It wasn’t everyday the Solar Guard came to Ponyville. They were Celestia’s personal bodyguard and rarely strayed from her side for any reason. The princess was no-where is sight, but here a squad stood watch outside an ordinary home on the outskirts of Ponyville. Famously stone-faced, they paced the perimeter restlessly and whirled on the slightest disturbance, sending many curious young ponies fleeing with a single angry word or impatient stomp.
The mayor had come to speak with them and left shaken and silent on the matter. Curious ponies traded theories about what was going on, and it was a snippet of one such conversation that sent Twilight Sparkle dashing off to see for herself. She didn’t have any better luck then the others at getting answers until her brother stepped outside.
“Shining Armor? Brother!”
“Twilight! What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, silly. What brings you to Ponyville? Is Princess Cadence here too?”
“No. I’m here on official business. I can’t talk about it.”
A guard stepped between them, asking Armor for orders. While she waited for them to finish, Twilight took the chance to look her brother over. He must’ve just gotten back from his honeymoon, but he looked ragged, like he’d just gone a week without sleep. Twilight blinked. She looked again. All the guards looked exhausted and nervous. She heard one of them ask to be excused and duck out of sight before Armor had finished speaking. There was the sound of a Pony being sick. Horribly, violently sick. The smell of vomit wafted out of the alleyway, and Twilight took a few steps back.
“Twilight…maybe we should talk. In private.”
Several of Armor’s subordinates took positions outside of the library, ensuring no one would intrude while they talked. This included Spike, who was unceremoniously dragged out at Armor’s insistence. Shining Armor didn’t reply when Twilight asked why it was necessary, and dropped into a seat.
“Twilight, can I have some tea…water…anything.”
The library was silent but for the sounds of Twilight bustling about the kitchen. She wanted to know what was going on, of course, but she didn’t hurry. Whatever it was, it was serious, and he needed the time to collect himself. Pouring the tea and adding a drop of honey, Twilight waited patiently as her brother took his first tentative sip, confident she’d be able to help with whatever it was.
“Twilight, you’re part of the group studying the new race that appeared, right? The…the…”
“They’re called ‘humans.’”
“I need to see any information you have on them. Names. Locations. Known associates…everything.”
“I’ve…been keeping some records, but…What exactly are you looking for?”
Even as she spoke, a book simply labelled ‘Humans’ slid out of the shelf in a crackling aura of power and floated closer.
“Twilight…there’s been a murder.”
The book fell. Twilight stood reflexively, making three steps on shaking legs before her mind re-processed what she’d heard and confirmed that it hadn’t been her imagination. She turned, slowly, a part of her still refusing to acknowledge what she’d just heard.
“A…Murder? But there hasn’t been a murder in Ponyville in…in…ever!”
“According to Ms. Scribblewing, she was passing by and heard sounds of a commotion. When she stepped past the window, and looked inside…the human ran away when she cried for help. By the time the doctors got there…it was far too late to do anything.”
“W-Who was it? Who d-d-d…”
She couldn’t say the word. Armor stepped up next to her, letting Twilight lean on him for support, felt her shudder. They stayed like that, brother and sister, until Twilight could stand up straight, and the two sat down next to each other, the book forgotten on the floor.
“A unicorn. Ironhorn.”
“I knew him, not very well, but…”
At a nod from Armor, the book floated over and opened. Twilight was silent as he flipped through the pages. Almost a year ago, a creature that called itself a human had appeared in Equestria, popping into Ponyville through some kind of magical mishap. The incident had drawn a bit of curiosity, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that many more humans began arriving, completely at random and without explanation.
The Princesses had set a group of Unicorns to find out how and why it was happening, but with no answers immediately forthcoming and no way to send them home, there was nothing to do but help them settle in.
Twilight wasn’t officially involved in the project, but that hadn’t stopped her from taking some notes of her own. She had a list of names, a few pictures and interesting tidbits learned during conversation interspersed with notes from the experiments she’d performed to understand the phenomenon. This little book was one of the largest sources of information about them, and Shining Armor desperately hoped it would help.
“Let’s see…there are about…24 humans confirmed to have appeared in Equestria so far. They’ve appeared all over the place, from Stalliongrad to Manehatten, but most of them have appeared here in Ponyville.”
“How many are in or around Ponyville right now?”
“I don’t know exactly…There’s Malachi, that’s the first human recorded to have appeared. We’ve spoken together many times. There’s a sketch of him here.”
“...He looks like a shaved diamond dog.”
“No he doesn’t…well…” Twilight tilted her head and squinted at the sketch. Her head snapped back into place when she caught Armor smirking at the sight. “Anyways, I know Applejack mentioned hiring one of a couple of humans who do odd jobs around town. There was a girl, a musician, but I think she left to study music at the Canterlot opera house. One went into the Everfree alone despite warnings and was never heard from again…I think there are some others that were encouraged to leave.”
“Umm…One was obsessed with Rarity in a kind of creepy way, and another wouldn’t leave Rainbow Dash alone – Malachi translated what he was saying about her…it was pretty horrible stuff. Saying things like that about someone you’d never met before, I can’t understand it!”
“There was one who was catching and eating Fluttershy’s animals for food.”
“And he somehow thought it would be funny to bring the bones back when he was done.”
“…Twilight…a few weeks ago, there was a report that crossed my desk…I think you know what I’m talking about?”
“We just wanted him to understand that what he was doing was wrong, so we…talked to him.”
“Talked to him.”
“And the scorched craters I passed on the road into town?”
“Would you believe…it was a party? With fireworks?”
“Just how many ponies were at this ‘party?”
“So…do you have pictures of all the humans around here?”
“Just one or two, why?”
“Between the shock of what she’d seen and because of how dark it was last night, Scribblewing wasn’t able to give us a good description of the criminal. I’m hoping seeing a picture will jog her memory. At least there aren’t many suspects. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Thank you, Twilight.”
“Brother, I wanted to ask - why are you investigating the crime? Shouldn’t there be a Sheriff or Longbraid doing this?”
“It’s been so long since something like this has happened. The sheriff’s office was folded into the Royal Guard centuries ago, and the last few Rangers were active until a little while before that. It’s been so long since a crime of this magnitude that there isn’t a pony in Equestria alive that has experience with something like this. So by regulation, the job defaults to the captain of the guard. I’ve been going over old notes, journals, casefiles, trying to get an idea on what to do, but…I’m completely out of my element here.”
“Maybe there’s something else I can do to help?”
“No, no! I know you’ve done some crazy stuff in the past, but I don’t want you getting involved in this, Twilight.”
“It can’t be more dangerous then dealing with dragons, or Nightmare Moon, or Discord, or-“
“Twilight, this is completely-“
“But you don’t know anything about humans, and I do! Some of them don’t even speak a local language, so how are you going to talk to them without a translation spell?”
“I’ll go get my bags and be right back!”
Twilight raced out of sight before Armor could form a proper retort, leaving him to sigh in resignation.
Two of the local humans had solid alibis for the time of the murder, helping out with a job that went long into the night. Another had left on a trip just before the time of the murder, and pegasi were sent out to find him.
Unless there was a human around that no one knew about, that left two.
Twilight and Shining Armor set out side-by-side, the Solar Guard keeping a tight formation around them.
Applejack’s farm would have been a welcome sight under better circumstances. For now there was still the fear that a crazed human would jump out of hiding and attack them…or that Ironhorn hadn’t been his only victim.
Twilight let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding when Applejack came into view.
“Heya, Twilight! Shining Armor! What brings you two out here?”
“Miss Applejack, I-“
“Hey, don’t be so formal! Just Applejack is fine for friends and honorary family.”
“Err…Applejack, is the human that was doing work for you around right now?”
“Nope, not now, and not ever again!”
Applejack turned her head and spat, kicking some dirt around for good measure.
“What do you mean?”
“He needed the bits, so I gave him some work. I caught him slacking off, sleeping on the job, and stealing every loose bit he could see! I ran that no-account swindler off my farm after that. I heard a few ponies he’d ‘worked’ for were missing a few things too. Did ya catch him?”
“No, we’re…working a different case right now. Do you have any idea where he might have gone to?
“Well, when he wasn’t working for me, he was staying at Malachi’s, same as most every human did when they first popped over. Might’ve gone back, I don’t think anyone else would’ve put up with him.”
They talked a little while longer, Shining Armor taking notes on the human’s appearance and habits, trying to get as much information about the missing human as he could, but it wasn’t much. He headed out and let Twilight say her farewells and try to deflect Applejack’s curiosity about what was going on in town. It was clear the Element of Honesty knew that something more was going on, but he was just glad she didn’t press the issue. The announcement he’d have to make eventually was not something he was looking forwards to.
“So, where to next?”
“Well, until we find Applejack’s missing slacker, we’ll have a talk with this Malachi person. Where does he live?”
Malachi lived just within the outer fringe of the Everfree Forest in an abandoned watchtower he’d been permitted to move into. The walls had been repaired and fortified against wandering monsters, while a combination of boulders, felled trees and earthwork formed a low wall that surrounded the whole affair. Behind the new construction, a stone-marked vegetable garden just beginning to show growth followed the course of a small stream. Surrounded by the sounds and shadows of the Everfree Forest, the tiny fortress was a reassuring sight, but must have made for a lonely place to live.
“He’s crazy, right? Living in the Everfree Forest alone?”
“He’s a little…different.”
The Solar Guards fanned outwards at they passed the outer wall. Twilight trotted ahead alone and fearlessly despite her brother’s call to stop.
The entrance to the tower had originally been made intentionally small to make it that much more difficult for the larger predators to force their way in. Stones had been torn out and re-fitted to allow something much larger than a pony to get in and out. The new door sported an assortment of dents and claw marks, but the solid planks were bound by rune-marked iron bands and would not be broken easily.
Twilight levitated a rock and used it to bang on the door a few times. She smacked her face with a hoof when that failed to elicit a response.
“Oh, I forgot. He sleeps during the day. We should probably-”
A small slot in the doorway opened, one of two. The lower was sized for ponies and slid aside to show a pair of sky-blue eyes.
“Twilight Sparkle! Oh! Give me a moment…”
With a squeak of metal on stone and an un-ladylike grunt of effort, the door opened to show a small unicorn wearing the livery of the Everfree Watch.
“Whatever can I do for you?”
“Is Malachi in? We need to speak with him.”
“I’m sorry, but he’s sleeping right now. He has an odd schedule, with his work, but if you come back in a little-“
“No.” Armor interjected suddenly. “It’s rather urgent. Official business.”
“Oh! The Royal-of course, come inside! I’m Far Sight. I’ve heard a great deal about you, Miss Sparkle. It’s very nice to finally meet you.”
The door opened and allowed Twilight to see their host in full - Far Sight was small and slight of build, even for a unicorn. Her eyes were a faded blue, and her mane matched their color. In the light, Twilight could see that her coat was dull, a flat bone grey. When Twilight’s eyes drifted, Far Sight turned slightly to show her mark – a closed eye over a strange geometric pattern.
The unicorn stepped back to allow the others to enter, and Twilight noticed that she didn’t quite look directly at any of the guests, only turning in the general direction of a sound or a movement.
“Is that…an interspatial distortion matrix?”
“Ha! Guessed it in one. The stories I heard about you weren’t at all exaggerated.”
“Well, that’s not…”
“Not important right now.” Armor interrupted once again. “I’m sorry to be rude, but it’s very important that we speak to Malachi. Could you wake him, please?”
“Of course. Won’t you have a seat? This may take a minute.”
Armor pointedly ignored the dirty look his sister shot his way. This was not a time to dilly-dally. He found a cushion in what was once a meeting room made with ponies in mind, though some of the furniture had been adjusted for something much, much larger. Far Sight returned after a time, shrugging sheepishly and asking for patience. She moved strangely, cautiously, not looking directly at the cushion she selected with a tentative gesture before settling in.
“That’s quite alright. Actually, there are some things I’d like to ask you as well. Such as what you’re doing here, and how you know Malachi.”
Far Sight bristled at the blunt question, and something about her body language was more than a little defensive.
“Well, I’m a member of the Everfree Watch. I often meet with Malachi for one reason or another.”
“And the reason you’re here today?”
“I just stopped by to deliver the newest patrol schedule, and to ask if he was interested in some work with a logging expiation being planned a few weeks from now.”
“I see. And did you-“ Armor paused, tilting his head in thought. “Miss Sight, how exactly could you ask him anything while he was asleep?”
The mare across the table from the siblings twitched and looked away from them.
“I…that is, I delivered the schedule last night, and since it was so late by the time our conversation was finished, I decided to spend the night here. It’s not safe for a lone mare to travel in the Everfree forest, you know. Let alone at night.”
“…That must have been a very long conversation, since regulations forbid travel though the forest past a certain time. Any veteran member of the watch would have accounted for that when planning a simple delivery.”
“Well…My magic is still active when I’m asleep, you see, and it just so happens that this tower has a very strong ward against the chaotic flows of magic that pours out of the forest on occasion. Without that protection, the distortions sometimes show me…unpleasant things…so during the worst activity, I sometimes bunk here. Malachi doesn’t mind.”
“How exactly does an abandoned watch tower have stronger protective spells than those currently in use?”
“I didn’t sense anything like that.” With the conversation turning towards magic, it had Twilight’s full attention. “What kind of spell is it?”
“It’s…not a spell, exactly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s not really understood, but did you know that when humans first arrive in Equestria, their auras were distorted to the point that they disrupted magic around them? Nopony is sure why, but even after being here for some time, Malachi still has a nullifying effect on certain kinds of magical energies. He…is the ward.”
“But that can’t be right. Even if he had a unique magical aura, the effects wouldn’t extend past…”
As Twilight began muttering calculations to herself, Far Sight’s face began to turn a bright shade of pink.
“Twilight? What is it?”
“If she wanted to use his aura as a makeshift dampening field to protect herself from arcane field distortions, she’d need to remain in very close proximity.”
“Even this far from the center of the forest, she’d practically have to be right on top of…him…”
Twilight looked up from her thoughts, and Armor followed her gaze to see that Farsight’s blush had spread to the very tips of her ears. The Royal Guard, famous for their stony faces, fidgeted almost imperceptibly where they stood, and Twilight felt as if the room had suddenly become quite a bit warmer.
“I see…” Armor was looking lost, and out of all the things he’d expected to find here, this was…certainly not one of them. The carefully-cultivated line of questing he’d prepared was nowhere in his brain to be found. “So…I take it that means that you can…account for his whereabouts from last night to this morning?”
“He was there when I went to sleep, and again when I awoke…” Far Sight turned her head and let out a polite cough she’d been holding. “And I believe I’d know if he had gone away at any time, even for a moment.”
Another awkward silence and a second polite cough later, Twilight’s curiosity got the better of her.
“Do your abilities include temporal vectors?”
“A little. I can’t manage more then a few seconds into the future, but I can look an hour or two into the past with reasonable accuracy, depending on various factors. Why?”
“Then could you tell if Malachi was at a certain place at a certain time?”
“No. The same effect that blocks my abilities while I sleep makes it impossible to scry on him. Many common detection spells don’t even register his presence. It also blocks many kinds of communication spells, which is why I have to hoof-deliver-“
A heavy thud interrupted her, and the guards quickly turned towards the source of the sound. Slowly, each step sounding loudly, a burly figure plodded down the stairs towards them. Shining Armor got his first look at a human in the flesh, and reaffirmed his opinion on their relation to Diamond Dogs. Blinking and bleary-eyed, the human frowned in return at the sight of the assembled ponies. His gaze was neutral as it swept the guards, narrowed when it reached Armor, and widened when he recognized Twilight, standing up straight and bumping his head on the low ceiling.
A few unpleasant-sounding foreign words later, the human ambled over at a gesture from Far Sight and carefully sat down beside her. She was the only pony in the room that didn’t flinch when he lifted a bulky hand and rested it on her neck. His grip looked like it could have completely encircled the slim mare’s neck, and Armor forced himself to sit back down when all the creature did was ruffle her mane in a surprisingly gentle gesture.
“Twilight Sparkle…” The pale, bulky creature rumbled in heavily-accented Earth dialect, turning slowly towards the newcomers. “What can I do for you?"
He was no dragon or manticore, but Armor could imagine the advantage he’d have through sheer size if things became violent. The human didn’t seem to give him much attention, instead focusing on Twilight. Strange. Then again, he’d heard offhoof remarks that the humans seemed oddly preoccupied with Ponyville and its inhabitants. Regardless, there weren’t many options besides the direct approach…
“Malachi, I need to know where you were early this morning.”
Malachi’s answer was a yawn, long and loud, and the guards tensed at the show of teeth.
“I’m being serious. This is part of an official investigation.”
That seemed to get the human’s attention, even if he did seem to have trouble following along with what was being said.
“Mmm…I was here most of yesterday. I finished the patrol around noon. Then returned to do chores, until Sight made delivery. Then-“ Far Sight interrupted by tapping the human on the knee, and she nodded when he looked at her for confirmation before continuing. “Then we were together until now. I did not leave my house.”
“And what about Bruce?”
“Bruce? Was here last night. He…slept and woke before me?” Malachi paused as he stumbled on the words, watching for his audience to motion for him to continue. “He spoke about a job in Cloudshadow.”
“Cloudshadow? A trade post on the land under Cloudsdale?” Malachi said the words slower this time, taking the time to enunciate the words carefully.
“…There’s no such place.”
The human huffed and muttered something in his native tongue. “I am not surprised. He had debts. I think he is a thief. I tried to be generous, but I am happy that he has left.”
“That’s going to make finding him more difficult…”
Armor turned to confer with the Guard, leaving the human to share a few words with Sight. Twilight watched the pair with a small amount of curiosity, and tried her best to focus only on the theoretical properties of the effect Far Sight have mentioned about the human, rather than the…mechanics required to benefit from it.
Twilight tried analyzing the human’s aura, but it presented a sensation like black ice to her senses – her spells either slid off her target or refused to acknowledge that there was even a living being sitting across from her. Any thoughts of the day’s grisly events were pushed aside for a few moments by the puzzle in front of her, and Twilight’s horn flared brighter as she tried to bring the image of the human’s magic into focus. It took Far Sight saying her name twice before she realized she’d been terribly unsubtle about it.
Any further potential for embarrassment stopped when Armor stepped back to the table.
“We need to search the premises.”
Shining Armor stood to his full height, resplendent in the armor of the captain of the solar guard. He cut quite the figure, even if the gesture only brought him to eye-level with the sitting human.
“Because I ordered it.”
Twilight half expected the human to bear his teeth, raise his hackles or something similar like most meat-eaters. Instead, he only narrowed his eyes and uncrossed his legs, making ready to stand quickly. Twilight felt the prickle of magic on her skin as unicorns began gathering energy, and the guards behind her grew tense.
“There was…a crime.”
It wasn’t the right word and Twilight’s mouth dried just at saying the substitute, but it drew both her brother’s and the human’s attention away from an impending face-off. The human’s gaze shifted back to her. No, it was almost like he was looking through her. It was hard to tell with humans, and Malachi had always struck her as being a little bit off. Not bad off, but he was big enough, even without weapons or magic, to threaten even one of the Royal Guard.
“A human? Again?”
If she had to name his tone, it would be ‘resigned.’ As in, ‘why do my species keep being jerks to ponies?’
“Maybe. That’s what we need to find out. Please.”
The human looked back at Shining Armor and his guards, and after a few wary moments, the human gestured and leaned back. A quartet of guards took positions in the corners of the room, while the rest spread out and disappeared through doors and up stairs. Malachi didn’t react, didn’t seem to even care that he was penned in, and only scowled when he heard something bang on the floor upstairs.
Armor startled when one of them yelled in fright, and dashed upstairs. But what had spooked the pony made him shout loud enough for everyone to know what was happening.
“You wear FUR!?”
“Fur blankets are very warm.” Sight grudgingly admitted to nopony in particular. “And quite comfortable, too.”
“Oh sweet Celestia is this…this is…”
“Leather! Very tough! Good armor!” Malachi shouted back.
Upstairs, somepony began gagging.
In the doorway, Shining Armor was looking over a scroll a guard had brought him. It was a Writ of Keen Edge, a license to carry weapons within Equestia’s borders for various purposes. In this case, it permitted hunting and defense against the creatures of the Everfree.
While her brother was distracted, Twilight turned her mind back to a question that had been nagging her since the tower door was opened.
“Ms. Far Sight, I don’t mean to be forward, but I was wondering…are you…?”
“Yes, I’m blind.”
Having the mare anticipate and answer her question didn’t make things any less awkward, unfortunately.
“It’s an old cliché, I suppose, being a blind seer, but I could barely see anything when I was young, and magic couldn’t stop what little sight I had from fading over the years. I actually got my cutie mark after studying some tactical intelligence-gathering spells, and while it’s…not exactly the same, I can see again thanks to that. It seemed a fair trade to join the group that devised those spells in return.”
Armor had returned, carrying the scroll and glancing at it out of the corner of his eye.
“What exactly do you do here in the Everfree forest?”
“I have warrant to join patrol groups, and I hunt monsters that cross our path. Sometimes I do guard work for expeditions. I keep whatever the Guard says I can keep, and I sell what I don’t need. Good money for leather, fat and bone.”
“And do you process everything yourself?”
“Yes. I learned from griffon books.”
“I want to see your workshop.”
For the first time, Shining Armor saw a human’s smile. It didn't seem a terribly pleasant thing. Of all the countries of the world, why did the humans have to come here?
It took a few minutes to restore order, after a guard had fled the basement while screaming like a little filly. Somewhere above, there was the sound of raucous laughter. Twilight had remained at the top of the stairs, apparently knowing what to expect.
“I tried to warn you…”
Part of the basement had been converted into a larder. Enchanted tiles fitted with thin slices of carved gemstone kept the interior cool, and the skinned carcasses of several animals hung from the ceiling. In another room, a bloodstained desk was framed by a rack of blades…one of them almost the size of Shining Armor’s torso.
It was a grisly sight, but not much worse then what he’d seen on a trip to the griffon kingdom. It was as tidy and clean as such a place could be, but Armor’s eye was drawn to an empty hook on the blade rack. From what the doctors had told him of Ironhorn’s wounds…
“Search this place, top to bottom. And call the human down here.”
The guards acknowledged his order silently, unwilling to open their mouths while they had enough trouble keeping the contents of their stomachs down. The ponies fanned out, horns glowing and hooves tapping. The tower had been rebuilt after long disuse, but it soon seemed there were no hidden rooms or hidey-holes left over from the renovation.
Still wobbling slightly after being woken up, the human came down the stairs flanked by three guards. A few moments later the fourth came down, somewhat green in the face. Armor took a long look at the human, and didn’t take his eyes off him when he pointed to the blade rack.
“Malachi, you’re missing something.”
The human followed the gesture and frowned at the empty hook. He took a quick look around the room and at the floor around him.
“Strange. I thought Bruce was thief, but I don’t know what he’d want with bonesaw.”
As soon as the word left his lips, everypony present grimaced in revulsion. Except for Twilight, who had come partway downstairs and was leaning in just enough to see her brother’s reaction.
Shining Armor hoped, for a moment, that an answer would come to him if he just stared at the human hard enough. Malachi certainly didn’t show much in the way of emotion, his face flat and neutral. Some people just had tighter control over the emotions they showed, he supposed.
Or the human was the murderer. Armor didn’t know, and had no immediate way to be sure.
He also couldn’t take the chance.
“Malachi, resident of Equestria and pledged to uphold Pony law, I must place you under custody of the royal guard.”
“What? Brother, why?”
The guards slowly formed a circle around the human, who took a step back. In reflex, Armor hoped, and not to get closer to the blades now within reach.
“You can’t believe…why would you think that he’s the…the…”
Murderer, the silence said. A word not heard in Equestria for a long, long, time.
“Twilight, the vic-Ironhorn, he…” Armor’s voice cracked, and he had to force the words past rising bile. “His horn was sawn off and taken.”
Twilght was frozen in disbelief. The reality of what was said was…incomprehensible. Her mouth opened, and only disconnected syllables spilled from her mouth as her eyes darted between Malachi, an empty hook, the bloody block, and all the hanging carcasses that her imagination was busy warping into the shape of friends and neighbours. She scrambled backwards and hit the wall, sliding along it and tripping over the first stair in her attempt to get away. She didn’t stand after falling, only screwed her eyes shut and tried to block the images lingering in her mind.
Armor stepped back and then rushed to his sister’s side, forced to use magic to get her to her feet. At a gesture, a guard took over and began hauling her up the stairs and outside. He wanted to go with her, more than anything else right now. But he wasn’t just a brother anymore. He was the captain of the guard as well.
It took the human a little longer to process what was said. He shouted something in the human language, and followed that by repeating a different word several times as he shifted and paced on the spot. He growled out a few more words before finding something that they could understand.
“A pony was murdered. The unicorn’s horn was taken. We believe a human is the culprit. There are three humans whose whereabouts we can’t confirm. Can you prove you are not responsible?”
The human’s brow scrunched in the universal sign of confusion, and Armor gave him the time to think. The human had seemed genuinely shocked to hear of the murder, and Armor was slowly revising his opinion of him, but orders and process stood.
“Then by Equestrian law, I am ordered to take you under my custody. If you try to resist-“
“I will not.”
The human purposefully stepped away from the blades and spread his arms, showing empty hands. Cautiously, the Unicorns spun spells that formed chains and shackles that pulled his limbs tightly together, and true to his word, the human didn’t move, except to look pointedly at Shining Armor and then nod towards the stairs.
Armor took a few halting steps, waiting to be sure that the binding spells had coalesced properly before rushing outside to tend to his sister.
Armor guided his sister out of the tower and towards some fresh air. She’s all but laughed off his concerns at first, but he was quickly coming to realize that everything she’d faced before had come with a certain…familiarity, as crazy as it sounded. Dragons, monsters, dark magic…old hat for Twilight Sparkle, Element of Magic and Celestia’s personal student. But murder? Personal, senseless loss? That was another beast altogether.
“…Do you really think…” Twilight began after finding her voice.
“We can’t take the chance. He’ll have to be held until we can be sure one way or another.”
Any further conversation was stifled when Malachi stepped out, immediately turning his eyes away from the sunlight. Restrained by four separate binding spells, it didn’t make for a very pleasant spectacle. Chariot or no, they couldn’t fly like this. It was going to be a long and awkward walk back to Canterlot.
At the edge of the Everfree, as their paths began to split, Twilight found her voice again.
“Why…why would a human want a Unicorn’s horn?”
Malachi closed his eyes, and they shifted in their sockets as walked in thought.
“In ancient myth, a unicorn’s horn was said to purify bad water and destroy poison. I remember a story, a king asked for a drinking cup carved from unicorn horn because he feared death by poisoning. But in modern times…” The human furrowed his brow, and turned to face Armor. “Did…was their sign that killer had taken some of Ironhorn’s blood?”
That did it. Twilight disappeared behind a bush and emptied the contents of her stomach. Armor risked a few steps closer to the human and lowered his voice so that Twilight didn’t have to overhear anything more.
“Actually…” Armor’s mind worked. Had those cuts been made to kill, or bleed? Were those bloody smears accidental, or intentional? “I can’t be sure. Why?”
“A new story. Drink the unicorn’s blood to keep death at bay. Few people know the old stories anymore. But they take and change the old stories to make the new stories. It is said that the magic of a creature is in a…certain thing. In the blood, or the hide, or the horn. These things have power.”
“…Are you saying that a human tried to…to steal Ironhoof’s magic by stealing his horn?”
The Human shrugged in his bonds.
“Maybe. I don’t know. But this human, this killer, I can tell you. Humans have not had magic for a long, long time. He is no wizard. But maybe he thinks he is, and is trying to make new magic out of old stories. And he is crazy enough to kill to try.”
The human fixed him with a look, and lowered his voice another notch as Twilight stumbled back onto the road.
“And if he will kill to try, he will kill to try again.”
As much as he’d wanted to, Shining Armor had parted ways with his sister on the road back to Canterlot. There were guards in Ponyville who could look out for her. The Human endured the long march without complaint, even when a crowd had gathered to gawk at the spectacle. The guards has shown them off, but ponies would talk, and rumors would spread. The news of what had happened would come out eventually.
Armor pitied whatever pony would have to make that announcement.
It would probably be him.
It had been so long since anyone had needed imprisonment, Armor, his prisoner and his retinue had to consult a map to find the prison block. When they’d descended to the lower levels, it turned out the bars had been removed long ago and the cells converted to record storage. After a very awkward talk with the clerks in charge, they’d all turned around and looked for a garden shed to empty out.
It was the closest thing with a door they could lock.
Once they found a padlock.
And screwed on a latch so the lock had somewhere to go.
Armor graciously allowed the human a few minutes to clean up and have a bite to eat. It gave him time to rush back to his office and give the dusty records on past interrogations a last-minute once-over for advice on how to proceed.
“No, no, no, no, no…”
Spike was idly watching Twilight tear through the library shelves, picking and discarding books one-by-one. Her selections went into two piles – the first had been handily labeled 'useful.' The second, the ‘no’ pile, was…every book she’d looked at so far.
“You know Twilight, maybe if you tell me what you’re looking for, I could help.”
“I…don’t know what I need. No, no, no, no…”
“…Then how are you going to know when you found it?”
Twilight’s horn crackled with power, and the book she’d been levitating shot upward to impact the ceiling. It stuck there even after the glow dimmed, and Twilight turned away from the shelves to flop dejectedly into a chair.
“It’s a subject that…hasn’t come up in Equestria for a very long time. I can’t find anything on it. I thought I’d find some kind of record, or even just a reference, but there’s nothing.”
“Does this have something to do with the Solar Guard visiting ponyville? Is there a monster on the loose?”
Yes, Spike. Twilight thought. There’s a monster on the loose…
She reached up to feel in own horn in sympathy. Long poems and odes, both flowery and raunchy, had been written on the horns of unicorns. She knew about the biology behind the almost crystalline structure of the bone, and a little about the way the core of it extended into the unicorn brain. She’d read almost every metaphysical primer on it, and how it drew in and interacted with magic.
And trying to imagine losing it…what would she be without it? A little piece of bone that made so many wonders possible. But when she needed it right now, there wasn’t a single shred, the tiniest fragment of a spell of any sort that could help determine the identity of a murderer.
Twilight was used to being afraid.
Even Far Sight, who specialized in such things and a friend of Malachi to boot, wouldn’t be able to tell if he’d been in that house this morning. Because of the human’s strange aura, she could throw spells at him until her horn ached, and get a big…fat…nothing?
“That’s the answer! NOTHING!”
Spike fell over and crawled for cover as an arcane cyclone began building within the library. Twilight’s laughter shook the floorboards, and the glow from her eyes lit up the room. She began to float, buoyed by the ambient power she was unleashing, and suddenly vanished with a -pop-.
Preceded by the sound of her horrifying laughter, Twilight burst back into reality in the dining room of the North Yoink watchtower. Protective wards sizzled and cracked and did nothing to block her arrival. The ponies, hardened soldiers all, were frozen in shock at the sight of Celestia’s apprentice who appeared among them while cloaked in amethyst flames.
Twilight and Far Sight winked out of sight, leaving the rest of the Everfree watchponies to sit in shock just long enough for their dinner to get cold.
After being abducted through time and space by a madpony, Far Sight trotted alongside the now-calmer Twilight Sparkle through the streets of Ponyville. The sun would soon set, and despite the earlier pyrotechnics, the majority of ponies were off the streets and likely to be busy tucking themselves in.
“What did you want to talk about?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that there was nothing I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to talk to you about something, which just happened to be the absence of something, so I guess I wanted to talk to you about nothing after all!”
Utterly confused, but following the unicorn on sheer momentum, Far Sight soon found herself standing in front of a small cottage with a pair of the Solar Guard standing watch. It was only then that Twilight seemed to sober.
“Far Sight, this is where…it happened.”
“Twilight, I want to help, but I told you before that my magic doesn’t work on Malachi. I’ve heard that even the Princesses couldn’t manage to enchant him with a simple translation spell until a month after he arrived!”
“Ah, but that’s what I’m counting on! There are very few suspects, and if you cast a clairvoyance spell, and find nothing, that tells us something, you see? Err…what I mean is, process of elimination!”
“Yes…yes! I understand! Brilliant!”
After a few minutes of swapping thaumaturgical equations to determine the ideal spell to use, and another ten minutes of wrangling with the stone-faced guards, the two unicorns stepped carefully into the empty house.
The guards had cleaned up somewhat, clearing a path that they followed to the bedroom. Twilight’s breath was stuck in her throat, and while she really didn’t expect to find a corpse waiting for her, the dried blood was enough to make her step out of the room for a breath. She kept her thoughts on the spells in her mind, and as far away from the blood on the ceiling as possible. She did not want to know what had been required for it to get up there.
“Are you ready?”
Far Sight’s own aura was…strange. It was blue and faded, like her blind eyes, but there was a depth to it that seemed to make the room’s shape twist and grow in strange ways as her spell encompassed it. Twilight supported her with Clover’s Ambient Amplifier, a spell normally used to filter out stray magical influences during delicate spellwork. Ironhorn was a unicorn and had died a sudden and violent death, so there was sure to be a strong imprint of his last moments. She just had to sort it out from among the currents of magic from the rest of the world.
Twilight tugged at the threads the spell envisioned for her. A prickle of old lightning was carefully grounded. Her nose wrinkled at the bitter tang of medical magic, and practically swam through the fertility wafting in from the large number of Earth Ponies that lived and farmed nearby. She could pick out Applejack’s own work, apple and sweat and a touch of hay, mixed with a tiny current that was gleaming and sharp on her tongue. Rarity.
Twilight held the sense-memories of her friends close, drinking as much as she dared to gain strength without becoming distracted. Feeling lighter and warmer, she gently pushed them away and continued her search for the taste of murder.
If they took too long, the wash of magic that came when Luna raised the moon might destroy what they were looking for, but between the two of them, the image soon came into focus.
“I never thought I’d be so glad to see something so horrible…”
Steeling herself, Twilight opened her eyes. On the bed, a silhouette that could only belong to a human half-sat on the outline of an old unicorn. His hands were on his Ironhorn’s throat, and his weight alone mush have stolen the breath that wasn't strangled away. Ironhorn was old, but his death had taken time enough to deeply stain this room with pain and fear.
As she studied the grisly sight, a tiny part of her mind noted that this murder didn’t have much taste at all. Everything she felt had come from Ironhorn. Had the human not felt anything at all, at the moment of murder? In the next moment, the image rippled and vanished, drawn into a mirror Far Sight had insisted they bring along. It would capture and preserve the memory for other unicorns to pore over.
Their duty was done. The room was quiet and still once again, and there were no more words as they stepped outside to let the guards bar and block the door once more.
A little while later, Far Sight was sleeping, hopefully soundly, in the library’s guest room while Twilight paced. A bit of dragonfire had sent the mirror and a quick message on its way. She was sure that it would exonerate Malachi. His presence would have surely disrupted the currents of magic to the point that the royal unicorns would recognize if he’d been anywhere near the house at the time of the murder.
The response was curt – there was no longer any reason to hold Malachi, and he would be released shortly. After a detailed examination, the image was determined to closely match the human named Bruce, and the pegasi were now out in force to search for him. Twilight ignored the briefness of the message to carefully and quietly dance on the spot. They’d done it. A friend was out of danger. A terrible day had been brought to an end on an upswing. Twilight could relax as she slid into bed, a little sore after such detailed spellcasting. Armor would catch the killer, and all would be right in Equestria once again.
A dozen kilometers away, a squadron of Pegasi circled over a nondescript patch of forest. Snap Shot signaled the dive, following the lights set below to guide them in. A local pony had called it in, they said. Out foraging in the woods, he’d tripped over something and ran back to town as far as his legs could carry him.
The guards stepped well away as Snap Shot spread his wings and brought them down hard. A long and steady gust kicked up leaves and blasted away loose soil, revealing what had been hastily covered over in the shallow pit.
“Call the castle. Tell them we’ve found Bruce.”
Twilight woke with a scream. The nightmare faded quickly as she realized where she was and what was happening. She pushed the memory away, flailing around half-awake until the sunlight through the window hit her eyes and helped bring her completely back to reality.
She was alive, no one was chasing her, and her friends were all fine.
She sat up and ran through a few mental exercises to focus her mind. It was a wobbly first few steps, but she gained confidence as she went through her morning routine, remembering what she and Far Sight had accomplished yesterday. The killer was still out there, but he couldn’t hide from the Solar Guard forever.
Downstairs, she found that Sight had woken up early, and was already being served breakfast and a chat from Spike.
“Good morning, Far Sight.”
“Good morning, Miss Sparkle.”
“Please, call me Twilight.” Twilight levitated over a bowl, but paused before pouring herself some oats. “I guess you couldn’t sleep either?”
“I work for the Everfree Watch, Twilight. To be honest…I’ve seen worse.” Even blind, Sight still reflexively screwed her eyes shut at whatever memory must have flashed through her mind. “It’s nice to be away from the Everfree once in a while, but I guess I’m just not used to sleeping alon-I mean…um…”
Twilight felt a blush begin to form, but thankfully, Spike seemed oblivious to the nature of their conversation, and Twilight waited until he headed back to the kitchen before continuing.
“So…I’m guessing that visiting Malachi’s tower isn’t really a…sometimes thing.”
“…I might as well live there, really.” Sight absentmindedly stirred her oats, looking down and away from the gaze she felt on her. “Malachi was…accommodating, even after we realized we’d have to get a lot closer than the next bed over. It was awkward for both of us, at the beginning, but at time went on, well…I came to enjoy his company.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with that! He seems like a very nice colt-er, man.”
“Nothing wrong with what? What? …Oh, nononononono, Twilight, it’s not like…that…I just…we just…I…” Sight dropped her head, dejected. “I keep looking for excuses to spend time with him.”
“You really like him, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t! It’s just…I-I’ve never even dated anypony before, and now I’m sleeping with someone! Only for the most practical reasons, of course, but…he is a very nice man, even through he’s the scariest thing outside of the Deep Woods. He looks out for me when we’re on patrol, and he keeps the nightmares away when I’m sleeping. He’s always there for me, and…and…andIdon’tknowwhattothinkanymore!”
Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder as Sight caught her breath. She raised her head and gave a weak smile.
“Have you…tried talking to him about it?”
“Because! What am I supposed to say? ‘Say, Malachi, I just realized we skipped a few steps before we started sleeping together, maybe you could buy me dinner sometime?”
“…You probably shouldn’t say that. But you know that the longer you put it off, the worse things are going to get.”
“I know. I’ve known for a long time now. But when I compare how things are now to what might happen…I just can’t work up the courage.”
Sight finished the last of her breakfast in a few quick gulps. Twilight returned to her own meal, and they sat in mutual contemplation until there was a familiar whoosh from the kitchen and Spike bounced back into sight, holding a scroll. Instead of the familiar Royal crest, it carried the seal of the Solar Guard.
Spike started collecting dishes while Twilight broke the seal and began reading. After a moment, she snapped it shut and motioned for Sight to follow.
Upstairs, Twilight closed the door behind them to get a little privacy. Sight fidgeted as Twilight opened the scroll and read it again.
“They found Bruce.”
“They aren’t sure. Only that he hasn’t been deceased for long. The Guard are trying to puzzle out the details, but it looks like someone killed him and tried to hide the body.”
“That…that makes no sense! We know Bruce killed Ironhorn. But…then who killed Bruce? Who else is there?”
“Dion. He’s the only human that hasn’t been accounted for, but he left Ponyville the night before to make a delivery. They’re going to question him, but at first glance, he has an alibi for both murders.”
“It’s still missing.”
“And they have no other suspects? No idea who the killer could be?”
“I’m afraid it looks that way. Malachi won’t be back for a little while though. It seems like he stayed in Canterlot to try and help Shining Armor with the investigation.”
“Did he have horn and saw?”
“No and yes. But we’re certain, from Ms. Sight’s post-cognition spell, that Bruce did kill Ironhorn and take his horn.”
“Then who took horn from Bruce?”
Armor sighed and shuffled his notes. He’d been interrogating Malachi just ten minutes ago. Now he was consulting with him.
“Not many suspects to fit that role. Assuming it’s even a human.”
“Big market for unicorn horns?”
“Sweet Celestia, no. There are only a few creatures that might actually want one, and fewer still depraved enough to do the deed.”
Malachi sighed and leaned back, raising a hand and tapping fingers as he spoke.
“Bruce wanted a horn. He chose to kill, instead of digging for grave, and chose Ironhorn to kill…for unknown reason. Bruce stole saw. He killed Ironhorn at a time most ponies would be asleep. He spent time planning murder.” Malachi looked up. “What was next step? Where to go after killing unicorn?”
Armor frowned. There were many places one could hide in the wilderness, but even outside of the Everfree, few of those places were particularly safe, and they hadn’t found any evidence that Bruce had stockpiled or carried any supplies. Even in the larger cities, there weren’t many places where a human could remain hidden. Malachi tossed in the question of how Bruce would know where these places would be, and Armor dismissed that line of thought. Bruce was a stranger to Equestria. Humans were, to his knowledge, still unknown outside of the country. Even Malachi had only traveled as far as the Equestria/Griffonstan border. Bruce would stand out wherever he’d planned to run to.
“Then if he could not make the next step alone, he must have been planning to meet with someone. But why would they kill him?”
“Cut loose thread.”
“Bruce was caught killing. So Bruce’s comrade kills Bruce, buries evidence. We look for Bruce, but not for one now having horn. Bruce became weakness in plan, could be made to tell comrade’s name, so Bruce was killed by one who wanted horn, so Bruce could not name comrade, and if we did not find Bruce’s body, we would not know to look for comrade.”
“I see…Yes…That makes sense. But that still leaves the question of who would want Ironhorn’s horn? Do you still think it was an attempt to…steal his magic?”
Malachi’s lips made a tight line, and his eyes went into sharp focus at something only he could see.
“If the other criminal was human…yes. If Bruce wanted unicorn magic to cure poison, he would have begged for help. If some-thing wanted unicorn horn, how would Bruce meet such a creature, and why would they ask him? Bruce was poor, but he could never sell it, or eat it. A horn is useless for him. Only the magic matters. There is no other reason to take horn. …What kind of magic did Ironhorn have?”
“I believe…” A few papers floated over, scattered references on Ironhorn’s past. “Alchemy. He was a well-known chemist who did industrial work and research. Some of it was for the Guard. And no, while some of his work is under government seal, there’s no way to gain knowledge or insight into his work from his severed horn. After he retired, though…he set up a small brewery of all things, to pass the time.”
“Brew-er-y? Cider? Alcohol?”
“All the magic in Equestria, of fire and thunder, warping space and time, controlling elements and forces of nature…and killer wants horn of brewer?”