The Dresden Fillies: False Masks
Written by: psychicscubadiver
Edited by: SilentCarto and frieD195
Story Image by: wyrmlover
Disclaimer: I don't own The Dresden Files or My Little Pony, that is Jim Butcher and Hasbro, respectively. This is a fanfiction only. This story takes place before Discord's return in MLP and between books six and seven in the Dresden Files.
This is a stupid idea, I told myself. That statement could define about seventy-five percent of my life, but this instance was especially dumb.
I was lurking in the shadows of the palace gardens, almost naked, with nothing but my staff, my pentacle, and a jury-rigged kilt. I was a bit far into this particular venture to be having second thoughts, but this was my last chance to turn back. Once I left the protective cover of the thick vegetation, I was committed.
I bit my lip, careful to stay perfectly silent and perfectly still, as I watched another guard patrol walk past. On one hand, all of my equipment and gear was still in the castle, and I could sure as Hell use a change of clothes. Not just because my duster was enchanted to give more protection than your average suit of plate armor, but also because it's tough to stare down pure evil in just your birthday suit. There was also a certain pony I wanted to press for more information locked up in the dungeon. On the other hand I was fully human now, terrible at illusions, not particularly stealthy, and the guards were thick as flies on … honey.
The major gates were swamped with civilians on the verge of panic, and the minor gates only looked unguarded. The misadventures of one unlucky journalist had already proven that last fact to me. My best bet was the window currently across from me; the shutters were open and the room was dark. With any luck, that meant it wasn't occupied. The only downside was that it was on the second floor.
As much as I had bitched about transforming into a pony, I had to admit it made getting around a lot easier. Having to hide and skulk, not being able to let a single pony catch sight of me, was a real pain in the ass. I had been tempted to ask Twilight for another transformation spell. She could have−
No, I thought to myself. If I'm lucky, they know I'm a murderer and never want to see me again. If not…
I had gotten lucky as a teenager. He Who Walks Behind was too busy toying with me to finish the job before I blew up the gas station. I saw what He'd done to Celestia when He was playing serious, and I didn't begin to match her level of power. True, she'd been surprised, while I had this chance to prepare, but I didn't fool myself into thinking that that made any real difference. No matter how many advantages I wrung out of the situation, it was still going to be a mouse fighting a lion. Arcane Mind was an asshole, but he had been right about one thing: bringing my friends to this fight would be signing their death warrants.
This was the best way, the only way, to keep them safe.
Another guard patrol passed me by, and I prepared myself to run once they were out of sight. I'd made my decision, and heaven help anyone who got in my way. The ponies rounded the corner and I shot out of the woods at a dash. The castle wall was fifty feet from my hiding spot, and I needed to cover that distance before any of the pegasi on watch above spotted me.
I'm faster than most people think, if you give me a straight path. My height gives me a naturally huge stride, and I've practiced running for running for years. I'm not claiming I'd ever make it to the Olympics, but when I want to, I can move. My feet thudded into the soft, landscaped lawn, propelling me forward faster and faster. My right hand clutched my staff like a vice, my wounded left arm hanging more or less uselessly. My fractured ribs groaned with pain, and my scarred left hand throbbed in sympathy. About ten feet away from the castle wall, I gathered my will and jumped, trying to angle myself just right.
"Ventas Servitas!" I hissed, willing the wind to throw me upwards. At first I thought I had aimed too high as the unforgiving stone above the window loomed into my field of vision, but I started to come down just as I shot through the opening, just barely grazing the top of the window frame.
In an alternate universe where I'm a suave, debonair, James Bond kind of wizard, I rolled to my feet instantly upon landing, already alert for any sign of danger. Since I'm me, I crashed to the floor in a roll that was about as precise and controlled as a kindergartener with finger paint. I only stopped tumbling when I ran into something large, heavy and unyielding. The curses that followed were vicious, but quiet. That done, I laid still on the floor, trying to get my breath back and listening for any sign that I'd been spotted.
Everything seemed quiet, which was good. If the guards had spotted me, there would probably have been plenty of yelling right now. Just in case they were trying to get the drop on me, I held still for another couple minutes. And no, it wasn't because of my aching ribs or throbbing left arm. Eventually, I pulled myself together and got to my feet. The room was dark, but I didn't summon any light. That would give away my presence in a heartbeat. Besides, my eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, giving me a decent picture of the room. It looked like a bedroom of some kind, but the sheets draped over the furniture said it was an unused one. Which made the open window a little odd, but maybe the latch had broken… or maybe I wasn't the only one sneaking into − or out of − the castle tonight.
I pushed that thought to the back of my mind and moved towards the door as stealthily as I could manage. A small breeze from the still open window informed me that I had lost my only piece of clothing somewhere in the adventures of the past few minutes. I bit back a curse, and shook my head. I didn't have the time to waste looking for it, and I had actual clothes waiting for me at my goal. The wooden door separating this room from the hall looked thick and strong. An experimental tap with my knuckles confirmed that. I placed my ear against the hard wood and Listened.
Listening is less a magical skill than a personal one. Years of training had allowed me to focus my hearing to the exclusion of my other senses. I didn't hear anyone coming, and the clip clop of hooves on stone was pretty distinctive. Cautiously, I opened the door to an empty hallway. Thankfully, it was one I recognized from my tour yesterday.
I crept into the corridor, still alert for the sound of any approaching ponies, and closed the door behind me. In stark contrast to the outside, the hallway was barren and silent. The servants had either gone to sleep after the hectic night, or were just staying out of the guards' way. I figured those soldiers not guarding the doors or out searching for the Order where probably gathered around the more strategically important parts of the castle. If I was lucky, these residential halls would be empty. Getting into those dungeons would be trickier, but I was certain I'd come up with a plan when it became necessary.
First things first, my gear and clothes. I prowled through the silent corridors for several minutes, encountering no resistance. It looked like my suppositions had been correct. Only one flight of stairs and another long hall separated me from the small suite of rooms that the girls and I were sharing. It was on the landing between the two floors that my suppositions slipped up.
The distinct sound of hooves came from the floor above, and they sounded close, too. Way too close to get off the stairs before I would be seen. The thick curtains on either side of the large window behind me were my only option. I shoved myself behind one, trying to rearrange it so my entry wasn't horribly obvious. I stood perfectly still as the sound of hoofbeats neared me, relieved that my lanky build gave me small profile. If I was lucky, they wouldn't notice anything and would just walk right past me.
Yeah, I know how likely that is, I thought sourly, my knuckles tightening on my staff.
"It's just like I always said," a voice claimed, as it came into earshot. "The monster that the Princess captured two months ago escaped and came back to get revenge. Even you've got to admit that it's possible, Skeptic."
A gruff snort came from somewhere at the top of the stairs, and my tension ratcheted up several notches as I realized my feet were poking out beneath the hem of the curtain. Another voice spoke in response to the first. " Have you got a screw loose, Nancy? I know one of the oldest conspiracy theories in Equestria turned out to be real, but that doesn't mean every fool notion you come up with is true, too."
They were coming down the stairs, absorbed in their strangely familiar conversation, but they had to notice sooner or later. Murphy's Law, a statute with which I am very familiar, demanded it.
"Private Colt, if you please," Nancy corrected sullenly. "You know I hate my first name."
That was met with another snort as they finally reached the landing, and walked right past me. They continued down the stairs, bickering like an old couple, without so much as a glance backwards. I was frozen in shock as they walked away. Had the Universe just let a prime chance to screw me over pass by that easily?
Questioning my good fortune could wait until later. I disentangled myself from the curtains and started back up the stairs. The hallway above was just as deserted as all of the others, and I reached our room without any more troubles. Once inside, however, I was assaulted by my vigilant guard dog. Mouse panted happily as he bounced over and gave a few playful growls. He didn't bark, for which I was extremely grateful. I ruffled his ears, gave him a belly rub and generally told him that he was, in fact, a very good boy. He seemed to take my nakedness in stride, though there were a few chuffing little breaths that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
Spike snored on through the whole thing. He had stayed up until dawn the previous night, and the need for sleep had caught up to him hard. Not that I was complaining, since it made my job easier. I moved over to the closet where I was keeping my stuff. The girls had brought it with them when they hopped a train for the castle, which worked out great. If they'd left anything behind, it would have been in the clutches of the Order by now. Here, nobody would bother it… or so I had thought. As I opened the door, I saw two items that I hadn't left there. Two items I immediately recognized.
One of them was the velvet case I had been presented with at the awards ceremony. The same case I had dropped in all the confusion. I opened it hesitantly, confirming that the star Luna had given me was still nestled within. I closed it gently, but didn't turn the latch or lock it. The most simple explanation for its appearance was reasonable. Some of the castle staff had likely brought my 'award' here after cleaning up the disaster at the ceremony. But then why was it tucked away in the closet, instead just left out in the open?
The other item was something I remembered, but it had been a year since the last time I had seen it. Leaning against the wall of the closet was the hammer that Trixie had fought with after we had finally cornered her. I didn't remember what had happened to it after the fight, and nobody had ever mentioned it again. I thought it had been destroyed or lost, but there it sat. Silent and strangely gleaming. Who had left it here was almost as much a mystery as why they had done it.
I stared, pondering both of them as I got dressed. Two supernatural and super-powerful artifacts. One old, one new. One given openly, one left hidden for me. Luna's gift was a Lodestar, a tracking spell so complex and powerful that I had only ever heard it described – but the mere description made it unmistakable. So long as I held it, I would always know the way home, no matter how matter how far away it was, whether I was in this world or the Nevernever. Hell, it might even work across the Nevernever between different worlds. There was supposedly no limit to the distance you could travel and still find your way home.
You'd think I would already know if it worked across worlds, but neither my apartment nor the city of Chicago had been set as the Lodestar's 'home'. It was linked to Luna herself. What she had given me was not just a mind-bogglingly complex and beautiful piece of spellcraft, not just a personal ticket back to Equestria no matter where life took me. It was a tacit promise of safety and shelter.
I had been awed when I had first opened the velvet box, and it was still humbling and so very tempting to take her up on that offer right now. The star could lead me straight to Luna, and with her help I could easily slip out of reach of any wannabe sorcerer in Equestria. It wasn't like I was hurting for enemies back home. But I couldn't. Instead, I turned my eyes to the softly shining hammer. It looked like a medieval weapon, barbed along the sides with a jutting point on the top. Unlike any hammer I had ever seen, it was made entirely of the strange metal, head and shaft all one continuous piece. Its looks, however were nothing compared, to what I felt from it.
It was alive, and it was hungry.
That's not to say it was intelligent or even aware, but in some inexplicable way, it was actually alive. And just like any living thing, it needed to eat. I reached out to confirm what I already suspected. A tiny spark arced between hand and haft as I touched it. I felt my power, what little I had left after this crazy night, seep out and into it. I lifted it, finding it far lighter than should have been possible. I swung it experimentally a couple times, feeling almost no physical exertion to the action. That's not to say it was without cost. As I waved it around, that siphoning feeling intensified to an almost painful level. I put the hammer back down, and it emitted a faint sensation that was almost mournful.
I finished dressing, still watching the two artifacts uncertainly. One of them represented home and the illusion of safety. The other represented battle, and my own self-destruction.
I had a choice.
If I took the Lodestar, there was no sense lugging a magic-draining hammer all the way back to Chicago. Not when somebody else could put it to better use here. And if I took the hammer, I wouldn't need to find anyone. He Who Walks Behind would be the one finding me.
"Hello?" A voice echoed from the hallway, interrupting my reverie. It was a curious, almost whimsical voice, and it had a faint British accent. "Is anybo- anypony here? Just that I've been wandering these halls for a good ten minutes, and haven't had anyone try to arrest me or throw me into a dungeon or something yet. Actually, thinking about it, someone might want to file a complaint with Castle Security really, because they seem to be sleeping on the job. Hmm… I'm reading some life forms in that room, at least." An odd high-pitched whir sounded from just outside the door, and the lock popped open.
With a small effort of will, my staff shot to my hand and the carved symbols lining it began to glow orange-red. The door creaked open, and a pony wandered in. He was wearing a vest with plenty of pockets, and a pair of goggles were perched on his head. "Hello?" he asked again. "Sorry to interrupt, but I'm in a bit of a pinch. Popped off the rails so to speak. I don't suppose you would have about two ounces of silicon, three crystals, and a silver fork perchance?"
"Don't move," I commanded, leveling my staff at him. I wasn't sure what his reaction would be, but fear, hostility or shock would have been my first three guesses. Instead, he blinked in surprise as though he hadn't noticed me until I'd spoken up. Then he started talking.
"A human? In Equestria? Hmmm, if the accent is right, mid to late twenty-first century America? Yes, No? Yes!? Annnnnnd you're pointing a glowing thingy at me, which, judging from the first two points, is probably a weapon of some kind." I had a spell ready that would bury him three inches into the opposite wall, but from the tone of his voice you'd think I was kid with a slingshot. "Well, that's hardly polite."
Mouse shuffled over to him, sniffing carefully. Both the strange pony and I remained silent as he completed his inspection, though the stallion seemed more amused than concerned by Mouse's actions. Eventually, the puppy seemed satisfied and began to pant happily again. That relieved most of my tension. If Mouse liked this guy, he couldn't be too bad.
My reaction didn't go unnoticed. "So now that I've passed your intensive and no doubt sophisticated security measures, would you be ever so kind as to point the dangerous glowing things elsewhere?"
I lowered my staff and let the glowing sigils go dark. "Forgive me, your Lordship," I replied sarcastically, "but after the last ten attempts on my life, I've gotten a little jumpy." My mild scowl deepened as the full impact of his early statement hit me. "More importantly, how do you know what humans are?" He seemed familiar for some reason, though I couldn't tell you why.
"Oh, I've met plenty of humans in my time, though none that wielded glowing sticks. Well, none that were literally sticks, anyway. That's new, but strange universe and all, you've got expect some surprises. Say, is that some kind of perception filter?" With that he pulled a silvery cylinder out of one of pockets and pointed it at me with a thoughtful expression on his face.
That was enough for me to connect the dots. "Hey! I remember you. We met in Ponyville a couple days ago. You're that guy… Doctor something."
At this he started in surprise, as though that news was somehow the most shocking part of this conversation. "DID we? Oh, something to look forward to I suppose. And no, not Dr. Something, it's just 'the Doctor', but are you quite certain? I wasn't planning on sticking around once I get ahold of some materials to help with the recalibration," he said, as the silver cylinder started making the high pitched noise I'd heard just a few minutes ago. Then it exploded into sparks, and the noise died out.
"Yep," I confirmed. "The same thing happened last time. I mean, I was a unicorn then, so I'm not surprised you don't remember me, but I'm Blackstone. Pinkie Pie introduced us, sort of."
Doctor stopped fiddling with the smoking remains of whatever technology was my latest victim to react with a little more surprise. "Pinkie Pie knew me? How? I haven't even met her in this univ−" He stopped as I regarded him curiously, then shrugged. "Well, this is quite awkward. I don't mean to sound rude, but let's try to keep the spoilers to a minimum shall we? I haven't gotten that far yet."
"Spoilers?" I just stared at him, the implications raising a dozen red flags in my mind. "Now...hold on, that... sounded a lot like you were just talking about time travel."
He stared back, seemingly surprised that I'd noticed. "Oh… oops. Can we pretend I didn't say that and just shrug it off instead? You know, 'Oh, imagine that. This world's a funny old place, isn't it?' and all the rest."
My eyes rolled almost of their own accord. "It's a bit late for that. Besides, not if Chronomancy is involved. Jesus Christ, I thought all the Transformation was bad enough, but this takes the cake."
"Chronomancy?" Doctor stopped and sputtered as realization seemed to strike him, standing at attention as if I had insulted his honor. "I'll have you know, I happen to be a professional. Isn't the difference obvious?"
I shrugged, not sure what he meant by 'professional'. "Not really, but you're the first I've ever met. Not only is time magic insanely difficult, but where I'm from, there's a Law of Magic against it."
"Against the law?" he asked with a trace of humor in his voice this time. "What do they do? Fine you?"
"Yeah, the first offense only costs your head. They're pretty serious about preventing paradoxes." Hell, I'm pretty sure even attempting time travel buys you a short appointment with a long sword. The only Law the Council enforces even more zealously is the Seventh, the final Law."
"How very draconian," Doctor replied, wearing a mildly perturbed expression at that news. "Remind me not to visit."
An awkward silence fell between us as we each studied the other. Either Doctor was from some alternate world of ponies who were not only aware of humans, but had achieved time travel through technology instead of magic, or he was from some point in this world's future. Honestly, I wasn't sure if either explanation made sense. That old chestnut from Mark Twain about truth being stranger than fiction had never seemed more right to me. Seeking to break the awkward impasse, I reached into the deep pockets of my duster, and withdrew a few of the pieces of quartz I keep on hand for various spells.
"You said you needed crystals, right?" I asked, offering him a few. "Would these work?"
Frowning intently he studied them, tapped them with a tiny hammer and even sniffed one of them. "Yes," Doctor said cheerily, deftly tucking them into one of his many pockets. "Those should do nicely. No silicon or silver forks, by chance?"
I shook my head, mildly amused by his actions. Amused or not, I was hoping this would get rid of him. He was a distraction, albeit an interesting one, and I still had too much to do for any time wasting.
Doctor shrugged at my response. "That's all right, I think I've got an inkling about where to find them." He paused. "I don't have any bits or other local currency to pay you back, but I can offer you some advice."
I was about to refuse his offer until I caught sight of his expression. The words never came. His odd mannerisms and cheerful weirdness were gone, replaced by a look of unashamed sorrow and empathy.
"Don't," he said, simply and powerfully. His old, sad eyes drifted from me to the unearthly hammer resting behind me. "I don't know the details, and it's really none of my business. I am not getting involved, but I know desperation when I see it. I know what it's like to be alone with the weight of a world on your shoulders."
His eyes met mine and I didn't need a Soulgaze to feel the years they carried. I know wizards older than three centuries, and not one of them carried the same heartbreaking combination of age, regret and exhaustion in their expression. I tore my eyes away before the Soulgaze began, and this time it wasn't because I was afraid of what of the other person might see.
Doctor didn't seem put off by the break in eye contact. He continued speaking, almost rambling, but with a subtle intensity to each of his words. "That weight can and will break you, if you let it. It can change you, convince you to do things that you would never dream of otherwise. Things that you spend the rest of your life regretting."
My first response, as was typical when outside my comfort zone, was snark, and a reply was already brewing in the back of my mind. I forced it down, but it wasn't as hard as it was normally. There was a sincere and honest solemnity in what he had said. Besides, I was too well acquainted with the same emotions. "I know," I said. "I've been there, too. I know rage and fear and regret. I've done things I'm not proud of. I've failed those who depended on me." An image of Susan, my former girlfriend, flashed through my mind. "And that's why I've got to do this alone. This isn't like any of the other times. If my friends come with me," And if they're even still my friends… "they'll die."
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at Spike's snoozing form. "Forgive me for assuming, but if that little fellow there is who I think he is, I'd guess this universe's Twilight Sparkle is one of the friends you're talking about." My expression gave Doctor all the confirmation he needed and he smiled. "Then I think you're underestimating her quite a bit."
I scowled. "Or you're underestimating the threat we're facing. This thing already put Celestia in the hospital. I'm not under any illusion that I'm going to win, but I can buy the time they need to put down the pony behind all this."
Doctor shook his head. "Maybe it's just me, but that seems like an awfully expensive exchange."
The thought of facing He Who Walks was still terrifying, but not half as bad as imagining what He would do anyone else. "I've been living on borrowed time since I was sixteen. I've made peace with my death."
"Do you think Twilight has?"
The question was delivered in a gentle tone of voice but it struck me a blow that twisted my stomach into knots. Images flashed through my mind, the shock of our first meeting, her early fear and suspicion, her heartbreaking sorrow at Spike's kidnapping, that moment when suspicion first gave way to trust, her brilliant gambit that brought Trixie to her knees. But most of all, I remembered when she took the fatal strike I had meant for Trixie. I remembered her sad, gentle smile as she lay dying and the raw anguish I had felt.
There were tears in my eyes when I raised my head to look at him. "You don't fight fair," I retorted.
"Never have," Doctor chuckled softly. I had no reply, and he continued. "Dying is easy, leaving others behind is what's hard. Believe me, I know. When everything is at its bleakest, that isn't the time to push your friends away. You're only giving into despair, admitting defeat before the battle even begins. A good companion can give you something that lets you win any battle." He paused as light flooded into the room from the windows.
Dawn is significant, and not just magically. Get up early, watch the sun rise, and tell me that it doesn't mean anything to you. Something in the first light of day strikes a chord inside every person. It's a testament to the fact that no night lasts forever. It's the promise of a new day and a new beginning. The subtle power of daybreak washed over me as the cheers began in the courtyard outside.
"They can give you hope."
Doctor was smiling. The sorrow and regret still lurked beneath the surface of his expression, but they were submerged by a simple, honest joy in life. Then he ducked his head, his foolish and whimsical grin reappearing. "At least, that's what I'd like to think. And if you'll excuse me, I need to get moving before I run out of fuel and get stranded in this universe."
I made a shooing gesture with one hand, and he left. I turned back to the two objects that I had been unable to decide between. The choice now seemed obvious. My hand stretched out as I made my decision, only to be interrupted as Doctor popped his head back into the room.
"Besides," he added his eyes pointed in my direction but, for some reason not focused on me. "If you take a moment to think, I believe you'll find that somebody's already lending you a hand." He paused. "Or hoof, I suppose. Horn, maybe? I'll have to ask Twilight about that one."
His words, and more importantly his actions, sunk in. I spun to look outside, the sunlight making everything clear. Chains of logic cascaded in my mind and I was pretty sure I'd figured out at least part of the puzzle. "Clever girl," I chuckled. This changed things. This changed everything.
I picked up both the velvet box and the hammer.
The hall leading to the throne room was three deep in guards, and that was only the ones in plain sight. There were probably who-knew-how-many still in hiding. They were ready for just about anything, though it was obvious that they were nervous. From the sidelong glances a few of them exchanged, they weren't entirely sure they could trust their fellow guards either. Paranoia was setting in as the reality of the situation became apparent. If anyone could be an enemy, and there was no way to tell, who did you trust? That hallway was a powder keg that only needed a single spark to go off.
I sauntered into plain view, my staff in hand, massive hammer and cane sword on my belt, duster billowing out behind me, and an ephemeral ball of silver light leading me towards their only ambulatory ruler.
Not one of them noticed. A few even subconsciously shuffled a step or two out of my way as I approached them. Unfortunately, the doors weren't as obliging, so I stopped and waited impatiently. I couldn't open the doors myself without giving the game away, but how long could I go unnoticed? The world may never know, because after ten minutes of waiting, somepony new finally showed up.
All of the guards drew themselves to attention as he approached, and I knew this guy was my ticket in. His two-tone blue mane looked messy for an officer, but I hadn't seen anyone sporting a crew cut, so they probably had a pretty loose dress code. His eyes passed by me, just like everyone else, but then they darted back. My heart immediately went on strike, demanding that my lungs start working again before it pumped any more blood.
"Sir?" One of the guards asked.
"Nothing," the officer replied turning to look at the doors, but still with a puzzled frown.
Negotiations with my heart concluded, and I let out a relieved breath. The massive doors swung inwards and I quickly slipped in behind the white-coated officer. "I've got the latest reports from the field, your Highness," he said, "but I'm afraid we don't have much."
"We are most grateful, Captain Armor," Luna replied before glancing up from the mountains of paperwork surrounding her. Her mouth tweaked upwards into the slightest suggestion of a smile as her eyes met mine.
"I got your invitation," I replied drily, my gesture taking in the Lodestar floating above me and the oblivious captain in front of me. "Though, I want to know just when you put this…" I paused for lack of a good description. "...this chameleon spell on me."
Captain Armor's ears swiveled towards me and he glanced behind himself. He stared hard in my direction and his horn flickered with light for a second, but he didn't come any closer to penetrating her spell than he did the first time. "Dost something trouble you, Captain?" Luna asked, her smile expertly masked.
He frowned, but shook his head. "Sorry, your Highness. It's nothing." Captain Armor resumed a more militaristic posture and continued. "Anyway, we did find a location matching your specifications."
Luna's smile became predatory, causing the officer to take an unconscious step back and sending chills down my spine. "Good," she said. "Then all the players are gathered, and we can begin."