Sundowner

by King of Beggars

First published

A very different Sunset Shimmer finds herself in a much darker human world. She's found the power she always wanted, but is power what she really needs?

Sunset Shimmer has always been a hot-headed, impetuous girl. She's always been prone to making snap decisions, and later finding herself regretting them. It was exactly this temperament that had brought her to the human world, penniless and alone. When the opportunity to get back on her feet presented itself in the form of a stranger's outstretched hand, she leaped at the chance.

This is the story of a woman who has made many bad choices, and the life those choices have made for her.


Tags, and even rating, may change as the story goes on.

Thanks as usual to Magello for the cover art!

Chapter 1 - Call Me Any Anytime

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I knew right away that I was dreaming.

In the dream I was a little girl again, taking shelter in the unlit doorway of a closed coffee shop, my knees pulled up to my chest and an oversized sweater pulled down over my legs. I’d salvaged the sweater out of a garbage can. It smelled like wet trash and the previous owner’s body odor, and was big enough that it could have fit three more girls my size in it like a tent. It was warm, though, and that was the only thing I cared about.

The sun had set hours before, and the darkness had fallen with snow in tow. My little paper coffee cup was still in my hand, outstretched and waiting for some late night passerby to give me whatever they had – usually a nickel, but even more usually just an excuse.

It had been a few weeks since I’d come through the mirror into the human world, a few weeks since I’d left Equestria. I’d come through with nothing except for a few books and keepsakes, thinking that no matter where I went, I’d be fine as long as I had my magic.

Who could have guessed I’d end up in a world without magic?

Whomever, or whatever, had created the portal had seen fit to give me a new body to blend in with the natives of this new world. Gone was my horn, gone were my hooves, my tail, my fur. Those first few hours, even standing had been a challenge, as my new body didn’t agree with quadrupedal locomotion.

If I’d been smart I would have turned around – gone home and begged Celestia to take me back. But at the time, I didn’t think I’d been wrong, so I had decided to tough it out. I’d figured that my weird, hornless new body had been the reason my magic wasn’t working right. Celestia had taught me a lot about magic, and I had convinced myself that I’d just need a little time to adjust to my new form, and that when I did, my magic would come back.

I’d been wrong about that, of course.

There was a sneeze, and the bundle of filthy blankets sitting opposite me in the doorway stirred. The other little girl looked up at me with snot dribbling down her nose, and her beautiful icy-blue eyes were bloodshot. Her long red hair was clumped into a single mass by filth and cobwebs from sleeping in doorways and under bridges – though my own hair probably didn’t look much better.

She coughed into her fist – it was a ragged, wheezing sound that probably indicated a fairly serious upper-respiratory condition – and whined in pain. She was another ‘street kid’, as they called themselves, and she was a year older than me. Maybe it was because she was only just a little older, but she’d started hanging around, helping me get on my feet as one of the newly-minted urchins. She probably had seen me as something of a little sister.

I had never even bothered to learn her name, or even why she’d ended up in the street.

“Sunset, I’m sick,” she said weakly. Her voice was hoarse and brittle.

“Obviously,” I said sarcastically, being a bratty little shit to her when she didn’t deserve it. “You’ve been coughing all week.”

“I need medicine,” she said. She coughed again. It was weaker, but the way she trembled made me think it had probably hurt worse than the last.

I shook my little cup at her, jingling the coins around. “Does it look like we have enough for medicine?”

“I need an adult,” she said. “I’m going to the home.”

“Good luck,” I replied, curling in on myself a little tighter. I hadn’t cared enough to learn her name, but she’d been hanging around me for weeks, and I’d gotten used to having her close by. The prospect of being alone was scarier than that young, immature version of me would have admitted.

I know better now, though. Now I know, with absolute certainty, that there’s nothing more frightening than being alone.

“Come with me,” she pleaded.

“Screw off,” I said. I was imitating something I’d heard one of the older street kids shout at a police officer. I hadn’t known what it meant, but his tone had been harsh, so I’d assumed it was a curse word. My cheeks burned a little as I said it. I’d never said a curse word before, not even when I’d been shouting at Celestia with more anger than I’d ever felt in my life. “I’m never going back to an orphanage.”

“It’s not an orphanage,” she said, “and it’s not that bad.”

“If it’s not bad then why are you living on the street?”

She stared at me for a while, her little brain trying to work through whatever thoughts and memories my question had conjured up. I wanted to get up, give her a hug and tell her I was sorry, but lucid or not, I had no control. I had to sit and watch as she doubled over, burying her face into her blankets and coughing violently. The younger me in the dream didn’t even lift a finger.

She composed herself after a minute or so and asked me, “Do you really want to know?”

“No,” I replied immediately.

“I still think you should come with me,” she said, unfazed by my reply and still urging me gently as she tried to play big sister. “Please. You need help, too.”

“I’m not sick.”

“Aren’t you?” she asked. She stood and tightened her bundle of blankets around herself like a shawl. “I’m scared, Sunset. Please come with me. I’ll feel better if I have someone brave like you with me.”

“Reverse psychology won’t work on me,” I said with a sneer.

She tried to say something, but all that came out was another coughing fit that left her leaning against the wall. “Stay safe, then, I’ll come look for you when I’m better, if I can,” she said as she stepped onto the sidewalk and began walking the five blocks to the place where she could get some help.

As I watched her walk away, I almost got up and followed. I was cold, and hungry, and I stank. I wanted to be warm, I wanted food, and I wanted a shower. But getting those things would have meant going back to an orphanage, and I’d sworn that I’d never step into one again so long as I lived.

My mother had died giving birth to me, and all I knew about her was what she’d told the hospital staff as she waited to push me out. She had no family, she had no idea who my father was, and that was it. The doctor had at least had enough kindness in her to deliver me to the orphanage herself and give what little information they had.

I’d lived there until my grades in school had been enough to get me into Canterlot Academy, and my grades there had been enough to catch Princess Celestia’s attention. The day she’d taken me as her protégé was the day I’d sworn to myself that I’d never go back to the sort of place I'd been rescued from.

As I watched the other girl disappear into darkness and snow, fear and hunger were enough to get me to my feet. I almost shouted at her to wait, but at the last moment the words caught in my throat.

All I had to do was swallow the last few shreds of pride I had left, and I’d have a shot at getting back on my feet, and then I could work on regaining what I’d lost... but I couldn’t do it. Begging in the street was bad enough, but the only bit of pride still left for me was in the promise I'd made to myself. I could betray anyone if it meant getting ahead, but I couldn't betray myself.

I sat back down and stared at the other girl’s back until the night swallowed her up, and suddenly I was alone with my smelly sweater and my little coffee cup filled with nickels and excuses.

“I think you made the right decision.”

My heart began thumping at the sound of the man’s voice. I looked up to find him standing there in the snow, the flurries dancing around him as they fell, as though they didn’t want to touch his body.

He was dressed in a long gray overcoat, with a simple blue suit under it. He wore a pair of black leather gloves and shoes to match. The straw cabana hat atop his head clashed with the rest of his attire, but for the most part he looked like your average businessman on his way home from work.

He was the most dangerous creature I had ever met, but I wouldn’t learn that until much, much later.

The man had a cane, topped with a single red jewel, which he lifted and pointed in the direction that the other girl had gone in. “She’s got no pride,” he said. “Not like you.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, my cheeks flushing with warmth.

It felt good to be complimented. My professors and tutors had always fed me a steady diet of praise, until I was fat with it. Even Celestia was very liberal with her encouragement, despite her higher standards. I hadn’t realized how starved I was for an adult’s approval until that moment.

“You look hungry,” he said. He reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a paper bag. He opened it and a puff of steam wafted out into the cold night air. “Bagel? It’s very fresh.”

My stomach growled at the smell, but I didn’t take the offer. I wasn’t stupid. “I’m not taking food out of your pocket,” I told him. I shook my cup at him, jingling the coins around like a rattlesnake warning off a predator. “Money only – it can’t be drugged like food.”

He smirked at me. “Smart,” he said appraisingly as he closed the bag and tucked it back into his coat. “Then how’s about I take you somewhere to get something to eat? Unless you think they also drug the food at the InterContinental Lodge of Pancakes.”

“The only thing stupider than taking food from strangers is following strangers to another location,” I said.

“Still smart,” he said with a laugh. His laugh was a horrible sound, dry and cruel, but I wasn’t old or experienced enough to recognize that yet. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled something out, which he dropped into my cup. It was heavy, whatever it was. “There you are, then.”

I watched him walk away, wary in case he tried to come back and try to snatch me. The other street kids had warned me about that. I didn’t have any magic, but if he tried anything I had a half of a brick behind my back that I could use to smash the coffee shop window and set off the alarm.

If I had been a little smarter, I might have noticed that the footsteps he left in the snow led away from where he’d appeared next to me, but there weren’t any footsteps leading up to that spot.

Once I was sure that he was gone, I looked into the cup and nearly dropped it in surprise. Sitting atop the drab little human coins was a glittering golden bit – an actual Equestrian bit. I fished it out and stared at it in confusion, but it was definitely a bit. It had the treasurer’s mark, Equestria’s flag, and Celestia’s Cutie Mark, right where everything was supposed to be. I got up and started running after him, but he’d already disappeared.

I knew it was a dream, and that all I was doing was going through the motions of that day, but I wished with all my heart that I hadn’t gotten up and tried to follow him. I wished that I could tell myself to sit back down and wait patiently until the pawn shop opened so I could sell my coin and buy something to eat. I wanted to tell myself to swallow my damned stupid pride and go to the orphanage. I wanted to tell myself to do literally anything except follow that man.

But I couldn’t do anything as the younger version of myself ran, panting in the falling snow, looking up and down the street and trying to find the stranger. He’d mentioned the pancake lodge, which I knew was only a couple of blocks away, so I started running as fast as I could while still being careful of ice patches.

I found the man sitting in a booth inside the ICLOP. He had a cup of coffee and a stack of quarters on the table next to him. I watched him through the window from across the street as he sipped his coffee, smiling to himself as he toyed with the stack of coins. He would grip the stack between his gloved fingers and lift it about an inch off the table, then release and let the stack fall, only to pick it up again.

A waitress came over and set down two plates of pancakes in front of him. He said something to her and she laughed. She smiled and brushed his shoulder flirtatiously with her fingertips as she was walking away. The stranger didn’t even touch the silverware. He just placed two fingers on the edge of one of the plates, and slowly pushed it across the table to the other side of the booth.

I recognized the invitation for what it was and crossed the street. Places like this didn’t like homeless people. The smell tended to upset the other customers, but in the middle of the night, when they were less busy, they were a bit more tolerant so long as you had some money to pay for your meal and didn’t try to hang around all night.

There was no one at the hostess station, but I wouldn’t have stopped even if there was. I breezed past the waitress as she was helping another customer and went straight for the stranger’s booth. She must have made a move to stop me because the stranger waved at her and shook his head.

I sat at the table without a word and started eating. I had questions, but food was first. The stranger didn’t say a word. He just sipped his coffee and waited, playing with that stack of coins as he watched the snow pile up in the parking lot.

I finished the pancakes in short order and was chugging a glass of water when the stranger slid the other plate over to me.

“Who are you?” I asked as I tore into the second plate.

He shrugged. “You can call me Fiddler,” he said.

“My name’s Sunset Shimmer,” I said around a mouthful of pancake. The waitress came with a second glass of water and a frown for me.

“I know,” Fiddler said.

I waited until the waitress was out of earshot. “You from Equestria?” I asked. “Did Celestia send you?”

“Me? From Equestria?” He laughed again, and the sound was just as cruel and dark as it had been before. “Not a chance.”

“Where’d you get a bit then?” I demanded. “And how’d you know my name?”

“I know lots of things,” he said dismissively, waving a hand in front of his face like he was brushing aside a fly. “As for the coin?” He picked up the stack of quarters again, clenching them in his fist. He held out his fist over my dirty plate and slowly loosened his fingers one at a time. One by one, gold coins fell noisily onto the plate. “It’s magic, kid.”

I dropped my fork as I watched the coins land on the dish. I reached for one and studied it. It was sticky from the syrup left on the plate, but it was a genuine gold coin, just like the one he’d left in my cup.

“I thought there wasn’t any magic in this world,” I said breathlessly.

“It’s complicated, but it’s there if you know where to look.” He lifted his mug of coffee and drank, his eyes never leaving me.

I clenched the coin in my fist hard enough to dig painfully into the flesh of my palm. “Uncomplicate it, then.”

He gave me an appraising look that was poorly hidden behind more smiles, like a crocodile grinning at a gazelle and wondering how fast it was. “Magic isn’t native to this world,” he said as he set down his mug, “but there is magic to be found. It slips through cracks in the universe, trickles through into this world from others – from places that are ripe with the stuff. Humans that want a taste of that power go around and get what little magic they can, by hook or by crook. They’re scavengers at best, and parasites at worst… but you’re not like them. You’re special, because of where you come from. You’ve got power inside you, but it’s rotting on the vine because you don’t know how to bring it out. I can teach you, if you want.”

My knuckles had gone white, and my fist was clenched so tightly that it was starting to tremble a little, but I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to remember the feel of an Equestrian coin in my human hand.

“What do you get out of it?” I asked, trying not to sound too eager.

His grin widened.

“I was so right about you.” He waved his hand over the plate and the conjured bits disappeared, including the one in my hand. I focused on the lingering pain, committing it to memory as I ran my fingertips over the indent in my fleshy palm, trying to feel the imprint of Celestia’s Cutie Mark. “I’ll be honest. You do have something I want, but right now there’s not much of it. In fact, right now you don’t have much of anything, really. So I’m going to work a deal with you. I’ll show you how humans do magic, give you somewhere to live, get you some money, anything you want. In the far, far distant future, I’ll collect.” He looked up, pursing his lips in thought as he waved his hand vaguely in the air like he was trying to coax a thought from the back of his mind. “Think of it like a loan. I’ll give you the chance to build yourself up until you’re in a better position to pay me back.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” I told him. “Loans have interest. And you haven’t actually said what it is I have that you want.”

“I don’t want anything from you that Celestia didn’t, when you really think about it,” he said vaguely, obviously avoiding the truth despite – or, more likely, because of – his assurances that he would be honest. “It’s almost the exact deal that she cut you. She plucked you from obscurity, took you into her home, gave you knowledge and power. The biggest difference is that I won’t hold you back. I’ll teach you anything you want to learn, and I won’t worry about stupid, pointless things the way she did. I think you’ll be much, much happier as my student.”

“I don’t know…” I said unsuredly.

“It’s me or the orphanage, because believe me, kid, in a few weeks it’s going to get real cold, and you won’t make it out there on your own.” He thrust his hand across the table. “Grab it and shake. This is something humans do to seal a deal.”

It wasn’t even that great of a pitch, but at the time, I was so desperate and so starved for the praise of an adult that I’d bit right into the worm, even knowing the hook was there. He’d been telling the truth, at least, about the cold snap that had hit the city over the following month. Coldest on record. I would have ended up going to the orphanage anyway, or freezing to death.

Freezing to death might have been preferable, honestly.

I wanted to say no, to tell him to shove his offer up his ass, to throw my water in his face, to ram my fork into his eyes – anything. Instead I could only sit there as I relived the moment that I reached out my hand and signed away everything I had, everything that I was as a person, as a human, and as a pony.

* * *

I woke up with a pounding headache and a dry mouth. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was familiar. Like waking up in bed next to a favorite mistake.

I hadn’t even bothered opening my eyes, but I knew that a shaft of sunlight was pouring in through a crack in the curtain, shining right in my face like the heated glare of a disappointed parent. I lifted my hand – it felt like I was wearing ten-pounds of lead weights on my wrist – and pinched my thumb and forefinger together, extending a bit of my will and focusing on the heavy velvet drapes.

I didn’t dare open my eyes until I heard the whisper of the curtain rings sliding back into place. I was in my living room, again, with half my body hanging off my couch. I groaned, rubbing at my face and wishing I knew a spell to take the bite off of the morning after a night of heavy drinking.

Laying around and sulking wasn’t going to help, so I forced myself to sit up, ignoring all the cracks and pops and strains my body was using to remind me that passing out on the couch was bad for me. I wasn’t even thirty yet, but mornings like this always made me feel at least sixty.

There was a half-empty water bottle next to the fully-empty tequila bottle, and I grabbed at the water to eagerly chug what was left. It was warm, but a quick swish chased away the cottony feeling in my mouth and helped with the throbbing sensation in my head and the aches in my joints.

I leaned back on the couch – an old, ratty thing I’d picked up from a thrift store for pocket change, that smelled like cigarette smoke but felt like it was stuffed with clouds – gently nursing the last few swallows from the bottle. My living room was pretty bare. Just a couch, a coffee table, a bookcase with some paperbacks and an old set of encyclopedias, and a television sitting on a little entertainment center. The walls were bare, except for a few decorative photos of nature scenery that had either come with the house been on clearance at the outlet mall. The remote was sitting in the middle of the coffee table, next to my car keys in a shallow green candy dish. I leaned forward enough to grab it and switch on the TV.

The channel was on some infomercial for knives that could cut through soda cans – early morning TV, right? The lady shilling the things was absolutely orgasmic over how cheap they were, and how you could get three for the price of two if you ordered right now.

I let the remote fall to the couch next to me. I didn’t care about what was on, I just needed to hear someone else’s voice.

I hadn’t had that dream in a while. Maybe it was because I’d gotten so drunk the night before. I hadn’t done that in a long time, either. There wasn’t any particular reason I’d been drinking. No special occasion, no celebration. I’d finished work, put on some dirty sweatpants, and just so happened to see the locked cabinet that I kept my various drinkables in. It had seemed like better company than nobody.

Up until a few years ago, I used to drink pretty often, but I’d given it up, because of the expense and because I didn’t like what kind of person it was making me. But people who climb out of a bottle spend the rest of their lives living on the lip of it, and sometimes you just fall back inside.

Most people dreamed about crazy stuff, random synapse-firing nonsense where they could fly and have sex with people they couldn’t or shouldn’t have sex with. I never really dreamed, but when I did, it was always just a memory – usually an unpleasant one.

It had been six years since I’d last seen Fiddler, but not a day went by where I didn’t think of him. I could practically see that smarmy, superior little grin of his – cold as a winter’s heart and half as kind – as he leaned in, staring down at me and laughing to himself. The last time I’d seen him, I’d told him to go away and never bother me again, and he’d agreed.

And why wouldn’t he? He already had a marker on me. All he had to do was wait to collect.

I held the water bottle between my thighs and lifted the old gray sweatshirt I was wearing over my head, tossing it carelessly against a wall. I closed my eyes and brushed my fingertips over the spot just above my heart, right between my breasts, feeling for something that wasn’t physically there.

I couldn’t feel it with my flesh, but I could sense the presence of the last thing Fiddler had ever given me. It was a little phantom reminder that I’d always have a piece of him inside me. He’d dug his fingers into my skin, and I could practically still smell my own flesh burning under his touch as he marked me – scored me like a teenager carving his name into a tree. There was a little sigil there, written right onto my soul. It was a seal of some kind, and I knew what Fiddler had said it was for, but damned if I knew what it really did. That’s the way it had always been with him. He always gave you just enough truth that you wouldn’t think to ask about what he wasn’t saying until it was too late.

Over the years I’d managed to read a little of the sigil, but whatever hidden purpose it ultimately served still eluded me, no matter how much I poked at it. It just sat there as a constant reminder of all the mistakes I’d made.

I was drawn out of my reverie by the sound of a woman shouting. The shill on the TV had just climaxed again as she watched the knife slowly saw its way through a lead pipe and still retain enough of an edge to slice a tomato.

I sat on my couch, half-naked and freezing in the early-morning chill, crinkling the plastic of the empty water bottle in my hands. I watched the infomercial for a while longer. Just so I didn’t feel like I was so alone.

* * *

My name is Sunset Shimmer and I’m what most people would refer to as a swindler.

Of course, that isn’t what it says on the sign out in front of my house. Swindlers and conmen really like to downplay the fact that they’re swindlers and conmen. To that end, I advertise myself as something closer to respectable, without actually trying to be respectable.

Sunset Shimmer, Seer of the Unseen, Mistress of Mysteries

That’s what it says on my ad in the Yellow Pages, and on the big hand-carved wooden sign at the end of my driveway. I tell people’s fortunes for a living. And when I say I tell people’s fortunes, I mean I look at their palms, flip some cards, and stare at my own own reflection in a crystal ball for a few minutes before loudly gasping out proclamations of doom. Then I tell them that the spirits think they should get a new job, or try to make things work with their husband, or tip me an extra twenty spot.

Is it a waste of a perfectly good, classically trained sorceress with nigh-limitless godlike power? Probably. But it’s the most honest living I know how to make.

Which probably says a lot more than I like to admit about the stuff I learned about magic.

And it’s not like anybody gets hurt. The vast majority of the people who come by know what the deal is and just treat what I do as entertainment. I wear a belly-dancer outfit and set out some crystals, talk in a funny voice – that sort of thing. I put on a show for them, and they ‘Oh~’ and ‘Aah~’ at the theatrics. When the flashy stuff dies down I give them a little advice. Obvious stuff that mostly just gets a nod.

To those people, I’m pretty much just the human equivalent of a fortune cookie in a sexy bikini top.

Sometimes I get groups. People who are tired of ‘movie night’ and want to do something a little more thrilling with their friends. I put on seances for them and I get to do my dead celebrity impersonations. I do a great imitation of the Lucille Ball, not that there's much call for that anymore. Nobody appreciates the classics.

Of course, I do get the periodic ‘true believer’ – the crack-jobs that believe with all their little heart that chunks of quartz are the most magical thing in the world. I’m not a paragon of righteousness by any stretch of the imagination – I’ve done things in the name of learning that would uncurl the curliest hairs on your body – but I have enough of a heart left to not take advantage of those types. They have deep pockets, but not deep enough that I wouldn’t feel lousy taking their coins with bum advice. It’s not a great policy as far as my checkbook is concerned, but it does help me sleep.

Weekends are when I’m most busy. That and when the lotto gets up into ten digit territory. It never occurs to people that if I could pick numbers like that, I wouldn’t be making a living charging fifty bucks for a tarot reading.

Most of the time, though, I’m just sitting on my porch, playing solitaire in my little Romany scarf-dancer outfit and waiting to see if I get any walk-ins. I live on the outskirts of Canterlot City, where the suburbs start blurring with the countryside. I get less foot-traffic than I would with an office in the city, but I get more privacy. My neighbors are kept at bay with tall hedges and a lawn big enough to play a serious game of football on. Us mystical wisemen-types love our privacy. I think it adds a little bit to my allure for the people who do make the trip, and I try to play it up in my act when I can.

It was a weekday that found me on my porch, as usual, sipping a glass of lemonade and practicing trick-shuffling with my tarot deck as I waited for sundown so I could close up shop. The little bells on my bracelets jingled with every wave of my hands as I flicked the deck and fanned the cards out like a stage magician. The level of dexterity would have been way harder – and way more impressive – with hooves, but fingers are one of the things that I most enjoy about living in the human world.

That and television. Sweet, sweet television.

I looked up at the sound of a car driving past. It was anything but remarkable, just your standard four-door family-mover. It was the kind of car you bought because it had a big trunk and a sturdy driver’s seat so you wouldn’t feel it when the kids kicked you from the back.

What did stand out, however, was the fact that it was the fourth time I’d seen that car crawling by in the past several hours.

The guy driving was probably nervous. Sometimes people come by my place just to check it out, or they decide they want a reading but chicken out at the last second. They usually don’t spend most of a day going back and forth on it, though.

Either way, whether he stopped or not, I wasn’t currently hurting for money. I’d had a flood of really good gigs, including some repeat customers, owing to a series of A-list celebrity deaths over the past few months. A loss for the world’s culture to be sure, but a definite net gain for my bank account.

I went back to playing with my cards, turning the cards over one at a time and practicing my dramatic flourish. The sound of tires scraping against loose asphalt filled the air as my reluctant pigeon hit the breaks.

“Finally bit the hook, eh?” I said with a grin. I may have been flush with liquid assets, but it had been a slow day, and more money was always more than welcomed.

I kept my eyes on the cards, appearing disinterested in the fact that I had a guest. The marks always had this romanticized image that mystics were always busy, in constant battle with dark forces from ‘the other side’. As a mystic, I could tell you that the struggle against the forces of darkness is real – real, but liberally interspersed with very, very long bouts of television watching.

Still, this business is all about appearances, so I hunkered down and threw myself into the role. I watched out the corner of my eye as my customer backed up and turned into my driveway. He pulled up alongside the house and sat in his car for a while, staring at me through the window. His lips were moving, like he was trying to talk himself out of – or into – getting out of his car. Ultimately, he won – or lost – the argument with himself and got out.

He had a little hitch in his steps that told me that he was still really nervous about coming to me with whatever problem he was having, and the look on his face was textbook skepticism. The guy looked about forty, which meant that he was probably wondering if a girl a whole decade or more younger than he was knew what she was talking about.

He was handsome in a nondescript way – average build, average height, average everything. His dark blue hair was neatly combed back into a tidy little wave, and the tweed jacket he wore was almost alarmingly age-appropriate. It even had leather elbow patches.

I briefly toyed with the idea of putting on an accent. Customers like this, the kind I expected would never come back, I always liked to try an accent. I did a pretty good approximation of that woman on the TV that’s always telling people to “Call me now~” and that always at least gets a laugh. It helps the nervous ones to unwind. I got the feeling that that might be a little much for this guy, though. The look on his face told me that I’d have to be my most professional soft-sell if I wanted to wring any cash out of this guy.

“Welcome to my home,” I said to him as I splayed out my hands, touching just my fingertips to the little wooden patio table. “The cards said I should be expecting a visitor today, and here you are.”

He hesitated at the top step, and for a split second I wondered if I’d oversold it. He shook his head and sighed as he pulled out the chair opposite me and took a seat. “Do we do this here, or…?”

I lifted an eyebrow. “That depends on what you require of me,” I said. “Why don’t we start with your name?”

He hesitated again, indecision flashing across his features for the span of a breath. He was probably wondering if he should give me his name. The average, magically-challenged guy off the street tends to have a lot of misconceptions about what magic is and what it can do. Even if you’re not a believer, some things just get picked up by osmosis when you live in a media-saturated society. Lots of books and movies and stuff say that wizards can do bad things if they get ahold of your name. While that can be true if the name is attached to someone of a certain magical persuasion, for your typical non-magical schmo, names are pretty much meaningless.

“My name is Night Light,” he said.

I gave him a smile. You can sell anything to anyone as long as you kept up a good smile. That was one of the most important things I’d ever learned from Fiddler, and it had nothing to do with magic.

“It’s nice to meet you, Night Light,” I said as I thrust out my hand in greeting. “I’m Sunset Shimmer. You seem to have a lot on your mind.”

He reached out and shook my hand. “Um, yeah, I do,” he said nervously. “I don’t… I don’t usually go in for this kind of thing…”

“I hear that fairly often,” I said, keeping up my smile. The thought came to me that maybe a little smalltalk would loosen him up. My schtick always worked best when the customer wasn’t so guarded, and more information was better, in case I needed to do any kind of cold reading on him. “What do you do for a living?”

He blinked. “I teach literature at Canterlot U.”

“Ah, a professor. You know, I had you pegged for a teacher.” He gave me a curious look and I lifted one arm and tapped at my elbow. “The jacket.”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a chuckle. “My wife bought it for me. I suppose it is a little on the nose.”

“Just a bit,” I said. I gathered up my cards and cut them back into the deck. “Any children?”

“Two,” he replied. He was already looking more relaxed. “Boy and a girl. The boy, he’s just started high school – he goes to Crystal Prep. The girl is my youngest, she’s going to turn nine this year.”

“Nine, huh? That’s a good age.” I shuffled the deck a few times, nothing tricky, and set it aside. “So I hear, anyway. When I was nine, most girls my age were outside playing with dolls and throwing tea parties. I was more of an indoor-kid. I liked books more than seesaws. Still do, actually.”

He flashed me a smile filled with genuine, fatherly warmth. “You’d get along well with my daughter,” he said. “She’s the exact same way.”

I nodded. “Why don’t we talk about what’s bothering you, now?”

During our short chat, a lot of the tension had eased up out of his body, but it had all rubber-banded back in a single spasm as he sat up straight in his seat. It was almost enough to make me sigh, but I held it in as he carefully scanned the street, craning his head behind him like he was expecting someone to jump out of the bushes.

He leaned across the table. “I’m, um, not here for palm reading or anything like that,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “I have some questions about… about magic.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” I said graciously. “The Great and Wise Sunset Shimmer can answer all your questions.”

“No, I mean real magic,” he said insistently. He jabbed his index finger on the table to emphasize his words. “Not the smoke and mirrors stuff.”

“I assure you, there are no smoke and mirrors here.” I held a hand daintily against my chest and feigned offense. “My powers are the genuine article.”

He leaned back again, a shadow of something tired and complicated coming over his features. “I’m serious,” he said. “Please. I know that this stuff is…” He pressed the heel of his palm against his temple and ground it in, like he was trying to hold back the first pangs of a headache. The act jostled a few strands free of his immaculate coiffure. “Last week, I overheard some of my students in the quad talking about you. You did a seance for their sorority a few months ago. They’re smart girls, despite their youthful… exuberance. They said you were really impressive. I remembered your name and found you in the phonebook.”

I remembered that gig. Bunch of young, frisky coeds, experimenting with everything they could get their hands on – alcohol, stimulants, the occult, each other. They’d gotten liquored up and had me try to channel their favorite dead poets. I read a lot, but if I don’t know anything about a person, I can’t very well pretend to be their ghost, so I’d had to turn down a lot of the requests I’d gotten. In a desperate attempt to hold on to my appearance fee, I’d let loose with a little bit of real magic and faked-up a poltergeist. Nothing dangerous, just making some furniture levitate and slamming doors on the other end of the sorority house. It had been impressive to a bunch of inebriated liberal arts majors, at least.

“Please,” Night Light pleaded. He reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out his wallet – a worn leather thing that bulged with old receipts and family pictures. He pulled out two bills and laid them on the table between us. He pulled his hand away and left his wallet on the table, as though promising that there was more where that came from. “I’ll pay up front, just be level with me. Do you know anything about actual magic? If you don’t, I’ll just leave, and you can keep that.”

I eyed the money suspiciously. This was a first. The guy had slapped down two crisp new hundreds and all he was looking to buy was the truth. If I’d had a mind to, I could tell him that I didn’t have any real mojo, that I was no different than the telephone psychics or the flea-market palm readers. It’d be the easiest two bills I’d made in a long, long time, and the only thing I’d have to do was tell a little lie to a guy I’d never see again afterwards. I’d certainly done worse in my life for far less, and smiled while I’d done it.

But that wasn’t me anymore – or, at least, I didn’t want it to be.

I grabbed the cash and stuffed the bills into one of the cups of my little gypsy bikini top. With a sigh, I took off the big golden hoops dangling from my ears. They were a part of my outfit, but they were heavy and damned uncomfortable to wear for a whole day. I tossed them on the table next to my tarot cards and the jingly-bell bracelets followed suit.

“I can listen,” I said tiredly. It wasn’t a direct confirmation, but the slight widening of his eyes told me that he took it as one. “I can’t promise more than that, though.”

He gave me a studious look, his eyes searching my face for any sign of deceit. He licked his lips. “It started earlier this month,” he said softly, the barest hint of fear tinging his voice. “It started as just… I don’t know, just a general feeling of unease. Like something was watching me. Then after that, it was shadows moving on their own, noises outside my windows – that kind of thing.”

“‘Hairs on the back of your neck standing up’ kind of stuff, huh?”

“Exactly!” he said, nodding excitedly.

I arched an eyebrow. “And you think this feeling of unease is supernatural in origin?”

He nodded without hesitation.

I drummed my fingers on the table and leaned back in my chair, frowning at his description. “Paranoia is part of the human condition,” I said. “While it’s possible that you might be being shadowed by something supernatural, the far more likely culprit is a mundane, everyday case of the heebie-jeebies.”

His brows went up at that. “Skepticism from a psychic?”

I shrugged. “You’re paying me for my expert opinion. I’m not lying when I say I have a little experience with actual magic, but you wanted me to level with you.” I had quite a bit more than a ‘little’ experience with magic, but he didn’t need to know that. “Nine times out of nine, the thing going bump in the night is a hungry raccoon knocking over your trash can, or the sound of your house creaking from thermal expansion. The odds of it being an actual magical incident are small enough to be statistically insignificant.”

Most people who were absolutely certain that they’d crossed paths with the supernatural would have had the wind taken out of their sails by an assessment like that. Surprisingly, Night Light seemed to actually be more at ease with the fact that I was taking a logical approach to his predicament.

“I appreciate that,” he said, that little bit of fear finally leaving his voice, “but believe me, I’m the first person who would agree with a diagnosis of basic paranoia. The problem is... it’s not just my nerves.”

“How do you mean?”

He took a deep breath and let it out in a single big huff. “The day before yesterday I was on campus, grading midterms. I finished up for the night, and as I was walking to my car I saw…” He grimaced. “...something.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve said as much already. Can you be more specific?”

“It was big.” He frowned and held his hands out, awkwardly trying to size the sighting out like he was describing a fish he’d caught. “Really big. But other than that I don’t know. It hit me from behind and—”

“Hold on,” I said, interrupting him. “It hit you?”

He nodded grimly and slipped off his coat, letting it fall against the backrest of his chair. He undid the buttons on the cuff of his left sleeve and rolled it up, revealing a large white medical pad that had been taped around his forearm. A little splash of pink had soaked through the cotton pad.

Night Light pulled the the tape off slowly, sucking air through his teeth as his wound was exposed to the chilly air of late afternoon. Beneath the bandage was a series of small puncture wounds, around a dozen of them, and a small gash held together with black stitches. The wounds were clearly fresh, and the skin around them was still discolored from the iodine in the hospital antiseptic.

That definitely wasn’t just paranoia. I held out my hand and he leaned across the table so I could get a better look.

I’m no expert on animal dentition, but I knew a bite when I saw one, and I could tell that this one wasn’t right. The punctures were misaligned, and the sizes were all different, like the thing that bit him had teeth from a bunch of different animals.

“Okay, so what happened then?” I asked.

“I don’t know what I can say other than that it knocked me down, bit me, and ran away,” he explained. “It happened so quickly that I didn’t even realize that I’d been bitten until I was already back on my feet. It was late at night, so no one was even around to see what happened. I went to the hospital and they said it was probably a dog.”

“What do you think it was?”

“Not a dog,” he said in a deadpan. “You don’t wake up the morning after a dog bite with a tattoo.”

I blinked at that. “A tattoo?” I asked.

His cheeks went pink, but he stood and pulled the hem of his shirt free from his waistband. I looked out over my lawn, giving him the courtesy of not watching him undress. Humans were weird about their naked bodies, which I could understand, having lived as a human for so long. I was comfortable in my own skin, but that didn’t mean that other people were.

“My wife was the one that found it,” he said as he dropped his shirt onto the table and turned around.

I got up and tugged at the top of Night Light’s white undershirt, revealing more of his back. The tattoo was of a face, about the size of a tea saucer and done with an almost primitive sensibility. The eyes were two spirals that spread outwards until they filled half of the face. The mouth was represented by flat, angular teeth that were pressed together in a fierce grimace. At each end of the mouth the lines of the teeth curved into long tusk-like fangs. A pair of elongated, drooping ears – like the creature pictured had worn very heavy earrings for many years – framed the face on each side. The whole thing was contained within two circles, with a stylish fretting between them, like something you would find in Greek pottery.

I didn’t recognize the symbol, but I knew bad juju when I saw it. Mysteriously appearing magical tattoos were very rarely ever a good thing. A mark like this was often, but not always, a visual representations of a practitioner’s power within another person’s body. Or, even scarier, it was a claim by something with serious power on the branded person. I should know, I had something similar imprinted directly onto my soul.

I brushed the mark with my fingertips, and the magic contained in the pattern reacted with my own, like a spark of static, or holding a 9-volt battery against your tongue. This was definitely magic, but I damned if I knew what this was. I’d never seen the symbol before, and there wasn’t any kind of writing for me to try and decipher. The face itself was probably some kind of rune.

But just because I didn’t understand it didn’t mean I didn’t know how to break it. There wasn’t actually all that much power in the thing, so I was fairly confident I could pull the magic out by sheer force.

“I can remove this,” I said.

“W-what?” he asked. He tried to turn around, but I put my hands on his shoulders and kept his back turned towards me. “You actually know what it is?”

“No,” I admitted, “but I know it’s something you don’t want.”

“Then please,” he said immediately.

I set my jaw, preparing for the possibility that this might blow up in my face. That was always a danger when dealing with counter-magic. I pressed my palm flat against the mark, ignoring the angry buzz of magical feedback as the magic in the sigil pushed back against my own. I focused on drawing out the magic, gathering it in my fingertips and in my palm, pulling it to the surface. Slowly I drew my hand back, and the black lines of the tattoo pulled away from Night Light’s body, tugging at the skin of his back as I drew it out. He flinched, and a quiet groan of discomfort wheezed out of him, but I placed my free hand on his shoulder and gripped it reassuringly.

“Almost done,” I said.

I spun my fingers around, winding up the strands of magical ink like a loose thread from a sweater. The tingling aside, the sensation was not unlike brushing my hand through cobwebs. The threads of darkness worked their way into my own skin, spreading cancerously over my hand. Slowly but surely I pulled the magic out of him, until all that remained of the mark was a bright red welt. The skin would be tender, but in a day or two he wouldn’t even have that.

I pat his shoulder and guided him back onto the chair. He sat, sweating and pale, and his eyes went wide when he saw my hand.

I could help but grin at the look on his face. My entire hand was stained black, like I’d just dipped it into an inkwell. I flexed my fingers and took a deep breath, then gathered all the dark magic into the center of my palm. The stain on my flesh receded, gathering into a crystallized ball in my palm until it was nearly the size of a chicken egg. Magic like this was very delicate, made to last for a very long time, but only when it was contained within a living body. I had pulled it free from Night Light, and cast out if out my own body. Exposed to the air, the magic died, becoming as brittle as eggshell. I closed my hand, crushing the nullified curse magic. It felt like wet sand, and as I loosened my fingers, black dust spilled out of my fist and onto my wooden patio.

I frowned at the little pile of inert magical powder. It was harmless now, so I just swept it towards the edge of my deck and into the bushes with my feet.

“That was magic?” Night Light asked.

I recognized the question as rhetorical, so I chose not to answer. I took a seat and pushed my forgotten glass of lemonade towards him. I’m usually not one to share drinks, but the guy looked like he could use one. He must have thought the same, because he reached out and took it without hesitation. He held the glass with shaky hands, taking very small sips while carefully avoiding the lipstick marks I’d left on the lip of the glass. By the time he’d nursed his way to the bottom of the glass, he looked a little more composed.

“Thank you,” he said. “What now?”

I lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“What do we do about the thing that bit me?” he asked. “It’s still out there. It needs to be stopped.”

“We don’t even know what it was that attacked you,” I said, shaking my head.

I was already deeper in this than I wanted to be. I don’t know what put that spell on him, but taking it off meant indirectly opposing whatever had a mind to hurt Night Light. If it was a random creature attack with a weird magical bite, that was bad, but if it was another mortal practitioner, that was really bad.

The fact that I’d not only failed to turn him away, but possibly actively interfered in another practioner’s… whatever this was, meant I risked putting myself on the playing field. I’d done this guy a favor, but right now all I wanted to do was quietly sneak back into the shadows.

“We can find out,” he said. “I’ll help you. I’ll pay whatever it costs.”

I scratched the back of my head absentmindedly, unsure of what I should say to the guy. “Look, Night Light, I can certainly give you some advice, but you’re asking for something a little more proactive than that. I’m sorry, but I’m not really the person to provide that kind of service.” I picked up my deck of tarot cards and held them up like a badge. “I normally just give card readings and tell the future with leftover bones from a bucket of fried chicken. I’m not a bodyguard, or a cop, or a detective, or anything like that.”

“Then who can help me? Is there anyone else you can recommend? I can’t exactly look up ‘Wizard’ in the phonebook.”

He did sort of have a point. There aren’t many people in Canterlot City in my racket – not any that stay in business for more than a month or two, at least. And as far as I know, of the few regularly operating shysters in town, I’m the only one with actual juice.

I do my best to stay way the hell off the grid of other mortal practitioners, because frankly, they’re all a little loony tunes. If any of them padded their income by working as magical mercenaries, I wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

Not to say that I couldn’t introduce him to some muscle. The problem with that was that the circles I used to run in were a fair bit less than mortal, and the fees they asked for were paid in something more valuable than common greenbacks. Night Light seemed desperate enough that he might take a bum deal like that, and I couldn’t in good conscience show him a bear trap knowing that he’d stick his head in it the second I turned my back.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, I don’t know anyone else.”

“Then please!” Night Light got to his feet. “Please! Someone has to do something. What if this thing goes after someone else? What if it goes after my family?”

Damnit. He had to bring up the kids, didn’t he?

I’ve never been very good with children, not even when I was a child myself. Back in Equestria, back before I’d ended up in the human world, I’d spent most of my time reading alone, studying magic and cultivating my power. I’d always seen things like ‘playtime’ and ‘fun’ as wastes of perfectly good study time.

Of course, I’d long ago grown out of that sort of snobbery, and as an adult I could piss away time at the Olympic level, but I still had difficulty… connecting with children. It probably stemmed from never having had a childish mentality of my own. But despite that difficulty of connecting with younglings on a personal level, I still always had a soft spot in what was left of my heart for the idea of children.

What it all boiled down to was that I just plain didn’t like seeing kids get hurt.

And the kids getting hurt was a real possibility. Night Light had said this feeling of unease he’d been having had been going on for a while, which meant that whatever had targeted him, it had been watching. It probably knew where he lived, and if it made a play for him while he was home?

At that moment, Night Light decided to do something I hadn’t expected. He came around the side of the table, fell to his knees, and begged.

“Please,” he muttered as he lowered himself to the ground. He bowed his head and stared helplessly into his own empty hands. “Please… I don’t care about what happens to me. I don’t care what it costs. I just can’t bear the thought that something might happen to my children…" He lifted his head and looked me straight in the eyes. "Miss Sunset, I need your help.”

I’m a proud person, always have been, even before I was a human. I’d been a beggar once, in those early days, just after I’d first reached the human world. I knew how demeaning it was to get down on your knees and ask for help. People see beggars and think that they’re looking at someone who wants something for nothing, and they never think about what it was actually costing that other person – but I knew. You give up a little bit of your independence, a little bit of your pride, a little bit of your soul. You take the only thing you have left and you hold it out in your hand, hoping that you can leverage your dignity against someone else’s pity. It was a hard price to pay, and usually all you got in return was a stranger’s pocket change.

Night Light was paying that price right now. He was in over his head, and he needed my help. There was a chance he was playing me, sure, but I doubted it. I’ve seen men backed into a corner, begging for their own sake, and that isn’t what I saw in Night Light’s eyes.

“Stand up,” I said tersely. I was touched by the show of humility for the sake of his family, but I also kind of resented the fact that I could be so easily swayed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He stood and grasped my hands, and the look of gratitude on his face was so naked that it was enough to make me blush.

“Thank you, thank you,” he repeated.

I pulled my hands free of his grasp and got up to go into my house. “Wait here,” I said. “I need to ask you some questions, but I need something to write with.”

I closed the door behind myself and leaned against the wall, groaning into my palms and hoping against hope that I hadn’t just gotten myself tangled up with something that might end up biting me in the ass.

* * *

Chapter 2 - A Little Rain Must Fall

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The sun had already set by the time I pulled into the parking lot on the east side of Canterlot U’s campus. The parking lot was surprisingly empty for a school night, and around half of the security lights weren’t even on. It gave the place a sort of spooky vibe. Less like a major sub-Ivy League school, and more like the kind of place where bad guys in a movie might arrange a money drop for a kidnapping ransom.

I had my window rolled down, and the steady rumble of my car’s V8 growled its way through the deserted lot like a candy apple red panther in the darkness. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but subtlety had never really been my forte. And besides, the stylized phoenix on the bonnet of my little Firebird spoke to me on a very spiritual level.

I mean, come on, it’s a pony car. How could I not?

I’d sent Night Light ahead to wait for me at the school while I changed into something more comfortable and considerably warmer, and I found where he had parked easily enough. The lights closest to the buildings were all on, and his was the only other car in the lot. Even from a distance I could see him sitting in the car, windows rolled up and fogging as he nervously fiddled with the radio. He looked up at the sound of my car approaching and swiped his hand over the driver’s side window to squint into the shine of my headlights.

I pulled up next to him and got out of the car, grabbing my old black leather jacket from off the back of the passenger’s seat. The jacket was a souvenir from the motorcycle I used to ride around on in my younger, wilder days. It still had some scuff marks on it from the time I'd taken a tumble while trying to do a wheelie. It had saved me from a serious case of road rash and I’d worn it religiously since then, as a sort of good luck charm. Hopefully I wouldn’t need too much luck tonight, but it never hurt to be cautious.

Night Light got out of his car and gave me a look that was dimly disappointed. “That’s what you’re wearing?”

I blinked, momentarily stunned by the sudden question. “What?” I asked looking down at myself in confusion. I wasn’t wearing anything odd. Just a pair of jeans, some hiking boots, a concert t-shirt from the reunion tour of a band older than I was, and my jacket. I checked myself over, trying to find something wrong with the outfit – I even double checked the zipper on my jeans.

“You’re not going to wear… I don’t know.” Night Light gestured spastically. “A shrine maiden’s outfit, or like, a wizard robe or something? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we're not going to stand out, but...”

I rolled my eyes. “The harem getup is something I wear for customers,” I explained as I bunched up my hair and tied it into a ponytail with a rubber band from off my wrist. I used to wear it short, but I’d let it grow down below my shoulders because it looked better with my fortune teller costume. “I’m off that clock. Believe it or not, sorcerers do buy off the rack, same as everyone else.”

“Oh,” he said, and his mouth held the little O-shape of his exclamation for a few more seconds as his gaze swept over my car. “Nice ride.”

I patted the trunk lovingly. “Thanks. Her name’s Philomena and she’s my spirit animal.” He gave the car a wary look that made me think he was expecting it to suddenly turn into a cat like some cartoon witch’s familiar. I rolled my eyes… again. “Not literally.”

“Right, right, how dumb of me,” he muttered, masking his sheepishness beneath a layer of snark. I could respect that. I respected snark. “Um, okay, so what are we doing here again?”

I motioned with my hand in a little underhanded ‘shoo-shoo’ wave. He caught the gist of the motion and started walking.

“You said that this was where you got attacked,” I reminded him. I lengthened my stride for a few paces until I fell in step beside him. “Makes this as good a place as any to start poking my nose around.”

“You think it might still be around here?” he asked, shrinking into his own shoulders like a turtle withdrawing into its shell as he swept the campus with his eyes.

I thrust my hands in my jacket pockets, scanning our surroundings myself, though markedly less fearfully than Night was. “Might be. Failing that, if this is a random wild monster, we might be able to find the crack it came through.”

“Crack?” he asked.

“Monsters don’t really exist natively in this world,” I said didactically. “They fall into this world from other planes of existence, through cracks between the worlds. There’s no way I can tell what’s got its eyes set on you from just what little info you’ve given me. Not without a massive amount of research, anyway. That might be someone’s idea of fun, but I’ve always preferred a more direct approach to these things.”

Of course, there was still the possibility that this wasn't a wild beast from another plane, but something set on Night Light by someone with juice, but I didn't want to scare the guy any worse than he already was. And besides, I like to live on hope – don't laugh, I do – and this whole thing would go down way more smoothly if there wasn't another human involved.

Night Light’s face was half-shadowed by the poor lighting in the parking lot, but I could tell that it was screwed up almost painfully. He was grimacing like he was trying to swallow down a kitchen knife. He’d already resigned himself that there was magic afoot, but it looked like the nitty-gritty of it was still difficult for him to come to grips with.

I could relate, somewhat. My human body had become pretty fond of human cuisine, and I’d once made the mistake of looking into what goes into a hot dog. I still like a good hot dog, but it had taken me a few months before I’d been able to put it out of mind.

Magic, it seemed, was Night Light’s hot dog.

“Okay,” he said after a few seconds of painful acceptance. “So we need to find this… portal, crack, thing… and then what?”

“Well, don’t put the cart ahead of the horse,” I said. “There might not even be a crack here, we’re just looking because it’d make things easier if there was. If I could pop my head in and see what’s on the other side, it’d give us a good idea of what we’re dealing with.”

“I guess that makes sense,” he said.

The campus proper was separated from the rest of the world by a lush, well-tended lawn. The long way around the lawn was lined with security lights, but we chose to take the shorter, unlit pathway. The paved shortcut cut through the grass, curving and meandering lazily, like a snake slithering its way across the field. The walkway curved sharply around a pond where ducks and geese floated lazily across the water, half-concealed by the reeds growing along the bank. A few of the male geese noticed us getting a little too close and hunkered down, ruffling their feathers and honking angrily at us from the darkness as we walked past.

“How does it work then?” Night Light asked. “Do we need a divining rod or something? Have you ever seen one of these cracks before?”

“One or two,” I said with nonchalance. “I’ll know it when I see it. A crack could be anything – a big glowing tear in space-time, a hole in the ground, a statue, an infinite void of darkness contained inside of a frog’s mouth.”

Night Light rubbed at his stomach like it was giving him trouble. He was probably suffering from the early stages of an ulcer, but he just nodded and dutifully followed my lead as I aimlessly wandered the campus.

According to Night Light, the campus was semi-closed for spring break, which explained the curious lack of other people. Most of the students had gone home, or headed off to sleazy vacation spots where all the drinks came with little paper umbrellas.

The campus wasn’t completely deserted, though. We did see a few lights on in the windows of dormitories we passed, belonging to students who lacked the time, money, or inclination to leave school for the break. The campus security drove by us twice in the span of a half hour in his little electric golf cart. I was a little older than the average student, but I was young enough to pass for grad student, so the guard didn’t pay me any more attention than a nod as he zipped by. Probably helped that I was walking around with someone from the faculty.

It was a nice school. Lots of big, fancy buildings with the names of important – or, more likely, rich – people on them. In my lifetime I’d had a lot of really great teachers, and my education hadn’t wanted for anything. I even had a GED, and a college degree that I’d earned through the mail. Sure, the degree was from an unaccredited South American school, but I was proud of my sheepskin from Universidad de Escuela.

But walking around the Canterlot U campus made me wonder if maybe I’d missed out on something afterall. It might have been nice to have gone back to school, even if I didn’t really need the degree. I love learning, and going to a regular human school might have even been… fun.

Within an hour and a half we’d covered the entirety of the campus, and twice looped around the perimeter. The search had turned up bupkis, which was frustrating, but at least Night Light had quit shaking in his booties at every rustling bush.

Night Light was pretty spry, but he was still an older guy, and an academic. He was more used to sitting in a comfy chair with a book in his lap than traipsing around in the darkness, so we made our way to the lounge near the cafeteria and had a break so he could catch his breath.

“You’re sure there was nothing in my office?” he asked. He was sitting at a cheap plastic picnic table, drinking contentedly from a cup of vending machine coffee.

“Positive,” I said as I frowned at the machine holding my own drink.

The machine in front of me had a picture that promised a steamy, frothy mug of hot cocoa, but the only thing the machine was dispensing was frustration. After a few cocoa-less minutes, I gave it a good whack on the side with an open hand, and the angry mechanical whirring stopped. A cup fell out of the dispenser and thick chocolate sludge poured into cup, followed by two puny marshmallows that mysteriously sank right to the bottom.

I sniffed at the cup, wondering if it was safe to drink. I took a sip and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was good, despite the weird consistency. Human cocoa couldn’t hold a candle to the stuff back in Equestria, but as far as Earth attempts at the drink, this was serviceable.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anything here,” I said as I drank my little cup of hot magic. “You’re sure you didn’t feel anything strange, either?”

Night Light shook his head. “No, nothing.” He sighed. “Maybe… maybe it’s gone? Or maybe you scared it off?”

“Not likely,” I admitted.

“So what do we do now, then?” he asked.

I chewed my lip in thought. There were a few ways to move forward, and I didn’t really like any of them. Finding the rupture, if there even was one, would have made this so much easier. I did have a few ideas of what I might be dealing with, and depending on how close I was I might have even been able to banish it without so much as laying eyes on it. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, which meant I was still flying blind. Knowledge was power, and I hated feeling powerless, so the only thing left to do was bite the bullet and try something else.

“I think maybe you should head home for now, go spend some time with your family,” I said with a shake of my head.

A look of panic filled his eyes. “You’re giving up?”

“No, but at this point I need a change of tactics,” I explained. I made for the door and started walking to the parking lot. The clip of the hard soles on Night Light’s shoes echoed across the deserted quad as he hurried to catch up with me.

“I’ll come with you,” he said.

“It’s better if you don’t. I might need to meet with someone shifty, and shifty people don’t like showing up to meetings to find unexpected strangers.”

“Is it someone dangerous?”

“He can be, yeah, but it’s not a concern,” I said. The cocoa goop had gotten extra syrupy halfway down the cup, and the mild sweetness had turned bitter, so I chucked the drink into a garbage can.

“Hey, Doctor Night Light!” a woman’s voice called out.

Doctor? Oh, right, literature professor.

We turned to find a fair-skinned girl running towards us. She was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that read ‘Canterlot U Athletics’. The shirt bore the stylized logo of a fierce-looking stallion – the school’s mascot. She was wearing a backpack, and her long blue hair drifted behind her as she jogged towards us. She was ridiculously beautiful, and even sweats and a t-shirt somehow seemed as sultry as a neglige on her. Every step she took made her breasts jiggle with the sort of carefree perkiness that made women my age start feeling self-conscious.

I mean, I’m still really young, but I’m not perky young.

“Oh, hello, Luna,” Night Light said with a wave. “I thought you were leaving town for the break.”

The girl stopped in front of us, tugging at the hem of her shirt where it had bunched up under her backpack. “Yeah, we were going to Cancun, but the plan fell through,” she said with a sigh. Her voice had a husky quality that reminded me of silk sheets on a summer’s night. “What’re you up to? And who’s this?”

Night Light looked at me, a bit of panic creeping into his slightly-widening eyes. He apparently hadn’t thought of a cover story for why he was walking around campus with me, and he probably wanted to avoid introducing me as his ghostbuster. I probably should have been offended, but it was honestly pretty funny.

“Hi, my name’s Sunset Shimmer,” I said as I held out my hand. He might not have been very quick on his feet, but knowing how to sell a bum story was how I put bread on the table. “I’m an old family friend of Night Light’s. I was thinking about enrolling in Canterlot U and he was showing me around.”

“Oh, wow, really? What major are you thinking of?”

“I think maybe astronomy, but I’m not really sure,” I said, picking a random collegey-sounding subject out of the air. I’d always liked astronomy, and not just for the opportunities it provided to make jokes about staring at heavenly bodies.

The girl smiled at that. “Astronomy is really cool. I’ve loved stargazing since I was a little girl.” She brushed her hair behind her ear sheepishly. “I’m still kind of undecided myself. Astronomy is one of my picks, though. If you end up in the program, maybe we’ll see each other around.”

“Maybe,” I said, returning her smile with one of my own. “That’d be nice.”

“Are you guys going to the parking lot?” she asked. “I was going that way, too.”

We started our way across the campus again, chatting as we went. It was smalltalk, and boring smalltalk at that, but Luna was a nice enough girl and I didn’t mind her company. I earn my living talking to strangers, but outside of work I don’t socialize much. I don’t have very many associates from the old days, and of the ones that I kept in touch with, none of them were the chatty types.

Luna, though, seemed to love talking. She’d apparently been on campus tutoring a friend of hers that had nearly failed a statistics midterm. That niggling feeling of longing hit me again as I listened to her gush about her picayune problems with friends and scholasticism. It occurred to me that maybe I envied Luna more than a little bit. If I’d have gone to school, would I have been like that? Would I have made friends like this girl?

I chased those thoughts away. They were unproductive. Night Light had chosen to stay out of the conversation, instead just watching our discussion with a smile. I took a page out of his book and nodded along as Luna told me about her hobbies and her interest in astronomy.

We were already at the pond in the middle of the giant lawn, halfway to the parking lot, when all the little boxes in the danger checklist in my brain started ticking off. I have a pretty good eye for details, and there were little things here and there that were setting off alarms in my head, even if I didn’t know what they were right away. I pulled up short, squinting into the darkness and trying to figure out what was putting me on edge. Night Light and Luna stopped, watching me curiously as I narrowed my eyes at every shadow.

“Something wrong?” Luna asked.

I held up a hand and shushed her.

Night Light had mentioned feeling like he was being watched, and while that might not sound like a big deal, that sense of wrongness is a fairly important evolutionary thing – one that ponies and humans share. There’s something to be said about animal instincts, especially where the supernatural is concerned, and I was starting to get that feeling right now. That little itch at the back of my skull, like someone was boring a hole into it with their eyes.

Also, we were next to the pond, and it was quiet. I’d almost missed it, listening to Luna talk about her favorite constellations, but those geese from earlier had let us get awfully close without voicing their displeasure again.

I fixed my eyes on the pond, watching the water for any signs of movement. The waterfowl had all left, and the surface of the water was eerily still, even as the reeds swayed in the late-evening breeze.

Something broke through the surface of the pond, bursting out of the water without so much as a splash, without even so much as a ripple. It lunged at Night Light so fast that I would have missed it if I hadn’t been watching the water.

I didn’t have time to cast a real spell, so I gathered my magic into my palm and swatted at the thing like a horsefly. It wasn’t elegant, but it didn’t have to be. A wall of magic thick enough to bend what little ambient light there was slammed against our attacker with a slap. I heard the brittle snap of bones cracking as the four-legged thing was knocked down mid leap. It bounced against the ground hard enough to tear out the sod.

Night Light and Luna flinched at the sound and spun around, eyes wide in shock as they watched the creature’s body slide across the lawn.

The thing didn’t stay down for very long. As soon as it came to rest it rose to its feet, bones popping and snapping back into place. The proportions of its body were all wrong, and for a moment, I thought I’d broken it worse than I had. It stood on all fours, but its mismatched limbs were different lengths and thicknesses, and its lumpy, half-formed body gave the impression that its bones and organs had just been thrown into its skin like a sack. Its was covered in patches of waterlogged fur, and as it shook itself, it threw up a spray of filthy pond water.

The thing glared at me with milky white eyes. The head was vaguely catlike – maybe a puma or a leopard – and the lower jaw thrust out past its face, like the jaw had been taken from a creature with a longer snout. It snapped its jaws mechanically at us, its teeth clicking as it opened and closed its mouth.

Night Light was shaking visibly, but he’d somehow found the courage to step in front of his thunderstruck student, shielding her with his body. The guy definitely had more guts than I’d given him credit for.

I stepped off the pathway and onto the grass. They must have recently had the sprinklers on, because the ground was soft under my feet. The smell of decay, wet fur, and old fish filled my nostrils as I neared the monster. More than the stink of death, I was picking up the stink of death magic.

In a vacuum, necromancy wasn’t a completely useless field of study, or even an inherently amoral one, despite the ickiness. The energy released during death was as natural as anything, and you could do some very interesting stuff with knowledge of it.

But that was only in theory. In actual practice, necromancy is just about the nastiest kind of magic mortal practitioners dabbled in. It was a field of the craft that seemed to attract the worst kind of people interested in magic. On the whole, necromancers were a bunch of weirdos diddling corpses and stitching them together into constructs, without regard for anything even resembling ethics, and I personally found it to be a distasteful use of magic.

At least I knew for certain now that this wasn’t just some weird random monster haunting a guy. A creature like this didn’t exist naturally in any plane I knew about. This thing had been put together by a necromancer for a specific purpose. What that purpose was would require some more digging, but for the moment the only thing that mattered was taking this other guy’s pawn off the board.

“Ugh, I don’t who made you, but you are the grossest thing I’ve seen in years,” I said. I held a hand over my nose and breathed deeply. They’d been in my pockets all night and smelled pleasantly of old leather. It did a serviceable job of masking the odor the monster was giving off. “Don’t suppose you can talk, can you?”

It wordlessly clicked its mouth full of mismatched teeth at me.

“Didn’t think so,” I muttered.

The thing surged forward, its paws clawing at the grass as I ran towards me. I must have made it mad, because it seemed to have forgotten Night Light’s presence. Which was fine by me.

Gathering magic means different things to different practitioners, depending on the way in which they came into their power. For people who bargained for their power, they have a tether of sorts to the being that they made their bargain with. For them, gathering power means drawing it from their source. This could be through a prayer, or a sacrifice, or some other kind of ritual.

For me, though, I didn’t need anyone else’s power. Magic was a part of who I was, it was a part of where I came from. Human or not, magic was suffused in every molecule in my body, and over the years, I’d learned how to draw it out without the use of a horn, or even a human focus item.

Using magic was as natural as breathing for me, and when this stupid monster decided to make a run at me, I was ready.

I held up my hand, drawing magic into it, and into my throat. “Lay down,” I said in a whisper. My throat burned like I’d just swallowed grain alcohol, and the magic behind my command shook the air.

The monster’s legs locked up in mid stride and it fell to the ground, laying completely still as its dead eyes locked on me. It just kept clicking its jaws at me, emotionlessly.

Commanding another being with willpower alone was a pretty standard trick. I wasn’t very good at it, but this thing was just a necromantic construct, a golem made of rotten flesh and broken bones. It had been made with simple commands, and only had enough intelligence to carry out its orders. Things like this were never given free will, so even my poor excuse for a command was enough to subdue it.

The construct started thrashing its head, still snapping away as it tried to wriggle its way the dozen or so feet it had to cross to reach me. It was almost cute, it was so pathetic.

The power I held in my outstretched hand was almost painful, like holding my hand against a stove. I clenched my hand into a fist, raised it, and then brought it down like a hammer. My magic condensed into a solid mass above the thing, striking the ground with a heavy thud and the sound of bones snapping like kindling. I raised my fist again, and the monster was freed of the magical pile-driver’s pressure. I could already see the bones twitching and slithering back into place.

I hit it again. Then again. I kept smashing it into the ground until the bones were dust, and the quivering ball of meat no longer had enough magic to fix what I had done to it. Constructs like this were made to repair themselves, and the best way to deal with them was to outright burn them to ash, but that would have attracted too much attention. Spring break or no, someone was bound to see the magical bonfire I would have had to conjure up to burn something like this, especially since the damn thing was absolutely soaking wet from being in the pond. No, the only way left to me was to hit it until the magic holding it together and giving it psuedo-life had run dry.

I unclenched my fist and stuffed it into my jacket pocket, gritting my teeth as I stroked the soft fleece lining. I held up my other hand and levitated the leftovers of my fight into the air, then dumped the gooey mess into the pond. It’d settle at the bottom and decay naturally now, or the school would find it and think a really big dog had drowned and decayed bad enough to be unrecognizable.

When I turned back to the sidewalk, Night Light and Luna were staring at me with a mix of fear and awe.

Magic can be an immensely beautiful thing – trust me on that, I’m from Equestria, so I know of what I speak. It can also be incredibly ugly, and you can trust me on that, too. Just now, two total virgins to magic had seen me mash a monster into a fine paste with pure sorcerous muscle. As far as a first real introduction to magic went, it was a hell of a way to get your cherry popped.

I ignored the looks they were giving me as I brushed past them and continued on the path back to my car. It took maybe half a minute before I heard the sound of their hurried footsteps as they rushed to catch up to me, but this time they didn’t fall in step beside me. Night Light didn’t ask me if his family was going to be okay. Luna didn’t prattle on about midterms and missing out on overpriced daiquiris. They just followed me back to the parking lot, silent, a few steps behind me, the soft rhythm of their footfalls matching with my own as we walked.

When we got to the cars I didn’t even bother turning around. I fished my keys out of my pocket and opened my door more roughly than I would have normally.

“Go home to your family, Night Light,” I said. “You’re safe for now. We can talk more later.”

If he said anything in response I didn’t hear it over the sound of my door slamming. I put both hands on the wheel in a death grip to halt the trembling. This wasn’t my first time dealing with a monster – creatures like that had practically been teaching aids to Fiddler – but it had been a long time since I’d used that much magic. The physical strain that magic could put on the body was no joke.

In terms of magical stamina, I was a world-class athlete, but that had been about three-thousand hours of TV and cheese doodles ago. What I’d just done had been the equivalent of running a triathlon after quitting Olympic track to become a competitive eater. My magical muscles were all flabby, and the workout I’d just put myself through had seriously worn me out.

I buried my face into the steering wheel and hyperventilated myself until my heart rate had resumed something close to normalcy. My hands were all cold and clammy from the adrenaline, and they felt good against my sweaty forehead.

My heart rate spiked back up as I heard something knocking on the passenger side window. I looked up to find Luna staring in at me through the foggy glass. She waved at me sheepishly and gave a quick, “Sorry.”

I leaned across the seat and worked the crank to roll down the window. My car had a lot of balls, but it didn’t have power-windows, which I think is a fair trade.

“You need something?” I asked once the window was halfway down.

“I sorta don’t feel like waiting for a cab anymore,” she said. She was pulling on the straps of her backpack like a kid on her first day of kindergarten. Her cheeks were flushed pink against her pale skin. “Could you give me a ride home?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

I blinked. I’d been expecting a question about what had just happened. I’d been so damn sure of it that when she’d asked me for a ride I’d agreed without even thinking.

Before I could open my mouth and rescind the offer, she’d already snaked her her slender arm through the window and unlocked the door for herself. She got into my car and fumbled around trying to find the seatbelt.

I sighed and lifted my butt off the seat to blindly grope around for my keys. I’d thrown them on the seat in my hurry to get into the car, and I’d been sitting on them the whole time. “Check the floor, it’s a lapbelt,” I said. She found the belt and clipped it into place while I started the car and rolled my own window back down. “Where am I taking you?”

Luna grabbed her bag off the floor and unzipped the front pocket to retrieve her cellphone. A couple of pencils fell out and she muttered a curse as she stuffed them back into her bag. She messed around with her phone a little and then spoke into the receiver. “Take me home.” The phone chirped and a second later it started giving me directions.

I did as the phone commanded me and pulled into the street. CU’s campus was far enough away from downtown to avoid most of the traffic, and we were in that odd golden-time of late-evening, early-night where it was still too early for the nightlife set to make the rounds, and too late for the nine-to-fivers to be out and about. The streets were empty enough that we drove for long stretches where the only sounds I heard were the directions from Luna’s phone, the dulcet purring of my engine, and the mellifluous crooning of Blue Oyster Cult through my speakers.

I knew it couldn’t last, though. Luna had to go and ruin the moment with that ultimate of disrespectful moves – shutting off the radio.

You don’t touch another woman’s radio, especially when the BOC is laying down the gospel. I’ve gotta have more cowbell.

She’d had a rough night, though, so I could forgive her… just once.

“You’re not really thinking about going to my school, are you?” she asked.

“No.” The phone told me to turn left at the next stop light so I put my blinker on.

“And you’re not an old friend of Professor Light’s.”

That one wasn’t a question, but I answered it like one. “No, I only met him today. I won’t go into details, they’re not mine to give out, but he needed help and he reached out to me.”

She grunted in what I took to be acceptance. There was a long pause, and for a second I thought the questions might be over already. “Is your name really Sunset Shimmer?”

“It is.”

Another pause, and then the inevitable. “Magic?”

“Yeah… yeah, magic.”

The rest of the drive was in silence. We hadn’t actually gone all that far, but neither of us had bothered to turn the radio back on, so the silence hung in the air between us like the dangling legs of a hanged man. I drove, and she sat in the passenger seat, holding her phone and clutching her bag tightly against her chest as she cast furtive little sidelong glances towards me.

We pulled up to her place, which turned out to be a fairly nice condo with a postage stamp sized lawn, lined up in perfect sequence with other equally nice townhouses with equally puny lawns. I’m a firm believer in lawns, and the sight of the tiny patch of grass made me frown.

“Oh, my sister is home,” Luna said, her voice singing with relief as she looked up at the light coming from one of the second floor windows. She looked at her feet, clutching her bag against her chest as she chewed her lip. “Do you… do you want to come in?”

“What, for like, coffee or something?”

Luna nodded, and her hair fell forward, covering her face.

“I shouldn’t,” I said, shaking my head. “I’ve still got some stuff to do tonight.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, a note of fear entering her voice as she looked up. “You could come in and meet my sister… or… or if you want, you could even come up and see my room.”

Her pale skin practically glowed with her blush as she loosened her grip on her bag, and pushed it down into the footwell. She thrust out her chest almost imperceptibly.

Ah. She was asking me up for sex.

“That’s… that’s probably a bad idea,” I said.

“Of course,” she said dryly. She looked away and crossed her arms over her breasts, physically withdrawing into herself even as she withdrew the offer of coitus. “You probably don’t even like girls…”

“No, I do, but I just—”

If I hadn’t been so off guard, I might have been able to stop Luna before she’d undone her belt and leaned across the car. Before I knew what was happening, she’d grabbed the front of my shirt to pull me towards her. Her lips were against mine, and her tongue had forced its way into my mouth.

It had been a long while since I’d been physical with anyone, and I’ll admit, the kiss felt good. Getting kissed almost always feels good, even when you’re too shocked to kiss back, and the person kissing you is less than skilled at it. It also helped that Luna was insanely hot.

For maybe half a second after the shock had worn off, I let myself enjoy to feeling of another person wanting me, but the moment of weakness was short lived. I pushed Luna away, and the sensation of her lips on mine lingered even after we’d separated.

She gave me the kind of doleful look that charities on TV used to guilt donations out of people, and doubled over, burying her face in her hands. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” she said, mortified.

We sat in the car for a while, listening to the motor run. I got feeling that this broad wasn’t going to get out of my car so easily, so I killed the engine.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’m not a slut,” she said defensively. She was shaking.

“I know you’re not,” I said.

“I mean it!”

I scratched nervously at the back of my neck. How the hell was this my life? All I had wanted to do tonight was watch Dancing With the Stars and prank phone call the asshole on the local radio station’s nightly Love Doctor show. And here I was, wrapped up in some bookworm’s magic problems, and I was talking a girl that was barely out of her teens off an emotional cliff. Talking her out of sex, no less.

“You just saw something spooky for the first time, and then you saw me beat it into jelly with something you probably thought only existed in movies about hobbits,” I said, summarizing the night she’d just had. “I think you’re freaked out, and you’re desperate to not be alone. I think you just walked away from danger, so maybe you’re a little horny from all the adrenaline in your bloodstream. I think that in the back of your mind you’re scared of the notion that there might be something under your bed, and that you don’t want the tough, scary bitch that kills monsters to leave without checking.”

She was watching me now, her eyes welling with unshed tears as I talked. I gave her a smile.

“I think all that stuff,” I said in conclusion, “but I don’t think you’re a slut.” I stuck out my chin, gesturing towards her front door. “Get inside, lock your door. Eat a whole bucket of ice cream and get some sleep. You’re going to be okay. Monsters aren’t as common as you think. I promise you’ll be fine to sleep alone.”

Luna swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and gave me the watery shadow of a smile. She grabbed her bag and got out of the car. She closed the door and leaned down to look in through the lowered window. “Am I going to see you again?”

I started up the car and put it in gear. “Maybe,” I said. “Goodbye, Luna.”

“Good night, Sunset Shimmer,” Luna said.

As I drove away I could see her in my rearview, watching until I had turned the corner at the end of the block.

* * *

There were some things about living in the human world that had taken a bit of getting used to. Cities, for example, sometimes had human world analogues to the places I knew from back home, only with silly nonsensical names, like Manhattan, or Philadelphia – madness, right?

I think that maybe that was why I always found myself coming back to Canterlot City. Over the years, I’d been lucky enough to see a lot of the human world, and I’d been to a lot of really great places. But Canterlot City was the only city I’d found with a nearly-Equestrian name, and it was where the portal back to Equestria was. Even though I’d long ago given up on returning home, this was where I felt most comfortable – where I felt the most connected to home.

Worse than the cities, though, were the living analogues I’d found here. Imagine my surprise the first time I’d come across one of these doppelgangers just walking down the street. I still remember the first one, in fact. It had been the human double of a colt I’d known from my years at Celestia’s school. The colt’s name was Rumblefish, and back in Equestria he was a unicorn a few grades higher than I had been. He was supposed to be some kind of engineering prodigy, but in the human world, Rumblefish was a pimply-faced teenager who worked in an autobody shop.

And it hadn’t ended there. Over the years, I’d come across a ton of human doubles for ponies I knew in Equestria. The damndest thing about it though? They weren’t always the exact same people they were back home. Maybe it was because their lives had been different, or because whatever weird connection the two worlds had wasn’t completely perfect, but sometimes I’d meet a double who had a completely different personality than their counterpart. Other times, the differences were more extreme, like meeting a woman who I’d known as a stallion in Equestria, or a child that I’d known as an old mare.

I’d asked Fiddler about it once, and he said that it was best not to think too much on it. Interdimensional stuff was muggy, and generally a pain in the ass to deal with. He’d tried to convince me that it was easier just to accept that the universe was full of weird shit, which I’ve never agreed with, but I like to think I’m smart enough to know when I’m not smart enough to tackle a problem. Maybe one day, but not any time soon.

The first few years I’d been in the human world, I’d spent a lot of time looking around, trying to spot more doubles. It was kind of a hobby of mine, and I’d even kept journals full of my sightings. The shine had worn off that hobby after a few years, though. Now I hardly even think about it. Probably because, by this point, I’ve spent more time as a human than I ever had as a pony.

Sometimes I get a little sad about that, but that’s just the way life goes – if you’re me, anyway. It was pointless to compare humans I met to ponies I used to know as a filly, especially when I’d known their human selves far longer than I’d known them as ponies.

As I opened the door to the ICLOP, I was greeted with the friendly face of the woman who best exemplified that.

“Well, hello there, Sunset,” the woman said, flashing me a smile that I knew was a degree or two warmer than what other customers got.

“Hey, Cheese Cake,” I said, returning the smile with one of my own. “Working hard?”

“You know I am, child,” Cheese Cake said with a titter. “Table for one?”

“Two,” I said. “I’m meeting someone.”

She frowned. “It’s not who I think it is, is it?”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, wringing my hands contritely. “Apologies in advance.”

“He just better watch his damned manners.” Cheese Cake crooked a finger and led me towards a booth in the back, away from the rest of the diners and next to a window. It was late enough that the dining room wasn’t very packed, but Cheese knew me well enough to know how much I liked my privacy.

The mare Cheese Cake had been in charge of the cafeteria at Celestia’s school, and I’d never paid her much mind. The human Cheese Cake, though, had been working at the pancake house for almost as long as I’d lived in the human world.

She was a cheery, older woman, who wore her years better than anyone I’d ever met aside from Princess Celestia. Considering Princess Celestia was ageless, that was really saying something. Cheese Cake was comfortably chubby, and vain enough to color her hair, but not enough to care if the silvery roots were showing through her bright orange dye-job. I followed her as she wound her way through the tables, swinging her shapely hips with a self-assured sensuality that had earned her more than a few tips over the years. It hurt my back just to imagine working on my feet all day while walking around like that.

She saw me to my seat and immediately went to put in my order, scribbling away on her ticket pad as she went. She didn’t have to ask me what I wanted, I always ordered the same thing every time I came in.

I found a blue crayon hidden amongst the tray of syrups and condiments, probably left behind by a child who’d been playing with the activity placemats. I had nothing else to do while I waited, so I pulled a napkin from the dispenser and used the crayon to sketch out the mark I’d seen on Night Light’s back.

After a while, I realized that I’d screwed up the proportions, so I tore up the napkin and tried again. I probably should have taken a picture of it with my phone, and I cursed my own stupidity as I worked my way through a few more failed attempts to recreate the sigil from memory. Little things like proportion were important in this kind of runecraft, so I was careful to try and get everything just right.

I was just finishing up my sixth try when I heard someone rapping their knuckles against the window. A boy was staring in at me, his face set in a neutral mask, and the look in his emerald-colored eyes was too sharp to belong to a normal child.

He lifted his chin in greeting and walked around to the front door. Cheese was standing near the kitchen, talking to the chef in the back. She looked up at the sound of the bell hanging off the door, and corner of her mouth twitched as her natural reflex to smile died at the sight of the boy. They exchanged frowns with one another, and Cheese Cake returned to her conversation as the boy walked past the cashier’s station and saw himself to my table.

He looked around fourteen years old, but tall for his age. His unblemished face still had a bit of prepubescent roundness, but was clearly in the midst of full-blown teendom. He was dressed plainly, just a pair of jeans with muddy cuffs and a flannel shirt, but he wore them with the confidence of a clothing catalog model. His onyx-black hair was tied into a braid that fell to the middle of his back, and his soft features had an almost feminine quality. He had the kind of teen heartthrob looks that could launch a thousand boybands, and he was decidedly not human.

Back in Equestria, there were creatures called changelings. They were shapeshifters, and more insect than pony. They had wings and horns, and fed on the love of others like emotional vampires. They were pests, but mostly harmless. They’d disguise themselves as some random pony, spend a few hours with their family, soaking up the psychic juice, and then slink back off into the shadows.

The human world variety of changelings had a more… checkered past. Human myth and storytelling was filled with legends of parents who’d had their children stolen, only for the child to be replaced with a changeling without their knowing – which is exactly what changelings used to do. They’d kidnap a child and take its place, feeding off the love of the parents that were raising it.

As for the child they’d taken? Some stories went that they were raised by other changelings, becoming fae-children. Other stories said that the children were killed, or even eaten. None of the changelings I’d met had ever given me a straight answer on it, which always led me to believe that the truth was one of the latter, bloodier theories.

They’d given up that racket long ago, though. Humans don’t like when monsters mess around with their children, and at some point in the past some changeling had brought a curse down on their heads by stealing the child of a powerful human practitioner. I don't know what the curse entailed, but I do know that a lot of changelings had died before they were able to shake it off. Ever since then, changelings in this world preferred to just imitate orphans and street kids – beggars. They stood on corners, looking doe-eyed and asking for alms, and every time someone opened their heart enough to toss them a coin or buy them a sandwich, they gave off enough love for the changeling to feed itself with sips and nibbles.

Canterlot City had a surprising amount of street kids, and a large number of them were changelings, but I hadn’t learned that until long after I’d gotten off the street myself. They were harmless now, and they had eyes all over the city, so the changelings were one of the few magical groups that I kept in touch with. If you wanted to find something in Canterlot City, the changelings probably already knew where it was.

And this guy, Clavus, was one of the biggest of the movers and shakers in their little underground community. I didn’t know the particulars of how he ended up in Canterlot City, but what I did know was that Clavus was old – like, really old – and that you would be hard pressed to find someone else with the sort of magical knowledge that he had.

He’d also been one of my teachers, albeit in an informal capacity, and he was one of the few beings in this world that knew that I wasn’t originally a human. Telling that to him had been the cost of earning his trust, and it had been a fair price to pay. He was a bitter, sharp-tongued old bastard who treated me like a child, but he was as good a friend as I’d ever had.

God, but that’s sad.

“Thanks for seeing me,” I said.

Clavus slid into the seat opposite me and nodded. “You smell, brat,” he said simply. His voice was adorably youthful and cracked on the last half of ‘smell’. He grabbed one of the two glasses of water that Cheese Cake had brought over earlier and took a long drink.

“It’s nothing,” I said, not taking offensive at the blunt statement. I knew that he wasn’t talking about my actual odor. “I got hit on by a girl who was looking to make a mistake.”

He arched an eyebrow curiously. “Was she pretty?”

“Extremely.”

“And what happened?” he asked.

“I didn’t like the idea of being someone else’s mistake,” I said, and left it at that.

“I see,” he muttered after a few moments of quietly frowning at me. “You’re a very boring woman.”

I sighed. “I wish I was more boring. I kind of got myself into a bit of a thing today.”

He looked down at the napkin under my hand, seemingly noticing it for the first time. He reached across the table and tugged the napkin free. “It have anything to do with this?” He turned it around, knitting his brows at the crude crayon drawing. “Awful. Did you draw this with your mouth?”

“I was hoping you could tell me what that symbol is,” I said, choosing to ignore the comment. “It’s got a Greek meander around it, You were around for the Greek stuff, yeah?”

“The ‘Greek stuff’ was the foundation of this world's western culture, brat,” he said with a huff that blew out his adorable little cheeks. “But your horse-brained ignorance aside, I can’t help you much with this. This isn’t Greek, it looks Central American. I haven’t spent much time there – certainly not enough to tell you who any of their players are.”

I slumped into the booth with a groan. “Fantastic,” I muttered.

However,” he said impatiently, “I do know an old changeling who used to haunt that part of the world. I’ll send him a letter, see if he knows anything about it.”

“You can’t call him? It’s kind of important.”

He shook his head and carefully folded the napkin. “No, he doesn’t trust phones,” Clavus said as he stuffed the picture into his shirt pocket. “He’s always been very strange, and age hasn’t been kind to him in that regard. I’ve no idea how he even feeds himself, but he’s wily enough to handle it, I suppose.”

“Thanks,” I said, sighing in relief.

Cheese sashayed over to our table carrying a big serving tray with our food on it. “Here you go, hon,” she said with a smile as she put my plate on the table. She set down a second plate in front of Clavus, letting it drop the last inch or two so it clattered loudly on the table. “And here’s yours.”

“Thank you, fat woman,” Clavus said as he examined his plate of pancakes. Cheese Cake had used the bacon and eggs to make a crude frowny face atop the stack of pancakes.

“Enjoy it, you little shit,” Cheese Cake muttered. She refilled our water glasses and left.

“I wish you two would stop being so antagonistic to one another,” I commented as I cut into my burger with a knife and fork. The ICLOP was the only place in Canterlot City that would make me a burger with syrupy waffles instead of bread, and I loved the place for it.

“It’s her fault for making a poor first impression,” Clavus said with a shrug.

“She knocked over your water and you cursed her out.”

Clavus snorted disdainfully. “A thousand years ago she would have been stoned in the street for such clumsiness.”

“That’s not even remotely true,” I said through a mouthful of fries.

“Just eat your disgusting hamburger and tell me what it is you’re involving me in,” Clavus said insistently.

I laid it all out for him. The whole story, starting with Night Light coming to my place with the mark on him. He sat quietly listening, nodding his head and periodically asking for clarification on details as I talked. I even included the embarrassing little scene with Luna in my car, partly because I knew he’d be interested, but mostly because a condition of asking Clavus for help was laying all my cards on the table. He prized honesty and openness above all when it came to dealing with people he was willing to call friends, and as long as I never lied or kept secrets from him, he’d count me among that group.

His food went untouched as he waited for the story finish, and by the time I was done going over the whole night’s events, I was sopping up the last of the maple syrup on my plate with my fries.

“Alright, then,” he said once the tale was finished. He folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “I have a question.”

I wiped my mouth with a napkin and pushed the plate aside to mirror his posture. “Shoot.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Don’t be dim, brat,” he said. “Why are you involved in this? You’ve made it clear that you suspected from the outset that another sorcerer was involved, that this wasn’t just some random rift-jumping monster.” He reached into his breast pocket and held up the folded napkin with my sketch on it, waving the thing in my face. “The fact that you came here and asked me to look into the matter means you’ve already resigned yourself to butting heads with another mage. This is hardly the action of the Sunset Shimmer I know, so I ask again: why? Why involve yourself?”

It was a fair question, but it wasn’t an easy one. Clavus rarely asked easy questions.

He just stared at me with those sharp eyes, studying my face as I contemplated my answer. I hated that look, that expectant gleam in his eye that said he knew exactly what you were thinking even before you did. I could tell that he already had an idea of why I’d agreed to help Night Light, and he’d only asked the question because he wanted to know why I thought I was helping Night.

Like I’d said, Clavus had sort of been one of my teachers, and he’d always been more of a gadfly than a professor.

“He… he begged me to help his family,” I said, turning away so I wouldn’t have to meet Clavus’ gaze anymore. “He’s a good guy, who just wants to protect his family.”

“He could have been playing you,” Clavus pointed out. “I’ve seen men tell convincing lies while bartering for their lives. One man is seldom different from another, if you cut them deep enough.”

“He wasn’t lying,” I said with certainty. Admittedly, at the time, the same thought had briefly crossed my mind. Maybe it said something for how effective Clavus was as a teacher that his line of thinking wasn't far off from my own had been. I drained what was left in my water glass in one big gulp. “You didn’t see his eyes. He's just a guy that loves his children, and he needed my help.”

“And you think that helping this man protect his family will be worth the trouble you’re bringing down on your own head?”

I laughed humorlessly. “I don’t know yet. Probably not, but we'll see.”

Clavus nodded slowly in appreciation. “Very close,” he muttered as he finally reached for his utensils and tucked into his plate of pancakes. “It’s a good enough answer for now.”

“What do you think I should do?”

“I think you should distance yourself from this conflict,” Clavus commented dryly.

Aside from that,” I said, holding back the snark in my voice. I knew he was only acting shitty because he was worried, not that he’d ever admit it.

“Aside from that,” he parroted back to me, “you should ask yourself another question. What does some random, magic-less, literature professor have to do to catch a necromancer's eye?”

“Yeah, I have been wondering that,” I explained, sighing as I rolled the crayon I’d been drawing with between my fingers. “I'd already asked him some questions about what he’s been working on in his day job. I wanted to make sure he hadn't just Nutty Professor'd his way into something dangerous, but everything checked out. He’s not into anything even remotely magical. No magic texts, no ancient untranslated manuscripts, no nothing. The guy doesn’t even do coin tricks. I’ve seen birthday clowns with more connections to the occult. I haven't got clue-one about how he got on a corpse-diddler’s radar.”

“It’s probably a good question to keep asking, then. As long as you’re careful, at any rate.”

I snapped the crayon in half and dropped the broken pieces onto my plate. “I’m not too worried. It’s just some third-rate necromancer. I got a little winded bashing up his construct, but that's only because I'm out of shape. It was actually pretty weak as far as flesh golems go.”

“Stupid horse, you still need to exercise caution,” he grumbled peevishly. “Sorcerers who underestimate other sorcerers rarely live to regret it. What have I always told you?”

“Vigilance and caution,” I said repeating the words he’d spoken to me many times before. “Any other advice? What do you think my next move should be?”

He pondered the question for a few moments. “Do you have his address?” he asked. “You might consider going by and setting up some sort of warding around his home.”

That was actually a good idea. Flesh golems aside, there were all kinds of long-distance shenanigans a skilled enough necromancer could do if he really wanted to hurt Night Light or his family. I could lay some minor wards tonight with just stuff I had in my trunk, and set up something better after I had a talk with Night Light.

“I can do that. Thanks for the advice and the help. I’ll be in touch.”

I stood to leave, thoughts about what sort of defensive wards I could manage already going through my head. I stopped as I heard Clavus loudly clear his throat.

“My emolument?” he asked. He favored me with a smile for the first time all night. “The pancakes are good, but you need to fill the other belly.”

He was right, of course. He was a changeling, and changelings needed love. The older a changeling got, the stronger they became, and the harder it was to “fill the other belly.” Changelings, especially old ones like Clavus, had to take love wherever they could get it.

I closed my eyes and sifted through my memories for every happy thought I could dredge up. The first time I’d ever ridden a motorcycle, the day I’d bought my house, the first crush I’d ever had. I leaned forward, brushed the bangs away from Clavus’ handsomely boyish face, and kissed him on the forehead.

When I opened my eyes Clavus was frowning at me.

“It’s never worth it,” he said with a sigh as he turned back to his pancakes. “You need to get a boyfriend, or girlfriend, or a dog at the very least.”

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly. “Best I can do. If you want to eat anything else, just tell Cheese Cake to put it on my tab.”

He looked up from his plate, his eyebrows raised in mild surprise. “She lets you do that?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “She likes me.”

Clavus’ face went all sour and he let out an adorable snort, like an offended chihuahua. “That fat woman never lets me pay on credit,” he grumbled as he angrily bit a sausage in half.

* * *

Night Light’s family lived clear on the other side of Canterlot from me, in one of the swankier upper-upper-middle class suburbs. The houses here were mostly mcmansions built on lots that could barely contain their girth, so the contractors had been forced to build upwards. The houses all had impressively trimmed lawns that were decorated with ugly plastic lawn ornamentation, and ceramic toads being ridden by gnomes with eerily lifeless grins. It was the kind of neighborhood they set scandalous sitcoms about cheating housewives in.

Professing couldn’t possibly be paying this well, so I could only imagine that Night Light, or his wife, had come from money. I filed that thought away for later. I was doing this out of the goodness of my heart... kind of, I guess… but he had said he would pay me for my time, and I was definitely going to charge him the Black-Platinum Package rate.

Right as soon as I figured out what that rate was.

I stifled a yawn as I slowly made my way through the darkened streets. The sky had opened up without warning not long after I’d left the pancake lodge, and the sudden deluge had already filled the gutters and pooled in every uneven dip in the road.

“Where is this stupid place?” I muttered to myself as I grabbed my phone off the passenger seat and double-checked the address I’d gotten from Night Light. The directions app had already chirped that I’d arrived at my destination in that obnoxiously happy voice, but I still couldn’t find the address.

Maybe the rain was screwing with the satellite or something? Human technology was pretty cool, but sometimes it was damned infuriating. I probably should have just asked Night for a lock of his hair, or something else I could track him with magically.

I briefly considered calling him, but wrote that idea off almost immediately. I could only imagine what his wife would say to Night Light getting a phone call at 2AM from a younger woman. I was already stepping on the toes of some necromancer, I didn’t need to add a jealous wife to my list of immediate threats.

Besides, there was no reason to bother him with this. I could set up the temporary wards in ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and be gone before anyone was the wiser. I was tired from the fight earlier, and I had a gut full of grease and sugar weighing me down. All I wanted to do was take care of this and then get some sleep.

I turned off the radio and turned up the speed on my windshield wipers as I squinted through the rain, trying to make out the house numbers. Damn rain was really coming down, I was even starting to hear thunder.

I finally found Night Light’s house on my third trip down the street. The house number was part of a ironwork fence that surrounded the house, and I hadn’t noticed it in the dark as I’d driven by. I’d have missed it again if lightning hadn’t flashed as I was driving by.

I pulled into the driveway and got out of my car, zipping up my jacket as I did. Almost immediately I got the sense that something was amiss. It wasn’t the same as the feeling I’d gotten back at the school, though. There weren’t any little clues or an odd silence to tip me off. The air just felt… wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something in the air that was telling me to be cautious.

The things I needed to set up the wards were in my trunk – chalk, salt, ashes, strips of silk cloth, vials of blood – but I ignored them for the moment as I made my way towards the front door. I peeked in one of the windows as I passed by, cupping my hands over my eyes and peering into the darkness. I was looking into was probably the living room, and the place looked like it had been tossed. Bookshelves had been knocked over, tables overturned, the couch cushions had been shredded, leaving their cottony-white guts strewn about the room.

I hurried up to the door to find that the jamb was broken, and the door had a dent in it about waist-high where someone had kicked it in. I started gathering up my magic and pushed my way inside.

The rest of the house hadn’t fared much better than the living room. It was dark inside, but I caught little bits of how bad the damage was in flashes of lightning from outside. The rain had gone full thunderstorm in the blink of an eye.

I reached for the light switch, but the electricity was out. Maybe the storm had knocked it out, or maybe someone had shut it off intentionally – it was bad news either way.

Lightning flashed again, and I could see the streaks of mud in the colorful faux-persian rug patterns. Something big, and wet, and covered in mud had walked through here. Something with four differently sized paws.

I broke into a run, heading for the staircase and bounding up the steps two at a time. I could already smell the stink of death magic in the air, mixed with the unmistakable coppery scent of blood.

“Night Light!” I shouted as I got onto the second level. “Night, are you okay!? It’s Sunset Shimmer!”

There was a clamor from one of the rooms at the end of the hall, and a construct – similar to the one from the university, but definitely not the same one – leapt out of the room so fast that it clipped its wide body against the doorframe and fell into a tumble. The brittle half-decayed bones snapped and immediately reformed as it scrabbled to its feet, malformed jaws snapping angrily. It was the size of a Great Dane, and wide enough that it took up almost the whole hallway.

“Down!” I commanded it, my voice booming with the force of the magic I was pouring into the order.

The construct flinched, its legs tangling as it fell to the ground again, but this monster was apparently stronger than the other one, because it managed to shake off my command almost as soon as it hit the ground. I didn’t give it the chance to try to come at me again. I wrapped it in a field of magic, lifted it up, and bashed it against the floor. I pulled it out of the hallway and over the banister, dangling it helplessly above the foyer. I threw it as hard as I could against the outer wall, and it fell to the ground floor with a wet splat and the sound of splintering wood.

I went lightheaded from the amount of magic I’d just suddenly thrown out, and the world started spinning around me. I still hadn’t fully recovered from the earlier fight.

I grit my teeth and ignored the urge to vomit as I held on to the banister and hobbled my way drunkenly towards the room I’d seen the construct come out of. I knew it wasn’t down for the count, but I didn’t care. The only thing on my mind was finding out if Night Light and his family were okay.

I found Night Light in his bedroom. He was laying in bed next to what I assumed had been his wife. They were almost laughably far beyond any help I could provide.

I quickly sobered up and ran down the hall, checking the other rooms as I went. I found the room that must have belonged to their son. There were posters of women in bikinis draped over expensive sports cars, and trophies of little golden men holding footballs in mid throw. There was no blood, though, no remains, so I went to the next room. This one had another broken door.

This room was done up in shades of purple, with glow-in-the-dark stars all over the ceiling. An expensive looking telescope was lying on the floor next to the window. There were certificates and ribbons covering all the walls – what little of the walls I could see past all the bookshelves. I found their son here, sitting on the floor, his insides on the outside, soaking into the shag carpeting. He was leaning against the closet door, and a dented aluminum baseball bat was held in a literal death grip at his side. His handsome, tear-streaked face was screwed up in an angry scowl. He was the very picture of someone who had gone down swinging.

Sometimes I worry that I’m not… a person anymore. That the parts inside me that make me a person are broken, and that I can’t feel things the way other people can. But looking at that boy, I knew those parts – the same in humans as they are in ponies – were still there.

I walked out of that bedroom to find the necromantic construct was bounding up the stairs. I held out my hand and squeezed. My magic wrapped around the creature’s body again, pressing down on it, crushing it like it was being held by an invisible grasping hand.

I suddenly realized that I was crying, but that didn’t matter. I just wiped the tears away with my free hand and pushed more magic into the field I was crushing the horrible thing with. It burst into flames, steam rising from its body as the water soaked into its fur instantly transitioned to vapor. I smashed its body against the wall, and the floor, the ceiling, beating it back to full death even as the flames ate away at its body, destroying it faster than the magic animating it could repair it.

The flames spread to the house, and soon the entire building would be an enormous funeral pyre. That was fine. I couldn’t help Night Light, but I could make sure that no one saw what had become of him. I could let him keep that much of his dignity.

By the time I was done venting my frustration, I really did throw up. I wiped what was left of my burger from my chin and bumbled my way back into the room where Night Light’s son had died. His eyes were open, and I couldn’t have that.

“I’m sorry, kid,” I said, my voice cracking as I spoke. I reached out with a trembling hand and held it over his face. “This is fucking terrible. I wish I could have helped you, but I just...”

I laughed. Celestia help me, I actually laughed.

Then I heard something that cleared away the fog in my mind – a low, high-pitched keening sound, and girlish sobbing.

The girl.

In my anger, I had forgotten about the other kid. Night Light had two. This… this was the girl’s room. That was why the boy was in front of the closet. He was protecting his sister.

I got to my feet and heaved the body out of the way. It’s not easy moving dead weight, but a fresh flood of adrenaline was in me, and he felt as light as a feather. I threw open the door and found the girl, curled up in a ball in the corner of the closet, half hidden beneath a bunch of blankets and stuffed animals. She must have thought she could hide herself behind them.

I reached out and yanked away her camouflage, and she started screaming and fighting, thrashing around and beating against me with her little fists.

“Kid, calm down!” I shouted. “I’m a friend of your dad’s! I know Night Light! I’m here to help you!”

She froze at the sound of her father’s name and looked up at me, her lower lip trembling and her eyes flooding with tears. The corners of her mouth pulled down, and she wailed without restraint as she threw herself against me. She didn’t know me, she didn’t know what was going on, but I’d said I’d known her daddy, and that had been enough for a little girl who’d just had her world fall to bloody bits.

“We gotta get out of here, kid,” I somehow managed to say. My voice was painfully thick as the words caught in my throat. I picked her up and she buried her face into my shoulder, still trembling, still weeping. “Don’t open your eyes. We’re leaving, now. Keep your eyes closed.”

I ran out of the room, and every step I took made a loud, wet squelch as I trod over her heroic brother’s viscera. She flinched with every step, but she didn’t look up.

The hallway was full of flames now, but that meant very little to a pyromancer of my caliber. The flames parted as I ran by, closing rank behind me and continuing to eat away at the house, destroying all evidence of what had happened.

As I was about to leave I saw a picture on the floor that caught my eye. It was of Night Light’s family, alive and happy, standing on a boardwalk with a setting sun behind them. The girl in the snapshot looked about the same age as the one in my arms – even her hair was about the same length – so it was probably a recent picture. I summoned the photo, frame and all, into my hand as I ran.

I didn’t even bother with the keys as I got to my car. I opened the doors with a tweak of my magic and set the kid down in the passenger seat. Once she was strapped in nice and safe, I got into the driver’s seat and got us the hell out of Dodge.

Nobody had come out of their home to see what the ruckus was. Maybe this wasn’t that kind of neighborhood, the kind where people checked on neighbors, or maybe the sound of thunder had drowned out the sound of my fight. Whatever the case was, me and the kid were long gone by the time anyone noticed that Night Light’s house was burning down.

* * *

My house is pretty big. Not as big as the mcmansion that Night Light had lived in, but it was a good size, with more bedrooms than I’d ever needed before. I’m not the type that has company over. I just don’t have those kinds of relationships. As a result, only two of the three bedrooms in my house were furnished – the master bedroom where I slept, and one guest bedroom that had already had a queen-sized mattress in it that I’d been too lazy to remove when I'd bought the house.

I’d stuck the kid in the extra bed, and covered her up with some blankets from my own closet. She’d fallen asleep during the car ride, exhaustion overriding the human instinct to mourn. It was good that she was getting some sleep. She had a lifetime to spend shedding tears over the loss of her family. There was no hurry to get to it.

Boy, do I get maudlin when I watch nearly an entire family get murdered in their own home, or what?

I sat in the living room, on my dirty old couch that smelled like cigarette smoke and felt like it was stuffed with clouds. The remote for the TV was in its little green candy dish, and I reached for it to turn on some noise, so I wouldn’t be left with just my thoughts and the distant sound of thunder outside.

It was the middle of the night, and that meant classic TV reruns. That show about the goofy guy with the even goofier foreign cousin was on, and they were in the midst of buying a racehorse. I hated this episode, but I wasn’t watching it anyway.

I stared up at the ceiling, listening to the white noise around me and wondering how the hell everything had gone so bad. I should have thought of warding his house sooner. I should have gone home with him. Hell, I should’ve told him to bring his family to my place. They would have been safe here.

But no. I’d gotten cocky. I’d beat up one monster and thought there was no way some two-bit necromancer with a hard-on for a college professor would be able to field another one so quickly.

I’d underestimated this guy, whoever he was, and it had cost Night Light his life, and the lives of two of his family. It had orphaned his daughter.

An orphan.

The kid sleeping up in my guest room, she was an orphan now... and it was my fault for half-assing things.

I leaned back on my couch, not moving, and staring up at the ceiling long enough that my neck started hurting. Another episode of the show came on. I didn’t know which one, and it didn’t matter.

I walked to the entryway where I’d left the photo I’d stolen as I was fleeing Night Light’s house. The family in the photo looked so happy just to be together. I’d heard that family photos rarely reflect the reality of a family’s dynamic, but from what little I knew of Night Light, I got the feeling that this was real, that the happiness in the photo was something they had every day, not just when someone was pointing a camera at them.

I don’t know why I’d grabbed this picture. Maybe I wanted it for the kid. Maybe I wanted it for myself. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it burn. Whatever the case, I had it now, and I was glad I’d gotten it. Unless the kid had relatives that had pictures like this laying around, this was the only memory she’d have of her family being whole. It was more than I’d ever had.

I frowned as I realized that the glass was cracked. I couldn’t give it to the kid like this. I looked up at the few pictures I had hanging up on my wall. The pictures in the frames weren’t anything personal, just some landscapes and artsy shots of teddy bears in sepia, and they were only there to color up the walls so the house would look like someone lived in it.

I found a frame that would fit the picture and pulled the placeholder out of it. The landscape wasn’t even a real photo, it was just printed out on cheap computer printer paper.

I took the back off the frame with Night Light’s picture and blinked at the words written on the back. It was a description of the scene, written in blue ink, with looping, feminine letters with little hearts dotting the I’s. It had the date, the location of the beach, and the names and ages of the family members pictured.

Night Light, Twilight Velvet, Shining Armor, and Twilight Sparkle.

The frame slipped out of my hands as I read the last name. I knew that name, despite having only ever heard it once. I’d never forget it, because that was the name that had changed my life.

It had been years since I’d thought about it, but the memory came back to me in a flash, and I could practically hear Princess Celestia’s beautiful voice as she happily told me she was taking a second apprentice.

I have the most wonderful news, Sunset Shimmer!” she had said, her voice bursting at the seams with self-satisfaction. “You’re going to have the chance to help mentor another bright young mind, just like yours. It’s a fantastic learning opportunity for you. She’s a little young, but I just know that you and Twilight Sparkle will be the best of friends before you know it.

I remember that, at the time, I’d been angry. Angry because I felt like I was being replaced, and was being asked to train my replacement. I’d been impatient, I’d wanted power and respect long before I deserved either, or even knew what those words meant. I think I might have even demanded to be made a princess, like her niece, Cadance.

All because of Twilight Sparkle.

My legs gave out, and I slammed against the wall, sliding to the floor as I stared in disbelief at the writing on the photo. Twilight Sparkle, the girl who had ruined my life, was in my house...

...because I’d ruined hers.

“Come on, coo-sin!” shouted the idiot cousin on the TV in the other room. “Now we dance the dance of joy!”

I cried.

I kept crying until the sun came up, and at some point fatigue caught up to me and I fell asleep right there on the floor. When I woke up, Twilight Sparkle – the human one – was on the floor next to me, leaning against my side and clutching my arm to her chest as she slept.

* * *

Chapter 3 - Pick Yourself Up and Try Again

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As you can see behind me, there, we have investigators from the Canterlot City Fire Department sifting through the ashes of the blaze that claimed the lives of a family of four last night. There’s still no word on whether last night’s unexpected storm had anything to do with the fire, as investigators have yet to determine the cause. The CCFD’s fire marshall has issued a statement in the wake of this tragedy, reminding everyone to perform routine maintenance on their in-home smoke alarms and carbon-monoxide detectors…

I muted the TV and changed the channel just so I didn’t have to see the smoldering remains of Night Light’s home anymore. I’d been flipping channels all afternoon, trying to see if there was anything about last night’s fight on the news. All I needed was for some paranoid neighbor with a security camera in his driveway to have caught me running away from a burning house with one of the victim’s children.

Luckily, it seemed like that hadn’t been the case. And to top it off, it looked like they thought that Twilight had burned up in the fire, too. That meant that nobody would be looking for her for a while – at least until they realized they were missing a body.

I dropped the remote on the coffee table and pressed my forehead against the wooden surface. I was sitting on the floor, my legs under the table and my back against the couch. Twilight Sparkle was laying on the couch behind me, still sleeping.

Twilight Sparkle.

How could this have happened? This had to be some kind of cosmic joke.

The human world has billions of people, and only a fraction of them are dopplegangers of people from my world. The odds of me getting caught up in something like this with the double of Twilight Sparkle were… god, it was so astronomical that I couldn’t even begin trying to work it out. The odds were so vastly incalculable that it had to be karmic punishment – my just deserts for wallowing in hatred for all those years.

And I had hated Twilight Sparkle, the little filly that Princess Celestia – my Princess Celestia – had said could perhaps be my equal. Twilight Sparkle, whom I had seen as a usurper of my place in the world. She was a stranger, but with nothing more than news of her existence, she’d shaken the very foundations of the pedestal I’d put myself atop.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s all in the past. That was the viewpoint of a bitter and foolish little girl. I didn’t want to be that ugly, hate-filled person anymore, or ever again. I’d let the weight of that hate bend my back for nearly half my life before I’d managed to put it down, and without it I stood a little straighter… but that didn’t stop the pain in my chest and the fluttering of my guts every time I looked at the human child behind me. Every time I thought of her name it was like thunder, like heaven itself laughing at me.

I tried to stand up and banged my knee against the underside of the table. I winced, sucking air through my teeth and muttering the sort of words that shouldn’t be spoken with a child in the room as I rubbed the sore spot. I pushed the table away impatiently and walked over to my liquor cabinet. It was locked, but I always kept the key – one of those antique brass skeleton key dealies – in the lock. Maybe it defeated the purpose of locking the cabinet to leave the key in it, but it’s not like I’d ever had to keep anyone except myself out of it.

The inside of my cabinet was well-stocked with a variety of spirits. I’d been struck by whimsy during one of my previous benders, and I’d covered over the labels with sticky notes bearing smiley faces that expressed what liquor went best with what mood – at least I think that was what the faces meant, my mind went weird places when I was drinking. I reached for a bottle with a frowny face on it, but hesitated to pull the bottle out.

My eyes drifted towards the couch, where Twilight was curled into a tight little ball. She’d gotten one of my throw pillows and was hugging it to her chest like a drowning man clutching a life preserver.

I sighed and – reluctantly – let go of the bottle. I wanted it real bad, but I’d made enough mistakes for the week. It didn’t matter if she was sleeping, I wasn’t going to sink low enough to let myself get smashed in front of a child.

“I’m sorry, kid,” I whispered as I closed the cabinet and turned the key. “I screwed up, but I’m not going…” A lump formed in my throat. I swallowed it down. “I can’t…” It came back.

What could I say? That I was going to make it right? Nothing I did could give her back her family, nothing could undo what had been done to her.

I walked over to the coffee table and sat down to watch Twilight sleep. That unsettling pain in my chest started up again.

She was a cute kid, fair of skin and chubby of cheek. Her hair was a dark, almost purple-ish blue, with streaks of indigo and bright, rosy pink – the colors of the sky at actual twilight. It was cut into a short little bob, with a straight curtain of bangs that looked like they might need a trim soon. I’d never met the pony Twilight, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d had the same mane style.

I watched her for a while, letting myself drink in the sight of her sleeping form. She was the very picture of innocence in repose. Every moment I spent watching her was another pound of guilt settling on my shoulders, but it wasn’t anything I didn’t deserve.

This was one of the children that Night Light had gotten on his knees and begged me to help him protect... so that was what I was going to do. It was all I could do now.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you, Twilight,” I said, my voice tight but my words as resolute as any I’d ever spoken. The burden on my shoulders was no lighter, but I felt stronger beneath it with every word. “I promise you, I’m not going to mess up again. I’ll keep you safe.”

I stood and scooped her up from the warm embrace of my smelly, comfortable couch. She stirred long enough to cast me a drowsy glance, drop the pillow she’d been clutching, and bury her face against my chest as I carried her up the stairs. The door to the guest room was still open, and I set her down as though she might shatter with the slightest mistreatment. The front of my shirt was wound up in her tiny fist, and I very gently pried her fingers loose enough to slip free of her grasp. I tucked her in and left the room.

I had one last look back at her as I was shutting the door. The kid was sleeping a lot, and she’d probably be sleeping a lot more over the next few days. You’d be surprised how much as person can sleep when their heart has been broken. If the circles under her eyes were any indication, it wasn’t restful sleep either.

* * *

No more half-measures. That’s what I’d decided. I wasn’t going to let myself repeat the stupid little mistakes that had brought me here.

The first thing I needed to do was make sure Twilight and I were protected in my house. I had been planning to lay down some wards around Night Light’s place, but those were just basic spells and formations that would gently nudge aside any bad juju sent their way. More than enough to turn back the power of some cut-rate practitioner, but they would have been the magical equivalent of a ‘No Trespassing’ sign compared to what I had in mind. I wasn’t quite ready to start calling up demons to sit on my porch like guard dogs – that kind of protection came with its own set of risks – but anything short of that was definitely on the table.

It was already dark by the time I’d finished my preparations. I was kneeling in the grass, the short-cut blades pricking at the flesh of my exposed legs. My skin was sensitive, tingling from the hard scrubbing I’d given myself in the shower to cleanse my body. My hair was loose, still a little damp and beginning to frizz as it dried. It wasn’t very chilly out, but I felt the full effect of the night air through the silk bathrobe I was wearing. It was a little black number, with rose patterned embroidery, and it made for very poor protection from the elements seeing as it barely covered halfway down my thighs.

I opened the canvas bag that I kept my ritual materials in and pulled out the little red clay offering bowl. It was one of the first things I’d ever made with my own hands, and the shoddy craftsmanship showed in the lumpy bowl as uneven edges and fingerprinted dimples. It was ugly, but it had been made with a bit of my magic in it, and it would take a lot of the dirty work out of what I wanted to do. I set it aside and pulled out a short knife – another of my own crafts that I’d made by sharpening an ox bone against a grind wheel. It was another ugly tool, but it was sharp as the will I had poured into it. I laid the knife down and started filling the bowl with dry herbs and incense. Scents can be very spiritual, and knowing what sort of scents attracted certain kinds of spirits made it easier to speak with them.

I ground up the ingredients with the butt of my knife until they were powder, then set down the knife and got to my feet. I undid the belt of my robe, letting it slide from my shoulders with a whisper of silk over flesh and onto the grass, exposing my bare skin to the light of the crescent moon in the cloudless sky. I didn’t need to be naked for this, but it helped. That’s what a lot of magical learning was, picking up all the little shortcuts that let you do difficult things with more ease.

I walked across the lawn to the chicken coop I kept next to my gardening shed. I’d built the coop myself, using blueprints I’d found in a Do-It-Yourself book I’d picked up from the hardware store. It was painted red and white, and the little hutch that the chickens slept and laid their eggs in was made to look like a barn. It was a little lopsided, but it was one of the first home-improvement projects I’d ever undertaken after I’d bought my house. I was proud of it.

I opened the little hatch in the back of the hutch and squinted at my birds. I grabbed the fattest one and pulled her out. She was getting older and didn’t give many eggs these days, so it wouldn’t hurt much to lose her. She clucked in annoyance at being manhandled, but didn’t put up much of a fuss as I shut the door. The other chickens just ruffled their feathers and spread out a little, filling in the now vacated space and hunkering back down for the night.

Chickens aren’t just a good source of meat and eggs. They’re an easy, cheap, and readily available source of life-energy for when you need to make a blood sacrifice.

Blood sacrifices get a bad rap, but that’s only because they’re messy. Even if I hadn't sacrificed her, I still would have ended up killing this old hen and frying her up. Offering her life-essence to a spirit that would protect my house was just me using every part of the animal, even the parts you couldn't see.

I wrung the bird’s neck and carried her body back to where I’d set up my ritual supplies. By the time I was kneeling back on the grass in front of my bowl, the last of her post-mortem twitching had stopped. I cut open her belly and carefully yanked out the insides, dumping them onto the grass in a pile. It was more delicate work than the layman would suspect, but I was a practiced hand at it and it went quick.

I grabbed a lighter from my ritual bag – one of those long wands with a trigger on it for lighting a barbecue – and started burning the potpourri in the bowl. The air was immediately filled with a rich composite of sweet scents, like one of those fancy home and bath stores in the mall.

My hands were already covered in blood, so I smeared a little on my face, symbolically linking my life-essence with that of the sacrifice animal. I scooped up the innards and dumped them into the bowl. The giblets went up in a flash, the fat popping and crackling almost musically, and the clean white smoke turned black and greasy. It was a small fire, but the magic in my offering bowl made the heat intense as a bonfire’s. I leaned forward, holding back my hair so it wouldn’t fall into the flames, and inhaled a lungful of the smoke. The spicy scent of burning meat and incense stung my nostrils as I sucked hot smoke into my chest. I held it in, closing my eyes and infusing the smoke with some of my will and a portion of my magic as I focused on the type of protection I wanted.

I exhaled, blowing the smoke into the air above me, and a plume of smoke far larger than what I had inhaled trailed away in the breeze. The fire in the bowl flared brilliantly as my offering was accepted and the spirits took their payment. Within seconds the meat in the bowl had burned away, until not even ashes were left.

I cleaned up the mess and put my robe back on. I’d have to spray the spot down with the hose later, but that could wait until morning. I picked up my ritual bag and my chicken, and walked back to the house.

I stowed the bag under the sink and washed the blood off my face before I got to work cooking the bird. The spirits had gotten what they wanted, and that left me with a chicken that was perfectly good for eating – once it was properly cleaned, scalded, and plucked, that is.

It was familiar work. I’d done similar rituals dozens of times when I’d been learning from Fiddler. I might have thrown up the first time, but every time after that it got a little easier. I’d learned to cook for myself because of this sort of thing, truth be told. It took a bit of the sting out of the cruelty of the act if I knew I was going to be eating the poor animal – like the chicken wasn’t dying in vain, or something.

I lost myself in the preparation of the meal for a little while, the steps of it as ingrained and practiced as any meditative act. I could empty my mind while I did this, and focus just on the task in front of me. It was a much needed breather after having spent the whole day ruminating on the impossibility of my predicament.

An hour had passed by the time I was taking the first pieces of chicken out of the pan. It was a little late in the evening for fried chicken, but I’ve never let little things like that stop me before. Plus, I hadn’t eaten since my meeting with Clavus, and that meal hadn’t even stayed inside me long enough to get digested.

One of the chairs at the dining table behind me scraped along the hardwood floors with a loud, grating sound, cutting through the hiss of crackling oil in the pan. I looked over my shoulder, knowing that it had to be Twilight. Sure enough, she was sitting at the table, her tired, bloodshot eyes watching me with a gaze that I might have described as appraising if it weren’t coming from a cute-as-a-button eight-year-old.

There was a seed of something in those tired eyes, the ghostly remains of unrestrained weeping. The last time I’d seen her awake, her grief had been huge, imposing as a mountain. Tears had worn it down, like a river smoothing out the hard edges of a rock. That was the look in her eyes – the look of a worn, smooth river stone that had been carved from a mountain. I felt a pang of heartache to see that look in the eyes of a kid her age, so I forced myself to break eye contact almost immediately.

She was still wearing her pajamas, because of course she was. I hadn’t thought to grab any clothes for her as we were fleeing the scene of the crime. I didn’t own anything in her size, so I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do if she wanted to change clothes.

That struck me as a strange, almost novel, thought to have. I’ve never had to worry about someone else’s needs before. Never had to think about clothes or even food for someone else. She was a kid, though, and I supposed that there was no one else around that could worry about those things for her right now.

I opened my mouth to say good morning, but the words felt wrong and died upon conception. Was that the right thing to say? If not, then what should I say? What could I say?

I’m sorry.” Or maybe, “How’d you sleep?

Words failed me, so I chose to say nothing and turned back to the pan to continue cooking. Words must have failed her, too, because she didn’t say a thing as she watched me working at the stove.

I finished up and got out some plates. I set a place for myself and one for Twilight where she was already sitting, and put the basket of chicken in the center of the table. I got us a couple of sodas and then took a seat opposite her. The dining table was round, as secondhand as everything else I owned, and about the size of a card table. It didn't afford a lot of space between us, but I felt the distance was... maybe not appropriate, but definitely necessary, or at the very least more comfortable than being close.

I knew we were both hungry, if the tightness in my belly and the way Twilight was staring at the food were any kind of indication, but neither of us moved to fill our plates. When the wall between us finally broke, it was Twilight who spoke out first.

“Why were you at my house last night?” she asked.

“I’m a friend of your dad’s,” I said.

“I know. You said so last night. You said your name was Sunset Shimmer.”

I was impressed. I’d given her my name to try and get her to stop fighting me when I had found her in the closet. She’d been pretty worked up, but she’d been aware enough to remember my name.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though. Night Light had mentioned briefly that his daughter was a smart cookie, and the pony Twilight had been impressive enough to get Princess Celestia’s attention. If this was one of those cases where the pony and the human analogue were fairly close in temperament and talent, then Twilight was most probably more than just a little bright.

“You didn’t answer my question, though,” she said. Sharp kid, alright – insistent. “Why were you at my house?”

I fiddled nervously with the hem of my robe. The silk felt good between my fingers. “Answer me something first,” I proposed. “What do you remember about last night?”

The color drained from her face. “You… you won’t believe me if I tell you,”

“I think you might be surprised what I’d believe.”

Her mouth pulled into a tight little line as she narrowed her eyes at me in distrust. I knew that look. It was the look that children gave adults when they were trying to figure out if they were about to get talked down to.

“It was a monster,” she said. “A monster came into my house and it…” The hard look in her eyes wavered for just a second, and a shiver went through her body as her lower lip trembled. I thought she was going to start bawling, but she pulled herself together at the very edge of losing her composure. “...it hurt my mom and dad and brother. I know monsters aren’t supposed to be real, but I know what I saw. I saw a monster, so that means monsters are real. That’s called empirical evidence.”

“Okay then,” I said. My mouth was suddenly very dry, so I opened my soda and took a drink. “I believe you.”

“You do?” she asked. “Did you see it last night?”

“I did,” I replied.

Her eyes narrowed as she searched my face for any indication that I might be lying. It was startlingly like the scrutinizing look that her father had given me when we had first met – the kid had a lot of her dad in her. She must have been satisfied with what she’d seen, because she slumped forward, folding her hands and sighing with obvious relief. “I was so worried,” she muttered. “I was scared that… that no one would believe me.”

“Your dad was the same way. One of those things had been following him around. That’s why he asked me for help.”

She looked up, her face etched with confusion. “He came to you for help?” she asked. “Why?”

“Because he didn’t have anyone else to go to,” I said. I chugged down the rest of my drink, then went to drop the empty can in the recycling bin next to the trash before going to the fridge for another.

“What about the police?” she asked. “My mom said that if you’re in trouble, the police are supposed to help you.”

“Cops can’t help you with monsters,” I said. I rooted around the fridge a little, trying to see if I had any beer or cider or something. I’d decided to stay out of the liquor cabinet, but something between straight whiskey and sodee-pop would have been nice. I had nothing, though, so I went back to the table with another soda. “They don’t know how to deal with magic.”

“And you do?”

“I know a little something about it,” I said with a shrug.

She crossed her arms impetuously. “Prove it.”

I stretched my hand towards the cabinet where I kept my glassware, and opened the door with a tug of my magic. A glass zipped out of the cabinet, across the kitchen, and into my open hand. I pointed at the soda, poured the drink into the glass without touching the can, and levitated the empty into the recycling bin.

The look of surprise on Twilight’s face was too adorable. There was a little part of me that was amused by her cutely shocked expression, and I couldn’t hold back my grin, or the urge to rub it in a little harder.

“Empirical evidence, right?” I took a drink, smugly.

“Are you a Magic Princess?” she asked in what might have been a reverent whisper.

I inhaled sharply at that question, which was unfortunate, because I was in the middle of drinking. I pounded my chest, hacking the fizzy liquid out of my lungs. Memories of my fight with Celestia, and of the impossibly unreasonable request I’d made of her that day, came flooding back to me. That the question had come from Twilight Sparkle made it sting all the worse.

It took me a few moments, but I finally managed to wheeze out, “Excuse me?”

“I asked if you were a Magic Princess,” she said. She leaned back and tugged at the bottom of her pajama top, flattening it out to better show off the picture printed on it. I hadn’t really paid it any attention, but her pajamas had a picture of six girls posing heroically in front of a castle with a rainbow behind it. They were all smiling, wearing masks and skimpy – almost fetishistically so – cosplay outfits. They even had a cute animal sidekick that looked like some kind of fat little platypus and could probably talk.

“Oh, is that some kind of kids’ show?” I asked. As much as I would like to, I can’t just watch TV all day. I do have to earn a living, you know.

“They’re the Ultra Pretty Magic Princesses,” Twilight explained. “They’re princesses from another dimension who know magic and fight monsters.”

“So they’re like superheroes?”

She nodded.

“I guess so, then,” I said with a sigh. I’m no hero, in fact I probably have more in common with the monsters on her show than the heroes, but if it put her mind at ease to think that I was Kamen Rider, then I wasn’t going to burst her bubble. I reached for the basket of chicken and put a couple of pieces on her plate. I gave her the drumsticks, because she was a guest, and a kid. “Try to eat something.”

I started eating, pointedly ignoring the strange looks I was getting from Twilight now. After a while, I couldn’t take the staring anymore.

“Come on, kid,” I said, dropping my half-eaten piece of chicken back on the plate. “You gotta try to eat something. Please?”

She folded her hands together, lacing her fingers and twiddling her thumbs nervously. “Can I ask something first?” she asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, of course.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing,” I said without hesitation. “I told your dad I was going to make sure you were okay. I’m going to make sure that the monsters can’t touch you.”

It wasn’t exactly the whole truth, but it was enough truth for a child.

She shifted in her seat in obvious discomfort. “Okay… but what about after?”

“After?” I asked.

“After the monsters are gone, what’s going to happen to me?” she asked, a note of panic filling her voice. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

I make my living talking, telling people what they want or need to hear, but for the second time in the span of an hour, my words failed me. Sure, I could tell her that I’d find some relatives for her to stay with, or tell her about what it was like being in an orphanage, but none of that was what she was asking. What she’d lost wasn’t a roof, or people who would support her until she was old enough to do it herself.

She’d lost her home, her family, the place she belonged to. She’d lost the people that had loved her, and now she was alone.

The scariest thing in the world – in any world – is knowing without a doubt that you’re alone. I knew that better than most. What I didn’t know, was what to do about it.

“I don’t know…”

We sat in silence, neither of us knowing what to say to the other. The distance afforded by the small dining table between us suddenly felt immeasurable, vast and cold as the distance between two stars, and no longer comfortable in the least. The soft clicking of the cheap wall clock above the back door counted out the awkward seconds, one at a time.

“Miss Sunset?”

“Yeah, kid?”

“My family is gone.”

“I know, kid.”

She’d been remarkably composed up to this point, but admitting aloud the truth of her situation had finally put her over the edge.

That seed of grief in her eyes blossomed, spilling over until it filled her face, until it filled her entire body and she quivered with it. She doubled over, clutching her hands over her heart like she was trying to hold the broken pieces in place. The sound of her wailing echoed horribly off the bare walls of my kitchen and I winced at the sound.

I turned away, unable to watch her cry, but unable to go to her and offer comfort. It was my fault that she was in pain, and I had no right to comfort her. I tried to tell myself that I shouldn’t let that stop me, that what I felt didn’t matter compared to what Twilight needed… but I’m a weak woman, and I still couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I sat there, hating myself as I listened to Twilight’s grief-song.

I had stopped counting the seconds, so I don’t know how much time had passed, but eventually Twilight’s sobbing had died down to sniffles and strangled little hiccups. She wiped the snot from her nose with her sleeve, leaving behind a slimy mess all the way from the crook of her arm to the wrist in a single movement, and finally reached for a piece of chicken.

We ate without another word, and the meal passed without further incident. Even though she finished first, Twilight waited until I was done before she got up and went back upstairs – manners that her parents had probably drilled into her. I was left alone in the kitchen with the dirty dishes.

* * *

I hadn’t slept very well, but at least my sleep had been dreamless. After the events of the past few days, I was worried about the kind of memories my brain might try to betray me with.

I hadn’t bothered to set an alarm, but it had been one of those nights where your body seemingly anticipates the next day’s labors, and decides to treat sleep like an expectant pause rather than a chance to rest. My eyes opened at five in the morning, on the dot, without that drowsy transition from sleep to wakefulness. Just a blink and I was awake.

Very unsettling.

I didn’t bother with breakfast. I just changed into a fresh pair of jeans, and a t-shirt that voiced my dissatisfaction with Mondays. The jeans were irreparably stained with paint and the shirt had a hole in the armpit, but they were clean and good for working around the house.

The plan for the day was to work on the rest of my house’s wards. What I already had up was pretty good, but I knew I could do better. Until I could figure out what my next move was going to be, the best thing for me to do was to turn Casa de Sunset into a magical fortress.

The previous night’s blood sacrifice had given my house a good deal of protection, but I wasn’t stupid enough to rely on just one extra layer. The best defenses were layered like an onion – an onion with a knife inside of it, and the onion is inside of a guard dog’s mouth.

Silly analogy, yes, but a magically-sound plan if there ever was one.

I stopped to look into the guest room on my way downstairs, just to check and see if Twilight was alright. The cold hinges on the door squealed as I carefully opened it, and the little lump under the covers twitched at the noise, but didn’t rise.

I’ve been in some really awkward situations before, but last night was definitely standing at the top of the hill, with bloody knuckles, as the undisputed king of awkward life moments. Days like this, I really wished I still had Princess Celestia around to give me advice. Celestia would have known what to do. She always knew.

I closed the door and went downstairs. The first blush of sunrise was just starting to color the skies outside, and the early-morning air was wonderfully cool and damp with last night’s dew. I fed the chickens and cleaned up what was left of last night’s ritual off my lawn before getting the belt with my engraving tools and a ladder out of the shed. I took the things back into the house and upstairs, careful to avoid making too much noise outside of the room Twilight was in, and opened the hatch in the ceiling that led to my attic.

Most people use their attics for storage. It’s traditionally a place to shove old Christmas decorations and family photo albums, so you can forget about them for long stretches of time. Me, though? I don’t have any of that stuff.

In fact, I don’t own a lot of stuff, period, and what stuff I do own is in the rooms I most frequent – bedroom, bathroom, living room, my study in the basement. So the attic went unused, for the most part, like the other two bedrooms in the house – Twilight’s temporary residency aside.

I did get some use out of it, though. The big empty room was built more for utility than for style, so there were no wall panels or sheetrock covering the room’s support structure. The exposed rafters and joists were a part of the house’s skeleton, in a sense, which meant that anything I did in this room would easily spread throughout the house. It was the perfect out of the way place to put down some wards.

The beams already had more than a few sigils carved into them. They were protections that I’d laid down when I’d first moved in. Some of them were spells and minor incantations written in ancient demonic languages that I could read but didn’t have the right mouth-parts to speak, while others were old runes that attracted good spirits that would look after my house. It was a good, strong mix of various protections, but it never hurt to have more.

The sunlight spilling in through the attic’s only small window wasn’t bright enough to light such delicate work, so I pulled the cord dangling above the hatch and turned on the fluorescents. I took a few minutes to visualize what I wanted to do, then set up my ladder and got to work, occupying my mind with the complexities of my craft. It wasn’t as mindlessly instinctual as cooking dinner, but it was no less meditative an act. Hard as a lot of my lessons were, I love magic, always have. Casting magic is like lassoing a tornado and dragging it into the bedroom. It’s an intensely emotional, humbling, empowering thing, and nothing else is quite like it.

And then there was this kind of magic, the part of witchcraft that was actual craft. The sigils and runes were ancient, but putting them together in a way that suited my purposes was a labor of pure intelligence and creativity. Every move of my tool and every sliver of wood I cut away with my chisel was deliberate and complex, a signature as unique to me as my own magic. Someone with enough talent in the craft could read spellwork like this the way most people could read handwriting.

Hours later, I was still on the ladder, holding a chisel and working a symbol into one of the joists, when I heard the pitter-patter of curious little feet climbing the attic steps. Twilight was standing at the hatch, looking around in apparent interest at the carvings on the walls.

“Morning, kid,” I said as I turned back to my work.

“Good morning,” she replied.

She didn’t sound chipper, but there was a bit of warmth to her voice that put the ghost of a smile on my face. You could hardly tell that she’d been screeching her soul out for the last two days. Kids were resilient, far more than adults give them credit for. She wasn’t doing much better, but she’d deal, and having confirmation of that was more than a little relieving.

I left her alone to wander around the room. She wouldn’t hurt anything up here, and there wasn’t anything that could hurt her. Considering this was where the bulk of the house’s wards were laid, it was actually probably the safest room in the house.

“What is all this?” she asked as she walked up to one of the exposed wall studs and studied a sigil with a hard squint. “Is this magic stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it… safe to touch?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, these are just things to protect us,” I explained. “Stuff that repels magic and attracts helpful spirits.”

“Spirits? Like ghosts?”

“Nah, ghosts are things that used to be alive,” I said. “Spirits are just masses of magic with a certain degree of intelligence. They’re also territorial as all get-out. If you can attract a few good ones to hang around your house, they’ll defend your place like it was their own. It’s good for keeping out bad spirits and bad magic.”

“Neat."

I watched her out the corner of my eye as she abandoned her inspection of the symbol and walked around the room, examining every sigil she could reach. Her forehead wrinkled as she glared at each of the wards, scowling at them as though she was trying to intimidate them into spilling their secrets.

She gave that up after a while and took a seat on the floor behind me. She crossed her legs under herself, holding her dirty bare feet with her hands and rocking back and forth as she watched me work.

We stayed like that for a while, silent except for the sound of my tools carving away at wood a sliver at a time, and the jingle of the tools in my belt. Every time I finished a sigil and moved the ladder to another spot, Twilight scooted across the floor on her butt to stay close.

My goal had been to put at least one ward on each of the joists, and every wall stud that didn’t already have one, and I was nearly done. The only breaks I took were to reach into my pocket and check my phone.

Still no missed calls or new messages. Not even a text.

“Waiting for someone to call?” Twilight asked after watching me angrily shove my phone back into my pocket for the fifth time in a half hour. “My brother was acting like that over Christmas break. My mom said it was because he probably got a secret girlfriend that he didn’t want to tell us about yet.”

“It’s nothing like that,” I said, sighing. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of a friend of mine since yesterday. I asked him to do something for me and a lot of stuff’s happened since then. I need his help but he’s probably holed up in some rich old woman’s penthouse, licking her—” I cleared my throat uncomfortably as I suddenly realized what I was about to say in front of the kid. “Ice cream... Licking all of her ice cream…”

“Oh,” Twilight said, furrowing her brow in contemplation. She was old enough to know that I was about to say something dirty, but not old enough to know what that dirty thing was, and her little brain was clearly trying to puzzle it out. After a few moments of quiet contemplation she just shrugged and said, “I like ice cream.”

“Me, too, kid,” I said, sighing in relief.

I probably wasn’t wrong, though. Clavus, old changeling that he was, needed a lot of love to keep himself going. The little sips and nibbles that the rest of his little urchins lived off of would have starved him to death inside of a week. Being old, though, also meant that he was strong enough that his magic and shapeshifting skills didn’t just limit him to pretending to be a human child.

While the other changelings in town paid respect to Clavus by offering him a small share of the love they collected, the lion’s share of the love he needed came from his day job as a gigolo – sorry, ‘compensated male companion’. His teenaged body was every little girl’s first fantasy, but in his adult body, Clavus had the kind of man-beauty that could make even the stuffiest broad swoon. Affluent people in Canterlot City and beyond – men as well as women – paid out the nose for the privilege of showering him with gifts. More than a few of his clients claimed to love him, and it must have been true, because I’d never seen Clavus go hungry.

Sometimes he’d disappear for days at a time, spirited away by one of his clients to Milan or Prague or something. When he was working like that, he usually turned off his phone, which was probably why he wasn’t returning my calls.

“So you don’t have a boyfriend, then?” Twilight asked.

“Nope.”

There was a pause. “Girlfriend?”

“Nope again,” I said.

“You live all by yourself in this big house?” she asked.

“It’s not so bad.” I finished up the sigil I was working on and cleaned away the dust with a puff of air and a brush of my fingertips. “I’ve got lots of hobbies. I’m big into home improvement, as you can see. I like reading, magic, card tricks, working on Philomena.”

“Philomena?” Twilight asked with a curious tilt of her head.

“My car,” I explained with the enthusiasm of a proud parent. “She’s my baby.”

Twilight sniggered. “You named your car? That’s silly.”

“Hey, I put a lot of love in that car.” I shot her an annoyed glance over my shoulder.

“But even if you name them and love them, cars aren’t people. Don’t you get lonely?”

I climbed down off the ladder and sat on one of the bottom steps. “Everyone gets lonely,” I said.

She pouted cutely, the bridge of her nose and the corner of mouth scrunching up in thought as she considered my words. “I dunno… Just seems extra lonely to me. I’ve never lived by myself, though.” She laughed humorlessly. It was a strange sound coming from a child. “Guess I’ll have to learn, huh?”

And just like that things were getting awkward again. I decided that now was as good a time as any to bring up something that had been on my mind. Ever since she’d asked me what was going to happen to her, I’d been wondering about who was going to take care of her once this was all done. I had been afraid to bring it up, for fear of Twilight thinking I was trying to hurry her out the house, but she’d opened the door and I was going to stick my foot in it while I had the chance.

“You don’t have any other relatives?”

Twilight shook her head. “I have some cousins that live really far away, but I don’t even know their names. My parents never did more than mention them. They weren’t very close.”

“What about grandparents?” I asked, emboldened by how calm she was being. I could only hope that I wasn’t pushing too much.

“Gone,” she said simply. “Gram-mammy, my dad’s mom, was the last of my parents’ parents, and she passed away in her sleep last year while I was at Junior Astro Camp.” She pulled her legs up and hugged her knees to her chest. “You didn’t happen to get Smarty Pants, did you? She’s a patchwork doll that gram-mammy made for me when I turned five.”

“Sorry, no.” I vaguely remembered seeing a raggedy-looking doll on the bed, but it hadn’t crossed my mind as anything important.

“Oh,” she said in a small voice. “It’s okay. I figured as much.”

“Sorry,” I repeated.

“It’s fine.” Her bangs were just long enough to hang over her eyes, and she blew at them, only for her hair to fall right back into place. I wasn’t a fan of bangs like that.

A fresh wave shame washed over me. I knew what it was like to lose a home, so I knew what it was like to suddenly find yourself without so much as a pot to piss in. At least I’d managed to bring along a few small, personal trinkets and keepsakes from my formative years in Equestria. I had them hidden away, safe from prying eyes and protected enough that no one would be able to get at them unless I wanted them to. I took them out sometimes, just to hold them and remember what things had been like.

Made me wish I could have salvaged something like that for Twilight.

And then, suddenly, I remembered the photo. After seeing the names written on the back, I’d had my little breakdown and stuffed the picture in a junk drawer. In all the angst, the thing had completely slipped my mind.

“Stupid me,” I muttered, slapping my own forehead and getting to my feet. I jerked my head towards the attic door. “I did get something for you.”

“Really?” Twilight asked, a note of hope creeping into her voice.

Twilight shot up and followed me as I led the way back downstairs. She had something of a bounce in her steps, the kind of eager curiosity that children have when they’re told not to run to the tree on Christmas morning. But the sentiment was dulled, diluted by the solemnity of the events of the past few days. Still, she was obviously eager for anything that could even possibly be good news.

I had a little antique telephone stand that had long outlived the technology it was built to support, and now just sat in the front entryway collecting dust. It was decoration that served as a junk drawer for old receipts and fast food coupon flyers that I saved but never remembered to use before they expired.

I opened the drawer and pulled out the picture, free of its cracked frame, and held it out for Twilight with both hands. I was careful, pinching just the corners so I wouldn’t crease it or leave smudges.

Her eyes went wide at the sight, and began to dew with fresh tears. She reached out with small, trembling hands, and held the photo with the care one showed a newborn. She squeezed her eyes shut, and a few tears fell down her cheeks as she held the picture against her chest with an open hand.

I don’t know how much of her family’s last moments she’d seen or remembered, but any memories of that night she did have were still fresh. Time would scar over her wounded heart, make those tender spots tough, but that was many years down the road.

In light of that, the thought had crossed my mind that maybe it was too soon to give the photo to Twilight, but in the end I decided that, difficult or not, this wasn’t something I could keep from her. The picture belonged to her, and so did whatever memories went along with it, for good or bad. My mistakes had taken away her family – I had no right to take also away the pain that was rightfully hers.

But Twilight surprised me yet again. She sucked in a choked, gasping breath, and heaved a sigh as she roughly swiped the tears away with the sleeve of her pajamas.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice heavy with sincerity but steady, strong even.

I reached into the drawer and removed the frame that I had been meaning to give her. “I got a frame, too. To help protect it.”

Twilight flashed me a watery smile and together we placed the photo in its new home. She took the picture back and looked up at me expectantly. “Can we hang it up in my room?”

“Of course.”

I dug around in the drawer, searching for the little claw hammer beneath the loose papers and miscellaneous junk. It was too small for serious housework, so I didn’t keep it in the shed, but it was the perfect size for hanging up pictures. I found the hammer and went to the spot on the wall where the frame had originally been, with its computer paper landscape. The picture had been there for years, becoming visual static that I only noticed now that it was gone. Luckily, I had so few pictures hung up that removing one didn’t make the walls look uneven, decor-wise. I pulled the nail out of the wall and brushed away the little bit of plaster dust that came out with it.

I let Twilight lead the way upstairs, and when we got to the room I let her point me to where she wanted the picture. She decided that she wanted the picture hanging above the writing desk against the wall opposite the bed. The desk, and the chair that went with it, was the only piece of furniture in the room, aside from the secondhand bed left by the previous owners. I’d picked it up at a yard sale a few years ago. It was an antique and had belonged to an old retired couple. It had needed a lot of work – sanding, repainting, some new knobs – so they’d given it away for free, and I brought it home just to have something to fill up the weekend. I’d had nowhere else to put it, so I just stuck it in the guest room, to help fill out the empty space.

Twilight sat at the foot of the bed, watching as I hung the picture for her. I don’t know why, but I sat next to her when I was done. She grabbed my arm, hugging it to her chest the way she had the previous morning, and we sat for a while, just admiring the memory of Twilight’s family.

It hadn’t occurred to me until later that Twilight had called the guest room her room.

* * *

My love of both bargain hunting and reading is kind of a curse. I love going to flea markets and yard sales, and that usually means I end up coming home with more than a few old paperbacks and hardcovers that I picked up for pocket change. People are always trying to get rid of their old summer reading and college textbooks, and I can never resist the urge to rescue a book in need.

Of course, I don’t always get complete collections. A lot of the time I end up with something like the fourth, fifth, and seventh of an eight book series, which means that I then have to go track down rest of the series. As you can imagine, this means that I end up with quite a lot of books.

So a couple of years ago I decided to turn my basement into a study. It wasn’t anything fancy. The shelves were a patchwork of things I’d gotten ahold of cheap. There were old, rusty steel shelves next to antique mahogany bookcases, next to stacked milk crates, next to planks of wood propped up with cinder blocks. Whatever I could get my hands on that could be used to hold books, I’d dragged down to the basement and made room for.

No matter how many shelves I brought down, though, I kept the center of the room clear. I had a big faux-Persian rug spread in the middle of the room, with the biggest beanbag chair I could find sitting right on top of it. There was also a stool and a scuffed-up dining table, where I did most of my magical tinkering. I don’t do a lot of experimentation – at least not as much as I used to – but sometimes it’s nice to have a place I can sit down and work on my craft when the mood strikes me.

Everything magical in the house was kept in this room, in a big, fancy gun safe that I’d repurposed into a storage vault. The safe was set into the wall, and it was one of the few home improvement things that I’d hired a contractor for. It was big, solid steel, and cemented to the foundation.

I can do a lot stuff with just my own power and a few calculations and incantations in my head, but some things required a little extra oomph, and that’s where my supply vault came in. It held things for potions, ritual blades, herbs, small magical trinkets and fetishes, and books – lots of books. I wasn’t worried about other sorcerers getting ahold of my things, it was the average burglar types that I wanted to keep away from my magic stuff. Not everyone has the talent for magic, but there are some pretty nasty spells and rituals that were designed in such a way that pretty much anyone could use them. While that might be tempting to some people, you have to understand that most of the rituals that fall into that category are things like summonings, which usually call up the kind of beings that prey on the uneducated in one way or another.

Good rule of thumb when it comes to summoning rituals: if it’s easy to summon, it probably wants you to summon it, and not for anything good.

The safe was also where I kept my keepsakes from home.

Sitting with Twilight and looking at her only link to her family had made me feel… homesick, in a way. Call it melancholy, or whatever, but when she’d asked to use the shower, I’d taken the opportunity to come down to the basement to look at my things.

It was almost all things that had only really seemed important to a sheltered, spoiled little academic filly. I had a medal that I’d won in a science fair, a dinky little trophy I’d gotten for an essay contest, and a wrapper from an Equestrian candy bar that I’d long ago eaten. I also had two books from back home.

One of them was a history text, full of dry facts about famous unicorns, and heavily illustrated with portraits of each of the subjects and artistic representations of important moments in their lives. The book wasn’t that special, and it hadn’t even had any sentimental value. I’d only packed it in what limited space my tiny saddlebag had because I had been in the middle of reading it, and running away from home or not, I hated leaving a book unfinished.

The most important thing, though, was the second book I’d brought with me. It was a custom made journal, hardcover, with my Cutie Mark on the front. Celestia had given it to me as a gift on my first birthday as her student. She had a duplicate of the book, with her own Cutie Mark on it, and enchanted them both so that anything written in one would appear in the other. She’d said it was a way for us to communicate if I ever had any questions, and boy, had I taken the word ‘any’ as literal.

I’d probably used a fifth of the pages that first week alone, bothering Celestia with every little thing that came to mind. She’d been so patient with me, taking the time to write back almost immediately, no matter what she was in the middle of, even if all I’d asked was if she was having a good day. Looking back on it, I think maybe she’d enjoyed the novelty of the thing almost as much as I had.

I flipped through the pages, not really paying any attention to what was written. I’d read through the book several dozen times, and I could practically recite from it like a script. I got towards the middle of the journal, where the blank pages started, and ran my fingers over the paper. The soft, yellow parchment felt good against my skin, and the pages still smelled like an Equestrian book. Maybe it sounds silly to say, but Equestrian books just smell different. It’s somewhat similar to the dusty, earthy aroma of human books, but with subtle undertones that called to mind fresh-cut hay and blooming pastures – the smells of my homeland. It was probably all in my head, but to me, the smell of this book would always be the smell of home.

I was glad I’d brought it with me, even if it couldn’t serve its original purposes anymore. The magic that had connected the two books was long gone, cut off when the portal was closed. Sometimes I thought about maybe sitting down and working out the math of when the portal would be open again, just to see if the doorway opening might recharge the book’s magic, but I never did.

There was no going home for me. I couldn’t face Celestia as the person I’d become.

I turned the pages until I found the photograph tucked away in the middle of the book. It was a picture of me as a filly, sitting next to Princess Celestia atop the dias of her throne. I probably wasn’t more than seven or eight – just a bit younger than the Twilight upstairs in my shower – and the trillion-watt smile on my face could have lit up the Las Pegasus strip for a week. I was so proud to be at the side of the princess, her only student watching as she saw to her supplicants in open court. One of her scribes had been something of an amateur shutterbug and asked us to pose for a picture. Princess Celestia and I had jumped at the chance.

I hadn’t meant to bring the picture with me. I hadn’t even found it until I’d already been in the human world for months. I’d been looking through the journal out of boredom, and the picture had fallen out. I’d been using it as a bookmark and had completely forgotten about it. I’d tried to talk myself into throwing it away by whipping myself into a froth about how the princess had betrayed me. I didn’t end up throwing it away, of course, for the same reason I’d brought the book with me in the first place. No matter what happened, no matter how angry I was, Princess Celestia was the closest thing I’d ever had to a mom, and I just couldn’t let go of this last little link to her.

“Miss Sunset!” Twilight’s voice called out from upstairs.

I put the photo back in the journal and stuffed the book at the bottom of the pile in the safe. “Down here, kid! Down the hall, door next to the kitchen’s side entrance!”

I locked the safe just as Twilight was coming down the stairs. Her pajamas were in the wash, so she was dressed in one of my silk bathrobes – bright pink with a lacy white belt cinching it closed. Twilight was a kid, and a scrawny one at that, and she was practically swimming in a robe that almost qualified as a negligee when I wore it.

Twilight froze halfway down the stairs. Her mouth hung agape as she swept the room with eyes that I could swear were glinting with an almost animalistic hunger. “Holy… macaroni…” she whispered.

I arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“Books!” Twilight shouted, squealing in delight as she bounded down the stairs in her bare feet. She ran up to the nearest shelf and started browsing. “You didn’t tell me you had a library!”

“Well it’s not really a library,” I said. “I just like collecting books.”

If she’d heard what I said she didn’t show any sign of it. She just darted from shelf to shelf, scanning the titles with the hugest grin on her face. It was the first real smile I’d seen her wear – the first time I’d seen the carefree glimmer of that happy little girl from the photograph. I went over to the table and pulled out the stool to sit and watch her for a while. She was like a little hummingbird, flittering about and stopping only long enough to admire one particular thing that caught her eye before moving on to the next.

“Whoa!” she exclaimed in excitement as she finally chose a book to pull off a shelf. She started thumbing through it immediately. “You’ve got the second volume of the Young Daring Do, Girl Adventurer series? This is the first-edition, too! This is the one they took out of the libraries because of all the racism!”

Twilight took the book and hurried over to the bean bag chair. She wiggled herself into the seat, the foam beads inside crunching and scraping as she got comfortable, and started reading like she owned the place.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Reading, duh,” she said. “I’ve read the edited version twice, but I’ve never read this edition. I want to see what else got changed.” She looked up, casting me a pensive look. “That’s… that’s okay, right?”

I scratched idly at my cheek. This was weird, having someone else pawing around with my personal stuff, but kids were shameless like that. It was in their DNA. And I guess it wouldn’t hurt to let the kid do some reading. That’s what the books were for, and it was better than her sitting up in her room and crying all day.

I cleared my throat. “Uh… sure…”

Twilight grinned happily and shoved her nose back into the book. She was holding it kind of close to her face though, and squinting. Come to think of it, I’d noticed her doing the same thing when she was examining the sigils up in the attic.

“Hey, Twilight,” I said. “Do you wear glasses?”

“Yeah, but I don’t really like them,” she replied, her nose still in the book. “I’m a little bit near-sighted, and the optometrist said it’s going to get worse as I get older. I’ll be fine, though.” She held the book open and waved it at me. “Big print. I can read this no problem.”

The sound of a chiming bell sounded from upstairs, signalling that someone was at my door.

I’d already canceled all of my appointments and changed the message on my voicemail to say that I wouldn’t be seeing clients for the foreseeable future. I’d even hung up the ‘No Walk-Ins’ placard on the sign out on my lawn.

“You didn’t order a pizza, did you?” I asked Twilight.

She shook her head, the joke whizzing past her ears with a near-audible woosh.

I rolled my eyes and got up from my stool. “Stay here, stay quiet.”

“Be careful,” Twilight whispered as she climbed out of the beanbag.

She followed me to the foot of the stairs and watched as I went up to the first floor. She still held the book in her hands, nervously thumbing the pages of the paperback the way I sometimes play with my tarot deck when I’m bored. I nodded to her and shut the door to the basement behind myself.

The doorbell rang again, and almost immediately I heard someone knocking rapidly on the door. Whoever it was, they must have really wanted to talk. My first thought was that it might be the law. There was a good possibility that some neighbor of Night’s might have seen my car driving up and down their street and told the cops about it. Philomena wasn’t the kind of car you drove when you wanted to go unnoticed, and there can’t have been too many like her registered in the city. It’s the kind of thing the cops would have to follow up, depending on how the investigation was going. I’d been checking the news on my phone, and there still wasn’t anything about Twilight’s body having been missing from the fire, but it was something I had to be prepared for.

It could have also been a client looking to book me despite the fact that I had closed up shop, even if it cost a little extra. Rich housewives looking to put together a fancy dinner party were always on the lookout for kitchy new themes for their get-togethers, and they can get pretty insistent when you tell them no. I’d once made two-grand in a single night from overcharging a party like that. If it was that sort of gig, it’d suck to turn down, but I didn’t really have much of a choice with Twilight in the house.

I looked through the peephole of my door and saw a face I recognized, but definitely hadn’t been expecting. Luna was up on her tip-toes, one eye closed as she leaned in to the peephole, trying to look in through the wrong side. Even through the distortion of the peephole’s fisheye lens, Luna was a real knockout, and from the angle I was looking I could see right down the front of her shirt.

“Hello?” she shouted as she rang the doorbell again. “Sunset Shimmer? Are you home?”

I undid the deadbolts and opened the door just as she was holding up a loose fist to rap on the door again.

“Oh!” she exclaimed with a start. “Sorry, um… hiya.”

“What’s up, Luna?” I asked. “Not that it’s not nice to see you again, but how’d you find my place?”

“I, um, Googled your name,” she said sheepishly.

I sighed. “Course you did… why?”

She was nervous, but my question seemed to sober her up. The bashful pinkness in her cheeks faded, taking the rest of the color in her face down a few notches. She licked her lips as she looked around nervously. Night Light had done the same, and it was enough to make me wonder what people thought might be in my bushes.

“Can… can I come inside?” she asked.

“It’s not really a good time right—”

“Please.” She took a half step across my threshold so I couldn’t shut the door in her face. I frowned at that, and she had the good manners to at least look sorry, even though she didn’t take a step back. “Please,” she repeated. “Just for a few minutes.”

Twilight was downstairs in the study, and as long as she kept quiet there was much danger of anyone finding her down there. Luna probably just wanted to talk about magic stuff, or to flirt with me – both scenarios were equally likely, honestly – and I could probably have her out of the house pretty quickly. There was also the chance that she’d heard about Night Light, which… well, I’d just have to play that by ear.

I made a show of thinking it over, so she’d feel just uncomfortable enough that she wouldn’t think about trying to push her welcome, then stepped aside and swept an arm out, like a bagboy at a nice hotel.

“Thank you,” she said as she walked past me.

I tried not to notice the smell of her perfume, but it was exactly the kind of scent that was designed to make you notice it – something fancy, the kind of stuff that came in bottles worth as much as the perfume. I tried not to think of the implication in her breaking out good perfume just to visit lil’ ol’ me, and just shut the door behind her so I could lock back up.

I led her into the living room and pointed at the couch. She took a seat, leaving me room to sit next to her, which I chose not to fill. I stood in doorway, leaning against the wall with my arms crossed. I’d read in a book once that standing while someone was sitting was a good way to get them anxious and out the door.

Luna brushed a few errant locks of her wavy hair back behind her ear. Last time I’d seen her, her hair had been a mess, all frizz and split ends. My hair got like that sometimes, too. It came part and parcel with being an academic. It happens when you end up going a few days without a bath and spend a lot of time scratching your head. This time, she’d obviously spent time getting her hair did right. Her long blue tresses looked soft as silk and bounced with every little movement of her head.

The little spaghetti straps holding up her black top were redundant, considering how tight it was. The bottom of her blouse flared out into a cute little skirt, and the jeans she wore were somehow even tighter than her shirt.

I let my gaze drift towards the window so I wouldn’t keep ogling Luna. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, it wasn’t like me to notice someone like that in more than passing. Though, the first time we’d met, Luna had made a good impression on me with her open personality and her friendly smile, and she didn’t exactly make her own attraction to me a secret. I’d read a study once that said that people are more likely to find someone attractive if they find out that the other person finds them attractive first. Even still, this girl had her finger all over my buttons, and it was bugging me more than a little.

“So, what’s up?” I asked, trying to hurry this along. Twilight was still downstairs, probably pacing around the room in worry, or, more likely, standing at the top of the stairs with her ear against the door.

Luna wrung her hands in her lap nervously. “I… I haven’t really left my room since the other night,” she said. “I kind of shut myself off from the rest of the world for the whole day… vegged out and watched some DVDs, y’know?”

I nodded.

“This morning my sister woke me up and tells me to check my email. The school sent out a statement to all students, telling us that Doctor Night Light had passed. Apparently it was in the news.” She bit her lip as she looked up at me, her eyes filling with tears. “They said he died in a fire. But it was that night, when you killed that thing at the school… I have to know. It wasn’t really a fire, was it?”

I sighed and went over to sit on the couch. Admittedly, the sight of her tears might have shaken my resolve just a little bit. “Another one of those things attacked him and his family at their house,” I explained. “I was going over to check on them and I found the front door kicked in. It was too late to help them. Night, his wife, and their son were already dead by the time I got there. I killed the thing that did it, set the house on fire during the fight.”

Luna heaved a shuddering sigh and nodded, the tears shaken from her eyes by the movement to spill down her cheeks. “I thought as much,” she said in a whisper. “Twilight, too?”

I blinked at that. “You know Twilight?”

“Of course. Doctor Night Light used to take his whole family to the Faculty-Student Picnic Mixer at the end of every Spring semester. Plus, he and my sister were pretty close.”

“Close?” I repeated, my eyebrows lifting in surprise. Night Light didn’t seem the type to step out on his old lady, but he wouldn’t have been the first man to have a moment of weakness around a hot young coed. At least a third of the movies on the chick flick channels were about just that thing.

“Not like that,” Luna replied, frowning as she picked up on what I was insinuating. “He was her academic advisor, and he wrote a recommendation for her to get into grad school. She even spent a summer working as his research assistant for a paper he was publishing.”

“They’ve both been to my house for dinner,” Twilight said from the kitchen doorway. She was half-hidden by the wall, just her head peeking shyly around the corner. I must have looked mad, because she met my eyes and shrunk away like I was about to yell at her. “Sorry… I got worried so I came in around the side.”

Luna was on her feet in a flash. The action was so quick that I stood up, too, out of pure reflex. Luna practically leapt over my coffee table to run up and pull Twilight into a crushing embrace. “You’re okay!” Luna said, sobbing as she cradled Twilight’s head against her chest.

“Don’t cry,” Twilight said as she pat Luna on the back consolingly. “Miss Sunset’s been taking really good care of me.”

Twilight’s attempts to calm Luna down only seemed to drive her further into tears. Twilight just stood there and let Luna vent her emotions all over her. It was a sight, seeing Twilight’s little hand on Luna’s back, gently stroking her like an upset cat.

I felt a little bit like a third wheel, like I was intruding on something personal. I had no idea that Luna had been so close with Night Light’s family, but she had seemed pretty friendly with him the other night at the college, so I wasn’t too surprised.

The awkward feeling of intrusion was pretty short lived, because Luna decided that she wanted to make the awkwardness more personal.

I have pretty good reflexes, but Luna probably did track or something, because before I knew it, she’d let go of Twilight and ran up to wrap her arms around me. She was just a bit shorter than I was, and as I stood there, dumbstruck by the surprise hugging I was getting, she half-sobbed, half-laughed into my shoulder.

“Thank you for saving her,” she said in a throaty whisper.

You ever get a hug from a relative or an extra-friendly acquaintance? One of those leaning-forward, upper-body-only hugs? This wasn’t one of those. I could feel her whole body pressed tightly against mine, her thin arms wrapped around my middle with wiry strength. I could also feel that she wasn’t wearing a bra, and that perfume I’d caught a whiff of earlier was hitting me full on in the face now.

Damn, but did she smell good.

I felt movement in my pants, and a half second later the phone in my back pocket started ringing.

“Phone! Phone, phone!” I pushed Luna off me – gently – and nervously hastened to put some distance between us. A sharp pain went up my leg as I banged my shin against the coffee table. “Damnit!”

Second time in two days. That’s a record.

I pulled out my phone and checked the caller ID while I massaged the feeling back into my leg. The number wasn’t in my phonebook, but I recognized it immediately.

“Sorry,” I said to Twilight and Luna as I retreated to the hallway. “I gotta take this.”

I scurried away like a fiddler crab, too flustered to even think of a good analogy for what I was scurrying away like. I took a deep breath, steadying my heartbeat as my phone continued to vibrate and ring in my hands.

“Come on, Sunset, she’s just a pretty girl, so get your head out of your ass,” I muttered to myself as I swiped my thumb over the screen and answered the phone. I held it up and spoke into the receiver. “What’s up, Cilia?”

Clavus was the A-number-one top dog changeling in Canterlot City, by leagues, but if he wasn’t around, Cilia would definitely be the queen bee. She was old for a changeling, a few hundred years old, in fact, but she was a baby compared to Clavus.

Technically, a changeling could live forever if you fed it enough love, but as changelings aged, their power grew, and so did the amount of love they needed. Aging was a hard thing for their kind, and it was a sad fact that every changeling’s fate was to eventually die of starvation as their hunger outstripped their ability to feed themselves. Because of that, the old ones who were wily enough and clever enough to keep themselves going for a long time were held in great regard.

I’d known Cilia almost as long as I’d known Clavus. As the second oldest changeling in the area, she considered herself Clavus’ second-in-command – I consider her his secretary, and our differing viewpoints have become something of a sticking point in our acquaintanceship.

“We need to meet,” Cilia said. Her voice was shrilly-feminine and obviously childish. Like if you shrunk down a prudy librarian real tiny-like.

“Come to my house, then,” I said tersely, not liking the tone in her voice. “Why are you calling, anyway? Where’s Clavus? I’ve been blowing up his phone since yesterday. He’s who I need to talk to.”

“My esteemed uncle is otherwise engaged,” she said. All changelings considered the oldest of their kind to be aunts and uncles to the younger ones, and Cilia always made sure to afford Clavus the respect of the appellation. “I am also unable to make the trip out to your home. You will need to come to me.”

“I can’t leave my house unattended right now.” I went back to peek into the living room, where Luna and Twilight were on the couch conversing in hushed tones.

“You’ll have to,” Cilia said insistently. “Uncle Clavus left a message and he explicitly said not to utter it over the phone.”

I frowned at that. Clavus was always the type to be cautious, but this seemed a little extreme for him. The other night he’d laughed about his friend’s distrust of phones, but now he was pulling this on me? Something wasn’t right.

“You’re certain you can’t come out to my place?” I asked. “What about if I called you a cab?”

“No. You live too far away. There is something dark in my city, and I will not leave my nieces and nephews unguarded whilst Uncle Clavus is away.”

“Hey, I got my own business to tend to here,” I replied.

“I care little,” she snapped in her shrill little girl voice. “The usual place. Come.”

My phone went silent, and I glared angrily at the 'Call Ended' message on the screen as if I was looking Cilia right in the eyes.

I didn’t like this, not one bit, but Cilia was right. There was something nasty stalking around in the shadows in Canterlot City, and that meant that everyone needed to be on guard. On top of that, Clavus' promise to look into this mess for me had apparently borne fruit. Whatever it was he'd found, it was important enough that it couldn’t be said over the phone, but not important enough for him to stick around to tell me himself. I knew there was no way he’d been scared off. The old guy was wily as any trickster, but he wasn’t a coward. Made me wonder, though, what had he left town for?

I needed answers, which meant that there was no way I could ignore Cilia’s call. Problem was, that meant leaving Twilight alone, because I damn sure wasn’t letting her outside of my house’s wards.

I poked my head back into the living room, and an idea came to me.

“Hey,” I said as I walked back into the room. Twilight and Luna stopped their conversation to look at me with curious expressions.

“Was that your friend?” Twilight asked.

I shook my head. “Nah, another friend of his, though,” I said. “Look… um… Luna, I really hate to ask this, but I need a favor.”

“What is it?”

“My friend is tracking down some info for me – magic stuff – and he left a message for me with his secretary,” I explained. I rubbed at the back of my neck sheepishly. “I, uh… was wondering if maybe you could watch Twilight for an hour or two while I check it out?”

Twilight was already standing before I'd even finished talking. “I’ll come with you!” Twilight said immediately.

“Sorry, kid, you need to stay here.” I pointed up to the ceiling. “Remember what I was doing up in the attic? That stuff will keep you safe, but you need to be on my property for the mojo to work.”

Twilight’s hands were balled into fists at her sides, and she was working herself into a nice little tantrum, but the tide was stemmed by Luna’s hand resting gently on her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” Luna said in that velvety smooth voice of hers, “I’ll be here with you. And I’m sure Sunset will make sure to stay safe.” She shot me a pointed look, insistence stretched thinly over her own worry. “Won’t you, Sunset?”

I nodded vigorously. I wasn’t sure which of the two looks was more effective. “Y-yeah. Of course. I’ll be totally safe.”

Twilight sat back on the couch, crossing her arms over her chest petulantly. “You’d better,” she muttered.

Luna smiled at me as she wrapped an arm around Twilight’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of her.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I went back upstairs to change out of my frumpy housework clothes.

My room is definitely the messiest part of my house. Clients sometimes come inside to sit in my living room or my kitchen, so I tend to keep the place clean for the sake of appearances. Nobody goes in my room, though, so the signs of my bachelorette lifestyle were scattered about in the form of old takeout boxes and dirty clothes. A pair of lacy red panties were hanging on the lamp next my bed, casting a dim pink light over the whole room. I grabbed them and sniffed to see if they were clean. They weren’t, so I threw them onto the pile of dirty clothes next to the closet. I really needed to do laundry.

I dug around until I found a pair of jeans under my bed that were clean enough, and got a clean t-shirt out of the closet. I got changed and grabbed my wallet off the dresser. Thankfully, I had some cash that I could leave for Luna and Twilight to order a pizza or something.

I went back downstairs to find Twilight and Luna flipping through channels on the TV.

“Hey, I’m leaving now,” I said. “There’s food in the fridge, but if you want takeout I’m going to leave some money next to the door. Just leave me something, too.”

“Be safe,” Luna said.

Twilight gave me a sidelong glance, but just nodded curtly and continued flipping channels. She was definitely not happy with me.

I walked away, and I’d made it as far as the door before their conversation stopped me in my tracks.

“I really think we should call her,” Luna said.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Twilight said with a sigh.

“Even if it’s not, she should still know. Celestia’s been crying in her room all day. She thinks you’re dead, Twilight.”

No. No way. Absolutely not.

I went back to the living room, every step feeling like I was taking it through molasses and my blood running cold in my veins.

“I’m sorry, what were you just talking about?” I asked, struggling to keep the trembling out of my voice.

“We were talking about my sister,” Luna said. She tilted her head in confusion and frowned. “Are you okay? You look pale.”

“You said her name was Celestia?” I asked. My mouth was feeling dry. “You got a picture of her?”

Twilight and Luna exchanged confused looks. Twilight had even seemed to put her anger on hold for the moment.

“Yeah, I do,” Luna said. She pulled out her phone and thumbed through it as she came over to me. “Here we go.”

Luna held up her phone, and right there on the screen was a picture of Luna that looked like it must have been taken at a Halloween party. She was dressed as a cop, but her uniform consisted of a pair of skintight booty shorts and a shirt that barely had enough material to cover her boobs, let alone pin a fake badge to. She was holding a red plastic cup that no doubt had something spirituous in it, and her arm was wrapped around a taller woman wearing a pointy witch’s hat and a black cocktail dress with a neckline that plunged down to her belly button. The dress was almost as tight as Luna’s shorts, showing off her more than generous figure.

She was utterly human, and her eyes were glazed with slight inebriation, but I knew this woman. I knew Celestia when I saw her, and this… this was Princess Celestia, or at least her human analogue.

It took me a moment to realize that Luna was talking to me. I asked her to repeat what she’d just said.

“I asked if you knew her,” Luna said, concern clear on her face.

“No,” I said immediately. “She looks like someone I used to know, that’s all.”

“But—”

“Hey, I gotta go now,” I said as I backed away, edging my way towards the door. “Save me some pizza or egg rolls or whatever.”

I left, ignoring the questions that Luna and Twilight were shouting at my back. I went around the side of the house to the garage and got into my car. I turned the key and started driving until I got to a clearing that was fairly far removed from anywhere else. I pulled off the road and drove out to the middle of the dirt lot, my tires kicking up dust and loose gravel as I swerved and spun, doing donuts like a teenager who'd just gotten her license. Once I was far enough from the road I killed the engine and got out.

I started walking until I found a rock, a really big one, then I picked it up and hurled it as hard as I could. It didn’t go very far, and it landed in the dirt with a soft thud, throwing up a pathetic little puff of dust.

I fell to my knees right there in that field and shouted the loudest, angriest obscenity I have ever shouted in my entire life.

* * *

Chapter 4 - Witchy Woman

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It was only early evening, but the gathering stormclouds had already blotted out the sun, plunging the city into an early psuedo-night. The rains hadn’t yet begun in earnest, but the light drizzle and the rolling crash of thunder high above promised a serious downpour in the very near future.

Traffic was light. It was the kind of dreary day that encouraged people to keep indoors. Even as I passed through downtown, the folks that were just getting out of work were hurrying home before their nice suits were ruined by unexpected rain, so I made good time as I drove to my meeting with Cilia.

I’ll admit it, I’d had a bit of a freak out. And, yes, maybe I did set a little bit of that field on fire, but I don’t think anyone would argue that I wasn’t fully justified in doing so. Blindly unleashing highly destructive magic was a perfectly sensible response to have in my situation.

If anything, I’d go so far as to say that my actions had been restrained. Whichever of my neighbors owned that field might not agree, but screw him. I’m a sorceress, I do what I want.

First of all, how in the bluest hell was Princess Celestia’s analogue here, in this time period? Princess Celestia had been born before Equestria had even figured out how to make parchment. She’d always been real vague about how old she was, but all her biographers agreed that she was at least two-thousand years old. So shouldn’t her double have been born thousands of years ago in some cave, or a pyramid, or something?

Though, thinking about it rationally, I did know for a fact that human-world analogues weren’t always the same – Twilight being eight years old in this world was a pretty good example of that – so maybe it wasn’t too far-fetched that a linked-pair could be born centuries, even millennia, apart.

But then there was this business of Celestia having a sister in this world. Not only that she had a sister, but said sister had been wagging her tight little booty in my face pretty much nonstop since we’d met.

Let’s not even mention the fact that this Celestia was friends with the father of this world’s Twilight Sparkle.

The more I thought about that, the more I thought Fiddler had been right about the complexity of the mechanics of interdimensional physics. This stuff was too wiggy for me, and it was probably best not to ruminate on it for too long.

I stopped at a red light and rubbed at my eyes until I was seeing spots, trying to get at the painful knot that was growing in my skull with every heartbeat, like the blood pressure equivalent of a snowball rolling downhill. I could already tell that this headache was going to get a lot worse before it got any better. All I could do was try to put this goddamned insanity out of mind and just focus on the stuff that might get someone killed.

I pulled down the visor and a pack of cigarettes fell into my open hand. I’d quit smoking a while ago, but I think I deserved to dip into my stash for an emergency fix. I put one between my lips and pressed the knob for the lighter in the ashtray. Judas Priest came on the radio and I turned it up obnoxiously loud as I waited for the light to change.

It did, and I drove on, drumming along on the steering wheel and bobbing my head as I let the power of classic rock shove all the unnecessary thoughts out of my mind. Sometimes I might let myself down, but a fat bassline and a sweet guitar riff never would. A hollow, mechanical ding cut through the music and I rolled down the window just a crack before I lit up. I wanted a smoke, but that didn’t mean I wanted that smell in the upholstery.

Doped up on nicotine and good music, I was feeling a bit more like myself by the time I got to the meeting spot. Canterlot City was a big place, not quite New York City big, but it was old enough that a few decades of development meant that the city had outgrown some of the older neighborhoods. These poorer areas were the wrinkles that showed the age of the city. They were little nooks and crannies in its flawless metropolitan facade – shadowy crevices that people could crawl into and get lost in.

Nightriver Park was one of those old left-behind neighborhoods. The aged brownstone apartments and graffitied storefronts were the homes and businesses of families that walked the poverty line like a tightrope. It wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood, like what you’d see in TV dramas about inner-city turf wars, but the people who lived here were were too preoccupied with just trying to get by to notice the weird street kids that always seemed to be hanging around, which made it a good place for the changelings to set up shop.

It was about as far away from the fancy neighborhood that Night Light had lived in as you could get, even despite the fact that it wasn’t even a twenty minute drive away. That’s one of the things I liked about really big human cities – the dozens of little biomes that popped up right next to one another, sometimes separated by little more than line of abandoned rail track or a concrete aqueduct. It was the kind of contrast you never really saw in Equestria. Not even in our biggest cities like Manehattan.

At the center of the neighborhood was the actual park that Nightriver Park was named after. The place was deserted, all the kids having been called in by their parents as the sun set and the rains started falling more heavily. There was one kid, though, that hadn’t been frightened off by inclement weather and shrill parental threats. She looked about eleven years old, pretty, with two long plaited braids of chestnut-brown hair that hung all the way to behind her knees. She was dressed in baggy, mismatched clothes that were clearly salvaged from a donation bin – the uniform of Canterlot City’s street kids.

The girl was half-seated, arms crossed impatiently, and leaning on one of the playground’s riding toys – a cartoon ducky with chipped and faded yellow paint that sat atop a rusted industrial-sized spring. She watched as I pulled into the lot, then walked over, not caring if she stepped through the puddles.

I killed the engine, unlocked the passenger door, and pressed the button for the lighter again. Even before I'd quit, I always tried to limit myself to one a day, even if I was really stressing about something, but this was turning out to be one of those days where one cigarette just wasn’t going to do the trick.

The girl got into the car, her clothes completely dry despite the fact that she’d just been sitting out in the rain for who knows how long. She looked at me and tilted her head curiously, her brows furrowing as she regarded me with a harsh glare. Her nose twitched as she sniffed the air, and she reached over to turn down the radio so we could actually have a discussion.

“Smoking is an ugly habit,” Cilia said.

I took an extra long drag and blew it out the crack in the window. I flicked the ash out after the smoke and waved the cigarette at her. “That your way of asking for one?”

“Hardly,” she said with a scoff. “Why do you smell like love?”

“A girl rubbed her pheromones all over me,” I said airily. I frowned. “Clavus commented on it, too. Is it so surprising?”

“You are a famously unlovable woman.”

“Takes one to know one,” I replied, childishly lobbing back the insult like we were a couple of schoolyard brats. “You going to tell me what’s so important you couldn’t say it over the phone?”

Cilia sniffed the air and stared at me for a moment longer before continuing. I got the sense that she wanted to say more, but whatever it was, she must've deemed it unimportant. “Uncle Clavus has told me about the hornet’s nest you’ve foolishly stuck your hand into. He’s done some digging on your behalf, and he told me to relay his worries for the safety of the humans you’ve taken under your wing. Whatever precautions you have taken on their behalf, you should double them. They’re probably in very grave danger. He says you’re often thickheaded, and wished for me to have this meeting in person so that I might impress upon you the severity of the matter.”

“A little late for that,” I said with a click of my tongue. “Necromancer got ahold of Night Light and his family already.”

“Oh… oh dear,” Cilia said. She chewed her lower lip cutely, an action that fit her appearance, but was disturbingly out of sync with what I knew of her personality. “When did this happen?”

“The other night,” I answered. My stomach juices started to curdle a bit as my mind went back to the events of that night, the pearl of guilt waxing in my gut as I recalled what had been left of Night and his wife and son. “I know you keep your ear open to human news, so I’m sure you heard about that family that burned up in their home.”

She nodded. “Knowing you as I do, I can only assume that you were the cause of the fire.”

I grunted an affirmative.

Cilia leaned back against the seat, resting her arm up on the door and drumming her fingers thoughtfully. “Not to be crass, but this does seem to end your involvement in the matter.”

“Hardly,” I said. I took one last drag on my cigarette and flicked it out the window, letting the rain snuff the flame for me. I decided to leave the window cracked. It was cold, but I still liked the breeze and the smell of wet dirt on a rainy night. “I got there in time to save the daughter. Eight years old, practically hiding under her brother’s corpse while I was fighting.”

Cilia’s fingers stopped. I could already see the gears turning in her head as she glared sideways at me. “She would be at your home then?” At my nod, Cilia sighed and rubbed at her face as though she was feeling very tired. “Thus your hesitance to leave your house… My apologies, but it was unavoidable. I was also quite rude to you over the phone. I apologize for that as well. This has been a very wearisome day, but that's no reason to be discourteous.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I patted myself down, checking the pockets of my jacket to see if I had any gum. The aftertaste of cigarettes was always my least favorite part of smoking. “Kid’s under my wards and I got a babysitter who knows enough to not let her leave the house. Still, we should probably hurry this along. I’m getting a little antsy leaving her out of my sight.”

I dug around in the breast pocket of my jacket lining and found a half-squished, unopened pack of chiclets – you know, those little square gums that you get out of a plastic jar for a dime at a bodega. I opened the packet and popped a couple of pieces into my mouth. There wasn’t a lot of meat in the tiny candies, but it helped with the smokey taste and the urge to have a third cigarette. I offered what was left to Cilia, who hesitated for a moment but accepted the treat with a thankful nod.

“That’s uncharacteristically wise of you,” she said as she chewed her gum. “To the matter at hand, though. My esteemed uncle reached out to another uncle that lives out of town. I don’t know his name, but apparently he is not overly fond of modern conveniences, so the exchange was done via carrier bird.”

“What, like pigeons?” I asked.

“Exactly like pigeons.” Cilia lifted off the seat a bit and reached into her back pocket. She had a bit of paper torn off the corner of a yellow legal pad and rolled into a little tube that, presumably, fit around a pigeon’s leg. She unrolled it and checked the contents before handing it over to me. “This is what was sent back.”

I’d been hoping that this changeling expert of Clavus’ would send back a nice big explanation, or at least a book or something. I stared at the offered scrap of paper, hoping that she could see the disappointment on my face, because I was being disappointed as hard as I could. Still, you know what they say about beggars and choosers.

The limitations of pigeongrams showed themselves in the only two bits of info on the little note. On one side of the paper was a symbol – an oval with a line bisecting it down the center, the ends of the line curling into themselves in opposing directions. It was an annotation for spellwork, a shorthand that signified the category of a spell. This particular signifier could be commonly read as ‘Curse’. I flipped the paper around, and written in large, looping cursive that barely fit on the paper, was a name.

At least, I think it was a name.

“Tlaloc?” I frowned at the unfamiliar word, rolling around the feel of it in my mouth. I recalled what Clavus had said about the symbol I’d pulled off of Night Light being Central American, and added a little Latin flair as I repeated the name more slowly, really leaning into the syllables. “Tla-loc… That a name?”

“It’s most definitely a name. I looked into it, but all I could find was that he was a major figure amongst the deities of Central America.” Cilia leaned towards the door, tilting her head to look up into the sky through the rivulets of rain water streaking down the window. “What I can say, however, is that he was a god of storms.”

A rain god, huh? It certainly explained the odd weather. Spring showers weren’t too uncommon, but the rain seemed to have popped up out of nowhere. Actually, that had happened a couple of times this month. There were no overcast days, or clouds blowing in from over the horizon. You’d just blink and suddenly find that the sky had darkened over your head, filling with billowing gray clouds in less time than it took to boil a kettle of tea. I hadn’t thought much about it, but now that it was pointed out to me, it did seem a little odd. Plus, that definitely fit the timeline of when Night Light said he first started getting the feeling he was being watched.

I rolled up the window, closing the little crack I’d been blowing smoke out of earlier and cutting myself off from the rains. The shower had finally begun picking up, spattering against the all-steel body of my car with sinister little pings that reverberated in my ears with the weight of threats now that I knew there was a rain god in the mix.

“A curse powered by a rain god.” I shook my head sadly. “Night Light, just what the hell did you do to piss off someone like this?”

“I believe the better question is, what are you going to do about it?” asked Cilia. “Revenge, perhaps?”

“Maybe, if that’s what’s for the best,” I said with a shrug. “I'll be honest, I would like a little payback, but if the best move is to batten down the hatches and build up my wizard's tower, then that's what I'll do. The important thing is keeping what's left of my promise to Night Light and keeping Twilight safe. If I can do that without a fight, that's what I'll do.”

Cilia stroked her chin in thought. “What would be your thinking, then? That the cruel fellow might simply walk away since the damage has been done?”

I shrugged again. “I can only hope. There's no predicting what the guy might do. The kind of people that gravitate towards this sort of magic are the sort of people the True Crime channel devotes entire mini-series to – pervos that grew up butchering the neighbor’s cats until they were old enough to move onto human prey.”

“The unbalanced,” Cilia said in summation.

“The straight up cocoa puffs,” I said with a nod. “If he walked away right now that’d suit me just fine. The only thing that matters is Twilight’s safety, and if I start trading hands with another – possibly deranged – wizard, I might not be able to keep her out of harm’s way.”

“You may not have a choice in the matter,” Cilia explained with a slow shake of her head. “There are things in the shadows, stalking our streets. Wild, malicious spirits that would rarely dare to enter this deep into a human city have been reported to me by my changelings. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, I believe it must be the influence of this necromancer of yours. Trouble might find its way to your doorstep, whether you like it or not.”

I frowned at that.

I hadn’t noticed any odd spirits in town, but then again I wasn’t looking for any. The changelings were sharp, and way more sensitive to changes in their environment than I was. If they were catching wind of something nasty, I had no reason to distrust that. Certain kinds of spirits – bad ones – tended to be attracted to certain kinds of magic. A high-level necromancer plying his craft would definitely kick up the spookies.

Still, I didn’t see how it was anything to worry about. In a few weeks the aura of nasty magic attracting the spirits would disperse, and they would scatter to the winds again. Evil spirits had no chance of getting past the kind of wards I was keeping, so all I had to do was wait it out.

"That's interesting, I guess," I muttered. “Has anyone gotten hurt?”

“You would believe so, but no,” Cilia said. “The spirits are behaving strangely. They are not partaking in mischief, nor tormenting the living. No harm has come to anyone, no property has been damaged senselessly – nothing.”

“So the spirits are just… what?” I asked in disbelief. What Cilia said wasn’t making any sense. “They’re just hanging around?”

“They appear to be searching for something.”

My blood ran cold. “When exactly did this start?”

The look in Cilia’s eyes went hard, and she said, in a tone as gravely serious as a funeral dirge, “Two nights ago.”

“Shit,” I muttered under my breath.

That certainly put a kink in my plans of crawling into a hole and waiting for the storm to blow over. From what Cilia was telling me, necro-boy was on the hunt for something, and he had a whole pack of spirits as his smell-hounds. Twilight definitely wasn’t off the hook yet. Whatever this necromancer’s goals were, they hadn’t been met by killing just Night Light.

His family hadn’t gotten in the way of this jerkhole’s game, they’d been a part of it all along.

But then why had Twilight been left alive in the first place? Assuming now that the goal was to wipe out Night Light’s whole family, it didn’t make any sense that Twilight could have made it long enough for me to come to her rescue. A flesh golem with instructions to wipe out the whole family definitely would’ve been able to sniff out one of its targets cowering in a closet. Three-inches of hollow plywood door wouldn’t keep a monster like that fooled for long, not even with her brother outside fighting like hell to keep it distracted.

“You will need to exercise the greatest of caution moving forward, Sunset Shimmer,” Cilia said. “They are almost assuredly looking for this child.”

“I know,” I said with a groan as I slumped forward. I pressed my forehead against the steering wheel and banged it a few times in frustration.

“Uncle Clavus is fond of a certain human saying – ‘When it rains, it pours’.” She rapped her knuckles softly against the passenger side window. “Seems rather apt, occurrences being what they are.”

“Where is Clavus, anyway?” I asked as I straightened up. Cilia was a smart cookie, with a wealth of experience, but if the stakes were this high then I needed the big cheese. There was no substituting for the knowledge and experience the old guy could bring to the table, and if I was going to tangle with someone that was being backed by a major power, then I wanted all the help I could get – within reason.

Cilia crossed her arms, turning her head away shyly – another of those oddly little-girlesque gestures that was out of place with her actual age. Even after knowing her for years, I still had trouble discerning if those little quirks were natural, or if she’d just spent so long impersonating a human child that she did it without thinking. Could have been a bit of both. You spend long enough playing a part, the act becomes a part of you.

“Gone,” she said. “There was another note along with the one for you. He would not disclose its contents to me, but he seemed agitated. He said he needed to look into some matter or another personally.”

“Related to this?” I asked hopefully. Clavus wasn’t one to be easily shook, but if anything was going to do it, it’d be someone running around in this city with old-time god magic in his corner.

“Most likely.”

“Guess he’ll turn up, then,” I said with a sigh.

Cilia nodded in agreement. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid this is the most help I can offer at the moment. I’ve called the youngest of my nieces and nephews back to the nest, so I’m afraid our information network might be somewhat lacking until the matters at hand are resolved to my satisfaction.”

While it was disappointing to hear that I might not be able to rely on the changelings for info, I understood where they were coming from. Changelings were pretty good at keeping under the radar, but except for really old ones like Cilia and Clavus, they weren’t too dangerous in a fight. And while they hadn’t been targeted, it definitely paid to be cautious while a necromancer was on the loose. A wizard with the right kind of training could do an awful lot with the remains of a dead changeling – especially a wizard that specialized in screwing around with corpses.

Hell, even I could get some good use out of one, but I wasn’t about to cut the pancreas out of a changeling just to make a cheap transfiguration elixir. I liked these guys, and they liked me.

“No worries, do what you gotta do,” I said. “You guy guys need to take care of yourselves. I’d hate to hear that any of your kids got snatched for their magic.”

“As would I,” Cilia said as she rubbed tiredly at her face. “I have many nieces and nephews in this city, and it’s not been easy making sure they’re all accounted for. I am very much looking forward to a good night of rest.”

“I don’t envy the responsibility you shoulder, Cilia,” I said. “Thanks for meeting with me, go get some sleep. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you guys on your end.”

“I dare say you’ll be busy enough with your own responsibilities, so hopefully it won’t come to that,” Cilia said. “Good luck.”

Cilia reached for the door handle and made to leave. I was already reaching for the ignition when I noticed that she’d frozen halfway through the motion. She pulled back, folding her hands in her lap and looking up at me with a curious tilt of her head. The bridge of her nose wrinkled as she frowned at me with her eyes in a way that showed every second of her age. It was the scrutinizing look of someone who’d seen a lot in life – enough to become starved for new experiences – and had just caught sight of something intriguing.

“Actually, there is one more thing I would like to ask,” she began. “The girl you’ve taken in… what’s her name?”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “That's definitely not what I was expecting you to ask. Does it matter to you?”

“Not particularly,” Cilia said, lifting her hands in a lazily dismissive gesture that barely qualified as a shrug. "It's simple curiosity.”

“Twilight Sparkle,” I answered.

Cilia nodded and turned her head to stare sedately out the window. “Does she have other family?”

“Not really, no,” I said. "None that would take her in, if that's what you're driving towards."

“I see,” Cilia muttered. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “Eight years old, you said, and already alone… That’s very sad.”

“That’s a weird sentiment coming from a changeling.” I propped my elbow up on the door to rest my cheek against my hand as I smirked at her. “Didn’t you guys used to steal babies from their parents?”

It wasn’t an insult, just a statement of fact, and I knew it would take more than that to get under Cilia’s skin.

Cilia repeated the little hand-shrug. “I shan’t deny it, there was indeed a time when we made off with children, so as to create a place for our youngest to be nurtured… However, we’re not the same as we were in those days. My changelings now mingle with the homeless and destitute in this city. Humans with dark pasts and bleak futures, filled with distrust even as they desperately cling to one another with what love is left in their hearts.”

Cilia laced her fingers over her head and stretched with almost feline laziness, moaning in satisfaction as she did. She didn’t weigh ninety pounds sopping wet, but the hinges of the passenger seat squealed as she pressed what little weight she had against the back. It was an off-handed reminder of how strong, and how inhuman, she really was. It brought to mind the time that I saw her casually break a grown man’s wrist with one hand for harassing one of her nieces.

“My kind have been impersonating humans since the dawn of humanity,” she continued, “but I believe that we never understood them so well as we have since the day we stopped stealing their lives. Personally, I rather like humans, as more than simply a source of food. I find them interesting. So, yes, I can feel for them, and I can feel sorrow and sympathy for a child with so woeful a circumstance.”

“Where’s all this coming from?” I asked. “You’re not usually so…”

I trailed off, at a loss for how to end that sentence.

Cilia and I have always had a complicated relationship. It was one of those up-and-down things that was more up than down, most of the time. I definitely wouldn’t ever call her a friend – not the way Clavus was a friend – but even when we annoyed one another there was a sense of respect, and a part of that respect was that we naturally afforded one another a bit of emotional distance. It was vaguely uncomfortable to see her so unguarded. It was a little like walking in on her in the shower.

“I’m unsure,” Cilia said, frowning. “Perhaps I’m sympathizing with you as much as with Twilight Sparkle.”

“Why would you be sympathizing with me?” I asked, confusion creasing my brow. “I didn’t lose anyone.”

She frowned at me, like she wasn’t sure if I was being intentionally thick or not. “May I ask what you plan to do with the child after you’ve secured her life?”

“I dunno,” I answered truthfully. Twilight had asked me the same thing the night before, but I hadn’t had an answer for her then, and I didn’t have one for Cilia now.

Cilia slumped in her seat and pulled one of her long braids into her lap. She toyed with her hair and sighed. It was a sound so loud and so tired that it was almost a moan – the sound of someone putting down a heavy burden.

“You wouldn’t know this, but before I met Uncle Clavus,” Cilia began, “the oldest changeling I’d ever known was my Aunt Costa. She starved, and then the oldest changeling I knew was my Aunt Gossamer… two years later she also starved. On and on like that, until eventually… I had no more uncles, no more aunts… I was the aunt, and before I knew it the little ones were looking to me for guidance and protection.”

She looked up from her lap and gave me a look that might have been apologetic. “I can’t tell you what you should do with this child, that’s a choice that only you can make. What can I say, though, is that at this moment you are the only one looking out for her welfare. That is why I sympathize with you. I understand what it’s like to live your life selfishly, and to suddenly find yourself responsible for the life of another. Most wouldn’t understand unless they were in our position, but when you hold the life of a young one in the palm of your hand, you can’t help but wonder to yourself how something so fragile can feel so heavy.”

Cilia opened the door and stepped into the rain. She leaned down and poked her head back into the car to add, “Good luck to you, whatever you choose to do. Stay safe and keep in touch. I shall let you know when Uncle Clavus has returned.”

She closed the door and jogged off, skipping through the puddles with disconcertingly girlish abandon, her pigtails trailing behind her as the night swallowed her up. I sat for a while, listening to the pings and thonks of the rain hitting my car.

Within minutes I was already sick of the noise, so I cranked up the radio just loud enough that I wouldn’t have to hear the rain anymore. I turned the ignition key and Philomena purred for me. It was getting late and I was eager to get home.

* * *

I’ve always loved the rain. Back in Equestria, the weather was controlled by schedules drafted by local Weather Patrol managers and approved by the Cloudsdale Weather Commission. I’d never known anything different, but after coming to the human world, I’d come to realize that making something efficient and reliable didn’t necessarily make it better.

Pegasus magic had taken control of one nature’s most amazing systems and leashed it with red tape, choking it into submission with bureaucracy. It’s one of the few cases where magic took the magic out of something.

Earth rain wasn’t like that. The weather, like the sun and the moon here, had its own rhythm. I’d studied a bit about meteorology once, just as a matter of curiosity. I understood the concept of low and high-pressure systems, the way temperature differences between the arctic and the tropics created wind and weather – but there’s still something magical in magic-less weather. There’s an unpredictability in it that I just find beautiful, and the feeling of cold water falling unexpectedly from the sky and onto my bare skin always put a smile on my face. It made me feel clean, like I was really a part of this world.

But this rain wasn’t normal. I could feel it, now that I knew what to look for, this slight tingle of magic in every droplet. It was so small that I wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t been looking, but as I stood in my garage and held my hand out to the rain, I knew this wasn’t natural.

I pulled my hand back and shook it off, drying it against my jeans as I leaned against Philomena’s trunk. It had been raining when Night Light had died, too. An unexpected storm, the newscasters had called it. It was a point of curiosity that had been overshadowed by the tragedy of a family burning to death in what was now being called an electrical fire.

I knew better, though. The rain was being caused by Tlaloc’s power. My death magic wielding counterpart had obviously had some kind of contract allowing him to use Tlaloc’s rain magic for his personal hoodoo. It was probably how he was making those constructs. The second one I’d destroyed, the one that had been at Night Light’s place, had been quite a bit stronger than the first. The rain that night was most likely a side effect of pumping more of Tlaloc’s magic into it. And now that the other guy was using that power to command a bunch of spirits to search for something – that something almost certainly being Twilight – the rain magic was playing havoc on the skies.

Normally I’d love this kind of weather, but I couldn’t enjoy it knowing what was causing it. It was just magic taking the magic out of something I loved.

I pushed off the car and opened the trunk. It hadn’t occurred to me until I was already half way home, but if Twilight was going to stay holed up inside my house, she was going to need a few necessities. As much as I wanted to get home, I knew it was better to get the shopping out of the way while Luna was there to keep an eye on her.

I gathered up the bags and shut the garage door on my way out. My stomach was already growling. Hopefully Twilight and Luna had left me something to eat.

There was a little white economy class car in my driveway that I hadn’t noticed when I’d left – on account of, you know, the unpleasantness – and it had been a surprise to see it as I’d pulled up. It had taken me a second or two to realize that it was probably Luna’s car. I probably should’ve guessed that she wouldn’t have walked all the way out to my house in the sub-suburbs – not in pants that tight, anyway.

I stood on the porch, shaking off what moisture had stuck to me on the walk from garage. It was coming down in sheets now, and I’d gotten fairly soaked without even trying. I shook out my hair a few times and made sure nothing in my bags had gotten wet before unlocking the door and going inside. As soon as I stepped over my threshold I could feel the wards in my house welcoming me home. It was warm, like stepping into a heated room after being out in the snow.

I don’t know why, but I’d half expected Twilight to come running around the corner to shout at me for taking so long, and I was oddly disappointed that she hadn’t. I locked the door and followed the sound of cartoonish mayhem into the living room.

Luna was on the couch, smiling in relief as I stepped into the room. Twilight was curled up next to her, asleep, her head in the older girl’s lap like a big housecat. Luna must have gotten her clothes out of the dryer, because Twilight was in those magical girl pajamas again. Luna grabbed the remote off the armrest and muted the television, cutting off the sounds of cat-on-mouse, mouse-on-cat domestic violence.

“Welcome home,” Luna said, smiling beatifically.

I was stunned for a moment by the surrealism of the scene. I’d lived alone pretty much my whole life, except for the times when I was living with one teacher or another by Fiddler’s arrangement. Nobody had ever welcomed me home before.

It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was… alien.

I gave myself a mental slap and nodded, trying not to betray how affected I was by the mundane greeting. “Hey,” I said simply. I nodded towards the girl sleeping in her lap. “How was she?”

“Grumpy,” Luna said. She placed a hand on Twilight’s head, smoothing out her hair. “She was worried about you. She wanted to stay up and wait for you to come home, but I think she tired herself out being mad that you made her stay behind.”

“Sorry.” I lifted the bags, showing off my purchases. “Meeting took a little longer than I expected it would. Then I stopped at the Barnyard Bargains on the way home to pick up some stuff for her. The lines there are always crazy, even late at night.”

“Clothes?” Luna asked, eyeing one of the bags. It was thin enough that you could see the colored fabric through the plastic.

I nodded. “I got her size earlier when I threw her pajamas in the wash. Got some other stuff, too. Toothbrush, no-tears shampoo, apple juice, box of stickers, some coloring crayons… eight-year-old girls like stickers and crayons, right?”

Luna tittered softly. “Yeah, they do.”

I set the bags down and slipped off my jacket, tossing it over the back of the couch as I made a beeline for the kitchen. An extra-large pizza box was on the table. One corner of the lid was up, letting all the heat out of the box. I opened it up and found the pizza already at room temperature, the grease from the cheese and various meats already congealing into a rubbery paste – just the way I liked it. There was only one pizza place that was close enough to deliver to my house, and it wasn’t that great, but the owners were nice and they never skimped on the toppings.

I went to the fridge to grab a coke and had a seat at the table to tuck into dinner.

“You’re not going to use a plate?” Luna asked as she walked into the kitchen.

I concentrated on the pizza so I wouldn’t have to watch the sway of her hips as she walked around the table to sit in the other chair.

“Plate’ll only slow me down,” I said between bites.

Luna sat silently, her head turned like she was looking out the kitchen window at the rain. I could tell that she wasn’t really watching the rain. Every now and again I’d look up to find her sneaking little glances at me out the corner of her eye.

I sighed and grabbed my third slice. “Just ask what you’re going to ask,” I said.

She fixed me with a soft, worried look. “What happened?”

“That’s a pretty broad question,” I said. “Do you mean tonight, or in general?”

“Both, I guess,” she said. A lock of her long hair had fallen over her shoulder, and she toyed with it unsuredly, twirling it around her fingers and smoothing it out almost compulsively. “I don’t really understand how this whole thing started. I mean… why? I just want to understand why that beautiful little girl had to lose her family.”

I probably should have told Luna to mind her business. I should have thanked her for watching Twilight, gave her whatever I had left in my wallet after my shopping spree as a babysitting fee, and send her home.

I should have told her that the truth doesn’t always set you free, that sometimes it just scares the life out of you with how utterly powerless you are.

But I didn’t. I knew what it was like to need to know something so badly that you’d let a part of your innocence die. Not because the knowledge would do you any good, but because the idea of remaining ignorant was unthinkable.

I told Luna about how Night Light had come to find me. How he’d been branded with some weird magic that I’m only just scratching the surface of understanding, and how we’d gone to the school that night looking for clues as to what had attacked him.

I skipped over the gorier details of what had happened in Twilight’s house before the fire, but what little I did describe left Luna looking a bit peaky. I also decided that she didn’t need to know anything more about the changelings than Clavus and Cilia’s names – like I’ve said before, my shapeshifter friends like keeping a low profile.

The whole time Luna just sat there, listening intently. The story didn’t take as long to tell as I thought it would. Still, I managed to polish off two more slices as I talked. All this stress eating was going to go to my hips.

Luna didn’t say anything for the longest time and neither did I. There was nothing more to say at that point, and all that was left was for her to try and digest everything I’d just dumped on her. The room lit up as lightning flashed outside, and half a second later thunder shook the windows in their frames.

I got out of my chair and popped my head into the living room to check on the kid. I’d kept my voice down so we wouldn’t wake her, but the thunder wouldn’t be so courteous. I sure didn’t want Twilight waking up and listening in on our conversation. Luckily, Twilight was still fast asleep, curled up on the couch where Luna had left her.

Luna was still staring out the window when I got back, a complicated look on her face that might have been a mixture of revulsion, sadness, pity, and fear. Thunder rang out again, and her eyes flinched at the sound.

Retelling the story had been harder than I’d thought it would be. Laying out the details of the misadventure like that, I could see every misstep I’d taken, and all the little ways I could have prevented the bad end that had come for Night Light. It was all the harder because I was telling it to Luna, who knew Night Light for much longer than I did.

It didn’t help that I was so attracted to her. That shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. When someone catches your eye you only want to show them the best of yourself, but here we were in my kitchen, and I was laying bare my failures while she watched me stuff my face with greasy pizza like a pig.

I busied myself toying with the toppings that had fallen off the pie, rolling the loose sausages over the olives at the bottom of the box like matchbox cars. I popped a few in my mouth, not because I was still hungry, but because it gave me anything to do that wasn’t looking at Luna – because it gave me anything to think about that wasn’t this uncomfortable conversation.

“I hate this,” Luna said, so quietly that I almost missed it under the sound of howling winds spattering rain against the windows. “I hate it so much.”

“It’s not great, no,” I said in agreement. I shut the box and pushed it away.

“What kind of person would just…” Luna’s beautiful face screwed up in disgust. “...would just kill a whole family like it was nothing?”

“A sorcerer,” I said simply. I got up and went to the sink to rinse the grease off my hands. “People turn to magic for lots of reasons. Money, power, sex, the pure joy of learning, some combination of the above. Whatever your reason for picking it up, eventually magic becomes your whole world, and everything else – even human life – becomes cheap and disposable. You start thinking you’re above mortal constraints. Things like morality, law, common goddamned decency – it all goes out the window. Sorcerers are like children. Children with immense and deadly power, but still children. If you want something, you take it. If someone crosses you, you cross them out. Easy as that.”

“You’re not like that,” Luna said.

It was a simple statement, born of ignorance and optimism. It came from a girl who clearly had a crush on me and was only seeing the best of my actions, but it still shook me a little, the fact that I couldn’t live up to that optimistic, innocent perception of me that she had.

I wasn’t good and that was a fact. Good people don’t sell their souls to the first demon that buys them a stack of pancakes.

Every sorcerer is like that,” I said bitterly. I shut off the water and dried my hands with a dish towel. “Some of us just get tired of it.” I hopped up to sit on the counter next to the sink. “That’s why I live my life tricking rubes out of their money with card readings and seances. I love magic, but I don’t want to be a part of that world anymore. I just want to be… I want be normal. Or at least as close to it as I can get.”

I hung my head in shame. I didn’t have the strength in me to meet Luna’s eyes, for fear of what I might see.

You know how I spent my Sweet-Sixteen? Living in a cave with an evil medicine man on a Navajo reservation. I’d read about skinwalkers in a book, and I’d asked Fiddler to arrange for me to meet one. The meeting had turned into a summer-long apprenticeship, wherein I got to spend three sweaty months listening to Shouts-When-He-Whispers expounding on the nastiest, darkest magic he knew. It turned my stomach to hear about the things he threw into his brews, but I sat there and I listened and I was glad to learn, because it meant broadening my understanding of how magic worked in this world.

By the end of that summer I’d learned some of his skills. I could even put on a coyote’s skin and become that animal, or wear the feathers of a crow and fly through the air like a bird – but in the end all it amounted to was academics. The magic I’d learned from him didn’t even work unless I was standing on the lands of his people. That didn’t matter to me, though, because I’d learned something new. That was the only thing I’d ever cared about.

I couldn’t tell that to Luna. She wouldn’t understand. A lot of the time even I couldn’t understand why I was the way I was.

“Look at me,” Luna said.

I didn’t. I just sat there on the counter, staring down at the hardwood. I didn’t want to see the look in her eyes. If the softness in her voice was pity, it would hurt, and if it was acceptance, that would hurt even more.

I heard the sound of a chair scraping against the hardwood floor, and the soft whisper of Luna’s denim-clad thighs lightly brushing together as she walked over to where I was brooding. I didn’t look up until I felt her hand against my shoulder. I tried to turn away, but her other hand found my cheek and gently urged me to face her.

“You’re not like that,” Luna repeated, her voice ringing with so much sincerity that I almost bought it. “I refuse to believe it.”

“You don’t know me well enough to say that. I was going to turn Night Light away. If he hadn’t gotten on his knees and begged me, I would’ve left him out to dry.”

I tried to pull away again, but Luna’s soft hands held fast, like iron wrapped in silk.

“But you didn’t,” she said.

“But I wanted to,” I said, insistently. I was pleading, for some reason, for her to understand that I wasn’t a good person. “I just wanted to be left alone.”

“You saved Twilight. Brought her somewhere safe.”

“Because I had to,” I replied. “I promised Night Light I’d keep his kids safe. I wasn’t going to just let her burn up.”

The hand on my shoulder slid down, along my arm, tracing a line across my thigh and coming to rest on my knee. Luna applied just enough pressure to the inside of my knee to push my leg aside, and I didn’t resist. My legs out of the way, she stepped closer, her hand stroking my hip.

“And a promise like that matters to you,” she said breathily as she closed the distance, “because deep down inside, you’re a good person, even if you don’t believe it. Someone who thinks she’s above human morality wouldn’t have bothered to keep a promise to a stranger. You wouldn’t have even been there that night.”

For the second time since I’d met this girl, she kissed me. Her lips were soft as I remembered, and flavored with some kind of cherry lip gloss. My own mouth probably tasted like greasy cheese and cured meats, but if the enthusiasm with which Luna was leaning into the kiss was any indication, she didn’t care.

There was something wonderful about the way Luna kissed. The first time she’d made a move on me, back when we were sitting in my car, still high on adrenaline and danger, I’d gotten the sense that she wasn’t all that experienced. I was still getting that sense, but there was a sort of desperate enthusiasm that more than made up for the lack of familiarity with the act. I was the subject of her experimentation as she licked and nibbled her way through the kiss, and I was having fun being her guinea pig, even as she was jabbing her tongue into my mouth with the subtlety of a freight train.

The all-consuming sound of falling rain and crashing thunder faded away, drowning as my senses honed in on every sound and scent and taste that Luna was offering them. I could only hear the sound of her breathing, all I could taste was her lips. The potency of Luna’s perfume had waned over the course of the day, but the last of its legs had mingled with her natural scent – the smell of her skin and her sweat, the smell of a woman at the end of the day. It called to me like a promise, drawing me nearer, making want to drink in more of her.

And then, all at once, the moment died. Sense returned to me in the form of Princess Celestia’s disapproving voice calling my name, like I’d just gotten caught with my hoof in her private cookie jar – the one she kept hidden behind the painting above her mantle.

I jerked away from the kiss and in my endorphin-drunk stupor I leaned too far back, smacking the back of my head against a cabinet. The glassware inside rattled and I let loose a curse that was loud enough that I was worried I might have woken Twilight. I rubbed at the goose-egg that was growing on the back of my skull with the hand that had just seconds ago been under Luna’s shirt, gleefully fondling her bare breast.

My eyes darted about the room, fearfully searching for someone that I knew wasn’t there. It was just my imagination, but my heart was still beating in my chest like she was standing in the doorway and frowning reproachfully at me.

Luna slipped her hand out from my back pocket and hopped up to sit on the counter next to me. She smoothed out her shirt, then folded her hands and squeezed them shyly between her knees. The fridge was at the end of the counter, close enough that she could lean against it.

“Why’d you pull away this time?” she asked. She was turned away, and I couldn’t see her face behind the curtain of her hair, but the hurt in her voice was clear. “Was it me again?”

“No,” I said, “this time it was me.”

“Are you sure? Because I just… I feel like I screwed everything up by kissing you the other night. Like, I know it was too fast, and now it’s made things so awkward that you can barely look me in the eyes. But I figured if I did it again and we both liked it, maybe things wouldn’t be so weird between us, and then maybe we could... I don’t know…” She banged her head softly against the fridge with a frustrated groan. “Why’s this so weird?”

I shrugged. “Dunno.”

I did know, but I couldn’t tell her that it was because her sister was the trans-dimensional body-double of someone who’d been like a mother to me, and that for a moment I’d heard her Force Ghost shouting at me to get my hand off her little sister’s tit.

That might make me seem like a nutjob.

Luna huffed, sitting up straight and pulling back her hair so she could look me in the eyes. “Are you even interested in me?”

“I am,” I said.

“Well, that’s something, at least,” she said.

I took a deep breath, suddenly feeling like I was standing at the edge of a high dive, looking down into an empty pool. “Luna, I’m not going to pretend you’re not in my head.” Luna rolled her eyes at me, but I ignored it and pressed forward to cut off the sarcastic quip that I knew was forthcoming. “It’s just… I don’t do well in relationships in general, and things right now are extra complicated.”

Luna ran her hands through her hair and chuckled mirthlessly. “I know, I know, you’re right. I shouldn’t be thinking about kissing while we’ve got a crazy wizard running wild in Canterlot City. It’s just that you were sitting there looking so down on yourself, and I wanted to cheer you up, so I just thought I’d go for it...” She sat up straight as a board, her jaw going slack and her eyes widening with a terrible realization. “Oh God, does danger turn me on? Is that the kind of woman I’ve become?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help myself.

“You stop laughing right now!” Luna demanded with a hiss. Her fair skin flushed from the tips of her ears down to her chest.

Her dainty hands had balled into fists in her lap. The sudden urge to hold her hand came over me, just for the sake of feeling her skin against mine. I took one of her hands and slipped mine into it, pushing my fingertips against the heel of her hand and over her palm, uncurling her fist. She wove her fingers through mine, and we sat for a few minutes, offering warmth to one another through our hands with the most innocent of intimate acts.

I knew the pounding in my chest wasn’t love. It was infatuation, or maybe even just naked lust. There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, though.

One of the tutors that Fiddler had arranged for me had been an older man who’d been something of a lothario in his younger days. He’d never tried anything with me, but he was always very open about his past dalliances. Once, while he watched me struggle with my earliest attempts at carving runeworks, he told me that love and food were very similar. The need for both was driven by hunger, after all, and like with well presented food, the first bite of love was taken with the eye.

So what if right now the thing I was most interested in was her hot little body? She was nice, and interesting, and I wanted to get to know her better. I wasn’t going to let the specter of Princess Celestia ruin a shot at that. If things worked out between us and I had to meet this world’s Celestia, then that’s just how it’d have to be.

But that was all something for later. Right now, I needed to focus on what to do about the deadly game of cat-and-also-cat I was in the midst of.

“Thank you for trying to cheer me up,” I said. “I mean it. I can get pretty down on myself sometimes… but you do understand why I’ve got to keep some distance, at least for now, right?”

“I know why you think you need to,” she said. She squeezed my hand tighter, like she was afraid I was going to let go. To be fair, I actually was about to let go. “You think I might get hurt, you think you can’t afford to get distracted, you think you’re not a good person.”

“Those things are all true,” I pointed out.

“You already know that I think you’re a good person,” Luna said, unfazed by my stubbornness. “I’m not going to go anywhere, and not just because I want to see if there’s anything actually here, between us. I want to be here for Twilight, too. She’s trying to be brave, but there’s… there’s something missing from her eyes.”

I gave Luna’s hand a squeeze and released it. “Considering what she saw? I would imagine so.”

“She’s so hurt, and so scared,” Luna said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “It breaks my heart to see her like that. I can’t just walk away. I have to do what I can to help.”

I slid off the counter and went to the doorway to check on Twilight again. She was still on the couch, hadn’t moved an inch. Only the very slight rise and fall of her chest told me that she was still breathing.

“She looks peaceful like that,” Luna said as she stepped up beside me. “I hope she’s having a good dream. A dream where her family is together and there aren’t any monsters, where she gets to still be like every other little girl.”

“She’s been sleeping a lot, which is good. Sleep is good medicine for a sad heart.” I leaned against the door and gave Luna a smile. “I have to admit, you did a pretty good job of watching after the kid while I was out.”

“Does that mean you won’t object to me coming over?” Luna asked, hopefully.

I nodded. “I would rather you didn’t, at least until this mess is sorted, but if you’re set on coming to see Twilight, then I won’t get in the way. It’ll be good to have someone to watch her while I’m out running errands… and to be honest, I’ve never really been very good with kids.”

“You could have fooled me,” Luna said with a chuckle. “She was mad that you made her stay behind, but she talks about you like you’re a superhero.”

A touch of heat bloomed in my cheeks. “I may have, uh, told her I was like those princess wizard girls she likes,” I said. “You know, the ones on her pajamas.”

Luna snickered behind her hand, doubling over and turning away as she tried to stifle the laughter threatening to burst out of her.

“Whatever,” I muttered.

It wasn’t even really that funny, but it looked like the more she tried to suppress her laughter, the harder it was for her not to laugh. Eventually, though, she got her giggle fit under control.

“Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry,” she said breathlessly, rubbing her belly like she was in pain, “but I just got this image in my head of you in one of those Japanese schoolgirl sailor suits. You were doing a pose and everything.”

“What, like a ‘I’ll punish you in the name of the moon’ kind of thing?” I asked.

“Oh, I loved that show,” Luna said with a sigh of nostalgia.

“Heh, I did, too, actually,” I said with a chuckle.

I went to straighten up in the kitchen a little bit. Luna and Twilight had left a few dishes in the sink that I’d noticed when I was washing my hands, and there were greasy little Twilight-sized handprints on the table.

Luna shooed me away from the sink to take care of the dishes herself, so I got to work wiping down the counters and table.

“So what about my sister?” Luna asked offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat, and I was glad that Luna’s back was to me, because I was certain that I’d just had a look of panic flash across my face. I’d been expecting a question about this, and I’d even been thinking about what I might say, but I’d expected it to come much earlier. For a second there, I thought I’d weaseled my way out of it.

“What about her?” I asked, quickly swallowing down my surprise.

“Well, she’s spent more time with Twilight than I have,” Luna said diplomatically. “She took the news about Professor Night Light really badly. I’m sure she’d be glad to hear that Twilight’s okay. She’d probably want to come see her right away.”

“It’s probably better if we don’t tell her,” I said, “at least not right away.”

“Because of the danger…”

“Right… because of the danger…”

Luna shut off the water and set the last of the dishes on the drying rack. “Are you sure that’s all it is?” she asked as she turned to face me. “Earlier when I mentioned her name, you looked… I dunno, scared, maybe?”

“The name caught me off guard,” I said. “I knew someone with that name before, but trust me, it’s not the same person.”

“You’re sure that’s all?”

I stood up straight, thrust out my chest, and held a hand up like a boy scout swearing an oath – pinkie and thumb together.

“I swear on my power that I am telling the truth,” I said, with as much solemnity in my voice as I could muster.

She blinked. “Is that a thing?”

“No,” I said, cracking a smile, “but it sounded impressive.”

“Fine,” she said, also smiling, “be flippant, see if I care. I’ll keep it a secret for now, at least until you say it’s okay to tell her.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. “Speaking of Celestia, I should probably get home. I had to borrow her car because mine’s still in the shop, and she’s been texting me all night asking where I am. I told her I’d only be a few hours.”

“She keeps you on a short leash, huh?”

“Ugh, yes,” Luna said with a groan of baby-sisterly petulance. “She thinks she’s everybody’s mom.”

I coughed into my hand to keep from laughing. That was Celestia, alright. It seemed like no matter the world, she had her snoot in everyone else’s business.

We exchanged numbers, and as I was adding Luna to my phonebook I realized how few actual people I knew. I had Clavus and Cilia, a couple of clients whose numbers I’d saved and never bothered to delete, the hardware store, and the rest were all numbers for pizza places and takeout joints. I made a quick mental note to myself to ask Cheese Cake for her number next time I was at the ICLOP, just to pad out my phonebook.

I walked Luna to the door, grabbing an umbrella from the hall closet as I passed by, and followed her out onto the porch. The storm was getting kind of crazy, so I shut the door behind myself to keep the draft out.

“So this is all because of some kind of rain god’s magic?” Luna asked as she watched the rain falling in sheets. There was something like awe in her voice. “Could you do something like this?”

“Yeah, if I wanted to,” I said with confidence. “Weather’s not that hard to mess with, especially if your craft is being backed by something big.”

She wrapped her arms around herself to suppress a shiver. “This magic stuff is really freaky…”

“It’s not too late to back out,” I said. “I won’t think any less of you if you decide to keep your head down until I take care of it.”

Luna shook her head resolutely. “It’s scary, but that’s why I have to help,” she said. “However scary it is to me, it has to be worse for Twilight.”

“Okay,” I said. I handed her the umbrella. “Be careful on the way home. Drive slow, the storm might get worse.”

“I will.” She opened the umbrella and held it over her head. “I’m picking up my car tomorrow at noon. I’ll come by right after. I’ll bring lunch, cool?”

“Sounds good.”

Luna got up on her tiptoes and pecked me on the lips before running down the steps. The walkway was all muddy, and actually felt bad for the nice shoes she had on. It was cold out, but I stayed under the porch to watch her until she was in her car and backing out of the driveway. She turned on the light in the cabin so I could see her and waved goodbye before pulling onto the road and heading back into town. I waited until her tail lights had faded away before I went inside.

I locked up the house, double checking all the windows, and carried Twilight up to her room. I tucked her in and left the light on in the hall for her, just in case she needed to use the bathroom or get a drink or something. Big meals always made me sleepy, and the belly full of pizza had finally caught up with me. As soon as I was in my room I kicked off my boots and shimmied out of my pants to crawl into bed.

* * *

I was dreaming again.

In the dream I was barely seventeen, at the very peak of my youthful arrogance.

I was plodding along, barefoot, on loose earth that had a rough quality, as though it had never been subjected to the smoothing effects of erosion. The dirt was clumping together, sticky, and every few steps I had to shake the itchy dust from my soles and wiggle it out from between my toes. Behind me was a line of perfectly formed footprints, each at least an inch deep, trailing off into the shadows and showing where I’d been. It reminded me of those pictures of astronaut footprints on the moon.

I was surrounded by darkness, save for the flicker of the white flames that floated behind Fiddler like will-o-wisps being led astray by something even more malicious. The light only touched us, and the ground immediately around us, as though we – me, Fiddler, the ground, and the darkness – were the only things that existed in this place. Still, there was a sense of pressure around me, the feeling that I might bump into a wall at any second, and the snow-like crunch of rough sand beneath my feet seemed to echo off of something. I thought that maybe it was the darkness.

I opened my mouth to speak, to ask where we were, but no sound came out. Breath left my lungs, I could feel the words in my throat, but nothing was said, as though the words had been plucked from the air before they could reach my ears. I tried again, opening my mouth a little wider and trying to shout. I felt something trying to force its way into my mouth and down my throat. I gagged on the unseen thing, bending at the waist and clutching my throat as I hacked and coughed soundlessly. I looked up and Fiddler hadn’t turned around, but he’d stopped and was presumably waiting for me.

We started walking again, and the crunch of my footfalls echoing off nothing was made all the worse by the fact that it was the only sound in this place. Fiddler’s steps didn’t make sound, of course, because they never did, not unless he wanted them to. He didn’t even leave footprints behind.

The thin cotton bathrobe I was wearing had been stolen from a hotel in Hong Kong on a whim, and was made more for looks than for post-bathing comfort. I hugged myself, wishing I’d dressed in something thicker. Not because it was cold, but because I was desperate for anything that might further separate my bare flesh from the sound and whatever laid beyond the light of Fiddler’s fire.

Earlier that night I’d been in a nightclub that I’d been too young to be allowed into, but too pretty to be denied entry for. I’d been dancing and drinking for most of the night, and beautiful men and women had offered me drinks, and worse, to spend the rest of it with them. All I’d wanted was to dance, so I turned them all down. Eventually a woman in a skirt the same width as my belt approached me and whispered in my ear that Fiddler was waiting for me at home. There’d been a waxy, drunken look in her eyes that disappeared the moment her message had been delivered, and she’d immediately wandered off to grind against strangers on the dance floor.

I was in New York at the time, and it had been easy to catch a cab home. When I got back to the penthouse I was living in, Fiddler was in front of the fireplace, drinking wine and watching the fire dance with casual interest. He never said hello, or asked how I was, and I never expected him to.

Appearing like this meant that he’d either put together another lesson for me or found another tutor. He told me to wash up, which meant a lesson. I took extra care in scrubbing myself down, buying time to sober up before whatever Fiddler had in mind for me. His lessons were always hard, and I wanted my wits about me. When I was ready, Fiddler had grabbed my shoulder without a word.

Fiddler’s way of teleporting wasn’t anything like what I’d learned about in Equestria. There was no pop of displaced air, no bubble of magic to denote the boundaries of the spell, no sense of movement. When Fiddler wanted to take me somewhere he just touched me and I was there, with nothing but realization that I was somewhere else. The mortal mind wasn’t made to comprehend travel like that, and the first few times the sense of cognitive dissonance as my brain tried to wrap itself around movement without movement had made me ill.

I followed dutifully behind Fiddler, despite the fear in my chest and the discomfort I felt. At the very edge of our light something emerged – a wall, chalk-white and rough as sandstone, stretched off into the darkness beyond the range of our firelight. I looked up, squinting into the pitch, trying to see the top of the wall, but was pointless. The flames that had been following Fiddler split apart and spread out, increasing the lighted area, but I still couldn’t see an end to the wall.

Fiddler jabbed his cane into the ground deep enough that it stood on its own and approached the wall. He pulled off his gloves and ran his fingers over its rough, pitted surface with more tenderness than I’d ever seen from him. He beckoned me closer, then he reached into his coat and withdrew a knife – a single length of silver beaten and shaped into a blade and handle. I watched as he began carving into the wall soundlessly.

The magical diagram he was carving was unlike anything I’d ever seen before – a woven mix of hieroglyphs, runeworks, and demonic writing that I couldn’t read. He carved away at the wall, his hands moving with supernatural dexterity and precision. Fiddler was a lot of things, and none of them were good, but the way he worked the craft was nothing less than hauntingly, horrifyingly beautiful.

When he was finished, he stood back and examined his handiwork, his eyebrows knitting in concentration and he scrutinized every inch of the diagram. That crocodile smile never left his face.

He clapped his hands soundlessly and nodded.

Fiddler handed me the knife, and for a moment I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do. Was I supposed to add to the formation? Was I supposed to replicate it? I didn’t even know what it was for, let alone understand half of what went into it.

He hooked a finger under my belt and tugged it, undoing the loose knot holding the robe closed. I got the hint and undressed, careless of my nudity. My body wasn’t anything I was ashamed of, and it wasn’t anything that Fiddler wanted.

Fiddler took the robe and walked back to where his cane was. With a wave of his hand a large, plush chair appeared from thin air, and he draped my robe over one of the arms as he took a seat. A glass of wine appeared between his fingers and he sipped at it casually.

I stared at the knife in my hand for a moment before I realized what he wanted. I opened the other hand and pressed the blade against my palm. I looked up to Fiddler to see if I’d guessed correctly, and his perpetually amused grin widened just a little as he tipped his glass in my direction.

The me in the dream was still young and stupid enough to trust Fiddler. He was my master, and I did what he told me to do without hesitation, certain that it was necessary to the lesson. I like to think that the older, wiser person I’d become wouldn’t have fallen for it, but deep down I know that wasn’t true. There was no way I could have known what was going to happen next.

I sliced open the heel of my hand, where the meat was, sucking air between my teeth as the knife glided through with little resistance. Even after carving stone, the knife was still sharp as a scalpel. I threw the knife on the ground and scanned the diagram on the wall, looking for the center of it. I found a likely spot and pressed my bloody hand against it, empowering the spell.

My blood flowed from my hand, filling every carved inch of the diagram. As it filled, I could feel the magic in my body being drawn out, and something else was flooding in. I felt the low rumble of trembling earth, like living thunder spreading over my body.

My magic spread throughout the diagram, and I knew that what I was touching was bigger than I could have imagined. It was no wall, it was bone, part of the remnants of an ancient beast as big as a continent, that left footprints deep as the seas. For a moment, in my mind’s eye I could see the whole of the horrible, majestic thing. It had seemed invincible, but it still died in this place, killed by something that I couldn’t clearly see. All I could make out was that it was another beast, a Leviathan to the first beast’s Behemoth, just as huge and glorious. The smile that it wore as it struck the final blow was a galaxy of teeth glittering with cruelly gleeful starlight. The fire that lived in the dead monster’s bones had gone out of control, a death spasm that scorched this world until nothing was left but cinders and the sound of ash.

And that fire was still in those bones, smoldering in the marrow like embers beneath a pile of ash awaiting fresh air. I could feel them as my magic flowed into the diagram, into the bones, and the embers became a blaze.

It was a dream, but even through the filter of a dream, the memory of the pain I felt that day was excruciating. My head was pounding, and my every nerve felt alive with agony. I pulled away, trying to break the flow of magic into the spell, but it was too late. My hand left the bones, trailing fire that traveled up my arm and spread across my body. I fell to the ground as liquid fire continued pouring out of the old bones, bubbling and churning like molten steel, flowing ceaselessly into my body.

Not content with just stripping away my outer flesh, the fire entered my body, scorching me from the inside. It was devouring my magic, growing stronger as it drained everything I had and poured into me to fill the emptiness it created. It felt like the fire was licking at my very soul.

I tried to scream, but nothing came out. I choked on the sound, and all I could do was thrash and roll on the ground.

The last thing I saw before the pain and the flames blinded me was Fiddler’s smile, thrice as wide as I’d ever seen it. He was always smiling, but that was the first time I’d ever seen anything like genuine joy in his eyes.

* * *

I woke with a start, my breathing heavy as I stared up at the ceiling above my bed. I was drenched in sweat that had probably soaked into the mattress. I made a quick mental note to wash my beddings, just so my room wouldn’t smell like a gym bag.

I hated that memory, but it was an important one. That had been the night that I’d begun to realize just how poor a decision it had been to make a deal with the thing that called itself Fiddler. Up until that point of our relationship, he’d been the eccentric, but nurturing, master that gave me whatever I wanted without question and without judgement. He'd made good on the deal he'd given me, and if Celestia had been like a mother to me, then I wouldn't have hesitated to say that Fiddler had been like a father.

I’d been too young to realize that you don’t get anything without paying a price, and that had been the beginning of me growing up to see how things really were.

I held up my hand – the one I’d sliced open in the dream – and flexed the fingers experimentally. I’d passed out halfway through the ritual, and woken up eight days later in my penthouse back in New York. Being burned alive isn’t something most people walk away from, let alone walk away from unscarred, but it hadn’t been normal fire in those old bones.

Demons don’t have souls, but if it could be said that they possessed anything that was soul-like, it was Fiendfire. Powerful demons could coalesce their power and will into a flame, and the stronger the demon, the more intense the flame. The beast that those bones had belonged to had probably been an immensely strong demon – would’ve had to have been for the Fiendfire it’d been cultivating to have been left behind in its bones like that.

Every time I cast magic, there was a little spark of that Fiendfire in it. It was an ever-present taint in the most personal, integral part of who I was as a person. And it wasn’t just my magic, the fire had changed my body, made me a little stronger, a little less human. That was the way it was when you dealt with demons, they make you like them by carving away at who you used to be, a sliver at a time.

If I had been smart, I would have cut ties with Fiddler the second I’d woken up, but scared as I was, the day that I finally wised up was still a few years away.

I snapped out of my self-reflection as I felt the mattress move, and I looked over to the other side of the bed to find Twilight under the covers next to me. She was on her side, bundled up real small beneath the blankets, and watching me with those big, curious eyes.

“Did you have a bad dream?” she asked in concern. “You’re all sweaty.”

I rubbed the crusty stuff from my eyes and sighed. “Something like it,” I said. “What about you, kid? You had a nightmare?”

She nodded timidly, balling the blankets up in her little fists and pulling them tight under her chin. “Whenever I had a bad dream, my parents would let me sleep with them, but…”

“It’s okay,” I said. I reached over and pat her on the head. “I know.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Of course not.” The sun was up, filling the room with a soft orange glow as light bled through the thin day curtains. I grabbed my phone off the nightstand to check the time. At least I’d had enough foresight to plug it in before bed. “Still kind of early. Wanna go back to sleep?”

She nodded and stretched out a little more, uncurling from her fetal position as she wiggled around and bunched the covers around herself. I pretended to do the same, but I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping very well after a dream like that.

Still, I wasn’t in a hurry to get out of bed, so I decided I’d just lay there for a while, staring at the dusty ceiling that I’d been putting off cleaning, listening to the sound of Twilight breathing. It was weird, having someone else in my bed like this. I’d shared my bed with other people before, but it was never so innocent an arrangement.

It was a peaceful moment, remarkable only because it was so unremarkable. It was nice, though.

Again the bed move, and again I looked over to find Twilight staring at me.

“Miss Sunset?”

“Just call me Sunset, kid,” I said.

“Okay,” Twilight said, a hint of a blush filling her chubby little cheeks. “What did your friend say?”

“Nothing you gotta worry about,” I said, sighing as I smoothed out the covers.

She shook her head. “That’s not true,” she said, “you’re fibbing…"

“And what makes you think I’m fibbing?” I asked.

“Because you said you were going to see a friend about magic stuff,” she reasoned, “and there’s a really high probability that it has to do with the monsters that hurt my family. That means that what you went to go talk about was about me, which means it’s something I should worry about, which means you’re fibbing.”

My brow knit in consternation at the logical judo flip I’d just taken. “What do you know about probability?” I asked.

“I’m in advanced placement math,” she said.

Maybe I sound like a broken record, but I’ve never been good with kids. I’ve never planned on having any of my own, and I’d never gotten along with other children when I was a child myself. I just didn’t have the tools to deal with something this delicate with a kid Twilight’s age.

It made me wish I’d at least casually glanced over some child psychology books over a long, rainy weekend. Stupid me, though, it had probably crossed my mind at some point only to be discarded in favor of binge watching procedural crime dramas or something equally ignorant. The only applicable knowledge I’d gained from those came from the scenes where the kiddy shrinks used dolls to wheedle clues out of scared kids.

Maybe I could talk Twilight into waiting around while I glued some ping pong balls to a sock or something...

“Well?” Twilight asked with quiet impatience.

I stared at the ceiling for a few heartbeats more, racking my brain to try and figure out how I was going to go about this. When nothing came to me, I decided that the only thing for it was to wing it. I was good at winging it, that’s how I made my money.

Besides, even if it scared her, in the long run it was better that Twilight knew at least enough to be cautious.

“I hadn’t told you this yet, but a bad person sent that monster to hurt your family,” I said. “I asked a friend to help me find some stuff out, to see if we could figure out who it was.”

“You think the bad person still wants to hurt me?”

I studied Twilight’s face, looking for any sign of a crack in that mask of detachment she was wearing. I didn’t see any, so I nodded. “I think so, yeah.”

“Okay, then,” Twilight said, like I’d just told her something she’d already known. She probably did. It certainly seemed like she’d worked some of it out herself. She was a smart kid, maybe even as smart as I was at her age.

I rolled over onto my side so we could talk face to face. I had a queen-sized, because I liked to stretch out. The bed was big enough for two adults, and even though I was sleeping in the middle, Twilight’s tiny body fit comfortably on what was left. I brushed the bangs out of her eyes, making a mental note to ask Luna if she knew how to cut hair when she came over later, so the kid could get a trim.

“You’re not scared?” I asked.

She shook her head. “You said you weren’t going to let anything hurt me.”

“And I meant it,” I said, “but I’d like it if you could do your part to help me with that.”

“How can I do that?” she asked eagerly.

“Just stay safe and keep your eyes open,” I explained. “If you see something suspicious, you tell me right away, no matter how small it is. And if I tell you to do something you have to do it, even if you might not want to.”

“Like staying home last night instead of going with you to see your friend?” she asked.

“Exactly like that.”

Twilight frowned, but after a moment or two of quiet thought she gave me a firm nod. “I can do that. Is there anything else?”

“You don’t happen to know if your dad had… I dunno, any enemies? Someone that might want to hurt him? Someone that might have yelled at him?”

“Nuh-uh,” Twilight said, shaking her head once more, a little more forcefully. Her bangs fell over her eyes and I brushed them away again. “Everyone liked my dad. He was really nice.”

“You’re sure? Maybe you overheard your parents talking about being worried about something, or maybe your dad was stressed out about something?”

“I'm sorry, but no, I can't think of anything,” Twilight said after some thought.

It was starting to look like I was once again let down by daytime reruns. Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. The innocent, doe-eyed child never had the case-breaking clue in real life, just on TV.

Twilight muttered something as she pulled the covers over her face until all I could see was her eyes.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I said I hope you don’t find him,” she said, gripping the edge of the blanket a little tighter.

“Why not?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“Because if you stop him, then monsters won’t be after me anymore,” she muttered, “and you won’t have a reason to let me stay here…”

I opened my mouth to say something, but just like in the dream, I felt myself choking on my own words.

The previous night, Cilia hadn't been very subtle about what she thought I should do, despite her assurances that it was my choice.

I had Twilight here in my house while I was protecting her, and once the danger was past, her personal choices were pretty much limited to becoming another name on a list for Child Protective Services, and making a living as a street kid. The logical thing would just be for her to live with me after it was all over, like we were in some kind of sitcom where I'm a surly bachelorette that takes in a wayward youth. I help her grow up and in turn she helps me do the same.

But my life wasn’t a sitcom. I didn’t own any ugly Doctor Huxtable sweaters, and I wasn’t looking to put together a super-team of adorably hilarious moppets.

I smoked, I drank, I cursed, I had a history of promiscuous behavior – I was in a pretty long dry spell, but still – and, worst of all, I’d been touched by literal evil. I was pretty much the dictionary definition of a bad role model. I was fairly sure that they didn’t even let people like me become legal guardians of cute little orphans.

Money was also an issue. My house and my car were the only things I ever really splurged on, so I had a pretty comfortable savings and a nice little nest egg, but depending on how long I had to turn away actual work, I’d probably have to start dipping into my retirement just to keep the lights on. To put it in other words, I made okay money, but my income wasn’t anything remotely steady. If I didn’t grift, I didn’t earn.

Twilight was cute enough to one-hit KO Annie in an adorability fight, but I sure as hell wasn’t no Daddy Warbucks.

But how was I supposed to explain that to the kid?

“Look, kid, I know you’re scared, I get it…”

“No,” she said in a sour whisper. “You don’t get it. You can’t understand what it’s like.”

I rolled onto my back and stared up at the dusty ceiling. There were cobwebs in the corners. I hated cobwebs.

“I never had a family,” I said, focusing on the cobwebs so I wouldn’t have to look at Twilight. “My mom died giving birth to me, and I never had a dad. I grew up in an orphanage until I was around your age, then someone adopted me and… well, it didn’t last.

“We had an argument over something stupid. It was my fault, of course, because it always was. I ran away, and I spent a few months living on the streets. I ate out of dumpsters, begged for change, slept under cardboard next to the train tracks – the full-hobo. I had no family, adopted or otherwise, I had no friends, I had no one.”

I felt a throbbing pain in my chest as my body pointed out that I’d just told a lie. I clutched at my shirt and kneaded at the spot between my breasts, moisture coming to my eyes as I remembered the one girl that had been my friend all along.

“No… no that’s not true. I did have one friend, but by the time I realized what she meant to me, it was already too late… Anyway, eventually someone else took me in. Problem was, he wasn’t very nice.” I sniffled and swiped at the corners of my eyes. “So, yeah, kid. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes. I know how scary it is.”

A tiny hand grabbed my arm, not even big enough to get around my bicep, but it squeezed with trembling desperation. I look down at Twilight, her face twisted up as she cried.

“Then why can’t I stay here?” she asked hoarsely, the pain in her voice thick molasses and heavy as lead.

The pain in my chest started up again, and I knew instinctively that there was only one way to make it go away. I barely had time to roll over and open my arms before Twilight had buried her face into my chest.

“Shhhhh, it’s okay,” I said as I stroked her back.

It was a while before she stopped, and by the time she was calm enough that I knew she could hear me, I’d made my decision.

“Kid, I’m not the right person to take care of you,” I explained. I felt her stiffen, and a moment later she tried to pull away, but I held tight. “Just listen. I’m not the right person, but I promised your dad I’d keep you safe… so until we find the right person for the job, you can stay here.”

“You mean it?” she asked, looking up at me with hope in her bloodshot eyes. “Even after the monsters are gone?”

I nodded. “When I was alone, the only thing I wanted was a place that I belonged, somewhere that was mine and mine alone.” I gave her a pat on the head. “You can live here until we find the place you belong. I promise.”

“What if we never find it?” she asked.

“We’ll find it,” I said. “I promise that, too.”

Twilight buried her face against my chest again, and before I knew it she was asleep. I relaxed my hold on her a little bit, but I didn’t let go because the heat of her breath felt good against my chest, like a warm balm soothing the pain I’d felt earlier.

My phone tweeted at me and vibrated, rattling noisily on the wooden nightstand. It took a little contortion to reach the phone behind me without waking Twilight, but I managed it in the end. Somehow, an hour had passed since I’d last checked the time.

I checked the text I’d just gotten and stifled a laugh. It was a selfie from Luna, who looked like she’d just rolled out of bed. Her hair was all frizzed out and bushy, and she was making a goofy face into her bathroom mirror – her eyes were crossed and her tongue was sticking out, struggling to touch her nose. To top it off, she must have forgotten to take off her mascara, because she had raccoon-eyes real bad.

There was a caption at the bottom of the picture that read: ‘This is what u coulda woke up 2 – your loss!

* * *

Chapter 5 - Sleeping Late and Smoking Tea

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I didn’t wake up until a bit after noon, and only because of the sound of my doorbell chiming with cheerful urgency. I crawled out of bed, noting with bleary consciousness that Twilight’s side of the bed was empty – she was probably in the bathroom or something.

The bell went off once more and I hurried downstairs to open the door, picking up the pace so I wouldn’t have to hear the noise again. My hearing’s always really sensitive first thing when I wake up, and every ring-ring was like a knife in my ears. At least I wasn’t hungover.

Luna was waiting at the door, bright-eyed and chipper, a huge smile on her face as she proudly lifted a big pink cardboard box and the brown paper bags she was holding. The bags bore a corporate logo that my brain immediately associated with burgers, even if it was too sleep-addled to read the words.

And here I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Luna could get any sexier than she already was.

“Morning!” she chirped happily. “You didn’t just get out of… out of bed did…?”

Luna’s voice trailed off as she looked down, her eyes widening slightly as her gaze swept over my bare legs.

In my haste to answer the door I’d forgotten to put pants on.

I cleared my throat, feeling a little embarrassed by her embarrassment – if that makes any sense – but a part of me smiling as I realized I’d finally gotten one up on her. She looked up, her fair skin already pinkening at the tips of her ears with a blush that was slowly crawling down onto her face.

“Eyes up here,” I said with a snigger. I reached into the box of donuts and grabbed a glazed. “Come on in. Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

I left her at the door and headed back upstairs, putting a little more body English into my hips with each step than I normally would, giving the pretty girl at the door a good show. I even casually pretended to adjust my panties, pulling the nearly-sheer black garment taut and letting it snap audibly against my butt.

I could practically hear Luna swallowing.

Should I have been teasing her? Probably not, especially after the talk we’d had the night before, but if I’d proven anything to myself, it was that sometimes I just couldn’t help acting bad.

It took me a little time to dig through my still unwashed clothes to find something to wear. I still ended up only changing my shirt and socks, and just grabbing the pants I’d worn the day before. I didn’t stink, so it was good enough.

I came back downstairs to find that Twilight was already at the table. She’d been lured out of her hiding place – the basement study, judging from the book she had her nose buried in – by the twin temptations of meat and fried dough. She was already mostly through a kid’s meal, the cheap little toy set aside and already forgotten as she focused on her reading.

“I got you coffee!” Luna blurted out as soon as I stepped into the kitchen. The outburst was so sudden and loud that Twilight even looked up from her book to quirk her eyebrow curiously.

“Thanks,” I said, trying not to laugh or gloat at how I’d unwittingly turned the tables on this battle of the flirts.

“It’s just black,” Luna said, fidgeting with her hair in her nervous, flustered way. “I didn’t know how you liked it.”

“Sugar?”

Luna nodded and handed me a white paper bag full of creamers and a variety of little sugar packets. The coffee was some of that overpriced stuff that went through more machinery and filters and injectors than the gas in my car, and even black it had a vaguely sweet, pumpkin and cinnamon-ish scent – some kind of spiced macchiato half-knot windsor or whatever. I rarely have coffee, but when I do I almost always add a couple of fingers of whiskey to it. I ignored the urge to adultify the drink and emptied all five of the sugar packets, plus an artificial sweetener, into the cup.

“You, um, like it sweet, huh?” Luna asked as she watched me stir the slush with one of those skinny straws.

“I like it Irish,” I replied, “but sweet does the job, too.”

“That’s not good for you,” Twilight commented as she flipped a page.

“Magical metabolism.” I gulped down the coffee.

Twilight looked up from the book. “That’s not real, is it?”

I gave her a smile as an answer and started digging in the bag that Luna had pushed towards me. Twilight just pouted and went back to reading, squinting at the small lettering of the paperback.

"So what do you have planned for today?" Luna asked.

"Pretty much nothing," I grumbled as I dipped a fry into my coffee experimentally. I grimaced at the foul taste. The coffee was sufficiently sweet, but it wasn't even close to being as good as dipping fries in a milkshake. "Just going to hang out around the house and wait on a phone call. I'll probably end up spending most of the day in the study tinkering around."

Twilight made a quiet little noise of discomfort, and she rubbed irritably at her her eyes, blinking, before returning to squinting at the book she was reading. I frowned at that.

“Hey, kid, we gotta do something about your eyes, you’re going to get a headache squinting like that,” I said, tapping a finger on the table to get her attention.

“I had two pairs, but they were both on my night stand,” Twilight said. She rubbed at her eyes again. “I guess my eyes do kind of hurt…”

“What about those little reading glasses you get from pharmacies?” Luna suggested. “The ones with magnifying lenses.”

“Those might be fine for when she’s reading,” I said, “but she’s going to need regular glasses eventually. It’s going to have to be later, though. I can’t really take her to an optometrist or anything right now.”

“There’s a pair in my dad’s office,” Twilight said, marking her page with the crinkled paper from her straw and closing her book. “One time I broke them in P.E. and the nurse called my mom to bring me an extra pair, but my dad came instead. He said he always kept a pair in his desk.”

“Well that’s lucky,” I said. I turned to Luna. “Think you could watch the kid for me while I go see if I can pick those up?”

“I can do that,” Luna said with a nod and a smile. “How are you going to get in, though?”

“How do you think?” I held up my hand and waggled my greasy fingers like a cartoon swamy putting a spell on someone.

“Okay then, Ganondalf,” she said, laughing. “Is there anything you need done around the house while you’re gone?”

I chose not to call Luna on her malapropic reference. It was actually kind of cute.

I was this close to telling her I needed my laundry done, but then I realized she’d have to see how messy my bedroom was. I mean, I was kind of hoping she’d get to see that part of the house eventually, but in my head I’d envisioned that I’d have had the time to clean up a little bit. Sure, Twilight had seen what a slob I was, but she was a kid and kids don’t notice that kind of thing.

“Uh, maybe you could feed my chickens?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know anything about feeding chickens, but how hard could it be?” Luna said, laughing again. God, did she have a pretty laugh. “I can do that for you.”

“I like chickens,” Twilight chimed in, giving a nervous smile. “Their scientific name is fun to say – Gallus Gallus Domesticus.”

I repeated the term, letting the words roll off the tip of my tongue. “Yeah, that is fun.”

“Can… can I help feed them?”

I sighed, reaching for my coffee and deciding to take a long sip as I mulled the question over.

It’s not that I didn’t understand Twilight’s want to leave the house. Just because she was the indoorsy type didn’t mean she didn’t like going outside from time to time. I was the same way, and I’d been on lockdown before – meditative seclusion, you called it when you were a wizard – and in those situations the simple knowledge that you weren’t even allowed to leave was what made the cabin fever unbearable.

If I was being really honest, the wards protecting my property extended to a decently wide circle around my house. Twilight would probably have to cross the street before she was visible to any kind of long-distance scrying or spirit-tracking. I wasn’t about to tell her that, though. She was a well-mannered and respectful kid, but she was still a kid. It was better to tell her that her leash was shorter than it was than to give her enough slack to get herself in trouble.

I’d already promised to myself that I wasn’t going to take any chances, and letting her put even a toe across my threshold was more risk than I was comfortable with.

“Sorry, kid,” I said. “I’m afraid that’s a no go for right now. You gotta stay in the house.”

Twilight’s face fell, her hopeful smile crushed by my verdict. “Okay…” she said sadly.

“What about if she stood in the doorway and watched me?” Luna quickly proposed.

I was about to say no, but they were both giving me the puppy dog eyes, and I felt my resolve crumble.

“I guess that’d be fine,” I conceded, frowning, “but she can’t step out of the house.”

“I promise!” Twilight said eagerly.

I chuckled at the sight of Twilight so eager to just stand in an open doorway. There was something adorably sad about it... or maybe sadly adorable? Either way, she seemed satisfied by the very slight compromise I’d made and I was glad she was happy to have that much.

Luna tapped my shoulder, trying to get my attention.

“Tell her what you got her,” she said in a stage whisper.

“Ah, right. I picked you up some stuff last night.” I thumbed in the direction of the living room. “The clothes should fit, but I had to guess about the shoes. Why don’t you go see if anything doesn’t fit before I leave?”

Twilight’s grin widened just a touch as she pushed herself away from the table. “Thank you.”

Luna waited until Twilight was out of earshot before she spoke up. “She can’t even go in the yard?” she asked, lowering her voice so she wouldn't be heard over the sound of Twilight rummaging through bags in the other room.

“I’m not risking it,” I said, shaking my head. “I still don’t know enough about the other guy’s magic to be comfortable with anything. I’ve got some theories, but I’m going to have to wait until sundown to see how close I am. Until then, though, I’m going to err on the side of caution.”

“‘Kay…” she said. She didn’t seem fully satisfied with my answer, but she bit back whatever else she wanted to say and used a napkin to grab a donut. “If you’re sure that’s the right thing to do.”

“I am,” I said, nodding.

“That’s good, then,” Luna said as she munched daintily at her donut. “How’d she do last night after I left? Did she sleep the whole night?”

“She had a nightmare. Crawled into my bed. I woke up early this morning with her curled up next to me.”

“Oh no, is she okay?” Luna asked worriedly.

“Yeah, she’s good. She was already awake when I got up and we had a little heart-to-heart.”

“What about?”

“Just some stuff,” I said. I liked Luna, but I was still feeling her out, so I really didn’t want to get into the whole ‘orphan club’ thing Twilight and I had talked about. Not yet, anyway. “A lot of it just boiled down to her being worried that I’m in a hurry to kick her out, which I’m not.”

“Are you going to keep her after all?” Luna asked, surprise clear in her voice.

“For a while,” I explained. “Dunno how I’ll swing it, but she can stay here until I find somewhere better for her.”

I sighed. My stomach suddenly felt full, so I wadded up the last few bites with the trash and threw it into the open trash can.

“I’m glad that she’s comfortable with opening up to you,” Luna said, distractedly tearing little pieces off her donut and popping them into her mouth. “I didn’t really get to see much of it last night, but just sitting here eating, I can tell that she’s more comfortable with you around. It’s like there’s a tension in her that leaves when you’re in the room. It’s a pretty significant difference.”

“She’s just scared,” I said, sounding more dismissive than I’d meant to be. “I get rid of the bad guy and she’ll be over it. She won’t need me watching over her and I can put her with a nice family with a picket fence and a dog. They can take her to soccer practice and force her to take oboe or some other stupid thing that looks good on college applications. I’ll get her somewhere that someone can take real good care of her.”

Luna frowned as she tossed the half-eaten baked good back into the box. She sucked her fingertips clean, chewing on them in apparent apprehension as she tried to squeeze out the nerve to say something. I could already guess what it was, so I didn’t make her dangle at the end of the line.

“You’re wondering why that can’t be here,” I said, expressing the thought for her. I knew I’d hit the mark when she nodded shyly. “I ain’t no good for a kid, for a lot of reasons. Some of them are obvious, a lot of them aren’t. For right now, just believe me when I say it’s a bad idea for her to hang around me any longer than she has to.”

“Okay,” Luna said, her voice small with what I could only assume was worry that she might have overstepped her bounds. “Sorry… if I’m, um… being… I dunno.”

“It’s okay. I know you’re just worried about her. She’s going to be fine, though. She’s a smart kid, and kids are stronger than adults give them credit for. She’s in mourning, but she’s not letting it pull her down. I’m actually pretty proud of how she’s processing this whole thing.”

Luna gave me a curious look. “Is that how you’re seeing it?”

I blinked, stunned at the question. Before I could ask what Luna meant by that, my attention was pulled away by Twilight running into the kitchen and calling my name.

“Sunset, are these stickers and crayons for me?” she asked, holding up an opened packet of glittery stickers.

“No,” I replied immediately, “they’re mine. Don’t play with them.”

“Oh,” Twilight said, deflating at my response.

I chuckled. “Kid, I’m joking. They’re for you.”

Twilight’s face lit up with a grin and she started thumbing through the stickers immediately. “There’s unicorn stickers in here,” she said excitedly. “I love unicorns!”

* * *

The plan had been to go straight to the college, break into Night’s office, snag the glasses and then head back. That changed the second I pulled out of my driveway – carefully avoiding the dark blue VW bug that I’d guessed had to be Luna’s car – and onto the road. Left would have taken me into the city, right went towards the back roads, further into the countryside.

I felt a little tug in my chest, pulling the steering wheel in my hands to the right, so I gave in to that feeling and went for a drive. I hadn’t even realized how cluttered my head was until I was behind the wheel, on my way to the easiest errand I’d set for myself in almost a week.

Driving always clears my head. There’s something about the rumble of an engine that I find soothing, like listening to the heartbeat of some enormous animal.

What had Luna meant earlier, about how Twilight had been behaving? I consider myself pretty insightful, but Luna knew the kid better than I did, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was seeing something that I wasn’t. I’d wanted to ask Luna about it, but by the time I was ready to leave she and Twilight were still going through the clothes I'd bought her and arranging them into outfits – at Luna's insistence. I didn’t want to disturb their fun, so I just said my goodbyes and left.

I let the drive push the thought aside, just like I let it blow away the concerns that were starting to creep up whenever I thought about my bank account and how hard it would get hit feeding and clothing Twilight until I could find her another home. And then there was the tiny voice in the back of my head, telling me that even a short amount of time with someone like me – shitty role model that I am – could damage the poor kid more than she already was.

I rolled down the window and let the window rushing by carry away all the worries that had piled up in my head. Sorcerers have power, and that power requires control. Control requires focus, and all the worries, big and small, were distractions that I couldn’t afford.

I spent an hour just driving through the backwood, down country roads that passed quaint little farmhouses. I love rural roads. The relatively unspoiled nature was closer to what most of Equestria was than anything else you could get this close to the city. My homeland was rotten with beautiful natural scenery, but a city-brat like me had never taken the time to enjoy it. Even now, I really only liked it when it was whizzing past me through an open car window.

I was feeling better, more clear-headed, by the time I finally pulled back onto the main road leading back into town. I was feeling so good that I didn’t even feel the need for a cigarette – but I had one anyway.

It had only been a few days since I’d last been to Canterlot U, but the campus was still on Spring Break, so even in the middle of the day there was hardly anyone around. What few people were milling about the campus seemed to be students coming back from the break to return to their dorms, and joggers who were taking advantage of the long stretches of sidewalk and well-manicured scenery for their daily run.

I got out of the car and pulled my jacket off before tying my hair back into a loose ponytail. It was a little warm out for leather, but more than that, I didn’t really want to stand out too much. I was going to be breaking into the office of one of the faculty just days after his death, and if someone saw me poking around I wanted to look as little like myself as possible without relying on magic. I knew a few glamours and disillusionments that could help me keep a low profile, but if anyone with magic was around there was a distinct possibility that they’d notice that I was doing something – not what I was doing, but definitely that I was doing something.

I hunched down to check myself in the sideview and frowned. After a moment or two of thought I remembered the pair of sunglasses I had in the glove box. They weren’t expensive, just some gas station sunblockers with cheaply tinted lenses, but they were big and covered enough of my face to count as an admittedly poor disguise.

I locked up the car and made my way towards the middle of the campus, to the building that Night Light had taken me to the night that this whole mess had begun. I followed the same path as we’d taken that night, cutting through the lawn and curling around the edges of the pond.

I stopped at the edge of the water, curiosity taking hold of me.

The ducks and geese that had been scared off by the construct I’d fought had returned, but they seemed content to just swim to the far end of the pond or otherwise waddle away to lounge on the grass. I didn’t know if human world waterfowl were smart enough to remember seeing magic, or were even smart enough to understand the concept of magic, but these ones at least knew well enough to not start honking at me just for getting close.

They were ignoring me, so I returned the favor as I looked around to see if anyone was watching. The largest group of joggers had moved on already and probably wouldn’t loop back around for a while longer, so I squatted down at the edge of the pond and squinted into the murk. The water was nasty, shit-brown and slime-green with algae and duck-gunk. It was an actual pond, as opposed to one of those artificial deals that was more like a fountain or a small swimming pool – all cement and circulation pumps. Reeds and lilypads grew in the water, and the whole thing had a vaguely earthy stink from the recent rains churning up the silt.

I held an open palm towards the water – discreetly, just in case someone did look my way – and started to grope around with my magic.

With a little concentration I could feel my magic dragging across the floor of the pond, tugging at the mud and kicking it up in little clouds of sediment. The pond was surprisingly deep. The surface of the water bulged and waved as I searched for the chunks of rotting meat I’d thrown in the water the other night. It wasn’t anything violent, not any more so than waves caused by a good hard breeze, so nobody would notice anything weird if they happened to look my direction from a distance. The few birds still in the pond noticed, though. They flapped their wings angrily and swam to shore to waddle onto the grass, honking and quacking at the indignity.

I frowned as I came up empty-handed. There was nothing at the bottom of the water except loose mud and decomposing algae. That was odd, considering I could see still the divots I’d made in the lawn while I was slapping around that flesh doll the other night. The groundskeepers probably hadn’t gotten around to cleaning up my mess yet. The most likely scenario was that someone, or something, else had come along and collected the leftovers. I probably should have expected it.

That was too bad. If I could’ve gotten a little of that meat I might’ve been able to find out some more about the other guy’s magic. I don’t know much about necromancy, but I still had a couple of reliable non-changeling resources in my back pocket that I could’ve tapped. I would’ve figured out something.

I left the pond and continued on my way. Most everyone I crossed paths with ignored me, but a few of the joggers nodded at me in passing. It was actually a fairly nice day, now that I took a moment to appreciate it. The bright sun had already dried the ground, and the only clue that we’d had a storm the night before was the smell of wet earth and the humidity.

Night Light’s office was in the tallest building at the center of campus, which was a five story tall art exhibit made of glass and steel. It was the kind of building that architects designed to show off how clever they were, and rich people built to show off how much money they could burn. It was fairly new looking, and I would bet everything I had in the bank that the school’s board of trustees had probably made a big deal out of how fancy and modern the building was when it had gone up.

I was glad for the sunglasses. The glare of the summer sun reflecting off the polished monstrosity was damnably bright, and I could feel the air temperature rising at the foot of the shadowless thing. You could probably get a pretty awesome tan by laying under it.

I stepped into the air conditioned lobby and walked straight past the stairs to get to the elevator. I knew taking the stairs was healthier, but I liked elevators. Not for any special reason. I was just lazy.

The students and administration may have had the Spring off, but the faculty still had work to do, so I saw more than a few professorial types wandering around the lobby as I waited. A woman with a sharp nose and a glare that could peel paint walked down the stairs, an armful of yellow folders clutched against her chest. She stood at the base of the stairs and tapped her foot impatiently as she shot a withering look back up the stairs. A portly man with thick sideburns was slowly ambling his way down after her, a briefcase in one hand and a kerchief in the other to dab lightly at his forehead. They argued briefly, their voices a soft sort of echo ringing off the walls without detail. The chubby man said something that the woman must have found funny, because she laughed and held the door for him as they left the building.

In another life, that might’ve been me.

Celestia had been raising me as her student, but to what end I never knew. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I’d stuck it out, not been such a little bitch to the only person – pony or otherwise – who’d ever really wanted to do right by me. Maybe she would have had me be a professor for her Gifted Unicorn program, or set me up as dean of Canterlot Academy. Maybe I’d have been a diplomat, or her personal assistant.

Shit, maybe I could’ve even been made a princess like Cadance – like I’d stupidly demanded.

I could still see them walking away through the glass doors, still laughing, and with a sigh I forced myself to look the other way. The last few days had me all screwed up. In a normal week I’d think about Equestria maybe four, five times, tops. Ever since Night Light and his troubles had stumbled into my life, however, it seemed like I was seeing little reminders of home everywhere I looked.

That kind of melancholy is bad for the soul, bad for magic. I needed to get it under control.

The elevator doors opened with a ding and I got in. I pressed the button to close the door and left my self-reflection in the lobby.

Night’s office was on the fourth floor, which was thankfully a lot less busy than the lobby was. It wasn’t the top floor, where the really big shots were, but the last time I’d been up here Night had explained that the various heads of the different departments and some of the oldest tenured professors had their offices on his floor.

Night Light had taken me up to his office to have a look around before, but at the time I hadn’t been paying much attention to the details of where he’d led me. It took a few minutes of checking down each hallway before I found the door to his office.

I almost didn’t recognize it. Some of his students must have dropped by since the news had been let out about his passing, leaving their final goodbyes behind in the form of a makeshift memorial. I stood in front of the door for a while, taking in the scene.

There were a lot of poems, which made sense considering the guy was a literature professor. He’d probably taught a ton of aspiring poets and wannabe writers. What caught my attention, though, were the pictures. They were mostly little wallet-sized graduation photos, where NIght Light was beaming proudly at the camera as he wrapped an arm around one of his students. There were also a lot of printed-out selfies of girls posing as he snuck in and photobombed them with a silly face, or candid shots of the poor guy struggling to carry too many books.

I scratched the back of my hand uncomfortably. A sense of voyeuristic shame was shimmying its way up my spine as I looked over the little offerings that Night’s students had left him. It was probably my conscience's way of reminding me that the whole reason the guy had died was because of my screw up.

I didn’t have time, or the inclination, to beat myself up over it, though. I only had a few hours of daylight left, and I wanted to be back home before it got dark, so I shook myself off and tried the door handle.

Locked. Because why wouldn’t it be?

Not that a locked door was much of a deterrent to me. I had more than a few tricks that could get me through a locked door without any warding on it. Some of them would even leave the door standing.

I gathered a little bit of power in my hand, just enough to shift around the pegs and turn the tumbler in the lock, and checked the hallway to make sure that no one was looking.

I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, so of course someone was looking.

She was standing at the end of the hall that led back towards the elevator, her head tilted curiously as she stared at me. She was dressed in a bright yellow sun dress, tied at the waist with a long white sash that accentuated her figure – and it was a damn nice figure. Her hair was loose, billowing freely and without the need for wind, as though without substance, as though it were made of light and the majesty of power itself.

It was her, the woman from the picture Luna had shown me – her sister, Celestia. Even in another body, another world, her eyes were the same, albeit a lot younger, less heavy with the weight of millennia of joys and hardships.

My control relaxed for just a second and the very small amount of power I’d called up slipped free of my spell. The backlash nipped at my fingertips with a muted pop, like an electric shock. My hand flinched away from the handle and I loudly, out of reflex, accused the door handle of having inappropriate sexual relations with its own mother.

“Oh, wow, that looked like it hurt,” Princess Celestia said as she hurried over. “I think I actually saw the static discharge.”

I stuck my fingers in my mouth, the sharp throb pushing back my surprise at seeing Princess Celestia suddenly popping out from around a corner.

No, not princess, just Celestia, I had to remind myself. I blinked and her flowing mane had mass again. It was full and bushy, colorful as an aurora over the polar skies, but it was a decidedly human head of hair.

“Are you alright, there?” Celestia asked.

I nodded dumbly. I realized with a start that I was still sucking my fingers and quickly pulled them away, hurriedly wiping the spittle off on my pant leg. “It’s fine,” I said. “Believe it or not, I’ve been shocked worse.”

“So… were you looking for Doctor Night Light?” Celestia awkwardly asked.

I’m pretty good at reading body language, thanks to my job, but even if I wasn’t I’d be able to tell how nervous Celestia was just by looking at her. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she was slowly grinding the tip of one of her tennis shoes into the carpet.

I took off the sunglasses that I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to remove downstairs and folded them closed. I stuck one of the arms into my pocket, letting the big shades hang from my hip.

“I already know about him… passing,” I explained, to her very visible relief.

“Ah, okay,” she said with a sympathetic smile. She held out a hand for me to shake. “My name’s Celestia, by the way.”

I stared at Celestia’s outstretched hand like it was a flaming cobra, half expecting it to bite me. I must’ve stared just long enough for it to seem rude, because Celestia started to pull back. I grabbed her hand, shook it, and my mind drew a blank.

Should I give a fake name?

No, no that would be stupid. I was kinda-sorta seeing her little sister. I was going to end up meeting her eventually, I knew that.

I just hadn’t considered that it might be so soon.

If there was any saving grace to this situation, it was that, at this point in time, there was no reason to let on that I knew who she was or that I had any connection to her sister. As long as I didn’t get nervous and shout out “I felt up your sister!” then maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

Besides, I always had trouble lying to my Celestia, and my Liar Senses were tingling and telling me it would be a bad idea here, too. I’d have to settle for half-truths.

“My name’s Sunset Shimmer,” I said. “I was a friend of Night Light’s. I wanted to come by and pay my respects.”

Celestia’s smile brightened, and for just a second I could see the shade of my teacher in that smile.

“I take it you’re not one of his students,” Celestia said as she took back her hand.

“What makes you say that?”

“I’ve been here for a while,” she explained. “I know pretty much everyone in the department, and you don’t look much older than me, so you’re probably not an alum from an older class.”

I rubbed nervously at the back of my neck. A couple thousand years younger or not, this Celestia was just as sharp as the one I knew.

“Yeah, not a student,” I said. “Night and I met a while back. I’m an expert on… I guess you could say mythology. He consulted with me on some stuff and we hit it off.”

Celestia’s lips pursed and she made a curious little hum. “Huh, really? I thought I knew all the people he collaborated with. What sort of mythology?”

“General stuff,” I said, trying to dig upwards out of the hole I was now standing in. “I’m mostly an expert on… yanno, folklore and depictions of the supernatural in various cultures… it was a personal project of his, so I wouldn’t have turned up in his research papers or nothing.”

“Ah, okay, one of those projects,” she said with a laugh. “He was always following rabbits down holes. He’d get a bee in his bonnet about some random thing he read about and spend a week getting sidetracked researching something that had nothing to do with what he’d started on. Half my job as his assistant was making sure he stayed on task.”

That definitely seemed like something the bookish guy I’d met would do.

“Hah, I get the same way,” I said with a laugh, nervous relief flooding through me. The mood lightened, and I took the chance to change the subject off myself. “Did you come by to pay your respects, too?”

She shook her head and sighed as she ran her fingers through her hair. “Sadly, no.”

She reached down into a small purse at her hip that I hadn’t noticed before and started digging around. I didn’t know a lot about fashion these days – it had been a while since I’d had the kind of unlimited disposable income to piss away on that kind of luxury – but I recognized a designer clutch when I saw one. That little bit of Italian leather and brass buckles probably cost more than the performance tires on my muscle car.

The clutch was dangling from a thin silver chain that ran from one shoulder down to the opposite hip, folding the material of her dress down between her breasts. The primitive part of my brain that can’t help itself started comparing Celestia’s full bosom to her sister’s more modest, but perkier, bust, and I mentally slit the throat of that image before it could get any more vivid.

It was just too… Freudian.

“The whole department knows that I was Professor Night Light’s research assistant,” she said as she pulled out a ring of keys. “The dean’s secretary called earlier this morning and asked me to come by and go through the materials in his office – pack things up, sort out what’s his and what isn’t. Most of his research is owned by the university and they want to pass it off to someone else to finish.”

That didn’t sit well with me. The guy’s ashes were barely cold and they were already divvying up his work, like an old workhorse that died in the field being shoved aside so they could hitch another one up to his yolk.

“It’s kind of soon for that, isn’t it?” I asked.

She shrugged. “It’s not as callous as you’re probably thinking,” she explained. “They said I didn’t have to hurry. They gave me a month to get it done before they sent in a janitor to clean everything out for whoever’s going to get his office now... but it’s not like I had anything else to do…”

Celestia held the keys in her open palm, staring at them sadly. She let out a single tired, lonely laugh and held them up for me. She gave them a jingle, putting on a smile that I could tell was forced. “You wanted to go inside, right?” she asked. “Please say yes. I really wasn’t looking forward to being in there alone.”

It looked like for once the universe was going to throw me a bone. Celestia was supposed to be here, so I wouldn’t even have to commit a felony today… maybe. The day was still young, after all.

I nodded and stepped aside to let Celestia get to the door. She picked the key out of the ring and let us in.

Last time I’d been in Night’s office I hadn’t hadn’t done more than peek my head inside and give it a quick look-through. I’d been looking for tears in space itself, or objects radiating magical significance. It was something very specific, and so the trees had gotten lost in the forest, so to speak. Now, though, I was really taking in the office.

It was pretty big for a professor’s digs, or at least it seemed that way to my limited recollection. It had been a while since I'd been in a school myself, but I’d seen a lot of teacher’s offices back when I was schoolfilly at a fancy boarding school, and I’d seen tons of academic offices in movies. Those movies usually had titles like ‘Boner Academy’ and ‘Topless Co-Ed Massacre’, but I was willing to count them as valid reference points.

The office was big enough that it fit a couple of bookshelves, a desk, some chairs, and a few filing cabinets, with enough room left over that Celestia and I could have brought two or three more people in before we started feeling crowded. Still, the place was a disorganized mess, and Celestia had to skirt her way around a couple stacks of books that came up to her knees with a practiced grace that made me think the office always looked this way.

Celestia stood behind the desk for a minute, frowning at the mess of papers and opened notebooks. She took a deep breath and turned to grab a couple of brown cardboard file boxes off the top of a cabinet. “This is going to take a while,” she muttered as she opened lid of one of the boxes and checked if it was empty.

“He was kind of messy, huh?”

“Only compared to normal people,” she said. “Somehow he knew where everything was... I’m used to it by now.”

“Need some help?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, but thanks. I just want to get this done and I know more or less what I need to pack away for the department and what’s coming home with me. Feel free to look around.”

I nodded and did just that.

The bookworm part of my brain had honed right in on the bookshelves, so I went to take a look at some of what Night Light had to read. His selection was about as organized and scattershot as what I had in my study. He had literary classics with worn spines sandwiched between dogeared kids' chapter books, three different editions of the same textbook, some DVDs of Shakespearean performances sitting atop a stack of old cowboy pulp novels, and so on. A lot of his tastes were actually pretty in line with my own, and a brief stab of regret cut into me at the thought that, had he not died, we actually maybe could have been real good friends.

My curiosity satisfied, I started running my fingers over the spines and covers, trying to play it off like I was still browsing as I shot surreptitious little glances at Celestia, who was sorting through the mess Night Light had left behind. I had to remember that I was here to get Twilight’s glasses, so I needed to figure out how to get them from under her nose. First I had to find them, though, and Celestia didn’t look like she was going to be getting up from the desk any time soon.

If I was lucky she’d find them for me, put them in a box and look away long enough for me to do a little sleight of hand. She probably wouldn’t even notice they were gone.

“So what do you do when you’re not consulting?” Celestia asked over the sound of shuffling paperwork as she tried to sort out Night Light’s mess.

“I, uh… I’m a fortune teller.”

The sound of rustling paper stopped and I could almost feel Celestia’s eyes on my back.

“A fortune teller?” she repeated.

“Yeah, you know, tarot cards and junk,” I said, half-embarrassed and defensive.

I’ve never been ashamed of what I do. It’s not something glamorous like being a starlet, or highfalutin like being a doctor, but I’m damn good at my hustle. Still, something about telling Celestia about what I did was… uncomfortable, I guess. Like I was telling my mom that I was stripping my way through junior college.

I know I shouldn’t feel that way, especially since this wasn’t my Celestia, but I did. It was a complicated feeling, so I decided to rationalize it to myself by saying that I still wanted to impress her, because I was pretty sure I’d be getting into her sister’s pants eventually.

“That’s pretty neat,” she said without sarcasm. I let out a sigh of relief that I didn’t know I’d been holding at the lack of judgement in her voice. “I have a friend who worked as a telephone psychic to pay for her undergrad. She took a weekend course in, um… oh, what the devil did she call it…? That thing where you ask questions.”

“Cold reading?”

Celestia snapped her fingers. “That’s it. Cold reading.”

“I do that,” I said. “I do it live, though. I’m more of a performer than anything. Depending on the gig I can make a couple of grand a night.”

“Wow, seriously?” Celestia asked, impressed. “You must be pretty good.”

I flashed her a grin over my shoulder, my ego swelling from the compliment. “I’m the best in town.”

“Maybe one day you can tell me my fortune,” she said. “You can read my life-line and tell me how long I’m going to live.”

I laughed nervously. “Y-yeah, that’d be fun.”

The tinny sound of a some old showtune filled the room and Celestia muttered something under her breath as she put down a ream of papers she’d been flipping through. She opened her clutch and pulled out her phone to check the message she’d just gotten.

“It’s my sister,” she said, frowning.

A moment of illogical worry swept through me that something might’ve happened while Luna was watching Twilight, so I pulled out my own phone and thumbed it on to see if maybe I’d missed a text.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“She’s just saying that she’s going to be home late again,” Celestia explained as she typed out a response. She glared at the screen for a few moments, as though contemplating adding something else to whatever she’d written, before hitting the send button and putting the phone away. “I’m starting to worry about that girl...”

“Why worry?” I asked as I went back to looking over the books. Considering who we were talking about, I wasn’t quite ready for eye contact just yet, so I decided to feign interest in a Harlequin paperback with a burly farmhand groping a half-undressed, half-his-age debutant on the cover.

“Because I don’t know what she’s been doing the last couple of days,” Celestia said as she ran her fingers roughly through her hair. “This whole thing has been rough for me, and maybe it’s selfish of me to say, but it would have been nice to have my sister around. Instead, yesterday she left the house dressed up like she was going out, she kept my car and stayed out really late, and this morning she was flouncing around the house like she was walking on air…”

I put the book in my hands back on the shelf as another pound of guilt settled itself into my heart. Luna had said that Celestia was taking the news about Night and his family hard. It made sense that she’d want her little sister there for emotional support. Instead, Luna had been coming to my place to watch Twilight and make flirty eyes at me.

“I can’t really be mad, though…” Celestia said after a long moment of silence. “Everyone processes grief differently. She was very fond of Twilight, so she’s probably taking this hard, too, in her own way. I just hope she’s making good decisions, whatever she’s doing…”

I heaved a heavy sigh and took one of the empty seats next to the desk. “You guys were really close, huh?” I asked, rhetorically. “You and Night, I mean.”

She nodded, a sad smile playing across her lips. “Back when I was in undergrad, he used to run this lit discussion group that met at the coffee shop that used to be down the street, before it got turned into a Portuguese bakery. I got dragged there by a friend that was in one of his classes, and I had so much fun I kept going back. He was funny and smart and he never made you feel like you had to impress him.”

“Sounds kind of like you had a crush on the guy,” I said, one eyebrow quirked suggestively.

“Ah, maybe at first,” Celestia said, looking away as she rubbed sheepishly at the back of her neck. “It was a kid’s crush. I got over it. I was just happy that I ended up with him as my advisor for my major. He helped me a lot, and I did what I could to help him here and there with grading papers and organizing his notes. Eventually he just asked me to be his formal research assistant.” She waved a hand over the pile of loose papers on the desk, still only half sorted. “As you can see he needed all the organizational help he could get.”

“It’s good to have a mentor,” I said with a smile. “I was... home schooled. Had a lot of tutors. More bad than good, but the one really good one that I had, she taught me things as a kid that I’m only just now starting to wrap my head around as an adult.”

Celestia returned my smile with one of her own.

“You know, Doctor Night Light was the reason I decided to apply for the Education Administration program.” She clenched her fist and held it proudly against her chest. “He said I had the soul of an educator and the anal retentiveness of an accountant. Said it was the perfect mix to be an administrator. I learned so much from him… I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Celestia pushed aside some papers and found a box of tissues tucked away in a corner of the desk next to a cookie jar, which was shaped like a brain and was missing the lid. She’d been getting misty-eyed, so she pulled a couple of the tissues out and dabbed at her eyes.

“Look at me, getting all weepy.” She laughed. “You want to see something?”

“Sure.”

Celestia spun around in the chair and pulled open the bottom drawer of the desk. “He used to have a big corkboard up on the wall next to the door,” she said as she wrestled with something in the drawer. I knew the sound of a junk drawer when I heard one. “He had a bunch of pictures on it, but it kept falling off because he’d forget it was there and open the door too hard. He kept hanging it back up, but the silly man never thought to just move it. When I finished my undergrad, I wanted to get him a present to thank him for helping me out so much, so I got him a photo album that he could put all those pictures in.”

The album in question was hefted onto the desk, the bric a brac in the drawer tumbling noisily to fill in the space left behind by its absence. Celestia opened the album and waved me closer.

The album had a lot of the same stuff that people had taped to his door – pictures of Night Light teaching classes, posing with graduating students in their gown and mortar board. There were also a lot of pictures of Night in various costumes, standing on stages with cheaply-designed sets. The guy must have done some plays with the theater department.

What was really eye-catching, though, were all the pictures of Night Light and his family. Them at the lake, at the beach, on picnics. One picture in particular, though, really seemed to have caught Celestia’s attention.

It was a picture of Twilight standing on a chair, looming over a huge cake that bore birthday wishes in colorful frosted lettering. She didn’t look more than five or six, and her hair was tied into cute little pigtails. Her dad was behind her, his arm around her waist so she didn’t pitch face-first into the cake, and her mother was on her left. On her right was her brother. They all had their tongues out as they mugged funny faces at the camera.

The cake had big white unicorn on it, funny enough. It looked like the kid hadn’t been kidding when she said she liked unicorns. Something about that seemed like another one of those big cosmic jokes on me, specifically.

“That was Twilight’s birthday, two years ago,” Celestia said, tiredly. She sniffled like she was just barely holding back tears.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just nodded.

“He used to invite me and my sister over for dinner sometimes, but that was the first time he said I should come to a family celebration,” she said. “Miss Velvet was always so nice to me. She asked me to join her book club once, but I told her I did enough reading at school... And Shining Armor, he used to have a crush on me. He told me so last summer.” Celestia laughed into her hand, despite the tears that had finally broken free. “Poor boy actually made a move on me. I turned him down, of course, but I definitely had to give him points for bravery. It takes a bold young man to make a pass on a woman ten years his senior.”

“Twilight looks happy in this picture,” I commented, to myself as much as to Celestia.

The smile on Twilight’s face was even bigger than the one she’d worn in the picture that was now hanging on the wall in her room back at my house. It was the pure, unspoiled smile of a child on her birthday, surrounded by people that she loved and loved her, celebrating the occasion with presents and the eating of cake until she puked.

Luna had said that Twilight was notably more relaxed around me, but I’d never known her before the night she’d had everything taken away from her. Our experiences change us – sometimes for the better, but most times not – and I knew for certain that the Twilight back at my house eating donuts and ruining my furniture with glittery stickers wasn’t the same little girl as the one in these pictures. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever get to see her smile like that in person – if she was even still capable of it after having experienced what she had.

“I’ve never thought about having children of my own,” Celestia whispered, her voice quavering with emotion, “but if I did, I’d want a daughter like Twilight…”

Something inside Celestia seemed to break, and all at once the leaking dam of composure she’d been holding back her grief with tumbled down. Her beautiful face darkened, withering with grief.

“I’m sorry, excuse me a minute,” she muttered in a strangled whisper. She pushed away from the desk, got up, and walked quickly out of the room. A stack of books in the middle of the room that she’d skillfully avoided earlier toppled noisily to the ground as she brushed past it. She’d left in such a hurry that she hadn’t even taken her purse with her.

I sat, stunned for a moment as I realized that I’d just seen more emotion from the human Celestia in five minutes than I’d seen in the alicorn Celestia in years of having known her. If you’d have told seven-year-old me that I’d get to see Princess Celestia cry, I’d have laughed in your face.

I shook off my surprise and got out of my seat and into the one she’d just vacated. I was finally alone in the office. I didn’t know how long Celestia would take to put herself back together, but this was my chance to get a quick look around.

Luckily, I’d found the thing I’d come here for easily enough. In the junk drawer that the photo album had come out of were a couple of little plastic cases.

One of them was flat and wide, like the kind of container you kept dentures in. I opened it and found a retainer that was definitely too big to fit a kid’s mouth, so it was probably Twilight’s brother’s.

The other case was a longer purple one with the initials ‘TS’ written in fat black marker. Inside was a small pair of glasses with black plastic frames, just big enough that they’d fit Twilight’s head.

“You were a good dad, Night,” I said to the empty room as I slipped the case into my pocket.

Since I was here anyway, I decided to do a little more snooping. Nothing was standing out that could have linked Night Light to the supernatural, but you’d be surprised how often invading a dead man’s privacy paid off.

I started thumbing through the stacks of papers that Celestia had been going over on the desk. It was mostly just midterm papers and exams – some graded, many not – from Night’s students. Some of these kids had atrocious spelling. The filing cabinets had more of the same, plus some gradebooks and student records he was keeping. The grades were surprisingly well organized compared to the rest of his filing system, probably because that kind of thing had to be submitted to the department for recording. The books on the shelf had come up clean, and a quick glance under the desk failed to turn up anything like a hidden drawer or a letter taped to the underside.

All in all, Night Light seemed to be every bit the choir boy I’d pegged him to be from the start.

I tapped my finger on the desk thoughtfully, turning things over in my mind. I scuffed the industrial-grade carpet with the tip of my boot, briefly considering pulling it up to see if maybe there might be a sigil or something painted underneath it.

No, no, that would be silly… but maybe in the air vent...

Just as I was checking behind the framed pictures and degrees hanging on the wall, I heard the soft, muffled sound of sneakers scuffing against the rough carpet in the hallway. I leaned back in the chair and pretended that I hadn’t just been snooping. With a flick of my fingers the tower of books Celestia had knocked over righted itself, and I flipped the page of the album, continuing to browse the pictures to help the illusion.

“Sorry about that,” Celestia said as she stepped back into the office. Her eyes were puffy and red, and there were smears of black in the corners of her eyes. She bent down to grab her purse and pulled out a small compact. She clucked her tongue at her reflection in the tiny mirror and got another tissue, dabbed it on her tongue, and scrubbed at the smudges. “Stupid makeup…” she muttered.

“You don’t gotta apologize, I get it,” I said.

Celestia put away the compact and tossed the dirty tissue in the bin next to the desk. “It’s just hard to believe they’re gone,” she said, sighing as she sat back down, her eyes fixed on the album. “At least I still have lots of pictures, right?”

The hurt in Celestia’s voice was so thick that I almost spilled the beans right there about Twilight still being alive… but I couldn’t do it. It was bad enough that Luna was hanging around, but I didn’t want Celestia in the middle of this business. When it was all over, Luna and I could take Twilight to see her.

Celestia was probably going to keep all these pictures, too, so Twilight would get to see them eventually. It’d be nice for her to have more pictures.

I turned the page on the album, and as my eyes swept over one of the photographs, I saw something that made my heart skip a beat.

“Hold on,” I said, pulling the album closer so I could squint at a wrinkled polaroid snapshot.

In the picture, Night Light was standing in a bar, his prim little haircut a mess and his tie hanging loosely around his neck. He had a beer in his hand, and the other arm was being held in the air triumphantly by another man, like Night had just won some kind of contest. Judging from the sleepy look in his eyes, it was probably a drinking contest.

The other man had a tumbler of something dark in his hand and looked equally inebriated. He was swarthy, with a full head of black hair that I could tell, even with the poorly lit picture, was dulling with streaks of gray. The man had removed his shirt, which had probably seemed like a good idea to his alcohol-pickled brain, and his upper body was clad in only a white tank top that was stained with sweat and spilled drinks.

I jabbed a finger at the picture, indicating the man that was posing and laughing with Night Light. “Do you know this guy?” I asked.

“That’s Doctor Caballeron,” Celestia said. “He and Doctor Night Light used to be good friends. Maybe even best friends.”

“Used to be?”

“Well, yeah, years ago,” Celestia said, her brow knitting thoughtfully. “Doctor Caballeron was a professor here in the Anthropology department up until… I want to say five years ago?”

“He quit?”

“Fired, actually. The university found out that he was under investigation for using his connections and school resources to smuggle cultural antiquities. I don’t think the criminal charges stuck, but the school threw him out on his ear, blacklisted him from academia.” She shook her head sadly. “There’s no coming back from that. Nobody had heard from him for the longest time.”

“Any idea what happened to him after he left?”

Celestia frowned. “I don’t know what he’s been doing since then, but I do know he was on campus a couple of weeks ago.”

My hand clenched into a fist at my side as I beat down the urge to shout out. “You saw him?” I asked with forced calm.

“Not me,” she answered with a shrug. “I have a friend in the PhD. program, Autumn Grace, whose boyfriend has a sister who works in the university secretarial pool. Autumn told me that her boyfriend said that his sister said that Doctor Caballeron was wandering around campus and ran into the dean. The dean called security and had him escorted off the grounds. A lot of the younger kids don’t remember what happened, but it was big gossip for us older students and the faculty once it got around.”

“What was he doing on campus?” I asked. “Was he coming to see Night?”

“That’s what I figured. I asked Doctor Night Light about it, but he said he hadn’t seen him.”

I looked back at the picture, at the happy, drunken grins they wore. “Think he was telling the truth? They look pretty chummy to me.”

“Like I said, Doctor Caballeron was probably his best friend,” Celestia said, frowning. “But, I do know that they had a pretty harsh falling out over the whole smuggling scandal. Doctor Night Light was a man of integrity. If he cut ties with Doctor Caballeron, then the rumors probably had some truth to them.”

“Okay, then,” I said, nodding slowly. I lifted up the plastic cover on the album page and pulled out the picture of Night and this Caballeron guy. “I’m taking this.”

Celestia blinked at me. “What? Why?”

I tried to think of an excuse that wouldn’t sound weird, but nothing came to mind. Celestia was sharp enough that she probably wasn’t going to let it go, considering I’d taken so much interest in it.

And so, without thinking, out of pure habit, I did what I always did when I ran into a problem. I used magic.

I gathered my power in my chest, the magic surging its way up my throat, burning, as I commanded her to, “Forget it.”

Celestia’s eyes went all glassy, oblivious to anything except the words I’d just spoken.

I slipped the wrinkled snapshot into my back pocket and added, “There was no picture. We weren’t just discussing Doctor Caballeron.”

I flipped the album to the next page so she wouldn’t see the blank spot in the album. I slid it across the desk to Celestia, and the look of drugged befuddlement on Celestia’s face melted away as she looked down at the new page.

“Ah,” she said, gasping. She jabbed a finger at one of the pictures, a sad smile playing across her lips. “I remember that. That was at the inter-department softball tournament. The Math department trounced everyone, because one of the professors used to play minor-league baseball.”

I was just about to make an excuse to leave when my phone tweeted at me, alerting me to a text message. It was from Luna.

How get chicken back 2 coop???

I blinked, my mouth agape as I read and reread the message. Did… did they let my chickens out?

I was about to reply when the phone vibrated in my hands and tweeted again.

nvrmnd!” the message said. She’d added a winky emoji with little animated hearts floating out of it.

“I think I have to go,” I said slowly, rising to my feet.

“Is everything okay?” Celestia asked, polite concern touching her voice.

“Yeah, yeah, I just… gotta get home,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”

“Hold on.” Celestia opened a drawer and pulled out a pen and an index card, which she quickly scribbled on. “This is my phone number,” she said, her words muffled and whistling through the pen cap she held in her teeth.

“Oh, um, thank you,” I said as I accepted the stiff slip of paper. I folded it in half and tucked it into my pocket with the picture I’d just swiped.

“Give me a call in a day or two,” Celestia said warmly. “I want to put together a little wake for Doctor Night and his family, and I’d love it if you could make it to that.”

“I can do that,” I said, forcing a smile.

“It was really nice to meet you, too, Sunset Shimmer.” Her cheeks pinkened. “And thanks for sitting and talking with me.”

“Of course,” I said, stiffly.

I slipped on the big ugly shades, gave a final goodbye, and raised a hand to wave as I left. Celestia returned the wave with one of her own and an extra reminder to call her later.

For once I took the stairs, rather than wait for the elevator. I didn’t want to stop moving for fear that the shame of what I’d just done might catch up to me.

I’d used magic on Celestia.

I’d used his magic on Celestia.

I don’t like using magic to force people to do things. It’s a power over other mortals that I flat out don’t trust myself with. Using it in a fight, or against someone that I know has it coming, is one thing, but it was quite another to use it just as a matter of convenience. It's a slippery slope.

I can spin a yarn like nobody’s business, and if I’d put my mind to it, I know I could’ve worked out a story that wouldn’t have left Celestia confused as to why I wanted the picture. It wouldn't have been easy, but I know I could've pulled it off if I really put my mind to it. But instead of relying on my social skills, I’d fallen back on my old habits, because it was easier – because it was in my nature to be lazy and spoiled by the power I had.

My feet didn’t stop until I was safely back in the parking lot, leaning against the trunk of my car, my hands laced behind my head as I stared up at the steadily blushing sky. I'd wasted more of the day than I'd thought. The sun would be setting before too long.

I sucked in a lungful of air and let it out with a huff. “Be better than that,” I murmured reproachfully to myself.

At least it hadn’t been for nothing.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. I brought up my contacts list, dialed the number I needed, and waited. My first attempt went straight to voicemail, and rather than leave a message, I hung up and immediately redialed.

This time, Cilia picked up on the third ring.

“Yes?” she said, tersely.

There was a languid quality underlying the annoyance in her small, childish voice. I’d probably caught her in the middle of a nap. With her changelings on lockdown there wasn’t anyone out in the street hustling for the love they needed to live. Her entire brood was probably hunkered down and sleeping to preserve their energy. Old as she was, Cilia needed to be more careful than the rest with how much energy she used.

“Hey, sorry to wake you,” I said, genuinely apologetic. “I need a favor.”

There was a brief pause, followed by a half-sighed groan. “What is it?”

“I know you’ve got the wagons circled, but I’m willing to bet you have a couple of eyes still on the street.”

“And if I do?”

I tugged the photo out of my pocket, frowning at the man next to Night Light in the picture. “I’ve got a picture of somebody I need found.”

I narrowed my eyes at the blurry circle of black ink tattooed on the man's chest. The strap of his tank-top undershirt concealed half of it, but I could make out enough to recognize the sigil. I’d seen it before, or at least ones like it, inked into the skin of low-rent sorcerers. It was a very minor protection charm that worked a little like a personal ward, offering some defense against minor hexes and mildly malicious spirits. Even a few of the heavy-hitter sorcerers I’d met still bore that sort of reminder of their earliest attempts at sorcery – the hedge magic that almost everyone dabbled in before they got their grubby little hands on real power.

From what I’d found so far, Caballeron was the only thing that linked Night Light and his family to anything even remotely supernatural. Coupled with the fact that he’d disappeared for several years after a falling out, only to turn up just as Night started getting the otherworldly heebie-jeebies, I’d put dollars to donuts that it was more than a coincidence.

Maybe this Caballeron guy still had a grudge over something that was said. I wouldn’t put it past a necro to be unhinged enough to be after revenge for something as minor as a tiff with an ex-friend. I’d heard worse justifications for murder.

“I’m pretty sure I might’ve found a clue as to what happened to my friend.”

There was another moment of pause that stretched on so long that I felt a twinge of fear that she might say no. The fear died as I heard the sound of rusty, creaking bedsprings and a muffled shout. A second or two later I could hear Cilia saying something that I couldn’t make out to whomever she’d just called for.

“Nightriver Park,” Cilia said curtly into the receiver. “One of my nephews will wait for you under the monkey bars.”

“Thanks, Cilia,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I really appreciate it.”

There was a tired grunt from the other end of the call, and the shrill cry of bedsprings told me Cilia had laid back down. “No promises, Sunset Shimmer, but we will do what we can.”

And with a yawn, she hung up.

* * *

I was feeling good as I stepped on to my porch steps. I’d gotten the glasses for Twilight, survived my brush with this world’s Celestia, and to top it off, I was finally making headway into finding out who killed Night Light. The hand off with the picture had gone well, and if I was lucky, within a couple of days I’d have a lead on where to find Caballeron. Things were finally starting to look up.

So imagine my surprise when I walked through my front door to find Luna at the end of the darkened hallway, sitting at the bottom of the steps leading to the second floor, hugging her knees against her chest. Her phone was in her hand, like she was waiting for a call.

“Luna?” I asked as I flipped on the light in the hall. “What are you doing in the dark? Where’s Twilight?”

With the light on I could see that Luna had a tired look about her, like she wanted to cry, but couldn’t summon the energy for it.

“She’s upstairs,” Luna said wearily. “I’m sorry, she, um… We fed the chickens and we were going to watch TV. We were having fun, but then she just… I don’t know. She got up and said she had to go to the bathroom. When she didn’t come back down I went looking for her. She’s in her room and she refuses to come out, said she wanted to be left alone.”

I threw my jacket and keys on the table next to the door. This was certainly throwing cold water on my optimism. If it wasn’t one thing it was another.

“I’ll take care of it,” I said as I headed upstairs. I put a hand on Luna’s shoulder as I passed, and I stopped as she put her own hand atop it.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I didn’t want you to worry so I was debating if I should call you or not. I thought I could handle it, but she wouldn’t stop shouting at me until I left the room.”

I gave Luna’s shoulder an extra squeeze as I flashed her a smile that I hoped was reassuring. “It’s okay. I got this.”

We let go of each other and I climbed the steps up to the second floor. The door to Twilight’s room was closed, and was now marked by a rainbow sticker in the dead center of the door. I reached for the knob, but stopped short of turning it. I gave it a second thought and knocked with my other hand.

“Hey, kid, it’s Sunset,” I said, raising my voice so she could hear me through the door. “I’m going to come in, okay?”

There was no answer, but I took the lack of a rejection as permission and went in.

The room that Twilight had claimed as her own still didn’t have a lot in it. A few of the things I’d bought her the night before were still in the bags, sitting on the writing desk. The quilted blanket from the bed was laying on the floor against the wall, like she’d balled it up and thrown it in a fit. The brand new clothes I’d gotten her were also scattered carelessly around the room.

Twilight wasn’t in here, and I was about to walk out and check the rest of the upstairs when I heard a muffled sob from the closet.

“Kid?” I asked as I gently rapped on the closet door. “You in there?”

Twilight didn’t reply, except for the sound of hurried sniffles.

I opened the door and found Twilight sitting in the corner, curled into a ball, her face pressed against her knees. I stepped into the closet and closed the door behind me, cutting us off from the light in the bedroom. I sat down next to Twilight, careful not to touch her, and just pressed my head against the back wall, listening to the sound of Twilight breathing heavily in the darkness.

“What happened?” I asked.

I couldn’t see Twilight, but I heard her moving in the darkness, scooting further into the corner of the closet and further into herself.

“Nothing,” she said, her voice slightly raspy from whatever shouting she’d done at Luna earlier. “I just wanted to be left alone.”

“You want me to go, then?”

I could feel movement in the darkness, and her little hand shot out, groping at the air until her fingers brushed against my arm. She grabbed me by the elbow, her fingers shaking as they dug into my arm.

“Okay,” I said.

“I wasn’t crying,” she said defiantly.

“It’s okay if you were.”

There was a pause, and then Twilight asked, “Is it…?”

“Why wouldn’t it be? I’ve already seen you cry,” I said.

The hand holding me tensed as Twilight flinched.

I sighed, realizing all at once what Luna had been talking about earlier. I thought back to the times I’d seen Twilight crying over the last few days, and there were fewer than I would have guessed. I knew she’d been mourning in private, the puffy, bloodshot eyes she walked around with were proof of that, but she didn’t really let me see it if she could help it.

I pulled my arm free from Twilight’s grasp and tugged her wrist, drawing her closer. Twilight didn’t resist, and slowly scooted closer, until she was pressed against my side. I put an arm around her and stroked her hair.

“You know, when I was in the orphanage,” I began, “sometimes a new kid would come in and be… sad. Sounds silly to say it like that, because why wouldn’t they be, right? Well sometimes they’d be extra sad. They’d cry for weeks straight, refuse to play or talk to anyone else, kept the rest of the kids in their bunk up at night... but they never did it in front of the adults. If a grown up was looking, they didn’t shed a tear – especially if it was a grown up that was looking to adopt a kid.

“On adoption days those kids smiled the widest, laughed the loudest, and had the best manners. I asked one once why he put on the act for the adults. He said ‘grown ups don’t want kids that are always sad’.”

My hand found its way to Twilight’s ear. I played with her earlobe, noting idly that it wasn’t pierced. Maybe when this was all done we could do that. Me, her, Luna, even Celestia if she wanted. We could get the kid her first earrings, buy her some lip gloss – make a girl’s day out of it.

“Is that why you didn’t want Luna to see you crying?” I asked. “Are you afraid we won’t want you around?”

“Maybe,” she said as she buried her face into my side.

“It’s okay to be sad, kid,” I told her. “We understand. We’re not going to suddenly think you’re too annoying to have around.”

“I don’t want to be sad though,” she said, her voice tight with frustration. “I hate this. I miss my mommy, and my daddy, and my big brother. Sometimes I feel alright, so I try to be happy because you’ve been really nice to me, but other times I…” She gripped the front of her shirt, twisting up the fabric angrily in her first. Her voice cracked as she told me, “It just hurts so much.”

“It’s going to be like that for a while, kid,” I said as went back to stroking her hair. “You’re going to feel fine, and then out of nowhere you’ll start missing them, and all that sadness is going to come up and start chewing on your heart. That’s what it means to be sad – really, truly, profoundly sad. You just have to ride it out, and every day the periods where you’re fine will get a little longer, and when the sadness comes it’ll fade a little quicker.”

“That sounds too much like forgetting them,” she said in a frightened whisper.

“You’ll never forget.” A memory flashed through my mind’s eye – a pair of bright, icy-blue eyes above a smile filled with warmth. I pushed it back, choosing instead to focus on the feeling of Twilight’s hair slipping between my fingers. “Right now it seems like your memories of them and the hurt are the same, but they’re not. Letting go of the pain doesn’t mean letting go of the memories. It won’t happen all at once, but it’ll happen. Don’t force trying to be happy for my sake, or Luna’s, or even for yours. If you want to smile, smile, if you don’t, then don’t. It's okay to cry as much as you need to.”

Grief is a pretty complex thing. It’s usually all tangled up with other things, like guilt, regret, loneliness. A screw up like me? I understood better than most that some pain just haunts you, follows you around your whole life like a specter. It’s not easy to move past it, and it never fully goes away, but it does get easier to live with if you’ve got the guts to dig down deep and keep trying to live your life. I could only hope that Twilight was as strong a kid as I thought she was – for her own sake.

My words seemed to reach her. Slowly but surely uncoiling the tension in her small body as I held her, like a pillbug uncurling from itself.

“I’ll try,” Twilight said hoarsely. “I promise.”

I gave Twilight and extra squeeze and dug around in my pocket until I found some change. I held the coins loosely in my fist and cast a quick spell. Light spilled from between my fingers, filling the closet with a dim glow. I held the coins out for Twilight to see, and they glowed with a soft light, like little glowbugs.

“It was too dark in here,” I said as I dropped them on the floor.

Twilight picked up a nickel and brought it close to her face, examining it like it was the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. She was squinting uncomfortably, probably as much from the light as from her bad eyes.

I rolled my eyes and pulled out the spare glasses. I handed her the case and she gave me a watery smile as she put them on. The thick black plastic frames weren’t very chic, but she pulled the look off pretty good.

“I think I need to say sorry to Luna,” Twilight said quietly, shamefully. She gathered up the coins in her hand in a single swipe like tiddlywinks, shaking them in her hand loosely, as though checking to see if the spell had changed the way the coins sounded. “I said really mean things to her… I told her that she didn’t care, that the only reason she was here was because she likes you.”

I sucked air through my teeth exaggeratedly. “Yeah,” I said, really drawing the word out. “That’s not good. You do know that’s not true, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Twilight muttered. “I was mad because she wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept trying to hug me and ask me to talk to her, no matter how much I told her I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want her to see me crying in the first place, and when she did I got so angry that I… I just yelled and said whatever I thought would make her go away.”

“I’ll talk to her to about it, and you can come down and apologize as soon as you’re up for it, okay?” I said. I pushed myself up off the ground, grimacing as one of my knees popped from sitting in the tiny closet. “When you’re done with that we’ll figure out dinner and then we’ll watch Caddyshack. That always makes me feel better.”

Twilight looked up at me, tilting her head curiously. “What’s Caddyshack?”

“Oh, kid,” I said with a chuckle, “what do they teach you in those public schools?”

“I go to private school,” she said, blinking at me in confusion.

I rolled my eyes again. “Go ahead and take your time,” I said as I shut the door. “We’ll be waiting downstairs.”

I went back down and found Luna waiting for me in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, wringing a dish towel between her hands like she was trying to get information out of it. It took her a moment to realize I’d walked in, and as soon as she did she shot to her feet, dropping the towel on the floor.

“Is she okay?”

I nodded. “Kind of shook up, but fine,” I said as I walked to the back door to look out the window. “She’ll be down in a little bit.”

Luna hopped up on the counter next to me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

She laughed humorlessly, rubbing her hands against her jeans hard enough that I could hear the denim scraping against her palms. “I’m so stupid. After you left, things were going so well. Twilight was having fun and I was having fun, and for a minute there I thought to myself that... maybe I could take Twilight… That maybe I could be… maybe not her mom, but maybe like a big sister? Or an aunt? That I could be the one to look out for her.”

“You’d do a better job than I would,” I said, folding my arms and feeling inadequate as an adult. “Hell, I didn’t even notice that she was still hurting this bad. Or maybe I did notice, but I just didn’t recognize it for what it was.”

“I definitely wouldn’t do a better job than you,” Luna insisted. “I may have noticed that she was bottling things up, but that's just because I've known her for longer than you have. You? She listens to you.”

"We have common ground." I shrugged. “I know what it’s like to be all alone at her age, is all.”

I knew I’d said too much when Luna’s head whipped around. In her wide eyes I could see her putting together the significance in my words, and the surprise faded, becoming pity. She opened her mouth to speak, but I turned my head away, cutting off whatever question was on her lips.

Out the corner of my eye, I could see the hurt written clearly on her reflection in the window. I scratched the back of my neck nervously, feeling guilt for something I shouldn’t have had to justify.

I sighed.

“It’s weird talking to Twilight about that stuff,” I said, deciding that I could offer her something. Not the whole story, not just yet, but at least some of it. “It’s hard for me to fully grasp what she’s going through. I know what it’s like to be in her situation, but I don’t know what it’s like to be her. I never really got to be a little girl, and frankly, I wasn’t really interested in it. All I can think about is how it was for me and I’ve never been exactly normal.”

I leaned my hip against the counter, my eyes sweeping the yard and scanning the sky for signs of rain. The sun was down, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky to block the pale blue glow of the moonlight. It was looking more and more like clear skies for the night.

“Because of the magic?” Luna asked.

“Because of a lot of reasons,” I said, “but mostly the magic, yeah.”

I could tell she wanted to ask more, but thankfully she accepted the small bit of what I’d decided to share, and leaned against the wall to join me in looking out the window.

“What are you looking at?”

“Looking to see if it’s going to rain,” I said. “Remember this morning I said I had some theories? The other guy is using a rain god’s power for his craft. I’ve been mulling over way the rain’s been coming down the last couple of days, and it’s got me thinking that he can’t get it up two nights in a row.”

“So he can only use magic every other day?”

“It’s looking like that might be the case,” I said.

Luna stuck out her lower lip, pouting thoughtfully. “Does that help us?” she asked.

“It might,” I said with a shrug. “If he can't cast two days in a row it probably means he's a weak vessel. When you make a deal with something you become a conduit for its power. If your deal is with something strong, like a god, then you're talking about real gas. Having a lot of power is great, but using heavyweight magic is a pretty big strain on the spirit and can even affect the physical body. If he's got a weak soul or a frail body that needs a whole day of rest after a major working, then that makes him a little more predictable.”

“Wow, you’re like a real detective now,” she said, smirking.

I grunted. “Speaking of that…” I said hesitantly. “You don’t happen to know someone named Doctor Caballeron, do you? Maybe heard his name around campus or something?”

Luna scratched her chin and one corner of her mouth twisted up in concentration. “I feel like maybe I have?” she said after a few moments of thought. “Nothing’s coming to mind, though. Who is he?”

“He used to be a professor at your school,” I said. “He got fired about five or so years ago.”

“Definitely before my time, then,” Luna said with a shake of her head. “I was still in high school five years ago.”

I frowned at that thought. The little age gap Luna and I had wasn’t big, but she probably was barely old enough to remember VHS tapes. I liked her, and I definitely wasn’t going to let that stop me, but still...

At least she was old enough to drink. I was choosing to count that as the deciding factor in my moral victory.

“Is he important?” Luna asked, oblivious to my minor internal debate about what degree of cradle-robbery I was guilty of.

“He might be,” I said. “I saw a picture of him in Night Light’s office. Guy had a warding tattoo – low-level magic stuff. Your sister said they used to be really good friends, so I figured—”

“Wait wait wait,” Luna said, holding up her hands. “Celestia said? You saw my sister?”

I cleared my throat. “Ah, yeah,” I muttered. “The university asked her to come back and clean out Night’s office.”

Luna’s habit of playing with her hair resurfaced. “How’d… how’d that go? I know you got kind of freaked out about...” Her voice trailed off as she gestured vaguely with the hand that wasn’t currently twirling her hair.

“The names are the same but she’s not the same person,” I said truthfully. “The only really weird part was pretending I didn’t know you when she started talking about you.”

“She was talking about me?” Luna asked, sitting up straight and frowning.

“We were talking when you sent her that text that you were going to be home late,” I explained. “It just came up in the conversation.”

“Oh,” Luna said, her hackles lowering. “What’d she say?”

“She’s worried about you because she doesn’t really know where you’ve been going the last two days.” I shot her a sideways glance. “You should spend some time with her tomorrow. She’s really broken up.”

“I know I should,” Luna said quietly, “but I want to be here for Twilight. Besides, it’s uncomfortable seeing Celestia crying all the time and not being able to tell her that Twilight’s still alive.” She looked at me, her eyes soft, pleading. “Are you sure I can’t tell her?”

I shook my head stubbornly, though even my resolve was a bit shaken by having seen the look in Luna’s eyes, and the way Celestia had run out of the room in tears earlier.

“It’s for the best,” I said. “She’s safer if she’s not involved.”

“Okay... I’m still trusting you know what’s best,” Luna said.

I went around and hopped up on the counter next to Luna. “I really do think you should spend the day with her tomorrow,” I suggested. “Twilight and I will be okay by ourselves for a day. I was just going to do some stuff around the house, so I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.”

“I dunno…”

“Hey, she seemed like she could really use the support,” I said, nudging her with my shoulder. “It’s kind of hard to believe how close she and Night were.”

“I’ll say,” Luna said, chuckling lightly. “People used to think they were sleeping together, but it wasn’t like that at all.”

“She did kind of admit she had a schoolgirl crush on him,” I said.

Luna snerked loudly, covering her mouth, aghast at the noise she’d just made.

“She totally did,” Luna said, clearing her throat. “She got over it, though. I think what she wanted was just someone older that she could look up to. A rolemodel.”

“A mentor,” I supplied.

She nodded. “Yeah, like a mentor.”

Luna pursed her lips, leaning back back on her hands and holding her legs out straight in a pose that did a lot of very wonderful things to her figure. In very real danger of getting lost in her curves, I shifted my eyes down and focused on the whorling patterns in the hardwood slats of my kitchen floor.

“Our parents were kind of… distant is the nice way to say it, I guess. We had money growing up, and our parents thought that made them practically royalty. They were too busy seeing the world and looking in on their investments to really pay attention to what we were doing.”

I’d already resigned myself to the “try not to think about it too hard” approach to navigating the human world-pony world analog conundrum, especially when it came to Celestia. Everything I’d learned about the woman in the past two days made my head hurt too much if I tried to apply it to the alicorn Celestia, so I was doing my best to compartmentalize the two entities as wholly different things.

But still... wow… parents...

I mean, it made sense that the Celestia in my world had been born from somewhere, but I’d always figured it was one of those birthed-from-the-universe deals. It was crazy to imagine the possibility that my Celestia might have been a kid herself – that she used to be somebody’s little girl. It was kind of like being a kid and realizing for the first time that your grandparents were actually your parents’ parents.

Luna let out a small chuckle as she kicked playfully at the air. “Celestia doesn’t think I know, but I heard things from people that knew her years ago about how she used to be kind of rebellious. From what I hear she spent the first few years of college caring more about parties than about books.”

My jaw hit the floor. “Celestia? The woman I met today, your sister, that Celestia, was a party chick?”

Luna laughed. “I know, right? You’d never guess it from meeting her now, but she finished her freshman year on academic probation for her grades. Doctor Night Light gave her focus, though. Helped her make some good decisions with her academic career. After she got her undergrad they were on a more equal footing, and I think that’s when they started to become real friends.”

“What about you?” I asked, pushing the conversation forward and past the topic of parents. “How’d you feel about Night Light?”

“I liked him,” Luna said with a shrug, “but it wasn’t the same for me. I didn’t need someone like Doctor Night Light looking out for me, because – annoying as she is – I had Celestia.”

A teacher for even one day, a father for all my life.

It was an old Chinese idiom I’d picked up somewhere, and it came to mind as appropriate for what I was learning about Celestia and Night’s relationship. It was definitely a sentiment I could understand.

I’ve said it before, but my Celestia was almost like a mother to me. Officially I was just her student, but the way she treated me, the way she made me feel when we were together… I could never forget that. For someone who didn’t have parents around, I knew the appeal of wanting to latch on to the first authority figure that showed a real interest.

I also couldn’t forget the other teachers I had, and it was a little weird to think that they might be father figures to me. I had to hold back the cold chill shuddering up my spine at that though.

I gave a start as I felt Luna’s hand on my knee. She leaned closer, hesitation in those big, beautiful eyes. For a second I thought she might be trying to kiss me again and my heart started beating faster.

“You mentioned earlier that you weren’t sure how you’d be able to ‘swing’ keeping Twilight here, and I kind of took that to mean ‘financially’,” she said cautiously, immediately deflating my sudden surge of excitement. “I didn’t know how to bring it up earlier but… I want you to know that if you need help you can ask me any time.” She quickly added, “For Twilight, I mean.”

I frowned at the offer. It was generous, and potentially useful, but it stung my pride a little to hear it. I hated begging. I loathed the way it made me feel. Luna was offering help, freely and unsolicited, but I still didn’t like the idea of asking for it. The fact that I can feed myself and keep gas in the car with nothing but my own hustle and a nice smile was a point of pride for me.

I also knew that the decision wouldn’t just affect me. If I did end up needing the help and still turned it down, Twilight would be struggling right alongside me. If it came to that, I’d probably put my pride aside. I owed the kid, and her father, to put her needs ahead of mine if I really had to.

But that didn’t mean I liked the idea of it, or that I wouldn’t fight tooth and nail to make sure I didn’t end up in that predicament.

“I’ll let you know,” I said curtly.

“Please don’t hesitate,” she said. “I know Celestia would back me up. Money’s not a problem for us and we’d do anything for Twilight.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said, more calmly.

Further discussion was ended by the sound of groaning stairs. The soft plod of child-feet announced Twilight’s approach, and a few seconds later she was standing in the kitchen doorway.

“H-hi,” she said shakily, her head down, averting her eyes guiltily. The hem of her shirt was stretched loose as she tugged at it abashedly. “Um, Luna… I’m sorry… I’m sorry I yelled. I know you’re here because you’re worried about me and—”

Twilight’s apology was curtailed as Luna slipped off the counter and strode across the kitchen to kneel in front of her. The older girl wrapped her arms around the younger and hugged her tightly.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Luna said in a soothing whisper. “You don’t have to apologize. I know you didn’t mean it.”

Twilight hugged her back, sobbing in childish relief that Luna wasn’t angry, that she still cared about her. They stayed like that for a while, and at some point Luna had started crying too.

Women, I swear.

When they were finished hugging it out, Twilight stepped back and lifted the now baggy hem of her shirt to wipe her nose. She looked up at me and asked, “Can we watch that movie now?”

“We gotta figure out dinner first,” I said. I pulled my phone out and waved it at them. “And then I’d like an explanation about this text message I got. Something about getting the chickens back in the coop?”

The pair of them looked at one another, looked at me, and shrugged, identical wide, nervous grins plastered on their faces.

* * *

Chapter 6 - Bad Rain

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I woke the next morning feeling sick. Not of body, or even of mind, but of spirit. There was something in the air outside my house, something wet and rank. I could feel it through the wards around my house, through the thread of magic that linked them back to me.

I didn’t even have to open the curtains and look outside to know that the rain was coming. Considering the sky had been clear the whole night before, it looked like my guess about the necro’s power had proven correct. His ability to cast was definitely an every-other-day thing, and today I could actually sense it pushing against my wards, thick and grainy and greasy as diesel.

I’d felt a storm god’s magic once or twice before, channeled by the medicine man that had taught me skinwalking. It was cold and unyielding and vast, like an arctic sea, but it wasn’t cruel, merely indifferent. This? This was cruel. The pervos who practice death magic always had a certain something to their magic, something malicious that stemmed from their intent and the feculence of their souls that stained everything it touched. I wasn’t quite sure what this particular perv was doing, but he was doing a lot of it, and the residual rain magic would kick up one pisser of a storm.

Usually I can’t even feel my wards unless I’m trying. They’re supposed to work automatically to protect me from most things, and when something magical gets too close I get a little ping on my mystical Spidey-Sense that tells me there’s a possibility of big danger afoot. I really wasn’t used to them going off at all, actually, save for the handful of times Clavus had stopped by unexpectedly. Normally, this world didn't have enough magic to set them off, and the small amount in the rain that we’d been having the past few days wasn’t even enough to tickle them. It said something about how much bartered god-magic was in the air that I could feel my spellwork humming away, practically growling against the strain it was under.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep another wink, so I decided I might as well get out of bed. Problem was, I had a little something weighing me down.

Twilight was in my bed again. She’d probably had more nightmares, if the way she was clutching against my side was any indication. I don’t know how she managed to get her arms around me without waking me – somehow even worming one under the small of my back – but she had, and with one leg draped over mine she was holding on to me like a big old teddy bear.

Adorable little moppet that she was, I still couldn’t believe that this kid was another version of the girl that I’d spent half my life hating. We’d be sitting in silence, watching TV or something, and she’d catch me staring and smile, and a piece of me would ache. Her every smile was a reminder of what a shitty person I’d been, and what I’d done to her through my negligence. It was like having a piece of metal in my skin from a wound that had long healed over – just a dull little lump of pain you never felt until you pressed down on it the wrong way and made it dig into the tissue.

But it wasn’t all bad – not even by half. There was something in how she smiled, something trusting and innocent that made me feel… complicated. I liked it, but it was complicated.

The wind blew hard against my house, and with it came that sickeningly slick feel of magic again, crashing against my wards like a tidal wave breaking against a levee. I shivered, physically, and the tremble was enough to shake Twilight awake.

She looked up at me blearily, yellow crust at the corners of her eyes that said all that needed to be said about whether or not she had cried herself to sleep. She wiped it away, moaning pathetically at having been woken so early.

“Mornin’,” I told her, patting her head gently. “I gotta get up. You go ahead and keep sleeping.”

She released me from her grip and flopped onto the bed, watching as I stood and stretched out the kinks with the customary pops and snaps from my joints that came from a lifetime of treating my body less like a temple than a frat house.

I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and noticed I had a text. It was from Luna. Just a quick ‘good morning!’ with her usual over-emoticoned enthusiasm. I sent a quick reply.

Behind me, Twilight had gotten tired of watching me and began flopping around on the bed like a fish, gathering up the blankets and rolling herself up in them until she was fully ensconced in a cocoon of them. She fell back asleep immediately, burrito-like, her breathing snotty and loud.

I frowned at that. Hopefully she wasn’t catching a cold.

I went out into the hall and fiddled with the thermostat. I keep it low to cut back on the gas bill, but chilly as it was today, Twilight probably needed the extra heat.

My phone chirped as I was walking down the stairs. It was from Luna. Just an emoji of a kissy-face. I couldn’t help but smile at how shameless of a flirt that girl was.

This whole thing with me and Luna was still real fresh, and to be honest, we still hadn’t had the time to get past the initial flirty-flirty stage of things. It was nice, though – different from the type of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am courting I was used to. I was kind of enjoying this slow pace we had going, even if it was just a product of the circumstances and timing of our meeting. There was a sense of anticipation every time she tossed me a look, and the kittenish glint in her eyes put a tingle in my bones and a shiver up my back up every time our gazes met. I was very much looking forward to getting to know her better while Twilight wasn’t in the room and there wasn’t a sword dangling above our heads.

My phone chimed again, this time with an email from the bank saying my checking account was below the minimum limit. I sat at the bottom of the stairs and checked my accounts. The automatic payments for all my bills had gone through and it had been a little more than I’d been expecting. The little shopping spree I’d had for Twilight certainly hadn’t helped, either. Neither of those things were her fault, though. It’s just the way things had turned out. Luckily I had enough to cover everything without getting overdrawn, and a few quick swipes had some money transferred from my savings back into the checking.

I set my phone down and sighed into my hands. When this was all over I was going to need to sit myself down and work out a new budget. I hated doing finance stuff, but there was no way around it. I’d already made my decision and I was just going to have to figure out how I was going to afford to keep Twilight until I found her somewhere nice to live.

I gave myself a couple of hard smacks, slapping my cheeks like I was forcing myself awake, and stood with adult-like resolve. I was a grown-up and I could do this. I could take care of a kid for a few months, maybe even a year if it took that long. Aside from financial support, she was big enough to pretty much take care of herself, in fact. Hell, I wasn’t much older than her when I was already living on the street. Probably wouldn’t even be as much work as taking care of a pet, and I was at least responsible enough to take care of a pet.

“Oh shit, my chickens,” I muttered, suddenly remembering that chickens need food.

I went to my kitchen and set the phone on the counter. The wind blew again, making the back door tremble in the frame and once more making me feel a little ill. I looked down at my bare legs, mentally weighing the pros and cons of running back upstairs to find some pants. Laziness won out in the end, like it always does, and I threw open the door to step out onto the back stoop.

The wards surrounding my house extended over the whole property, but they were strongest on the building itself, and that wasn’t a quality I had appreciated until this very second. Even dulled by my own working, I could feel nearly the full force of that sickeningly greasy magic washing over me.

The sky was an ashy gray, the sun behind it little more than a halo of white fighting to poke through the gloom. The beginning of angry cloud banks were forming in the distance, whisps of black and gray cruelly curling like the horizon was sneering. The wind blew again, pushing that filthy wind forward, whistling it through the trees and pulling it back like the beating of some massive heart, pumping sickness through the veins of the city.

It was still morning, and considering everything to this point indicated that the other guy’s power was attuned to the night, the fact that I could feel it so strongly this early in the day was not a good sign.

Wasn’t much I could do about it, though. I didn’t know where he was and I had no clue what he was up to. It was fine, though. Long as I stayed indoors and behind my wards it’d all be copacetic.

There was no time to dawdle. I ran across the lawn, pushing away my disgust, and made a beeline for the shed. I scooped up a bucket of chicken feed and ran out to the coop.

My birds were smart. They were holed up in their coop, and even calling to them as I tossed handfuls of feed into their enclosure was met with birdy-skepticism. One of the braver hens stuck her beak out, carefully weighing the options before hurrying out to quickly peck at the sand. The rest followed, and by the time I’d put the bucket back in my shed the chickens had already picked the feed clean and darted back into their shelter.

I followed their lead and ran back the house. I slammed the door behind myself, locking it for good measure. Wind and rain and magic don’t use doorknobs, but it still made me feel better to have that little extra bit of security between us. I slumped against the door, shivering and running my hands up and down my arms like I was freezing – which I was, now that I had time to notice. I felt gross all over, even through what little clothes I had on.

I grabbed my phone without thinking, and before I knew what I was doing I’d sent Luna a text asking if she was okay.

course, y?

Just… gunna rain. Keep dry, okay?

Luna must’ve caught the meaning hidden in my words, because the next text I got was free of emojis and youthfully lazy typing. “I will. You too, please. I’ll be indoors by night.

The unease in my heart settled a bit knowing that Luna was alright, despite the fact that I’d known that very thing not ten minutes before. I wasn’t used to this, wasn’t used to worrying about people other than myself. The only real friend I’d had in a long time had been Clavus, and if there was anyone that didn’t need me worrying about him, it was that old changeling. Now that was a guy who would whistle a tune as the world burned to the ground around him.

For what felt like the hundredth time in the last few days, I wished he was here.

* * *

I looked up from my book as I heard Twilight thumping around upstairs, her feet stomping with more force than the weight of her teeny body would imply. I frowned at the clamor she was making, idly wondering if she might fall through the floor, even though I knew that wasn’t even remotely likely.

I could trace her movement through the house by the sound of her loud footfalls – from my bedroom, to the bathroom, then to her room, back to the bathroom, back to hers. Kids were always wondering what was going on in other rooms and always in a hurry to find out – they were a lot like dogs in that way.

I decided to ignore the noise. It made it a little harder to concentrate on my book, but I wasn’t really into what I was reading anyway. It was a ratty old sci-fi novel with yellowing pages and a robotic pegasus on the heavily creased cover. I was fifty pages in and that was already enough to make me suspect that the cover art was lying to me. I’d chosen it as a distraction more than entertainment, anyway. Just something so I wouldn’t have to think about what was going on outside. I didn’t even bother bookmarking my place as I tossed the paperback onto the coffee table and stretched out on the couch. I normally hated leaving a book unfinished, but I was willing to make an exception in this case.

I turned my head to look at the TV. I’d left it on while I read, with the volume low enough to be background noise. It was an old habit I’d picked up from having lived alone for so long. I get antsy in a perfectly quiet, still room.

The morning news had finished up and given way to a talk show – one of those ‘That Ain’t My Baby!’ drama deals where they do DNA testing that, no matter the results, always ends with someone crying and someone else doing the Electric Slide. I lifted an eyebrow and summoned the remote to my hand to turn up the volume.

Distraction found.

Twilight’s steps trembled through the house again, alerting me to her descending the stairs.

“Morning,” she said as she swept through the living room, making a beeline for the kitchen.

“Mornin’,” I replied. I watched her with one eye, the other focusing on the impressive series of backflips that the non-father on TV was celebrating with.

A few minutes later Twilight walked out of the kitchen holding a big bowl of cereal. She was still in the pajamas I’d bought her – a pair of loose black bottoms with puckering kissy-lips in bright red and hot pink, and a plain white t-shirt with a cartoon devil that proclaimed her to be ‘Hot Stuff’. I moved my feet out of the way to make room on the couch for her, but she seemed happy to sit on the floor with the bowl on the table in front of her.

“What’s this?” she asked as she spooned cereal into her mouth.

“Trash TV,” I explained, “one of humankind’s greatest works.”

She tilted her head, frowning as she chewed the crunchy bits of sugar and corrugated cardboard that passed themselves off as part of a balanced breakfast.

“That baby doesn’t look like him at all,” she commented.

“Nope.”

We sat in happy silence, content to let the noise of hooting audience members hold our conversation for us. Twilight split her attention between her cereal, the show, and the book I’d left on the table, while mine was split between the TV, her, and the dreary skies peeking in through the gaps around the edges of the drawn curtains.

“Is Luna coming today?” Twilight asked as she set her spoon aside to tilt the bowl to her lips and drink down the sugary milk with a loud slurp.

“Nah, not today,” I said, ruffling her hair. “Just me and you all day.”

She gave me a conflicted look, like she wasn’t certain if she should be happy or not. “Is it because you guys had a fight…?” she asked timidly.

“Wasn’t a fight,” I said. “She just didn’t think you should’ve watched that movie last night.”

“Why?” Twilight asked. “It was funny. I liked it.”

“Because it was a grown-up movie with grown-up jokes,” I explained, rolling my eyes. “She thinks that you’ll be warped from seeing a few boob jokes.”

Twilight puffed her chest up with childish indignation. “So what? I have boobs… well, eventually I will…” She shook her head as if to blow away some errant thought. “Either way, I don’t see what the big deal is. I covered my eyes whenever you told me to.”

“That’s what I told her,” I said with a grin. “But nah, it’s not because of that. She’s going to spend the day with her sister.”

“Oh, that’s good,” Twilight said, nodding in approval. “I’m glad you didn’t break up.”

I almost laughed at the relief in her voice. “Break up?” I asked. “I don’t know about that… I mean, we’re not even…” I trailed off, realizing about that this discussion would start leading to me having to explain the terms of a romantic entanglement that I myself was still just getting a grasp on. I was willing to admit that I really, really liked Luna, but I wasn’t quite ready to say that we were in anything even remotely like a relationship.

I also wasn’t ready to say we weren’t in a relationship, because, quite frankly, the idea of that was a little more tempting every day.

I frowned and Twilight frowned, and we sat for a moment, frowning at one another before I turned back to the TV, sniffing as I checked to see what was on after the talk show.

“Isn’t she your girlfriend?” Twilight asked, still frowning, the cogs in her head spinning away behind her eyes.

“I told you the other day I didn’t have anybody like that,” I said.

“But then Luna showed up later that day.”

I sighed internally. “Jeez, kid, it’s only been a couple of days.”

“But she likes you!” Twilight said insistently.

“I know.”

“And you like her?”

I wiggled myself further into the couch, unconsciously withdrawing from the line of questioning. “I do. It’s not simple as that, though. Right now we’re just kind of feeling each other out, y’know?”

She shook her head. “Not really…” She turned back to the cereal bowl, pushing the spoon’s handle around the edge in a slow, lazy circle that made a sound like a tiny millstone as metal ground against ceramic. “A boy in the class next to mine told Lemon Drop, the girl who sits next to me, that she was pretty, and she said he was cute, and then they were boyfriend-girlfriend… Is that not how that works?”

I couldn’t help but smile at her innocent assumption. “It can be,” I said, “but only for a certain kind of relationship. I think Luna might want something better than that, or at least that’s the feeling I’m getting…”

Twilight leaned forward, resting her chin against the table and furrowing her brows as she chewed on my words.

I laid there on the couch, my hands buried snugly between my throw pillow and the armrest, and watched her try to puzzle out whatever question had congealed in her mind. It was actually more interesting than the show, watching her forehead repeatedly smooth with epiphany and wrinkle with renewed frustration as she meditated on the nature of ‘grown-up things’.

Her hair kept falling into her eyes, and her lips would turn up almost in reflex, pushing her feathery bangs aside with a puff of frustrated breath. I couldn’t help myself, and eventually I reached out and brushed her forehead clear. Her eyes flinched at the sudden feeling of my touch, but she didn’t shy away or brush me off, so I slid my hand to the top of her head and toyed with her hair. Over the last few days, her bangs had been bugging me – just a flat curtain of hair that sat on her face without personality. It was cute, but boring, and it didn't help that they were getting shaggy. It was a real shame, too, because she had very pretty eyes behind all that hair and those adorably geek-chic glasses.

I pulled her bangs back and turned my head as I examined her hair. I gathered it up in a bunch at the back, trying to imagine what she’d look like with a ponytail, or maybe with it tucked up into a bun, or pulled to the side as pigtails.

“My mom used to play with my hair, too,” Twilight said, her voice oddly toneless against the exuberant pitch of the hype-man on the television trying to attract people to his used car dealership.

I let go of her hair immediately. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind… You didn’t know my mom, did you?”

“No,” I said. “I never got to meet her.”

“She told me that she wanted to be a hairdresser when she was a little girl,” Twilight continued, unfazed by, or maybe indifferent of, my reply. “She never got to go to beauty school. I don’t know why, but I think her parents wanted her to go to a real college. She still liked cutting hair, though. She used to cut all of our hair. Mine, Shiny’s, dad’s… Not Shiny’s anymore, actually. Two summers ago he begged dad to talk mom into letting him go to a real barber shop. Dad even bought him a shave, even though he didn’t have a beard. I told him that was silly and he said I wouldn’t understand because it was man stuff.

“I don’t know why he wouldn’t want mom to cut his hair anymore. I liked it. She’d wash my hair in the kitchen sink, and then we’d go out to the porch in the backyard so she could cut it. She’d take her time and we’d talk about stuff… big stuff. Like when the other girls in class would ignore me.”

I narrowed my eyes at that. That wasn’t something I could keep quiet about. “Kids were picking on you?”

“No,” she said. “Just ignoring me. They’d say I was weird because I wanted to read in the library instead of play tag or dolls or whatever, but nobody ever picked on me. Mom says I’m just not sociable. She said I should try harder to make friends, but I don’t know… I don’t really see the point.”

“I get that,” I said with a sniff. “Was the same for me when I was your age. I was always reading or playing with my cheap chemistry set, studying bugs in the garden. The other kids didn’t have the same interests I did and that made it real hard to make friends, so I just did without.”

“When you were in the orphanage, right?” she asked in a small voice.

“Yeah.”

“What was it like?”

“Lonely,” I said. “Really… really lonely.”

It was a short answer, but there were volumes in those few words. Meaning enough that Twilight could only grunt in agreement. A curt acknowledgement of the camaraderie we shared, linked by our similar circumstances as we were.

The talk show had already ended. Daytime television did what it did, moving from one exhibition of human desperation to the next with little more than some advertisements for cookies and disposable diapers separating them. A man and woman were standing before a hot lady judge that almost certainly didn’t have a law degree, but was sufficiently pretty and sufficiently middle-aged enough to straddle the line between sex-object and authority figure. The woman was angry about the man’s cat damaging her car somehow. The judge was mugging for the camera at every ridiculous claim the woman made, to the almost canned amusement of the peanut gallery.

I really, really wanted a drink. Something coastal that brought to mind white-sand beaches and huge-breasted women in string bikinis. Anything that wasn’t evil rain and cute orphans.

At least I wasn’t alone.

* * *

That greasy sense of wrongness got more bearable as the day wore on. Long-term exposure made it more tolerable, though still uncomfortable whenever I happened to notice it. While earlier it had been enough to leave me shivering, I’d finally acclimated to it enough that it wasn’t too much worse than that sticky feeling you get when you haven’t had a bath for like a week.

It wasn’t all sunshine, though. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As the hours ticked away, the sky grew darker and darker, as though trying to hurry the sun out of the sky and past the horizon through sheer gloominess. The storm clouds had been roiling at the periphery of the city all day, the occasional bark of thunder thrumming the air, like the drums of an invading army awaiting the order to close in and begin the siege. The skies directly above Canterlot City were slightly less ominous, and all the more unsettling for it, as though we were all sitting in the eye of a storm – which I suppose we were.

Luckily, I had Twilight with me to keep me distracted.

We were sitting in the living room with a steaming bowl of popcorn sitting on the couch between us. We’d been having a nice day, mostly just sitting around being couch potatoes. Twilight had pretty much let me me choose whatever we’d watch, so I had decided to let her have her turn.

The doorbell rang just as we were getting to the part of the movie where the spoiled mermaid princess was selling out her family so she could have legs to open for the pretty boy prince. I hadn’t been expecting anybody – not unless the pizza guy had used his Shine to sense that I was getting hungry.

I answered the door to find a sullen looking Luna standing on my welcome mat.

“Luna?” I asked, surprised by the state of her appearance as much as the suddenness of her visit. The rain hadn’t yet made good on its threat of falling, but for some reason the wooly blue cardigan she was wearing was wrinkled, like it had gotten wet and hurriedly wrung out. The light dusting of makeup she wore was smeared, and her eyeliner was running down her cheeks – one of which was pink and swollen. “Have you been crying? What’s wrong?”

She smiled, chagrined and yet seemingly relieved to see me. “Hey… can I come in?”

I took her by the hand and brought her inside. Twilight had shut off the movie and was waiting by the couch with a worried look.

“Is something wrong?”

“I’m okay now,” Luna said, laughing off the little girl’s concern. She wiped self-consciously under her eyes. “Do you think you could go play in your room? I want to talk a little bit with Sunset.”

Twilight shifted her weight, as though she was debating whether or not to do as she was asked. She shot one last look at me, silently pleading for permission to stay. She didn’t get it, and so heaved a resigned sigh as she trudged to her room. She paused as she was walking past Luna, looking up at her with those big doe-eyes.

“Um…” she began. “Do you need a hug?”

“I think that’s exactly what I need,” Luna said as she knelt down and tightly hugged Twilight before sending her up the stairs.

“What’s going on?” I asked as soon as I heard Twilight’s footsteps thud off into her room.

Luna exhaled heavily as she collapsed onto my couch. “Celestia and I had a fight.”

“Like a for real one?” I asked. At her questioningly look I pointed to the still-swollen cheek. “You look like you got clocked.”

Luna blinked, touching the sore spot with a grin. “I got slapped,” she admitted sheepishly. “She said something I didn’t like and I threw my water in her face… so she dumped hers on me and added the slap to make sure I got the message.”

I sat next to her and took her hand. “So what happened?”

Luna shifted to the side and leaned against my shoulder. “We were having a good day. I know you said to stay indoors, but I figured it wouldn’t rain until later, so we went to the mall this morning.” She pinched her cardigan and clucked her tongue. “I bought this. Cute, yeah? We finished shopping and went home to watch movies and eat ice cream – sister stuff. It was going good and then… she started asking about you.”

A rush of panic went through me and it must have shown on my face, because Luna had a giggle at my expense.

“Not you specifically,” she said, patting my shoulder. “She wanted to know about the person I’ve been seeing. I tried to make up some excuses, said she could meet her later, that right now we weren’t at the ‘meeting family’ point yet… but she was just so damn insistent. She always does that. It doesn’t matter what it is, she always has to butt her nose into my business, like it’s her life and not mine. Between her pushing me and all this stuff going on with Twilight and having to keep all these extra secrets, I just snapped at her and… well…”

She laughed and pointed dramatically at her swollen cheek.

“Wow… she didn’t really seem like the catfighting type,” I said, honestly surprised.

“She’s not,” Luna said. “At least not anymore. She’s always had a temper, but she’s calmed down a lot. I guess this stuff with Doctor Night Light is just bringing out the worst in her. She’s so stressed.”

“Understandably so.”

Luna grunted in agreement. “I probably should have been more understanding, but she got all worked up and all bluhbluhbluh. All like, ‘I’m the big sister, I’m trying to look out for you’ and stuff. I tried to be cool about it, but… well, we’re sisters.” Luna let out a sort of sarcastic little half-laugh – the vocal equivalent of an eyeroll. “We’ve known each other our whole lives. You don’t know someone that long without learning how to hit below the belt. A lot of stuff came out all at once.”

“That must be nice,” I mused. “Not the part about fighting, but, you know, having someone who knows you that well.”

“It is,” Luna said, sighing. She leaned into me a bit harder as she toyed with the material of her new coat, plucking at the loose bits of fuzz and lint like pulling the fluff off a dandelion. “She’s a pain in the ass, but I wouldn’t trade her.”

Outside, the rain finally started to fall. It was slow at first, just a soft pitter-patter on the porch. The steady hum of the falling rain ticked by like the seconds on a clock, and soon enough it was falling in force. The feeling of magical pollution in the rain beating against my wards was starting to grow uncomfortable again, but only slightly so. I was inured to the worst of it, and the feeling of a warm body pressed against mine certainly helped.

“I got hurt once,” Luna said, her soft voice breaking through the sound of falling rain. “You’re the second person I’ve ever tried to be… romantic with. I was in high school, a sophomore. She was a senior. She was really shy, but God was she cute. She was my best friend. We ate lunch together, went shopping, saw movies, sometimes we’d even fall asleep talking on the phone. I was so sprung on her that I pretended to take up photography, just so I’d have an excuse to take pictures of her all the time.” She flinched, sucking air through her teeth like she’d just been stung. “Man, that sounds creepy saying it out loud like that.”

“And what happened?” I asked, even though I could probably guess it.

“She just wanted to be friends,” Luna explained sourly. “She was talking about wanting to get asked to the prom, so I made a move. While she was still stunned from me asking her to let me take her, I tried to kiss her. She pushed me away, said that she didn’t like girls like that at all. I was a stupid kid and too hormonal to see reason, so I took the rejection badly. We had words and in the end we couldn’t even be friends like she wanted. It was too weird for her by that point, and too painful for me.” She licked her lips, and in her eyes a cinder of something old and long-ago resolved was poking its way to the surface, trying to rekindle itself. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, snuffing it out. “It was my fault for letting myself get carried away like that without even finding out if she was attracted to me. I told myself the next time I found someone I liked that I’d just… y’know, put myself out there. No hesitation. At least I’d know right away if it was a lost cause or not.”

“Ah…” I said. All at once, lot of things fell into place in my head about how aggressive Luna had been so far in this little courtship of ours.

“I took up running after that. Did a lot of that and a lot of crying on Celestia’s shoulder.” Her free hand, the one that wasn’t currently being held in mine, found its way to my knee. “That whole thing is what started the fight. She says she doesn’t want me getting hurt again, and I do appreciate the sentiment, just not the execution. She shouldn’t have brought that up the way she did… If it was anything else I wouldn’t have...”

Luna took a breath, long and steady, like the slow drag off a cigarette. Breathing helps when your nerves get all frayed. Nicotine helps more, but she said she was a runner, so she probably wouldn’t appreciate me offering her a smoke.

“It was like a snowball. We went back and forth so much that I guess she got fed up and told me to stop acting like a spoiled brat, so I said she should stop acting like a know-it-all bitch, and that’s when the, ah…”

She mimed throwing a glass of water in someone’s face and then put her hand right back on my knee. That hand didn’t stay there, though. It started wandering. First in little circles, then slowly up my thigh, then back down, climbing a bit higher with every pass.

Luna looked up at me, her eyes moist, a hint of worry – fear, even – peeking through. “She’s wrong, right? You won’t hurt me, will you?”

This would’ve been the time to say something cool, but all I could manage was a dry-throated “I don’t want to…”

A smile spread across Luna’s face. “That’s a good answer,” she said as she pushed me onto the couch. “It’s honest.” She straddled my waist and leaned in close. “I would’ve been suspicious of a no.”

And we were kissing again. It was hard and desperate, like it was the only way we could keep breathing. She was getting better at this. Lots better. She pulled her mouth away from me, breathlessly. Even with smudged makeup she was beautiful. My eyes drifted down to her lips, full and puffy with the forcefulness of our kissing. Her lipstick – a soft plum color that stood out against her beautifully fair skin – was smeared around the corners of her mouth. I probably had a fair bit of it around my own.

“You said I should stay out of the rain,” she whispered huskily as she ground her hips against my belly. “I should stay the night.”

“I think you should, yeah.”

I could hear Twilight moving around upstairs. She probably wouldn’t even think about coming down for at least ten more minutes. Not much time, but enough for a little exploratory fooling around.

My hands were pulling open the front of Luna’s pants when the doorbell rang for the second time that day. Luna threw back her head, growling out a low, angry curse.

“I’m never going to lose it at this rate,” she said under her breath, quiet enough that she probably thought I wouldn’t hear. I got real good hearing, though.

She climbed off me and redid the buttons of her jeans. I gotta say, a little piece of my heart shattered and crumbled away as the flash of frilly pink lace disappeared behind blue denim.

I pulled down my shirt and wiped my mouth hard with the back of my hand. Sure enough, it came away with the same streak of purple as Luna’s lips. “Why don’t you go clean up while I get rid of whoever that is?”

“Do it fast,” she said as she went through the kitchen, the long way around to the downstairs bathroom.

I shook my head, trying to shake all the bits back into place after Luna had knocked them out. The doorbell rang again, just as the blood flow was coming back to my brain. To say I was a little upset at the interruption would be an understatement. Dark thoughts formed in my mind as I strode to the door, ready to give whoever it was the brushing-off of their life. Maybe I could even give them a harmless little curse. Not everything I knew was deadly and immensely powerful. I’d studied a few prank spells back when I was a filly that I could probably still do.

Lost in my petty fantasies of revenge, I didn’t even think to check the peephole. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have opened the door.

Celestia was there, on my welcome mat, staring at me with seeming impassivity. The long cream-colored woolen cardigan she was wearing was pulled tight around her body with crossed arms, but it was ill-suited to protecting her from the storm and she was soaked to the bone. Some remote part of my brain recognized that the garment was like the one Luna had, if a bit longer to accommodate her height and in a color more flattering to her complexion – probably bought in a fever of sisterly shopping coordination. Even her jeans were the same, though her white button-up blouse was more ‘dressy’ than Luna’s t-shirt.

“Huh,” Celestia said, hugging herself just a little tighter as she lightly shivered on my porch, “it really is you. That’s a surprise. I almost didn’t believe it when I saw the sign on your lawn.”

Her eyes swept me from head to toe, revealing more emotion than her words or face let on. She was hurt, betrayed even. Though I could tell that that feeling wasn’t wholly directed at me, a measure of it certainly was.

The disappointment in those eyes, eyes so much like my Celestia’s, was too familiar. It was like the echo of the look Princess Celestia had fixed me with, grown larger and louder, finally having caught up after I’d spent a lifetime trying to outpace it. It wasn’t angry, but I still shrunk away from it. The shame of it still made me feel small, naked and young.

“Celestia… I… ah…”

“I want to talk to Luna,” Celestia said, interrupting me.

Before I could say another word, Celestia lowered her head and swept past me, stepping into the foyer to drip all over my floor. It didn’t even occur to my addled mind to resist.

“Luna!” Celestia called. She craned her neck around the corner, peeking into the living room. It was empty, so she turned towards the stairs and called for her sister again. “Luna, where are you?”

My wits came back with an almost elastic snap at the sight of Celestia going for the stairs. Twilight was up there.

“Hey, look, I don’t know why you’re here but right now isn’t a good time,” I said as I closed the door to shut out the wind.

Celestia turned, the soft look of betrayal going hard as she narrowed her eyes at me. Her hand came up to her throat and she brushed at the spot where her neck met the hollow of her collarbone.

“Yes, I can see you and my sister are very busy,” she said, her smooth voice dripping with ire like honey from the edge of a knife.

My hand went to the same spot on my own neck instinctively. There was something greasy on me. I rubbed at it and my fingers came away with a smudge of purple lipstick. When had that gotten there?

The wheels in my head started spinning up a yarn. Any old excuse to get Celestia to leave, even if it just meant threatening to call the cops. As long as Luna kept hid in the bathroom, I could make this work.

“Celestia?”

Ah, damn. Of course she decided to step out of the bathroom right at that moment. Nothing’s ever that easy for me, is it?

Probably should’ve expected it, though. Luna didn’t seem like the cowering type.

“What are you doing here?” Luna asked as she stalked down the hallway, her scowl deepening with every heavy step.

“I came to see where you’ve been going these last few days,” Celestia explained. Going by her tone, her nerves were frayed and only just south of snapping completely.

“So you followed me?” Luna all but growled in accusation.

Celestia held up her phone, waggling it showily before jamming it angrily into her pocket. “My name’s on the phone bill. All I had to do was report yours lost on the website.”

“How dare you… you... cyber-stalk me!”

“And what was I supposed to do, huh!?” Celestia snapped. She jabbed the air with an accusatory finger as she drew herself up to her full height. “You won’t tell me where you’ve been going, but obviously you were seeing someone. And even just asking you about this mystery person gets me the brush off! How am I supposed to know you’re not running off to some shady neighborhood or something?”

“Oh, so just because I don’t want to tell you about my love life, that must obviously mean I’m going to a crackhouse?” Luna shouted up at her sister, who was at least a half a head taller. “You’re unbelievable.”

Watching the two of them go at it made me think that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have it as rough as I thought, being an orphan and all. Luna was right about this snowballing thing. The way they were both flexing their hands had me thinking that I might get to see a hot chick catfight if I let this play out. But as much as I would enjoy watching Luna get her hair all mussed up, I really didn’t want to sit back and watch it happen in the middle of my house. Especially with a fairly traumatized little girl upstairs, probably listening at her door by now.

Somebody had to be an adult here and – God help us all – it was probably going to have to be me.

“Okay, maybe you girls need to simmer down a little,” I said as I stepped up, placing my hands on Luna’s shoulders and gently pushing her away from her sister. Of the two of them, I figured she’d be the least objectionable to me putting my hands on her like that.

“You stay out of this,” Celestia said, refocusing her heated glare at me. “I just met you yesterday and today my sister is running off to your house? I talked to you about her, and you didn’t say a word about knowing her. Why would that be, huh? What exactly is going on here that you couldn’t just say, ‘Hi, my name’s Sunset Shimmer, I’m screwing your baby sister’? What were you really doing at Doctor Night’s office?”

Something in me cracked, shattering along with it any notions I might have had about being the cool voice of reason.

It was too much. The sound of her voice, the look in her eyes, the way she lifted her chin to look down on you while she was shouting – it was all too damned familiar.

Growing up means maturing. It means becoming a better person than you were ten years ago, one year, even a single day before. But no matter how much you grow and change, regardless of how far you come, that same basic temperament you had as a kid always sits right in the middle of all those layers of experience, waiting to burst out.

That rebellious little filly inside me reared up at Celestia’s words. She wasn’t my Celestia, but she was close enough that it rankled that angry child deep down inside me.

I wanted her out of my house and I wanted it now. Without even thinking, the power gathered in my chest and tickled its way up my throat, burning as it waited to fill my words with influence.

But it wasn’t my words that ended the conflict.

“Stop yelling at them!”

We all froze. The command was directed at Celestia, but the words washed over all of us like a commandment from above. Twilight didn’t have capital-P Power like I did, but for just those few words, her voice drowned out the thunder of the storm gathering outside.

I looked up the stairs to find Twilight standing at the top of the stairs, her tiny hands balled up up with white-knuckle tightness. Celestia followed my gaze and for just a second her knees went weak. She caught herself on the bannister with a hand, the other covering her mouth in shock as she looked into Twilight’s flushed, angry scowl.

“Stop yelling, Celestia,” Twilight said firmly. “Sunset’s not a bad person. She’s my friend.”

Celestia was up the stairs in a flash, leaping over two, even three steps at a time, stumbling in her haste to get to Twilight. As she pulled Twilight into her arms she let out a long keening wail that rang with a relief so powerful that it bordered on pain.

Luna pressed herself against me from behind. I could feel her shaking as she buried her face against my back and cried. Whatever anger she’d had towards her sister had evaporated, banished by Twilight’s appearance and the naked emotion in Celestia’s sobbing.

I let go of the power I’d gathered. I’d almost done it again, almost gave into my own weakness.

Luna was crying, and Celestia was crying, and even Twilight had been swept away by the mood. All I could do was stand there and listen to them cry their little hearts out.

“Goddamn it…” was all I could think to say.

* * *

I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on knees, as I watched Celestia’s face for any indication of what she might be thinking.

She was sitting on the couch, notably dryer and more composed than she had been when she got to my house. From the way she was holding Twilight, she might have been afraid the little girl might turn into smoke and blow away in the wind if she dared to let go. Luna was on the other end of the couch, still picking at the lint of her sweater and trying to look at anything that wasn’t her sister.

I shifted my weight and the chair squeaked and groaned beneath me. I’d gotten one of the chairs from the kitchen table, deciding that it would be better to face Celestia while I got her up to speed on everything that had been happening.

Luna had wanted to send Twilight out of the room, but Celestia had refused to let the kid out of her sight and Twilight had insisted that she’d be fine to hear the story. Twilight still hadn’t heard the whole tale, just bits and pieces, so in the end I’d decided she deserved as much as I could give her without getting… macabre.

According to the clock, the whole thing had taken nearly a half hour to tell properly – Twi-friendly edits included. Certainly longer than it had taken with Luna, but then again Luna had been there for some of it.

Celestia hadn’t said a word. She just watched me as I laid out the tale, like a cat staring at a shadow in suspicion. Even when I did a little show of magic at Luna’s suggestion, Celestia didn’t show more than a widening of her eyes as she tightened her hold on Twilight.

Now we were all just waiting for Celestia to come to grips with what she’d been told. I may have grown up magical, but I know it can’t be an easy thing to swallow the first time you hear about it. Twilight was a kid, young enough that her preconceptions of the world were fluid and allowed for the existence of magic with moderate ease.

Celestia? This one, too old to begin the training, yes. At least Luna had had the advantage of watching me slay a monster in a big, showy way.

“Okay…” Celestia said after a long, long while. “I see. You’re saying that… that Professor Night Light was… that all of this was because of some kind of wizard’s fight?”

“I don’t know why Night was targeted,” I explained. “All I know is that Twilight was who I could save, and now she’s here.”

Celestia pinched the bridge of her nose and took a few long, nearly hyperventilated breaths. “I think maybe you don’t understand what you’ve done here.”

I lifted an eyebrow at that. Even Luna had stopped picking at her clothes and sat up to fix her sister with an attentive look.

“First, thank you. I mean that. Thank you for saving Twilight... but you can’t just... just have her here!”

“I can’t?” I repeated, a little taken aback.

“She’s not a stray cat!” Celestia shouted. “You can’t just pick her up and bring her to your house! We need to tell someone she’s alive. This needs to be reported to the police and Child Protective Services, at the very least.”

“Out of the question,” I said. “Someone is looking for her. She needs to stay here where I can keep her safe.”

“The police can protect her,” Celestia said with conviction. She sat up straight, self-righteousness swelling her up like a balloon.

Twilight moved away from Celestia, squirming out of the older girl’s iron-grip like an eel and shoving her away. She scooted back, pressing herself again Luna, who she probably felt was her only ally on the couch.

“The police can’t stop monsters!” Twilight said. “I have to stay here!”

Celestia shook her head as she softened her glare. “Twilight… I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but there’s no such thing as monsters…”

“I saw it,” Twilight said. “It ate my mom and dad… and then it killed my big brother. Sunset carried me out of the house. She told me not to look, but I did. I saw what the monster did to him and I saw what she did to the monster. Don’t tell me that there’s no such thing. Not when I saw it with my own eyes.”

The way she explained that, matter-of-factly, like she was relaying one of her trivia book factoids, was enough to break your heart.

That night had been a horror show. Blood everywhere, the stink of death, the fire. I’d told her to keep her eyes closed as I carried her out past all that, but an inquisitive kid like Twilight? Yeah. I could see her trying to sneak peeks the way I’d caught her peeping between her fingers during that movie the night before. I was pretty sure she’d been having nightmares, but I could only imagine the terrors that must have been driving her into my bed these last few nights.

Celestia reeled back, shaking her head as she silently mouthed her disbelief.

“Twilight, no,” she said as she reached for the girl. “No, honey, you need to come with me. W-we can get you help, okay? Don’t you trust me?”

Twilight slapped the hand away. “You can’t make me leave, and you can’t help.”

Celestia held the slapped hand to her chest, cradling it like she’d just been stabbed. Tears were welling in her eyes as she stared at Twilight in abject disbelief. She looked up to Luna, as though her sister could explain to her what had just happened.

Luna didn’t have any answers for her, though. She just wrapped her arms around Twilight, as if shielding her from Celestia’s grasp.

Honestly… I felt bad for Celestia. I don’t think anything else could have wounded her like that.

That’s when lightning struck.

And when I say it struck, I mean it struck. Light poured in through the windows, bright and white as a strobe. Once, twice, thrice… I counted six strikes, six flashes of blinding light, by the time the thunder caught up.

I got up and ran to the front door. Something felt wrong. The magic in the air had been steadily building all day, but all at once it was a freight train smashing into my wards.

My porch was a poor shelter from rains like this. The wind was blowing so badly that the rain was falling sideways as much as down. The lightning came again, snaking across the distant sky until the clouds were wreathed in it like kudzu. The rumble of thunder that followed every burst of light shook the sky like the groans and yawns of a waking giant.

I heard movement behind me and held out a hand. “Stay inside!” I shouted.

Twilight obeyed, but Luna and Celestia joined me out on the porch. They stood together, gaping in astonishment.

“What is this?” Celestia asked in awe. It seemed like everything that had just happened in the house was forgotten in the face of the spectacle playing out in the sky. “I’ve never seen a storm like this.”

The clouds that had been building all day had finally closed in. There should have still been at least an hour of sunlight left, but the cloud cover had already blotted out the sun, plunging the city and the surrounding area into pseudo-night. The lightning continued to crash, never touching the ground, just zigzagging through through the darkness like the sky was cracking apart.

All at once I realized what I should’ve seen coming the second I set foot out the door this morning. This storm wasn’t some side effect of playing with a rain god’s power. All of that power was being focused into this storm, into doing exactly what it was meant for. This was going to be big.

Monstrously big.

“This is crazy,” Luna said, raising her voice over the steadily growing roar of wind and thunder.

I grit my teeth and pointed at the door. “Everybody back inside!”

Twilight darted back inside without hesitation, but Luna and Celestia had to be dragged in by the wrists, spellbound by the sight of the storm as they were. I slammed the door shut and leaned against it as I wiped the rain from my face.

Something touched my arm and I flinched, my hand balling into a fist instinctively. It was only Luna.

“Sunset,” Luna began, her voice trembling as she backed away warily, “that looks really bad… That’s magic, right? Is it going to get worse?”

“It’s magic, yeah, but it doesn’t matter how bad it gets,” I said with a shake of my head. “You’re safe in here. He can huff and puff all he wants, but this piggy built her house out of bricks.” I knocked on the wall for emphasis. “We’ll be okay.”

“But what about everybody else?” Twilight asked. “I’ve seen tornadoes and stuff on the weather channel. People could get hurt.”

People would definitely get hurt. I had no doubt about that in my mind.

The elements are an awesome, terrifying thing. Twisters that could lift entire trailer parks, tropical storms that demolished small coastal nations, volcanoes that wiped out entire civilizations… and that was just nature being nature.

The modern world had too few sorcerers. Human beings don’t remember what magic can do to nature. They don’t remember heat waves that could make deserts out of seas, or floods that stretched so far and wide that ancient man knew with absolute certainty that the whole world must have sunk beneath the waves. A god like Tlaloc, one that that ruled over storms, without a doubt had power enough to knock an entire city over like a giant toddler pushing down a bunch of wooden blocks and legos.

There’s a reason that magic is called supernatural.

But as I said, my house would be fine. I could already feel the spirits protecting my house working to direct the worst of the storm away. Even at the storm’s worst, there was nothing it could do to me once the magic surrounding my place was running full-tilt, even if it meant mine was the only house still standing in the county.

If I wanted to, I could just sit here on my ass, eating sandwiches and waiting for the sun to come up. The other guy no doubt had his own protection from the storm, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this. It was an appealing, if cartoonish, thought that the next morning I could just walk over to the only other standing building in the city and end this whole thing – cartoonish in an incredibly dark way.

I didn’t like that that was the first place my mind went, but it was what it was.

“No, no, I refuse that premise,” Celestia declared. Her natural healthy tan had dimmed to a pallor closer to Luna’s pale complexion, but her face was set in defiance. “You’re trying to say that…” She jabbed a finger towards the door. “...that is some magical storm? A man did this? A human being conjured a storm with a wave of his staff like some kind of fantasy novel?”

Luna groaned, swiping away the moisture dripping down her forehead. “Celestia, I know this is a shock for you, but you need to catch up to the rest of us. There’s magic. Sunset showed you hers, what more do you need?”

“I don’t know what I saw,” Celestia replied, though the conviction in her voice wavered just a little, “but even if I did accept that humans can conjure fire with their hands and make popcorn dance in the air with a thought, that’s a little bit below what’s going on outside.”

I watched Celestia and Luna go back and forth, still arguing even though a few inches of door and my magic were the only thing separating us from a murder-storm. I could tell, though, that the argument wasn’t what was important, just that they were having it. They’d both just had a shake, and arguing with one another was probably a calming draught of familiarity. Something they could prop up against their fraying nerves.

I looked down to find Twilight had moved to my side, her little hand gripping the hem of my shirt. “The bad man is going to use the storm to knock over the city?” she asked.

There was an odd lack of fear in her voice. Rather than being scared, she looked more curious than anything.

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “Maybe… probably.”

“He could if he wanted to, though?”

“Yeah. He’s got a lot of power and not a lot of concern for human life. That’s not a good mix.” I put a hand atop Twilight’s head, petting her like a cat. It was soothing. “Aren’t you scared?”

“Nope,” she said, placing her hands atop mine as she shook her head. “I don’t know anything about magic, but you said we’d be safe. We’ll be okay while you go stop the bad man.”

I blinked at certainty in her voice, like it wasn't even a question that I would do something about this. “It… won’t be easy breaking a big spell like this…”

“That’s okay,” Twilight said. “I believe in you.”

Everything I’d learned since coming to the human world told me that I should let everyone else hang, that my only responsibility was to myself and the people in my house. My tutors had all been men and women who were more demon than human – and that had been the ones that hadn’t confessed outright to being actual demons. They were the type that only looked out for number one, and it had always been drilled into me that in a magic fight, you should never stick your neck out for someone else...

...but that was the logic of monsters. I didn’t want to be that. I wanted be good. I wanted to be the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to meet her own eyes in the mirror. Maybe even more than that, right at this moment, I didn’t want to let Twilight down. I don’t know what she saw when she looked at me, but whatever she saw, it was a better person than I was. I wanted to be that better person, even if it was just for a minute.

“If nobody else wants to, I guess I have to,” I said, groaning as I pushed away from the door, like a teenager reluctantly getting out of bed to do her chores. I gave Twilight one last pat on the head. “I gotta get something out of the basement. Do me a favor and go get my shoes from upstairs, yeah?”

I walked past Luna and Celestia, who’d stopped arguing to watch me pass. They were both far less tense than they had been before the argument – the magic of sisterhood, I guess. I went to the basement door at the end of the hall, flipping the switch as I descended into my study.

I’d kind of talked myself into a corner. Not that I couldn’t cash the check my mouth had written, but it definitely wasn’t going to be cheap. This storm was some serious stuff, and if I was going to break it, I needed something equally serious.

I went to the safe at the end of the room, kicking aside the beanbag as I went and unleashing a hail of crumbs from its folds. A empty box of girl scout cookies had been stashed under the bag. Well… I had told the kid she could make herself at home.

I knelt down and opened the safe, sighing at what I was about to do.

Have you ever have to break open a piggy bank that you’ve been saving for something big? You know that you need it, and you know that this was what all that saving was for, but you can’t help but feel sense of loss right in your gut as you break the bank.

That’s what I was feeling as I pulled out top-right drawer of the safe. It was originally a gun safe, double-wide, with an open side for long-guns and a side with drawers for handguns and various things like ammo and cleaning tools. Now the drawers were full of ingredients for potions and rituals, things that were rare or valuable enough that I wouldn’t keep them in my trunk or in a bag in the shed.

I pulled the drawer out all the way, slipping it completely from the safe. I ignored the dried and powdered things in the drawer and looked at the back, where I’d scotch-taped a little key. I got the key and replaced the drawer, then used the key to open the locked drawer at the bottom of the safe.

There are a lot of ways to control magic. Words, spells, music – pretty much any creative act that had symbolic value could be used to weave magic. So long as you could assign significance to the act, you could use it as a conduit for the arcane.

Me? I like writing. Always have. It’s why I took so well to runecraft. Magical writing has a lot of uses and a lot of perks. Probably the best perk of using writing as your tool for spellwork is that it lets you use ink when the occasion calls for it.

Inks and dyes of all kinds carry magic well, that’s just how they are. That’s why books and scrolls are such effective methods for storing magical knowledge and techniques. A proper magic book could communicate subtleties in the way the magic should be applied through the ink itself. Correctly tempering your ink was important, though, if you wanted your spellwork to last. It didn’t matter how fancy or clever your working was if the power you put into it ate away at the crappy ink you’d written it in.

Every sorcerer I’d ever met that worked with the stuff had their own process for making ink. It was just one of those things that properly trained magicians always had passed down from their masters, and they were often techniques that went back centuries. I’d learned more than a few methods myself, considering how many teachers I’d had in my life, and I’d taken little bits here and there that I liked best and kludged them together into something that fit me – a technique of my own that had been crafted more from motley than whole-cloth, but was uniquely mine all the same.

The familiarity I had with the stuff was the entire reason I was able to help Night Light in the first place. The flesh golem that had bitten him had probably had its teeth covered in magic ink.

I had two phials of ink in this drawer, each of them about the size of a small aspirin bottle and made years ago. The process is long and expensive, and I no longer had the resources to make anything of this quality, so each of these bottles was a precious treasure. Proud as I was of my handiwork, though, I knew these weren’t good enough for the job at hand.

I focused my attention on the third bottle in the drawer, the one resting by itself in a small box lined with soft velvet padding. I lifted it from the box gingerly, holding it up to the light and swirling the liquid around in the glass. There was only a little left, a little under half the bottle, which was itself half the size of the other two bottles. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough for one real big working – perfect for something fast and vicious.

He never taught me how to make it, but the first time Fiddler had shown me this stuff, he’d said it was squeezed from the darkness in a once-righteous man’s heart. I don’t know whether he meant that literally or not – while Fiddler never lied, he could often be infuriatingly vague to the point of abstraction – but the fact of the matter was that anything wrought by his inhuman hands was in its own class. Even just holding it in my palm I could feel the power in it, hungry and dark, like I was pulling the leash of a growling beast waiting for a command. This, right here, was the kind of power that people sold their souls for.

I closed up the safe, holding the bottle tightly in my hand. I went back upstairs and got my leather jacket out of the hallway closet. The phial of demonic ink went into the inside breast pocket and was zipped up tight.

Twilight was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, my dirty boots clutched against her chest like precious objects. I took them from her and softly brushed flakes of dried mud off her pajama top.

“Spell is probably designed to focus on the city itself,” I explained as I sat on the stairs and tugged my boots on. “I can’t do anything about it this far from the epicenter.”

“You can’t drive in conditions like this,” Luna said worriedly.

“I’ll be fine, I’m a pretty good driver. A few months after I got my license I signed up for a stunt driving course so I could be like Steve McQueen.” I got to my feet and stroked Twilight's cheek with my thumb reassuringly. “Nobody leaves the house.”

I was trying to be casual, to reassure the girls that everything would be fine. Sometimes the only thing keeping panic at bay was one calm voice, and if in the process I got to look super cool in front of Twi and Luna, then all the better. Sadly, my attempt to stage a Brando-esque cool-chick exit was thwarted. Celestia was standing in front of the door, hands on her hips and feet wide apart, rooting her to the spot like she was challenging me to get by her.

“Move,” I said, jerking my head sideways to emphasize the command. The word came out a bit harsher than I meant it to. Maybe I was still a little angry from earlier. “I don’t know what you want to say, but I don’t have time to argue.”

Celestia, to her credit, stood her ground, set her shoulders, and looked me right in the eyes.

“I’m going with you,” she said with the surety of someone who was used to getting her way.

“I don’t think so.” I took a step to the side to try and squeeze my way past her, but Celestia mirrored the movement.

“You said that you were the only one who could protect Twilight, that you’re this all-powerful wizard-woman. If you want me on board with all this craziness, then I want to see it. I want you to prove it to me.”

I could feel that rebellious kid rising up inside me again and I fought to push her back down, back into the little dark spot in my heart where I buried all my worst urges and instincts. I could see where she was coming from, but I also just hated being questioned like this.

“Lady,” I said, my voice straining to maintain an even tone, “I don’t care if you’re on board. I’ve got sorceress business to attend to.”

The light flickered as an especially loud crack of thunder shook the air.

“Didn’t you just say that you didn’t have time to argue?” Celestia asked flatly.

I turned back to Luna, who’d pulled Twilight against herself protectively, and silently pleaded for help with my eyes. All I got in return was a defeated shrug that I read as, “She gets like this.”

“Fine,” I said with a sigh as I leveled a tired look at Celestia. “You do what I say, though, unless you want to get hurt.”

I hadn’t meant that to come out as a threat. Seriously, I didn’t.

Celestia just stepped aside and held out a hand like a bellhop ushering me towards the door. “What are we waiting for, then?”

* * *

Driving into the city went about as well as I could have hoped.

With the wet roads and hard winds, I’d passed more than a few fender-benders. Conditions like this, the smart move was to pull over, but nobody likes getting caught in the rain and too many people were risking it.

Just before we’d got to outer edge of downtown, I’d almost gotten t-boned at an intersection by an old beater that approached the red with a little too much momentum and ended up hydroplaning halfway into the intersection. Quick reflexes and a good set of tires had saved the day, but I was pretty sure Celestia’s fingerprints were now permanently pressed into the dash.

We didn’t talk much. I was too focused on driving and Celestia was too busy fussing with the loose cuffs of the old jacket I’d pulled out of the hall closet for her. The nice wooly sweater she’d had sure was pretty, but it had gotten soaked, and wouldn’t do much as an actual garment against the elements even if it hadn't been. The jacket was an orange windbreaker made from that plastic stuff that crinkles with every movement. It was what I wore when I did yard work in the cold, so the cuffs were dirty and one of the pockets was half torn off from getting caught on the corner of the workbench in my shed, but at least it would keep her dry.

I couldn’t help but notice when she put it on that it was a little tight on her. She and I are about the same height, but her chest was definitely more… expansive than mine, so her volume was straining at the zipper.

A hard gust of wind blew down a crossroad, kicking up rain as it went and pushing my poor car hard enough to shove us out of our lane and into the oncoming. I corrected us quickly, but Celestia sucked in a heavy gasp as I swung back into the right lane.

“How much further?” Celestia asked. I could hear her straining to not let her voice quiver, but she was definitely scared.

“Two blocks,” I answered.

She nodded and went back to worrying the cuffs of the jacket and scanning the area for anything that might hit us.

“This is a nice car, by the way,” she said.

“Thanks, I’ve had Philomena for a while. Restored her myself.”

Celestia gave me a queer look, one eyebrow quirked, before turning back to her passenger-side vigil. “My grandmother had a parrot named Philomena…” she muttered just loud enough that I could barely hear it over the roaring heater and the sound of thimble-sized rain hitting my car.

I laughed nervously.

The last two blocks were slow going. I didn’t much want to test the tread on my fairly new tires against half-flooded streets, so I kept it under 30, despite my hurry. Luckily most of the other drivers had started to wise up and were already on the side of the road and taking refuge anywhere they could.

I pulled us into the parking garage of a fancy hotel and was lucky enough to find a spot up on the second level. Let me tell you, I would’ve been mighty embarrassed if I’d let the city get flattened because I couldn’t find a parking space. That wouldn’t have been very heroic.

“What are we doing here?” Celestia asked.

“Tall building,” I explained simply as I turned off the car and double checked to make sure the ink was still in my pocket. “A lot of magic is about your intent. If you want to do something with the sky, you need to make an effort to get closer to it. Close as you can.”

It was more complex than that, but the explanation was good enough for a layman and Celestia seemed satisfied by it. She just gave a sort of grunt in understanding and followed me out of the car.

We went down a flight of stairs to the bottom floor of the garage and took a short walk through a covered walkway into the hotel. It was one of the city’s older buildings – not quite historic, but old enough that you could call it a landmark. Canterlot City didn’t have much in the way of skyscrapers, and the nine-stories of the Le Grand Canterlot – stupid name, I know – made it one of the tallest buildings around. There were taller, sure, but those were further into the city, and were business offices where I would’ve had to deal with more security getting to the roof. Plus, the hotel was far enough from other tall structures that I wasn’t very likely to get spotted screwing around on the roof by some accountant looking out his window from a bigger building.

The hotel’s cavernous lobby was about what you’d expect in something up-scale but just shy of ‘ritzy’. The building was old enough to have been remodeled a few times, and you could see the seams of the redecorations if you looked close enough, but it was clean and everything from the gold-plated fixtures to the smartly pressed staff uniforms screamed, “We cost a bundle.”

The beautiful lobby was a bedlam, packed with people who’d run in to escape the rain. A mass of soaked, shivering bodies was pressed against the glass-walled entrance, staring with unblinking worry at the spectacle outside. The constant hum of tense conversation was enough to drown the sound of rain pummeling the asphalt. Some of the patrons had even come down from the rooms upstairs to complain to the staff – some about the noise, others about windows that had been blown out by the storm. A man and woman in matching bathrobes were berating a cute girl behind the counter about the shoddiness of the building’s construction, as if she had had a hand in or control over such things.

Celestia kept close to me so we wouldn’t get separated in the throng as I led her towards the emergency stairwell. We passed the lounge on our way, where people had gathered around the bar to stare at the televisions reporting the storm with the kind of captivated attention usually reserved for a World Series game.

“We’re taking the stairs?” Celestia asked as I held open the door for her.

Ladies first, after all.

“Power might go out,” I said. “Believe me, I’d much rather take the elevator, but I sure don’t want to get stuck in one. It’d be a real shame to be climbing up an elevator shaft Die Hard-style when the building collapsed on us.”

Celestia paled at the mental image and hurried through the door.

As expected, the service stairwell was the opposite side of the coin to the gorgeous lobby. The cement-gray walls showed what the structure was like when the building’s bones were stripped of the meaty bits of faux-luxury gilding the rest of the hotel. The stairs were lit with whining utilitarian fluorescents, and more than one of them was flickering, just on the edge of burning out. The smell of smoke – mostly tobacco, but with a definite hint of ‘other’– was soaked into the concrete, despite the big ‘No Smoking’ signs bolted to the wall on every floor.

We made it up to the fourth floor by the time the predictable happened and the lights went out.

I took out my phone and thumbed on the light, which earned me a disgruntled noise from Celestia. Maybe she was expecting me to conjure light from my eyes, or something. A second or two later her own phone was on and adding its light to mine.

Nine stories isn’t all that much, but the lights going out slowed our steps a bit. Darkness is just one of those things that makes you more cautious, even when you’re used to it, like I am. It didn’t help that the sound of rushing wind was leaking into the stairwell like the tortured moans of a ghost. It was downright spooky, and I know from spooky.

As we climbed, the sound of doors opening and closing echoed up the stairwell towards us from time to time. People on the lower floors that hadn’t already gone to the lobby were apparently braving the spooky stairwell and heading down in drips and drabs. At one point, a door below us opened and a young boy’s voice very loudly proclaimed, “Oh, Hell no!” before the door shut with a bang.

I needed that laugh.

My foot eventually hit the landing of the ninth floor, splashing in a puddle of water that had gathered in a groove in the concrete. There were two doors, one leading to the ninth floor where the penthouse suites were, and a metal security door barring access to another set of stairs behind a steel cage. Water was dripping down from the level above, where the roof access was.

The security door was locked with some stupid keycard panel. Back when I used to have money, I spent a lot of time in nice hotels, and most of those places had the same kind of security doors. Sometimes I’d decide to go up to the roof for some sunbathing or something and I’d hex the door open, so I knew that breaking a lock like this always set off alarms in the security station. Luckily, the power was out, so there was no security system to alert when I placed my hand on keypad and shoved it with my magic.

It wasn’t anything artful, or even something as intricate as picking a lock with magic. I was in a hurry so I just used brute force to twist the metal around until it wasn’t in my way anymore. The door swung open, creaking on cold hinges, and bits of metal and plastic fell out of the mangled remains of the keypad with a jangle. I climbed the last flight of stairs, noting briefly that Celestia’s footsteps were a few paces further than they’d been on the way up.

There was no lock on the roof access. It was just a regular fire door with a sign bolted to it warning off guests and other non-staff personnel. Wind and rain were seeping in through the crack under the door as it rattled in the frame.

This was it. I took a deep breath and turned off my phone. I stuffed it into my jacket and zipped it up so it wouldn’t get wet. Celestia put her phone away, too, plunging us momentarily into darkness. I grasped the locking bar, my palms stinging against the ice cold steel as I tried to open the door. The heavy door only opened a few inches before a gust of wind slammed it shut again. I braced my shoulder against the metal and put my weight into it, forcing the door open.

I stepped out onto the roof and onto a wet, thunderous, blinding Hell.

The rain wasn’t falling in sheets. It was a solid mass of water, like a giant’s hand pressing down on the earth below. The wind was no better, pushing and blowing from every direction at once. Even through a leather jacket I could feel the bite of the cold rain.

I held a hand over my eyes, shielding them from the pounding rain as I looked into the sky. The clouds were churning violently, spinning with twisters that hadn’t yet touched down and were covered in lightning, lighting up the sky like the midday sun.

A very small part of me briefly wondered if maybe I should have just stayed home after all.

“You’re going to stop this!?” Celestia shouted from behind me.

I ignored her as I stepped further out onto the roof. I had to half-crouch as I leaned against the wind buffeting me. If I wasn’t careful I’d probably get tossed over the edge. For once in my life, I would have loved to have been a little heavier.

Once I was a safe distance away from Celestia, I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and reached for my magic.

The power leaked out of my body, spreading out, touching everything around me. The air, the rain, the building and the people inside, Celestia. Most importantly, I could feel the magic empowering the spell.

I’d felt this unsettling magic before through my wards, and it certainly didn’t feel any better now. The greasy feeling of death magic was thick around me. I could vaguely sense patterns in the magic, showing me intimations of the mechanisms of the spellwork, written in the clouds like shifting runes. I’d never seen a weather spell like this. This was real old world craftsmanship, and if I weren’t standing directly beneath it, I would probably be impressed.

The magic in the formation was reaching a peak, practically humming like a finely tuned engine waiting to shift into gear. When it did, the bottom would fall out of the sky and Canterlot City probably wouldn’t be more than smear of mud and charred earth.

I reached into my jacket and pulled out the bottle of ink. My hand hesitated for half a second on the stopper, the selfish hoarder inside me shouting that there had to be another way. Maybe there was, but I didn’t have time to figure it out, so I yanked the stopper free and tossed it aside.

The magic infused in the ink burst out of bottle like compressed air. The rain falling in my immediate vicinity slowed from a deluge to a stream, from a stream to a trickle, and from a trickle to nothing. In the span of a single breath, the rain around me stopped in midair, the droplets of magically-tainted water suspended like a beaded curtain. Outside of the influence of the ink, the rain was still falling and the wind was still whipping mercilessly, but none of that could reach me.

I tilted the bottle, pouring the ink out. The phial emptied, a stream of pitch black darkness falling only a few inches before pooling into a bead the size of marble. I kept tilting the phial, slowly, with a lover’s care, spilling far more ink than the vessel should have been able to hold. The bead grew fat, and by the time the last drop fell from the glass it was the size of a softball.

I threw the phial away, letting the wind carry it off somewhere. I had no more use for it.

I held out a hand and dipped a single finger into the ball of ink. It was warm and familiar. The power in it sang and the seed of fire that Fiddler had sown in my bones all those years ago sang back in chorus – a crescendoing duet of fire that was terrible and cruel and so, so, so comfortable.

This was what was dangerous about taking magic candy from demonic strangers. It always felt good.

I lifted my hand and drew a line in the air. The trail of ink was so flawlessly dark that it would have stood out even against the moonless sky. The searing brightness of the now constantly crackling lightning above was a perfect canvas for this.

I drew another line, and then another. I was going on instinct and experience alone to feel my way through shaping the spell. There was no thought here, just art. I was a being of magic, born of it and tempered in its fire. I let that magic guide my hand as I drew the sigil in the air above my head.

The spell in the sky above was a masterwork. It was a stained glass mural wrought with skill and beauty, because yes, even at its ugliest and greasiest, all magic was beautiful to me. I could have matched that beauty stroke for stroke, and I probably would have even enjoyed the challenge, but I didn’t have to. I didn’t need to be tricky or clever. I didn’t need to craft a glass mural of my own to fight his art.

If you’re fighting glass, all you need is a hammer.

So I kept crafting my hammer, careful to get everything just right. Demolitions isn’t just about smashing things, there’s an art to it. I had to hit the spell just right so the magic would disperse harmlessly, otherwise the backlash of unchained magic would do the job that the storm was meant to.

Fiddler’s ink moved as though it had a life of its own, filling in the cracks and imperfections in the spell, making it more majestic with every tweak and alteration to my design. Fiddler’s will was infused in the stuff. It was like he was here with me, guiding my hand and teaching me a better way to do what I wanted to – just like the good old days.

I could feel the dam holding back the sky magic getting ready to burst, but I wasn’t about to let that happen. My sigil was already finished.

The runework was tethered to my magic, drinking greedily from the well of my power. My heartbeat was racing, my breathing ragged and my lungs burning with cold and a seemingly bottomless thirst for air.

I reached up and gripped the sigil. My skin was tingling, burning, like I was holding on to live electrical wires. I ignored the discomfort and closed my hand with a grunt of effort. My fingers passed through the lines like smoke, breaking the circuit of power and releasing the spell. The sigil vanished in a puff of swirling ether.

The sky went still. The wind, the rain, the lightning, even the sound of thunder froze, hanging in the air like an opera singer holding a note.

And then the sky broke open with a boom. Not like thunder. More like an old radial tire busting with bang and a whuff of air. The clouds scattered, blowing away into nothing as the last of the shed rain fell to the earth with a splash.

Silence.

Silence all the more eerie and unsettling for the abrupt end of the storm’s cacophony. It made the sound of sirens and firetruck horns blaring in the distance an otherwordly croon.

“What a waste,” I said, sighing to the open sky as I caught my breath. “It was a beautiful thing.”

I ran my fingers through my hair. It was all frizzed up, but it was nothing I couldn’t smooth over with a brush.

I walked back to the stairwell on jittery legs to collect Celestia. She’d fallen on her ass into a puddle and was staring at the clear moonlit sky like she’d never seen it before. She was a city girl, so maybe she hadn’t. I know I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen the stars over Canterlot City so clearly.

I grabbed her by the elbow and hoisted her to her feet.

“Come on, girl. Let’s get some coffee in you.”

* * *

The ICLOP was open. A little thing like an apocalyptic mega-storm wasn’t about to deter the good men and women of the service industry – not as long as they worked for tips. The place had survived almost completely unscathed. Aside from a few broken tree limbs that had blown in from somewhere and lodged themselves under a couple of cars in the lot, you couldn’t even tell anything had happened.

I held the door open for Celestia and the little jingly bells tied to the handle announced our arrival. I was surprised to see Cheese Cake working. She usually tended to the night crowd, but it was still pretty early in the day for her to be on shift. Still, I was always happy to see her, and the familiar smile she gave me as our eyes met from across the room washed away a bit of the fatigue I was feeling.

She finished with the customer she was pouring coffee for and sashayed her way over to greet us. “Sunset, child, you sure picked a heck of a night to come in,” she said with a laugh that filled me up like warm soup. “Did you see the sky suddenly clear up like that? Craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Hey, Cheese,” I said. “Yeah, that was nuts. You’re here early.”

“Ugh, I know,” Cheese Cake said with an exaggerated sigh. “Shift Skipper called in sick again, so I get to work a twelve hour shift today. It’s fine, though, a lot of people came in because of this crazy storm so I made some good tips.” Cheese Cake tilted her head to the side, as though noticing Celestia behind me for the first time. She reached for the menus next to the cashier’s station and pulled one out. “Table for two and the usual?”

“No usual tonight,” I said with a shake of my head. I actually was pretty hungry, but I’d just have to pick up something on the way home. “Just two cups of something hot and some privacy, please.”

Cheese Cake put the laminated menu back into the little cubby, giving Celestia quick glance up and down. She nodded, crooked a finger, and spun on her heels. “I think I can get something for you in the corner,” she said as she wound her way past the customers.

Cheese Cake was good as her word. She moved us past the small knot of customers that had stayed after the rain had cleared up. She kept walking towards the back, near the window opposite the bathrooms and kitchen, where nobody would bother us save for a lone man in a trucker hat and hunting jacket picking at the scraps of his plate. After seating Celestia and I at the booth she went to fetch us our coffees, served us, then turned to the man and got him to leave.

She wasn’t rude about it, of course. Cheese Cake was a professional, whose livelihood depended on her ability to chat up customers just as much as mine did. If anything, she was probably even better at it than I was. It didn’t even take two minutes before she’d talked the man out of his seat and ushered him towards the register, tossing a wink at me as she led her victim away with the hypnotic sway of her generous hips, like a Pied Piper for middle-aged men.

Celestia and I were alone now, just us and our coffees. Cheese knew my preferences and had left a pile of sugars on the table next to my cup. I busied myself sweetening up the cup while I let Celestia stew in her thoughts. She’d been quiet the whole way back to the car, and the whole drive over, too, for that matter. She hadn’t even spared me so much as a look, choosing instead to just glare at whatever happened to be flashing by the passenger side window.

Can’t imagine I’d ever had a more awkward cup of coffee, but then again, awkward had been kind of a theme since Night Light had dragged me kicking and screaming into this nutty scenario.

I took a sip, careful not to burn myself on the molten iron that Cheese Cake called coffee. It was just a shade below boiling and didn’t taste much different from the gas station stuff, but it came with bottomless refills and only cost two bucks. The heat felt good after having been out in the freezing rain, and did the job of heating my insides in a way that Philomena’s heater couldn’t.

Sufficiently warm, I pulled out the pack of cigarettes I’d brought in from the car and put one between my lips. I lit up, cupping a hand over the end, the way you would when trying to block the wind. We were indoors, but the act covered the fact that I wasn’t using a lighter, just in case someone was looking our way. I took a long drag, filling my lungs with more warmth, and blew the smoke out the side of my mouth so it wouldn’t hit Celestia in the face.

“You’re not supposed to smoke in these places anymore,” Celestia said, frowning as she stared into the mug between her hands. She took a sip, grimaced, and grabbed two of the sugars for herself.

I took another drag. “The waitress is a friend,” I said. The mugs had been served with a little saucer as a coaster, so I pulled mine out from under the cup and tapped my ash into it. “She doesn’t care as long as I don’t do it all the time. It bothering you?”

“Not really,” Celestia replied as she tried her coffee again. “I actually kind of miss the smell. I quit a few years ago.”

“I did, too,” I said with a chuckle.

Celestia smiled. It wasn’t much, barely a grin, but it was a smile. It didn’t last long, though, and disappeared in the span of time it took for her to take another long, slurping sip of coffee.

“So is this what we’re going to do?” she asked as she set her cup down. “We’re going to sit here and drink coffee and pretend that I didn’t just see you…” Celestia slumped forward, resting her palms against her forehead as she groaned behind the stringy curtain of damp hair that fell over her face. “I can’t believe this is really happening.”

“If it counts for anything,” I began, “we weren’t going to keep this a secret from you forever. It was just going to be until I get rid of this other practitioner. I would have liked to have eased you into the idea.”

Celestia pulled her hands to the side, parting the curtain of hair enough to look at me. “He was going to kill everyone, wasn’t he?” she asked in a timid voice that didn’t suit what I knew about her.

“Yeah.” I tapped out some ash.

“Why? What would he get out of that?”

“Maybe he thought it didn’t matter how many people he killed as long as Twilight was in the pile,” I said with a sniff. “Could also have been he’s smart enough that he knows another magician is hiding her and he wanted to see if he could flush her out. Hell, maybe he was just throwing a tantrum and decided to cut loose with something particularly nasty. Some guys just get off on exercising their power over the straights.”

Celestia made a disgusted face. “Is that what you call us?” she asked. “The ‘straights’?”

“Just a turn of phrase. We’re not running around calling people Muggles or anything stupid like that. Some guys call regular folk ‘mortals’, though. As if they were immortal, which is a laugh.” My cigarette was almost finished, maybe just a puff or two before I was at the filter, so I snuffed what was left and lit another without even debating it. I’d earned a second smoke. “Everybody dies, no matter how hard you fight it and no matter how much power you’ve got, even the ones that are only mostly human.”

Celestia made a face at that last bit. It was the same sort of green “I just got a stomachache” look that Night Light had given me when I’d explained magic stuff to him.

Speaking of stomachs, mine growled at me, obviously upset that the only things I was putting into my body were coffee and smoke. While Celestia chewed on my words, I reached over to the little tray of condiments and seasonings at the end of the table, to the saltines that were left there for customers to crumble into soups.

“So what now?” she asked. I’d been getting asked that a lot lately. Was starting to wish I had a good answer for it.

“Nothing for now,” I said around a mouthful of over-salted crackers. I took a half-step out of my seat and grabbed the crackers off the next table over, too. “I’ve got friends looking into some things for me. Hopefully I can find this other wizard soon.”

“What are you going to do when you find him?”

“I’ll make him go away.”

Celestia leaned in, chewing her lip apprehensively before she asked, “How?”

I smacked my lips dryly and took a drink of coffee to wash down the crackers. “I’ll make him go away,” I repeated.

Celestia’s mouth opened to say something, but no sound came out. After a few moments of silently hanging agape, she closed it, defeatedly, and leaned back against her seat. “So Twilight will be safe in your house, then?”

I nodded.

“That’s good,” she said, wringing her hands. “I hope… I… Would it be alright if I stayed over?”

The selfish part of me wanted to tell her no. Luna had suggested staying the night, and the lower half of me was still really interested in making that happen, even after the interruption of having to break apart the most epic storm magic I’d ever laid eyes on. There probably wouldn’t be much hanky-panky going on if Luna’s big sister was sleeping downstairs. Actually, thinking about it, Twilight probably wouldn’t give us much alone time either, if her habit of sneaking into my bed was any indication.

I could understand Celestia’s wishes, though. If it were me, I definitely would have insisted on staying over.

“That’s fine,” I said, nodding.

“Thank you.” Celestia slumped in the seat, visibly relieved at my acceptance. “You’re a good person.”

Something inside me swelled. Maybe it was pride, or a sense of relief. Whatever it was, it lifted up, buoyed by Celestia’s words. Luna had told me I was a good person, and even if I didn’t believe it myself, it still felt good to hear it from someone I liked. Hearing it in Celestia’s voice, though? That felt good. Better than I like admitting.

That feeling didn’t last for very long, though.

“You’re a good person,” she repeated as she sat up straight, her knee brushing lightly against mine under the table as she pushed herself up. She leveled a look at me that was all steel and lace. “I know you’re good, and that’s why I know you’re going to agree with what I have to say.”

I lifted an eyebrow in suspicion at the tone in her voice. The cigarette I’d been smoking was half finished and dangling from my lips. I put it down on the impromptu ashtray and held out my open hands, inviting Celestia to continue.

“Once this is all over, once you’ve made this other person ‘go away’,” her nose wrinkled like she smelled something bad, “I want you to do the same.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I want you to go away,” Celestia said, calmly, coolly, as though she wasn't telling me to piss off. “This isn’t… this isn’t how the world is supposed to be. Magic? Monsters? Kill-storms that come right off heavy metal album covers? Are you kidding me? I don’t belong here, and neither does Twilight.”

Celestia pushed her coffee aside and leaned forward on her elbows. Her gaze was hard, but not unkind, and colored with just enough pity to make me feel small again.

“Twilight doesn’t need this. What happened to her is… it’s beyond awful. She needs help, she needs to be a normal little girl. That can’t happen if she’s hanging around with you, and you know it. When this is all over, I’ll take her. It won’t be easy, but I have friends in social services that will help me smooth things over with the authorities. I don’t know what story I’ll tell them, but I’ll make it work out even if I have to use every single dime of my trust fund to bribe every man and woman in City Hall. I’ll raise her as my own daughter and she’ll never want for anything. Clothes, food, books, college, anything she wants is hers. She’ll be normal, and she’ll be happy... but that will never happen if you keep coming around. Every time she sees you it’ll just be a reminder of what she lost.”

Celestia’s eyes narrowed as she jabbed her index finger on the table pointedly, hard enough to rattle the dishware.

“And before you argue, let me ask you... what if something like this happens again in the future? Not to Twilight, but to you. I’m not going to pretend I know anything about your world or however you want to call it, but if there are people running around with enough power to level a city with a storm, I can’t imagine that you, someone who has enough power to fight someone like that, haven’t made some enemies. You’re a good person, but you’re dangerous. I don’t want that danger around Twilight, and I’m betting you don’t either. It’s for the best if you just quietly step out of her life once this is all over and don’t ever, ever come back. I’d even consider it a personal favor if you did.”

Celestia stood up suddenly. She pulled a billfold out of her pocket and thumbed through it before placing a crisp new fifty under her coffee. When you leave a big tip like that, it’s not about the service, it’s about making a statement that you can afford it.

Celestia turned to leave, but hesitated after just a couple of steps. She turned back and added, “And everything I said goes for Luna, too. Stay away from her. You’re a good person, but that doesn’t mean you’re good enough for my sister.”

Celestia walked out of the restaurant with her head held higher than when she came in. I followed her with my eyes as she strode out the front door and into the parking lot. She went to my car and tried the passenger-side door. It was locked, but she just went around to sit on the hood, her dramatic exit and her pride seemingly undiminished by being locked out.

I don’t know how long I sat there staring into my coffee. It must have been a while, because by the time I felt Cheese Cake’s hand on my shoulder the cigarette I’d left smouldering in the saucer had burned itself out.

“You okay, child?” Cheese Cake asked, concerned. “That woman say something to you?”

“Nah, nah, it’s…” I coughed. My throat was feeling real dry all of a sudden, so I took a drink of my now lukewarm coffee. “I’m dating her sister… kind of.”

“Ah,” Cheese said with a knowing nod. “I’ve been there… Well, I’m glad you’re getting out there at least. I was starting to worry about you.” Cheese Cake picked up the money that Celestia had left and held it up taut between her fingers, snapping it showily. “Why don’t we just use this to pay your tab, eh? That’ll show her.”

* * *

Chapter 7 - Night Moves

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We drove in utter silence, save for the roar of the heater going at full blast and the splash of tires churning through flooded streets. Lightning must’ve screwed with the broadcast towers, because not even the radio could save me. It was all static, storm warnings, and an AM station that was trying to make the week’s college baseball scores sound exciting. I would’ve put on a tape or something, but the case with all my cassettes was under Celestia’s seat. Didn’t help that I took the extra long way home, just to be sure nothing was following us.

Cheese Cake had tried to give me a little pep talk on my way out of the restaurant. It was mostly the standard platitudes about how nobody with a little sister liked it when that sister brought someone home, and that I shouldn’t take anything Celestia said as personal. Cheese didn’t know enough to know the situation was more complicated than that, but it still made me feel a little better knowing she was in my corner.

The city streets were in rough shape. Some places were ankle-deep with water, and downed power lines were dancing on sidewalks, throwing up sparks that might have caused a few fires if everything hadn’t been soaked down to the atoms. The people who’d gotten caught in the downpour were hurrying home, quick as they could without being reckless in the poor conditions.

I kept my eyes on the road, but I couldn’t help but sneak furtive looks out the corner of my eye at Celestia. She hadn’t so much as glanced at me since we’d left the ICLOP. She just sat there, waterlogged and emotionless as she glared at her phone in distraction. I might as well have been a taxi driver to the woman.

Even going slow, the drive should have only been around a half hour, but I pulled up my driveway feeling fifty years older. I didn’t even bother pulling into the garage, I parked and killed the engine as soon as I was in the drive. The second the car was stopped, I got out like it was on fire.

The girls must have seen the lights as I was pulling up or something, because I was barely on the porch before the door was open and Luna had rushed out in her bare feet. I almost took a tumble back onto the lawn as the little blue-haired minx practically threw herself into me, burying her face in my neck and doing her best to squeeze the life out of me.

“Thank god you’re okay,” she whispered in my ear.

At a loss, I just put my hands on her waist as best I could with my arms pinned to my sides. My pitiful attempts to reciprocate the hug had her nuzzling into my shoulder even harder, like she was trying to mark me with her scent.

Twilight was there too. She was standing in the doorway, bouncing with an unrestrained childish glee that would have been appropriate if I’d come up the driveway with a new puppy in my arms.

Celestia was right behind. I knew she was there because I could feel her eyes trying to burn a hole through me.

“Hey, we better get inside,” I said, giving Luna a feeble pat on the small of her back.

Luna disengaged her bear hug and pulled me into the house by the hand. Twilight stepped aside to let us in, and when Luna helped me out of my jacket in the entryway, Twilight took it from her and folded it carefully, laying it on the phone stand with almost reverent care.

Luna and Twilight crowded me as I bent over and undid the laces to kick off my boots. Questions were getting fired at me in salvos from both directions. Luna wanted to know if I was hungry, or hurt, or if I wanted a change of clothes – she wanted to take care of me. Twilight’s questions were just as rapid-fire, but more along the lines of asking what it was like and what I’d done to break the storm, while also trying to give the play-by-play of what the whole thing had looked like from all the way out here.

I was hard-pressed to decide which was making me more uncomfortable, Twilight's gushing worship or Luna's pampering. They were both more than I deserved, and too much for me to cope with after the night I'd just had.

“Guys, please.” I held up my hands to stall further questions, and to my surprise they both quieted down right away. I rubbed my forehead like I was trying to soothe a migraine and affected a weary tone. “I’m actually kind of tired, ya know? I used up a lot of magic, so I think I need some peace and quiet to recharge my batteries.”

It was a lie. I was comfortable in lies. A good enough lie was a house that could shelter you from any rain.

“You want to go to bed?” Luna asked.

“I need quiet, so I think maybe the attic is better,” I said.

Twilight made a little chirp of recognition. “Oh, because of those magic thingies you were drawing on the walls?” She turned to Luna and tugged on the older girl’s wrist. “She’s got all kinds of cool magic stuff up there.”

Bless her heart. The kid was inadvertently helping me sell my lie by making the same logical leap that I was going to use to defend my decision.

We exchanged a few more words, which consisted mainly of me insisting that I didn’t need anything other than rest, and letting them know they had the run of the house. I almost mussed Twilight’s hair in passing, but I could still feel Celestia’s gaze, and what had become an almost reflexive gesture of affection these last few days felt shamefully inappropriate under her watchful eyes.

I went upstairs alone, pausing just long enough to grab a blanket out of the hall linen closet where I kept the towels. Once I was safely in the attic, I shut myself in and inhaled the musty scent of wood shavings and dust. I reached overhead and grabbed the pull-chain for the light. I could find it easily, even in the dark.

I picked a corner of the room at random and hunkered down, wrapping myself up in the blanket, which wasn’t much thicker than a sheet, but was better than nothing. There were no heating vents in the attic and I’d torn out most of the insulation to expose more of the house’s framework for magic junk, so there was a definite chill up here that was somehow worse than just being outside. It was enough to make me regret not bringing my jacket. At least my clothes had mostly dried from battling that storm earlier, so thankfully I wouldn’t completely freeze my tits off.

I wasn’t even remotely tired, but I forced myself to sleep anyway. I didn’t want to be here, in the waking world where I had to deal with necromancers and orphans and potential girlfriends and bitchy dopplegangers of psuedo-mothers.

I just wanted to be alone. I wanted some peace and quiet.

* * *

Whether it was intentional or not, Celestia had hurt me. She hadn’t said anything I hadn’t been thinking to myself, but that was probably why it had stung so bad. Her words had touched on one of those deep down fears that kept me up at night – the fear that even if I could be the good person I was striving to be, I’d never be able to fully outrun my past. The power that I had made me different from normal people, and because of it I couldn’t have a normal life, with a normal lover, normal kids, normal friends. They’d always be too… fragile… to exist in my orbit.

That knowledge was especially bitter fruit when I recalled the way Luna and Twilight had looked at me the night before – as if the leather jacket on my back was made from the freshly tanned skin of the Nemean Lion. I wondered what they would think if they knew that the thing I’d done the night before – that impressive, heroic thing – was accomplished using a demon’s power. A demon’s power paid for with an IOU on my soul, no less.

I’d slept well, at least. No dreams, and I’d woken up feeling better than I had in years.

I knew the reason, of course. I’d let Fiddler’s magic take hold of me again for the first time in a long, long while. My body felt light, felt good. The little aches and pains that I’d grown used to were still there, but they were muted and hazy, like all my delicate and tender bits were covered in bubble warp.

I hated it. I hated how comfortable I felt curled up in the warm blanket of a devil’s power, and how easy it was to say that I felt like I was myself for the first time in a long while. I knew it for the trick it was. That wonderfully terrible magic was addictive and what I was feeling was just the euphoric guilt of a junkie riding the high of her first time off the wagon in years. I wasn’t even tired. Considering the magic I’d been slinging around the night before, I should’ve been half dead, but the bump of power I’d borrowed from the ink had me feeling like I was back in my prime – I probably was.

It was all just a reminder of how little I was like other humans. I had their shape, but the insides were wrong, like a piece of fruit that squirmed in your mouth when you bit into it.

I tried not to think about the myriad of problems that had accumulated in my lap over the last week, but there wasn’t much in the way of distraction in the attic aside from tracing the magical formulas in my wards or poking at my empty belly. If I’d been a smarter woman, I would’ve claimed the basement as my recuperation place. At least I would’ve had something to read, and maybe I could’ve licked the cookie crumbs Twilight had left in the folds of the beanbag.

The online news, which was blowing up with stories about the storm, had been an interesting diversion. The crackpots were throwing around their end of the world theories and meteorologists were called in for emergency interviews, allowing them to enjoy the type of flash-in-the-pan celebrity status that was usually reserved for reality TV stars.

What was really interesting, though, was the fact that even days after the fire, there was still no news about Twilight’s missing body. Even with the little extra magical oomph I’d put in the fire, there should have still been some remains. Medical and fire examiners aren’t idiots, even with the freak storms contaminating the scene, I had trouble believing that they’d gone this long without noticing that Night Light’s family of four had left only three corpses.

Maybe they thought the remains of the magical construct I’d left burning in the upstairs hallway were from Twilight? Nah, that was stupid. Any idiot off the street could tell that there wasn’t a single human bone in that thing.

Once I’d realized I was seeing something weird, I’d practically chewed my lower lip bloody mulling it over. Ultimately, all I could do was shrug and thank my lucky stars that the situation wasn’t even more complicated than it already was.

Or maybe it was more complicated and I just wasn’t smart enough to see how… Man, I really wasn’t cut out for this crap. Thinking about it only made me feel more inferior, like I was taking a test for something I’d never even thought to study.

I whiled away the night like that, until I’d had my fill of the news. The last of my phone’s charge had been spent watching cat videos, and once that was gone there was nothing to do but try to sleep a little more, though even that was becoming increasingly difficult.

It was almost noon when I heard the heavy clunk and squeal of the attic stairs being pulled down. I could tell it was Twilight from the sound of her footfalls. An adult woman would have had heavier steps. Her head popped up through the hatch, wearing a big smile on her face that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She looked nervous, like maybe she was afraid I would get mad at her for disturbing me.

“Hey,” she said as she climbed the rest of the steps and walked over, her stride stuttering with hesitation. She was holding a plate of something that was steaming in the cold attic. “I made you rolly-tacos... In the microwave.” She held the plate up with both hands like an offering.

I gave her a smile. I was glad to see her, but I knew I shouldn’t be. I didn’t have the right. I waved her over and justified the smile to myself by saying I was happy to see the tacos. “Thanks, kid. I was getting peckish.”

Twilight handed me the plate, all smiles as she sat cross-legged on the dusty floor a few feet away. She was dressed in a denim skirt and a t-shirt with the animal sidekick of those magical princess characters she liked on it. It was one of the outfits I’d gotten her, but her wearing something other than pajamas was probably Celestia’s doing. That woman struck me as the kind of prig that frowned on being comfortable in the middle of the day.

“How’d you get up here?” I asked.

“Luna pulled down the stairs for me.” Twilight cast a quick glance back toward the open hatch. She leaned in and half-whispered to me conspiratorially, “She wanted to come up, too, but I told her you were probably too tired to make-out.”

I laughed and the crappy microwave tacos went up my nose. I coughed until it went back down, patting my chest to settle the little panicked flutter.

“Good call,” I told her. “You guys doing okay down there?”

That troubled look again. She wiggled, fidgeting as she tugged at the hem of her skirt anxiously. “We’re okay…” she answered meekly. Another look back. “We’re, um… Luna and I are doing laundry.”

I groaned internally, trying to keep the grimace off my face. I already had a pretty good idea of what she was talking about, but I figured I’d ask anyway. “What are you washing?”

“That big pile of clothes in your room,” Twilight explained, shrugging apologetically. “Luna and I slept in your bed since you were up here, and Celestia slept in mine. Luna said it smelled bad in there, so we should wash the clothes for you… but she also spent a long time smelling one of your shirts… if it was stinky then why would she want to smell it?”

I stuffed one of the soggy-slash-dry taquitos into my mouth and chewed it to buy myself some time. I reasoned that maybe if I spent long enough eating I wouldn’t have to answer that question. Kids were full of questions, and if you just waited long enough they’d forget whatever they’d just asked and move on to another.

Sadly, Twilight was once again proving to not be like other kids.

“This is another one of those weird grown-up couple things.” It wasn’t a question. She was just stating the facts as she saw them.

I nodded and she seemed to accept that.

“Anything else happening?” I asked.

“Celestia and Luna are fighting a lot...” Twilight wrung her little hands in her lap.

I couldn’t hold in the sigh. “About me?”

Twilight nodded. “Celestia’s been saying bad stuff about you, like that you’re dangerous and scary... I wish she’d just go home. We don’t need her here.”

Celestia sure didn’t waste any time trying to sour their opinions of me. Guess I couldn’t blame her. Twilight, Luna, and I were already chummy. The last few days had the three of us thick as thieves, and if Celestia was going to sell them on distancing themselves from me, she had to start laying the groundwork right away.

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t blame her for it. Probably would be doing the same, if our positions were reversed.

“You shouldn’t be like that with her,” I said as I wiped my greasy fingers on my jeans. “She cares a lot about you… and besides, I thought you liked her.”

“She’s saying bad things about you,” Twilight repeated, her mouth drawing into a tight, angry line. “I don’t like it.”

“That’s stuff between me and her,” I explained. “You don’t gotta worry about how Celestia and I feel about each other. That’s grown up stuff.”

“It’s not just about that,” Twilight insisted. Her cute little face scrunched up in childish indignation. “She won’t leave me alone. She says she wants me to live with her.”

I hesitated, but Celestia’s words were still bouncing around in my head, and I figured this was as good a time as any to start pushing Twilight in her direction.

“Would that be so bad?” I asked, gently.

The words felt wrong in my mouth. I’d heard the same from the adults back at the orphanage, talking down to the few kids who were up for adoption but didn’t want to go with whoever had picked them out of the rabble. It was rare, but not every kid wanted to be saved. Whether it was because they were scared, or because they just didn’t trust strangers, some kids were just fine with the idea of never leaving the orphanage until they were too old to stay. For them, the orphanage had been the most permanent home they’d ever known. When you’ve been hurt, when you’re a kid who’s all on their own, it’s hard to leave a place of security, no matter how tenuous it might be.

Twilight seemed to curl up into herself, her arms and legs tucking in defensively – the number-one technique in orphan kid kung fu for defending against uncomfortable questions. “I don’t want to go with her…”

“Why not?” I asked, although I already had an idea of why, and the thought that I might be okay with it actually scared me a little. “Celestia’s got money, and she’s smart, educated… she’s going to be something someday and she seems to really love you.”

“She doesn’t understand,” Twilight said, mumbling the words into her chest. “She doesn’t know what it’s like…”

I wanted to hug her, just to touch her and let her know I was here with her. I knew I shouldn’t though. I was getting too comfortable with the thought that hugs were okay.

In the orphanage, our caretakers only touched us when it was necessary. They knew they were only meant to be our temporary custodians, and getting too close to us made it harder for everyone when it was time to adopt a kid out, or for staff to leave for other jobs. Distance was important, it was a buffer that protected us – the adults as much as the children.

“She wants to understand,” I said softly, playing another borrowed card.

Twilight looked up, her cheeks flush with indignation. “She wants someone to kill her parents?” Twilight asked coldly. “Or Luna? Does she really want to know what that’s like?”

“You don’t mean that,” I said with a sigh.

She looked away, nearly in tears and clearly ashamed of her sudden outburst. “I know…”

“You knew this was going to be temporary.” I scratched at my arm nervously, immensely uncomfortable with this conversation. I’d never in a million years have thought I’d be playing the role of the adult in one of these discussions. “I told you I’d find you a good home, and maybe it happened a little quicker than either of us thought it would, but I really do think that Celestia will make a great home for you. I would never have given the okay if I didn’t think she was perfect for the job. Plus, she lives with Luna, so you’ll get to see her all the time. Even if you’re mad at Celestia, you’re not mad at Luna, are you?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, I’m not… I guess that would be okay… And… and if I’m living with Luna, that means I’ll get to see you a lot, too, right?”

My mouth suddenly felt very dry.

I’ve stared monsters in the eye and didn’t flinch, but the hopeful look in Twilight’s eyes, begging me to tell her that I wouldn’t be completely out of her life… that was almost too much to bear. It took all my willpower to maintain eye contact, and all my skill as a performer to put on a smile that felt convincing.

“You’ll see me as often as Luna will,” I said.

Not a lie, just not all the truth. Fiddler would be proud.

Twilight smiled, obviously relieved, but not fully happy with the answer. She was a sharp kid, so maybe she saw the loophole I’d left myself. If that was the case, she was also smart enough to know not to press the issue.

Twilight reached for the empty plate and stood to leave. “I’ll let you get your rest,” she said. “Do you need anything else?”

“Nah, I’m good, thanks, kid.”

Twilight disappeared down the stairs, tossing a final wave just as her head was disappearing beneath the floor, and a few seconds later the hatch closed up. Luna must have been sitting down there and listening to us. I felt a flash of irritation that she’d been eavesdropping, but I squashed it. She was probably just worried. Worried about me, about Twilight, about everything. Luna was a worrier – people with big hearts always were.

My chest tied itself into a knot as Luna came to mind. I regret a lot of things about my love life, but breaking up with Luna was going to be at the top of the list. I was really starting to like her.

I could make the argument that Luna was an adult, that she was old enough to understand the risks of being involved with me and to make a decision for herself of whether or not it was worth it to her to be with me... I could make that argument, but it would feel hollow. Deep down, I knew that I didn’t want Luna getting wrapped up in the trash hole my life was anymore than I wanted that for Twilight.

I cared enough about them that I wouldn't be so selfish as to inflict myself upon them.

I laid down, wondering if I could force myself to sleep again without the use of magic and doing my best not to think about Luna. It was no use, though. Now that she’d come to mind, she was like a song with a catchy hook, and even as the minutes ticked by I found I couldn’t think of anything else. It didn’t help at all that I could hear little snippets of her voice from downstairs from time to time.

I grabbed my stuff and got up. I couldn’t be in this house right now.

I lowered the stairs, careful to wait a second before pushing them down all the way so I wouldn’t brain anybody that might be in the hall below. I tiptoed downstairs, sneaking out of my own house like I didn’t want my parents to know I was going to see Judas Priest. The TV was on in the living room, so nobody had heard me lowering the attic stairs, and it looked like they were all in the kitchen anyway. The coast was clear, so I made a beeline for the front door, pausing only long enough to grab my jacket and boots.

It was sunny out. The sight of clear skies straight to the horizon pissed me off something fierce, like they were mocking me with their promise of a better tomorrow. I couldn’t believe I was missing the rain. A little cold water on my face would’ve been great, even with nasty magic in it.

I walked to the end of the porch and dropped to my ass, sitting on the stoop and dusting off the underside of my socks so I could tug my boots on. The door opened behind me as I was tying my laces, and for just a second I felt a flutter of panic.

Luna was standing in the doorway, a puzzled look on her face. She was wearing an outfit that I immediately recognized as having come from the pile in my room – a pair of dark red shorts that I sometimes wore as pajamas, and a plain white tank top that hung on her like a nightgown, her being so much more petite than me. My heart betrayed me again, pounding at the sight of her in my clothes.

“Hey,” she said in a half-whisper. She looked over her shoulder, back into the house, and stepped out, carefully closing the door just as quietly as I had. “Is everything okay?”

I had wanted to get out of here without anybody catching on, but I guess the universe screws Sunset yet again. I took out my frustrations on my laces, pulling them fight enough to hurt.

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m all better, but I can’t just sit around all day. I still got some stuff to take care of. Magic, y’know? Storm like that, it can screw things up real bad. Have to make sure there’s no weird aftershocks.”

“Oh…” Luna muttered, obviously unconvinced. She chewed her lip apprehensively, fixing me with the same cautious look that Twilight had when she’d thought she was disturbing me in the attic. “What time will you be back?”

“I dunno, depends on a lot of things.” I stood up and pulled on my jacket. It was too warm for leather, but I felt better – safer – with it on. A little bit of well-worn leather was better than plate armor when you took a dive off your bike and were in a skid.

She crossed her arms under her breasts, hugging herself like she was fighting off a chill. It was such a small movement, but it was genuine and vulnerable enough that the knot in my chest tightened again.

“Tonight?” she asked hopefully.

“Tonight,” I replied, though a moment of hesitation betrayed the certainty of my answer. I honestly didn’t know if I’d be back tonight, but I couldn’t tell her that.

“Okay,” she said, her eyes downcast.

I started walking to the car without saying goodbye, which Luna must have taken as her cue to follow. She plodded along dutifully, still barefoot from last night and seemingly not caring. It was a short distance, but knowing Luna was only a few steps behind made me so self-conscious that I could barely walk a straight line. When I got to the car I found the door was unlocked. I’d been in such a hurry the night before that I had forgotten to lock up.

I got in and started the engine, but a knock at the window kept me from just driving off. Luna was leaning down, her face inches from the glass.

“I can make you lunch before you go,” she said, putting her hands on the door and leaning half way into the car. “Or you could have a shower, since I washed your clothes for you. You don’t have to go right now… I’m sure whatever this is, it can wait. Come inside, at least to say bye to Twilight.”

“No, I can’t put it off,” I said. “If I do, I know I won’t be able to do it later… it’s gotta be now, before it’s too late.”

Luna held out a hand and cupped my cheek. Her hands smelled vaguely of onions from whatever she’d been cooking in the kitchen, with just a hint of the brand of dish soap I used.

“Is it really that bad?” she asked.

I swallowed. “It’s never been this bad before.”

“Okay,” she said, resignedly. She leaned in and kissed me. It wasn’t the impassioned, amateurish tonsil cleaning she’d given me before. It was just a peck. Maybe all she wanted was to see if I’d let her do it – a kiss like the first cautious step onto thin ice. “Twilight and I will be here. We’ll be waiting for you, for however long it takes for you to do whatever this is.”

She let go and backed away from the car, giving me silent permission to leave.

I drove away, not daring to look to see if she was in my rearview, because I knew if I saw her I’d end up doing something stupid like turning back around.

I didn’t get very far before something tingling at the back of my skull exploded into a sense of anxiety that spread through me, pouring down until it hit my gut with the hard, bitter burn of cheap tequila. It was something I hadn’t felt for a while, that weird, indescribable sense of having nowhere to go. I’d run away from home twice in my life, and so had twice been homeless. The sensation I was feeling wasn’t as acute as all that, but it was certainly in the same neighborhood.

I couldn’t go home. There were too many problems there, too many regrets that had sprung up like weeds the second I’d stopped tending my garden. And the worst of the regrets weren’t even for things I’d done, but for things that I knew I’d have to do in the very near future.

Nowhere to go. Homeless. For only a day, or two, or seven – there was no telling – but still without a home for the moment. It was a familiar feeling, and bad for the familiarity.

There was a small gas station about halfway back into the city, just at the edge of the suburbs. It was a last gasp kind of Mom and Pop joint that always had cheap gas and homemade beef jerky that they sold out of mason jars with screw-on lids.

I didn’t need gas but I pulled over anyway. I went around the side, where the perpetually out-of-service Quarter-Vac was, and parked.

I leaned back in my seat and just thumped my skull against the headrest until my brain unscrambled itself.

This shouldn’t have been as complicated as I was making it out to be. Luna and Twilight were too good for me, and so I couldn’t have them around me. Once the books were balanced and they didn’t need to hide behind me anymore, they would be free to return to the normal, completely mundane and only slightly-perilous real world. It was better for them, better for me, better for everyone. It was really that simple once I stripped it down to the brass tacks.

But then why did this feel so bad?

I groaned. The little spot in the middle of my chest was burning again. Maybe it’d be a heart attack this time.

Nah, I couldn’t be that lucky.

I fumbled in my jeans pocket for my phone to check the time. I tried to thumb it on and remembered that it was dead. Funny, the things that slip your mind when you’re in the middle of drama. I had a charger in the glovebox, so I plugged it into the lighter socket and got out of the car to buy some more smokes while I waited for it to juice up.

A fifth of a pack and ten bucks of homemade jerky later, I got back in the car and tried the phone.

Seven missed calls, all from Cilia. I knew she wouldn’t call without reason, especially not seven times, so I dialed immediately to return the call.

Five rings, then a small, sleepy voice picked up the other end.

“Sunset Shimmer, you need to learn to answer your phone,” Cilia grumbled irritably. I could hear her stifling a yawn away from the phone. “I take it that storm last night was your doing.”

“The part that ended it was mine, yeah,” I replied. “And my phone died, sorry.”

There was a pause.

“Is something wrong?” she asked. “You sound odd.”

“I’m peachy,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“You don’t sound peachy… Whatever. Maybe your mood will improve to hear that my honored Uncle has sent word that he will be arriving within the next day or so.”

“That’s great.” A sense of relief came over me so strongly that it made my skin tingle. I leaned back in my seat and sighed. “That’s great news, thanks.”

“That’s not what I originally called you about,” she added. “One of my nephews went out early this morning to attend some business... He found your man.”

Just like that, my whole body tensed back up. I was having a real roller coaster of a day, but for the first time, I cracked a genuine smile.

* * *

The city was still a mess, which was to be expected after the stratospheric slapfight I’d had the night before. The cold light of day had shown just how bad things had gotten, and the storm hadn’t even touched ground. Trees and powerlines were down all over the city, with police and city workers running Golden Time to try to put Canterlot back in working order. It was already mid-afternoon, and some parts of the city, mostly the older ones, were still flooded. Couple of years ago the City Council had tried to get funding to renovate some of the old irrigation systems that hadn’t been properly maintained since who knows when. It would’ve been a tenth of a percent added to the county sales tax and it had been shut down in a landslide.

Something told me that a redux of the proposal would be a hot button issue come next November.

All the flooding and street repair meant closed roads, so it took a while longer than I had expected to get to the address Cilia had given me. By the time I got there, I was fit to be tied and sick of police barricades, but the sight of the place lifted my spirits with the hope that I would finally be getting somewhere with this screwed up adventure.

The Golden Moon Plaza was a dirty strip mall in a dingy part of town that was somehow even more of a slum than the quaint little barrio where Nightriver Park was. It was the kind of place that most people just drove past – a cold-sore on the city’s face that wasn’t more than a few blocks wide but sat smack dab in the middle of more respected and well-kept neighborhoods. Even the light-up sign in front of the sidewalk seemed like it had given up. The lettering that had once proudly proclaimed the name of the stripmall – written in an ugly font that hadn’t seen commercial use since the 70’s – was faded with age and exposure where the plastic hadn’t been outright broken by rocks.

No one would accuse the joint of being an attractive place to spend your money. More than half the shops were closed, with the windows boarded up with sheets of plywood to protect the glass displays from getting vandalized and to keep out squatters. All it did was add more canvas for the local troublemakers to tag up with incomprehensible graffiti. Some of the plywood hadn’t even survived the storm, and was lying flat in the parking lot or half clinging to the walls with only a few stubborn nails.

As far as I could tell, the liquor store and sex shop at the end of the strip mall seemed to be the only things that kept the shopping center in operation. They were the twin pillars of moral decay holding back the tide of urban decay – it was kind of beautiful in its own way.

I wasn’t here for the booze or blow-up dolls. I had my eyes set on the opposite end of the strip, to the rundown furniture store that occupied thrice the footprint of any of the other shops. Maybe it was because of the extra big display windows, but it was the only one with metal shutters. Even from the street, I could see the that the shutters were conspicuously clean, shiny new metal ruining the overall slum-hole aesthetic. Very suspicious.

I drove past the strip mall to the actual grocery store up the way. Philomena stood out too much and depending on how things went I might end up doing something that the cops would be interested in, so I didn’t want to be all that memorable in case they started questioning the local rummies and daytime perverts.

I parked the car near the entrance and hoofed it to the strip mall. By the time I got back Cilia was already there, standing in an alleyway across the street, between an automatic laundromat and a video store that was somehow keeping the doors open despite the internet totally being a thing. She waved me over and I followed her into the alley, my nose wrinkling only slightly as the smell hit me. I’d spent a lot of time in alleys over the years and found that they all smelled pretty much the same no matter where you went. The stink of urine and over-ripened food was one of those oddly universal bouquets, with only subtle differences to account for local spices. You’d think the storm would’ve washed some of the smell away, but you’d be wrong. All it did was add a pungent undertone of wet dirt and soggy trash.

Cilia greeted me with a nod. “Sunset.”

“Hey, you didn’t have to come yourself. I know you gotta get your sleep.”

Cilia tossed a braid over her shoulder with a flick of her head. “I’ve slept enough,” she said. “It holds back my hunger pains but makes my back hurt. One discomfort isn’t much better than the other.”

“People don’t starve to death of a bad back,” I pointed out.

“I’m not that old yet,” she snapped, her cheeks pinkening in a girlish way. She looked me up and down, relaxing the furrow in her brow at whatever she was seeing. You could never tell what magical beings were seeing when they looked at you, and from my experience that went double for changelings. The little shapeshifting vagabonds sometimes saw things even other magical types couldn’t. It’s what made them good friends to have, but also made them obnoxious as hell when they had a mind for it. “Are you sure you’re alright? You look… disheveled.”

I scoffed. “Says the homeless woman.”

She was right, though. I was still wearing what I’d had last night. My clothes were all wrinkled and crinkly in that way that rain-soaked cloth got when you didn’t dry it right, and my hair was still a mess even after I’d taken a pocket comb to it.

The only thing that rose to my bait was Cilia’s eyebrow. She wasn’t buying my attempts to joke it off and I wasn’t in the mood to explain the complicated mess that my home life had become.

“Like I said on the phone,” I said, pointedly looking away, “I’m peachy. Let’s just take care of business.”

“If that’s what you want.” Cilia subtly pointed to the shuttered furniture store across the way. “My nephew stuck around and watched this place all morning. Your man entered and left several times, but he’s not in right now. He left, along with another man – very big, red hair – and they haven’t been back in the past hour.”

“Where’s your nephew now?”

“I sent him home.” She pulled her cellphone out to check the time. She was still wearing mismatched donation-bin clothes – today it was a pair of boy’s corduroys, brown, and a knitted button-up Christmas sweater, emblazoned with prancing reindeer, that fit her like a trench coat – but her phone was the newest model. I vaguely remembered that Clavus had once mentioned that Cilia had a thing for electronics. “I didn’t want any of my young ones near here. We do our best to stay under police radar and I don’t want to give them an excuse to start trying to round up the city’s street children by connecting us to a crime scene.”

Possible crime scene,” I corrected.

She rolled her eyes cutely. “Regardless, I assumed you might need backing up. They’re not as crafty as I am, so it’s better to have them wait at home.”

“I actually appreciate that,” I said with genuine gratitude.

She nodded and hopped up to take a seat on the mangled remains of a laundry cart that was hidden from the street by a dumpster. “To tell you the truth, though, I think this is a bad idea. Uncle Clavus will be home soon. I think it would be wise to wait for him.”

“I’d be inclined to agree with you if we hadn’t all nearly died last night,” I said as I plopped down on the cart next to her. It wasn’t a big seat, but her tiny butt didn’t take much room, so we both fit comfortably enough. “I’m almost certain that the skies will be clear tonight, but I don’t want to give the asshole that cast that spell a chance to rev up another go at it. I don’t know what his resources are like, but I definitely don’t have the supplies I’d need to break that storm twice.”

“It might still be worth the wait,” she said with a slow shake of her head.

“Did he tell you what he’s been up to?”

The long-suffering groan she gave told me everything I needed to know. “He only said that he would be back soon. Regardless, I highly suggest we await his return.”

“You said he might not be back until tomorrow and I want this done tonight if I can manage it,” I explained. “If this guy knows something that can lead me to my necromancer then maybe I can settle all the accounts before morning.”

“You don’t believe this Caballeron himself is your necromancer?” Cilia asked with a curious tilt of her head.

I sighed and leaned against the brick facade of the laundromat. “The more I’ve thought about it the more I’d have to say no, Caballeron’s not the guy. Celestia, the student of Night Light’s that turned me onto Caballeron, said that he had been caught skulking around the college Night taught at. Doing things in person ain’t a necromancer’s modus. They deal in cat’s paws, usually of the reanimated and zombified variety. If he was a necromancer and wanted to get info on Night, he wouldn’t have gone himself.”

“It’s a sound theory,” Cilia commented, nodding in appreciation. “I don’t know many powerful sorcerers who would be hampered by school security.”

“It’s a theory supported by the fact that Night almost definitely had flesh golems stalking him for a while before he got killed.” I kicked a random crushed beer can across the alley. “A guy handling the kind of power that was getting thrown around last night wouldn’t decide to do his creepy stalking like any other mundane magicless mook. Not before breaking out the undead winged monkeys, that is.”

“So then it’s information we want from Caballeron,” she summarised.

“Yeah, he’s gotta be connected somehow. How connected is the real question.”

“He might not wish to speak to you,” she added.

“He will,” I said with finality in my voice. “I’ll make it happen.”

There was a moment of silence as Cilia unpacked the meaning of my words. She was old and magical. A creature that knew the concept of survival with an almost intimate familiarity. She knew was I was hinting at.

“Very well... hopefully this impatience won’t bite us in the rear,” Cilia muttered pessimistically.

“I know you’re more comfortable waiting for Clavus,” I said, “so if you really feel like this might expose your family too much, I’d understand if you wanted to go home.”

I knew she wouldn’t. She already said she was here to back me up, and I knew enough of her character to know that she was the kind of chick that stuck to her guns and did the things she said she was going to do. Regardless, I still felt I had to give her the offer.

She turned it down predictably, rejecting my suggestion with a subtly dismissive wave. “You’ll probably die if I’m not here.”

“Aw, Cil, we’re becoming real friends, ain’t we?” I nudged her with my elbow. I was thrice her size but she didn’t even budge. “Few more days like this and we’ll be braiding one another’s hair and gossiping about boys over popcorn and issues of Teen Vogue. Should we coordinate pajamas now or do we surprise each other?”

“I can see this is going to be a long wait,” Cilia said offhandedly as she leaned against the dumpster we were hidden behind.

“Probably so.”

I could feel Cilia watching me out the corner her eyes, her gaze heavy with unasked questions. I knew she wasn’t buying my attempts at humor. I didn’t know what changelings saw when they looked at emotions, but I knew that she could tell with supernatural certainty that something was wrong. I just ignored it and opened a new pack of smokes while I waited for Caballeron to show.

I wondered, for only a second, if I still reeked of love to her, or if the smell of it was drowned out by the stink of alley trash and mud.

* * *

The sun had already set by the time we saw Caballeron pull up. According to the changeling kid that had spotted him, he was driving around in an early model Cadillac with out of state plates, and just such a car had pulled into the parking lot and gone straight around to the back. Guy had good taste in cars, I’d give him that.

I stood in the shadows of the alley, pacing back and forth as I waited for Cilia to come back. She’d insisted on going ahead and checking the place out before I headed in, and while I was eager to get this over with, I saw the wisdom in her suggestion.

I pulled out my phone and checked the time. Cilia’d been gone for almost twenty minutes. She had said to give her a half an hour before kicking down the door, but I wasn’t sure I could wait that long. I was starting to like Cilia and I knew for a fact that Clavus wouldn’t be pleased if I let his gal Friday get snuffed while he was out of town doing whatever he was doing.

I wasn’t too worried about her getting seen, changeling magic’s too good at what it does. What I was worried about was any warding Caballeron might’ve set up.

The best wards were set in places the caster lived, and the longer they were there the stronger the wards got. At the end of the day, wards were just another way of staking your territory, and the bigger the sense of ownership on a property, the better you could set something up. All the home improvement stuff I did wasn’t just a way to unwind on the weekend, it actively made my house safer.

This half-abandoned strip mall may have been on its last legs, but the two stores still keeping the walls upright did enough business that people were wandering in and out of the property at all hours of the day. The place was way too public for anything too crazy as far as magical protection went.

But there were ways around the limitations of such a public place, of course. I knew dozens of little tricks to set up really nasty temporary wards that covered small areas, but by their nature most of them wouldn’t last very long. If it were me setting up the fences and I wanted something really good? I’d use the life energy radiating off people going to the porno place next door. Humans were at their most full of life when they were all horned up – a little something I’d learned from a succubus who’d run a very successful brothel out West. Now that was a teacher I’d liked. I had lost my virginity in that cathouse.

As for Caballeron, I doubted he knew as many tricks as I did, but even if he was just some low-tier hedge wizard, there was no telling what he knew about setting up wards. Even without a backer, some sorcerers still managed to piece together a pretty decent set of specialty skills. Still, while Cilia wasn’t an expert spell caster, she was as clever as anyone I’d ever met and had enough muscle to punch her way out if things got hairy, so all I could do was trust that she wouldn’t trip her way into something too rough.

Five more minutes went by before I finally caught sight of something small and furry darting across the street. A little rat climbed up onto the sidewalk and hurried into the alley, running straight past me and into the darkness. A few moments later Cilia walked out, again human, wearing nothing but her sweater.

“Sorry, I had to get up on the roof to find an open vent,” she said as she pinched the garment closed with casual modesty. “He’s in and the big fellow is with him. Your man’s magic seems… puny... and the big one is about as magical as a brick from what I can tell.”

I smiled. Most magical creatures were great about sniffing out how magical something was, just as a self-defense thing. After all, if something smells really magical, it’s probably really dangerous. Changelings, being what they were, were especially good at guestimating something’s magical potential, so Cilia’s recon was definitely good.

“How’s it look for warding?” I asked.

“You were right about the wards, nothing serious. There’s something on the doors and on the loading dock gate, but everywhere else is clear.”

“That’s good, the less work for me, the better.” I zipped up my jacket and cast a quick spell that changed my hair color to something a little less conspicuous. I held a lock of hair between my fingers, squinting in the moonlight at the magical dye job. I kind of liked myself as a brunette. “You going to come in with me?”

She nodded. “I’ll be in your shadow. Try not to step on me.”

“Got it, no squishy.”

Cilia turned around and went back into the shadows to shed her human form. Changelings have trouble adjusting their size and that goes both ways. The fact that Cilia could turn into something as small as a rat said a lot for her skill as a shapeshifter. It actually kind of made me wonder what she might look like in her adult human form, considering how man-sexy Clavus’ was.

Questions for another day.

I hurried across the street and went around to the back of the shopping center. Aside from the areas directly in front of the liquor store and the porno shop, the parking lot wasn’t all that well-lit, but it was even worse around back. None of the security lights were working, which meant I would have been running around in the total dark were it not for the moonlight.

There were two ways into the furniture store from the back. The large metal shutter covering the loading dock was just as new and shiny as the one out front. It looked sturdy, but I was pretty sure I could tear it open if I really wanted to.

While that would’ve been flashy and impressive, I decided to just use the back door. It was your standard steel security job. Nothing special, but clearly recently installed, just like the shutters. The thing didn’t even have a dent in it, and I’d always assumed these things came from the factory with at least one built in.

I took a deep breath, pulling in the cold air and holding it until my lungs hurt.

It had been a while since I’d last met face to face with another magician of any caliber, aside from Clavus, of course. While Caballeron was, by all appearances, the bottom link of the magical food chain, he was still a part of a world that I’d thought I’d left behind. It'd be lying if I said a part of me wasn't excited about coming back to it.

Everyone’s got a little bit of darkness in them. It’s that small, dark corner of your soul that makes you slow down to rubberneck at accidents on the freeway. The bit of you that hears about some gruesome video going viral on the internet and wants to go looking for it. That sliver of darkness was larger in me than in most people. It was the part of me that was selfish, that told me, on an instinctual level, that anything was permissible so long as it was what I wanted, and as long as it furthered my own personal goals. It was the part that could turn a blind eye to any sin, even my own.

It was the part of myself I hated… but for tonight, I’d submerge myself in it, just a little. When it came to dealing with other wizards, you couldn’t afford to be soft. I’d do my best to get what I wanted with bluster and posturing, but if intimidation didn’t work, well… there were other ways.

I was staring down a very slippery slope, but I wasn’t about to back down now. I’d known it would end up like this eventually. My course had been set the second I’d pulled Twilight out of that house.

“Just do it the way you were taught…” I whispered to myself. “Be the biggest thing in the room.”

I licked my lips and pressed my hand to the door. There was a slight hum of magic through it. I could feel the current just beneath my palm. Cilia had been right, this was pathetic. Her changeling magic was some of the most powerful concealment mojo in the paranormal world and she probably didn’t even have to try to sneak around this. A little of my own power and I cut off all the alarm bits of the ward, as easily as pulling loose a badly done shoelace.

I magicked open the lock and pushed the door open. The wards were tripped but there were no alarms to warn the occupants, and the defensive part of the magic rolled off me like water off a duck’s back. It was rigged up like a curse, and I think it was trying to give me boils or something. Thing was basically a prank – Home Alone stuff if the kid in that movie was a baby wizard.

The door opened with a pneumatic hiss, letting me into a half-darkened loading dock. The lights were on, but only one or two of the fixtures had bulbs. Old couches and boxes of cheap Swedish furniture – the kind you put together with tiny, ineffectual hex keys – were strewn about in the places I could see, and there was probably more in the places I couldn’t. A few crates were mixed in with the abandoned furniture. They were big things packed with straw that stuck out between the slats, suitable for shipping stuff. Celestia had mentioned that Caballeron had been busted for smuggling. This must have been where he stored his merchandise. Criminals that dealt in volume tended to have stash houses like this… well, in the movies, anyway.

The Caddie was parked right in front of the shutter like a garage. A third generation DeVille with a drop top – it was a damn nice car and I was glad I didn’t tear the gate off the hinges. I would have hated to scratch up such a classic.

The sound of teeny-tiny nails clicking on cement scurried past me as Rat-Cilia darted off into the darkness.

I let the door slowly close behind me and took a moment to jot down the car’s license plate – just in case – before I made my way further into the building. Aside from the couple of bulbs overhead, the only other source of light was coming from beneath the crack of a door at the other end of the storeroom.

I inched my way forward, careful not to let the sound of my heavy boots give me away. Once I was closer I could hear the low murmurs of conversation. Two voices, indistinct but definitely male. There was a dusty bronze placard on the door that read ‘Break Room’.

I pressed my ear to the door but couldn’t make out more than a few words that made me think they were discussing dinner plans. Hardly helpful.

There was nothing but to do it, so I shrugged, opened the door, and stepped inside. When you’re making an entrance, sometimes silence is the strongest opening.

My first thought was that this was a pretty big break room. It was almost empty, save for a small table with some chairs, an old beat up Coke machine next to the counter where the coffee pot probably use to sit, and a couple of single beds that had been set up and pushed up against the walls at opposite ends.

There were two men sitting at the table, staring at me in wide-eyed surprise like teenage boys that had been caught looking at dirty magazines. I could understand their shock. The little rascals here were in their super secret criminal clubhouse talking about getting chinese and suddenly some strange dame waltzes in, right past the ‘No Girls Allowed’ sign they’d hung up on the door.

I ignored their stares and walked over to the table, pulled out a chair, and had a seat. I even gave a little extra flip of my hair, like I was just sitting down for cocktails and business.

Caballeron looked about the same as he had in the picture I’d taken from Night’s office, if a few years older. He had a bit more gray in his hair, and the dirty three-day-old stubble was similarly salt-and-pepper. Even dumbstruck and gaping like a moron, he was handsome in that older-Latin-man way, with crow’s feet and the air of a man who’d lived a lot of life in not so many years. He’d probably broken a few hearts in his time.

You couldn’t say the same about the gorilla sitting opposite him at the table, though. His ugly, stone-cut face was framed by a pair of rust-colored muttonchops. The guy looked like what you’d get if you asked a Renaissance master to carve you a Frankenstein monster out of granite. Cilia had been right about his size, Ginger was huge. His ugly face was probably about as wide as my rib cage. I’m a good height for a human woman, but even sitting, the big guy looked down on me the way I looked down at Cilia. The scar down over his right eye didn’t much help, and it was so stereotypically thuggish that I wondered if he might’ve done it himself, just for the appearance of street cred.

Caballeron was the brains of this pair, I could tell just from the sharpness of the eyes, but Ginger was definitely the one that was tuned for action. He leapt to his feet, the plastic chair that was two-chairs-too-small for him flew back, sliding across the cheap industrial carpet. His hand was in his coat in a flash and a revolver was pointed at my head so quick it was like a magic trick.

I didn’t pay him any mind. He wasn’t who I need to talk to and not even that gun would convince me otherwise. All my senses told me that while he was willing to pull the trigger, we hadn’t yet escalated past the posturing part of the display. No need to get startled.

The big guy’s movement must have kickstarted Caballeron’s brain. He blinked momentarily, but quickly collected himself. The shock on his face was gone like there was a switch that turned it on and off. His expression softened into the subdued, congenial smugness of someone who was used to using words like grease.

“Well, I won’t say I’m not surprised, but I am not one to be displeased when a beautiful woman walks into a room,” he said with predictable greasiness. His voice was smooth and his accent was just prominent enough to seem exotic and sophisticated. He had the seductive latino thing down pat.

“Caballeron,” I said, inclining my head into a slight nod.

The pleasant mask of an aging lothario twitched, cracking just enough to show a flash of ugliness. It was gone as soon as it appeared and he collected himself by smoothing the wrinkles in his shirt like nothing had happened. “Doctor Caballeron,” he said, stressing the title. “Might I be as bold as to ask your name?”

“The gun,” I said simply, ignoring the question. I maintained eye contact with Caballeron, as though the gun I was talking about was in another room and not inches from my head. “Put it away before I get upset.”

“Ah, I am very embarrassed to say that it shall have to stay right where it is for the moment,” he said, holding out his hands like he was helpless. “You understand, yes?”

“The gun,” I repeated with ice in my voice. “Now.”

The muzzle of the big revolver – some big Dirty Harry thing that I couldn’t identify with my limited knowledge of the subject – tapped against the side of my head.

“Please,” Caballeron said as he laced his fingers and leaned closer. He smiled, showing off perfectly straight white teeth. “Let us not make this ugly.”

I figured it would come to this, and I was actually kind of glad that he wasn’t going to be reasonable. This was one of those rare situations where it was easier to do things the hard way.

I gathered magic in my chest and when my words left my mouth the air trembled with their power.

“No one move,” I commanded. “No one speak.”

Compelling someone with magic isn’t an uncommon trick for a certain class of magician. It can be hard to do well, though. One of the common sense rules about it is that you can’t force someone to do something against their nature. When you command someone to do something, it’s easiest if it’s something they might have been inclined to do on their own in some capacity. For instance, say I wanted to command a cop to let me out of a ticket. If the cop was staring at my chest, it’d be infinitely easier to make him do what I wanted than if he wasn’t thinking about what I’d look like bent over the hood of my car.

That’s only common sense to your average wizard, though. If you wanted to make someone do something they wouldn’t ever do, even if you sucked at compulsion as a skill – and personally, I wasn’t actually all that good at it – you could still get it done with enough muscle.

And wouldn’t you know it? After screwing around with Fiddler’s magic, I was just chock full of demony goodness.

I turned my head just enough to glare at Ginger out the corner of my eye. “Put that gun in your mouth,” I told him.

His arm moved, slowly... tremulously... bringing the gun to his mouth. He opened up and stuck the end of the barrel against his hard palate. He was shaking, trying to throw off my control, but the way I was burning magic he didn’t have a chance. This kind of mind control usually made the subject’s brain glaze over, but Ginger’s natural instinct towards self-preservation was keeping him dreadfully lucid. I let him stand that way for a while, just to let the suspense take hold. Cruelty was like making love, best and most effective with a steady hand over a prolonged, sustained period of time.

“Pull back the hammer.”

He twitched in a futile show of resistance, but his big sausagey thumb still moved. The chamber turned and the mechanism locked into place with a click. Ginger shut his eyes and let out a blubbering moan. He was mewling in fear, half-sobbing. He didn’t look the type to scare easy, but magic like this was a special case. When you’re in the grip of magic that’s way, way beyond your understanding, it touches the most naked and animal part of you. That’s what magic was – power that could bring even kings to their knees in fear.

I could feel Caballeron struggling against my first command. I released my hold on Caballeron just a bit. Not enough to let him move, just enough to let him talk.

“You wanted to say something?”

“Please!” he said immediately. “Please, let him go!”

“I warned you. Now you have to pay the price for your disrespect.” I held out my hands helplessly. “You understand, yes?”

“I’ll do whatever you want,” he implored. “Please, he is my subordinate, his rudeness is my failing.”

Huh. I had expected a little negotiation before outright surrender. The guy seemed awfully concerned for his partner. I raised an eyebrow at that.

I made a show of thinking about it before I shifted my focus back to the big guy. I released my magical grip on both of them, but even without magic my words still had weight.

“Take all the bullets out of that gun, then set it on the table along with anything else you’ve got on you.”

Ginger did what I said. He emptied out the gun right onto the table, sending loose bullets rolling around. He set the revolver in front of me, like a gift. A punch knife and a second little single-shot pistol from an ankle holster joined it.

I gave Caballeron a look and he immediately pulled a small stitchwork doll from the breast pocket of his khaki shirt. I held out my hand and took it from him.

It was a little hoodoo doll. They’re common enough that even regular folks knew what they were from movies and stuff, but in the right hands the real deal was way more versatile than that pin-cushion stuff. Still, this faceless little scarecrow wasn’t much. I’d spent some time under a mambo and had sewn these things by the dozen. It was interesting magic, but I had hated that teacher. She’d cut open my back and carved the names of all the Loa she knew directly onto my ribs. Even with magic dulling the pain that had hurt like hell. I hadn’t even kept those carvings for very long. Once I was finished learning from her, Fiddler had removed them because he said they would interfere with later lessons.

I used my magic to snap the stitches and undo the fabric. The doll practically melted, turning to loose threads and tufts of cotton that slipped through my fingers. The small velvet bag inside, the gris-gris, was where the real magic was. A spell in a bag, the mambo had called them. I opened the pouch and dumped the ashes and bits of bone and feather onto the carpet.

Caballeron watched me break his toy with a look of sad resignation. It was trash to me, but he’d probably paid quite a bit for whatever he’d stuffed the bag with.

I tossed the empty bag over my shoulder, shoved the weapons to the middle of the table, and gave a smile. We’d reached the part of this interaction where I no longer needed magic. They knew what the deal was and they would talk. It was better this way. Compulsion magic is bad for conversation because it fogs up the brain even when you’re really, really good at it, and all the power I was using to make up for my lack of magical charisma would have been very bad for them if I’d kept it up. They probably would’ve preferred the bullet by the time I was done.

“Now we can talk like adults,” I said.

Caballeron licked his lips dryly and laid his hands flat on the table. “May my associate please be excused from the proceedings to attend to himself?”

I quirked an eyebrow and wondered what he meant by that. I looked over at Ginger, who was standing with his hands at his sides, red in the face from more than just his genetics. It took me a second to notice the big wet spot on the front of his pants. He’d pissed himself and I hadn’t even realized it. Spending the day in an alley, next to a dumpster, probably had something to do with me being momentarily blind to the smell.

“He can sit in the corner,” I said. “He can clean himself up after I leave.”

The big guy was still shaken, but he didn’t move until he had the okay from his boss. With a nod, Caballeron sent Ginger shuffling off to the corner, geisha-like in his timidity.

I wasn’t worried about him causing trouble out of sight. Cilia was probably prowling around in here somewhere. She’d keep an eye on him.

“I apologize for the rude greeting,” Caballeron simpered. “You seem to know my name, but I do not remember having met you before…” He trailed off, probably waiting for me to fill in the blank. When I remained silent he cleared his throat uncomfortably and continued. “Yes… I… might I have the humble pleasure of knowing your name?”

I reached into my jacket and pulled out a cigarette. I’d practically emptied the pack in just a day. I conjured a tiny flame and lit up. The flame danced in my hand, weaving in and out between the tips of my splayed fingers. I watched it a bit, pretending the mundane trick was more important than the man in front of me.

“I’m… was... a friend of Night Light’s.” I snuffed the flame out with a pinch. “That’s all you need to know.”

A curious look of disbelief came over Caballeron. Couldn’t blame him, Night Light wasn’t exactly a supernatural wheeler and dealer. I’d been just as surprised to know that Night knew a guy with even a hedge wizard’s grasp of the art.

Caballeron recovered quickly enough. You could only really be surprised so many times in a night before you start going numb to it. “My apologies, but I did not expect Night Light to know someone of your eminence…” He lowered his head respectfully. “I take it you heard of his passing?”

“His murder,” I corrected. “I saw what happened to his family.”

“Oh…” He squirmed a little before asking, “Was it… quick?”

“You tell me.”

Caballeron’s eyes narrowed to slits. “If you are accusing me of having a hand in his demise then I must inform you that you are sorely mistaken,” he ground out in a tone that was just south of disrespectful.

That was a bit more backbone than I’d expected. Must have touched a nerve.

I tapped out the ash of my cigarette directly onto the carpet. “But you do know who killed him.”

He nodded.

“Then you’re going to tell me everything you know.” I took a long drag and let it out with a long sigh. “If I think you’re lying I won’t be happy.”

“If you are Night Light’s friend then I have no reason to lie to you,” he said resolutely. “He was killed by Ahuizotl.”

Ahuizotl? That was an odd name. Sounded Central American, so it fit, I suppose. I may not have known all the small fries, but I was pretty well acquainted with the bigger names amongst the really dangerous sorcerers, so it was a surprise to hear an unfamiliar one. Could’ve been a guy from another world, though. That would make some sense.

“Never heard of him,” I admitted. “Why’d he go after Night?”

“Truthfully? It is… very complicated.” He rubbed his face with both hands, the fear he’d had since I started throwing my weight around replaced by an air of weariness.

“Why don’t you just start at the beginning, then?” I put a boot up on the table and snuffed my cigarette on the sole, then leaned the chair onto the back legs, hands folded over my belly like I owned the joint.

“I am a procurer of antiquities,” he said after a moment of thought.

“A smuggler,” I clarified.

“Yes,” he answered with a subtle dip of his head, “I have been called that. When people desire objects which are otherwise out of reach, I obtain them for a nominal fee.” His hand drifted up towards his left breast, resting over the spot where the protective sigil I’d seen in Night Light’s picture was. “In my youth I had some dealings with the supernatural, and that knowledge took me far in my adult career. Art and antiquities pay well, but magic pays even better.”

He wasn’t wrong. There weren’t many people who worked as finders for magical objects, and pretty much all of them lived like kings – caviar and whores by the boatload, with said boats floating in seas of top-barrel scotch. Someone with proper supernatural backing could have almost unlimited resources, and the people who catered to them could reach into those deep pockets without having to pay the same steep price as their clients. It wasn’t all roses, though. There was always risk involved in getting yourself tangled up with people at the top of the magical food chain. I was already getting the feeling that that was what had happened with Caballeron and this Ahuizotl guy.

But what did Night have to do with Caballeron’s shady dealings?

“I deal mainly in small objects of power,” he explained. “Cursed idols, the remains of otherworldly creatures, and so on. I once even had in my possession an atlas of portals into other worlds which sold for a princely sum. However, I never expected to find myself approached by one of Ahuizotl’s caliber.”

Caballeron patted himself down absently, searching for something in his pockets. He pulled a small plastic lighter from his pocket and palmed it as he continued his search. I guessed what he was after and threw him one of my smokes.

“Ah, yes, thank you,” he said, taken aback by the sudden generosity.

I shrugged it off. If I needed to scare him again it’d be easy. Good showmanship is about knowing when to shut the audience out and when to bring them in. If throwing him a bone kept his mouth moving, that was fine with me.

He lit up, tossed the lighter onto the pile of weapons, and continued.

“The name of Ahuizotl is known in the Latin Americas, but only in whispers and mostly by those who have made names of their own. I’m no such figure,” he waved his cigarette in the air vaguely, “but I do have something of a talent for finding things out. Those of us who live in the cracks of the walls that separate mortals from the truly powerful are skilled in these things.”

“If you’re such small potatoes then why did this Ahuizotl guy tap you?” I asked.

“Small ‘potatoes’ though I may be, as I have said, I am well connected,” he replied in a deadpan. “I knew a man, who knew a man, who knew a man, who knew the location of something Ahuizotl required.”

“And what would that be?”

“A knife.” He held the cigarette between his lips and moved his hands to indicate the dimensions of the object, which was about as big as a large kitchen knife. “It is about this size, made of sharpened obsidian – volcanic glass. Such things were fairly common in Pre-Columbian Latin America. Obsidian was precious to the peoples of those lands, but it was used in many goods. Think along the lines of gold – a luxury, though nothing particularly rare.”

“So why’d he want it?”

“The knife was his,” Caballeron said, shrugging. “He said it was stolen several hundred years ago.”

I blinked. “Wait, several hundred years ago? How old is he?”

“To hazard a guess?” He screwed up his face in thought. “Over seven-hundred years, if the stories are to be believed.”

My jaw dropped at that.

Magic does weird stuff to humans, mostly because their bodies aren’t naturally inclined to hold magic in them. Depending on what sort of magic you’re doing and how it’s used, a human lifespan could be reduced to a few years of brilliant power, or extended into the triple-digits. Some sorcerers were able to strike a good balance and lived a normal human lifespan, dying naturally of old age like any other person, but that was rare. Rarer still was the practitioner that was able to extend his life past three-hundred or so – magic was just too hard on the human body to live much longer than that.

Even guys that sold their souls for eternal youth always died very early, usually by the design of whatever being held their soul marker. Demons don’t make deals that prevent them from collecting, they always leave a loophole.

But, man, almost three-quarters of a millennium? That was crazy for a human.

“He couldn’t be that old,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Even with the best deal in the world, that’s not a human lifespan.”

“Indeed,” Caballeron replied, blowing a ring of smoke above his head. “According to rumor, his body died long ago, but his soul has been chained to the flesh, kept animate by his will and magic. By all accounts he is the most powerful necromancer alive, and what is left of him is anything but human.”

I frowned at that. That didn’t make a single lick of sense. You couldn’t just… just do that to a soul.

The soul of a living thing is complicated. It’s the essence of a living being’s intellect, their capacity to grow and think and love – everything that makes a person a person is within the soul. All that potential wrapped up in a single package is also what makes a soul one of the most powerful things in existence.

The whole reason that demons and gods make deals with mortals at all is to get their souls. The soul itself isn’t magic, but it can be… refined, or eaten, or whatever higher-existences call the act of devouring a soul and turning it into magic. When you make a deal, a piece of the soul is gouged out, marking it as the property of the being that owns it, and that small piece of the soul is turned into magic to fulfill the contractor’s desire. Even a small piece of a soul is powerful enough to bend reality itself if that’s what the deal entails.

But everything involving true power comes with limitations.

The first rule when dealing with souls: anything that possesses a soul of its own cannot see or touch a soul, not theirs, not anyone else’s.

And second, but no less important: soulless existences, gods and demons, can touch souls, but they can never take. A soul must be given up freely by the possessor.

These two rules are the unshakable laws that govern souls and the deals involving them. If a mortal practitioner wants to burn their soul for power, they have to find a soulless higher existence to sell it to, and higher existences who wish to increase their personal power have to make deals on the promise of collecting souls later. No entity, no matter how powerful, could circumvent this fundamental arrangement. It was basecode of the universe stuff.

Which meant that if Ahuizotl really was a chunk of meat with a soul chained to it, it wasn’t him that did the chaining. When a damned mortal dies, the debt gets collected immediately and the soul becomes the backer’s full property. If Ahuizotl died, then his soul would go straight to Tlaloc, at which point Tlaloc could do anything with it – which theoretically could include jamming it back in his corpse.

That would mean that what I was dealing with wasn’t some death-worshipping zealot doing awful things in the name of his faith, this was a god’s actual will being carried out by one of his followers. It wasn’t a comforting idea in the least.

“Okay, setting aside the issue of how old the guy is,” I said. I put my feet down and pinched the bridge of my nose, only just barely biting back a sigh. “What was special about this knife that he needed it back?”

“Ahuizotl was once positioned as the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, the ruler of the Aztec Empire’s capital city.” Caballeron snuffed the cigarette on the underside of the table and leaned forward, elbows atop the table. “For years he carried out sacrifices in Tlaloc’s name, offering up their life energy to his god and collecting their hatred in his ceremonial blade. Life energy is a poor substitute for souls to a god like Tlaloc, but Ahuizotl made up for this with numbers. He took thousands over the course of his reign.”

Caballeron shifted uncomfortably, clearly distressed. “You have seen his creatures, yes? He has them in this city. Those awful things bear his name, the ahuizotls, for they are his hands in all his dealings. I did not even meet with Ahuizotl in person, we merely spoke through one of his beasts. They are legends among the mortal peoples of Central America, monsters that lurked in bodies of water and dragged living creatures that wandered too close into the depths. Most were taken to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed, some went to their deaths and became materials for his craft… Other stories say that the creatures could spirit victims away, directly to Tlalocan, the land which Tlaloc rules. For what purposes they might be taken there, I could not begin to fathom.”

“So he needed the knife,” I summarized. I could already see where this was heading. “I assume it was for a ceremony.”

He nodded. “I obtained this knife for him through great cost and effort. Once I was paid, Ahuizotl made me another offer. He asked for my help in obtaining the sacrifice necessary for a ritual, claiming it was the will of his god.”

I clenched my fist, power gathering in me and waiting to be let loose. “And you gave him Night Light’s family?”

“No!” Caballeron snapped, a sudden anger coming over him like a fever. He slammed his palms on the table, sending the remaining bullets clattering to the floor. “Never! He was my friend!”

Silence gripped the air, broken only by the metallic ring of falling bullets. Caballeron was breathing hard, furious enough to forget how terrified he’d been of me only a few minutes prior. Ginger in the back had gotten up as well. I could feel his eyes on my back.

I could have forced them to sit back down, but I chose to wait, silently staring the fuming man down like a mother waiting out a toddler’s temper tantrum.

Caballeron quieted, his breathing coming under control. He ran his fingers through his thick head of hair and sat back down. This time he didn’t apologize.

“Ahuizotl spoke to me of the ceremony,” he said. “I do not know its purpose, but he claims to have devised the ritual himself and carried out experimental versions of it in the past. This is a working that he has been refining for quite some time and he had already chosen his intended victim…” He paused for a moment, his mouth working like he was chewing on some heavy thought. I couldn’t have expected what he would say next. “You should know… it was not Night Light that Ahuizotl wanted… it was his daughter.”

A chill went through my body and was quickly replaced by white hot anger. I took my feet off the table and the two front legs of my chair hit the carpet with a thud.

“Explain,” I said, practically growling through clenched teeth. “Explain it very carefully.”

“You have her, don’t you?” he asked excitedly. “I had assumed that the reason he was controlling spirits and searching the streets with his beasts was that he had failed to obtain her. It is good that she found someone to—”

“Shut up,” I said. I didn’t even have to raise my voice. I just gave him a look sharp enough to cut his throat and that was enough to make him comply. “You don’t ask about Night’s kid. You just talk.”

Caballeron swallowed audibly and nodded.

“The ceremony, as I understand it,” he said, “requires the sacrifice of children. Tlaloc is fond of them, and so every year a festival was held wherein children were offered up to him over the course of weeks. The children were taken to the tops of mountains, closer to Tlaloc’s domain in the sky, and sacrificed through the removal of their hearts.” His face screwed up in disgust. “They would… frighten the children in order to bring tears to their eyes – torment them. The weeping of the children symbolized the rains that Tlaloc brought and would give power to the ceremony.”

“And Twilight was his intended victim?” I snapped. “That’s why her family was killed? So she’d be sad and cry for this fucking stupid ceremony? Why? Why her!?”

“I do not know!” Caballeron shouted. He held out his hands, palms up, as if to show they were empty. “I asked, but he would not say. He only told that it must be the daughter of a man named Night Light who lived in Canterlot City.”

I glared at Caballeron, unwilling to believe that Twilight could have been the target all along… but the longer I looked, the more I was certain that he wasn’t lying. He was just as confused as I was as to the reasons why.

His eyes fell to his palms, still outstretched to me in supplication. He brought them close and just stared at them in silent anger, betrayal and guilt etched on his face.

“There should have been no reason for Night Light to be the target of Ahuizotl’s ceremony,” Caballeron said, sighing as he weighed his guilt in empty hands. “I thought that perhaps maybe this was my fault. The only contact Night Light has ever had with the supernatural has been myself. I thought that… that maybe I was the vector which landed this evil on his doorstep.” He shook his head slowly, as if in disbelief. “But no, I am not so important. It could not possibly be me. It has to be fate, playing some cruel joke on us all.”

Caballeron slumped in his chair, looking very tired and very sad. “Whatever the case… Ahuizotl told me that he wanted assistance in… preparing the child. I am of a mercenary disposition by nature, but such work is repulsive to me. I was already prepared to turn down the offer once I heard what it entailed, and when he gave the name and location of his intended sacrifice… well…” He gestured weakly in the direction of Ginger over in the corner. “Our band of two was originally a band of five... Ahuizotl does not take ‘no’ for an answer, and does not care for loose ends…”

Caballeron got to his feet. He didn’t ask for permission, and the defeated, haunted look in his eyes told me I shouldn’t demand it. He went to where one of the beds had been pushed against the wall and kneeled down. He reached under the bed and pulled out a long, flat wooden crate, from which he drew a large bottle of wine.

“I am not a good man,” Caballeron said in a quiet voice as he stared at the bottle in his hands. He pulled a two glasses from the case, stood with a groan, and brought the wine back to the table. “I have done things I am not proud of in order to feed myself and to care for my men. I have learned that loyalty is a fragile thing, and this makes it all the more precious.”

He poured the wine and took a sip from each glass before setting one in front of me. It was a show to prove that there was nothing wrong with either drink or glass.

“The men Ahuizotl killed were my subordinates, but they were also colleagues… friends…” He drained the glass in one pull and immediately poured another. “And Night Light was… I made his acquaintance during a brief flirtation with attempting to live a ‘normal’ life. I cared for him very much. He was a good man, with a good and understanding heart. Even when I embarrassed myself by getting caught falling back into my old habits, he stood by me. He said he would fight to make sure I could continue teaching somewhere, because he truly believed that I was also a good man, deep inside.”

He chuckled ruefully into his glass. “We did not part under the best of terms, but that was my doing. I felt it was better to push him away, rather than to drag him down with me. He saw much more in me than there was and a part of me resented him for it… but in the end, I could not abandon him, so I came to help.” He laughed again, swirling the wine around in his mouth like he was trying to rinse out a bad taste. “What could I do, though? By the time I arrived Ahuizotl’s pets were already stalking Night Light from the shadows, biding their time until… I don’t know. Who knows what the hell that monster is thinking? I could not warn him without revealing myself to Ahuizotl, and so I searched for alternate means to help him. Sadly, it all amounted to nothing. I have very little power myself.”

He held the glass up, closing one eye to peer at the artificial light through the liquid inside – an affectation of sophistication that separated the connoisseurs from the winos. “What a strange thing fate is, to have brought my old friend back into my life only to have him taken away in so grisly a manner.”

I couldn’t help but empathize with Caballeron. Here was a man who’d made mistakes and walked a crooked path for selfish reasons, who regretted those decisions to some degree, and whose reflex to melancholy was inebriation.

Maybe the only real difference between us was our skill as sorcerers.

“In my experience, fate is just another word for the universe laughing at us,” I said as I reached for the glass in front of me. I swirled it around and took a small drink, just to get the flavor of it. “Everything I’ve been through this week pretty much confirms as much.”

Caballeron tilted his glass in salute at the sight of me joining him, a wry smile finding its way to his face.

“Night Light was cursed,” I added. “You know anything about that?”

“Cursed?” Caballeron asked, his eyebrows inching upwards. “What sort of curse?”

“No idea,” I said, shrugging with the glass. The wine was good, so I had another sip. “Night got bit by one of the monster ahuizotls, it branded him with a magic tattoo. It was some kind of face. I pulled it off him and showed the design to an expert that identified it as belonging to Tlaloc, but he couldn’t give me more than that.”

Caballeron leaned back in his chair, the glass held to his lips as he mumbled into his wine.

I let him work out whatever he was pondering and tossed a look back at Ginger. Being left alone must’ve given him time to find his balls, and the embarrassment of being so thoroughly shamed by a woman half his size had boiled into frothing resentment. Big boy was just sitting there, watching with a smouldering gaze that communicated a lot of what he would have liked to do to me if I didn’t have magic. He was definitely the type to hold a grudge, but he wasn’t anything I was worried about. I could see two little glimmers of light from beneath the bed next to him that told me Cilia was close by and watching.

Caballeron pulled my attention back with a sigh. His breath fogged the wine glass held against his lips. “No, I’ve no clue what that could be.”

“I could draw the sigil for you,” I offered.

“It will not help,” Caballeron said, swatting the idea away with a wave of his hand. “The curse would have been in the ink itself. If this ‘face’ was Tlaloc’s symbol, it meant very little, but putting curse to ink and delivering it through the bite of a controlled animal – usually something small and unnoticed, like a rat – is quite common in that part of the world. As to what the curse could be, it is almost impossible to know. Very likely it was some sort of… preparation for the ritual, or that at least would be my guess.”

I tilted my head, frowning in frustration at the way Caballeron was making sense, but not making enough sense. At least now I knew why Clavus’ changeling friend had been so vague with his note.

“I don’t get it. If the curse was part of the ritual, why put a curse on Night Light? Why not Twilight, if she was the sacrifice?”

Caballeron shrugged. “Perhaps he intended to curse the entire family eventually, or maybe Night Light was intended to die slowly. The ritual calls for the child to be in tears, emotionally disturbed. A dying father would go quite a way towards that sort of preparation.”

“I dunno… If all he needs is tears then torture would have been enough,” I said, swallowing down the sick feeling I got from putting ‘Twilight’ and ‘torture’ in the same thought. “Seems like an awful roundabout way to get a kid to cry.”

“Perhaps her sorrow needs to be more significant,” Caballeron suggested.

I ran my fingers roughly through my hair, spilling mousey-brown locks in my face. I really wasn’t cut out for this detective stuff. All I was getting was broad strokes, and the finer details seemed to be slipping through my clumsy grasp. That wasn’t good. When it came to magic, the finer details were often more important than the larger movements.

“If he wanted Twilight, then why the storm?” I asked. I had my theories about it, but since I was already bending Caballeron’s ear, I figured it didn’t hurt to get his opinion. “Why risk killing her if he needed her so badly?”

The corners of Caballeron’s lips tugged into a frown. “I am unsure,” he admitted. “Though, Ahuizotl did not strike me as a… balanced individual. I would hazard to guess he was venting his frustrations.”

Yeah, that was about what I figured, sadly enough. When you get right down to it, most of the strongest sorcerers I’d ever met had temperaments that made them more like enormously powerful babies than the wise and learned masters of the arcane they presented themselves as. When you have the power to get anything you want with a snap of your fingers, you end up spoiling yourself. Wizards just outright hated being denied the things they wanted, and when they threw tantrums, rivers boiled.

“So what have you been doing all this time, then?” I asked in a huff.

“There was very little we could do,” Caballeron said, frowning as he glanced helplessly at Ginger. “I was the ostensible sorcerer of our band, but what power I had was more or less worthless. My associate, Mister Rogue, is actually the one of us who had the best luck.”

Ginger puffed up, his lips curling into a sneering grin that stunk of smugness. It was the most arrogant I’d ever seen a grown man look while having a wet stain going down his trouser leg.

“Mister Rogue possesses no magic of his own,” Caballeron explained, “but he does have a rather unique sensitivity to spirits.”

“Gran was a druid priestess,” Ginger said pridefully, his voice a stereotypically gravelly Irish brogue that suited him so well it was almost comical. “Died a’fore she could pass the ways, but she left a bit of the old Sight in the blood, whole family has a tetch of it.”

Caballeron lifted his glass in salute and tilted the contents into his mouth. “Ahuizotl has been rather frantic since Night Light’s home caught ablaze. I assumed that it meant that Twilight had slipped his grasp, likely with the protection of another sorcerer. My assumption was validated when a mass of spirits descended upon the city, flitting from window to window seemingly in search of something.”

“So you had Ginger chase the spirits?” I asked.

Caballeron arched an eyebrow at the name I’d given to his partner, but didn’t comment on it. “He managed to track them to where Ahuizotl’s magic was strongest.”

I rose from my chair in a flash. “Awesome, that means you got his address. Give it to me.”

Caballeron gave a start, my words clearly cutting through the fog of his melancholy and the fuzziness of the wine. “You are going after Ahuizotl?” he asked, blinking at me like I’d just grown a second head.

“I’m going after whoever hurt my friend and orphaned his daughter.”

Caballeron nodded slowly, his hand moving to set his glass down. “You are the one who disturbed the storm last night, aren’t you?” he asked as he looked me up and down with almost academic appraisal, as if he was studying some historical curio.

I stuffed my hands into my pockets and shrugged.

Caballeron reached into the breast pocket of his shirt, where he’d had the magic doll, and pulled out a pocket-sized notepad with a stubby pencil threaded through the spiral.

“I liked Twilight, but the last time I saw her, she was just a baby,” Caballeron said as he hunched over the table and began writing out directions. “Night Light’s son, though… I was very fond of Shining Armor. He was a fine lad, inquisitive and rambunctious. Very much the physical type, unlike his father. He took more after his mother, you see. She did lacrosse in college. Lovely woman…”

Some sudden memory stilled his hand as a look of pained longing came over him. It lingered long enough to be noticeable and disappeared just as suddenly. It was the kind of look that made me think there was something more there, something between Caballeron and the older Twilight. It probably wasn’t an affair. In my day job I talked to a lot of people who wanted advice about their love lives, so I’d seen the look of some poor schmuck crushing on his best friend’s wife enough to know it when I saw it. That kind of thing was real common.

It was a tough thing, pining over a friend’s woman. It was the kind of frustration that could drive a man to do desperate, even cruel, things. I got the feeling that it hadn’t come to that, though. Caballeron seemed to have a real thing about loyalty. I got a good judge of character and the way the guy came across told me that he would never have acted on it.

“Excuse me,” he said, clearing the lump in his throat. He finished writing the note and tore it out. “I forget myself. I very nearly showed you something shameful.”

“It’s cool,” I said. I could appreciate him not wanting to get all emotional in front of a woman, Latin machismo being what it was. “Been a rough week all around.”

He dipped his head in thanks and held up the folded piece of notepaper.

I stared at the note, eyeing it suspiciously without reaching for it. I’m a professional liar so I’ve got a good grasp of when someone is trying to give me the business. Everything my gut was telling me pointed to Caballeron playing me straight, but being a cynic at heart meant being distrustful of a lot of things, myself included. I just couldn’t quite swat away the little doubting buzz in the back of my head that was telling me that I might get hoodwinked.

Guess it didn’t matter. Trap or no, Caballeron was the best lead I had at the moment. All the same, didn’t hurt to throw one last threat in.

“Going to give you one freebie to write that again, just in case there’s something wrong with it,” I said, emphasising my words in a way that was unmistakable.

He raised an eyebrow and wagged the slip of paper, encouraging me to take it. “I would not deceive you. I want Ahuizotl dead for what he did to my friend and his family.”

“Be it on your head,” I tossed in casually. I took the note, checked that it wasn’t just a bunch of squiggles, and stuffed it in my pocket.

“The rumors say that Ahuizotl’s power is not what it once was, and the infrequency of his storms would support that,” he said. “If you are determined to battle with him, it would be in your best interests to do so tonight, while he is still weakened from the spell he worked last night.”

“I figured that much out on my own, but thanks for the warning,” I said, mildly impressed that Caballeron had made the same deduction I had.

“You should still be wary,” Caballeron said. “The sun is down, and weakened or not, Ahuizotl still serves Tlaloc. In the pantheon of the Aztecs, Tlaloc is one of the strongest of the Nine Lords of the Night.”

I rolled my eyes. Magical superbeing-types always had big fancy titles for themselves. Demons had an excuse for it, being that their real names could be used as words of power against them, but the gods that took highfalutin appellations almost invariably did it out of pure self-importance. Granted, gods tended to have enough power that they could be as self-important as they wanted and nobody could tell them boo, but still.

It was just so gauche.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” I said as I turned and made for the door. “Not that this hasn’t been a gas, but I’d like it if you rode that nice Caddie of yours right out of my city and never came back. Don’t worry about writing. I’ve got your scent now. If I need to, I’ll find you.”

I had one foot out the door when the sound of chair legs skidding across carpet made every muscle in my body tense up.

“Wait.”

I stopped, my back still to Caballeron and his ginger golem with the facial scar, holding the door open to the darkened warehouse long enough for Cilia to skitter past me while I kept the room’s attention. “What?” I asked, tossing an impatient look over my shoulder.

“You never gave me your name.”

“I know,” I said with a dismissive flip of my hair.

* * *

Canterlot City wasn’t always a city. Like most places, it had gotten its start as a farming community. The Canterlot Mountains surrounded the valley on three sides, and the peaks were high enough that snow gathered in the winter months, providing water for the city as it melted throughout the year.

The small rivers and creeks that threaded through the valley to the farms and orchards surrounding Canterlot City rarely saw more water than they could handle, but the recent spat of rains had filled them to bursting, and the magical typhoon Ahuizotl had tried to flatten the city with had only made it worse. There weren’t a lot of rivers on my side of town, but heading North, following the directions that Caballeron had given me, I could see that not everyone was so lucky. The real farms had been established close enough to take advantage of the natural water sources, but the difference between boon and bane was often razor-thin, and what had once been the lifeblood of the local farms was now turning the fields into marshland.

What Caballeron had given me wasn’t really an address, more of a series of directions and a description of the place that his big Irish goon had scouted out. I followed the main road out of Canterlot, but about ten minutes out of the city I’d had to turn off the main thoroughfare and onto muddy road that cut the border between a strawberry patch and what might have been a field of kale, or maybe spinach. Honestly, though, it all looked like rice paddy, it was so flooded. The organic grocery types were going to be hurting for their hip salads this year.

The access road was narrow and rocky, and all the water had my tires sinking at least four inches into the muck. Driving in mud is tricky unless you had some clearance, and Philomena was a heavy gal. I couldn’t drive too fast without getting stuck, but driving too slow would have ended the same. Slow and steady was the way. As long as I kept the high beams on and my eyes on the road I’d be fine.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve been out of the city,” Cilia commented, breaking the nearly hour of silence since we’d left Caballeron’s hideout. “This side of the valley all used to be pears, you know... I like pears.”

The little changeling matron had taken off her coat and draped it across her lap. Her elbow was propped up on the door, her chin resting in her hand as she watched the darkened fields roll by. Changelings have good eyes, so day or night didn’t make much difference to her when it came to scenery. Something told me, though, that she was paying more attention to my reflection in the glass than whatever was happening out in the darkened fields.

“Always preferred apples, myself,” I replied.

We hit a bump in the road, probably a half-buried rock that had been unearthed by the rains, and the sound of thunking metal had me grinding my teeth. My poor baby wasn’t made for this kind of off-roading.

“That was quite a good show you put on,” Cilia said. “For a moment I almost thought you might have made that giant man shoot himself.”

I couldn’t help but grin. “What can I say? I’m a showwoman.”

“Impressive as your acting is,” Cilia continued, “I don’t think a simple show of force will make this Ahuizotl character back down. From what I’ve heard and seen, there’s little recourse. This man has to die.”

It was a very simple statement of fact, but a weighty one, so I let it sit for a minute before replying.

“No argument from me,” I said.

Cilia turned away from the window, tilting her head curiously as she looked at me. I realized with some discomfort that it was a supremely child-like quirk that Cilia seemed to share with Twilight.

“Are you going to do it?” she asked.

“Who else will?”

“I could do it for you,” she said as she held up her hands. “No need to dirty your own hands. I don’t mind it.”

It seemed like a straightforward offer, but something about it bothered me.

“Think I can’t do it on my own?” I asked.

“I think maybe you don’t want to. You’re not as bad as you let on.” The car struck another unseen rock and lurched again, but Cilia didn’t so much as blink.

She wasn’t completely wrong. The idea of killing makes me sick to my stomach, but no matter how distasteful I found it, I wasn’t so weak that I couldn’t do it if I had to. I knew that wasn’t what she meant with the offer, but that’s how it felt to me, like she was saying that I couldn’t do something unseemly if it was necessary.

It was complicated, and I’m sure it said a lot about me as a person that I took offense to people saying I wasn’t as bad as I knew I was.

“I'm getting really sick of hearing that,” I grumbled. “I ain’t no fresh-faced kid that can’t see past her own ideals. Sometimes your hands have to get dirty, and mine are already plenty dirty. A little more ain’t gunna hurt.”

“This isn’t about your capabilities,” Cilia insisted. “For all your personal failings, I know you’re a woman of conviction where it counts. Even before I liked you, I at least respected that about you. The offer I’m making is as a friend, to spare your heart a burden that I know you’re dreading.”

I turned up the radio, drowning out Cilia’s disagreeable gum-flapping with the honey-dipped voice of Bob Seger.

“Damn changelings think you know everything,” I muttered.

I could tell from the adorable pout that Cilia’s sensitive changeling hearing had picked up my complaint. She reached over and turned the radio off.

“We know about the human heart,” she said, unashamed of how rude she was being, messing with my radio like that.

Why was everyone touching my damn radio lately? It’s like nothing was sacred anymore.

“Look, it doesn’t matter how I feel. Yeah, maybe at first I wanted to try to end this without any more bloodshed. I would have swallowed down all this anger inside me and abided by whatever agreement we came to, if that was the best way to keep Twilight safe. But that option got blown off the table by the tantrum he threw that almost killed everyone in the city – which includes you and your kids, I might add. The fact that he wanted to torture Twilight for his stupid ass ceremony only upgrades this from ‘should die’ to ‘needs to die’.”

I turned the radio back on, low enough that Cilia wouldn’t have an excuse to try to turn it off again. I wasn’t in the mood to preface my fight with Ahuizotl with a fight with Cilia over the radio. I took my eyes completely off the road for just a second, long enough to level a challenging glare at Cilia, daring her to touch the dial again.

“Night and his wife, Twilight’s big brother, their deaths are on my head,” I continued. “That’s my fuck up, and I need to be the one that sees this through. Me and nobody else. This is my responsibility and if you think you’re going to shoulder that burden for me, then you can just wait in the car.”

The headlights bounced as we hit an extra hard bump in the road, and the slosh of muck turned into the crunch of grinding rock. The access road had widened and turned into a long stretch of drive covered with loose gravel. The drive was smoother, and just about a half mile up the road I could see the outline of man-made structures.

“You really like that little girl,” Cilia said matter-of-factly. “Your feelings about her are very complex, though. I haven’t wanted to say anything, but… It’s different tonight. If you want to talk about it, I’d be happy to help you sort out whatever—”

Cilia!”

Cilia’s mouth closed with a soft click of her teeth. She must’ve known she’d overstepped her bounds from the sound of leather squealing in my hands as I wrung the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip.

“Cil… Just don’t.” I relaxed my grip on the wheel. “Clavus is the only changeling that gets to Yoda me.”

“Alright, then,” she replied, folding her hands in her lap like a good little girl that had been sent to the corner. “I want to say, though, that I meant it when I said I’ve begun to consider you a friend. You’ve changed quite a lot in the time I’ve known you, and I’ve started to see what my honored Uncle saw in that selfish and dark-hearted little girl that came to him to learn magic all those years ago. Killing is bad for the soul, and I’d just rather not see you backsliding into someone I dislike, is all.”

I sighed. I really wanted to go back to sleep, but at least after tonight I’d be able to sleep all I wanted. All I had to do was kill some possibly half-immortal necromancer that had maybe been sent back to the living realm in order to carry out a god’s mysterious will. No big deal.

The road led us to the archway of a big iron gate. I parked a few feet away and got out to take a look around.

The gate was a decorative thing that sat crooked, half out of the ground and likely only held up by the lengths of fence attached to its sides and stretching off to the far ends of the property. The actual gates were laying on the ground, the rusted hinges having long ago succumb to the elements and the sheer weight. A sign hanging across the top of the arch swung minutely on creaking chains with every push of the gentle breeze blowing across the grassy expanse. Whatever name the sign had borne had been scrubbed away by the elements, leaving an appropriately blank slate that proclaimed no master for this land.

The sky was perfectly clear, bathing us in that blue-shifted light that was impossible to notice in the city. In the distance, maybe two-hundred yards or so, I could make out the outline of an abandoned farmhouse, flanked on all sides by fields choked with overgrowth that were so badly flooded they had become an actual marsh. The rotting remnants of fencing from disused animal paddocks marked the places where livestock had once been kept. The barn, set a bit away from the main house, had collapsed in on itself, but whether that had happened in the recent storms or decades ago, there was no telling.

It didn’t look like anyone was waiting for us, and that was a surprise. A V-8 isn’t exactly quiet. Maybe Ahuizotl was asleep. I already knew he’d probably be out of commission for the night, so maybe sleep was how he recharged his batteries. Something about that thought tickled me – that I might come across an undead monster laying in a coffin, arms crossed over his chest like Nosferatu.

“This place is disgusting,” Cilia said as she joined me in surveying the abandoned ranch. I hadn’t even heard her get out of the car, and her creepy little changeling cat feet didn’t so much as unsettle the gravel.

“Yeah, I imagine death magic isn’t your thing,” I said. “I reckon this place hasn’t felt a loving touch in some time.”

“Reckon?”

“I dunno, it’s a ranch, it’s got me all… ‘reckon-y’,” I said defensively.

“Yes, well it’s best for us to mosey along, then, before you’re again overcome. What sort of wards are there and what are the chances of me sneaking around them? I can’t smell anything over this awful stench.”

“There aren’t any,” I said. Cilia gave me a quizzical look, silently prodding me for further explanation. “I don’t know a lot about pure necromancy, but I do know that the way those creeps use their magic is incompatible with pretty much any kind of warding. Warding requires a sense of home and ownership. The undead don’t belong in the world of the living, so their nature contradicts the fundamental intent of warding spells. Basically, it’s two schools of magic at opposite ends of the spectrum.”

“Black and white magic, you mean.”

I groaned at the simplification. “I don’t like those labels, but yeah, that’s close enough in this one instance that I don’t have to spend the rest of the night explaining the nitpicky reasons why it’s wrong. The trade-off for wards isn’t bad for them, though, considering the quality of their guard dogs.”

“Guard dogs?” Cilia tilted her head in that Twilight-ish way. “Oh. Yes, guard dogs.”

Cilia undid the three buttons holding her Christmas sweater closed, tossing it onto the hood of my car without flourish. The shirt she had underneath it was clearly sized for a grown man and showed a cartoon frog doing something obscene with a cactus – no idea what the joke was, which was probably why it had ended up in a donation bin.

“I suppose those will be my responsibility while you have your wizard’s duel,” she said in a tone that was remarkably playful for her normal disposition. The ghost of a smile made its way to her face as she rolled her shoulders like a wrestler about to step into the ring. Girl had some claws, apparently. “If we are beset, run for the house, I will delay them.”

“You sure about that?” I asked. “Clavus will be pissed at me if anything happens to you.”

She snorted, affecting a look of offense. “I’m not so fragile. Just take the help I offer and let me worry about backing up my words.”

I still felt a little weird about it, but I didn’t push the matter. Cilia was asking me for her trust and it would have been disrespectful to question her again. Asking once was polite, twice was an insult.

I led the way through the gate and Cilia hurried to walk alongside me. She must’ve been doing me a courtesy, because for once I could actually hear her footfalls, though they were still unnaturally quiet.

Crossing the gate was an uncomfortable sensation. The fencing around the property was old enough to have long ago become a part of the land, the way old stone walls and statues often did, and had created a natural boundary that Ahuizotl’s magic had contoured and confined itself to. Once inside the boundary, it was like we were stepping into another world. The sensation I’d felt the night before – that thick, greasy feeling of hateful magic that had tainted the rain – was strong here.

This magic had to be Ahuizotl’s, the residue of the vast amounts of power he’d poured into conjuring a storm large enough to blow down a city. It had seeped into the earth, like the musk of an animal grinding itself into a rut to mark its territory. It was strange, though. I could make an educated guess at how much magic Ahuizotl had thrown into his storm, and it shouldn’t have been enough to blight the land this powerfully, at least not on its own. This had probably been the site of something evil, and psychically significant enough that death magic was sucked into the very earth like a sponge.

Something bad had happened here, I’d put money on it. Real Texas Chainsaw Massacre stuff.

If horror movies had taught me anything, it was that you don’t have sex when scary music is playing, and you should never trust abandoned farmhouses. Abandoned farms always have zombies in the barn or hobo skeletons in the walls – it’s a fact.

What struck me most as we made our way to the house was how still everything was. There was no wind, no sound save for what Cilia and I made, and even the moonlight itself seemed unusually lethargic, like the air here was too thick for these things to behave normally. An aura like this was unnatural even in magically-rich worlds, and a shiver crawled up my spine even as we pressed forward. I’d been to worse places, but no matter how strong or how experienced you are, you never quite overcome that unevolved part of your brain that tells you to run from scary things.

As usual, my instincts in these things proved right.

The steady silence was broken as Cilia’s whole body went rigid, her feet skidding in gravel with the jarring abruptness of a record scratch. Her hackles raised as she turned her head to watch the pastures with the alertness of a spooked alley cat.

“Run for the house,” she whispered in a throaty rasp that was closer to her real voice – the clicking, hissing one I sometimes heard her speaking to her children in – than her human one.

I didn’t hesitate. When the person watching your back tells you to run, you run. That goes doubly so when your backup is a supernatural creature that was built for survival instincts.

I broke into a full sprint, estimating in my head how long it would take me to run the last fifty meters or so to the house and counting the seconds as I ran. Focusing on numbers helped. It kept me from losing my nerve as the eerie silence was replaced by the sound of clacking jaws opening and closing mechanically, and the splash of dozens of mismatched paws and hooves and feet running in our direction from every corner of the property.

I’m not as young as I once was, but adrenaline is a good motivator, so I covered ground fast and was at the house in a time that would have made Luna’s college track coach proud. Something behind me cracked with the sharp, distinct sound of breaking bone and the noise squeezed an extra burst of speed out of me. The air filled with more crunching and snapping, like a gruesome orchestra playing the melody of carnage, telling me that Cilia was making good on her promise of handling the dogs.

The front door was boarded up with planks, but that wouldn’t stop me. I reached out with my magic and tugged on the boards, yanking them out of the doorframe, nails and all. I tried the knob and found it predictably locked, so I hunkered down, tightened up my shoulder, and threw myself at the door. The locks were fragile by modern standards, and old as the place was, it only took one try to get the door open.

I tumbled into the house, landing on a rug that threw up a geyser of what I hoped was mainly dust. The cloud was thick and moldy and burned my eyes, but I didn’t have the luxury of taking time to hack out my lungs. I got to my feet and found the door half broken, crooked and dangling from only one hinge. I pushed the door back into place, holding it up with my magic as I conjured some light and looked around frantically through watering eyes. The windows had been boarded up from the inside, and a quick application of magic pulled a nail from one of the boards and summoned it into my hand. I enchanted the nail with a spell and pushed it into the wood like a thumbtack, just far enough to stand on its own, and then drove it in the rest of the way with the heel of my palm.

The enchantment on the nail held the door in place and I stepped back just as something slammed into it, sending up even more dust and causing the nail to throw out little white sparks of light. One of Ahuizotl’s pets must have tried to crash its way in like I had, but with that nail in place they wouldn't be able to get in so easily. The charm I’d cast was a high-grade temporary ward, so even the windows were closed off. It was a quick-and-dirty job, so they’d be able to overcome it if they slammed themselves into the walls enough times to deplete the magic in the enchantment, but something told me that Cilia wouldn’t let them have enough time to attempt it.

It was an audacious bit of magic. There were a lot of ways the spell could’ve fizzled out, and without the dregs of Fiddler’s magic still in me I probably wouldn’t have even tried it. Fortune favors the bold, though, and even a slapdash kludge of a spell like this worked when you had demon magic powering it.

I let out the breath I’d been holding for fear of triggering a coughing fit, and sure enough, it did. My eyes felt like they were on fire and my chest was heaving as I coughed, trying to get out all the crap I’d sucked in. Rubbing at my eyes only seem to make it worse, so I conjured a handful of water by pulling the moisture in the air – which there was a lot of – and washed my face to try and get some relief. The little ball of light I’d conjured earlier hovered around my head, bobbing playfully like a sprite, as if amused watching my suffering. I’d put a little more magic into it than I had intended, what with the hasty summons, and so it had apparently developed a bit of a personality. It wasn’t alive, though. It was merely animated with false-intelligence, like the robot lady in really nice cellphones.

“This place is grody,” I commented to myself as I pulled up the hem of my shirt to dry my face. I frowned as I lowered the shirt and found it streaked with filth. Let no one say that being a sorceress was all glamorous.

I wasn’t getting attacked the second I was in the house, but I couldn’t take that for granted. All I had to do to remind myself that I wasn’t out of the woods yet was reach into my pocket and take out the broken and charred halves of the trinket I’d brought with me.

After leaving Caballeron’s place I’d hurried back to my car to do some prep work while I waited for Cilia, who had left her stuff in a milk crate behind the dumpster we’d been hanging out next to all day. Being the savvy woman-of-the-world that I am, I always made sure to keep an emergency road kit in my trunk with a few odds and ends for magical emergencies. You never know what trouble you might get into in the middle of nowhere.

The trinket wasn’t anything expensive or supremely magical. It had started out as a domino from an incomplete set I’d gotten at a yard sale. After that, all I had to do was paint it with black nail polish and scratch a sigil onto the back of it. Including what it cost for the polish and the rest of the set, I hadn’t spent more than three bucks making it, and the thing had probably just saved my life.

The moment I’d touched the doorknob I’d felt the trinket burning in my pocket, and I knew it had eaten a curse for me. It couldn’t have been a particularly powerful spell, because it had only broken one of the five trinkets I had, but the thing about curses was that they didn’t need to be strong to take your life. Using magic to hurt someone is a lot like those martial arts where you counter big punches with as little energy as possible. Sometimes it’s just more about being tricky than being strong.

Not that being strong isn’t useful. All the aikido throws in the world ain’t going to stop you from getting crushed by a dump truck.

I made my way through the house, poking my head in every room as I went. The foxfire light floated along behind me, bobbing and darting around to peek curiously into rooms like it was mimicking me.

This must’ve been a nice place some time in the far past, before age and circumstance had settled in. The architecture reminded me of one of those model houses that people used to buy out of a catalog – the kind that always used to fall on top of Buster Keaton in the silent movies. The house was a shadow of what it must have once been, though. Whatever happiness and hopes the family that had built this place may have had were long dead, and from what I could see, they had probably died tragically.

Sadness had soaked into the timbers, growing like mold and peeling the yellowing floral-print wallpaper. Everywhere I went, the signs of the house’s final days were on the walls like scars – holes at punching-height, broken furniture, and large stains in the creaking floorboards that stretched through the house, like something had been dragged along the floor, bleeding the whole way.

When in doubt, follow the blood.

I followed the thickest trail from a closet near the entranceway towards the back of the house, past a staircase that had once led to the second floor before succumbing to some combination of age, infestation, and poor construction to collapse in on itself.

The trail led into the kitchen, and a wall of stench hit me full in the face just as I was walking in, making my stomach flip backwards and inside-out. I took a second to acclimate to the burning smell of chemicals and spoiled meat. There were jars everywhere, on the table, on the counters, in the spice rack, stacked precariously in the sink. A few of the containers were broken or leaking, spilling the contents onto the floor where they were clearly eating away at the already damaged wood.

I grabbed one of the leaking jars, holding it gingerly by the screw-on lid, and squinted at the opaque yellow fluid. There was something dark and vaguely meat-shaped inside. The cracked glass had a glaze of grease around the edges of where it leaked, which told me that what was inside was probably a tincture made of liquified fat, and knowing where I was, my guess would be human fat. I set the jar down into a pie tin with a film of dark black goop and the jar settled into place lopsidedly and with a squelch.

I looked around the room, trying to see past the disgusting jars of pickling meat and the enormous stain on the floor that marked a gruesome memorial to whatever tragedy had taken place here. There was a cast iron stove in the corner of the kitchen, next to the trough-style sink. I’d briefly considered getting one of those stoves once, in one of those delirious Sunday trips to the hardware store, where you drunkenly fantasize about impractical home improvement designs. Those stoves had still been popular in Equestria when I’d left, because they were very easy for unicorns to light with magic. We even had one in the orphanage when I was growing up. We kept it burning all day, so in winter it kept us warm, and in summer it drove us outside.

Next to the stove was a small pile of wood. Just enough to start the fire for morning coffee. The wood was graying and decayed, like most everything else in the house. Nobody had made coffee here in a very long time.

What caught my eye, though, was the hinged door set into the floor. I might have missed it were it not for the big iron ring bolted to the ground. There wasn’t much more of the house to explore unless I wanted to try to shimmy up the rotted timbers of the broken stairs, so the trapdoor was my best bet.

My false-sprite followed behind, quivering slightly as we approached the hatch. It wasn’t smart enough to know real fear, but it was doing a good job of imitating it.

I knelt down and held my hand over the ring. The thing was cursed, just like the doorknob had been. It only took me a few seconds to break the curse, but it was definitely a bad one. Some kind of weird blood curse if I was reading the signs correctly.

The hinges groaned and something came loose with a wooden crack as I struggled to lift the heavy door. Despite its protests, I managed to get it opened, revealing a set of stairs leading into a darkened root cellar.

I went down, testing each step before committing my weight to it. That would’ve been a fine way to die after coming this far, falling down a flight of stairs because of a loose step and breaking my neck. I definitely didn’t want to spend eternity as the laughing stock of all the damned souls in Fiddler’s belly.

The upstairs had been nasty, but the cellar? It was like the set of some low-tier torture-porn flick. Steel tables and gurneys, like the slabs from a coroner’s office, had somehow been brought down, even though the hatch was barely wide enough for a man to squeeze through. Piles of fur and flesh and bone were stacked everywhere – on the smooth chrome tables, on ancient shelves next to dusty jars of expired preserves, even just on the filthy dirt floor. One of Ahuizotl’s monsters was lying unfinished on the largest table, waiting to be stitched together and animated with its master’s magic.

Heavy chains were attached to the rafters, with enormous meathooks dangling at eye-height. There were dozens of hooks, and several had animals hanging from them by the hocks or by the throat. The fresher ones – ‘fresher’ being a relative term – had their throats cut open to bleed them out, the way hunters strung up their kills to prepare them for butchering. Buckets were scattered around beneath the animals, poised to catch the magically significant fluids so nothing would go to waste. Ahuizotl seemed pretty sloppy about his lab discipline, though, because most of the buckets had overflowed, leaving blood to soak into the dirt.

None of that mattered, though. The thing that really mattered was the man sitting at the back of the room.

If it weren’t for the slow, steady wheezing and the rise and fall of his chest, I would have thought he was just another corpse. He was seated in a faded yellow recliner, the sort you might find covered in protective plastic in a retiree’s sitting room, and he was the very picture of enfeeblement. His pallor was that of death, his skin gaunt and pale, and what was left of his hair was long and stringy, almost Cryptkeeper-esque. He was ancient, and his face was deeply lined like the hard, parched earth of the Southwestern desert I’d lived in while learning shamanistic magic. He watched me as I descended the stairs. His eyes were milky-white – blind, I would have guessed if it weren’t for the intensity of his glare – and every time he inhaled, his chapped, bloody lips pulled back to reveal gray teeth.

This was the bastard that had taken away Twilight’s family. The selfish and cruel thing that wanted to blow down a city just because he didn’t get his way. I knew he was monstrously powerful, but the sight of him, so decrepit that he couldn’t even rise from his seat to threaten me, almost had me feeling sorry.

Almost.

I stalked closer, tossing aside everything between the two of us. The righteous indignation rising up in me was agitating my power, and the heavy medical tables were thrown aside with casual flicks of my fingertips. Magic is tied to emotion, and what was left of the demon magic in me was loving the seething hatred I was feeling.

Ahuizotl’s hand fell from the armrest, reaching into a pocket sewn into the side of the chair, which must have been designed to hold a remote control or one of those little TV Guide books. When he lifted his hand, it was clutching a knife. It wasn’t the magic one that Caballeron had described to me, but a knife is a knife, and as he finally found the energy to rise on shaky legs, his bones creaking like the hull of an old ship in hard wind, I knew he meant to use it.

I grabbed the recliner behind him with my magic and tugged, clipping the back of his legs and sending him to the ground. His ragged wheeze sped up to a terrible rattling hiss. The last table between us blocked him from view, so I send it flying against the wall hard enough to crumble the bricks. He’d dropped the knife in his tumble, and his hand was outstretched to summon the knife as he hurried to his knees. He reclaimed his weapon and plunged it into his open palm. Blood flowed from his wound like sap from a tree, thick and oozing. His mouth began to move, mumbling something, not to me, but to the source of his magic.

I didn’t give him a chance to ramp up his incantation, whatever it was. My magic took hold of his arm and snapped it below the elbow. His creased face twisted like crumpled paper, lips pulled back in a rictus of pain.

I hadn’t expected his arm to break that easily. A fight like this should’ve been power against power, his will ablating whatever magic I threw at him, even if it was something as simple as magical telekinesis. I pressed again, wondering if maybe it was a fluke, but his knee shattered just as easily. With his leg broken as well, he couldn’t hold himself up and fell to the dirt pathetically.

“Look at you,” I said, shaking my head in disgust. “Your body’s falling apart.”

Ahuizotl managed to squirm his way onto his back. He stared up at me, his horrible wheezing ringing off the walls like the squeal of a broken machine. He looked even worse up close. The clean white light of my spell showed every vein beneath his paper-thin skin, bulbous and pulsing with his filthy blood.

Was this what happened to a creature that had its soul stuff back into its body? This was no man. This was a horrible specter of a living thing – an unnatural wraith. No matter how I looked, he wasn’t any different than any other off-the-rack zombie moving around under control of someone else’s power. It was no wonder that he could only cast his magic once every other night. Magic can be hard on the body, and a body like this couldn’t possibly handle the strain of channeling a higher existence’s magic for extended periods. The storm he’d conjured had practically already destroyed him. Forget every other night, with his body in this condition, I’d be surprised if he was working craft within the month.

“Who are you?” he managed to wheeze out, his voice feeble and dry as the air escaping a dying animal’s lungs. “Who dares to attack Great Ahuizotl?”

“You don’t look that great to me.”

I pressed my boot down on the wrist of his unbroken arm. The knife was still in his palm, so I stooped down and gave it a twist before yanking it free. He grimaced, but didn’t give me the satisfaction of hearing him cry out in pain.

“I’m a friend of the man you killed,” I said as I tossed the knife to the side. “Night Light, if ‘man you killed’ wasn’t clue enough.”

“You broke my curse on him,” he growled out.

“You should’ve run,” I said. “As soon as you knew another sorcerer was in town, you should’ve packed up your monkey show and headed for the hills.”

Ahuizotl’s breathing sped up, his eyes twinkling with a desperate, excited gleam. “The girl. You have her. Bring her to me and I will forgive the disruption.”

My already-thin patience snapped at his offer. The darkness inside me was prideful and seethed at Ahuizotl’s offer. He was weak, practically crawling at my feet, and he wanted to bargain with me? To tell me that he would forgive me?

He still wanted Twilight?

I lashed out in anger. Not with my magic, but with a hard, undignified kick to his face. It wasn’t satisfying. His head was too light and my boots were too heavy. I kicked him in the stomach and this time I felt the impact. It was cathartic, so I did it again.

I kept at it until my head cleared. Ahuizotl hadn’t fared well against my attack, but he hadn’t cried out. It was like kicking a bag of sand, but it still felt good. He just kept glaring at me, his pain masked behind impassivity, like he was beyond the sensation of violence inflicted on his un-mortal flesh.

I squatted down and looked him in the eyes. His milky, unblinking stare met mine, and I could almost see my ugliness reflected in his.

“Before you die, I want you to tell me why,” I said, my voice tight and angry. “Why did you want the kid so badly?”

His bloody lips curved into a smile. “The sun must set, so another can rise.”

I clucked my tongue in disgust. Wizards, especially older ones, loved that cryptic stuff. It seemed simple enough – sun goes down, sun comes up – but you could never take wizard riddles at face value. It could mean literally anything, and wizards never told it to you straight. I could tell that Ahuizotl wasn’t the kind of guy that cracked under torture, so there was no point in dragging this on if he was just going to throw fortune cookies at me.

“Guess that’s how it’s gotta be then,” I said as I rose to my feet, casually dusting off my knees.

I plucked a strand of hair from my head and held it against my conjured ball of light to examine it. I threw it away, and it took a couple more tries before I got one with the root on it. I dangled the hair between two fingers, above Ahuizotl’s prone body like a dagger.

“Your soul should go straight back to Tlaloc—” Ahuizotl hissed angrily at my overly familiar use of his master’s name, “—so ‘go to Hell’ doesn’t feel appropriate. Why don’t we just call this ‘get bent’?”

I let go, and the single hair slowly fell towards Ahuizotl, who met my glare with that same bloody grin, seemingly unafraid of what was about to befall him. The hair was freshly plucked, still mostly a part of my body and bearing a connection to my magic.

My mouth moved rapidly, speaking an incantation to give shape to my will. I’d learned the words from an alchemist I’d met in Canada, and it was one of the few bits of Quebecois that I spoke, aside from touristy things like asking for the bathroom or requesting to be driven back to my hotel.

The strand of hair landed on Ahuizotl’s arm, laid for only a moment, and then wriggled, digging under his skin like an earthworm burying itself in the dirt. Ahuizotl’s flesh rippled with the movement, and the ripple grew... and grew... and grew. It stretched throughout his body, until every inch of his bare skin was covered in throbbing vein-like bindings.

The grin on his face died with the first twist. The curse constricted, pulling and twisting, wrenching bone from socket and tearing tendons like paper.

As I watched, something struck me right between the eyes. My vision went out in searing white light as I felt a sharp pain, like a needle digging straight into my forehead and trying its damndest to get to the other side. The trinkets in my pocket burned hot enough that I noticed them even through the pained fog of the worst headache I’d ever felt, and I could distinctly feel them each snapping under the weight of the spell Ahuizotl was throwing at me.

I’d taken for granted the fact that my opponent was so feeble. If this hadn’t been so easy, I would have had some more defenses ready. Still, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. The trinkets had done their job and given me enough time to start undoing the threads of the spell. It only lasted for a minute or so, but the pain had brought me to the ground.

I kneeled in the dirt, on my hands and knees, panting and cursing myself under my breath for being so sloppy. When my vision stopped swimming, I found myself face-to-face with Ahuizotl. Right until the end, he’d never looked away, probably never even blinked. Even as my own curse was twisting his body up like a pretzel, he laid there watching me, defiant to the last.

I got to my feet with a drunken sway, feeling like I’d just gone one-hundred-and-twenty-seven rounds in a bare-knuckle match against a grizzly. There was something wet on my face and my fingers brushed against it reflexively. My nose had started bleeding. I wiped it on the back of my hand and sniffed, snorting up as much of the stream as I could.

I reached into the breast pocket of my jacket and pulled out a small tobacco pouch, just big enough for a few pinches of snuff. The white dust inside was made from teeth – some human, most not – that had been individually charmed and ground into a powder, then mixed with a few parts of the periodic table that they don’t put in kids’ chemistry sets no more.

I undid the knot holding the pouch closed and sprinkled it over Ahuizotl’s body before retreating to the stairs. Of the stuff I could make with the bits-and-bobs from my trunk, this was probably the most dangerous, so I definitely didn’t want to be near it.

I snapped my fingers and lit a spark from across the room. The powder ignited with a fizz and a fwoosh, filling the room with a pure white flame that dwarfed the little ball of light I’d summoned.

I hurried back up the stairs as quickly as I could. My head throbbed with every step. The spell-light bobbed and weaved excitedly, as if its antics could urge me to move a little quicker.

The nail I’d pounded into the door was still intact, telling me that my temporary ward was still in place. It was made to create a threshold that magical creatures couldn’t transgress, but being a flesh and blood human, I just opened the door and stepped out.

I half expected to have to help Cilia finish up with Ahuizotl’s pets, but I’d apparently sold the old girl short. She was standing in the flooded pastures, water up to her shins and grass to her waist. Her phone was in her hand as she snapped pictures of the veritable mountain of broken creatures.

“Alright, Cil?” I asked as I approached.

“Well enough,” she replied, turning her back to the gore and holding out her phone to take a morbid selfie with her pile of victims.

I let out a low whistle as I got a better look at her handiwork. She’d pulled the things apart like an over-boiled chicken and just tossed the bits into a pile. Considering how tough I knew these things were, she must’ve done it a lot.

The pile was so impressive I almost didn’t notice that she was nearly naked. Just outright barefoot and nude, save for the coat I’d seen her leave on the hood of my car.

“What happened to your clothes?” I asked, unable to bear the curiosity.

“These creatures are blind,” she said. “They track by magic and by scent, from what I can tell. I can disguise myself enough, but my clothes were another story. I had to shed them. It was easier to dispose of the things when they couldn’t see me.”

I whistled again, impressed with her insight. She was a few hundred years old, and if I needed a reminder that you didn’t get to be that old without learning a few tricks, this was it.

Cilia put her phone in her sweater pocket and turned to me with a questioning look. “Was he in there?” she asked.

I nodded, thumbing in the direction of the house. The flames had already spread enough to be seen through the gaps in the boarded windows. These flames weren’t like what I’d used at Night Light’s house. The alchemic powder I’d added had changed them in a qualitative way. This fire would burn away everything in that house and not leave a single trace. No cinders, no ash, nothing to sift through. It wouldn’t even smoke. Come morning, all that would be left was a blackened hole in the ground where the foundation had been.

I watched it burn, feeling a sense of… not relief… Finality, maybe. This wasn’t satisfying, it couldn’t possibly be, not with blood on my hands and Twilight still without a family. Ahuizotl, for whatever his motivations were and for all the power he’d wielded – and it was power enough to destroy his own body – had died with barely a fight.

It felt… limp, but nevertheless the experience left me feeling drained. Sometimes this was just how things ended – not with a bang, but a whimper, and all that.

The ball of spell-light must have picked up on my mood. It nuzzled against my cheek, trying to cheer me up. I took it in my hand and crushed it, scattering the magical light into dozens of little motes that drifted away like fireflies and faded into the night. It might have acted cute, but it was never alive in the first place.

We waited until the fire had consumed enough of the structure to collapse the framework. The pile of meat Cilia had left behind had to be disposed of, so I took a few minutes to clean up, using my magic to huck chunks of the rotting golems into the fire pit. While I did that, Cilia found the scraps of her clothing, and deeming them unsalvageable, she tossed them into the fire as well.

We got in the car and drove back into the city. There was a lot to say, from both sides, but neither of us could find the words.

The trip back from the creepy farm seemed a lot shorter than the trip to. We were back at Nightriver Park before I knew it, and two of Cilia’s little ones were waiting for her, sitting in the sand beneath the slide and playing a wholesome children’s trading card game at three in the morning.

I was thankful for a lot of what Cilia had done tonight, but what I was most grateful for was the fact that she didn’t ask me what I was planning to do next. I knew she was curious. I could see the desire to meddle burning inside of her, but she proved herself to be a real friend by getting out of the car without a single word. The only farewell she gave was a slight nod before turning on her heels and waving for her nephews to follow her back to wherever they nested.

I sat in the parking lot for a while longer, my hands tight around the steering wheel while the engine idled. I wasn’t in a hurry to go home, and looking at the gas gauge, I had an excuse to put it off for a few minutes more.

The nearest gas station was one of those fancy chains that tacked on an extra thirty cents for premium because their additive was more marketable than anybody else’s. I worked for my money and so usually avoided these places like the plague, but they took plastic at the pump and I wasn’t in the mood to make small talk with the attendant in the store.

My hands were trembling as I pulled the card out of my wallet. I hadn’t noticed, but they might’ve been doing that the whole way back. Keying in my PIN number with the shakes was an almost Herculean labor, but I managed somehow.

I needed a cigarette and I needed it bad, so I let the gas pump itself and got back in the car to smoke. I lit up and yanked the lever that lowered the seat, sinking into a reclining position as I took my first drag.

Smoking has always been therapeutic for me, even though, as I’ve said, I knew it was a dirty habit and tried to quit as often as I could. More than just the act of drowning my brain in nicotine, I like the smoke itself. It’s calming to me, watching the wisps of vapor twist and curl through the air.

Maybe it was because I’d grown up in Canterlot – the one in Equestria, that is. The city was built atop a mountain, and living that close to the sky, in a city filled with pegasi, meant the clouds held a special place in my heart. Sometimes, on sunny days when I’d finished all my reading and had nothing else to do, I’d just watch the clouds and wish that I could float away to somewhere else, anywhere else. My expectations were low in those days. I had no illusions about my lot in life being better, I would have just settled for it being different. I would have given anything for it to just not be the same.

Maybe the the smoke reminded me of those cloudy skies on some deeply primitive level.

My vision went hazy and I knew I’d started crying. I didn’t bother wiping away the wetworks, as no one was around to see my shame anyway. I just let the tears run down my face as I watched the smoke dance above me without a care in the world.

I had killed a man tonight.

I had a lot of excuses for why. I knew he was evil, that he’d deserved it, that he wasn’t much better than a zombie, that it had been my duty to make sure he couldn’t hurt Twilight again, and that what I’d done had made the world just a bit better… but I had taken his life all the same. I had still felt hatred in my heart and acted on it. Now, after the act, all I could feel about it was guilt, not because I’d done it, but because I’d wanted to do it. That was the part that turned my stomach, that any part of me could be happy that I’d given in to the worst of my own nature.

I hated killing for that feeling, and I hated how easy it was for me to justify it. Killing is tricky like that, it presents itself as a solution so tempting in its simplicity, like an outstretched hand offering warmth when you’re most vulnerable. The decision is always easier in the moment, and the gravity of the deed doesn’t come to you until you’re alone, until it’s quiet, until you’re sitting in your car at a gas station and watching puffs of smoke drift out the window to dissipate into the cold, uncaring night.

Cilia had offered to take the responsibility off my hands, but there was no way I would have let her. My pride wouldn’t have allowed it. It was my duty to uphold, my penance to pay for the blunder of letting Night Light die.

Having blood on your hands isn’t like anything else. It makes them feel heavy, and you can wash the blood away, but the weight never leaves them. You carry that forever.

I’d killed before. None of them had been easy to live with after the fact, but the one before this, the death that had firmly placed Fiddler and I at opposing sides of a vast enmity, that had been…

Something loud banged against the side of my car. It was a hard, mechanical sound, and my heart leapt into my throat at its suddenness and proximity to my head. I sat up straight, tossed the cigarette out the window, and had magic dancing at my fingertips ready to cast at a moment’s notice.

No attack came. My brain eventually caught up with the rest of my body to tell me that the noise was just the gas pump shutting off. I released the magic I’d gathered, and a sense of tingling cold prickled through my extremities as my heart began pumping again.

I laid back down, slowly, and sobbed into my hands. I was a long ways away from that little girl who learned to cook because she felt sorry for having to kill her chickens.

* * *

Chapter 8 - Shot Through The Heart

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I don’t know how long I sat in that gas station, but however long I was there, it was long enough that the clerk came out to check on me. She must’ve thought I’d abandoned my car or something.

She’d asked if I was okay. Was there something wrong? Did I need help? All the things you ask when you’re showing socially-appropriate concern for someone who you didn’t have a personal investment in. I could tell she was more annoyed than worried, but I pretended to be thankful for the token show of humanity.

My head was still hurting, and it couldn’t have helped that I’d been crying so hard. Having a rival wizard jabbing magic needles into your gray matter isn’t fun.

I needed something to take the edge off, so I followed the girl back into the store and bought a sixer of awful domestic ale. It was some of that corporate-brewed swill in a fancy can that masqueraded as an obscure local microbrew. It tasted like the inside of a dog’s mouth, but it was on promotional sale. The money I saved went towards a baby-sized bottle of aspirin that would’ve been overpriced for a full-sized bottle.

The beer was for the road, and I didn’t so much as sip from the open can chilling the inside my thighs until I was driving. Even at my darkest, most self-destructive moments, I wasn’t the type of woman who drank alone in a gas station parking lot at three o’clock in the morning. I had at least that much dignity left.

I knew I had to go home. I’d let my fears and anxieties get the better of me and drive me from my home. Now, with Ahuizotl dead, the only thing keeping me from going back was the shame of having snuck out in the first place, and I was much too tired for shame. I’m not the type of broad that gets weepy at every little thing, but crying is cathartic, and my little breakdown in the car left me feeling empty and tired. All my worries felt distant, like they’d happened a lifetime ago. I could face my problems like this – empty except for the belly full of courage I’d slurped out of an aluminum can.

The lights were off when I finally got home, save for the porch. A little sign of welcome, like a beacon in the night guiding me home. It was something small, but knowing that it was probably Luna who’d left the light on for me left a warm, bubbly feeling in my chest which was only slightly diminished by the guilt of having walked out on Twilight and Luna the way I had – thankfully the beer was doing its work on that front.

I got out of the car and polished off my last silver bullet, crunching up the empty with a belch and tossing it into the backseat. I needed to vacuum the carpet anyway. It was something to do for the weekend.

It was still dark, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. The stars, normally fighting to outshine the light pollution from the city, were already gone, leaving the sky clean and unblemished except for the waning glow of the moon and the pale brushstrokes of city lights painting the horizon. It was the stillest time of the night, that magic hour between darkness and dawn where the night was ready to retire and just waiting out the clock – too late for partying and too early for jogging.

It was nice out. So nice that I could almost forget all the stuff that had happened over the last few days.

Almost.

I sat on the hood and took a few minutes to collect myself, staring up at the sky and enjoying the feel of cold air against my sweaty skin. I always got the liquor-sweats when I drank.

Luna and Celestia’s cars were still in the driveway. Celestia must have moved her car since I’d last been in, because they were parked side-by-side, so I couldn’t even squeeze my way into the garage if I’d wanted to. On a normal day I’d be mad about that, but I just couldn’t summon the energy for it. There was a metaphor in there, but I wasn’t in a state of mind to puzzle it out.

When I was finally ready to go in, I walked the dozen or so feet up to my porch with heavy steps, my boots practically dragging. I was filthy, covered in drying sweat, flecks of mud, and whatever crypt dust had been inside that farmhouse. I’d caught a little glimpse of my reflection in the glass doors of the gas station earlier, and I knew I looked like I’d just gotten off my first shift as a gravedigger.

I didn’t want to drag any of that mess inside, so I stripped down to my skivvies under the cheery glow of the porchlight. My shirt was probably a write-off at this point. I’d caught it on a nail or something – probably when I’d dove head-first through the door of the house – and there was a rather sizeable tear in it. I used it to clean myself up as best I could, paying extra special care to my jacket, because I’d be damned if I was going to throw it away. Once I was finished, I left the dirty thing on the porch next to my boots. I could get it later, toss it in the grease-rag drawer in the garage, and maybe get an old toothbrush to scrub out whatever necromantic gunk was stuck in my boot treads. I could maybe save the jeans, but I’d have to wait to get a look at them in daylight before I made that call.

I unlocked the door and poked my head in, squinting into the darkness and half expecting to find the silhouette of a woman – or a child – waiting for me. Like in the movies where the raunchy teen protagonist sneaks back in after a night out with his crew of perverted ne’er-do-wells, and just as he’s tip-toeing up the stairs, click, and dad’s sitting in the living room wearing a disappointed frown.

No one was waiting. I was relieved about that, but also kind of disappointed.

I closed the door and went to the living room. As badly as I wanted to lay in my own bed, I didn’t want to wake up Luna and Twilight, who I knew had both taken it upon themselves to claim spots in my most private of spaces – more symbolism, I guess.

The lights came on with a flick of my fingers. The place looked cleaner than I remembered. All the shelves were dusted, the crooked pictures of other people’s families were all straightened, and the lines in the carpet told me someone had pulled the vacuum out of the hall closet. There was even a basket of neatly folded laundry tucked away under the coffee table.

I wanted another drink – something harder than the canned urine that had gotten me this far – so I threw my leather jacket over the back of the couch and went to the liquor cabinet. I magicked it open, because remembering what I did with the key seemed like way more work than I was willing to invest.

I grabbed a bottle of what looked like tequila, judging from the color and from the post-it note labeled with a frowny face wearing a sombrero. It was a bit under half empty, but that was fine. I only needed enough liquor to get me to the couch. I twisted off the plastic-bejeweled cork and flicked it across the room, far enough that I’d be able to convince myself that it would be easier to just finish the bottle than to go looking for the stopper.

Tequila is a sour, hateful thing. You can cut it with margarita mix, but taking it straight out of the bottle isn’t a drink for good times. It’s poison that you drink because there’s something dark inside of yourself that needs killing.

I took a long drink. It burned the whole way down, and the fumes lingering in my sinuses as I let out a sigh brought tears to my eyes. It was awful and I went back for another pull immediately.

The couch was looking mighty inviting, so I ambled over and sunk into the cushions, kicking up my feet and peeling off my filthy socks with my toes. The harsh liquor wasn’t doing my headache any favors, but I was betting I could outpace the pain and drink hard enough to slip into a nice rejuvenating unconsciousness. Sure, I’d probably wake up with a headache, but it’d be a different headache and that’d be tomorrow-Sunset’s problem. I could live with that.

The fuzzy warmth of liquor in my gut was working its magic, pulling my consciousness into the cold veil of sleep, but that sleep never had the chance to come. As I was drifting off, what I had assumed had been the sound of the house creaking turned out to be someone coming down the stairs.

“You’re back… and you’re naked.”

I blinked, rubbing my eyes with the hand that wasn’t clutching the bottle to my side like a sleepy otter holding a precious clam.

Celestia was standing a few feet away, her head turned to the side to shyly look away from my state of undress. She was being awfully bashful for a woman in a satin gown that barely covered her goodies. If it hadn’t been Celestia, I might’ve really appreciated the way the nightgown showed off her legs.

Seeing her there was oddly unmoving. A little twinge of something tart tried to stir in me, like an ancient beast deep beneath the waves lifting its head to peek at a passing ship before lying back down. It was a deeply-seated annoyance, but nothing more severe than annoyance. Any capacity for anger I felt towards this woman for having dug her fingers into my emotional wounds had already been spent on violence and tears.

“What?” I asked, sounding only slightly bitter. “Never seen a mostly-naked woman before? I guess you do strike me as the kind that never looks at herself in the mirror until she’s got all her clothes on.”

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate considering whatever it is you’ve been doing with my sister,” she said as she held up a hand to further block her vision. “It’s weird.”

“Whatever,” I muttered as I hooked the basket under the coffee table with my foot and pulled it out.

I grabbed the shirt off the top, and I didn’t realize until I’d unfolded it that it wasn’t one of mine. It was a few sizes too small, and it was that super thin, stretchy cotton blend that women’s blouses were always made out of. I avoided buying those when I could. They felt nice, but they tore way too easily for my tastes.

“This isn’t mine,” I muttered.

“Some of Luna’s clothes are in there,” Celestia said, having overheard me. “She had a gym bag in her trunk and she figured you wouldn’t mind her throwing some of her stuff in.”

I shrugged and put the shirt on the table to rifle through the stack until I found one of mine in the middle of the pile. It was hardly pajama-worthy, but it covered my butt as long as I didn’t lift my arms, so it’d have to do. I gave it a compulsory sniff, and noted with surprise that it wasn’t my usual brand of soap. Luna must’ve gone out for soap, or more likely, sent Celestia out.

It occurred to me as I was pulling the shirt on that no one had ever done laundry for me before. Sure, I’d had clothes done by room service, and nice dresses or coats done by dry cleaners, but no one had ever just done an honest-to-god load of laundry for me. It was an odd touch of domesticity that I’d never felt before, and while it wasn’t unpleasant, I wasn’t actually sure how I felt about it.

“You can look now,” I said as I pushed the basket, and the curious thoughts it brought me, back under the table.

Celestia frowned, clearly dissatisfied with the effort to cover up, but she seemed to accept that it was the best she was going to get.

“Thank you,” she said. She walked over, stared for a pregnant moment at the empty side of the couch, and then decided to have a seat at the edge of the coffee table. I was thankful for that little bit of respectful distance. Both of us sitting on the couch was too intimate, like we were friends, or something. “I know the look of someone who’s been drinking all night. You didn’t drive home like this, did you?”

“Don’t like it?” I said as I grabbed the bottle for another swig. “Call the cops on me. It hasn’t been a great day, so I’d actually really appreciate it if you just left me the hell alone.”

“You’re upset,” Celestia said, stating the obvious. “You have that right, I suppose.”

I scoffed. “Oh, do I? Do I really have your permission to have feelings? That’s so benevolent and not at all bitchy of you.”

She frowned, not at me, I could tell, but just at the situation. I couldn’t see anything that looked like contempt or annoyance or… or anything but pity in her look. I hated that look. The other Celestia got like that, too, when you shouted at her. She almost invariably responded to aggression with that damned piteous look, like you were beneath her anger and that it was sad that you thought otherwise.

That was an understandable, if frustrating, habit in a multi-millennia-old Mistress of the Solar Arcane. In a snooty human woman who was barely flirting with the idea of thirty? It felt a little less earned.

“I couldn’t sleep and I heard you moving around,” she explained. “I didn’t come down to argue with you, I just want to talk.”

“Arguing is a kind of talking,” I said bluntly. “Let’s not take it off the table.”

Celestia folded her hands in her lap and took a deep breath. “I am… trying very hard…” she said, letting the words slip out of her with a long sigh. “I am just trying to keep myself together. You can’t imagine what the last week had been like for me.”

“Oh, can’t I?” I asked.

Celestia’s staid veneer of calm cracked just enough that I could see her chagrin at my reply peeking through.

“Okay, maybe you can,” she admitted. She wrung her hands in worry, the wind seemingly taken out of her sail for the moment. “I came down here, all ready to talk, but now I don’t even know what to say. I barely even remember what I actually thought this would accomplish.”

I clucked my tongue in annoyance as I realized she wasn’t going to go anywhere.

“You probably wanted to feel like you were doing something,” I said, offering my view of the matter in the hopes that it’d get her talking and out of my hair quicker. “Something other than nothing. That’s kind of why I left. I couldn’t take sitting around being miserable in my attic.”

“Twilight was very sad when you took off, you know… She thought she might’ve done something to upset you when she went up to talk to you in the attic.”

Great. On top of everything, now I was feeling guilty about making the kid feel bad.

“Wasn’t about her,” I said, looking away shamefully.

“I know, but she’s a little girl,” Celestia said. “She’s intuitive, and bright, and so precocious, but she’s… she’s just a little girl…”

It seemed like a crack was all it took to break the mask. Celestia let out a little sob, but she caught herself and reined in her emotions just short of breaking down into a crying mess. She sniffled wetly and dabbed at her eyes before continuing.

“I want to help her so badly, but it’s like there’s a wall between us. Luna’s the only one she’s letting get close, and I’m pretty sure that’s only because of you. I tried to calm her down and tell her that it wasn’t her fault that you left the way you did. You know what she did? She looked me in the eyes and told me that I was right, that it wasn’t her fault, it was mine.” Celestia laughed dryly. “She said she hated me… I swear, I thought I was going to die right there, my heart hurt so bad.”

Mad as I was at Celestia, my heart went out to her for just that moment. I could tell how much she cared about the kid, and to hear something like that from her? Couldn’t have felt good at all.

Celestia jumped as I tapped her on the arm with the bottle of tequila. She looked at it like she didn’t know what it was, but her wits came to her quickly and she accepted the bottle, drinking deeply from its bitter comfort.

“What do they see in you?” Celestia said, the hard liquor and the hard feelings making the words come out in a croak. “Every third word out of Twilight’s mouth is your name, and Luna’s been doodling little hearts with your name in them in the margins of Twilight’s coloring books.” She took another drink, throwing back her head and groaning. “I bet you didn’t know Luna could draw. She can. Paints, too. You probably didn’t know that, either. She says you’ve only known each other for a few days. That's not enough time for you to learn anything about her, but she’s going around cleaning your house, borrowing your clothes, talking like she’s in love with you.”

“I’m extremely cute,” I said, disarming Celestia’s rant with my trademark roguish wit.

Celestia snorted mid-drink. She doubled over, coughing into her knees and banging the bottle on the table as she clutched at her own throat.

“I admit,” she said with a huff of throaty laughter that was as dry as kindling, “you are funny. Honestly, there’s a lot to like about you.”

“Except for all the magic stuff,” I said. The bottle of tequila flew out of Celestia’s hand and into mine. The look of surprise on her face at my sudden application of magic filled me with a very petty sense of glee. “Me being a freak and all.”

“I never said that,” Celestia said quietly. “I never said the word ‘freak’.”

“You were thinking it, though,” I said, a sloppy, drunken grin finding its way to my face. I was actually kind of enjoying this. “And Twilight said you were talking bad about me to her.”

“Never,” she quickly denied. “Never to Twilight. Whatever you may think my personal feelings about you are, I wouldn’t use her against you like that, I promise you. She only overheard me talking to Luna, and I didn’t say anything to her that I didn’t say to your face.”

I hummed around a mouthful of tequila. “I suppose that makes it okay, then.”

“What do you want me to say here?” she asked with a long, drawn out sigh. “You want me to apologize? I can do that if it will make you feel better. Just tell me which of the things I said to you felt unfair.”

“Everything you said was true enough,” I admitted, shrugging weakly. “I am dangerous to be around, and Luna certainly is too good for me. I wouldn’t argue either of those.”

“Then why the hostility?”

I snorted, laughing at the very absurdity of the question. “You told me to piss off, and you’ve got the nerve to ask why I didn’t like it? The nerve of you, I swear.”

I didn’t even know what I was arguing about anymore. I was pissed off and tired, and just being near Celestia was wringing a lot of deeply-seated nastiness that I was way too tired to express as vociferously as I would’ve liked. Maybe I just wanted to argue for the sake of arguing. It wasn’t productive, and it certainly didn’t make me feel any better, but it was preferable to thinking about… everything else.

Celestia sat there on the table, puffing herself up, bird-like. If she’d had wings, I could imagine her slowly extending them, spreading out her feathers and trying to make herself look bigger, like a magpie trying to scare off a badger. Whatever she was chewing on must’ve gone down bad, because the sourest look came over her as she got up and smoothly transitioned to the couch. Luna may have been the runner, but the way Celestia swung her hips with unsettling sultriness made me think she was the dancer in their family.

I waited for her to say something, and maybe she was waiting for the same. Neither of us could find words, though, so we settled for trading silence, which was far more comfortable. We sat, sharing the couch and the bottle, not like friends comforting one another, but more like strangers at a bar finding camaraderie in our misery.

Whatever had caused that sour look on Celestia’s face must have lost its bitterness with the drink. Luna had said that her sister was a fellow retired party-girl, and judging from how comfortable Celestia looked with a bottle in her hand, I could tell she wasn’t lying. Celestia definitely wasn’t a stranger to drowning any worries that were too heavy to swim.

“Luna told me you didn’t have any family growing up,” she said, smacking her lips as she finished off the last drop in the bottle. “That must’ve been hard.”

I looked away, feeling annoyed and mildly betrayed. It wasn’t a huge secret, but it wasn’t something I wanted shouted from the rooftops, either.

“She shouldn’t have told you that.”

Celestia set the empty bottle on the table, her finger dancing over the lip. “She didn’t mean to,” she explained, “but I was pressing her buttons and it slipped out. I think she was trying to get me to... I don’t know, be more sympathetic to you.”

“I don’t need your goddamn sympathy, or pity, or whatever else,” I said, half growling the words as that slumbering annoyance stirred in my chest. My past was mine alone, and what I shared of it with Luna wasn’t hers to share with anyone else.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Celestia said. She handed back the bottle, clucking her tongue in frustration. “Why are you making this so difficult?”

“Because I can.”

Celestia threw herself against the couch and groaned at the ceiling. She took a minute or two to sit, staring at the ceiling with that ugly, sour look on her face again. I just let her mull over whatever was going on in that overripe melon of hers. The more she thought, the less she said, and that was fine by me.

“Look, I know you care about Twilight and Luna,” she said as she sat up straight and fixed me with a serious look. “I know it because there’s no way they would care so much about you if you didn’t feel the same way back…” She took a deep breath. “So I’ll give you a chance. Convince me that I’m wrong about you. Tell me that this kind of thing will never happen again, that in five, ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, some other evil wizard won’t show up on your doorstep looking for a fight. I need you to tell me that you can protect them from all of that. Convince me that you’re good enough for them.”

“Fuck you.”

Celestia reared back, blinking in surprise like she’d just been slapped on the street by some random passerby. It was understandable. In her twisted little brain, she probably thought she was doing me a favor.

I knew enough about this Celestia to know that she was the kind of person that only felt safe when she was in control. This situation couldn’t have been easy for her, being so helpless to protect the other two girls in the house, and a small part of me could sympathize with that – I cared about those girls, too, after all. The way I figured it, this test, or ultimatum, or whatever it was, boiled down to nothing more offensive than one poor woman desperately trying to hold herself together as everything around her was falling apart.

All the same, to hell with her.

I absolutely, totally, completely did not give a single good goddamn about what she felt right now. All I knew was that I was furious that she’d dare to try and test me like that. That she would even ask felt too much like she was trying to put me under thumb, like I was some vassal that had to petition her for permission to see the girls.

I don’t like power plays, especially not when they’re against me. Call it my rebellious nature, or just plain obstinance, but I hated being told what to do. Even Fiddler had only ever outright ordered me to do something once, and that had been the end of our arrangement.

If I wasn’t going to take that kind of treatment from an ageless demon who held the pink slip on my soul, I sure wasn’t about to take it from the doppleganger of the Celestia I’d left my home world to get away from.

“Excuse me?” Celestia asked, still dumbstruck.

“You heard me,” I said as I got up off the couch with slow, deliberate movements. “Fuck you.”

I grabbed up the empty bottle off the table and threw it against the wall. It didn’t shatter dramatically like in the movies, but it did put a nice hole in the drywall.

“Do you even hear yourself? Convince you? Who are you?” I kicked the table, sending it skidding across the carpet. My weariness was washed away in a surge of anger, and the headache I’d been feeling all night was back and pounding so hard I could hear the blood rushing through my ears as a roar. “You know what, don’t answer that. I’m a good enough judge of character that I know your type by the smell. You’re the kind of person who has so little going on for herself that she defines her self-worth by her usefulness to others. ‘Everyone loves Celestia!’, ‘Celestia will always help you with your problems!’, ‘What a nice person Celestia is!’

“But you and I both know that it’s all bullshit. The truth is that you get off on people coming to you with their problems, because it makes you feel important. Heaven forbid someone you’ve wrapped around your fingers ever turns to someone else when things go bad. And when you get right down to it, that’s the real reason you want them out of my house. You can’t stand that Twilight and Luna are relying on me instead of you, and the fact that you can’t help must feel like a great big limp dick in your hand.”

Celestia stared, her jaw hanging in obvious shock as she tried to understand what had just happened. Then, like someone had flipped a switch, her brain caught up with the rest of her.

“What’d you just say to me?” she asked as she shot to her feet. She was angry. Angrier than I would’ve believed possible from such an uptight woman. “What gives you the right to talk to me like that?”

“Well look at that,” I said, feeling a sly little thrill go through me at having finally shaken her. “The bitch does have emotions other than a sense of smug superiority. It’s almost like there was an actual human being underneath all that self righteousness.”

“So I’m a bitch because I don’t want you around the people I love?” Celestia said, her face coming over all flush with anger. She pointed angrily at the ceiling, in the general direction of my bedroom. “I care more about those girls than you ever will. You don’t know anything about me, and you don’t know anything about them. Growing up, nobody gave a damn about me and Luna. We had our parents, but we were just expenses to them, something that required hiring extra help to care for, like the garden or the summer house. I raised Luna – me, I did it. Even when I was pissing away my life on parties and men, when I barely even cared about myself, I still made time for her so she wouldn’t have to be alone, so that she would still have a big sister.

“Night Light taught me what it was like to care about people other than myself and my sister. He was more than a mentor, he was my best friend. His family accepted me, treated me like their own, but all that’s gone now, because of you and your stupid magic, and that’s what’s bullshit! All that’s left of that is Twilight, and nobody’s going to put her in danger, not you, not me, not anybody! I am not going to let you take her, or my sister, away from me!”

Celestia stood there, panting in the wake of her furious tirade. I was still angry, but it wasn’t my usual brand of red-hot anger. It was something colder. I just stared back, waiting for something to break the stalemate.

That ‘something’ came in the form of a quiet thud – a little whumpf of something soft hitting the ground just within earshot. Celestia and I turned to find Luna and Twilight standing in the hallway, holding hands and looking in at us in stunned silence. The source of the noise turned out to be one of my pillows, which lay on the floor next to Twilight. She must’ve brought it downstairs, holding it under her arm like a stuffed animal.

The silence held, seemingly without end in sight. Celestia was frozen, and with the angry flush gone from her cheeks she looked almost as pale as Luna.

“You know what?” I asked, cutting through the seemingly interminable silence and startling everyone in the room. “I’m sick of all this drama. I don’t need this stress in my life.” I pointed at Twilight and gestured towards the stairs. “Kid, go upstairs and grab your stuff. Celestia and Luna are taking you to their house.”

Luna let go of Twilight’s hand and pulled her protectively to her side. “What are you talking about? You said she can’t leave the house.”

“Things change,” I said as I turned and walked to the liquor cabinet, knowing that every pair of eyes was on me. “The guy that made that storm isn’t a problem anymore. I took care of it today.”

I grabbed the first bottle I saw and pulled out the cork. It wasn’t as bitter as the tequila, but spiced rum burned just as nicely.

“You found him?” Celestia asked.

“Knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy,” I said, repeating the words Caballeron had said to me earlier that night. “Still dunno what his deal was. All I know was that he was nuts and he pissed me off, so now he’s gone. So… so whatever. Go get your stuff, kid. Get it and get out of my house.”

“No,” came the immediate response, not from either of the adults, but from Twilight herself.

I lowered the bottle mid-drink and slowly turned to look at Twilight. “No?” I repeated. “Don’t you remember what I said the other day? It’s not your choice. You do what you’re told, kid, so you go get your toothbrush and your change of clothes and—”

“Stop that,” Twilight said with a frustrated tremble in her voice. She stepped away from Luna’s side, slapping away the older girl’s hand when Luna tried to pull her back, and took a few impressively confident strides forward. “Stop calling me ‘kid’. You say my name to Luna, why can’t you say it to me?”

“Because I didn’t want to get attached, okay!?” I shouted as I pointed my index finger right in her face, the bottle of rum sloshing in my shaking hand. “I told you from the start that this was temporary. I make the monsters go away, then you could crash here long enough for me to find you a home, and then you go away. Well guess what? That time is now. Celestia wants you and I don’t, so hip-hip-hooray, everyone gets what they want.”

Twilight stood there as I, an adult that she admired, shouted right in her face. I could tell she was scared, any kid would be, but she didn’t show it in her face. I’d seen a lot of myself in Twilight since I’d met her, and it seemed like I was finally getting to see the part of her that matched my stubbornness. It was buried deep down, I could tell that with a look, but hard-living scratches away the veneer of a person, shows what they are down in the bones. Twilight had done a lot of hard-living in a very short period of time. She was looking a little more like me every day.

All the more reason to get her out of my house as fast as I could.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

“God damnit!”

I spun on my heels and spiked the bottle of rum straight down. It bounced, spinning and splashing alcohol everywhere, but I didn’t pay it any mind. I needed to break something, and the nearest thing to me was my liquor cabinet. I grabbed it and tugged, throwing it over hard enough to – finally – break a few of the bottles inside.

“What do you want from me, huh!?” I demanded.

“I want you to admit that you want me here!” Twilight shouted. “I can tell you hate being alone, too! Why can’t you just say you want me to stay!?”

“Don’t pretend you know what I want! Do you really want to know what I wanted? I wanted to do a quick favor for a guy that stepped onto my porch with an interesting problem. He had some magic on him that I’d never seen, and it piqued my curiosity, so yeah, I stuck out my neck. And wouldn’t you goddamn know it? He gets dead and I get stuck with his kid and this guilt and all this shit that I never asked for!”

Celestia stepped forward, puffed up again, like an indignant mother hen. “That’s enough, Sunset Shimmer.”

I jerked my head and Celestia’s feet followed. It was just a little push against her ankles, enough to trip her, and another push to knock her backwards and onto the couch. The amount of force I used would barely qualify as roughhousing, but that I’d used magic on her at all was enough to put the fear of the gods in her eyes.

“I’ll tell you when it’s enough,” I said.

I held that gaze, like I could push all that bluster and confidence back down inside her with just a hard glare. And it worked. It worked on everyone.

For the first time I could see a little bit of fear in Luna’s eyes. It wasn’t a lot of magic, but that it had come so quickly and so easily, and that it had been against her sister, had probably given her the first naked look at what she’d been trying to get close to all this time. Like those people who play with big cats, or bears, and then end up getting mauled or eaten. Unpredictability – it’s something wizards and wild animals had in common.

Twilight wasn’t scared, though. There was surprise there, like what you’d get if someone jumped out from around a corner and shouted boo, but she wasn’t scared.

No… no, what I saw from Twilight was just disappointment. Or maybe pity. Yeah, it was pity, and she definitely wore that look better than Celestia had.

I needed to sit down. The coffee table was too far and the couch was even further, so I let myself collapse onto the overturned liquor cabinet behind me. Something inside – other than the bottles that had fallen victim to my tantrum – had broken, and the whole cabinet creaked before finally accepting my weight.

“I’m so tired of feeling like this…” I said, sotto voce.

I had to get rid of them. My life before Night Light had bumbled into it hadn’t been glamorous, or exciting, or even fulfilling, but it had been my life. It had been comfortable, simpler, and I needed to get that simplicity back or I was going to lose my mind.

It didn’t help that the thing in my chest was burning again. I don’t know why it did that, but it seemed to be doing it a lot lately.

“The guy who killed Twilight’s family was named Ahuizotl,” I explained, deciding to just lay the cards out for them. “He was some bigshot from the Aztec days. And no, I don’t know why he wanted them, so don’t ask. I’ll spare you the gory details, but he ain’t coming back, not after what I did to him. The kid’s free to go.”

I buried my face in my hands, six-feet deep.

“Now that you know what happened, I want everyone to get out of my house. Nothing is keeping you here anymore, so take whatever closure you can fit in your pockets and don’t come back. I’m sick of looking at you all.”

There was silence for a while. A heavy kind of ‘nothing’ where all you could hear was the sound of heavy breathing plucking at the tension in the air like the strings on a violin.

And then there was movement. Soft, at first. Just the plodding of tiny little feet that told me it was Twilight. She was walking towards me, and I wasn’t sure what she would do, or what I would do, but I was too scared to move. I was too scared to even look up at her.

She got close enough that I could sense her. Not with any kind of magical senses or anything like that. It was the warm, tingly feeling you got when you knew someone was looking at you from across the room. That prickle of body heat and attention that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

“I told you to leave,” I said, my voice trembling. “I’m not your fuckin’ mommy.”

I knew it was a low blow, and I said it anyway. Sometimes you gotta shoot Old Yeller.

I expected shouts, or outraged gasps, or something, anything. Sobbing, cursing, maybe a hastily exclaimed, “I hate you!”

But there was just more nothing. She didn’t make so much as a peep, but I knew I had broken her heart. I could sense it in the air, in that same prickly sensation on my skin that told me she was near. That a heart could break so quietly was a revelation I would’ve happily died never having known.

Someone, Luna or maybe her sister, walked up and grabbed Twilight. I could hear the sound of Twilight’s socks dragging across the carpet as she was pulled away. They took her into the hallway and said something to her that was just a buzz in my ears.

Then the quiet was back. Not another word, not another sound of significance except for halting footsteps going up the creaking stairs. The closet door in the spare room opened and closed with a timid thud as the two sisters helped Twilight gather what few things she would be taking with her.

I listened the whole while. The crinkle of the plastic shopping bags as they came down the stairs, and the hushed whispers of an argument, were things outside my small bubble of self-loathing. I didn’t even look up when I heard the front door open.

The door closed, and I was alone.

I heard a pair of engines start up outside. Luna and Celestia drove affordable foreign mid-range heaps with quiet engines, so I had to strain to pick up the sound of them puttering away.

The guilt of what I’d just done was already gnawing at me, but I knew it had to be. I’m not all that in-touch with my feelings, and I’d taken more than my fill of an emotional beating over the last few days. I needed some space, some time, some sleep, and a lot more drink.

I got up and flipped the liquor cabinet with my magic, sifting through the glass to find an unbroken bottle. It didn't matter what it was, just that it was close to full and wouldn't cut me when I tried to drink out of it. I found one easy enough and dropped the cabinet unceremoniously. I'd clean the mess later. Liquor stains were a pain if you didn't have magic, but I did, so whatever.

The bottle felt good in my hand. Slick and cool, and the weight of the liquor sloshing around in the glass was comforting, like the swing of an old rocking chair. The bottle was coming with me to bed, so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone.

As I walked into the hallway, I noticed something on the table next to the front door. Twilight hadn’t taken everything. She’d left behind one thing – the picture of her family. It was the same one I’d grabbed on the way out of her burning house, and later hung in the room she’d tried to claim as her own.

A dark, ugly urge to smash that picture welled up inside me. I felt like she was taunting me.

This could’ve been you,” the picture said to me.

I reached out with my magic, taking hold of the frame. I could lift a bus over my head with my magic if I was amped up enough for it… but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to pick up one stupid family photo.

I let go of the magic as I tightened my grip on the neck of the bottle, as if I could choke a taste of southern comfort from it by force. The quiet followed me upstairs and into bed.

The sheets smelled like Twilight and Luna.

* * *

Chapter 9 - When the Children Cry

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A lot of what had happened after I’d kicked out the girls was lost to me. I could remember driving to the gas station for something else to drink – vodka and a Gatorade, I think – and trying in vain to clean up the mess I’d made of my living room. Everything else that might’ve happened in that span of time had sort of smeared between those two events into indecipherable static.

I probably hadn’t lost anything important. Just more of the same self-abuse I’d always heaped on myself when I was depressed. Just thinking that I’d drunk-coma’d my way through it made me feel a little guilty, though. Like I’d weaseled my way out of a deserved punishment.

I didn’t even dream in those few days. It was the only mercy I didn’t feel guilt over. My dreams were always awful memories, replaying themselves in my head over and over. Given what I’d had to do to close out this stuff with Twilight, the dreams that would have come would have been… bad.

It wasn’t until two days after everything with Twilight had been said and done that I managed to pull my shit together enough to put on pants and take a meeting. The appointment had brought me to a bar smack in the middle of downtown. It was an upscale place disguising itself as an old time speakeasy.

I was sitting in a booth near the back, separated from the rest of the patrons by a thin velvet rope and a sheer curtain that only afforded the illusion of privacy. There was a live band playing on the stage at the front of the place. Nothing too fancy, just a piano with a stride player noodling on the keys while a couple of other guys honked a free-formed accompaniment on the brass.

Clavus was with me.

Neither of us had said a word since I’d sat down. He’d called earlier in the day, telling me he was back and that he needed to talk. He’d been curt, but surprisingly less so than normally. I think he could tell I was still a little hungover when he called, because he wasn’t as shouty as he usually was. I don’t know whether that was because he could hear it in my voice, or because he’d heard about the week I’d had from Cilia and just knew enough about me to know I’d get hammered. I appreciated the softness in his voice all the same.

Clavus had already been waiting by the time I got to the place. He’d given my name at the door, and the bouncer had called over a waitress to escort me straight to his table. A drink had been set out for me, and Clavus didn’t even respond when I said hello. He just waved towards the empty booth across from him and stared at me without so much as a word.

It was the sort of treatment that usually meant you’d broken the Don’s heart and were about to get a silenced .22 pistol pressed to the back of your head. I’d have been unsettled if I didn’t know him as well as I did.

When he finally broke the awkward fifteen minutes of silent glaring, it was with an anticlimactic, “How’ve you been holding up?”

I grabbed the drink – a rum and coke – and took a distracting sip. I’d been nursing it, having already had my fill of drown-it-all drinks over the last couple days. It was nice to just drink for the taste, socially… anti-socially… whatever.

“Well enough,” I said, shrugging with the glass.

He went quiet again for a moment.

“How was your trip?” I asked, curtailing what I was certain would be more questions about things I’d rather not talk about just yet. My throat was still too sore for those words. “You go anywhere fancy?”

More silence, and then, “I was burying a friend.”

I set my drink down with respectful deliberation. It suddenly didn’t taste as good. “Guess there’s a lot of that going around.”

Clavus picked up his own drink for the first time that night, swishing it around in the glass and staring into it with a genuine rendition of the intensity I faked when I read cards. He struck a pretty picture – the handsome, brooding man pensively swirling a drink. Clavus as an adult was the Greek Ideal, with chiseled features and a sharp, hawkish nose that made his every glare just that much more intense. His normal childlike disguise was boyband pretty, but adult Clavus looked like he just fell assfirst out of a soap opera. The Italian sport coat and the Swiss watch added the spice of wealth to the tasty dish he presented, and I knew I had more than a few envious looks thrown my way when I’d joined him at his table.

The old timer took a deep, gulping drink that emptied his martini in a single pull, and flipped on a light in the middle of the table. It wasn’t bright, but it could easily be seen from the bar through the sheer curtain separating us from the rest of the bar. The waitress who’d guided me to the table flitted over like she’d been summoned with magic, and considering Clavus’ supernatural looks, she sort of was. She had another drink ready for him without him even having to ask. She set it down, turned off the magic light that summoned her, and reluctantly bounced away, shaking her butt as she went. She hadn’t even asked me if I wanted anything.

“It was the friend who helped me with your sigil,” he said, sounding wearier than usual. He gave me a sorrowful look. “When he sent the response, he included a second note asking me to come see him. I had assumed it would be a quick visit, that perhaps he wanted to further explain your sigil to me in person, but when I arrived he was already Starving.”

“Sorry to hear it,” I said.

He nodded in polite appreciation of my condolences. It was an oddly mechanical exchange given that we were fairly close, and that neither of us was a stranger to death. Fresh loss always seemed to color everything around it with a strange tonality.

“He was a deeply unpleasant changeling, but he was my friend, despite our differences, and he cared deeply for his young ones. He was, if nothing else, admirable for that devotion…” Clavus grimaced into his drink, sipping it and swishing the clear alcohol in his mouth like he was trying to get rid of a bad taste with a worse one. “It took a few days for him to pass, and a few days more for me to get his final affairs in order. Everything was done in seclusion, according to his wishes, otherwise I would have hurried home to help you with your troubles here.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I worked it out. Cilia was a big help, too. Whatever you’re paying her, you should double it.”

“I’ve no doubt of that,” he said, cracking the ghost of a smile. A rare occurrence for him. “She’s told me about the week you’ve had.” He paused, then added, “That storm made the news.”

“National news,” I said, feeling an inexplicable surge of pride rising up in me at the mention of the coverage.

The band changed tempo suddenly, dropping out of some three-beat jazz thing to something smoother. Clavus closed his eyes and leaned back to listen, and I let the old guy have his moment.

“It’s been a difficult week…” Clavus said wistfully. He laid his hands flat on the table, leaning forward with a look that would’ve taken the breath away from a less experienced woman. “I’m sorry that man died.”

I turned away, trying not to let the little hitch I felt in my throat show on my face.

“His name was Night Light, and yeah… I’m sorry he died, too. I didn’t know him long, but I liked him. He cared about his family, and he was funny, and...” I racked my brain, but found precious little else I knew about him aside from the fact that he was nervous and bookish, and that most everyone had kind words about him. “I guess I don’t know much more than that about him, but I’m still sorry he’s gone. I’m sad that I didn't get to know him and his family better.”

“There aren’t many things more regretful than lost opportunity,” Clavus said.

“Yeah…” I dipped a finger into my drink and fished out an ice cube, just to feel something crunching between my teeth. “Something like that, I guess.”

Clavus nodded and left the issue of Night Light at that. “I suppose I should ask about the necromancer,” Clavus said. “Ahuizotl… I don’t know the name, but Cilia told me he’s supposedly some sort of revenant?”

“Caballeron said Ahuizotl had shackled his soul into his body, and that’d been keeping him alive since Aztec-times,” I said, shrugging.

“Life through undeath...” Clavus leaned back in his seat, stroking his perfectly square chin in thought. “That’s the stuff of fantasy. There are zombies, yes, but with their minds and magic intact?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve heard of sorcerers trying, but never of anyone succeeding.”

“Because no one has,” I said. “I’ve worked the math out, and there’s a lot of ducks that need to get into one long and very perfect row, but it’s possible. As long as you’ve got a deal, and the thing that has your deal wants to cooperate, you can swing it. Fat chance of getting some higher being to let go of a snack, though. This was a weird one, I gotta admit.”

Clavus’ eyebrows knit together in thought. “His backer wanted him here?” He frowned, deeply, as I nodded in assent. “The wants of gods are… inscrutable, but rarely mean good things for the rest of us.”

“Whatever ceremony he wanted Twilight for, it probably would’ve been bad.” I knocked on the table twice, superstitiously. “Doesn’t matter anymore, though. Whatever they wanted, they can’t do it now. It was some complicated ceremony that Ahuizotl had to make himself, wholecloth. He’s gone, and I doubt he would’ve told anyone else about it. You know necros as well as I do. Those little weasels don’t play well with others, as a matter of general temperament.”

“But why the girl?”

“I don’t know, man,” I said, throwing back my head in frustration. “I’m chalking that up to another ‘it doesn’t matter’ and I’m going on with my life.”

Clavus frowned, disappointment darkening his perfect features. “That’s not like you,” he said. “You’re faced with a magic you’ve never seen and you’re going to leave the stone unturned?”

“Like you said, it’s been a shitty week, okay?” I replied, lamely. I could feel shame burning my cheeks at the mention of my often damning curiosity. “You know I don’t jive with necromancy. It’s icky.”

“‘Ickiness’ notwithstanding,” Clavus said. “Are you really not worried the girl may become a target again?”

“No,” I said flatly. “If she’s important, fine, hooray for her, but only Ahuizotl knew the truth of it. I’m not going to lose sleep over the why, I’m just going to be glad she can slip back into the herd with the rest of the normals. She can try to put her life back together, go to school, meet someone special, pop out some kids if that’s her thing, and maybe snag a Nobel Prize while she’s at it.”

Clavus raised an eyebrow at my mention of accolades.

I rolled my eyes and explained, “She’s smart.”

“Yes, well, regardless,” Clavus said, “were I you, I would at the very least be worried about this necromancer coming back a second time.”

“It’s not something he can do again,” I said. “Granted, it’s a new one for me, seeing a soul get shuffled back into the deck like that, but I know it’s not going to be a trick he can repeat. I burnt his body down to the last carbon molecule, using a jiggered version of that Greek Fire you taught me. The soul and the mortal body are inextricably linked, and no other vessel will contain it. No more body, so nothing else to do with the soul but to eat it. That storm god of his, Tlaloc, is probably picking that son of a bitch out of his teeth right about now.”

Clavus nodded along with my explanation, again stroking a beard he didn’t have. “Hm, I suppose you must be right,” he said. His eyes drifted south, down to my chest. I was used to men looking down there, but I knew it wasn’t my goodies Clavus was eyeing. “You are the expert in matters of the soul, after all.”

I cinched my jacket closed around my chest. “Guess that’s a way to phrase it...”

“How has that been doing?” he asked. “Is it still giving you trouble?”

“Yeah, it has,” I said. It was warm in the club, but I zipped up self-consciously. “It’s been hurting a lot lately.”

“I see.”

Clavus was starting to get pushy. He was always like this, but tonight I didn’t have the patience needed to let him dissect my new emotional traumas. That was the problem with making friends with monsters that instinctually preyed on emotions. Even when they had good intentions, they couldn’t help but want to peek at what made you tick.

Maybe another drink would help.

I shotgunned what was left in my glass in a single pull. The fizz in the soda burned going down more than the alcohol. I reached for the light that Clavus had hit earlier, the one that summoned the drink-nymph. Clavus’ hand reached out and took hold of my wrist, stopping me just short of the switch with a stern grip.

“Perhaps ordering you a drink was a bad idea,” he said. He held his eyes and his grip on me for a few oddly tense moments before letting go.

I pulled my arm back, glaring daggers as I rubbed my wrist beneath the table. It didn’t hurt, but the warmth of his skin lingered uncomfortably.

“Don’t put your hands on me like that,” I warned.

“I know you’ve been drinking again,” he said, heedless of my rapidly souring mood. “There’s nothing wrong with wine, but I’d rather not see you trying to destroy yourself with it again.”

“That was a long time ago...”

“And yet you still flirt with those same vices with casual regularity.” He shook his head, fixing me with a sad, worried glare. “For someone who spends so much time running from her past, you certainly do enjoy wallowing in it.”

It was time to leave.

“Look, not that it hasn’t been fun catching up, Clavus,” I said, “but I haven’t been sleeping well and I really gotta catch up on that.”

“Brat…”

“Yeah, I know, I know,” I said as I slid out of the booth. “You’re sorry about my friend, I’m sorry about yours. Condolences all around.”

“Sunset…”

The softness in Clavus’ voice stopped my hasty attempts to leave. I sat back down, at the edge of the booth, eyes fixed on the curtain that promised escape from this velvet-roped hell.

“What?” I asked. The word came out harder than I had intended. I felt bad about that for about half a second.

“Where is the girl now?”

“She’s somewhere safe,” I said.

I intended to leave it at that. Clavus had other ideas.

“With that girl, Luna?” he asked. My face must’ve betrayed me, because he quickly added, “You tend to talk to yourself when you’re bored, and Cilia heard you mumbling the name during your stakeout of Caballeron’s warehouse. If I recall, that was the name of the young lady who kissed you on the night—”

“That’s enough,” I said. I ground my teeth, torn between my respect for Clavus and how upset I was that he wasn’t letting this go. “If you really have to know, yeah, she’s with Luna and her sister. The older sister, Celestia, was close with Night. She looked up to him like a surrogate dad or something. They’re going to take good care of her.”

I watched out the corner of my eye as Clavus again leaned back in his seat, confidently folding his hands on the table. “And you pushed them all away, did you?”

“You already know the answer to that.” I turned to face Clavus, with that same old temper rising up in me. “You think I don’t know the look you changelings get when you’re peeping at someone’s heart? Cilia’s been giving me the evil eye the whole time you’ve been gone, and when I walked in here you were looking me up and down like a butcher inspecting a piece of beef that’s gone bad.”

“Cilia told me that your emotions have been quite volatile lately,” he said, opening his hands in an impotently conciliatory gesture. “Right now, you look heartbroken to me. It’s not difficult to piece together what’s happened.”

I laughed, loud and humorlessly. “Oh, is it?”

He nodded. “You failed to keep your promise to keep this man and his family safe, and I know how seriously you take your word. Your failure of course resulted in suddenly finding yourself taking care of a child, who no doubt became very attached to you. Being the solitary type that you are, that must have felt quite nice, to be looked up to by someone so young and innocent. I know intimately how purely human children can admire and love.

“And meanwhile, during all of this, a young lady is showing a romantic interest in you, which, from what Cilia has said, wasn’t unrequited. Add in the fact that you’re the type to put yourself on a cross over your personal failings, and it’s easy to imagine that you might be overwhelmed, and that you would almost certainly pull away from their attentions.”

“And what choice do I have?” I hissed, jabbing the table angrily with a finger, as if my anger was enough to prove my point. “You know what I am, and you know what I used to be like. I admit I get all high and mighty about necromancers being scum, but was I ever really much better?”

“You’ve been trying to improve yourself,” Clavus said.

“But I’m always going to be that person, Clavus.” I leaned across the table, meeting his ancient, weathered gaze with my own – white-hot and tempered by the literal fires of Hell. “You think your hunger is hard to fight? What about mine? Stars help me, I miss what I used to be some days. I miss not having to worry about money. I miss being able to study whatever the hell I want, to screw who I like, to abuse my power. In the cold, sober moments where it’s just me and those ugly thoughts, I hate myself. I hate myself more than I’ve ever hated anyone.”

I slapped the table. Hard. Hard enough to feel the sharp, aching burn in my palm.

“You’re the goddamn love expert at this table, so why don’t you tell me this? How am I supposed to love someone else if I can’t even love myself?”

Clavus didn’t flinch. You don’t get to be over two-thousand years old by being the type of guy that flinches.

“Brat…” he said in a throaty whisper. “You’ve always thought the worst of yourself, but I tell you, you’re no monster. That you feel these things at all proves it. You are human, and you can be better. You deserve to be loved.”

I sat back in the seat, lacking steam, but not fire. For a moment – just a moment – I thought about striking him.

“You’re not that naive.” I tapped my chest, at the spot where Clavus had been looking only moments before. “I can feel my soul, Clavus. I can feel the place where Fiddler scooped a piece of it out, and I can feel the thing he put in there scraping against the walls whenever it’s pissed at me.”

Nothing with a soul can touch the soul... Nothing with a soul can perceive it...

...but I could.

There was a sigil written right onto my soul, scratched into it by Fiddler’s own hand. I could feel it, even see it well enough to try to read it if I squinted my third eye. It was a constant reminder that I would always be touched by evil – tainted by it beyond any hope of redemption. Sometimes, with enough drink and enough binge television, I could forget about it for a day or two, but that thing he’d put in there along with the sigil would never let me forget.

“I don’t know what he made me into that night,” I said, the words strangled by the hurt, angry emotions wrapping themselves around my throat, “but I know it isn’t anything human or pony. I sure as hell wouldn’t wish myself on people that I care about.”

I slapped the empty glass from my rum and coke off the table in a fit of rebellious petulance. “Thanks for the drink and the chat,” I said, biting into the words as I got up from the booth. “See ya.”

I shoved the curtain aside and hurried out of the bar before Clavus could try to stop me. The drink-nymph was already hurrying over, summoned with broom in hand by the sound of breaking glass, and I nearly knocked her down as I shouldered past. I barely slowed down enough to let the bouncer open the door.

It was nearing midnight as I stepped out onto the street, but the part of downtown I was in was full of activity. The weekend was just starting, and people were either out on dates or searching for someone to take home. Most of them looked around Luna’s age. Likely college kids coming back from Spring Break, trying to squeeze in one last night of carefree partying before taking their noses out from under random skirts and putting them back into their books.

The skies were looking cloudy again, threatening to bring rain – normal rain – after a few days of perfectly clear skies. No one seemed worried about the coming downpour, so I didn’t worry about it either.

I jammed my hands in my pockets and hoofed it the two blocks to the parking garage where I’d left my car, weaving between the crowd, my head down so I wouldn’t make eye contact with any strangers. Getting heart-read by changelings had left me feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, and some irrational part of me was afraid of how much even normal people would be able to catch just from the look in my eyes.

I ignored a few guys catcalling me in slurred, drunken voices, with the corner of my lower lip firmly in my teeth. Somehow, I made it to the parking garage without hexing anyone, and I climbed the stairs – the ones next to the out of service elevator – up to where I’d parked. Philomena was up on the fourth floor, just below the roof, where the cars weren’t packed in so tightly and the risk of her getting dinged up by some inebriated frat bro was fairly low.

My mouth was already watering as the car came into view. There was a bottle of rye waiting in the glove box – provisions I’d picked up on the way over in anticipation of parting with Clavus in a less than pleased mood. I was a fortune-teller, after all.

A man called out to me, by name, before I could even pull out my keys. Unlike the sexist jeers of drunken yokels, this call out gave me pause. As I turned, I let the sour, angry things I was feeling show in my scowl.

“What do you want now, Clavus?” I asked.

Clavus stepped out of the stairwell with a dramatic flourish, flicking the long braid of his hair over one shoulder. He closed the distance between us quicker than his slow, measured stride should’ve allowed.

“We’re not done, brat,” he said, undoing the buttons of his coat. He shrugged the thing off and tossed it over the edge of the parking garage, onto the sidewalk below, like the obvious expense was nothing – and it probably wasn’t.

“The hell we aren’t,” I shot back, squaring up my shoulders as I faced him. “I already said ‘see ya’, so,” I gave a mocking little half-salute, “see ya.”

“I’m not going to let you trot away so shamefully.” He fiddled with the cuffs of his dress shirt and rolled up his sleeves. “I’ve put too much work into you to see you close yourself off like this. What? Are you going to shun me as well?”

“Dude, we’re still friends, I just don’t want to talk about this, okay?” I took off my own jacket and tossed it onto the roof of the car. “But let me just say, I don’t appreciate you walking up on me like you’re looking for a fight.”

Clavus finally pulled up to a stop about a dozen feet away – gunfighting distance – and stood with his legs apart and hands at his hips. He was looking for all the world like he was just waiting for the bank clock to strike high noon.

“I know you well enough to know your temperament.” He held up a finger and added, “And I can taste your emotions, if you’ll remember, stupid horse.”

I clucked my tongue, annoyed. “Whatever, man. Doesn’t change the fact that we don’t have anything else to talk about.”

“Is that so?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you actually aren’t worried for that girl’s safety? You want that girl to ‘disappear back into the herd’?” Clavus turned his head and spat on the idea. “Whatever that necromancer knew about her means that she no more belongs amongst normal humans than you do. No wizard would go to these lengths for someone ‘normal’.”

“Even if that’s true, who are you to make that decision?” I asked through clenched teeth. “I promised her dad I’d keep her safe, and I’ve decided that throwing her back in the pond is the safest thing for her. So don’t worry about the kid, she’s my responsibility.”

Clavus just shook his head and let out a long, tired sigh. “And you’re running away from it marvelously.”

Thunder clapped in the distance, rolling over the city and roaring in the cavernous expanse of the parking garage. It felt appropriate to the mood, and that urge to lift my hands against my friend – the closest I still had to a mentor – grew with the rumble in the air.

“I don’t want to fight, Clavus,” I said, my voice even and cold. “I didn’t need your help anymore, but I came out of respect for our friendship, and now I’m too tired to keep arguing… We can talk about this later, when I’m not so angry at myself and not so annoyed at you… let’s just go, okay?”

The phone in my jacket pocket started ringing, drawing both our attentions and cutting into the tension and threats of possible violence. The unexpected interruption was like a bucket of ice water being poured on our mutual tempers. A sobering interjection from someone who wasn’t even here.

Clavus tilted his head to the side, with his full, pouting lips drawn into a tight little line. Thunder clapped again, and Clavus relaxed his stance with the quiet drama of a gun hammer being lowered.

“If you didn’t want to talk, why did you come?” he asked, ignoring the ringing phone.

I sucked my teeth, annoyed, but glad that we probably weren’t going to fight now. “I came to find out where you’d disappeared to,” I said, with as much venom as I could squeeze out of these bad feelings.

“That’s a poor excuse,” he said, with a thousand years of patience measuring his voice.

“Why are you pushing this!?” I screamed, loud enough for the echo to ring in my ears. “What’s it matter why I came? I came, we talked, now I’m leaving. Just let this go.”

The call ended, and the peace it had bought us was eroding as quickly as it had come. Clavus didn’t respond to my pleas. He just stood there, watching me with the stoic patience of a monk observing fish in a pond, like he was waiting for me to dart away.

I licked my lips, gathering up my nerve to beat back the self-conscious tingle prickling away at my skin.

“I just want to go home, Clavus,” I said.

“And where is home?”

The phone started ringing again.

“I suppose you should get that,” Clavus said, sighing as he rubbed at his furrowed brow. He feigned frustration, but I could sense the relief I was feeling being mirrored beneath the surface of his grimace. “It might be important.”

I reached for the phone and answered it. I didn’t really care who it was, but at least it was someone else, anyone else but Clavus.

“Hello?”

“Sunset, thank god you answered!” Luna shouted over the phone, her voice breaking as she sobbed with what I imagined was relief. Whatever was going on, she sounded scared.

“Luna?” I asked. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Twilight’s missing.”

* * *

That storm that had been baying at the edge of the sky had finally started moving in. The wipers on my car swished lazily at the smattering drizzle, which was barely enough to mist over the windshield. The phone, sitting on the console between the seats, vibrated and chirped several times in rapid succession as I was pulling up to a red light.

“News?” Clavus asked.

“Just Luna still having a freakout, asking if we found her yet,” I explained as I typed out a quick reply to the flood of texts I’d just gotten.

“You just need to say the word,” Clavus said, holding up his own telephone in emphasis. Like Cilia’s, it was the latest model, and I knew that had to be by her influence. She was the one that liked gadgets, and Clavus always indulged her love of new toys. “I can send the children out to look for her if you can give me a description.”

The light changed and I stepped on the gas a wee bit harder than I’d meant to, throwing myself back in the seat at the sudden acceleration.

“That’s not necessary,” I said. “She just ran away, and I’m pretty sure I know where she went.”

Clavus hummed, setting down his phone after a moment of thought. He put thought into everything he did.

“What makes you certain she hasn’t been taken?”

I sighed, tapping impatiently at the wheel. “Luna said she’s had Twilight sleeping in her room with her. She put her to bed earlier and then went downstairs to talk with Celestia about seeing some lawyer they know to help with getting custody of the kid. Things got heated, according to her own admission, and when she went upstairs the kid was gone. They searched the house and found the side door in the garage was open and the new bike they’d bought her was missing. They think she might’ve gotten upset over their argument and taken off.”

“That certainly sounds like a runaway,” Clavus said with a sad shake of his head. “Poor child.”

I nodded, silently agreeing with the sentiment while also trying not to think about the part I played in this. Twilight was a smart girl, too smart to do something impulsive like running away in the dead of the night. Running away like this? It was an act of desperation, and if anyone was to blame for her not having her head on straight right now, it was me.

“I’m just glad they had enough sense to not go straight to the cops. It’ll call down a lot of heat if we report her missing when she’s supposed to be dead. At least until they make their arrangements and get the story straight. The second the cops sniff something even a little off they’ll take her into ‘temporary’ custody and that’s the end of it. She’ll get lost in the system and who knows how long it’ll take to get her out.”

Clavus snorted, his handsome visage souring at the mere mention of cops. The old monster had very little love for the boys in blue, going back to the times when they carried brass swords and wooden spears. When you lived on the fringe of society the way the changelings did, you would inevitably have your share of run-ins with the law.

“The police are only good for harassing my nieces and nephews,” Clavus griped. “Better to handle these things on our own… which is why we should send out the young ones to find her.”

I let a little of the annoyance I was feeling creep into my voice. “I said it’s fine. We’re almost there, okay? Just… just leave this to me.”

Clavus buried any further discussion under a throaty grunt that almost felt approving.

I kept my eyes on the road for the rest of the drive. It was mercifully short, but all the thoughts racing through my head made it feel impossibly long. I had no idea what I was going to tell the kid, but something in my gut was telling me I had to be the one to talk her into coming home. Maybe it was guilt. Or my sense of responsibility finally kicking in.

Or, if I was being honest, maybe I just wanted to see her again.

I had to find her first, though. Luckily, I hadn’t been bluffing about knowing where she was.

As a sorceress, I had a lot of ways I could find one missing kid – some of them being the same tricks Ahuizotl had tried, funny enough. But sometimes you don’t need magic to get a job done. Sometimes you just know what it’s like to be a little girl running away from the people who care most about her.

When you run away like that, when you feel like you have nothing and no one to rely on, all you want is to go home. For me? Home was Canterlot. That’s why I’d always found myself coming back here to Canterlot City whenever I felt lost. It was the place closest in this world to the first real home I’d ever had.

For Twilight? It wasn’t hard to guess what she would consider a safe place to run to, even if it wasn’t there anymore. Luckily, I still had the address in my phone. The woman’s voice in the GPS app told me to turn off the main road and down a smaller, better maintained one.

Philomena still stuck out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood. Night Light’s neighbors had been more the Mercedes and minivan crowd, and the flashy ostentation of my Firebird probably made me look like someone’s profligate kid coming home for Thanksgiving dinner.

My phone beeped unnecessarily, telling me I’d reached my destination as I pulled up to the curb where Night Light’s house had once stood. A wall of cheap portable chain link had been put up to keep anyone from stealing while the construction crew swept things up. Tarps were strung across the fence, fixed with zip ties so nobody could see what was going on inside. A kid’s bike was lying abandoned on the sidewalk in front of the fence, and that was enough to convince me I was in the right place.

“It would seem your foolish brain still has some use,” Clavus muttered to himself as he spied the bike.

I reached for the door handle, hesitating as the worries that had been running through my head the whole drive over took one last lap around my self-consciousness. I looked at Clavus, and to my surprise he hadn’t moved to get out of the car. The look in his eye told me he was waiting for me to tell him what he should do.

Back in the parking garage, all I’d had to say was that Twilight had gone missing, and he was at the passenger side door before I’d even finished explaining. Technically, I didn’t need him, and we both knew that, but neither of us had questioned that he’d be coming with me.

Friends – real ones – were like that, I guess. You didn’t need to tell them that you needed them, and they didn’t need to ask. Now that we were here, though, he was waiting for my cue, letting me call the shots on how I handled my own business.

“I’ll take care of this, so can you…?”

I let the suggestion hang in the air and Clavus picked up my meaning. He gave a subtle nod and muttered something about taking a walk around the block before getting out.

I heaved a sigh of relief that we weren’t going to have it out again. One less thing to worry about.

“Come on, Sunset, you got this,” I said, gathering what courage I had left as I forced myself out of the car.

It was still sprinkling, just enough to mist the air without drenching everything. I zipped my jacket closed and turned up the collar against the increasingly chill winds.

I went to where the kid’s bike was and looked around, finding a gap in the fence, where two of the sections hadn’t been properly secured. The fence was kind of crooked there, which probably meant someone had already squeezed their way through. It’d be a tight fit for an adult, but a kid Twilight’s size could make it without much effort.

I wasn’t about to get down on my knees and try my luck. I just walked up to the fence, touched the place where the panels were secured, and hexed the bracket holding them together. Chain link fences tend to be made out of galvanized steel, and just a little play with the natural process of oxidation was all it took to make it rust to nothing. I scanned up and down the street, just to make sure nobody was out late walking the dog, and slipped in through the fence.

The last time I’d seen Night Light’s place had been on TV during news reports about the fire. It had been a hot story for a few days – people love a tragedy, and an upstanding family like Night’s going up in flames in their beds had made for the kind of drama that local stations ate up. News cycles being what they were, though, the rash of storms had bumped their story off the air within a couple of days. Sad, but that was just how it was.

The fancy ironwork fence and all the kitschy lawn ornaments had already been swept away. I could see pieces of the fence sticking out of the big dumpster taking up the driveway. The ruins of the house itself were still mostly up, and the bulldozer parked on the lawn was pointed in their direction, like an attack dog waiting for the order to tear it down. There wasn’t much left, except for some scorched walls and some of the load-bearing studs – just enough of the skeleton to tell you what it used to look like. Some of those standing flood lights had been left out and on, for security, presumably. The bright white lights only made the wreckage look sadder, the long shadows behind the charred walls somehow darker than the unlit night.

Lightning struck again, closer than it had been earlier, but still far away. As the thunder clapped, I heard a sound from nearby. It was soft, a little squeak of panic that trailed off into a low moan. I followed the sound to the bulldozer and found Twilight sitting in the bucket, legs pulled in tight and forehead pressed to her knees. The only protection she had from the lousy weather was a heavy canvas jacket. The thing was clearly meant for a full grown woman, and the drizzling rain carried a whiff of perfume that told me the kid had taken it from Luna’s closet.

“Hey,” I said. I kept my voice soft, like she might dart off like a scared woodland critter at the slightest provocation.

“Go away,” she said.

She didn’t seem surprised to find me. I guess that made sense. Philomena and the sporadic crack of thunder were the only two things disturbing the still of the night.

“Can’t do that. Luna called me and asked me to find you. I gotta bring you home.”

“This is my home,” she said.

I looked up at the burnt remains of the house and shook my head. “This ain’t a home, not anymore. There’s nothing left here but memories, and you can take those with you.”

“I don’t want to hear that from you.”

My guts flipped a little at the hate in her voice. Something nastier than childish anger was seething in that tone – something more fermented, mature. It was another sad reminder of how quickly she was having to grow up.

“I don’t need you,” she added darkly. “I don’t need anyone.”

“What’s your plan then?” I asked. I checked the date on my phone. “Construction crew is going to come into work on Monday. They’re not going to let you hang around. They’ll probably call the cops. What’re you going to do for food? Clothes? Do you even know where you can find a place to take a bath?”

The shiver that trembled through the kid had nothing to do with how chilly it was.

“You’re a smart kid, but I bet you haven’t given much thought to how to live on the streets,” I said. I leaned against the heavy machine and ran my fingers through my hair, which was already starting to frizz in the humidity. It probably wouldn’t be long before the sky opened up again. “It’s not easy, and it’s not fun. There’s no Huck Finn adventures on river rafts and no harmonica-playing hobos cooking a pot of beans in a rattling train car heading for Cala-fornee. Just because I didn’t want you to end up in an orphanage doesn’t mean I would rather have you living in the street. Your dad wouldn’t have wanted that.”

“Stop talking like you care. You’re not my….my fucking mom.”

It hurt having my own words thrown back in my face like that, but I still almost laughed at the way the kid stumbled over the curse word there. That had probably been her first real attempt at profanity. I could just barely make out the rosy glow of her cheeks in the peripheral light from the security lamps.

“I may not be your mom, but that doesn’t mean I can just leave you out here,” I explained.

Twilight looked up at me, glaring at me as hard as she could with those big, bloodshot doe-eyes. This was so awkward, considering how we’d last parted. When I’d practically thrown her out of my house.

“You can’t make me leave,” she said, growling as threateningly as a four-week-old pomeranian.

“We both know that’s not true.” I held up my hand and wiggled my fingers. Tiny arcs of electrical potential danced in the gaps like a Jacob’s ladder in an old sci-fi movie.

I expected Twilight to recoil at the mild threat. The last time I’d seen her, I’d put the fear of magic in Celestia just by tripping her from across the room. Twilight was made of sterner stuff, though. She just watched as the blue light flashed between my fingers, until the sound of thunder overhead drew her eyes to the sky.

“You’re going to get struck by lightning doing that,” she said, unimpressed by my display.

I flicked my hand dramatically, like I was shaking out a lit match. “Says the girl sitting in a metal bucket that’s slowly filling with water.”

Twilight rocked from side to side, like she was debating whether or not to get up. Her fingers idly played with the shallow layer of water pooling in the bucket.

“I’ll take my chances,” she murmured rebelliously.

I shrugged.

The kid sneezed, wetly, and a moment of adult-like concern flashed through me. She’d been running around all night in just some pajamas and an oversized coat, getting rained on and everything. I knew better than most how drafty an improperly-sized coat could be, so I took off my own jacket and threw it at her – a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. She caught it with a look of surprise that slowly morphed into wary acceptance as she draped the jacket over her shoulders like a blanket.

"If you can’t dress well, at least you can dress in layers," I explained.

The kid nodded and I didn't offer any more advice than that. I was trying to scare her into going back with me, after all. I couldn't give up too many pro tips.

“I’m surprised Luna called you,” Twilight said, snuggling into my jacket. She pried a stone loose from her mud-caked seat and tossed it at the soot-stained foundation of her childhood home. The rock struck one of the support beams with a thud and splatted into the wet ash. “She’s really mad at you.”

A little heat suddenly flushed my face, pushing back the stinging cold. I’d already known Luna was mad. Even under her concern for Twilight, and the relief at finally getting ahold of me, I could hear all the things she really wanted to say straining her words over the phone. Still, hurt to hear it from the kid.

“She’s got the right,” I began. “I said some awful stuff. Some of it was...”

“Unforgivable…” Twilight finished for me.

“Yeah.” I reached for a cigarette out of reflex, but realized they were in the breast pocket of the jacket Twilight was snuggling into. I just wanted something to do with my hands, so I shoved them into my jean pockets, balled up into fists. “Yeah,” I repeated. “But what I said doesn’t excuse you running away.”

“I didn’t want to be there, so I left.” She shrugged, like it was just that simple. “It's just the same as it was with Luna back at your house. Celestia keeps following me around, asking if I'm okay and how I'm feeling. What I'm thinking about and if I'm comfortable. Luna keeps telling her to give me some space, but that just makes them argue more, and they've already been arguing a lot... Plus, I’m really sick of her ‘trauma resolution handpuppets’.”

“Son of a bitch, the puppets,” I muttered, shaking my head in sympathy. “Adults are always trying to talk to you through puppets.”

Twilight looked up at me with a curious grimace – half-pained, like she was holding back something she wanted to let go of. I could make my guesses what that something was, but in the end it didn’t matter. She let it go with a sigh and a slump of her shoulders.

“Luna's been okay, but it's still hard to talk to her about how I feel, because I know she won't get it…” She pried another rock loose and half-heartedly chucked it into a puddle. “And Celestia has all these child development textbooks. She’s been taking notes and highlighting pages. It makes me feel like I’m a school project…”

“Funny, I thought you would have liked that,” I said.

Twilight snorted with the effort to choke back a laugh. She cast me a quick, weary look, as if to chide me for the joke, but as she snuggled back down into my jacket I caught a glimpse of a smile. “Whatever…”

“She just wants some guidance,” I said. Defending Celestia, of all people, left a sour taste in my mouth, but I didn’t have much choice. Besides, I knew what she had in mind was what she thought was best for Twilight. “The idea of suddenly taking care of a kid is frightening as hell, let alone a smart one like you.” I spared a glance at the kid, who had shrunk even further into herself. Her knuckles were white where she grasped the edges of my jacket. “Let alone one that went through what you did.”

“Thanks for not sugarcoating it,” she said, and I knew she meant that. “You’re the only one who doesn’t.”

“Sometimes, when adults tell kids that things are going to be okay, they're really saying it to themselves." I sniffled, the chill of having lost my jacket starting to finally catch up to me. "They're just scared and they want you to be okay. They don't understand how tough you actually are, but they will."

Twilight hummed contemplatively, nodded, and accepted that assessment with an unenthusiastic, “I guess so.”

She scooted forward, carefully swinging her legs over the lip of the bucket, and pulled herself out. She didn’t ask for my help, so I let her do it herself. Still, I was ready to catch her if she slipped, and the tension in my body didn’t leave until her tennies hit the mud with a squish.

“I know you don’t want me,” she said, looking up at me with so much innocence in her eyes that it almost burned. “I know you don’t want me,” she repeated, forestalling the excuse I was about to give her, “but can I still see you? Please?”

I shook my head, my mouth moving to deny her yet again.

“Please!” Twilight took a heavy step forward, almost losing her balance in the process.

I reached out to catch her, and she took the initiative to lunge headlong into my gut, hard enough to steal my breath. Her little arms wrapped around my waist with desperate strength that was becoming scarily familiar. My own hands hovered in the air, poised to catch someone who had already caught me, and I stood there – dumbly – as she began crying into my shirt.

“Even just on weekends! Or holidays... Or something! Luna and Celestia care, but they don’t understand! Even when they’re sitting right there next to me, I still feel like I’m all alone!” The kid shook, hard, and the skies shook in kind. “I just don’t want to feel alone…”

The rain was coming down harder now, like it was waiting for this exact moment to add to the drama. My brain barely registered the change in the weather.

My arms felt like lead as they closed around the kid. I held her, hunched over her tiny body to try to protect her from the rain as she cried. She was wailing, loud and shamelessly, the way she had that night when we’d just been two strangers sitting in my kitchen eating fried chicken together. Lightning and thunder and the hard patter of rain coming down in sheets spared her dignity to all the world, save for me. I could feel every wail and every sniffle like they were my own.

Her tears began to slow, but the aftershocks of her sobbing made her tremble with impossible frailty.

I felt something warm streaming down my face along with the freezing rain. I just let it be and kept stroking the kid’s hair, waiting for her to calm down.

A lifetime ago, in another world, I had hated this child. I had hated what she was, and what she represented. A hatred so deep and powerful that I couldn’t set it down until I found something I hated even more.

And now.

And now… It was what it was. She was so much like me, save for the one way that mattered. She was human, fully and whole. That difference was the reason I couldn’t give her what she wanted.

I would have given anything for that to not be true – even my soul, were that still mine to give.

The rain surged as Twilight’s sobbing slowed. I waited until she’d gotten it out, and got down on one knee to look her in the face. I needed to explain that I was taking her home, and that this was goodbye.

A part of me was glad that I was getting a second chance to do this. I could handle things with more tact than I had the other night, and maybe in the far flung future, when she looked back on this part of her life, the grapes wouldn’t be quite so sour.

I owed her that much, and so much more.

I took her by the shoulders and kneeled to meet her eye-to-eye. My knee sunk uncomfortably into the muddy ground. “Kid, I know this is going to be hard to accept, but…”

“You’re bleeding.”

I reeled back, stunned for a breath or two by the simple statement. I reached up to where I had felt warmth trickling down my face. My fingers came away from my cheeks pink with watery blood. The rain washed the stuff away, so I dabbed at my eyes again, just to be sure.

“The hell is this?” I muttered.

A familiar iron tang filled my mouth as my nose started bleeding as well. My balance went next, as the roar of falling rain turned into a deafening electric whine that felt like it was pressing on the inside of my skull, like pressured steam whistling out of a tea kettle. The same trickle of warmth spilled down my neck, trailing from my ears, and I knew I was screwed.

Magic welled up in me, sudden, like a flood of water from a bursting dam. It boiled and surged and fizzed through my body, and the seed of demonic fire in my bones felt like it was searing away the marrow, eating its way out of me. I tried to pull it back in, but every attempt to form a conscious thought felt like a needle being stabbed into my brain.

I shoved the kid away, an action of pure instinct. I wasn’t in a mind to measure my strength, and a bit of magic might’ve been in that push. She flew back, sliding across the mud until she crashed into one of the security lights.

It wasn’t gentle, but it had probably saved her life.

The magic burst out of me, and I mean that literally. The force of raw, unfiltered magic left my body, directionless and without any form, licking at the air, boiling the rain, and carving gashes in the mud right where Twilight had just been standing.

My own magic pushed and pulled at me from the inside, trying to tear me apart. What magic was expelled from my body became fire, and lightning, and gusts of wind that seared, and charred, and tore at the ruins of Night Light’s house. Something exploded behind me with an electric pop and sizzle.

I fell on my back, feeling like an empty husk as the rain pelted my face. Lightning crackled and whirled in the sky above, the thunder rolling like the sky was laughing at me as I drowned beneath it.

The roar in my skull died down, and the electric whine began to peter out, returning my hearing to me, albeit damaged. The last things I heard as my consciousness sunk into mud were the sounds of Clavus shouting, and the snapping of jagged, misaligned teeth clicking with mechanical purpose.

* * *

I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. My body hurt from head to toe, right down to the tips of my nails. I could still taste the tang of my own blood, and there was a ringing in my ear that was already worrying me. At least I was in my own bed. The familiar bedding and the slight sag in the old mattress took a little of the sting out of my body.

I wanted to groan, in the vain hope that it’d relieve a little of the discomfort, but the realization that I wasn’t alone held down that urge. There were two voices speaking softly to one another, both instantly recognizable.

“Is she really going to be okay?” asked Luna.

Clavus made a soft, affirmative grunt. When he spoke, his voice was higher than I’d last heard it, but it was him. “She will. She’ll be in bad shape, but that brat is too stubborn to die to something like this.”

“I’m sorry I keep asking… I’m just… I don’t know what to do. I don’t know any magic, I don’t know how to help, I just.. I don’t know what I can do…”

“You care for her and that’s enough. The affection of a good woman like you is more than this ungrateful idiot deserves. Go back downstairs and see to your sister. I believe it’s best to not leave her alone for long.”

I listened to the sound of Luna’s footfalls receding into the distance, down the hall, all the way to the stairs. The door creaked on the hinges and closed with a gentle click once she was gone.

“Don’t pretend to still be asleep, I can hear the change in your breathing,” Clavus said. “Congratulations on cheating death yet again, now get your lazy self up.”

I sat up, with immense difficulty. My joints ached and screamed with every inch as I struggled to get upright. The muscles in my forearms were twitching like I’d overstrained them, and I could feel my heart beating behind my eyes. I lifted the comforter and checked to make sure I still had legs. They were there, but the clothes I’d been wearing were gone. I’d been dressed in a knee-length nightshirt that I had thought disappeared weeks ago.

Clavus was standing next to the door, his arms crossed over his chest as he glared at me. He was young again, and there was a slump in his usually flawless posture. Even his perpetually hawkish glare was uncharacteristically dull. Frankly, he just looked exhausted.

“Why’s Luna here?” I asked. I had more pressing questions, but they could wait until my head was a little clearer.

“You dropped your phone in the car,” Clavus said. “I was bringing you home and she kept calling. I got tired of hearing the ringing from under the seat, so I answered and told her the abridged of what happened to you.”

I took a deep breath and tried to steady my nerves. My ability to hold a train of thought was kind of fading in and out, but every lungful of air helped.

“What did happen to me?”

Something came flying at my face, and in a mush-brained panic, I swatted it out of the air. Clavus stood next to the dresser closest to the door, one eyebrow quirked infuriatingly.

“You were cursed,” he said, gesturing towards the glass jar he’d just thrown at me. “I found that in your ear.”

I picked up the jar from where it had landed on the bed. It was an empty jelly jar from my kitchen. At the bottom was a little white bug, barely bigger than a grain of rice.

“Is this a maggot?” I asked.

My stomach started doing flips at the thought that this gross little worm, which was puking out some kind of grimy black liquid in proportionately impossible amounts, had been in my ear.

“Don’t worry, I already checked for eggs,” Clavus added, as though that helped. “Do you have an idea when you might have been infected with this thing?”

The little bug wiggled in the jar, practically swimming in the effluence it was ejecting from both ends. Shaking the bottle seemed to make it even sicker, and the flow of foul liquid sprung anew with the motion.

“Ahuizotl slapped me with a curse while he was dying,” I muttered, trying to hold down my own stomach juices. “Felt like a knife stabbing into my head pudding. I... might have lost consciousness for a couple of minutes.”

“Foolish,” Clavus spat. “I tell you to always be cautious, and you let down your defenses like this?” He came over and grabbed the jar out of my hand, shaking it in my face. “The curse carved into this thing’s belly was meant to cut off a sorcerer’s connection to its pact holder, and expel magic from their body in a way that would tear down whatever protections they might be behind, telling the caster exactly where the victim was. Hiding it in that big empty cavity between your ears was the perfect way to sneak it past your warding.”

I frowned, listening to what Clavus was saying, but not getting the scope of it right away. I was still a little out of sorts, having just gotten smacked with a full on reverse-Highlander Quickening in the middle of that construction site.

“I don’t have that kind of connection to my pact holder...” I muttered.

“Which is why this thing almost killed you!” Clavus shouted. He slammed the jar down on the bed stand. “The spell wasn’t meant for someone with the amount of power you have. If this had activated here, in your house, the magic rebounding off these wards would’ve torn you apart.”

A shiver went through me as I imagined what that might look like. The wards on my house were built out of the best stuff I knew how to do. Trying to tear that down would’ve been like trying to break out of a bank vault by slamming against the door, and I was just strong enough to hurt myself in the doing.

Why hadn’t the thing activated here? If I were crafting something like this, I would have it just go off as soon as it crossed a ward line. There would be less points of failure that way.

I sat there, chewing my lip and staring at the jar, trying to reverse engineer the trigger in my head. Of all the ways I could think of to make it work, there was really only one that fit when I put myself in the place of someone who played with dead bodies for fun and profit.

“That stuff it’s puking,” I said, reaching over to tap the glass with my nail. “That’s Twilight’s blood, isn’t it?”

Clavus grunted affirmatively. “Or that of someone in her family.”

Night Light had groked onto someone watching him weeks ago, and judging from what Caballeron had said, Ahuizotl had had him in his crosshairs for way longer than that. Plenty of time to get a little bit of blood.

Blood is a good medium for magic, especially for curse magic. There’s a lot of symbolism in using the fluid of life to bind a spell, and symbolism gives shape to the shapelessness of magic.

The night I had killed Ahuizotl, I had come home with this thing in my head. I was drunk and angry, and when Twilight had approached, reaching out to comfort me with her touch, I had… said what I said, and she was gone.

The kid’s touch was the trigger. With the same blood as was in her veins hidden in my body, touching her would’ve been like closing the loop in an electrical circuit. Whoever had picked her up and taken her away before she could touch me that night had saved all our lives.

Whether he understood what he was doing or not, Ahuizotl had turned Twilight’s innocent need for affection into a weapon against us.

And angry as I was… as much as I could feel the indignation searing me from the inside out… the only thing I could think about was the pit of cold, dark fear festering in my stomach. The look on Twilight’s face as my power ran amok had scooped something out of me, and all I wanted to do was to hold her again, to know she was okay and that she…

I just needed to know where she was. I asked Clavus, hoping against everything that she was laying in the other room, sleeping off the scare I’d given her.

“Taken,” Clavus answered. “When the creatures came, a man followed behind them. He rose up out of a muddy pool of water, the way they did, and carried the girl away. I had my hands full just protecting you. I had to make a choice and I—”

I didn’t want to hear excuses. “What did this man look like?”

“Very big. Redhead. I described him in more detail to Cilia, and she identified him immediately as the lackey of the man you met the other night, Caballeron.”

I shot out of bed, furious enough that I barely registered the sway in my stance until Clavus was steadying me with a firm grip on my waist. The differences in our height must have made us look quite silly, but we were alone, and I knew his small frame could take my weight, so I let it.

My addled mind went back to that night, when I was torturing the thing I had thought was Ahuizotl. I’d known sorcerers that had killed most of their sense of touch and pain through experimentation or trauma, but the absolute lack of response to the beating I gave him was decidedly unnerving now that I thought of it.

“He played me,” I growled. “The thing I killed was probably one of Ahuizotl’s goddamn puppets. Caballeron said that necromancer could speak through flesh golems. He had to have set me up. He told Ahuizotl I was coming so he could set a trap.”

I spat and cursed the name of Night Light’s former friend, with the urge to run straight back to that shitty strip mall furniture store growing stronger in me with every malicious word. The flood of anger only subsided as I felt Clavus’ arm across the small of my back tighten, and the tips of his fingers digging just a little harder into my side.

“Enough of that,” Clavus said, clearly annoyed. “That anger does you no good… Not against a dead man.”

Clavus guided me back to the bed, helping me sit at the edge of the mattress with my aching bones grinding the whole way.

“What do you mean he’s dead?” I asked. The words fell out of my mouth, numbly. The unexpected betrayal of the murderous thoughts I’d been entertaining had left me instantly bereft of the only emotion that could distract me from worrying about Twilight. I could only take so much more of this emotional whiplash.

“I assumed, just as you did, that Caballeron had betrayed you. While I tended to you, I sent Cilia to search for signs of the girl at the place of your previous meeting with the man. When she arrived, she found the warehouse in shambles. There was blood, and a trail of it led into a back room where she found Caballeron dead. He was gutshot.”

Clavus reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a bit of spiral notepad, with the jagged little fringe from where it had been torn away still decorating the top edge of the paper. It was folded into fours, wrinkled, and splotched ominously with blood.

“The man must have thought this very important to have crawled halfway across the building to write it down,” Clavus mused as he handed me the paper.

I held it, struck dumb for a moment by the crisp, flakey texture of the paper where the blood had dried. The anger I’d felt at the man only moments ago died along with the man as I ran my fingertips over the blood.

The big man had been descended from someone with magic, and had enough of it in him to possess some rudimentary magical sight. People like that, with just enough power to get a taste for what it was like, were never satisfied with what little they had. I could see it all in my head – Big Ginger going back to Ahuizotl after the fact, striking up a deal of his own in exchange for some little power and burning Caballeron in the process.

Poor guy.

I unfolded the paper and read his last words. “Sixth sun...

“Does this have meaning to you?”

I shook my head. “Not even a little.”

“Then why would he leave this message?” Clavus mused, almost to himself. “Presumably it was meant for you. If he never made any mention of ‘Six Suns’ when you spoke to him… perhaps it was something he learned or overheard between your meeting and his death?”

And then he was quiet, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, head lowered and eyes closed in thought.

Whatever thought he was having, it wasn’t important to me right now. All I could think about was Twilight and the fact that she was… That she wasn’t here.

I rubbed my legs until they didn’t feel so much like jelly, and then pushed myself back to my feet. I had a feeling that the only thing that would help me keep my head would be to keep moving, and I wasn’t about to go against that feeling.

“How long have I been out?”

Clavus looked up and frowned before answering, “A day and a half.”

Ahuizotl had had the kid for almost two full days.

A swell of fresh panic helped move my feet, bringing me to the window. I pulled open the blinds to find a calm sky, the soft blues just beginning to harshen into something fitting for late evening. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and there weren’t demons flying in the sky, or lightning scorching virgins where they stood.

“World hasn’t ended…” I muttered, relief mixing with the foreboding worry in my chest like a horrible, horrible cocktail of anxiety. “Could mean a few things… but I’m going to choose to be optimistic for once and assume if he’d done what he wanted to do, we’d know about it by now.”

“That’s probably a safe assumption,” Clavus said, nodding in approval. “When gods move, seas boil. I doubt Tlaloc would have sent this sorcerer back for anything small, considering what he was willing to do just to find her.”

Two days and nothing. My guess that Ahuizotl’s power was only available to him every other day had held up to this point, and what evidence I could gather by peeking out the blinds wasn’t changing my mind.

I turned and shuffled towards the dresser near the door. I had work to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. I had already lost a night, I couldn’t afford to lose another.

“What are you doing now?” Clavus asked.

“I’m going to get something to wear,” I said as I pulled my night shirt off and started looking through the drawers. Luna had gone through the trouble of organizing my dresser, which might have felt a breach of privacy if the contents hadn’t already been out all over the floor before she’d gotten to them. “Then I’m going to find where they took Twilight.”

The drawer I had my hands inside of closed with a bang, nearly catching my fingers.

“I won’t allow it,” Clavus said, his hand still flat against the dresser. “You almost died, and the only thing keeping you on two feet is your own stubbornness. I can’t let you walk out of this house just to get your damn foolish self killed.”

“Move your hand, Clavus.” I leaned down, bringing us closer to eye level. “Now.”

“You think this is one of your posturing games, brat? I’ve put too much work into you to watch you die so easily. This sorcerer has bested you at every turn. And why?”

He reached up and jabbed me on the forehead, hard. The movement was so sudden that it took me off guard. I stumble as I flinched away from the attack, and I would have fallen on my butt if I hadn’t grabbed the edge of the dresser.

“Because you never listen to me!” he shouted, his voice rising in volume with every sentence. “I tell you to be vigilant, to always be on guard and to look out for every angle of a situation, and what do you do? You do what you always do, you run head first into every problem and brute force your way through it!”

“Shut up!” I demanded, beating my fist against the top of the dresser. Pounding it in frustration once, twice, again and again, until the skin burned and the bones in my hand ached. “If you don’t want to help, then fine! I’ll do it on my own if I have to, but I am going to get her back and I don’t care what it takes!”

“Why? So you can hand her off to someone again? What’s the point then? If you don’t want the girl, then let that bastard have her. I have my ways, and we can just abandon this world if we have to. I’ll gather my hive and you can come with us. You can even bring that girl downstairs with you if you wish.”

I took the collar of Clavus’ shirt in my hands, trying to pull him closer, but the old changeling’s small stature belied how heavy he was, and all I managed was popping a few of his buttons. He reached up and brushed my hands away. He was weakened, probably half-starving, but I wasn’t in much better shape and he still had enough strength to throw me to the ground with a casual flick of his hand.

“This was never about me not wanting her!” I shouted into the carpet. Again I had the urge to pound my fists against something, but my body felt cold, and tired, and all the anger in me smoldered impotently in a broken vessel that couldn’t act on it. “I want her… When she looks at me, when she smiles… I can feel it in a part of me that I thought had died… I need that. I need her...”

My hands flexed, over and over, scratching uselessly at the carpet, just to feel something with my body that wasn’t this pain in my chest. I could hear something, like bad plumbing, and I focused on that. It was this sort of wet, churning whine that I’d never heard before.

It took a minute to realize I was making that noise.

Clavus’ hand was on my back, stroking me like an upset cat. It only made me cry harder, and Clavus pulled me into a hug.

The hug helped, and within a minute or so I was able to breathe again. He let go of me, and I grabbed part of the comforter half hanging off the bed to clean my face.

“You don’t understand what that little girl’s existence means to me… you can’t know…” My mouth was dry and my face was still burning with frustration. “I told you about where I came from, why I left… but I never told you any names.”

I looked up at Clavus with emotion blurring my vision. The angry scowl he’d been wearing was gone, replaced with a curious, almost sad look.

“The little unicorn filly that was going to steal my place,” I said, surprised by how steady my voice was at this part, “her name was Twilight Sparkle. That’s who Princess Celestia had chosen to be her new pupil. That’s the name of the girl who sent me running from my world and into this one.”

Understanding filled Clavus’ young face with the slow and steady grace of sunrise. He looked down, in the direction of the kitchen below us, and then back to me. The gears were whirring in his head as he put together the pieces of what he knew with what I’d just given him. Clavus, ancient and clever as he was, never forgot anything and never missed a trick.

“Oh…” he said, eloquently. “Oh, you poor girl…”

I pulled myself up, using the bed as a crutch to get my feet back under me. Clavus had moved aside, so I was able to get back to my dresser.

“You can’t know what it was like to finally let that go,” I said as I sifted through my bras. “That Twilight and this Twilight are different, but still… To let go of all that hate, only to fill the void it left with guilt. It’s my fault her family is gone. Because I didn’t see the angles, didn’t move fast enough, didn’t realize someone that dangerous was running around in my town.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Talking about all this had me thinking about that afternoon that had started all this. Just me with my drink and my cards, and one nebbish middle-aged man with worry in his eyes.

“You asked me last week why I decided to help Night Light.” I gave a weak shrug. “I told you I did it because he asked, and he seemed like a nice guy who was in a jam, which was all true… but the fact was, I was just lonely. Tired of sitting alone in my house, just watching TV and hoping someone interesting comes by for a reading. I just… wanted to see if maybe I could make a friend… just a normal, regular, human friend.”

I shrugged again.

“I’ve tried before, y’know. To make normal friends. Never works out. I start getting into my moods, and I start worrying that they might see me for what I really am.”

I found some clean underwear and put that on. Clavus and me didn’t have much in the way of shame between us. Not even when he’d let me crash with him for the year or so between my leaving Fiddler behind and buying this house.

“That’s what happened with Twilight… and with Luna… I start pushing people away because I know, deep down, I’m just evil, and even if I try to be a better person, I’ll just fail…”

The thing in my chest was burning again, hot, but not unpleasant for once. I could feel that warmth filling me up, driving away the cold in my tired limbs.

“This isn’t like those times, though,” I said. My lips were dry and my throat was sore from wailing and mewling into the carpet, but my voice felt strong. “Right now, tonight, Twilight doesn’t need a better version of me, she needs the worst. I swear on my blood, on every ounce of darkness staining my soul, on every sin I’ve gathered chasing knowledge – I’m going to get her back and kill every thing, living or dead, standing between me and her. Whatever happens after that, I’ll just learn to live with it. I can do that if I have her with me.”

Clavus looked thunderstruck, which was yet another new look for him. If I could say anything about this odd chapter of my life, it was certainly letting me see a few different sides of my changeling friends.

“That’s… a heavy oath…” Clavus said.

“They took her out of my arms.” I turned to Clavus, with the fire in my chest burning my throat, I said, “They can’t have her. She’s mine.”

I waited to see what Clavus might say, to see if he’d still insist on trying to stop me. I hated that this was the second time in so many days that we stood before one another with the threat of a fight hanging in the air. I’d had precious few friends in my life, and Clavus might have been the best of them. Certainly, he was the only one that cared enough to try to stop me from getting myself killed.

He nodded, and there was a thousand words in that brief motion. “You’ve come a lot further in these few short years than you think...”

He sat at the edge of the bed, one leg crossed casually over the other, his fingers laced over the knee. He would look like he was posing for a photoshoot if his shirt wasn’t torn from my attempted manhandling.

“Contrary to what you might think,” he said, “I don’t owe that demon of yours anything. He approached me looking to make a deal, to bargain to share my knowledge with a girl he was training.”

I blinked, taken aback by this confession.

Clavus was far, far older than any changeling I’d ever heard of, and I knew quite a bit about them. My assumption, from the very day Fiddler had taken me to meet with him, had been that his longevity had been the result of a bargain. After all, that had been the case with all my other tutors. Each one, regardless of their field or level of power, had already had a pact with the demon.

It was weird that he was talking about this. Clavus, for all the honesty his friendship demanded, was very secretive about more than a few periods in his life. I respected that. I always figured that if you lived for over two-thousand years, maybe you earned a few locked doors. I sure wasn’t about to stop him from opening them for me, though.

“I told that repugnant thing,” he continued, indifferent to my surprise, “that I would never make a bargain with him. I’m too old and too experienced to not know how deals with his kind go.”

“Then why did you take me on?” I asked.

Clavus just raised his hands in a sort of half shrug. “I told him I would meet you, just as a matter of curiosity. I’d already heard of you, after all. The Daughter of the Smiling Beast – a name that even demons gave respect.”

I felt my face set into a scowl almost out of reflex. “Don’t call me that,” I demanded. “You know I hate that name.”

Clavus scoffed, waving my interruption away like an errant pest. “You are what you are, stupid horse,” he said. “That name has power, whether you like it or not. Regardless, I wanted to meet you, to find out what kind of child would be patronized by so notorious a fiend.”

“Yeah?” I asked, feeling my hackles standing at having had an unpleasant memory dragged up. “And what’d you see?”

“Potential,” he said as he walked to the door. “Meet me outside. I have something to give you before you leave.”

The door closed behind him, and I stood alone in my bedroom with nothing but the thoughts and questions he’d left behind to keep me company as I finished dressing. As I was looking for some pants, I caught a look at myself in the mirror hanging on the inside of the closet door.

I looked about how I felt. Someone must have tried to clean me up, but I still had little flecks of mud in my frizzed, tangled hair. And for having been unconscious for a day and a half, I sure looked like someone who hadn’t slept in a week.

I leaned closer, tracing the bags under my eyes with my fingertips. Luna, Clavus, Twilight, even Cilia – I couldn’t help wondering what it was that everyone else seemed to see in me that I couldn’t.

* * *