork surrounding her. Her mouth tweaked upwards into the slightest suggestion of a smile as her eyes met mine.

“I got your invitation,” I replied drily, my gesture taking in the Lodestar floating above me and the oblivious captain in front of me. “Though, I want to know just when you put this…” I paused for lack of a good description. “...this chameleon spell on me.”

Captain Armor’s ears swiveled towards me and he glanced behind himself. He stared hard in my direction and his horn flickered with light for a second, but he didn’t come any closer to penetrating her spell than he did the first time. “Dost something trouble you, Captain?” Luna asked, her smile expertly masked.

He frowned, but shook his head. “Sorry, Your Highness. It’s nothing.” Captain Armor resumed a more militaristic posture and continued. “Anyway, we did find a location matching your specifications.”

Luna’s smile became predatory, causing the officer to take an unconscious step back and sending chills down my spine. “Good,” she said. “Then all the players are gathered, and we can begin.”

Chapter Twenty-One

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Twenty-One

“Night is upon us. The time has come for you to rise.”

I would have argued with her about that, but it would have taken too much effort. Never before had cold, hard ground felt so good. I continued lying there until one of her wings nudged me. I grunted at that, but still didn’t move. Unfortunately, that’s when she chose to cheat. With a small poof, the pillow under my head and the blanket covering me disappeared, leaving me to the mercy of the cool breeze. Nasty, tricksy alicorns always taking away our preciouses.

With a yawn that was at least two parts grumble, I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Good morning to you too, Princess.”

At last I opened my eyes, only to see myself. I frowned, an expression mirrored by the image before me. I must have moved in my sleep, because I hadn’t started that close to one of the mirrors. I glanced around, making sure that everything else was still in place. All twelve mirrors, each one a massive thing of metal and glass taller than me and wider than my outstretched arms, were positioned around me in a circle. Well, a dodecagon, technically, but what was important was that I was surrounded by them. No matter which direction I looked, I could see behind myself. The ghostly, blue-white lanterns hanging above each of the mirrors lit the area brightly, banishing any shadows within the circle of their light.

“Admiring yourself?” the Princess asked, giving a chuckle too refined to be anything but practiced.

A disapproving grunt was all she got in response. Between getting here and setting everything up, I had had only grabbed five, maybe six hours of sleep. I didn’t look pretty by anyone’s standards. ‘Grimly determined’ would be on the money, though.

The Princess was another story. Her midnight-blue coat had clearly been brushed and curried. It shone where she wasn’t covered by silver armor. Her star-spangled mane flared out from the base of her helm, and the armor covering her legs and hooves was bladed. Her tail was bound, free only at its very end, though how a nebulous mass of starlight could be contained was probably a trade secret for the Princess’s stylist. Her chest plate was more silver, artistically blackened in certain places, both to soften the hard lines and sharp curves of her armor and to contrast with the enormous, luminescent moonstone set in its center. Her wings were uncovered, which I supposed made sense given the amount of armor already weighing her down. Strapped underneath those huge wings were twelve short swords, six to each side. Each sheath was stamped with a different constellation.

“How many of those do you need, anyway?” I asked, pointing at her swords.

Her wings fanned out in an impressive display, her smile somewhere between grim and coldly satisfied. “All of them,” she replied curtly. Both her weapons and her armor blazed with the magic of centuries, every inch the Princess of Night.

All in all, it was more than enough to make a guy feel insecure. Especially when all he could bring to the fight was a beat-up duster, weapons that felt like toys in comparison, and just one functioning arm. Still, I was one of the most important parts in Princess Luna’s grand scheme. After all, every trap needs bait.

“I’m good to go,” I said as I started stretching. There are few things more embarrassing than pulling a muscle in the middle of your climactic showdown with a massive, soul-rending demon. “How’s everyone else?” I asked.

“We’re fine,” Twilight’s voice came from behind one of the huge palace mirrors. “Though Rainbow won’t stop pacing, Fluttershy has to breathe into a paper bag every five minutes, and Pinkie hasn’t let go of that doll since we pried her off of you.”

“Mini-Harry is an action figure, not a doll!” Pinkie shot back. “Just listen to some of his cool action phrases!” There was the sound of a string being pulled, and an old-fashioned voice box crackled to life.

“There’s a ghoul in my boot!” the toy proclaimed, which was disquieting for a number of reasons. One: I was pretty sure I hadn’t mentioned ghouls to anypony. Two: That sounded a lot like my voice, and I knew that phrase had never passed my lips. Three: I was there when Rarity hastily made that toy as a last-ditch effort to stop Pinkie’s never-ending hug, and she had not installed a voice box.

“How is the circle, Twilight?” the Princess broke in.

“Ready to go,” Twilight confirmed. “All the glyphs are in place, all the crystals are aligned, and I made Rainbow pace well away from it so that she wouldn’t disturb any of the lines. If everything goes as planned, the entire array will be closed in less than forty seconds.”

I snorted at that. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” I was quoting somebody, but I couldn’t tell you who.

“True, it isn’t quite as inspired as your decision to heroically sacrifice yourself,” Rarity retorted drily, “but I do put more faith in a plan that doesn’t require one of my friends to die.”

Despite my daily dose of cynicism, I had to admit that the plan looked good. Princess Luna had really thought everything out. The moment He Who Walks Behind showed up, he was going to throw down another psychic whammy designed to drown the Element bearers in fear, despair and a few other nasty emotions. Until the girls overcame that disabling mental magic, they couldn’t focus the power of the Elements, hence why they never jumped in during the debacle at the ceremony. However, we couldn’t count on the Walker ignoring them while they were disabled this time. The double-layered circle Princess Luna had built, using magic and symbols I had never even seen before, was intended to prevent that. All six of them were positioned between the two layers, each surrounded by their own circle at one point of an unmarked hexagon, connected to the inner circle. The two of us in the center would keep He Who Walks Behind busy long enough for them fight off the bad mojo and activate the circles. That not only sealed them off from the demon, it set them up to banish his unnatural ass with a Harmony beam channeled through the circle.

And while we were doing that, Captain Armor would be leading a sizable force through the last hideout we had found. Between him and Princess Luna, it was just a matter of scooping up the Order Triune and preventing them from summoning He Who Walks Behind again. Everybody was confident that it was only a matter of time until we had them.

I glanced upward, examining the sky. The moon had already risen, and the last of the sun’s light was disappearing over the horizon. I glanced past the circle of mirrors into the distant forest. The clearing where we had set our trap was a stone circle almost two hundred feet in diameter. Since we were in the middle of a thick forest several miles north of Canterlot, the smooth stone was likely the evidence of ruins or some other ancient architecture. Princess Luna had seemed to recognize the place when we arrived, if I was reading her expression correctly. Along with that recognition was a flicker of something. Pain? Regret, maybe? She didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. If anypony else noticed, they also kept it to themselves.

So we waited as the light died and visibility was reduced to the small area lit by those ghostly blue flames. We waited as shadows danced outside our shelter and the woods rustled with the furtive movements of animals that avoided us and our fire. What I’m getting at is that we sat there doing nothing for a long time.

“So,” I said stretching for what felt like the thirtieth time. “We just wait here for him to show up.”

“Yes,” the princess replied.

“However long that takes?”

“Yes,” she answered, her royal jaw tightening in annoyance.

I rubbed my chin and yawned. “There might be a problem with this plan that we hadn’t considered.”

I should have known better than to hand the universe a straight line like that.

There was no warning. A wave of nausea washed over me as a miasma of crippling doubt and fear filled my mind. The shocked cries of my friends told me they had been caught just as much off guard. I almost fell to my knees, barely keeping myself upright. I raised my head to look in the mirror, and he was right behind me, one limb already raised for a strike. I dove forward, rolling on my uninjured shoulder, and I felt the tip of his arm, or tentacle, or whatever catch the tail of my reinforced duster, only to slice through it like tissue paper.

“FIEND!” the Princess roared, fury alight in her eyes. “PREPARE TO−”

He Who Walks Behind opened his mouth and the horrifying silence washed over the whole area. I shoved my hand into one pocket, fumbling with the loose silver belt buckle inside it. I glanced in the mirror in time to see another attack headed my way just before a telekinetically controlled sword sliced through his limb. All twelve of Luna’s swords were floating in a cloud around her in positions both offensive and defensive, but He Who Walks Behind didn’t appear all that impressed.

Maybe he should have been, because the lamps hung above each mirror flared to brilliant life, mimicking the spell cast during the ceremony. The silence broke like a shattered dish as he let out a basso rumble that sounded like a growl on steroids. Swords flashing like liquid silver, the Princess dove in and He twisted to meet her charge.

I shook my head and tore my eyes away from the scene, finding the hammer where I had last left it. With one hand I slammed the silver buckle onto the weapon, and it clung there without any need for adhesive. The buckle, enchanted to act like a sort of supernatural battery, was fully charged with my magical energy. So for the moment, the hammer was feeding off of it instead of me. I hefted the weapon, which moved far more easily than physics should have let it. One glance in the mirror was all the warning I got, but my handy-dandy hammer was light enough for me to spin and bat the razor sharp tendril aside. There was a screech of pain, not just from He Who Walks Behind, but from the hammer too.

That was odd. Though, if the hammer took a bite out of everything it hit, I wasn’t too surprised that whatever well of power He Who Walks Behind drew on would be painful even for it. I turned around again in time to watch him simply engulf two of the swords in a pair of pitch-black spheres. The only parts left of them were a pair of hilts dribbling tiny bits of molten metal. Still, the Princess was keeping him busy, and the Walker was in a tangible state like at the ceremony. I dashed in, ducking another tentacle aimed for me, and wound up for a home run slam.

I wasn’t trying to commit suicide, though I’m certain would have looked that way. I was hoping he was too distracted to pay close attention to me. That hope was thoroughly dashed mere milliseconds later. The instant I came within reach, his head spun like a cartoon owl’s, accompanied by a sickening crack that sounded like he had broken his own spine to execute the move.

“Little mortal,” he hissed as I barely batted away an inhumanly quick swipe of his arm. This time he didn’t screech, though the hammer sure as hell did. “Do you really think you can stop me?”

“Really? I asked. “That’s got to be one of the most cliché−” Another tendril of darkness sprouted from between his freaking shoulder blades and slammed me backwards. I hit the mirror going somewhere between twenty and thirty miles per hour. The glass shattered and my spine felt like doing the same as I hit the thick wooden backing. It ached enough to tell me that the damage wasn’t that serious, but I wiggled my toes all the same. Just to be sure.

He Who Walks Behind stalked forward, tossing back a few of those black spheres to keep the Princess busy. He had a clear shot of me, but just like before, he was giving me time to recover, playing with me. I looked behind him and grinned. “Forzare!” I bellowed, catching him off guard and throwing him backwards. Right onto the Princess’s waiting swords. Ten blades, propelled by the telekinesis of a virtual goddess, plunged into him all the way to the hilt.

“You shoulda killed me when you had the chance,” I gasped as I struggled to my feet. My back felt almost as bad as my ribs and left arm, but I was still mobile. Sort of.

“Kill you?” He Who Walks Behind echoed, sounding genuinely amused and not at all as though he was currently impaled on ten swords. “I don’t mean to kill you, Child of the Stars. I mean to break you.” The wave of hate and bile that reverberated in those two short sentences was enough to turn my stomach, and I nearly lost the scant lunch I had choked down.

His neck twisted back to its original position, turning to face the Princess, and she took an unconscious step back. The swords inside him started to hiss and smoke, and she withdrew them in a hurry. He Who Walks Behind lashed out with a strike too fast for me to even see, and she lost two of them anyway. Both swords fragmented into nothing more than shards, and his fist buried itself in her armor. Her breastplate held, at least, but it dented and the Princess was driven back several feet.

“I can see through your false mask,” the Walker said in contempt, casually tossing another oblivion sphere over his shoulder to keep me busy. “I know the true nature that you hide. You are weak; so much weaker than you pretend. You struggle and struggle, hoping, though you deserve only despair. Does your sister still blame you for your choice? Does she still hate you for what you forced her to do?”

“No,” she answered, gritting her teeth against what I felt sure was another mental attack. I darted forward, only for a thicket of gray-green brambles to rise from the ground, blocking my way. I threw the hammer at the Walker. It crashed into his head, staggering him, but only for half a second. I hadn’t even fully drawn my sword before he picked up the cracked hammer and crushed it to scrap in one fist. There was one last plaintive screech as it was destroyed. Then, only silence.

What’s taking them so long? I thought desperately. We weren’t supposed to fight him for an extended period of time. The girls should have already done their part, but the circle around us was still dead. It felt like we had been fighting for hours already.

“I think she does,” He Who Walks Behind purred. If you can call the satisfied rumble of a tiger eyeing a freshly blooded doe ‘purring’. “And I think you know it.”

“And I think you’re an asshole!” I shouted. “Venteferro!” With that, the crumpled bits of hammer flew from ground like they’d been fired from a shotgun. A lot of them struck in an area that would’ve taken his voice up an octave if the Walker were a man of flesh and blood. He Who Walks Behind may not have had any particularly tender bits there, but he still howled as the shrapnel pierced him. His tiny violet eyes flared with a more heated and immediate fury than their normal soul-chilling hatred.

“Thank you, Dresden,” the Princess said, her tears tracks only visible if you looked closely. “I think it’s high time I returned the favor.” She slammed her hooves down, and the ground shook. I don’t just mean right around her, either. Across the forest, trees trembled and fell with massive crashes, and hundreds of birds took flight in a cacophony of sound. It was very easy in all that ruckus to miss the subtle sensation of a circle closing.

The things I had thought were brambles uprooted themselves. Only then did I realize they weren’t made of vines, but some kind of barbed sinew or tendon. They moved to engulf me, but before they were within ten feet, the Princess appeared beside me with a pop of magic, and swung her mane, releasing it from her helm. Stars spilled from it. I don’t mean little cartoony things with five points, or even a sphere of soothing light, like the one I had been given. These things were miniature suns: tiny balls of pure, Grade-A nuclear fire. They scorched away the encroaching tendrils like they were nothing, then intercepted three of those pitch black oblivion spheres. The stars and spheres canceled each other out.

He Who Walks Behind apparently decided it was time to stop playing. With roar that set my teeth on edge, he gathered an alien power to himself and charged forward.

I have seen gods and demons, I have seen Summer and Winter at war in all their terrible, beautiful fury, and I have seen creatures a saner man would call unimaginable. And I had never seen something move as quickly as the Princess in that moment. In a burst of frenzied power, she summoned eight more stars and took off, darting forward. Her wings beat too swiftly to be seen as she swept past and around him, losing the last third of her tail to his swipe. He Who Walks Behind spun to face her, but she was already gone. In less than a second she climbed almost a hundred feet, only to reverse immediately into a dive. He bellowed again, and I could see the crystals set into our circle vibrating in sympathy with it. He crouched down, then simply leapt to meet her, his arms spilling forth more of that dark energy, forming it into twin lances. Without hesitation, she met his charge head on, a star cupped in each of her forehooves, six more encircling her head like a halo.

Riflettum!” I barked hurriedly, drawing as much defensive energy I could between me and the confrontation. They met with a crash of sound and power that ripped my hasty shield to shreds and threw me backwards. When the dust cleared, they stood straining against one another, but the Princess looked to have spent her power and He Who Walks Behind was still ready and raring to go. The stars around her head darted this way and that, blocking the sinew-brambles and other dark tendrils, but they were getting used up awfully fast. His claw-like hands locked around her hooves as they each attempted to overbear the other. It was obvious that she was beginning to flag. Slowly, she was pushed backwards as he bore down on her. He Who Walks Behind opened his mouth, grinning, oily sludge dripping from his serrated teeth.

Until, of course, the circle itself flashed with every color that existed, and a few new ones too. A torrent of rainbow-colored magic poured out of nowhere, rocketing downwards as like it had been shot from an orbital cannon. He released the Princess and she quickly pulled back as the technicolor sky fell on the Walker.

Only it didn’t.

The powers of the Elements slammed downwards, but to my surprise, they didn’t wash over him. He Who Walks Behind suddenly bent as if holding a heavy weight, going down to one knee. The ground cratered beneath him, rock splitting and cracking beneath the tremendous force. He braced himself like Atlas, only with extra arms, tentacles, and whatever else he could summon. I wouldn’t have thought you could hold back refracted light, but somehow, the rainbow didn’t quite touch him. It piled up a few feet away, like the repellent ends of magnets. It took a moment for me to understand; I was witnessing a clash of two forces so completely antithetical to each other that they were incapable of coming in contact. Though, seeing He Who Walks Behind’s apparent strain, something told me the Harmony Beam was still more than capable of ending him.

I sheathed my sword and picked my staff back up, wincing at my new injuries. If my back wasn’t one giant mass of bruises, I would be shocked. The rainbow hadn’t fallen just yet, but it was almost a foot lower. He Who Walks Behind bent beneath it as though he really did carry the world on his shoulders. Then he did the last thing I expected.

He laughed.

I’ve heard plenty of evil laughs in my day, but trust me; He could give lessons. Even with every indication that we’d already won, he still drove an icicle of fear deep into my heart.

“You haven’t won, little mortal,” the Walker said, making me wish for a tinfoil hat. “You don’t even know the game you play.”

That was it. He was more terrifying than any three of my regular enemies put together, but there’s just some part of me that can’t stand letting the bad guy have the last words. “Then it must really suck, getting your ass handed to you by somebody who doesn’t even know the rules.” I ignored the pain in my back, arm, ribs and everything else as I gathered energy. While the fight hadn’t been kind on my back, I was still at a half tank in the magic department. I leveled my staff and quickly lined up my shot.

Forzare!” I yelled, pouring all the energy I could into the strike. A crimson comet shot from my staff with a pungent whiff of brimstone. My spell tore through some smaller limbs to crash into his arm. I knew a kinetic strike like that wasn’t enough to wound him on its own. But it was enough to knock his arm off center and disrupt whatever was keeping the Harmony Beam at bay. The moment his hand went aside, the rainbow crushed him flatter than a frog on a busy highway, leaving nothing but a dark stain on the stone.

“Yahtzee,” I told the splatter smugly as it began to evaporate.

Threat finally gone, I just about collapsed with relief. “Okay,” I wheezed. “Next time, I’m the one who gets to use the magic jewelry and you six can fight him.”

“Hey!” Rainbow retorted, rounding the wall of mirrors. “It wasn’t exactly a picnic for us, either! You try having something like that poke you in the brain and see how you like it.” There was bravado in her voice but even in my tired state I could hear the pain and fear underlying it. Physically, they were fine, but that didn’t mean my friends had gotten through this unscathed.

“Is everypony all right?” the Princess asked, her concern just as evident as her exhaustion. Her foreleg was bleeding in a slow but steady trickle. I briefly wondered if I should have told her not to fight with me. I dismissed the notion for a pair of good reasons. Not only would I have been dead without her, but she had been determined to fight, and I doubt anything I said would have changed a thing.

“We’re fine, Princess,” Twilight called out, sounding about how I felt. “A week of sleep would be nice, but other than that we’re all okay.”

Floodlights, or crystals bright enough to serve the same purpose, flicked to life one by one around the entire clearing. “Heads up,” Applejack murmured warningly.

I stood to one side of a mirror and took a look myself. It was more ponies. At least a hundred of them, maybe even two. They stood just outside a circle painted on the stone, a few frantic ponies still adding symbols and lines here and there. It encompassed not just us but almost the entire clearing. Call me crazy, but I was willing to bet that the rustles and furtive movements we’d heard while waiting for He Who Walks Behind hadn’t just been wild animals.

The… Slayers, if I remembered their name correctly, were armored. The earth ponies wore barding so heavy I was shocked they could move. The pegasi had on light chainmail that I swear looked like it was made of aluminum. The unicorns wore more modest armor, but more than a few had gem bandoleers and gauntlets that reminded me of the pipsqueak that had stonewalled Twilight and Rarity last night. Standing at their head was a tall female pegasus, flanked by a wizened earth pony mare and Arcane Mind.

“Something tells me those three may just be the leaders we’ve been looking for,” Rarity said, examining them carefully. I suspected she was being a touch sarcastic, but right now the army awaiting us held my attention a lot tighter.

“Give us Blackstone!” the pegasus demanded in what I’d swear was a Russian accent.

“Not by the hair of our chinny chin chins!” Pinkie shouted back. That threw them for a loop for a second, and the Princess used the opportunity to interject.

“Members of the Order Triune. This man means you no harm.” That wasn’t true at this point, but they’d started it. “He is innocent of whatever crimes you imagine he has committed. Let go of these hateful delusions before they cause you to make a mistake you can never take back.”

The crowd stirred at that, which was good, because I can only speak for myself, but I was in no condition to fight even a small army of these jokers – a fact I’m certain they had been counting on. The lead pegasus shook her head imperiously and stamped one hoof to the ground.

“You!? You would dare to say that over the grave of our ancestors? Over the site of your first betrayal and the slaughter you wrought upon the Order Triune? Had not the Elements purified you I would−” The pegasus cut off as the wizened earth pony, laid a hoof on her shoulder.

“Let the past rest, Soldier.” But her kindly air disappeared as she turned one of the better glares I’d ever seen on yours truly. “We must deal with the present and this viper now.” She raised her voice and turned to address us. “Blackstone has lied his way into your confidences and concealed his darker nature. Look at his unnatural form and tell me he is not of demonic origins.”

Unnatural form? I don’t know if that comment counted as racist, but I resented it either way.

“I tend to judge by actions over looks,” Applejack drawled, “And he ain’t the one that summoned that monster we just fought.”

Arcane Mind whinnied furiously at that and shouted back, “I told you he’d draw the rest of you into this. Yet you refused to listen! If he was really so honorable as he pretends, he’d never have risked your lives to save his own.”

“Yes,” Twilight replied dryly. “The honorable thing would be to turn your back on your friends and go off to die on your own. He didn’t ask us, we insisted on helping.” I had limped out of the inner circle at this point, the Princess following me, to join the rest of the girls. Twilight had already let the inner barrier dissipate, but she was maintaining the outer layer. Smart thinking. I didn’t know what the Order’s magic circle was intended to do, but I doubted it was pleasant. Staying inside our circle would protect us from whatever the Order was trying to do with theirs.

The earth pony leader snorted. “Enough talk. If he won’t give himself up, we’ll come in there and get him.” A few orders were called, and the waiting army of ponies entered the circle, warily marching toward us. The pegasi dragged nets, the unicorns levitated ropes or prepared their gem gauntlets, and the earth ponies whirled lassos in their teeth. Only a small reserve force, about twenty or so ponies, remained outside their circle as the Order advanced. Five unarmored unicorns stood at equidistant points, marking a pentagram on the massive circle. As one they bowed their heads, touching their horns to the complex lines painted upon the stone. The Order’s circle began to glow a faint silver as they activated it.

“Bring it on!” Rainbow shouted at the encroaching ponies. “I’d like to see any of you limp-hoofed cowards try it!” Her bluster hid nervousness poorly, but I didn’t blame her. Our circle had only been made to stop spirit creatures. It could shield us from their magic, but it wouldn’t do a damned thing against any form of physical assault.

“We aren’t worried,” Arcane Mind stated confidently as he and the other two leaders advanced at the head of their force. “Our ritual barrier will restrict Princess Luna’s magic to levels we can manage. Please understand we don’t wish to harm you, but we must do this for the good of Equestria.”

Blue-white flame gathered at the Princess’s slender horn, growing into a massive ball. Even if their circle was capable of what they claimed, it didn’t mean squat until they broke through ours. I was about to taunt them with that fact, when the Princess shot the fireball skywards. It climbed several hundred feet in the next second before bursting in an explosion of light.

“A flare. Fantastic,” I groused under my breath. The odds of any cavalry actually seeing that, much less getting here in time to save us, were slim to none. “If we get out of this alive I am gonna kill Luna.”

The flare had made the Order draw back, but not for long. I just hoped the Elements of Harmony worked on misguided zealots as well as they did on demons. We all braced ourselves for a fight, but the violence didn’t begin anywhere near us.

Two dozen ponies, most of them dressed in the full robes of the Order, burst from the forest, yelling their damn heads off. The crystal-bandoleer pipsqueak was with them, and I was willing to bet that Watcher was the lead figure. What surprised me was that they weren’t charging us. They were running hellbent for the bulk of the reserve force. The army inside the circle stopped in confusion, but there was no way they would reach the reserve force before Watcher and her group did.

They didn’t need to. Pegasi hidden in the trees above Watcher’s target erupted into the air, throwing weighted nets that brought down most of her entourage. The few remaining were quickly dealt with by unicorns and earth ponies that had likewise been hiding in the surrounding forest. Most of the rebel band fell quickly, but it took two unicorns and a pair of lassos from the earth ponies to bring Watcher to her knees.

“What is the meaning of this!?” Arcane Mind bellowed. We were off the hot seat for now, but I confess, I was just as confused as everyone else about what was going on.

“What indeed,” the wizened earth pony said. “Isn’t that your daughter, Mage?”

“And your apprentice, Advisor,” Arcane Mind returned crossly.

“Father! This is a trap!” Watcher cried, no longer trying to disguise her real voice.

“What does she mean, it is trap?!” Soldier, the pegasus leader, snapped, her gaze darting warily in different directions.

“Blackstone is not the real Obsidian!” Watcher shouted back struggling against the ponies holding her. She had lost the emotionless façade, and her voice was ripe with anger and frustration. “He is just a servant of the true darkness. Bookmark is his master and the real Obsidian!”

“Vigilant Watch, that is enough!” Arcane Mind thundered. “When I indulged your jealousy and tested him, I found no trace of Obsidian. I thought that would end this delusion of yours. I am sorry you were not born a unicorn, and I had to choose another as my apprentice, but this irrational hatred for Bookmark must stop.”

Advisor, the earth pony leader, shook her head. “We each have our part to play, child. Were the secrets of the Earth not enough for you?”

One by one, the ponies inside the circle turned their backs on Watcher and resumed their march on us. Arcane Mind waited a moment then yelled to the ponies holding Watcher’s band captive outside the circle. “She didn’t threaten the integrity of the ritual barrier, did she, Bookmark?”

A tall, tan unicorn stepped forward, and my stomach sank. It was Novel Notion. All too late, I started to make connections I should have seen days ago. “No,” he replied with a grim smile. “The ritual will still proceed as planned.”

Five ponies clad in more of those enveloping robes stepped out of the forest. One behind each of the unicorns powering the circle. Metal flashed in the bright light of the glowing crystals, five throats were opened in a moment, and blood spilled to the cold stone ground.

Soldier and Advisor both cursed loudly and with plenty of heat. Arcane just whispered, “Oh, sweet Harmony...” They weren’t the only ones to notice either. Screams and shouts filled the air as the betrayal began to register. In the chaos and confusion of the next few seconds, the orders from the leaders went unnoticed. Some of the Slayers panicked and ran for the circle’s edge, but it was already too late.

The killers each yanked a massive clay urn out of the forest and brought it next to the circle. As one, they tipped the urns over, pouring dark red liquid over the complex lines and symbols of the circle’s array. Rather than washing away and breaking the circle, the symbols absorbed the blood, turning from white to red. Bookmark shouted in a language I doubt was native to ponies, and the light of the circle blazed crimson.

One second, we were surrounded by about one hundred fifty ponies crossing a barren circle of rock. The next second, the whole area was knee-deep in dun-green ceramic pentagons. Given that each one was only the size of the palm of my hand, that wouldn’t have been that alarming. Except that the plates were sliding to and fro like a restless sea, burying the warriors walking among them. Most of the ponies were taken by surprise and pulled down instantly, but a few of the pegasi got airborne or were already flying.

I saw Arcane Mind’s eyes widen with terror, and a spell begin to form at his horn before he was pulled down, disappearing from view. Advisor struggled for longer, but without any way to gain purchase, she was inevitably swallowed up too. Soldier, the pegasus leader, was one of those who managed to get airborne. She immediately began barking orders, trying to pull her shattered force together, but if they had been panicked before, now they were scared senseless.

The plates rose in physics-defying tendrils, somehow adhering to each other in long, tentacular structures, and swatted the flying ponies down. In close confines, none of them lasted for more than ten seconds. Their muffled screams, unfortunately, went on for much longer.

Nobody in our circle moved a muscle. I think it was more shock than any sense of self-preservation. In less than thirty seconds, an army of our enemies had been destroyed with nothing but a few dark red stains on the pentagons to indicate they had ever been there.

“NOOOO!” Watcher screamed, straining against her bonds, actually shifting two of the ponies that held her until a third joined them. Similar noises arose from the rest of the net covered ponies, and most of them broke down into tears. “Father, you fool,” Watcher sobbed, bowing her head.

“Hell’s bells,” I whispered. I’d seen people die before, but never like that. Never so many, so quickly.

Fluttershy and Rarity had hidden their eyes in one another’s manes, both letting out horrified sobs. Rainbow was retching somewhere behind me, and Applejack just stared, frozen with her hat clutched to her chest.

“Magic… shouldn’t do things like that. It isn’t right. Magic is for helping ponies,” Twilight mumbled, staring in numb horror at the Order’s meticulously constructed circle.

“We… we can get them back, right?” Pinkie asked, her happy energy gone. “T-they’re just buried under those little plates. They’ll be okay, won’t they? Twilight? Dresden? Princess?” Pinkie’s eyes watered, but she didn’t cry. I almost did; it hurt to see her innocence killed so brutally.

“I can’t believe it,” the Princess whispered as tears ran in silent rivers down her face. “I have failed you, my little ponies.” She seemed to take the slaughter that had just occurred as hard as any of the ponies who had lost their family members.

The demon wasn’t done just yet, though. The plates moved in waves, thousands of them, millions of them. They built on each other, forming what I thought was a serpent at first. More and more of the pentagons shifted and combined until they formed what looked like a three-story-tall centipede from Hell. Except that centipedes only have one row of legs, while this thing had two, one above the other. It had no eyes, but I didn’t question for a second that it could sense us. Its mouth had no teeth, but the roiling, glittering darkness promised a death at least as painful as any more mundane mauling. The previously-smooth stone it left behind as its components combined was scored with scratches and stained with blood. There were no bodies or even bones left, which in a way was even more disturbing.

The pseudo-centipede struck our circle, but with a flare of purple light, it held steady. Twilight had watched Luna build it, and I had no doubt she had spent the past several hours figuring out exactly how it worked. The composite demon let out a hiss like a steam engine and struck again, but this time Twilight was ready. The circle didn’t even rock as it rebounded from the invisible barrier.

We were at a stalemate.

The Dark Order couldn’t do anything to us without breaking their circle and freeing the demon to eat them, but we couldn’t do anything without breaking our circle. And I sure as Hell wasn’t up to fighting two Eldritch abominations in one night. Still, with that flare up, waiting was more to our advantage than theirs. We just needed to keep them talking before they could realize that.

“Obsidian, I presume,” I said, tipping an imaginary hat to Novel Notion (or Bookmark, as he had been called,) feeling less glib than I acted.

He actually seemed amused. “Not at all. Arcane Mind wasn’t lying about testing me for his influence.”

“Then why!?” Fluttershy said between horrified sobs.

“My parents didn’t hug me enough as a foal,” Bookmark replied sarcastically. “You don’t understand. Evil isn’t a disease. It’s the cure. My ancestors were forced into hiding underground in the name of ‘harmony’. ‘Harmony’ left me with a life of secrets and lies, indoctrination to an organization that can only live in the past. In the name of ‘harmony’, we bow and scrape to immortal tyrants, regardless of their crimes! If that’s what ‘harmony’ is, then I’m more than willing to be ‘evil’.

“You really think that the pain of your past justifies what you’ve done here today?” the Princess asked. She shook, though how much was exhaustion and how much was anger I couldn’t tell you. I’ll say this much, I wouldn’t want the glare she had going leveled at me.

Bookmark frowned and considered her. Then he smirked, shrugged, and whispered something to a nearby pegasus. The latter zoomed off into the dark forest while Bookmark replied. “I know you’re trying to stall me. You’re hoping your guards will see that flare and arrive in time to defeat us. Sorry to tell you,” he grinned, “but the lookouts on duty right now are members of the Order. Not my inner circle, but they still obey the Mage’s apprentice. Besides, you have more immediate concerns.”

I frowned. This was bad. We’d dropped plenty of opportunities for him to monologue, but he wasn’t taking the bait. Just my luck to run into a guy who actually followed the Evil Overlord list in a world where they’d never even heard of it.

He tapped one hoof sharply against the stone, and on cue, several struggling forms were dragged out of the forest. A trio of fillies, Applejack’s and Rarity’s little sisters plus their friend, were asleep, but the huge red stallion, a chubby blue mare, a lean yellow stallion, and a small white rabbit were awake and still fighting. It had taken chains with links as thick as my wrist to keep the red stallion contained, and even then, he still rattled and strained against the shackles with an expression of suppressed fury.

“It’s simple,” Bookmark said. “Drop the Elements of Harmony and dismiss your protective barrier, or I’ll start slitting throats. Then I will activate our sleeper agent; I believe you called him ‘Rom’? He will kill Celestia in her weakened state, and all of Equestria will fall into chaos. I doubt those Elements would still work once each of you carried that many deaths on your conscience.”

His words were met with stunned silence. Then, with phantom flames licking across her coat, Twilight screamed at him, “What is wrong with you?!”

“Megalomania, most likely, but that isn’t important. If you don’t do as I say in the next thirty seconds, I’ll start with the hick’s brother.” One of his pegasi pulled out a purely functional knife, and that’s when I started to really worry. Bookmark seemed a lot more competent than most would-be dark lords. Between having access to some nasty summoning spells and being a halfway decent plotter, he had us in quite the pickle.

“Girls−” I began.

“No,” Twilight answered. “I know what you’re going to say, but you’re in no condition to fight anything alone.” A purple glow surrounded the tiara on her head, and she gently set it to the ground behind her. She stood unflinching in spite of the nightmare she had already faced. Ready to do it again.

“I’ll keep it distracted,” Rainbow replied, already going through exercise to keep her wings limber. She unclipped her Element, and it fell to the ground with a weighty clunk. “I’m fast enough not to get hit like those other pegasi. That’ll give you guys time to get in place.”

“Try going straight up,” Applejack offered. “That’ll make that durn critter spread itself nice and thin. Once it’s stretched out enough, I imagine a good buck will teach it a thing or two. I’m gonna need somepony to hold my hat, though, just in case things get messy.” She passed her hat and necklace to Fluttershy, her eyes never leaving the demon.

“Twilight, dear, if you could teleport us to the edge of their circle, perhaps we could break out while Dash distracts it,” Rarity said, seizing up the barrier waiting for us. She removed her Element with magic, floating it and the others to the center of the inner circle.

“If we help free Watcher and all those poor ponies, I think they would help us,” Fluttershy whispered, carefully setting her necklace among everyone else’s and clutching Applejack’s hat nervously.

“Let’s do this,” Pinkie yelled, ripping her Element off and tossing it over her shoulder without even looking. It flew in a perfect arc to rest next to all of her friends’. Pinkie didn’t even seem to notice; she was too busy pulling Mini-Harry’s string one last time.

“I’m a witty wizard!” the doll announced proudly. “Are you a wizard too?”

They knew we were dead. We had all seen how fast that thing could move and how powerful it was. Even if we broke out, there was nothing to stop it from following us. But they refused to believe it. Deep down, they knew what was going to happen, but they refused to give in to despair. Even in the face of the inevitable, they had hope.

There is power in that kind of belief. There was more magic in the trust they shared than any spell I could have thrown. In the end, it didn’t matter that I was going die, because I could go out swinging with my friends at my side.

“I could not be more proud of any of you than I am right now,” the Princess said, a gentle smile lighting her battered features. “Twilight, would you−”

“Five seconds,” Bookmark yelled, snapping open an old-fashioned pocketwatch as he prepared to give us a countdown.

“Not necessary,” Twilight told him coldly, dragging her hoof across the circle’s outer line. With the protective barrier dispelled, I could feel the demon’s power. It was no Walker, but somehow, that thought did little to reassure me.

As our circle fell, the demon, which I mentally dubbed ‘the Gigapede’, let a noise that was part hiss and part roar. Bookmark just started laughing, “Yes! And so our bargain is fulfilled, demon.”

But before it could even build up a head of steam to attack us, Rainbow was already in its face. Having no jaws to snap, it simply lunged forward, trying to swallow her whole. Ceramic limbs like the mouth-bits of a spider grew out its face, seeking to drag Rainbow into its dark mouth.

Applejack charged off the same time as Rainbow did, though she was slower. Still, she was building some impressive momentum. Our favorite blue daredevil dodged the demon’s first swipe and started to climb. Rainbow seemed to have distracting it well in hand, but I missed a bit after that because Twilight chose that moment to teleport us. Everybody except the athletic duo reappeared on the far side of the circle, as far away from Bookmark and the demon as we could get.

I put a hand out to disrupt the circle, but it rebounded from an invisible barrier. I grimaced; they had built this circle to stop both the physical and spiritual. “Bad news,” I told Twilight.

The Princess likewise put a hoof to it and concentrated. “Yes, and it’s well constructed. Breaking it will be a task of several minutes at the least.” She frowned, and glanced at the demon. “Minutes which we do not have.”

“We’ll give you the time,” Twilight said with more certainty than I’m sure she felt.

I looked at the Princess and we shared a glance; both of us knew it was only a matter of time until we were overwhelmed. “Very well,” she replied and unsheathed her remaining eight swords. Without further speech, she offered four of them, hilt first, to Twilight. “These may help, if you would wield them.”

Twilight gasped. “The Zodiac Swords? I-I couldn’t. Those are national treasures!”

“Four of which I’ve already broken fighting the Dark One,” the Princess replied with a ghost of a smile. “Take them, and hurry. Your friends need you.”

My head jerked around almost of its own volition. Rainbow was still dodging and weaving, but she was slowing. Not by much, but it was enough to notice, and worse, the demon was learning. Applejack was bulling through its legs, but they reformed almost as quickly as she destroyed them. The demon didn’t even seem to have noticed her efforts.

“Yes, Princess,” Twilight said, taking the swords and galloping to the aid of her friends.

“Can I have some?” Pinkie asked, a wicked smile on her face. Before the Princess had a chance to answer, the pink pony had already swiped three blades out of the air and was running off with them. “Kay, thanks, bye!” she called over her shoulder.

We blinked at that, and I followed her, laughing. Rarity pursued, lugging the last blade along with her. I was fine with just my staff.

The Gigapede hiss-roared again and its face exploded outward. Apparently, it was done trying to capture Rainbow with just one or two tendrils, because now a cage of thirty or so had shot out to ensnare her. Rainbow was fast, but I could already tell it was too late. She had barely been keeping ahead of its lunges already; she couldn’t escape this. Until she flashed with purple light and reappeared some twenty feet closer to Twilight.

The demon was top heavy now, and Applejack used that fully to her advantage. She bounced from one leg to the other, bounding on top of the demon’s back. She used one of its gyrations to fling herself upwards and struck its ‘neck’ with a stomp from all four hooves. Pentagons shattered at the impact and the entire upper third of the Gigapede dissolved into its component pieces. At first that seemed great. Then I realized the rest of the demon was reforming underneath Applejack, and she had nowhere to fall but into its mouth.

Rainbow swept through, grabbing Applejack in a move that should have wrenched both their arms – forelegs, whatever – out of their sockets. They both got moving back in our direction, but the ceramic pieces were frothing upwards like an angry wave, rearing up to crash down and crush the both of them.

“Not today, bastard! Forzare!” I bellowed, releasing the energy in a wide flat plane aimed at the base of the wave. My spell struck home, smashing some of the pentagons to splinters, but more importantly, it ruined the wave’s momentum. Like a breaker over a reef, the Gigapede curled over and collapsed onto itself as our friends got clear. But I’d only slowed the oncoming tide, not stopped it.

“Three sword style!” Pinkie yelled, the hilt of one sword clenched in her teeth, the other two duct-taped to her fore-hooves. “One-oh-eight Caliber Phoenix!” She leapt up, spinning in midair and bringing all three blades down in one slash. It looked impressive, but seeing that the ceramic plates were still fifty feet away I don’t know what she expected to happen. “Oh c’mon!” she complained. “It worked in that cartoon!”

Rainbow landed next to Twilight, dropping Applejack to her hooves. “So what’s the plan, egghead?”

“Everypony, do your best to destroy the individual plates. Otherwise they’ll just keep reforming.” She faltered, losing the hard façade she had been maintaining. “Other than that, I don’t know what to tell you.”

The looks of her friend’s faces softened, but before they had time for any motivational speeches, the enemy was on us. Plates poured one over another like a grinding flood, raising a haze of stone dust as it came.

Twilight led the charge with a massive beam of light from her horn. Her spell cleared the first two ranks of pentagons, and then she was in the thick of it. He Who Walks Behind had proved that those blades weren’t Vorpal swords by any stretch of the imagination, but they were slicing through the ceramic plates without much trouble. And what Twilight lacked in any type of swordsmanship or skill, she more than made up for with energy.

“Three sword style: Demon Slash!” Pinkie shouted, slicing her way through a row of pentagons, bounding over a wave that threatened to engulf her. As … unconventional as her style was, the swords worked just as well for her as they did for Twilight. Her erratic movements and strangely effective attacks helped to keep her from getting pulled down even as she moved from one dangerous spot to another.

Rarity and Applejack were working together. The former redirected the surges of plates and the latter crushed whatever made it through her friend’s deft telekinesis. I was standing next to the pair of them as well, shooting out blasts of force. Most of them were minor, just my basic lances of kinetic energy, but they helped to keep the area clear.

Rainbow dive bombed again and again, delivering attacks anywhere the pentagons massed, constantly dodging the limbs that grew around her. Maybe it was her bright color scheme or just the fact that she was the hardest one of us to catch, but she kept the bulk of its attention.

Between the six of us, we broke hundreds of those pentagons. Twilight alone probably made it to half a thousand. More and more kept coming. They piled over each other in a never-ending tide. We were keeping them back, but we couldn’t keep this up forever. Even as I watched, more flowed around us, headed for Fluttershy and the Princess.

I spared a glance back at Bookmark and his cronies. Some of them were still keeping their hostages in line, including the pegasi with a knife to AJ’s brother, but most of them were watching us fight for our lives. A couple of them had the decency to look squeamish. Bookmark looked like a spoiled kid on Christmas. I was about to hurl one last insult for the road when my breath caught in my throat.

An orb of starlight winked into existence in the shadows of the forest. It burst with a flash and a pop, leaving an unarmored Princess Luna in the forest, just outside the Order’s circle. She blinked in surprise at the situation she faced, but it took less than a second for her eyes to narrow dangerously. Honestly, I don’t think the deductions involved were all that difficult.

Ponies gasped in surprise and confusion. Several of the Dark Order looked between her and the armored Princess still inside the circle as if wondering how she had doubled herself. I’ve got to hand it to Bookmark; he reacted faster than anybody else there.

“KILL−”

Well, except Luna.

WE THINK NOT,” Luna thundered, her amplification spell at full force. Some of the trees actually bent away from her as she spoke. I was so distracted I nearly missed another wave of incoming pentagons, and Twilight had to blast them out of my way.

The pegasus with the knife drove it towards the red stallion’s throat, but his own shadow shot upwards, pulling him to the ground, choking him where he lay. Five unicorns shot beams of light at Luna, Bookmark included. She wrapped herself in a wall of darkness, and after it faded, she was already gone. She reappeared behind the ponies holding Watcher immobile and dispatched them with five precise blasts, as fast as a machine gun.

Watcher threw the net off of herself and charged Bookmark, screaming murderously, only to be intercepted by the remaining Earth ponies. I didn’t think they were going to last long, though. That was about the time the Dark Order realized that discretion was the better part of dishonor and tried to make a break for it.

A flap of Luna’s wings and gust of breath froze the wings of the pegasi, sending them crashing to the ground. She captured a few more of the Dark Order in her midnight blue aura, freezing them as certainly as if she’d used ice. The rest were brought down by the Watcher’s band of ponies, now free from the nets holding them down.

“The summoner is the tall tan unicorn!” I bellowed, then cursed as I fired off another force spell. The Gigapede could sense that things had gone south, and it was turning up the pressure. The tendrils chasing Rainbow retracted and the waves of pentagons rushed forward with more force, heedless of how many we destroyed. I took a blow that only my spell-reinforced duster stopped from ripping straight through me, but it still sent me into a roll over my bad shoulder. I let out a manly groan of pain, and while I struggled back to my feet, the pentagons closed in farther. Applejack and Rarity were almost engulfed in another wave until Twilight covered them with a shield.

Luna nodded and released Bookmark from her aura. “How−” he began, caught somewhere between disbelief and abject fear. Luna didn’t let him get more than that out before she wrapped a glowing thread of magic around his neck like a noose.

Bookmark’s hooves skidded over the stone as the alicorn dragged him over fast enough to make him worry about whiplash. “Listen, cretin. The only reason you yet live is your knowledge of yon demon. Relate everything you know or we shall tear it from your mind, leaving you a gibbering wreck capable of feeling naught but agony. And there will be agony should you refuse us, we assure you.”

She loosened her chokehold and Bookmark bowed his head in defeat. He was a sneaky bastard, but he didn’t seem to have much going for him in a stand-up fight. “I’ll talk,” he said venomously.

It wasn’t going to be in time. The dun-green tide rose up around us on all sides until it met at the top, mounding up to crush us all like a giant fist. Twilight’s blasts and the sword strokes tore holes and slashes out of the dome, but nothing large enough to slip through without getting ground into paste.

There was a flash of purple light and suddenly all six of us were standing beside the armored Princess. It was a good save, but it had obviously taken the last of Twilight’s power. She slumped to the ground and the swords fell from her aura to be caught in a golden glow and restored to their sheaths.

“You did the best you could, my faithful student,” the Princess told her gently as she slipped towards unconsciousness. The Gigapede reformed its head at the crest of the wave rolling towards the edge of the circle. No more cautious parries or inexorable pressure. No matter what losses it took, it was going to swallow all of us in one last attack.

BEGONE, HARENAGNIS!” Princess Luna roared, louder even than its hissing cry. “BEGONE, FOUL DEMON OF WICKED DEALS AND DARK PROMISES! BEGONE, HARENAGNIS! THRICE WE COMMAND THEE BY NAME! HARENAGNIS, BEGONE!

The Gigapede hissed and screeched and thrashed, fighting her command. But Bookmark had built his circle too well. Anything that let him deal with a demon without getting eaten was more than strong enough to let Luna to banish it. The pentagons tumbled from each other like a house of cards falling in slow motion. They turned to ectoplasm as they fell and splattered like giant raindrops on the stone. All eight of us got splashed with a generous helping.

“It’s in my mane. Sweet Celestia, it’s in my mane!” Rarity screamed. As though almost dying was only a minor inconvenience in comparison.

The circle around us fell as Luna broke it from the outside. The Princess of Night walked towards us, Bookmark once again enclosed in her aura. Given the way Watcher was eyeballing him, that was perhaps more for his protection than ours. She stared at us and her double, then spoke with dread. “We presume our plan did not work as we had hoped?”

The moonstone set in the armored Luna’s breastplate flickered and went dark. Princess Celestia’s white coat suddenly shone in the light of the magic floodlights, and her star-spangled mane burst into a multicolored aurora. The Day Princess looked haggard and worn in her battle-damaged armor, but she still stood proudly. “No, I’m afraid we were outmaneuvered. I, too, thought they would have summoned the Dark One from deep within their lair. I never imagined Novel Notion was capable of such atrocities.”

“And our foolish plan led thee to be injured further,” Princess Luna replied, shaking her head sadly. “We thought that Captain Armor would need our help more dearly against the hordes of the Order, but yon fastness was nigh deserted! We never expected that they would come for you. Had Captain Armor not posted guards to watch outside, we would never even have known thou needed us.” Tears began to tumble down Luna’s face as the adrenaline of battle left her. “The pride – the arrogance! – that made us think we could surprise the summoners and apprehend them before thou were even in danger was pure conceit! Thou came within inches of death and it is all our fau−”

Celestia’s great white wings opened to their full span and she wrapped them around her sister, drawing her close. Small tears dripped from her eyes as well. “Shhhh… It is all right, Luna. We are safe and whole, and it is all thanks to you. I sent that flare because I knew you would come for us. No matter what the circumstance, I knew you would be there when we needed you.”

“We all believed in your plan, your Highness,” Twilight offered. “Everypony here thought it was a great idea, but like Dresden said, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’.”

Y’know, I’d be entirely okay if that quote was permanently attributed to ‘Blackstone’ in pony culture.

“Any climactic battle you can walk away from is a good one in my book,” I said. “Trust me, I’ve been carried out after enough of them to appreciate the difference.”

“Thank thee,” Princess Luna replied, still not breaking her older sister’s hug. She sniffed once, and poked her head out from behind the white plumage. “Such support means much to us. However,” she cleared her throat and flushed, “we would do well to comport ourselves more properly. The Royal Guard will arrive soon to arrest these scoundrels, and it would not do for them to see their Princess in such a state.”

In the end, the arrest and detainment of both Bookmark’s minions and the remaining members of the Order Triune was one of the most anticlimactic parts of the night. Which was fine by me. We’d had more than enough death and destruction for one day. Princess Luna recast her chameleon spell on me before the guards had arrived, and I just sat and watched as the criminals were dragged off. Literally, in some cases. I sighed; all I wanted at this point was a chance to get some sleep in a proper bed. Unsure what to do with myself, I wandered over to Celestia. “So, what comes next?”

“Justice,” she replied, her cold eyes never leaving the departing ponies who had sacrificed so many of their own to fulfill their dark desires.

Chapter Twenty-Two

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The Dresden Fillies: False Masks

Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Beta-reader: Coandco

Disclaimer: I don’t own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord’s return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Five days later…

The courtroom was nearly silent.

The ongoing case was being held in one of the oldest buildings the judicial system still owned. The courtroom, like much of the palace, came from a time when stonework had been popular for purposes of state. The marble columns, rife with fluting, were a tad excessive in Celestia’s opinion, much less the basalt podiums topped with rare and exotic woodwork. Still, there was a certain gravity to their surroundings. Besides, as time had gone on, most of the less practical innovations of the original architect had been changed. The stone benches in the gallery, for instance, had been replaced with wooden affairs, which was a significant improvement even without their velvet cushions. The room was small compared to most modern courtrooms, but that was one of the reasons it had been chosen to host this case. A small room gave her the excuse to refuse the large number of ponies requesting to attend the trial.

If Celestia had let the press have their way, it would have been a circus. While this atrocity could not – and should not – be hidden, certain details had no business reaching the public. The fact that Novel Notion and his followers had delved into dark and forbidden magic had helped to convince the more level-headed ponies in government that she was right to limit the amount of information released. The honorable Judge Verdict presided, a wise earth pony who could be counted upon to rule fairly. Swift Justice, the prosecutor, also had a reputation for discretion. Even the bailiff and stenographer had been hoof-picked as trustworthy ponies not given to gossip.

Standing behind the defense’s podium, Novel Notion had chosen to represent himself and the other conspirators. A few of them had at first requested individual trials, but no attorney had been willing to defend them. Given the choice between Novel Notion’s representation or a public defender, they had followed their leader.

In one half of the gallery there were several witnesses, including Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and the Elements of Harmony, a hooffull of government officials, and the few members of the press who could be trusted not to sensationalize the trial. In the other half, all of the defendants save Novel Notion were seated. They were chained to each other in ranks intended to complicate any escape attempts. Unicorns wore inhibitor rings, pegasi had their wings bound, and earth ponies were weighed down by hoofcuffs twice the size of the other chains. A full dozen guards watched them carefully, more than ready to crack heads to ensure the compliance of their prisoners. They had the right to attend their own trial, but that didn’t mean no precautions would be taken. Yet more guards surrounded the courthouse, though after that awful night, Celestia suspected that no surviving member of the Order Triune would lift a hoof to disrupt the trial.

The Princess of Day bit back a sigh as the last witness took the stand. Surprisingly few of the traitors had been willing to give evidence against her former aide. Whether that was fear of reprisals or true devotion to him, she didn’t know, and honestly, didn’t care. She was weary of the whole thing already. Her anger and horror had faded, leaving only disappointment. For so long she had done her best to guide and protect her ponies without stifling their freedom to grow and develop. When things like this happened, it was enough to make her wonder if her dreams were nothing more than foolishness.

Part of her knew that was only her sorrow speaking. Equestria was not a utopia, but then, such a thing was an ideal to be pursued, not a realistic goal to be reached. Her country came closer to that ideal than any other Celestia had seen in her long life, but even within the best of cultures, the seeds of darkness could sprout and grow, choking out the goodness that society tried to instill.

The witness finished telling the court of the capture and exsanguinations of key Order members in preparation of the final summoning ritual. Everypony in the room, save Novel Notion and some of his conspirators, wore looks of disgust. Once again, the defense declined any cross-examination, making the defendants mutter and stamp. Even those who had not sought other council before grumbled now as Novel Notion let pass another opportunity to provide any arguments in their defense. The prosecution thanked the witness and moved to make her closing argument. It was hardly necessary; the guilt of everypony involved was indisputable. Protocol had to be followed, but she kept her statement mercifully brief.

Judge Verdict thanked Miss Justice, and turned to the defense. “Have you any rebuttal, Defense?” he asked. Novel Notion cleared his throat and stood. Princess Celestia had expected him to let this pass as he had every other opportunity to prove his innocence, but he gathered himself and stepped to the center of the courtroom like an actor taking the stage.

“I do not deny any accusations made by this court,” he began, a curious statement for somepony who had submitted a plea of ‘not guilty’. “However, I do argue that nothing I have done should be considered a ‘crime’.”

Even with the limited number of ponies present, the uproar was deafening. Rainbow Dash and Applejack in particular were very loud in their opinions upon Novel Notion’s character and ancestry. Princess Luna swelled with fury until it seemed like only her sense of decorum kept her from shattering the eardrums of everypony present. Judge Verdict slammed his gavel with enough force to dent the fancy wood of his podium, but silence was slow in returning to the courtroom. “Proceed,” the judge said, though even his voice held a hint of a growl.

“Thank you,” Novel Notion said disdainfully, raising hackles throughout the courtroom. Even Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie glowered at him, Celestia noted to herself. “This all began twelve hundred years ago when my many-times-great grandmother was the Mage of the Order Triune. After Obsidian’s defeat in that time, she sealed his heart away and took it into the Astral Plane. The research drove her mad, but her sacrifice was the key to his undoing. Curious Notion destroyed our greatest foe and saved uncounted thousands of ponies, but nopony but her own daughter understood what she had done. Those fools called her notes insanity and blindly remained vigilant for a threat that no longer existed.

“The Nightmare War began a mere two centuries later, and Nightmare Moon decimated the Order Triune in her bid for power. The response of the Order was… overenthusiastic, shall we say.” Luna glared again, but this time the reaction was muted. Celestia could see the shadow of guilt lurking behind her sister’s eyes. “Princess Celestia took it personally, despite her sister’s intentions to kill her as well. So it was her orders that disbanded the Order Triune, forcing our more zealous ancestors into hiding. Those two events changed the proud Order Triune into a sad pack of pretenders who did nothing more than hide and wait, standing watch for a threat that would never come.” He paused for a drink of water, the magic inhibitor around his horn forcing him to awkwardly use his hooves instead of his levitation. Celestia noted that the glass shook slightly, suggesting that he was more nervous than he pretended.

“Princess Celestia forc