My job, or more accurately my old job, has given me some very strange sights and experiences. Some were more terrifying than your worst nightmares, others wondrous beyond your wildest dreams. I used to be a wizard, a Grey Warden, a fire throwing maniac protecting my little corner of humanity from various forms of predators. Not too long ago though, I was pushed into a new position with a new employer. My duties haven't really changed all that much. I still hunt the things that hunt us and help others to do the same, but my circumstances couldn't be more different.
I flew through the sky on a pair of large ashen grey wings sprouting from my equine back, the almost featureless grassy plains all around me zipped along far beneath my hooves. Stale wind rushed past my muzzle, disrupting my ashen grey fur, wiry black mane, and tail in a rather pleasant manner. A new thick linen overcoat, layered with fresh protective spells and with slits for my wings, flapped about my torso and back as I flew. My entire equine form was the result of consequence, my wings in particular were the most foreign to me and have taken the longest to adapt to, but I had come to rather enjoy being much foofier. At the very least I no longer looked like a large hairless raccoon.
I didn't dare attempt any mid-air acrobatics, unlike one of my other friends, and simply pumped my wings to maintain a steady pace over one of the Nevernever's very few unclaimed routes. While fairly tame by the weird standards of the rest of the Nevernever, my surroundings were odd enough in their own way. A seemingly endless field of some tall yellow grass stretched out in all directions, blurring together with the light orange sky off in the horizon. The entirety of the sky was void of any and all clouds, moons, stars, or heavenly bodies whatsoever. It probably could have set a serene, if eerie, mood if the very air wasn't so thin.
"How much further, Rainbow?!" I wheezed in-between wing beats and deep gasps for oxygen.
"They're just up ahead," Rainbow Dash answered, her light blue fur and multi-colored mane matted with sweat as she flew slightly behind me. "What's with the air here anyway? We can't be more than sixty feet from the ground, but I feel like I'm flying over a mountaintop."
"Be happy there's breathable air at all." My eyes scanned around the mostly barren fields until I spotted a slight disturbance in the distance and angled my wings to carry me towards it. "Some parts of the Nevernever are nothing but vacuum, and I don't want to even imagine the things that live there."
"I'll just take your word for it, Harry. Now hurry up, everypony else is already at the site and probably getting set up without us."
The slightly eerie scenery rushed by underneath us as we flew towards the only disturbance in a uniform field of grass. At a distance, it appeared as though two moderately tall, and barren, trees sprouted up in the fields only a couple of meters away from each other. As we drew nearer, many more individual forms began appearing from the vegetation. Ponies of all shapes, sizes, and colorations were setting up around the trees.
There were almost two dozen earth ponies clad in thick Equestrian steel from head to hoof, and wielding a very pointy assortment of weapons. About half that number in pegasi circled around the trees from above, each of them sporting light armor ranging from layered thick linen to chain mail and carried modified crossbows that latched onto their forelegs. Lastly another dozen unicorns mingled in with the earth ponies, assisting them in stamping down some of the vegetation around our destination. The unicorns wore armor of flexible metal plates intricately woven together to form a cohesive barding set; they weren't as protective as the full plated armor, but it was lighter and significantly prettier. On top of all that, each and every one of them bore the recently modified symbol of my Silver Knights on their chest plate, a large silver pentacle with a smaller lavender star filling each of the individual spaces inside the pentacle.
"There you guys are!" cried a deeply familiar, if a little over excited, voice.
Twilight Sparkle, who previously had been studying the odd tree, turned and galloped towards us as soon as Rainbow and I drew close enough to identify. Twilight's two-toned mane and her lavender fur whipped about as she spread her two new wings and actually leapt up to meet us. She was armored with her own version of my overcoat complete with protective spells and new slits for her wings, albeit colored dark purple like her mane and emblazoned with her star-speckled cutie mark over her flank. Twilight's wings mirrored my own in shape and span, allowing us both access to the three-dimensional movement Rainbow's been lording over us since day one.
"What took you so long?" Twilight panted as she joined Rainbow and I over the small clearing the Silver Knights were creating. "The White Council transport is supposed to be here any minute!"
"Don't look at me, Lazy Bones here has been dragging his wings the entire way here," Rainbow scoffed before jetting off to join the other pegasi, sending a small gust of air over the two of us.
"I was twenty minutes late, tops!" I shouted after the retreating pegasus before turning to face Twilight properly. "So no signs of movement yet?"
Twilight quirked an eye and offered a small huff through her nose. "Generally speaking the leader is supposed to actually be here to lead, Harry."
"You are!" I said with a smile and swept my forelegs wide in a not-very-subtle gesture of flattery.
Lameness aside, it actually seemed to work as Twilight's indignation was replaced with a small grin.
"You know what I mean, Harry." She paused for a short bit to reposition herself and survey the area below. "From what I've been able to sense, the area between the two trees is where the actual Way will open. The Silver Knights captains are already setting up a clearing and potential ambush ground, so that's already good."
"The rest of the Scooby Gang down there to?"
Twilight paused for a second or two at that before guessing at my intended meaning. "Uh, no, only Applejack. I think Princess Luna asked the others for a favor. Which leaves us here with-"
Before she could finish her statement, the very air began to thrum with energy, washing over our senses like a tidal wave. At a quick glance, we could both spot as the open space between the barren trees began to distort as though we were looking through a sheet of warped plastic.
"Veil watch," I finished for her before craning my neck around to find the nearest Silver Knight.
While the majority of the Silver Knights were either earth ponies or pegasi, and therefore unable to sense the shifting of magic in the air, many of the unicorns cast their eyes upward towards us as soon as the Way began opening. I spotted one such unicorn looking for instruction, and quickly pushed a minor surge of magic through my own horn to rain down red sparks.
The unicorn nodded head in a quick affirmative and turned towards the nearest of his comrades. "Positions!"
With the speed and efficiency I'd come to expect from trained militants, all of the Silver Knights below and above sprang into action. The unicorns and earth ponies that had been creating an ever-widening circle around the trees, abandoned their task to retreat back behind the brush they had yet to get to. The position of several dozen ponies hiding in the tall grass was extremely obvious to us from above, but they had backed away enough from the edge of the circle to have a buffer of vegetation concealing them from the ground. The pegasi above us began swirling about in large circles over the two trees, several sharp eyes and even sharper crossbow bolts carefully studying the landscape below.
No sooner had the Silver Knights taken positions then the air between the two trees finally tore open as the Way was made. It wasn't too large of a portal, only about the size of an above average doorway, and shone like a silvery mirror suspended between the arching trees. We only had a moment or two to appreciate the sight before the surface of the mirror was breached by three members of the White Council.
Two of the figures were hunched over and supporting the third as they limped away from their portal as fast as they could muster. The one in the middle and one of the other supporting wizards wore long grey hooded cloaks that obscured most everything else about them, the signature of the Grey Wardens. The third, helping to support his wounded friend, was wearing the simple unadorned brown robes of an apprentice. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that as the three of them hobbled away, the warden in the middle left behind a faint blood trail as they headed for the wall of grass.
Around the halfway point of their fleeing, the silver mirror behind them, which had slowly begun to close in on itself, was abruptly wrenched wide open again. It was as though someone had simply gripped two opposing corners of the portal, and pulled it open. The surface of the portal warped as new power was fed into it, turning from a silver mirror to a roiling sheet of white smoke. Even from my height, I could just make out the movement of vague forms just behind that curtain, at least until they leapt through it to give chase to their prey.
A little fewer than a dozen gangly humanoid creatures came charging through the curtain after the wizards. Their arms and legs were far longer than a standard human, and ended in horrible claws capable of carving up exposed flesh. Their skin was almost uniformly dark grey and were covered by only basic loose clothing. They were ghouls, supernatural muscle for hire, less intelligent than your usual Red Court Vampire but every bit as vicious.
"No survivors!", the lead ghoul cried in a raspy voice and pointed a claw at the retreating wizards just as they were reaching the edge of the clearing.
However, before the predators could do more than take a step or two, a loud horn blared through the air. Above and below, each of the Silver Knights sprang into action at the call. The pegasi dove towards the ghouls, with crossbows at the ready and the leading pegasus still blowing on his horn for all he was worth. Below, the ponies lying in wait in the tall grass, sprang forward at the call and charged towards the clearing. Completely thrown at the sudden noise, each of the ghouls froze in place and looked around wildly for the trumpet soloist and the apparent impending stampede. This inaction was, in itself, the wrong action.
Steel-tipped bolts whistled down through the air at the ideal targets, and buried themselves into unnaturally long limbs and the joints controlling them. Several of the ghouls that cast their eyes skyward saw the barrage coming and dodged out of the way. These creatures sought shelter in the nearest patch of grass, only to have the line of vegetation part for a veritable wall of equestrian steel. The earth ponies and unicorns charged forward, spears and metal hooves at the ready to wreak havoc and mayhem on the enemies of the White Council.
Outnumbered and severely outclassed, the would-be predators fell quickly to our ambush. Ghouls not nursing debilitating crossbow-inflicted wounds attempted to fight back, but their claws, while efficient against wizards' robes or even ballistic weave, bounced pitifully against the ponies' steel plates. These particular ghouls were immediately either run through by the oncoming spears, or trampled under many heavy metal hooves. Those severely crippled by the initial barrage could only watch stunned and confused as the enclosing ambush came to claim the predators.
A precious few of the ghouls, unharmed and intelligent enough to recognize a losing scenario, tensed their legs and simply leapt backwards over the backs of the armored ponies and towards the wide portal they had originally come through. Two of the three retreating ghouls were caught almost immediately in the telekinetic grip of the unicorns below, freezing them in place in a multi-colored aura before dropping them back into the circle of bloodied spears. The third, after soaring past his frozen friends and on a beeline for the portal, was abruptly ripped from the air as an all too familiar chained scythe flew up from the throng and embedded itself into the ghoul's ribs. It was difficult under all of her armor, but I could just barely make out the straw blonde mane and tail of the pony wielding the weaponized lasso.
"I don't sense any magic coming off of them," Twilight commented as we carefully studied the combat below us. "Do you?"
I shook my head and let out a small sigh, "No. Beyond their ability to make themselves appear human, ghouls aren't really known for their magic." As one, Twilight and I pivoted in the air to stare at the portal still being held open. "Whoever opened it wider for them is still on the other side. Probably playing it safe and waiting for a response."
Below us, the last of the ghouls let out a loud challenging snarl that ended abruptly as multiple spears pierced through its upper torso.
"Well, that's not going to happen. Close it?"
"Close it," I answered with a nod.
Twilight flapped her wings and sped off to the right of the portal, while I flew left. Our horns ignited as we drew in as much energy from the surrounding environment as we could before we unleashed a focused wave of disruptive magic on either side of the Way.
The Veil that separates the Nevernever from our worlds, quite simply doesn't like to be torn into. When a wizard opens a Way to cross over, the Veil will gradually seal it back shut, requiring constant attention if the Way is to remain open. With that in mind, it actually doesn't take much to force a Way to close. All you'd need to do is destabilize the magic holding it open and let nature take its course.
I felt the edges of the portal through my spell, and the will of the caster holding it open. It practically dripped with that slimy aura I'd come to recognize as the signature of a Red Court Vampire. I inwardly shuddered at having to touch that flavor of magic again and got to work with my spell. Twilight and I imposed our will on the edges of the portal, quickly wresting control away from the unprepared caster and immediately tore apart the matrix that had built the portal. The magical equivalent of static radiated out from the Way as it started to shrink.
The Red Court wizard attempted to extend his will back through the portal only once before it was slapped away again by our combined might. Twilight and I surged our power through the portal, not necessarily to maintain it, but to make it apparent that the portal was no longer under their control. Through our control, what was left of the mirrored portal turned into a swirling mix of deep purple and crimson; a clear warning for anything left on the other side to back off.
"There we go," Twilight said as the Way closed fully. "That should keep them off us for a little bit."
"Yeah, but let's not stick around." I responded and angled my wings to angle me towards the ground. "I don't want to see what the Red Court considers an appropriate response to an ambush."
Twilight nodded in agreement and we quickly landed in the clearing between the barren trees and the Silver Knights cleaning off their ghoul-stained weapons. With my hooves on the ground and the bizarre atmosphere of the Nevernever once again providing me with adequate oxygen, my nerves relaxed immensely as the adrenaline eased out of my system.
"Well there y'all are!" Applejack cried as she quickly made her way over to us from the rest of the Silver Knights. "Was starting to think you weren't gonna participate."
Applejack, ever the hardy mare, was fully decked out in her favorite heavy barding. Thick plates of steel covered most every part of her form, with an undercoat of chainmail visible around the joint. An open-faced helmet with curling ram's horns on top protected her head and most of her neck. Then the whole appearance was topped off by her signature chained scythe dangling around her neck. Even with her relatively brief time in the Equestrian Military, she had already made a name for herself as a fierce brawler.
"We were monitoring the portal, AJ. Like usual," I responded.
Twilight took a quick step forward and cast a worried gaze over her friend's slightly stained barding. "You weren't hurt were you? How is everypony?"
Applejack shook her head, causing a small racquet of clinking metal. "Don't you worry, Twilight. It was a clean ambush. We got nothing more severe than a couple of bruises."
"Sir," a rather large chestnut pegasus stallion chimed in, drawing all of our attention to him and his entourage.
The pegasus was leading the three wizards that had first crossed into the Nevernever and a small contingent of more Silver Knight guards. Both wardens looked vaguely familiar, I'd likely either served beside or have been hunted by them at some point in the past, while the apprentice was completely new to me. The wounded warden, sporting a fresh set of bandages around his torso, lay stretched across the backs of two large earth ponies and only barely conscious from blood loss. The remaining warden stood beside his friend like a great grizzled gargoyle keeping an eye on every bit of movement that drew too close. The apprentice, on the other hand, looked at all of us with an almost childlike expression of absolute disbelief.
"Oh my God, thank you all so much!" the young wizard practically screamed. "We almost got turned into lunch for those things, thank you!"
He made to take a step forward towards us, but was held back by the healthy warden's gloved hand on his shoulder. The two of them exchanged a brief look before the youngster snapped to attention by some unspoken command.
"We appreciate the assist," the humanoid gravel pit spoke with a quick bow. "Those ghouls got the drop on us from behind a fairly advanced veil. Undoubtedly a Red Court trap."
"Definitely Red Court, the aura around the Way was a dead giveaway." My eyes darted across the three wizards as several small red lights began going off and a brick fell into my stomach. "Where's the rest of you? We were supposed to be providing cover for an armed transport."
"Fallen," the warden responded after a brief pause, his posture a little more slouched and his voice a little heavier. "We're all that's left of our supply convoy."
An uncomfortable silence fell over us as we soaked in that little tidbit of information. The brick in my stomach grew a little bit heavier as I tried to analyze what cutting off their influx of valuable resources might do to the White Council.
"This is, what, the third such ambush we've encountered in the last month alone?" Twilight's eyes shifted worriedly between each of the wizards' faces.
"Our enemies are becoming increasingly bold, Ma'am," the warden grunted and double checked his equipment before moving towards his injured friend. "I do not wish to sound ungrateful, but we must get going and report to the White Council."
Twilight offered him a weary smile. "Of course."
"You four," I motioned towards the pegasus soldier and the other three that protected our wards, "escort the wizards as far as you can through the Nevernever. When you're confident they're safe, return back home."
All four ponies snapped to attention with a short "Yes, Sir!", the nearly unconscious warden bouncing slightly on his mobile bed.
"Thanks again," the warden offered with a much deeper bow than before.
The remains of the White Council convoy and their temporary guard quickly gathered their belongings and began to make their exit. The speaking warden paused for a moment and turned back around while the rest of his entourage moved without him. While much of his face was still concealed beneath his grey hood, I could practically feel his eyes scanning over me properly for the first time, and hesitate a fraction of a second longer over the silver pentacle mark on my flank.
"You are Harry Dresden, aren't you?"
I quirked an eye at that and offered him a small smile. "That a problem?"
"No, sir." The warden let out a short grunt punctuated with a sharp breath as he placed a hand over an injured rib. "I'm supposed to pass along a message to you or yours. The White Council will be sending you an official summons soon."
That piqued my interest. Where I was concerned, the White Council rarely summoned me with anything other than an outright order or a car's backseat and a head bag. While my new position did grant me some diplomatic protection, there was enough bad blood that any kind of formal courtesy was strange. That is of course assuming that the message came from the Senior Council proper.
"Well at least it's nice to see them give me some forewarning for once," I sighed and quirked an eyebrow at the grey hood. "Any idea what it's about?"
The warden simply shook his head in the negative for an answer.
"I suppose not. Thanks for the heads up, and be careful on your way back. I don't want you getting jumped again."
"We'll keep an eye out," he grunted before waving goodbye and jogging to catch up with the remainder of his convoy.
In short order the three wizards and four armored ponies disappeared into the tall grass opposite of where I had initially flown in from. For several moments the vegetation behind them shook and rustled as they left, adding only slightly to the various clinks of Equestrian barding.
"It's a crying shame what happened to them," Applejack piped up once the wizards were deep enough into the brush that the nearby grass stopped moving.
"They'll be fine," I mumbled, more to myself than anyone else, and thought back to a few more of my interesting jobs. "They'll get to safety, drink enough to forget the last twelve hours or so, and then do it all over again tomorrow."
Twilight scrunched up her nose for a moment. "If some of them are ever recuperating near Equestria, maybe we could offer them some of our strong cider?"
"Why not? It'd be funny to see the Grey Wardens nursing the worst hangover they've ever had." I cast my eyes around over the rest of my Silver Knights, and found most of them clean, patched up, and ready to move. "And on that note, I think it's time we were off, AJ. We have to get ready before our next 'favor' for the White Council."
Applejack nodded her head, turned around to face the Silver Knights, and let out the loudest whistle I've ever heard. "Let's move 'em out! We're heading home!"
A fairly loud cheer rang out from the multitude of armored ponies. Those on the ground fell into military parade formation behind the captains. These captains, wearing similar plate armor to their soldiers except with additional flowing ribbons around their neck, marched forward into the tall grass in the same direction Rainbow and I had come from. Loud hoof beats thundered as the Silver Knights made their way home. Far above, the pegasi circled lazily over their comrade, easily keeping pace with the earth ponies and unicorns. If I squinted my eyes carefully I could just make out Rainbow's signature tail bobbing in and around the rest of the pegasi. Applejack made sure that her weaponized lasso was nice and secure before she galloped off after the rest of the soldiers.
I was interrupted from my momentary reverie by a large purple wing extending over and closing around my barrel. My side thumped against Twilight's as she pulled me into a gentle hug. Combat, no matter how accustomed to it you are, is never the easiest thing on your nerves, and nothing eases nerves quite like a soothing touch, especially if it's from someone you care about. I wrapped my own wing behind hers and eagerly returned her hug. I felt a large amount of apprehension for the coming times leave my shoulders as we wordlessly followed after the Silver Knights.
True to the unsettling nature of the Nevernever, every bit of tall grass not purposely laid flat by metal hooves, slowly stood tall behind us after we left, concealing any trace of our heading. By the time the Red Court got the reinforcements they needed and came through the Way, there would be nothing left for them to find but broken ghouls and directionless hoofprints.