It all started when I got an invitation to visit Equestria again.
My life has gradually gotten less crazy ever since the last time I had to deal with ponies. Well, okay—not actually less crazy, but the crazy had gone back to the usual setup of mad faerie queens, rampaging demons, and ravenous vampires instead of pastel-colored cartoon ponies. It's not a complete day in the life of Harry Dresden without something trying to kill me.
It's probably a bad sign when my initial reaction to facing down a sludge demon is, 'Thank God, my life is finally getting back to normal.' Well, 'normal' might be a bit of an exaggeration; there was all that crazy business with Maeve and Demonreach, but averting the apocalypse is starting to become a regular thing for me at this point.
On top of all that, there were the usual complications that accompany coming back from the dead. Well, not actual dead—I was only mostly dead—but as far as the law was concerned, I'd bought the farm. I still hadn't even bothered letting the American legal system know that I wasn't pushing up daisies anymore. That would've resulted in a lot of awkward questions about why I'd disappeared for a year and change, not to mention the fact that I'd disappeared right after someone put a sniper round through my chest. Chicago PD tends to get a little antsy when bullets start flying.
Thankfully, folks on the supernatural side of things were a bit more understanding when it came to clearing up the fact that I technically wasn't dead anymore. It helped that when you're dealing with wizards, they'll actually believe an explanation like 'a half-demon assassin shot me, but the faerie queen of winter managed to keep me alive with some help from a sentient island and the nephilim that lived in my head.'
Like I said before, my definition of normal is pretty weird.
It had taken a while, but the damage I'd inflicted on the fabric of reality had finally managed to fix itself to the point where people and ponies could start going back and forth between Earth and Equestria without creating some kind of risk that the multiverse would explode. Apparently, one of the side effects of soul-ifying ponies was that I'd kinda-sorta dragged Equestria in through the Outer Gates. Oops.
Naturally, that meant a whole lot of supernatural powers were trying to figure out just what, if anything, to do about Equestria. More importantly, it meant I had to make good on something I'd promised a long time ago.
"Muffins!" Derpy shoveled a double hoofful of baked goods into her mouth. "Sho many delishous muffinsh!"
It had taken a bit of doing, but one of the perks of signing on with the Winter Court was that I finally had some decent financial backing. Throw out a couple thousand bucks, and it's easy to get a few hundred muffins, a salad buffet, and enough sugary treats to give half the city diabetes delivered with no questions asked.
My old friend and retired holy warrior Michael Carpenter had insisted on hosting the little get-together. Normally I would say he was just being his usual decent self, but in this case I suspect he might have had an ulterior motive: back when the ponies had been purely cartoon characters, he and his daughters had been pretty big fans. I don't think any of them wanted to miss a chance to meet the ponies in person. Sure, there had been the time when they'd met Pinkie, Rainbow, and Twilight before, but it was a very brief run-in, and Michael had only brought his two youngest girls.
Naturally, Rainbow Dash was eating up all the attention and regaling Michael's kids with the story of how she'd taken Discord with a little help from me and the rest of her friends. Pinkie Pie was naturally at home in any kind of party atmosphere, while the others all seemed to be enjoying themselves and mingling—with one slight exception.
Fluttershy, faced with a room full of unfamiliar people that included several curious and eager fans, was currently scrunched into the one of the corners of the room, trying not to get noticed until she had a bit more time to adjust. To their credit, Michael and his family were giving her a bit of space, patiently allowing her the time she needed to get comfortable.
I've never been a very patient guy, though. I walked over and sat down on the floor next to her. "Heya, Fluttershy. How's things?"
She gave a nervous little squeak when I spoke to her, but once she realized it was me she relaxed a bit. "Oh, hello Harry. I'm fine, and this party is very ... nice. It's just a little bit loud for me."
I glanced up at Rainbow Dash, who was flying around the room with Michael's youngest daughter on her back in a manner that was sure to end with them breaking something. Then my gaze shifted back to Pinkie, who had just violated half a dozen laws of physics by yanking her party cannon out of nowhere. Rarity had apparently found something to go into Drama Queen Mode about (absent the flying couch, mercifully), which had inevitably drawn Applejack's ire and started up another friendly but heated discussion. Finally, there was Twilight in the center of the room, who was either having some kind of seizure or attempting to dance. I offered the best assessment of the situation I could. "Well, look on the bright side, everyone's having fun, and they haven't caused too much property damage. That already makes it one of your more successful parties."
Like clockwork, two seconds after I said that everyone in the room heard the sound of something expensive breaking. "Oops!" Derpy cried out from the top of her muffin pile. "Sorry!"
I guess I should've known better than to tempt fate like that, especially with Derpy around.
I turned back to Fluttershy to make another try at bringing her out of her shell, only to find that the timid pegasus had disappeared on me. A quick search of the area found her over in the kitchen, giving a belly rub to two hundred pounds of dogosaurus named Mouse.
Thankfully, the current record and thus Twilight's mauling of the art of dance came to an end, and I stepped in to start a conversation before any more music could start up. Being the genius that I am, I jumped onto the first subject I could think of. "So ... wings. Those are new."
Twilight's new set of wings gave a nervous flick. "Oh, yes—yes they are." She gave a self-conscious little chuckle. "I'm a princess now. I'm still not completely sure how that happened, or how I'm supposed to do the whole princess-ing thing, but..." She trailed off and gave a helpless little shrug. "I still haven't even gotten used to having the wings, let alone the rest of the package."
"I know a thing or two about adjusting to new titles." I'd suffered through my share of difficulties adjusting to being the new Winter Knight. Unsurprisingly, there were a bunch of nasty little details in the arrangement that Mab hadn't felt the need to mention. I got my mind back on happier subjects—I really didn't want to be thinking about all my troubles during what was supposed to be a nice, light-hearted little get-together. "Still, I bet you'll be fine, Twilight. You've got Celestia, Luna, and Cadance there to help show you the ropes."
Reminding her of her mentors seemed to calm the patented Twilight Sparkle Panic Attack that had been in the early buildup stages. Twilight took a single breath and made a weird little hoof gesture, then gave me relaxed smile. "Yeah, yeah I do." Sadly, that lack of panic turned out to be a false alarm, because a second later her eyes bugged out and her voice gained a note of budding terror. "Oh no, I'd completely forgotten until you mentioned them, but Princess Celestia had a message for you! I can't believe it slipped my mind, but—"
"Whoa! Relax, Twilight." If she were a human I would've gripped her shoulders or something, but since she was a pony I had to settle for awkwardly patting on the head. "It's fine. So, what's the message from the Princess?"
Twilight took a bit to chill out again—I guess Princesshood was helping her with that—and then answered me. "She wanted to invite you to a little get-together we're all having in a couple weeks at the Crystal Empire. Nothing formal, it's just that you haven't had a chance to really visit Equestria for a long time, so she thought you might appreciate an invitation." Twilight shot a look over at Michael's collection of munchkins. "She also said you could bring some friends, if you wanted."
All the kids went still at that—even Daniel, Michael's oldest son who was currently going through the 'I am a man!' phase of teenagerdom. Hell, Michael himself looked pretty enthused for that matter.
Even if I didn't want to head back to the land of pastel ponies myself, there was no way I could've turned all of them down. "Sounds great, Twilight. When's a good time to visit?"
We wound up heading for Equestria as soon as the party wrapped up. I would've preferred to wait a bit longer so Lash could get back from doing her nephilim stuff and join in, but Michael's kids would not be denied. Sure, they were usually some of the best-behaved kids I've ever seen, but most of the time they didn't have the prospect of a trip to magical ponyland dangling in front of them. That kinda thing makes patience go out the window.
We spent the next few days getting a tour of Equestria while Michael and his kids got a huge kick out of being ponified. To make a long story short, we had a great, relaxing time. So great that by the time we got around to visiting the Crystal Empire, my carefully-developed sense of paranoia had gone a little slack. In fairness, when there weren't mad gods of chaos running around, Equestria was a pretty nice and peaceful place. Though apparently there had been an invasion of love-sucking bugs and some sort of evil shadow king called Sombrero.
Sheesh, Equestria has to put up with nearly as much craziness as I do sometimes.
In any case, by the time we got to the Crystal Empire I'd pretty much let my guard down. I think part of it might have just been wishful thinking on my part. I knew there were still plenty of dangers in Equestria, but the place just seemed so nice and idyllic. I guess I just wanted to believe that I could finally relax and just enjoy a simple vacation where absolutely nothing went wrong.
I really should've known better.
I woke up to the sound of Twilight Sparkle screaming. "She stole my crown! Get her!"
I scrambled out of bed, and promptly ended up face-first on the floor. I might've adapted to being in pony form again over the last couple days, but suddenly waking up at two in the morning to the sound of shouting made a lifetime of human instincts kick in.
A good smack to the head didn't do my motor coordination any favors, so I didn't get out of my bedroom in time to see anything but the aftermath. Twilight, her friends, and the Princesses were all gathered in front of a mirror, chattering away about whatever had just happened. It was kinda hard to make out anything useful, but I caught a couple key phrases like "Portal to another world," "She went through," and "Fate of Equestria."
Well of course the fate of the whole world was at stake. It's not like I could just have a simple frigging vacation.
I could've tried to tell myself it wasn't my problem, and I should just keep relaxing and let the ponies handle things themselves. The problem is, I'm just not built that way. Whatever part of the human brain is responsible for letting me ignore other people's problems must have gotten damaged by one of the many hits to the head I've taken over the years. So instead of acting like a sane person and just going about my business, I walked up to the group of ponies and asked, "What's going on, and how can I help?"
I hate being me, sometimes.
Celestia turned to me "Sunset Shimmer, a former student of mine, has stolen the Element of Magic." There was the faintest hint of old pain in her voice as she explained. "Sunset was impatient, and abandoned her studies when she felt she was not learning quickly enough from me, leaving through this portal to another world." She waved a hoof at the strange, mirror-like thing in front of us. "I had always hoped she would return one day, but not like this." The Princess went quiet for a few seconds, and when she spoke again she was back to being all business. "We cannot allow her to keep the Element of Magic, but the portal is only open for a short time once every thirty moons. We only have a narrow window to recover the Element of Magic before it is lost, and without it we cannot use the Elements of Harmony."
I probably should've said something nice and helpful, but unfortunately my inner smartass decided that this would be a perfect opportunity to assert itself. "Thirty moons? How does that even work as a measurement of time?" I turned to Luna. "You literally control the moon. Do you just always run it through the normal cycles with no variation? Come to think of it, I don't I've ever seen the moon at anything less than full all the times I watched the cartoon or visited Equestria. How long is a 'moon' anyway?"
"Hey!" Twilight jumped in to defend her fellow princess. "We're in the middle of serious crisis here! The fate of Equestria at stake, and not only are you wasting time, you're not being very respectful to Princess Luna, either." The newly-minted alicorn paused, then brought a hoof up under her chin. "Though now that you mention it, that is a rather intriguing question. Why do we use a completely arbitrary lunar cycle as a measurement of time, anyway?"
Luna's ears perked up a bit at the prospect of discussing her favorite celestial body. "Well, Twilight Sparkle, it is quite simple. You see—"
"Beggin' yer pardon, Princess," Applejack cut in, "but maybe y'all could save the science talk for sometime when we ain't tryin' to save Equestria on a tight schedule." Normally Applejack probably would've gotten into some kind of trouble for interrupting royalty, but she was making a pretty good point. Besides, the Royal Sisters didn't seem very big on strictly enforcing court protocol anyway. It made a welcome change from the Winter Court; Queen Mab would probably have had someone who interrupted her tortured for several years just on principle.
The Queen of Air and Darkness is a bit of a stickler for the rules like that.
Celestia just nodded, then turned to me. "Harry Dresden, I can think nobody better suited to recovering the Element of Magic from the place Sunset Shimmer has taken it to. Would you be willing to undertake this task?"
"Wait, Princess," Twilight interrupted before I could even give her an answer. "It was my crown. Shouldn't I be the one to recover it?"
"Yeah!" Rainbow chimed in, stepping up to the mirror-portal-thing. "Besides, it's not like we'd let Twilight or Harry deal with something like this on their own. We're all in this together."
The ruler of Equestria shook her head. "While I admire your dedication to your duties and your loyalty to your friends, this task is best suited to Harry Dresden. Finding lost or stolen items is a specialty of his, and I think he would have far less trouble adjusting to this new world than the rest of you would. The more ponies we send through the portal, the higher the odds are that we would somehow disrupt the society on the other side."
"And?" Everybody turned and stared at me. "I mean, if the fate of Equestria is really at stake here, I think whoever's on the other side of that portal can get over whatever disruption we cause."
"That is true," Luna conceded. "However, we would still prefer to avoid any needless disruption." The Princess of the Night shot me a rather pointed look, then added, "I think we have abused the fabric of the universe enough, for the time being."
Okay, it was hard to argue with her on that point. My whole plan to take down Discord had ended doing some mild damage to the foundation of the universe. Nothing that couldn't heal, given enough time, but still... I'm a fan of keeping the universe in one piece. All my stuff is there.
"Got it, keep disruptions to a minimum. Still, you guys do kind of need to have the Elements of Harmony in working order. Y'know, in case some new evil thing you sealed away a thousand years ago breaks loose." I put a hoof on my chin and pondered that for a bit. "Speaking of, you really ought to look into getting an extended warranty on the rest of your eldritch abomination prisons. Maybe you could come visit my island sometime, he's pretty good at keeping stuff locked up."
Not to mention that the cynical side of me, which had been growing thanks to being stuck in the Winter Court, couldn't help contemplating the possibility of using the Elements of Harmony against a certain nightmarish eldritch abomination I had just learned about. They seemed good at that type of thing, and I was starting to feel seriously outgunned by some of the things I had been dealing with recently, Winter Knight powers or no. I miss the days when my biggest problems were things like mold demons or those flying monkeys with the flaming poop.
All of the ponies looked a bit confused, but Applejack was the first one to speak up. "Harry, when you say your island is good at locking things up, is that one of them meta-whatsits?"
"Long story short, I've got a pet island that's actually a sentient prison for a whole lot of really nasty stuff. Does a pretty good job of not letting things break free on a yearly basis." Granted, Demonreach's last-ditch anti-escape mechanism was to blow up most of North America in the hopes of taking down its prisoners in the process. Guess that's the kind of trade-off you need to have an escape-proof prison. I suspect Celestia might object to blowing up large chunks of Equestria just to stop bad guys from getting away.
"So, going to a strange new universe and tracking down the missing Element. I can do that." I thought it over for a bit, then turned to Twilight. "I don't suppose I could get some hair or a feather or something. Your Element should have some kind of residual connection to you, I can use that to track it down."
Twilight happily provided me with a loose feather, but Celestia felt the need to crush my budding optimism. "I can't guarantee your magic will work in this new alternate dimension. I know conventional unicorn magic does not, but..."
"Human magic, different rules, got it. Let's hope for once the universe decides to cut me a break." I took a moment to think about what I'd just said. "I'm doomed." The universe hates me. It has since I was a little kid. I used to think I was just lucky that way, but lately I've started wondering if maybe it was pre-emptive hate for all the damage I wound up causing. In my defense, damaging the fabric of reality had been more of a side-effect than an explicit goal.
"I still don't like it," Rainbow Dash grumbled under her breath. "Why's he gotta go it alone? A second pony tagging along couldn't make things that much worse."
Michael's oldest son stepped forward. "What if it's not a pony?" That question seemed a bit absurd considering the fact that Michael and his family were all sporting pony bodies themselves, but the point was well taken.
Celestia slowly nodded. "That would lessen the disruption considerably."
"Alright then." Daniel tried to roll his shoulders and crack his neck, which just looked silly with his current form. "I'll be Harry's backup, then."
Before I could figure out a polite way of telling him that I really didn't need a card-carrying member of the Young, Stupid, and Eager to Prove Themselves Brigade coming along, Michael stepped forward and gave his son a look. Nothing more, just a single look. From the way Daniel shrank down and stepped back, that look was more than enough. Michael cleared his throat and spoke up. "I would be glad to help if you'll have me, Harry."
"Be glad to." I trotted up and bumped a hoof on his shoulder. "It'll be just like old times."
"I hope not," Michael answered good-naturedly. "Those 'old times' tended to end with a great many bruises, and my wife being very upset with me."
I chuckled and grinned at him. "That was half the fun."
Michael gave me a level stare for several seconds, before concluding, "You need to find some new hobbies, Harry, if going up against mad ghosts was your idea of fun."
"The only reason we wound up in jail after that was because I let you talk to the cops." I suppose I should've realized that Michael would insist on telling the truth, what with him being too decent for his own good. Sadly, the cops generally don't let you off when you tell them that the reason you stormed into a hospital while openly brandishing weapons was that you had to stop the ghost who had been pushed into a murderous rampage by a vampire sorceress. They're just narrow-minded that way.
"Hopefully we can avoid that this time." Michael always was an optimist. The mostly-retired paladin waved to the portal. "Well. Shall we, then?"
One trip through the portal later, the two of us came out at just about the last place I ever would've expected: high school.
I mean, really, what kind of diabolical mastermind uses a high school? When did giant fortresses suspended over a fiery pit of lava go out of style?
I grumbled and shook off the worst of my portaling disorientation, then got to my feet. Wait a minute, I had feet. And hands! And—well, all the other things that accompany human anatomy. A quick search of the area showed a couple other humans walking around. That made a few things click into place for me.
I was willing to bet that just like any human who showed up in Equestria would wind up being ponified, any ponies that came to wherever this was would wind up being turned into humans. That would explain why Celestia wanted us going through the portal over her ponies. I'd spent a pretty decent chunk of time ponified, and I still hadn't gotten used to it. The ponies would probably be even worse off than I'd been if they had to cross over into human-land.
I glanced over at Michael, and got another shock. For a minute, I wondered if Daniel had managed to pull of some kind of last-minute switch with his father. However, once I took a second look, I noted that his hair was too dark a shade of brown to be Daniel, and Michael's son didn't wear flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots. Crazy as it seemed, the best explanation was that this was Michael himself, bumped back into his teenage years.
I checked myself over, just to confirm things. Sure enough, I felt ... young. I didn't have a mirror handy, but it was probably a safe bet that I'd gone from ratty and slightly disreputable-looking to my old teenagery awkwardness. It should probably say something about me that getting turned back into a teenager barely even phased me. After being transformed into a pony by dimension-hopping or a hound by my fairy godmother, being shot back to teenagerdom just didn't seem like that big of a deal. Stars and stones, this didn't even touch my top one-hundred weirdest things I had experienced.
High school had been a strange time for me. I'd only gone for the first two years before my life went completely crazy, and even before things went nuts my magical studies occupied most of my time and attention. Justin only sent us to normal school to avoid awkward questions—I don't think he even read any of the report cards I brought back.
Consequently, most of what I actually knew about high school came through the filter of movies. Lucky for me, I'd come alongside a guy who was in the middle of putting some of his kids through school. Michael would probably have a pretty good idea of where to start, at least. "Okay, what's our first move going to be?"
Michael thought it over for a bit, and then nodded. "Information. We need to know more about what's going on. Can you make your tracking spell work?"
I pulled out the feather Twilight Sparkle had provided (which for whatever reason hadn't transformed like we did) and tried my usual tracking juju. Nada. "Doesn't look like I can do any magic here." Either magic just wasn't an option at all, or using it required jumping through some hoops I hadn't figured out yet. Same thing, really; for the moment, I was down to just being an ordinary human.
A quick check confirmed that not even my Winter Knight powers were working. I guess getting de-aged was a blessing in disguise, because my current human body was paralyzed from the waist down in the absence of Mab's juju. It also meant that Michael's old war wounds, courtesy of Polonius Lartessa and an AK-47, had gotten patched up. We were both every bit as healthy and strong as we'd been in our teenage years.
Losing my magic hurt, but thankfully, I've made a point of having a few non-magical options in my arsenal. Stuff like staying in decent physical shape, some basic hand-to-hand combat training, and the .44 magnum sitting in the pocket of my new duster. At least my clothes and firearm had gotten through the portal okay—normally it would've been just my luck to turn up in a new world unarmed and naked, Terminator-style. On top of my gear, I had a pretty good set of detective skills, even if I couldn't supplement them with any magic. One thing you learn as a wizard investigator is that a lot of your enemies will be so focused on expecting you to do something wizardly that they get caught completely off-guard when you go for a mundane solution instead.
"I guess we start with the school, then," I suggested. "If jumping through the portal turns us into human teenagers, it's probably a safe bet that the same thing happened to Sunset Shimmer." Why there was a magic portal to a high school alternate universe was another question entirely. The only explanation I could come up with was that the universe has a very twisted sense of humor. "So, odds are pretty good we can find someone who knows SS, or maybe even someone who's seen the Element of Magic."
"SS?" Michael raised an eyebrow at me.
"Best mocking nickname I could come up with on short notice." I shrugged. "I'm still getting my bearings, gimme a bit and I'll find something better."
Michael and I walked through the front door and started checking the place out. It looked like your generic high school, though the fact that the school mascot was a pony and that the school itself was named Canterlot High just served as more proof that the universe has a twisted sense of humor.
Now we just needed to find a good lead on the pony with the Nazi initials or the Element of Magic. Oh, and dodge whatever teachers and rule-enforcement types were here, who would probably be curious about why there were two strange new guys wandering around the school. I really didn't want to get entangled with all the stupidity of high school, especially not in a twisted alternate universe version of Equestria.
I felt Michael's hand on my shoulder. "Harry." He shot a look over at one of the side hallways, and a moment later I made out two girls talking—one of them quietly scared, and the other in full bully mode. The smart thing to do would've been to just keep walking. I wanted to get out of this freaky high school and back to my slightly-less-freaky normal life. There were just two problems with that: first off, my aforementioned inability to ignore other people's problems. Second, I've never liked bullies.
Michael and I stepped around the corner, and found ourselves facing something that probably would've surprised me on any other day. The girl getting bullied was very clearly a freaky human version of Fluttershy. That just made me all the more determined to get involved. I mean, come on, it's Fluttershy! I had no idea who the girl pushing her around was, but between the leather jacket, bad attitude, and the fact that we were stuck in a freaky high school universe and I've seen enough movies to know how things work, I decided to play a hunch. "Sunset Shimmer, right?"
The bully girl turned around. "Who are you, and how do you know my name?"
"Pretty easy to guess who you are." I smirked at her and gave a casual little shrug. "I just turned on my bitch-dar, and it led me straight to you. I mean, really. Bullying Fluttershy? Did you run out of baby seals to club and puppies to kick, or something?"
Sunset's eyes went wide, and she practically snarled at me. "You obviously have no idea who you're dealing with. I run this school, so if you think you can—"
"Sweetie," I scoffed at her, "if you think I'm gonna be impressed by the big girl on campus, then you're the one who's got no idea who she's dealing with. You're just a garden-variety bully, and those stopped being scary to me a long time ago. Now, pretty much all someone like you does is piss me off." I grabbed her arm and applied a bit of pressure. "Now, how about you spill the beans on where we can find the crown before this gets ugly?"
Sunset tried to pull her arm free, but I had tight grip on her and I had no intention of letting her go. "Oh doesn't that just figure," she growled, dropping her voice down so nobody could overhear us. "Celestia just sends a couple of her guards to grab me and drag me back to Equestria. Not like she could bother coming herself, or sending Princess Twilight Sparkle after me, even though I've got the Element of Magic."
Oooh. Looks like somebody's got some issues.
Michael clearing his throat broke that particular train of thought. Unsurprisingly, the two new guys having a standoff with the school's alpha bitch were starting to attract a bit of an audience. That probably meant my initial game plan of dragging her back to the portal and kicking screaming wouldn't work. Kidnappings tend to attract a lot of attention, and we'd probably have to deal with a whole bunch of well-intentioned guys trying to stop us or just getting in our way. Plus, Celestia had asked us not to turn this place too badly upside-down.
I reluctantly let Sunset go. "We'll be seeing each other again real soon, Sunny." As far as intimidating dialogue goes it was a bit cliche. I blame it on my mind being punted back into a teenage brain. Back when I was sixteen, my idea of a snappy comeback was 'Your mom!'
Sunny gave another little scoff, then walked off, her head held high. Obviously, she figured she'd come out ahead on this exchange. I would show her just how wrong she was soon enough.
I glanced back at Michael, who was having a fairly one-sided conversation with Fluttershy. As soon as I tried to opened my mouth the nervous girl flinched and took a half-step back. Well, that settled one thing—these weren't just weird people who looked suspiciously similar, they were full-blown human counterparts. More proof that this whole realm only existed to serve as some sort of twisted joke on the part of the universe.
I gave a casual wave, and tried as hard as possible to look non-threatening. "Hello, I'm—"
"Um, I need to get to class." Fluttershy nervously blurted out before making a run for it. Apparently, I suck at being unintimidating.
Michael just sighed and shook his head at me. "You really do have a way with women, Harry."
"It's part of my charm." I didn't have a mirror handy to check, but it was a safe bet that I looked every bit as tall, skinny, ragged, and disreputable as I usually do. Worn blue jeans and a cheap t-shirt that's seen better days are not exactly the height of fashion. As my brother once told me, my black leather duster was just about the only thing I owned that didn't look completely hideous. Between how I probably looked and the fact that I'd opened up the conversation by calling Sunny a bitch and grabbing her, it's no wonder Fluttershy was scared of me.
"Well," I grumbled. "That could've gone a lot better."
"Have faith, Harry." Michael clapped me on the shoulder. "I did manage to learn a few things from Fluttershy before you scared her off."
Oh, that just seemed so unfair. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, though: Michael might be a fairly big, strong guy, but there's always been this sense of gentleness to him. Probably due to the fact that he's a much better human being than I am. Hell's bells, I'm habitually paranoid, and I've seem him take a broadsword to a demon's face more than once, but I still can't feel threatened by him. He's just so ... decent. Considering that, it's no surprise he managed to get Fluttershy to open up a little.
Just my luck. I get stuck next to the guy who's got all American high school quarterback good looks. I bet he got all the girls back in school. Or at least, he would've if he wanted to.
I put the petty jealousy aside for the moment and got back to business. "So, what did Fluttershy say?"
"She told me where the Element of Magic is." Michael nodded in the direction Fluttershy had made her hasty retreat to. "Apparently Sunset was upset because Fluttershy found it and took it to Principal Celestia."
"Principal Celestia? Seriously?"
Michael offered a philosophical shrug. "That would seem to be the nature of things."
I considered pointing out that the existence of this place was a pretty good argument against the existence of an all-powerful and entirely benevolent god, but now really wasn't the time to debate theology with Michael. "Okay, so the crown's in Principal Celestia's office. Outstanding."
"Apparently it's going to be given to whomever is voted Princess of the Fall Formal Dance tomorrow," Michael added. "Sunset Shimmer's won for three years in a row, and plans to run unopposed this year."
"Incredible." I couldn't help but feel a bit put out by that revelation. "So her master plan is to get the Element of Magic back by just winning the vote tomorrow. Why do I feel like I've just suffered a serious downgrade when it comes to my nemesi?" Then again, an evil high school girl made for a nice change of pace from the world-destroying abominations I'd been up against lately. "Well, I suppose we could try to break the gender barrier by seeing if I could become the first male princess of the Fall Formal. Think about it—we'd be breaking all those old gender stereotypes and teach everyone a lesson about tolerance and acceptance."
Michael gave me a flat, unimpressed look.
Okay, I guess not all of my jokes could be winners. I gave an awkward cough and backpedaled. "On the other hand, my legs aren't nearly pretty enough for me to look good in a dress. So … how about we toss that idea out the window and just break into Celestia's office tonight?"
"That does seem like a much simpler course of action," Michael agreed. "Stealing is a sin, but I think He will understand, under the circumstances." Michael always did have a decent amount of common sense. Still, you have to wonder what Father Forthill is gonna think the next time Michael steps into the confessional booth. I don't think the Catholic Church teaches their priests how to handle things like this.
"It's not like we could explain the situation to her without sounding like a couple of lunatics." The gears started whirring as I tried to come up with a game plan. "Okay, first things first, we need to find the principal's office and scope the place out. Figure out how to break in, get the crown, and get out without setting off any alarms or letting Sunny know what we're up to."
"So you guys are gonna steal the crown?" I jumped when I heard an all-too familiar scratchy voice. "That sounds like an awesome prank! Way to show Sunset Shimmer she doesn't run the place. Count me in!"
I turned around and found myself face to face with a humanized Rainbow Dash. And then...
Look, it's not my fault. Getting turned back into a teenager meant dealing with teenage hormones again. I think the universe transition must've been messing with my head. It would've happened to anyone.
So like I said, not my fault. Nobody can judge me for it.
I admit it.
Human teenager Rainbow Dash was hot!
Like I said before, my body was pumped full of the usual teenager hormones. That's the only explanation. I'm not a pervert. Honest. Back when my former apprentice Molly had a big teenage crush on me, I'd never even considered doing anything other than flatly turning her down. This is a different situation though—there's nothing wrong with a teenage guy finding a teenage girl attractive. Especially not when she had that whole sporty tomboy thing going for that was just...
Um, anyway, it was a biological thing. Totally beyond my control. It's not my fault my teenager body full of teen hormones wanted to notice a girl and didn't bother consulting my brain about the fact that this girl just happened to be a human version of a cartoon pony I knew and most definitely was not interested in That Way.
So, moving on, I responded the way any socially awkward teenage guy would react to being approached by a hot girl: "Errrr..."
Thankfully, Michael still had enough presence of mind to retain a basic grasp of the English language. "How much of our conversation did you overhear?"
"All the important stuff," Rainbow answered, brushing a fist against her chest in a way that drew my eyes to places they had no business going. "So you're really gonna bust into the principal's office to snag the crown? Do you have any idea how much trouble you'd get in if you got caught? You'd be in detention for the rest of the year!" She grinned and leaned in closer to me. "It sounds so awesome! You gotta let me help out! I didn't think I'd ever find somebody with the guts to stand up to Sunset Shimmer! I can't wait to see the look on her face when she wins the vote, and then Principal Celestia is all, 'Oh, sorry, no crown for you this year!'"
Well, at least that seemed to confirm that the human Rainbow hadn't overheard anything too damaging. Now I just needed to come up with a way to either discourage her from participating without pushing things hard enough to make her get mad and stubborn about participating.
"So c'mon, you guys'll let me help out, right?" Rainbow gave me a hopeful little smile that was just brimming with energetic enthusiasm, mixed with a little bit of mischief.
My mouth decided to speak without consulting my brain first. "Yeah, sure. Welcome aboard."
Stupid teenage hormones.
"Awesome!" Rainbow pumped a fist in the air. "This is gonna be the best prank ever! Tell ya what, I'll come up with an excuse to go talk to the principal and scout the place out. Seeya later!" She only got two steps away before she skidded to a stop, then turned around and offered me her hand. "I'm Rainbow Dash, by the way. Nice to meetcha!"
Oh, right. I'd kinda forgotten about introductions, on account of already knowing who she was and everything. It was an amatuer mistake, forgetting she didn't know who we were, and we technically weren't supposed to know who she was either. I blame the fact that far too much of my brain was having a hard time thinking about anything other than how nice her smile looked.
Dammit, I was stupid enough when it came to women without adding teenager hormones and whatever other cross-universe weirdness into the mix.
It was about that time I realized Rainbow still had her hand out, waiting for me to shake it while I stood there like an idiot. So, pretty much par for the course when it came to my interactions with the fairer sex. "Um ... I'm Harry. Harry Dresden." I decided to say the most intelligent thing I could think of. "I really like your mane. I mean, your hair. I mean, um ... yeah..."
I'd blame that one on the hormones too, but the sad truth is that I just suck at talking to attractive women. Well, unless they're trying to kill or control me. Then again, if I kept my current level of conversational brilliance, Rainbow might get mad enough to take a swing at me. So, silver linings.
Michael moved in to save me, giving Rainbow a firm handshake. "Michael Carpenter." Judging by the way I saw her muscles shift a bit, Rainbow was going for the standard macho opening move of using the handshake to trying to crush his hand. Michael didn't even blink. He's kinda badass that way.
Once she'd given up trying to crush Michael's hand the way life tends to do to my optimistic streaks, Rainbow gave the two of us a critical once-over, then offered her final assessment. "You guys are kinda weird, but I guess you're okay. What's up with your names, though? Never heard anything like 'em before."
Oh crap, she was picking at our disguise. Michael wasn't exactly a fan of lying, and while I've gotten better at it over the years I didn't exactly like my odds of being able to pull it off right now. I'd probably just end up spouting off cheesy pickup lines or something.
Thankfully, Michael managed to find a loophole before I could think of something monumentally stupid to say. "We're not from around here—we actually only just got into town earlier today." Completely true, but it should serve to deflect any further questions. Maybe I've been hanging out with too many faeries, but I've kinda gotten used to recognizing when someone uses something that's completely true to tell a lie.
"Oh, you guys are new transfer students," Rainbow concluded. Neither of us bothered to correct her. "Guess it figures, nobody's who's been here for a while is stupid enough to pick a fight with Sunset Shimmer. That's fine though, it just means you're my kinda stupid." She grinned at again. It was even hotter than it had been the last time.
Dammit, why did I have to have a thing for spunky tomboys with a devil-may-care attitude back when I was a teenager?
Rainbow turned around and walked off, giving us a casual wave goodbye as she went. "You guys catch up with me later. I'll tell you what I find out, and you can tell me the rest of your plan" I watched Rainbow Dash go, no doubt wearing a dopey grin on my face the whole time.
My goofily happy mood lasted until Michael gently smacked me upside the head. "Clean thoughts, Harry. Do I even need to explain all the reasons why that would be a bad idea?"
"I'm pretty sure I know them just as well as you do." I rubbed the back of my head; Michael might not have hit me hard, but he's a big, strong guy. Besides, it's the thought that counts. "The problem is, right now knowing all the reasons isn't doing much for me. It's just teen hormones, I swear."
"I'm sure that's it." For some reason, Michael just easily conceding the point only made me feel more self-conscious. It was kinda hard not to notice that Michael hadn't been drooling over Rainbow the way I had. Then again, he had a wife. That changes things. Or maybe he was cheating and tapping into that secret decent human being power of his.
"Okay, I might have screwed that up a little." I admitted. "It's not the end of the world, though. Having someone we can count on to back us up who knows the lay of the land will make things a lot easier on us. When we get to the sticky end of things, we can find an excuse to keep her from getting mixed up in the trouble." I took a moment to remember just who I was dealing with again. "Well, if we can't keep her out of trouble, we can at least find something for her to do that'll keep her from finding out things she shouldn't know."
Michael went quiet for several long moments, then very slowly nodded. "Alright then, Harry. I'm sure you have this under control. I trust your judgment."
Michael has always been a glass-half-full kinda guy who doesn't mind taking the occasional leap of faith, but I had to wonder if he might be making a mistake on this one.
Despite Michael's understandable misgivings, having Rainbow join our little enterprise actually did help. If nothing else, she was a useful source of information for all the local geography and goings-on at Canterlot High. It probably would've been a lot harder for us to stay hidden on school grounds until after hours without having someone who knew all the good hiding spots. So, Michael and I wound up in an old maintenance closet, waiting until it got late enough for the school to be completely abandoned.
Yes, Michael and I were in the closet. Feel free to insert whatever immature jokes come to mind.
Since it was just the two of us waiting for Rainbow to come back and give the all-clear, there wasn't really much for us to do beyond trying to find a way to pass the time. Eventually, we got to talking. Mostly about inconsequential stuff, like how his kids were doing in school (and my daughter as well, since he'd kind of stepped up to the plate on my behalf after I'd been killed to death), the latest brain-melting eldritch abomination I'd faced off against, little league games, his construction job, that time when Nicodemus practically disemboweled me. You know, the usual stuff.
Eventually, we got around to discussing current affairs, and I asked a question that had been on my mind for a while: "So why did you come along on this anyway? Not that I don't like running around fighting the good fight with you again," I hastily amended, "but I thought you'd retired from the whole life-of-adventure thing."
Michael had spent a long time serving as one of the Knights of the Cross, running around the world stabbing evil in the face with freaking Excalibur itself. A couple years back, he'd quit the hero-ing business on account of getting shot up and wanting to spend more time with his family. Compared to most of the guys who'd signed on as Knights of the Cross, he'd gotten off pretty lightly. As a general rule, Knights were lucky to end their careers with a six-foot-deep hole in the ground. The unlucky ones wound up getting caught by the monsters they hunted—and when that happened, there usually wasn't enough left for a burial.
Michael was silent for so long that I was beginning to think he wouldn't answer the question at all when he finally rumbled out a response. "It wasn't to stop Daniel from following you, before you ask. My son might be a bit too eager, but he's old enough to start making his own decisions. Even if I don't like some of the choices he's made lately, making mistakes is part of growing up." He let out a faint self-deprecating chuckle. "Besides, I'm in no position to criticize anyone for going off into perilous situations in the service of the Greater Good."
He sighed, and leaned back against the wall. "If you want to know the real reason I'm here, it's because of Celestia." That got my attention. "The way she talked about Sunset Shimmer ... it was exactly the way Charity and I used to talk about Molly."
Oh. Oh damn, that would explain it. Molly was Michael's oldest kid. She'd gone through the usual sort of teenage rebellion you would expect from a girl raised in a strict Catholic household, exacerbated by the fact that she was also a budding wizard. Eventually, she wound up running away from home and falling in with a bad crowd. By the time I caught up with her, she was starting to dabble in black magic. Nothing that put her past the point of redemption, but she'd done some very bad things.
I wound up taking her as my apprentice and doing the best I could to try and put her on the right path. I'm not sure how well I succeeded in that, and a lot of the progress I did make got wiped out after I came down with a temporary case of death that forced her out into the world on her own before she was ready for it. Then there was the whole disaster with Maeve on Demonreach...
Now that Michael brought it up, I could see the parallel easily enough. Sure, Sunset's exact situation and reasons were different, but at the end of the day she'd still run away from home and was heading in a bad direction. I guess it figures that Michael would have a lot of sympathy for anyone else going through what he went through with Molly.
Bringing up the subject of Molly pretty much killed any conversation between the two of us. There was a whole lot we were gonna need to discuss about her one day, but right now neither of us wanted to have that talk.
Once we were well into the wee hours of the night, long after all the teachers and other staff had gone home, Rainbow gave us the all-clear and pulled us out of the old maintenance closet we'd been hiding in. Then she managed to do something that made her even more attractive than she'd already been according to my hormone-addled teenage brain. She gave us food.
Sure, it was just leftovers from the school cafeteria, but food is food. When I'd been a teen, food was about the only thing that could ever compete with girls for my attention. Growing body, and all that. Needless to say, girls who provided me with food were pretty much the best thing ever.
Once we'd demolished the meal, we headed for Principal Celestia's office. Unsurprisingly, the door was locked. I gave the door a once-over. It looked like a standard school door: wood, with a big glass window in the middle. I leaned down to take a closer look at the lock itself.
Rainbow took a look at the door herself. "So, what's your plan?" She asked with a mischievous grin. "Didja steal the key? Do you know how to pick locks or something?"
I thought it over for a moment, then hiked up the collar on my duster to cover my face before smashing through the glass with my elbow. Not the most sophisticated method, but it got the job done, and my leather duster kept me from getting my arm sliced up in the process. Now that there was a nice big hole in the door, it was child's play to just reach inside and unlock the door. Schools, and especially nice ones like this, aren't exactly known for being high-security institutions.
"Oh." Rainbow gave me a nonplussed look. "Yeah, I guess that works too."
"Harry does tend to prefer direct solutions," Michael agreed. After the three of us walked into the office, he dug out his wallet and removed a small wad of bills—which had presumably converted into the local currency—and dropped them on the desk. Michael might tolerate a little breaking and entering in the name of the Greater Good, but that didn't mean he would just throw his morals completely out the window.
Two minutes of poking around the office found the Element of Magic, shoved into an empty filing cabinet. It seemed like a pretty anti-climactic way to recover a ridiculously powerful magical artifact, but I suppose it figured. As far as the people here were concerned, this was just a silly little crown they handed out to the winner of the annual school popularity contest.
The Element gave a strange pulse of energy when I picked it up, and I hastily shoved it into a pocket in my duster. As a general rule, it's a bad idea to mess around with powerful magical artifacts you don't really understand, especially when they start reacting to your presence. It did at least confirm one thing for me: there was still some kind of magic in the mix here. I guess that figures, though. No point in stealing the Element and bringing it back here if crossing the dimensional barrier rendered it inert.
Before I could do much more speculating, Rainbow let out a shout and bolted out the door. A second later, I heard several sets of feet slapping against the floor. There was only one explanation: somebody had just spotted us.
Sure enough, when Rainbow came back a few seconds later her shoulders were tensed up, and her hands were balled up into tight fists "We just got spotted by Snips and Snails, Sunset's little errand-boys. She must've set them onto you guys after you stood up to her. If we're lucky, they're just gonna tell her what we're up to. If we're not ... oh geeze, if they got any pictures of us breaking into the principal's office, we are beyond screwed."
It seemed a bit callous, but there was a part of me that didn't care very much about the fact that Rainbow might end up serving a month's worth of detentions. It's hard to get too worried by the possibility of getting in trouble with the authorities in a universe I planned to leave forever in the next ten minutes. Still... "Rainbow, if anyone asks, we forced you to come with us. Michael and I are gonna be long gone, so no reason for you take the fall for us."
"No way!" Rainbow stubbornly shook her head. "I'm not gonna stab you in the back just to get outta trouble!"
"It's not exactly stabbing us in the back if we ask you to do it, Rainbow," I countered. My chivalrous instincts were kicking in now—Rainbow might not be a damsel in distress, but I still didn't like the idea that our escapades were going to end up landing her in hot water. Sure, I could tell myself that there were bigger issues, but I've always been a sucker for a lady in trouble.
We probably would've kept on arguing the point for hours if Michael hadn't stepped in. "I confess that break-ins are hardly my area of expertise, but perhaps it would be a good idea to leave before someone decides to call the police?"
Kinda hard to argue with him on that point, though I don't think Sunny would call the police in just yet. By all indications, she wanted the Element of Magic just as much as we did. Calling in the police would probably result in the crown getting taken as evidence. No, most likely Sunny would try to intercept us on the way to the portal and snag the crown for herself.
In light of that fact, Sunny knowing what we were up to might actually end up working in our favor. After all, bringing Sunset back to Equestria to face justice was definitely a secondary objective for this little excursion, and dragging her back through it kicking and screaming back through the portal would be a lot easier if she started off five feet away from it.
Sure enough, by the time we got back to the statue that housed the portal to Equestria, Sunset Shimmer was waiting for us, along with her two lackeys. The sledgehammer she was carrying, on the other hand, hadn't been part of my plans.
Sunny gave us a decidedly malicious grin, waving the sledgehammer in her hands. "Did you really think you could beat me? I'll admit, I didn't expect you to be stupid enough to actually break into the principal's office, but it's over now! Hand over the crown, or I'll smash the portal back to Equestria, and you'll never be able to go home! You and the Element of Magic will be stuck here forever, not to mention—"
I really wasn't in the mood to listen to a bunch of evil gloating, so I decided to cut right to the chase. I pulled my .44 and put a bullet in the ground between Sunset Shimmer's feet.
Sunny's villain monologue came to an immediate end as she stood there with her jaw hanging halfway open, frozen in shock. Snips and Snails, showing far more intelligence than most people give them credit for, decided to run for it.
"Oh, I'm sorry." I gave Sunny the most innocent grin I could manage while I had a smoking gun in my hands. "Did I break your concentration? I didn't mean to do that. Please, continue. I believe you were working your way up to telling us how once you had the Element of Magic, you would finally be able to take over Equestria?"
"I ... what?" Sunny still seemed to be just a bit flabbergasted by the fact that I'd shot at her. "H-how did you know I planned to—"
I couldn't help rolling my eyes at that one. "Sweetie, you're a Saturday morning cartoon villain. Of course you were planning to take over the world. It's practically a job requirement when you sign your contract to join Team Evil." The humor left my voice, and my tone turned a little harsher. "Besides, most people don't steal a powerful magical artifact just because they want to wear it so they can look like a pretty little princess at the big school dance. "
I shifted my aim from the ground to Sunny's face. "You're bad news, Sunny. Maybe you were a decent person... pony... whatever years ago, but that was a long time ago. You're a bully, a thief, a Grade-A Bitch—and most importantly, you seem determined to jump on the express train to Evilville. It'd probably be a good idea to just put a bullet between your eyes right now, before you get a chance to do some serious damage."
"Harry..." Michael grumbled warningly.
I held my gun in position, watching as Sunset Shimmer started shaking in her boots. The sledgehammer tumbled out of her nerveless fingers, and her eyes darted around as she desperately searched for some way to get out of her current situation.
I've killed before, quickly and without mercy. It gets easier, the more you do it. Especially when you use a gun. Just a little squeeze on the trigger, and the bad guy goes down. Quick. Clean. Efficient.
"Yeah, taking you down now before you do any damage would be the smart thing to do." I took a deep breath, and slowly lowered my gun. "Lucky for you, Sunny, I've never been a very smart man. So I'm gonna do something I probably shouldn't. I'm gonna give you a second chance. 'Cause lemme tell you, the road you're going down right now ends one of two ways: either someone's gonna kill you, or you're gonna end up decorating Celestia's statue garden back in Canterlot.
"I'm not even sure why I'm doing this. Maybe you can blame it on all the ponies I've been hanging out with lately, since they've been a good influence. Or maybe it's because you remind me of another girl I knew once; a girl who made some bad decisions, and those choices nearly pulled her too deep into the dark side before she found a way to shake them. Either way, this is a one-time-only offer. Don't waste it." I holstered the gun.
Silence reigned for several seconds, before Rainbow Dash broke it. "That was so badass, Harry."
Rainbow's comment seemed to knock Sunset out of her shocked silence, and her legs gave out from underneath her, dropping her down to her knees. "Wh-what are you going to do with me now? What am I supposed to..."
Michael stepped in, playing the good cop to my bad cop. "We're going to take you home, Sunset. Celestia is waiting for you. She never stopped waiting, not even after all the years you've been gone." He dropped down to Sunset's level, and put a hand on her shoulder. "She still loves you."
I could see the tears in Sunset's eyes from across the courtyard. "E-even after everything I did?"
Michael gave her a gentle smile and reassuring little squeeze. "Always."
While Michael continued the whole bonding with the ex-villain thing, I found my attention once more claimed by Rainbow Dash. The girl was frowning at me and tapping a foot on the ground. "Okay, what was up with that? I mean, you scaring the pants off of her was cool and all, but what was up with all that talk about the principal's statue garden, and how she still loves Sunset and wants her to come home? What's going on here?"
Well crap, Rainbow was breaking out all those difficult questions that tend to come up when someone realizes they're dealing with dimensional travellers instead of ordinary high school students. Trying to sit her down and explain things would probably take way longer than I could spare, too. Once Snips and Snails stopped panicking, they might decide to call the cops and tell them there was a crazy guy shooting at people at their school. That tends to provoke a pretty serious law enforcement response.
Just trying to blow Rainbow off wouldn't work either. If the human version of her was anything like her pony counterpart, refusing to explain would just piss her off and make her demand the whole story. Hell's bells, she might even end up following us back through the portal. I have no idea what would happen if the two Rainbow Dashes met each other. Maybe nothing, or maybe the combined awesome levels would make the universe explode. Probably best not to risk it.
So, I came up with the best solution I could think of to make her stop asking questions. In my defense, by this point I was pretty sure my hormones had beaten up my brain, given it a wedgie, stolen its lunch money, and then shoved it in a locker for good measure. So ... yeah.
I kinda kissed Rainbow Dash.
Only a little, mind you.
Seriously, our lips barely even touched.
After I kissed her, Rainbow stood there, her eyes bugged out. For several seconds she just stood, staring at me as if I'd suddenly grown a second head.
Then she kicked me in the balls. Hard.
"Jerk!" I was already down on the ground, clutching my family jewels, but she tossed in another couple kicks just to make her point. "Weirdo! Freak! Perv!"
"Sorry," I groaned out in between kicks.
The only answer Rainbow gave was a furious growl and another kick. Once she was done venting her anger on my poor testicles, Rainbow walked off, scrubbing the back of her hand over her lips and ranting under her breath about all the painful and anatomically impossible things she hoped happened to me.
The worst part was, what just happened really wasn't all that atypical of most of my experiences with women. Stars and stones, I wouldn't even put it in the top ten worst dates I've ever had. At least Rainbow hadn't tried to kill me, manipulate me, or subvert my free will. If you thought about it, that actually put her near the top of my list for positive romantic experiences with women.
God, my life sucks.
It was a couple minutes before my brain could form any thoughts more sophisticated than 'Ow! My balls!' Thankfully, I've acquired a pretty high pain threshold thanks to all crap I've been through, so eventually I found a way to grit my teeth and get through it. It was only pain.
I slowly picked myself up off the ground and glanced over at Michael and Sunny. Michael had followed the universal male instinct triggered by watching another guy get nailed in the nads and shifted his legs so that his own family jewels were protected. He looked at me and sighed, though I couldn't help noticing the faint smile quirking at the corners of his mouth. "How did you expect her to react, Harry?"
I couldn't really argue with him on that point.
Sunny was a lot less sympathetic. If not for the fact that I'd shot at her a couple minutes ago, she probably would have been laughing at me.
I groaned and got back onto my feet, still shaking a bit. "Okay, so I did some mildly inappropriate things with a teenager under the influence of hormones, and I'm gonna be pissing blood for a week. Oh, and to top it all off, I had to go back to high school." I took my first few shaky steps towards the portal; I was still pretty wobbly, but I was definitely ambulatory. "Yeah, I think I'm done here. Let's go back to Equestria and never speak of this again."
"Welcome back, Harry," Celestia greeted me as soon as I stepped out the other side of the portal.
"Did you get my crown back?" Twilight all but demanded. "You have to have gotten my crown back! Without my crown I'm not even a real princess! I can't believe I let somepony steal my crown! Does anypony ever steal Celestia's crown? No! " She ran up to me and started all but shouting in my face. "I would be the laughingstock of all the princesses! No, worse, Celestia probably wouldn't even let me be a princess anymore after this! Or worse, without the Element of Magic we can't use the Elements of Harmony at all! Equestria might be doomed! Doooomed!"
She put her hooves on my shoulders and started shaking me. "What if Chrysalis comes back? We'd all get eaten by bugs! I don't want to be bug food! Or Sombra might still be alive, and plotting to turn us all into cryssstalsss! Or what if Sombra and Chrysalis work together and turn us all into crystals, then eat us? Do you know what would happen then?" She shoved her face close enough to mine for me see the veins in her panicked eyes, while her wings frantically beat at the air. "I would fail at saving Equestria! That's an F! No, an F-minus!" She let out a horrified gasp. "I might even get a zero! I've never earned a zero before!"
"Whoa!" I backed a couple steps away from the high-strung mare. I guess getting a pair of wings hadn't done much to change that. "Easy, girl! Relax! I got your crown back, Twilight." I pulled the Element of Magic out of my saddlebag. Wait, why did I have a saddlebag? I'd put the crown in one of duster's large pockets, but my clothes usually went into some sort of trans-dimensional holding area when I came to Equestria. Why did they turn into saddlebags this time? Was it so I could get the Element of Magic back? Except that wouldn't make any sense, unless...
You know what? Forget it. Too complicated to think about.
Twilight immediately snatched the crown away from me and plopped it onto her head. All her friends let out a sigh of relief as she calmed down. "Oh thank goodness," Rarity exclaimed. "She's been absolutely frantic ever since you left. We've been trying to distract her by having her try out some new crowns, but we were just about at the end of our rope."
All the ponies went quiet as Sunny stepped out the portal behind me. Rainbow and Twilight both looked like they wanted to start tearing her a new asshole, but the presence of Celestia and Luna held them back. After several tense seconds, Celestia walked up to Sunset and pulled her into the pony equivalent of a hug. "Welcome home, Sunset Shimmer."
After a second a shocked surprise, Sunset tentatively returned the hug. "But, but Princess, I..."
"I know." Celestia tightened her hold on her runaway student. "We can deal with that later."
No sense in ruining the happy reunion by pointing out that Sunny had broken a long list of laws. Granted, from what I'd seen of Equestria, their justice system was pretty big on offering mercy and second chances to ponies who'd gone bad, so long as it looked like there was a decent chance of dragging them back from the dark side.
I've kind of gone back and forth on the issue of mercy myself. I'm generally not a fan of killing, but at the same time I'm also not a fan of dying, and I've run into way too many people who seemed determined to corpse-ify me. When someone tries to kill me, I generally try and kill them right back. I've also had way too many situations where I offered someone a second chance, and they used that chance to try and stab me in the back. Trust me—when you decide to show a little mercy and then a couple years later the guy is back and trying damn hard to kill you as thanks, it makes showing mercy to the next guy a lot less appealing.
Still, I don't think Sunny was quite that far gone. If I did, I wouldn't have brought her back in the first place. And those cases where you could bring someone back from the brink made all the failures worth it. Yeah, sometimes trying to be a decent human being got me burned, but how do you put a price on a person's soul? I could deal with the occasional baddie coming back for a second round, if it also meant that even one time out of ten I might end up bringing someone over to the good guys.
Or maybe despite all my cynical smartassery, deep down I'm still just an idealistic idiot.
Eventually, the welcome-home hug had to end, and Celestia had to get down to business. "Sunset Shimmer: while I'm very pleased by your return, the fact remains that you've committed several serious crimes against Equestria. You stole the Element of Magic and potentially imperilled two worlds. I'm afraid you've moved past the point where a simple apology is enough to set things right."
Sunset trembled a bit, but managed to swallow her fear. "I understand, Your Highness."
"She's not a bad kid." It was a couple seconds before I even realized that I'd spoken out loud. I almost wished I'd kept my mouth shut, but now that I was talking, I might as well keep going. "Well, okay—Sunny's a pretty long way away from being a nice girl, but I don't think she's hit the point where we can just lock her up and throw away the key. She can set her life right she just needs some help keeping on the straight and narrow."
"I agree." Celestia offered her troubled student a quick reassuring little smile. "With the proper guidance, Sunset Shimmer can be reformed." She turned to look Sunny in the eyes. "Would you be willing to become a student once more?"
Sunny hesitated for a few seconds, then slowly nodded. I wasn't surprised by her decisions. Even putting aside that she seemed to have some genuine remorse, going back to being an apprentice had to beat jail, or whatever Equestria does to unrepentant criminals.
Celestia ears drooped down a bit. "Unfortunately, with Twilight Sparkle's recent ascension, I'm afraid I'll be far too busy helping her adjust to the duties expected of a princess to take a new student under my wing. Likewise, Luna and Cadance are also occupied." Then she turned to me, and there was something I didn't like about the smile on her face. "Thankfully, as I understand it Harry Dresden has some experience with helping troubled young ladies."
Sunny seemed fully in agreement with me on that point. "But, Princess Celestia, he shot at me!"
"Only a little." I waved a hoof dismissively. "Come on, I didn't even graze you."
"Wait wait wait!" Pinkie cried out. "You used a gun on her? What was wrong with the magic of friendship? You know, big rainbows of light, group hugs, the usual stuff?"
I shrugged. "I guess in a pinch, gunfire makes an acceptable substitute for the magic of friendship."
Twilight frowned at me. "That doesn't sound like a very good lesson."
I just shrugged. "Yeah, well, I'm not a very good hero."
Michael walked up behind me and gave me a pat on the back. In all the drama surrounding Sunny's return, I'd just about forgotten he was there. "You should give yourself more credit, Harry."
With Michael right there, I couldn't help but think about the fact that the last time I'd picked up an apprentice it had been his daughter, and it hadn't ended all that well. I'd done the best I could under the circumstances, but I'd made some mistakes, and things ended up going bad for her. I still don't even know what's happened to her after everything went pear-shaped at Demonreach. All I know for sure is that Michael trusted me with his daughter, and it didn't exactly end all that well. And now they were talking about giving me another apprentice.
"Michael," I was a little hesitant to bring it up, but I didn't see any other choice. "C'mon, we both know I'm not cut out for training another apprentice. Not after what happened with—"
He interrupted me before I could get any further. "I have faith in you, Harry." He turned and nodded to Celestia. "If she wants my opinion, I couldn't think of a better man to train her student."
I could think of one. He was standing right next to me. Sure, Michael might not have wizarding chops like I did, but I don't think that was likely to make a big difference. Even putting aside the fact that human magic and unicorn magic worked differently, I don't think it was practical magic Sunny needed an education in. If she could sneak into the palace and steal the Element of Magic out from under Twilight Sparkle's nose, she probably had her spellcasting down.
What Sunny needed was moral guidance. I'm not exactly the best person to go to for that. Like Sunny herself had just pointed out, I'm the kind of guy who'll pull a gun on a teenage girl and threaten to shoot her, if that's what it came down to. "No offense, Celestia, but I'm just about the worst guy you could possibly pick for straightening Sunny out."
Celestia thought about it for a few seconds, then very slowly nodded. "Michael Carpenter is right: you give yourself too little credit. I would like to formally ask you to take Sunset Shimmer as your new apprentice." She raised a hoof to cut off the objections I was about to raise. "I am sure I can come to a reasonable agreement with the Queen of Winter to prevent any unwelcome involvement on her part. If you find yourself in the midst of a difficult situation where you feel Sunset might be imperilled, you may always send her back to Equestria until the crisis has passed. I might not have the time to take her on as a full student again, but in an emergency I could certainly accommodate her for a time."
I tried to come up with a logical counter-argument more sophisticated than 'No, I don't wanna.' I wasn't having much luck. That's not to say I couldn't think of any valid points to raise, but half a second later my brain came up with the counter-argument Celestia would use to shoot me down. I certainly had plenty of free time to train a new apprentice—Mab wasn't exactly a micro-manager when it came to my duties as Winter Knight. As long as I did her jobs the instant she wanted them done, she didn't really care what I did with the rest of my life.
Crap. Speaking of jobs, I just realized that I had completely forgotten to negotiate a fair price for doing a job for the freaking pony princess. Retrieving a crown and world-saving artifact has to be worth something. If I wanted to, I could probably charge twice my old rate as a detective.
Oh, well. This wasn't the first time I forgot to charge a powerful being who suddenly came down asking for me to do something for them. That's probably why I was struggling to find a way to pay the bills whenever I wasn't out saving the world. At least signing on with the Winter Court had solved that problem for me.
I shot an evaluating look over at Sunset Shimmer. She wasn't even paying attention to Celestia and the rest of us anymore. Instead she was talking to Twilight and friends. You'd think she'd be a bit more interested in how this conversation between Celestia and me would play out.
Well, unless she already knew. Something tells me that whenever it comes to any kind of negotiation, Celestia usually ends up getting what she wants. It looked like she was gonna pull it off here.
I'll admit, now that I had more-or-less resigned myself to having another apprentice, I could even start to see some of the positives to it. I'd learned a lot of things just from teaching Molly basic magic, going over all the fundamentals again now that I had a lot more experience under my belt. Not to mention that Molly had different talents and a different way of thinking about things. I'm never going to be especially powerful when it comes to illusion work or mind magic, but before I started training Molly I'd been utterly abysmal in those fields.
Who knows what I could pick up from having a unicorn as an apprentice? Sure, unicorn magic seemed to work off a completely different base from how humans did their spellcasting, but there would probably be some sort of common elements I could build off of. Just figuring out how to replicate teleportation would open up a lot of new doors—wizards might know all kinds of useful shortcuts, but we'd never come up with a way to jump straight from Point A to Point B. Not to mention that having access to teleportation would help out against all those baddies whose big advantage over a normal human was supernatural speed. Pissed-off vampires might be fast, but magic moves at the speed of thought. Despite what some of my smartassed friends will tell you, I do think pretty fast.
Yeah, my efforts with my first apprentice hadn't gone perfectly, but life is a learning experience. Odds were I wouldn't make the same mistakes with Sunset that I did with Molly. Granted, that just meant I would probably end up making completely new mistakes with Sunny. Then again, Celestia's effort at teaching Sunset ended with the girl running away and turning evil, so ... yeah, I guess there's no such thing as a perfect teacher. Bottom line, I would do the best I could, and odds are Sunset would turn out more-or-less okay. Molly was doing fine until my life had gone completely insane, and this time around I had a lot more options for insulating my apprentice from my own problems.
I turned to Celestia, and gave her my answer. "You know what? Maybe it's completely nuts, but I'll do it. I'll teach her."
I looked over at my new apprentice, still talking to Twilight and her friends. I have to admit, seeing her there, just talking like an ordinary person—pony—whatever, it made me feel cautiously optimistic. Like I could handle whatever challenges were gonna come up.
I really should've known better.
Or at the very least, I should've remembered that my new apprentice had some serious dirt on me. Involving certain hormonally-forced things I did with a certain pegasus' human counterpart.
Sunset shot a decidedly malicious smile my way, then said a few choice words to Rainbow Dash. The pegasus' jaw dropped. "He did WHAT?!"
Yeah, might as well face it. I'm doomed.