Under A Luminous Sky
Jake The Army Guy
Chapter Two: The Evil That Men Do
The city of Canterlot. The Shining City on the Hill.
Once a humble unicorn trading post, it was transformed into its current splendor after Princess Celestia declared it her new home following the tragic events of The War of The Night. Where once stood meager thatch-roofed huts and cobblestone paths now stood towering parapets and bustling businesses of all kinds. The city was home to the most elite of ponykind, bureaucrats and celebrities, influential businessponies and brilliant scientific minds all calling the bright city home. However, all of massive buildings were dwarfed by the most stunning structure of them all: the Royal Castle.
From high atop ivory towers gilded with gold, the Celestial Daughters ruled over all of Equestria with benevolence and grace. Their keen sense of right and wrong and ability to see all sides of all arguments allowed them to broker harmony between even the most deadly of enemies. Royal Court was a tradition dating back to the days before Equestria, but under their rule, the Royal Sisters allowed all grievances be heard. No matter was deemed too trivial for an audience with them.
Currently, Princess Celestia was giving serious thought to rescinding that order. Her near eternal mind was focused on hiding the severe boredom she felt while listening to, what she had decided, was the single most unimportant thing she’d ever heard.
"...and so you see, your highnesses, it is simply horrid how those ruffians from the Gryphonian envoy treated my darling wife! I'm afraid I must demand recompense!" Jet Set spoke with an air of dignity that did not match his words, his voice slightly nasal with his nose upturned even in the face of royalty.
Luna rolled her eyes and cast a glance at her sister. Celestia simply smiled at Jet Set: a fake, political smile, practiced over centuries of hearing such matters. Only one who knew her as well as Luna could see the crushing boredom hiding behind her eyes.
"Of course, Jet Set." Luna had to stifle a laugh at Celestia’s over the top delivery. “I feel simply awful about how Upper Crust was treated. Being asked to move down a row so they could properly see the Wonderbolts Derby. How dreadfully rude.”
Jet Set beamed with self-importance. “I’m so glad you see it that way, your majesty.” His horn took on a dim glow as a stack of papers levitated out of his saddlebag. “Now, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a list of dema... er, that is to say, ways in which the ambassador could repay me.”
Celestia sighed inwardly. She opened her mouth to speak, when a high-pitched whine came from above them. Looking up, she saw a telltale trail of smoke coming in from an open window above the courtroom. The contrail flew towards her before swirling around in a circle. The faint smell of brimstone emanated from it, a sign of its sender. In a tiny shower of sparks, the scroll popped into existence only to be enveloped by a soft golden glow from her horn. Her lips turned up in a relieved smile. Saved by the scroll.
Celestia stood and stepped down from the dais. “How thoughtful of you, Mr. Set. Sadly, a matter seems to have come up, and I must take my leave.” She walked past the somewhat stunned unicorn. “I do apologize, but don’t worry. I leave you in the capable hooves of my sister.” A faint gasp came from behind her as she approached the exit. “I assure you, matters of numbers and legal such-and-so are her bread and butter.”
The doors swung open, propelled by the two unicorn guards beside them, and she turned back towards the throne with a playful smile. “I’m sure Luna will help you resolve the situation.”
Jet Set smiled, and the two monarchs shared a pair of looks that could only be understood by somepony with siblings.
I will destroy you.
Love you, too, Lulu!
The doors slammed shut behind Celestia, cutting off Jet Set’s self-important rambling. She opened the scroll as she walked, smiling widely. While she was happy to have an excuse to leave before her brain shut down from boredom, she was genuinely thrilled to receive a letter from her star pupil.
In the years since she’d sent her to Ponyville, Twilight’s letters had begun to come less and less frequently, which was to be expected. As she learned more about the magic of friendship, she had less to report to her teacher. Still, over the years, the letters had become less about reporting her findings, and more about simply talking, which suited Celestia well. Even before that fateful Summer Sun Celebration all those years ago, when Twilight and her friends saved her sister from darkness, Celestia had come to view Twilight as less of a student and more of a dear friend.
Celestia unfurled the scroll, inhaling its scent. The traces of dragonfire had evaporated, leaving only the clean, musty scent of parchment and old books. When she finally looked at the letter, however, her walk slowed to a trot.
Something is wrong.
The first thing that jumped out at her was the hoofwriting. This was not the practiced, flowery writing that she came to expect from Twilight. The writing seemed rushed, pained. She began to read, and came to a standstill.
Oh, Twilight, my poor student. I’m so sorry.
She sat there in the quiet hall, only the slight breeze from an open window beside her sounding while she read the grim contents of the letter. Finally, Celestia looked up from the parchment, a heavy weight on her ancient heart. She looked around, ensuring she was alone, and knelt down in the hallway. She knew that what she was about to do should be done in private, but concern for her close pupil overrode any desire for decorum. Celestia closed her eyes, and soon her horn was aglow, a soft golden aura filling the hallway.
A slow, quiet breath came from her mouth as she focused. A feeling of weightlessness overtook her, her mind separating from her body. At the speed of solar winds, her consciousness left the castle and flew towards Ponyville. Muted colors flew under her, green grass and brown and golden leaves from trees blurred together as her mind soared over the forest. She just wanted, no, needed a quick peek at her pupil. She had to know if Twilight was all right.
The blurry lines softened as she approached her destination: a tall tree, hollowed out by magic years ago, standing proudly in the middle of town. A slightly faded sign stood beside the large door: Books and Branches Public Library. The pleasant smell of oak and the sound of wind whistling through the leaves was lost on her non corporeal form. With a mild push, her projection flew through the door and looked at the scene before her. Oh, my poor ponies...
Twilight, her dear Twilight, sat motionless on a large chair, a long-since cooled cup of tea sitting forgotten on a table next to her. Rainbow Dash flew lazy circles above them, her usual speed and enthusiasm gone, but not her restlessness. Fluttershy sat in a chair next to Twilight, holding her hoof tightly. Applejack stood next to a very worried looking Spike, quietly trying to explain what had happened. Even Pinkie Pie, whom Celestia had never seen without a smile, sat motionless next to Twilight, her normally bright eyes red and puffy.
Rarity began to speak to Twilight. Though she could not hear the words they spoke, their bodies spoke volumes. Rarity’s brow was furrowed, apparently searching for the right words to comfort her friend. Twilight’s normally bright and inquisitive eyes now looked dull, gazing into space with a thousand-yard stare, her face a blank, unreadable mask. As Rarity continued, Twilight’s face betrayed no emotion. She mumbled something in response and stood up, walking towards the stairs. Fluttershy stopped her slow, plodding walk, gazing into Twilight’s eyes before pulling her into a deep hug. Soon, all five mares and the adolescent dragon embraced her. As Twilight was held by her friends, Celestia could see a single tear fall down her cheek; her heart ached at the sight.
Deciding she could take no more, Celestia turned her projection away and flew through the closed door. She rose up before angling towards the Everfree Forest. Slowly she flew over the thatched roofs and cobblestone streets of the quaint town, passing over ponies who looked just as shocked as Twilight’s friends had. In such a small town, the death of one pony must have hit very hard. A small herd had gathered outside what looked like a pub, placing flowers at the foot of a large picture of a purple mare.
The humble homes and street vendors tapered off, giving way to light brown grass and dirt trails as she neared the Everfree Forest. A small chill ran through the Princess’ glowing body as her consciousness weaved in between the thick trees. After that horrible night so many years ago, Celestia had done her best to avoid the wild woods, and it had been a long time since she had set hoof inside. Too many bad memories...
She finally reached a small clearing, where few ponies were mulling about. One in particular looked very distressed: a short, portly stallion with a sandy coat and a badge for a cutie mark, whom she guessed was the sheriff. He paced back and forth, doing his best to avoid looking at the grisly scene beside him. Occasionally he would mutter words to the skinny mare following him, most likely his deputy.
Since she could not understand what he was saying, her projection rose above and looked down. That’s when she saw it: a small white sheet, covering a lumpy shape beneath, laying in the middle of a large pool of dried blood.
Back in Canterlot, Celestia’s body shuddered. She was no stranger to death; in the many centuries of her life, ponies she knew and loved had come and gone. This was different. She had seen death, but knowing that it had affected her precious student was unbearable. While she was relieved that Twilight was unharmed, nopony should have to come upon what she did. True, death was a natural part of life, and Celestia was confident that Twilight, the young scientist that she was, could handle it. However, it wasn’t just death she saw in the forest; it was cold, brutal death.
Suddenly, Celestia gasped as something shook her mind back in the forest. Something was wrong. She couldn’t place what it was, but it was there; a bad taste in her mouth, an oily feeling in her mind. Focusing her mind, she stared harder at the scene.
The solid shapes and defined colors melted away. As she poured more of herself into the spell, wavy lines emerged from the muted gray of the now skeletal forest. Shimmering strings of magic connected every living thing, the ley lines that bound all life dancing and arcing together. The sheriff and his deputy shone brilliantly, ghostly outlines of the two ponies, inside of which floated orbs of pure magic. Innumerable ley lines shot from both of them, like the rays from the morning sun.
Celestia looked down towards the body, and almost lost her concentration. The magical conduits extended from every blade of grass around the body, snaking out to connect with lines from others. Through the now invisible sheet, she could clearly see the outline of the poor mare, but that was it. No lifelines came from it, and none went to it. Even the magic from the surrounding forest bent around her form, the ley lines being repelled like rain from an umbrella.
Back in Canterlot, Celestia snapped her eyes wide open, her mouth slightly agape. Rising to her hooves, she tucked the letter beneath her wing and trotted off.
Celestia strode down the hallway, her golden horseshoes clacking loudly against the marble floor. Servants watched and whispered to each other as she walked, wondering where she was going with such a grim expression on her face. She navigated the maze of hallways and breezeways with practiced ease, occasionally slowing before shaking her head and continuing. She knew where she needed to go, but some part of her still did not want to accept it.
The idea of involving them was unpleasant, to say the least. While she bore no ill will to the ponies themselves—they served a sadly necessary function, and did a fine job of it—the mere fact that they were necessary made her stomach turn. Still, the reality of what she saw in the woods could not be ignored.
Even in death, life remains. Bacteria breaks down the body to return it to the ground from whence it came, thus beginning the cycle of life again. The residual magic from a pony returns to the natural ley lines that run throughout the world, feeding the magic that everypony used. Something—or, she realized, somepony—had done something to that poor mare to sour her magic. Not even the forest itself would take her.
Celestia darted through the maze of hallways, quicker now that she had come to her grim conclusion. Heinous acts like this were the reason they existed. When she reluctantly formed the organization over three centuries ago, she had hoped to never have to use them. Sadly, even in a peaceful land like Equestria, bad things sometimes happen. Still, some part of her mind wondered if the organization was worth the trouble. Even when they won the day, somepony always ended up hurt.
Still, it must be done. Forgive me, Twilight.
The Royal Court wasn’t the only important room in the Castle of The Royal Pony Sisters. Throughout the confusing jumble of hallways and multiple wings lay offices that were home to the many branches of the Equestrian government. Nearest to the co-monarchs was the Royal Guard wing, where Generals Cloudhammer, Shining Armor, and Stone Wall presided over the Pegasus, Unicorn, and Earth Pony Corps respectively. Further towards the east end of the castle, the Department of Weather and Resources coordinated with the weather factories in Cloudsdale to ensure proper rain and sunshine year round.
Other less important branches littered the castle, assigned the tasks of carrying out royal edicts sent from on high. In a very discreet corner of the westernmost wing lay a humble, nondescript series of offices, home to most seemingly dull, yet enigmatic branch of them all: the Royal Investigative Service, the R.I.S.
Most ponies knew of the R.I.S. for their more public, and mundane, service: tax collection and accounting. While most of the ponies employed there did indeed handle the royal coffers, a select few were charged with a much more dangerous mission.
Director Top Notch sat in his humble office, his greyed mane coiffed neatly on his head as he eyed a stack of papers with disdain. The office was small, but the patchwork-colored unicorn had made it like home. A shelf filled with medals, plaques, and numerous commendations for bravery from the Princesses sat on the left side, a monument to his long service to the crown. A colorful rug, a present from a Camelonian dignitary, lay on the floor, covering most of the muted beige floor tiles.
Upon his desk, surrounded by a few knick-knacks from various countries and pictures of his grandfoals, a chaotic pile of papers mocked him, demanding his attention. He grumbled lowly, a quill held by his magic moving deftly across the pages. He longed for the days of fieldwork, having gave them up long ago for the added responsibility of running the R.I.S. Nopony told me that responsibility was synonymous with paperwork. What I wouldn’t give for a bomb or a—
A quiet knock broke him from his musing. Top released the quill from his magical grip with a sigh, grateful for the distraction. “Come in.”
His eyes widened as the door was enveloped by a golden glow and swung open. “P-Princess Celestia!” He rose quickly and bowed before her on the rug. “So lovely to see you again.”
Celestia smiled warmly at the old stallion. The smell of his cologne filled her nostrils, a strong, musky smell, mixing with the spicy scent of incense from a bowl on his cluttered desk. “Rise, Top. How many times must I tell you that you don’t need to bow to me?”
Top slowly raised himself back up, his tired bones creaking quietly. “Too many for my old mind to remember, your highness,” he said with a grin, his Trottingham accent adding a slight clip to his words. “And as I have said numerous times, once you have finally forced me to retire, I shall gladly offer you a hoofshake.” He sat back down behind his desk. “But until that day, I will greet you with naught but a humble bow.”
A small laugh came from Celestia as she sat down on a cushion opposite him. “Fifty years of service, Top. Isn’t it time to let somepony a bit,” she paused, giving him a sly grin, “younger, take the reigns?”
Top let loose a loud bark of laughter. “Your grace, I do hope you’re joking! Foals these days couldn’t calculate tax rates with a calculator the size of Whitetail Woods!”
Celestia’s face fell, the warm smile abruptly replaced with the mask of duty. “Actually, Director Notch, I’m here because of your... other function.”
His expression darkened. Without a word, he stood and walked to the open door, closing it quietly. He walked back, his horn glowing briefly before a brown aura surrounded the door. Satisfied that the room was secure from prying eyes and ears, he sat back down and faced Celestia. “So, what seems to be the trouble, milady?”
Celestia was silent for a moment, choosing the right words. “An... incident has occurred in Ponyville involving my star pupil.”
Top leaned forward in his chair, rubbing his chin with his hoof. “What kind of incident?”
“A body was discovered in the Everfree Forest. A pony.”
“I see. It’s not...”
“No, no,” Celestia said, shaking her head. “Twilight is fine. Though she was the one who found the body.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I met her once, a few years back. Bright young filly, that one.”
“You have no idea,” Celestia said softly, a distant gaze filling her eyes.
Top cleared his throat, breaking the spell over the princess. She shook her head and turned back to him. “Anyway, I want you to send somepony to investigate this as soon as possible.”
The room was silent for a moment, the only sound being the clock in the corner ticking. The two old ponies looked at each other, each trying to guess at the others thoughts.
Finally, Top spoke. “Your Majesty—”
“Please, call me Celestia,” she said.
“Princess,” Top said pointedly. “You know that the R.I.S. is always at your service. You command, we obey. However, I’m hesitant to dispatch an investigator on something that, if you’ll pardon me, sounds so,” he paused, trying to find the right words to not offend his princess, “so... trivial.”
Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but Top continued before she could. “It’s just that, well, it is the Everfree Forest. Tartarus knows how many wild, bloodthirsty creatures call that place home. I’d hate to pull an agent in just to find it a simple case of somepony running afoul of a cockatrice. You understand, your highness?”
Celestia nodded slowly. “I wholeheartedly understand, Top. However, I’m afraid I must insist.”
Her words were met by a raised eyebrow. “Anything in particular to prompt your... insistence?”
She closed her eyes, and spoke softly. “Call it a hunch.”
Top sat back in his chair, rubbing his bright blue eyes with his hoof. After a few moments of silence, he spoke again. “Very well, your highness. Consider it done. I’ll have an agent in town as soon as possible.”
Celestia looked him right in the eye. “Now, Top, this is my most faithful student. I want your best pony on this one.”
It was Top’s turn to give a knowing smile. “I already have the perfect stallion for the job. He’s a bit... eccentric, we’ll say, but he’s the best I’ve got.”
He stood up and walked over to a large filing cabinet next to his desk. With a quiet squeak of the hinges, he pulled out a large manila folder. “If memory serves... ah, yes. He’s just returning from an assignment in Las Pegasus. If I redirect his train, I can have him in Ponyville within the week.”
Celestia stood again. “Director Notch, I can’t thank you enough."
Top beamed at her and bowed once again. “Your grace, your mere presence and allowing me to serve you is thanks enough.” His horn glowed once more, and the barrier around the door disappeared with a slight crackle. Celestia bowed her head and turned to leave.
“Uh, Princess,” he said. She turned back to see him. His eyebrows were quirked slightly. “If memory serves, and at my age it may well not, but isn’t Ms. Sparkle General Shining Armor’s little sister? Won’t he want to handle this?”
Celestia shook her head. “Don’t misunderstand, General Armor is one of the best military ponies to have ever served me, but the last thing I want is a brigade of Royal Guards invading the town and spreading panic. Shining is a fine officer, but he can be a bit... protective of his baby sister.” Her voice dropped. “Besides, I’d rather this stay under wraps for the time being.”
“He’s going to find out eventually, you know.” His expression darkened slightly. “And he probably won’t be too happy about an R.I.S. investigation involving his sister going on without his knowledge.”
Celestia turned back to the door, swinging it open with her magic. “I’ll handle General Armor. You just ensure your agent gets there soon.” She walked out the door, but paused before shutting it behind her. “Oh, and Director Notch?”
“Make sure he keeps a close eye on Twilight,” she said softly.
Top once again bowed his head. “Of course, your grace.”
As the door shut with a quiet click, Top sat back behind his desk, shoving the mountain of paperwork aside. If he was going to reroute his agent, he needed to do it fast, but something she said caused him to sit for a moment.
Call it a hunch.
In all his years of service, he had never known Celestia to directly request R.I.S. intervention without good reason. While he and Celestia shared a colorful past together, and Top was considered a close friend by both her and Luna, Celestia in particular had never been shy about voicing her discomfort with the R.I.S. She believed—very naively, he thought—that such a thing should be unneeded. The last time she had had a “hunch,” Canterlot was nearly overthrown by Changelings. Her calm demeanor had left a bad taste in his mouth. She seemed awfully certain something was wrong, yet she refused to say what.
Still, he was but a humble servant of the crown. Where his Princesses commanded, he went. He stood back up and trotted to the door, trying to remember where in the maze of hallways was the Department of Transportation.
He had a train to reroute.