Under A Luminous Sky
Jake The Army Guy
Chapter Eight: Safe Home
Bentgrass walked around the basement lab, taking in the technological wonders that filled the room. A bank of what he assumed were computer towers lined one wall, each aglow with small multicolored lights. Large metal pipes ran into the floor, leading from a vast containing of some unknown glowing, green liquid. He thought it best to not ask where it led, or what it carried. A faintly acidic smell came from a large cabinet filled with beakers and vials, some with bubbling liquid inside of them. He ran his hoof over the cabinet, raising the limb to his face and letting out a quiet, "Hmm,” when he found no dust.
He stopped next to a giant metal tower along the wall. Twilight was crouched behind the computer, the occasional click of turning knobs barely audible above the whirring of cooling fans inside the device. She flipped a switch, and the machine let out a loud hiss, causing Bentgrass to leap back. “So, let me see if I understand you properly, Ms. Sparkle. You’re saying that every time a unicorn performs magic, they leave behind... a residue?”
Twilight backed out from behind the contraption, staring at Bentgrass through a tiny pair of black-rimmed glasses. “Well, that’s a very crude and simplistic way to phrase a very complex theory.” She walked to the other side of the basement, the wooden floorboards creaking quietly as she made her way to a large screen along the left wall. “But essentially, yes.”
After looking at his hooves for a moment, Bentgrass grimaced and worked his tongue in his mouth. “I shall have to remember to open doors with my hooves,” he muttered.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” she said. A series of quiet clacks came from a keyboard beneath the screen as Twilight tapped in commands. The screen suddenly flashed to light, bathing her in an eerie green haze. “All ponies emit some form of thaumatic energy.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Don’t you know anything about magical theory?”
“Only the very basics. The R.I.S. tends to eschew theory in favor of more practical things, like psychology and criminalistics.”
Twilight groaned and turned towards the main screen. “Fillystine.” She pulled a table towards her with her magic, on top of which sat a large, glass dome on a metal base, scattered with various dials and buttons on one side.The soft glow from the monitor cast a green hue across Twilight’s face as she punched in a series of commands.
“All magic leaves behind traces in the form of thaumatic radiation. In the case of passive magic, like an earth pony growing crops or pegasi flight, the radiation dissipates almost immediately.” A loud pop made Bentgrass jump. The glass dome suddenly began to emit a faint white light, the quiet hum of electricity emanating from it. “But active magic from unicorns can last for much longer.” She turned towards Bentgrass, who nodded slowly.“Give me the parasprite.”
Silently, Bentgrass lowered his mouth to his pocket and pulled out the small plastic bag. Using a pair of mouth-operated tongs, she took the deformed creature out of the bag and placed it inside the device.
“And this pertains to the case... how, exactly?”
Twilight turned to face him. "Well, I got to thinking about the parasprite. It's possible that particular one could be some sort of genetic mutation, but a whole swarm with the same trait? The odds are beyond astronomical!"
"Now, there is another possibility. What if they were magically mutated?"
“Hmm, interesting theory, Ms. Sparkle. The killer mutates a swarm of parasprites and forces them to attack the victims.” He began to pace slowly around the domed device. “He would be able to keep a large distance away, thus ensuring he leaves no physical evidence. However, isn’t that a little... complex?” He turned back to face her. “As I understand it, minor cosmetic changes require an awful lot of effort. Would it even be feasible to make such drastic changes permanent?”
Twilight frowned slightly, but held the determined look in her eyes. "I'll admit, it is kind of a long-shot. But the theory is sound, at least on a mechanical level. And the scanner will let us know if I'm right."
With that, she walked back to the controls and hit a button on the console. The dome flashed a brilliant white, causing both ponies to look away before it dimmed back to a dull glow. A soft hum emanated from the device, rhythmic clicks coming from inside. Twilight walked over to it, looking at the display on the side. "If there are traces of thaumatic radiation on the parasprite, this machine will detect it.”
Bentgrass smiled at her. “I believe I see where you are going with this. You wish to identify the type of magic used.”
“Exactly. Different disciplines of magic have unique traits and signatures.”
Bentgrass slowly nodded. “Ah, I see. We have used a similar forensic process to identify where drowning victims died by examining the water in their lungs.”
Twilight made her way back to the glowing dome, fiddling with the knobs on the machine. Every now and then she turned back to look at the large screen. “Yes. If I can identify the signature of the magic used on the parasprite—”
“Then we can vastly narrow our suspect pool.” He smiled at her. “Once more, Ms. Sparkle, I stand humbly impressed.”
She blushed at the compliment. “Well, don’t pat me on the back yet. This is all still very theoretical. It’s... actually going to be my next publication. The scan will most likely take until morning.”
“Well, in any case, it is a massive step in the right direction.” He pulled out a piece of paper from his coat pocket, eying it carefully. A rough sketch of the bizarre markings from the victim’s flank covered the entire page. “Now, we must find out what this symbol means.”
“And that’s where I come in!” They both turned to see Spike walking down the stairs.
Twilight smiled up at him, walking to meet him at the bottom of the stairs. “Did you get the books I asked for?”
Spike looked around the room at the collection of scientific oddities before hunching over and curling his arms up at his chest. “Yes, Master,” he growled, squinting his left eye and wringing his hands together. “Soon, you will be able to rrrr-rule the world!” He threw his head back and cackled.
He abruptly stopped his evil laugh and cleared his throat when he saw her scowl. “Uh, anyway, I got the books you asked for. Sage Sash’s Symposium of Symbols, Ironside’s Intelligence of Ideographs, and Pitch Perfect Pictograms, all sitting on the main table upstairs. Also, since I feel like this is going to be an all-nighter, a plate of miniature daffodil sandwiches and a large pot of coffee.” He spread his arms out and gave a deep bow. “Who do you love?”
“Um... Shining Armor?”
Spike’s arms fell as he huffed at her, tiny wisps of smoke coming from his nostrils. "I think I'll go feed the sandwiches to Pee Wee. At least he appreciates me," he grumbled as he turned away and walked up the stairs. Halfway up, he groaned and scratched his back.
“Hey, stop it!” She tossed a nearby rag at him.
He picked up the rag and threw it back at her. “Oh, come on, Twilight! They’re my wings! I can scratch if I want.”
“They’re not wings yet, and if you keep messing with them, they won’t be.”
“Well, can’t you use a spell or something to make them hurry up and erupt already? This itch is driving me insane!” he pleaded, rubbing his back against the wall of the stairwell.
Twilight shook her head. “Sorry, Spike. Dragons are extremely resistant to outside magic, you know that. Besides,” she said, raising her eyebrow, “you remember what happened that last time you had an unnatural growth spurt?”
“Meh, I’m sure Ponyville would under—” a loud yawn overtook him and he stretched his arms— “understand if I leveled a few buildings,” he grumbled as he walked out of the basement door.
After the door slammed, the basement was silent save for the rhythmic clicking of the scanner and the quiet whirring of cooling fans in the massive computer towers. Bentgrass turned back to Twilight, who watched Spike leave with a sad gaze.
“You two seem to be very close,” he finally said.
Twilight gave a sad smile, still looking at the shut door. “He’s my number one assistant.”
Bentgrass slowly approached her. “One’s heart does not break over an assistant, Ms. Sparkle.”
Twilight spun around to stare at him, but the annoyance died off as she looked at the impassive gaze he gave her. She nodded slowly, pawing at the floor. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have many friends.” She frowned. “Actually, I didn’t have any friends besides Shiny... Shining Armor."
She paced back towards the computer screen. The green light reflected off of her glasses, her eyes unreadable. "When I moved to the castle to study with the Princess, we started seeing each other less and less. Then he shipped off to Basic Training, and... I was alone again.
"Celestia tried to get me out more, giving me errands out in the market, assigning me with special study partners. But at the end of the day, I'd always crawl back to my books. Where it was... safe.” She turned back to face Bentgrass. "Then one day, Celestia walks in my room with this tiny little dragon that I hadn't seen in years, says he's going to be my new assistant. I can still remember him asking what a ‘libary’ was! I was a little hesitant, but he was so eager! Within a few months, we were inseparable, and he's been with me ever since." She sighed, a distant look in her eyes. "I don't know what I'm going to do without him..."
"How much longer does he have?" Bentgrass asked after a few moments.
Twilight’s eyes went wide for a moment, shocked at his insight. Finally, she shook her head, her ears splayed. "There's no way to be sure. We still know so little about dragon biology. But... it's been getting harder and harder to wake him up in the morning."
"Shouldn't he be preparing? Finding a cave, building a hoard?"
"We found one already, on the mountain range at the other end of the Everfree Forest. That way the smoke from his snores won’t bother anypony. As for a hoard, we're both pretty sure that once Rarity finds out, she'll spend almost all her free time gathering gems for him."
Bentgrass raised his eyebrow. "They don't know yet?"
She shook her head. "He doesn't want them to worry. I told him they’ll need time to get used to it, but he hates the idea of ponies crying over him.”
The room was silent once more, until Bentgrass placed a hoof on her shoulder. She jerked at the touch, surprised more that he would actually touch somepony than by the act itself. "You know, Twilight, what little we do know tells us that the Wrymm-Sleep is a natural part of a dragon's life cycle. You had to know it was coming."
Twilight shrugged off his hoof, staring at him through narrowed eyes. "Knowing doesn't help." She raised her head to look at the ceiling once more. "He's been like... he is, my little brother. And one of these days, he's going to go to sleep, and I'm never going to see him again. I'll be long dead by the time he wakes up."
She turned to Bentgrass. Though her face remained neutral, a wet sheen had built up behind her eyes. "I just can't help but think, did I teach him enough? When he wakes up he'll... he'll be all alone. The Princess will still be here, but what if she forgets about him? Will he be able to care for himself?
“What if ponies forget about the sweet little dragon he was, and think he’s some monster? Who knows, maybe after a hundred years he... he’ll forget about me.” A single tear worked down her cheek. "Did I let him know how much he means to me? Did I ever... did I tell him I loved him enough?"
Bentgrass said nothing for a while, then gently placed his hoof back on her shoulder. "Twilight, a very wise pony once said, 'Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.' Loss is not an obstacle easily conquered, and lesser ponies have torn themselves to pieces wondering what could have been." His voice suddenly got very distant. "Wallowing in the pits of past mistakes, wondering if only they had done things differently..."
Twilight sniffled and looked at him. He wasn't looking at her, rather he seemed to look past her, staring into nothing. His pale grey eye was facing her, and for a split second, she thought she could see a faint wetness in it.
"Well," he said suddenly, turning to face the stairs, "I, uh... I believe you have your hooves full down here. I-I shall go upstairs and peruse the books gathered by young Mr. Spike. See if I can decipher this symbol." With that, he trotted up the stairs, his hoofsteps lost under the whir of technology as he closed the door behind him.
Slowly, Twilight walked back to the computer screen. He was right; they had a job to do. She set herself to the task, her hooves slowly typing in commands. As she typed, listening to the rhythmic clacks of the keyboard, she tried desperately to clear her mind of the one thought that would not go away.
Big Macintosh eased himself into his bed with a sigh, the springs protesting under his considerable bulk. The sun had finally set over Sweet Apple Acres, and Mac wanted nothing more than to melt into his bed and tune out the world. From dawn to dusk, he had sat at the kitchen table downstairs, slowly sipping on light cider while juggling the many ledgers that made up the financial side of the family business.
Through his father’s old reading glasses he had stared at endless rows of numbers. While Applejack was the heart of the family business, as well as a good portion of the muscle, Mac was the brains, having spent a few years away at an upper-class business school at the behest of Granny Smith. She had said it was because the future of the farm lay in his hooves, but he suspected she was just tired of the math.
Even as he laid his head on his pillow, visions of production numbers, tax rates, and expenditures danced in his bright green eyes. As soon as the books were balanced, he'd headed straight to bed, only pausing to remove his ever-present yoke. He hadn't even bothered with a shower, figuring that since he was alone, nopony would care. Besides, Rainbow said she kinda likes the way I stink, he thought with a warm smile.
It was years ago when they’d first met. Dash and AJ had been friends for a long time, though Mac never really paid her much attention beyond recognizing her as a pretty face. It was only when the two mares had butted heads in the Iron Pony competition all those years ago that he truly began to appreciate her. There was a certain grace to her every move, the kind only a trained athlete could have. What had really drawn him in, however, was her spirit. She had a fire, a passion, a drive to be the best in all she did. No matter what the activity, she threw herself at it, all the while wearing that smug grin that made his heart flutter.
Only after she had come home from her time in the Wonderbolts had he finally worked up the courage to ask her out, shaking like a leaf in a storm and stuttering like a colt. A series of pleasant lunches turned into romantic nights on the town. Eventually, she became somewhat of a regular fixture at the farm house. Mac grimaced at the memory of the first time he’d officially brought her home. The speech Granny Smith had given Rainbow, threatening to clip her wings if she didn’t treat him right, had made both of them shudder.
None of that matters. For the first time in his life, he felt a connection with somepony that only seemed to grow with time. Every moment with Dash made him feel complete: a whole stallion. Turning his head, he looked to the dresser that sat next to the door, his mind going to the small box inside. It had cost him almost a month’s worth of disposable income, and AJ was going to pitch a fit when she found the money gone, but he felt Rainbow was worth it. Now, he just had to work up the courage to use it. Sighing heavily, he turned back to face the opposite wall. Maybe some day...
A creak from the nearby window broke him from his reverie. Lifting his head off the pillow, he saw the pane was opened slightly, a faint breeze carrying the sweet scent from the orchard into the room. Funny, I don't remember leavin' the window op—
A shadow suddenly passed over the floor, a strong breeze ruffling the curtains around the window. Mac jerked upright, instantly alert. Leaping out of bed, he stared at the open window. "Who's there?"
There was no answer. Cocking his head, he slowly approached the window, eyes scanning the darkness. It had been many years since somepony had tried to break into the farmhouse, and that poor soul had left in an ambulance instead of a paddy wagon. Still, a sense of unease crept into his mind as he stepped towards the window. Then, he heard it: a faint scratching, like somepony rubbing a hoof against the wooden paneling of the farmhouse. Mac took a defensive posture, muscles in his legs tensing, ready to whip around and buck whoever dared to violate the sanctity of his home.
For a moment, he stood still as death, ears straining for signs of life. The soft breeze had died down, leaving an eerie calm in the room, the only sound being his bated breath. Finally, he let out a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Dang it, Mac, yer gettin' para—
In a blur of movement, something lunged from outside and tackled him to the ground. Mac let out a strangled cry as his legs were pinned to the ground. He struggled for a moment before his eyes finally opened to reveal a pair of rose-colored eyes staring at him.
"Hi!" Rainbow said cheerfully, leaning down and pecking him on the cheek. Mac stared at her through wide eyes as she fell off of him clutching her sides, her scratchy voice cracking under a torrent of laughter.
Mac sat up roughly, glaring at her. "Dag-nabit, Dashie! It’s been almost a year! I think you've earned the right to use the front door!"
She slowly sat up, wiping a tear from her eye. "What, and miss that epic face you made? Never," she said with a grin.
Mac grumbled. "Come here, filly."
Mac hefted Rainbow off the ground with ease, hooking his hooves under her forelegs and gently tossing her to the bed. Before she could react, he leapt on her, pinning her down with his legs. He glared at her for a split second before leaning down and kissing her passionately. She tensed, but soon melted into the kiss. He worked his foreleg underneath her, his hoof gently rubbing the spot between her wings, making her groan and lean into him harder.
The two continued the affectionate display for a few minutes before Mac finally pulled away, earning a frustrated groan from Dash. Once she finally opened her eyes, she shot him a sly grin. "Mmm, I should piss you off more often."
Mac chuckled lightly. "You do what you can afford," he said, rolling off of her. She turned to face away from him as he placed his foreleg around her, pulling her close. She adjusted herself, snuggling up next to him, enjoying the feel of his large muscles and the faint smell of apples and earth.
"So, how goes the finances?"
Mac groaned. "Slower’n zap-apple jam in January. How in the hay can a day of doing math be more exhausting than a day of buckin' apples?"
"I get you. I always hated math. That was the worst part of the Wonderbolts, we always had to exactly plan out our routines. Angles of attack, wind resistance, every arc planned down to the degree." She shuddered.
“Well, I think I got it all done. Though if the R.I.S. comes a-callin’ here in a few weeks, I expect you to hide me.”
Rainbow chuckled. “Lucky for me they’re already here.”
She rolled over to face him. “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know.” She proceeded to tell him everything she knew. The strange government agent, the trip to Zecora’s, sneaking into the hospital. Mac sat in rapt attention. As she rattled on, detailing the gruesome events, his hold on her tightened slightly.
When she finished, he just stared at her. “Wow.”
“Yeah, I know, right?”
"So, somepony... killed Berry Punch?"
"I know. It’s hard to believe. A murderer in Ponyville."
"And now two more ponies?"
Rainbow simply nodded.
"Do you know who?"
She shook her head. “I, uh... kinda left before Twilight could tell me.”
She rolled back over, leaning against him. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she mumbled.
Mac decided not to press the issue, so he simply put his foreleg back around her, pulling her in tight. They lay there for a few minutes, him gently stroking her foreleg. Her feathers gently rubbed against his chest, the soft down a very pleasant sensation. Slowly, she began to relax, her muscles releasing the tension they always seemed to hold.
“Did... did you know Berry Punch?”
Mac sighed. “Well, I seen her a few times, when me and AJ would go down to the Waterin’ Hole to celebrate a big bumper crop. But no, I didn’t rightly know her. Why, did you?”
“Not really. I mean, before I joined the ‘Bolts, I would always go down there to listen to the races on the weekends. I saw her there every time, and she seemed nice enough. Always laughing, being the center of attention. I wanted to go say hi, but I always put it off. Figured I’d just do it next time. Now, it’s too late.” She shifted in his grasp, her wings fluttering slightly. “It’s weird. Like, one minute she’s there, the next... poof, she’s gone. Makes you think.”
“Oh? About what?”
“You know... things! Like... what’s really important. What... what we leave behind, ya know?”
Behind her, Mac smiled. Often he wondered how she really felt about him. It still confused him how a daredevil like her could love a simple farmpony like him. All the time, she was brash, headstrong, even obstinate. When they were alone, however, she would let her guard down, and Mac would see the real Rainbow Dash: caring, a little insecure beneath the cocky grin and wild attitude. He also knew it was moments like these that made her uncomfortable, and he knew how to make her feel at ease.
“Aw, is my little jock tryin’ to get introspective?”
“Eh, go have sex with your sister, yokel.”
“Funny, according to the rumor mill, you’re the one—”
She jerked her head around, a deep scowl on her face. “Mac, tonight of all nights, you finish that sentence, and I swear to Celestia I will buck you into next week.”
“Mmm, don’t tempt me with a good time.”
She elbowed him lightly. “Perv.”
He chuckled, nuzzling her behind her ear. “Ah, I’m just messin’ with ya, honey.”
They lay there quietly for a few moments as Mac’s heart began to race. “But I... I understand what you're tryin’ to say. Like... like life’s short, an’... um, ya wonder where you're goin’, and... and who ya want to... uh, to be there when... when you get there.” He mentally kicked himself. His eyes flicked back to the dresser.
Dag-nabit, Mac! Just do it!
Oh, thank Celestia.
“Uh, I need to tell you something.”
He could feel her body tense, the muscles in her wings jumping. “Well, I... I-I, uh...”
“Dashie, what is it?”
“I... I’m, uh...” Finally, she sighed, the tension leaving her. “I’m gonna stick close to Twilight until that agent pony leaves. She, uh... she may need some protection, ya know?”
Mac said nothing for a few moments, simply holding her close. “Well, you be careful. It ain’t just you anymore.”
She suddenly jerked upright, whirling around to face him. “W-W-What?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, it’s not just you. There’s an ‘us’ now.” He lowered his eyes, the blush only hidden by his red fur. “I can't rightly put into words how much ya mean to me, Dash. I... I’m not sure what I’d do if somthin’ happened to you.”
Rainbow visibly relaxed, her wings lowering back into place. “Oh... heh, right. Well, don’t worry about me. Careful is my middle name!”
He looked back at her, a playful look in his eye. “I thought it was Miriam.”
Dash rolled her eyes and smacked him on the shoulder. “Smart-flank,” she mumbled before rolling back over. Mac chuckled and pulled her back in. Slowly, the two began to relax more, the day taking it’s toll on them both for different reasons. Mac could feel the rising and falling of her chest slow, the breaths nearly falling into rhythm with his own. He laid his head in her mane, the scent of rain clouds filling his nostrils.
“Love you, hillbilly.”
He planted a light kiss on her ear. “Love you too, featherbrain.”
They drifted off to sleep, a content smile on both their faces.
There was no moon in the sky, the bright stars that flickered in the sky providing little light to the ground below. Deep in the Everfree, it was pitch black save for the mild glowing of fireflies. Predators stalked through the trees; large, glowing eyes piercing the darkness. It was the one area of Equestria untouched by pony hooves. Here, the monsters and creatures of nightmares reigned. However, there was one area of the black woods that even the fiercest manticore didn’t dare to tread.
The light from a small fire sent twisted shadows writhing across the stone walls of the forgotten palace. Once opulent tapestries, now rotted by time, hung from rusted nails set in stone. Outside the small chamber, tendrils of ivy had reclaimed much of the castle.
The sound of hooves clicking on stone echoed in the room. A figure wrapped in a thick brown cloak walked past the fire and up to the small altar on the wall. A pair of silver candle holders sat on either end of the alter, dried wax obscuring the intricately carved symbols and figures. The flickering light reflected off of an old silver plate, splattered with faint traces of crimson. A coppery scent wafted up to the figure's nostrils as he looked down on the fruits of the previous night's harvest, the two reddish lumps on the plate glowing with a dull sheen.
A quiet murmur came from beneath the cloak, whispered in an ancient language unheard by ponykind for thousands of years. The words rolled off the figure's tongue with practiced ease as a light wind began to blow in the small room. The candles began to dance wildly, the wind picking up speed as the chant became louder and more aggressive. Outside, the creatures of the Everfree became silent, some fleeing from the arcane magic flowing from the room.
The figure was shouting now, the howling wind extinguishing the small campfire. Strangely, the candles did not go out. Instead, they began to glow even brighter, the light almost blinding and turning a bright red. The figure reached out a hoof and picked up the first harvest, still slick with blood but now as cold as the outside air. Lifting the harvest up from the plate the figure could feel the arcane magic of the ritual pulse into it, the small lump quivering and pulsating.
Finally, as the final words were screamed in the driving wind, the mound of flesh beat. Slowly and lethargically, it pumped, trying to push blood that no longer existed, the arcane energy of the spell resurrecting the cold lump of muscle. With a final yell, the figure thrust the harvest into its mouth, biting hard. Instantly, the figure’s eyes began to glow with a dull shine, soon blazing as bright as the red flames on either side of the altar. The eyes went wide as the figure swallowed, feeling the power transfer from the organ. The essence of the pony it came from drained into the figure’s body, infusing it with raw arcane power.
Panting from the rush of power, the figure snatched the other harvest and shoved it into its mouth, swallowing it almost whole. The cloak rippled from the inside as power—unimaginable power—coursed through the figure’s veins. The last harvest gone, the figure let loose a feral howl that echoed through the now silent room, the blowing wind cutting off as soon as the ritual was complete.
The figure gasped for breath before the hood fell away, revealing a cruel smile. The involvement of the agent from Canterlot was an... unexpected nuisance. But that was all it was: a minor setback.
Soon, very soon, I will have the power to get my revenge. All who scorned, mocked, rejected me shall kneel at my hooves once I take my rightful place among the stars!
A deep, melodious chuckle echoed in the small room as the figured turned to leave. The agent and the Princess's apprentice could do nothing to stop it. The experiment with the insects had been a complete success. All that was left now was to test on a more... complex animal.
Deep in the heart of the Everfree, an inequine laugh echoed through the still trees.