Twilight and I stood before a relatively small stone outpost that had been constructed as an Equestrian waystation in the Nevernever. It was a simple stone structure, with only a single large storage room for everything from weapons and armor to food with a small general area tucked away in the corner behind the door. Behind the structure, I knew there to be a large carefully leveled field that served as both a place to get in some good cardio and as a staging area for our forays into the Nevernever. During its construction, I emphasized the need for simple function over form and niceties.
Pretty sure Rarity gets a little angrier at me every time she comes here, I thought with a dull sigh before craning my head around my back.
The environment around the outpost was every bit as odd as the station was bland. We stood on the edge of a forest of gargantuan trees that stretched up far higher than any natural tree should have been able to. The trees, while mostly limbless along the trunk, had several fanning leaves that stretched above us to almost blot out the cloudless sky above. A rolling grey fog bank arched up over even the trees and marked the separation between the Nevernever nearest Equestria and beyond. Once a massive ward that hid Equestria, the fog now only served as a mild annoyance to any crossing it into the, recently dubbed, Equestrian Etheria.
The two guardsponies beamed widely and bowed at Twilight and I as we approached their post. They both were clad in glossy black armor, each emblazoned with a large white crescent moon on their respective breastplates. The Equestrian Princess of the Night's personal soldiers rose from their bow and looked to the Silver Knights still making their way through the fog behind us.
"Good hunting, I hope?" the guard to the right asked with a small hopeful smile.
"Good enough. We managed to avoid any losses at least," Twilight offered with her own warm smile and followed the guard's eyes as the Knights quickly collected themselves and began marching past the outpost.
"Night Guard," I said, drawing both guards' attention back to me in an instant, "I'm expecting a representative of the White Council to be arriving sometime soon. If not today then sometime this week. Send word either to me or to the nearest high ranking pony the instant they show up."
The guards each snapped to attention, saluted, and said a quick, "Yes, sir!"
"Thanks, and you can tell Luna and Celestia that they'll be getting our letter soon."
If the guards held any irritation at my informality towards the two main rulers of Equestria, they didn't show it and simply nodded in the affirmative.
Twilight and I turned and quickly made to chase after the Silver Knights. Headed by Applejack and Rainbow Dash, the group marched a familiar path further into the forest towards a central large tree. In only a few minutes of clinking armor and shuffling hooves, Twilight and I made it to the head of the procession alongside AJ and Rainbow at the base of the now very familiar tree. The Silver Knight unicorn closest to the tree ignited his horn as he seized hold of the Veil separating the Nevernever from Equestria and tore at it.
"They're making some great strides, aren't they?" Twilight whispered into my ear and gestured with her hoof into the trees past the Silver Knights.
Slightly confused, I followed her hoof to peer through the trees as well and quickly spotted what she was talking about. It was only visible due to the barren trunks of the trees around us, but off in the distance, far past the forest we were huddled in, was Princess Luna's castle.
It was still under intense restoration, but the black marble walls and parapets already stood tall and imposing over the flat landscape around it. Originally constructed as a darkened sister structure to the pristine white Canterlot Castle, it had been abandoned long ago when Equestria cut itself off from the Nevernever and had fallen to disrepair in the millennia since. As we stood there I could just make out some scaffolding winding around the mound of black marble and the tiny dots of ponies restoring it to its previous glory. Once completed, it would be a terrific stronghold for the Lunar Princess to keep vigil over the Equestrian Etheria.
"I'll bet Luna is going to be thrilled when it's finished." My eyes flinched slightly as the Silver Knight unicorn successfully created his Way and the rest of the group began making their way through the swirling blue energy in pairs. "Do you think she'll commission Rarity to decorate it?"
Twilight let out a short chuckle. "No doubt about it. I've yet to see Rarity fail to try and give a friend a fashion upgrade; and she and Luna have been keeping in fairly frequent contact I believe."
I suppressed a small shudder as I was uncomfortably reminded of what Rarity had done the first time I had stumbled into her shop. While the suit she made to fit me was nice, the needles she used to hold the fabric against my hide still haunt me. I had purposely avoided unnecessary contact with the fashionista after my most recent transformation out of fear of what she'd do to me in the process of altering my wardrobe.
"Y'all about done sightseeing?" Applejack shouted, breaking our revere and drawing our attention back towards the portal to Equestria. A slightly frustrated Applejack and Rainbow Dash flanked the portal and glared at us impatiently. A few of the Silver Knights remained around us as a rear guard and kept their eyes on the environment.
Rainbow Dash adopted a faint smirk, bowed her head, and waved a foreleg at the portal. "If it would please your highness."
Both Twilight and I gave her near identical looks of exasperation and silently moved towards the Way. As we reached the portal my right wing twitched outward and buffeted against Rainbow's face with a soft thwap, purely by accident I assure you. Through their open-faced helmets, I could see many of the Silver Knights indulge in small grins. Then my vision was obscured entirely as we stepped into the Way.
My eyes and ears were clouded by the intense light and static of stepping through an imperfect tear in reality. I made a mental note to instruct the Silver Knight unicorns to undergo additional lessons in creating a Way. As quickly as the headache-inducing static came, it disappeared and we had finally set hoof back in Equestria.
Ponyville, ever the bustling small town, had grown much in the relatively short time I called it home. Our Way had emptied us out on the lush green fields between Ponyville and the edge of Everfree Forest, and even from there I could plainly see the activity in the town. Ponies of every shape and size were either pulling carts laden with food and merchandize towards shops or stalls, hawking their goods to any passing pony, or else browsing the shops to find the best deal in the open competition of the market. I spotted a couple of new stalls set up by blacksmiths that were boasting high grade armor that was designed to look like clothing. A few of the ponies on the outer edge of the town spotted the Silver Knights that had come through before me and either watched us with pointed interest or else began stomping their hooves and cheering, thereby attracting more attention.
In the field to the right of Ponyville, close enough to be within easy trotting distance to the town but far enough to have an unobstructed view of the surroundings, was the newly constructed Silver Castle. It was designed by local officials immediately after the Silver Knights came to Ponyville and the base structure was hastily constructed in the months after. The castle was built up with a series of large rooms serving as the base structure centered around an honest to goodness wizard's tower. It only stood to around half the height of Canterlot castle, but it still towered over everything nearby. In contrast to its name, the stonework used during construction was a mixture of smoky marble and granite, giving the whole castle a distinct earthy grey opposed to Canterlot's pristine white or Luna's jet black. While lacking in walls, parapets, and other defensive structures, which were apparently still being debated about with the town mayor, Silver Castle was already well-equipped to serve as the Silver Knights' base of operations.
The Silver Knights that came through before us had collected around the portal in a standard military parade formation. Once the last of us came through the portal to join them, Applejack gave a short whistle and the Silver Knights wordlessly followed her and Rainbow towards Ponyville's newest landmark. Only a couple of the Knights lagged behind to keep watch over Twilight and I, a regular practice ever since the Red Court fiasco that started all of this.
"Well hi there!" shouted an all too familiar high-pitched voice directly into my right ear.
Pinkie Pie, doing her best to murder me by heart attack, had simply appeared at my right side so far as I could tell. She was without any of her preferred equipment and was gracing the day with just her fur and her overly poofy mane and tail.
"Dang it, Pinkie," I hissed through clenched teeth and tried my best calm my fight or flight reflex. "Give me at least a little warning. So I assume that you're done with whatever Luna had you doing?"
Pinkie let out her trademark giggle snort and backed away a few feet. "Oh yeah, we all finished with that ages ago. A little bit of sweet treats here and some Fluttershy kindness there, and one family of beasties is relocated. We've been waiting on you slowpokes to get back." Pinkie's face turned momentarily nervous. "How was the ambush? Does Fluttershy need to see anypony?"
"Trying to march through the Nevernever without drawing attention is not exactly the quickest thing in the world, Floof Pony," I pouted, more than a little irritated that the pink party pony still apparently hadn't quite learned the value of personal space.
To my left, Twilight had to suppress a fit of laughter and quickly spoke up to supplement my lack of decorum, "We're alright, Pinkie. Nopony here is hurt. If you want to you're welcome to accompany us back up to the castle. We can fill you in while we write Princess Celestia's letter."
"Sounds like fun, Twilight," Pinkie chirped, already back to her usual chipper self, and then movement in the town drew her attention. "But you might want to get going if you don't want to draw a crowd again."
At her words, Twilight and I turned towards Ponyville, and sure enough, many more ponies were looking at us with interest and looked like they were about to approach. While nowhere near as bad as it was when it first became known that Twilight and I were alicorns, we still had the slightly annoying ability to draw crowds wherever we went. While I suppose it's understandable the sense of importance most ponies automatically assign to an alicorn, it made going outside for any reason a gamble on whether or not we were going to be dodging the paparazzi. It was a little bit easier for either of us to move around in the town alone, as then most ponies erred on the side of politeness and observed from afar; but when there were two new alicorns in one place, the temptation to interrogate was apparently too strong. It was a jarring change from my time as a professional wizard; most common folks in my area of Chicago thought of me as crazy or a con man.
The Silver Knights were less of an issue as they saw us and the Bearers of the Elements simply as their bosses and behaved as you might expect a soldier to. That being said, I have still found a couple of the Knights taking a bit more joy in maintaining their new silver pentacle and starburst emblems than simple military pride might warrant. The social norms of Equestria will likely confuse and haunt me for the rest of my life, however long or short that may be.
"Right behind you, Pinkie," I said in a slightly panicked tone and made to follow the Knights already well on their way back to the castle.
The relatively short walk passed, and we thankfully managed to avoid getting mobbed by ponies looking for information. The column of Knights ahead of us met the large oaken double doors leading into the castle and pushed through them, the doors making little noise on well-oiled hinges.
The interior of the large grey structure was much more well decorated than the exterior. Multiple banners hung over most every bare patch of grey stone the entryway had to offer, each detailed with various colors and symbols from all over Equestria. Some of the banners bore Ponyville's sigil, many more were sigils of towns I wasn't overly familiar with, and lastly, multiple banners on the far end of the hall were decorated with the coloration and mark of the Bearers of the Elements. A long deep-orange rug ran the length of the entry hall to end at an ornate podium on the opposite side. Behind the podium there were two large cushioned thrones, one a deep crimson the other a bright purple, situated just underneath the Bearers' banners. All in all, it was a very colorful room that reminded me slightly of the chaotic décor of my old apartment.
The Silver Knights just coming in from our expedition made a beeline for the various wooden doors which lined the hall on either side, beyond which I knew were the barracks. Immediately to the right of the podium, another, slightly more ornate, wooden door was built into the grey stone wall, leading to the personal rooms assigned to each of the Bearers. Around this door, Applejack and Rainbow were huddled, their respective weapons already deposited into a nearby rack, and appeared to be in a heated argument, but their small smiles and light in their eyes told me it was nothing more than a friendly debate.
"Hey girls!" Pinkie practically screamed and zipped across the entirety of the hall to stand between them, two pink frosted cupcakes having apparently materialized out of nothing and were quickly offered to the arguing pair. "Whatcha talking about?"
Applejack turned to flash Pinkie a wide smile and accepted her cupcake, AJ's as of yet un-doffed armor clinking heavily with her movement. "Hey there, Pinkie. Rainbow and I were just making some plans."
"Yeah, I've got a big ol' barrel of cider and some awesome new music for our usual post-op unwind, but AJ said she's busy," Rainbow scoffed, but couldn't quite hide the small smile at the edge of her lips.
"You know full well I've got to get back to my farm, my family's waiting for me to check in with 'em just as soon as I drop off my gear," Applejack rebutted. "I can come by later today, just not right now."
Pinkie let out a soft whimper and craned her head to turn huge dinnerplate eyes on Twilight and I, her unspoken question written all over her face.
"Go ahead, Rainbow will probably give you a more exciting rundown than we would," I said with a small chuckle. "Depending on how things go, I may meet you there later."
"Sounds like fun!" Pinkie chirped before she and Rainbow Dash turned to make their leave toward the armory. "So how was the atmosphere this time, Rainbow? Was there high or low gravity?"
Rainbow Dash eyed the hyperactive pony with slight confusion as they moved to deposit the remainder of Rainbow's equipment. The blue pegasus' nose scrunched up as she tried to figure where best to start her heroic, and most likely exaggerated, tale.
"Thanks for that, Harry," AJ said, her armor clinking again as she shifted her attention. "I'll catch up with you guys later after I'm done. You'll know where to find me if something new attacks in the meantime."
"That stopped being funny after the Ursa Minor!" Twilight called after AJ as she moved towards the nearby wooden door.
"No, it didn't!" She retorted before the door to the armory swung shut behind her.
I quirked an eye at the lavender alicorn beside me and felt a smirk stretching across my muzzle. "In all fairness, we're most likely going to be hearing that statement for a long time to come."
Twilight, none too pleased, turned narrowed eyes on me. The fur around her neck and much of the down around her wings began puffing up in a natural danger response. Faced with the prospect of an angry alicorn, and much more dangerous an angry mare, I hurriedly cast around for anything nearby to draw her attention. I found the perfect thing sitting on the pedestal between the two thrones and seized them in my telekinetic grip.
"You wanna take the lead on that letter to Celestia?" I asked while brandishing the parchment and quill from the podium.
Any irritation she had melted away as the energy around the parchment shifted from red to purple and a small smile appeared on her muzzle. "As if that was ever in question."
Once again smiling and chuckling to ourselves, we made our way towards a large pair of double door partially concealed behind the thrones. Behind the doors a winding stone staircase spiraled up into the tower that I spotted from the outside. Many doors dotted the edge of the staircase leading to rooms used primarily by myself and the Bearers: a simple storage closet at the bottom, then a private fitness room, a combination laboratory and workshop that I frequented, a rather plush bedroom for Twilight and me, and at the very top was Twilight's latest pet project, an extensive library on all things magical.
Before we advanced too far ahead, Twilight and I paused at the storage room at the bottom of the staircase to stash away our gear. Our two spell reinforced overcoats were doffed and stored on two mannequins that Rarity had been kind enough to give us. My shield charm floated over to rest on a chest of drawers near my overcoat. Twilight removed multiple reams of parchment from her clothing and placed them next to her coat as well, undoubtedly etched notes she had taken while waiting for me in the Nevernever. We each took a good few minutes to thoroughly inspecting our overcoats for any possible repairs that needed to be done. Thankfully the enchanted clothing held strong against any wear and tear, and we eventually made our way out of the storage room and to the library.
The library's door swung open before us, revealing a large circular room completely lined with bookcases around the outer wall, each stuffed to collapsing with tomes of knowledge. In the middle of the room sat a single circular study table, surrounded by seven cushions. A small number of books were still out and arranged around Twilight's preferred cushion, left behind when we were deployed to the Nevernever. It was next to these books that a certain small dragon worked diligently to reorganize the mess without disrupting Twilight's work.
"Hello, Spike," Twilight called to her assistant the moment we stepped through the door. "How's my number one assistant doing?"
Spike cast a glance over his shoulder and gave us both a wide smile. "Hey there, Twilight, Harry. I'm just straightening things up in here. Are you two okay? I hope you guys weren't in too much danger out in the Nevernothing, or whatever it's called."
"No more danger than normal. Equestrian steel has a useful ability to ward off threats," I commented as Twilight and I took our respective seats beside Spike and his stack of books.
Twilight's right wing automatically fanned out and clasped around my torso in a welcome feathery hug. "You up to sending a letter to Celestia?"
Spike bookmarked the last remaining open tome and placed it on top of the nearby stack. "Always. Why don't you two write the letter and I'll get us some refreshments."
"Thank you, Spike," Twilight and I recited in near perfect unison.
While my very first encounter with the young drake left him much more suspicious than trusting, he had thrown away much of his distrust upon hearing some carefully censored stories of our conflict against the Red Court. Twilight was still his guardian and mother figure, so a certain amount of conflict was unavoidable, but at least he no longer looked at me like I was trying to steal her away. I made a mental note to try and find something fun to do with the little guy in my free time.
Twilight and I got to work scribbling together a report for Celestia and Luna regarding the Silver Knights' most recent excursion. The whole document was less than a single page long. As it was a planned meeting with the White Council, there was no specific intel that led to the conflict and nothing to catch the Princesses up on that regard. The only new useful information to share were the chosen forces of the Red court and the fate of the White Council's supply line. Together we went through all the details fast enough that the report was completed by the time Spike came back into the library with a tray of drinks, cheeses, and a few gemstones for himself.
"Thanks again, Spike," Twilight said as she accepted the proffered tray and levitated over the rolled-up document. "Here you go, the Princess will want to see this."
Spike quickly took the letter, took a deep breath, and then sent the parchment away in a puff of green flames.
"I think you'll be happy to know that the Ponyville Library is still in tip-top shape," Spike bragged as he sat back down and snatched up a gem. "As of yesterday, the only overdue books still out are checked out to Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo."
Twilight beamed a wide smile over her assistant, who drank it up like a sunbather on the beach. "That's wonderful, Spike. I'm sorry I haven't been by too much lately, but I know that it's in good hooves. I'll be sure to come back and refill the pantry within the week."
"Mmmmm," I cut into the conversation, "I do miss those roasted meals you made for us before we came here. Thus are the benefits of having dragon fire I suppose."
Spike bit into his gem with the same difficulty it would take me to bite into a piece of toast. "Don't spread that around, I'm proud of my cooking but I don't really need the attention."
We all shared a good laugh at that before we dug into our respective snacks and drinks. Halfway through our small meal, my mind drifted back toward our previous favor for the White Council, and more specifically the vague warning given to me by the Warden. I was loathe to discuss such matters in front of Spike, but his position as our main method of communication with the Princesses meant that his presence was often necessary. However, according to some of Twilight's stories he had proven himself trustworthy many times over.
"Do you think the Princesses will send some supplies of their own to cover the White Council's loss?" I asked Twilight, the atmosphere in the room becoming slightly more serious.
Twilight tapped a hoof to her chin and retracted her wing before answering, "Possibly. Princess Celestia has always loved to use diplomacy to mutual benefit. While the transport was raided on the other side of the veil, she might be able to win some favor by replacing it anyway. Do you know when our next deployment is?"
I took a deep swig of my water before answering. "Officially, no clue. That last transport was the last planned event the White Council told us about. So, unless there's an emergency, we might as well just lend the Silver Knights to bolster Luna's exploratory expeditions."
"That sounds like an excellent idea!" Twilight practically cheered while bouncing on her pouf. "Did you hear about the derelict magic focus they recovered near the ruins of Luna's castle? It's the main tool that allowed Luna to hide Equestria in the first place! Some of Canterlot's chief magi have already submitted plans on how to repurpose it as a defensive structure."
"Honestly, I'm a little surprised you don't insist on leading those explorations yourself," Spike chuckled. "The last time I tried to stop you from conducting some experiment, you grounded me for a week."
"With all the love in the world, Spike. But I'd prefer not to leave Harry alone in charge of Equestria's chief vampire hunting force. I don't want to come back and find Ponyville a warzone."
I none-too-subtly cleared my throat while peering at Twilight over my cup. "You do remember that you personally have fought against one changling army and two gods before I ever came into the picture, right?"
That one earned me a good thwap with a purple wing.
Any further shenanigans were put on hold as a loud *BRAAAP* echoed around the room. Spike had let out a large belch with an accompanying flare of green flame. Out of that flame two scrolls materialized, one sealed with Celestia's emblem, the other with Luna's.
"Ah, that was a fast response," Twilight chirped as we each took one of the scrolls from the air. "Let's open Princess Celestia's first, Harry."
I scooched a little closer until our wings were touching so that we could both read Celestia's response. Spike remained patiently in his seat and munched on his gemstones.
Dear Princess Twilight Sparkle and Prince Harry Dresden,
Thank you for your report on your latest operation. I am sorry to hear that the White Council transport met with an ill fate. On my diplomats' next meeting with the Council, I will send a shipment of supplies with them to aid in relief.
I let out a short chuff of laughter at that, and was immediately buffeted again by Twilight's wing for interrupting her mentor's precious letter.
Unfortunately, we do not have much better news to give you either. In the past few weeks our scouts have explored and mapped much of the Equestrian Etheria and the easily accessed Ways that tie to our lands. While few and far between, the Etheria has proven to be home to certain forms of wildlife that are far too dangerous for the common pony to interact with and will need to be carefully dealt with before any kind of infrastructure can be constructed. One scouting party in particular has disappeared while exploring what appear to be ruins outside the barrier of the Etheria. Luna should be sending you a letter as well soon, if she hasn't already. I've been told that one of Luna's exploration parties came across something that concerns you specifically. I'll be visiting her castle soon and get more details then.
However, I do not only bring doom and gloom this day. We have secured supply transport through the Equestrian Etheria between most of the larger settlements and Ponyville, significantly speeding our ability to mobilize at a moment's notice.
Twilight, I do hope you visit us in Canterlot soon. Our scouts have compiled a new bestiary of the Etherian wildlife with magical properties that I know you would love to study.
Your deepest regards,
"Luna found something?" I said out loud upon completing the letter.
Twilight and I exchanged a short look before I levitated Luna's scroll over Celestia's and unfurled it.
Dear Princess Twilight Sparkle and Prince Harry Dresden,
I have recently come in contact with an emissary from the White Council inside the borders of the Equestrian Etheria. In accordance with our treaty, he has formally requested the presence of one Harry Dresden along with whatever escort deemed necessary to the White Council stronghold of Edinburgh.
The emissary could not offer any specific information as to why you specifically were requested, but promised on his power that no harm would befall you or yours while within Edinburgh, and that your presence was critically needed. This decision is yours alone, but I have dispatched my most accomplished politician to the Silver Castle should you chose to accept. She should be there within the hour.
Be safe my friends,
"Harry," Twilight muttered under her breath before turning wide eyes over me, her face an odd mixture of trepidation and supreme excitement. "Go get the girls ready because we're finally going to a human stronghold!"
My ears flattened themselves against my skull to dampen out her excitement as my eyes danced over the words, 'critically needed'. "What has the White Council gotten me into now?"