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.
Bookmark was in the room again. It was a ten by ten square with no windows, no door, and no chance of escape. His horn was no longer bound, but something in the twisted carvings that covered every inch of the walls prevented him from using magic. He was chained in place, but that was almost an afterthought. Once again, there would be nothing he could do to stop what was coming.
"You sicken us," Luna said. She hadn't been there a second ago, but now she stared down at him in furious contempt. "You pretend to be a victim with 'noble ideals', but your charade fools us not. The sole thing you desire is power, and the stench of your unchecked ambition disgusts us."
Just as always, he couldn't speak. Bookmark's throat worked uselessly, but no sound passed his lips.
"Tis just as well that our sister gave us leave to administer this sentence. The pain of anypony, even one so vile as you, upsets her." Luna glared at him, her horn lighting with a midnight blue aura. Thousands of symbols in the walls around them glowed a similar hue. Her eyes turned neon white, flaring with power. "We, however, are more practical."
He tried to scream as the pain overtook him, as magic tore into him, ripping out the one thing he truly valued, but as always, he suffered in silence.
Bookmark awoke howling in pain and terror. He knew it was a dream, only a dream, but that was little reassurance to his racing heart. Inch by inch, he brought himself back from the edge of that visceral terror. It took several minutes of deep breathing to fully calm down, shorter than most of his 'morning fits', but still far too long for his liking. He still shuddered at the memory of his dream, the same one he had had every night since his magic was taken from him.
That recurrence might be – no, had to be – deliberate. He had read ancient tomes that claimed that Luna held power over the land of dreams. Evidently, she had not seen his punishment as sufficient. In truth, the process had not hurt, nor had Luna said a word as she administered his sentence. He had screamed obscenity after obscenity at her, but she had merely completed the ritual without even appearing to register what he had said. It was worse than if she had taunted him. That, at least, would have meant she respected him enough to speak. Instead, he had been treated like an unpleasant task to be quickly finished and forgotten. Never before had he felt so helpless, and he swore he never would again.
He crawled from his bedroll, and glanced in the mirror out of habit. His eyes had gotten colder and harder since the night of the ritual, but the biggest change was the Old Equish glyphs inscribed upon him by the magic of the ritual. His skill in linguistics allowed him to read them, but few ponies today would understand the word 'murderer' inscribed on his forehead or 'traitor' encircling his neck. Some of them might have even confounded experts in the field, like the glyph across his shoulders that roughly translated to 'summoner of unclean spirits'. Still, the glyphs themselves had a threatening mien, all sharp lines and harsh points. Not that it mattered. There probably wasn't a single pony in Equestria by now who wouldn't know why he wore the marks.
Bookmark wanted to shatter the mirror before him with a telekinetic strike, but that ability was gone. Which only made him angrier. He stomped out of his tent, hungry and frustrated. It was not the best way to start the first day of his exile.
The entire Council of Thirty had been given the same sentence, except those three who had given evidence against them. When I return in my power, I will take my time killing them, he growled mentally. Almost everypony had asked for an individual trial, but it had made no difference. The public defenders had been useless despite their 'best efforts', and judge after judge had followed the precedent established in his trial.
Right now they were in an unspecified field not far from Canterlot. Guards surrounded their encampment, less to watch them than to keep out unruly ponies wishing to 'teach those murderers a lesson.' Bookmark sneered at the thought of those small mobs. They didn't have the nerve to actually kill anypony, 'murderer' or not, but they would give him and his quite a beating, given half a chance. Some of the guards had been ready to give them more than that, but Captain Shining Armor obeyed orders without question. Thus they had been left, if not in peace, then at least not in pieces.
Ponies stared at him as he passed; both the guards and his followers. The latter tried to pretend otherwise, but he could feel their eyes upon him. Everypony had gone through the process, but only he screamed at night. Only he had nightmares that left him shaking and weak. He ignored their stares and the way their eyes not-so-subtly followed him. Breakfast was laid out for them, their last meal as Equestrian citizens. The bread smelled fresh and wonderful, the glazed donuts were hot and glistening, and the fruit succulent. They must not have told the chefs who this meal was for.
He was one of the last ponies up, but still there was plenty of food waiting. Many of the Thirty appeared to have stuffed themselves, certain they would never taste such goodness again. Rather than take food from the table, he swept a portion of it clean – with his hooves, damn that Twilight Sparkle. Good food tumbled to the dirt, but he paid it no heed. Once his hooves would have shaken, but the anxiety that had plagued him was gone. He had lived through the worst Equestria had to offer, and though damaged, he was not yet beaten. A crowd gathered, ponies muttering to themselves at his actions. The guards only watched impassively, no doubt hoping he'd start a riot and give them the opportunity to 'enforce the peace'. Bookmark climbed the table, using it as a stage to address his followers.
"My fellow ponies," he began, staring at them icily. "You are idiots. What did all of your attorneys and days in trial get you? The same thing I got for mere honesty? What a surprise." The Thirty had started to look angry, but as he continued their faces had fallen into shame. The guards watched stoically, but more than a few of their jaws had begun to clench. "Equestria and her citizens hate you. There is no mercy here. There is no kindness. The grand and wonderful Princess Celestia has offered us passage to another country should we make the trek to Manehattan. How can we refuse such generosity? Who wouldn't take an offer to be eternally under her watchful eye even as she punishes us? For my part, I intend to make my way south, into the wastelands. Follow me if you will. There, we can be our own ponies, not still indebted to a self-confessed tyrant. We can build a new land where more is expected of its citizens than blind loyalty. Together we can do it. Together, we can transform this from a cruel punishment to an opportunity. Those distant hills will ring with our laughter, not our tears. Follow me to our new life; we don't need our magic to be better than the slaves here."
There was no applause or cries of joy to greet his speech. Yet, one after another, the Thirty bowed their heads to him. They would accept his lead once again. He nodded in satisfaction. It had been tricky to improvise after his unexpected sentence. Though he had never doubted his ability to succeed, Bookmark had prudently planned for failure as well. All possible outcomes: life imprisonment, exile or even a death sentence (though he had considered the last extremely unlikely), had been prepared for. Then that damned Twilight Sparkle had upset all those careful plans with a punishment he'd never even heard of. Still, the first step in his hastily improvised scheme was complete.
"Impressive," a commanding voice stated, bitingly sardonic. Captain Armor strode into the crowd of ponies, and the Thirty parted for him without hesitation. "If I didn't know you were a murdering sociopath, I'd suggest going into politics." He shifted his tone and spoke to the ponies cringing around him. "Personal feelings aside, I am here to remind you that you must leave this encampment by sunrise, which is scheduled to occur in thirty minutes. Any belongings you do not have packed up by that time will be left behind. You are not to enter any Equestrian city or town on your journey. This is a provision for your safety, considering the public outrage at the crimes you have committed. Any questions?"
Silence was the only reply.
"Dismissed," he announced, and ponies scrambled back to their tents to get everything packed away. They each had carts, various supplies and keepsakes they had been allowed to collect from their homes, and enough food and water for two weeks. Those provisions had been part of Bookmark's plan for exile, and had proven useful here. Bookmark jumped down from the table and hurried towards his tent, only to be stopped by a wall of magic.
"Hold on, fearless leader," Captain Armor said. "We need to discuss what route you're taking so my pegasi can keep an eye on you."
"Due south," Bookmark replied, dispensing with any games. He needed this conversation over. There were too many things he couldn't afford to leave behind. "We will skirt Ponyville and travel through the Everfree Forest."
For a moment, Captain Armor was silent, then his eyes hardened. "You know I won't send my troops into that deathtrap. You think you can lose them, but I'll set ponies to watch the entire border. If any of you survive the trip, we will find you."
Bookmark smirked. "You aren't going to try convincing me not to go?"
Seldom had Bookmark seen so much loathing in a glare. "I obey my orders in both letter and spirit, but that doesn't mean I have no opinion of my own. I hope none of you ever make it out of that forest."
Captain Armor released the shield spell and turned to walk away. Bookmark knew his time was running short, but he couldn't resist getting in one last dig. "That's hardly professional of you."
Shining Armor didn't even look over his shoulder. "You tried to kill my sister. If I wasn't being professional, losing your magic would be the least of your worries."
The first day had been a minor disaster. Without their strength, the earth ponies had been unable to pull their massive wagons alone. They had hastily lashed two ponies to each vehicle, leaving half of them behind. The pegasi complained the entire time in an endless litany about how much they hated being ground-bound. Their wings were whole and healthy, yet somehow refused to catch the air. The unicorns were mostly silent, but there were more than a few cases of dropped or spilled goods because they lacked experience using their hooves.
The procession made perhaps ten miles before stopping in some fields a mile or so distant from the Everfree Forest. Most of the Thirty had quailed when he told them their destination, but none of them had left him. The nightmares revisited him that night, and again he woke up screaming. The other ponies pretended not to notice, but he could feel their nervousness growing.
They entered the forest in early morning, and it wasn't until noon that Bookmark called a halt to their progress. They were deep within the forest now, and a quick check with his sentries revealed that nopony had seen any of the guards follow them in. Perfect.
Bookmark clambered onto of his cart and cleared his throat loudly. "Your attention, everypony. We've done well to get this far, under our constraints. However, I wasn't entirely truthful about our destination." They muttered and stamped nervously at that. "I'm sorry for tricking you, but it was necessary to fool Shining Armor and, through him, the Princesses. Instead of scratching out an existence in the wilderness, I propose we find a way to restore our magic, and seek out greater sources of power."
That caused even more murmuring and a few shouts of 'how' rose from the crowd. Bookmark grinned. "Wind Whisperer, if you would be so kind as to show yourself?" A grey pegasus dappled with spots of white stepped out from behind a tree. He grinned at the surprise on everypony's face.
"Observations complete, sir. We know where they crossed into the Astral Plane."
"What's going on?" demanded a unicorn. "Who's this guy?"
"Let's just say I didn't think the 'Council of Thirty-Three' was all that catchy," Bookmark said with a smirk. "I kept him and two other ponies a secret. Given that three of our number betrayed us to the Princesses, it seems to have been an entirely reasonable precaution." He suppressed his fury and carried on. "Thanks to Wind Whisperer and his colleagues, we now have the knowledge, and ability, to follow 'Blackstone' back to his home. There, we will find another entity willing to make a deal with us. Our magic will be restored and enhanced. We will need to be patient and allow enough time for the Princesses to believe we truly died in this forest, and relax their guard. But then? We will return, and we will strike a blow against them that shall echo the length and breadth of Equestria for all time. Are you with me?!"
At first there was only silence. Then Wild Romp, an olive green pegasus, broke out laughing. "You audacious son of a nag! I figured everything was done when I couldn't find Celestia in the medical wing, but you don't have an ounce of quit in you, do ya?" He grinned like an imp, and stared challengingly at the rest of the Thirty. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm in. I'd murder somepony to fly again." Bookmark doubted he was kidding. Most of the Thirty saw their actions as 'necessary evil', but a few had rather different ideas.
One after another, the Thirty agreed. Some happily, some reluctantly, but all of them were committed. Good. Bookmark would need everypony in one way or another. After all, some creatures might have appetites similar to Harenagnis, the demon centipede. It never hurt to sweeten a deal, and he didn't necessarily have to return with thirty ponies.
Ice Fissure, a unicorn mare, and Bucky Ball, an earth pony stallion, awaited them at the ruined Castle of the Royal Sisters. They greeted their leader, failing to hide their surprise at his taxed appearance. He ignored those reactions, instead focusing on the area they had marked off. "You're certain this is where they crossed over? The smallest margin of error could send us to a completely different section of the Astral Plane."
"Wind Whisperer claims this is exactly where they opened the Gate, and from what I've felt examining the area, I agree," Ice replied. Her professional tone dropped as she stared worried at him. "Will you be okay, sir?"
"Yes, I'm fine," he said, brushing off her concern. He couldn't look weak. Not now. "How long can you maintain the Gate?"
Ice frowned at his brusque reply, but considered the question. "I can't be certain until I attempt to open it, but I would imagine no longer than thirty minutes. It will probably leave me exhausted for several hours as well."
"That's a price we'll simply have to pay," Bookmark decided. Having only one unicorn was a terrible burden on their group, but one was better than none. "Bucky, I need you to go through first just in case. You're the best fighter we've got now."
The well muscled Earth pony gave a rumbling chuckle in reply. "I was the best fighter before, too. Otherwise you wouldn't have bothered to keep me in reserve." He cracked his neck, and grinned.
"True," Bookmark replied. Bucky had actually been chosen, because − like Ice and Wind – he was personally loyal to Bookmark. Still, there was no need to argue with him. "I'm going to get everypony organized then we can leave. Pack up and prepare however you need to. We depart in thirty minutes." Less than an hour and he would be gone. Beyond the reach of Celestia's iron hoof and Luna's dream magic.
Two days later, Bookmark still awoke screaming. After his first night in the Astral Plane he had demanded that Ice Fissure examine him, but she hadn't found anything wrong. Luna must have implanted something in him to cause this. He wanted to smack Ice after she suggested that it was only normal to be traumatized after what he had gone through. But he needed her, so even that release was denied to him.
The desert was fortunately free of any dangerous creatures, flora or fauna, but unfortunately difficult to track in. They had found a couple of hoof prints and other disturbances, but progress was slow. Still, they had plenty of supplies, and Wind Whisperer said that Luna, Twilight and the rest had only been gone for a few hours. The entrance to 'Blackstone's' world couldn't be that far away.
Most of the Thirty agreed with him. Some, however, grumbled.
"This is ridiculous," one of the earth ponies hitched to a large wagon complained. "Why couldn't you just summon another demon? Instead of dragging us through this forsaken desert."
Bookmark glared at him. "Aside from having all of my books, diagrams and research taken from me? We only have one unicorn capable of magic. Any demon she was capable of keeping contained by herself wouldn't be powerful enough to do us any good. If we want help, we'll have to find it ourselves."
"Bookmark!" Wind Whisperer shouted, flapping hard as he settled to the ground, drawing envious stares from all the pegasus within sight. "We've seen something on the horizon."
That description seemed a bit excited for what amounted to nothing more than a dark spot on the edge of sight. Still, in a sky vacant of clouds, sun, stars or anything but sourceless light, it was an oddity. Bookmark assigned a pony to watch it and sent the rest back to searching.
There was no sun to set; nonetheless, the sky began to darken several hours later. They had found another hoof print and advanced another half mile. The dark spot on the horizon had grown larger, but it still remained distant.
Bookmark fell fitfully to sleep, certain that his nightmares would begin anew. He was proved correct, though for once his screams were not the topic of hushed conversation the following morning. The speck on the horizon had grown overnight into a recognizable shape, a long serpentine line with a pair of outstretched wings. Bookmark nodded in approval.
It seemed his gamble had paid off. Whatever creature ruled this desert was coming to meet them. Other ponies would have been frightened by such a thought, and indeed most of the Thirty seemed so, but Bookmark relished the opportunity. Everything wanted something. So long as he found the right leverage, this curse of Celestia's was as good as gone. Admittedly, the creature might not prove amenable to reason, but determining hostility was what scouts were for. So long as they were unharmed, he would feel safe approaching the creature. Just in case, though, he prepared the entire encampment for a rapid retreat and kept the crews searching.
It took another day before the creature reached them. Bookmark had not underestimated its speed, for it moved with frighteningly swiftness, but he had misjudged its size. The creature was a serpent-like dragon over a mile long. Its vast wings could each have served as the main tent in any large circus. Three pairs of eyes were set deep in a skull the size of mansion. Even the smallest of those eyes were bigger than a full grown pony. Its back and spines were covered in shining crimson scales, while its underbelly looking to be made of iridescent opals. It landed gracefully, yet even that light contact caused the ground tremble at its clawed feet. The great dragon was magnificent, and yet…
The scales were stretched tight over protruding bones, and the wings were worn and ragged. Dust and dirt had gathered in every crook and crevice of the dragon's body, and it was obvious that no attempt had been made to clean it away in ages. The tail was covered in scars etched deep into the flesh beneath the scales, leaving criss-crossing lines barely recognizable as massive bites. None of the six eyes blinked or even seemed to register anything they saw. If not for its fluid movements Bookmark would have thought he was looking at a corpse. It was like seeing a god starved near to death.
After landing, the dragon merely stood there for a while, breathing in deeply through its nose. Bookmark decided it was likely safe enough and strode forward. He smiled and cleared his throat, the sound causing the vast head to tilt in his direction.
"Greetings. I am Novel Notion," he began, careful not to reveal his real name to the creature. "I would like to see if you are interested in making a deal. Our interests may coincide, and my needs are quite reasonable. What might you desire in return?"
It moved faster than he would have thought possible. Faster than a creature that size should be capable of moving. He only had a startled second to react as he realized that those titanic jaws had opened and were coming towards him. Then it was all too late. They had already enclosed him and the rest of the Thirty.
Bookmark realized several seconds later that he wasn't dead. The dragon had taken everything, including the ground beneath him in one giant bite. Those column-sized fangs had never even come near him. Then the dragon swallowed, and soon Bookmark wished those fangs had given him a clean and sudden death.
The dragon stood alone in the desert, shivering in agony, ecstasy or some combination of the two. In time, the glaze across its eyes vanished, leaving a calculating gleam in its wake. A voice long unused croaked out dusty laughter.
"At last. How long has it been? Centuries? Millennia? No matter. I am returned, and such a small meal has merely whetted my hunger…"
And a world away, an old pegasus named Keen Vision tossed and turned in his sleep, tortured by visions of destruction more vivid than any he had experienced before.
Two years. Wow, it's hard to believe this story has been going so long. Of course you readers probably felt every minute of those delays, but from my point of view it has gone by in a flash. Well, to confirm again, this will not be the last Dresden Fillies story. That honor will go to the third one, The Dresden Fillies: Great Power. With any luck I will start it this fall, and hopefully that story will be done sooner than this one. Until then I'm going to relax and write a couple shorter stories I've been wanting to.
Now, on to the thanks. There are many people without whom this story could not have been written. Instead of listing all of them, I will only bore you with those you directly worked on this story with me.
Silentcarto: My senior editor. The man who has been with me since the third chapter of Strange Friends. He smooths out my rough drafts, and keeps my phrasing clear and clever. Also, he is never afraid to tell me when I've done something stupid, but always manages to say so politely. I cannot stress how important a trait that is for an editor to have. Ponies, and the fanfiction thereof, are serious business.
frieD195: My junior editor. An eternal font of careful consideration with a keen eye for mistakes. Always on hand when I need to talk about a scene or chapter and the tweaks they may need.
Coandco: My proofreader. Like a hawk that scours a field for vermin, he parses my chapters with ease and captures any and all grammar mistakes within his talons. He's also a fun guy to talk to and endures my off topic rants with admirable patience.
SA: My former proofreader and friend. He was tragically eaten by dingoes last summer.
There's just one more thing to say, then. BUY SKIN GAME! Seriously, put some money in Mr. Butcher's pockets. It's the least thanks we all owe him.