Dark Horse — A Five Score Tale From The Dresden Files

by Lord Of Dorkness

First published

One strange day, Harry Dresden turned into a tiny pastel horse. Weird, but what else is new, right? Except now, months later, this country with a silly name wonders what became of one of their lost heroes and just why she never returned...

One strange day, Harry Dresden turned into a tiny pastel horse with two girly tattoos on the rump.

She was not pleased about this.

And as strange and horrifying as this was, even by Chicago's only professional wizard’s standards there was a new job to do, and some new bunch of bastards to thump until they stopped their dastardly pony plans!

Except… there seemingly wasn’t a culprit to be found. No dark gods with a thing for horses had risen. No doomsday cults with a thing for pastel had declared their vile, equine intentions. Not as much as an ifrit with a lisp...

It seemed as if whatever had turned so many humans into ponies would simply be a strange and unsolved mystery.

Reluctantly, life simply had to go on, even if it was with double the number of legs as normal.

Now, months later however, this country with the rather silly name of Equestria wonders what became of one of their lost champions, and just why she never returned to them...

Five Score universe by TwistedSpectrum.
Dresden Files and all characters belong to Jim Butcher.
MLP:FIM is Hasbro's, but you should know that by now.

Written as a small Christmas 2014 gift to my followers. :twilightsmile:

Character tags to be added once done, to maintain surprise.

Story contains spoilers for the Dresden Files series, up to Skin Games! Also, spoilers in the comments!

Cover given by the amazing Tulip.

01 — The Snark Whisperer

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“Let me get this straight, ma’am… you’re telling me that I was a crazy cat-lady in my previous life, but with bears?”

The extremely purple winged unicorn on the other end of my desk all but had her jaw fall off. Making the....whatever it was, she’d turned her hair into, bob and waver around her head like seaweed. Imagine purple neon lights, but in strands and on somebody’s scalp. It wasn’t a bad look, per say, but it really screamed: ‘Hey, this person has more magic than fashion sense!’

The a bit too vivid colors aside, the girl was weapons-grade adorable. The slightly bigger size than me aside, she just had this ‘hot-librarian that doesn’t realize how hot she is’ vibe thing going that was just way too strong for me not to believe it intentional. I guess there are less classy baits for a honey-trap, but still, I’d have preferred some professional courtesy…

Or failing that, a cheerleading outfit and pom-poms.

You know, might as well hang for the cow, right?

Probably some damage from all that crap with Winter, but plain nudity just barely registered with me nowadays. Heck, it wasn’t even as if this Twilight gal had as much as rhinestones on. By supernatural heavy-weight clearly trying to seduce me, standards?

Stars and stones, she was all but plain.

Hey, man, or mare, a grown person has needs, and the trickle of partners willing to share my bed? Partners’ mortal, willing of their own free-will and not so evil they by all rights should have had cloven hooves?

Let me tell you, that trickle had not been strengthened by spontaneously growing teats. Perhaps I was just haunting the wrong avenues since I kept getting comments about how mind-meltingly adorable my new face apparently is…

But I just couldn’t say I was in a hurry to go a courtin’ at Anthrocon, or whatever. Even an ex-man with the awesome mutant power of turning into an adorable pegasus once needs to have standards, after all.

While my ‘client’ stuttered and searched for words, I fidgeted slightly in my seat and loosened my collar slightly using my canary-yellow hoof. I’d paid my Swartalf contacts’ a surprisingly small price to have my entire wardrobe (and then some) ponified, but I could still see why quite a few fellows afflicted by this had taken up nudism. Personally I had both too many enemies and too much dignity to go that route, but the somewhat sweaty price of it was most certainly worth thinking about.

No idea why the Svartalves wanted me to stare into a runed jar for five minutes using ‘all the hate from the bottom of my heart,’ but whatever. Hardly the worst price anybody has paid them.

Hardly my fault the jar melted.

Or screamed.

Or how the melted glass kept trying to run away.

Still, some weirdness I’d probably should look into sooner or later aside, a ‘free’ Swartalf tailoring was hardly something to sneeze at. The irritating warmth of it aside, even I had to admit the stuff fit like a fireball in a ghoul's face.

I fidgeted slightly again. Sadly about twice as hot as well, from the feel of things, but still.

(Although that bit of sweat probably had more to do with sitting within a few feet of a winged unicorn I didn't know. Sure, Twilight had been polite so far, but old habits die hard.)

Personally I felt a bit more worried about the bowing, the scraping and the chanting of: ‘Please pass us by, oh mistress of the Gaze of Doom!’

Probably nothing to worry about… and if I spent long enough at Mac’s that my body starts remembering how to become drunk I might actually believe that myself.

Finally had enough, I spread my hooves and still somewhat unfamiliar wings into a large shrug. “Please, Mrs. Twilight, I’m a busy ma- mare.” I pointed towards the small line outside my office, trying not to smile wide-enough to squeak at that rare sight. “This whole pony thing has given me more business than in years, and it seems you have some more thinking to do.”

The crestfallen look on the ‘princess’ near broke my heart on the spot, so I quickly leaned forward and gave my best smile. “Look, I didn’t mean it like that, but surely you can get that I don’t want to keep all those people waiting?”

It was slightly hesitant and she did bite her lip while doing so, but Twilight gave me a brief nod.

“How about this?” I said, reaching for my brand-spanking new stack of business cards.

Alas, spending about a year dead-ish? And one more out on Demonreach for medical reasons? Not what I’d call good for business itself, but man was it hell on wheels for wizard street cred. I’d been worried about all my assets being frozen slash gone, but apparently at least the Wardens had some type of precedent for this type of stuff. Some rather invasive and embarrassing spells to make certain I was indeed who I said I was, hadn’t come back through necromancy, and that the Winter Knight’s mantle was really gone, aside?

...Well, this was me and The Council we are talking about so I’d hardly call it with open arms, but at least I’d gotten what amounted to a sour nod and a reluctant admittance that the black sheep had done the impossible again.

That back pay, some favors, checking the walls for asbestos and ‘asbestos’ later, and I had both a home and an office again.

I felt a pang of sad nostalgia as I wrote out my small note on the back of one of my business cards. Neither this office nor the new place was even near as nice as my old ones, but eh, them's the breaks when life hands you lemons.

What can I say? The memory of seeing Mab’s shocked expression as she realized me turning into a pony was making me unfit for her carefully orchestrated mantle inch by inch? And that it wasn’t my doing?

If it would ever not make me smile, It would probably be due to me being dead again.

I felt a slight blush start up as the squeak from my cheeks cut the air, but I hid it by passing Twilight the card. “I usually don’t do this, but if what you’re telling me is true we’ve got quite a bit to talk about.”

I saw something not fit for such a cute face flitter over her features for a moment at the suggestion I doubted her word, but to the mare’s credit Twilight fought it down.

I pointed a hoof at the small scrap of paper. “I plan to eat lunch and then dinner there later today. As I said, I usually don’t do this, but from the sound of things you need a few hours to think anyway.” I gave another ruffling shrug. “If that is not of interest to you, you may also reach me through the numbers on the card at a later date.”

Twilight’s brow furrowed slightly after having read my card. “...No parties?”

“Real magic is not a toy,” I almost reflexively told her, “if you aren’t careful it will eat you. Mind, body and soul.”

Twilight let out a small gasp, as if the very idea was horrific. She even almost dropped the card, but she just barely snagged it with a hoof before it fell to the ground.

I made my voice slightly less stern before pressing on. “Now, that particular misuse? More about my own pride, than any corruption from the act.” I straightened out to my —to be fair, not quite as impressive as it once had been, height and continued much more sternly. “But would you care to spend an entire life-time to learn how to channel the forces of life itself, only to be expected to pop balloons for screaming children with it? I think not.”

“And no pony rides…?” Twilight’s brow furred again. “Why would you want to do that, anyway?”

I felt the slight blush return again as my mind drifted back to one of the best days of my life. “Sorry, but there’s a young Lady and Gentleman that has called dibs.”

‘Forever, and ever, and ever, and ever...’

And I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

A pang of pain flashed through the happiness. Still, coming clean about that for the Lady in question would be a later thing, no matter how it may go. For now, the biggest concern was that my eldest daughter was safe and happy.

If that was not in my arms or home… so be it.

I vaguely felt the pen I’d still been holding turn to splinters in my magical grip as Twilight’s ears perked slightly.

The ‘mare’ froze as I glared her straight in the eyes and leaned over the desk with my wings spread in challenge. “If that was more than compassionate curiosity for my friend’s children, Mrs. Twilight?” I leaned in and did my best attempt at snarling low enough the line outside wouldn’t hear. “Then I will do worse to you, all you call kin, all you call home and all you have ever done, than I did to the fucking Red Court. Have I made myself fucking clear?”

To my considerable surprise, I actually felt the slight tugging of a soulgaze beginning. I had to force myself to fold my wings in again and sink down onto the cushion I used for a chair, but I just barely managed.

In front of me, Twilight Sparkle started breathing again.

She looked as if she was moments near both puking and crying, but she at least started breathing again.

“...Please forgive that outburst, Mrs. Twilight,” I tartly said as I forced my feathers all the way down with a small effort of will, “but several ex-monsters have tried to send me ‘cute’ little messages over the years using my friends, lovers or pets.”

I had to take a deep breath and close my eyes for a few moments as Susan’s face flashed through my mind, before pressing on.

“If you meant nothing by that ear-perk, I truly apologize...” I opened my eyes again, and I swear I saw the purple winged unicorn’s pelt crumble slightly from the resulting glare I gave her. “But I have found that a warning and then feeding monsters their own entrails work far better as a deterrent against future fools, than just that last act.”

Twilight turned slightly green and had to swallow something I’m rather certain I don’t want to know about, but aside from looking as if she was moments away from running away screaming? She just remained still.

Her hooves wouldn’t quite stop shaking, though.

“I’m sorry for the hard-ass routine, especially if you’ve told me the truth...”

Something hot flashed in Twilight’s eyes at the word ‘hard-ass’ for some reason. “Honesty is very important to us Equestrians.”

I ignored both that flash of anger and her words, pausing only to let her speak. “...but frankly? The land you are describing sounds like this ludicrously perfect utopia. If it truly exists, I would probably cause the very grass to wilt with every hoof-fall, from the sound of it.”

I made damn sure my voice and face was as kind as I could make both before continuing. “I’m not this Fluttershy girl. The meek animal handler you talked about? I’m truly sorry, but I’m simply not her, and none of what you’ve told me really makes me want to be that person ‘again,’ either.”

I barely heard it even with my new ears, but I did catch Twilight whimper out: “...Oh, Fluttershy… what has this world done to you?”

I rolled my eyes at her. “The dramatics and how I wouldn’t mind… reconnecting aside, you aren’t giving me many reasons to pack my stuff and follow you down the rabbit hole, kid.” I swept a hoof slowly over the office’s white walls. There wasn’t much there aside from the furniture and my pile of paperbacks, but damn it, it was my barely furnished room. “I have a home and property in this reality. Things like that, friends and family aside, why would I give up my life for the sake of a cottage that’s probably rotted down to the ground by now, and piles of animal bones?”

Twilight looked as if I’d bucked her in the stomach. She just kept opening and closing her mouth like a fish air-drowning.

“Is there a lover?” This tiny hope I thought I’d stomped out decades ago winked to life. Barely an amber, but still flaring enough to burn the corner of my heart it rested in. “Any… foals? Any… family, of any description?”

That tiny ember died as Twilight hesitated and looked away. Gone like a politician's promises after your vote has entered the ballot.

“I’m… sorry, but… Fluttershy never talked about her family.” Twilight’s gaze drifted down and got locked onto the floor. “I didn’t want to pry… and suddenly it was just too late to ask. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know.”

I raised an unamused eyebrow at her. I was trying not to sound like an ass but this girl, power rising off her like a mist aside, was just so naive. It was as if she really expected everything to work out as long as every’pony’ did their best and worked together.

I couldn’t even remember being this… young. Not mentally, at least.

I let out a sigh that even to my ears sounded old. Then again, my type of life will do that to a person.

I folded my hooves on top of my desk —making the runed hipposandals I’d redesigned my force-rings into give out a soft clink— and tried to sound reasonable. “And it didn’t occur to you, that that type of info might make or break trying to get an amnesiac to come with you? An amnesiac that has been without those memories for so long they’ve built a whole other life, at that?” Some of my bafflement broke through my mask of professionalism, but I think it actually helped from the slight red to Twilight’s cheeks. “Hell’s bells, girl, what part of ‘curse that causes rebirth’ passed you by?”

Twilight did her guppy impression again.

“Consensus data? Interviews with any other ‘surviving’ friends? Searching her home for family photos?” I pointed a hoof at my staff as it rested in the corner of the room. “Come on. None of those non-magical means of finding that out occurred to you? Let alone all the myriad ways magic might have helped?”

Twilight got this gleam in her eye I didn’t really care for. “I’ve got this spell that lets me share memories. If you just l-”


Twilight actually toppled over backwards in surprise from the force in my voice.

I took a deep breath and forced my wings down again. “Twilight, mind magic is highly regulated in this realm.”

“...Why?” the mare said meekly, as she pulled herself upright again.

“Because one wrong move and it drives you and the person you are using it on insane.” I reached over my desk, and passed her one of the small brochures I’d printed primarily about the Laws of Magic. ‘Common Dangers of Magic - Harry Dresden.’ For anybody actually in the know before this pony thing it was near insultingly basic stuff, but for all the poor bastards without a background in the freakier side of things that had suddenly sprouted a focus on their foreheads, in their legs or on their backs? Didn’t want to brag, but I’d probably saved quite a few people's sanity and lives with that small pamphlet.

Twilight took the thing in her magic and started reading. Frankly, the way her brow furrowed in concentration would have been utterly adorable in any other circumstances.

Well, until her eyes widened and her face paled at the part about the punishment for breaking the Laws, at least.

“Black magic twists the user in this realm, Twilight,” I told her in a kind voice, “extremely rarely you can get to them in time…” I had to pause and let out another thousand year old sigh. “...But most of the time, they’ll laugh and spit in your face while planning their next atrocity. The only kindness you can give somebody that far gone?”

Twilight’s ears perked all the way up as I used the ‘k’ word. To my growing horror, there was even a tiny smile tugging at her lips.

“It is to sharpen your blade before you let it fall on their necks.” I’m rather jaded even by wizard standards, but I still had to suppress a wince as Twilight’s ears fell and all the air seemed to rush out of her. There are certain things no man (or mare) should ever need to tell a winged unicorn that cute, and I felt like an utter bastard for needing to tear at her innocence like this. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but it’s how this world is.”

Still, better her innocence dead, then her and who knows how many innocents.

To my surprise however, Twilight both continued reading, and looked confused again. “...What’s this about Names…? And why the capital letter?”

I vaguely felt my jaw hit my chest before I got my face under control again. “Are you telling me that earlier wasn’t a naive but kind gesture for proving that long lost friend thing?!” I forced myself to continue in a less audible voice. “This is very important, Twilight, have you given that same introduction to anybody else in this realm?!”

Something in my voice or expression must have punched through that almost bullet-proof naivety of hers, because Twilight actually thought it over. “...Don’t think so…?”

I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding and sank down into my seat again. “If you don’t remember a thing other about this meeting, Twilight? Names have capital P Power. You say your full name, of your own will, from your own lips?” I couldn’t quite stop a shudder. “There are people and things out there that will use that against you in horrible ways.”

Twilight actually thought it over for a few moments.

Then she laughed in my face.

Now, I’ve got it under quite decent control, nowadays… but I do have a temper.

And this spoiled brat with more power than brains, no matter how nice she was, clearly needed a lesson. And as a bonus? I could give one she’d actually survive.

Twilight Sparkle,” I proclaimed in a low voice, pouring enough power into the simple words that they rang slightly as the passed through the air, “I command you to punch yourself in the face hard.”

For a moment, Twilight just looked confused.

Then her hoof moving of its ‘own’ accord and whistling through the air, impacted cleanly with her cheek. I had to give the girl credit for taking care of her body, because the impact was so strong she actually fell sideways off her seat.

“I’m sorry,” I told the shocked and betrayed looking mare as she dragged herself upright on shaking hooves, “but I’ve seen far too many promising young kids turn up dead or worse than dead, just because they didn’t guard their Name as well as they should have.”

She clearly didn’t like it, but Twilight took a few shuddering breaths with her eyes closed, seemingly trying to center herself. “...I’m sorry for having doubted your word, Fluttershy, but there is no way it is th-”

Twilight Sparkle, I forbid you from ever using magic again.”

The moment before she realized I hadn’t put any magic into the words this time, Twilight’s face paled and she let out a small urk. It actually took until she noticed how the small pamphlet and card she’d been given earlier were still floating in her aura before she started breathing again. “...I see, so it is that bad,” she finally said in a tiny voice, barely above a whimper.

My nose wrinkled as this particular pungent odor started stinging it.

A blushing Twilight wouldn’t look me in the eye. “...I’m sorry, I…” She looked down. her gaze locked on what I was certain was now my old pillow for pony clients. “...Magic is really important for me, and for a moment I thought…”

I let out a sigh and decided the girl deserved a break. I pointed a hoof at the door to the small bathroom attached to my office. “You go clean up, ‘kay?” I forced down a deep sigh as my wallet screamed in incoherent rage at me. “I’ll close the office for today and we can… I don’t even know- Talk things over a lunch, or something?”

Twilight, still blushing so hard she’d partially turned crimson (however that works with fur) darted for the bathroom without hesitation.

I got up, trotted over and stuck my head through the doorway, trying not to wince at how much revenue I was about to lose. “I’m sorry, but my current client has had a small accident. Would you all please come back tomorrow after I’ve cleaned the office?”

A few of the line —a worried looking white unicorn mare with a frazzled purple mane I would have bet gold against rotted cheese was here for the ‘magic 101’ breakdown especially— looked like they were about to protest until they smelled the rather distinct whiff of horse urine.

“The ambulance is on its way,” I smoothly lied to save some face for Twilight, “but please make room and give the poor girl some privacy.” I did my best to memorize the faces of them all. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, but if you return tomorrow I’ll make sure you get a small discount for the sake of this inconvenience.”

To the people's credit, they barely hesitated. (Even if a small bit of me huffed rather loudly that the promise of a discount probably did most of that.)

I waited until the white, well-shaped rump and its three jewels had followed its owner around the corner. Cute girl, even if the way she kept frowning and looking at her horn distracted from that a bit. Probably one of the ex-humans —in a decent line I’d done so already with, that wanted to know just what the limits and price of the reality warping bone on her forehead would be.

Still, unlike my current ‘client,’ that would probably be easy enough to deal with.

With a slight shrug I closed and locked the door.

I’d gotten an office with a balcony to make practicing with slash commuting using my new favorite appendages easier, so at least disposing of the pillow would be easy.

Even so, I couldn’t quite stop a groan as I lifted the dripping thing away to be burned. “Ugh, and it just had to be the silk one…”

By the time Twilight was done and had come trotting out, I had a decently lease breaking mini-bonfire going in my metal-wastebasket.

Twilight blinked at the flames licking the red silk, the small blaze happily eating away at the cloth and hay-stuffing. “Uhh, what are you doing, Fluttershy...?”

I winced slightly as that name made something made from razor-wire and lemon-juice rake across the inside of my skull. “Please don’t call me that name, it hurts.”

The mare hesitated, but to her credit she actually peeked at the card I’d given her earlier. “Ha-rry Dre-ssden, right?” she politely asked as she sank down onto her haunches on the other side of the fire.

“Har-ry Dress-den,” I corrected her. “And for the obvious follow-up? I’ve got a few middle-names I’m not going to divulge. It’s so much less efficient without the whole name that it’s almost harmless.”


I felt a shudder race down my back at the memory of the one damn time I’d ever met a dragon… to my knowledge. “If you have to ask, you don’t want to know.” I gave her wings a nod. “Power does not equal goodness around here, kid. Almost the opposite, even.”

She clearly didn’t like it given how deep she was frowning, but it seemed Twilight was willing to take my word on things after the first demonstration.

“...So why are you burning that?”

I genuinely had to facepalm. “Really? You guys don’t even have thaumaturgy and you still consider yourself a magical superpower?”

“...What’s thaumaturgy?” Twilight looked irritated, but she clearly wanted to know more than voice that. “And just what has that with burning a perfectly fine pillow instead of just cleaning it?”

“Actually, that was silk,” I said, not quite keeping the irritation out of my voice, “it stains really easily, and is near impossible to get those stains out.”

A flicker of embarrassment passed over Twilight’s face.

I ignored it, and pressed on. “Thaumaturgy is the magic of like seeking like. Do it right, and you can make small things influence, or even seek out, the larger things they once came from.” I saw that gleam again, so I went for the kill. “Like say, magically freezing that urine and the kidneys that made it.”

For a moment Twilight just sat there still… then I saw her mind actually decipher my words. The mare made a small hulking noise and her cheeks once more filled with something I’d prefer not to think about as she turned green.

I pointed to the small fire. “Don’t leave hair, hoof-clippings or body-fluids lying around. It isn’t quite as bad as your Name getting out since any samples like that need to be used while fresh… but not by much.”

Twilight forced herself to swallow, before speaking in a pained voice. “...Is this what magic is in this realm? Just… ways to hurt or destroy?”

Even with the weapons of mass destruction level puppy-dog eyes aimed at me, I couldn’t stop the snort if I’d been paid to. “Of course not.” I ignored the relieved sigh from Twilight. “It’s just that you keep trying to hug the pretty flames and wonder why your fur is getting so uncomfortably warm.”

I got a weak nod from Twilight as confirmation.

I gave a shrug, and went back to keeping a close eye on the small fire. Call me paranoid, but I’ve burned down enough buildings over the years.

“...May I ask something?” Twilight said after about a minutes or so.


“...Doesn’t… making me punch myself like that…” Twilight’s voice dropped to a concerned whisper. “Doesn’t that break one of those laws? The ones with the… you know, as punishment?”

“Of course it does.”

You could have heard the proverbial needle even through the city noises and the crackling of the flames.

“That particular example, though? Traditionally OK loophole.” I told the wide-eyed mare in a calm voice. “Do you really think you're the first person that thought they’re so badass that Name magic can’t touch them?” I ignored the shocked little gasp at ‘badass’ and shrugged instead. “A single punch like that? It’s quick, causes minor enough wounds both spiritually and physically they’ll actually heal…” I gave Twilight a slight glare. “...and still make sure the know-it-all apprentice gets a taste of just what a bad idea screaming your Name from the rooftops happens to be.”

Twilight’s wings fluttered slightly in annoyance.

“So, yes, I did just give you the wizard equivalent of a spanking for playing with matches near the tar-pit.” I raised an eyebrow at the slightly fuming mare. “Of course, if you’d prefer to have your free will all but stripped from you, and become turned into some psycho's combined enforcer, weapon of mass destruction and sex toy..:”

Without hesitation, Twilight leaned forward and puked in one smooth motion. Hard and long enough to actually completely quench the flames. Eww.

“...Perhaps you should just go home,” I said kindly after she’d stopped trying to seemingly dislodge all her internal organs through her mouth. I put a hoof on Twilight’s back, just between her wings, as an added bit of kindness. “No offence, but if you're this grizzled veteran of many great horrors by your world’s standards?” I shook my head slowly before continuing. “I could probably make the heart of a grown Equestrian stallion stop just by describing some of my spells, let alone by saying some of the shit I’ve had to do or see over the years.”

Strangely, given the shocking level, variety and depth of depravity I've borne witness to over the years I’ve never actually seen a person kick a puppy.

Kidnap and try burning to death, yes, but not actually kick as such.

Still, I’m fairly certain the soul crushingly haunting look Twilight actually managed to give me despite hanging onto a bin of her own fluids would have been a contender for that title of ‘most pitiful thing ever.’

With a sigh, I pointed again towards the bathroom. “You go clean up again, and we’ll try to continue this with slightly less dark subject matters over lunch, ‘kay?” I poked the waste-bin with a hoof, making the contents slosh around slightly. “I’ll make sure this can’t be used against you in the meantime.”

“H-how?” Twilight stuttered out, her near boundless curiosity seemingly overpowering her queasiness.

In answer, I reached into my duster and pulled out my blasting rod. “Freeze it all.” I wiggled the runed rod at the wide-eyed mare, before aiming it and uttering my spell. “Arctis!”

Almost immediately, the waste-bin frosted over and froze. The metal crumbling slightly even at the sudden difference in temperature.

I let out a small huff of exertion before putting my blasting rod back under my duster. The skills I’d gained as the Winter Knight might remain but the affinity for cold had not. That and the power boost had departed with the mantle. Don’t get me wrong, I could still do all those ice-spells of mine, but on the same token I wouldn’t be making icebergs from nowhere anytime soon again.

I was more concerned with how something in Twilight’s head had apparently gone ‘tilt.’ Honestly, she even let out this tittering laugh and bangs of her mane popped out from her head with cartoonish ‘sproing’ sounds.

Not even kidding. Sounded just like Bugs Bunny’s idea of the sound a breaking clock does. I don’t even know if I should have been terrified or amused by it.

Luckily for me, the city-block and Twilight herself, the mare in question apparently knew some type of breathing technique for just these occasions. The gusto she did it with was slightly disturbing in its own right, but half a minute of breathing in tandem with moving her hoof back and forth later, and she looked almost sane again.

“...Twilight,” I wearily told the slightly unhinged demi-god in a kind but firm voice, “you don’t seem to be taking the differences in my realm compared to yours well. Perhaps it would be better for you to go home, just a day or so, until you’ve wrapped your head around things?” Twilight looked as if she was about to start protesting, but she fell silent as I lifted her hoof with mine and held it to my chest. “I realize that this probably isn’t what you hoped for when you came here, but this is my home, warts and all.”

Twilight gave me that quivering look again, but I squeezed her hoof gently and pressed on. “Look, I’ll be honest. Looking up from my desk and seeing you and that cloud of magic around you coming through the door over there? I nearly ran and screamed on the spot.”

The look went from quivering to outright misty. “...Oh, Fluttershy…”

I ignored the jab of pain. “Twilight, so far? You’ve been a very, very rare thing for me to meet: a person with tons of power that isn’t a bastard, let alone an outright monster.” I felt like an utter bastard myself, but there really wasn’t anything to do but continue digging my little hole. “I’d like to get to know you better…”

I swear something good and pure within me just died as my words managed to make somebody as cute as Twilight start crying. Ye Gods and little fishes, nobody should ever need to make a winged unicorn do that.

“...or relearn, or whatever the right word is,” I reluctantly added before squeezing her hoof again. “But I can’t do that if you snap and try to ‘fix’ how my world’s magic works, or whatever. Please, just go home and let things settle mentally for a few days.” I jerked my head slightly towards my office. “Believe it or not, but at thirty-nine? I can actually take care of myself, you know.”

As I talked Twilight had looked more and more uncertain… straight to the point when I said how old I am. At that mention, it looked as if the bottom of her stomach just fell out. “...But… the curse was for twenty-five years…?”

I had to tilt my head and think it over for a few moments before it clicked what she was referring to. “That ‘five score divided by four’ crap everypony heard in their dreams as they changed?”


“No offence, Twilight,” I held her hoof slightly harder before continuing as kindly as possible, “but did you really expect a chaos god to follow math? Even his own?”

I gently reached up with my free hoof and closed Twilight’s less than fragrant mouth. “Or how about this?” I told her instead. “You swear to follow the laws of hospitality, and you can stay at my place for a bit.”

“...You’ve got a house here?” Twilight meekly asked.

I realized she was somewhat at her wits-end, but still, certain lines you just have to snark at. “No, I'm bumming it out in this red dog-house that’s somehow bigger on the inside. Apparently the previous owner got shot-down by the Red Baron.”

Twilight just sat there and blinked at me for a few moments.

“It was a joke, Twilight,” I kindly told her with a gentle poke in the side for emphasis. “Actually, I’ve got this small house a few friends of mine helped rebuild on this bit of land that likes me.” I flared my wings for emphasis. “Isn’t that far by wing, if you… heh, follow?”

“...Bit of land that likes you..?” Twilight asked, eyebrows all but trying to pierce the heavens.

I knew it was rather pushing it. but I simply couldn’t stop myself from smiling wide. “We punched each other in the face, so now we’re friends!”

“Friendship does not work like that!” Twilight’s mane did that ‘broken clockwork’ impression again.

“What, and you're supposed to be the Princess of Friendship, or something?” I quipped with my tongue slightly sticking out.

A few more strands went sproing as Twilight’s left eye started twitching uncontrollably. “And neither does earth pony magic, geology or even bucking manners!”

I let go of her hoof as I rolled my eyes at her. “Yes, and surely we haven’t had any problems at all already because magic in this place is different than what you’re used to…” I poked the ruined wastebasket for emphasis. “Right, Mrs. Twilight?”

Me pronouncing the first part of her Name apparently spooked her enough that Twilight all but twitched out of her little spot of insanity.

I went over and sat down next to her, trying to pretend I wasn’t bothered by how familiar sitting on my freakin’ haunches had started to feel to me. “Look, if nothing else there’s four other Very Important Ponies you’re looking for, right?” I put one hoof on her back, and swept the other over the view…

The view mostly blocked by the railing for me, but whatever. It’s not as if I’m the slightest bit bitter about having gone from scraping the sky with my nose to needing to hold ninety percent of my conversations with people's crotches, or anything.

Luckily, Towering Twilight apparently mistook the flicker of irritation as a pause for dramatic effect. Small favors.

“I’m not going to pretend the spots of this world that are dark aren’t, but there’s far more to it than monsters and magic you need to be careful with. We’ve got wine, women and song, and all that jazz as well.”

Instincts that had proven slightly problematic in this brave new world where everything non-human moving fast suddenly wasn’t going for your throat made me twitch as a flying pegasus passed just a few feet away from my balcony, but I fought it down and forced myself to relax again.

Twilight clearly noticed and gave me a worried look, but thankfully she made no comment.

“Sorry, something of an occupational hazard,” I softly explained to her. “Until a few months ago, thi-” I cleared my throat apologetically, not quite dispelling the worried frown on Twilight’s face. “Non-humans moving quickly around you weren’t a healthy sight in these parts. Especially if the fuckers did so while flying around.”

Twilight twitched again, seemingly at the swear. Really? The kid’s that sheltered? Ye Gods and little fishes, how had this girl gotten this strong?

“I haven’t managed to get ponies and similar on my mental whitelist quite yet,” I continued smoothly. “Just see it as a friendly warning against dive-tackling any of the others, just in case they turn up to have had a similar history to me.”

Ever so slowly, as if she was worried I’d explode if moved too quickly (or break, for that matter) Twilight pulled me into a hug.

It was honestly… weird. Nice, but weird.

Imagine this cross between a giant teddy made from the smoothest of velvet, a high-voltage line humming in the background, and the strange smell of people type ponies.

Even with my own ‘condition’ I simply wasn't used to that last one yet. It just had this clear and sharp equine undertone to it. but tempered by a lifetime of bathing, it had turned into something that was actually not half-way unpleasant.

I took a deep breath, trying to ignore how my nose kept insisting it already knew and liked the smell of the mare in front of me. “Look, Twilight? I usually don’t do missing person cases this old, but even with magic out of the p-”


“The fresher, the better, remember?” I gently kicked the bucket behind us, making it clatter. “I’m good, but I’m fairly certain nobody is ‘twenty-five year old personal effects from a previous life,’ good.”


A thought came over me. “Just how did you find me?” I vaguely pointed a wing towards my front door. “Because my guess was that you’ve just gone for the only wizard in the phonebook and gotten lucky, but I’m not getting that vibe right now.”

I’d apparently poked one of Twilight’s ‘The world doesn’t work like that!’ buttons again, because her ear started twitching like a thing possessed and she sprouted a slasher-grin that would have done Freddy Krueger proud.

Have to admit, I’ve seen some shit, but there was just something in that horrible pin-prick eyed grin I’m decently sure would have made Mab herself hesitate.

Genius and madness are two sides of the same coin… and man, was this Twilight a clever girl from the current looks of things.

You can’t be a wizard, silly Fluttershy!” Twilight trilled at me in a completely sane voice, poking my in the chest for emphasis. Normally I’d at least glared at somebody for that line…

But frankly, the girl was just… sad. Slightly scary, yes, but mostly sad. Even in the whole ‘For Science!’ mood that seemed to have gripped her as a coping mechanism, she just had this little girl lost at sea without a life-jacket vibe to her.

“You’re a pegasus, not a unicorn!”

I waited for the stinger.

Twilight just kept staring at me. As if she’d needed to tell me ‘water is wet,’ and I still hadn't gotten it.

“...And?” I reluctantly added, mostly from morbid curiosity.

Twilight’s eye started twitching in almost perfect tandem with her ear. “...And pegasi have pegasi magic, while unicorns have unicorn magic.”

I decided there was some cultural thing I simply wasn’t getting going on —and frankly wasn’t nearly drunk enough to sit and listen to explained.

“Twilight, you are in a completely different dimension. By your own admittance, at that.” I tried in a voice that was starting to sound strained even in my own ears. “Isn’t it rather arrogant of you to proclaim that you know everything about magic for even your home, let alone all dimensions?”

Twilight was so clearly about to blow-up so hard, that Earth all but got another landmark — however briefly, that one could have seen from space.

So instead of that happening, I reached up and pushed her jaw gently but firmly closed. “Twilight? Shut up.”

The mare in question froze. She didn’t quite stop twitching, but on the whole? She seemed to be listening, at least.

“Now, I’m going to remove my hoof in a few moments, and we can either sit here like a lemon and a plum arguing with circular logic all night… or we can go have a lunch that might even be pleasant despite the clear culture-clash going on. What future would you rather be a part of?”

Twilight’s ears stopped twitching… even if I am unsure if them becoming plastered to her skull as she just stared down at me mournfully was much of an improvement.

“...Well?” I said, lowering my hoof.

I think it cost her something, but with misty eyes, Twilight gave me a nod.

“Good, good,” I naturally mumbled out, as I gathered a tiny bit of power, and floated my keys out of my pocket.

And man, oh man, was I glad I’d figured out that spell. Normally I was utterly rubbish at the low-powered, gentler side of magic, but this levitation spell, that to unicorns apparently was near instinctive?

Honestly, you just jammed some magic into your aura, made it drift over and picked stuff up! An apprentice could probably do it!

Truly, it was one of those ‘ye gods, how the hell didn’t I think of that?’ type tricks.

So why had Twilight gone back to gibbering again, on seeing my keys float…?

“I’m-sorry, but-I-need-to-think-things-over,” she blurted out in a single breath, and simply vanished with a purple flash of light, and a ‘zap’ sound.

I stared at my keys as they floated in that blue nimbus, at the spot Twilight had been sitting, and back again. “...Oh fun,” I sighed, as I went ahead and locked my door, “one of those days, huh?”

I mean, seriously, is it simply too much to ask? For a wizard/private eye/warden/pizza lord/pegasus/ex-winter knight to have a normal day, for once?

Don’t answer that.

Still, I hadn’t gotten a bad vibe from Twilight.

A polka-dotted one with assorted nuts and broken springs baked in, yes, but not a bad one as such.

Honestly, the mist of power thing aside?

If that hadn’t been a slightly off-kilter but mostly well-meaning young lady…

Well in the case of that type of acting talent, why then go after a single wizard with more hang-ups and scruples than chest-hair, when Hollywood was just there on the same continent? I mean, now that the five headed mutant cat with really big fangs was mostly out of the bag regarding magic, surely there must be easier and more pleasant ways to conquer the world?

Heck, a van, some snacks, a few busty cultists, and you could make an evil road-trip out of it!

I paused half-way over the banister I sadly wasn’t allowed to remove or even lower by law.

I mean… by now everybody had commented on how adorable I was, even by equine-American standards, and I did technically have contacts in the movie industry…

I just sat there for a bit, staring at the reflection in the windows on the other side of the street, what seemed to be the most darling little canary-yellow burglar.

“...Nah,” I snarked as I threw myself off my balcony, “peanut butter goes straight to my hips, anyway.”

And laughing like a mad-man, and with the wind tearing through my hair and coat, I fell head first down towards the pavement twenty stories below.

02 — A Horse Walks Into A Bar...

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I didn’t even unfurl my wings until I was half-way down.

Now, to be fair, doing what I was currently doing? Hurling downwards at quite literal breakneck speeds, laughing like a loon because some part of my ‘new’ brain really, really, really liked the feel of air rushing past me?

Not the safest.

Even if you discounted things like trying to learn how to fly from a ten-story balcony over asphalt and other foolishness, a modern metropolis like Chicago was hardly built with three-dimensional movement in mind. Power-lines, clotheslines, fog, pigeons that really didn’t like things the size of… well, a pony, just suddenly zipping past ‘em...

There had been some rather nasty accidents, even without counting on the whole semi-magical flight thing.

Heck, there was even some utter idiot in New York that had buzzed Manhattan at Mach freaking six, or something like that, and caused not only a light-show that was making the scientific community tear their hair out, but had caused damage in the high millions if not outright the low billion range.

Falling glass and panic had apparently even killed nearly a dozen people, with wounded in the low hundreds range. Talk about an exemplar of why idiots shouldn’t be trusted with magic. Heck, there had even been talk among the wardens about holding trial for the girl, only barely avoided by how she’d ended up in ‘muggle’ custody before the day was over. The trial wasn’t quite over yet, but it looked as if she wouldn’t be a free mare until her mane had gone grey-scale at the current rate.

Not that I quite expected to reach those speeds anytime soon, even with what a leg up I had in the magic department, but I had to admit, a part of me kept being tempted to see if I could even when I knew that I shouldn’t.

Not that that was a new temptation for a wizard.

Still, dangers aside, flying was just glorious.

The scents, the wind, the adrenaline…

Just… glorious.

With a snap of tendons that made the muscles on my back strain and burn, my wings caught the air. With a few more maniacal laughs for the road, I moved in an almost lazy arc that made me buzz the pavement, as I set up and off for Mac’s.

Call me paranoid, but with how this day seemed to be careening headlong into a new mess for me to deal with, I wanted to do so with a full stomach.

As the, heh, pony flew it wasn’t very far, and even with cruising and keeping my eyes open for threats —be they of the monster or unintended garrotes variety— I made good time.

It would have been a bit faster without the leather ‘gloves’ over my wings, enchanted in the same way as the rest of my duster. But what can I say? I’ve had a few too many bullets zip by me in my days, to leave entire limbs exposed like that, and most of my new flight was magical, so~o…

Still, even with my duster on, I made good time.

Not much had changed at Mac’s, even with the world turning upside down and pastel colored. It was still the same low-ceilinged hole in the ground. There was still thirteen ceiling fans, thirteen stools, thirteen tables, and so on.

The only real consideration to the end of the world as we knew it, was that thirteen bean-bag chairs had been added to the decor. the rest subtly shifted around to preserve the Feng-shui.

Had to admit. not the most dignified way to have a beer, but it sure was easier on the back than a normal chair.

I paused in the doorway long enough to wave at, and be grunted at in turn by Mac. Didn’t think he’d go for the shotgun I knew he had under that bar just because somepony came trotting in, but no sense in taking chances until everybody was used to the new arrangement of things.

Wasting no time, I… well, trotted up to the bar, fighting down the irritation of barely being able to put my nose on the surface without rearing up. “How’s business, Mac?”

Mac, as wordy as usual, let out a slightly irritated grunt, and did a so-so gesture with his hand.

“People still freaked-out enough to mostly hide away at home, huh?”

With a slightly more irritated grunt, Mac confirmed it with a nod. Guess my business was the odd-duck as usual.

I waved a wing at the door. “Got some company coming I’m not sure how on the level it is.” I nodded towards the spot on the wall were the ‘Accorded Neutral Territory’ plaque still hung. “Don’t think they mean trouble, but they sure aren’t local ponies, if you follow.”

Mac all but exploded with shock and curiosity, as I got a whole eyebrow raised at me in inquiry.

I looked around the bar, but it seemed it was only me and Mac there. Still, even if I trusted Mac, there was no reason to take chances, so I pulled myself up, leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Not quite sure if it’s a bluff yet, but the girl that showed at my office claimed to —get this, be my best friend from my previous life, and we plus four others used to be the land of Equestria’s team of magical girls...”

Slowly, the other one of Mac’s eyebrows joined it’s brethren in pointing heavenward.

“...except this one prick apparently faked being redeemed through The Elements of Harmony, and put some curse on us and half the darn country of Equestria, to be reborn as ‘magicless’ humans.” With a grunt, I let go and sat down again. “And trust me, that was the sane seeming bits that didn’t sound as if they came from a story-book for toddlers.”

“...Joking?” Mac asked, after contemplating the insanity for a few moments.

I paused for a moment, before shaking my head. “No, don’t think so, but I’m honestly uncertain if this Twilight girl’s delusional or not.” I faked twitching, flapping my ear and blinking rapidly a couple of times. “Like that, as soon as you point out the world doesn’t work quite as she imagines it to do.” I did a grimace. “And the lucky, lucky girl got one of everything. Wings, horn, and I’d bet mud to donuts the legs as well. You could feel the darn power seeping from her without even trying.”

With a deep hum, Mac looked suspiciously at the door. “Troublesome.”

I took a deep breath, and got up. “Yeah, just thought you deserved a head’s up, Mac.” I waved over to one of the few tables with cushion seats. “I’ll have a beer while I wait, but hold the food, ‘kay?”

With a smooth motion born of years of practice, Mac both passed me my bottle and opened it, almost in one pass.

I muttered out thanks, as I started hobbling towards my seat with drink in ha- hoof.

Now, the wings? Double strength awesome-sauce, with extra cool sprinkles on top.

The four legs thing? That sucked dust on toast. Don’t get me wrong, that first time you manage a gallop had been near as magical as a first flight…

But how often do you have to run like the wind? Unless you’re me, with my fucked up monster filled life, of course.

But for your average, day-to-day stuff it was just clunky, loud, uncomfortable, and for even carrying as much as a freaking pen you suddenly felt about as graceful and majestic as an icebreaker on stilts.

Broken, broken stilts, fashioned from the shattered dreams of cute little kittens, for whom joy would never be more again than a distant mirage.

I’d just barely gotten a sip of the liquid ambrosia Mac somehow kept stealing from the heavens without repercussion, when my ears perked at the clip-clop of hooves coming down the stairs to the bar.

I carefully put down my bottle, and shook my new, shiny shield-bracelet free from my sleeve. Say what you want about the sometimes strange and slightly worrying things Svartalves charge instead of money, but there was no knocking the end-result.

Somewhat worryingly, it wasn’t Twilight this time, but another winged darn unicorn. This huge mare almost twice my size, with blue pelt, a literally starry mane, and wearing only a black cloak that might have passed for stealthy in a bad Disney movie.

I let out a breath, and drew in a bit more power in the same motion.

Yeah, I was being scouted for something, alright.

I guess I was about to find out if that something was the same as Twilight had actually talked with me about or not, but it sure didn’t make that itchy feeling between my shoulders go away.

The mare, whoever she was, hadn’t noticed me yet.

Because not only had something on entering Mac’s made her frown deeply, but she seemed morbidly fascinated with the ceiling fans, of all things.

Honestly, in that moment, I was tempted to just do my best at veiling and sneaking off. I might not be good with delicate stuff like that, but this mare looked Trouble with a capital T to me.

It wasn’t quite on the level of some of the foul and/or fair stuff I’d seen over the years, but the mare still had this grace and subtle power to her that made me have no doubt I was dealing with something not-quite mortal.

Hey, what can I say? I’d just slunk out of working under a bitch with more fingers than morals, and I wasn’t in a hurry to have that same experience with a nag instead. Call me crazy, but that simply didn’t sound novel enough to be worth the time and effort.

Now, starting a fight on Accorded Neutral Ground? That was a big no-no. You might as well kick the entire Unseelie Court in the ganglies, and well…

I didn’t want to ever draw that particular attention again, not if I could avoid it.

So I came to a conclusion.

I hadn’t experimented much with it, but my wings —and probably by extension all pegasi, were seemingly hell on wheels as far as water and air foci were concerned. Made sense in a way. After all, about a ton of pony, zipping through the air like a hummingbird on crack? Not exactly light lifting.

Of course, the reason I hadn’t experimented much, was that if I blew these foci up, it would be just a bit more painful than normal.

Still, you use what you have, not what you want.

So murmuring my best veil under my breath and using both wings to weave the spell itself, I grabbed my bottle and started slowly backing off into the corner with the deepest shadow I could reach.

To hide with magic, you have to block or redirect things. Sure, you can theoretically make it so that a pipe-bomb sounds like a wet firecracker, but that shockwave suddenly has no-way to go, and will cause far more damage, if in a reduced area.

Sight was no exception, and as I faded into the shadows, my own vision darkened and dimmed. Now, I was hardly a, heh, wiz when it comes to veils, so I could still see and be seen, but for the price of suddenly wearing really dark sunglasses I was now little more than a vague outline in the dark.

Hardly impossible to spot, but much, much harder unless those type of distortions were actively being looked for.

Now, I’m a wizard. We cheat, it’s just part of the job, and my other job of private investigator was hardly an exception in that regard. Still, I’d done a few stake-outs, and with the necessary patience born of such, I sat down in my little corner and played the waiting game.

I saw Mac’s eyes dart over to me, seemingly not even pretending he couldn’t spot me. Still, as much as that made me once again wonder just what Mac really was, the tiny nod I got from him made me almost sigh out-loud in relief.

Curiosity aside? As long as he was still one of the good guys, that was enough for me.

Mac picked up his rag and a glass that already sparkled slightly in the light, and started ‘cleaning’ it.

Had to admit, kinda clever. Not only did it really cement the ‘totally normal barkeep, no need to worry about me’ image, but suddenly he had a projectile quite literally in hand for a sucker-punch.

With her lance of a horn I guess I couldn’t blame whoever she was from being a bit weary of the spinning bits of metal on the low ceiling, but ‘Black Beauty’ over there was still fascinated with them for way too long.

Still, after far too long, Black Beauty looked down, and gave Mac a light glare. “Is such a clear disregard for pegasi standard in this realm…” The mare proclaimed at Mac, in a dark but melodious voice, rather cementing that this wasn’t anybody I wanted to mess with. “...or is it just this one bar?”

I saw a tiny flicker of annoyance on Mac’s face, but he draped the rag over his arm, and pointed at a sign just outside the door I hadn’t noticed before. “I’m the owner, Your Grace, not the architect.”

I fought down the shock at hearing Mac speak in a whole sentence for once, and instead looked at the sign I could just barely see from where I was.




“...I see,” Black Beauty murmured out after having read it, not sounding completely convinced but still slightly more friendly as she turned back. “...And just why is the magic of this room so… off?”

“Practitioner bar.” Mac grunted and nodded in a way that somehow seemed to point-out the whole decor. ”Arranged to ground and disperse.”

Black Beauty frowned as if that was the most backwards bit of logic she’d ever heard. “...I was informed that this realm had next to no magical practice.”

With what was barely the ghost of a smile, Mac gave a brief shrug. “Things change, secrets revealed…” Mac hesitated, before continuing in a firm but kind voice. “People and things around here, Your Grace? Spooked by the pony thing, so I wouldn’t speak that loudly about ‘realms’ right now. Just friendly advice.”

It had been a long time since I’d heard Mac speaking this much, and that time it had been really bad news.

“‘...And things?’”

Mac smiled, if coldly, at the words.

“...Ah,” Black Beauty murmured out with a cold gleam to her eyes that hadn’t been there before, “those sort of ‘things.’”

I got the distinct impression I’d just seen somebody put entire species on their personal hit-list. It was a strange little voice in the back of my head that far too quietly went ‘oh shit.’

Wonder how many of my enemies have gotten that vibe? Ye gods in that case, no wonder people kept trying to kill me.

“Anyway, that is not why I’m here,” Black Beauty said, as she reached into her cloak and pulled out what looked like a faded photo but I couldn’t see of what. “I’m looking for friends of mine, and one of them was supposed to come here today. You’ve seen any of these mares?”

Mac barely looked at the photo before answering. “Sorry, Ma’am.”

The mare’s eyes nearly bulged out of her skull, and I even felt power gather around her.

“Nothing personal... but I don’t know you.”

Black Beauty let out a slow breath, and far more importantly, the power she’d pulled into herself. “...Please?”

Had to admit, if that pained expression was fake, and this ‘mare’ just some new type of spirit? Then the demons had just gotten dethroned from the throne of liars around here.

Firmly, Mac shook his head.

The mare fought down what was clearly a snarl, putting the photo back. “...I will laud your Loyalty, if nothing else,” she said with forced politeness.

I frowned a bit, as I slowly pulled my hoof away from my revolver. It was very, very seldom I’d heard people speak words with such conviction I could hear the darn capital letters on them, and it was just as rarely a good sign.

Frankly, that exit was starting to look more appealing by the second, but with Black Beauty sitting there just by the bar it might as well have been on the moon.

‘Luckily’ the main lunch rush was just about starting, and Mac’s might not have been the biggest bar around even at the best of times, but he did have a list of regulars with more names than mine on it.

So taking that, or at least getting off a first bop on the nose towards the mare, I slowly started sliding myself closer to the exit. Leaving the beer behind in the corner.

Crime against beer itself, I know, but sacrifices have to be made sometimes.

As a bonus since there had been only one or two ‘one-of-everything ponies’ even to the knowledge of the freakier side of things, nearly everybody entering Mac’s froze for a moment or so, on entering, leaving the door wide-open.

The old joke of: ‘Where does the ten-ton elephant sit?’ i.e. where ever it darn pleases, had proven true. Totally ignoring the layout, Black Beauty had floated over one of the cushions and just plopped it down by the bar to Mac’s barely hidden annoyance.

Honestly, the mare was acting as if the room was flippin’ graced by her presence. As far as I’d spotted, she hadn’t even gone for a token glass of water.

I’m not sure if it was hubris born from her power, or genuine disinterest, but any people actually wearing shoes didn’t even make the mare twitch, no matter how they stared.

Approaching hooves on the other hand…

The unicorn mare was one of the ‘nudists,’ that hadn’t yet managed —or bothered, to update her wardrobe to the quadruped cut, and was wearing only a small handbag slung over her neck and back. Wasn’t sure if I and my sweaty everything felt more annoyed, jealous or embarrassed, to be blunt.

Still, it was a rather mild spring, so I guess it made sense for people to if nothing else try the novelty of walking about with barely a thread in snow.

Not sure what end the decency laws would fall down on ultimately, but for now? Legal limbo. No politician wanted to be the first to give the yay or nay. Yay, and the conservatives would nail ‘em next election. Nay, and the rather frighteningly new, large and unknown ‘pony demographic’ would do the same.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… but I had to admit. Just speaking personally? If I’d been forced to pick one of two groups to nail me to a wall, I’d prefer people with pants doing it.

Sounds slightly less terrifying that way.

Other than that, though? Rather pretty unicorn mare, truth be told. A bluish-white pelt, and mane/tail arctic blue with a darker blue in stripes.

Very, very blue, but you wouldn’t know from how wide the gal was smiling. Heck, I swear her raspberry —of all darn colors, eyes were quite literally sparkling, even.

It didn’t seem to be quite a glamour or anything, but the girl sure had one of those presences that draws near every eye to her.

Aside from how she seemed to have a shining ruby rather disturbingly merged with her chest, the girl looked just… well, as normal as a Technicolor pony may, at any rate. Even her emblem wasn’t that out there, ‘just’ a heart with a jagged, blue musical note over it.

That is, until Black Beauty balked like she’d seen a ghost with really big teeth, and shot to her hooves. Going from melancholic boredom to fang-bared battle-stance in under a moment.

The newcomer I swear I recognized froze mid-step, looking quite confused.

“Ma’am,” Mac, who’d been serving some of the (slightly) more mundane customers, ordered in one of those voices you can bend steel around, “neutral ground. Behave, or leave.”

Black Beauty didn’t even glance Mac’s way. “That is not a pony.”

“Don’t care. You two got grief, it goes outside.”

Blue, whoever she was, slowly sat down on her haunches. “...I don’t think I know you, Lady,” she calmly said with an almost suspiciously melodious voice. “I don’t want any trouble with you. I’m just here for lunch.”

The winged unicorn’s eyes narrowed further, into an outright glare.

Blue just rolled her eyes, though. Ballsy, I’ll grant that. “The taco-platter, not… whatever you think it is.”

It was darn subtle, but I saw Mac move slightly, as if hitting something with his foot. A silent alarm? Since when did he have that installed?

Either way, about to be extra trouble.

Pausing only to throw her arms up in disgust, Blue rolled her eyes and got up. “Sorry, Mac, but I’m not risking the wrath of Winter —or whoever this nag is, for taco-cravings.”

‘Blue’ left with a huff, but Blackie didn’t even lower her horn until the sound of hooves died off.

“Leave,” Mac said with barely restrained annoyance. “Now.”

Blackie twitched as if slapped. “Do you have any idea, what that was?!”

Mac looked pointedly at the empty spot in front of Blackie, and then pointed at the door, his lips a thin line. “Last warning.”

With a huff and something muttered about “...ungrateful whelp…” Blackie stomped out, in her anger distracted enough not to notice me despite sweeping past so close I could have reached out and dragged my wing against hers.

I felt really damn mixed about it, but if I’d still been human? I would have been a dripping mess right now, as my weak-spot of fiddly stuff having been pushed to its limits…

And yet, I honestly felt as if I could keep this crappy veil up for days. I mean, I’d noticed my magic had been blowing out less light-bulbs lately, but that much greater control?

I guess my new ‘magic circulatory systems’ or whatever the right term would be, was just… better as a pony, but still, the realization freaked me out slightly.

I mean, I’d known I was up Technicolor creek without a rabbit season sign, given the whole canary yellow pegasus thing, but this was really the first time I’d looked up, seen the whistling anvil, and gone ‘oh dear...’

Still… I had a choice. I could keep this spell up, let that… whatever she was, leave, and I’d be home free, and back on Demonreach before dinner.

And all it would take, was letting Darth Wide-load hound after, and judging from the nasty gleam in her eye, ‘force-choke' somebody I was about 70-80% certain was a person I knew. I just couldn’t recognize them right now on first glance.

I didn’t let go of the spell, but I (quietly) stomped after the two.

Not in my town, and not on my freaking watch.

Whoever ‘Blue’ was, she was kinda clever about being followed by a fuming stranger. Wide-open streets with lots of people, and straight for the nearest police department.

And of course, if this had been something normal like a stalker or a purse-snatcher that would have been a great idea.

What I was fairly certain at least clocked in at demi-god, being lead on to this semi-enclosed space with slightly better armed mortals?

Not so much.

“Are you going to ignore me all day, siren?”

I frowned. Really pretty the mare was, sure, but really? Siren? I guess some shape-shifting shenanigans might be a hoof as the case may be…

But a siren in Chicago?

Most of the stuff that hounded the shadows of the world liked to think they were these horrible things of utter darkness. Primal existences that was ancient when the sky was young, and yada, yada…

But if you actually paid attention, even they fell into predictable niches, especially for all those that allowed their hungers and powers do all thinking for them. Ambush predators. Scavengers. Grazers. Oh, so many, many parasites…

So what was a lure using sea monster doing in Chicago?!

I mean, technically I guess lake Michigan could count on the level of ‘large body of water’, but that would be like finding a live polar bear in Sahara. Sure, there was a sea-connection, but that was a long swim through fresh water away.

If that wasn’t a rather large sign of ‘I’ve got no interest in my ‘dread powers,’ I honestly wasn’t sure what would be.

I guess the girl could be to what I thought of as siren, like I was to a mix of sea-foam and gorgon blood, but still. Threw even my weirdness scale for a bit of a loop.

Blue tensed at the words though, and slowly turned around. “...Look, I just got the spontaneous a- butt tattoos from nowhere, like everybody else.” The girl waved a hoof angrily at her pursuer. “I don’t know what holier than thou crap you’ve been smoking, or how you knew I’ve gotten a higher grade of freaky pushed on me, but I haven’t hurt anybody, so back the fuck off!”

For a moment, Blackie actually balked at the language. Really? Can’t say I’d seen that one before…

Except from Twilight.

Then, scraping her hoof in a really equine way, Blackie held her head high, and glared the other mare down. “I find that hard to swallow, siren, or are you truly naive enough to believe the disharmony you sow is victimless?”

To my surprise, Blue actually jerked slightly. “...Wait, that’s what I’ve been taking deep breaths of…?” she muttered a bit glassy-eyed, before shaking her head so that her long —heh, ponytail danced around, before re-doubling her glare and raising her voice. “I haven’t sown anything you creepy stalker!”

The girl reared up, and swung in a little circle with both her fore-legs out. “This is flippin’ Chicago, home to two point seven million souls; saints, sinners and all shades in-between!” The girl cocked her hip and rested her hoof on it in a way that made my pulse spike, even at this distance.

Stupid, sexy ponies without any clothes on…

“If I want that type of meal, I’ll go stalk one of those creepy party clowns for a bit.” Blue waved her other hoof utterly dismissively at Blackie, all while wearing nothing but a purse and a cocky smile. “So unless you’ve got proof I’ve harmed anybody, or stones big enough to throw the first punch, I’d drop this if I were you.”

Why are all the naked girls I meet totally crazy nowadays?

“Because I might have only been an ectomancer before, Lady,” Blue continued, making me do a double take, “but that was six months ago, and I’ve learned a thing or two thanks to this power-boost of mine since then.”

I’ve seen some weird shit in my day.

Both fairy queens, in their full glory, as they prepared for battle.

I’ve ridden a polka powered, undead t-rex.

An eldritch abomination, eating a woman using her own warped flesh in a mockery of sanity to do so.

Stars and stones, mold demons, even!

And my mind still went, quite frankly, tilt.

That mare, the cute blue one, with a cute rump and teats bigger than freaking mine?

That was Mortimer Freaking Lindquist?!

Honestly, I’m not sure if one’s libido can get whiplash, but mine certainly did a good try at it.

For a totally unrelated but super important and clever tactical reasons I can't discuss, my veil fell then.

Still… I owed Mortimer big time. Can’t say I wasn’t slightly worried about that ‘disharmony’ thing, but hey, you don’t let somebody that has done you a solid go hang.

“Hey!” I shouted, instantly getting both mares attention. “Tall, dark and wide! Back off!”

Blackie balked, as if she’d just seen that Donald Duck Nazi short Disney has tried to bury for so long for the first time.

That was actually a rather nice side-effect of this whole business. If the new me, in all her mind-melting adorableness, as much as said ‘fuck,’ then suddenly the entire room was just standing there frozen.

I took this opportunity to get up on my back-legs and draw my blasting rod. A bit uncomfortable, but better some back-pain later, than dead. “That really you, Morty?”

Blue blinked, and hissed in a way that rather removed all doubt for me. “Jesus, Dresden, do you have to drag me into your crap every damned time?”

Mortimer jabbed a hoof down into her purse while Blackie was distracted, and came out with some type of focus I didn’t recognize at first glance, but judging from how it was a tuning fork near slobbered in quartz-crystals I would have bet the tattered remains of my man-card against lipstick it was some type of sound focus.

Now that made me nervous. Sound had some rather nifty uses magically speaking, even in combat. Distractions. Disabling without permanent wounds. Armor bypassing…

What sound did not do, however, was be discriminating. You throw enough sound based attacks around, and you wouldn’t only liquefy the enemies’ organs, but quite probably his, your own, your allies and poor little cripple Timmy down the street as well.

Let us say that I like throwing fire around in combat, and I still suddenly felt a bit nervous about being down-range in Morty’s line of fire.

“Sorry, Morty,” said my mouth on autopilot as I kept my eyes glued on Blackie, who seemed content to stare between me and Mortimer right now, “you probably won’t believe this, but I met a pretty girl that suddenly wasn’t on the level.”

Despite everything, Mortimer let out a deep snort.

“You’ve got my word I was only at Mac’s for the neutral ground. I didn’t think anybody would be dumb enough to start anything there.”

At the implication I’d been there but hiding, this look of just pure betrayal flashed over Luna’s face.

I glared her as close in the eye as I dared a close thing with a pony even at the best of times. “Don’t know what grief you have with Mortimer, but I’m not terribly impressed with the ignorant buffoon I’ve seen so far.” I jabbed a hoof over my shoulder. “So unless you’ve got more than snarled accusations and snide remarks to show as proof, I think I’m going to go side with my friend over there.”

“Oh?” Morty snarked, but there was a real edge to the words. “So now I’m a ‘friend’ instead of a ‘useful patsy,’ huh?”

I shrugged my shoulders, before continuing in a serious voice. “...I’ll own up to that, but you did me a real solid you didn’t expect anything in turn for.” I gave a nod to the stunned winged unicorn in between us. “Just not right this moment, OK?”

Mortimer hesitated, but gave me the tiniest of nods.

Blackie was still frowning furiously, head darting between us…

But finally, she settled on staring warily at me. Oh, joy. “...And what sort of services could a siren even offer you, Fluttershy?”

I winced with a grimace, and almost clutched at my head, but I just barely managed to keep my blasting rod aimed her way. “My. Name. Is. Dresden.” I’m not sure if the words, my death glare or the snarl made the mare flinch back the most, but flinch she did. I swept my hoof in a wide, angry arc backwards. “If you can’t even give me that damned courtesy, you can go shove whatever creep-tastic recruitment offer you and the other goons have lined up for me sideways up your asses!”

To my shock, not only did the mare go slack jawed, but a couple of tears started dripping down her face. “...Oh, Fluttershy, what has this horrible creature done to you?”

Mortimer let out a nervous cough. “Harry, I think you’ve forgotten something.”

I blinked for a moment, and nearly face palmed on pure reflex once it dawned on me. “Right, the ‘A’ word is racist now.” With my tail lashing from irritation, I waved Blackie off. “Fine, fine, shove it up your butts then, if it makes so much difference.”

Blackie still looked disgusted with me, but now she was frowning slightly less about it.

I just barely kept a snarl of my face. “You want to know why I was willing to humor that Twilight kid, you creep? Here’s a fucking hint: She didn’t act as if my hometown was some type of lice-ridden scum-pound graced by her damned presence, and I didn’t see her stalking down one of my friends either!”

Blackie twitched, as if I’d slapped her… but her stubborn fool head remained held high.

“And are you even slightly better prepared for this, than that bleeding hearted kid?” I mercilessly pressed on. “What part of the word ‘cursed rebirth into another world’ is beyond your comprehension?! Did it never pass through the cavern you call a brain, that that means that Fluttershy…” I paused for just a second to wince. “...and all the others cursed are dead?”

Blackie shuddered, but still the head got kept high. “You seem quite chatty for a dead mare… Fluttershy.”

I grimaced, but didn’t take my eyes off the twit it seemed clearer and clearer wasn’t interested in me in the slightest. All she cared for was ‘her chosen champion of cutesy crap,’ or whatever the title was.

So I started slowly side-stepping around and behind her, to reach Mortimer. If nothing else, we’d be better able to concentrate our fire on the twit.

I saw Blackie’s eyes dart around, clearly seeing what I was trying to do, but seemingly not having a good counter that wouldn’t make it clear whatever her real intentions were.

“Does it even matter to you,” she began in a tense, hard voice, keeping her face aimed squarely at me and ignoring Mortimer for now, “that I’m here because Twilight returned to us in tears, because not only did you clearly not actually believe a word from her, but you off-hoofedly told her of magics so foul and wretched I barely have words for them.”

I didn’t even hide the snort. “Would you have preferred I hadn’t and the kid gone on and introduced herself in full to a wizard with less scruples than I have…?”

Mortimer did a small choking sound, and almost dropped her focus.

Blackie barely lowered the glower, though. “And the threat, however idle, to take her magic away…?”

I actually felt the darn glare from Mortimer. “The girl was still arguing name magic can't be that bad, after I’d given her a Master’s Love-tap,” I explained without even turning or stopping. “So I bluffed without actually using her Name to drive the point home.”

I felt the glare die away, as Mortimer let out a hum. “...Fair enough.”

Blackie’s eyes nearly left her sockets.

“Name magic can make you eat your own children with a smile, if you get caught in the clutches of the wrong bastard,” Mortimer countered calmly, as Blackie for a moment turned into Greenie. “You are clearly at least a practitioner. Shouldn’t you know already, that ignorance about the dangers of magic can get you worse than killed?”

Blackie whirled around, and stomped a hoof so hard, that it send cracks through the pavement three feet across. “Magic doesn’t work like that!” she snarled, lifting the same hoof and pointing it shakily at Mortimer. “Unless twisted by short sighted and cruel monsters like you!”

Mortimer just looked disgusted.

“She’s either some type of new pony spirit so wet behind the ears there’s leakage, a crazy kid with more power than sanity points, or some big shot from another dimension that thinks that one is the bee’s knees.” I explained in a tired voice. “Honestly, that Twilight kid was slightly saner, but she wouldn’t even believe I’m a wizard just because I’ve got wings now, for some foul reason.”

Mortimer frowned, as Blackie glared between the two of us. “...What, really? Don’t get me wrong, flying is awesome, but what does that have to do with magical talent?”

Now hearing that made me blink for a moment.

I just got waved off, though. “I’ll show you later.”

I gave a wide shrug, taking it slow as to not lose my balance. “Fair enough.” I turned to the fuming winged unicorn, and continued in far less friendly voice. “I’ll grant you this much, Lady: You’re one of the most entitled brats I’ve ever met so far in my entire life, but aside from being a fool —something I’m not quite ready to go around clobber people on the head for, you’ve mostly been a rude creep.” I took a calculated risk, and waved my blasting rod back over my shoulder while the mare balked at me. “You leave now and act like you at least can pretend to give a damn about me and mine whenever you come crawling back, and I might actually return that damn favor by pretending I care about you and yours.”

Blackie actually looked as if I, again, had slapped her.

“What? You actually expected me to give a big smile, and say: ‘Oh golly gee, fighting somebody else’s battles again sounds just peachy!’” I did a disgusted grimace. “For fuck’s sake, child, even the freaking Queen of Air and Darkness didn’t expect me to be her lapdog by asking freaking nicely. You think I’ve never gotten offers with a thousand darn strings attached before?” Safety be damned, I threw my arms up in the air in utter disgust. “Hell’s bells, girl, even the Red Court had enough brains to actually bait these oh so sweet little promises they tried to give me!”

Blackie was frowning deeper and deeper, even as her tail lashed around. “...Red Court?”

How may any mortal resist such a line?

“Oh, the biggest clan of vampires around here. Nasty buggers, one of the foulest monsters on this globe” So I smiled wide and sweet, and told the truth. “Until I killed them all, that is.”

Blackie went so many shades paler, that she nearly turned cornflower.

“Then there was the Summer Lady, of course.” I continued mercilessly. “Cute kid, such a pity she tried to upset the balance between Summer and Winter.” I gave a tiny shrug. “Not sure if you can call using their bane against them clean, but it sure was a quick death I gave the poor fairy fool.”

I didn’t even bother to keep my rod aimed at the current fool I was dealing with, I just started stalking up to her.

“Then there was the Winter Lady. Now there was a bitch of the highest order.” I put my hoof to my temple, and mimed using a gun. “Quick and clean…” I smiled even wider, as the worthless little pretender started shaking. “Did you know that there are ways to undo immortals? I shan’t tell you how, of course, but that bitch went from being an aspect of Winter, to worm food, and she is never, ever coming back.”

Not that it was hard for a pony, but Blackie went as wide-eyed as one may.

“Oh, and there have been so, so many, many more!”

My hoof snaked out, grabbed at the clasp of her cloak, and before Luna could even protest with more than I yelp, I had her at glare height.

“So, Nightmare Moon,” I growled at her, making her face twist with fury, and eyes fill with tears, “unless you intend to either start showing some civility, or walk the villain walk beyond tormenting woodland animals I’m frankly not particularly afraid of telling you to go mount yourself.”

The mare was shaking from humiliation and fury, but she just barely kept her temper in check. “...If you truly don’t remember…”

“Because Twilight told me all about her and her friends’ little adventures, of course.” I had to tear my eyes away from hers, because I was —to my shock, starting to feel the tugging of a soul gaze. “I’ve bled and fought for this world and city, and I’m not giving any of it up because four goddesses are apparently too squeamish to kill a single —quite possibly literally, thrice damned spirit.”

Luna twitched, and suddenly just looked sad.

“You want to ‘reconnect’ or whatever? Fine, we’ll bake s'mores, sing happy little camp songs, or what-fucking-ever…” I let go, and ungently brushed the clasp off. “But you want dirty work done, you go get your own damn goons to do it. You’ve got legitimate work that needs to be done, and after today I might allow you to bribe me into it.” I stopped fighting down my snarl, and jabbed my sandaled hoof into her chest so hard it drove her breath out. “But you ever threaten anybody in my town again, it better be with far better reasoning then just what they are, or I swear I’ll gut you like a pig myself.”

All the fight just seemed to have drained out of the mare, and her haunches came crashing down, as Luna started to weep openly. “...Oh, Fluttershy, what has this horrible world done to you?”

Well, given me a freaking spine, from what I’ve read between the lines…

Out-loud however, I said in a voice so even it surprised even me: “Turned me into the type of person whose help I think you need, but you haven’t gotten desperate enough to come calling for quite yet.” I slipped my rod into my duster, and got down on all fours. “You want my help? Fine, that Disco creep —or whatever the bad villain name was, sounds like a twit needing stopping... but don’t expect me to hold back.”

Cheeks still wet, Blackie just stared at me for a while.

Then, with exaggerated care, she reached behind her back. I tensed and prepared for a fight as I felt a tiny ‘flash’ of magic…

And that deep thrumming of magic I’d felt only a few times before, and only a hour or so last, returned as she pulled forth that darn necklace Twilight had shown me.

Honestly, no gem cut like a pink butterfly had any right to give off such a scary amount of magic.

“And if there is a kinder alternative?” Bl- Luna asked gently, as she simply held the darn thing out to me. “But only if we can find the others, and you…” Luna took a shuddering breath, almost dropping the ‘Element.’ “...And you, whoever you’ve become, trust us?”

I couldn’t quite take my eyes of the necklace. There are simply certain things that never, ever happen, even with magic in the picture…

An actually free lunch is one of those impossibilities.

Just being handed what was clearly an artifact on the level of at least a splinter of the true cross, just like that? With ‘no’ strings attached?

Yeah, right.

I gently but firmly pushed the thing back, making sure to touch only her hoof.

I’d learned that lesson about ancient relics the hard way, and I frankly didn’t feel like having something put a new brand on my ha- hoof.

And it was still like stroking a live high-voltage line. This sense that were it not for that thin layer of insulation you’d be cooked in moments.

Ye gods, and this mare couldn’t just evaporate that Discord twit?

“Ma’am, when mad gods pop-up, you pull out all the stops and you waste the prick. Preferable before he or she can even manifest properly.” I explained, calmly but firmly. “You want allies for that type of fight? You should really be talking with somebody else. Preferably somebody that hasn’t needed to relearn how to walk this year, at that.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I just barely saw a blue and striped tail vanish around the corner.

Sadly, Luna noticed me noticing, and with a frown glared after Mortimer. “...And that is what passes for a ‘friend’ in this world?”

I didn’t quite keep the snarl out of my voice. “Luna, that ma- mare is nearly solely responsible for keeping this entire city’s population of ghosts under control.” I fought down a shiver. “And yeah, that includes the violently mad ones that quite literally hunt the living. Mortimer is hell on wheels when dealing with the unquiet dead, but she simply isn’t a front-line fighter.”

Luna frowned down at me, like I’d gone ‘mad’ again. “...Fluttershy, there are no such things as ghosts.”

“Said the horse goddess from another dimension without a shred of irony,” I snarked at her, to Luna’s clear irritation. I just waved her off. “If it makes any difference, they’re not the actual spirit of the people they resemble. They’re these… echoes of memory. Like fossils, but with the spirit world and memories, instead of bones and stone.”

Luna frowned down at me, seemingly slightly uncertain but still not believing me. “...And why, would people need to be saved from… mental echoes in the local magic field?”

“Well, for just one example, I once met these adorable ex-twins,” I explained calmly. “These just darling little pair of girls that drowned and post-mortem liked to find other children to…” Luna’s eyes went wide, as I paused for dramatic effect, and did air-quotes. “...’play’ with, down by the shore.”

For some reason, Luna suddenly didn’t seem to have a counter.

“So, yeah, I’m frankly willing to cut somebody that deals with that type of crap daily quite a bit of slack, no matter what else I might owe hi- her.” I jabbed the mare hard in her chest with something just short of a snarl on my face. “So care to tell me just why I shouldn’t backhand you straight back wherever you came from, for trying to stalk down and gut my friend for walking into a public bar?!”

Luna spluttered, just missing my face. “Gut her?! Gut her?!”

I angrily rolled my eyes at her, and the outrage. “Yeah, because being dragged away from one’s life, friends and family by some creature from another realm to serve time for ‘crimes’ committed in a past fucking life is oh so much kinder than a death that only takes hours...” I did my best wizardly take on glaring Luna in the eye without actually meeting her gaze. “Or do you have a counter to that, Your Highness, Luna, Mistress of Dreams, the Night and the Moon. Quad-arc —or whatever the fuck the right word is, of the otherworldly nation of Equestria…?”

I’m not sure if it was the glare or how dryly I listed the titles I’d heard from Twilight, but Luna wilted away from me and against the nearby wall nonetheless.

“Sirens aren’t ponies, Fluttershy,” Luna stated through gritted teeth, and with her wing ‘shielding’ her face from me, “they are beings of disharmony, whose singing can turn entire cities against one another. That is how they feed their magic.”


Luna balked my way, seemingly almost having her eyeballs plop out from it.

“Don’t get me wrong, growing stronger from strife and conflict, plus a way to encourage both? Nasty, nasty potential of a downward spiral with that combo…” It didn’t quite work without fingers, but I did my best to mime opening my mouth and baring fangs. “But I’m used to anything deserving of the word monster to actually be, you know, monstrous.”

Luna glared at me…

Right up to when I continued and she just turned green instead.

“Do they eat the flesh of innocents? Kill them, and steal their bones? Warp and break their minds, until there’s nothing left of that person except this tiny bit that screams…?” I waved her on, but Luna just stood there, looking green around the gills. “Do they only multiply by infecting mortals through that song, or something? Is the person they feed on never again able to actually feel anything but disharmony…?”

Something that I didn’t care to think about too deeply filled Luna’s cheeks, and she had to swallow it before choking out a tense and unhappy “...No.”

“Well,” I calmly but firmly said, as I waved away the smell of hay and stomach-acids, “in that case, I think you have a really fun time ahead in updating your definition of ‘monster,’ because by my standards, Luna, the ‘sirens’ you’re describing sound simply adorable.

“You cannot be serious, Fluttershy.”

I bit down a wince and simply ignored the name. “Fine, then illuminate me, oh star smith,” I snarked. “What exactly stays your hoof against this Discord prick, when my friend’s blatant walking in a public space was enough to call you to action, oh ‘wise’ one…?” I jerked my head slightly towards the empty street, not taking my eyes of the fuming mare. “Not to mention how you nearly attacked a US citizen on US soil —without provocation I might add, Your Highness. The matter of a successful cross-dimensional landfall on such a scale aside, don’t you as a regent think that might be this tiny bit of a casus freaking belli?”

Luna jerked as if slapped again.

“Or are you again forgetting the whole ‘cursed’ rebirth matter as soon as it’s convenient for you and Equestria…? Because you're certainly acting as if you think I owe you anything, let alone stuff on the level of loyalty and fealty.” With my lips a line, I swept a hoof towards the corner Mortimer had skedaddled around. “And guess what, ‘friend?’ That, the ‘prissy pony princess’ shtick or how you acted at Mac’s was not a good first, second or even third impression!”

Throughout all this, Luna’s haughty attitude had barely faltered.

Except now her face fell, and she looked as if I’d all but had bucked her in the teats. “...You have a new liege?”

Frankly, it was just pathetic enough that I actually bought that it wasn’t faked.

What can I say? It kinda dropped a bucket of water on these warm little flames of righteous indignation I’d been feeding for an hour or so now.

“Luna, I’m thirty nine,” I managed in a slightly more kindly voice, “with all due respect, but don’t you think I might have —even if I had ‘remembered’ anything, you know, moved on by now?” I threw my hooves out, and let them drop down again, making the leather of my duster creak slightly. “If nothing else by freaking necessity, since human newborn aren’t exactly known for their luscious all-weather coats, and wilderness survival capabilities…?”

Some of that indignation snuck back, as I pointed a hoof at the Bling of Destiny. still in Luna’s hoof. “Because I’m getting this rather infuriating vibe that you say ‘friend’ but what you actually mean and want is your old minion so you won’t have to get your own damn hooves dirty!”

Of all looks I could have gotten, I was not expecting ‘disapproving mother.’ “For you information, Fluttershy, my sister, Cadance, Twilight and I, have been taking turns every fourth day to battle Discord.” Luna trust her hoof out, the one holding the bling, at me. “Without the Elements, it’s the best we’ve been able to do to keep Discord distracted.

I looked down at the necklace, and up at Luna again. “And have any of you children that turn green at warnings about the darker sides to magic as much as thrown a fireball at him during this time…?” I waved a hoof towards the sliver of a moon still visibly in the sky. “You can’t at worst lure him to some patch of wasteland, and slam a star or fifteen down the throat of what frankly sounds like an overgrown poltergeist?”

I’m not sure if it was something ‘wrong’ about the moon compared to what she was used to or the star comment, but Luna had to re-swallow her breakfast again. “...That is not how we do things in Equestria,” she lectured me tartly.

“Oh, so all sins are forgiven, and everypony gets a second chance, huh?” I looked down once at the ‘Element of Kindness,’ before looking up again and continuing in the same dry voice. “By that logic, can’t you and your sister weep and beg for the kindness of forgiveness, until you are once more are worthy of six certain bits of ancient bling…?”

Luna went wide-eyed, as if the very concept of what I’d just said was utter blasphemy.

Have to admit, though? The way a certain piece of jewelry flashed pink in the most fabulously angry way, was a bit distracting.

For me it didn’t even leave after-images, but Luna winced and flinched as if the thing had been a million degrees for just a moment or so. “...The Elements choose their own wielders.”

My eyebrow rose, near on its own. “So, this horrible bastard of a spirit is somehow worthy of forgiveness, but not a mare that has been bending over backwards for decades...?”

You know, if the story I was being fed was true... but adding that bit out-loud seemed just slightly stupid.

I saw another one of those ‘warning flashes’ gather in the gem, but aside from Luna looking away, nothing happened.

“...Discord is, for his many, many faults and crimes aside, an innocent,” Luna carefully explained, eyes averted from both my and the Element she was holding. “To him it is all just this… game, while I called the Nightmare with open eyes.”

I glared at the bling for a bit, especially how the pink ‘flash bang’ seemed to be powering down at Luna having been honest. “Su~ure,” I snarked, “because a kid ‘innocently’ throwing kittens into a furnace because they dance and make such funny sounds isn’t even nearly as bad morally as somebody with a severe and untreated depression having a mental breakdown after years of neglect…”

Luna froze, but again, her little ‘gift’ to me was the real show.

Not sure if it was my ‘link’ with the thing, but for just a moment, the darn butterfly gem went black. As if it had been temporarily filled with tar.

I have to admit. Never thought even my life would get screwed up enough for me to freak out the pet rock I had in a previous life…

“So, yeah, innocence and actually not having done anything wrong really aren’t the same by local law… or my own moral opinion.” I slowly pointed a few times towards the still rather dull looking rock. “And I can’t say I’d care for the touch of an ancient artifact that believes somebody that apparently erased the minds of millions if not billions for a freaking laugh, somehow being more redeemable than the mare that…” I took a gamble, and looked Luna straight in the eye for a few moments. “you know, was suffering from a mental illness.”

I took a calculated risk, and turned away.

Luna didn’t move. Heck, I wasn’t even sure if she was breathing.

“Besides,” I told her gently but firmly, “thanks to the whole magic being slowly dragged into the open there’s a lot of crap going on right now. I’m sorry, but even if I thought I was really some reincarnated, destined hero? A world hounded by one spirit... compared to one wherein every damn ghoul, vampire, and whatever nasty you care to mention is either having a panic attack, trying to dig deep, or gearing up for a fight against all of humanity?” I slowly shook my head. “I’m sorry, but even from that perspective I’m needed here more.”

“...What are you talking about?”

I gave Luna an even look. “Luna… I don’t know what constitutes monsters in your realm, but here? Most of them are idiots with big teeth that have only survived because the clever ones with big teeth have been shielding them by proxy.”

I waved a hoof along the empty road, that despite being lunch-hour in the middle of Chicago, barely had cars pass at more than one or two per hour.

“Some of the lambs turned into… well, unicorns, and now all of the flock knows that there are actually bears out there in the shadows. Bears that went from being ‘just myth and legend’ with all that means in safety, to having their ugly mugs on wanted posters.” I gave the stunned pegasus/unicorn a bemused look. “You don’t think that evil twits used to warm and cold running virgin’s blood suddenly needing to work and hide to get their flesh of the innocents fix might be a bit desperate and pissed at the ‘brief mortals’ suddenly having gotten half a clue?”

For just a moment or so, I saw doubt in Luna’s eyes… but she quickly either fought it down or hid it. Don’t know which.

“Stars and stones, you know what happened last week?” I disinterestedly waved a hoof roughly towards downtown. “One of the local gangs got ahold of a ghoul, and lynched the thing in broad daylight! And not only did people stand and cheer, but it made the freaking local news!”

Luna looked a bit green. “And just what had this ‘ghoul’ done to deserve this fate…?”

“Well, being so starved for fresh flesh that she tried nabbing a baby straight out of a stroller, for one…”

Luna went a bit greener, but she simply sat and stared at me.

“Except when the bastard went for the bite, the local brand of thugs took umbrage, to put it mildly.” I lifted my hoof and mimed using a gun. “Apparently there were so many holes in her, that the bonfire was mostly a rather painful coup de grâce.”

The only sound from the entire street was how a car zipped us by. The first I think I’d seen actually moving today, at that.

“...No idea if the mother and kid made it,” I added solemnly, “but one less monster in the world, at least. Small favors.”

Luna sucked in a deep breath, and got to her hooves.

I pretended not to notice how they were shaking slightly. “...I will not lie to you, Fluttershy…”

I bit down a wince. Why, oh why, did there need to exist a ‘Power Word, Give Dresden a Headache’ spell?

And did it have to sound like the name of the cutest sugar fairy that farts sunshine and gumdrops from some type of Technicolor nightmare aimed at girls age one and down? Talk about insult to injury.

Story of my life but it just wasn’t freaking fair.

“...but even by my count it has been many, many years since I saw a pegasus with such battle-hardened eyes…” Luna actually had to pause, and for a moment I was frankly wondering if she was about to cry. “...And as much as it may break my heart, it doesn’t change that you are the Bearer of Kindness. We need you, Fluttershy.”

I tried not to draw in much power, but I started gathering concentration for a shield. “And is this the part where you tell me that my cooperation would be a nice bonus, but is not actually necessary…?”

Luna did that ‘as if slapped by invisible hands’ jerk again.

Frankly, I nearly didn’t need to put magic into my words for them to freeze things, as I continued. “Because I haven’t actually heard any counter to why you —or your sister, can’t mare up, act like, you know, regents by shouldering responsibility for what needs to be done, and simply gut the pig.” I let out a tired sigh, before pressing on in a slightly warmer voice. “Stars and stones, girl, we’re talking about a mass murder that unmade entire communities. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘god’ of chaos crap sounds like he’d be a nasty fight, but —again, having the sun, the moon, love and freaking magic themselves made manifest in the other corners still sounds like a decent enough curb-stomp to me.”

Luna just stood there, looking at me with sad and worried eyes. Like I was a raving mad… well, mare.

“Hell’s bells, just have Twilight tear his magic away!” I waved a hoof vaguely in the air, as Kindness went blackish and Luna went greenish again. “Have her curse the sod using the powers rather implied by her freaking domain, and poof! Just like that and he’ll never, ever as much as harm a single hair on somebody ever again.”

“And you think the same girl you made throw up by describing a common magical practice around here,” Luna countered calmly, after again having swallowed something. “You really think Twilight could commit…” Luna’s face twisted into a mask of disgust. “...that level of utter atrocity against everything Harmony and Friendship is meant to stand for, and stay sane?”

“Luna,” I stated, with the ice once more returning to my voice, “you haven’t as much as said please. On some annoying level, you clearly think you’re my freaking liege, and I refuse to fight a mad god, and hold back, just because you don’t want to dirty your damned hooves yourself!”

With a crack of metal against stone, my sandaled hooves hit the pavement as I jumped to the air.

I’d barely gotten air, before Luna’s magic grabbed me by the tail. Stopping me mid-air in a both quick and painful fashion.

I fought down a swear, and strained, but the only result was that it felt as if I lost half the hairs in my tail.

“I’m sorry, Fluttershy,” Luna dared tell me in a sad but resolute voice, I’m sure wasn’t even slightly fake! “But the Elements are the only way we know of to stop Discord non-lethally, and without massive collateral damage...”

I didn’t bother even listening past that. Instead, I flapped my wings to flip around, and with a snarl I unleashed every force ‘ring’ in my sandals, both left and right.

Aimed straight at both wings the idiot had flared in a dominance display.

Now, as much as it irked me to admit, ponies are seemingly on the higher end on the durability scale. I hadn’t exactly experimented much myself, but from what I’d read between the lines in newspapers and similar, it took a lot of force to put a pony down.

Luckily for me, that’s exactly what my force rings are designed to do. They save up a tiny bit of kinetic force when they move, allowing me to let it all go in a strike later for a pittance of the magic it would have taken to conjure the same force.

Two battering rams of invisible force that could have each upturned a truck slammed down on Luna’s wings. Snapping the limbs with a sound not unlike gunshots, and even tearing her cloak off at the clasp.

There are two big variations when it comes to immortals and dealing with pain.

The most common one, and naturally with my luck nastiest, variety is for the being in question to be so used to it, and shrug pain of so easily, that at best you might get a wince or two per maiming.

And then, there was the variant Luna showed.

Wherein the creature —be it through guile, powers or even a combination of the two, hasn’t felt pain for so long, it is all but forgotten to them. This boring, uninteresting thing that only the brief, unimportant mortals have to suffer.

Believe it or not, but the second variant is actually the dangerous one. Sure, fighting Wolverine’s bigger, nastier cousin that got beat up with somebody’s knife collection as a kid sure isn’t easy, but it’s rather straightforward.

Even knowing that, I barely had time to raise my hoof and feed some power into my shield bracelet, before Luna threw her head back and screamed.

I have no idea what that mare had done to her vocal cords, but it wasn’t as much a scream, as this blast wave. The air around her shook, and every light and window for a block or so just more or less winked out of existence as the glass in them turned to dust.

I caught glimpse of a flash of cobalt light, as Luna used the same type of spell Twilight had. Seemingly deciding to retreat rather than risk another such blow from me.

That, and this look of betrayal, that I swear made some tiny part of me give out a whimper and die on the spot. It honestly felt as if a needle had been stabbed into my heart.

And that was the last thing I saw, before the shock-wave hit. Cracking my shield like an light-bulb on an anvil, and sending me screaming uncontrollably through the sky.

The blue sky above, the stone of the buildings, and the black asphalt hurling sickeningly all around me, as the latter two came closer and closer.

03 — Me, run out of horse puns? NEIGH!

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I ignored the tiny bit of me, probably some package of flight instincts, that was screaming ‘Ahhhhh, I’m-going-to-die!’ in the back of my head, and instead started layering as many shields over myself as quickly as I could.

It was a trick I’d done before. Layer enough of them, and make the shields thin but flexible, and you basically end up with this mix of a bouncy-ball and a person sized hamster ball.

Not the most dignified way to travel and near impossible to control… but it sure beats a broken neck.

I’d already been given quite a bit of momentum from my first, half-formed shield shattering like a wineglass in a tumbler-dryer, so I hit the first wall so hard it drove the air out of my lungs despite the padding.

I just barely managed to keep the spells together as I for a few horrible moments got turned into the Ping-Pong ball from hell. Up, down, left, right... holyhell, I think I even demolished an entire small clothing store by bouncing around in it for a bit, but it was simply too hard to tell with the world a blur.

Stars and stones, it actually took my battered mind a minute or so to realize when the world went from a blur because of speed, to being a blur because my eyes simply didn’t want to focus.

“...Get up, Harry,” what sounded like a young girl I should have recognized told me firmly. “Those twits can step through the Nevernever as if it's a freaking revolving door and they can track you; there is no way it’s over this easily…”

I’d been so turned around, I hadn’t even been feeling the snow under me, until some started melting into my mane.

Hell's bells, I hadn’t even noticed I was on my back at all, until I felt that bit of cold wetness.

“Wise advice, godchild,” a melodious voice I would have recognized anywhere murmured happily down at me; making me go from shell-shocked to ‘oh crap’ in ten blinks flat. “Perhaps you should head it, before the would-be godling returns with her current crop of chosen?”

I slowly raised my head, and tried to look around as politely and non-wide-eyed as I could.

A fairy and my godmother Lea may be… but she was the old school type fairy, and of Winter at that.

Let us say that Disney usually didn’t go into things like having your brains half leaking out was no excuse for bad manners to an actual fairy, and leave the Adult’s Only rated version at that.

Groggily, I lifted my head a bit higher, ignoring how odd it still felt to be that limber, and looked around.

Nothing. Not even first-response yet, and barely a sound except a couple of blaring alarms.

“...Godmother?” I swiveled my head (and ears) slowly around, but I didn’t even see as much as footprints in the snow around me. “...Lea, you there?”

Again, nothing. Not even a laugh on the wind, or a tiny whiff of perfume, or any of the other cute little ‘was she really here?’ hints.

Not that any of that was Lea’s style; she preferred the rather pants wetting ‘poof, just gone’ variant of exit... but it really wasn’t her style either to just do a tiny little social call.

I’d just rubbed my forehead a bit with my hoof, when I froze.

Was that it? Lea being slightly pissed I’d given Winter the slip without even toasting about the ‘clever ruse’ with her… but this her tiny way of saying that seeing me sucker-punch a demi-god was amusing enough that things would be balanced between us, as long as I gave her a ‘call’ really soon…?

I took a few precious moments to rest my head in my hooves and give off a groan. Freaking hell, how can I have grown teats and still not get women?

Still, now was not the time for sticking my head neck-deep into that nest of vipers.

I’d just barely gotten on my hooves, when these cornflower blue flashes appeared near where I’d whipped Luna’s ass.

A lot of cornflower blue flashes.

And there was only really one thing the platoon of pegasi could have been.


All stark white for some reason, with golden barding, and with blue ‘broom helmets’ of that type that haven’t been in style since the Roman Empire, plus some strange hybrid of horseshoes and gauntlets and greaves; they all but gleamed in the light to the last.

As one creature, the soldiers flared their wings, and stood in formation; clearly thinking they were an impressive sight...

There was only really one reaction to seeing something like that.

So I started laughing my pretty little tail off.

Let me tell you this much.

I could have crapped out better gear. Hell, give me a chewed stick and a couple of hours, and I could have probably enchanted armor better than that as well!

I saw some of them hesitate; one or two even going as far as to back off a step or two.

The only idiot with a grey pelt and a white plume wasn’t deterred, however, and glared at me as he stepped forward. “Lady Fluttershy,” the twit ordered me,” you are under arrest for high treason against the crown of Equestria.” The Chief Twit flared his wings in a way I’m sure must have been terrifying to whatever cave dwelling knuckle-dragger his mother must have kissed once upon a time. “Come quietly, or we will be forced to subdue you.”

I had to wipe a tear away, before I could tell him off. “Kid, I do not recognize the authority of Equestria or its crown; I am an American citizen, and intend to freaking stay that way” I ignored the rather unprofessional, angry murmur from some of the ‘men,’ and instead snarled and pointed at Chief Brush-head. “Counter-offer: You and the rest of this under-geared, unarmed squad of fools go crying home to big mommy wide-load, and I won't break the lot of you so badly, your own moms’ won’t recognize you. Deal, kid?”

The whole squad went wide-eyed, as if I’d just told them babies are delicious, or something.

Chief Brush-head tried to make his clown costume proud, and lifted his head to bark orders. “Men! She’s not cooperating! Take her al-!”

The invisible beam of force from my hipposandal took him in the chest about there, sending him flying as sure as his wings.

I’d held back quite a bit as to not break the first rule, since I wasn’t totally certain these twits counted as mortal or not… but the stallion still took off as a fat clown launched from a canon. I’m not sure if that armor of his had some enchantment that really didn’t like my spell or not, but the twit flew nearly a hundred feet before crashing into a parked car.

Aside from the car alarm and the stallion now screaming from inside the ruined interior —a ragged and distressingly human scream, at that— you could actually hear the soft clink as I put my hoof back down on the frozen sidewalk.

“Children,” I chided the ‘soldiers’ with a wide smile and a friendly voice, just to increase the creepy factor, “I have quite literally faced armies of monsters. I have fought —and killed permanently, I might add, immortals so dark and twisted that they would make your lieges crap themselves and flee in fear.”

I fought down a smile at quite a few flickers of sheer terror on what was probably the more green recruits.

“So go blow hot-air somewhere else, unless you intend to actually fight me.” I reared up on my hind legs, and pulled my blasting rod; both acts clearly both confusing and worrying the ‘soldiers.’ “Oh, and I’d go check on your ‘superior’ back there before he bleeds out.”

It seemed the grey/white color scheme was a higher rank than white/blue, because one of the other stallions started shifting to colors as I watched.

Seriously, how big a bull’s eye can you paint on your officers’ backs?

The idiot with the shiny new battlefield promotion took one look at his coat, gulped… and actually surprised me by earning it. “...L-L-Lady Fluttershy,” the kid managed with just a tiny stutter, “please, we know you are not well; stand down, and you will receive treatment.”

Had to admit? Been a while since I’d seen competence in any of the minion hordes; it’s strangely rare, for some reason.

“Kid, your mistress —and that line there, just all but told me, that as far as this ‘Equestria’ is concerned…” I tapped my chest with my blasting rod. “...I’m nothing to you, but this ‘Lady Fluttershy’s’ bad dream Luna and gang would really like their friend to wake up from. I go with you, and all the things that make me me gets erased like yesterday’s shopping list.” The wet behind the ears officer flinched as I wiggled my rod at him. “Last warning, kid; one little guy that’s been up shit creek without a paddle to another: Fuck off now, and you get to do it under your own power.”

Not certain how a face covered in fur managed it, but the kid went waxen. Just standing there, one ear on and eyes on me, the other ear swiveled back towards the still screaming stallion he’d just replaced.

“Hell, you’re outgunned, have met far greater resistance than you’d expected, and you’ve got wounded. Nobody with even half a clue about tactics would fault you for a tactical retreat...”

The kid’s eyes went even wider. You could all but read on his helmet how tempted he was to go for that option.

“And to risk falling so, so far away from home, at that,” I mercilessly continued. “You stand your ground here, and you won't even fall under your own sky, and nobody will know you even tried…”

Sadly, it seemed I had a patriot on my hands. Instead of dejection or anything like that, this near fire lit in the naive kid’s eyes. “Stallions! Remember, she doesn’t know what she is doing! For Equestria!”

I shrugged, as the kid and his ‘soldiers’ thundered towards me. “Oh well, I tried…”

Moving my wings in small circles, and feeding enough magic into them that they started to glow blue gently, I shouted my spell. “Vento servitas!”

It seemed I’d scarily enough under-estimated how good pegasi wings were for wind and water spells, because the effect was near instantaneous.

I’d expected a strong wind, yes... but instead, the whole street turned white as this localized typhoon tore through the snow. I barely heard a few surprised screams over the howls of the wind plus a few loud clangs and thumps, but otherwise the world in front of me just went white.

Holy hell, did I do that…?

I shook myself out of the small moment of awe, and jumped into the air instead. This temporary white-out was a nice side-effect, but it would hinder me as much as these ‘Equestrians’ if I stayed here.

It seemed a bit counter-intuitive with pegasi chasing me, but I went for the sky. These idiots had showed no ranged capabilities, and in combination how even a simple levitation from me had melted the Equestrian magic goddess' flipping mind, it actually seemed the safer choice.

Anypony gets close to me, and I’d be able to (hopefully) non-lethally blast them with some wind, and simply continue to do so until I reached the safety of Demonreach.

And barely had that fool-proof plan passed my mind, when the world sent me a curve-ball to test it.

About half a dozen new flashes appeared in the white below me.

“...What the…?” I heard a male voice mumble, before barking a command. “Guards, report!”

I tried not to smile too smugly, as the only answer the new prick got was a few screams and whimpers.


Again, silence, with just the odd scream and groan to punctuate it.

“...Rainbow Dash, can you do something about this snow?”

I don’t know why or how, but the deep melodious woman’s voice saying that name made something coil within my stomach.


I shook my head to clear it of the mass of cobwebs that had sprouted from nowhere, and silently glided over to a nearby roof.

“...Wha…?” A raspy voice, presumably this Rainbow Dash, answered in confusion, only to near instantly turn furious. “Fuck you! You drag me straight out of a courtroom on live television sprouting some bull about a mad chaos god, and now you expect me to help you?! After you’ve ruined near damn any chance I had of making things right again?!”

A loud clang of metal against metal rang out, and the —presumably, stallion from earlier hissed out a wince even I heard.

“Go get mounted by a grizzly!” Dash shouted out, before seemingly running blindly through the snow-fog.

“Shiny!” The other mare shouted, seemingly so intent on whoever ‘Shiny’ was, that Dash got at least a little of a head start.

And the girl was fast, even on just two legs and with her front-hooves in handcuffs she was out of the snow-fog in moments. I’m not sure quite how she did that with all the snow and ice around, but somehow she managed a sprint that would have done an Olympic gymnast proud.

I recognized her as soon as that sky blue pelt and that rainbow of all darn ‘colors’ mane popped out of the white; even with glaring orange prison clothes on there simply was no mistaking the wunderkind from New York that had done the impossible at exactly the wrong place and time.

I leaned over the banister as far as I dared, trying not to disturb the snow as much as possible. “Psst! Up here! Quickly!”

The girl didn’t even stop. She just glanced up at me, hesitated for a moment on seeing… ugh, another pony, seemed to come to a split second decision on seeing that I was actually clothed…

And then she crunched down into a slide, and jumped up to me.

Stars and stones, I think I even heard the asphalt crack under her.

The girl landed panting but on her hooves, as I just sat there slack jawed for a moment.

Dash paused for a tiny moment to shoot one of the smuggest darn grins I’ve ever seen my way, before shaking her head and crouching down. “...You also on the recruitment list for these nudist bastards?” she whispered hotly my way.

I snapped out of it, and gave her a grimace and a nod as I hushed her.

“They’ve got these… gemmed necklaces they use to track us somehow,” the girl urgently whispered my way. “I know it sounds crazy, but I almost lost them in Hell’s Kitchen, but that Cadance bitch just teleported in front of me and held me against a wall until her goons showed.”

I nodded absently, trying to see through the cloud of snow. “I know,” despite the situation I couldn’t stop a slight smile, “apparently in my ‘last life’ I was an extreme doormat, so these twits thought they would only need to show up and ask me nicely. They even showed me ‘my element,’ as they called it.”

The gleam of hope started dancing in Dash’s eyes. “You got yours?”

I sadly had to shake my head. “No, that creep Luna still has it…” I gave the girl a predatory grin she actually flinched slightly from. “...but she’s also got two broken wings, so I don’t think she’s showing for a while.”

Dash almost let out a low whistle, but just barely stopped herself in time. “How’d you do that?” The mare mimed throwing a punch as well as she could with her hooves bound. “I clocked the pink bitch straight on the lip a few times while she was holding me, but she barely stopped…” The girl did her best take on air-quotes with her hooves locked in front of her. “...’trying to get me to see reason.’”

I don’t know why, but something made me go for the truth with this girl. Like there was a tiny voice on my shoulder telling me I could trust her, or something.

“...Look, short version? I’m a wizard, and no, that’s not a joke.”

Dash looked doubtful for a moment… but then she just looked down at her blue hooves, and shrugged. “...Not the craziest thing I’ve heard this year.”

A small chuckle forced itself out of me, before I got serious again. “I’ve got some things we can try to muddle their trail... but you need to trust me, and we need to get away from here before the cops arrive…”

Dash frowned. “...Why?”

I did another grimace. “That Luna girl screamed worse than a banshee; I don’t think you could see it with the snow, but this whole street is near totaled. SWAT is probably only a few minutes away, and I’m not sure if they can do more than piss these twits off...”

Dash grimaced again. “...Fine, but one condition.”

“Name it.”

The girl took a deep breath, and looked me square in the eye; her jaw set hard. “Once were done, you act as my witness that I did everything to get away from these freaks, and you go with me to explain that once I turn myself in.”

I vaguely felt my jaw fall, and I just barely got my eyes away before a soulgaze started. “...Have to admit, kid, wasn’t expecting a promise to get you to the fuzz.”

Dash glared down at the street, now slowly getting visible again, and surprised me by growling through gritted teeth.

The mare took a deep breath, and forced herself to calm… but her face was still set hard, and she wouldn’t quite look at me. “...Look, I saw you recognize me.”

I let out a neutral grunt in confirmation. “...Yeah, New York, I’ve heard.”

Dash twitched guilty, but gave me a stiff nod. “...I can give you the full version later, but…” To my surprise, the girl actually blinked away a few tears. “I swear I was just trying to see how fast these new wings if mine could go, and suddenly there was this rainbow cone in front of me. I thought I’d just gone too fast and started hallucinating from too many lateral Gs, or something!”

I hushed her sharply, but it seemed the Equestrians’ were too busy doing damage control to hear us.

Dash looked guilty for a bit, but pressed on in a lower voice. “I was this close…” The mare held up both hooves, holding them just an inch apart with her face twisted into a mask of rage and regret. “...to getting a deal; no unsupervised flying for the next ten years and being NASA’s pet freak for the time so they can figure out how the fuck I’d gone supersonic like that, and I’d be acquitted!”

My eyes went wide. Damn, that was some deal… given the circumstances, at least.

Dash snarled, and just barely stopped herself from slamming her hooves down on the roof. “...I was even going to get food, board and pay for it.”

I couldn’t quite stop a wince at how dejected the girl looked.

I hesitated… but if there was ever a girl needing a vote of confidence, this was it.

So I reached into my duster, and pulled out my blasting rod. Dash went still, but I just waved for her to turn around. “Wings first, and we need to run if they sense this, got it?”

Dash hesitated, but turned her back on me.

Not sure if it was just no other standard solution working or that she’d shown good behavior, but all Dash’s wings were bound up with were a pair of those one-use plastic cups that SWAT uses.

“...What’s your real name, kid?” I asked gently but firmly. “I’m going to take for granted that calling you Dash gives you as much a headache as Fluttershy does to me.”

‘Dash’ let out a small wince. “...Nemo. Nemo Schwartz.”

I raised an eyebrow in tandem with my blasting rod. “Now there’s a name I don’t think I’ve heard that often…” It was seriously overkill for that particular spell, but with a murmur of “Flickum bicus.” one of the cups melted open with a small flash of flame and a puff of black smoke. I saw how Da- Nemo twitched a bit and went wide eyed, but to her credit she remained mostly still.

“Your folks’ Jules Verne fans?” I asked absently, as I did the other cuff.

With an almost lewd sigh of relief, Nemo stretched as far as she could without being seen over the banister. “Mom likes the old comic strip. You know, ‘Little Nemo, the dream master?’”

I nodded absently as I put my rod back. “Harry Dresden.”

Nemo froze mid cat-stretch. “...Damn, small world.”

I felt my ears perk without my input.

But Nemo just waved me off, and sank down again; seemingly not caring —or given pegasi insulation, not noticing the snow. “One of the goons putting pressure on the trial from the White Council’s side was less of a twat than the others, and mentioned your name; told us you might be a good start for getting the basics on magic minus the attitude, but mom couldn’t get ahold of you in time for the trial.”

I balked for a moment at hearing the name of The White Council being thrown around so blazingly by a non-practitioner, but with a shrug I just pressed on. “...Yeah, my phone’s been all but glowing red-hot since this pony mess started. Sorry, kid, probably just missed her.”

Nemo gave me a slow nod, clearly looking me over. “...You a member?” Absently, the mare scratched at her throat. “Because I’ve met a few, and most of them were a bit too… medieval for my taste.”

I took a deep breath, and just blurted it out. “...Not gonna lie, kid, I’m a Warden.”

Nemo twitched, and froze on the spot; one hoof still resting against her neck.

“My two cents, though? I’ve met monsters, —both figuratively and literally, and they as a rule don’t even bluff about turning themselves in; let alone to mortal authorities.” I slowly extended a hoof, and patted her on the shoulder. Honestly, it was like bouncing it on a slab of rock, but if it was from just muscles or her being that tense, I couldn’t tell. “You’re not going to make many friends among the old school hard-asses by being magical in public, let alone on your level... but from what I’ve seen so far you seem to be on a good path. You keep trying to make things right, and sooner or later you’ll catch a break.”

It seemed the statue impression had been a combination of the two factors, because although Nemo relaxed… I can’t say she turned what I’d call soft. “...Magic? Really?”

I gave a small shrug. “I’ll skip the lecture for now, kid, but it’s possible you’ve got a real knack for kinectomancy —the magic that deals with energy and movement, that is.” I glanced over to the banister, and the three story drop on its other side. “Only way I can think of that allowed you to pull that jump off, at any rate.”

And the sonic boom, of course… but I think that had weighed enough on her mind without a reminder from me.

That, and Nemo was still looking a bit uncomfortable. For some reason, she kept glancing back at her wings. “...Really?” Slowly, she flexed the wings, not taking her eyes of them. “That’s magic?”

Now that made me perk my ears.

“Because it feels as if I just… have these giant batteries inside these things.” For emphasis, Nemo flexed her wings again. “And if I concentrate ju~st right, I can make that energy flow to other parts of me, and make myself go faster or stronger. Does that make sense?”

I let out a slow breath, and gently put my hoof on her shoulder again. “...Nemo, it usually takes a year or so for most apprentices just to feel magic properly; let alone kinectomancy on that freakin’ level…”

Nemo froze a bit, but I squeezed her shoulder tight before her ego could run rampant.

“Make no mistake that is damn impressive…” I made my voice both as firm and as kind as I could. “But you’ve basically figured out how to mix rocket fuel in your backyard, and you’re pouring it into your breakfast cereal because it makes such funny sizzling sounds.”

Nemo jerked under my hoof, and softly went urk.

“If it makes any difference, that’s the bad news,” I continued gently. “The good is that if you haven’t ended up in an emergency ward bent into a pretzel from the forces involved by now, you’ve probably figured out a good ‘mixture,’ to continue the metaphor.”

“...So,” Da- Nemo asked in a careful voice, “I’ve figured out how to juggle chainsaws and that’s impressive, but I should leave the battle-axes in the armory for now?”

Despite the mood and place, I couldn’t quite stop myself from snickering slightly. “Close enough,” I gave her shoulder an extra pat, “just be really damn careful going forward.”

Nemo nodded, and turned to me with a thoughtful expression. “...Thanks.” The girl hesitated, and smiled a bit bitterly. “...Kindest words I’ve heard for months, so… Yeah, thanks.”


I fought down the shiver that tried to tie my tail into a knot.

Nemo blinked a bit at me, only to wince as realization dawned for her. “...Oh, right, you got that as your… you know.”

I pretended not to notice how my hoof was shaking slightly, and just waved her off. “I’m not going to go around kicking kittens just because these twits can’t take a hint; don’t worry about it, I got that it was a compliment.”

Nemo flashed me a smile that frankly would have lent her front-pages for all the right reasons, had the world simply been a fair place.

I moved on to looking over the normal cuffs. I didn’t recognize the exact model, but they looked like normal police cuffs to me. “...I might be able to get these off, but it’s going to be flashy and probably a bit painful. Unless we need to, I think going for the normal hacksaw might be wiser.”

Nemo frowned down at her cuffs. “...Can you do that ‘flickum’ something again?” A bit slowly as to not rattle the chain, Nemo pulled the chain tight. “You do that on a link, I do my thing, and snap? You think that will be quiet enough?”

I perked my ears. There were still a few screams and groans of pain, but aside from a lot of hooves shuffling around things seemed to be quieting down; for good and ill.

The banister beside us seemed like it normally served as the outside patio of some type of rooftop cafe, or something. There were some leftover new year's decorations and similar all around, and I could see tables stacked under the snow.

Carefully, as to not be seen doing it, I leaned down and dragged myself closer to the edge; scraping a tiny hole so I could look down on the street, and hopefully not be seen doing it.

Yeah, a tall order with pink hair and a yellow pelt against white snow, I’ll freely admit that.

And I’d seemingly done a number on the soldiers. Luckily, —for me just as much as them— I saw no fatalities, but there were quite a few wings and legs pointing in sickening angles.

It seemed some type of medical team had been teleported in, about six ‘plain’ ponies, and they were currently offering first aid to the stricken.

It wasn’t much; just getting the soldiers stable, and dragging them in front of the ‘pink bitch’ Nemo had talked about. As soon as they reached her, she would simply lower her head to them, and the soldier disappeared in a flash of blue.

Honestly, from how the overgrown girl looked grief stricken it was as if I’d gutted them all, not broken a few bones. Heck, the commanding officer I guessed to be this ‘Shiny’ even had a hoof on her shoulder for support.

I slowly scooted back, putting a snowball into the hole just to be sure. “I think they’re too distracted by the wounded right now.”

Nemo nodded grimly at my words, and put forward her hooves and the cuffs.

I held my blasting rod just an inch or so from the central link. “We only get one shot at this; they notice, and we need to fly.”

My only answer was another grim nod.

“I’ve got a…” I hesitated, unsure how much to say about Demonreach to a mare I’d just met. “...heavy duty shelter out on this unmarked island out on Lake Michigan. A sanctum.”

Nemo, clearly having lost track on what city she was actually in, balked slightly.

“I pull all the doors and shutters closed there, and God himself would need to knock darn politely to come in... but I need to get there first to disable some things. Follow me, and let me land first; got it?” I waved the runed blasting rod a bit for emphasis. “And I’m not talking about any new age bad vibes crap; you land there first uninvited by me, and you might be driven literally mad by the rather cranky guardian spirit of the place.”

Nemo started laughing… until she saw the look on my face.

I pulled in a bit of power, and concentrated on the center-most link. “Infriga!”

Probably a bit of more irritation in that spell than what was strictly necessary, because the link and its neighbors turned stark white, and the target of my spell even crumbled slightly even before Nemo started pulling.

With a ‘clink’ Nemo pulled the metal link apart as if it had been tissue-paper; this wide-eyed look of wonder on her face I had to admit was rather neat to see.

“And you don’t even remember that magic is meant to be a warm and wonderful thing, do you?”

I jumped to my hind legs, and swung my rod towards the voice.

Scowling at me with a face that just screamed ‘disappointed mom,’ Princess Cadance was standing on the other side of the small roof as if she’d sprouted there.

I glanced down at the street, where another Cadance was still standing there with her minions. An illusion…?

“Fuck off, girl,” I growled at the Cadance closest to me. “I’ve got no quarrel with you, but I will not become some puppet in my own skin.”

At my side, Nemo gulped, and went into what looked at first glance like a low-grade karate stance.

Cadance, however, mostly balked at my choice of swear.

“Last warning, or I’ll do to you what I did to that Nightmare Moon creep.”

For just a moment, there was a streak of flame where Cadance’s mane should have been.

Then just like that before Nemo or I could do more than twitch, it was gone.

What. The. Actual. Fuck?

Cadance took a deep breath, and visibly forced herself to remain civil, but I could see some extra creases near her lips and eyes from (barely) hidden disgust.

“Oh,” I purred her way, “and you call me or my new friend here for that matter, those fucking names again after we’ve told you and the other stuck-up freaks how it hurts, and I’ll see it as a mental attack, and retaliate accordingly.”

Cadance twitched.

“So, since you’re my friend…” I continued in the same ‘friendly’ purr, my rod not even wavering from her heart. “... Well, it isn’t very nice of a friend not to remember what a friend wants her freaking friends to call her… Right?”

For what felt as one of those moments that lasts far longer, Cadance hesitated. “...Fluttershy, you and Rainbow Dash are not well. Please, let us help...”

I half turned my head to Nemo, keeping Cadance in my peripheral. “You feel under the weather, kid? Because the pastel colored end of the world as we know it and the darn song aside, I feel rather fine.”

“Well, I think I’ve got a slight depression and some anger issues…” Nemo snarked without missing a beat. “...but that’s kinda normal when two idiots ruins all your chances at rebuilding your life, isn’t it?”

Cadance frowned, and did a quadruped version of squaring her shoulders. “Dash, we saved you from that place. Now, I don’t know what false charges w-”

“I did a sonic boom by accident while learning how to fly,” Dash interrupted, face utterly unreadable. “I killed sixteen people, four of them children, and maimed dozens more. You know, because my new body didn’t exactly come with a freaking manual.”

Suddenly, a lot of small sounds from down the street simply… went away. Even the screams and winces.

“And I was a day —if not hours, away from getting a deal that would have allowed me to make things at least partially right again.” Nemo narrowed her eyes at Cadance, who was just standing there stunned as the other mare ranted coldly her way. “Except there’s apparently a whole dimension filled with incompetent, sheltered bastards out there that don’t even consider that anypony may have ever actually done something genuinely wrong....”

“Don’t waste your breath,” I gently told her, not taking my eyes of Cadance. “I tried to convince that Nightmare Moon nag earlier that four goddesses should be able to easily kill one god, but she wouldn’t even humor the point…”

Cadance shivered so hard, I saw a few downy feathers drift away from her wings.

I couldn’t quite keep some disgust out of my voice, as I continued. “Apparently, that Discord bastard they want us to deal with is mentally handicapped or something, and thus ‘innocent’ because he can’t see that his ‘playing’ with the mortals actually hurts people...”

Nemo’s eyes nearly plopped from her skull in shock. “WHAT?!” Ignoring Cadance completely, she turned my way. “Can’t you just enchant a sniper rifle, or something?! Boom, headshot, and problem solved!”

I rolled my eyes, as Cadance went similarly green as Luna had. “Apparently, the Elements are a much ‘nicer’ and ‘friendlier’ solution…” I glared at Cadance. “You know, if you ignore how it has failed four times already.”

Glaring, Nemo rolled her shoulders. “Hey, Princess Pink, or whatever the name was?”

Cadance fluttered her wings in annoyance. “Cadance.”

“Whatever,” Nemo said disinterestedly. “Still, you’re supposedly a love goddess, right?”

Cadance frowned at the words. “...I am the alicorn and princess of love, yes.”

“Why not make Discord love so much and so hard, that his heart would break if he as much as swats a mosquito?”

The world… went silent.

I swear, I don’t think any of the ponies down on the street were even breathing.

“...What?” Cadance forced out, her face ashen and waxen mask.

“It’s within your powers, right? Make him love the entire world so, so much, that to even scratch a rock within his sight will make him burst into tears.” Seemingly out of old habit, Nemo started counting on a hoof; taping the edge of one against the other as if she still had fingers there. “It’s non-violent, keeps the twit alive, keeps everybody else alive, and it will even increase the amount of love in your world by the some tiny margin…”

Nemo didn’t get further than that, before the Cadance in front of us winked out in a sparking cloud of magic, and the one below us loudly started emptying her stomach.

I’d grant the kid this much; she had some good instincts for when to skedaddle. Hell, Nemo was actually in the air before me with a few moments margin.

And then… something utterly wrong and terrifying happened.

Nothing happened.

Not as much as a shout in anger to stop. Just… nothing.

Nemo gritted her teeth, and shouted back at me. “Keep going! She’ll jump us the moment we stop!”


You run and run, and run… and as soon as you stop…

There it is, behind you. Waiting with dripping, crimson teeth.

I’ve killed a couple of things like that, and sadly, at best survived other things like that. Nasty, nasty buggers.

Honestly, I think I liked these Equestrian twats less and less for every moment that passed.

I pulled ahead a bit, keeping as quick a pace I dared without tiring myself out.

Nemo had this look to her. This really strange one, it actually took me a few minutes of flying to put a name to.

Bored… and excited.

Like a sprinter that hadn’t been able to run for all of winter, but suddenly could at least do a jog without breaking something thanks to all the ice.

I guess it’s hard to find excitement in a measly hundred miles an hour or so, when you can go over Mach freakin’ one.

Still, she made no protest about the speed we were holding. I guess she saw the wisdom in pacing ourselves for now.

I took it as a sign we were getting closer to Demonreach, as Nemo’s fur started puffing out to the point she was nearly a flying Tribble.

She stopped mid-air, staring at the island below us as if she was looking into hell itself. “...What… is this place?” Nemo shuddered, and hugged herself as tightly as she could without locking her wings to her side.

“I’ve named it Demonreach,” I explained in my best calming voice, while trying not to sound as if I was talking with a scared cat. “I'm not going to lie; it’s not a good place, but it’s not a bad place either.” I hesitated for a moment, unsure how much I needed to say. “It’s a place of power, and that prickling in the back of your neck can probably tell you of what type.”

I softly patted my own chest, while Nemo stared at me like I’d gone mad. “It started as one of those: ‘Better me, than them’ things. As long as I’m the master of this place, nobody else can claim and misuse it or its dark energies; that type of thing.”

Nemo frowned, and looked down over Demonreach; eyes lingering especially at the rotting town. “...This is… what, a freaking hellmouth, or something?”

I fought down a laugh at the reference. “...Not that far off… but sorry, I just don’t know you enough for details.” I slowly swept my hoof over the dead town. “This is the dangerous end of knowledge, Nemo. Need to know level… and I’m sorry, but you don’t right now.”

I got stared down, Nemo’s eyes just missing mine in the type of way that hinted that she’d really had to do with real practitioners. “...Fine,” she said absently, once more looking down towards the town, “so what can you tell me?”

I didn’t even bother hiding the sigh of relief; I had not been looking forward to this bit, and it had gone far better than I’d hoped. “This place has something called a ‘genius loci.’ Cliff notes version: The island itself has a spirit and will, and Demonreach is not a people person.”

And understatement of the century goes to…

Nemo had been doing far, far, far better than most ‘normals’ dropped head first into the weird side of things… but I’d apparently hit the threshold for one of those ‘Are you insane?’ type stares.

I took a deep breath, and waved my hooves in the air as I tried to explain. “Look, not to brag, but this is the type of high-end magic stuff quite a few wizards go their whole lives without even seeing, let alone try their hands on. This is the really, really simplified version, but I did something called a sanctum invocation here; basically I impressed the spirit enough that he serves me, and sees me as his master.”

Nemo kept shifting between frowns, as if she could make enough funny faces at the problem for it to go away. “...So, you have a pet island. And it doesn’t like strangers, or other landmasses, but presumably it can bark really loud, if anybody —or thing, it doesn’t like comes too close…?”

I hesitated for a moment. “...Actually, that’s a decent summation.”

For a few moments, Nemo just hung there in the air, frozen except for her wings as she simply stared at me.

Then, with a groan that seemed to come from the depths of her very soul, she slowly put her head in her hooves. “...How in all the hells can that not be the freakiest thing I’ve heard this month…?”

I simply couldn’t resist. “‘Said the pegasus mare with the rainbow on her head and butt, as she and her wizard compatriot hovered over the spooky island of doom...’” I snarked her way in my best narrator voice.

Nemo froze midair, to the point she dipped down nearly ten feet before she remembered to start flapping again.

And before I could even react, she was on my, nose pressed against mine and hoof on my duster. “HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT THING LOOKS LIKE?!”

I nearly drove a hoof into her stomach out of instinct, before I got it. “...Dude, I was talking about this…” I said, poking the closest lock of rainbow mane. “Not those freaky butt tattoos.”

Nemo blinked my way. “...Oh,” she mumbled out and scratched the back of her head, as a honestly rather adorable blush started creeping over her cheeks. “...I’m sorry; I’ve… had a bad year so far. I jumped to conclusions.”

I gave her a slow nod. “...I get it; I’ve had years like that.”

I got a glare for that. “Have you? Really?”

I just snorted at the hard voice, and pointed down. “Do you really think the weird and nastier corners of the world were easier to face without wings to fly away really fast with…?”

With my lips a line, I pointed back towards Chicago, where some of the more optimistic lights were just about starting to wink on; visible only at this altitude and the whole eagle-like vision pegasi seemed to have probably helped as well.

“You think that all those horrors starting to be forced out of the shadows were any easier to face, just because people were certain they didn’t exist?!”

I guess I must have been snarling a bit nastier than I thought, because Nemo flinched away from me. Hard enough she even drifted a couple of feet back since we were both hovering.

I forced myself to take a couple of breaths, and smooth my face out.

“...I’m sorry, it’s just…” Nemo drifted off, her eyes now locked on the prison clothes. “...It’s just been a draining year. I get… tetchy.”

I gave a slow nod. I guess the kid had heard a ‘sympathetic’ ‘Oh, how horrible! Me too!’ one too often; from people that thought they were being kind, but whose ‘horrible year’ had been their favorite soda disappearing from the stores, or something.

Nothing quite like sympathy from somebody without a shred of perspective to rub salt in the wounds, no matter how well meant it may be.

“...Look,” I said in a kinder voice, “I’m not sure if this will work, but I’ll land, and try doing a introduction with a couple of extra ‘pretty please’s in it. Probably won't work, but might make Demonreach give you a few less megawatts on the death glare, at least…”

I got a blank thousand yard stare for that.

What could you do, but shrug at something like that? “Hey, man, what can I say? My life gets weird.”

“...You know what? Fine, fine, fine…” Nemo groaned again, and put a hoof on her face, waving me off with the other. “You just go sing with all the colors of the wind, or whatever, and as long as it disables whatever bad mojo landmines you’ve seeded this place with I frankly don’t care.”

I rolled my eyes as I stopped hovering and instead went into a circling dive.

You’d think somepony that had grown a tail and broken the sound barrier under her own power during the last year would be a bit more receptive to the supernatural… but eh. At least she was onboard with that I could do strange things, even if she wasn’t completely sold on the explanation ‘it’s magic.’

I came in a bit too quick, and actually slid a bit on the loose snow of the clearing I’d picked to go down in.

And then I nearly had a heart attack, as nothing happened.

Zip. Nada. Diddly squat.


“Alfred!” I did not scream like a little girl. “A circle around me and the other pegasus now!”

Don’t ask me how, but for a moment the whole clearing… twitched, for lack of a better word. Snow rippled, the trees bent as if in a storm that only lasted a moment…

Like I’d somehow snuck up on the whole island.

Something I’d not even felt suddenly cut away, as this curtain of pure light just appeared around the clearing.

I fell down onto the snow, just barely turning a scream of agony into a wince through clenched teeth.

Nemo… was not that lucky. She fell, like a screaming lodestone; seemingly in too much pain to control her descent.

I fought back the pain, for long enough to flop over onto my back. Lifting my shaking hoof, I just barely managed to get a spell out. “V-Veni c-che!”

I didn’t stop to watch if Nemo landed properly, but I felt the spell take hold, as the local air got wiped into slowing her descent, if nothing else.

I not so quietly went back to writhing in agony. It felt as if there was a damn branding iron against my…

I fumbled with my duster and shirt, nearly tearing the latter as I pulled open my clothes… and my eyes went wide, as even the pain got pushed aside by a cold dread.

A whole mess of cornflower blue sparks danced over my chest, as the Element of ‘Kindness’ started fading into view; the necklace warping and twisting from silver and ruby-red to gold and six-year old girl pink as the illusion on what I’d thought my pentacle amulet got cut off from its caster.

Stars and freaking stones, I hadn’t even felt the difference in weight. When the hell did that Cadance girl even do that?!

I didn’t even bother feeling for a clasp… but ironically that turned out to be the right call, since the thing turned out to somehow not actually have a chain; instead, it felt as if the darn thing was literally sticking to me somehow.

Worryingly, the thing didn’t offer protest as I tore it off…

But the damn spot of my pelt it had been resting against, it glowed golden, even if only for a second or so.

For a couple of minutes, I simply… couldn’t do anything, but sit, stare, hug myself and shiver as the so-called holy artifact slowly wound down; going from near blazing with this horrible pink light that seemed to try to reach into me and flip switches, and all the way down to what seemed to be ‘just’ a few glimmers without light to cause them. Not even feeling the island again, whatever the damned necklace had done to disrupt that link, made me feel better.

My hoof was shaking even as I traced my neck with it. Hell’s bells, how long was that thing sitting around my neck…?

And where the hell was my actual pentacle necklace? Not only did it have a rather potent power to it that I had no idea how to replicate, something that could cause untold damage in the wrong hands…

I felt this strange mix of emotions. Anger enough my heart was just short of bursting into flames… but this empty hole of dread simply sucked all the fire away before it could enkindle anything.

...and it was also near the only thing I had left from my mother.

My eyes didn’t quite see, as my hoof tightened on the base of my neck, and all I seemed to be able to see was this red film, as I snarled down at the so-called artifact.

I wouldn’t even pass a DNA test with her anymore, and they dare take one of the few last precious things I have of her?! As this cruel little trap, so I would go hide in my hole, and not even notice my mind rotting before I was back to ‘normal,’ and just came trotting back to them like a good little minion?!

They. Will. Burn.

If I had any doubt about the intentions of these ‘Equestrians’ being anything but a pretty veneer of sparkles over rancid bullshit, they died in that moment of righteous fury.

A groan of pain made me snap out of it, and focus instead on the downed Nemo. She’d gone down head first it seemed, but thanks to the snow all that might never recover was her dignity from how her rump was sticking straight up in the air.

I actually had to pause for a moment not to laugh my ass off. It looked like somebody had taken a giant felt toy, stuffed it into prison clothes just to be asses, and left the whole thing in the most compromising position they could.

Dark humor, sure, but I’d simply not expected the sight and got a bit mentally blindsided for a few moments.

Another groan from Nemo made me snap out of it, and I hurried over to her. It was disturbingly easy to get the necklace off her once I’d dug her out… even if seeing Nemo’s fur glowing bright blue in a similar way as mine had was strangely disturbing.

Unceremoniously, I threw the thrice damned bit of bling after my own; the two ‘artifacts’ landing together in the snow with an expensive sounding ‘clink.’

“Alfred, please put up a second circle around those… things,” I asked, only letting out a small sigh of relief as another pillar of light erupted around the Elements. “Thank you, and please take away both of those things and seal them. Use two of the heavy duty cells and keep them separate; if these things are capable of even a thousand of what Twilight claimed they are I don't want to take any chances.”

The entire central pillar flared so brightly it hurt to look at, and once it winked out of existence... so had the two necklaces seemingly done the same.

Aside from two small holes in the snow, and this feeling as if a sliver of ice I hadn’t even noticed before had been plucked out of my heart, not a single sign of the two Elements remained.

I took a few moments to shamelessly plop down in the snow, and take deep breaths.

Safe… for now, at least. With the ‘super-circles’ Demonreach could put up around us, and those damn bits of bling in cells made to hold dark gods, we were about as safe as it was in my power to make us.

And if we could get just a kilometer or so further to my shed and tower, we’d literally be as safe as my power could make us.

“...Ugh,” I groaned out, head in my hooves, “I just had to jinx it, didn’t I?”

I just barely caught a wide-eyed Nemo slowly moving a hoof towards the circle in time.

“Don’t touch that!” My shout made the girl twitch back with a guilty look on her face. I frowned slightly, and continued at a slightly friendlier volume. “It’s a circle against both the physical, the spiritual, and magic” I pointed at the upwards flowing river of light. “Anything not of the island —or tied into it like me, gets disintegrated.”

Technically, that was a gross oversimplification… but I’d been doing magic for near my whole life, and I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around about how most of Demonreach actually worked.

Then again, that’s sadly almost a given when you stumble onto one of the great works of the freakin’ Merlin himself.

Honestly, the more I learned about this place, the more amazed I was that I hadn’t blown myself up that day I went for that sanctum invocation.

Myself... and half of the damn continent.

I tried not to smirk, as Nemo slowly scooted over to me until she was near pressed against my side; not taking her eyes of the circle.

“...Really?” Slowly, as if she was worried the walls would just snap closed, Nemo waved a hoof. “Just zap, and gone?!”

“Had to walk through one once; didn’t even have time to feel my clothes go poof before I was through.” I felt a chuckle force itself out of me, as I looked down on my own snout. “Guess it won’t be quite as cold if I ever need to do that again, huh?”

“...Hate to admit it, but part of me can’t get enough of this flying thing-y. Almost worth it, just that one thing.” Nemo let out a grunt, and all but glared at one of her own hooves. “Think I could have done without the permanent mittens, though.”

My mind flashed back to those horrible first days, when I not only had to use my freaking mouth for everything since my hooves weren’t up to the task…

But I had the just wonderful bonus of a wizard’s perspective on ‘spontaneous’ transformations, and kept wondering when my mind would rot away; warped into something new, terrible and broken by my new form.

I was still on some level actually reeling against that, actually. It was… as if the ground had opened up under my feet, and somehow a flock of bluebirds or something had carried my skyward just as I thought I was dead.

Things like that just… don’t happen to me.

Hell, with my rotten luck? The only way I’d ever do a duet with robins, or whatever Disney crap you care to mention, was if the things were infected by some eldritch horror from beyond the stars, and trying to lure me into a false sense of security before exploding in my face…

I let out a sigh, and closed my eyes for a bit.

Wonder if I could get away with dyeing myself green, slap an illusion on that darn mark on my hip, and just spend a month or two sipping drinks on Hawaii? You know, without being jumped by cybernetic ghoul ninjas, or whatever the next shade of horrible my life was going to throw my way.

Of course, I’d have to get my pentacle back first from an (admittedly allegedly from one of her own allies) love goddess with an agenda, something I was half certain would involve me and/or her laying bleeding on the floor…

But still, details.

Knowing my life, gory and terrifying details that would give me nightmares for years… but still.


“...So,” Nemo asked, still all but hip against hip; something I couldn’t seem to find a good complaint about, despite this nagging feeling that I should have, “how long can you keep this up?”

“Actually, this is all Demonreach… I just gave the command.” I couldn’t stop a rather dark chuckle as I swatted lazily at the ground.. “So the question should be: ‘How long do you think you can get by on snow and frozen weeds?’”

Nemo’s face went into this frankly adorable O of amazement, only to be traded for a frown. “...You’ve actually tried that?” She waved at the ground. “Grass, I mean?”

I gave her a long, hard look. “...You’re joking, right?”

My companion in weird crap gave a shrug… with her wings. “Hey, perhaps you had a steak dinner nightly when your life got turned upside down and fuzzy, but I’ve got a mom whose dad was a vet.” A slight blush crept over Nemo’s blue cheeks, and she wouldn’t quite look my way. “Let us say that I got a nutritious and balanced pony diet... and grandpa is getting socks this damn year no matter how nice and glossy my damned coat got.”

I quickly put a hoof over my mouth, and I think I just barely managed to not sound as if I’d spontaneously coughed up a lung.

“It wasn’t bad, per se, but it was a bit like eating slightly crunchier health cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner…” Nemo did a grimace wide enough I swear I saw her colon for a moment. “...for two weeks or so, until the first autopsies and studies started leaking to the public. Then I got to eat people food again.”

I gave off a grunt. Kinda came with the territory when supernatural crap on this scale happens… but even a low-ish global death toll wasn’t exactly good news.

We kinda fell into a lull after that; just sitting there and looking at the river of light all around us.

“...Shouldn’t we get going?”

“Eventually,” I answered. “But right now we’re safe, and we don’t need to go quite yet. Might as well take a breather, right?”

Nemo let out a grunt, as I waved at the circle.

“Besides, if we’re lucky they wrote us off as ‘practically fixed’ and stopped following us…”

“But if we're unlucky, another damn squad of wannabe centurions might be outside there right now?” Nemo groaned, and ran a hoof through her disheveled mane. “What the hell, can’t they get a new batch of ‘chosen’ if it was apparently so damned easy the first time…?”

I rolled my eyes. “Apparently, that first coincidence studded evening was destiny…”

Nemo and I both gagged in unison.

Nemo however started frowning as soon as she leaned back. “...By that ‘logic’ didn’t that Nightmare Moon go batty and suffer for a thousand years, just so…” Seemingly to make certain she didn’t mean we we, the girl made air-quotes. “...’we’ could have a first ‘epic’ battle set to easy mode…? You know, without splattering five seconds into it?”

Susan’s face flashed before my mind’s eye again… only to be followed by Marcone. Shiro… and Nicodemus. Kirby… and Shagnasty.

And so, so, so many good men and woman I’d see die… only for evil bastards to smile, and waltz on to their next kitten eating contest.

“Kid,” I growled as the snow crunched in my ‘balled’ hoof, “if I thought destiny existed, I’d spend the rest of my life killing the bastard.”

I took how Nemo flinched as a sign to cut down on the venom in my voice. What can I say? That, and how the spot of snow I was glaring at started bubbling didn’t exactly scream that I was handling things well.

“...Sorry,” I grunted her way, as I closed my eyes and scratched absently at this sudden itch in my hips, “I’ve just seen too many good people die, while the bastards just walk away without even breaking their stride.”

I heard Nemo’s fur and clothes rustle, as she nodded slowly at my words. “...You think they’re… not bluffing?”

My ears perked slightly at the way she said it; this strange mix of near pleading and utterly mortified.

With her hip against mine it was easy to put a hoof on her shoulder, despite my eyes being closed. “No, no I don’t.”

Almost absently, Nemo put her own hoof on mine. “...Why?”

I took a deep breath, and just said it. “Because I’ve seen it a dozen times over. Some monster of the week gets ahold of a couple of stupid teenagers, or similar, and tells them it can turn them ‘special.’” I felt my face twist into a grimace of disgust without my say-so. “The long lost friends’ angle is new, but the rest? Text-book. We actually go with them, and at best we die quickly; at worst, we still die… but something lives on in our bodies to hunt for more ‘Element bearers’ or whatever the racket actually is...”

I heard Nemo gulp slightly.

A sigh forced itself out of me, and I simply had to shake my head in disgust. “Hell’s bells, twenty five years? That’s enough time to raise a generation, let alone a freaking army…” I waved my free hoof vaguely in the air. “Hell, it’s enough time to research how to bind the creep from scratch even for me, let alone a nation of mages!”

“...Yeah,” Nemo mumbled out, “hate to admit it, but that makes sense…”

I felt something cold snake down my spine, and I couldn’t help but give the girl a suspicious look as I re-opened my eyes. “...Hate?”

Nemo looked slightly insulted. “Look, I don’t know what your experience with wizards and magic is… but mine has been this line of old relics that barely know what an automobile is; near all of them petitioning to get me the chair now that they can’t sneak around and just behead ‘warlocks’ anymore…”

Guilt flickered over my face. “...Sorry.”

Nemo ignored me, but her face softened as she continued. “...To be frank, that Celestia girl was a breath of fresh air.” Nemo looked sad, and thumped herself on the chest with her free hoof. “Got this good feeling from her, you know? This politician vibe, sure, but one of those that actually give a damn.”

I gave a half-hearted shrug. “Haven’t met her… Yet.”

“Guess I was just having smoke blown up my ass.” Nemo just let out a deep sigh. “And that ‘concern’ was probably more about the complications from where I was, than my actual —heh, case, huh?”

“Yeah, probably hard to brainwash somebody into a somepony while they’re under constant police and media watch, I’d wager...”

Nemo shivered, and I’d bet it had nothing to do with the snow.

“...They kill anybody to spring you?”

I got another shiver as part of the answer. “No. They had a squad of unicorns, and those used some type of glowing blasts to stun everybody…” Nemo frowned slightly. “I think I saw two-three of them go down to police fire, actually; no idea what’s up with that armor but it doesn’t seem to do much against bullets.”

I nodded slowly, feeling the weight of my revolver in its pocket a bit clearer. “...Good to know.”

So for now at least they were actually trying to back up the ‘pacifist’ crap they’d been sprouting? Good info.

“I got this nut-case named Twilight Sparkle as my recruiter...” I raised my free hoof to almost as high as it would go. “Nearly twice our size, very, very purple, and with more screws loose than a full conference of the watch repair union. You’ve met her?”

Nemo thought it over, but eventually slowly shook her head. “...No, but that Celestia snake kept mentioning her; something about how much she’d missed us all, and how relieved both Celestia and her was to have ‘finally found their friends.’”

This time, I joined in on the shivers.

“Worst bit?” Nemo continued with a grimace. “She had this big, bright, utterly genuine smile on as soon as she even was in the same room as me. Except when the name Nemo or what I’d done came up, if you follow.” I don’t think she was an actor or anything, but Nemo faked a decent take on ‘utterly crestfallen.’ “Like that, just slightly better hid.”

“...You think they actually believe their own bullshit?”

Nemo spread her arms and wings in a wide shrug. “Beats me.” The mare let her various limbs fall to her side. “No offence, but I was a freaking waiter in my mom’s cafe before all this weirdness; it’s all a bit beyond me.”

“A cafe?” I raised an eyebrow. “In Manhattan? High stake town for that type of business…”

Nemo’s eyes unfocused and this soft smile bloomed on her lips. “...Mom’s one of those self-made hard-asses. I work for her in the family business until I’m thirty, and she’ll pay for my degree.”

I just barely stopped my wince in time, but Nemo’s smile still vanished. “...Of course,” she hesitatingly continued while scratching the back of her head, “that was before all this pony crap happened. Think my five year plan might just need a few adjustments.”

I pulled the dejected girl into a hug, and Nemo didn’t struggle.

“...You know...” Nemo mused after a few minutes of silence. “I think I’ve gotten more hugs during these last months than the rest of my life.”

“To be fair,” I said gently, adding a few extra pats on her back for emphasis, “from what I’ve heard you’ve needed quite a few more than average.”

I think a few of my internal organs went squish as Nemo tightened the hug. The small death rattle of an urk from me made her loosen it just as quickly, though.

“Ye gods, kid, and I thought I have a regiment.” I fidgeted a bit to get feeling back into my everything. “What exactly do you lift? Cars?”

Nemo forced out one of those ‘well, yeah, but now you won’t believe me’ laughs.

I dropped it, and focused on my link with Demonreach instead.

Alfred Demonreach —as the joke had unfortunately stuck, was a very old, and very powerful genius loci, and possess among other things, something called Intellectus.

Basically, ‘he’ simply Knows all that has to do with the land he inhabits, and as long as I’m on Demonreach’s soil I get to share in that. It isn’t quite being omniscient since I need to concentrate on specifics for it, but it has still saved my bacon a couple of times.

The number of wasps? A hundred and ninety two; all queens still in hibernation.

One car, to my amazement… Although I had to admit, an old plastic toy bobbing in the flotsam on the north-west beach seemed a bit pedantic to actually count as such.

“...Harry? What’s wrong?” Nemo asked urgently, as I went rigid in her hooves.

And five necklaces, sadly none of them my pentacle I’d asked in the hopes of. The two Elements somehow straining against their cells. A string of pearls only held together by a thin line of rust inside one of the abandoned houses…

And another damn Element from the amount of magic it was putting out, sitting around a neck just outside the door to my damn cottage.

I ignored Nemo, instead closing my eyes and concentrating. “...We’ve got company,” I murmured, making her tense. “Two women, one man, and a mare near my cottage; with another mare and… something down by the dock.”

Nemo started asking something, but I just held up a hoof and hushed her, as I concentrated.

“...The one by my cottage is a normal pony, but I can’t get a grip on just what the mare and the thing by the dock is.”

And ‘thing’ was a good word for it. All I got from Demonreach was this vague sense of something there… and what seemed to be a hole in the island’s magic.

The pocket of no magic wasn’t moving, or anything… but call me cynical, it sounded like bad news.

“...You a psychic as well?”

I almost laughed from how incredulous Nemo sounded. Pony princesses from another dimension? Fine. Turning into a pegasus mare? Eh…

But psychics?! Oh, the horror!

Granted, I’d never actually met one of those, but still.

“No,” I explained, “I can ‘ask’ Demonreach things, but it’s a bit…” I searched for words for a bit, not wanting to show my whole hand quite yet. “...binary yes or no answers, and I need to do it in the form of thinking in concepts and images.”

I opened my eyes just in time to see Nemo frowning at the circle around us. “...Could it be any of the rarer pony variants? Those weird see-through ones, or those poor ‘mer-mare’ bastards?”

I frowned, and ‘pinged’ Demonreach with every variant I’d heard and could think about.

But ultimately, I just had to shake my head. “...I have no idea. I think they’re powerful, though.”

At least that was the only idea I had for why the dark well of power —the combined magical ‘body heat’ of every horrible monster, dark god, and Outsider imprisoned within Demonreach, seemed to have not only grown slightly, but it had these… streaks of warmth and light in it, for lack of better words to describe it.

It was as somebody had poured bleach into an overgrown pond; not enough to purify the whole thing, but enough that there was patches of ‘clean’ water.

Frankly, it freaked me out. I’d never dared to draw on that power… but sensing it shift like that?

It was like having your friendly neighborhood bomb range suddenly stop going boom, and instead there was this horribly pale light coming from the general direction.

A bad, bad sign, in other words.

“...So?” Nemo let go of me with one hoof, and waved it at the circle around us. “Can’t you just ask nicely, and have one of these death circles spring up around ‘em?!”

I freed myself from her, and tried to calm her. “Yes… but I have a few allies that just might fit the bill…” I passed my hoof back and forth between us. “You know, especially with the weirdness lately.”

The bristle in the back of Nemo’s neck didn’t quite go away, but it lowered a bit.

“...So, yeah... I’d rather not cleave any of them in two by friendly fire, ‘kay?” I jerked my head towards my cottage… and my ‘guests.’ “That, and I’m kinda infamous in the freak side of things; it’s damn low odds even for my crazy life... but might be some poor schmuck that’s in the same seat as us, and has run for the only port they could think of…”

Nemo frowned slightly.

I frowned a bit myself, before continuing. “Granted, having heard of me and Demonreach, while not having more potent contacts or sure hidey-holes to run off to sounds like a rather narrow band of people... but it’s not impossible.”

I got a long, hard look for that as Nemo detangled herself from me. “...You can throw crap like the words ‘my pet island’ around and you claim you're a magical small fry?”

I got the oddest feeling of being glared at from all directions at once. “One; it’s more of a partnership to use ‘normal’ words for it.”

The ‘glare’ didn’t quite go away, but at least it faded quite a bit.

“Two; not to brag, but in raw magical power I’m probably in the top hundred —if not top ten outright on a good day, but only counting among the sane and mortal crowd, not the creeps that have gone the contracts in blood for a power-boost route, and crap like that.” I ignored how Nemo’s eyes went wider, and instead pointed a wing-tip at the circle. “And that doesn’t mean jack-squat when some of the dudes in even my Rolodex remember a time before those disturbing iron horse thingies made the womenfolk go all wobbly in the knees.”

“...What, you actually own a Rolodex? What are you, like, fifty?”

“Yes,” I snarked while rolling my eyes, “truly that was the most important part of what I just said…” I let out a small sigh, and straightened up. “My point was, that there are a lot of dudes, gals and even things out there that have a hundred if not a thousand fold my experience, and that counts for a lot.” I mimed the karate stance Nemo had taken earlier. “I’m no yellow belt, but I know I’m no black belt, either. That type of stuff.”

Nemo went serious, focusing like a hawk even as I let my hooves fall. “...You’ve done martial arts?”

I gave a shrug. “A bit.” I reared up and cracked my back, before falling down on all fours again with a dark chuckle. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve made crap teeth over the years, just because they all expect a wizard to stand there on the sidelines and scream ‘magic missile!’ all night.”

My companion clearly had to do a double take. “...I’m sorry, Harry, but I swear my inner six year old dies a bit whenever you say something like that.”

I stuck my adorable little tongue out at her.

I’d expected a ‘faked’ cutesy induced heart attack, or something, but Nemo instead gave me this really odd look. Slowly, she glanced around, and whispered at me from behind her hoof. “OK, it’s just you and me here and nobody around to judge so I’m just going to swallow my pride and ask; how much do you cheat, and what elder god do I need to ritually blow to get the same deal?”

At first, I was simply offended. This girl didn’t think there was any way for me to look nice without dark powers? Really?

This soon shifted to wry amusement. Oh, ha, ha, Harry, somebody finally outsnarked you! Oh, the humoristic horror…

But then… I actually registered the pleading puppy-dog look.

And let me tell you, not only do ponies do puppy-dog eyes really damn well, but Nemo seemed a master of it at that. This slight tremble to her lips. Ears drooping. Head just slightly slouched, while still looking at me…

Honestly, I near got scientifically inaccurate diabetes on the spot.

“I’m sorry,” I said, hoof raised to shield me from the adorable horror. “I just got lucky on the die roll; I don’t have anything special like that…”

“...You’re not just saying that to stop me from doing something?” Nemo pleaded, somehow making me hear the damn tremble to her lip.

“Look, Nemo,…” I told her as kindly as I could. “...my old master owns a farm, and his version of making apprentices appreciate the wonders of magic sorta involves manual labor and tending to horses until you can barely stand the sight of the countryside.” I felt my cheeks heat a bit, as my eyes drifted to my rather disheveled looking locks.

I have no idea why, but unless I near cut it daily it likes to sneak down all the way to near the ground as soon as I’m not looking.

Pretty and feminine, as much as that last attribute might give me mixed feelings? Oh my, yes.

Unhealthy in my business with all the grabby nasties I face? ‘The cow goes: Moo. The pony goes: ‘Hey, I’m being typecast here!’ And the long-haired wizard goes: ‘Argh, my face!’’

I slowly lowered my hoof. Nemo had stopped giving me the cutest little death-beam, but the way she was just sitting there and biting her lip with a heavy blush was near just as bad.

“So I could show you some better things to use on that pelt then just combs and one-dollar soap... but now is really not the time.”

Nemo let out a deep gasp. “I DO NOT USE ONE-DOLLAR SOAP!”

I took a moment to wipe the spittle off my face. “...But you still use human soap, right?”

Nemo freeze mid righteous indignation; wings flared, hoof pointing, snarling, and everything.

“Because that is mostly tweaked towards working nice and safely on skin…” Gently I tapped my rather furry cheek, as I saw this light dawn in her eyes. “And well, we don’t have quite as much as we used to have of that, now do we?”

Slowly, Nemo all but deflated until she was standing there normally… if looking rather sheepish. “....Well, fuck,” she swore softly while scratching the back of her head. “I had not thought of that, I must admit.”

“Tell you what…” I told her kindly, trotting over to give her a pat on the shoulder. “We get out of here, and there’s this evil luxury spa that bribes me with membership. How about we go there, and cost them a lot of money by forcing them to run out and get a few groomers, shall we?”

Nemo titled her head and frowned with one eyebrow near breaking free from her skull; clearly thinking: ‘...Did I just hear that sentence right?’

“It’s a money laundering operation slash hidden brothel for the local mob disguising as this luxury gym and spa,” I explained, making Nemo all but flicker between this ‘O’ of understanding, and looking mortified. “So… yeah; evil spa, filled with dastardly minions with wicked belly-rubbing powers, and everything.”

For a long while, Nemo just sat there and stared blankly at me. “...Huh,” she finally mumbled out once she’d processed what she’d just heard, “and I thought New York was weird nowadays…”

I just smirked slightly.

With a huff, Nemo looked away; rubbing absently at the cuffs still around her fetlocks. “Look… this is a bit personal and I don’t think I’ve talked with anybody about it…” The blush on her cheeks deepened a bit, as she glared at her prison uniform. “But I used to be one of those human noodles; six feet, two inches and still barely ten stone while soaking wet.”

I felt my eyebrow raise as I couldn’t help but look over the equine amazon in front of me.

Guess I wasn't the only one that had gotten a few ‘stats’ reshuffled, but still, slightly odd to actually hear.

“I don’t want to sound like a species and gender Quisling or anything…” With a barely held back and near manic grin, Nemo flexed her… well, whatever the biceps but with equine anatomy are really called. And have to admit, how I could see the muscle flex even without her sleeves rolled back was kinda impressive. “Can you blame me for finding all this and wings an upgrade to that?”

I felt my own wings twitch slightly from having been still too long. “Sure,” I deadpanned outwardly, “just with the tiny side effects of drawing the attention of the most adorable inter-dimensional empire, dick-loss, having to hold every conversation from here to eternity with peoples’ crotches…”

“Fine, fine, you have a point…” Nemo grumbled and waved me off, before taking a breath and continuing. “My point was that until I screwed up and Pretty Pony Princess Sparkle Butt showed, I didn’t exactly cry havoc from the rooftops over my dinky little dagger having been traded in for a jeweled chakram…”

My eyebrow rose a bit. “...’Jeweled chakram?’ Really?”

Nemo frowned, and did a so-so gesture. “Eh, fine, that was a reach… but still, sounds a bit classier than scabbard, right?”

I did a grimace and tried not to think about that.

And if I pretended really hard, I might not even have noticed how my tail had twitched up for a second or so.

Nemo’s eyes lingered on the circle for a bit. “...I’m rambling,” she said, before squaring her shoulders and sighing. “Just… thanks for taking the weird question seriously, instead of laughing or doing the ‘mysterious magic ways of the wizard’ crap.”

I gave a ruffling shrug her way… but I had to admit, there was a tiny smile on my lips as I did so. “You’ve had something strange and invasive happen to you…” Almost on their own accord, my eyes drifted down to the giant yellow blob of fuss my nose was nowadays. “...Would be stranger —and less healthy I might add, if you hadn’t reevaluated a few things about yourself.”

Nemo blinked slowly my way. “...You OK?” She waved her hoof between herself and me. “With the mare thing, I mean?”

I opened my mouth…

And promptly closed it, unsure what to say.

“...Said it yourself, right?” Nemo waved at the circle. “We’re safe right now, and… Well, not sure if you’ve had anybody to talk about this with.”

Slowly, I sat down in the snow again; rubbing at my temples. “...It’s… mixed; some good, some bad, and… I honestly don’t know what to feel on the whole quite yet.”

To her credit, Nemo didn’t try any emotional blackmail, or anything.

She just sat there, and looked at me; waiting for me to continue.

“...Tell you what?” I told her as I got up, somehow just barely keeping the smirk off my face. “If I’m showing you how to tend your mane properly later, we might as well go the whole hog and talk about our feelings while doing it, right?”

Slowly, Nemo more or less went through a second metamorphosis, as her cheeks lit up red enough to near serve as a lantern.

“It’ll be fun!” I explained with a big smile in a sing-song voice. “We’ll do each others’ hooves. Talk about boys…”

Nemo froze slightly as I reached into my duster, and pulled my gun. “Crush our enemies, drive them before us…” I continued in the same sing-song tone, as I flipped the massive revolver open to check the bullets. “...and once we’ve heard the lamentation of their stallions, we’ll make s’mores!”

With a click and a nervous laugh from Nemo, I closed the cylinder before stuffing the revolver back into my pocket. “Why, I think I even have these darling little pink ribbons that would go with our furs and my war-paint! It is the twenty-first century and a girl needs to have standards, after all!” I got serious and waved a hoof at the circle. “Seriously though, Nemo, you’re ready? We might need to make a break for it depending on what company we’ve got.”

With a blank expression, Nemo rubbed her face with a hoof. “...Dear lord,” she muttered, “I think my inner feminist and what was left of my masculinity just fragged each other…”

I let out a snort. “But seriously,” I nodded to the sky, where the sun was slowly slipping out of the top of the circle, “we’re burning daylight, and I don’t know about you but I never got lunch. Might as well greet and/or stomp whoever’s here, cobble something together and face the dread Sesame Street Empire on a full stomach, right?”

I got a dirty look, but Nemo frowned as her eyes got drawn to the glowing circle again. “...You sure you aren’t getting just a bit overconfident, Harry?”

I gave a shrug. “Don’t get me wrong; that illusion on mind altering necklaces was a nasty combo, and I’m going to do my best to repay that —after I’ve beaten where she dumped my pentacle, out of that Cadance creep…” I frowned a bit, and turned away from Nemo, instead looking on the circle. “...Not to give you the wizard shtick too heavily, but I’ve fought and killed things that would make that overgrown little filly go catatonic from horror on the spot.”

“...Normally I’d call bullshit…” Nemo said slowly, as she nervously shuffled from hoof to hoof a bit. “...but since I’m being glared at by the island we fled to, to escape a legion of flying nudists lead by living Hasbro toys…” Nemo paused, and let out a soft wince. “Yeah, I think I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt after this crazy day.”

I chuckled a bit, even as I drew my blasting rod; hobbling forward on three legs in a half-assed compromise of speed, stability and being able to still use the darn thing. “You ready?”

Nemo answered by closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. I didn’t even have to as much as focus my magical senses to feel what she was doing, at least with the circle cutting off the random magical background noise.

Honestly I’m not certain exactly what she was doing to herself, but it felt more or less as if a thundercloud had taken hu- equine shape and was just standing around for some reason.

“Careful, kid,” I told her. “Not sure if you’ve noticed yourself, but to anybody actually trained in or capable of sensing magic that ‘spell’ of your’s is about as subtle as a gay pride rally in a nunnery.”

To my surprise, Nemo twitched a bit, before glaring me down suspiciously.

Only then did I realize that might have been a bad choice of words to tell a man turned mare with rainbow hair. “Sorry,” I waved at her rather unruly mop, “wasn’t meant as a dig. ‘As subtle as an ‘accidental’ paper fire in a politician's office’, then?”

I think I ruffled a few feathers —literally and metaphorically, judging from how Nemo’s wings had gone slightly ‘fluffy;’ for lack of a better word— but with a grunt and a stiff nod my apology seemingly got accepted.

“...OK, you ready?” I asked and got another nod, so I turned to the circle. “Alfred, please lower the circle.”

With barely a glimmer of wasted power the circle of light just winked out; there one moment and gone the next as if a switch had been flipped.

Letting us hear the screaming.

I immediately felt the bits of my mane on my neck rise up. It was one of those long and ragged things from somebody in utter agony, something that just never gets easier to hear no matter how often you’ve heard it.

But something was… off. It wasn’t actually coming from any one direction despite there being only one woman screaming; instead, it was as if the very air was screaming.

I felt the bottom of my stomach drop as the token did the same.

Or the magic.

Twilight! No, no, no…!

My rod disappeared down into the snow as I groaned and clutched at my head; fighting down this feeling of having just had a railway spike jabbed from temple to temple.

And I still did better than Nemo, who just crashed down into the snow.

Hadn’t been expecting it so I hadn’t had time for any of the more impressive mental tricks for dealing with pain... but I guess all that practice over the years still counted for something.

I gritted my teeth and stumbled over to Nemo.

It seemed as I wrenched her upright that Nemo was something of a —horrible pun intended, one trick pony; because aside from that body boost thing of hers she’d crumbled like an old lady that had gone up against an heavy-weight champion.

Granted, your average person can go their entire life and survive without any special mental defenses just fine —magical or otherwise, but it was a rather glaring sign that this girl had no formal training.

My ears perked slightly, as the horrible ‘sound’ started dying off, but I was focused on the girl in my arms. “Hey, Nemo?” I asked gently, as I patted the tearstained fur on her cheek. “You OK?”

Nemo groaned and stirred, mumbling something I didn’t quite catch.

That the only words I caught were “No, Twilight…” made my skin and the inside of my skull crawl as if both were filled by ants, however.

I pretended not to have heard and instead have her another shake. “Nemo! Wake up!”

Nemo’s eyelids fluttered open, and I quickly averted my own eyes.

I did not want a soulgaze given the current situation.

“Ugh…” Nemo groaned out, only to do a double take as soon as she could focus. “...Harry,” she asked in a scared voice so low and soft I barely heard it, “why are you crying?”

I blinked, only then noticing how my vision was slightly blurry. With a shaking hoof I reached up, and it came back near soaked in tears from just touching my fur alone.

“...I don’t know.”

We got knocked out of our little moment of dread, as the whole island shuddered as if in a quake.


Nemo jolted clean out of my arms as Demonreach’s ‘voice’ boomed out, seemingly from every everywhere; making the snow, soil and plants vibrate in harmony with it.

“LOYALTY AND KINDNESS HAVE ESCAPED.” For the tiniest moment, there was the closest thing an island could do to a frustrated growl in the air. It sounded somewhere halfway between rocks rubbing together and an angry dog big enough to fit right into a Godzilla movie.

And just like that before my fur could even puff out in a proper ‘oh crap’ moment, it was gone.


For a second or so, I couldn’t process what I’d just heard. “...What?” I near whimpered out.


I vaguely heard Nemo’s jaw drop near clean off. “That was a lesser circle?!”

I hushed and waved her off; focusing instead on what Demonreach was telling me.

As soon as I did, I Knew things.

Two titanic crystals deep within Demonreach, each the size of a small skyscraper and capable of holding things like elder gods or even outsiders…

I gulped slightly, trying not to have my eyes plop from my sockets from how wide they got.

Now nothing but gravel and shards that some type of —I kid you not, rainbow colored magic danced and burned all over them. And I swear I recognized that damned magic, despite never having actually seen the type in my entire life.

The two ‘necklaces’ themselves, now seemingly having shed that guise and instead blazing with power like two stars; one red, one pink, with both of them being slowly but surely being ‘pulled’ towards the surface through the soil and rock as if by some invisible force.

Straight towards me and Nemo. Freaking hell, the two things, whatever they really were, even hit a slab of granite about the size of my old, dearly departed car, and just ground through it without even slowing.

I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding in a low wince. “...The damned things are coming for us.” I didn’t even bother digging for my rod. Instead, I conjured a quick wind that made the thing fly to my outstretched hoof. (As well as kick up quite a bit of snow and make Nemo twitch in surprise, but whatever.) “Fuck subtlety; we need to make a break for my cottage and raise every damn bit of defenses we can.”

I saw Nemo hesitate and frown at me; probably over just how I knew that by just squinting for a few moments.

Then however, she just shrugged it off, and drew in breath and power for that ‘spell’ of hers. “Right,” she said with hard eyes, “and those people you sensed?”

I hesitated for just a moment… then I drew my gun with my other hoof. “I sensed another one of those Elements.”

Nemo’s eyes went wide.

“If whoever it is tries to stall, we’ll go for guerrilla tactics and make a run for my cottage, OK?”

Nemo frowned a bit, flexing her wings once from irritation. “...Guerrilla tactics?”

“Try to go for wounding blows; then they’ll have to waste time and energy to stop to care for wounded, instead of just leaving dead behind.” I hesitated again, as those deep purple eyes filled with sadness from my office earlier flashed through my mind…

Then I pulled back the hammer on my revolver. “Let me do the talking, but if they even hesitate on letting us pass we need to make a break for it.”

Nemo went slightly waxen. Not sure again how fur managed it, but the girl even paled a bit. “...You sure we need to go that far?”

I fought down a shudder, and risked meeting her gaze for just a moment. “Nemo… I’m going to trust you with this, but the reason this island is a big deal is because it’s a magical prison, and a high security one at that.” I looked away, and pointed my rod at the ground. “And whatever those —possibly quite literally, thrice damned things really are, they broke out of cells made for dark gods as if they were tin foil.”

Nemo tensed and went wide eyed.

“And given that they intend to rewrite our brains for something, we need to get behind more active defenses.” With my lips a grim line, I pointed my rod at her wings. “Or do you want something wearing your skin to walk away from this? Something that knows everything and everybody you know, to go hunting for things to fuel whatever the real Equestrian agenda happens to be?”

Slowly, as if her throat had suddenly become too dry, Nemo gulped.

No! Twilight and the other Princesses would never do something like that!

I let out a groan and almost dropped my gear again. “...And I need a bit of peace and quiet to deal with this damned headache before the show really starts.”

Nemo hesitated again, how she’d rather been left in her warm, safe cell all but written with sharpie on her forehead.

To the kid’s credit, though, she squared her shoulders and drew in more power; the prickling at the edge of my senses rising as a few bluish-white sparks of static electricity even started dancing through her feathers, hair and fur.

She bit back a wince even as she started moving. “Right, let’s go.”


And with some type of cross-dimensional empire and twisted shards of magic itself hounding us, Nemo and I set off; flying low in between the trees in what would hopefully be a good mix of speed and stealth.

My fucking life, huh?

04 — All The Princess' Ponies…

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“Any tips for if spells go flying?” Nemo asked, as she almost lazily dodged out of the way of an oak branch.

“Try not to freeze and then run; from what I saw back there you don’t have the combat training to go up against an actively hostile wizard.”

Nemo let out an urk, and nearly went headfirst into a snow covered pine before she stopped glaring at me.

Then she went into a hover, and glared at me with her arms crossed over her chest instead.

“Not a dig, kid,” I told her in a kinder but still firm voice as I came to a stop myself,” but you have so far only gone up against people trying to take you alive.”

The glare fizzled out in the same tact as the color drained from her face, as Nemo gulped softly.

“You’ve seen the magical version of stun-guns and sniffer dogs, not soldiers in full gear with assault rifles pointed at you.” I made sure to keep them aimed away from her, but I wiggled my revolver and blasting rod at her for emphasis. “Just something to keep in mind.”

She was still a bit pale but Nemo gave me a stiff nod. “Fine, so if that plan doesn’t quite work, what’s a good plan B?”

“Well, a sniper team for one, but I seem to have left mine in my other pants…” I deadpanned. “Seriously though, how much of the basics do you know?”

Nemo frowned a bit, before drawing a circle in the air with her hooves. “That’s about it, I’m afraid…” The girl blinked, and stuck her tongue out in a grimace. “Oh, and I think I’ve heard the Laws of Magic enough times to mutter them in my sleep.”

I frowned slightly. Guess it made sense given her situation, but still. “...Somebody actually went and showed you how to make a circle?” I nodded slowly, mulling it over. “...That’s a good start.”

“Err… the dude mumbled something about only stopping magic…?”

I was just about to give the quick version…

When the voice I quite possibly least wanted to hear called out to us.

“Fluttershy! Dash!” Twilight shouted, distracting us with the pain from those damn names long enough she actually got a whole sentence out. “Thank Harmony I found you so quickly! We need to get away from this horrible place, bef-”

Twilight cut off mid word, the big, bright smile falling of her face like a poorly fitted death mask, as I aimed my rod and revolver her way; flanked by Nemo that instead pushed her body-booster spell to eleven again, even as she landed snarling on the ground.

“...Girls?” Twilight ‘backed’ off a few feet, hooves in the air; this crestfallen look to her face, and voice barely above the squeaks of a field mouse. “...Please, it’s me, Twilight.”

I —for lack of a better word concerning magical flight, ‘slid’ down the air by keeping the magic in my wings going but not flapping. “We are quite aware,” I declared at her as my hind-hooves touched the snow covered ground again.

I did a quick check with Demonreach as my link got reestablished.

And I just barely stopped myself from narrowing my eyes in anger, as there were now thirty one ponies on Demonreach.

Two total newcomers by the abandoned cannery; one unicorn and one plain pony. The unicorn was totally nude despite the weather, and seemed to be standing over and guarding the normal pony, who from how she kept trashing the snow around her was seemingly bound and gagged but fighting like a demon to get free.

Another unicorn was nearby, this one seemingly also bound but with only a rope, for some reason.... although the twenty guards near her were probably a good reason why she wasn’t struggling.

Luna and a new even taller alicorn, whom I guessed to be Celestia, had apparently hit the ground fighting against the group by my cottage. I’m not sure if it was just distance or if the ‘humans’ had silencers, but the only way I knew fire was being exchanged was because tiny metal tubes kept hitting the ground there.

The ‘thing’ and the pony I couldn’t identify the type of had apparently concluded whatever it was they’d been doing by the shore, and was performing galloping straight towards my cottage. I couldn’t tell which side they hoped to reinforce, but the ‘thing’ kept hobbling and falling over almost as if drunk; leaving this long, almost serpentine trail in the snow as it went.

That just left —ugh, me, Nemo, Twilight…

And Cadance, veiled and hiding invisible just two feet, one inch behind me to my left, rather clearly waiting for the chance to perform a sucker-punch once ‘negotiations’ broke down.

I’d give the pink she-devil her dues; she’d even thrown some type of illusion on the snow under her to make it look whole and unmarred.

Without Demonreach ‘whispering’ in my ear, I’d been flanked and never even known it until the stun spell wore off.

“...What?” Twilight mumbled out, seemingly aging ten years in a second from all this. She was a mess. ‘Hair’ jutting out, streaks of dried tears on her cheeks, burnt patches of fur, somebody had even made her lose a front tooth…

But I was mostly preoccupied with the near flaming tiara on her head, where this purple gem shone like the star it resembled.

I swear, I saw that damn gap in her front-teeth fill out as I watched. Not even vampires heal that quickly, but Twilight didn’t even seem to find it worthy of attention.

“You heard me,” I dictated her way, keeping my focus mentally on just what Cadance was doing, “or did you think we’d like having mind-control necklaces snuck around our necks?”

Behind me, I felt through Demonreach how Cadance bristled; the fur of her legs slightly scraping the holes in the frozen snow a bit wider.

Twilight simply went blank, her jaw falling open as soon as she got what I was talking about. “The Elements of H-!”

I cut Twilight off, my glare apparently hard enough that it cut through the twit’s righteous indignation, making her freeze and splutter. “Save me the propaganda.” I pointed my gun at Chicago, but kept my rod aimed squarely at her heart. “Call off the gemmed little bloodhounds, give me back my pentacle amulet, fuck off, and nobody needs to get hurt.”

“And I’d like my choker back as well,” Nemo ordered in just as hard a voice. “Sans creepy magic shit this time, thanks.”

This time, Twilight bristled as well. “Choker?!” I nearly fired a spell at her from the sudden movement, but all Twilight did was jab her hoof towards Nemo’s neck as she landed. “Well, I must have been misinformed, because my brother took a freaking dog-collar off your neck!”

“What I happen to find pretty is none of your damn business!”

Twilight ignored her, and turned to me instead: her face a careful mask. “And I don’t know who was cruel enough to give you a knock-off of the alicorn amulet, Fluttershy...”

I almost fired on her again, as Twilight continued in that ‘I’m talking to a mental patient’ type voice, and smiled that soft, empty smile you give people on the bus when they talk to themselves.

“But it explains both why your magic had gone so weird, and why you…” Twilight’s ‘smile’ faltered, but it was back so quick I would have missed it if I’d blinked. “...attacked Luna. Nopony is blaming you… Please just stand down, and we can fi-”

“That amulet was a gift from my mother; the only thing I have left from her. What magic it holds —if any, is none of your fucking business.”

At my hard words Twilight went waxen, the one hoof she’d been making ‘down, girl, down’ gestures with frozen in the air.

“You have ten seconds to give it back to me, or swear on your power that you will as soon as possible... or I will End you, Twilight, and damned be the consequences.”

Slowly, Cadance’s horn began to lower, magic gathering around it so slowly and surely that there was no way I’d noticed… unless of course for Demonreach.

“And that goes double for you, Cadance, you backstabbing bastard,” I told her way without even turning my head. “Back off; the stars may be wrong for me to kill you permanently, but I can most certainly make you wish they were.”

Cadance kept her cool, but since I could feel her hooves through the Demonreach and the snow…

So I decided on a show of force. “Demonreach, please take Twilight Sparkle below and keep her there sans her fabulous tiara until further notice; she is to speak her True Name once a day, use it to bind her further.”

Twilight didn’t even have time to even fully open her mouth to protest, before a circle of blinding light winked into existence around her.

Twilight! Oh no, Harry, what have you done?

“Twilight!” Cadance screamed, her veil falling to shreds as she totally let go of the spell and jumped towards the spot her friend had been standing in just moments prior.

Before her hooves could even hit the outside of the circle, (good for her, I might add) it was gone.

For a moment, the Element of Big-Bad-Mojo, or whatever, hung in the air; blinking on and off like a half-plugged in Christmas light. Honestly, the stupid thing almost looked confused.

I swear, for a single moment the whole island was utterly silent as the tiara hit the snow with a soft pat.

Suddenly, this… pulling sensation, for lack of a better word, I hadn’t even been feeling just ceased. When I focused on it, I got a mental image of the Element of Kindness falling still and dark; coming to rest in a sand bank near the Element of Loyalty, a hundred yards, twenty feet, and one inch from the surface.

Ah~h… So that was what had happened. Twilight must have somehow used how the Elements are a linked set to cast a tracking spell of some type on all six, and then boosting it enough that they all but went flying towards their ‘Bearers;’ apparently considering any damage from that secondary to keeping them on us.

I fought down a mental image of what would have happened to me and Nemo if two necklaces moving with enough force to crawl through rock had hit us, and instead focused on the mortified ‘alicorn’ behind me.

“I am going to make this clear, Your Highness,” I slowly turned and calmly told the pale mare as she stared in wide-eyed horror my way, “This is my Sanctum, and you are not welcome here.”

Oh, horse feathers; it’s going to be one of those days again, isn’t it? Harry, please, please just listen to them! The Princesses’ are good ponies!

With exaggerated care and slowness just to drive it home how little I thought of her, I started putting my rod and revolver back into my duster.

I saw how Cadance just barely stopped herself from jumping me. “What did you do to Twilight?!”

You didn’t need to know the slightest bit about the instinctive bits of pony body language to know how close Cadance was to simply tearing my head off. Wide open eyes with tiny dots for pupils, wings flared, that freaky mane turned to fire thing…

What can I say? It was subtle, but I spotted it.

“Oh, she is perfectly safe,” I calmly answered Cadance, as two flashes —one blue, one golden— joined us.

I paused just for a moment to look over the new arrivals.

Frankly? The state of Luna pissed me off. Aside from a few darker spots on her pelt I was fairly sure was from bullets that had bounced, she looked as if she’d just stepped off a treadmill, not performed a tactical retreat from a pitched battle.

A pitched battle she’d performed while only wearing regalia and armored boots of all things, I might add.

Oh, and there wasn’t as much as a hint that just a few hours earlier I’d broken both her wings. I was supposed to believe that a nation with healers of that caliber can’t improvise a solution? No better way to deal with ‘Discord,’ my currently non-existent foot…

The other newcomer, though? Almost a head taller than Luna and Cadance, mane like a streak of northern freaking lights, and magic jetted out of her like a fire hose. I swear, the small clearing we were in even started thawing a bit from her mere presence.

“Ah,” I lied smoothly, “and I take that you are Princess Solaris?”

Celestia took one look between the fallen tiara, the stunned Cadance, and glared me down; near in the same moment. “My name is Princess Celestia. What have you done to Twilight?”

Tell you what? The look of dawning horror in Cadance’s eyes was simply adorable.

“Demonreach, oblige Celestia’s curiosity.”

Cadance hadn’t even gotten past the ‘A’ in screaming “Auntie!” before the circle had winked on… and off.

“Sister!” Luna screamed, rearing in horror as the pile of rather gaudy jewelry rained down on the snow. Gold and amethysts? Honestly, how tired and cliché can your color matching be?

“She is safe, as is that Twilight girl,” I told them both in a calm voice as I theatrically started buffing my right hipposandal on my duster. “And unless I give the explicit word otherwise they will both stay perfectly safe until the day the stars themselves start winking out in the sky.”

There wasn’t a sound as I calmly sat down on my haunches.

Even Nemo looked utterly stunned.

“So let’s talk terms of surrender, shall we? You fuck off now, stop hunting us, give all our stuff back, don’t come back…” I paused for dramatic effect, calmly meeting the glare from both demigods. “...and I’ll release those two twits in six months. Deal?” I brushed my shoulder off as if it was an afterthought. “Oh, and Demonreach?”

The two mares tensed; as Demonreach’s physical manifestation was just suddenly there at my side.

Heck of an entrance… even if you aren’t a twelve feet tall, vaguely man shaped mound of plants, rocks and soil, with two burning green eyes and a black cloak covering everything.

“If either of the bastards attack, call me Fluttershy, or call Nemo Rainbow Dash: then both are to be sealed away immediately.”


Luna and Cadance stared at Demonreach, shuddering so hard their fur was all but rippling.

(Nemo kinda ruined the moment by going starry-eyed and breathlessly saying “Coo~ol!’ but I think we all just kind of ignored it.)

Moving slowly as if not to ‘trigger the mad mare,’ Luna and Cadance exchanged a long glance.

“...You know, Harry,” Nemo said as she slowly sat down on a snow covered boulder. “I suddenly get this feeling they haven’t even bothered to memorize our ‘human’ names.”

I jerked a bit in shock, before glowering towards the two dumbest freaking immortals I had ever met. I took a bit of pleasure in how they both seemingly needed to raise a hoof to shield themselves from that glare… but on the whole, it was just another reminder of all this pony freakiness to me.

“No point right?” Nemo continued in a tone that could have etched glass. “After all, we’ll be cured soon, and then they can call us whatever they fucking want!”

With a loud ‘clonk’ Nemo punched the rock with a snarl on her face.

Apparently her other brain cell finally managed to find its long lost mate, as this almost cute little gleam of understanding lit up in Luna’s eyes. “Cadance,” she said in a rather ‘subdued’ tone, “they think we intent to corrupt them; that’s why they have gone this far.”

Cadance’s only answer was to balk so hard it nearly looked as if she was trying to launch her eyeballs at me.

I leaned back and started slow clapping. (And trying to ignore the feeling that King Arthur was just around the corner.) “Bravo, bravo....” I ignored the baffled looks and let my hooves fall instead. “Why, if I had never heard a sob routine from a pretty face before, I might have actually bought that performance for a whole second!”

Strangely, my chipper attitude didn’t seem to help.

“F-” Luna gritted her teeth a bit louder, and forced herself to continue. “...Harry, we don’t know what went wrong, but the curse is over.”

There was something near pleading in her eyes and just on the edge of her voice, as Luna took a shaking step forward.

“If you just let us help we can heal you! You can be home within the hour, and never have to live this horrible, twisted lie Discord forced on you ever again!”

A shiver ran all the way from the base of my neck to the very tip of my tail.

On her rather cold looking seat, Nemo did a similar little twitch of discomfort.

“...Tell you what, Luna?” I managed in a voice far calmer than I felt. “How about I humor you for a few minutes, and actually act as Devil’s advocate? Everything you’ve said is a hundred percent true, and both Nemo and I just popped into existence with forged papers and everything twenty five years ago…”

My spiel and these gleams of hope in the two Princesses’ eyes got cut off by Nemo jumping to her hooves. “WHAT?!”

I raised my hoof her way, but didn’t look away from Luna. “Let me finish, I’m going somewhere with this.”

Nemo clearly didn’t like it from how I saw her wings twitch even in my peripheral, but slowly she sank down again.

I gave her a small nod of thanks, before pressing on. “So Last-Thursday-ism, but with twenty five years ago and a sizable percent of the population instead of the whole universe and... well, last Thursday.” I scowled at Luna, making her smile evaporate like ethanol under a heat lamp. “During the last twenty five years I’ve gotten a private investigator's license. Become a full member of the White Council. Hell, I killed my first man when I was sixteen.”

Even Nemo’s eyes shot up at that one.

“And the evil bastard of a warlock had it coming, no matter how much trouble it got me into,” I continued. “I’ve spoken with archangels, wrestled with demons, fought gods, called and consorted with spirits both fair and foul…” Slowly, I jabbed my hoof towards Alfred. “Made a pact with a rather decent one. You know, wizard stuff.”

Demonreach said nothing, but for a moment I felt his gaze burning in the back of my head.

‘Don’t talk too much,’ got it.

“So yeah, even if that time frame is true, I’ve still had a freaking life in this world.” Luna twitched as I trust my hoof towards her and Cadance. “You two on the other hand have according to your own damn admission, been fighting one spirit and barely holding your ground, at that.” Scowling, I poked my own temple. “And I’m supposed to trust you two with my mind when you are such incompetent rulers that during the same twenty five damned years your only plan has been ‘survive for long enough that the predestined cavalry can arrive?’ Really?

Both Luna and Cadance bristled at me, but said nothing.

“You won’t even dirty your damn hooves to permanently remove a civilization spanning threat…” I put a hoof to my chest, ignoring how empty my neck felt. “...but me and Nemo are supposed to risk our lives, reputations and loved ones so that you two won’t need to compromise your morals?”

“F- Harry,” Cadance said, squaring her shoulders and also taking a step closer with her head held high, “Discord is one, if not the, strongest creature on th- our planet. Even Luna and Celestia needed the Elements to defeat him the first time…”

“And did either of you idiots actually try killing him back then, either?” Nemo piped up to some clear disgust from both Cadance and Luna. “Because I think I’ve seen a pattern here…”

Cadance ignored her, stopping only to fight down a frown of disgust before pressing on. “We need the Elements in the hooves of their Bearers, Harry; it’s the only way we know of to make all this right again.”

I stared her down for a bit in that wizardly way that doesn’t actually involve meeting a person’s gaze… but there wasn’t even a flicker of doubt in Cadance’s face.

“...Kid,” I told her with a nod towards Luna, “I tried telling your idiot co-ruler over there earlier, but she wouldn’t listen.”

Luna let out a snort that misted in the air, and scraped her hoof a bit. That I knew full well what it meant when a horse did, but I just ignored the prissy prima donna and her cute little signs of irritation.

“This world is a powder keg right now, and the only reason it hasn’t gone boom is that every politician, monster and mix of the two does not want to be the one that gets remembered for having dropped all the torches they’re all busy juggling right now. This time last year magic was myth and freaking legend to the average Joe, and now?” I ignored the incredulous looks from both idiots, and waved at my face. “Now there are magical creatures trotting down near damn every street.”

For just a moment, I saw doubt… then it was gone again, but because it was fought down or hidden away I couldn’t tell.

“So yeah, the magic side of things? The people already used to monsters and magic? We’re kinda waiting on the other horse shoe to drop, and the blood to start overflowing in the gutters.” I shot another glare towards Luna. “And a pony sovereign of a foreign, magical nation hunting and trying to kidnap people off the fucking street while wearing only a flipping black cloak will not help matters cool down without bloodshed!”

Cadance and Luna swapped another look, but I simply didn’t know enough pony-pony body language to even guess on what it meant.

I’d had a whole other bit lined up about how this situation would probably be World War 3 at best, and The End Times at worst…

But Luna and Cadance were just smiling these waxen smiles, while their eyes damn near overflowed with pity.

Those I also could read, because it was the exact damn look you give your aunt, or whatever, when she starts raving about how the damn dirty gnomes are stealing her underpants. It pissed me off quite a bit, but I really saw no reason to waste more breath when all I was saying was being dismissed as delusions, anyway.

Nemo cracked her neck, but didn’t take her eyes of Cadance, Luna… or Demonreach, for that matter. “Yeah, a bit stupid to start the political side of things off with a dozen casus belli, and a first impression that even the apex of Equestrian government are violent, thieving brutes…”

Again, Luna bristled and flared her wings, but held her tongue.

Nemo’s eyes narrowed into an outright glare. “You know,” she hissed at them, “unless this is a smash-and-grab operation, and no first contact was ever actually planned. If so, there really is no reason to be subtle, now is there?”


For ‘politicians’ Luna and Cadance didn’t have what I’d call poker faces. The two idiots with more power than brains just froze, and went carefully blank.

So… yeah, they could have just as easily have been screaming: ‘Yes! And we’d gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling mares and your mangy island!’

At least that way of confirming what Nemo had just said would have been a bit funny.

For a mare with blue fur, Luna pulled off the ‘ashen’ look quite well. Might have been the ears plastered to her skull, but still. “...Harry, there is a balance between the worlds. Even the extra six months you’ve been here have probably caused untold damage; to both this world and ours...”


Cadance sucked in a deep breath, eyes filled with pity.

Or at least, a damn good knock-off of the emotion. “F- Harry,” Cadance glanced over to Nemo, “D- Nemo, I’m so, so sorry, but you staying here simply isn’t possible; even if we didn’t need the Elements, you merely being here is offsetting the balance between our worlds.”

For a moment, I honestly just sat there despite the danger; my mind grinding to a halt as it tried to process the utter stupidity of what I’d just heard...


Vaguely, as if far away, I felt my ear start twitching as if possessed, and something warm drip down my nose and onto the ground.

I was distracted however, as for a moment my hoof itched, and this image of Luna’s head splattering over the entire clearing flashed through my head; so crystal clear I could even smell the blood and viscera…

And then Demonreach shifted his weight beside me, and just like that, the image was gone, somehow together with my nosebleed.

...Harry, I know you can’t really hear me, but please do that thing you do, and make these bastards bleed. I don’t know who or what these worthless imitators are, but the real princesses would never, ever tear apart m- our life like this. Please, teach them a lesson on what happens when Kindness has had freakin’ enough.

With exaggerated care I sucked in a slow breath… and let go of the power I’d drawn in on reflex. I’m not quite sure what Demonreach had just done, but my head felt clearer than it had for hours.

Slowly, and with clear pain on their faces… Luna and Cadance both took a few steps back from me, and my death glare.

To my surprise and slight worry, Cadance just raised a hoof and muscled through it.

That one hoof steaming slightly, but details. The mare hesitated for just a moment, as if weighing something. “...Flutters, I’m not supposed to talk about this with non alicorns, but you need to get away from this island as well. Now.

By my side, Demonreach raised his head, towering over the two demigods, his shadow somehow moving on its own to fall over them.

Luna just went rigid.... but interestingly enough, her wide-eyed attention seemed now totally focused on Cadance.

“I don’t know how you did it; I didn’t even think it was possible for a mortal pony to claim a domain without ascending,” Cadance continued, still pleading at me, “but this island is too small and limited.”

Demonreach’s ‘eyes’ narrowed at Cadance.

“Even at best it will stop you from…” Cadance hesitated, glancing back at Luna. Luna was scowling, but gave the other ‘alicorn’ a brisk nod. Cadance nodded, and turned back to continue. “...reaching your true destiny. At worst, you will ascend but be the alicorn of only this place; your power and perhaps even immortality dwindling to less than now whenever you aren’t here...”

Nemo gave me and Demonreach a long, hard look, then at the princesses, and back again.

“...And you have any actual proof of this —or any of your other claims I might add, oh Queen of All Porn, Positions and Penetration…?”

Cadance balked at me. “...My domain do not cover lust or… fornication,” she declared, face and voice about as sour as pickled lemons dipped in salt.

“Answer the fucking question,” I spat her way, putting some extra emphasis on the swear just to be an ass.

Cadance’s cheeks flushed slightly from anger, but she just pressed on. “...No, we do not.”

“Believe it or not, Flutters,” Luna declared as she held her head high, and walked closer a few steps, “but we did not expect to need any on a rescue mission to save Our friends and champions…”

I ignored the accusing tone and focused with a scowl of my own on the words. “And you honestly expect me to believe that after —according to your story I might add, twenty five years none of you idiots even thought about bringing as much as a fucking photo to back your ludicrous story up? Let alone clothes for a world that might have been made from acid and ground glass for all you seemingly actually knew about it?!”

There was a long moment of awkward silence.

“To be fair, Harry.” Nemo added as an afterthought, “the Princesses are just as big a bunch of idiots when it comes to foreseeing problems in the show; so as far as I can tell they’re perfectly ‘in character.’”

I swear, I actually heard a cartoony needle scratch from nowhere.

“...Wait, what?” I, Luna and Cadence managed to deadpan in unison.

You had to know him, but I’m sure even Demonreach was slightly puzzled; if for just a moment before dismissing it as ‘irrelevant.’

Nemo gave us all a long hard look that clearly said: ‘Are these idiots being serious?’ before opening her mouth…

Only to close it again with a thoughtful expression. “...I’ve apparently got intel, and I can’t talk about it in front of...” Nemo gave a sharp nod towards Luna and Cadance. “...you know, the enemy.”

Both Luna and Cadance twitched as if slapped.

Luna’s ‘mask’ twitched away, for a moment showing me and Nemo a mare just moments from breaking down crying.

Then just like that, Luna the mare was gone, replaced again with the Luna the goddess princess. “RD, we are not your enemy; we are trying to help you.”

“Ri~ight,” Nemo deadpanned with a roll of her eyes, “because telling me I’m the Element of Loyalty, and then saying I need to stab my mom in the back ‘for the greater good’ sounds oh so sane and not contradictory at all...”

Pegasus wings are strange things. I wasn’t a biology wiz (heh) or anything so I hadn’t wrapped my head around the how quite yet, but if the pegasus concentrates enough they’re basically the second best thing to two six-pronged tentacle arms.

Yeah. Figuring that out had been a strange couple of days.

Anyway, it wasn’t nearly as dexterous as hands and arms, but for something that also lets you fly? Not too shabby.

If you figured it out, though, you could do all sorts of things with them! You could open pickle jars. With some practice and stretching, scratch your back. Scratch your itches with the pickle jar…

Or, as Nemo was doing, twist the whole wing around in a way that would make a contortionist wince, keep the middle ‘wing-finger’ extended, while folding the two others down in a way that would make most veterinarians wince.

Don’t think they quite know what rare type of bird they were being shown, but the two nobles sure didn’t seem to be fans of ornithology or the stony expression Nemo had on while demonstrating her alar dexterity.

“So go choke on a horse sausage, both of you...” Nemo shook her wing out, and refolded it to her side, but the glare remained. “...and frankly, I don’t care if you go for the literal or metaphorical one.”

I fought down a grimace to fake a bit of ‘group’ cohesion… but horse? Really? I try not to judge other people's eating habits, but that was a bit too close to the other dark meat right now for my tastes.

Visibly a bit green around the gills, Luna took a step towards Nemo. “Please,” she pleaded voice thick with emotion, “if you just come with us, we could heal you within the hour! There is no need for any of this!”

Nemo took one long hard look straight in Luna’s eyes… and then swept her gaze over to me and Demonreach. “...Now you ask politely.” Nemo took a deep breath, and looked back at the crestfallen ‘alicorn,' straight in the eye. “Honestly, I don’t know what Harry’s doing… but I hope you end up bound into an ugly rock for all eternity, ‘Luna,’ I really do.”

Nemo pulled her head back to spit Luna in the face, but I just barely managed to clamp down on her muzzle using telekinesis at the last moment. She let out a sound somewhat like an elephant trying to trumpet with cold, before glaring at me.

Luna just stood there, seemingly ‘stunned’ by her ‘friend’s betrayal,’ or whatever it was we were meant to believe.

“Body-fluids are prime conduits for magic,” I explained even as my spell fizzled out, not taking my eyes of the ‘alicorns.’ “Nemo, you nearly did the magic version of painting a bull’s-eye on your own forehead to spite a sniper.”

Nemo went lavender. Slowly, she forced down the bit of spit she’d gargled up.

Cadance’s feathers ruffled a bit, but she kept her face almost normal. “Flutters, RD, you are not well. Discord has twisted your minds, and unless you two stop all this... horrible violence we can’t treat you. Please.

To my considerable surprise, Cadance actually sank down onto her haunches and begged, hooves wringing and everything.

Despite it all I felt reluctantly impressed. Most of the higher-tier bastards giggling evilly in the dark corners of the world couldn’t even bring themselves to fake humility like that…

Don’t get me wrong, I still didn’t believe a word that had come from Cadance’s lips, but I’d give the pink she-devil her dues; she had her eye on the prize, and wasn’t afraid to ding her ego to get it. Props for that, if nothing else.

The ‘alicorns’’ eyes welled with ‘sad’ tears, and she wrung her little hoofsies at us. “Please!” Cadance pleaded at us. “Just let Auntie Celestia and Twilight go, and we can make everything right again! We can fix everything, if you just stand down and let us help you!”


And that this meant freeing —at least, unless that was why I’d been turned into one of ‘Equestria’s chosen,’ two hostile immortals, and leaving the one place of power I knew I could stand victorious on… Well, I’m sure that wasn’t at all part of that plan to ‘help’ me and Nemo.

Honestly, there really only was one right choice to make in this ‘dilemma,’ and even then calling it that was being generous.

“...I don’t believe you.” I lifted a wing, and pointed back to Chicago. “In fact, I am now more certain than ever that you lot were the source of the mass ponification; presumably to gain yourself more ‘loyal subjects’ to lord over. You have five minutes to leave this place, —and those hostages near the old cannery, or I will seal you two away right next to your fellow ‘princesses.’”

Near all color drained from both alicorns’ faces.

Nemo flipped off that rock of hers like a ballerina and moved straight down into that karate stance of hers. By the time her hind-hooves hit the snow, she already had that booster spell up and running.

I didn’t even get up. I just continued to sit there in Demonreach’s shadow, flicking my tail lazily back and forth as if I had all eternity on my side.

What can I say? Felt kinda nice to be the heavy-weight with the home field advantage for once.

Of course, I’d seen what tended to happen when people and/or monsters in that position started cackling about ‘And you have no chance to survive!’

And that was why I not only had drawn in as much power as I dared without tipping my hand, but under the snow I was slowly shaking out my shield bracelet to make sure it was free of my sleeve.

I might not be the sharpest spoon in the drawer, but I’ve had many teachers in the arts of deviousness over the years.

With her face carefully blank, Cadance started slowly walking forward. “Flutters…”

I felt my ear twitch in annoyance. Oh, a cute, girly nickname, freaking lovely… “My name is Dresden,” I snarled at her, wings flared on instinct. Remembering what had happened to Luna when she’d done that, I quickly forced them to my sides again. “You can’t even respect that, and you still dare call yourself my friend?”

Cadance stopped before I had to fire a warning shot at her hooves, jerking to a sudden stop. “...No pony would change their name; it is as intricate and intimate a part of them as their cutie mark.”

I just barely managed to stop an eye roll. “Right…” I sarcastically droned out instead. “And nopony has ever been called something embarrassing or socially crippling by their parents —like say, Fluttershy, because those are the type of mistakes mortals do…” I tilted my head, as I couldn’t help noticing the crystal heart on Cadance’s flank. “Or been named, say. ‘Whipping Boy,’ just before the path laid out before them became all but obsolete, or something....”

Nemo let out a snort, but didn’t falter from her battle stance. “Yeah, pony names never made sense to me, either.”

I got the sense I’d missed something, but I was a bit distracted by Luna’s and Cadance’s reactions.

What can I say? It wasn’t everyday even a wizard got to see two demi-gods shudder from head to hoof, as if somebody had just shown them their collection of moccasins made from real babies, or something.

“You are not supposed to talk about… that,” Cadance freaking declared at me, seemingly trying to clout her way through to the end of the conversation.

I honestly didn’t really care about what topic she was wasting her four remaining minutes on.

“Demonreach,” I said to the spirit, “, please rebind all the Elements; they will not be a problem without their wielders to draw strength from. Put them with the Skinwalkers; whoever walks away from that matchup, the world wins.”

Within reason, of course. There exists such a thing as a distraction, after all.

Luna, who seemingly didn’t think I would notice how she was edging towards a certain purple tiara, let out a muffled curse and dove like a she-fox pouncing.

With a triumphant grin, her hooves closed so fast on the Element of Magic that they made a tiny whip-like snap in the air.

In fact, she moved so quick, that she got there just in time for the small circle to snap up.

Straight over her cannons.

For a moment all was still. Even Luna was mostly staring in shock at the small crater in the snow where the Element of Magic had been resting.

Then her hooves just… toppled forward, and onto the ground.

There was surprisingly little blood, or even anything that actually looked like a wound. It was as if some great giant with a carving knife had simply cut away a failed bit of a sculpture made from blue clay, leaving this smooth but vaguely glazed looking surface behind.

Aside from how her right hoof kept twitching on the ground, you could have believed that Luna simply had two life-like prostheses that had just… slipped off.

“...I’ve seen enough of this madness,” I calmly stated as I got up. “Seal them.”

Cadance went from lost in shock, to flaming maned and snarling in a heartbeat; almost even getting off one of those ‘horn blasts’ Nemo had talked about before she was simply gone.

Luna didn’t even look up from staring at her stumps before she too was gone.

I hesitated, and turned my neck around towards Demonreach. “Please try to reattach and heal her hooves; she’s an immortal idiot with an agenda, but from what I’ve seen she isn’t actually outright malicious enough to deserve to be crippled for the rest of eternity.”

For just a moment, there was a flicker in the burning, green coals that served as Demonreach’s ‘eyes.’

I took a moment to close my eyes, and focus on the various groups on Demonreach.

The ‘shore’ group had met up with the ‘cottage’ one, and was seemingly standing around in what seemed to be an uneasy truce; one of the humans having joined with the ‘shore’ people, and the others clean on the other side of what passed for my front yard.

The Elements were… there really wasn't another word for it.

Boiling the Skinwalkers alive.

Imagine six tanks with a great white in it. Now imagine somebody sick and twisted dropping a high-voltage line into those same tanks.

Just that, but instead of a predator and voltage, it was semi-divine immortals with a thirst for power, magic and blood, versus what was apparently semi-intelligent artifacts —if nothing else masquerading as, Harmony, Love and other Goody-Goody forces of yay, or whatever.

I’m not quite certain what was happening even with the link with Demonreach… but there was this ‘rainbow’ colored glow coming from the minimum security cells, and the naagloshii inside were screaming so loud the whole chamber was shaking slightly.

Perhaps a great white and high-voltage was a bad comparison, come to think about it; the whole situation was more like the xenomorph’s and Jason Voorhees's eviler love-child getting a well-deserved acid bath without actually being able to die from it.

What can I say? I wouldn’t call myself a bad man… but I’m not perfect, either.

I shook myself out of it. As schadenfreude-tastic as it might be to know that six beings as close to pure evil as I knew of were stuck in a paper based, and salt filled blender, now was not quite the time to go grab the popcorn.

The ‘alicorns’ were on the other hand, a study in contrast.

Celestia was seemingly either meditating, or gathering her strength for something. She was simply lying down inside her crystal with her legs neatly folded under her, eyes closed, and only this slight twitching of her tail betraying she was even worried.

Cadance was the utter opposite, as she was basically hammering the inside of her cell with her bare hooves. I’d grant the girl that she was going through with it with great gusto, but it was actually doing about as much damage as a sling-shot against a Sherman tank.

Luna was unconscious, but I couldn’t tell if it was from shock or whatever Demonreach was doing to heal her. Either Demonreach thought I was ‘too limited’ again, or I simply couldn’t think up the right questions… but I had no idea what was going on in that particular cell except for the general state of Luna; it was simply covered in thin, rapidly growing roots doing something to the mare.

Twilight on the other hand, was rather simple and straightforward; she was curled into a tiny ball in the center of her cell, and was seemingly having a nervous breakdown. The girl was even petting her own tail as if it was a cat, all while a rather suspiciously and unrealistically large pool of tears was filling up by her head.

Satisfied that the latest batch of twisted demigods was properly contained within Demonreach, I turned my mind to the slightly more mundane threats left top-side.

The groups by my cottage were still there… just slightly further apart; probably having been spooked by the disappearance of the Element from their midst.

Something similar but with slightly more military precision had happened down by the cannery. It was such an old and rotted thing, my brother and I hadn’t even entertained fixing it up... but there was an old dock right by the old cannery; presumably once used for unloading fresh fish and sending away the finished cans.

“...Dammit all,” I muttered to myself, before turning to Nemo, who was just sitting there and eyeing me with a carefully blank expression. “There are soldiers here, two companies, a commander… and two prisoners.”

Nemo’s eyes darted over to Demonreach, and back to me. “...Can’t you two just… seal the lot of ‘em?” The girl waved a hoof in the clean other direction of the cannery, seemingly neither noticing or caring that the thin fabric of her prison clothes was starting to freeze stiff even while on her. “And bam, we just walk over and introduce ourselves?”

I bit my lip and thought it over, but ultimately I had to shake my head. “No, if nothing else they seem to have a decently sized force; we do that, and they’ll simply send more squads until the Equestrians’ get lucky.”

That, and although there were quite a few empty cells and Demonreach could grow more on demand, they were not infinite.

Would be just my luck if I defeated a whole army lead by four demi-gods, only for Cthulhu to rise from his dead city, and have no empty cells to put Him in.

“Look,” I told her as I got up, “here’s the plan; we go over to my cottage first to confront the smaller group there, demand to parley, and when the pricks go all zealots on us instead of listening, we stomp ‘em all the way back to Sugar Happy Super Fun La-La Land. Rinse and repeat down at the cannery.”

Nemo just stared bemusedly at me for a few moments. “...Any plan that doesn’t involve us marching up against soldiers, o fearless leader…?”

“Do you want to dodge these pricks for the rest of your life…?” I pointed towards the actual direction again. “So we can either stomp ‘em hard enough they never come back, or broker some type of deal using their lieges as leverage... and either way, we need to go face them.”

Nemo looked as if she was about to protest, but instead she gave off a shrug that made her wings ruffle loudly. “...Fine, if these cartoon wannabes want to fight, I don’t think I’ll mind making ‘em crap teeth for a bit.” I felt my ears perk even as the mare made a grimace and shuddered. “Honestly, making themselves look like My Little Pony characters to make people lower their guard? That’s just wrong.”

“...What are you talking about?” I frowned, and looked back at the spots in the snow where the ‘alicorns’ had been standing. “...That girly thing from the eighties? They’ve stolen their looks from that of all things?”

For a few moments Nemo just gave me one of those: ‘Just what rock have you been living under?” type stares, but then she blinked, and slapped herself on the forehead hard enough it smacked. “Oh, my freaking god,” she muttered with eyes unfocused,” I can’t believe I forgot that wizards being walking tech-bane thingy...”

I sat down again; at about the same rate my eyebrow was rising, I might add. “...What the hell are you talking about?”

Rubbing her temples with her hooves, Nemo frowned deep in thought for a bit. “...Look, it’s a long and weird story, and I don’t have any of the proof on me. Short version? Whatever these hypocritical bastards really are, they’ve based their —and our I might add, appearances on characters from this popular fantasy cartoon show going on right now.” Nemo lost control of her face with a growl that somehow sounded both inhuman and inequine, as she spat at the spot Luna had been standing just a few minutes before. “Intended audience,” she continued snarling, “girls’ ages three and up.”

The bottom of my stomach dropped out as Nemo let fly another ‘projectile,’ this time at the spot ‘Cadance’ had been standing.

Think that hole was burned out by this bonfire somebody had suddenly snuck inside my chest.

Nemo’s snarl got changed out for a deep frown, as she ran a hoof along her jawline. “...Think that might be it? Some type of shapeshifting bastards, and… I don’t know, a mass conversion ritual that almost worked, or something?”

I fought the fire in my belly down, and forced myself to think rationally for a few moments…

No matter how tempting it was to have Demonreach simply raise about twenty circles a heart across might have suddenly felt.

What can I say? Struggling against that darn mantle had been good for something, at least.

“...It’s an interesting theory,” I managed in an even voice, “and I have encountered creatures that like to make themselves look like fictional characters, so it isn’t impossible.”

Nemo went rigid, but remained silent as I quickly cut her off by raising my hoof. “But those things feed on fear, use horror characters, and are about as subtle as the slashers they like to resemble.”

I paused for a moment as Nemo shuddered; near rippling as if she’d gotten a vibrator the size of a fire hydrant shoved up h-

With a ‘fumph’ of displaced air, my wings (and, ugh, tail) went as stiff as a pair of boards.

My cheeks suddenly burning, I turned my head away with a cough; ignoring one of the most infuriatingly cu- annoying snickers I’d ever heard.

“You know…” Nemo droned out, smiling like a freakin’ canary that had managed to turn tables on the cat. “...I’d thought a wizard of all people would have enough staff polishing practice to find a mare knob no harder a challenge…”

“Ha, ha, ha,” I deadpanned with an eye roll, as I fought to get my rogue appendages to fall back in line. “A joke about us wizards and how we do so love our staffs! Oh, the wit…”

Nemo rolled her eyes at me. “Seriously though,” she absently said as she scanned the forest, “couldn’t you of all people summon up a frisky pooka, or something?” The girl waved her hoof in the air, while I fought down a grimace and felt my wings all but deflate. “And I don’t know, have this Demonreach of yours get these forests tended in ‘exchange’ for some regular nookie, or whatever…?”

If Nemo’s suggestion had been a bucket of ice down my back... than the almost morbidly amused gaze from Demonreach I felt burning in my neck was this finely ground glacier down the same spot.

Frankly, it felt as if my damned wings shrunk about five sizes.

And not only because the suggestion itself was about as appealing to me as getting dragged away on a bikini-wax. Ye gods, the same girl that could crack concrete by jumping is this naive about how things actually work in the supernatural world?

I hesitated and pinged Demonreach, but with the 'alicorns' out of the picture the fighting had died down, so as good a time as any.

I did not want to see what this girl would be like hopped up on black magic and some twisted patron's favor if she could already break the sound barrier with what's basically a weird type of breaststroke. No time to give the full version, but if taking a few minutes might save me (and the world) from having to fight Darth Nemo in a few years, it would be worth it.

“...Nemo,” I managed somehow in an even voice. Don’t ask me how. “I know you’re new to all this and you’ve probably got a million and one ‘clever’ ideas running through your head…” I ignored the annoyed glare I got, and instead tried not to have my cheeks melt from the inside out as I ran my hooves in a big circle in the air over my stomach. “But there’s more to a child than friction, two types of slimy fluids and needing to wait ni- eleven months, ‘kay?”

I looked between the direction of my cottage, and the now near crimson pegasus…

I bit my lip, and hesitated. Now was really not the damn time, but…

Clearly deciding that his presence was no longer needed, Demonreach took one, long dragging step inland, and was gone before his good foot could actually touch land again.

“Look, I can’t give you the details now, we don’t have the time... but yes there exist spirits, demons, and all sorts of things that will…” I couldn’t quite stop a chuckle that turned Nemo an even darker shade of red. “...jump on any offers like that; because most of them think making children is almost as fun as hunting them.”

The colors —red and otherwise, drained from Nemo’s face.

“They’re called ‘scions;’ half human, half something else. Most of them just look like slightly odd humans with a bit more magic, but some like changelings —That’s when a fey and a human bonk, by the way.— have other, less… wholesome side-effects as well.” I let out a groan, as something I’d really tried not to think about bubbled to the surface, making my cheeks heat again. “I really don’t want to admit this out-loud… but given how magical ponies seem to be…”

Nemo spluttered so hard, I almost got a rather disgusting improvised shower. “You can not be serious!”

I thought I’d be running on near empty as far as compassion and this darned day went… but suddenly Maggie’s little face flashed before my eyes, and the mere army on my property didn’t seem nearly as important anymore.

I got up, and walked over to Nemo, who eyed me suspiciously. “Nemo…” I kept my voice gentle, as I put both hooves on her shoulders. “...now isn’t the time, but you’ve got rare talent, so I’m going to take the time to explain something to you, ‘kay?”

Nemo looked suspicious about something for a moment, but she smoothed her frown out and just let me continue.

“Your level of talent and those kinds of ideas?” I squeezed her shoulders a bit, but kept my voice firm but kind. “That is a very, very, very dangerous combo, Nemo. I know it might be hard to believe, but there are horrible things out there; things that were old when this continent was lost under ice last time, and quite a few of them would love to have a combined enforcer and concubine that can crack necks and bed frames.”

Nemo spluttered a bit again.

I ignored it, and instead gently poked her on the forehead. “And if they can trick you into a contract or other crap that means that pesky personality and morals of yours’ don’t get in the way of serving them?” I fought down a scowl as I put my hoof back on her shoulder. “All the freaking better. After all, who cares what the breeding stock thinks as long as the new promising lineage of minions keep coming, right?”

She kept a good poker face going… but under my hooves, I felt how Nemo started shaking slightly even through my hipposandals.

“The dark gods, the faeries , vampires, or half a —heh, score of horrible things I could mention? Most of them think mortal law and morality is cute. Things like murder, rape, dismemberment, and other horrible things like that? If you aren’t strong enough to force them to consider you their equal, you’re prey; as simple as that.”

Nemo’s eyes darted around all over my face, looking for the slightest hint I was just kidding.

When she, shock of all shocks, didn’t find any, she went a few shades paler.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I continued softly, “there are things of sweetness and light out there as well, and if you actually manage to genuinely court one of those?” I let out a low whistle under my breath. “It’s rarer than a vow of poverty in freakin’ congress, but I’ve seen it happen and work out.” I waited for the hesitant smile to appear before I squeezed her shoulders hard enough that Nemo winced, and made my voice far, far harder. “But that doesn’t stop the central thing; they are not human. You —somehow, screw an angel, and it will come with just as many boons and banes as if you’d whistled up an incubus to be your personal fuck toy.”

Some color was slowly returning to Nemo’s cheeks; if both blue and red. “...So, winners don’t do drugs?” She mumbled out. “...Just with… magic, and spirits, instead of your body and amphetamine? You can get a really big boost, but unless you know exactly what you're doing you will end up under a headstone before you're forty?”

I blinked. “...That’s… actually a decent comparison.”

Nemo raised her hoof to scratch her chin… only to freeze when it was half way there. “...Oh dammit, I’m at that stage, aren’t I?” She stared down at her hoof, turning it around as if she’d never seen it before; making the short bit of chain left on the cuffs rattle a bit. “I’ve figured out just enough to be a danger to myself and oth-”

Nemo cut off mid-word.

Her eyes locked on the orange sleeve of her prison clothes, soggy from how her hooves had been cannon deep into the snow.

Gently, I grabbed the hoof with both of my own. “Nemo… right now isn’t a good time for those types of doubts, even if it’s good that you're wrestling with what have happened.” Nemo’s hoof nearly twitched out of my grip, but I held firm. “You focus a hundred percent on the task at hand for a few more hours, we both get out alright… and I’ll give you the ‘Freaky Shit 101’ rundown I wish I’d gotten when I was new to magic over a beer or five, ‘kay?”

Nemo hesitated, eyes still locked on the orange sleeve.

“You know…” she chuckled, this soft smile creeping onto her face. “I think me telling people this story without smelling like alcohol might be wiser. Rain check?”

I chuckled softly at that. “In my experience that doesn’t actually help... but sure.”

We traded another chuckle on that.

And for a few moments… it was rather nice, I had to admit.

No Elder Empire of Whatever.

No magic, be it foul or fair.

No ancient demigods of Decaf, Grape Flavored Candy, Cooties, One-Red-Sock-In-The-White-Laundry, or other evils grand and terrifying…

Just two new friends, holding ha- hooves, and having a quiet moment together after a trying day.

I think Nemo was thinking near the damn same thing, because although her eyes didn’t leave our hooves, her smile wilted a bit. “...This is going to end in screams and hellfire, isn’t it?”

The moment over, I let go of her hoof with a sigh. “Yeah… these ‘Equestrian’s’ don’t appear to be able to take a hint, so probably.”

Letting out a sigh so deep her cheeks puffed for a moment, Nero cracked her fetlocks while looking towards Chicago; some of the taller lights just barely visible through the trees. “...Harry, I know I’m not exactly prime apprentice material right now, but I need to know something.”


On me not even hesitating, Nemo froze for a moment...

But after that moment I got this rather adorably cheeky smile I swear made the forest feel a bit warmer, before she pressed on. “...Is it true that the image of something can be used magically? I’ve only heard stories, and I don’t know how many of them are true or not…”

“Sure, symbolism is a tool near every wi-”

Nemo quickly waved me off. “Not that! Like…” The girl hesitated, clearly struggling with putting what she was thinking into words.

I frowned a bit, and thought it over. “...What, like drawing a sword, and somehow using that image to cut somebody?”

Nemo hesitated. “...No, more like…” The mare leaned back on her haunches, and mimed holding a hilt with both hooves. “...you forge a normal sword, but ritually Name it Excalibur, or something; and suddenly it’s something almost but not quite like a legendary blade? Except you can mass produce the darn thing?”

I felt a cold chill dance down my spine.

Stars and freaking Stones, if this girl ever actually went warlock I don’t think there’d be much left of this country afterwards.

And my mind couldn’t help but drift to two bits of rather special cloth I’d encountered in my life; one of them safely back in the Vatican… and the actual original Shroud of Turin safely locked away somewhere deep under my hooves.

“...That… could work, but you’d need to use faith magic for it” I forced myself to say, ignoring how quite a bit of my fur was now standing on end, “and actually making that trick stick would be a whole other ball-park; you’d basically need to have thousands —if not tens of thousands, of people capital B Believe you actually have The Excalibur, and even then I don’t think it would work with more than one.”

For a moment Nero was still as a corpse…

Until her pupils turned to pin-pricks, and she started to hyperventilating while hugging herself. “Oh God, why did I have to be on to something?!”

She stopped halfway to grabbing her own mane, staring at her hooves like she’d never seen them before.

Slowly, and shaking so badly she was all but vibrating, Nemo put her hooves on my shoulders. “Harry…” She nodded down towards the ground. “...you know I’ve never seen your cutie mark, right?”

Somewhere deep down in my mind, what felt like a tiny pipe bomb filled with rusty nails and ground glass went off; judging from the flash of momentary but near searing pain.

And somehow I just Knew, as sure as if Demonreach had whispered to me, that yes, that was the real Name for that emblem on my buttocks I’d tried not to think about, but Maggie had seemed to find endlessly fascinating.

“Y-Y-eah?” I winced out.

“Three pink butterflies with blue bodies? That’s what yours' looks like, right?!”

For a moment, all I could do was stare. “How the fu-!”

To my shock, Nemo actually shoved her rather unclean hoof over my mouth.

I was just about to splutter and protest… when I saw the near maniacal and desperate look on Nemo’s face.

“Look, I don’t have time for the details, but that show I was talking about? In that, the Elements of Harmony are basically magic made manifest. They work only in the hooves of their Bearers, and are tools of healing and restoration, but they can do near anything.” Eyes open so wide I could almost see the clearing reflected in her sclera, Nemo grabbed me by the shoulders and held tight. “It all fits! That’s why we look like this now! Why those things are so powerful, and they need us so much! Why we have gotten such a power boost! Why those two-faced pricks won't drop character even when under threat of death!”

“Quiet!” I hushed at her sharply, and grabbed both hooves, forcing them down. “...Look, Nemo, that is a very troubling theory, but you’d ne-”

“Harry, Friendship Is Magic is one of those once-in-a-lifetime phenomena.” Her hooves and voice shaking, Nemo put her hooves right back on my shoulders. “It has a globally spanning fandom that numbers in hundreds of millions.

Vaguely, as if from far away, I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. Again.

“Imagine it,” Nemo continued still shaking, “The world is nearly going to hell in a hand basket because the ponies popping up is forcing magic out into the open… and then up pops the Bearers of The Elements of Harmony, and the Alicorn Princesses of Equestria, and their armies; all ready to aid humanity in their darkest hour, the Princesses oh so sad their spell to arrive in this world went so ‘wrong.’”

My mouth felt as dry as if I’d chewed cotton. Holy freaking hell, could it be that easy? A global hearts and minds campaign?

“And as those glorious ‘heroes’ battle the forces of darkness, their legend grows day by day…” Her face waxen, Nemo lowered her right hoof, and tapped my sternum. “...Until the day that legend has spread so far and so wide, that even if the ‘Elements’ are only a simulacrum to start with, they sooner or later won't be.”

I forced myself to swallow enough spit to be able to speak again. “...What power level are we talking about here?” My eyes darted down to the ground. “Just a rough guess since I haven’t seen that... show.”

This tittering laugh that barely sounded sane forced itself out of Nemo’s mouth, and she had to all but shove her own hoof into her mouth to make it stop.

Well, that seemed like a good sign. Still, I forced myself to sit still, and wait for her to muscle through it.

With a wet slorp Nemo pulled her hoof out, but even then it was a few minutes of controlled breathing before she could speak again. “...Harry, I wasn’t exaggerating about ‘magic made manifest;’ if those things are around their chosen Bearers’ necks and fully powered up? Then —in the show at least, Twilight Sparkle basically has root access to magic itself.

For a few moments… I’m fairly certain even Demonreach himself was dumbstruck.

“If they tap into even a trillionth of that power, then it won’t even matter if these Elements are fake or not!” Nemo continued in a hissed whisper. “Because then Twilight Sparkle can just use that power to wish the damned things to be real, and then she can use all magic everywhere to do whatever the fuck she and her other ‘Princesses’ want!”

My mind went blank as I failed to even imagine the scope of all that power.

I’d met creatures that could destroy you with only a single word of your True Name.

I’d met things capable of unmaking galaxies, had their power not been carefully bound to a certain task.

I’ve met gods, crooked, bent and all but a shade of their former, full glory, that can still hold you and crush you with the might of their terrifying, titanic Wills alone.

Somehow, I found the presence of mind to actually swallow the gulp stuck in my throat.

And all that power combined wasn’t even a gnat to what a single being would become, if they held the keys to all magic.

“USA not liking the new equine world order?” Nemo snarked, doing the standard psychic stance at a nearby tree by wiggling one hoof at it, and the other at the pine in question. “‘Oops, yeah, turning the entire army into mares? Our bad!’”

In my mind’s eye, I could see it. Squadron after squadron of soldier falling, their forms twisting and melting under a horrible rainbow light, as hundreds upon hundreds of mares with wide, empty grins tumbled down onto the ground.

“Oh, the rest of the world has finally seen the equine terror for what it really is? Nukes for everypony!” Nemo spread her hooves wide towards the sky, and made a ‘zort’ sound; as if mimicking an old sci-fi laser. “Oh my word, what a lovely rain of pansies The Elements and Princesses have brought us today! All hail Equestria!”

My wings made a soft ruffling sound, as I fought down a shiver.

“Oh, so God Himself is getting uppity for the de-facto extermination of the human race? Enough that He’ll even free and march with the Deceiver himself, just for a chance of setting everything in His creation right again?” Nemo wiggled her arms at a spot on the ground, only to lean her head against her hooves with a fake, but still goofy looking grin on her face. “Aww, little Princess Lux and Princess Tenebra look so cute when they’re asleep! Still, I’m sure they’ll be a boon for Equestria once they get older and grew up, knowing only the Glory of Harmony!”

And the worst bit? It sounded… plausible. It would hardly be even the hundredth time something had tried some grand scheme to conquer and remake the world into their own image.

I’d grant that using a cartoon about magical ponies for it was a bit original, but still, otherwise it wasn’t what I’d call new.

But I had to admit, even for me? Really only were two words to sum such a twisted situation up.

“...Well, crap.”

05 — ... And All The Princesses’ Men,...

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Reality is rather distressingly lax in its standards of dramatic tension, sometimes.

Sure, I'd just put the kibosh on four demi-gods, Nemo had proposed a terrifying idea for what their ultimate plan of doom would entail, and we would now have to brave a haunted island full of hostiles to measure our wills and wit against those same immortals in a desperate bid to stop their foul plans...

And those dramatics didn't mean jack-squat for the mile or so of rough terrain we'd need to cross to get to my cottage, let alone the rather draining decent to the cells of Demonreach themselves. No, the fate of the world —neigh, humanity itself might rest on what we do in the coming hours, and yet we still had to put one hoof in front of the others like everypony else. No quick and easy jump-cut for us; we had to drag our sorry asses over there all by ourselves whether we like it or not...

(Let alone the magical teleporters the ponies had somehow figured out, or however that works. Seriously, why does every dark lord, mustache twirler and televangelist always have better stuff than I do? I swear, one day I'm going to figure out how to enchant my revolver to never run out of ammo, or something, and the first damn corner I turn will have some goon with a Davy Crockett aimed straight at me.)

Of course, Nemo and I weren't actually walking.

That would have been too dignified.

We were crawling, just in case. Sure, according my link with Demonreach both groups had stayed in 'their' spots, but the Equestrians' had already shown they consider magic as I know it mere guidelines. It was a tiny chance, but even not counting some type of super-veil there might still be scouts in the air, and we couldn't take that chance.

Still, as we dragged ourselves forward, inch by agonizingly slow inch, I couldn't help my mind from wandering. Know it was a bad idea, but there was simply too much silence and white only interspersed with bare trees all around us for my thoughts not to start drifting a bit.

You know the strangest thing I miss about being human?

The sense of touch, and to a lesser degree what being cold feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, pegasi aren’t in a constant state of numbness, or anything… But there is this oddly muted feel compared to what I’m used to. Not only does the fur get in the way —try patting your head and your elbow, compare the two, and I think you’ll know what I mean— but the skin underneath is less sensitive as well.

Ever heard about a little thing called Braille? Those tiny dots on the buttons on the ATM so that blind people can use them as well? That only works because, believe it or not, humans have one of the best somatosensory systems in the whole animal kingdom.

Again, don’t get me wrong, the pegasi sense of touch works just fine, especially if you swallow your darn ‘I am not an animal!’ pride and use your nose… although pulling that off in any social context but making adorable little girls squeal was another matter.

Anyway, the point being? Imagine being used to cruising along every day in a Humvee with all the trimmings, only for somebody, somewhere to jam a lightsaber into their flux-capacitor, with the resulting multi-spectral reflection sorting of space-time causing your car to go through this horrible, soul crushing Kafka style metamorphosis into a pink Leyland Mini.

Sure, the other cars are never, ever, ever going to let the Mini down easy about that, but at the end of the day it’s still a car. It’s got four wheels, a steering wheel, a just as hard bonnet it can now slam into the crotches of hecklers far easier and harder thanks to lower ground clearance…

Still, point being, it’s just one of those things that nag you once you’ve noticed it.

The cold (And heat technically, but it’s spring, right? Far ‘more’ of one of those...) thing was more a social hurdle, believe it or not.

On the personal level, especially with my enforced almost technophobic lifestyle since magic and tech won’t kiss and make up already? Being able to do such simple things as taking a long shower without being blue around the lips on exit? Or still wear a decently normal coverage of clothes, without there being rivulets of sweat coming out of my sleeves and cuffs? Or even on the level of cooking semi-normally, without needing oven-socks?

Kinda neat, I must admit, even if it was another alienating thing.

But when it came to others, be they human or (now) ponies? I hadn’t been refused service, or anything that bad, but my new ears had swiveled quite a few times towards annoyed grumblings of various kinds.

‘Oh, so the pegasuses gets to wear pants without melting, huh? Lucky bastards...’

‘Look at her! Fifty fucking below and she’s wearing a t-shirt! I haven’t even found one of those for ponies yet, my new fucking teats are near snapping off, and she can fucking fly as well?! How in the hell is that fair?!’

“Oh, come on! Why is it always the elevens that have managed to get a hold of pants?!”

And so on. You don’t usually realize what a clothes obsessed species humans are until pants are suddenly technically optional, and you get to hear everybody complain how you’re doing it wrong no matter what you do.

Anyway, it wasn’t just snide remarks and being able to fly fast without things dropping off. Just back during the last days of summer when I’d realized this whole mare thing might be for keeps, Billy and the other Alphas had helped me spruce up my living conditions out here…

Just in case I really was going ‘full pony,’ and would need to be chained to a wall when my mind went it kinda helps to have a wall, after all.

Can’t buy friends like that, not at all.

Since there hadn’t been any signs of me cracking except from raw nerves —No matter how little sense that made magically, grumble, grumble...— I got put on cooking duty, if under supervision.

Big mistake.

In the category of mixed blessings coupled to the pony thing I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about even now, taste and smell was probably near the top of the list. They weren’t worse, per se, but both senses had been… warped for me, for lack of a better word. Nothing tasted the same anymore, or smelled the same, for that matter.

Most of it was just subtle differences I could, and had, gotten quite used to. Noticing more details concerning the blends of whatever coffee or tea I was drinking, for example. Or actually noticing if corn or normal flour had been used in a cookie, for instance.

Other was just weird, or outright disgusting. Somebody cutting their lawn? Cut it out stomach, we just ate; making me drool enough to ruin this shirt won’t change that. Oh, so that otherwise finely dressed and spotless gentlemen down the street (and upwind) over there hasn't actually bothered with exchanging his underwear for long enough that there’s mold on the skid marks? Why thank you nose, I’ll be sure to drink to the memory of your fine performance today for many years to come.

All that, and not having quite the same scale of temperature anymore? In cooking? Yeah...

I didn’t end up poisoning everybody or anything —thank God, but I did make what to me was a nicely warm and not too shabby stew…

And to my friends, a pot of ‘the unholy spawn of lava, beef, cabbage, raw rubber and broth; Rubber-izon! He-Who-Is-And-For-Always-Will-Be-Chewed!’ to quote Billy.


I thought it was a lovely first try at cooking for another species, Harry. Don't let one mistake at something that difficult drag you down.

On the other hoof as the case may be, I for the most part liked the new eyes, and I was ambivalent about the ears.

Having a pair of high-contrast binoculars that can induce diabetes at twenty paces built in? What can I say, I found the larger ‘bull’s eye’ for soulgazes worth that.

The ears were… weirdly normal. Sure, for the first month or so it had been hellish as the instinctive movements made it feel as if something was crawling and twitching on the top of my skull… but once I was actually semi-used to it? It was just normal hearing, but I had two extra freaky hands cooped there at all times; not actually making me hear better, but ensuring I could focus on individual sounds easier.

The strange, strange things a man may get used to, huh? Even if he’s now a mare.

Anyway, all that in combo with the low ground clearance and the added —as mixed as I felt about it, ‘extra padding’ from now being female? It made for a really potent surveillance combo; just fly up on a nearby rooftop, lie down near regardless of the surface, and stare your creepy little eyes out on whatever you’ve been hired to keep tabs on.

And if somebody notices the rather unfortunate anti-camouflage colored canary yellow and little-girl-pink colored mare lounging around on their roof? Give ‘em the big, baby-blue, soul stealing puppy-dog eyes of adorable doom, wait five seconds to be sure no heart attack is incoming, and you’re golden.

Of course, that didn’t work quite as well against trained soldiers with assault rifles compared to the average adorable-ODed civilian, and thus why I and Nemo were skimming along the ground to scout out just what type of creeps were at my cottage.

Normally I wouldn’t have even considered dragging myself through snow and ice for that long when I had no idea when next I’d have a pair of dry clothes…

But when you can all but go —whatever the name for skinny dipping is when you have a pelt instead, in Alaska in December, and barely feel a chill? (Or drawing strength from a certain damned mantle, for that matter.)

Without being mad or Russian?

If life give you lemons, you may as well pick ‘em up and go kill vampires with ‘em, right?

The snow was slightly frozen, but even so Nemo and I made a decent clip thanks to equal measure of cold resistance and having about a horse power to muscle through with.

I was having a somewhat easier time with it even so thanks to my link with Demonreach, but even with her prison get-up looking more and more ragged, Nemo kept up with me without complaining.

Right up to the first corpse, at least.

“...Oh God…”

I hushed her, and dragged myself a bit closer to look the poor stiff over. I must admit I still had trouble telling just how old a pony is, but the stallion couldn’t have been much older than me.

Believe it or not, but ponies are apparently tough enough to be outright bullet resistant, and I’m not even talking about that thing with Luna, Celestia and Twilight. There wasn’t hard numbers out yet, but there had been quite a few reports about ‘miraculous survival’ before people started noticing a trend. Heck, this one pegasus gall in… Belgium, I think? Well, she survived being pulled into a jet engine… if barely.

Thing is, the pegasus stallion in front of me hadn’t been shot with normal small arms; if I was any judge he’d been almost broken in half by a deer slug. His armor was so damaged, that even that ‘uniform’ enchantment was fading; revealing his real colors. A rather pleasant beige for the coat, and an almost strangely normal dark brown for his mane.

I carefully ran my hoof over the now almost cold metal of his armor, feeling both the fraying power woven into it, and the near ‘v’ shaped wedge that had formed in its side, just behind the kid’s left wing. It seemed whatever anti-impact enchantments on the golden Equestrian armor meant to deal with bucks and blows had apparently not been designed with guns in mind, and the forces involved had basically turned the ‘armor’ into something halfway between a hammer and a blunt axe.

There wasn’t any blood on the snow, but the kid’s trunk was almost half as thick as it should have been; his entire right side crushed as if some cruel giant had tried to play soccer with him as the ball.

“...Poor kid,” I mumbled, reaching out and gently closing his vacant chocolate brown eyes with one my wing-tips.

I froze with my wing still extended, as a metallic, familiar type of click echoed just from behind my head. “Hooves, wings and foci were I can see them,” a cold, even woman’s voice I swear I’d heard before said. “Slightest glimmer of magic, and you won’t ever need a hat again.”

Pinkie?! Oh, horse feathers…

I slowly straightened up with my wings extended and my arms in the air.

“Who won the major league last year?”

I felt my left ear twitch. “...What?”

A metal circle touched the back of my head, making my mane part. “You heard me.”

Is it a sign how fucked up my life is that I could tell it was a 12 gauge shotgun from just the size of the barrel against my head? I think that’s a bad sign, but might just be me.

“...Not the Red Socks?” I volunteered carefully. “I don’t know, I’m not a baseball fan.” I suddenly got a sneaking suspicion who I was talking with. “And if you are who I think you are, you know exactly whose dirty work I was busy with last year… Marcone.”

“Oh?” The voice had all the marks of being slightly amused… and all the actual warmth of a snake dropped into an ice tray. “Normally I’d take that barely held back acidic tone and the ‘witty repartee’ as proof enough, but…” The cold barrel poked my further down the neck. “...I’d like to hear why you’re so suspiciously underdressed, ‘Miss Dresden?’”

I was so weirded out by being called ‘Miss’ of all darn titles, I frankly blanked for a few moments. Another, far harder poke got my mental gears grinding along again. “The bastards switched out my pentacle.”

Even in my ears, my voice sounded hard and flat.

Incidentally, a spot about in the snow about a hundred feet away from me started steaming… but it simply didn’t seem that important at the moment.

“Snagged it right from around my neck, and slipped one of those damned ‘Elements’ in its stead.” I let out a chuckle that even I thought sounded dark. “You should have seen the look on that Cadance bitch’s face once she realized she was up against a wizard instead of some shaky little girl, though.”

I heard Marcone hesitate; this moment of stillness that really couldn’t have been anything else. “...Well, you don’t sound like the toy-wannabees.”

My ears perked. I’d seen Marcone put a bullet through a man’s head without raising his voice, but she’d all but spat the word ‘toy-wannabees.’

“That bastard there?” A lump of snow got kicked from behind me, and onto the corpse. “Kept gibbering about ‘Untie Pinkie’ this and that, even as he tried to force that ludicrous looking amulet back around my throat.” The cold metal circle poked me on the lower bit of my mane again. “So what’s your reaction to hearing that, ‘Miss Dresden?’”

I gave a slow, exaggerated shrug; taking a few moments extra to pick my words carefully.

“...Either he had a choice when it came to putting on that uniform… or he did not; either way, by the time he was standing before you, Marcone, he was a soldier.” My eyes drifted over the shoddy armor that frankly looked as if it had been designed by a… well, toy company, as Marcone had said. “And ‘poor kid’ kinda sums the rest of it up either way, doesn’t it?”

The sound I heard behind me couldn’t have been a fought down sob.

Not from Marcone, no matter what the shape of the throat.

Must have been just poorly timed phlegm, because her voice was even again as she spoke again. “...Fair enough, Dresden.”

My ears perked slightly at the shift in tone on my name. “...And if you have started to believe me, why not just have me swear on my power what my name is?”

“Are you so sure right now that your True-True Name is really Harry Dresden…?” Even by Marcone’s standards, there was no humor in the chuckle as the shotgun got slowly moved from my head. “Well, are you, Fluttershy?”

A shiver raced all the way from my neck… down to the tip of my freakin’ tail, making the later twitch over the snow.

“Of course, if you feel like risking part of your Power while four goddesses that will not take ‘no’ for an answer are hounding us, I will not stop you…”

I resisted the rather strong urge to whirl around and see how far I could make a certain crime lord fly just by throwing a haymaker at her teats, and instead turned to check on Nemo.

And what I saw… made me blink.

Somehow Marcone had not only disabled Nemo non-lethally in total silence…but she’d done it by hog-tying and gagging the other mare with what looked like…

Party streamers.

Big, fluffy, impossibly pink party streamers.

They weren’t even some weird variant made from metal or even plastic, but just… paper. A kid on a sugar high should have been able to tear right through them, —let alone a grown mare, but Nemo was just lying there. Staring in wide-eyed horror behind me.

“You vouch for Miss Schwartz’s state of mind, Dresden?”

I fought down the snarky response about ‘Well, not now after that damn stunt...’ to avoid any head-splattering levels of bad misunderstandings. “Yeah, kid’s been solid so far,” I turned to actually look the new and improved —Hey, can only go up with that slime ball, right? — Marcone, “so unt-”

...Oh, star and stones. What happened to you, Pinkie?

Even ignoring the very pink mare thing, who I’d freely admit from inside my fabulous and totally not ironic glasshouse wasn’t his fault… Well, there was really no other word for it, Marcone was a wreck; a pale shadow of the powerful crime boss I’d seen as late as a year ago.

She was wearing what presumably had only hours ago been a luxuriously tailored four-piece business suit; made from high-quality red cotton.

I didn’t recognize the tailor or the cut, but whoever they were, they should have charged double whatever Marcone had given them. There was these ‘ribbons’ of material making up the whole thing in this strange mix of pants and a skirt, clearly meant to shift around between ‘two and four-wheel’ drive, and still look good.

The whole thing actually reminded me of some type of giant origami construct; pull on the tab, and the swan turns into a bull, or thereabout.

Even when whole the thing had been an utter waste on Marcone, but after a couple of rounds of battle it was just a waste in general. The various scrapes and tears did give me a look at patches of netting, clearly normally meant to be hidden by the sweeps of fabric; again making me silently curse that Marcone of all people was wearing something that comfy looking.

The words died in my throat as my mind actually processed what I was seeing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some horrible shit in my days…

But most of that? That had been magical crap. Eldritch things clawing themselves out of no longer quite willing hosts. The two Queens of Faery, glorious and terrifying in equally titanic measure, as they forged the very field meant for their upcoming battle. The very deepest and most hidden vaults of Tartarus, glittering in the dark with the treasures of entire ages…

But Marcone? There was just something wrong with her eyes —now an icy blue rather than green, that made me wonder if she’d gained the power of the soulgaze; this feel that she was seeing far deeper than just the surface, and that you didn’t want to know what she was seeing.

The rest of her wasn’t in much better shape. I’ve never seen anybody still standing twitch and shake that much. Just short of full-body convulsions, and yet somehow Marcone still kept her shotgun —one of those boxy ‘Striker’ things meant for crowd control, as still as if on a flipping firing-range. Hell’s bells, she was almost rippling, but despite that not as much as a strand of her ruler straight dark pink mane as much as wobbled, let alone the gaping gun barrel aimed at my head.

There was just something deeply and yet terrifyingly mundanely wrong with having a woman clearly just short of mental meltdown standing behind you with a big shotgun.

Marcone raised her right hoof, and made its surface twist and fold somehow in a way that made my eyes water, but all that happened was that the sound of what was almost but not quite like fingers snapping rang out..

I flinched as what might have been the strangest burst of magic I’ve ever felt washed over me. It only lasted for a moment, but I swear I smelled rotten frosting, nearly gagged from a taste of stale punch, and the whole scene looked as if it was covered —no, made from garlands

Garlands made from rotted corpse flowers, and dried entrails.

All that actually happened was that the streamers holding Nemo down burst into ectoplasm, but I still almost fell over gagging from the experience.

I’ve never felt anything quite like that burst of ‘magic’… but I was still certain it shouldn’t have felt like that.

I guess the ‘rotted joy’ magic or whatever the crap Marcone had figured out wasn’t exactly healthy for her, either, because the moment her ‘spell’ faded completely she let out a sigh, and quite a bit of the twitching stopped.

Not all of it, but enough that she went from ‘jello mare in a tumble dryer’ to what could have passed for a bad but mundane case of Tourettes.

“I do apologize for my appearance, Dresden,” Marcone drawled out in that infuriatingly self-assured way of hi- hers, lifting a shaking hoof and studying it as if it was some neat new bug, “it appears these ‘Elements of Harmony’ don’t consider medication to be ‘harmonious’ enough…”

Nemo had come to the somewhat understandable conclusion that even she wasn’t hot enough stuff to dodge bullets, and was doing her best to bravely cower behind me.

I gave Marcone a long, hard look. “...’Medication?’”

Marcone actually showed off that ‘behind my back and gone’ trick I’d seen the Equestrians’ use, as she somehow slid the whole freakin’ Striker down her sleeve in a way that made even my eyes hurt.

“Yes, Dresden, medication,” Marcone sighed out as she got down on all fours. With a rather sour grimace she waved a hoof at her own, rather twitchy face, “Or did you think everypony would end up with the same bill of health after this mess…?”

I did a small double take as the words sank in.

With a frown, I fell back onto my haunches, and flexed… well, whatever the biceps analogue is called on a horse.

Extensor carpus. Biceps is totally OK for daily speech, though…

I frowned a bit as I slowly flexed my arm back and forth a few times; concentrating on how the muscles felt as they contracted and relaxed under the stiff scar tissue. “Can’t say I’ve noticed that much difference…”

And no sooner had the words left my lips, before I realized what I’d just said.

‘Luckily,’ aside from how my cheeks heated up, not much happened. Both Marcone and Nemo just put their hooves to their mouths and let out what might have passed for coughs to a deaf man.

“I meant aside from anything that could be chalked up to the whole testosterone slash estrogen crap.” I stiffly clarified. I aimed away from everybody to avoid misunderstandings, and threw a punch; taking a slight bit of pride on the low whistle that resulted. “I wasn’t exactly The Hulk before or anything, but I’m still pressing about the same and stuff like that…”

Granted, my 'new' weight set was still in metric, for some foul reason. An annoying industry standard, or just bad luck? Heck if I know. Anyway, not that important and couldn't really complain with how cheap I'd gotten it second hand, but it didn't make it any easier on my poor noggin. No idea what it is in real numbers, but I'd just stopped caring around the eight hundred mark; instead adding more weight whenever I more or less felt like it.

Both Nemo and Marcone’s eyes went slightly wide, but Marcone hid it better.

“Um, dude?” Nemo rubbed at her neck, making the colors of her mane temporarily dance around without actually mixing. Huh, some type of natural ‘prism,’ or something? Interesting. “I’m not calling you a liar, Harry… but you do know what a horsepower is, right?”

I tensed slightly.

Marcone’s ears perked, but she said nothing; face still twitching but otherwise unreadable.

I let out a deep sigh. “Cliff notes: I haven’t been normal for years before this…” I waved a hoof at my snout. “...crap happened.”

Slowly, Nemo just raised an eyebrow at me.

With a groan, I continued. “Fine, there was a mess, and I wasn’t strong enough to pull everybody I needed to out of the fire.” I sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, as this light clicked on in Nemo’s eyes. “...So I found myself something that wanted a price I could actually stand.” For just a moment I felt actually cold, and my fur fluffed up to near double the size. “...If barely.”

“...Oh,” Nemo blinked, “...so that was why…”

I cut her off. “Yeah... Personal experience’s a bitch.”

A shudder swept over me, and I had to close my eyes for a bit. The burning purpose. The predatory drive. The cold, seductive power…

I hated to admit it…

But part of me missed that power the Mantle of the Winter Knight had offered me.

What can I say? I’m not perfect... and being able to simply all but fling obstacles aside? For even some dark and twisted things to fall silent and still as I passed?

Another shudder made my wings rustle.

That’s the real problem with capital P Power; it’s damn easy to forgot about the great responsibility part and just… indulge.

I hadn’t gone over that line, but… I’d toed it. Far closer than I’d care to admit.

“...I’m sorry, but… that’s about how much I want to say to somebody I’ve just met.” I had to take a couple of even breaths before my feathers would settle again. “...Got out of it rather well all things considered, but my life got… dark for a few years.”

Nemo studied me for a few moments, the gears all but clicking fast enough it was a buzz instead. “...That’s one of the reasons why you find the mare thing so mixed? You had some contract in blood that got nullified by the pony thing?”

Marcone let out a dark chuckle without any humor in it. “Wasn’t that body fluid from what I’ve heard…”

Nemo spluttered a bit, and her cheeks turned the same rose pink as her eyes.

I let out an annoyed grunt, and ignoring my burning cheeks I switched subjects. “Nemo Schwartz,” I said pointing at her, “and yeah, the kid that did that rather poorly timed sonic boom in Manhattan.”

Nemo flinched and wilted a bit, but Marcone just let out a neutral hum.

“Kid’s got a talent for booster spells that’s going to make the whole Olympic games’ board weep openly in a few years, but she’s so wet behind the ears you could plant kelp there.”

Nemo didn’t exactly look happy with my assessment, but she gave off a grunt and a nod at it.

Marcone’s new rather fittingly icy blue eyes swept over Nemo, giving her a once over.

“...Look, my dad was in SWAT,” Nemo reluctantly explained while scanning the woods. “I’m not going to pretend I’m quite sure how I’ll react in real combat, but I know how to hold a gun without blowing my own foot off.”

I frowned slightly but kept quiet.

There had been the tiniest of pause between ‘my dad’ and ‘was in SWAT’ that frankly told a rather sad story all on its own.

If Marcone cared, she damn sure didn’t show it. “I don’t trust newbies I’ve never met with firearms.”

Nemo looked as if she was about to protest, but she stopped as Marcone rummaged around under her suit. “Consider this…” Marcone let out a dry chuckle and threw something to Nemo. “...a party favor.”

Another burst of whatever cobbled together mess Marcone was using instead of real magic happened, (A short snippet of a funeral dirge… on kazoos and vuvuzelas.) and the thing more or less just… inflated as it flew at Nemo.

When it landed in Nemo’s hoof —nearly making the girl bend double before she corrected for the weight I might add, the blob of color and magic had turned into the nastiest and girliest flanged mace I’d ever seen.

The weapon’s main body —about two and a half feet long, looked almost like ivory, but with ‘wood grains’ that kept flowing around; not unlike the shimmering on a puddle contaminated with oil. The handle, about eight inches, was wrapped in black leather that almost looked normal… until you noticed that it wasn’t dyed but shining with a dark light that made my ears itch of all damn things. The head gleamed even in the fading light, these inch-thick bits of what almost looked like volcanic glass, but red like aged wine; all six pairs of them shaped like broken hearts with the ‘cracks’ up and outwards..

Near needlessly to say, Nemo was holding the thing as far away as she could without dropping it.

“What.” I pointed at the… thing. “The. Fuck?”

Marcone just waved me off, like she’d thrown somebody a ten-dollar switchblade, and not pulled what looked like at least a minor artifact squarely out of her ass. “Oh, just a bit of this, a bit of that, a dash of then, and a pinch of -”

My glare actually made Marcone drift off for a moment or so. “...Honestly, Dresden, did you expect me to gain magic and not to do anything with it for six months? With the Fomor encroaching on my territories?” The flames of my temper faltered, and Marcone’s own eyes narrowed at me. “On Chicago?”

I grumbled, and looked back at the nasty bit of work the nasty bit of work had made.


I blinked, and let out an unhappy grunt. “The inbred cousins of Cthulhu and Dr. Frankenstein,” I answered Nemo, making her blink. “Bunch of really sick bastards that think they’re hot shit, but they’re not important right now.”

Nemo hesitated before scowling and nodding at me. “Another bunch of monsters in the dark that’s going to be shown the modern wonders of napalm, blessed dum-dum bullets and white phosphor come Halloween, got it.”

Despite everything… I couldn’t help but smile; big and wide.

How Marcone eyed me just made me smile wider. “...Dresden, what have you done this time?”

“Wrote a pamphlet,” I waved at the smile splitting my muzzle again. “You know, since I was running headlong into Law #2 anyway. Nothing big, just a few things for the Paranet.”

Despite her tics, Marcone managed a rather impressively even stony glare my way. Nemo on the other hand looked mostly confused.

“A few nice luck charms. My recipe for ghost dust. The dread secret all immortals want mortal kind to forget that everybody is mortal on Halloween. A really good recipe for roasted oats I figured out about then…”

Marcone stared at me for a few moments, only to facepalm. “...Yes, you’re Dresden, alright.

Nemo clearly wanted a clarification on what the fuck we were talking about, but she went for the task at hand instead. “So,” she said holding up the strange mace, “this thing won’t suck my soul out through my nostrils…?”

Marcone let out a snort, and —ugh, started walking off towards my cottage..

“...Put it on the ground for a moment.”

Nemo frowned, but did as I’d asked.

‘Asking’ Demonreach ‘What the fuck is that?’ got me a little info… and a whole lot more questions.

“...I think that’s some type of magical construct, but I’m not recognizing the type.” I hated to admit it, but I was curious just what the hell Marcone had figured out. “Can’t tell much more than that without dismantling it and probably won’t last a sunrise, but just using it should be fine.”

“...So you, as a Warden, are telling me this thing won’t ding the First Law because it’s magical in nature, but not in application?”

“Enchanted weapons is an old exception,” I explained, before nodding to the quickly disappearing maker of the thing. “So, any chance it’s something Miss Pretty In Pink over there can do on that ‘show?’”

Nemo let out a wince, not quite looking at me and rubbing at her neck. “...Pinkie Pie the character is…” Nemo’s eyes darted between the mace and the mare. “...basically a benign reality-warper.”

I swear, my eyes near fired from my skull from how far they bulged out.

“You know those old Warner cartoons where anything goes as long as it’s funny enough?”

Both I and Nemo stared down at the gleaming flanged mace.

“...Yeah,” Nemo winced out, rubbing at the back of her head with her free hoof, “I don't think this Marcone fellow has seen much point in them being funny when you can just brute force it instead…”

I fought down a shiver and started moving after the devil in question.

And as I actually cleared that little hill… sure felt as if I’d stepped into some type of hell, alright.

There were bodies everywhere. Mares and stallions, most in that tin-foil called ‘the Equestrian Royal Armor,’ but a few in what almost looked like —I kid you not, superhero spandex.

That later bit would have been far more humorous without the blood and bullet holes.

I ignored how the gulp from Nemo who’d been hobbling after me on three legs thanks to the mace, and went over to the nearest ‘super’ to check her over.

The uniform was… weird. No rank pips, and no symbols except rather plain yellow lightning bolts around the fetlocks and on the buttocks, with a larger one down the chest. Other than that it was just a jumpsuit in what looked like normal blue spandex.

It frankly looked more like the uniform of a sports-team mascot, than a military branch.

The mare herself was kinda plain… Well, at least as far as ponies go. A pleasant enough (if rather ill-kept and wind-swept) dark purple for her mane and tail… but it clashed rather horribly with this orange-grey coat of hers.

Then again, I’m not quite sure what color would have gone with that coat since it almost looked a moldy peach… but certainly not purple and dark blue.

I don’t think the mare was much older than I, —Chronologically at least, but a bit hard to judge when you're both unsure of your current species maximum lifespan and your own biological age— but judging from enough crow’s feet and other lines on her face to be slightly visible even through fur she’d lead a hard life.

I frowned slightly as I looked over what had actually killed this mare. It seemed that, again, there was this strange refusal to armor the wings. Seriously? Not even some chain-mail, or anything?

Anyway, a bullet had taken her in the right wing, and blown it clean off; leaving nothing but a ragged wound just above the carpal joint. Again, there was surprisingly little blood, making me wonder if there was some type of blood-clotting enchantment woven into this gear.

If so that was kinda bad news, because those type of enchantments are finicky as hell to get right… And if you get ‘em wrong? You don’t actually end up with a first-aid charm, but an instant brain-aneurysm inducer.

Now, I’m no bumbling apprentice when it comes to enchantments; a bit too pricey and time-consuming for most applications, but I’ve done some impressive things over the years.

I put my hoof on the girl’s trunk and tried feeling out the magic of her suit, but it was simply lost against the magic leaking out of her corpse.

Problem was, that anybody that can serial produce something like flipping healing charms? That was a grand-master of the art, and how the flipping hell could somebody like that not have factored in firearms?

It would be like a naval yard that builds a next gen prototype that can’t take saltwater. Sure, idiots will be idiots… but something that large overlooked?

Nemo came stumbling up behind me. “...Can you tell anything from… her?”

I turned to Nemo. “Yeah, these silly body-condoms are enchanted as well, but they stop bullets about as well as the equally silly armor.” I glanced around at the carnage a bit, secretly glad it was still spring; it would give me a bit more time to get rid of the bodies before they became a health hazard, at any rate. “Hate to jinx it, but those ‘alicorns’ are the only real threat I’ve seen so far.”

Nemo forced her eyes away from the broken girl, and swallowed something I wasn’t quite sure was spit.

She still kept that mace in her hoof, though, even if it was shaking a bit.

I got up, and brushed the snow off my haunches. “If it makes it any better,” I told her kindly, “it gets easier, you just have to remember the important bit.”

“...Yeah? What?”

I frowned and looked out over the small sea of bodies, taking a gut wrenching moment to remind myself that —one way or the other, all of these still forms had been a person.

“Just because it gets easier, doesn’t make it any righter.” I resisted the urge to spit as four certain idiots flashed through my mind. “You forget that, and you lose something far more important than a fight, or even your life.”

Something wet splashed on my shoulder.

I twitched, and nearly had a shield up before I even could think about it consciously…

With a grimace, I lowered my hoof.

It hadn’t been an ambush, ‘just’ some poor bastard lying broken on my roof. The grey coated stallion near bent in half, and bleeding from out under the cheese-grater something had turned about half his armor into; his left hind leg hanging just far out enough to bypass my gutters.

I shuffled a step or so to the left to avoid the morbid shower, my ears turning as I heard hooves coming closer.

The mare —the one I hadn’t been able to peg the type of via Demonreach, was large, easily almost a head taller than even Celestia. Even if, to be fair, her large cruelly curved horn added quite a bit to that height. She wasn’t quite nude by pony standards, but with only a white leather vest and these matching strange but expertly sewn mix of socks and knee-high boots I’d hesitate to call her fully dressed either.

We just stood there for a bit, as I met her almost luminescent slitted green eyes for a minute or so. Vaguely, I saw her wings ‘buzz’ nervously as our stare down continued.

I’d heard a couple of names for the bug-ponies, as I preferred to call them. Flutter ponies, no idea why. Xenomorphs, even if that one was apparently fast becoming a slur. Changelings, from somebody ‘clever’ that clearly wanted to give all of us in the supernatural community headaches…

Decent sorts, most of them. I’d never met one so big before, but I’d had quite a few in my office. The fangs, holes, armored skin and blue-white pupil-less eyes were a bit creepy… but most of them were just sad. Kinda hard not to be when your neighbor turns into a pretty unicorn, while you can suddenly read ‘Metamorphosis’ as a biography.

Still, most of them were easy enough if heartbreaking clients. Gently but firmly tell them about Law #2 and how that meant I couldn’t just turn them back, a small stack of pamphlets so they won’t do anything foolish one way or the other, a few ‘there, there’ and pats on the back, and you could usually send most of them home after that.

With this particular bug-pony though, I was rather more fixated on the unmarred silver pentacle around her neck, visible just over the neckline of her vest.

“...Thomas?” I managed, just as she went “...Harry?” in just as disbelieving a tone, if with a more ‘buzzy’ voice.

On confirmation that, yes, this was my idiot brother —now idiot sister I guess, I went from befuddled to absolutely livid in half a second.

Let me tell you, only reason I stomped up glaring instead of screaming at the top of my lungs was the enemy presence, and it was still a close call.

Still, Thomas winced and flinched away from me, and only the small burst of black smoke from her cheek made me tone down the death glare a few notches.

“Where the fuck have you been!?” I hissed at her, not caring one iota I had to jump to jab my hoof into her chest. “I’ve been calling daily for the last half a fucking year! I had to send Toot-toot out to check on you, just to make certain you weren’t dead in a freaking ditch somewhere!” I gave another jab bordering on an uppercut, and snarled at the big, shiny idiot. “Stars and fucking stones, six months! What the hell do you have to say for yourself?!”

Thomas’ eyes flickered from me, to Nemo, and back again. “...Look, something happened, and I’ve been busy, OK?”

“...Busy? Busy? BU-!”

My scream of outrage was cut off, as Thomas’ hoof snaked out, and gently but as firm as steel wrapped around my nuzzle.

“Because,” Thomas said, leaning forward to whisper in my ear, “whatever this transformation did else it warped my Hunger just as badly, and the moment Justine figured that out I got dragged away by my tail to Vegas before I could even say ‘I do.’”

One blink later, and my righteous wrath had deflated like a pool-toy at a cactus lover’s convention.

“...Define ‘warped,’” I asked carefully after having pried my muzzle free with my own hooves.

I, thanks to the Winter Knight stuff was no stranger to the pony thing ‘warping’ how some magics work…

Thing is? My br- sister isn’t a wizard, but a —or was at least, a White Court vampire; the real basis for succubi, incubi, and probably over a dozen other legends about inhumanly beautiful and strong sexual supernatural predators.

Granted, as soon as I scoff and turn my nose up at even the silliest sounding legend… I end up with the Jersey Devil dogging my footsteps (and trying to kill me), an Akaneme licking my bathroom (and trying to kill me), mold demons infesting my car (and trying to kill me)...

I’ve seen a lot of strange things (that have tried to kill me), is all I’m saying.

Anyway, the White Court is the most human like, and weakest of the vampiric breeds… but they more than make up for it in sheer deviousness. Unlike the other breeds, those of the White Court are born (mostly) human, not turned, and they may use the lifeforce they’ve stolen as fuel for supernatural feats. Strength, speed, healing… That type of stuff.

Of course that spiritual parasite granting those powers —the Hunger, isn’t a free ride. You don’t keep feeding it? It starts gnawing on you just as happily. I’d never quite dared to ask if it was an actual limit or a ‘favorite flavor’ type deal, but a White Court vampire needs to inspire certain emotions to steal that lifeforce.

Despair, Horror, and in the Raith family’s case, Lust.

They don’t have most of the ‘classical’ vampire weaknesses… but instead, the opposite —or even strong enough symbols, of their ‘favorite' emotion would burn them. Hope, Courage…

Or Love.

I’d personally seen a woman in True Love —Justine in fact, just to add to the cruel irony of it all, turn a fully powered up White Court vampire from a terrifying sex-goddess into a half burned spam sculpture by dragging her hair over the other ‘woman.’

Near needless to say, all of the above was my short-winded little way of saying that hearing that Thomas’ Hunger had been that ‘warped?’ A bit like hearing the good news how all America’s energy problems had been solved, because these nice, shiny green rocks have started raining from the sky.

With one of the biggest and goofiest smiles I’d ever seen —even with fangs and everything, Thomas’ lifted her left hoof, yanked off the sock/shoe thing…

Something lurched in my chest as I stared at the engraved wedding band around my beaming sis’ almost equally gleaming hoof. Wedding band, by the way? Hell, it was more or less a wedding bangle; almost a flipping inch of gold inlaid with silver in the shape of ‘white’ roses.

The good, the bad, and the really ugly, all of it tried to jump out my throat at once on seeing that ring.

It was so, so utterly horrible of me… but of the two of us? Hell’s bells, my love life might be a bunker in the middle of a demilitarized zone… but Thomas' situation with Justine had always been a flippin’ cardboard box.

On the sun, and soaked in gasoline.

I know, I know, utter —ugh, bitch moment… but on some level I’d honestly expected my romantic prospects to stop turning to dust and ashes before my eyes way before Thomas’ ever did.

Thomas let out a small cough, making me stop staring at her huge bit of bling, and instead start staring up at her now slightly forced looking smile. “...You OK there, Harry?”

I did know one thing, though. All else aside, I’d rather use time magic, gnaw off my own head and eat it without seasoning, than ruin this for Thomas. I owed hi- her that much.

“...I…” I forced down a gulp, and managed to continue with what might have passed for a smile to a zombie Martian. “...Congratulations.”

Thomas didn’t say anything in response. She just scowled down at me without looking away, as she stuffed her hoof back into that shoe sock of hers.

With a grimace, I held my hooves up in surrender. “...Look, I’m sorry, dude, you deserve far better than that response, I just…”

“Wasn’t expecting me to ever end up actually better off than you,” Thomas calmly stated, a honestly rather pretty jade green aura matching her eyes briefly lighting her massive horn, while she spread her gossamer wings. “Or for me and Justine to ever really work out, for that matter.”

I’ll admit, even without any real acid to the words I cringed a bit.

If only for a moment. “Thomas, I’m not going to deny I’m feeling a bit conflicted…” I growled. “Thing is, I was starting to fucking worry if your creepy sister had a pair of new rugs, or something!” The careful mask on Thomas’ face turned to a grimace even a few seconds before my hoof hit her chest. “And now you show six months later and tell me the joys of lesbian sex were more important than saying goodbye when we both thought our minds were rotting from the inside?!”

With a snarl I leaned forward and slammed both hooves up into Thomas’ teats, the impact from my hipposandals on her armored skin sounding not that unlike a coconut being dropped into a bowl of jello.

Alas, as with many great triumphs in my life, I only had time to smirk before karma came crashing down on me like a four ton fat-ass that really needed to cut down on the junk-food.

Coughing and gasping after having Mt. Thomas topple over me, I clawed myself out. “Air, sweet air!”

The groans from my bro- sister got interrupted by a soft pat of Nemo, now nearby, face-palming. “...Guys, I get that you have some big things to talk over, but is now really the time?”

“Can’t I get to maim my now least favorite acquaintance just a bit first?” Thomas growled at me, her new voice and its buzz making the act sound almost like she had a tiny chainsaw in her throat. Something, a bit of rebar with some concrete on the end by the feel of it, smacked me in the back of my head. “I mean seriously, Harry, what the fuck?”

“Yeah, well, next time you go missing during the end of the world as we know it…” I muttered sourly as I tried to pull myself fully out, but my hooves had gotten stuck between the snow and my sis the humpback xenomorph. “...I guess I’ll just bust out the vodka and beer right away, huh?”

Thomas had (barely, given the no pants thing) enough decency to let out a wince and look away.

Still, I fought down most of the hurt and anger. As much as I wanted to call enough winds to juggle even my big sis up to the stratosphere, now was not quite the time for that. “Nemo Schwartz, Thomas Raith.”

Both mares traded a manly grunt each in a way that would have been quite a bit more humorous without the anvil on my back.

“And would you please get off me?” I pulled a bit, but I was as stuck as the petrified log up Ancient Mai’s ass. “Now, please? Before I break my back again?”

Nemo twitched slightly in surprise at the ‘again.’

Thomas rolled her eyes at me, but started to fumble around to be able to get up without stepping on me.

Nemo fought down something that sounded disturbingly like the girly cousin to both a snicker and a nicker at the ‘dance,’ but bit her lip and extended her free hoof to pull me out.

And no sooner had I taken her hoof, when that corpse I’d been checking out earlier came flying from out behind us.

I and Nemo had just enough time to not scream like little girls, before the old nag of a superhero wannabe grabbed both our fetlocks in a dive tackle.

She mumbled out what I’m fairly sure was meant to be: “For Equestria!” but came out as “Flor Ecolostria!” thanks to the…

Leather string in her mouth?

I just had time to make the connection ‘one-use magical amulet,’ pull my other hoof back for the haymaker…

When a loud crunch came from the wounded mare’s mouth —loud enough it sounded as if she lost a couple of teeth, and the world went plaid.

You know those really shitty sixties cartoons where anything ‘trippy’ or ‘otherworldly’ got represented with the animators just filming the inside of a kaleidoscope, overlaying the characters and calling it a day?

Imagine that, but combined with this lovely blender and tumbler combo just big enough for you to be stuffed inside, but not big enough for you to actually be able to even scream properly in. I swear I even caught a glimpse of my own head.

From the back.

And that was really it. Somehow the whole thing was both a minor eternity of Technicolor torment, and over as quick as a pin-prick at the doctor’s.

And sadly, I recognized the feeling instantly. Not the type, but this was a Way; a gateway into the Nevernever, the spirit world...

There was just no mistaking that feeling of being squished and stretched, all at the same time.

Whoever had constructed that charm was a grand-master, because we’d barely gotten our manes ruffled from transit as (relative) normalcy returned.

The Super-Zero did a strange flick with her remaining wing, and instantly came to a stop in a way that made my inner physicist throw his strudel in the air, and shout: ‘Nein! Does not der compute!’ before stomping home for the day.

She slammed down to the ground and did her best to hold us both; spitting out what looked like blood and mirror shards. “Quick, help! They’re not cured ye-!”

Super-Zero didn’t get further than that, before my hoof and Nemo’s mace came whistling towards her face, slamming her jaw closed so hard we actually got a brief shower of teeth.

The pain apparently finally too much, the old nag’s eyes rolled up into her head, and she sank down in a boneless heap on the marble floor.


I wasted no time, and put my game face on, getting up on two legs and pulling my rod and revolver.

Nemo followed my example, and went back to back with me, brandishing that freaky mace of her with two hooves.

Believe it or not, but the first thing of all I noticed was the magic of the place.

And I nearly fell gagging down on the spot from it.

Magic, is supposed to be a thing of hope and wonder, all the little things that make life worth living. The joy, the sorrow, the ups, the downs…

The room me and Nero had found ourselves in?

It felt dead. Just… dead.

I’ve been near necromancy —heck, even waltzed right on the line of the Laws and performed it once or twice when nothing else would work to save people, but even that had this liveliness to it; if as a corrupted and dark mirror to what magic should be.

That magic around us was… Imagine suddenly being inside a sealed room that somebody died in decades if not centuries ago. There’s no light, no life, no hope… just this vaguely wrong smell like a museum store-room, and a horrible stillness that consumes all it touches until even the screams fade to nothingness.

Speaking of screams, I forced down the one my throat wanted to give off, and quickly scanned the room physically.

I kid you not; it looked like some type of ballroom, and from one of those Old World castles that like to pretend it sprang from dreams and pixie dust, rather than peasant blood and tasteless nobles, at that.

On second look, I wasn’t sure if the floor was marble, but whatever the squares of purple-grey and purple stone really was, it had been polished until it was like walking on a mirror. There wasn’t many walls, as such, but instead the entire space was lined with stained glass windows; most of natural things like flames or cresting waves, but a few with what looked like historical scenes. Just with ponies instead of humans in the latter case. And all of it crowned with a single golden chandelier as big as my freaking office, crowned with so many glittering gems it passed ‘gaudy,’ circled clean around ‘nuevue rich,’ and landed back somewhere around ‘classical’ again.

It didn’t look like there’d been balls for a long, long time there, though. The classy tables and rich carpets my mind’s eye wanted to project over the place simply wasn’t there, instead replaced with tons upon tons of the girliest damn military gear I’ve ever seen.

Computers… that looked as if they’d come alive and escaped from the Smithsonian; their magnetic tapes and graph-paper read-outs clicking quietly away. Industrial steel tables clashing horribly with the rest of the room… that somebody still had seemed bothered enough by to cover them up with what looked like floor length tablecloths made from real linen.

There was even —I kid you not, a few silver potpourri bowls, resting out of sight and mind on discrete plinths near the walls; far enough not to interfere but still close enough to drive away some of the chemical stench from the scientific and alchemical equipment.

All in all, it was a bit like having been dropped into Oprah's evil lair. Sure, we might be nestled under Death Mountain, but that’s no reason not to look fabalu~s.

I took advantage how our sudden appearance had stunned the people in the room —about two-three dozen ponies, most in either lab-coats or wizard robes, but with a few guards as well— and quickly looked over behind us.

The only real difference there was this line of full-length mirrors. Twenty in total, and so heavily enchanted the air around them shimmered slightly even to my normal sight. About half or so of them were seemingly currently being unused and showed just normal reflections.

Not so with the rest.

One showed a bird’s eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the portal seemingly suspended mid-air. Another, what looked suspiciously like the sculpture outside the Chicago Fire Academy, the three copper ‘flames’ gleaming in a under-shilled rain that seemed to be falling just a bit too quickly. A third, on the top of the left hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.

My eyes were drawn to the one just behind me, Nemo and the Super-Zero, however. Because not only was it showing a top-down view of a rather familiar snowy field outside a cottage littered with broken ponies, but my bro- sister was in it as well; moving at chipmunk on crack speeds that would have been comical if not for the clear desperation on her face.

Sadly, I only had time to come to the conclusion ‘portal’ myself, before the leader of the PG-rated Stargate program we’d stumbled onto —the same unicorn mare that had screamed ‘Scoots’ earlier, started barking orders.

“Everypony with a horn, stun them! Quick, before they can make it back through the portal!”

The strangest thing was that I didn’t hear any spells called or even feel the magic being manipulated… until I turned my head and saw what was near this rainbow of death of differently colored, raw magic coming towards us.

If I hadn’t already been halfway through casting a shield thanks to instincts born from thousands of fights, I would probably just have stood there and taken it on the shin from pure dumbstruck-ness.

It was a bit like being stuck inside a closet with a two person rave going on, but the bursts of magic splashed of my screen of congealed air as if had been bugs on a windshield.

Who the fuck uses raw magic as an attack?! You might as have a fifty caliber machine gun and throw the bullets at people!

It’s called ‘non-le-thal com-bat’ Harry. You know, kinda like that thing you keep doing to Nicodemus instead of gutting the creep, but resulting from compassion and restraint instead of annoying circumstances and overpowered artifacts in the hands of evil...?

Stars and stones, you could probably have roasted a whole pack of ghouls with that much magic! Why the hell would anybody just throw that type of power away in a fight?!

Sigh… Honestly, Harry, sometimes I wish you’d develop alien-hoof-syndrome, just so I could smack you a few times...

You could have heard a pin falling as the lightshow died off. Ponies just staring in wide-eyed with a mix of wonder and horror that not even a single hair had been ruffled in mine or Nemo’s manes.

Then the screaming stampede started.

The leader from earlier and another even older mare —a stark white unicorn with fraying but still purple and pink mane and an ancient looking zebra of all possible creatures, did a decent try at restoring order, but to no avail. Even without the barked command the two just screamed 'commanders.' Not only with how everypony still there subtly looked towards them for further orders, but the rank and file typically don't get custom clothes; some type of fusion between a the general cut of a wizards robe, with the waxed white fabric of a lab-coat. Long enough it covered their backs (including their emblems), but short enough the two could stand on only their legs without the hem touching the ground.

They actually looked kinda neat and practical. I made a mental note a robe like that could be worth looking into, and shoved it into the back of my mind.

Once the stampede had gone, all that remained was me, Nemo, the unicorn, the still unconscious Super-Zero, the zebra, and four of the clone guard.

I pulled the hammer back on my Smith & Wesson 500, producing a rather satisfyingly loud and threatening ‘click.’ “Scram,” I coldly told the minions, jerking my head back to the carnage filled mirror, “not even those four Stooges of yours were much of an act by my town’s standards, and you guys wouldn’t even warm a crowd.”

I gave the Super-Zero a hard kick on her whole wing, making her roll bonelessly and every’pony’ in the room except Nemo gasp.

“Fuck off now,” I continued at a growl, “and you get to do it on your own power. Scout's honor.”

Alas, the guards didn’t heed my warning, instead opting to falling into defensive line with the senior researchers; two burly stallions per mare.

“Hey, Harry?” Nemo asked in a rather suspiciously chipper voice.

“Yeah?” I asked without turning my head.

“Those computers and notes sure do look important, don’t they, Ms. Wizard?”

The single pointy headed idiot remaining cleared her throat. “...Fluttershy,” she more or less squeaked at us, but it sounded as if it was just her normal, rather annoying, voice rather than any fear. “I don’t know what type of delusions you are under thanks to Discord, but you’re a pegasus; you can’t be a wizard.”

My grin froze in place.

The overgrown girl noticed, and hesitated. “...Please, I don’t know how you resisted like that, but please stand down and we can treat you and Dash.”

All six remaining idiots gasped as I drew power to my blasting rod, making the carved runes light with inner flames, and snarled out a spell. “Flickum Bickum.”

Normally, this was a spell I just used to light candles and similar. It had been years since I’d used my most basic fire spell with an actual focus, but the result was quite decent.

The frilly idiot gasped (again) in shock, paling to near snow white as every book, ledger, tome and credit card receipt in the whole ‘lab’ mysteriously and ‘spontaneously’ combusted.

“No, stop! Please!” The zebra shouted in a thick accent that sounded vaguely African. Not making a racist joke or anything, she really sounded as if she’d come from thereabout but spent many years abroad. “Rebuilding this place would take months even with the right expertise!”

“Oh, why didn’t you just say so?” I smirked with false cheer, pointing my rod at the line of computers. “Melivosa!”

The effect of my anti-tech spell was almost as flashy as the fires even now making sooty smoke climb towards the richly decorated ceiling

I’m not sure if it was how utterly beyond ticked I was at all this or just such ancient and worn looking gear, but the computers all but exploded; bits of magnetic tape and shards of radio-tubes flying so hard it took out a few of the stained windows.

One of the guards, the nearest of the pair protecting Ms. Pointy, actually got a quite decent shower of plastic and glass over himself… but it looked as if his armor protected him.

I let my grin come back. What can I say? Two ‘experts’ staring in disbelief and horror at the wizard actually turning out to be a wizard was just deeply cathartic for me.

I waved a wing back towards the mirrors. “Start smashing all but the one to San Fran,” I whispered Nemo’s way.

Nemo blinked at me. “...You sure?”

I gave a tiny nod, not taking my eyes of the ‘locals.’ “I know a Way back to Chicago from there, ‘kay? It will get us home, but slow these twits.”

I’m not sure if Nemo had overheard of what a Way is, if she mistook it for the mundane type of ‘a way,’ or just trusted me, but jump into action she did.

Pumping her booster spell to eleven again, Nemo all but blurred away from my side; these loud and expensive sounds starting up behind me within nearly a second.

The two old researchers reacted a bit differently at that. The zebra just covered her face with her hooves in horror, but Ms. Pointy started barking orders again.

“Men,” she screamed, a leaf green light gathering around her horn, “stop the-!”

I didn’t hesitate; I just squeezed of two shots in rapid sequence.

Would you believe I’ve become a better shot thanks to this pony crap? Not that the lack of fingers help, but the whole tactile telekinesis thing plus a horsepower let me keep even something as beefy as my revolver far steadier.

Wasn’t like I could hit tossed coins or parlor tricks like that… but six idiots, just standing there as if being half a room away made them safe? I could hit those targets, alright.

At first, the unicorn mare just stood there; blinking up at the ruined mess her horn had suddenly become.

For a few moments, all was silent.

Then the screaming started. Again.

The unicorn just collapsed; crying in a heap with her eyes open and unblinking in what looked like shock.

The zebra let out a mortified gasp, and rushed to her friend, but the other mare barely reacted. It was as if a puppet had had it strings cut.

The guards? I doubt the Devil himself would have gotten the type of disbelieving, horrified stares of disgust they aimed my way.

“The Smith & Wesson 500 holds five bullets, each one packing enough of a wallop to kill a bull elephant mid charge. Four of you fine gentleman and three bullets left, so what will it be? Save the bastards bleeding on the floor there...” I droned as I pulled back the hammer again, making the soldiers flinch like one creature. “...or do you feel lucky. Well, do yah, punk?”

Amazingly, despite the blood pooling out from behind her hooves as she rendered first aid, the zebra still had some steel and fight in her. “Fluttershy, please, nopony blames you your madness,” the mare forced out, quite literally pleading through gritted teeth. “Stop this now, and we may end this without further horror and sadness!”

In my mind, I could see it. Two faces, one a little girl with dark but sparkling eyes, the other a skull of carved wood crawling with motes of green light.

One, asking my dear friend she actually lived with more seldom and seldom with less and less hope where Daddy had gone…

The other, simply wailing alone in a cottage that got colder and colder in my absence.

And would I even miss them? Or would this ‘Fluttershy’ creep just smile emptily at the memory? A stranger, trying to be polite on seeing somebody else’s children?

...I don’t actually know. Depends on the ‘cure,’ I guess.

I swear, I nearly put a bullet in both the mares where their hearts should have been, just to ensure I’d never end up in this tainted realm ever again.

My friends, let alone my little girls, deserve better than another empty casket.

“...You want this ended?” I countered coldly. “Leave us alone, and the favor will be returned. Simple as that.”

Silence once more descended on the room, as I pulled back the hammer again; the click damn near echoing off the walls. "Your move, creep."

The zebra was about to retort something, but one of ‘her’ guards showed some initiative and grabbed her; picking her up easily enough but jostling her arm enough that whatever she’d intended to say got switched out for a long string of harsh words in a oddly ‘clicky’ tongue I didn’t recognize.

The other guards followed his example, and took a strategic retreat. Pausing only long enough to frantically scrape as much of the unicorn's alicorn off the floor as possible while another grabbed the mare herself.

The now rather less pointy unicorn didn’t even blink, as she got dragged away; leaving me and Nemo alone in the smoky room.

I barely waited for the two ‘free’ stallions to slam the main door shut, before doing my best to seal it behind them. With a few flicks of flame towards it and any other door I could see (some added randomly to the tables for good measure), the room was soon this cozy little deathtrap in waiting.

Something gleaming on one of the nearest tables made me hesitate just a moment, though.

“...What are you doing?” Nemo screamed after me, as I put away my weapons and trotted over. “We need to go, now!”

It was a small table with just a few basic instruments on it, magnifying glasses and the like. I couldn’t read the swirling text on the neat sign on the end…

’Off-world Artifacts! Caution!’

...but from the strange collection of odds and ends, it seemed like this was a ‘cross dimensional artifacts’ sorting and cataloging table. Or at least, the carefully orchestrated semblance of one, depending on how much truth Nemo’s 'Home-brewed World-domination' theory had to it.

A weather bit pocket-book (Pyramid Scheme. Good book, but I’d already read it.) with so many stains on it I’d missed it during my little purge. It looked as if it had been taken from a landfill, but even so there was a small notebook nearby with a few neat notes still visible even in the ash.

A car tire, old and near falling apart, but with neat sample bags nearby, and a note; probably about chemical analysis.

’For alchemical analysis ASAP. Initial test show twice the tensile-strength and three-times the durability of our own rubber, but with no traceable enchantments. (!) Further, fresher samples should be made a priority, if possible.’ Huh, interesting...

A cellphone, so busted it had been in two halves even before my bit of sabotage; now nearly two smoldering stains.

’Unknown but damaged communication device. Very fine and complex, but poorly warded circuitry. DO NOT HANDLE WITH MAGIC! Further study needed.’

An old, only partially cleaned wedding ring; having spent years in sand from the looks of it. The tiny diamond on it looked real, but even so the thing couldn’t have been worth as much as three digits even while new.

’Initial surveys show extremely poor gem density and quality. Unknown why, further surveys needed. Possible economic and political use?’ Well, that sounds potentially annoying...

A far cleaner book I’d missed thanks to an old tuba. The thing, a simple astronomy book intended for children didn’t look like anything special, but was near covered in notes with lots and lots of exclamation marks. Honestly not sure what the deal was, but it gave me a funny feeling.

’PRIORITY ONE! FOR THE PRINCESSES’ EYES ONLY! PRIORITY ONE! This thing contains references to stable and self-regulating solar and lunar orbits! This could either make or break Equestria as we know it, ponies! Not a word to the public until we’ve verified this in a laboratory or by further observation of Earth Δ! ~S.B.’

I lingered for a bit on the longer note, but it was all a Greek speaking gibberish in Klingon to me. Freaky thing, though, it didn't feel as if it should have been that way; it felt as if it should have been as clear and simple to me as any normal English. Like one of those Magic Eye pictures; squint just right, and the whole thing becomes a perfectly normal if odd looking bunny.

...I’ll grant them this much, the grunts at least believe they’re really working for the Princesses. Not sure if that makes all this worse or better to be honest, but at least it’s something.

“Dresden!” Nemo hissed at me from across the room. “We need to go!”

“Relax, I’ve been in plenty of burning buildings…” I nonchalantly pointed up at the stone ceiling. “It’s a whole ten minutes or so until we start choking…”

And in my well-researched opinion we were in about as much danger from burning in this room, as during (the average) beach visit and with about as high a health risk. Sure, there were quite a lot of chemicals, materials and gear burning... but the stone room was simply so gigantic it didn't matter even before I perforated the windows. We could have piled the entire lab into a big, costly bonfire, and still not have any problems with the fumes or smoke.

“Well, I don’t want to test that freaking hypothesis, so get going already!”

I rolled my eyes, before picking up one of the object that had drawn me there to begin with.

The black leather dog collar with a silver, diamond shaped tag near gleamed on my hoof, the words: ‘My Name Is Nemo Schwartz. If I’ve Forgotten That, Please Call My Parents.’ in a tiny inlaid script I could read without problem even from a distance.

I took a second to feel it out for magic, but when I didn’t sense any I lobbed it over to Nemo.

I didn’t stop to watch the full reaction since she’d a point… but I still smirked slightly at the big, goofy grin I caught a glimpse off before turning.

There was a few other thing in the ‘new crap’ in-box; a literal cardboard-box with more strange scribbles on the side.

’Bearer artifacts. For immediate analysis. Any of this disappears and ends up as celebrity memorabilia, and you’ll wish I find you before any of the Princesses’ do! ~S.B.’ ’

Nemo’s collar had been hanging on the edge for some reason, and I’d probably have missed the nondescript thing if it hadn’t. It was just… a box, nothing more, nothing less.

As my hoof closed on the silver chain and I felt the familiar magic, a sigh of relief I didn’t realize I’d been holding in forced itself out of me.

I honestly felt whole once my pentacle was once more around my neck; as if something missing had quietly clicked in place despite how minor an act it might have looked from the outside.

A whole empire of evil bastards after me, a plan seemingly decades in the making ruined within a day or so, and a roof crackling cheerfully on fire above me?

“Oh, feels good to be back in the saddle again…” I murmured happily with a huge grin on my face, while rifling through the box of nicked knick-knacks.

Most of it was the type of crap only the finest of stalker shrines are forged from. Disturbing, but only important in what it said about the stalkers thoughts and intentions for the stalk-e.

A few tufts of hair and feathers I took great care in throwing on the nearest blaze. One of my business cards. A stark-white silk handkerchief that looked as if it had never been used with the letters ‘E. T’ engraved on the corner. Another business card, but for Mike my mechanic. A newspaper about that mess Nemo had caused in New York…

My ears perked slightly. “Hey, question?”


I held up the paper, including the picture of a rainbow ‘explosion’ from ground level. “If you’d actually seen that ‘show’ thing, how come?”

Nemo flinched slightly, making the Super-Zero still unconscious but now over her back rustle slightly. “...You expected to run a four-minute mile the first time you went jogging?”

With a hum threw the paper back into the box. “Fair enough, makes sense,” I grunted out, hoisting the whole thing on my back.

I stalked over to the one remaining mirror, frowning a bit as I peered through it…

And an idea struck me, and I made one of those split-second decisions I hoped I could live with afterwards.

And down at the Golden Gate, this near dizzyingly fast stream of traffic clearly visibly thanks to the bird-eye perspective. “...No idea how jostled we’ll be on exit given the time differential.” I gave the load on Nemo’s back a nod. “And from the looks of things, we’ll need to hit the air flying…”

It barely took a second for Nemo to get it, her ears glued back even as she stared from me to Super-Zero.

I reached out and poked the still shiny (and creep-tastic) mace, now stuck inside her prison clothes like the best-worst shiv ever. “This box of loose ends and that party stick of yours are one thing…” I just swept a hoof at the hundred feet drop we’d be stepping out ‘on.’ “Don’t think even a pony can survive that, especially not with those kinds of wounds…”

Nemo bit her lip, and started more or less prancing from hoof to hoof; eyes darting around between the flames. “...But… we can’t just leave her!”

My own eyes darted around for a bit, taking in the rather modest flames, the still cold stone and giant windows any fireman worth his salt wouldn’t hesitated a moment in smashing.

“...Why not?” I asked nonchalantly, making Nemo’s eyes near bulge out of her skull. “She’s been unconscious for so long by now, she probably has serious brain-damage. Hell, even her own comrades left her behind for dead.”

I saw some hesitation in Nemo’s eyes, and she started prancing a bit slower.

“Even if your own Not-Quite-Excalibur-But-Close-Enough theory isn’t right I near knocked Luna’s wings off just moments before we met,” I waved at the unconscious mare on her back. “And well, you saw her yourself, Nemo; right as rain within the freaking hour. Right now, that mare over your shoulders is just a casualty among many, just another corpse that gets to lie where she fell. Who cares if she technically died by that whopper, or the smoke after?”

I saw a tiny bit of blood start pooling under her teeth, as Nemo bit her lip even harder.

“Well? Your call, kid. Nopony seemingly cares if this mare lives or dies… and I’m not in a generous mood myself after being snatched from my own doorstep. Drop her into the bay, a bullet in her head to make it quick, or do you roll the dice for her…?”

Nemo seemingly couldn’t keep looking at me, and turned her head away.

“I’ve done the ‘let the minion live out of pity’ thing a few times before,” I continued in a slightly kinder voice. “Seems to be fifty-fifty if they actually care, or just come back swinging.”

“...Do you know who this girl’s supposed to be?” Nemo forced out without turning her head. “And that unicorn you blew the horn off, for that matter?”

“Look around, kid,” I swept a wing around the burning lab, making Nemo’s ears twitch slightly at the creak of the leather in my duster. “This isn't what it looks like when mind-wiped slaves are set on a task; this is the work of wide-eyed collaborators. Both these mares had the same chance to run as all the others in this room, but they picked to stand their ground…”

“…You honestly don’t care, do you?”

I frowned a bit at the heat in her words, but ultimately just shrugged. “Sure I do… I just care more about my actual friends than bastards that claim to be my friends.”

Nemo finally turned her head, face unreadable. “...And if I told you the ‘old’ you used to foal sit these girls, and sing them lullabies…?”

Hush now, quiet now...

My eyes drifted over to the broken mare over Nemo’s back. She was still breathing, but even through the facemask I could see how near half her face was even now turning into one giant bruise; not helped by this thin dribble of spit and blood pooling on the floor.

If she survived, it would be months if not years before she’d be able to chew her own food again, not even counting the ragged little stump that one wing of hers had become and how much work that would require.

Or brain damage and that bag of horrors.

And yet… was I really prepared to do this? She’d hurt me and mine, sure…

But was I really a hundred and ten percent sure this was some wretched evil from beyond the void…

The girl stirred slightly. She didn’t wake properly, but her eyelids fluttered, and she mumbled out something that sounded like “Drasch…”

With a strangely soft clink another of her teeth hit the floor, a molar cracked clean at the root.

...or was this ‘just’ fate having thrown me another curveball covered in razor-wire? Wouldn’t even be the first time I’d stumbled headfirst into a tragedy decades in the making.

Hell, a long, near fruitless search for friends long lost… ending in tragedy over misunderstandings and battle. One side refusing to give up their lives… the other in denial that their rescue might no longer be needed, or even wanted?

It hadn’t quite struck me as that ‘Discord’ creep’s style, but some of the nastier immortals? The ending of entire cities and lineages in blood and flames is basically their version of a six-pack and a porno mag.

Just no other way to kick of a really great weekend quite like it.

I made my decision. Making sure Nemo actually got what wonder and horror there can be to a wizard's life was important with her talents, but the mare over her shoulder had suffered more than enough. Adding further to that by me using her like a living study-aid would just be cruel.

Still, there are worse reactions to a trial by... well, fire, than asking somebody that seems competent for help. Just doesn't work all the time.

I mean, what type of foolish, bleeding-heart pansy would waste time, energy and effort on an enemy that's already unconscious and half dead? And far behind enemy lines, at that? In a place where reinforcements can come at any second?

You'd have to be a total idiot with a martyr complex a mile-wide to do something that stupid.

With a sigh, I hoisted the box of my back. “Make a circle,” with a small kick, I sent it over towards Nemo, “and hold this.”

That's my boy.

Nemo frowned, but started putting Super-Zero down as gently as she could. “...What are you going to do?”

“I, out of the goodness of my heart and the sagely wisdom inherent to all wizards…” I solemnly stated with a hoof to my chest, ignoring the just plain wrong disbelieving snort from behind me. “...intend to go reach way, way outside my comfort zone, and actually un-set a house on fire.”

“...You mean extinguish it, right?” Nemo deadpanned, all while dragging one hoof behind her as she hobbled around in a circle.

I waved her off without looking her way. “Cease your strange and complicated technobabble, woman; I’m the wizard here, so I get to mumble the archaic words nobody else gets.”

I ignored the lies and slander being muttered my way, and instead leaned back on my haunches with my front hooves ‘clasped’ and wings half extended; my attention focused on —ugh, drawing in the ‘magic’ of this place.

My earlier bits of wizardly C.V. had been quick and easy things, but for what I had in mind now I needed to ‘suck’ in quite a bit.

Imagine there’s somebody you want to spit in the eye, but there is only rather yucky stuff around to do it with. Basically, the difference between a mouthful of mud spat out as quickly… and needing to swivel around what you damn well hope was snow with somebody’s spilled lemonade in it for long enough that it melts.

Ugh… It’s like trying to eat raw bacon from a flipping dirty jockstrap! What the buck have they done with this place?!

Still, I’d give the nudist creeps’ their due; whatever ‘purification’ ritual or whatever they’d used for this place it had left the magic almost amazingly pure, if strangely stagnant. So, ice from a glacier, but with a nasty layer of dust on top, perhaps?

Either way, I’d never felt anything quite like it. I’d visited a ‘haunted’ shrine once that had been just short of falling into decay but still held some shred of serenity about it… but that was the closest I could think of.

“...Dresden!” Nemo squeaked out from behind me. “Your wings!”

I frowned, and turned my head, making sure to keep my spell winding up.

I hadn’t even been feeling it, but there was an outline of St. Elmo’s fire all over my ‘wing-sleeves.’ An outline of bluish-white thunder crawling all over my wings, and all the way down towards my tail, the furthest ‘flames’ even arcing between the hairs on the same.

Frankly, I was so baffled, only decades of experience in keeping my spells together despite the circumstances stopped me from just ‘dropping’ all the energy I’d drawn in.

Thing is, I wasn’t even near the type of level of overflow to cause this type of side-effect. I was drawing in a bit more than normal, yes, but nowhere near a ‘full’ tank.

Was this a side-effect to using my wings as foci? A bleed over of energy, manifesting as static electricity?

Or was this the reason for the ‘stale’ magic? Some… ritual I’ve never encountered before that makes magic slightly less palatable, but easier to draw in, shape and use? Like processed baby-food compared to an actual meal, but with ambient energies?

I squared my shoulders and looked forward again. Interesting, but now was not the time for nerding out about magic.

Sweeping my wings forward, out and back, I let go of my spell. “Vento servitas!”

I’d put some care into crafting this one, and oh boy did it show. The twin blasts of wind tore down the lines of gear and tables, sending it all in a shower of flaming debris towards the walls. Wrecked computers, paper ash, beakers of mysterious liquid… all of it got sent towards the windows.

Or should I say, where the windows should have been.

The antique glass and their frames simply couldn’t stand up against typhoon level winds from the inside, and with a rather satisfying mix of plopping and cracking sounds, soon followed by loud smacks of impacts as the frames themselves got pelted with flying debris.

The crown on it all, though… was the chandelier.

The massive, ancient chain it hung on simply wasn’t made to resist the forces from such a massive thing swinging, and snapped with a crack as if from a giant’s whip.

With that paradoxical fast slowness of massive things falling, the chandelier fell; the strange not-quite candles in it streaming flames behind them during the fall.

The crash was near deafening, cracking the floor for near twenty feet away, and sent shards of crystal and gilded metal all over the room. I shielded my eyes with my hoof, but none of the debris hit me.

Chuckling I turned and trotted over to Nemo, who was staring at me slack-jawed. “...Well,” I smirked, as somepony finally got half a clue and started up the air-raid sirens, “the room isn’t on fire anymore, right?”

Seemingly not feeling my grand act was worthy of mere words, Nemo just face-palmed.


With a snort, I waved a hoof at the one remaining mirror. “You go first with the box; try to keep a hold of it, but the important bit is that it doesn’t stay here.”

With only a brief glance at the destruction and the unconscious girl, Nemo got to it.

Balancing on both legs and with the box in her arms, Nemo leapt through the portal.

It was actually a bit interesting to see from the outside. This line of bright light formed all around where she touched the mirror, but the image didn’t even distort as Nemo made it through.

I stood still and looked for a bit, but aside from the ‘chipmunk’ speed, her passing seemed to have been uneventful. Box and everything still in ‘hoof,’ Nemo circled down, and came in for a untroubled landing; causing a slight stir on the sidewalk, but nothing else.

I heard the ‘clip-clop’ of many, many hooves drawing nearer so I jumped at it.

...Only to nearly fall over, as something vice-like snaked around the fetlock of my right hind hoof.

“...Well,” I carefully said, barely even surprised as I looked back down, and saw the hooves covered in blue spandex holding me in a death-grip, “aren’t you the stubborn gal?”

“Phleash,” Super-Zero winded out around her broken teeth, “schtop, whee cha-”

“I can hear your comrades coming,” I stated in the coldest voice I could manage. “Let go of my hoof, or I will defend myself.”

For just a moment, the mare hesitated.

Then, with eyes hardening enough that they near looked like amethysts, she tightened her grip into a vice; making both her own and my hoof creak.

I bit down a wince, and instead let it out as a sigh. “Props where they’re due, girl; you’ve gotten closer than even those four idiots that doesn’t even know what ‘alicorn’ really means.”

For a moment she just looked confused… then her eyes widened in horror.

The angle was a bit uncomfortable, but I managed to bend my wing at her and still gather power to it; making that lightshow start up again. “You’re a decade or four too young and rosy eyed to tango with me, but decent try. Did that uniform of yours’ proud, I’ll give you that.”

The mare’s eyes turned to pin-pricks as I gathered more power and spread my wing-fingers wide; the crackling power reflected in her wide and terrified eyes.

“Last chance, girl, or you get to see one of the tricks I didn’t show your lieges; up close and personal even.”

The mare came to a conclusion, eyes darting once between me, the portal, and the blocked doors.

Tears streaming she let go with one hoof and took a swing with the other. A decent attempt, but she was so spent that I frankly barely felt it.

“You’ve got guts, kudos for that, kid,” I tipped my head at her, before murmuring out my spell. “Dormius, dorme. Dormius, dorme…”

Mental spells are tricky —and usually highly illegal, business, but sleep spells are an old exception.

Even the most warlock paranoid old-guard of the Wardens will admit that, yes, there are times when a deep, dreamless sleep is the greatest mercy you can offer.

The mare was so spent thanks to her wounds, that lulling her to sleep was barely more effort than blowing out a candle. Heck, her free hoof even clattered to the ground, mid second swing.

I shook my hoof free, and carefully stepped around her.

The journey was no less pleasant the other way, but at least it was over just as quickly as the first time.

And despite suddenly being in freefall over a city I’d never actually been to with a small army in hot pursuit, I couldn’t quite stop a huge grin.

I sucked in a deep breath of salty sea-air and traffic fumes, taking a precious but glorious moment to just bask in the wind, the setting sun and proper magic again.

“...Feels good to be home,” I murmured happily as I spread my wings, and set course for the blue-orange spot on the Golden Gate Bridge. “Now, I just have to keep it that way…”

06 — ...Couldn't Put Harmony Together Again

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“Nobody kno~ows, the troubles I’ve se~en!” I lifted my hand to my face, and let out a mournful bleat from the party-horn I was holding. “Nobody kno~ows, how lonely I’ve be~en!”

Oh, Harmony, Harry, please stop! You sound like a cat.

“I do~on’t actually know, the lyrics of this so~ong!” Another bleet cut the night, like a thing-y slashing through another thing-y; adding the perfect accent to my dirge of everlasting sadness. “Something, someth~hing, parko~our!”

In heat and on fire.

“Nobody kno~ows, the movies I’ve se~en!” Bleet. “Nobody kno~ows, in how many burning houses I’ve be~en”

...Oh God, I said the f-word! For fuck’s sake, Harry, why do you ever only listen when I say the thrice damned f-word!?

I paused my reminiscence when I felt the energies of the world shift, this subtle but insistent cold note added to the myriad notes of the night; a cold note I was perhaps one of a handful of mortals in the whole world to know the meaning of.

It was now Halloween proper, and for one day only, as the world of the living and the dead drew the closest they would be for a whole year.

For the little kiddies, it —hopefully, meant a day of candy, parties and scares; a safe but harmless thrill.

For adults… Well, if one was a cynical man, you could say that the same held true. The candy just had a buzz to it, the parties last longer, and the worst scares would be coming tomorrow once the masks come off.

For the immortals, dark gods and similar, so vast and terrible in power that only on this day their powers becomes pliable enough to add to? Well, there would be parties, masks... but those two things sure wouldn't end in lies about ‘I’ll call.’

And for one lonely if currently happily buzzed wizard, dangling his feet of the (What’s Up) dock to his island sanctum; watching the stars over Lake Michigan, and doing his best to be grown-up about his friends having other things to do?

“Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me…” I drifted off, taking a swig of the open whiskey next to me.

Happy birthday, dear Harry! Happy birthday to you!

Might have been the glimmering stars, the mild night —or the whiskey for that matter, but the small ditty actually made me feel better.


Sure, sucked everybody else was out of town with their own things… but eh. I’d live.


Thirty nine years old… Ye gods and little fishies, have to admit with how many anthills I’ve kicked in my day I didn’t think I’d get that far.




> the smell of chocolate and cotton-candy. I turn, and smi- <

“...Hello, Discord! Do you want some te-...”

> screams, both pony and animal <


> snap of talons as he grins wickedly <

“Nothing personal, my dear! Things around here have just been far, far too dull…”

> run run run run run run run run run run run run run <

“Oh, so close! Bye, bye!”


Augh, my bucking head…

Augh, my fucking head…

...Wait, what? What the hell just happened?

...Wait, what? What in Tartarus just happened?

My head felt like it was filled with cotton candy, and there was this weirdly insistent prickling pain on my hip; as if the skin there had been asleep for so long it had gone completely numb somehow without me noticing.

I was a bit more concerned with the lapping waves above my head, however.

“WARDEN, PLEASE DO NOT KILL YOURSELF AGAIN.” Alfred’s massive fist swung around, and unceremoniously but surprisingly gently dumped me on the dock proper.

With a grunt I did my best to untangle myself from my own limbs and duster, but it seemed I’d overdone it with the whiskey. Somehow I’d gone from ‘comfy bit of buzz’ to ‘oh God, I’m never drinking again’ without passing go, let alone getting two hundred dollars for my troubles.

...Wait, haven’t we done this already? All this seems oddly familiar...

“Right, right…” I mumbled with a mouth that suddenly felt like I’d been gargling rubbing alcohol, only noticing how much my hand was shaking when I dragged it over my face. “What the hell happened?”

For a few long moments, Demonreach towered over me silently, his ember eyes burning unblinkingly as the spirit looked me over.

“...THERE IS A STRANGE STAIN ON YOUR AURA.” Demonreach lifted one hand from out under his cloak, and pointed at my hip. “IT APPEARS BENIGN, IF ODD; I HAVE NOT SEEN ITS LIKE BEFORE THIS DAY.”

I did a double take and frowned at that.

Still frowning and trying to ignore the sludge my mind felt like, I stared at the end of the dock where I’d almost gotten a rather chilly autumn dip.

“...I think...” I mumbled, rubbing at the ‘stain’ that thankfully was feeling better if tender as hell, “...that I got ridden by a Nightmare, or something. I did fall asleep for a moment right here in the open while drunk, after all.”

He did look as annoyed as a walking bunch or roots and soil may, but I got what sounded suspiciously like a grunt of acknowledgement from Alfred.

Seemed to be the most logical explanation. Nightmares —capital N to distinguish them from just bad dreams I might add, were a nuisance but mostly harmless; the spiritual and dream based equivalent to mosquitoes.

They sweep in, give your aura a nibble, and aside from some exhaustion you’d be right as rain the same day. Sure, dreaming you are being chased through an endless high-school locker room in the nude by a whole squad of mutant cheerleaders wanting to devour you with their gaping, slime gushing mouth vaginas…

I glanced over to the now over-toppled and near empty bottle of whiskey… and decided that perhaps that was for the best.

Still, dreams like that aside, the only thing notable about Nightmares is that they can —admittedly with some difficulty, bypass thresholds; making them one of near only a handful of malevolent spirits with that ability.

But then again, since: A, a simple dream-catcher solves that problem, and B, they are a nuisance that ability is not much more than a rather nasty bit of trivia. Nightmares are simply too fickle and self-absorbed to command or even control properly. They’re just an large bit of ego, a stomach and a voice going ‘Me! Me! Me!’

Heh, I’d pay to see Luna’s face on hearing that…

The more I thought about it though, the more a Nightmare seemed to fit. The damn dream was already a quickly fading blur to me... but I remembered running and running quicker than I’d ever done in my whole life, this big ugly monster somehow keeping up with me no matter what I did.

I fought down the shiver racing down my spine with a grimace, and shakily got to me feet.

I clutched at my head and nearly toppled over. I guess it was a given for one with balls big enough to hunt on Demonreach, but the Nightmare must have been a big and old one given what a dozy of a ‘nibble’ I’d gotten.

My head was starting to pound and my limbs felt like they’d been wrapped in lead… but the strangest thing was my hips. Honestly felt as if somebody had taken fine sandpaper and rubbed me raw; two spots about the size of my hands so tender even my pants rubbing against them felt rather uncomfortable.

I waved Alfred off, and started stumbling towards the shed. “Think I’ll be OK with some sleep… Still, thanks for the save.”

Pausing only for a tilt of his head as acknowledgement, Demonreach winked out of existence; there one moment and gone the next like a pizza near little folk.

It was almost pitch black and with the buzz still in my head the trek would normally been rather nightmarish, but my link with Demonreach made it a rather pleasant if dark stroll instead.

It wasn’t much my little stone shed, — Even if it would be a long, long time before I’d be able to make anything better myself as far as wards go. — but at least it was warm and dry.

Pausing in the doorway, I frowned a bit, my eyes drawn to a small shelf in the far right corner of the room; it’s rather strange mix of contents barely visible as a slightly darker spot in the gloom.

It was safe, warm… but was it really something I could call a home without wincing?

Oh, Harry…

I fought down the sigh that wanted to give out, and just closed the door quietly behind me instead.

I did do my best to be quiet even when undressing and slipping inside, also doing my best not to sound like a gigolo that had gotten the wrong script when my pants came off.

Heh, reminds me of when I got my cutie marks… Kinda doubt that’s what happened now —the whole you being human thing, but I could barely sleep for a week; my plots were that sensitive…

A flash of cyan eyes in the dark, gleaming like a cat’s but far too large for any mortal feline made me react in moments. “Fuego!” I screamed, tearing my arm free and sending a wave of fire towards t-

“...You OK, Harry?”

I blinked, my head feeling like felt.

I looked at my outstretched hand, fingers spread as if I’d been about to cast a spell.


I quickly looked around, trying to figure out what just had happened.

The mother of old apprentice, Charity Carpenter, snapped her fingers in my face; almost making me jump clean out of my skin. “Earth to Dresden.”

“Stars and stones, I thought I’d slept better than that…” I shook my head, and slapped myself gently but firmly on the cheek. “Sorry, sorry…”

Charity gave me a worried look, but seemingly decided that it was just me having something distracting on my mind. “So,” she said, as she walked over to the other end of the kitchen, and started brewing us some coffee, “you said you need Molly for something…?”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose with my right hand, the leather of my glove honestly rather cold and refreshing as I made a mental tally how I’d gotten here. I’d gotten drunk, had a weird dream, and freaked out about…


Ah… right, that’s why I was stalling.

I let out a deep, deep sigh. Me and Charity were on much better ground nowadays… but there was still this part of me cringing at telling her I’d been pranked by a brownie, or something.

Kinda like USA and Russia. Sure, the two nations have come a long road from the Cold War… but you’d still hardly have a line at the embassies with diplomats playfully slapping ‘kick me’ signs on each others’ backs.

I folded my hands on the kitchen table and with a groan, decided to just get it over with. “...Some spirit or something have slapped a pair of really girly tramp-stamps on my hips…”


Charity made a noble attempt at it… but a throat-clearing doesn’t make you spill water all over your apron.

I scowled a bit, before pressing on with a sigh. “...and I need some help poking the thing.”

Charity clearly barely stopped this huge grin as she half-turned my way. “...Poke it?”

“Highly technical arcane jargon.” I wiggled my wrist as limply as I could. “Almost like a ’flick,’ but I’d need a live chicken, two figs and three jugs of lard for something that complex.”

In the corner where I wasn’t allowed to see her in that dream logic way of knowing there’s a monster but your every instinct insisting not looking over there means it won’t eat you, Luna rolled her eyes.

Oh. Oh~h, horse apples.

With great gusto, I didn’t give the creepy stalker the finger and some more fire to the face. I did not however give her a death glare while not using every trick in the book I know to fight off her suggestions.

...Yeah, Luna has never quite gotten what this ‘ask nicely thing’ the mortals bother with is. I’ll grant this annoying twat moonlighting as her that she got that much right...

“Stop struggling,” the alicorn that doesn’t exist didn’t command, her head held high in royal command. Her eyes near burning and shoulders set with cold fury. “I am the Mistress of Dreams, and I will know just how fair Fluttershy was twisted into such a monster.”

“Monster, huh?” I did not snark back to the mare that didn’t exist. “So, how’s getting to keep your hooves working out for you, Stumpy?”

A sound like rasps being rubbed together did not fill the air, as nobody gritted their teeth. “I’d be more grateful if your pet abomination knew the meaning of kindness...” The not there alicorn raised her hooves, two slowly green pulsing lines seemingly filled with thin, freshly sprouted roots encircling her cannons. “Or for that matter, anesthesia!”

“Oh, go cry me a buck-ing river.” Luna went googly eyed from ‘shock at my callousness,’ making the whole dream waver a bit. “Two clean, quick cuts and you receive magical healing in minutes! I’ve had parties end in worse!”

The dream all but disintegrated into this formless mist as if a nuke had gone off just ‘off stage.’ Somethings kept a bit of color for a few moments, like the dark brown of the fresh coffee or the flower pattern on Charity’s apron…

But only for a moment or so, before Luna shot to her hooves, snarling like a beast. “YOU DARE MAKE LIGHT OF MY PAIN AND WOUNDS?!” The twit bellowed, making the scene totally disintegrate; leaving nothing but howling winds and mist underneath a moon far too bright and big. “EVEN IF YOUR ABOMINATION HAVEN’T CORRUPTED MY LEGS SOMEHOW, IT WILL STILL BE DAYS BEFORE I’VE HEALED FROM SUCH A CRUEL BLOW!”

I gave the entitled idiot a even glower. “Days, huh?”

The mist blurred and moved oddly, as I got ‘up’ from my now non-existent seat.

I went for the nads, and with an effort of will took my current shape.

Sans clothes. Heck, been a few years since I fought in the nude last time. Might as well see if whatever cosmic force like seeing me fling fireballs in the buff can be bribed with a freebie, right?

The mist just stopped in its tracks; the wind driving it wilting in tandem with the expression on Luna’s face.

I did a lazy cat-stretch just to rub it in, the healthy amount of lean muscle on my frame making my skin and pelt ripple.

And more importantly, the moonlight gleaming of the near webbing of scars I’d built up over the years. Some small, some large. Some shallow and fading nicely, others going so deep that I’d carry them for decades —or outright centuries given a wizard’s lifespan.

Heck, even with keeping my eyes fixed firmly on Luna’s horrified mug, I could see some of them. A rather nasty looking web of silvery lines all over my muzzle courtesy of a whole swarm of pixies with box cutters I’d had a literal run-in with a few years ago. They hadn’t been quite as bad while I was human (Or male, for that matter. Darn double standards.) but with how my face had twisted and stretched as a pony, it near made me look like a slasher-movie villainess in the ‘right’ light.

Didn’t bother me personally, but I’d still added dabbing ‘em with some yellow dye into my daily routine. Didn’t take much more than shaving used to time wise and it let people talk with me without flinching.

Hell’s bells, I’d never, ever in a thousand years actually say so out loud... but on a good day? I’d go so far as to say I actually liked what I saw in the mirror now. Sure, I could have done without the little girl pink… but there was just something amusingly twisted about looking down and seeing a mix between The Muppets and some type of valkyrie themed issue of Playboy magazine.

Not that Luna seemed to share my thing for tiny but fierce wo- females with battle-scars. If anything, the larger mare looking like she was moments from throwing up; one hoof clenched over her muzzle, and everything.

“Well, you know how kittens can get, right?” I deadpanned with a crooked grin, pointing straight at Luna with my right hoof.

On noting how the flesh gleamed almost like yellowish melted plastic even in the moonlight all the way to my knee, Luna actually went wide-eyed and took an involuntary step back.

“And don’t even get me started on those cuddly little puppies!” I snarled, letting both my hoof and the fake grin fall. "Why, a meek little animal handler can’t possibly handle such vicious beasts all on my own!”

“...What… What did this to you?” Luna forced out from behind that hoof, her earlier anger seemingly utterly subsumed by pity slash horror.

“Things like you, your boss and your minions, except they were evil and competent.” I plainly said, making Luna do a total one-eighty into snarling with her teeth bared. “Things with better gear. Better training. A greater sense of tactics and strategy.” I wrinkled my nose, and waved my hoof in front of my face. “A superior grasp of dental hygiene…”

Luna started racking up her dentistry bills again, even as I started stalking around her; willing myself dressed in full gear between one step and the next, staff on my back and everything.

“I’m going to be blunt, Luna.” I dictated nonchalantly while walking, making her freeze from my tone. “By my standards? Nightmare Moon sounds as if she was rather cute and cuddly. You are just a joke in poor taste.”

Luna spluttered so hard, I’m fairly certain she was just short of swallowing her own tongue in shock.

“That Dread Lord Disco, or whatever it was?” I rolled my eyes but kept walking. “An idiot with more power than brain cells. You know what happens to that combo in a real world with real monsters?”

I smacked my hoof down with a loud ‘clop,’ making Luna twitch slightly. “Would have been squashed flat, killed and had his power drained to the last drop years ago.” I let out a snort. “Oh right, according to Ms. Sparkle that actually happened, but you were dumb enough to give the twit his power back.”

Luna squared her shoulders —wings quite clearly forced to stay down I might add from how they strained at her sides, and snarled at me. “Do you even have any idea what horrors you are proposing?! To lose one's magic like this is one of the most horrific fates that may befall a pony!”

“Oh, you mean like what happened to ninety-nine dot nine percent of all Five Score victims considering how rare magic is among humans?” I chipperly countered, making Luna balk again. “You know, including those that died before the curse wore off…?”

The freaking moon dimmed, as this haunted look flickered over Luna’s face.

“Just imagine it,” I continued in a chipper voice. “Never again feeling the ground beneath one's hooves…

“...Stop it.”

“The air between one's wings…


“Or you know…” I paused, literally and metaphorically, for long enough to flash the mare a cruel smile. “Dying without ever seeing —let alone feeling those thingamajigs again.” I tilted my head in mock forgetfulness. “What were those things called? Butt emblems, or something, right…?”

I’d expected more, louder shouts, but Luna just shuddered once, and went still; head hanging and staring at the ground.

Had to admit, it made me relent.


“Now, I’m not gonna lie; I’ve done some things I’d rather not have…”

Luna’s head jerked up, and her eyes narrowed my way. “Like whatever trickery have granted you your twisted mockery of magic?” she growled at me.

I got up on my hind legs and pulled my staff off my back in the same motion; tapping the same against my neck as I rolled my eyes. “Su~ure, call me a fraud. I’ve never heard that one before.” I muttered, continuing walking.

“...A fraud?” Luna deadpanned, clearly not believing what she was hearing. “No mere fraud would have caused this!”

I tensed as I felt the dream shift, but all that happened was that four giant viewing screens appeared behind Luna.

Or perhaps I should say ‘memories,’ because no mere screen would have made you sense them in such clarity… Well, not just by looking at them, at least.

Oh my…

They all depicted mostly the same thing; some sort of throne room carved impossibly from one giant crystal. All in violet-blue stone, including the seven thrones, except for a golden circle with a white starburst on it which the thrones sat in a circle around.

Now that made my eyes narrow. It’s a lesser known part of being nobility, but historically speaking there was a lot of mojo attached to those type of positions… and I’m not just talking about creepy confidants that die hard. ‘The King and His lands are one’ had not been considered a metaphor back then, but a truth as solid as…

Well, the throne itself.

And six such overly serious chairs, all in a circle like that, arranged in a star pattern and with what was clearly a bunch of cutie marks branded into them? The later something I’d only seen so far in high-importance stuff, like the finery around Luna’s neck and the Elements?

Yeah… this was so clearly some type of heavy-duty ritual chamber to the point a blind apprentice could have seen it; even without the near breeze of magic flowing from those memories alone. I couldn’t tell for what purpose it been forged just by looking at the images, though, I’d grant Luna that much forethought.

Still, at least it was proper magic as I recognized it, and not that disgusting magic ‘puree’ I’d felt in ‘Equestria.’ Small favors.

It seemed the images were some type of inspection for damage, burned into Luna’s memory in vivid detail…

Or you know, at least that was what I was meant to think.

The first stop was some type of dual throne; one slightly smaller than the other, as if made for a king and queen. I couldn’t tell who the smaller and less important seat belonged to, but the taller one had Twilight’s cutie mark near the top of the tall back rest.

Aside from the two-for-one aspect, though, they were the least interesting otherwise. They were just… worn, dusty and covered in cobwebs. Nothing more, nothing less, they just looked abandoned in all four windows. Like scratched up old chairs nobody bothered throwing a tarp over before the house itself got abandoned.

With a heavy sigh repeat so perfect from all windows it near must have been mental editing on Luna’s part, the image lurched slightly to the left.

I hadn’t seen it myself yet, but I recognized Nemo’s mark from description; a cloud with a rainbow thunderbolt coming out of it. And the first three were just dull and dark, as if the stone of the throne hadn’t gotten enough polish…

But the last one, what I guess to be the latest memory? Ho boy. There really wasn’t an actual throne left; just this tiny stump of crystal near the ground, barely visibly, and a vaguely throne shaped storm cloud hanging over it. A cloud wreathed in, I kid you not, rainbow colored lighting. You could even smell the ozone and magic from the discharges in the air.

And yes, it did look about as strange a mix of badass and utterly silly as you can imagine; like as if somebody had let their six-year old give suggestions for the cover of a metal album.

Interestingly, it seemed Luna herself hadn’t quite been able to tear herself from the sight, because there was a moment of hesitation in that last window. Not much, just a moment or so, but enough that the windows visibly desynced.

interestingly as well she didn’t actually continue to the left, but turned right instead…

Hesitating for a moment in all four memories, as if there was something further to the left she didn’t want to but needed to look at.

Now, call me a hard boiled cynic, but I had a sneaking suspicion that last, ‘worst’ one would have three butterflies on it.

Call it a hunch.

Luna’s little POV passed over Twilight's and Whoever-Don’t-Care’s thrones, and settled on one with three red apples on it.

Again, not much change between the first three… but for clean around the opposite reason compared to the others I’d seen so far. The throne itself looked like as if H. P. Lovecraft and H. R. Giger had somehow shared a wet-dream. The really freaky thing was that the crystal itself looked perfectly healthy, near radiant even in the last image..

But it was totally infested with creatures that looked like a mix of a two-inch purple-black worm and a freakin’ barracuda judging from the jutting teeth and beady little eyes. None of them seemed to break the stone surface of the throne, but you could hear how they happily gnawed their way through the thing; like beetle larvae in an otherwise healthy tree.

“Interesting…” I murmured just under my breath, a bit too lost in the moment than was probably really healthy. “Some sort of spiritual or semi-demonic symbiotes?”

“Those things are not symbiotes!” Luna snapped at me, annoyed enough that the pictures wavered for a moment.

I waved a hoof lazily at the last picture. “Parasites don’t strengthen their hosts, Luna. Kinda in the job description…?”

And the rather graphic ‘maggot filled’ aesthetic aside, that seemed to be exactly what was going on. I’m not quite certain what had changed, but the last picture? Not only did the crystal of the ‘Apple’ throne sparkle worse than a Suck Court vampire, but the thing had grown as well.

Strangely, not as much as a flipping micron in height judging from Luna’s ‘memories.’ The thing was still exactly as high as its mates, but had bloated for lack of a better word until it was nearly twice as wide; making the thing’s surface look almost like a carefully polished geode rather than the cut stone that ‘should’ have been there judging by Twilight’s throne.

...What the frick has Applejack gotten herself into? Oh well, looks like she’s alive, that’s the important bit.

Apparently mildly disagreeing with my opinion on astral taxonomy, Luna grinded her teeth again and ignored me.

Drumming my staff against my neck, I shrugged and started stalking the other way; keeping my attention on Luna and her little holiday video.

If she wanted to waste the whole night ‘appealing to my better nature,’ or whatever? Letting me get a full (ish) night of sleep, and a whole day to get back home and behind an actual threshold slash circle?

Didn’t look like this would stay peaceful once her point was made given how Luna was scowling my way… but a mare may dream of getting a few soft balls thrown her way, right?

The images started to shift to the next throne over, but Luna scowled a bit deeper; losing enough concentration that all four images flickered and almost winked out. “Would you stop strutting around like a minotaur that had an unfortunate encounter with an ant-hill?” Luna’s wings fluttered slightly, seemingly from annoyance, but got quickly forced back against her sides. “My back hurts just looking at you.”

“Yeah, right…” I droned and walked on, rolling my hips and flicking my tail to and fro a bit extra just to be an ass.


You would not believe how conflicted I felt about being able to play the femme fatale card give the amount of times it had been thrown my way...,

Glarf! Mnao?! GHAAAAA!

And the worst bit? I was good at it. Like, seriously, the entire bar falling silent because she walked in levels good at it.


Then again, the reason I could pull that card was a whole life time as a dude; sadly helped by incorporating several bits of horse body-language I tried not to think too hard about. Wings slightly puffed out, as if I was just barely holding back one of those ‘wingboner’ things as I’ve heard them called. Tail raised just enough to be visible through my jeans and duster, lazily snaking side to side in tandem with the roll of my hips.

...Buck me, and just to mess with Luna of all ‘ponies?’ At least the worst is over w-

And all of it crowned with a cocky smile that told anybody within eyesight, that yes, I knew who’s the prettiest darn mare in town, and I don’t mind at all if the whole city stared.


Admittedly I had no clue what I’d actually do with a metaphorical catch at the moment, but man could I fish.

And the thing was, I wasn’t only drawing on mundane experience in the art of seduction. Not that I’d ever been crass enough to go for love potions, and similar. (Except that one time with that lust potion, but a spirit of decadence, perversion and trashy romance novels made me do it.)

But I’d gotten a long and probably quite literally soul scarring education in this particular art over the years; as a bystander sometimes, but mostly a target.

Vampiresses of all Courts, except the Jade one that I’d never personally encountered. The stomach churning wrongness of the Black Court; little more than rotted corpses with burning, haunting unlife to them. The false warmth and life of the now extinct Red Court, hiding the ever thirsting monster underneath those masks. The terrifyingly subtle seductive pull of the White Court.

And that was just one of quite a few different flavors of horrifyingly twisted inhuman femininity… if not what I’d call sex appeal in any way I’d ever personally care for in the Black Court’s case.


All the way from the frightfully undying grace of the Lords and Ladies of the fea, ‘down’ to savage allure of a quite literal she-wolf I’d met once many years ago.

I stomped down on that thought hard; doing my best to make the drumbeat of ‘me, me, me, sexy, sexy, sexy’ swallow it all up.

I’m not sure if I hesitated for just a moment in my strut or if something shifted in the dream, but Luna frowned a bit deeper my way.

Anyway, the point was that I did not lack in inspirations to draw on when it came to acting as if I was Helen of Troy’s fuzzier cousin courtesy of Poseidon; a mare with a face that had launched a thousand young men into thinking rather uncleanly about buying a saddle.

But yeah, I’m not sure if it was just my dirty mind and male-ish perspective granting me special insight, me slowly tapping into some ‘grace’ or power specific to pegasi…

Or perhaps I was just overthinking things, and I was ‘simply’ now a mare with ‘cute’ colors, in quite decent shape, and with enough confidence that people notice. Not everything needs be some grand conspiracy of the cosmos itself, after all.

Still, me strutting around like something from a really weird mix of a farmer’s almanac, an Arcanus manual and the cover of Leather Vixen’s Monthly was having a clear effect on Luna.

...Wait, how did you know about Leather Vixen’s Monthly?! That one only got published in Prance, an-

The particular effect was disgust in Luna’s case, yes, but still a quite decent distraction.

Glurk. I mean, ahhhh!

For just a moment Luna’s form flickered, and I didn’t need any other confirmation on why then how her cheeks were near glaring red like brake lights. “Would you stop defiling my friend’s body like that, you corrupted mockery!”

Snarling, Luna slammed her hoof down, seemingly making the dream snap into almost crystal clear focus from anger and force of will alone.

Once more, the memory windows flickered back into existence again.

There wasn’t anything special about the throne crowned with three sapphires.. and somehow it still gave me the creeps worse than the one filled with worms. Not much had changed between ‘versions,’ but there was just this falseness to that shine; like a piece of glass that had been intentionally dolled up to look like a diamond.

It did make me notice something far more interesting, though. Luna was warping the dream somehow, making it so that she kept facing me no matter how far I walked.

Not even a flicker of movement or glimmer of magic to it; as if a law of reality as fundamental as gravity in this dream was that I couldn’t walk around her.

I kept walking anyway. On some level that type of concentration simply had to cost Luna something, and I was willing to bet enough concentration to keep up my silly strut that trick cost me less than Luna’s did for her.

If nothing else thanks to Demonreach. I have no idea how she slipped past those wards even in a dream, but it had to have cost Luna something.

“So, do go on,” I smirked at Luna, “Because unless I missed one of those ‘virtues’ I sure do hope you're saving the worst for last, and it being me…” My smile, even faked as it was, melted away like an ice-cube under the administrations of a flamethrower. “Because I’ve met a certain bastard that fit the descriptions I got of Pinkie Pie to a T, and if I’m a ‘corrupted mockery’ there are no words for what she has become.”

For just a moment, I actually made headway, even catching a glimpse of the side of Luna’s waxen face as the whole dream flickered again.

But just for a moment, then everything did that ‘snap into focus’ thing again.

Luna raised her head high, the stars in her mane and tail burning cold. Cold enough in fact, that they actually looked like real stars, instead of the almost cartoony glimmers of light they resembled ‘normally.’

“What is she to you?” Luna ordered, her voice nearly as cold and distant as those stars of hers. “I demand you tell me at least that much.”

I gave a small shrug, and just said it. If the thing that broke into my dreams and started making demands want me to twist the knife, who am I to refuse?

“Gentleman Johnny Marcone —Lady now I guess, is the local kingpin,” I told her, just like that, making Luna’s ears slick to her skull in an instant. “Drugs. Protection. Flesh. The other type of flesh. Any organized crime that happens in Chicago happens under her sway, with her being given a cut… or not at all.”

Something darted over Luna’s face, but it was gone so fast I couldn’t say what.

“If she was to somehow ‘disappear’ the entire local underworld would devolve into infighting and chaos.” I stopped, tapping my staff against my neck and giving the ‘alicorn’ a long, hard look. “There would be an outright war in the streets, as the local underworld reestablishes its pecking order.”

Luna gulped down something, but remained still otherwise.

“And of course,” I continued half-interestedly, “that’s the mundane side of her operations. Marcone’s been doing her darndest for near a decade now to muscle in on the freakier side of things, and that was before he gained any magic of her own…”

Was it hypocritical of me to near happily whinny that last line out?

Yeah. Not going to deny that.

Did it also still leave this wonderful tingly sensation of near pure schadenfreude at the bottom of my stomach to imagine what Marcone must have gone through thanks to her own metamorphosis? With all that implied in ambitious underlings, doubting supporters, figuring out her totally new horrific powers and relearning how to pee without getting your hooves wet?

Stars and stones, yes. Not sure about my heart, but my grin sure grew two sizes even just thinking about it.

That’s mean, Harry… even against Marcone.

I let out a happy little sigh, and started strutting again. “Anyway, short version; utter bastard that’s been on my hit-list for years, but she’s got just barely enough redeeming features that the actual monsters keep piling up faster than I can kill them all.”

This frankly adorable gleam of hope lit in Luna’s eyes on hearing ‘redeemable features.’

My good mood gone, I just growled the words out. “Her word’s the type of solid you can near slap a foundation and build a house on, and anybody or anything touch a child in her domain and it’s the last mistake they ever did before ‘mysteriously’ disappearing.” The words tasted like ash in my mouth, but grant the pink she-devil her dues, and all that. “Of course, since you’ve apparently pissed on Marcone’s hooves in front of all her men badly enough that she ran to me for aid, she’s probably already planning your comeuppance for that slight.”

The spark died as quickly as a firefly versus a Gatling gun.

“If you turn out to be fake, she’ll probably just leave you to rot in my care, and spin-doctor the heck out of the situation. Marcone’s ruthless and unforgiving, but she always plays the long-con; first and foremost.” I gave Luna a long stare, filled with as much contempt as I could. “Why risk poking something that’s safely locked away for the next couple of eons anyway, right?”

At the mention of being locked away for eons, the whole dream shuddered as if a miniature earthquake had just happened.

I could guess why —be it a true reaction or just staying in character, but nothing of the sort shown on Luna’s face.

“Now, if you turn out to be for real, Princess?” I let out a low whistle. “Now then, girl, you’ve done goofed.”

Interestingly, Luna actually looked nearly as annoyed at being chided so informally, as my blatant strutting.

That was soon replaced with a look of horror, as I continued though. “Because if you are this near ancient semi-horror by Equestrian standards whose innocence is but a distant memory... then Marcone is going to skin your entire country alive.” I stopped and held out my front hooves, and mimed shaking something. “She’ll just grab the entire country by the hooves, and shake Equestria out like Scrooge McDuck smelling a 1913 Liberty Head in some poor bastard’s pocket.”

That ‘what is the mortal fool babbling about?’ look flickered over Luna’s face, but she hid it quickly.


She didn’t actually explode until I —of all darn things, cocked my hip. “WOULD YOU STOP THAT, YOU PERVERTED MOCKERY?!” Luna bellowed, voice turned up to eleven again as she stomped the ground.

For just a moment as the ground and mist quivered I saw something gleam on Luna’s cheeks.

But had those tears been willed away… or there? This was a dream after all.

“IS IT NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU TO DEFILE ALL FLUTTERSHY STOOD FOR,” Luna continued bellowing, sunk down into a four-legged variant of a combat stance, “BUT HER BODY AS WELL?!”

I just stood there, that one hoof still on my hip. Just watching the snarling mare that had forced herself into my dream; sitting in the very center of it like some would-be spider.

“For a bunch of nudists you Equestrians are real prudes,” I tilted my head, letting out a genuine hum. “You know, Luna, I’m honestly not sure how to feel about that. Most things around here thinks gluing rhinestones all over their bodies, offering power for one's firstborn and then spreading their legs is being subtle.”

If nothing else, the threat of the week being prudes was an interesting change of pace. I’ll grant it that.

I didn’t think it was possible to pale and blush at the same time… But then again, not only a dream but on fur as well, so I guess there was a rather decent chance mojo was involved somehow either way.

“...Firstborn?” Luna choked out, her voice for just a moment trembling in sync with the shiver that swept her body. “Did you say… firstborn?”

“Told you I’ve fought things like you before, but evil and competent at it…”

I decided to take a calculated risk, and turned; adding a flick of my tail to make it seem like just a foolish insult. Only thing I got for keeping my senses on high alert was an eyeful of the whole dream twisting around in a stomach churning fashion, space warping without actually moving to bring me face to face with the annoyed Luna.

“Oh, and is being your sister’s virginal little high-priestess really supposed to be the highlight of an entire lifetime?” A moment of —quite literally, darkness flowed over Luna’s face; like a shadow with a will of its own darkening her features on me hinting her sister was the big mare on campus. “That Fluttershy girl smacking all of your sister’s problems in the face for her was okay-kosher, but the ‘same’ mare being able to say cock without stuttering before age forty is somehow beyond the pale, why…?”

I was NOT a virgin, little Miss I-Know-More-Spells-Than-Sex-Positions. I just don’t like crowds.. staring at me.

Luna’s left eyebrow twitched once, the rest of her expression unreadable.

Certain it had nothing at all with my butter face dribbling words more fitting for a cheap sex-line. Still, pop-culture references, sex positions… Whatever works, right?

“Oh, grow up. I just said ‘dick.’ You know, one of those things half the population have? I growled out together with an eye-roll Luna sucked in an angry breath, but it got replaced with splutters as I continued. “It’s not as if I described how to do a rusty trombone in lurid detail.”


With a sound halfway between a water balloon popping and popcorn being stepped on, Luna went wide-eyed and spluttered on her own spit.

...Harry, there are certain things you simply do not even say to a fake alicorn. That? That was one of those things.

“Oh I’m so sorry,” I said with total sincerity. Honest. “I thought I was talking with the grown-up ‘alicorn’ of all dreams, not Count Von Count’s hick cousin with the buck fangs all the boy muppets found too creepy to kiss “ I faked a happy gasp. “Oh, is that how it works? You do all the scary, dark and troubling things a country needs to run, and your big, shiny sis gets to do all the fun, glamorous things the enforcer may only dream about?”

Luna had mostly been looking annoyed, but on me finishing she went rigid. “...You don't know what you are talking about,” she forced out, in that tone that told me for certain I was on to something.

“Oh please, even with the cliff-notes version I got from Twilight I got a good enough grasp of where you sit in that would-be Legion of Doom of yours; dead last, and that’s counting ponies like Sombra, Chrysalis and Mane-iac.” With a big grin I held up a wing with three ‘fingers’ raised. “She got that many more sentences than you did, by the way!”

Granted, Luna’s one sentence had been ‘And then, thanks to the Elements, we restored Luna to her true self’ after near five minutes of Nightmare Moon this, Nightmare Moon that; all mixed in with general if brief info about Equestria.

Still, if Luna didn’t care about her own alternative self’s accomplishments to count her existence let alone the deeds themselves I certainly wouldn’t bother.

“...The Mane-iac is a comic-book villain,” Luna gritted out between her next dentist bill. “She doesn’t even actually exist.”

“Now, Celestia, and Cadance on the other hand…” I mimed a flapping mouth with my wing. “Why, Twilight would barely stop name dropping how close-knit she is with the rulers of Equestria!” Still grinning widely, I swung my staff of my shoulders and leaned against it. “Give it another century or five, and she might actually be allowed to have a nice shiny opinion of her own!”

Luna opened her mouth to snarl something, but the words seemingly died in her throat as I let all pretense go and hissed out my own next words at her.

“And I’m sure as long as doesn’t dare rock Celestia’s throne and it’s cutesy enough, Twilight might even be allowed to keep that opinion.” I lifted my staff, and swept it over the mist and moon tinted wastes surrounding us. “And if not, I’m sure the royal enforcer can just come creeping into her dreams and make her see ‘straight’ again, right?”

For a single moment, I saw doubt. I'm certain of it.

“I mean, a dark mare, twisting the minds of all who oppose her? Surely it must be right and proper if done for the eternal glory of Equestria!” I threw my arms out wide, and channeled my inner Emperor Palpatine into a cackle, pointedly ignoring the crack of thunder that somehow happened behind me. “The Harmony shall last… Forever!”

With a gasp and face twisted in outright horror, Luna stared in slack jawed disbelief at me and my cackling.

“Troubling thing, isn’t it?” I continued in a more conversational voice. “Just how quickly and to the point listening to the little demon on your shoulder is compared to the angel, I mean? Half a freaking day trying to politely tell you and the other cartoon rejects to politely go away, and it’s twisting a dagger in your heart that actually gets the point across...”

I paused for dramatic effect.

“Nightmare Moon.”

With a scream of frustration and her eyes welling with tears, Luna fired one of those adorable little stun-blasts my way. The glowing mass of cobalt-blue magic near as large as my dearly departed Volkswagen Beetle.

I didn’t even bother with a shield, I just hoisted my staff and flicked the spell aside; the runes on the wood for a moment blazing with blue flames as the focus did exactly what it was made for.

Manipulating magic.

Yeah… you don’t use pure magic in combat, let alone against a trained wizard. Not unless you have a thing for getting your knees melted in half with what’s technically your own power. You might as well try destroying a machinegun nest by airdropping enough food, water and ammo that the weapon’s team drowns in the stuff.

A growl forced itself out of my mouth even as the mass of magic impacted the ‘ground’ with nothing more than a loud ‘fizzell.’ Kinda like a giant discharge of static-electricity, nothing more.

In other words, I was being toyed with; as if I was nothing but some waif in a slasher movie. You know the one; the blond —Shut up about my fur color if you want to live.— ditz of an airhead that dies first.

And frankly? It was starting to piss me the fuck off. Even the freaking Red Court had taken me seriously as a threat, and half of their modus operandi had seemingly been collective ego stroking about how much better than humans they were. ‘Yes, Lord Slobber, truly we sun-shy bat demons are superior to the worthless kine. Fna-fna-fna!’ ‘Oh golly gee, Lady Viscera, we are surely the best bits of slimy kindling around! Fna-fna-fna!¨’

You’re one to talk, Miss Opera Cape.

With a scream of frustration and her eyes quite literally glowing white with power Luna sent another stun blast my way; seemingly thinking that her poor marksmanship and my baton twirling practice having nothing whatsoever with each other…

I felt my ear twitch without my input even as I swatted the new wad of magic away from myself. Stars and stones, even if I was just some delusional con-mare without a shred of actual power, we were fighting in a dream.

Thing is, I’ve met some beings with actual claims to godhood. The spoiled brat with a few shreds of power crying in front of me? Because somebody had dared to call her out on what a stupid twat she’d been years ago?

“HAVE AT THEE, THOU…!” I’m not quite certain what Luna called me, or even in what tongue actually. Whatever it was left a thin trail of impossibly black shadows in the air as she charged at me, though.

Vogon poetry on the beauty of the word ‘Belgium’ and glimmering tears filled with the same glaring starlight as her furious eyes —something my inner magic geek was drooling at just the sight of I might add, both trailing behind her, Luna charged at me with her horn aimed square at my heart.

Never, ever believe somebody that tells you that herbivores are harmless —Not that ponies are anything but omnivores, but I digress.— and that only carnivores are scary.

A tiger, a lion or a bear may hunt you if it’s hungry and desperate enough. But most of them have ‘learned’ by now, that humans are on the whole simply too annoying prey to be worth the effort.

A hippo, a buffalo or for that matter, a wild horse? Now there’s a list of foul-tempered beasts that will happily stomp you into the ground, and keep jumping on the bloody shreds until you can’t even look at them funny anymore.

Kinda makes how so many supernatural nasties keep going on about ‘prey’ this, ‘mortal’ that regarding individual humans while terrified of how the whole ‘herd’ might fall on them rather darkly ironic, doesn’t it?

Anyway, speaking of the two-ton hippo substitute thundering my way, I’d rate Luna’s charge a weak if solid three point five on the ‘oh crap’ scale. A decent enough try for a beginner and the eyes were a nice touch, but it simply didn’t measure up to stuff like a bear demon (6,2), plant monster (5,3) or that one nightmare I had once of Butters wearing only a thong while grinning at me. (Ahhhhhhh!)


A few options flickered through my mind. A blast of ice on the ground, turning Luna into a flailing tangle of limbs. The old standby of fire to the face, doing more or less the same stuff but with some extra crispy ‘alicorn’ on top. Call on the wind, and letting Luna’s speed and bulk do the rest...

Of course, since this was a dream and I’m not an idiot that forgets something that important, I just went for the easy way and slammed my own hoof down on my hip so hard it whistled slightly.


Sadly, I had forgotten I hadn’t exactly gone to sleep wearing my duster, and awoke feeling as if I’d gotten branded right over my right butt emblem.


And even as I hissed out a breath and bit down on my pillow not to wake the entire block, I could hear Luna screaming at me; fading quickly in tandem with my half-awake state, but still audible.


Luna’s litany devolved into that would-be Black Speech again, making the shadows of the small guest room dance and darken even as her voice faded into nothingness.

Ugh, why can’t we ever get a fun crisis to save the world from? A giant marshmallow man in need of a good roasting, a nice calming bunny stampede, or something...

I just laid there for a while, ignoring the taste of stale if clean linens mixed with dusty feathers in my mouth. Trying to fight down the pounding headache I’d woken with, the tiny steelworker in my head hammering away tirelessly in a symphony of ‘owie’ in cohort with my mark.

The worst bit? It felt as if I’d just run a marathon, not gotten any actual sleep. Not only that but I had this sneaking suspicion that was a feature, not a bug, of whatever creeptacular bit of oneiromancy ‘Luna’ had tried pulling on me.

Maybe, just maybe, I’d underestimated the two-ton care-bear wannabee.

No, you don’t say. An alicorn being strong at the special talent that let them ascend in the first place? Pure madness.

A soft knock came from the door, jolting me out of my funk. “Harry, I heard a commotion.”

The tone told me as clear as if the words had been stapled onto the rest that: ‘and unless I hear why or some really convincing snoring in the next five seconds, the room you’re in gets turned to goop.’

“We need to wake up Nemo,” I spat out once my brain got in gear; sadly together with enough feathers the pillow was probably a lost cause. “Dream shenanigans, quickly.”

The door to the room opened a crack and something slapped the lights on, adding another fresh point to my list of agonies as my eyeballs seemingly caught fire from the feel of it.


I did my best try at throwing up an hoof and not do an Dracula impression.


“...Carlos,” I forced out, hoof and wing still draped over my face against the cruel light, “I know I’m asking a lot of you right now, but please, the light’s hurting my eyes.”


There was a long, long pause. Long enough I had some rather distressing mental images flash through my mind; mainly ranging from ‘extra crispy horse-bird’ to ‘who smeared all this yellow-pink goop all over what’s left of the walls?’

Eww. And stop that, Harry, Carlos’ is a friend.

Of all the possible responses I didn’t except a half-amused snort and the lamp clicking off. “Why don’t you go wash up a bit while I wake Ms. Swartz and act the gracious host?” Carlos turned, and stopped in the doorway. “Don’t want to be rude, but I think you need it.”

I hesitated, before taking a cautious sniff of my own barrel just under my wing. I didn’t hiss and recoil or anything, but yeah, I needed a shower. A whole day of running about and fighting while wearing my duster plus a restless night had really given me a decent start on a ‘au de paddock’ type fragrance.

Ugh… I swear Harry, I ever —somehow, get a body of my own again, the f- OK the first thing I’d do is hug you half to death, then I’d have a rather long and stern talk with you that there’s more to personal hygiene than pet-store supplies and cold water...

“Sure,” I said while forcing my wing against my side again, blinking in the harsh light from the corridor outside the guestroom, “sounds like a plan. Just shout if you need me.”

Stopping only to tell me: “At the end of the hall; can’t miss it,” Carlos set off,

I was a bit distracted however, my ears intrinsically tracking the sound of heavy combat boots on linoleum as he left. It was rather subtle, but with how silent the house was I could actually tell the difference compared to —say, the much thinner and less padded sole of a sneaker.

Had Carlos even slept himself… or stayed awake, just in case the Laws of Hospitality wasn’t quite enough?

Intellectually it made sense. I’d seen first-hand how badly a territory could suffer without a Warden keeping —quite literal, things in line, and Los Angeles is nearly as big a crossroads of the world as Chicago. Bigger even in some ways thanks to the presence of Hollywood; there is simply no way a place may be a fulcrum for so much hope, dreams, fear and heartache, without that translating into some serious level mojo.

And where there is serious level mojo, there’s serious level creeps trying to do seriously creepy stuff, needing a serious boot to the head until they stop.

So, yes, it made total sense for Carlos to be ten different shades of suspicious. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean the cute and cuddly Technicolor horsie on your doorstep politely asking to get in aren’t actually demons there to eat your face.

I let out a deep sigh, forced down the part of me that wanted to punch the nearest wall clean in half, and instead started fumbling around after my clothes.

But no amount of my rational side insisting I would have been leaning just as heavily on the Laws of Hospitality if some strange pony creature had shown on my doorstep… Well, it simply didn’t kept my heart from insisting something dull was grinding itself inward between my shoulderblades.

Oh, Harry…

I cheated a bit and just throw on my duster; deciding that a minute or so of the Stranger Danger look was preferable to fumbling on my clothes just to take them right off again.

Three new limbs, with all that implied in tailoring and daily fidgeting. What basically amounts to mittens sans thumbs but with tactile-telekinesis that been a bother and a half to learn in its own right. The wonders and horrors of figuring out how to get a bra on and off, but in first-person this time around. All that darn fur and feathers, both needing me to relearn how to groom myself near from scratch...

All in all, it was kinda like going through puberty all over again, except I’d gotten that old wish for more chest hair fulfilled monkey-paw style.

Snrk. You know, Harry, the local trend right now is for ladies to shave. You could always try that instead!

Draping the rest of my clothes over my back in a way that was as undignified as it was effective I actually got my ass in gear and got going.

Stopping in the doorway I fought down a hiss at the daystar Carlos seemed to have installed in the ceiling instead of normal lamps.

“It burns~s us…” I murmured, before actually forcing my head out from under my wing, and stalking off; one wing half-unfurled and scraping softly against the wall since I didn’t quite trust my eyes at the moment.

I heard Carlos footfalls stop for a moment, presumably on hearing that sound, but I pretended not to notice.

Speak of the Devil, Carlos had an… interesting (if at the moment to me retina searing) approach to dealing with the anti-tech field any magic practitioner have to wrestle with. Instead of most wizards way of doing things ye olde way, Carlos had actually laid out his whole house in a half-decent attempt to have his Phenomenal Cosmic Power cake, and actually eat it too with a side of modern amenities.

He had electricity including lights… but near only in the form of these heavy-duty fluorescent light fixtures you normally see in warehouses and similar; stuff as cheap and easy to replace as it was ugly if efficient. At least there were also these bronze sconces with tealights on the walls, but sadly only in the main rooms.

Heck, I’d been surprised as hell to see that he even had most of the ‘standard’ appliances. A fridge, a stove, even a small TV; all standing in their own dedicated magical circle made from copper and carefully inlaid on the floors and even benches.

All in all, walking through Carlos’ house felt a bit like walking through this really strange mix of a heavily used ritual ground and somewhat more classier than average Walmart. It wasn’t a bad feeling as such, but that strange, strange mix of arcane and mundane felt a bit odd even to me.

I didn’t even try to hold in the sigh of relief as the door clicked closed behind me, plunging the room into blessed, wondrous darkness.

Yeah, eyes near freaking dinner plates in size and a type of light source even hu- we humans ourselves find glaring at times? Not a pleasant combo even at the best of times. Personally I’d started avoiding the darned things like the plague when possible.

With a rather surprisingly solid sounding click the deadbolt slid into place as I locked the door. Safety door on the bathroom? Huh, how about that…

I shrugged of my clothes and duster unceremoniously onto the floor, and just stole a few moments of peace leaning against the cool surface of the door. Or sat thanks to the whole semi-quadruped thing, but whatever, not important.

But then again, wasn’t that the central problem?

The Second Law of Magic: Thou Shalt Not Transform Another.

Not only is it fiendishly difficult to the point trying it is more likely to tag the first Law (Thou Shalt Not Kill), but the mortal mind simply isn’t meant to bend and twist like that. You do it to yourself without splatting like a beetle in a microwave, and your mind actually protects itself instinctively.

You get turned into —just as a random totally implausible example, a pale yellow pegasus mare of all things, and you have the glorious prospect of your mind tearing itself apart as a square peg gets slammed through a round hole again, and again, and again until it does fit.

Yeah. That’s the —heh, Sword of Damocles that’s been hanging over anybody in the supernatural community and afflicted with this pony crap. And trust me, the knowledge of the collective magical expertise of all mankind and various assorted monsters being somehow wrong does not actually make you any calmer when there’s a pony staring back at you from the mirror.

The best theory I’d heard so far ‘how’ was that the initial curse ‘just’ left those emblems; which in turn somehow integrates itself with your magic and uses that to make your own body warp itself.

If so, it was a loophole bordering on genius, an idea so clever it might actually revolutionize the entire field of transmutation…

But good luck proving that it since the reaction of near every wizard actually afflicted had been to take one look at the cartoony scribbles on their hips —me included, muttering ‘darn open-bracket insert name of local trickster spirits here closed-bracket, and…

A shudder swept through me, and nearly made me slam both my wings into the door-frame.

Well, dispelling what seemed like a minor if harmless curse.

“Enough lollygagging,” I muttered to myself, as I pushed myself to my hooves and the memories as far down as they’d go.

Four days and not as much as discomfort, my currently non-existent foot.

“Flickum, flickum bickum…” I murmured with a wave of my hoof, putting far less energy into the spell than normal since I didn’t quite trust my strength right now.

A bit extra oomph compared to what you are used to when you're punching a creep from the other side of the room? Oh, neat.

A bit extra, unexpected oomph when you’re lighting candles in your friend’s house? Less neat.

I saw the creature's eyes first, slitted and gleaming an almost salmon colored pink as the candles flickered to life. Long, gleaming fangs visible even with her mouth closed a close second.

Naturally, with such a foul fiend in such close proximity there were only one thing to do.

“One!” I half-shouted in my best faux Romanian accent, pointing a hoof at her. “One silly vampire! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!”

“Oh my God, Dresden!” I distantly heard Nemo shout in half-awake annoyance, slightly muffled through the walls. “You are such a dork!”

I turned my head, the grinning mare in the mirror doing the same. “One! One cranky stick in the mud! A-ha! A-ha! A-ha!”

I actually heard the muttering…

And just on the edge of hearing, a small sigh of relief.

It stung a bit, but I couldn’t quite find it in me to blame Ramirez. The entire White Council was still healing from the war with the Red Court…

I gave the mirror a big, toothy grin; not quite sure how to feel on seeing how nice and shiny my pair of fangs looked.

And my new exciting shade of freaky coming with a bat mode that comes and goes, near on random? Didn’t exactly help me with being the black sheep and I didn’t even want to know what the rumor mill was making of the combo of it, me being the only ex Winter Knight still breathing and how I’d put the kibosh on the ‘old’ vampire top-dogs..,

Still, there’s far, far worse things to end up than a fruit-bat based ‘vampire.’

“Seriously…” I muttered to myself as I actually got into the shower. “...what drunk even thought up fruit-pires.

Could be worse, I guess. With how little actual biology seemed to matter with this pony stuff, I could have ended up a vampire watermelon.

Oh, I had that once! Nice and salty, but a bit mushy.

My stomach let out what was almost an outright growl, telling me as plainly as the hunger-cramps themselves I hadn’t eaten for almost twenty-four hours.

I fought it down. and started lathering up instead. Just enjoying

A nice, long —for once warm and sans preening even, shower. Some breakfast. A quick Way back to Chicago. Get my staff back, just in case. Grab some chalk and slap a couple of decent circle around Luna. Do the same for the other ‘alicorns’ for good measure. Stop whatever shenanigans the rest of ‘Equestria’ were planning out on Demonreach. Grab some takeout. Interrogate the ‘Princesses’ after they’d been sweating for a bit. Take a nice nap after they try to make ‘Fluttershy’ see reason, and try again later…

And no sooner had I dared to imagine I might get a softball served my way for once, when Ramirez started shouting for me.

“Dresden! Come quick!”

I stiffened, my head slowly sliding down to glare at the near coating of lathery shampoo I’d half worked into most of my fur; deep enough it would take a couple of solid minutes to get it out… and itch like a mother in an hour or two if I didn’t.

“Really? Really, really?” I groaned out to nobody in particular. “I’m going to have to save the world from the cuddly equine menace with itching powder in my pants? That’s the twist this time?”

I swear, sometimes it feels as if my destiny is being dictated by a sadist that wants me to suffer. And the twat gets bonus points every time it’s in an absurdly silly, humiliating way, as well.

“Harry!” It came again, from Nemo this time. “Shit has hit the fan! You can make yourself sparkle properly later!”

With just a single forlorn look back and a sigh, I turned off the shower and stepped out. “I get no respect…”

I hadn’t felt any magic gathering or being used except the whole bunch of circles that filled Ramirez's house, so I took a gamble by leaving my duster and gear behind. Instead, I grabbed a pair of towels and did my best to rub myself dry as fast as possible.

Oh, and I tried not wincing at what I saw in the mirror as I wrapped up with another towel. My mane and tail both looked like a cotton-candy stand had exploded. Tufts sticking out and streaks of white all over my pelt where the shampoo hadn’t quite come out. Oh, and even outright suds still clinging to the membranes of my wings.

All that, and I was also dripping wet bordering on soaked from how I'd tried —bad sadly not quite managed, to wash myself off in a hurry. Frankly, I looked as if I’d tried flying through a car-wash going full blast, just thankfully minus any hot wax.

Two quick flaps towards the mirror quickly —if slightly messily, took care of cleaning of my wings and the lit candles, at least.

I felt a pang of guilt at leaving the bathroom in such a sloppy state. Just felt wrong, given how big a limb Carlos was going out on to actually invite me in while I’m doing this involuntary Elvira: Mistress of the Dark impression of mine.

Granted, right now it was more a ‘Madam Mim With A Flu’ impression as far as threat-levels go… But still, it’s the principle of it; you don’t mess up somebody else’s stuff slash house when you’re their guest.

My eyes still stung on opening the door, but at least thanks to the candles it wasn’t outright blinding anymore. I heard what sounded like either a tv or a radio —near panicked babbling with strange sounds in the background I might add, and set out towards it.

My ears flattened to my skull, and I’d frankly put both hooves over them if it wasn’t for holding up the towel around my barrel. I’ll say this much though for the combo of moving fast, cement floors and hooves; you’ll never be accused trying to sneak up on people.

Now, deafening them, on the other… well, hoof. That you’ll probably get plenty of.

I found my way to a small TV room of all things. Have to admit, it was one, if not the, last thing I’d expected to see in a wizard’s house, but the odd layout probably wouldn’t make sense to anybody but one.

Just past the door and clear of the walls was a small, if modern looking, camping TV; sitting on a small student desk and hooked up to a car battery hidden away underneath, sitting on the floor.

Speaking off, the whole contraption was protected against the ebb and flow of ambient magic by a circle. An unbroken hoop of copper, about two feet across and inlaid into the floor itself.

I felt a pang of pain in my heart on seeing it. I’d used the same idea, if slightly larger in my old lab.

I shook my head and fought the feelings down. Judging from the screams and shouts coming from that TV, now was not the time to wallow in self-pity over the nice place I used to own.

Know that feeling…

Carlos was sitting in a old, well-worn leather recliner, his lips a line and dark eyes glued in on the TV in a glare; a far cry from the near constant lazy grin my memory wanted to project there. I’d heard through the grapevine he’d been wounded bad a few years ago against the Fomor, but aside from the jeans and t-shirt he’d thrown on hanging off his frame a bit more than I remembered he seemed well on the way to recovery.

I’d only expected one person more in the tiny room, but I’d apparently been wrong. Nemo, now in a —I kid you not, rather badly modified burlap sack smelling strongly of old potatoes wasn’t alone on the ratty old, flower-print couch.

I’d seen bigger stallions, but not many and none of them pegasi. Crude jokes about how that phrasing could be interpreted aside, he looked like an athlete of some sort; not as muscular as Nemo even counting the sex-divide, but with some clear muscle definition…

Then again, I’d seen einherjars —post-dead warriors given another shot at downing more of those disgusting protein shakes and monsters, with less muscle on their frames than Nemo somehow managed to pack while still looking quite feminine. So probably not a fair comparison, that one.

It was a bit sad given the six months into ‘Pony-Gate’ thing, but supply and demand being what it is meant that Nemo’s ‘attire’ wasn’t even that bad by current standards; especially for a pegasus. A whole new, rather flexible body type to design clothes for was bad enough to shuffle around production lines for, but two extra limbs needing holes for tiny, tiny percentage of an unknown market was something of a mercantile deathknell. People like me, Thomas and —ugh, Marcone —with access to and financially capable of hiring tailors I mean, were in the clear minority, while most in our horseshoes simply had to make do with whatever scraps of cloth they could beg, borrow and steal that would fit.

You know, unless you went with ‘fuck it, I’ve got a pelt now’ approach. Like the dark grey, almost charcoal grey, stallion with the navy blue windswept mane, and that somebody quite cruel had duct-taped four stacked coke-cans and two small crenshaw melons to.

“Dresden,” Carlos growled at me, voice fiercer than I’d ever heard it, “is there a special reason you're drooling like that over my niece?”

Cruel to me, that is. Although judging from that ‘niece’ perhaps he’d d- agree with me.

Cheeks burning, I forced myself to look away from the equally blushing stu- stallion. “...Soor-” I stopped, slurped up the, uh, mouthful of drool, and tried again. “...Sorry, it’s been… six rather long, lonely and... confusing months for me.”

I swear the last, tattered remains of my man-card died in an small splutter of beer and motor oil on forcing myself to put emphasis on that ‘confusing.’

Still, judging from how Carlos blinked at me and let out a far less harsh sounding “Oh,” it did the trick.

Then of course, just to make my wonderful day complete, he tilted his head and ripped out my heart with ten little words. “I thought you and that Murphy woman were getting serious?”

To Carlos’ credit, he realized what he’d said about half a second, judging from how quickly and tightly he zipped his lips together.

“Yeah, we were,” I growled out. “Then one day, I pulled a Loki minus the eight-legged wûnder-foal, and Murphy isn’t exactly into lesbian bestiality.”


My mind ground to a halt, and I gave Nemo a blank look.

“Bestiality is when you romantically love and slash or like to fuck an animal,” Nemo offhandedly explained in a chipper voice, making Carlos’ niece start slowly turn crimson. “Xenophilia is when you love and slash or like fuck a strange, exotic person; like ponies, aliens, foreigners or people that unironically love country-music.”

“...How do you know that?” Carlos’ niece blurted out. “By the stars, why would you know that?!”

Despite my mind skipping gears like mad trying to follow the strange turn the conversation had turned, I frowned a bit. ‘By the stars?’ Hell’s bells, who actually swears like that?

Nemo also titled her head at the odd phrasing, but ultimately shrugged it off. “Come on, can’t blame a girl for having a vocabulary, right?” Nemo chuckled softly, as she leaned back into the couch with a sly grin. “Then again…” she winked at me, “everypony knows Rainbow is an idiot that can’t say any words longer than ‘Won-der Bolt-s,’ let alone actually spell stuff like q-u-i-s-l-i-n-g, or explain stuff like ‘The Revolutionary War.’”

My blood ran cold, as Carlos’ ‘niece’ blinked, and frowned in suspicion and disapproval towards Nemo. “...Quisl-ing? What is that, a variant on tatzlwurms?” His rather distinct cyan eyes that hadn’t seemed important just a minute ago, staring down Nero so intently that their ‘owner’ missed Ramirez going rigid for just a moment. “It sounds unpleasant, at any rate.”

“Quis-ling,” Nemo corrected, not as much as a feather ruffling as she started lying her pretty little head off. All with a smile on her face so wide, warm and genuine, that it wouldn’t have looked out of place on an nun after a blood drive for orphaned kittens. “It’s a type of obscure Norwegian cheese.”

Interestingly there aren’t many things in the supernatural world that lies. Not outright, at any rate. Sure, quite a few things will happily wear your mother’s face —literally or metaphorically, keep their bloody claws hidden behind their back and tell you ‘cute’ little innuendos about how special dinner will be tonight…

But ask them to say that two plus two equals Pi, and… Well, they’ll know the jig is up and hurl themselves at your face, but you won’t get told even such an obviously false statement.

There are exceptions, of course. The White Court is (in)famous for their use of subterfuge and cats-paws to further their plans. While on the other end of the ballpark beings like the fey and demons literally cannot lie; it is simply a thing beyond their ability to do on the same level like flying by willing it is for a human.

Of course, being able to do something and recognize it being done to you are two totally different skills.

And most immortals —even without being able to outright sense untruths and crap like that, have been lied to so many times that it’s a futile effort. You might as well try to pass of a bit of glass as ice to an Eskimo fridge salesman.

I’m not certain if waitering has gotten that cutthroat nowadays, if Luna was distracted enough by puppeteering Carlo’s poor niece over such a distance…

Or she might have been bluffing, playing along for now to gain an advantage later. Either way, aside from that disapproving frown that now looked far too familiar, Luna remained silent, ‘her’ eyes now locked onto the TV.

...OK, I simply don’t know what happened to her, —or if that’s even a real pony for that matter… but that thing isn’t Luna. She’d never do something this cruel.

How in hell had she even done this? Luna was locked away in the strongest magical prison on the planet, half the country away, and she’d still somehow reached out and possessed somebody?

If she had that type of power, why not just reach into mine or Nemo’s minds, and just start layering commands like the warlock she’d turned out to be? Why grab some poor kid we’d just more or less stumbled across?

Was it some type of spell that only had an effect on stallions, perhaps? Had Luna wormed herself into his dreams like she’d mine, but not having any training in magic the poor bastard had thought it just a pleasant if weird dream until too late?

I shook my head, and forced myself to look away, as if she wasn’t a threat.

Frankly, all my instincts were screaming at me to just go for the sucker-punch. Just slam Carlos’ cousin into the nearest wall, wrestle him into a circle…

I just barely stopped myself from gritting my teeth audibly. And if that didn’t actually work, at least offer him a far faster death than having his mind torn to shreds by that blue-black bastard.

I tensed as I saw Carlos’ niece lean forward. “...Uncle, are you alright?” he asked, in a surprisingly gentle voice. “You're really pale.”

Had to admit, I blinked.

Carlos hesitated and forced a ghost of a grin, but there really was no hiding how his naturally tanned face had gone the color of month old toast; sickly white with a tint of unhealthy green. “...I’ll be fine,” he chuckled out, the sound utterly false even as he pried his fingers of the recliner. “Just the arm again.”

I pretended to just walk over to check on Carlos, but I kept my peripheral on his niece.

And I got ‘rewarded’ with seeing the kid give off this smile that would have warmed up the whole room all by itself, if it wasn’t for the icy claw the circumstances made squeeze around my heart. “‘kay,” he chirped out, his for a moment brilliantly scarlet eyes near instantly frosting over with cyan again; as if somepony had squirted a whole container of antifreeze into a fine wine. “Just say so if you need any help.”

Was that it? Those same ‘suggestions’ Luna had tried on me, but on somebody with no experience or magic to recognize what was happening? Somehow making them last into the waking world, and used to —relatively, gently guide Carlos’ niece into serving as her eyes and ears?

A frown passed over my face before I could stop it. If so there might still be hope for saving him… but I had no doubt it would go from suggestions to outright orders the second we called Luna out.

So not only would we need to move forward with the type of care normally associated with nitroglycerin and roller-skates, but I’d need to get two other people in the same room to reach the same conclusion without tipping off Mr. Time-Bomb.

I stopped by Carlos’ side, resting a hoof on the headrest of his recliner. For the moment I passed between him and his niece, the death glare I got said it all: Did you do this?

I gave a single, tiny shake, as if I was just getting rid of of hair from my eyes. It stung a bit, but I couldn’t quite blame him for ‘asking.’ “Arm?” was what I said out-loud, though.

Carlos hesitated for several seconds, giving me one of those ‘wizard’s glares’ where you don’t quite look the other person in the face.

Then with a deep sigh, he rolled up the sleeve on his left side. A second or two passed where I simply couldn’t quite process what I was seeing

Nemo, I and even what I’d bet was really Luna in that moment let out a gasp each.

Carlos’ left biceps was just… gone. No scar or anything, but it was as if somebody had taken a giant ice-cream scoop and dragged it across his humerus.

“You’ve fought any of the Fomor’s pets yet, Harry?” Carlos asked, for the moment staring absently at his arm as he…

Well, technically he actually flexed it —somehow, but you’re not supposed to see the outline of the bone under the muscle. He sure hadn’t been showing it and I’m no healer… but I doubt that arm could have lifted a full coffee-cup, let alone a staff.

“Listens-To-Wind help you with that?” I heard my own voice ask on near autopilot, feeling a pang of mortification that I’d actually recognized that soft feminine sound as such even while distracted. “The almost no scars thing, I mean?”

Yeah, now and then, when he’s had time.” Carlos’ brown eyes darted over to my right hoof, hanging by my side, and nearly as quickly away again. “And what’s your excuse? I thought you and he’s on friendly terms?”

“The war with the Reds.” I gave a shrug, absently running the side of my wing over my cannon; the thick scar-tissue and leathery membrane scraping together in a not totally unpleasant feeling way. “By the time the line was mostly clear, the normal physical therapy had started to kick in. Just didn’t feel right to ask for mostly aesthetic reasons when the arm still works, you know?”

“...Why not?” Carlos’ niece growled out, leaning forward with eyes totally cyan again. “This ‘Winds’ is a healer, right? Why hasn’t he healed both of you?!”

I hesitated for a second, but I couldn’t figure out a dodge in time for it to not be suspicious. “...Magic healing doesn’t work like that; you can’t just slap ‘heal critical wounds’ on somebody and call it a day.”

I hadn’t quite kept what was almost an outright hiss out of my voice, and the kid recoiled (eyes again momentarily scarlet).

Not quite the way I’d wanted that to go, but it killed the conversation at least.

“If it did,” I growled, forcing my wings down against my side again, “there’d be quite a few more wizards left.”

Mr. Time-Bomb slash Luna didn’t seem to have anything to add to that, so we drifted off; the only sounds the cacophony coming from the mostly forgotten TV.


I heard the two others give out ‘Huh?’s, but I just winced.

“Got twenty,” Carlos smirked out as he rolled down his t-shirt sleeve again, “but alas, twenty-one got me.”

“Octa-kongs, last year” I said after giving a nod, lifting my towel slightly and sticking my leg forward. It had gotten smeared a bit in my transformation, but you could still see a pale semi-circle on the side of what was now my rear cannon. “Took them down, but their handlers gave me this nifty fifty-caliber piercing; free of charge.”

If it was one sight I doubt I will ever be used to, it is a pony going googly eyed. There’s just something utterly if subtly horrifying seeing an living creature look almost but not quite like those morbid squeezy toys with rubber eyes. “Fifty?” Nemo squawked out. “What the hell were they shooting at you with? A freaking machine gun?!”

“No, actually,” I nonchalantly said as I put my leg down again.

Nemo blinked. “So... what a sni-?”

“They used two and fired in volleys to wear my shield spell down.”

The room fell silent except the TV again. Even Carlos that had seen me in action a few times raised an eyebrow.

“Scout’s honor,” I solemnly said, raising my free hoof to my heart. “Besides, if I’d made that up, it would have contained less bulky, slimy squid-men with overcompensation issues, and more nubile, young stripper-ninjas with beer-cannons and pizza-shurikens.”

Nemo and Carlos let out a few, weak chuckles at the joke.

Mr. Time-Bomb and Luna interestingly enough, just muttered “Pig,” with an eye roll my way, the crimson and cyan for just a moment mixing into an luminous violet; all without either one of them seemingly noticing.

So… that’s what happen if Luna gives one of her ‘suggestions’ and the poor kid actually agrees wholeheartedly with it? Troubling, since I’d bet that moment of synergy felt just as good as trying to fight her off would feel hellish.

And that type of instant, mental feedback? Hell, Luna didn’t even need to mind wipe the poor kid; she keep up that slow, steady drip of rewards and punishments, and Carlos’ niece would be eating out of her hoof ‘willingly’ in no-time.

Honestly, the more I learned of ‘Equestrian’ magic and what passed as ‘exemplars’ in that ‘country...’ the more finding a hacksaw and getting myself four, shiny, new, fluted backscratchers seemed tempting.

“Speaking of mammals that squeal horribly when they die,” I said, pointing at the TV were a cackling, serpentine shape had just streaked past the news-camera, “what do we do about tall, dark and hopefully inflammable over there?”

Yeah, I was pouring it on thicker than Brian Blessed doing Hamlet in Klingon.

In my defense though, Luna using a innocent bystander like this was pissing me the fuck off. Having to play along with this twisted charade instead of just punching the bitch in her face? Near doubly so.

Fake or real… didn’t matter anymore. If this was what lengths Luna was willing to go to get her ‘Elements’ back, I simply couldn’t keep throwing soft-balls to try get her to back off.

“...Perhaps,” Mr. Time-Bomb mumbled, eyes a dull cyan, “you’re the Bearers, right? Can’t you find the… Elements, somehow?” A hollow looking smile that didn’t reach the kid’s eyes twitched into life on his lips. “That could work, right?”

Yeah. Forget the kid’s gloves coming off, the knuckledusters were going on.

I distracted myself by paying a bit more attention to the newscast… even if that was almost as hard as hearing Carlos teeth gind next to me.

The actual news-anchor had seemingly decided to flee long ago, but the cameraman —who deserved some sort of medal for it, be it post-crisis or posthumously— was still standing, filming and trying to make sense of the calamity going on.

According to the ticker it was, surprise, the same city me and Nemo had skedaddled from yesterday, San Francisco. You couldn’t have told from the pictures coming in, though.

It was… pandemonium, no other word for it. Utter, utter chaos; as if some twisted and surreal landscape painting had burst into reality.

Cars, melting into puddles and then laying there bubbling; frying like giant metal eggs on a road. Houses just floating up into the sky as if they’d become giant novelty balloons.

And everywhere, people were screaming and running. Or barking hysterically and hopping like frogs. Or baaing, and slithering away like snakes in a way that made my back hurt just looking at them. Or quacking, and splashing like fish air-drowning, but without the horror actually ending that quickly.

I had to tear my eyes away from the screen for a moment.

Seeing two fire-hydrants chasing a lit barbecue while letting out squelching ‘barks’ just isn’t something even being a wizard will prepare you for.

This was what those four idiots consider an innocent? This was somebody —Oh right, humans somehow don’t count, so somepony actually worth saving?

There had to be something I was missing, some reason Cadance had seemed so desperate to have things end ‘properly’ with the Elements being used on this creep.

But what? Power, perhaps? The flying pipe-cleaner of ultimate destruction just one, big, annoying, excuse for assembling the Friendship Planeters ‘again?’ The real goal being having The Elements of Harmony up and running again with a minimum of questions? If the over-glorified friendship bracelets have even ‘only’ what they showed on Demonreach, that was a lot of power to be tempted by.

An issue of faith? As far as I’d been able to tell, this ‘Harmony’ stuff was the closest I’d seen in Equestrians to religion. If so, me, Nemo and Marcone would be kinda like as if the pope had found out the three wise-men had been reincarnated... and now proudly bore the names Moe, Larry, and Curly. Not an excuse, of course, but would explain why there was such zeal in slapping us out of it.

Or just simple, plain desperation? Runaway ace-in-the-hole or mustache twirling a-hole; either way it seemed the Equestrians’ had about as much control over Discord as a paper-crane thrown into a fire-tornado.

The ‘draconequus’ —even if even I thought that a rather cumbersome and silly way of saying something so already pant’s filling as ‘pony-dragon hybrid,’ had according to the ticker been at large for about four hours, and downtown San Fran looked like one of Dali’s fever-dreams.

If the number was right… just how would it look in areas where the prick had had twenty five years to play?

And the scary thing was, if the Elements really are the level of potent they seemed… it wouldn’t even matter. Because I’ve seen holy artifacts in action —and unholy ones but that’s beside the current point, and the stories barely do them justice. Rancid water becoming rose water. Entire armies of monsters recoiling from holy radiance. My own pentacle, with glorious light allowing me to find my keys in even the darkest of night…

Anyway, it depends on the artifact, of course, but them being purifiers tends to be rather universal. My pentacle (and Belief in Magic as a force of and for good) probably wouldn’t do much more than protect me and a small area from further corruption —if that, while something major like one of the Swords of the Cross might actually outright… well, purify the whole area.

In the right hands, of course. Belief and all that.

I frowned slightly as a thought crossed my mind; The Elements of Harmony.

What if that wasn’t descriptive, but literal?

That’s the thing normally at least, you see. For Magic, you need to Believe with absolute certainty that what you are trying to do will happen, or it simply won’t work. You can draw in power until the cows come home and start grazing right on whatever field your exploded head is now smeared over, but unless you have that Belief what you're trying to do is the right and proper thing to happen the spell will just fizzle out.

(It’s why combat magic is so relatively rare, even not counting the First Law. Believing that making some fire to warm your house is one thing, to set somebody’s head on fire another. Granted, the field of evocation had gotten quite an upswing thanks to the war with the Red Court, but it was hardly a common specialty even so.)

With Faith it’s far subtler and trickier. You have to Believe in something, draw power from that and try to project it in the right direction. Doesn’t need to be a god, or anything of the sort..., even if they can make the process go far smoother if they think you deserve it.

I myself for example —as I joked about earlier, use my pentacle amulet and my Belief in Magic. To me, Magic is the force of Life made manifest. The joys, the sorrows, the ups, the downs, the good and the bad. I think I may have used the same example already, but there’s more magic in a child’s first laughter, for instance, than most wizards may ever even dream of conjuring up.

And to me, my pentacle, gifted to me by my mother and the only thing I’ve got left of her, is a symbol of that. A five pointed star in a circle, representing the five elements of Water, Earth, Fire, Air and Spirit; all bound in a perfect circle, a symbol of hu- eq- mortal will.

Power, but balanced with restraint. The way a wizard should strive to act.

Absently, I felt my hoof ‘close’ over the thing; the magic of my own grip thrumming softly against the magics of the pentacle itself. The silver, a symbol of both purity and how easily tarnished it is in its own right; feeling almost alive and electrified against my magic while still being just cool metal to my frog. An echo of strange warmth, as the same effort of will that allows me to ‘grip’ things caused a few motes of light to dance over the pentacle’s surface. The enchantment of the ruby in its center —one of the strongest of its kind I’ve seen and my mother’s finest work; a thing of such terrifyingly subtle power it scared even me sometimes— stirring at my touch, but not truly waking without further command.

And yeah, I hadn’t even taken it off in the shower. Or while sleeping, for that matter. Doubt I will anytime soon, at that.

It was just… well, mine. A tiny, tiny sign that, yes, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden and all his choices, good, ill and ugly actually had happened. That my life had amounted to something more than some… stain on the world’s best doormat and her sparkling record of perfectly perfected perfect perfection.

...Oh, Harry…

That my life, my magic, were both still… well, mine. My face may be gone. My voice may be gone. My eyes may be gone… But the bastards couldn’t take my life unless I let them. They can’t take my choice unless I let them. They can’t erase my past like some bad dream, unless I let them do so.

In a twisted sort of way, it was more or less exactly the same thing as the mess I’d gotten into with Mab. Yes, that Mab; the fairy Queen of Air and Darkness. It was just that instead of trying to paint things in the bleakest of all lights and that no matter what I would become a monster… it was sweetness and light, and doing their darndest to make me feel as if any future were I wasn’t their ‘friend’ would be me ending up a monster.

Strange how things stay the same, sometimes. This time I was simply being smacked over the head with the carrot, instead of being tempted with how easier things would be for me If I played ball and my ‘mistress’ could downgrade it to just a mere stick.

In some ways it made it easier, and in other’s far harder. I’d just had to try to do my best, and hope I can live with myself after that. Like always.

It would just have been slightly easier if that hadn’t involved punching cuddly pastel ponies in the face.

Some things just feel wrong no matter the reasons why, you know?

Speaking of wrong, it felt like I'd almost been on to something, but gotten sidetracked. Ironically, I couldn't afford that right now, with 'Luna' glaring between my shoulder-blades.

Hopefully it wasn't anything important.

“I think…” I slowly said, noticing how ‘Luna’ had barely taken ‘her’ eyes off my pentacle, seemingly seeing it slash me as the bigger threat despite the things happening in the newscast. “...we should start planning for a General Akbar.”

Nemo’s ears perked up, and from the gleam in Carlos eyes he got it too.

Mr. Time-Bomb —who I really should get the actual name of, and by extension Luna just looked irritated and confused, though. Then again, looking is the easy bit.

“Grab every advantage we can,” I continued, “call in every ally we can, and hit the creep with every trick, artifact, weapon, spell and dirty limerick we can muster, I mean.”

“Absolutely not!” Luna, judging from the poor stallion’s eyes exploded at me, going so far as to flutter of the couch. “We need the Elements! They are the only thing that can stop Discord!”

I hesitated, but there was really only way I’d reacted normally. “Why?”

Mr. Time-Bomb glared at me, eyes cyan and looking as dull as dishwater.

“The prick’s strong, I’ll grant him that… but so’s about a dozen other beings I can name; and Mr. Oh-So-Subtle over there…” I waved my wing at the TV, wherein a house had just turned to fudge and starting crumbling apart in a sticky, brown flood. “...is currently waving a giant sign around, screaming: ‘Look at me~e!’ and pissing all over the feet of the local horrors.”

The room (TV, bla, bla, bla) fell silent again.

“Discord is not the actual threat here. The actual threat is in a few hours away, when every dragon, fey, god, warlock, immortal, wizard and who even knows what else shows up for the giant free-for-all to stomp the idiot that is tap-dancing on the mortals.I lifted my wing, and did a throat slitting gesture with my dew-claw. “And once enough magic starts flying around it won’t actually matter if the winner was there to just stop him or kill him and eat his heart for power; San Fran —if not outright the whole west-coast, is going to be the next Atlantis anyway.”

“...And if Discord comes out on top of that pile?” Nemo asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know.” I gave a shrug. “I don’t know enough about him to even guess.”

...He’s not going to make it. Discord has never been good at fighting, he’s more of the trickster type.

Luna balked, opening and closing ‘her’ stolen mouth a few times, but no sound came out.

Sadly, we kinda got distracted.

Because I got proven right.

To open a gate is tricky business. They are after all a portal between the real world and the spirit world. It’s actually part of the standard wizard package, one of the things you need to know to claim the title, I mean, but it is one of the more complex spells on that list.

Still, they’re nifty if dangerous. Thing is, the spirit world and the real world overlap, but not in a one to one ratio. Take for example some nice, quiet forest glade. You enter the spirit world of that and it connects to an equally nice, quiet forest glade in the Nevernever.

Of course, ‘nice’ and ‘quiet’ are quite relative terms. Might not actually be any forest as we hu- mortals would see —or even be able to survive, one. Giant crystal reeds so sharp touching them will bifurcate you instantly. Mushrooms dripping with liquid cyanide. Massive meat trees, drowning the ground beneath them in showers of boiling blood every time the wind shifts.

But still, in some twisted fashion it’s going to be a reflection of that bit of the real world. Quiet. Nice. Glade.

But take a few steps out of the glade and in among the ‘trees.’ Suddenly, the formula has become: Quiet. Nice. Thicket.

See where I’m going with that? You open a gate there, and you’ll end up somewhere in the real world that’s a nice, quiet thicket. Like some dark corner of the amazon. Beneath the shadow of Kilimanjaro. Or any other place you care to name, really.

Actual travel time: a few minutes. Actual distance traveled: up to and including hopping continents.

Not going to lie, being a wizard is kinda awesome sometimes.

Still, there are other dangers, of course. Most of the time you can get a feel for the ‘vibe’ of an area, and if you’re stupid enough to open a Way in the abandoned old insane-asylum where vagrants keep disappearing without a plan... you kinda deserve what’s coming for you.

That’s why the Ways, e.i. the mapped, safe-(ish) paths are so valuable. You know what you’re doing, and you can have breakfast in Paris, lunch in Tokyo, afternoon-tea in London, dinner in Sydney, and finally rent a room in Rome to nurse those aching hooves and stomach of yours.

(Not that I went a bit crazy in the period I thought my mind was about to rot from the inside from my metamorphosis, and did a few crazy experimental things I’d normally never do, or anything. That would be cra~azy.)

Oh, but the real heavy-hitters? They don’t actually bother with any of that. They just punch a hole clean through exactly where they want to go, and step on through. And although it wasn’t totally impossible that somebody ambitious knew a Way to what used to be middle of a city with nearly a million people in it… didn’t quite seem likely, even without interference from all that chaos around.

Except it wasn’t a somebody, or even a something.

There were eight of them, all causing quite a bit of stir from the cameraman and the poor bastards that hadn’t been able to run in time.

What looked like the tip of a gladius, cutting through the air as if it had been only the side of a tent with this horrible tearing noise. Like if somebody was sawing through a sheet of copper with a butter-knife, but actually succeeding.

A flowing, golden curtain, suspended in thin air; horribly glaring light from behind it outlining a vaguely human shadow, coming closer and closer at a brisk pace.

By a now abandoned cafe, the air was… folding, for lack of a better word. As if somebody had taken an arc of frozen air, and was folding and refolding it, the seats and tables twisting and changing around it as if you were trying to look at them through a prism.

A patch of blocky, flickering static, just hanging in the middle of the road as if somebody had left an old but somehow invisible TV-screen laying there. Growing thicker and thicker at the center, as if something was erasing that part of the world to get through.

A doorway, made from three bolts of lightning, two of them stuck in the sidewalk with the third bridging them; forming almost an ‘arc’ of thunder.

A small cloud, as thick and black as soot. A curtain of rain was falling from it, but whatever the liquid was it didn’t actually spread over the ground, and it glowed silver like moonlight over a frozen lake.

A huge, ancient looking double-doored iron gate, just standing in a shattered display window as if belonged there. Utterly unadorned except for a degree of polish that bordered on mania; if it wasn’t for the innumerable coating of scratches the thing would have shone like a mirror.

And finally, the one so far I’d recognized and made my heart skip a beat. Part of a nearby wall was just eroding away; huge clumps of wood falling inwardly ‘down’ into a dark void, like dirt into a hole.

And here I were standing over three hundred miles away. Only a wet towel on, covered in slowly drying shampoo, and with my staff quite literally across the continent.

Oh, and for help I had a friend that would probably be crippled for life if I gave him a too hard high-five, let alone dragged him along into heavy combat. His semi-possessed ‘niece’ without —to my knowledge, neither combat nor magic training. And a promising but raw sorceress that might one day be a powerhouse, but right now only knows how to punch things really hard.

Well, it sure took this case a while to reach my usual standard on what counts as ‘oh crap,’ but I can’t say it disappointed when it actually got there.

Really only felt like one way to sum it all up.

“Hell’s bells,” I groaned out, burying my head in my hooves, “what did I do in my past life to deserve luck this bad?”

“Well, technically,” a chipper voice came from behind me, “luck and chaos are often considered part of the same domain, and we did allegedly kick Discord in the metaphorical nuts that one time…”

“Nemo,” I growled out without looking up, “you are not helping.”

07 — Bucking Bronco of the Bronx

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I guess it rather sets the tone when Odin in his full glory is the first to take to the field. Stepping through the lightning arch with all the poise and calm as if it had been a normal door.

Sure, he was wearing that ‘pirate Gandalf’ look of his, all greys including the eye-patch and a big bushy beard. All topping a wisp of a man that looked as if a stiff breeze would blow him, his pointy walking stick and his top-of-the-line bathrobe all the way to eager arms of the fashion police.

But to anybody with any knowledge in mythology that was almost a worse ‘oh crap’ than full armor.

You do know Gandalf, right? The wizard in many people’s eyes? Semi-immortal? A grand and terrifying master of fire? Grey robe, with a staff in one hand and a sword in the other? Told what was basically Satan Light to suck his warding gesture while the rest of the Fellowship scarpered?

That’s Tolkien’s toned down version of The Grey Wanderer.

That’s the guise The Allfather wears when he wants to be subtle.

A woman followed him hot on his heals through that glowing arch that had formed between the thunder. Although I use both the words ‘woman’ and ‘hot’ lightly.

She was beautiful on a level that inspired awe.

And I do mean ‘awe’ in the biblical, ‘Fear Not’ sense. Except you could —no, should skip that last bit in this case.

I gulped a bit, mouth suddenly dry. The Queen of Air and Darkness might have been humanoid, but even I, sitting half wet on my haunches with moisture dripping of my bat-wings, had more humanity left then her.

She was wearing of all ironic things, a simple sun-dress. If, granted, one made from silk that shimmered impossibly from one icy hue to the next. One moment the deep green sea-ice rarely becomes when enough plankton flash-freezes inside it, to a snow white her long free flowing hair matched so perfectly two became lost against each other and all the way to the crystal clear ice of the deepest glaciers compacted over eons until its mistakable for glass.

And yes, to millions of other viewers (if not my own) blushing amusement that last hue did in fact reveal that Mab was wearing only a sun-dress.

I tried not to cringe and failed quite badly. At least this time I wasn’t forced into taking part in Mab’s nation-wide exhibitionist streak.

Sadly, the other immortal I needed to take into account had taken notice judging from how Carlos’ cousin had gone ramrod stiff and staring at the TV screen. “Who are they?” Luna asked in a shaking voice. “What are they?”

“The Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab, and The Allfather, King of the Aesir, Odin.” I held up my hoof before either Luna or Nemo could let their jaws more than fall open. “Do not repeat those names. They can hear them being spoken.”

Nemo let out a cough into her hoof, looking rather pointedly away from Carlos’ cousin. “And the ‘what’ bit?”

“If I say ‘old-school gods’ you’ll actually know what I mean.” I frowned. “Or ‘human-ish alicorn analogues’ to be a bit more topical.”

Nemo just frowned, but Luna went wide-eyed.

I frowned a bit in turn, but decided on the truth. “The Allfather’s actually a surprisingly alright dude as long as you’ve got manners, but The Winter Queen’s a real piece of work. I’ve literally seen her kill her own minions for bleeding on her floors.”

Luna spluttered a bit, but fought it down. “And this ‘Allfather’ is how if you don’t have manners?”

“Don’t think he still does it, but he allegedly used to ride around and test people's’ manners in that form. You succeed, and you got a boon of some sort.” My eyes followed ‘her’ gaze to the giggling serpentine form visible in the distance on-screen. “You failed, and at best you got fed to his pet wolves.”

Luna started coughing; seemingly having swallowed a bit of Agatha’s spit the wrong way.

“Yeah, a bit old school.” I couldn’t quite stop a rather dry chuckle. “And speaking of school it seems a certain rude jokester is going to get a rather brutal lesson from the two sternest teachers on the planet.” I gave the TV, Mr. Not-Gandalf and Ms. I’m-Totally-Harmless, Honest a nod. “From what I’ve heard of this Disco dude is going to make a ‘hilarious’ joke on their expanse, and get smacked down into his place hard enough to leave a jello filled crater.”

I got a rather unsubtle glare from Luna.

“Don’t give me that look,” I said calmly. “I didn’t set him up. Just making an observation that Mr. Disco is about to make his bed, and that narrow, hard one made from pine and six feet down the dirt hole was a really poor choice.”

Luna’s glare barely wavered. “Doesn’t stop you from clearly taking joy in his misfortune,” she snapped at me.

I ignored it and the jab, more interested anyway in the other gateways.

Still, no way two physical gods could be topped, right?

Should be down-hill from that, and hopefully things should end in a quick, merciless but non-city leveling curb-stomp. Both Odin and Mab were heavy-hitters, but neither of them the type that level cities for funsies. As long as nothing worse came out of those doorways there might actually be hope still for The City of Fog.


The ‘gladius gate’ was second to open, the world bending in a way that even through the TV made my eyes water, like a tent flap being lifted up.

A man stepped through, the ‘flap’ of world behind him falling and returning to normalcy with a heavy ‘splort’ sound not unlike two lumps of clay being fused by dropped the atop each other.

He was of average height, with broad shoulders and the type of lean, wiry build that starts looking like sixty at twenty but keeps on doing so well past retirement as long as you keep yourself in shape. He had no hair I could see, but the olive skin of his head gleamed in the light, only matched by his flawless teeth and the rather hungry gleam in his mulberry eyes.

His ensemble was rather odd, but made me perk my ears. On one hand, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a board-room. Black shoes with that high-quality shine and a blue pinstripe suit that clearly been tailored for him, all with that type of fit and shine that told you he’d easily been able to get at least a car for the same sum. There was even what looked suspiciously like obsidian cufflinks gleaming near his sleeves.

But on the other, there were signs that he’d armed himself in a great hurry. A tie or bow-tie had been removed so hastily and with such force the still ruffled collar of his shirt had torn slightly. He didn’t carry the traditional staff, but instead held that gladius in his left, and a big, black suitcase in his right that gave me the heebie-jeebies for some reason. I couldn’t see anything overtly unnatural about either implement —not through the TV at least, but the hairs on the back of my neck had gone up and I trusted those instincts of mine.

No way to be certain right now what type of high-grade mojo was in that case, but somehow I doubted it contained the dude’s prized family fertility idol.

...Well, maybe an idol blessed by Madam Pele, but she’s a bit of an odd duck. Most creator goddesses aren’t quite that fiery tempered or frequent in their lava based vengeance.

All in all and the mystery case of potential doom aside, the man reminded me a bit of that Monty Python sketch with the accountant pirates except with a NC-17 rating. There was this sense of twisted professionalism that made it really easy to imagine him striding through a boardroom with viscera to his well-pressed socks, bloodied blade on one arm, the now dead rival firm’s secretary swooning from the other, and the final draft of the extremely hostile take-over and its red not-quite-ink drying gently on the scarred meeting-table.

There was nothing business like about that grin, however. I’ll give the man this much: he actually frowned for a tiny bit on seeing the chaos, but soon that grin was there again twice as fierce. Like a big-game hunter called in due to big, nasty man-eater lions. The locals suffering were tragic, sure, and a good deed would come of it, but the actual focus and drive was that glorious hunt.

I narrowed my eyes at the man on the TV. I’d never met him before, but I recognized the man through description and the purple stola hastily thrown over his shoulders. There was only one member of the Senior Council (the ruling body of The White Council) I’d never met in person and that was the youngest member, Gregori Cristos.

He wasn’t quite as I’d pictured him, even if I’ll reluctantly admit I now saw why my mentor taught him an idiot and a patsy instead of an outright member of The Black Council. Christos had that type of raw, rugged charisma you can see even in a picture, but he at least seemed the type of gung-ho hot-blooded type that’s more easily manipulated by than outright turned to the dark side.

Yeah, Pot calling the kettle black on that one. Won’t even deny it.

(One guess what The Black Council is, and it doesn’t even count with that type of name. We didn’t actually have any outright proof yet, but there had been too many near catastrophes and information leaks these last few years to be coincidence. Somebody, potentially a lot of somebodies were playing a long-con, and The White Council was officially sitting on its big, fat hands for political reasons. Nasty, but hopefully for now unrelated business.)

Of course, seeming like an idiot that can barely find the Lady in a game of three-card-monte is quite the political trick all on its own. (The sleeve. Always.) Not something I’d outright cultivated, but I’ve been underestimated myself like that enough times to know what type of sucker-punches it lets you dish out.

Big, big difference between not being the sharpest bolas in the weapons locker, and never hitting the mark. Or being harmless for that matter.

Christos seemed to find the other Ways opening quite interesting, but the only thing he actually did was shoot a million dollar smile first towards Mab and Odin (both giving stiff nods in turn), and then the camera before settling down. Keeping an eye out in that watching everything and nothing way you only see from rather dangerous people, seemingly as comfy on the slowly inflating bike-rack he’d found as a lion on the savannah.

The whole thing rather disturbingly reminded me of kids lining up by the new flashy cabinet at an arcade. ‘Fine, you got here first, but here’s my quarter, I’m next, and if you try to cut in line I’ll punch your teeth out.’

The third way opened, the golden, glowing curtain flopping open and the glaring light obscuring all for a few moments.

Partez!” A woman’s voice rang out before even the camera could focus enough for her to be more than an outline in the rapidly fading light, one long staff held in the air as a sword ready to fall. “Partez, Saleté!

With a sound like a silver gong being struck, the butt of the woman’s staff hit the concrete. A wave of blocky static washed over the camera, making the poor cameraman flinch and swear.

At first glance it seemed nothing had happened. The buildings nearby were still half-melted. The people contorted into impossible shapes.

Then my ears perked, as I heard human sobs and wails of pain, not the animal bleats the sick bastard had forced his victims into making.

“Impossible…” Luna muttered, some genuine awe in her voice.

The damage hadn’t been undone, per se, but it had been mitigated. The energy driving the worst of the, well, chaos cut off and —for now, stopped from doing more damage. Flocks of previously flapping —oh the wit, fliers falling stiff down. Cars still smoldering, but no longer outright melting. Stuff like that.

And about two-three dozen people who’d probably need specialist care for the rest of their life for walking down the wrong street at least got that big a chance. Their eyes clearing, and running quickly away even if it was on limbs that bent the wrong way.

I carefully hid a frown, and forced myself to think through the specifics. Equestrians had never figured out counter-spelling? Not my forte, but I knew the theory and had even used it in combat a few times.

Guess it made a twisted amount of sense. If you really Believe magic is friendship made manifest —literally the strength your friends grant you by believing in you with all their hearts— then countering a spell directly would be in some tiny way like tearing at that bond directly. So even if some bright, young extra-pointy unicorn had gotten the theoretical idea, counter-spelling had probably been slammed with taboo status.

That, and counter-spelling is one of those things that’s easy in theory, but fiendishly difficult when bullets and/or fireballs are whistling around your ears. Like the poor schmucks that get hurt sky-diving now and then because folding a giant piece of special cloth a certain way isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Don’t get me wrong, a whole city-block with both mental and physical tempering like that? In one spell? It was damn impressive stuff. The type of simple but done on mass stuff you needed a grandmaster for.

So impressive in fact that I didn’t even blink on seeing another purple stola around the extremely tall women's dark robed shoulder. Over six feet tall, even, making me feel a tiny but real pang of jealousy about my now lost height.

Her name was Martha Liberty. Hard as nails old lady, but fair. Hadn’t seen her since that one time she helped pull my feet out of the fire, but she’d barely aged a day. Still the same bun of grey, her earlier brown lingering in the eyebrows, and, currently, a scowl you could cook dinner in.

That scowl by the way? Aimed straight at a distant serpentine shape that had frozen impossibly in mid-air. A just barely visible head-tilt showing (mostly showing due to the miss-matched horns) there, like a great wolf trying to decipher if a distant howl had been a real challenge or not.

She broke of that first scowl long enough to aim a new one right at Cristos together with the butt of that red wooded staff she’d had last time as well. “Why are you just sitting there?!”

“I will admit I am not the greatest gentlemen around…” With a soft shrug, Christos spread his hand towards Mab and Odin.

Martha let out soft swear under her breath.

“...but it seemed rude to cut in line, no?”

His accent was… strange. Yeah, strange really about summed it up. A mix-match fitting for a man born in Europe, working often in the States, but that had actually lived in near every major Asian country during the last century or so. I’d never quite heard anything quite like it, but the best word I could think of for it was ‘windy.’ Like every word was this puff from an invisible cigar Christos had dangling from his lips at all times.

I was frankly half-surprised little thunderbolts weren’t coming out of her ears, but Martha stiffly half-bowed to the two immortals. “Greetings, oh Queen of Air and Darkness, and to you as well, Grey Wanderer.”

Mab didn’t even look away from the serpentine shape lazily drifting closer, but Odin did a small waving motion towards Martha and the other gates.

“We lay no claim to this chaos,” he declared formerly, “only its creator. Do with the stricken as you wish, but we humbly request for The White Council not to interfere in our own parley.”

My ears folded back on hearing the word ‘parley.’

Martha just bowed, and hurried over to a man who no longer seemed to actually have any joints. Somehow the elderly business-man kept enough ‘firmness’ for lack of a better word that his weight wasn’t crushing his own organs (as far as I could tell, anyway), but his arms and legs kept flopping around like squid tentacles.

“And what are you scowling about?” Luna growled.

“Agatha,” Carlos said firmly, finally giving me a name for his poor possessed cousin, “be nice. They’re guests and friends.”

For a tiny moment the crimson of Agatha’s eyes reasserted itself and he looked confused and a bit embarrassed, but Luna’s cyan was soon there again. With a scoff the stallion sank down into the sofa again.

“Miss Subtle there usually is,” I grumbled. “Terrifyingly so. This is too direct for her, too clear a set up.” I scratched at my chest a bit, the drying soap starting to itch. “There’s something I’m missing here that makes it worthwhile for her to actually do this the hands-on way instead of sending a minion.”

Nemo raised an eyebrow my way. “Killing your own servant for bleeding is your version of terrifyingly subtle?”

For just a moment I was tempted to say ‘yes,’ but I fought the rather unconstructive urge down.

“She’s one of those ‘wheels within wheels’ types long-term, but doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty short-term, OK?” I explained while turning back to the TV. “Now shush, we need as much info as possible before that camera burns out.”

And yeah, that camera despite a valiant fight was giving up the ghost. The sensitive electronics not being able to handle so much magic in the air from all those heavy-hitters.

For now we still had a garbled picture, but with a screech that made all four of us wince and clutch at our ears the microphone gave out. Plunging the newscast into an eerie, unfamiliar silence. ‘Technical Difficulties: Please Excuse the Lack of Sound’ added to the news-ticker along such cheerful headings as ‘Thousands Confirmed Wounded,’ ‘Military Mobilization Underway,’ and ‘White Council Presence Confirmed.’

And I have no idea how I felt about that last one. On one hand it was something I’d barely dared dream about. Magic and all those that practice it forced into the limelight, and judged on exactly the same plint as the rest of society.

But on the other one, in its own way it was just as much an end of an era as that time the Hindenburg was meant to come in for a routine landing. Just with the secrecy of magic instead of blimps being the future of aviation.

Sure, intellectually you know it was only a matter of time. Heck, I’ve heard people are actually starting to wear these glasses with cameras and tiny computers in them, like something straight out of Bladerunner. People don’t want to believe there are really monsters out there, but even the most Agent Scully like sceptics with mental blinders glued onto their heads would need to start putting one and one together sooner or later. A murder victims cellphone no longer working is one thing, but smart-clothes, smart-glasses and who even knows what all being fried?

There’s only so many times (and places) a technophobe serial killer with a knack for burning out electronics actually makes sense as a pattern. Only so many times officials can be bribed before some stiff-necked one with actual morals says ‘no’ and survives. We are living in the information age, after all.

In a way it was seeing your threadbare, itchy and smelly safety-blanket be burned on a scrap pile. No matter how old, dirty and rotten, you really can’t help but feel something on seeing your old blankie get torched.

And that was without something as previously contradictory as a unicorn engineer suddenly being a real thing. Or minotaur scientist. Or bug-pony social-workers.

I’d even outright been told so by a few clients. A pegasus wizard didn’t seem quite as impossible and silly, after you’ve shaken fin with your cousin and had to seriously ask the question: ‘So how’s the improvised Lake Michigan shanty-town getting along?’

Oh yeah, that was a thing going on. The Chicago city-council had big, big dreams about turning the ‘City-In-The-Lake’ —as the name that actually was sticking went, into a rallying point for all the poor bastards that ended up aquatic or semi-aquatic. Giving them a place that eventually would be just as modern and livable in as any other district of Chicago, just semi-submerged.

On paper, quite impressive a concept. Walkways next to waterways, even inside some of the larger buildings, letting man, mare and mere alike mingle. Lit and (relatively) warmed underwater ‘thoroughfares.’ Even plans for a small dual-layered park that had gone way over my head, but was essentially this just above water bridge with another, seaweed based park underneath it.

Of course, that was the concept for the future.

Right now City-In-The-Lake was sadly little more than an old marina full of shipping containers. Purposely sunk, weighted down, and with ‘ventilation’ holes cut and big aquarium heaters installed. The old main-office turned into this near demented but necessary mix of a town hall, embassy, soup-kitchen and an entertainment center. Too few volunteers trying to keep people that can’t even walk on land anymore as safe and happy as possible as the world got turned upside down.

Bit cynical, but doing a good deed, the eventual tourism boon and nabbing that amount of immigrants wasn’t a stupid ploy. I’ll grant that.

The worst bit? It might have sounded second rate, but compared to how many of the immigrants had been living before the place might as well have been named Shangri-Lake. So far the district and its new inhabitants had been mostly keeping to themselves, trying to create something constructive as they rebuilt their lives.

Sadly, there were still some horror stories leaking out. People going from respected leaders of entire communities to the freak that had to beg to borrow a pool. Others barely able to swim in open water due to muscle atrophy from being stuck in bathtubs for too long. Even a few with kids nobody else had been able to care for that they’d barely been able to bring along safely.

Still, growing pains and teething problems aside, City-In-The-Lake was a far better idea than ignoring the problem until the fish-ponies were sleeping with the fishes in the traditional rather than literal sense.

Realizing my mind was drifting again; I shook my head and refocused.

In the few moments I’d drifted off, two more Ways had spit out their casters.

The fourth, the folding in that cafe had ‘clicked’ into place. Even through the TV screen and with the effect fading around the scariest little old lady I’ve ever met, the sight made my eyes water.

You know that old trick where you double expose a bit of film? When cameras still used that, I mean? Like that, but the cafe and what looked like another quite like it had been smeared together until it simply made sense for the world to treat the two places as one.

I swear there was even a menu just visible on one of the tables even to my new eyes that probably would have made a linguist cream themselves on sight. Twisting and shifting impossibly from leather-bound and Mandarin, to laminated-paper and English like oil on a puddle.

I’d already considered Ancient Mai scary, even for a member of the Senior Council, but privately I lifted her threat level up a few notches anyway. I don’t think she’d even actually set a single foot in the Nevernever proper with that Way, but instead used some type of Feng Chu style magic to ‘fold’ two similar places together until it —magically speaking was one place existing on two continents at once.

In other, plainer words: a neat if complicated doorway instead of a dangerous but simpler tunnel.

Theoretically it was possible, yeah, but man. I had to admit it made me feel a bit like a kid that had been proud of his baking-soda volcano, until that one kid whose dad’s in Nasa came rolling into the science fair with the 1:1 moon buggy replica he and his dad been building in the garage.

That was some serious (if admittedly slower than the standard) mojo, alright.

Ancient Mai, as the nickname implies, was no spring chicken. She’d foregone the stola and was a plain-white robe, but she had this egg-shell tea-cup look to her. That look of once great, almost ethereal beauty, faded over time but with enough hints of what once had been you could tell. Like Martha, she had her hair in a tight unadorned bun, just with hair the color of granite instead of bleached linen.

Showing no particular hurry and with her staff (presumably) clicking, Ancient Mai strode over to the creator of the fifth Way. Even now shaking the last of that glowing rain of herself.

And Luna was nearly making poor Agatha’s eyes shoot out of her skull again. Interestingly joined in that by Nemo, however.

I don’t see why, it was just a winged unicorn.

Frankly, I was more concerned with how young she looked. ‘Fighting,’ and ‘filly’ should never be in the same sentence, let alone together with ‘chaos god.’

Cute as the proverbial button after a makeover session, though. Little-Girl-Pink fur, a long, flowing lilac mane and tail with a broad white streak in it, pale blue eyes and even an almost glittering tiara as her emblem.

I’m a grizzled old wizard with more notches on my belt than actual leather left, and there was still a part of me that wanted to just reach through the TV and hug the girl half to death. She was that level of adorable.

With a glance towards the distant serpentine shadow, the girl’s lazy smiled got traded for a frown.

I mentally notched her mental age up at least a few decades. The pink ‘filly’ didn’t even look worried, just tense. Her now hardening eyes didn’t even look away from Discord, but she even started stretching slightly, her perfectly groomed wings straining to work any kinks out of her back.

It was rare, but not unheard of. Most of us afflicted with this pony stuff had ended up biology twenty-thirty something for some reason, but there had been outliers in both directions. Naturally, the ones that had gotten a push up in age were generally less happy about it than the ones that had gotten a new lease on youth.

Yeah, I know. People not liking when some monster sucks years if not outright decades of their lifespan. My monocle nearly fell off as well when I had to shout: ‘Oh, my word!’ at such a novel concept as well.

Hate to admit it, but I honestly didn’t recognize her until she reared up on her legs, her form blurring in that moment of movement.

Luna again echoed by Nemo, let out another gasp.

The young woman was now wearing a plain but well-sewn robe with that rather familiar splash of purple. A smooth unadorned staff that looked both towered over her and looked a bit too big for her dinky little hands.

“Huh, so Listens-To-Wind caught the pony?” I murmured, glancing at my own mane. “Have to admit, I thought I had the girliest colors on the whole council.”

Still, even in a human shape, as impressive as that was, Injun Joe —I swear I didn’t make that nickname up, she’s just old enough she’s had it since it wasn’t politically incorrect— didn’t look what I’d call normal. Don’t get me wrong, she was still outright adorable, but very few human-humans have skin the color of strawberry flavored cotton-candy. Guess I was getting used to it, but her eyes were way too big as well, almost the same size they’d been while in her pony form.

It wasn’t a bad look or even the least human shape I’d seen, but Injun Joe would only pass for human-human in rather bad lightning and with something covering her head. I’d grant her that she did look quite harmless and approachable, though, for both good and ill.

Maybe we’ll start a club when this is all over. Manly Mares Man-Card Preservation Society, meeting once a year to drink beer, grunt at monster truck rallies and lament the existence of the color pink by interparative flexing.

Carlos turned in that recliner of his, and raised an eyebrow my way. “I thought you’d visited headquarters?”

“Yeah, a month after the pony stuff hit.” I spread my wings slightly in a shrug. “I swear, you wouldn’t have noticed if the place was upside down, invaded by Martians and on fire. Pure pony perpetuated pandemonium.”

Carlos let out a grunt, and sank back down. “Didn’t hear it got that bad.”

“Besides, I’ve had my own life to get onto track again, so I didn’t exactly stay for long,” I said with a grimace. My leathery wings refolding with a soft sound of ruffling leather. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d said: ‘Hi,’ and swapped pony-tips if I’d bumped into her, but I didn’t.”

Luna was scowling that:’ You’re a ba~d pony!’ scowl of hers again I’m sure must be terrifying to six-year olds. “And the tiny part where she is now an alicorn?!”

“I actually have to agree with Agatha on that one,” Nemo reluctantly stated. “How the hell did she manage that?

Both I and Carlos joined into a giving Nemo a glare.

Nemo quickly held up her arms in surrender. “Hey, I’m not dissing this Listens-To-Wind dude, but Diamond Tiara —the pony she’s turned into, is the brat to end all brats in the show.”

Both Carlos and I frowned a bit, our glares wavering.

“I’m just saying I don’t quite see the link between small-town earth pony bully and becoming an immortal wizard with power overwhelming.” Mid lowering her arms, Nemo froze. “At least I hope there isn’t one,” she mumbled as an afterthought.

Had to admit for the twisted situation that was a fair enough question.

“I guess now that you mention it, I wouldn’t mind one of those legendary hat slayers myself.” I said, turning to Nemo. “If you’re stuck as a living little-girl’s toy for the rest of your life it might as well be one with all the extras, right?”

Luna looked as if she really, really wanted to slug me straight in the face for that one, but even she realized how nonconductive for a ‘stealth’ operation that would be.

I got an odd look from Carlos, but he just shrugged. “I doubt it’s that easy.” Carlos waved his good hand vaguely towards the TV. “If anybody on the Council has actually worked for earning hi- her position, it's Listens-To-Wind.”

I let out a grunt of acknowledgment. There was a rather short list of people I’d actually trust with that amount of power apparently involved in being a winged unicorn, and with Joseph ‘Injun Joe’ Listens-To-Wind having apparently managed it all on her own I could cross out…

Well, what was left of the whole list, really.

Speak of the Devil…

Luna nearly choked on Agatha’s spit again as the ‘static fuzz’ Way opened. Flashing and sparking once, the sixth gate coughed out another winged unicorn.

“And of course the biggest dick on the whole council got to keep his,” I muttered sourly under my breath.

I had to admit (reluctantly) that for another person that had gotten the pip-squeak package Arthur Langley, The Merlin, still carried it quite well. Better than Injun Joe, even, despite at the moment barely reaching to her waist.

There was just no mistaking The Merlin for anything but a man at the moment stuck inside a colt’s body, in part due to wearing most of the (if heavily modified) gear I’d seen him wear a few years ago against the Red Court.

He was standing upright, subtly leaning on that staff of his I still had no idea what type stark white wood it was made from. The Merlin had traded in that ‘spell-slinger utility-belt’ of his for six leather armlets and two garter belts based on the same principle. Made from thin, white leather that honestly went quite well with his chocolate brown pelt and bristling with pouches they nearly covered both his upper arms and thighs.

The later even obscuring most of his marks in a way that made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, for some reason I couldn’t quite put a metaphorical finger on. Or perhaps it was how it was the first text based cutie mark I’ve ever seen? No idea, and I could only see a tiny bit over the rim of each ‘bandolier-gathers’ anyway.

No idea what a whole bunch of amber arrows pointing and the word ‘Start’ in the same color meant on their own, but it seemed important somehow. Still gave me the heebie-jeebies, though.

The new eyes the same color as his mark were rather cute, though. Although perhaps that was the bat mode talking.

Personally for me, though, Langley having somehow gotten a similar mane and tail style going as Twilight, Luna and Celestia just killed the intimidation factor. He’d —somehow cut both of them short, but dark and light caramel colored lighting just looked way too cartoony to be intimidating.

Don’t get me wrong, Doc Brown and Willy Wonka teaming up was a rather awesome concept, just not in a wicked scheme to corner the hair-care market. Bit silly (and sticky) looking, is all I’m saying. Like some type of fudge based Tesla-coil.

I’ll give him this much, though: it wasn’t little-girl pink lighting.

Sigh… Yes, Harry, there are other colors than black, black, brown, black, Joda green, black and ‘jeans-blue.’ Some of them are even —gasp, pretty. Can you please get over it already?

Now that? That would be silly.

I actually thought for a few moments that the Way was lingering around Langley somehow, but as soon as he started walking I realized it was static in the camera proper. Not the static-y Way of his.

In other words what looked like a little colt dressed up as a mix between Rambo and Saruman The White was pouring out enough magic just by strutting around to nearly kill a camera that been holding up against the other six-ninths of the White Council's finest and two immortals. Yikes barely covered it, to be frank.

Speaking of things that are extremely non-silly, it took me that long to notice that Langley was only wearing that wizard-commando gear of his. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sort of figured out what a naked pony looks like by now, but it just hadn’t registered consciously for me until I noticed that something felt a bit off.

It was just… background. The normal stuff you don’t even think about. The sky is blue. The ground is (usually) down. The Merlin didn’t feel like wearing pants today.

Frankly, that tiny moment of realization? It made the bottom of my stomach flutter more than Luna’s ‘nightmare’ had.

How long until I felt hungry, and just didn’t see anything weird about bending down to graze for a bit? Or feeling a bit peckish, and those fresh new spring leaves looked tasty?

Raw leaves and grass? Eww! You’re not a foal, Harry. Just because it's green doesn’t mean it's edible or tastes good.

It had actually happened a few times already, but what if I got hit on by a stallion and it actually… did something for me? Hell’s bells, what if met a woman that actually liked this? All tasteless jokes about riding crops and all men secretly already being lesbians on the inside aside, could I actually take somebody into the new me seriously?

I mean, come on. There’s vanilla, there’s strange but socially acceptable, the really freaky…

And then there’s being into the idea of a lesbian, cross-species relationship with a yellow, pink wizard pegasus mare with tons of battle scars and that wears leather quite often.

I… Umm. I…

Fine, a healthy relationship should always have both give and take, and that can involve doing stuff you yourself don’t care for... but hysterical laughter in the bedroom isn’t a good sign most of the time.

OK, I hate to admit it, Harry, but when you put it like that it sounds a bit strange.

I mean, the off-chance of some ex-woman-turned-stallion with a mirrored experience aside, would I even make a good match for anybody anymore? Not even tom-boy quite covered it, after all.

I nearly jumped straight out of my skin as a cerulean hoof tapped me on my shoulder. I hadn’t even heard Nemo get up, let alone walk over.

“You OK there, champ?” Nemo said. Just a bit too chipper to be totally genuine. “Looked like you zoned out there for a bit again.”

I did not care for saying it within earshot of Luna, but I couldn’t figure out a good dodge in time.

“It’s the damn bat-mode.” I mumbled while rubbing my temples, not even faking how embarrassing it felt to admit it out loud. Hopefully Luna would miss most of it, though. “Unless I’ve got something to focus on it tries to ‘help,’ but it's basically a clever animal. A picture of a future threat is too abstract for it, so Ding Bat gets bored and starts rooting around in my thoughts for something more interesting to go help with.”

I got a really odd look from Nemo. Mirrored by Carlos. “...She? ‘Ding Bat?’” Nemo asked. Slightly concerned.

I felt my cheeks heat a bit. “Just a bad joke. Forget I said anything.” I let out a deep sigh, and let my hooves drop. “Let’s say that every damn word starts with ‘A’ as far as Apple Monster is concerned.”

“You know, Harry? You’re almost cool. Almost have that —pardon the name, but ‘Blue-collar Warlock’ thing going, that modern master of the arcane swagger. Like John Constantine, Dr. Stephen Strange, or Mickey Mouse.” Nemo didn’t remove her hoof, but the shake of disgust didn’t look quite totally faked. “And then you open your big, fat mouth, and the multi-layered allusion to what’s big about Big Bird kinda kills it.”

“No messing with Big Bird,” I said stone faced. Poking Nemo hard in the stomach. “Dude’s a role model for yellow feathered American’s everywhere.”

Quietly, Carlos face palmed.

“It’s because I’m blue, isn’t it?” Nemo said with mock seriousness even if the tugging of her lips fooled nobody, before straightening up. Almost looking me in the eye even. “Seriously, Harry, how are you doing?”

I was actually taken back a bit with the sincere concern in Nemo's voice. I just… hadn’t expected it.

Nemo had to take a deep breath before continuing, her grip tightening a bit on my shoulder.

“Harry, I know I haven’t known you for long, but you’ve actually done more for me while I was wearing those damn prison scrubs than some of my ‘family’ did when I sprouted fur and feathers.” Nemo’s face twisted into a mask of disgust, and I heard her tail flick once. “Let alone those so-called Equestrians.”

For just a second Agatha’s eyes were as hard as a pair of sapphires.

“Thing is, you’re clearly not well,” Nemo said softly. Reaching over to my other shoulder with her free hoof, and gently twisting me around until I was face to face with her. “And again, this is from somebody that’s known you for twenty-four hours.”

Guess all that ‘boosting’ must have done the trick, because from the feel of things Nemo barely felt a tug of resistance. And again, pony with what that implied in weight. Not that I struggled or anything, but yeah, was that rather telling for how strong Nemo was even powered down.

“Look, I’m not calling you a coward or anything. You seeing Godzilla’s anemic but overcompensating cousin half the country over, and your first damn reaction being: ‘How do we stop that? ‘That’s great. I wish more people thought like that.”

I was about to protest, when Nemo turned my spine into a slinky that had gone ten rounds versus a steam-roller.

With a sheepish grin, Nemo relented on that trash compactor of a hug of hers. Somehow I managed to whip my lazy, good-for-nothing powdered spine back into enough shape to return the gesture.

“I’m just trying to say I might not recognize near any among those people, but would we really be more than bloody speed-bumps in that type of fight?” Nemo continued. “You seem like a good mare, Harry, and I don’t want to lose a new friend just because a produce cart rolled by at the wrong moment.”

On my head nearly wiping around on reflex on just hearing ‘produce cart,’ I reluctantly had to admit that Nemo had a point. “Let’s see what happens first, OK?” I scowled out. “Might give us info, at least.”

I got something of a bit of mood-whiplash, as Nemo leaned forward and nuzzled me. A rather equine gesture I was not used to getting from somebody yet. “You’ve done well by me so far, Harry,” Nemo smiled. “You do your best, and I’ll do mine, OK?”

Actually managing a half-hearted smile despite the situation with Agatha, I hesitatingly returned the gesture. That one nuzzle made my cheeks burn, but Nemo seemed to like it.

Carlos raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. Guess living with his niece had already given him some insight into the less normal bits of the whole pony thing.

I pretended not to notice, but Luna didn’t seem to know if she wanted to cry or slam us both into the bedrock.

Besides, I was a bit distracted by seeing the two last Ways open.

The seventh, the ancient looking iron gate, opened in a surprisingly undramatic fashion. It well, just swung open. Didn’t even show a nightmarish nightmare realm beyond it, but what looked like a decently peaceful —judging from the one flag flying in a slack-jawed man’s backyard, Welsh country-hamlet.

Yeah. White-washed little cottages with smoke drifting out of their chimneys, and everything. There were even a sheep. Not what I’d call Mordor-esque, frankly.

However, since the ram in question had a horrendous Hawaiian shirt on and a camera around his neck I don’t think he fit that national stereotype.

The disturbing mystery why a tourist of the ovine persuasion in Wales was grinning that wide aside, though, I recognized the Way’s creator. Frankly I was barely even surprises by now.

Rashid, The Gatekeeper of The White Council, barely paused in his stride on spotting the others. The iron gate fading behind him. As usual a black robe including a face-concealing hood billowed behind him, but I caught the glimmer of steel from his fake eye as he turned.

“Ten bucks on the whole set showing,” Carlos chirped. Slightly forced, but you needed to know the guy to tell.

“No bet,” I mumbled back. “I already know that Way.”

Of course, last time I’d seen it, that Way had been the normal to the Nevernever and back type.

The last clumps of background fell ‘down’ into the black abyss of the eight way opened.

Carefully I pulled away from Nemo. It was there and gone in a blink, but I saw some disappointment flash over her face.

On noticing me noting, Nemo chuckled awkwardly and started rubbing the back of her own head with a hoof. “...You give nice hugs, and I don’t get many pony ones.” she mumbled. Clearly a bit embarrassed.

Had to admit (reluctantly) that the pelt was good for a bit more than being hard to clean. Horrible puns about being warm and fuzzy aside, I did feel quite a bit better. I wouldn’t call my mind quite clear by any stretch, but the apple-scented fog had lifted just a tiny bit.

Apparently either noticing his camera giving out or just due to seeing a good shot coming, the cameraman zoomed in. Abandoning the wide-shot of the terrifying gathering for a closer look of who was just about to come out of the Way.

A ripple formed near the top of the last Way, like a fish having splashed in a dark pool. A fluted horn the same bluish-grey as brushed steel, nearly a lance, seemingly grew from that ripple.

Again, Luna let out a gasp.

Nemo just let her jaw drop near clean off.

The mare that horn was attached to was scowling deeply even as the dark passed over her. She actually had a quite pleasant face, one of those neither thin nor plump ones that stick with you without you being able to put your finger on why. There was this real sense that if she’d actually smiled, it would have been one of the prettiest things you’ve ever seen.

Like the other winged unicorns present she hadn’t bothered getting clothed, being completely nude aside from a simple eye-patch of mat black leather over her bad, right eye, the healthy, left one narrowed enough that the normally warm gold looked about as comforting and inviting as a gilded shiv.

Perhaps I was biased, but her mane and tail were a cut above any other winged unicorn I’d seen. Especially in the actually looking intimidating department. Like this strange and pretty but unnatural looking mix of a golden heat-haze and an ever boiling acid-yellow liquid.

Both really looked like one of those things that would make you lose your entire arm if you as much poked it.

The mare turned, flaring her impressive wings even as she glared down the draconequus. Discord, who like near all bullies on a power-trip, was taking his sweet ass time drifting over there, quite clearly savoring every minute people’s fears had to build and build on his approach.

I couldn’t help but smile, true and wide even as the camera finally went out in a burst of static, a few flickering, blocky images of the mare in profile —her mark of seven bubbles clearly visible before the TV screen turned a solid blue.

“...And what are you smiling about?” Luna asked. ‘Her’ voice this mix of morbid curiosity and creeping horror at what the answer would actually be.

“Nothing much,” I said honestly, if grinning from ear to ear. “I’m just happy for my old master. Good on her.”

Nemo, looking a bit pale for some reason, crossed her hooves in a time-out gesture. “You were taught magic by… her?”

I frowned a bit at the hesitation on: ‘her,’ but ultimately shrugged. “Yup.”

For some reason that simple word made Nemo burst out into hysterical giggles.

Pulling out a busted up remote, Carlos turned the TV off. Interestingly the circle around it flickered for a brief moment, but held.

That made me frown for a moment, but I guess it made sense. If something as small as a bit of infrared light projected by a mortal could collapse a circle, then every magic user on the planet would carry a flashlight at all times. Rendering circles near totally useless outside the lab.

Still, that aside it appears I was wrong about nothing being worse than Mab and Odin. The entire Senior Council was apparently on the war path. Probably having deciding to lay down the law on how poorly chosen a time it was for any non-accord signees to try rocking the boat publicly. Eek.

Gently lifting my metaphorical jaw off the floor, I had to burry my head in my hooves for a bit. There’s overkill. There are grenades against flies’ level excessive overkill.

And then there’s the whole Senior Council, Odin and Mab against what so far had seemed like a brat with a more power than sense and a god-complex. Wile. E. Coyote falling down that cliff while sitting on a whole train full of nitroglycerin and while on fire would take one look at this Discord dude and the mess he’d strolled right into and hold up a sign saying: ‘Damn, I never knew I had it that good!’

“Well, Discord’s dead,” Nemo chirped out with a smile a bit too big. Even going so far as to clop her hooves together a few times. “Or even better, worse than dead if we’re really lucky! Who’s up for celebratory pizza!”

Only Luna outright gasped, but I had to admit even Carlos and I gave Nemo a look.

With a huff Nemo crossed her arms over her barrel, the sack she was wearing audibly protesting.

“That bastard rapes minds, destroys lives and levels cities for fun. Not profit, not power, not even glory, but for the fucking lolz.” With a scoff, Nemo started staring out the window. “He’s a giant, magical bully, and I will not apologize for finding him getting the no-holds-barred beatdown he’s deserved for millennia satisfying.”

I frowned a bit, the image of Chicago suffering the same fate. Something that very well could have happened if we’d just picked the more obvious gateway to leave open back home.

Quite a few images flashed through my head.

Murphy’s old-lady home she’d inherited from her grandmother deflating like a cake somebody had poured water on.

That white-picket fence Michael was so proud of growing like a wine and ensnaring the whole of the Carpenter household in some twisted take on Sleeping Beauty.

A soft hiss forced itself out of my mouth before I could stop it.

Maggie, dirty, crying and alone covering below a serpentine shadow floating unnaturally above her.

Over. My. Dead. Body.

Ignoring the worried looks, I forced my eyes closed and started massaging my temples. Trying to calm myself. “Fine,” I told Nemo, if rather tartly, “you’ve got a point. Discord needs to be stopped, preferably permanently.”

Luna let out a small offended gasp.

“There’s however a big difference between doing the right thing but also finding it satisfying, and outright glee at somebody suffering while you do the right thing,” I continued, still rubbing away with my eyes closed. “You do have a point, Nemo, but you still went over that line a bit.”

I didn’t look up, but the silence got that sucking quality when people are intently listening.

“That’s the thing about being a good guy. You need to at least do your best to act like one, or it's just a pretty façade on another bad guy.” My voice turned to a growl. “Like those Equestrians that keep talking up friendship but just keep acting like backstabbing bastards.”

Luna, the mistress among mistresses of subtlety, let out a low growl.

“OK, fuck subtlety then,” I snarled, the brilliant amaranth glow of my hoof for a moment reflected in Luna/Agatha’s wide, shocked eyes.

I did my best to be as gentle as possible, but the stallion still hit the nearest wall so hard a breath got forced out of his lunges. “W-Why?” was all he said, eyes sadly still a deep purple.

“Luna,” I snarled with my fangs barred wide, as the poor kid’s eyes did that frosted over thing even as they widened, “get the fuck out of him, or prepare to be exorcised.”

There was a brief —all too brief, flash of crimson and Agatha tried saying something.

Then the poor kid spasmed once, and Luna raised her eyes, the cruel, slitted cyan near shining even through the aura of my own spell. “Nightshade is sworn to me in both body and soul,” Luna said in her own voice, as the body she was in started warping without seeming effort, “you can no more ‘exorcise’ me, than you can siv the salt from the sea.”

Agatha Camila Zeo Ramirez.”

Carlos didn’t even put any magic into the words, but his niece still arched his back to near breaking point and screamed. Agatha’s entire body rippled, as —at least partially and temporarily, she regained control and tried fighting off whatever Luna was doing.

I caught Nemo nodding at Agatha's —ugh, cutie mark. Personally I tried ignoring looking too closely at those things. Not certain if it’s a pony-wizard thing, but there’s just this almost cloying, crawling moment of disturbing intimacy when you do. Almost like the beginning of a soul gaze that won’t actually start, but won’t stop either.

A sprig of deadly nightshade with three flowers. The vibrantly purple and yellow five leafed flowers superimposed over a glowing moon.

A moon that had, for a few moments, gone from full to waning gibbous.

“It appears my niece disagrees with that,” Carlos stated, with just a hint of pride in his voice, as he walked up to my side.

“S-S-Stop!” Luna panted out, “Y-Y-You can’t do this, you’ll tear his soul and mind apart!”

I frowned a bit, hesitating for just a moment at the tone of panic in Luna/Agatha’s voice. Was that what had been happening whenever I heard that pony name for ‘me?’ Even the tiny trickle of power in a non-correct pronunciation enough to ‘tug’ at the spreading corruption from this pony thing? Just not yet enough to call her out?

Something cold slithered in the pit of my stomach.

Or actually worse, had somepony been seeing my life without even being able to scream?


I mean, even with her riding Agatha like a bad loa knockoff, I just couldn’t quite take Luna seriously. There was no bite to the mare. No bloodlust. Compared with even the lowliest ghoul, she might as well for all her powers have been a sniffling kid.

And it would have been so, so much easier to just write her totally off, if that wasn’t the case.

Thing is, if Luna was this dark goddess type. Somebody that even normally wrestled with who even knows what on a nightly basis, not to mention her own fall to madness.

Well, how much could there possibly be even left of this ‘Fluttershy’ by now? A doormat of an animal handler that even her friends seemed to think had no character beyond ‘kind, likes animals?’ Even Twilight had seemingly thought a ‘Hi!’ and a few hugs would have been enough for her slash I to just drop everything and go follow her to the next ‘recruit.’

Stars and stones, most wizards haven’t had the string of horrors and triumphs I’ve had. The average human —even with the chupacabra being out of the bag on magic, wouldn’t believe even half my stories.

And that was, of course, if the Equestrians’ weren’t monsters.


Rodriguez head snapped around my way, tearing his eyes off his niece.

“Do you trust me?”

Eyes darting back to Agatha, Rodriguez hesitated.

And gave me a single, stiff nod.

So I dropped Luna.

For a moment, Agatha's face was twisted into confusion.

With a single flap of ‘her’ wings, she stopped Agatha from falling, and landed smoothly in the same movement. “Why?” she forced out, suspicion writ large in both ‘her’ expression and tone.

“I need to know,” I simply said, “if you’re a monster with an agenda.” I had to take a deep breath, my wings fluttering with a dry sound of leather being flapped around. “Or a desperate friend, trying to save somepony dear to them in all the wrong ways.”

Nemo let out a wince, but didn’t say anything. She did step away a few more feet from the possessed stallion, though.

Luna stared at me, only to start laughing me in my face. A harsh, bitter one at that.

My ear twitched, but I fought the irritation down. “No more taunts. No more posturing. I’ll even cut down on the snark, just this once.”

Through Agatha's eyes, Luna glared suspiciously at me.

“I don’t like you or your methods, Luna, but if it was all to save your friends I can at least respect the intent.” I didn’t turn around, but I pointed a wing back at the TV. “But there’s a monster going after several of my friends, allies, and even The Merlin.”

Nemo spluttered. “Merlin?!”

“Don’t repeat names like that near a circle!” I snapped, a bit harder than I should have from how Nemo twitched.

“It’s one of the quickest and dumbest ways for an apprentice to kill themselves,” I continued in a (somewhat) kinder but still firm tone. “Besides in this case it’s a title, the strongest wizard on the Council. He’s a prick, but even I’ll admit Arthur’s hot stuff.”

Agatha’s face paled a few tones.

I wouldn’t have stopped the grin on my face even if paid in free kicks to Nicodemus’ groin.

“Yeah,” I chuckled darkly, “don’t let the Junior Woodchuck makeover fool you. You don’t get that title —let alone keep it after two harrowing metamorphoses, by collecting bottle caps.”

Agatha’s eyes were wild and wide, as Luna kept darting them between the static filled TV and the rest of us.

“Oh. O~h,” Nemo droned out, followed with a slap to her own forehead. “I’ve figured it out.”

Agatha stopped breathing.

“They’re grooming us for alicorn ascension, so that Little Miss Friendship won’t go nuts or lose her powers when her bunch of nakama shuffle off their mortal coils.”

I kept my eyes on Agatha, but I heard Nemo doing that not-quite-finger-counting thing again. Tap. tap. tapping away as if she still had fingers.

“Why you, Harry, have been the #1 target,” Nemo continued to her little mental beat. “Because you have a high-risk, high-reward lifestyle that might kill you or grant enough power for you to ascend any day now. Why it’s apparently so important we confront Discord, and do it ‘properly’ with the Elements. Because if we don’t, we might end up alicorns of the ‘wrong’ concepts.” The mare’s smooth lecture turned to a growl. “And why it’s so important we keep being idiots that can’t figure any of this out. Because that subconscious bias might skew the fucking end-result of their recruitment drive for five more alicorns. To complete the whole Harmony set, of course.”



Agatha's face had gone so pale, it was literally ashen in coloration. Like that fine, white stuff on the edges of logs while they’re burning.

“Fifty plus years of your sister’s plans and manipulations to turn Twilight Freaking Sparkle into even more of a spoiled, entitled noble brat down the drain, because Rainbow Dash grew a brain and figured out how to count past potato.” Nemo spat at Agatha's shivering form. “Never saw that one coming, huh?”

“If Equestria is a real place and not one big manipulation,” I absently added.

I heard Nemo’s wings ruffle as she shrugged. “Either way, I’m not really seeing why being the raw-materials for RD two-point-oh with the memory of this little moment of insight carefully scrubbed away is in my interests.” Nemo came trotting up to my side, a scowl so large I could see it even in my peripheral on her face. “Or for our Earth’s, I might add. That line about ‘balance between worlds,’ remember?” The mare gave a shrug. “We are here. We consider this world our home. We are allegedly chosen champions of Magic Incarnate. Ergo, the Equestria/Earth balance of power is currently skewed heavily in Earth’s favor thanks to the bonus our favor and presence provides, while Equestria is currently suffering an equally severe malus due to our absence and disinterest. Quod erat demonstratum.”

I frowned a bit. It was quite the stab in the dark, but given how Agatha’s face was scowling at Nemo I got the impression she was on to something Luna would have preferred she wasn’t.

It did actually match up with what I know. Nothing specific, but lots of little details that theory would explain.

“Quad e-rat, what?” Agatha growled out, pawing at the ground just like Luna had on Demonreach.

“It’s a really snobby way of saying you just rubbed somebody’s nose in their own bullshit with logic,” I deadpanned, taking notice I wasn’t seemingly the only one in the room for once that´s really bad at the official tongue of the White Council. “Like the ancient philosopher Sabitus said: Go captando arma, dum distractam inimicum. Uiro maxime fugere oportet qui in urbe erant adhuc minatur.”

Of course, being bad at it and not speaking it at all are different things. A useful difference, sometimes.

Nemo outright winced at my Latin, but she quickly turned it into a lie about the subject matter instead. “With a whole donkey? Is that even medically possible?”

Troubling gift for such a sweet face, being able to lie that quick and easily. Luna seemed to fall for it though, given the stink-eye I got. “I thought you said no more taunts,” she growled at me.

“It sounds more profound in the original Latin,” I deadpanned. “Anyway,” I waved my wing at the TV again, “all else aside, we are at a deadlock.”

Agatha’s eyebrow twitched. “Most every word out of your mouth be so needlessly grim?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “You sure you want to go down that route, body-borrower? Because I’m certain Carlos and I can disable whatever mind-whammy you’ve slung on Agatha without resorting to any ‘harsh’ words if it’s really that disturbing to your warped little suggestions of a moral code.”

With her True Name, two wizards and one A+++ minion to hold Agatha’s arms while we worked, it was near a given even.

Doing that and keeping the poor kid sane? Not so much.

“But yeah, deadlock,” I snarled, putting some emphasis on the ‘dead’ bit just to see Luna squirm. “Every moment we waste here is one more for the brawl with Discord to run rampant. Who even knows what horrors now on-route to join in.”

A small smirk spread over Agatha’s muzzle. “I fail to see how that is not an advantage for me, rather than an impasse for the both of us.”

“You know, I never actually got a physical description of Nightmare Moon,” I ignored the glare, and instead tapped myself near my own eye. “But slightest chance of the whole slitted pupils craze isn’t just a ‘ponies when really ticked’ kind of deal?”

Luna was stock still for a moment in shock.

But when that moment passed Agatha’s body blurred down the hallway. Typically, straight for the bathroom where all my gear still was.

Nemo still took the hint and darted for her own room. Not even a whisper of magic this time, but still faster and quieter than any creature with hooves had any right to be on concrete.

Might have been a bit overkill given the screams of horror echoing down the hall and what they implied about Luna’s current priorities, but better safe than sorry.

Carlos and I both lowered our arms, and let go of the magic we’d been gathering.

“Continue to let me do the talking,” I half-whispered to Carlos as I got up and started trotting after the sounds of anguish. “Luna technically doesn’t fall under the Laws, and it’s better for both of them if we can get her to just back off.”

Carlos hesitated for a moment, before following. “Just remember what I’m trusting you with, Harry.”

I let out a hum of acknowledgement, and hurried a bit more.

“You did kinda forget something else, though.”

I stopped, and looked back.

At the ruined towel, still laying there innocently in the middle of the small TV room.

My cheeks heated up a bit, as I finally noticed the rather refreshing if intimate draft. Oops.

I almost went for the TK spell, but I hesitated with my hoof half raised as a thought crossed my mind. “Apparently the norm for Equestrian’s is nudity,” I reluctantly grumbled out as I lowered my hoof again. “I might get a better response if I push as many ‘pony’ buttons rather than ‘human’ ones as I can.”

Carlos frowned down at me. “Since when did you get devious?”

“Fairies.” Despite the rather pleasant temperature I couldn’t stop a shiver. “Just… Yeah, fairies. That about sums it up.”

Not that the demons, archangels, old gods, outsiders or any other of the terrifying creatures that had taken an interest in me these last few years had made it any easier staying on the straight and narrow, but fairies definitely took the cake as far as the subject at hand went.

Hell’s bells, the fairies didn’t even take the damn cake. They had an ancient contract, written in demon’s blood when the world was young. Stating without a doubt and signed in triplicate by Old Scratch, The Almighty, and Jimmy Hoffa themselves that all cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, pies, muffins, loaves and flan on the subject of deviousness are theirs for eternity and a day.

Granted, you bring forth a donut, and they’ll nod and smile at a clever bargain fulfilled to the letter. Fairies are weird like that. They can’t as much as say that two plus two equals five, but they’ll still run circles around you with half-truths and double meanings.

Parasite,’ my bucking hoof.

Still, it was rather refreshing to actually have that type of conversation —however brief, with somebody in the actual know about magic. Carlos just shuddered once, and dropped the subject. No laughs about Tinkerbell. No digs about Disney.

Just a tiny moment of shared horror at the Things lurking (normally) in the dark corners of the world, and that was it.

A small whimper came drifting out of the bathroom, reminding me I was getting distracted during something far more important again.

I couldn’t help but groan. Ugh, why of all the legendary vampire weaknesses did it have to be a variant on that stupid aniseed one? Not even the Black Court suffers from that!

At least a short and rather lame list of powers was ‘paid’ for by an equally short and lame list of added weaknesses. Not that I’d tried to bite a coin stolen from a dead-man under a new moon, or anything, but so far I at least didn’t seem to have any of those ‘splat, gone’ type banes in this ‘form.’ Small favors.

“Go help Nemo for a few minutes,” I gently told Carlos, “I can’t make this seem genuine with you scowling over my shoulder.”

Carlos frowned again. “‘Seem?’”

I gave him an even look, continuing at a whisper just in case. “She hasn’t claimed parley, if the worst happens and I can’t get Luna to back down…” I took a deep breath, and squared my shoulders before pressing on. “I’ll use that TK spell to break one of Agatha's legs, and flee with Nemo.”

Carlos went as still as a corpse somebody had tied to a pole.

“She’s after Nemo and me,” I continued, still at a whisper, “and with Agatha wounded it wouldn’t make any sense to not switch hosts. The time that will take just might be enough for us two to get to Chicago and shut her down before anybody else gets hurt, while you stay here and help Agatha.”

It wasn’t much of a plan, but was the best one I could think up with my gear divided up like some demented treasure hunt. Still, unless there was something I was missing about how Luna had possessed Agatha like this, there should be no logical reason to cling to he- him.

Of course, given that ‘sworn to me’ stuff there might be an illogical one.

Still, I couldn’t think up a better way to at least attempt to cause as little damage to Agatha as possible. Hopefully it would be enough.

Judging from how Carlos stared me down for a few seconds while biting his lip, he couldn’t either.

I jerked my head towards the bathroom.

“Dammit,” Carlos swore, before hurrying off. Presumably to get his gear.

I slowly approached the doorway, only for a snarling face to pop out of the bathroom. “YOU!” Luna bellowed at me, slowly but surely becoming unmistakingly her, pointing me out with a rapidly blackening and slimming hoof. “THIS IS YOUR DOING SOMEHOW!”

I winced, as my ears tried crawling inside my own skull. “Actually, I gave your precious Twilight a whole mini-lecture —plus an outright damn pamphlet, on the seven ‘Never Ever Do These, Ever’ types of magic in this realm.” I forced myself to sit down on my haunches, even if I couldn’t quite get rid of the snarl in my voice. “If the racist idiot threw that in the nearest trashcan because she got it from a ‘pegasus with pegasi magic,’ that is not my problem or fault.”

Luna —or rather, Nightmare Moon, hesitated. Still glaring, but frozen mid-point, making me all but see how ‘her’ mind ground along as it tried to find fault in what I’d just said.

“Slight refresher then on the important bits,” I growled out, forcing my wings to stay folded down instead of going for the dominance crap they insisted they wanted to do. “The Second, The Third, and The Fourth, to be precise. Transforming others, mind magic, and enthrallment.”

‘Luna’s’ eyes went to outright trash-can lids at the word ‘enthrallment.’

“So yeah, deadlock,” I continued, my voice hard. “We can’t get you out of Agatha without massive damage to the poor gi- stallion, and you can’t force he- him to be your avatar like this without slowly but surely relapsing into that Looney Lunatic persona.”

Of course, Carlos, Nemo and I had the whole city of San Francisco to worry about as well.

Still, they had the whole Senior Council in their corner. Agatha only had us three to drag her out of the dark.

I’d probably be faulted for that math by somebody down the line, but usually happened anyway. Some pencil-necked twig would come crawling out of their ivory tower, and tell me I could have had a far more optimal outcome by eating two point one puppies for a power boost.

For some strange reason that type of person very seldom offers to go grab a spoon of their own.

Oh, and Luna/Nightmare Moon herself. I could feel a bit of corruption around the mare as she glared daggers my way, but (by my standards) it wasn’t that bad. Finding a spoiled sausage at the back of your ice-box rather than a small hell portal, or thereabout. Still bad —especially with the mare’s powers, but not quite beyond hope.

MY NAME IS NIGHT-” The mare started bellowing again, only for a look of pure, wide-eyed horror to flash over her face.

Judging from how… Luna? Nightmare Moon? Bit confusing to keep changing between those two, I’d have to figure something out.

Anyway, from how she grabbed at ‘her’ muzzle so fast she nearly toppled over, I’d guess she was near as mortified with how she’d told me one of her Names, as which one of them had been closest to heart in that moment.

Agatha (and her rider) didn’t even twitch, as I walked over and sat down next to her. The ‘two’ just staring into nothingness.

I gave the ‘duo’ an once-over. The big strokes were still ‘Agatha’ —if now a rather masculine mare, but more and more ‘Luna’ was slowly creeping into the features. The strong jaw was still Agatha's for instance, but the wings were ‘creeping out,’ getting a longer and sleeker, —almost regal even, look to them.

“You know?” I said quietly, almost not sure I was about to do so myself even. “Bit sad, Blackie, but you’re the only pony-pony so far that’s actually been acting like a desperate friend.”

Slowly, like something from a horror movie, or one of those owls that can’t actually move their eyes and instead swivel their necks around if you want to defang it a bit, Agatha’s head slid my way.

Luna glaring at me with the type of contempt usually reserved for trolls covered in bits of the last kid lost to under their bridge. “You are one —if not the, most hateful, spiteful and perverted presences I’ve ever encountered. Why would I believe for an instance that this is genuine and not a cruel trap?”

There was a small zap of electricity between me and Luna for a moment, the energy trying to ground itself as our glares met in the air.

“It’s almost as if you and yours dangled this perfect little changeling fantasy in front of an orphan.” I spat at her, all the disgust and bile I’d been trying to keep under wraps until it could be safely dealt with just spilling out. Like a boil that been poked too hard. “And then when I stomped down on that pretty little bonfire of hope for long enough to ask for proof, I got told I’m a fool that don’t know how magic works, a sweet, false smile of reassurance and fucking death squads sent after me AND MY FRIENDS!”

I’m not sure where the burst of magic came from (aside from how I was finally letting out something that had been boiling along in the pit of my stomach for over a day), nor why it decided to manifest like it did.

I do know Agatha’s eyes (purple) near popped out of her head, as Luna stared at me like I’d grown a second head.

“Oh, I’m so terribly sorry,” I snarled at her, “am I being a ‘corrupted mockery’ again, for daring to presume four immortals and their army did five minutes of recon?!”

I hadn’t even consciously considered the action, or even noticed myself move.

And yet, between one brief moment of nothing but red, thundering blood and anger, I had Luna pinned to the nearest wall.

Pinned, by what I had to forcefully remind myself was actually Agatha's neck, and that choking her out was harming somebody innocent.

I used a trick I’d learned fighting against the impulses of The Winter Knight’s Mantle, and backed slowly off, my legs checking with the effort as I went through the cold, unchanging logic of the situation. “Fact, killing Agatha is w-wrong, and won’t even harm L-Luna.”

I hit the wall, sliding down, my wings scraping dryly against the cement.

Luna/Agatha coughed while holding her throat,

“Fact,” I mechanically stated for myself, as I buried my face in my hooves, “you are hungry, scared and in the damn bat-mode. All of that means you are defaulting to fight-flight responses.”

“W-What are you?” Luna, but seconded by Agatha from the wide, purple eyes, choked out while massaging ‘their’ throat. “That was not a peg-” A shudder swept the ‘mare.’ “No, not even earth ponies are that strong or fast.”

“Fact,” I panted out, only now noticing I was coated in sweat as if I’d just galloped around the entire block, “Luna has so far shown all the signs of being a well-meaning but uninformed idiot. It is not her fault Sparkle is an even bigger idiot.”

It wasn’t quite as outright hard to fight as The Mantle, but the bat-mode kept hitting me below the belt and throwing curveballs in a way that The Mantle had never done.

The Mantle was a beast starving in the dead of winter. Me, me, me, food, food, food, sex, sex, sex, fight, fight, fight. Over, and over again, and not a thought for who it hurt or the consequences.

The Bat-Mode on the other —ugh, hoof was all about actions and consequences . Hell’s bells, I’d swear the darned thing has a mind all of its own, sometimes.

It was just —well, some sort of fruit bat’s version of actions and consequences.

Hungry? Why, that produce aisle is just swimming in unguarded food, and ‘we’ have enough silly bits of green paper for all of it! What do you mean ‘rent’ is due next week, we’ve got a whole park, a house and a den to sleep in! Why do we need that office thing to get more bits of green paper?! We’ve got enough for all the fruit!

Sleepy? Hiss at the annoying people until they go away! What do you mean that would be rude towards our friends? I didn’t even bite or spit seeds at any of them!

Say, wasn’t playing with the pups all day fun? Why don’t we go out, find a nice, handsome male to play with —wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and next spring we can have even more fun! What do you mean that’s not a good idea?! Pups are adorable and sex is neat, so of course it’s a good idea!

Or like right now. There’s a big, scary rival-female right there! She’s going to burn our home, kill our cubs and steal all our fruit! Hiss! Hiss! Hiss! Bite her! In the face! WITH OUR TEETH!

Ugh, fermented pony. I do not want to know what that tastes like.

And on, and on. Problems? What problems? Those are future Harry’s problems! And we can stomp them too!

I swear, it was like having an excitable puppy. Living in your head, with thumb analogues, and that knows where you’ve hid all the best things to go chew on.

Worst bit? Listening to The Mantle would have turned me into a monster. No other word for it.

My inner little Ding Bat just wanted a big orchard all to herself, the monsters to stop needing a good de-throating, and enough happy, safe children of ze fruit to bloat out the sky in a Technicolor curtain of adorably hissing doom.

And, well, as much as I disagree on the rather fruit obsessed specifics... A happy home filled with family? Sure was a harder drum to ignore then one going Murder, Death, Kill all day, even if the metaphorical volume was lower.

Don’t get me wrong, I listen to the call of the wild-grown fruit and my life as Harry Dresden was over just as surely as if I’d done it with The Mantle. I’d be just as happy a monster, if one from a fifties horror-comedy instead of a modern day slasher.

’The She-Bat From Beyond the Paddock!’ Think I’d watch that actually, sounds like cheesy fun.

“I was told by Twilight that you had been cured of this affliction.” Agatha got up on unsteady legs, Luna glaring at me again. “And for that matter, that you have the self-control of a rabid animal under its effects.”

My ears perked. This whole mess was pony related? Had to admit, I’d thought the bat thing was unrelated. A curse from an enemy, lingering effects of killing the Red Court, or something.

“Oh my,” I deadpanned as I got to my own hooves, “Little Miss Know-It-All Sparkle-butt being wrong about something magical? Stop the presses, the scope of the century is ours.”

Luna started gritting ‘her’ teeth again. “She is the alicorn of Magic, just as I am of the Moon!” A shaky hoof, now near totally black, pointed at me. “She knows more of pony magic then you’ve forgotten!”

Phf. The same girl that think wings make neat backscratchers? No offence to Twilight, but I think I remember more than she’s ever learned on that subject of pegasi magic, and I only finished basic flight camp.

This time, I outright did roll my eyes. “The same girl that didn’t even know what power Names have until I told her, you mean?” I folded my hooves over my barrel, and narrowed my eyes as Luna pulled in an angry breath to start shouting again. “The same girl that dismissed warnings that could have saved you from a relapse because the messenger had wings?”

Slowly, Agatha’s mouth closed. Luna’s eyes showing a tiny hint of uncertainty.

Even gleaming and slitted as they were.

So I made a choice.

“Luna,” I said, slowly walking over, “I’m not going to lie, there’s a part of me that wants you and yours’ to hurt right now.”

Agatha slash Luna tensed a bit, but didn’t do anything as I sank down next to ‘them.’

“In here?” I tapped my chest with a hoof. “There’s still a six year old kid that kept dreaming some distant great aunt or uncle would come sweeping in, and he’s currently screaming at me to make. You. Burn.”

I’m not sure if Agatha or Luna was the weak link, but they flinched a bit from my glare anyway.

I took a deep breath, and forced down as much of the churning hate as I could.

Still felt as if there was a cauldron of molten steel where my heart should have been.

“I’m not going to do that,” I forced out, in a voice by all rights should have scolded the floor without a bit of magic. “I’m going to do the right but stupid thing, and politely ask you for a cease-fire while I go smack Lord Disco in his nuts until he’s the Chief Eunuch of Chaos.”

Luna’s eyes stared down at me in sad disbelief, like I was some kid that didn’t get why scribbling pencil mustaches on classical paintings is such a bad thing.

“You do that,” I continued, in slightly a less ‘could etch gold’ tone, even if it was a far cry from friendly, “get the hell out of Agatha, and you have my word that —as long as I live of course, that we’ll have a long, nice chat about this mess.”

Including the topic keeping hostile immortals in almost sealed cans near clueless mortals to test for champions. Oh yeah, we’d talk about that, alright.

“Tea, crumpets,” I held out my hoof, “and I’ll even send word to Demonreach to let you four winged unicorns free if I haven’t returned in a week.”

“Alicorns,” Luna absently ‘corrected.’

“Actually, that means unicorn horns around here,” I snapped, “you make that deal, and I’d be totally in the right to dehorn you all and keep the rest of you forever locked away. In a few circles my reputation would even go up for having played you so thoroughly while keeping the letter of our agreement.”

Luna actually gagged.

“Yeah, nine bastards out of ten around here? Actual Honesty means nothing to them, only the letter of the agreement.” I pointedly put my hoof down. “Now do we have an accord, or should I just write you, the Harmony crap, and all that ‘friends from another life’ talk off as the vilest damn lies I’ve ever been told?”

Please, please, Luna, don’t make me do this...

Luna pulled herself up to her full height, to glare down at me.

Would have been a bit more impressive if I wasn’t about an inch taller than Agatha even when sitting down. Might not be much, but you start noticing stuff like that when switch teams from ‘ent’ to ‘hobbit.’

So, yeah, I was apparently still quite tall. It was just the end of the bell curve for the female of a species where even the male averages 3-4 feet. Bit more literal than normal, but small favors.

“My old boss’ idea of physical rehabilitation was attempted murder daily for seventy-seven days.” I growled out. Luna’s jaw actually dropped in a rather unintimidating way. “So unless you’re going to step up your game and drop a ticking crocodile on my lap, your ‘intimidation’ isn’t quite cutting it, Nighty.”

For nearly half a minute, I was stared down. Luna searching for the slightest hint what I’d just said was a joke in poor taste, or even a bluff.

“Remember that Lady that called first-dibs on Discord?” With a small smirk, I nodded towards the TV room and mimed slapping something with my hoof a few times. “Itty-bitty bit of a temper, you could call it.”

Luna just stared at me. “Why would you serve such a monster?”

“Because in this world, ultimate power doesn’t grow on fucking trees of goody-good incarnate!” I snarled at her. “Because when you're a real wizard in the real world, you sometimes have to do real sacrifices to get enough power to save everyone and hope you can live with yourself afterwards!”

Agatha’s hoof snaked out, and dragged me face to face with Luna by the fur on my chest. I was so pissed I barely felt it. “So you did trade with something for this ‘magic’ of yours,” she snarled in my face.

“No, I already had magic,” I snarled right back. “What I didn’t have was enough magic to go up against a whole Court in their place of power to stop a bloodline curse. I think I mentioned part of that, right?”

Luna frowned. “‘Bloodline curse?’”

“Dark magic.” I rolled my eyes. “Wizard stuff we grown-ups have to worry about, so no wonder somebody like you have never heard about it.”

From how my haunches left the floor for just a moment, a certain teeth gritting mare had nearly slammed me into the nearest wall. Just barely stopping herself.

“Fine, since you ‘asked for it, I’ll even ‘ponify’ it so it will actually get through your thick skull,” I deadpanned. “You ritualistically end several hundred ponies, using their heart-blood, horror and pain to charge a place of power full of death and misery. Using a foal of the bloodline you wish to destroy, you finish the spell.”

Agatha and Luna got this waxen look to the both of them, judging from how glassy the purple tinge to ‘their’ eyes got. Guess Carlos had been trying to keep the worst away from his niece.

“The variant the Red’s charged to unleash on a senior council member you frankly don’t need to know which?” I continued. “It would have ripped out the heart of every relative to that poor, innocent filly. Jumping from her to her dam and sire. From dam and sire to any other foals, siblings and grand-parents. All the way, to her entire line was simply gone. Hundreds if not thousands of ponies gone to kill one they couldn’t strike at directly.”

Luna and Agatha stared at me. Searching for the slightest sign I was lying.

When they didn’t find any, they projectile vomited in my face.

Yeah, one of those days.

I wiped the, ugh, semi-liquid puke out of my eyes just in time to see the charming image of The Mistress of the Night (and host) galloping away. Leaving a rather chunky trail all the way back to the bathroom.

I tried letting out a sigh, only to start coughing as some of it slipped into my nose. Who the hell even has sauerkraut for breakfast?

Agatha apparently. Weird kid.

I fought down the bit of my hind brain that was screaming about preening now. Now gosh-darnit, now, before our pretty feathers are stained forever! We might have trouble flying, or even —Gasp!— attracting a mate! Ahhhhhh!

You really shouldn’t joke about that, Harry.

That I could just flap my bat like wings once at the moment and get most of it off me didn’t seem important to that voice.

Still, I did so, got up and moved towards the kitchen.

Agatha/Luna didn’t even seem to notice as I passed by the open door. Heck, the light wasn’t even on.

As I actually entered the kitchen —a rather comfy bit of anachronism compared to the rest of the house since Ramirez had apparently not wanted to risk that many circles and electrical devices, both Nemo and Carlos instantly rose from the small table.

I waved them down, limping momentarily on three legs as I aimed myself at the ice-box.

Carlos, clearly not liking what the vomit covering me implied, fumed a bit, but sat down again. How he kept fidgeting with both his staff and gauntlet saying volumes anyway.

What made me stop momentarily was Nemo, however. For some reason one of the most subtly horrifying (mortal) physical powerhouses I’d ever encountered was actually panting softly, and covered in a slight sheen of sweat I could smell even through the vomit.

(Odd bit of mental disconnect with that smell, actually. My mind insisting ‘work horse yet to be groomed for the day,’ and my nose instead saying ‘healthy, young attractive female you might want to go over and talk to.’ Wasn’t quite the bucket of ice-water I’d frankly wish was dripping of my back, but it helped a bit.)

And then there was the third strong smell of the room. A whole stack of paper, some hastily stapled together, some not, and all of it laying in front of Nemo and outright stinking of whatever that not-quite-ink stuff modern printers seem to have switched to.

Tilting my head, I read the front of the top papers. Some type of essay from the looks of it, but the cover image was too smeared in the printing to make out. “The End of the World as Rapunzel Knows it - A Look at Why Fairy-tales are Even More Disturbing than You Thought,” I read aloud from the title.

“Oh, you know,” Nemo panted out with a small smirk. “Some nerds will just overanalyze anything, huh?”

“Draft Four. Written by Nemo Schwartz, Age Nine. Do NOT steal.”

“And their princeling got an A+ well before she even became twisted into their dork queen.” Nemo solemnly declared, one hoof to her ‘attire’ and chest. “Seriously though,” she continued with a bit less formality, thumping the stack of papers for emphasis, “ammo. If Nightmare is willing to listen, she might as well get illuminated.”

I frowned a bit. Seemed a long-shot to me, but Nemo had that —admittedly rather suspect accuracy wise given the source, insight into Luna’s character from having seen the ‘show.’ If she thought that stack of paper could help, it seemed worth a try at least.

Seriously-seriously, Harry.” Nemo thumped the papers again, looking grim. “If that mare is really the Luna and just misguided, these things should have quite the effect.”

I grimaced, even as I turned back to the ice-box. “Yeah, about that.” A shudder swept through me, one that had nothing to do with the gust of cold air as I opened it. “The good news is that it’s starting to seem likelier and likelier Luna is actually who she claims she is.”

“And the bad news?” Carlos growled out.

Well, for starters it meant by implication that my entire life was a lie.

Every victory. Every loss. Every friend. Every enemy. Every person I’d ever dragged out of the dark. Every scar and drop of blood I’d spilled.

Even my magic. After all, pegasi have pegasi magic, right? That’s what the real ponies keep telling me.

Stars and stones, what crueler prank to play on somebody, than having them wake after two and a half decades as some magic thug that went against everything you’ve ever tried to stand for as the exemplar of Kindness. A killer. A murderer. The type of man that would actually sign a contract in blood because it had seemed a good idea at the time.

I mean, who cares about the details, right? It’s not as if ‘he’ being a dad and mom of two wonderful little girls matter. That both those same girls would have been dead without that contract. That even Mab had needed to push herself to make me fall in line with her plans.

That’s the type of details you add to a villain’s backstory when you want a few more sympathy points from the audience but don’t care enough to have it be more than part of the joke. Unimportant but cute fluff, worthy of a few chuckles. Like Darth Vader turning out to have a thing for country-music, and it was piping through his helmet during every scene that used to be awesome, or something.

I vaguely heard metal groan, but it didn’t seem that important. Not compared to the white-hot ball of anger in my chest.

It just meant there was a few twists and turns to the joke. You don’t want it to be straightforward and predictable when you’re a god of chaos, right?

How my unfocused eyes didn’t actually see the inside of that ice-box probably the only reason that flame in my chest didn’t use that cursed stare of mine to punch through the wall.

“I haven’t felt this angry since Chichen Itza.” I said softly, as rain started pattering against the widows. “Except this time around, it’s all apparently my fault for having been born under the wrong pastel star, or something.”

“...Chichen Itza?” Nemo hesitatingly asked, while Carlos started coughing. The later seemingly having swallowed his own tongue.

“Pretty tourist trap by day, used to be heavy duty ritual ground for the Reds by night,” I answered on autopilot while I rummaged through the ice-box. “Managed to subvert some serious bad mojo there, and turn it on The Red King’s bloodline.”

Carlos let out a low wince. “Harry… Who did you use for that?”

My hoof froze halfway to the carton of apple juice I’d been eyeing. “You never met her, Name would mean nothing for either of you, so I’m just going to avoid saying it.” I managed to force out. “Follower of St. Guile's I used to…”

I nearly fell forward into the damn ice-box, as my heart split open from the feel of it. Somehow I managed to keep the stinging in my eyes down and my voice even but it was close.

“The other person there from the Followers turned out to be a double agent. She lost control, killed him and turned.” I explained mechanically, sounding about as healthy as I felt. Still, at least there was no way for it to be tracked back to Maggie, the way me breaking down crying might have. “Youngest vampire in the world. Bloodline curse with the alter and knife right there. You do the math.”

Only sound in the whole house was the drumming of the rain.

“She even crawled into my arms, and let me… d-d-do it.” I managed after a shuddering breath, my hoof shaking but actually moving again. “Heck of a woman. She deserved far better an end then that.”

“You killed a friend?” It came in a tiny voice from the doorway.

I grabbed a few apples and the juice, before turning to Luna/Agatha, standing and staring in wide-eyed horror at me. “I told you I’ve faced things like you but evil and competent at it, Blackie. That I expect monsters to actually deserve the word.” With a snarl, I shut the door, pretending not to notice how I’d turned the metal handle into a bendy straw. “If you thought I was talking about such dread horrors as boasting mares, or bunny stampedes, that is not my problem.”

“Wait,” Nemo blurted out, as I limped over to the table with my spoils, “you know about Trixie and the bunny thing, but not what cutie marks are?”

With an effort of will and a wave of my hoof, four glasses flouted out and over from a nearby cabin.

“Little Ms. Cray-Cray thought I might get frightened, and started off easy,” I grumbled as I poured four glasses. “Seriously, what type of sheltered do you need to be not to get what an illusionist’s stage-persona is? You’re supposed to sound like an exotic master of Whateveristan, that’s outright part of the act. You may as well tar and feather a juggler for risking the wrath of the falling spirits.”

For some reason, Nemo started fidgeting in her seat. Looking quite uncomfortable.

Luna, whose eye had twitched on my nickname for Twilight I might add, gritted Agatha’s teeth and slowly started walking towards us. “Don’t switch the subject. You killed a friend, and yet you dare try t-”

With an audible click, Agatha’s jaw shut, both her jaw and my hoof covered in my aura.

“Luna, I know that you are a proud idiot. Even fairly certain now that in your own twisted way you are trying to do the right thing.” I declared in a tone that could have frozen ice. “But if you turn Susan’s sacrifice into another one of your damn rants on how perfect Celestia’s little pony utopia is, I will literally kill you,”

Nemo, Carlos and Luna stared at me. Outside, the rain gave way for equally heavy hail.

“If you do, I swear I will drop everything else —damned be the consequences, go to Demonreach, and beat the real you to death with the Element of Kindness itself while your sisters’ royal can do nothing but scream and watch.” I let go of the spell and dropped my hoof, but I kept the wizard-glare going, the fur on a tiny spot right between Agatha’s eyes quite literally flattening from the force. “Am I clear, Blackie?”

For nearly a full minute, the hail falling outside was the only sound in entire house. Even Carlos and Nemo staring at me.

“I thought you said no more posturing?” Luna finally growled.

“That was a promise.” I growled back. “You can sit there and spit bile at me for the rest of this little talk for all I care, but my friends are off-limits.”

Luna frowned, her glare dying down but not quite passing. “So this is a peace talk, then?”

Only a lifetime of dealing with creatures that can smell the slightest bit of weakness stopped me from tensing.

“Because I do believe somepony that wasn’t quite as quiet as they thought they were said something about no parley having been declared.” Luna shuddered, and Agatha’s lips curled up in disgust. “I barely see the point in mentioning how barbaric and vile using telekinesis in actual combat is. You clearly care nothing for real magic.”

I frowned. “Oh? But picking somebody up like a sack of potatoes and ‘healing’ them in some alley until their minds are squeaky clean is OK-kosher?”

Luna sucked in a breath, but Carlos cut her off with a slash of his hand. “Be silent, both of you.”

Luna paused, and trained Agatha’s eyes on him. “This is an Equestrian matter, Wizard.”

It seemed Carlos had been working out in more than body, because these tiny droplets of water started forming all around him. Hanging in the air, poised in such a way they reminded me of the bullets in that one Matrix scene.

Hesitatingly, Luna took a step back. Wings twitching like somebody had pulled a feather from them when she wasn’t expecting it.

“You are currently riding my niece as if he was nothing but a draft animal, and you have hunted my friend and fellow Warden for over a day.” Carlos said, his lips a line. “You have made this a White Council matter, Your Highness. Deal with it, or get out of my niece and house now.

I tried to not smile too smugly.


Failed miserably, yes, but I tried at least.

“It’s good to have friends, isn’t it?” I sang out.

I might as well have conjured a lemon spirit inside Agatha’s mouth, from how her face scrunched up and Luna glared at me.

“You will swear on your Power to release my niece and never touch her again at the conclusion of these talks,” Carlos continued, the curtain of water-bullets growing heavier by the moment. “Or these negotiations are over, and I will save as much of Agatha as I can.”

Luna stared down Carlos, face unreadable if not for that side-effect with the eyes. Those kept sliding back and forth, crimson, cyan and even flashes of purple as a ‘debate’ I’m not sure even Luna noticed raged.

I started drawing in power. Preparing for what was rather clearly coming.

Surprised me slightly, but Nemo actually followed the example. Making it feel almost as if I was sitting on top of a high-voltage line instead of the kitchen floor.

Luna glanced around us, biting Agatha’s lip and pawing nervously at the floor. Clearly sensing that we were doing something, but not used to our way of handling magic.

To my surprise, she actually went after Nemo. “Dash, please,” she pleaded, “you know this isn’t right.”

Nemo titled her head. Some part of me expected an angry snort and just a ‘Yeah, right,’ for some reason.

“Of course this isn’t right,” Nemo actually said, sounding calm if sad and disappointed of all things. She even took a sip of the juice, before continuing. “But you and Celestia never quite got that loyalty is a two way street, did you? You neglect it for too long, and it withers like a melon with the vine cut off.”

Agatha’s eyes nearly bulged out of her skull.

“Well, except for Celestia’s pet unicorn student. There just weren’t enough titles, perks and little bonuses she could just sprinkle on that extra-pointy golden girl. Now was there?” Nemo took another sip, before putting down the glass with a clink and a melancholy sigh. “But do a legendary pegasi deed when you’re fucking ten —that gave Twilight that same damn boost for her lightshow I might add, and you don’t even get a scholarship.”

Despite myself, I felt my head slide around.

Nemo was staring straight at Luna, with contempt in her eyes.


“No,” Luna mumbled. “No!” she shouted after that, slamming a hood down. “It’s just a trick! That ‘show’ you keep blabbering about!”

Nemo gave Luna a long, hard look. “Harry?”


“Would you be a pal, and float over plan A to Luna?” Nemo flexed her wings once. “Haven’t gotten that spell figured out quite yet.”

I frowned. What was she playing at this time? It was getting kinda clear to me that Nemo was way, way smarter than she liked to pretend. Scary levels smart.

But there’s quite a difference between a quick bluff, and a long-con. Or for that matter being clever, and clever enough.

Still, there really wasn’t anything I could do to raise my doubts about this plan without sinking it. So a quick frown aside, I floated over the top-most, bound papers. Letting them simply flop down near Agatha’s hooves.

Luna glared down at them like I’d done the same to a rattlesnake venom-gland and asbestos sandwich. A tiny note stuck to the same ticking toothpick as the slice of cyanide sausage, saying: Totally not poison. Honest.

“You expect me to believe you printed this foul smelling thing in fifteen odd minutes?” Luna coldly drawled at Nemo. “Besides, I can’t read those claw scratches humans call writing, anyway.”

Nemo barred her teeth in what I’m sure was meant to be a smile, but it didn’t even really give a friendly wave towards her eyes. “Good thing Plan C is a stack full of pretty pictures then, right?”

Luna scoffed, clearly not believing a word.

Nemo, outright face-hooved. A slightly more meaningful gesture then the face-palm, now that I think about it. Most people don’t walk around daily on their hands, after all. “Luna,” Nemo groaned out without looking up, “you are using an innocent stallion as a biological proxy server. Standing in a room with two wizards, lit by lighting, mercury and phosphor.”

Agatha’s eyes darted up to the fluorescent tubes, and back again.

“Hell, you and all the other alicorns got curb-stomped because you didn’t know the magics of this realm.” Nemo continued in an exasperated tone. “And printing being more advanced in this world is really where you draw the: ‘Nope! Not buying it’ line? Really, really?”

Carlos gave her a look that all but screamed: ‘You have to do this now?’

“I do not believe it an unfair question since Luna have done nothing but scoff and scoff at everything not exactly like in Equestria as if she’s the tourist from hell.” Nemo stated, taking another sip of her juice. “And if I’m about to be dragged away to some horror dimension filled with dead magic I’d rather it not be an isolationist, xenophobic culture as well.”

I do believe I heard Luna’s heart shatter all the way across the continent. A small, strangely echoing silence accompanied by a thousand yard stare.

And Luna’s mask utterly shattering with it. “You’ve been to Equestria? And came back to this cursed realm willingly?”

I shared a glance with Nemo, but she just shrugged.

I did take the lead on that, so fair enough I’m take the hit, I guess. “Yes, one of your...”

I frowned and hesitated, realizing I’d never actually heard the real name for the superhero wannabes. Probably not wise calling them that right now.

“Wonderbolts,” Nemo explained with a sigh. “The guys and gals in blue and yellow are called Wonderbolts.”

I gave of a grunt of thanks.

“Seriously, if we survive this, I’m finding a stack of the old laptops or something, tying you to a chair and making you watch the show so I don’t have to explain every little thing.”

I rolled my eyes. Yeah, watching a kid’s show with censored nudist versions of me and Nemo in it having wacky adventures. I’m sure that’s going to be a totally normal movie night.

“One of the Wonderbolts,” I continued, “played dead, grabbed me and Nemo, and activated those one-use amulets.” I met Luna’s gaze for just a moment. “We of course fought our way back through the portal after destroying as much of the lab as possible.” I let out a sigh, as Luna started snarling my way again. “And that we did it with only two ponies wounded don’t actually matter to you at all, does it?”

“Those ‘only two’ ponies have sacrificed years, if not outright their special talents, on saving you two ungrateful nags and the other cursed doesn’t to you, so why should it?”

I let out an annoyed sigh at Luna. “You don’t get it, do you? To you, we’re these twisted mirages that apparently never should have been.” I pointed at her. “To us, you are this monster that appeared from nowhere and started trying to tear our lives apart. To you, we’re apparently ungrateful brats that don’t get why spontaneously changing species should have been the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Luna’s lips curled, manners the only thing forcing her to let me make a point she clearly didn’t care for at all.

My lips a line, I pointed a hoof to my own chest. “For me at least, it was twelve hours of screaming agony, because guess what. When you're a wizard and notice a curse on yourself, you try dispelling the damned thing.” Agatha’s eyes went the size of dinner-plates. “So I’m terribly sorry, but even if there’s normally some gentle merging or whatever loophole Discord used, it’s still quite possible that Fluttershy got as shredded mentally as I almost was physically.”

Luna slash Agatha stopped breathing.


“And if actually asked, I would have told you all this, There’s even this girl I know I trust enough to poke around in my noggin to check if there’s even a trace left of Fluttershy. I even know how to carve a vessel that could hold her until something better can be figured out.” I sighed out, my ears sticking slightly to my scalp when they folded back. “And if you’d actually even tried to convincing me you and the other cutesy overlords actually care to save more than the adorable mass-murderer I would have cooperated.”

Luna did a cod impression at me. Closing and opening ‘her’ mouth as if air-drowning.

Nemo too, actually.

Carlos, though, was just frowning. “And where did you learn how to make a freaking soul jar, Harry?”

Even without the tone, I could see the edge to that question in his eyes. ‘And why?’ all but growled at me.

“Spirit safe-haven,” I corrected, head half turned to keep an eye on both him and Luna. “And I can’t say the details due to client confidentiality, but I had to help this man with frequent migraines nothing worked on.” I let out a wince, as much for the half-lies to a friend as the memories. “Turned out he had an almost fully grown spirit of intellect growing in there, and his head was a few days if not hours away from popping open like an over-ripe melon.”

Speaking of popping from a head, Carlos eyes nearly did so. “Harry,” Carlos almost whispered out, “do you have any idea how terrifying even minor spirits of intellect are? They’re near pure magic, and never stop learning. Do you have any idea what that creature could do in the wrong hands?”

“I’m sure the girl can stay home with her dad and have a happy childhood just fine,” I growled out. “As long as no well-meaning wizards try to use her for their own gain.”

Carlos tried opening his mouth to protest, but I cut him off with a raised wing. “I’m well aware of Kemmler and his slave.” I turned back to Luna, before adding: “And I will not stand by and let her be killed —or worse, because of what horrors her ground-up parts could be put to,” in a tone that I hoped would make it clear that the ‘discussion’ was over.

Still had to suppress a shudder at talking about my little girl like that.

“Kemmler?” Luna and Nemo asked, in near perfect unison.

“One of the most terrifying necromancers the Council has ever faced,” I stated mechanically, looking Agatha in the face if not her eyes. “To put it into equestrian terms, he and his followers almost became alicorns of Death by eating the spirits and life-force of about quarter of continental Europe.”

Luna gagged again. Either she was getting used to this, or Agatha didn’t have anything more to throw up, but aside from her fur dropping a few shades lighter nothing more happened this time.

Still, credit where such is due, Luna actually took it better then Nemo for once. Nemo just sat there for a bit, staring without actually seeing the hail smattering against the windows.

It was a bit bad tone as far as properly paranoid wizard-manners go, but I picked one of the glasses, floated it over and started sipping.

Now that woke the bat up, alright. Part of me suddenly rather loudly insisting this silly ‘glass’ thing was not nearly enough, and that it was obviously much better if ‘we’ hissed at everybody and made off with the glorious prize on the table.

My hoof started shaking slightly from it for a few moments, but with an effort of will I fought the urges down.

The bat screeched at me from the back of my head in a way I’d bet translated to: ‘So unfair! Mine!’ all the way, but I kept on top of it. Taking long, shallow sips of the apple juice, and actually enjoying the way it started slowly filling the gaping abyss I’d been ignoring where my stomach should have been.

I’d seen what happens when a vampire starts to be ruled by their hunger instead of the other way around. Sure, I’d doubt I’d ever get quite as bad as The Red King and his blood addiction, but it still wasn’t what I’d call a good end.

Being known as a grand scourge of orchards rather than mankind was a step up, yeah, but all the same I’d rather not have it on my merit list.

I let out a small sigh, but mentally squared my shoulders. Part of me despised learning any lesson from such a foul monster, but If I’m stuck being the grand matriarch of some new, (almost) terrible breed of vampire whether I like it or not…

I fought down a small shudder on how that siring would probably happen. Not that I’d tried, mind you, but so far I hadn’t gotten any urges to spread the love of apples around, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t know for sure before I —ugh, have a foal, but so far this ‘bat-mare’ thing seemed like it would either die with me… or pass on to my descendants.

And well, however that works out, I’d rather be thrice damned before I let my ‘pups’ follow the same type of example The Red King had set for his ‘children.’

Carlos wrinkled his nose. “OK, now what’s that smell?”

“Vampire fruit-bats have magic fangs that ferment all they bite. It’s how they can drain fruits in moments.” Luna of all ponies explained. With tone and expression that could have curled milk in its own right, yeah, but still. Credit where it’s due. “It appears Dresden has gained that ability.”

I froze for a bit. Vampire fruit-bats? Who names this stuff?

Nemo frowned. “Shouldn’t Dresden’s mouth be a fetid mess in that case? Like a komodo dragon?”

I nearly choked on the last bit of juice in my glass, before giving Nemo a look.

“Well, excuse me for being curious about the biological specifics of somebody that can semi-spontaneously switch race to a pony slash animal hybrid and back again!” Nemo huffed out, crossing her arms over her barrel. “It’s not like that type of stuff could lead to tribe or even species change procedures to name one bloody application!”

“Or alternatively,” I deadpanned, “people could figure out that magic actually exists and spend the couple of months it takes to learn how to shapeshift properly.”

I pretended not to notice how badly Luna hid her interest in the small aside, while Nemo did a double take. “Months?!”

“With the right teacher, yeah.” I gave a slow nod, thinking over my phrasing very carefully. “My life sort of imploded for a bit, though, so I haven’t had time to call in those types of favors. Let alone figured out how to take human form again.”

Of course, I’d been given quite a few friendly pointers by my friends and former gaming group.

The rather werewolf heavy one. Tips up to and including: ‘Here’s the spell we use. Be careful with it, OK?’

You can’t buy friends like that. Not even close.

Granted, given how gear dependent (safe-ish) wizard magic can be and that I (normally) prefer clothes, the original spell was of rather limited utility for me. No arguing that turning into a wolf the type of size not seen this side of the ice age wasn’t rather awesome. It is.

But compared with actually being able to hold a gun, shield myself, sling spells and other stuff like that, just to name a few tactical alternatives? Compared with fangs and claws? Cool, but often rather lackluster. Especially with the whole pegasus thing offering me many of the same advantages plus flight and speech, let alone the lingering after-effects of The Mantle.

Still, it was another ace up my sleeve. Might even be a foundation for me to build on to one day become human again, or at least to control this bat-mode of mine.

Given how Luna reacted to only the idea of the option being open to me, though, I’m rather glad I played my cards so close to my chest.

NO!” she bellowed again, stomping Agatha’s hoof for emphasis. Rattling the windows as much from that as the shout itself. “WE FORBID IT!

I winced, and dropped my glass. Thankfully it didn’t break, but that was small comfort to the ache in my ears.

With a wave of my hoof at the glass and using my magic, I lifted and refilled it. I must have been hungrier than I though, because that tiny pit was already howling for more.

Didn’t surprise me, though. Been awhile since I had to do some heavy-duty magic on an empty stomach, but that hardly meant it had stopped being a bad idea.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Nemo said, voice hard and downright unfriendly, resting her cheek on her hoof. “We don’t care about that damn crown, title or even winged unicorn crap of yours.” The mare gave a hard nod mine and then Carlo’s way. “And I think I talk for the others when I say that the only reason we’re even trying to talk you down, is that we’re not a hundred percent on if that friend stuff is genuine or not.”

Luna froze under our collective glare.

“What Crayola mane said,” I growled out, getting a snort from her and a nod from Carlos. “Now, are you actually going to talk with us and try to figure out a solution that makes everybody and everypony happy, or should we just call you on grandstanding and bust out the big guns?”

I’m not letting you have my Harry, Luna. Not just because Twilight has the social grace of a tadpole.

Luna gritted Agatha’s teeth again. “We need the Elements united again!” She exclaimed as if we were kids —or foals I guess, that simply didn’t get it. “Without them functioning, it will take decades to restore Equestria to even a shadow of its actual glory!”

I gave a shrug. Unconvinced. “The Senior Council didn’t seem to have much trouble undoing Mr. Disco’s play time.” I reached behind my back, and brushed off some of the half congealed vomit. “I’m certain they’ll charge you an arm and a leg for it, but I’m certain a few lessons and resources on ‘our corrupt mockery of real magic’ could be arranged.”

I didn’t actually add: ‘If you actually care the slightest for harmonious cooperation,’ but I think the tart tone of my voice did it just as well as if I’d used the actual words.

“It doesn’t work like that!” Luna growled right back at me. “The whole nature of chaos magic means it forces the will of the user upon the world! Only the strongest and most skilled unicorns can even learn spells not of their talent, let alone ones potent enough to guide the world back into order!”

A long, long moment of silence followed. I shared a glance with Carlos, but he was just as dumbfounded as I was. Even Nemo had her jaw somewhere around navel height.

...Oh, buck on toast.

Luna mistook the source of our silence, and pointed a hoof at us, smirking in triumph. “So it matters not how this mockery of yours work or hail from, it is not real pony magic and there is no way it may overcome Discord’s chaos!” Luna threw Agatha's head back and outright cackled, a few bolts of thunder even clashing down outside, somehow. “You may as well bargain with rocks!”

I decided against mentioning that I’ve actually have called and bargained with quite a few nature spirits. Using actual if extra shiny rocks as payment a few times, even.

I traded another look with Carlos, but he just had the same: ‘Is she really talking about what I think?’ look as I had on.

Besides, why juggle dinky little hand grenades, when the suitcase nukes are just laying right there?

“And presumably this ‘real’ magic is drawn from... within? One’s inner energies tapped and shaped into what you consider the order things should be or happen in?” I started carefully. “While ‘chaos’ magic as you call it, manipulates and uses ambient energies? To force the way the user believes things should be?” A small trickle of intuition made me frown, and add: “Harmony magic being some supercharged mix of the two? Like somehow smacking hydrogen and antihydrogen together and using that power, instead of blowing yourself up?”

Luna froze mid cackle. Agatha’s head sliding down, while Luna’s slitted eyes bore into me like augers. “What are you playing at? What trick is this?”

“No trick.” I chuckled softly, a sound that apparently was for more horrible than any shouted threat from how Agatha’s fur rose a bit. “I’m about to tell you the worst thing you’ve heard in twenty-five years as a gesture of good faith, and it’s going to be nothing but cold, hard truth. How you react to such honesty is your business.”

Luna growled at me. Showing teeth that looked a bit too pointy for a pony, even by my new, somewhat batty standards.

“Magic —what we call magic I might add, is quite rare in humans. About one in a thousand have a minor talent, while magical ability on the level of a wizard —Somebody trained in the traditions and skills of the White Council— or a sorcerer —Somebody with the same power but not that training slash allegiance— is about one in a million.” I explained in a smooth lecture while pouring another glass of juice for myself. “The average person can barely sense magic, let alone use it.”

It was gone almost as fast as one of the flashes of lighting outside, but a look of pity darted over Agatha’s face. “So this is a world of donkeys and cows,” Luna said. “That is saddening to hear, but one does not need magic to lead a full life.”

I took a long sip, as I waved her off before answering. “And what if I told you I suspect that magic as we see it is even rarer among Equestrians?”

Luna drew in a deep breath presumably to laugh me in my face.

But Nemo starting to splutter on her own spit seemingly cut Luna off.

Carlos slapped her on the back, but that only made Nemo start giggling hysterically instead. In that hugging yourself (with arms and wings) while you ‘Go Mad from the Revelation’ kind of way.

Yeah, I mused while sipping my (not-quite) soft drink, I’d definitely need to have a long, long chat with Nemo after this about how much she actually knows. I didn’t think she was playing me, but the girl definitely knew more then she’d let on.

“...Go on,” Luna said with a frown. Pawing nervously at the floor, to the point she was nearly scraping that ‘Plan A’ of Nemo’s without noticing.

With a shrug, I did so. “Nobody quite knows why it happens, but those extra senses are key to moving beyond a minor talent. Otherwise it’s like learning to paint for a blind-man. A near titanic effort, yeah, but not totally impossible.” I tapped my own forehead with my free hoof. “Learning how to open those spiritual senses fully —the Sight as we call it, is one of the first and most important steps to becoming a wizard. It is also why I’ve been avoiding direct eye-contact with you. Neither one of us would like the result right now. ”

Slowly and quite reluctantly, it seemed my words were getting a certain princess curious, judging from how Agatha was now frowning. “I will admit to thinking the eye-contact thing a cultural preference, but fine.”

That made me raise an eyebrow, but I let it go. It did not feel normal to have somebody just take my word on the basics of magic at face value, but I wouldn’t look a gift pony in the mouth.

Might catch another glimpse of ‘Luna’s’ creepy mare of Diomedes style fangs that way. Eek. Now there’s a smile only a really masochistic boy-friend could ever love.

“Anyway,” I continued, “the downside to this method is that every person sees the world a bit differently. Thus every wizard magic is a bit different. His or her spells needing to be made from scratch, but thus also tailored to his or her skills.”

Luna’s eyes went wide, ‘her’ pupils going about as thin as paper-cuts.

“Sadly there’s another problem,” I went on, floating over the glass to the table, “a mortal mind can’t quite hold that type of power, so you need a layer of insulation. That’s why wizards’ seem to be calling terrible power with nonsense words to anybody actually familiar with the tongues. Because technically, we are.”

I lifted my right hoof, and started murmuring. “Ignus, ignus infuiarus!”

The lights flickered slightly, but to the credit of whatever mad-genius of an electrician Ramirez had hired didn’t go out, as a brilliantly glowing ball of flame started forming above my hoof.

Had to admit, it was with some satisfaction I heard both Luna and Nemo gasped as my little ball of sunshine took shape. Even Ramirez seemed slightly impressed.

Fire is a useful if tricky element to conjure, you see. You call up too little and it does nothing but splutter out. Call too much, and you get just as crispy as your target.

Fire doesn’t care who called it or why. It just burns.

There’s another side to it beyond destruction, of course. Just like earth can be both a grand invigorator and a smothering weight, fire is both a grand destroyer and a transmutative agent of change and rebirth. All the Elements are like that. Good, and ill, those are mortal concepts. Fire, Air, Earth, Water and Spirit? They just are, and it is the caster that decides what use they are put to, be it foul or fair.

And in the case of my little ball of sunshine? Being very pretty and grand looking, but utterly useless for combat. The ball of flames burned brilliantly brightly, yes, but its power cost and movement speed left much to be desired.

In other words, a perfect little show piece to demonstrate with since it wouldn’t matter if Luna figured out a counter.

“For me those words you just heard mean this,” I continued, waving a wing at the ball of fire. “The calling, binding, shaping and release of magic and fire into this one shape. Summed up and associate with —to me, two short words that would mean next to nothing of any actual speaker of Latin, but lets me do in moments what otherwise would take minutes if not outright hours.”

The light of the flames danced all over the walls. A harsh but not unpleasant golden-yellow light of a fire well and truly feed.

“T-T-This has to be a trick,” Luna stuttered out, walking Agatha’s body a bit closer. Eyes wide enough for the flames to dance in them as well. “Not even dragons have such control over flame.”

My little ball of sunshine nearly went out from shock, until I realized Luna wasn’t talking about dragon-dragons but those overgrown fire-lizards some people had turned into instead of ponies. Still a decently flattering comparison, but not the outright jaw-dropping one I’d first thought it.

I waved a hoof at the small stack of apples I’d been ignoring. “Throw one to Luna.”

Carlos seemed unamused at the request, but to his credit he did as I’d asked. Reaching over the table and lobbing a decently sized royal gala straight at Luna using his good arm, the curtain of water droplets not even wavering as he did so.

Agatha’s hoof snaked out and grabbed it in mid-air, moving with an almost lightning grace I hadn’t seen any pony before her move with.

At first, Luna held the apple at hoof’s length away, glaring at the thing as if it might explode at any moment.

“They’re called apples. Ap-p-les,” I snarked. “They’re quite tasty, so you might not have them in that goody-good utopia of yours. With all the unseasoned vegetables and plain tap-water, or whatever it is perfectly perfect prissy perfectionist pony-ponies partake in.”

I’d expected Luna to start glaring and gritting Agatha’s teeth at me again, but I just got a sad look. “You neither remember nor care anymore about fair Applejack, do you?”

I frowned a bit, until I remembered. “Ah, right, the apple farmer. With a hard liquor talent and name. In a land of a people that can’t get drunk.” I gave a slow shake. “And I thought Fluttershy was a cruel and shortsighted name. At least it doesn’t set the expectation of an impossible task.”

Luna let out a shuddering breath, and Agatha’s wings drooped almost to the floor. “You don’t care in the slightest do you? About us. About Equestria. Not even for Fluttershy.” With a grimace, Luna rather blatantly forced down a few tears. “We and all our efforts is nothing but an obstacle to overcome for you, and kindness is just the better blade.”

I didn’t move. Just sat there, and glared at her.

But for a few moments, my ball of fire flared and burned blue, as the temperature of the room jumped by quite a few degrees.

“I invited that Twilight girl to break bread with me.” I growled under my breath. “ Into my very home to share my fire. There are baby eating monsters in this world that wouldn’t dream of showing the kind of disrespect you and yours have shown me while playing the victims.”

Over us, the florescent lights started popping one by one. Lightning dancing over them, before exploding in showers of hot sparks and stinging glass until only a few stubborn ones remained. Casting the kitchen into twilight, my ball of sunshine the only real illumination.

Vaguely, as if from a distance I heard both Nemo and Carlos yelp, but it didn’t seem important. Not compared to the scowling idiot in front of me, my ball of flame, and the shadows I could feel boil and twist in the corners of the room.

“Don’t you fucking dare speak with me about kindness when my reward for greeting the alleged winged unicorn of Friendship with open arms was being called a fraud, having my friends attacked and a finding half an army on my doorstep!” I hissed out, for once in perfect agreement with my bat. “You or that Twilight girl wouldn’t know actual Kindness means, if you’d held it in your hoof!”

With a scowl the apple in ‘Luna’s’ hoof popped like a water balloon. I don’t think she even noticed.

I threw my head back and laughed. “Oh right, you did, and the thing hates your guts!” I pointed a hoof at her. “Because mighty Luna couldn’t stand her sister actually being the golden girl, and ruined everything last time around due to petty jealousy!” I finished, again at a hiss.

Luna reared back a bit, as if slapped.

“You know what? Fuck this,” I snarled. “I’m not sugar-coating it anymore, Blackie. Congratulations, you’re in a room with three chaos mages, and you’ve pissed all of them off.”

Luna despite being a shadow among many, quite clearly stopped breathing. “No…” she whimpered out.

“Have to hand it to that Disco idiot,” I continued. “Cherry picking a world with no tradition of ‘order’ magic, as you describe it?” I let out a low whistle. “Quite the long term gamble. Twenty-five plus years of long term, even.”

I let my spell and thus my ball of sunshine wink out. Leaving Luna and I two gleaming slitted pairs of ice in the gloom.

Behind her, nothing but flickering light and shadows.

Behind me the same, but also a frozen rain glittering in the dark, and the from within gently glowing mace I don’t even want to know where Nemo had been keeping.

“No,” Luna whimpered out, followed by a desperate shout. “NO! That can’t be true, it’s impossible!”

“Search your feelings!” I shouted in triumph, shaking my hoof at her. “You know it to be true!”

Oh, Harry…

The room went silent.

As if dusk was happening only in the small kitchen, stars started twinkling alight all around Luna. Circling and dancing all around Agatha’s head like a swarm of piranhas of light.

“You dare mock me?” Luna’s hate filled eyes glowed with a harsh, inner light. Like smooth pebbles under a harvest moon. “You know I only seek to aid my friends, and you mock me?!”

“You don’t want your friends back, Nightmare.” Nemo all but spat at her, brandishing her mace a bit higher. “You want Equestria’s best pawns back. I’m sure about it now.”

“What do you even know about champions, murderer?!” Luna spat right back. “I can smell the tattered loyalties, the jokes told at others expense, and the mountain of lies you’ve told! Even with my connection to the Elements as tattered as it is!”

I got up on my back-legs, tensing for the sucker-punch I’d have to try to get out of this.

“Yeah, guess what, you sheltered bastard, not many people believe you if you look four, and tell them you’ve just had the weirdest dream, and realized you’re actually an almost thirty-five year old pegasus mare with a rainbow mane!”

The whole room kinda slowly solidified into an impromptu statue garden. Everyone but Nemo kinda stuck thinking: Did I actually hear that right?

With a clatter Nemo chair fell backwards, and there was a rush of magic towards her.

Far more magic than any self-thought dabbler should have been able to call on, let alone put to use.

But that’s just what Nemo did. Wings flared to the point her tendons nearly creaked from it, she started stomping forward while sucking lighting out of the ruined lamp-fixtures. Wearing the darting wigs of thunder like some type of cloak, making her improvised clothes smolder and drift off her frame.

The cement floor cracked and smoldered slightly, as she stomped closer and closer to Luna. Eyes and face locked into that type of snarl you usually only see on rabid dogs.

“And it only gets worse as you get older, and should ‘know better!” Nemo snarled out, the quite literal flashes of angry thunder in her eyes reflected in Luna’s. “When you look six and don’t want to go to school for the first time again, you’re a silly boy!”

Luna tried throwing up a cyan glowing shield, but Nemo, her hoof moving so fast it blurred, just shattered the thing with a single punch. Making Luna back-pedal in a panic until she hit the (thankfully cold) stove.

“When you look seven and have gotten a rep for being the biggest hellion in school, it kinda starts gets a bit hard justifying those tears you keep seeing in your new mom and dad’s eyes!” Nemo stomped and shouted on. “Except when you decide to do the best of things with your hazy memories of filling out taxes and weather management, you're suddenly this wunderkind that first grade simply must have bored!”

“And you know the worst bit? Of basically falling to the dork side of the force?” Nemo snatched up the report on the floor, hurling it at Luna’s shocked face before her lightning aura could do more than singe it. “It felt good, because suddenly I was #1 boy in the entire class instead of the gangly filly nobody actually bothered to help. Then the school. The district. The region.” With a proud smile and eyes gleaming with pride, Nemo waved a hoof about an inch over her head. “I actually scraped at the top hundred students for a few years. Me, a freaking boy genius!”

Luna, tears streaming down ‘her’ cheeks, tried opening her mouth but no words would actually come out.

Nemo shuddered slightly, her eyes unfocusing for just a moment. “Almost made it feel as if I actually had my wings back, sometimes.” Nemo’s eyes snapped onto Luna’s again. “Except no. Discord grounded me for twenty-nine years.” I got pointed at with that glowing mace. “But unlike Harry over there, I actually knew exactly what I was fucking missing, because Discord apparently can’t even count right!”

Luna’s eyes darted down at where Nemo’s hoof was pointing, and even in the gloom I saw how she stopped breathing. Hell’s bells, I nearly did.

The report-draft wasn’t written in actual English, but that sweeping almost circling script I’d seen only half a day before. Row after row of neat, scanned Equestrian. The ink in the copied notes even visible faded a bit.

“And that wasn’t even the worst bit!” Nemo shouted, pointing the mace at the papers. “Four years! Four years beyond the damned dead-line, and nothing happened!” With a snarl, Nemo swept the mace through the air with a whistling sound. “I’d finally found that some resources on actual magic and made peace with that I ‘just,’” Nemo made air-quotes with her wing tips, “some magical talent with a really weird version of an imaginary friend! And that’s when I grew back my cutie marks, because Discord is a fucking dick!”

I didn’t even see Nemo move. One moment she was standing halfway across the kitchen, the next a vaguely rainbow colored blur had slammed Luna into the nearest wall.

“And guess what? When you suddenly start turning into what your parents long ago dismissed as a young boy’s fantasy that’s quite a shock. ” Nemo hissed into Luna’s face. The larger mare not even struggling. “Give your dad a heart-attack he still hasn’t recovered from level shock!”

I rushed forward before Nemo could actually raise that mace, and do something she’d deeply regret. I got my own arms around her barrel, getting almost as surprised a grunt from her at that as when my dragging actually started moving her.

It was like trying to pull a kicking, screaming and biting car with my teeth, but ever so slowly I got her further and further from Luna. Who had stunned just slid down along the wall.

“That isn’t actually Luna!” I shouted into her ear. “It’s still Agatha!”

To Nemo’s credit, she actually slacked instantly on hearing that. Collapsing into a crying heap in my arms. “And now you show up like this, and the fucking secret trials start up within the day?” A sob forced itself out of her, but Nemo didn’t stop glaring at Luna. “I waited twenty-six damned years, and you couldn’t even give me a week to get to know the new me?”

I got the air driven out of my lungs as Nemo ‘pointed’ at me with her wings a bit too hard, slamming both into my ribs. I kept my grip but it was close. Have to try remembering that trick.

“You know what Dresden did for me after knowing me for a few hours?” Nemo continued, still snarling and crying. “I told an off-color joke about bribing a pooka with nookie, and she took the time —While her home was under attack by you!— to tell me what a life ruining level of bad idea that was! I actually got a promise of the basics of magic for free! Most wizards around here are such bastards they won’t even tell you your shoes are untied without a flat fee and an appointment!”

I winced a bit. It wasn’t what I’d call a fair summation, but it wasn’t a wrong one either. I wasn’t exactly the only wizard living of their knowledge in magic, but I was near unique in actually having office hours and an ad in the yellow pages about it.

“You!” Nemo shrieked, trying to jump ‘Luna’ again, but I held her back. Aided a bit by the awkward angle she’d slumped down in. “You wouldn’t even skim a paper because it had the name Nemo on it! Celestia lied me in the fucking face to make me play ball! Cadance didn’t even try talking with us, but just distracted us long enough to sneak the Elements around our necks!”

With a loud crash, Nemo slammed her mace into the floor, sending stinging shards of concrete everywhere. I winced and held on.

“Twilight didn’t even come visit me! Twilight! After all we did together! After I helped her become a fucking goddess! After I died to Discord!” For a few moments, Nemo sank down in a blubbering heap again for a bit, but she was soon screaming and fighting again. “I’d even forgiven her for thinking up that damn Mare Do-Well stunt! And still stupid Rainbow isn’t even worthy of being stabbed from the front?!”

Nemo utterly lost it. Screaming, crying, gnashing her teeth, and fighting like a mare possessed, she kicked off the ground, and started literally clawing herself towards Luna with me on her back. Murder in her eyes, and totally forgetting that this wasn’t the Luna.

Luna who just sat there with unfocused, unblinking eyes filled with tears. So utterly devastated with this turn of events it was clear she wouldn’t even defend ‘herself’ while Agatha got beaten to a pulp.

Either not thinking about it due to being used to near invulnerability, or due to distraction from grief simply not thinking about it.

Oh, and just to add more doom and gloom Carlos was spinning up that ‘death rain’ spell of his, the droplets starting to take on a familiar green hue I’d seen before.

From Carlos disintegration rays he likes to sweep around in combat. A distinct sickly green light I got confirmation on the nature of when Carlos rose and a dozen or so droplets just hissed straight through the table, leaving these thin, nasty looking holes without even slowing down.

And judging from how hard his jaw was set, I doubted the take-down Carlos was planning for Nemo if she got any closer to his niece would be clean and painless.

Except I had this sinking suspicion that if anything would make Luna snap out of her fugue state —murderously so given how little she seemed to care for humans in the first place, it would be a warning shot clean through Nemo’s wing.

So in other words, I had to wrestle the next best thing to Supermare while covered in soap, because of course my luck is that good. And if I didn’t I’d either get a back full of the buck-shot from hell, or Darth Squeamish would go spare and force smear Carlos all over his own kitchen

Òh, and the only reason I could grapple Nemo at all during her faulty light-socket impression without frying like a sausage at a science fair was the stupid pegasus crap. I could actually feel the soap and vomit boiling, a rather uncomfortable ‘popping’ sensation that for now at least didn’t seem to be doing any damage.

Not that I would feel it with adrenaline coursing through me.

I swear, when I complained about not being taken seriously I didn’t mean it as challenge.

08 — Gordian Not

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I tried to scream at her to stop, but Nemo just thrashed and nearly took my head off with a swipe of her wing.

Quite a few people think that birds are delicate, nature’s little glass sculptures of the air that crumble if you as much as touch them too hard. There is some truth to this, but only when compared to mammals, one of the sturdiest base animal templates on the planet. In comparison birds are brittle, yes, but that’s like comparing ice-sculptures to brick-outhouses.

And that is of course not even counting that there are more to the group of avians than tiny balls of fluff that go ‘tweet.’ Something the size of, say, an ostrich can kick you to death if it feels threatened.

Size matters, trite but true. Sometimes you can bridge that gap with skills or quick-thinking, but if I arm-wrestled with Carlos now I’d probably outright break the dude. And I’m not talking about going up against that crippled arm of his, or while in my bat mode either.

Horses are impressive beasts. One of the few creatures with strength, speed, and endurance, while most others ‘focus’ on just one of those traits. Some weird twist of evolution adding brains and magic on top of that? Mother Nature likes her dice weighted.

And preferably with poisonous spikes that makes your arm turn black and fall off. Nemo was, of course, neither a bird nor a horse. She was a pegasus, one built like a Abrams tank and with a once-in-a-lifetime talent in kinetomancy.

Nemo’s wing gave off a whip-snap right by my face, trailing crackling lightning that sent ribbons of pain through my flesh, despite my natural insulation. I felt a cold little pit in my stomach, but some distant corner of my mind realized absently that if I had still been human, I might as well have tried wrestling a person-sized bug-zapper.

Clearly, I had to do something, and there wasn’t any time for half-measures.

Still this if anything seemed like a good time to take that risk. “Dormius, dormius dorme!” I murmured my sleep spell, my wing draped over Nemo’s head for just a moment lighting with white-blue flames that made the membrane tingle.

Soulfire. The power of creation, and all at the tiny, tiny price of burning bits of your soul away to empower one's magic. Use too much and only oblivion awaits, but it was scary potent stuff. Like nitro for my magic, it let me do things I’d never otherwise would have dreamed of as long as I dared risk the price.

(It—your soul I mean—apparently grows back. To be fair, hearing that surprised the, heh, hell out of me too.)

I’d never used soulfire with that spell before, but it apparently did the trick. Nemo collapsed like a bad pyramid scheme, a silly smile on her muzzle before she even hit the ground despite the wetness of her cheeks. Only when that mace of hers clattered to the floor did that lightning aura of hers fade. Yeesh. Scary, scary mare.

Luna, a mare I really didn’t care for dealing more with, blinked. “...What was that?” she asked in a tiny voice.

I didn’t get further than opening my mouth for snapping at her, when two steam pistons Carlos had carelessly left lying around in his kitchen turned my barrel into more of an envelope.

Or alternatively, a certain sky-blue wùnderkin of self alteration had just done the impossible again, and shrugged off a sleep spell that should have made a bull elephant on steroids do a Sleeping Beauty impression, before bucking me in my stomach so hard I hit the ceiling.

And not even the locale fitting Hollywood style hyperbole either. I smashed into the ceiling, saw stars that would have made Roger Rabbit ask me for lessons, and bounced back down again. Not sure about any Dresden shaped indents in the ceiling, but the air got driven out of my lungs, and I saw shards of concrete falling down with me.

Yeah… again, don’t want to admit it but without the pegasi thing? I think I’d have something far more troubling to worry about than my back and stomach feeling tender. ‘Pulverized’ or ‘splattered,’ perhaps, but not just stinging in the ‘that’s going to leave a bruise’ kind of way.

The worst bit? It felt good feeling pain properly again.

...You don’t mean that, Harry.

Don’t get me wrong, I hadn’t started eyeing the riding-crops or spurs at the pet-store I got most of my toiletries nowadays or anything like that, so perhaps ‘good’ was too strong a word. ‘Honest,’ perhaps? Like that warm fatigue in your muscles you get after a long day of work. It's not pleasant by itself, sure, but you know you’ve earned it, and that small discomfort now is going to help you sleep soundly later.

Guess it made sense in a way. Like the cold The Mantle draws its power from, you only realized how numb you’d really gone when you’re warm again.

Oh. OK, yeah, I guess can get that.

Carlos was still holding that ‘doom rain’ spell going, but had glanced up at me with a mix of awe and worry. Guess Agatha hadn’t given him much of a clue on what a beating it takes to make a pony stay down.

Speaking of, it seemed Nemo’s little bomb-shell of a revelation had rocked Luna to the core, and she’d lost control of her not-quite-champion. Agatha still looked like the winged unicorn’s long-lost pegasus daughter,—black, black, fangs, the ethereal star mane tail combo, bit more black just for variety's sake, tall and lanky—but the crimson had returned to her dazed eyes, and there wasn’t even a glimmer left of Luna’s moon in the cutie mark, leaving just Agatha’s own sprig of Bittersweet Nightshade.

A waking dream, perhaps? Like some freaky mix of sleepwalking and somepony else’s lucid dream? Gritting my teeth, I fought down the pain and forced myself to just spread my wings instead of outright flapping them. Hopefully giving me just a few moments to silently survey the scene. A certain prissy immortal yanking Agatha around like an overeager kid with one of those rigged claw-games at a fair? Would make sense with Luna’s ‘bow or I’ll go Freddy Krueger on your rump’ routine from earlier.

Might even explain just what was up with the mood-ring eyes, and why Luna didn’t seem to know about such a glaring tell. My guess from her ‘sworn to me’ comment was that Luna was used to obedient little robots. Chosen champions sworn to her—perhaps even in death like the Einherjer, and their Wills literally made part of hers.

And I had to admit, Agatha looked rather adorable in a ‘lost kid’ sort a way with that maniacal gleam gone from her eyes. You just wanted to hug her, squeeze her, and feed her the biggest, juiciest beetles you could find until the poor dear started feeling better.

...Although that last bit might have been Ding Bat trying to help again.

Nemo was quite clearly not feeling any such pity. Or, for that matter, anything aside from red-hot fury. I’d barely been in the air for a second or so, but she was already scrambling back towards Agatha, so lost to reason she was stumbling over her own limbs - not to mention failing to notice that the original owner was back in the driver's seat of the mare she was gunning for.

The most adorable little berserker ever wanted to play hardball because she wasn’t hugged enough as a foal? Fine, I’ll show her how we throw a curve-ball on my side of the tracks.

With a sound not unlike shaking off my duster, my leathery wings caught the air, and I zoomed downwards. Both hooves aimed straight at the back of Nemo’s head. Hopefully even with such a thick skull, I’d be able to knock her out that way.

Well, if not, at least it would be far quicker and gentler than anything the Equestrians’ would do in the name of ‘curing’ her.

Please don’t hurt her, Harry. I know you might not have a choice, but I think Dash has suffered enough.

At the last moment I realized I was listening to Ding Bat again, going for the quick but stupid way. I couldn’t stop myself in time —didn’t even try truth be told, but instead just barely spread my arms in time that my crash left two smaller craters beside Nemo’s head instead of one large where it used to be.


Slowly, with pupils the proverbial pin would have scraped against, Nemo’s right eye slid from the crater just by her face, and up towards me.

I gave her a smile that had as little warmth in it as it was overflowing with pointy teeth. “Why, hello to you, Ms. Kettle!”

Using my hoof and levitation in tandem, I yanked Nemo’s mace right out of her hoof and threw it clattering away under the kitchen table. Even with hooves Nemo had a strong grip, and who knows if I’d been able to beat it had she still had fingers and that booster spell of hers…

But a magical grip, versus my own magical grip and outright magic? Judging from how Nemo winced and immediately clutched at the hoof, it hadn’t been much of a contest.

“For somepony that’s so pissed because their old friends treat her as the same hot-blooded idiot you apparently used to be...” I snarled pulling the wide-eyed Nemo face-to-face, giving her the hardest wizard’s glare I could. “Well, you sure act like I’m the same glass-jawed, yellow-bellied patsy you used to know.”

The fire roared to life in Nemo’s eyes again as I called Fluttershy names.

“What? You traded your tongue for those acting lessons, or something, Rainbow?” I leaned in until I was outright nose to nose. Lowering my voice until it was a meek little whisper. “Don’t like being called a backstabbing, lying hypocrite by her face and voice?”

It wasn’t much of a stretch given how much about… well, Fluttershy I’d heard to guess what tone she normally employed. Heck, it was almost outright in her name how much of a doormat she’d been.

Baring her teeth and hissing, Nemo twisted and pulled her hoof back to give me a haymaker.

I flinched, bracing for the impact.

It never came.

When I’d reopened my eyes Nemo’s hoof was shaking, her eyes welling with tears. Her wings, formerly flared in challenge, deflating and dropping down faster than a snow sculpture in Death Valley.

By the time I hesitatingly lowered her to the floor, she was outright blubbering, sobbing out half-choked repetitions of “I’m sorry!” over and over again while curling into a little ball. Hugging herself while tears streamed down her face.

I winced from the pitiable sight. Using what I’d heard about Fluttershy had worked, all right.

A sigh tried to escape me, but I kept that one down for the sake of her pride. Dealing with and staying mad at Nemo Schwartz would be so, so much easier if the same two-faced, infuriating double-dealing killer that didn’t trust anypony anymore wasn’t also a pitiable bundle of simmering anger and broken trust that just wanted to be your bestest friend forever and ever.

I glanced over to Agatha, but Carlos was already at her side. The man was near lost in the embrace as his once-more niece had all but enveloped him in a four-limbed bear-hug, leaving little more than Carlos’ head uncovered by Agatha’s rustling wings as he gently hushed and stroked her.

Guess it says something rather bleak about me and my life, but for a moment I tensed, looking for the trap. To my relief I didn’t spot anything like that, though. She was shaking like she’d just come in from a blizzard in June, and there was this distant, haunted look in her crimson eyes, but for now at least Agatha seemed to be, if not back in the driver’s seat at least, once more in the car.

But seeming is easy. “Luna,” I growled, “leave that poor kid now. If you do, I'll actually humor that you marched right on in on the road of good intentions.”

Agatha’s ear twitched once. Just once. Could have been Luna, could have been just reflex and a fly. Impossible for me to tell without opening my Sight—and given what strain my mind was already under thanks to this mare crap? No way that would end well for me or my sanity.

Nothing else… except Luna, the stubborn, vile old bastard, having decided to ignore my ‘cunning trap’ of offering her one last chance, and instead focusing her all on ripping Agatha’s mind and soul a new one. The crimson of Agatha fighting valiantly but being overcome by Luna’s cyan, as if a field of roses were being consumed by an uncaring ice-storm. Not one flower spared

And I felt so stupid. Humiliated. Anger—no, outright hate even, for having bought such a pile of sweet smelling rubbish. Fear for poor Agatha, and what me daring to hope Luna was different from the other monsters I’d met might have cost her. All burning and churning in the pit of my barrel.

My lips twisted into a snarl, and I felt my empty stomach churning. Who cares if you’ve got a line directly to Friendship, can feel Love itself stir, or smell Honesty? The air-caste girl dared to have an opinion on real magic in front of the ivory-crowned unicorn overlards. Let us in our mercy and our grace ignore her mad ramblings, so that we don’t have to give her the customary telekinetic beating with the iron rods of adorableness.

Why waste miracles on the hired help when they won’t even bleed and die for you properly?

But most of all, I felt ashamed for being so stupid. A pretty face and prettier words, and I’d been falling over myself to find excuses why this horror from before they invented rocks was different. Just because Luna kept barking about ‘Friendship’ and ‘Harmony’ instead of ‘Kine’ and ‘Mortal,’ I’d bought it.

Hook. Line. Sucker.

The room went still as animal growl more in tune with a wolf’s throat than a pony's ripped out of me, my lips curling back from fangs I could feel growing. Nemo outright flinched back from me.

Just like Justine. Enough little glimpses of faked kindness that you write the cruelty off as though love until it’s too late.

Two things happened.

Something within that thought went ‘click,’ and the mass of anger, hate and guilt crystallized into something hot, rigid and warm in my core. The few last lights flickering out as magic flowed into me, overflowed into me. The power my body involuntarily drawing so thick and potent, that it was nearly visibly in the air. A rasp warm from the forge that dragged against my bones without bothering about the skin and muscle in between first.

(Kinda like one of those paraffin hand-warmers, just with more face-punching, girlyness and raging hatred.)

The room fell both silent and away, darkening further as if all the shadows in the house were cuing up for the show. My bones and tendons creaking as they lengthened, most of the other tissue keeping pace as I grew, but all scars pinching painfully until they too kept up. My left hoof especially feeling temporarily as it was in a glove three sizes too small.

“No…” Luna spluttered, ‘her’ eyes wide in shock. Carlos tightening his good arm around Agatha’s neck.. “No! Not now, not like this!”

I vaguely heard Nemo make a decent impression of a dormouse going: ‘Meep.’

Darkness settled on the room, as thick and cloying as six feet of dirt. A gloom almost alive, the oddly cool heat of its power prickling as it sank my pelt and mane. The latter and my tail bursting into pink flames rising out from my in a flaming cloud whose light only murked the dimness further..

All was silent. My heavy breathing flowing steam past my fangs the only sound. The ghostly pink flames of my mane reflecting in what was left of the kitchen casting this heckish light that illuminated, barely, enough to see by. Such as my muzzle twisted into, again, a snarl more fitting for a mother wolf than a pony, the fur now stained the color of old gold. The change in color and the light of my mane making me nearly seem drenched in fresh blood—an illusion compounded by the lumpy stickiness still dripping off me.

Screw the damned consequences. I was going to feed Luna her own throat if I so had to climb through whatever waking dream that had been forced on this poor girl.

And that’s when the second thing happened.

Agatha, (metaphorically this time) grew a pair, and ripped Luna a new one from the inside.

Physically, not much happened. Shock, a short gasp that reminded me of that one time I saw a heavyweight boxer take an uppercut in the junk, a brief but blinding flash from Agatha’s cutie mark, and the crimson rushing back and over the cyan in her eyes as fast as if some mad snow-plower had bought a flame tank out against an ice-storm.

Magically, though, it was like being slapped in the face with an enchanted two-by-four. This cresting wave of shock, anger, fear and terror that even I felt, mixed with enough power that it made my teeth ache even after my own metamorphosis. Luna’s ethereal scream fading on the air even before the now unconscious Agatha slumped down into her uncle’s arms.

The crimson autumn full moon now framing her sprig of bitter-sweet nightshade nearly making her cutie mark glow from within.

We all just sorta froze from the mood-whiplash temporarily. Nobody having expected such a sudden turn, or for that matter for Agatha herself to settle things that decisively.

Then she whimpered. Once. Agatha steadying herself, pulling her uncle into a bone crushing hug while crying. Breaking the proverbial spell before Carlos could even start hurryingly hush comforts at her.

The sudden twist of fortune and how it seemed that Agatha would be OK had broken the back on my fury, but I still had to cover my face with my hooves and snarl backwards from ten a few times before I got my breathing under control enough to count backwards from ten instead.

I made decent headway, but it was a tiny whimper from Nemo’s direction that washed the embers away in a flood of guilt. Stars and stones, if I’m this pissed at Candyland’s false-flag operation, then how badly is it going to effect the girl with the ‘memories’ of all those ‘happy times?’

I winced, feeling guilty. Hell’s bells, I’ve done the seeing somebody I care about turning into a monster thing. It sucks diseased donkey dick, and here I was feeling sorry for myself instead of helping Nemo.

Nemo was stiff enough when I scooped her up, that with a dozen spoons, a roll of tape and a heaping helping of bad taste I could have made a xylophone of the now smaller mare, but ever so slowly she relaxed.

“Shhhh,” I hushed. “Don’t think about Blackie right now. Just focus on calming down.”

Nemo was oddly still and quiet for a long time. “You don’t trust me,” she finally said, her voice flat, hard and hot.

I’m honest enough with myself to admit I had to think it over for a moment, but I ended up shaking my head.

“I’ve been lied to by a lot of pretty and vaguely girl shaped creatures that drop their pants at the slightest provocation, Nemo.” I said, continuing to slowly stroke her mane. “Hate to admit it, but: ‘because I used to be the chosen one’—and not even a wizard will believe that one—and: ‘because my tail gets in the way’ is actually somewhat refreshingly innocent and down-to-earth compared to what I’m used to.”

Having blown her mother-load of righteous fury Nemo didn’t seem to have enough mental energy left for such complicated things as focusing on me, listening, and talking, but the kid did her best.

I just continued stroking her back, trying to pretend I wasn't noticing how slimy the hug was.

Took a while, but Nemo finally blinked. “...You think I’m under a mind-control spell, and going cray-cray from being forced to stay ‘in-character.”

“Nope,” I answered right back, “hadn’t even really crossed my mind. You know the one thing every single creep in Luna’s weight-class I’ve met has had in common; be they cackling mustache twirlers or well-intended throat-slitters?”

Nemo frowned, and thought it over for a few moments. “...No?”

“They have broom-handles stuck so far up their asses,” I answered, making Nemo splutter, “it’s a dark miracle they need servants to lick their floors clean.”

Carlos raised an eyebrow at me over Agatha’s shoulder.

“People in that weight-class without something to prove, without that ginormous red-wood right up their posterior?” I frowned, wracking my brain for a positive example of world-shaking power I could actually tell Nemo about. “There’s this one dude in Ukraine, for example. Semi-immortal shapeshifting guru. If you have to ask for his price-list, you can’t afford it.”

Nemo frowned into my shoulder again. Thinking.

“Guy could easily go Godzilla on Kiev without breaking a sweat if he wanted to. But he doesn’t, because he’s actually content with the respect and power he’s got.” I couldn’t quite stop a chuckle. “Only thing menaced in his turf as far as I’ve heard is the local fair maidens, if you know what I mean.”

Nemo’s cheeks lit red. Blue as a clear sky one moment, red as the proverbial tomato the next without the tiniest bit of purple. The fur itself somehow changing like Hollywood thinks chameleons work.

I didn’t stop stroking, but I made a mental note about that. If those butt emblems and pony fur could be every shade of… well, the rainbow, maybe I could mix up something alchemical to give myself slightly less ‘Disney Princess’ style colors.

Something more dignified.

I’ve seen your wardrobe, Harry. You’re a good b- girl and have many other wonderful gifts, but you couldn’t color match snow with hail if it started raining vanilla ice-cream in Antarctica.

Darth Vader black, and lightsaber red! I mean, if Twilight managed that living neon thing, how hard could it be?

...You know, Harry? I’d almost want to see you do that. Just to see anypony with actual taste collapse frothing at the mouth at fifty paces.

“Anyway,” I continued, realizing my mind had drifted again, “‘just’ being something as cuddly as Princess Buttercup of Candyland isn’t enough for those creeps. If they went through enough trouble to brainwash entire percentages of the world population, they would have been the God-Empresses of Eternity—bow before their pastel maws or be consumed—by now.”

Nemo shuddered once again.

“Besides,” I added,”mind-control doesn’t work like that. You’d have to ‘program’ every little character tick and preference, and I’ve seen people go permanently crazy from as little as: ‘stop doing drugs.’ That sort of massive list of ‘do's and dont’s’ would have had every-’pony’ drooling vegetables within a week. ”

I hesitated, looking closely at my hoof.

Still, ultimately I shrugged it off, and continued to slowly stroke Nemo’s head.

“Anybody subtle and good enough at loopholes to tear mind-magic and transmutation a new one? I would have just walked out that door with Twilight, you with Celestia, and it would have seemed like the most natural thing in the world to go follow our ‘destinies.’”

Nemo shuddered again. Harder this time.

A thought struck me, and I let out a hum. “...Although I did disenchant the freaky magical emblem on my butt within a few hours or so of finding it. That could be it.”

Please don’t remind me, Harry.

I disentangled myself from Nemo, and brushed the worst of the sludge off. “Let’s go. We’re heading out in five. All of us.”

Nemo blinked, clearly stunned by the quick turns. “Where?”

I just craned my neck around, and gave Agatha a meaningful look before beckoning her uncle over.

It made Carlos grimace as he pulled free from her, but he got the hint. He stopped to give Nemo a brief warning glare before following me out of the half ruined kitchen.

We walked in silence, neither of us saying a word until I was in the shower. Running the water at full blast both to obscure us speaking, and hopefully get the gunk off me quick enough.

Even so, I got blindsided by Carlos first question. “You sure ‘Nemo’s’ the only one that remembers things, Hoss?”

I paused mid scrub. (Modesty not seeming like a priority since I’m fairly sure no sane man is into tiny pastel mares covered in soap and vomit, and Carlos had seen everything already.)


Carlos rolled his eyes at the depth and width of my wit. “Don’t ‘what’ me, Harry. Answer the question.”

I just slowly blinked at him. Completely baffled. “Dude… You think I’ve kept a secret like that for years and years? Me?” I put my hoof to my barrel.I’m supposed to have resisted making cracks about the girliest eighties franchise this side of Care Bears and The Popplers for thirty plus years?

Carlos hesitated, before frowning deeply at me while crossing his arms.

“Besides,” I added, using a brush a bit harder than was strictly comfortable or good for my fur just to get all the crud out as soon as possible, “what even made you think that?”

“Because you’ve got a once in a generation talent for air magic you’ve neglected for years, almost like you’re hiding something.” Carlos started up without a moment's hesitation. Even counting on his freaking fingers. “You consider keeping your magic a secret stupid to the point that you’re in the yellow pages under ‘wizard.’ Again. Something that has a lot more in common with Equestrian values on magic than the local ones…”

I tensed, the normalcy of the wet porcelain and heavy hardwood brush in my hoof suddenly feeling a whole lot more important.

Carlos just rolled his eyes at me again. “Oh, and you somehow ‘missed’ the media meltdown on people turning into fictional characters from a cartoon. For half a year, while one of the main characters yourself.

I... couldn’t quite somehow find a counter to smelling a rat in all that.

“Your interest in flight, Hoss. Oh, and speaking of: Your old master that also ended up a pegasus had taken near all of us aside and politely asked that: ‘if that stubborn fool boy smears himself into a hospital-bed…’”

I lifted a hoof, cutting him off. “I… get the hint, ‘Los.”

Carlos folded his arms again and leaned against the sink, giving the impression that he wouldn’t move until he’d gotten an answer even if the room imploded.

“Look,” I said, starting up my scrubbing again since the clock was ticking, “I was bedridden for half of November, and rushing to get my crap together to fight back against whatever pony-obsessed freak did this for the other half. I’ve been alternating between putting out fires from so many new practitioners, getting my life together, and waiting for the other horseshoe to drop since then...”

Carlos frowned, but said nothing.

“And then nothing whatsoever happened. No cuddly death-cults. No sudden equine world-religion popping into existence. Zilch and nada…” I did a grimace. “Just a lot of kids with no clue what the dangers of magic are, but foci glued to them twenty-four-seven.”

“Until Twilight popped up, and expected you to follow her down the rabbit hole without any questions asked?”

I spread my wings in a shrug, water spraying and dripping over them in a not entirely unpleasant (if utterly inhuman) sensation.

Carlos gave me a Look.

“Hey, I gave the kid a free one-on-one on in the local dangers of magic, listened to her blabbering on and on for forty-five damned minutes, cleaned up after she pissed herself on hearing what Names can do…”

And I even invited the creep to my home and table. I found Luna at the latter and a fucking army at the former.” I pointed a wet hoof at him. “And when I fucked off to not have to punch what might be innocent ponies or brainwashed victims in the face…”

I gave the wall towards the kitchen a nod. Carlos’ face hardening as he got my hint.

“Well, your niece can tell how well Luna allowed that to work.”

Snarling, Carlos’ jabbed a finger my way. “Watch it.”

Fighting down a growl, I held my head high. “‘Los, I admit those are some scary accurate observations, but I swear I don’t remember anything of this ‘Fluttershy’—if she even ever existed. I’ll even swear it on my power if that’s what it takes.”

Carlos hesitated, leaning back again. Not entirely mollified, but mostly so

“A pretty girl walked into my office, and when I wasn’t taken in immediately with a few flashes of tail and power she tried to make my life a living hell. That’s about it. ” I gave another splashy shrug. “For all I actually know right now, that news report might have been another trick to make us play Harmony ball. Even immortals may take acting lessons, after all.”

Carlos hesitated, eyeing me evenly. “Harry, even wizards can go too far in being properly paranoid.”

I waved him off, nearly splashing him. “So the pegasi hole fit the wizard peg, and it was just utter coincidence they got some-’pony’ with prior magic with whatever bullshit magic they used instead of the Joe Average they planned for. Even the bad guys get unlucky sometimes, and it's not like I’ve gotten the slightest proof for what they’re claiming.”

...No. I don’t believe it. Something’s clearly happened to the girls, but they’d never, ever do something like that.

I grimaced, and lowered my voice a bit. “Even ‘Rainbow Dash’ could just be a bug in the programming of a slow-burn mind-whammy that didn’t work quite as planned. For her it flared up years ago and burned itself out without a script to follow, while mine got fried the moment I learned magic.” I shrugged again. “Would fit the whole idea of a magical-but-pony-obsessed genius savant without formal training. Even the resemblance to the show you’re talking about could be through foresight—or outright planned and planted to reinforce the mind whammy.”

Carlos looked uncertain about the idea, but not enough to actually offer any protests.

I turned the water off and, foregoing my match-book’s worth of modesty and dignity I had left, started shaking myself off like a dog. Not actually clean-clean, but at least I wouldn’t be smelling like a hobo who had gotten drunk in an abandoned stable.

Carlos tilted his head, seemingly thinking over something. “Think that’s about four minutes…” He gave my pile of clothes a half-amused look. “One minute with hooves sounds… less than dignified. Want me to step out?”

I let out a snort, lifting my hoof and pretending I still had fingers. “I am a wizard, you know.” I snarked, snapping that freaky magical grip of mine. “Of course I’m going to cheat.”

My pile of clothes lit with an amaranth aura, zipping over to me A small but swirling school of socks and underwear jumping me, while my pants, shirt and duster circled me like some sort of cloth sharks waiting their turn.

Not what I’d call dignified jumping from leg to leg like that, but it got me from buck-nude to fully dressed in about four seconds flat. I’d like to see any ‘pegasi with pegasi magic’ match that.

Although I’m sure Special Snowflake would deride me for stealing the secret of buttoning without using your mouth from my pointy-headed ‘betters.’ Don’t want the mouth breathing, flying slabs of muscle to get ideas above their station after all...

That’s… That’s not what Equestria is like at all, Harry.

Carlos frowned while I fidgeted with my collar. “With all due respect, Harry… Why do you actually bother with that bra when you have teats?”

I felt my cheeks heat. “Because running for your life from monsters sucks badly enough without jogger’s nipple in the mix?”

I don’t think Carlos would have dropped the subject faster if my reply had been etched into a white-hot skillet covered in razor-wire and rather distressed rattlesnakes.

“Anyway, “ I said, jumping right on that bandwagon, “let’s take your niece to Edinburgh. If she isn’t safe behind those wards, she isn’t safe anywhere. The kid and I can do some recon and figure out what’s next while we’re there.”

Carlos didn’t like it, but he grunted and nodded at me, scowling up a storm.

A thought seemed to strike him, though. “Speaking of ‘the kid…’”

I let out an unhappy grunt. Not liking it, but getting the unsaid question. “Not to sound cynical even by my standards, but she’s clearly so starved for the tiniest bit of genuine affection she’d clean the teeth of a grinning dragon holding salt and pepper shakers.

Carlos scowled down at me.

I rolled my eyes at him. “I have a good feeling about the kid, but I do mean the starved bit.

Carlos blinked. Frowning.

“As in, ‘she’d throw herself in a bonfire for the slightest bit of warmth’ starved. Dangerously starved,” I said firmly. Crossing my hooves over my barrel. “I think the fairest and safest thing to do is for me and her to disappear for a bit.”

Carlos frowned, and did a ‘go on’ gesture.

“We both know it, we just haven’t said it out-loud yet: Mr. Disco is a dead dragon-pony levitating. He’s simply pissed on way too many feet to live now, even before he went kaiju on the city of angels.” I did a grimace. “If Mab playing cute in person isn’t enough one way or the other, then every Nelly Not-So-Average is going to be howling for his blood in a very human manner soon.”

The frown deepened into an outright scowl. “So, what’s the problem?”

I grimaced. “When was the last time you met a big-wig supernatural that can stand losing face?”

Carlos blinked, letting out a hum while putting his hand on his shin. “...True. Troublesome.”

“Exactly,” I nodded. “Either the Equestrian newcomers have all been curb-stomped and are going to be saltier than a whole Lay’s factory that just fell into the sea with their entire lineup of heavy-weights just brushed aside, or some alien demi-gods are about to pull out their AAA-game to make sure ‘destiny~’ proceeds as planned. The locals cooperating—or not—with their lives being unmade for the sake of their convenience be damned.”

Carlos didn’t say anything. How his eyes hardened and flickered towards Agatha’s direction said plenty all on its own.

“But this time, it’s not some random amount of virgins off the streets. Or some ancient thingamajig needed to prime the doohickey for the arrival of the whatsit” I thumped my barrel. “This time, somebody was stupid enough to turn me directly into the damn McGuffin.”

“You watch way too many movies, Harry. They’re rotting your brain.”

I snorted and waved him off. “My point being, me simply saying ‘no’ was clearly off-script. Grabbing some random slobs off the street and redubbing them ‘Spectral Rush’ and ‘Thoroughfare-awkward’ is clearly either the last option, or not an option at all.”

“’Thoroughfare-awkward’?” Carlos droned, giving me a Look with one eyebrow raised.

I have to admit, Harry, that one needs… work.

“‘Trek-Timid,’ ‘Loiter-Loser,’ or ‘Stumble-Klutz’ then,” I snarled, making Carlos twitch back. “Hell’s bells, how should I know a naming scheme where calling somebody Flutter-shy for all eternity is A-OK?”


Carlos seemed taken back. I took that as a sign I needed to lean back and take a couple of deep breaths.

“Sorry, “ I forced out, rubbing my temples with both hooves. “I’m just… extremely frustrated with being the ‘bad guy’ for not wanting to lay down and think of Candyland.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the tiny room.

Carlos thought it over for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said, rubbing at his face with one hand. “Sorry for doubting you, Harry. It’s been a long morning.”

I gave a grunt, and moved to the door. “De nada. If the horseshoes were on the other hoof, I’d have some doubt too after all this pony crap.”

And it was with that inspired choice of words that I opened the door in Nemo’s tear-stained face, the weeping mare hugging herself, and having bit her lip hard enough to draw blood to keep quiet.

Oh ponyfeathers…

Well, at least I wouldn’t need to repeat myself.

The silence stretched out as Nemo and I sat and stood there, respectfully. I half expected a slap in the face with a contrail, but it never came. The girl just stared me down, silently demanding an explanation.


I got a hum of acknowledgement from behind me.

“Could you go get the first-aid kit while Nemo and I load Agatha into the car? She bit her lip, and I think I’m about to lose a couple of teeth from unfortunate muscle-spasms.”

As my answer, Carlos grunted, clattered around in one of the shelves, and dumped a green plastic case at my hooves. Walking off without a word.

I blinked, ignored feeling stupid, and got to work. “Panic room that flushes, right…”

Nemo barely moved as I fidgeted around with the disinfectant, scissors and bandages, but her shoulders relaxed from ‘asphalt’ to ‘old oak’ at least.

“So, Kid…”

“I’m twice your damn age,” Nemo snapped at me. Almost making me jab her in the eye with the cotton-ball full of disinfectant.

“Think you forgot to carry the ten on general cynicism and times I’ve been lied to my face…” I rubbed the ball in a bit harder than strictly necessary, making Nemo yelp. “You know, if we’re talking mental age, Kid.”

Nemo winced, and I don’t think the iodine was the only reason.

I hesitated, but it all came back to not being given any trust with Nemo, didn’t it? “My mom died in childbirth. Dad did his best, but he was a small-time, traveling illusionist. Good man, but he had an aneurysm when I was six.”

Nemo blinked, her eyes filling with pity… and, about two seconds later, deep, deep suspicion.

“I’ll spare the sob-story,” I said, jingling my pentacle, “but you’re looking at the only legacy I’ve got left. Everything else I fought for tooth and nail, bled and bargained for myself.”

Nemo hesitated.

I took a deep breath, and made a small show of setting the bit of bloody cotton on fire with an effort of will. “So… Yeah. My entire life not mattering because Princess Special Snowflake is destined~ to have five ponies as her hoof-maidens? Fuck that. With an angle grinder.” Fueled by my irritation the cotton very briefly burned white. “Sorry if that comes across a bit too hard.”

Nemo winced. Not taking her eyes off the soot stain.

“What was your first spell?” I asked, blowing the ash off my hipposandal.

Nemo blinked. “Err… Human or pony?”

I gave a shrug, and started cutting out what hopefully wouldn’t be that obnoxious a bandage.

“Well, pegasi don’t quite work like that normally. I… guess the sonic rainboom?”

“Spells don’t need vocal invocations to count; they’re a safety. Technically, you can do even the hardest spells with nothing but Will,” I droned half on autopilot. “Which makes the pointy-head master-race crap even more suspect, but go on.”

Nemo winced before pushing on. “Yeah, the rainboom then, unless you count just flying. It’s how I got my cutie mark.”

I nodded absently. Not really getting the point of the butt emblems—or caring to be honest, but getting that it was important to Nemo for some reason why she earned her ass tattoo.

This tiny shred of hope lit up in Nemo’s eyes. “...Do you want to hear how Fluttershy earned hers, Harry?”

A stab of pain nearly made me drop the bandages. “No, not really,” I grumbled, rubbing at my temples while getting back to work on the bandage.

Nemo gave me this look that was equal mix heartbroken and subtly fascinated. “You barely realize what you’re doing, don’t you?”


Nemo poked the scissors I was still levitating, pushing them back a tiny bit in the air.

“Oh, that,” I said, gently levitating the bandage in place, “have to admit, I’m getting used to it. It’s a really useful little cantrip. Sure beats using your mouth for anything that needs precision...”

Or popping a ghoul’s head off from its shoulders from a twenty feet away like a cork from champagne. Although quite impressive flexibility for one spell, somehow, mentioning that bit to the mare whose lip I was gently applying adhesive too seemed a bad call so I picked a much cheerier topic.

“There was this long-jump contest it seemed very important to a young boy to win,” I said, smiling softly despite myself. “Wasn’t going to make it, but I wished really, really hard, and whoosh. Think I still have the school record, even.”

Nemo got this really odd, blank look. “Shoo…” She slurred, not used to the bandage. “...The wind carried you?”

I froze, the tiny flash of good mood gone like my staff.

A small whimper from Nemo made me glare at the wall instead. Or Glare, more like, from how the concrete started to smoulder a bit.

“Nemo,” I forced out in a voice that could have gelded at fifty paces, “although I can sympathize, now is not a good time to fish around in my head for signs of your long lost foal-hood friend.”

Nemo answered with an awkward laugh that wouldn’t have fooled a zombie Martian.

Anyway,” I growled, “a couple of weeks after that I got adopted by a warlock.”

Nemo froze.

“I’ll spare an Equestrian’s sensitive ears the yucky details, but by the time I learned there were actually other magic users in the world,” I snarled, “I was standing in the ashes of the only home I’d known for years. My first introduction to The White Council was getting grabbed and thrown in a cell for three days with a bag over my head.”

Nemo went from frozen to outright statuesque as she stopped breathing.

I vaguely heard something shift down the hall. I pretended not to notice.

“But I was given the mercy of The Doom of Damocles. I worked, I bled, and I worked until I bled even more... and had The Doom lifted. Because no matter how much shit I’ve been given over that—still happens, even—I believe that magic is a force for good and that on the whole, the White Council does good work for good reasons. I did one bad, horrible, monstrous thing because I was not told better by a monster, and it still nearly got me killed and damned “

Nemo whimpered. “...Why?”

“Because they are right. It is a stain I will carry on my soul forever. And no matter how much easier it becomes to ignore that tiny voice in the back of my head, sometimes it still gives suggestions.”

The proverbial pin would have echoed.

“’Suggestions?’” Nemo whispered. In the same tone a bomb-diffuser would say: ‘The swimming pool is filled with how much astrolite?’

“Power, mostly,” I admitted, suppressing a shudder. “Whenever something dangles, say, one sixth of all magic in my face and tells me it could be mine for a tiny, tiny price…”

Nemo went ashen.

“Well, then there’s a tiny, nasty, stained part of me that can’t help but wonder.” I hold up my hoof. “Just how much good could that ring do on my finger? Surely I am wise and powerful enough to master it?”

Silence stretched out like a poorly measured noose.

“And at about that point, I usually stomp down hard on that little voice.” I continued. “Force myself to think of all the people I’ve seen destroyed by dark forces they thought they were the masters of. How much vileness, pain, and suffering actually came from those shortcuts. How little there is left once the rider becomes the ride.”


I gave Nemo a grim nod. “Usually. But I’m only human.” My eyes flickered to the kitchen. “And the things I’ve had to fight so seldom are.”

I could almost look inside Nemo’s head without magic in that moment. Memories of ‘the good old times…’ only for this subtle horror to bloom as she reached the end of what that power had actually cost and brought her.

“So, yes, I am all for giving the dork god of pettiness, who has used his power for nothing but tormenting and harming innocents, enough rope to go hang himself while Mommy Wide-Load’s greasy wing can’t shield him for once,” I continued quietly. “If that’s by sipping drinks on a beach somewhere instead of wading through blood, shit, and fire, I’m all for it.”

I put a hoof gently on Nemo’s shoulder, closing the first-aid kit with the other. “You’re a good kid, Nemo, but you’ve got an air-raid siren strapped to your back right now. To anybody in the magic business it’s screaming: ‘Come quick! The fresh meat hungers for a master!’”

Nemo was clearly stunned, but she still frowned at me.

“And, theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that.” I reluctantly added. “But there’s a hell of a lot more assholes than saints out there. Always have been, always will be. ‘Seven times down, eight times up.’”

Nemo’s jaw dropped off. “You’ve read Hagakure? You?

Usagi Yojimbo, actually, but same difference.”

No doubt blindsided by such squirrelly wisdom only available to a wizard with a card to the Chicago Public Library, Nemo face-palmed with both hooves.

“So, how’s your first string as a ronin treating you… Kid?”

Nemo froze under my hoof again. So I cheerfully patted her a couple of times.

“You’ve got talent, Kid. The White-ish Bitch, Special Snowflake, or Conformity won’t be the first to try to squeeze every drop of it out for her own bullshit.” I gave her neck one last pat before rising. “Just make sure you hitch your wagon to actual stars instead of black holes like ‘em, and you’ll be fine.”

“You being a ‘star’ then?” Nemo’s suspicious voice came drifting after me. “Since only ‘a jolly good chap on the up-and-up’ would tell me that?”

I just barked out a laugh. “See? You’re learning already!”

Maybe magic eyes are a pegasi thing, because Nemo’s shot me a stinkeye I swear made my entire aura wobble. If only for a moment, but still.

I smiled sadly over my back. “Is it really less scary that the baby-face ‘half your age’ is giving you the: ‘Oh, if I only knew this when I was a youngster, before the world bent me over a banister!’ schtick and means it?”

The facade of untouchable hardass crumbled, and behind me, for just a moment, there was a girl that lost everything and was trying to kill me with her mind alone for making light of it. Then just like that, almost fast enough I could have imagined it it was gone. Replaced with a mask of detached annoyance.

Frowning, I slowly turned around.

“...Wasn’t quite fast enough, huh?” Nemo muttered, not even pretending I hadn’t caught her.

“Well, whoever or whatever you paid for those acting lessons deserved a zero more.”

Nemo snorted at me. Hot enough that it misted in the air.

Now, I’m not the sharpest spoon in the quiver, but I like to think that I get there eventually. And now? I was adding one and one and getting two. “You said you’d tried to contact me.”

Nemo frowned.

“I’m not even the first triple digit on the list of occult ‘experts’ Loyalty contacted to try to get home, huh?”

Nemo twitched, and I’d clearly touched a nerve.

“Except… There’s a whole lot more frauds, crooks, and crackpots out there than genuine freaks that actually advertise. Even now.”

Nemo fidgeted, but her face hardened. “Aren’t you clever.”

Translation: ‘Sure, you just ‘figured that out.’ I’ll buy that for a dollar… of Monopoly money.’

“And a bonafide wizard in the phonebook was just too good to be true, huh? Especially once somepony twice bitten went and dug, and found…” I waved a hoof at my face. “Well, a very special but rather suspect pegasus, huh? A twisted mirror of Kindness level special.”

Nemo shuddered and hugged herself, and for a blink I actually bought that she was chronologically about sixty-eighty something. I repressed a sigh. What a gosh darned mess, and that was putting it mildly in way, way more than just the cusses. No wonder Nemo had been acting like a lost kitten. All the more juicy for some sort of twisted sadist that actually deserved the moniker: ‘Cruelty.’

“Except I kept actually risking stuff for you. Showing my sanctum. Turning my back in Equestria. Giving you some genuine one-on-one stuff instead of the ‘I sense great potential in you, young one… if only your credit card you give me’ crap.”

Nemo twitched again, making me wonder how many times she’d gotten that dance.

An unpleasant thought struck me as I turned around towards her, but one I couldn’t quite silence. “You know? There’s about two things I’ve actually heard about my mom.”

Nemo blinked.

“That she was in one hell of a downward spiral—as in demons have literally told me they almost got her—and then she met dad.” Didn’t feel right even thinking it, but… again, the horse-shoe just fit a bit too good. “True love at first sight, believe it or not…”

I couldn’t read Nemo’s expression. At all. It was trying to judge the mood of a rock.

I couldn’t help but chuckle dryly. “You’d think a god of chaos could figure out cause and effect to the point he’d get where babies come from.”

Nemo did a little gurgling sounds I honestly couldn’t tell was good or bad.

I frowned. “But he’s never had that, has he? He’s a big, dumb hedonist that’s never had to do more than snap his claws for the next fix.” I snapped my own hoof. “Like those rats with electrodes in their pleasure-centers that keep pushing the red button until they die… except he so utterly blew the curve on the power-lottery that he’s immortal as well.”

“You pity him,” Nemo choked out.

I shrugged. “I’ve pitied a lot of things I’ve had to fight over the years. Then made it quick, if possible.”

Nemo froze. Her shocked expression telling me that she’d expected and dreaded a lot of things, but not apathy.

“I’ve also seen people change, or fight with their alls to stay human. Good men and women dead before their time because evil ones were faster.” I snapped at her. “The overgrown titan-child of sand-castle kicking thinks he’s big-leagues enough to pull one over on the Queen of Air and Darkness?”

Nemo hesitated on hearing the title.

“I pity people that play chicken with freight trains, Nemo, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get indebted for life—again—to get them out of the hospital bills they damn well earned with that level of bottomless stupidity.” I folded my arms and shrugged again. “That’s too cold for ‘Sailor Kindness?’ Well, I’m sorry, but I’m from the real world, used to the limits of real magic, and must have left my Mars Wand of Undeserved Consequence Removal in my other pants.”

“No,” Nemo snarled, “you left it on your haunted island of doom, in the ‘hands’ of your pet forest demon.”

“Genius loci,” I tartly corrected. “Spirit, not demon.”

Nemo flipped me a rather ironically feathered bird.

“And you have just as much proof those things weren’t eating us as I’ll actually admit I’ve got of them not being the genuine McCoy.” Nemo wilted as I growled on. “Except if I’m wrong, one evil bastard gets what he deserves and your friends get a slap on the fetlock. A couple of weeks or even years in a box is nothing to an immortal.”

Nemo hesitated.

I made my voice as kind as possible, ironically enough, before continuing. “...But I have to assume I’m right. Too many lives are at stake if that ‘magical root access’ thing you told me about happens for the wrong reasons.”

Nemo twitched, her face ashen again, as she wilted into a little pony puddle on the floor.

For a moment I was puzzled. Why bring that up, come to think about it, if…?


“...It’s too far, isn’t it? Thinking of them, you, as nothing but some bastard’s tools.”

Nemo’s ears twitched.

“Them being misguided is tragic, but fine. Same thing if something warped them. Or if they're just that stupid from being desperate.”

Nemo growled at me, like a hurt... . well, hound, I guess.

“But they’re still your friends,” I softly sighed.

Nemo froze again.

“Thirty odd years, and a lot of pain and insult when they finally showed,” I murmured. “You’re probably never going to call them ‘liege’ again. Give them shit until they breathe the stuff. The next thirty Christmases they’re getting itchy sweaters and little notes that say: You suck.”

I got glowered at.

“But they’re still your friends,” I finished at a whisper.

Nemo hesitated. Her shoulders sat hard, but she forced a more neutral expression. “...I don’t know how stuff like that works around here, Harry,” she said through gritted teeth, “but I didn’t get to bear Loyalty because I filled out a coupon while I was doing the contract in blood anyway.”

Humbled, I bowed my head. Deep in thought.

You were a decent enough person, and that gave you power? Not PC ‘everybody gets a medal!’ power either, but honest to goodness, your teeth aching from just looking at it levels power? For free? Right making might, and that being the way things should be?

I… honestly couldn’t even imagine it working like that, and that scared me.

No. You did right, because it was right. The slower, but ultimately more rewarding, road of your might making right, because your might could just as easily do wrong.


I mean, if everybody got sparkle-powers from doing the right thing, who would ever be evil? What would even be the point of the hard work, sacrifice, and determination needed to stay good, if you got rainbow eye-beams from hugging your friend enough times?

And even if—if this ‘Tree of Harmony’ was such a sap about handing out its power, what made six mares, that from my impression could barely spell ‘dismemberment’ between them, so special? Thirty-ish years of barely flinching Loyalty was on the high end, yeah, but I’d seen millennia old demonic hosts lay down and bleed for their cause—and that was the ‘bad-guys.’

A nasty, dark and twisted part of me that refused the courtesy of actually being wrong flashed me an image of Michael. The shining Fist of God, striding knee deep in filth and swinging a holy sword, leaving broken monsters and rose-water in his wake… and the broken but smiling wisp of a man he’d become as his ‘reward.’ The one that needed a cane to walk, in constant pain, and could only see clearly through one eye.

He’d taken a fully loaded AK to the chest for a girl he’d never met, to help his idiot friend save somebody their short-sighted stupidity almost gave a fate worse than death, and I’d never seen him give off rainbows.

“No,” I stated firmly, shaking my head. “I refuse to believe that much power is free and without a whole litany of catches. That only happens in bad fairy tales and worse cartoons.”

I’m fairly certain that Nemo wouldn’t have gone so teary-eyed if I’d done an Ozzy with a real bat in front of her.

Anger. Pure, hot and almost beyond words, it flowed up from the battered core of my heart. My mane and tail flared into entire bonfires that covered the corridor without burning as I reached that quiet place where even the rage burns away.

“Or are you telling me, Nemo, to my face, in the house we were let into while looking like this…” I growled, sweeping a hoof over my whole Darned Heck-pony look.

Nemo flinched.

“That I wouldn’t have had to bury anybody if I’d been a true friend?”

I almost smashed the wall. In that moment, I’m honestly not sure how much would have been left of it or my hoof, but Carlos’ face flashed before me. Making me lower the thing, even if it took me almost as much will as a spell.

“That if I’d just been a true, true friend, I could have just—” I spat the words. “—hugged vampires, and had them hale and hearty?”

I think Nemo would have prefered the beating, to be honest.

“Oh, I know!” Pulling back the arm of my duster, I shoved the half-waxen hoof in her face. “Maybe if we’d been true friends, the napalm would have just bounced of my aura of smug satisfaction like it apparently does for real ponies when their true friends are in danger! But I’m sure I didn’t hug the second law of thermodynamics enough, or I’d been just peachy, you lying, backstabbing nag!”

OK, maybe I wasn’t quite as happy with Nemo as I had tried to pretend I was; good gut feeling or not.

Nemo let out a tiny whimper and started weeping again. Maybe she hadn’t noticed due to my clothes before and the distraction from Agatha, but her eyes were transfixed on the scar-tissue. The anger just disappeared in a puff of crushing guilt. Good going, Harry, you made the rainbow-maned My Little Pony otaku-kin cry from what a broken waste of a mare you are.

Again. And it didn’t even take you a full hour from the last time.

“I’m sorry,” I pleaded as I pulled the unresisting mare into a hug. “I’m so, so sorry, you’re not the one I should be chewing out about this.”

Well, tried. On that last bit Nemo’s eyes flashed, and I got an uppercut right into the milky way from how many stars I saw.

“But you ‘should’ be chewing out the others, huh?” Nemo, who I had to admit seemed unlikely to be on the ceiling, snarled down at me.

I carefully felt my teeth before answering, but didn’t get up.

“...Rainbow Dash.”

Nemo, or… well, you know, frowned down at me.

“That’s who I’m actually talking to right now, right? Or do you prefer Loyalty?”

Nemo just glared daggers at me.

“I am a wizard of the White Council. A young one, with enough potential to be… tasty, so to speak.”

Nemo frowned, just a bit, before going back to glaring.

“If I had a dollar for every ‘join me, young Harry’ moment I’ve had, I could retire.” I couldn’t quite stop a shudder. “And… once or twice, because nobody else seemed to be lining up to dirty their damned hands themselves, I’ve said yes. To have enough power to protect people.”

Nemo went blank again.

“The idea that I’ve been nothing but a cruel joke. That my friends fought, died and bled for… some sort of fun-house mirror person they were never meant to even meet.”

I blinked away some dust. Damn dust. It gets everywhere.

“I’m sorry, Dash, but I’m not Kindness. If I thought some twisted shit had done all that horrible stuff, and still deserved to live more than I do for some twisted reason? I’d walk right out that door, and not stop until I’ve fed Discord his own heart. Maybe Kindness really could forgive all that, but…”

The words: ‘I'm just human’ died in muzzle. Just didn’t seem right to say them with my wings splayed off my barrel, and my hooves folded on my chest

Nemo’s face twitched into a grimace on noting the silence, but said nothing.

“...I’m not. I’m just a dork with magic that’s done her best.” I quickly let go a bit of my pentacle when it gave off a warning creak. “And I know exactly what things like Harmony do to little people that get in its way.”

Nemo’s mask broke again as she winced. “That’s… not what Harmony is about, Harry.”

“All hail the wisdom of the Knight of Obedience! Or else!”

The sad frown went to a glare in two blinks flat. “You’re still a razor tongued bitch.”

“I’ve had many excellent teachers.”

Nemo shuddered once. “So I’ve gathered.”

Guess I wasn’t the only one feeling hungry and tired, because this time Nemo’s fake smile wouldn’t have fooled a blind woman. “But you're a good ma-”

Rainbow,” I cut her off, a warning note sneaking back into my voice, “I haven’t told any lies to your face about how sure I am Fluttershy—ngh, may be saved.”

Nemo’s mask cracked again.

“Please return the courtesy, and don’t try to bullshit me about what actually happens in a: ‘Johnny Five is alive!’ situation when the government’s shiny super-weapon starts talking about growing pansies instead of killing foreigners.”

Nemo let out a deep sigh and rubbed at her temples. “Did I mention what a glorious ray of sunshine and happiness you are, Harry?”

“Ah, yes. Good point. I better sound like a real pony.” I cleared my throat, and put on the most obnoxiously chipper voice I could. “Puppies! Socks! Beer! Cute things!”

“Beer was never invented in Equestria, Harry.”

I think my heart skipped a beat. “No fooling?”

“No fooling.”


Well, at least it was all but confirmed now: I had died again, and hell really is big on irony. Irony, My Little Pony and pastel type irony.

I frowned slightly. “Do you think ‘girl hell’ has a Transformers theme? Or is a ‘He-Man’ thing more Ol’ Scratch style given all those depictions where he’s more flaming than your hair?”

Nemo lined up a hoof with my kidneys. “Don’t tempt me, Harry.”

“Was rather the point of laying here… in my nice, comfy armored duster.”

Nemo did a double take.

“So... “ I waved a hoof between us. “Is this the part where we punch each other on the shoulder and insult each other like grown-ups after a fight, or do I need to go raid Carlos’ fridge for caramel-sauce an’ whip-cream?”

Nemo’s cheeks started matching the red bang in her mane. “You’re a pig, Harry,” she grunted, offering me a hoof.

I hesitated.

Nemo looked sad for a moment, but then steeled herself. “Fine. We’ll do it.”

Now it was my turn to splutter.

The plan. I meant the plan!” Nemo spluttered right back. “That Edinburgh thing!”

I let out a deep sigh of relief.

Now, this time? I did get a punch in the kidney. Driving the air out of my lungs even. Ouch.

“I’m technically seeing somebody,” I growled, rubbing at the sore spot. “I’m sure one of your personas is just lovely, though.”

Nemo stopped, rubbing her own hoof.

“I’m technically seeing some-body,” I clarified, hastily. “We’re on break while I try to fix this pony crap.”

Nemo froze.

“Something I have every intention to still do if I live through this, I should add. You know, if we’re actually putting all our cards on the table.”

The mare closed her eyes for a moment. “You’re a beautiful mare, Harry...”

I let out a snort, and got jabbed in the ribs again.

“You stop squirming like you just ate an uncooked spider and liked it as soon as you check somepony out, and you’d have the amazon thing going on.” Nemo jabbed me in the ribs again. “And yeah, that’s counting the scars.”

I frowned up at her, not quite buying it.

Nemo sighed. “But if you need to do it to stay happy? It’s… your body.”

Now that? Now that made me crook an eyebrow.

The ghost of a smile haunted Nemo’s lips for a moment. “Let me guess: Twilight’s entire synopsis was: ‘kind, likes animals’ or something like it, while blathering on, and on, and on…”

Nemo nodded down at me as I froze. “Thought so. Guess she backslid on those social skills.”

“What social skills?”

This time I was ready for it, and swatted Nemo’s hoof aside.

“Those of the girl that didn’t have more than a study group before she got gently kicked out of her ivory tower by the boss mare herself,” Nemo snarled, while fanning her hoof. “The girl that lost all her friends in one day because the draconequus she never really trusted killed them all for a ‘prank.’”

A moment of silence passed as I got to my hooves.

“Okay,” I growled as I dusted myself of, “that one sounds like a plausible reason to get just a smidgen unhinged.”

Nemo glowered at me.

“Fine, you’ve talked me into it.”

Nemo blinked again.

“Carlos and Agatha to safety, then Demonreach to clear the air with the idiots.” I shrugged. “I doubt they’ll get a Christmas card anytime this decade, but if they’re willing to talk with me instead of spouting platitudes and hypocrisy at me? I’ll put on my big-girl panties and suck it up that they screwed the pooch so hard, the poor thing exploded.”

Nemo cringed slightly at my choice of words.

But,” I said, poking Nemo in the chest, “they keep being as opaque as granite? Then you have to suck it up, and face that either way the good ol’ days were a filthy lie told to you by immortals saying what you wanted to hear… or that we haven’t even seen the pony-obsessed mastermind yet. That happens, and we run until the real ponies break down from all their precious ‘alicorns’ being AWOL; be it morale wise or mentally.”

Nemo winced and cringed this time, but I got a weak nod.

I frowned as a thought struck me, speaking of all the crap I’d been through over the years.

“...You’re not doing any freaky pony mojo right now, are you?”

Nemo blinked. “...Not that I am aware of?”

I nodded slowly. “Right. I’ll take your word for it.” I patted her on the shoulder as I moved out. “Then maybe you should think over Love’s words on ‘ascending wrong…’”

Nemo blanked.

I gave her another pat. “...and how a cranky, paranoid old wizard with more notches than belt left can’t seem to find a good reason to stay mad at you, eh, Loyalty?”

Nemo made a small blubbering sound at the back of her throat I took as a good sign the kid had a healthy respect for the survival prospect of licking the Power-Outlet of Eternity on accident.

I gently patted her on the head a few times, Nemo barely registering the movement. “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”

I was halfway down the corridor—again, when her voice came drifting after me. “Oh God, you really have no idea, do you? You haven't even noticed.

I scowled and turned my head. The lamps having all blown out from my earlier stunt, but my current bonfire hairdo casting enough pink light to see by anyway. “Noticed what?”

Oh, Harry, you clueless dolt of an overgrown filly....

On noticing the deadpan look from the rainbow maned mare now—and call me a cynic but that seemed to be it, currently half my size it clicked. “Oh, right. This.”

Say what you want about Svartalves (just do it quietly) but if you’ve got enough incentive to let them go hog-wild? You almost get stuff that’s too good. I hadn’t even noticed how much I’d been swelling up this time because all my clothes… well, fit perfectly.

Perfectly, paying no heed to such silly things as the owner having silly extra-dimensional, magical horse-allergies that makes their new salt-water taffy based biology swell up to twice their body-weight at the drop of a hat.

But I’m sure~ a ‘pegasi with pegasi magic’ could have done just as good a job. I’m sure it’s just part of the prancing on rainbows package, and the reason for the casual nudity is just boredom. Being perfect all the time must simply be so draining.

Then it hit me. Speaking of perfection I’m marring with my mare existence, “Hey, you remember if Ms. Shy ever mentioned any allergies?”

Nemo blinked slowly at me.

“Because I just can’t figure out what’s causing this ‘My Little Mare of Damocles’ look, and it’s annoying. I wouldn’t even be able to keep a whole pair of pants if I couldn’t cheat like a motherfucker.”

Nemo cringed slightly at the last swear. “Annoying? You find… that annoying?!”

I spread my wings in a shrug, accidently brushing the walls with my wing tips. “At least it keeps Ding Bat quiet and makes me tall again.”

These are the priorities of the mare that may bend reality by her Will alone, everypony. It would be terrifying if it wasn’t so gosh darned adorable.

Nemo opened her mouth, raised a hoof. and hesitated. “...You said you treat it with... meditation?”

I frowned a bit at the ‘grandma forgot to take her pills again’ tone, but nodded.

“How about I promise to fill you in after you’ve done that?” Nemo frowned. “And we’ve stopped at White Castle or something to make sure ‘Ding Bat’ stays quiet, while we’re at it?”

The house rumbled as a small satchel charge went off somewhere in my lower intestine.

Still… that tone of voice had me worried enough to discount the hole where my stomach should be. “It’s not, you know, the pony version of your eyes turning yellow, your nails white, or something?”

For some reason, that also made Nemo freeze. Her eyes filling with pity, of all things. “No,” she said, strangely softly. “I… It’s…”

The mare drifted off, rubbing her head in embarrassment. “It’s…” Nemo blinked. “How about I leave it at it being a ‘witches and warts’ type deal? I really don’t want to stress you out if you really can... meditate it away.”

A tension I’d barely felt building up in my shoulders just melted away. I suppose. Human Wizards used to sour milk or get liver spots, now they blow up technology. Made as much sense as the pony stuff possibly could that pony wizards got a different side-effect—and I’d even noticed, today notwithstanding, that I was blowing up a lot less light bulbs.

Ponies that dabbled in—gasp—non-Sparkles magics become ugly, scary, and—double gasp—scary ugly. With darker colors, and fangs! While ponies that do good, wholesome pony things like, say, clearing their heads by going flying like good little pegasi, get to poop rainbows while prancing on moonbeams.

So made perfect sense… from the logic of a Saturday Morning Cartoon aimed at pink obsessed girls in the ‘pink-pink-pink’ to ‘pink glitter-rainbows!!!!!’ demographics.

...Harry, I do love you and treasure you... but right now I very much wish I could smack you until your ears fall off.

“Fair enough,” I nodded, before noticing something and tapping beside my pentacle. “Just make sure you don’t forget something.”

Her hoof snapped to her bare neck, and Nemo took off towards the other guest-rooms at speeds I’d normally associate with things trying to eat my face.

My right hoof twitched out of reflex, but with an effort of will I kept it down. Nemo being so intent on pouncing that trinket of hers I doubt she’d noticed if she’d passed The Roadrunner, let alone the tiny jingle from my shield bracelet.

Or maybe the Kid really was just that alright, and that was all my gut was telling me. Stranger things have happened than something nice for once, right? Speaking of, by the time I stopped in the doorway to hiss at the cruel day-star, Carlos had almost gotten his niece into the car.

A ‘car’ I must admit made me raise an eyebrow.

It was a soccer-mom’s mini-van. Well, had been one long ago before coming into the ownership of a wizard. Lord only knew what make and year, because I don’t think even the body of the ‘car’ was still original. Half melted red hood. A baby-blue fender on the right where claw marks hadn’t quite buffed out completely contrasting ‘nicely’ with a factory new purple one at the left. A radioactive green roof, the old hippy painting of a daisy pockmarked by acid…

I could go on listing how not a single seat matched another, or how the thing had a dreamcatcher made from pipe-cleaners hanging from the rearview mirror, but you get the gist. To Carlos’ (or at least his mechanic’s) credit Franken-Van’s Monster was idling with barely the odd splutter, but the thing might as well have had ‘wizzard’ in sequins on the fender for how unsubtly it screamed: ‘For the modern magic user on a budget.’

I fought down a pang of nostalgia. The Franken-Van could have been The Beetle’s long-lost brother in coughing along.


My ear perked at Nemo’s voice. “Hmm? Nah, just had one of those ‘not’ moments.”

Nemo frowned, whatever fingering is called with hooves that choker of hers. “‘Not’ moments?”

“‘Not human’ moments, if I must spell it out,” I said, getting a soft wince from the mare I pretended not to notice. “Been years since I drove a car myself, and now…” I wiggled a hoof at her. “You know. Ungulate quadruped with feather-dusters nailed to the side and modern automobile ergonomics going together like popcorn and petroleum jelly.”

Nemo did a grimace at the mental image. “Give it a year or two,” she shrugged. “I’m sure there’ll be fancy new mobility-scooters if you still feel like it.”

A half murmured children’s song drifted over for just a moment, followed by a weak and hiccuping mix of a giggle and a sob.

An uncomfortable silence followed. Neither of us wanting to intrude on Agatha and Carlos. Time was somewhat of the essence, yeah, but I’d personally rather have eaten my own hoof than go out there and Nemo seemed to feel the same way.

It just felt too private and raw. Like walking in on somebody changing the bandages on their kid.

Or comforting them after waking from a nightmare, I guess.

Nemo outright closed the door. I didn’t argue with it, but just leaned back and made myself comfortable.

“Did you mean it?” Nemo said after a couple of minutes.

I blinked. “Mean what?”

“The ‘boy-hell’ thing, or was it just sarcasm?” Nemo cringed. “Or… the wings being the only thing you’d miss about being a pony?”

I thought it over for a moment.

One moment. Singular. “Pretty much.”

Nemo twitched, and went carefully blank.

“It’s like… some bunch of nuts from the Old World tracked my lineage, and decided that only I’m good enough a patsy for something due to my bloodline. But first they have to whitewash the American and Wizard ‘stuff’ off the Gelfling of the Dark Crystal, or whatever.” I gave a shrug. “And I wouldn’t have minded playing along with that to a point… except they firebombed my house because the feng shui was abominable, or crap like that instead of asking nicely.”

Nemo blinked. Frowning deeply.

“I don’t hate Equestria. I’m deeply annoyed with Equestria. There’s a difference.”

Nemo cringed slightly. “Annoyed? You call shooting Sw- somepony annoyed?”

I took notice of that ‘somepony,’ but I saw it as a good sign. That I was being—slowly admittedly, being shown the real Nemo slash Rainbow Dash.

“Collectively speaking, yeah,” I explained. “Would rather not have shot that girl, or slammed that boy in golden tinfoil through a car, or thrown around that squad with winds... but it was either that or get nasty on all of them.”

Nemo gave me a wide-eyed look.

“You haven’t seen nasty, Nemo. Not by a long shot,” I said quietly. “I’ll even give the she-demon her dues: For Marcone it was just business.”

Nemo froze.

“A bunch of intruders poaching on her turf. Nothing more, nothing else.” I frowned slightly. “Why she was doing it in my backyard on my island’s something of a mystery, I’ll have to admit.”

Nemo gave me an odd look, her expression guarded. “You hate her, don’t you?”

I scowled a bit, my mouth feeling dirty even before the word left it. “No.”

Nemo blinked.

“Marcone’s scum, but I’ve seen too much outright filth to hate her. She’s been on my list for years, but there’s just always a bigger fish with more tentacles than the mob boss.”

On hearing ‘Pinkie Pie’ and ‘on my list for years’ in the same sentence, Nemo cringed. It was a good cringe too, one of those ‘the head nun just found the used condom in the nativity scene’ full body ones.

I gave her an even look over my muzzle, but trying to keep my voice kind. “Nemo, you do get that you’re quite possibly the lone exception on the whole planet, right? One way… or the other.”

Nemo froze. Not even breathing.

“Because I’ve shared a soulgaze with Marcone. And I sure didn’t see the slightest hint of even lower-case laughter in there, let alone capital L Laughter.” I grimaced. “Hell’s bells, I’m downright amazed the Power-Bling of Giggles didn’t rot away when Special Snowflake homed in on her with it.”

Nemo shuddered again. Staring down into the floor with a forlorn look on her face.

“And frankly, if I had some sort of ‘sparkle-sparkle-super-duper-mode,’ I think it would have activated by now.” I said softly, pulling back the sleeve on my burned hoof. “And not for lack of true companions that have bled and, yes, died for me.”

“Maybe because they weren’t ponies?”

The resulting Glare from me outright pressed Nemo against the wall.

Literally. Croaking out a whimper, Nemo was as plastered against the wall as if her personal bit of gravity had flipped ninety degrees and quadrupled. Even her mane and all its colors wouldn’t fall off that wall.


It was as much guilt as shock that made me screw my eyes shut and slam an arm over them both for good measure.

With a soft thump that only didn’t scare the hell out of me because it was followed by a deep, rasping breath, Nemo fell off the wall.

The only thing breaking the silence for quite a few moments after that was more deep breathing from Nemo. I didn’t quite feel like it.


I cringed, but didn’t take the arm of my face.

“That was very poorly worded. I forgot how utterly clueless you are about ponies, and I apologize.”

If I hadn’t already been keeping them closed, I would have blinked.

“I can’t give you nitty-gritty details—I flunked out of school my first time, but to ponies Friendship is Magic.” I literally heard Nemo’s ear twitch in annoyance. A soft snap, like a fly had cracked a whip. “As in, you get a bunch of friends and you’ve got more.”

My brow furrowed against my arm. “A feedback loop? Really?”

A soft scritch of fur on concrete told me Nemo had nodded. “I guess. Again, I used to…” Nemo hesitated for just a moment. “be an utter idiot. And Twi’s a bright cookie, but her idea of peer-review is to send a letter to Sun Butt to check if her research is on the right track.”

I frowned a bit at that one.

“And mechanics aside, it’s usually not that noticeable. When Milk Run buys Fast Cashier and Winter Melon salt-licks. Well, to be blunt, one point zero-one to the power of three still ain’t that impressive a figure.“ Nemo let out a dry chuckle tinged with something dark. ”But you, shiny wizard person, had power even before eating my friend, huh?”

I winced. I… hadn’t thought of the ‘Equestria is real’ thing from that point of view before—and given how beyond the far edges of cynicism I usually travel that’s saying something.

“A changeling queen willing to bleed for you, ‘Laughter’ as some sort of nemesis…” Nemo continued listlessly. “I think I even felt a siren sneaking around on your doom island.”

My ears perked. Mortimer had been that ‘thing’ I couldn’t recognize? And how exactly did you sense a ‘siren’ pony then?

Still, now did not seem the time. Not when Nemo’s—or Rainbow’s, whatever—mask was seemingly cracking with the rest of her.

“You and Mr. Ramirez, have you… known each other long?”

The sudden switch in subjects made me pause.

“Because… Because…” Nemo drifted off, fiddling with her hooves from the sound of it.

I carefully lowered my hoof. I’m not good at reading women, let alone mares, but even I could tell what mood the fuzzy little puddle of dejected pony in front of me was projecting.

“Nemo,” I said gently. “Nobody that waited thirty-ish years for a friend fits the definition of ‘worthless.’” Nemo’s face was still utterly unreadable, but her ears perked.“I’m not sorry that I’m not her, but I am sorry how much pain that is causing you.”

I hung my head.

“That sort of wait’s… storybook stuff. Nice storybook stuff, not the Grimm Brother’s peyote fueled fever-dreams type crap I usually get dragged into.” I took a deep breath, and just said it. “If this world was fair, you wouldn’t have to pick.”

Nemo frowned. The expression somehow caught between insulted and pitying. “Pick?”

I gave the girl a hard look, trying to ignore how she flinched from it. “Nemo… I don’t have much of a life, but there are people that depend on me and my skills, and those dear to me that I refuse to abandon because Princess Special Snowflake wants her fifth pony back.”

“If I genuinely thought that this ‘Equestria’ was in existential danger, and only the chosen maidens of Whatever could save the day?” I grimaced. “I’d sure still tell anypony that tried to rush me into it without even getting to say goodbye or clear my affairs where they could stick their teeth, but… I’d do it.”

Nemo gave me a look just as hard right back. Softening into a thoughtful one only when she didn’t see any deception there.

“But that place had nobles with shining coats, pelt and cloth. Labs with magic resistant computers, and interdimensional doorways. The forges, industry, and know-how to make all that spandex and tinfoil for those eager young bits of beef and cheese cake Princess Bathes-With-Red frankly should have trained in more than looking good. The food and thus by implication farmland and farmers to keep that sort of massive undertaking going.” I raised my head again. “And such beings that’ve been fighting ‘Chaos’ incarnate couldn’t last five minutes in this bleak, cold world.”

Nemo froze as she got the implication.

“I’m not laying down on the altar willingly,” I said firmly but softly, “just so that Hippo-topia can go from ‘great’ to ‘excellent’ again. If that ‘never ending’ golden age needs some heartblood to lube it forward over this rough patch…” I gave off an disinterested shrug. “Whoopsie daisy, if only the country had a few spare, useless immortals laying around, huh?”

Nemo’s face flickered between conflicting emotions. Disgust, both against me and Equestria, sadness over the whole situation, anger at being used…

But she finally settled on annoyance. “And that’s it? Screw how much they’ve lost, because Harry Dresden had to walk to wizard-school twenty miles, uphill both ways?”

My face nearly twitched into a snarl, but I fought it down. “I’ve had to step over friends laying in bloody puddles, Nemo. Wet behind the ears apprentices that were carved like sushi.” I nearly spat on the floor. “Or for that matter, seen good champions laying on sacrificial altars so the vile monsters could go cartwheeling away, laughing at the shot at redemption they spat at.”

Nemo froze.

Don’t go there,” I growled. “I get that you're testing me, that you have a history with frauds... but don’t you go calling me spoiled if you want an unbroken jaw. Not when you’re comparing what little power and tools I have with some bullshit wish fulfilment rainbow and Candyland’s entire gum-drop brigade of magic niceness-engineers.”

Nemo nearly wilted right down through the concrete. Like a dandelion in reverse and blue.

But she still had enough fire in her belly to mumble something sullen at me.

“What was that?” I said, and Listened. Not sure if there’s even magic to it, or if it’s just a trick not many have the inclination to figure out nowadays. Focusing and filtering out all but a few tiny sounds.

“...You promised,” Nemo mumbled. As tall and proud as a soldier ant that could still drag itself home with its lone remaining mandible.

I hesitated, but nodded. “Yeah, I did.”

Nemo blinked. Seemingly as much from the words as that I’d heard her.

I glanced through the door again. A soft hushing made me close it again just as quickly.

“But you’re going to have to wrap your head around the fact that I’m not interested in being a puppet again. Not even of a Thing with good intentions and a grasp of PR.” Absently, I studied my hoof again, before moving out. ”There’s no way a lunch that big is really free. If it was, it would have been all gobbled up at the dawn of time.”

I made it two whole steps beyond the threshold before I heard this odd note. Like somebody was ringing a tuning fork in syrup, or Tinkerbell had just tried to go for a well-deserved backstroke in a tarpit.

My own shield beat Carlos’ with half a dozen blinks, but that was far more due to involuntary cheating on my part then a skill and power divide. By the time even his good arm had moved and produced the glimmering, green field of entropy he favored, an inhuman blur of movement had simply given me about half a second extra to weave the more complicated if power-hungry dome of forces I favor.

Not that it helped this time.

The tone changed to a hum with teeth in it, as translucent and reverbing bands of leaf-green magic sprung into existence. Binding all four of my cannons, and forcing my arms and legs into an X shape.

“Harry!” Nemo and Carlos screamed in perfect unison.

I snapped my head around, my pentacle jingling, thrown around clean on my back as I locked Nemo in my glare as quickly as I could. The other mare one step from stepping over the threshold.

Stop!” I screamed, pouring as much command into the word as I could. “Don’t go over t-!”

Something suddenly tightened around my neck, pulling the already looped chain tight enough around it that I felt the friction burn form. Tightening, pulling, ripping fur…

The loop of chain fastening hard, and yanking my already uncomfortably turned neck a quarter turn more the wrong way. A deafening crack and stinging pain, a look of shocked horror on Carlos and Nemo’s faces, and then…

Nothing. An altogether far too horribly familiar numbness from my neckline down. Letting me move my neck to stop the glowing shard of ruby wrapped in bailing-wire—all that was left with the glamour burned off ‘my’ pentacle—from strangling me, and breathe, but little else.

I stared in numb horror at the thing for a few moments as it started pulling from my chest in earnest. One burningly hot thought racing through my mind like a tide of molten iron, for those brief seconds making the second time in my life I’d become paralyzed seem quaint, distant, and unimportant compared with the churning ocean of rage.

That bitch Sweetie had stolen my pentacle. Leaving a decoy of the one thing of mine she had I’d be guaranteed to spot and retrieve, if I managed to get past Equestria’s finest, its rulers, her staff and her.

And if I’d gone for any other Way than one of the standard trots of the White Council, I would have noticed almost a day ago. Quite possibly saving Carlos and Agatha from so much grief mine and Nemo’s presence had brought.

My eyes snapped open. Nemo…

“Nemo! It’s a trap!” I shouted over my shoulder again. A wave of nausea flooded over me at this bone-grinding sound I didn’t actually feel reached my ears. “Get that choker off, and go with Carlos!”

Nemo, frozen, hooves and streams of tears from wide-eyes covering her face in equal measure, whimpered.

I swore under my breath, the ‘pentacle’ picking up speed and dragging me off clean through the air. Bit above running speed, way below gallop, but more than enough to be hard to catch.

“Go! Go, both of you!” I screamed at the waxen faced Carlos hurrying towards me instead. “They need all six to win!”

Carlos hesitated. Not actually stopping his run, but the emotions raced plainly over his face.

Fly” I snapped as the ‘pentacle’ started accelerating in earnest. “Fly, you fools!”

A flash of incredulity flashed over Carlos face, but he swore something that from his scowl no doubt made the air smell like brimstone, and turned. Racing just as fast the other way to stop Nemo from following me once she snapped out of her shock.

I vaguely heard what might have been my name called, or just the wind. Then the binding carried me (barely, almost breaking my limp left leg) around the house opposite Carlos’. Cutting my view off.

Leaving me alone. Zipping through the air with nothing but my thoughts, the wind, and the glow from the mockery that had replaced my mother’s pentacle to occupy me. With scant few moments to prepare myself to face an empire, again, with nothing but my wits and what little magic I’d be able to bring to bear sans foci and hooves without roasting my own brain

The corpse of a smile twitched to shambling unlife on my lips. A chuckle dark by even my standards forcing itself out between my clenched teeth. This time, I got to die with a snappy one-liner and with my boots on, at least.

With great, wracking sobs I collapsed on my side, hugging myself. My son just got maimed for life—again, and I couldn’t as much hold her hoof afterwards.

I let out a weary sigh. At least no-’pony’ innocent gets hurt this way. Small favors.