Red Right Hoof
Chapter Five: Cryptologists
A small, insignificant town in the middle of Equestria. A settlement that had never been important or noticeable in any way. A few farms, and that was it. No industry, no values for tourism, just a detached, cozy nowhere. Until Princess Celestia chose to organize a Summer Sun Celebration there on the thousandth anniversary of kicking Princess Luna to the moon. After that it became the center of all the craziness that occurred in the kingdom. According to the brief reports the pony had read a few months ago, within last year Ponyville was attacked by an alicorn possessed by dark magic, almost suffocated to death by an elder dragon, infested with civilization-threatening pests, ruled by an interspecies lunatic… and probably much more. After that, he stopped reading. There were many more annual reports due that day, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see them.
Yet, Ponyville, after all the craziness that happened to it through all this time, remained virtually intact. Same old architecture, same old sleepiness, same old simplicity of life. The pony was sure that if he was given a photograph from five years before at that very moment to compare, he would have found few minor changes.
It was a Saturday morning, the day of the traditional weekly fair. Different merchants from surrounding villages and towns streamed in and out, and the square before the town hall resembled a little anthill from the edge of the nearby forest.
“All right, agents,” the pony spoke with a tired tone, “do any of you have questions about the mission?”
There was no answer. He felt out of place as the commander of an intervention squad. The Boss assigned him to this job, and he should have felt honored, but instead he was constantly afraid of a situation in which even one of his agents would show even the tiniest hint of insubordination. He wasn’t one of those who had natural leadership skills. He preferred to work on his own, sometimes in pairs as partners, but never as someone to give orders.
Besides, he wasn’t happy at all with this assignment. If he could say no, he definitely would have done it. However, it wasn’t the best time to say no to his boss. Not in the face of an emergency like this.
“Very well then. You all have your assignments. We meet here at the appointed hour. That’s it. Good luck, agents.”
The ponies, all dressed in black uniforms, went in their directions without a word. Even far away from their assigned action areas, they moved almost without any noise. After maybe a dozen seconds, they all vanished, leaving only two ponies on the tiny clearing.
“Well, Jonquil,” said a mare with a chocolate-colored coat, “how does it feel to have power?”
The pony didn’t answer. He stared into the center of the marketplace, stirring in a strange harmony.
“Look at these ponies.” He described an arc in the air. “You know, when I first started working in the agency it was like a buck to the head. Suddenly, when I looked around me I saw a completely different Equestria, a completely different world than I had believed in. All the colors in which I was raised became darker, and all the beauty I believed in became a children’s story I put back on a shelf and never got back to it. Soon after, I found a motto that follows me to this day. That motto will follow me to my grave.”
“What is it?”
“The same one that each of us must have said to ourselves many, many times.” He adjusted the shades on his nose. “Ignorance is bliss.
“And it is our job to make sure that the bliss of our fellow citizens is maintained. Let them be ignorant. Let them see the colors in the way they should see them. Let them live this adorable bedtime story. May they be just happy with their lives, and we will take care of the rest. By any means necessary.”
He sighed and clenched his teeth. By any means necessary.
* * *
“You still haven’t answered my question,” said Sweetie. “Why are you here? I would have never expected you in Ponyville.”
We returned to the café that we had just left. Sweetie Belle, of course, ordered another strong coffee, and so did the rest of us. This day was already tiring, and it wasn’t even noon yet. And we all braced for much, much more to come.
“Well,” Doctor Feint started, sipping on a cup of cappuccino, “maybe you were not aware of it, but I own a small holiday house not far away from Ponyville. I come here every summer vacation for half a month, sometimes more. If you had known me before, we would have probably met here more than once. I really like your fairs and I try not to miss any of them. Now, tell me how I can be of your service this time.”
“Huh?” Sweetie looked surprised. “What do you mean?”
“Oh come on,” he smirked. “I don’t claim to be super smart, but even I can clearly see you want something from me. When I saw you at the marketplace, you looked at me like I was a Hearth Warming Eve’s present you were hoping to get. Go on then, what do you need me for?”
We looked at each other, puzzled. Scootaloo bit her lip. I nodded. If he really was a good cryptologist, he indeed could be our hope. Sweetie Belle nodded back.
“Doctor Feint… can we trust you?” she asked timidly.
In response, he snorted. “Oh, I would expect better from you, my dear. That is one of the silliest questions one can ask.”
“So am I.” He leaned back in his chair. “So what if I say yes? Frankly, I don’t really know it myself. Depends on what you need. Besides, what if you couldn’t trust me? Would I say no? From my experience, if someone says yes, that’s a sign you should think twice before trusting them. So my answer is: I hope so.”
“Fine.” Sweetie shook her head. “I will take my chances then.
“As you have correctly guessed, we do have a problem that we can’t handle on our own. We roped ourselves into something that may be too overwhelming for us. We have this friend here, in Ponyville. Her name is Rainbow Dash.”
“Oooh boy,” Feint interrupted. “I can see where this is going. What did Dashie do this time?”
“Wait, you know her?” Scootaloo furrowed her brow. “I mean, sure, you might have heard of her, since she’s done a few things for which she can be considered famous, but… you said it like you knew each other personally.”
The doctor shrugged. “Maybe that’s because we do know each other personally. I dare say we know each other very well. We are relatives.”
“You what?” Sweetie’s jaw dropped. “Are you her uncle or something?”
“Not quite. I’m her cousin. Well, not quite either. My father and her father are cousins. That means we had common… great-grandparents if I recall correctly. So I guess that makes us second cousins. Is that correct? I’m not good at this.”
“Yep,” I replied instantly. Well, no surprise, right? I’m an Apple. Our family tree had always been huge and branchy. With the amount of closer and further relatives, twisted connections – sometimes tricky, since there were a few controversial cases of loosely related Apples marrying each other – I was an expert in reading the concentration of mutual blood between ponies. It was a science that everyone in my family was good at. As an Apple, you could never know when you might stumble upon a distant member of your family. And it was always a good idea to do a little research on every pony you became closer with, just in case you might find yourself in one bed with them at some point.
“So, as you can see, I do indeed know Rainbow Dash,” said Doctor Feint. “Now what’s the problem with her this time?”
“Well…” Sweetie Belle gulped and lowered her voice. “We believe someone is trying to frame her for murder.”
The weak smile on the doctor’s face faded. Not instantly. Like his brain processed the information at much lower rate than it usually did. He blinked rapidly a few times.
“Excuse me?” he spoke, very slowly. “I hope you’re joking.”
I shook my head. “No, unfortunately, we are not joking. But fortunately for Rainbow Dash, it was us who found out about this mess first. Otherwise, she would probably be losing a trial for murder right now.”
“But…” Doctor Feint’s eyes travelled between all three of us, like searching for any hint telling that we weren’t being serious after all. “What do you mean, framed? And what murder? What the hell are you talking about?
“All right. Listen.” He composed himself. He took a deep breath and conspiratorially looked around. “This is definitely not the right place to talk about it. We need some private space so you can give me the details there. Meet me at my house in an hour. I will give you directions. And make sure no one is following you.”
I felt a cold shiver down my spine. The paranoia about being watched hit me again. “What do you mean, following us? Why would anyone follow us?” I asked, trying to convince myself that it was only my imagination.
“You claim Dashie's being framed,” he replied. His old, half-closed eyes drilled through my head. “If someone is trying to frame somepony else, they will likely keep an eye on the situation. You didn’t take that into consideration?”
“Well…” Sweetie hung her voice.
The stallion hid face in his hooves. “I get it. Just be very careful from now on, okay? Make sure that you get there without anyone on your tail. Is that possible for you?”
“Oh well.” I smirked, struck by a sudden idea. “I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
* * *
I asked my whole family about it, but nobody could give me a satisfying answer. Applejack didn't know. Big Macintosh didn't know. Granny Smith used to know, but she forgot at some point, and eventually she took that knowledge, hidden somewhere in her deep memories, with her to the grave.
Sweet Apple Acres had a tunnel. A secret passage, so to speak. It began in one of our cellars and ended somewhere in the woods. And no one knew what it was for. Nopony even had an idea why it was built in the first place. Maybe it was an emergency exit, maybe a place to hide and run in dire situations, maybe just a fantasy of my ancestors that had too much spare time. In the end I stopped caring. The thing that mattered was that the tunnel existed. I had always considered it the coolest thing in Sweet Apple Acres. After all, what's more exciting for a foal than mysteries and secret passages? Actually, what's more exciting for anyone than mysteries and secret passages?
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle obviously knew about it. Oh, how many times we had made up stories about the tunnel. How many times we had traveled back and forth through it for no real reason. A few times we even thought of making a few ramifications, but Big Macintosh explained that without proper supports, they would probably collapse and that we should stick to the safe passage the way it was.
Despite the whole relationship between the tunnel and me, I had never imagined it would actually become useful at any point in my life. But it did.
The idea was simple. If we had anyone on our tail, we had to lose them. And what would be more effective than making the potential tail believe that we were somewhere inside my house, when actually we were far away, in the woods, on our way to Doctor Feint?
Sweetie Belle, being the stallion's favorite student, managed to get infected with his passion and knew a few of the absolute basics of cryptology principles. One of them was that one doesn't really need a huge amount of text to work on decoding it. Of course the more the better, but after a certain amount, it usually became negligible. Therefore, we decided not to bring the whole suitcase with us. We went to Scootaloo's house, carefully copied everything from the first sheet and put the suitcase back under the bed. Having dealt with that, we simply walked towards Sweet Apple Acres, like we just wanted to hang out there.
"Applejack?" I decided to check if my siblings were home. It was highly improbable, considering the fair, but better safe than sorry. I wasn't a little foal anymore, so entering the tunnel could raise suspicions. "Mac?"
No answer. I shrugged and led us to the basement.
As I mentioned before, the passage was my playground, and I loved to have fun with my playgrounds. A secret tunnel wasn't so secret unless it was somehow hidden. Originally it was just a door in the wall, and I couldn't have left it like that. I found an old wardrobe and, with some work, managed to install hinges on its back wall. I turned it into a camouflaged vestibule to my tunnel. Impressive, right?
Even if someone followed us inside my house, which I doubted, they would have some serious problems finding this. Not wanting to lose any time, we got in.
"How do you think he will react?" Scootaloo asked in the dim light coming out from Sweetie's horn.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"Imagine yourself in his situation," she said. "He has come here for vacation, and suddenly we come up to him and tell him that his younger cousin has been framed for murder. If you ask me, his reaction was relatively calm for such news. Now we are going to tell him that it's connected to some kind of conspiracy including intelligence information, the Wonderbolts and the Weather Patrol. This may overwhelm him."
"We are not telling him about Soarin and Filthy Rich," Sweetie Belle cut in.
"Because we just need him to decrypt this data. The less he knows… the less everyone knows, the better. We do not want him to be a part of this, and probably neither does he."
"She is his cousin," I noted. "I would assume he'd want to help his relative."
"Maybe you're right," Sweetie replied after a short pause. "Still, we don't want to put him in danger, agreed? And we want him to only decipher this, nothing more. We will handle the rest. Also, the thing you say, that he'd help his cousin, can actually be a bad thing. What if he gets too emotional? We had to do everything we could not to approach this issue with emotions. For him it would likely be even more difficult."
The walk through the tunnel was harder than I remembered. I hadn't been there for quite some time, and I just now realized how much I had grown since the last time. We all had to walk with our heads bent down, and the whole passage felt claustrophobic in general.
My paranoia once again woke up inside my head. Doctor Feint's words disturbed me more than I showed. I imagined somepony waiting for us at the end with an ironic smile and saying the cliché 'well, well, well' at the very moment we stuck our heads out of the hole. I tried to fight them, but they were stronger than me.
Eventually, we made it to the end. The tunnel finished with a tiny natural cavern, formed by a stream in a crack between two rocks. The exit wasn't masked in any way. The creators, whoever they were, didn't consider a possibility of anyone squeezing themselves between the said two rocks. And they were probably right.
As we climbed out, we found ourselves in deep forest. I knew that we were no farther than half a kilometer away from the edge of our apple orchards, but there was no chance that we could be seen from there. Regardless, I pushed my friends forward. Maybe it was because of too much contact with fiction, but I always followed the "never say never" rule.
"We need to get to the road." Sweetie looked around.
"No, we don't," I replied. "I know every inch of these woods. I also know this house, I just never knew who lived there. This way." I pointed with my hoof.
"Are you guys as excited as I am?" Scootaloo grinned. "This could be a huge step forward in our investigation."
"As a matter of fact, I am," replied Sweetie. "Especially after the events of this morning."
"And that is because…?"
"Look." She stopped. "Remember when we discussed the suitcase problem? That it can be either a smokescreen or the core issue of the whole situation? Now we know that not only Soarin is involved, but also Filthy Rich. A big suspect means a big case. Which would lead to the conclusion that the files are indeed important. It would, if not the fact that the suitcase was simply not taken. Normally I would consider it a sign of the killer's sloppiness, but from what Applebloom said, Filthy specifically mentioned no loose ends."
My eyes widened. "Are you suggesting that…" I hung my voice, but with a gesture Sweetie encouraged me to end my thought. "That they left it there on purpose?"
She nodded. "And I can think of two reasons why they would do that. It could be a hoax, which is possible, but in my opinion unlikely. Even if someone is heartless enough to kill another pony for their own interest, I would assume that Filthy Rich is wise enough not to leave a corpse on his trail unless it's absolutely necessary. And there are easier ways to pull a scam without the necessity to murder someone, not to mention that intelligence agencies must have some hidden ways to prove the authenticity of top secret papers. Too risky. That's why I believe that option two is more likely. That these files needed to be found in a certain way, by… I don't know, Police? Agents? I hope that decoding them will lead us to their scheme."
"They teach you stuff like this on the first year?" Scootaloo furrowed her brow.
"No." Sweetie smirked in response. "I'm just clever.”
* * *
Doctor Feint’s house lay in the middle of a small plain within the forest. It was made entirely of wooden logs, except for a tiny brick chimney. There was no road leading to it, only an insignificant path, ending at the main road to Bridleburg, according to what he said when he was giving us instructions. I felt a bit uneasy visiting a place like this – detached from civilization, owned by a much older pony that I didn’t even know. But it was much more difficult to be scared when I had my two best friends with me.
We knocked on the door, and the stallion opened it immediately.
“Come in,” he said, and closed the door. “Good that you made it quick. I am losing my mind here.”
He took us to the main room of the cabin. It looked exactly like a typical holiday house on the inside as much as it did on the outside. There was a soft rug, a sofa and two armchairs, cheesy landscape paintings on walls, and, of course, a fireplace. As cozy as it could be.
But there was apparently no time to waste on admiration of the décor, cause the stallion seated us on the sofa and immediately demanded that we tell him the whole story. So I did. We decided I would be most suitable for doing that, because Sweetie wasn’t with us since the very beginning, and Scootaloo had those bad tendencies of telling the story her way.
I kept everything brief and straight to the point. I wanted him to hear it free from our bias and suspicions. Also, following Sweetie's suggestion, I skipped the events from the morning. He didn’t interrupt me, but at the moment I told him about the body and the feathers, he cursed quietly. And the further I went, the more he frowned.
When I finally finished, a long silence fell between us.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said eventually. “As much as I appreciate what you did for my cousin, because believe me, it was an amazing thing to do, I don’t believe you can do anything about this case. And you might have put yourself in mortal danger. I understand,” he raised his voice when Sweetie opened her mouth to say something, “ that you want to do this anyway, and that you will even if I forbid you. I know, because I was in a similar situation once as well.
“Yes, I had a wild case of my own,” he continued, seeing our surprised faces. “And I know that if I had turned to the police with it, it would be lost because of their stiff investigation procedures. My common sense is screaming right now, especially considering that it’s my relative we’re talking about, but I know better than common sense. Sweetie Belle, you are my star student, and I believe in you. Having heard your story, I already know what you need me for, and I will do everything I can to help you. In return, I want only one thing from you three. Please, save my cousin.”
It was time to get to work. Doctor Feint went to the kitchenette to make some tea for us. I used this time to look around a bit more. From a few looks I could tell he was a traveler. A few of the paintings indicated that. There was Neighagra Falls, a street of Vanhoover, even a scene from the Frozen North. There was also a lot of souvenir trash everywhere. Mosquito net hat, classic snowglobe from Canterlot, wooden fish figurines from seashore regions… I also spotted a few postcards on the fireplace. One, showing some monumental buildings, was written in a very rough manner, like the author was not entirely sober.
I wish you were here, buddy. Our exotic beer tasting isn’t the same without you. If you don’t come with me next year, I will be seriously offended. I hope they pay you well at least.
The other one was a photograph over a dozen young ponies grinning towards the camera with tents and a big fireplace in the background.
Dear Doctor Feint,
We took your advice and made this trip after all. You were right, this is the best way to spend summer! We all hope you are having as much fun as we are.
General Law graduates, class year 1006
The last one was definitely written by a mare. Not only because of the contents, but because of the very feminine style. The picture showed a beautiful beach of Horseshoe Bay.
I miss you so much already. Please come as soon as you can. I’ll always be waiting…
“Do you have a wife, Doctor?” I asked, putting the postcard back in its place.
He looked at me with a sad gaze and sighed. “I… used to. She passed away a few years ago, giving birth to my son that didn’t survive it either.”
I felt like I was hit by a train. “I am so sorry…”
“It was devastating, yes, but I had to keep on going.” He smiled sadly. “She had always wanted to have a cabin in the woods, and I built it in her memory. I come here every summer so I never forget her.”
I had no idea what to say, and neither did my friends. Thankfully, the stallion put his smile back on. That weird expression in which all his face was smiling except his eyes, which stayed as tired and old as they always were. “All right then! Here’s our tea. Now show me that code.” He cracked his neck so loud that for a moment I was afraid he had broken it.
I had always thought that breaking codes was a one-pony job. Well, in fact I had never thought about breaking codes enough to wonder how many ponies would it require, but I expected one. It turned out that not only it could go faster when a few ponies were working on it, but also someone like me, who had absolutely no idea about it, had a chance to be useful in the process. If someone heard us not knowing the context, they would probably think we were "very special". Especially Feint. It seemed like he had entered a different, abstract world inside his head. He shouted a lot of incoherent things, stared at the paper, expressed his thoughts out loud. Our job was to swim in the abyss of his babble and fish out those moments when he actually said something to us, wanting us to write something down, do a simple calculation, count intervals between certain letters. We worked like this for a long time, taking breaks very often, till we noticed that sun was setting.
"We made huge progress, girls," he said eventually, wiping a drop of sweat off his brow.
"We did?" Sweetie frowned at the piece of paper before her. It was filled with incomprehensible gibberish.
"Yes. We can exclude about eighty percent of the common ciphers. And we can be quite sure it’s none of the simplest ones. You've been a great help. We are much closer to breaking it."
"We are?" I tilted my head.
"Yes. We actually can break it eventually, which is good news, and frankly, unexpected."
"We can?" Scootaloo just stared sheepishly at the stallion.
"Yes!" he said faintly, and heavily sat on the floor. "Now go home, before your absence gets suspicious."
We left the cabin with our brains steaming from overexertion. I imagined mine melting like a slice of cheese on grilled bread. All three of us staggered as we walked like we were drunk.
"Do you understand any of this?" I asked.
"Nope," they both replied in unison.
"Good." I nodded. "Because I was afraid that I was just an idiot."
The refreshing evening wind cooled my face a bit. I couldn't wait to reach the stream and dip my head in it. It took me a while to find our way back to the cracked rock and the entrance to the secret passage, but I did it eventually. We walked back barely talking at all. We were too tired to create theories, to analyze what we had. We all wanted the same thing. To finally lie down in our beds and forget about the whole world for these few hours of blissful oblivion of sleep. When we stepped out of my special wardrobe and climbed upstairs, the sun was already far beyond the horizon. Infecting each other with yawns, we managed to determine the place of our meeting for the next day, and then each of us turned towards their way to bed.
As I waddled back to Sweet Apple Acres, I stopped for a while and frowned. All the lights were out. And it wasn't a Friday anymore. I shrugged and continued walking. The main door was unlocked. The key was hanging on a nail like it always had. "I'm hoooome," I shouted. Applejack, even if she slept, would have woken up and shouted something back. She didn't.
I was very thirsty, so I dragged myself to the kitchen to have at least a glass of water. I turned the light on.
I saw two plates with half-eaten dinner on the table, and some of it in the pot on the stove. My heart started to beat faster. "AJ?" I shouted, much louder this time. "Big Macintosh? Are you home?"
I felt panic slowly gathering within me. My throat squeezed like someone had tied a knot on it. I stormed out of the kitchen and ran upstairs, calling for my siblings. There was no answer.
I checked all the rooms, but there was no sign of them anywhere. I ran out onto the porch. I saw a plow that Big Mac was trying to fix. I saw a small cart that Applejack must have brought back from the orchard but she didn't park it in the barn.
Suddenly, I noticed a movement. The silhouette of a pony, barely visible in the twilight, stood in the gate of our farm. I froze, terrified. I could easily tell that it was neither my brother nor my sister. For a few seconds that felt like eternity, I just stared at the figure, afraid to move a single muscle. Then I saw it waving to me.
Then it waved again.
Baffled, I just started walking towards it. Eventually, I recognized it, and I felt a slight wave of relief. It was just my neighbor, old lady Goldquill.
"Oh Applebloom," she groaned.
"Mrs. Goldquill, what are you doing out at this hour?"
"Applebloom, sweetheart," she cried. "They took them, I saw it. I saw it through my window."
I felt my knees bending under my weight.
"Who was taken? And by whom?" I almost yelled at her.
"Your brother and sister. They took them."
"Who? Who are they? Tell me!"
"They dressed in black. They had these dark glasses on their noses…" I saw tears forming in her eyes. "They just entered your house and took them out. And then walked away. I don't know what happened. Do you know anything about it, Applebloom? Applebloom…?"
I wasn't listening to her anymore. I was galloping towards Ponyville, almost breaking my legs on the way. Adrenaline hummed in my ears, pressed against my temples. Everything was blurry as I ran. And I just ran. Somewhere. Anywhere. To find them. To catch them. I didn't even know where to start looking. My brain wasn't working at all. Ponies in black. Black. Not police, couldn't have been police. Agents. What would they want? Why take my family? Run. Find them. Fast. Before it's too late. Run.
"Applebloom!" I heard a voice. It was like a slap to my face that brought me back to my senses. I slowed down and looked around.
"Applebloom, here." It was Sweetie Belle, trotting towards me. I was trying to say something to her, but I was panting too heavily to articulate a single word.
"I was on my way to you," she said. I only now noticed how worried she looked. "Applebloom, something wrong must have happened."
I looked at her quizzically for a brief moment, and then I understood. "No." I shook my head. "No, please, don't say-"
"I can't find Rarity anywhere. She's missing."
* * *
In the end, everything is a matter of perception. There is no such thing as bright light. You may have problems opening your eyes in the middle of the night, when someone turns the bulb on in your bedroom, but what is that light compared to daylight? What's daylight compared to staring straight into the sun?
But sometimes, even the sun may seem like nothing but a spark.
I stood in the middle of the street. Ponies passed by, talking, laughing, dragging carts. They surrounded me, barely avoiding me on their paths. Yet, they weren't there at all. I could hear no sound, I felt no presence other than myself. I stood in the middle of an endless void. In darkness that clung to me like tar. On the other end, I saw Sweetie Belle, barely. She was saying something to me.
"This isn't happening," I whispered.
"Applebloom," she said, biting her lip, "where are Applejack and Big Macintosh? Are they home?"
I stared at her, unable to say a word. I only slowly shook my head.
She clamped her eyelids. "This is bad. This is very bad. Do you have any idea what might have happened to them? Where they could be?"
"Black," I stuttered. I knew I had to pull myself together. "Dressed in black."
"Dressed in black?" She leaned towards me. "What else did you see?"
I shook my head. "No. I didn't see them. It's what my neighbor told me. She saw them being taken away by ponies dressed in black. Do you think they could be…"
"I'm afraid so. But why would they come for them? What would they even want from them? And if they took our siblings, they…" Her eyes widened.
"Rainbow Dash!" We shouted together and broke into a run. If they had Dash, everything was for nothing. We had to find her before them, but I already knew it was too late. And even if it wasn't, we had been exposed already. It was just a matter of time before they got us all. Either way, I refused to give up. I had to keep running.
We weaved between buildings, jumped over fences, ran through gates. We knew Ponyville inside out. If somepony started at the same time as us, they would never get anywhere as fast as we would. Keeping that thought in mind, I managed to see a tiny ray of hope. I turned into another narrow alley.
And I stopped, my hooves almost screeching on the cobblestone. On the other end of the alley I saw a stallion. He was dressed in black, but he definitely didn't look like an agent. What he was wearing was not a suit, but a skin-tight outfit that seemed like it was made from one, very long scarf. His head was hidden under a short hood, and his face covered with the scarf-like cloth like the rest of his body. I could only see his eyes, burning like two violet fires in the darkness. A thought passed through my head that it felt like it was midnight on a moonless night, even though the sun had just set, and it shouldn't be so dark.
The eyes hypnotized. Once again I felt all the world around me being pushed aside, fading into nothingness. The eyes were all that remained. I could see flames inside them, promising… death. The sweet, calming embrace of death. The darkness budged – he stepped forward. I saw a few shreds of blackness condensing beside him.
"Go to sleep, little filly." The whisper struck my ears like an explosion and echoed inside my head. The frazzles of darkness started to change. They stretched forward, became more solid. Their ends narrowed, forming arrow-like shapes. "Go to sleep, little filly."
I felt a hot drop going down my cheek. Don't cry in front of death, Granny Smith once said.
The arrows shot all at once.
I closed my eyes.
* * *
What should one expect from dying? Specifically, from being stabbed by half a dozen of razor-sharp darts? Should one anticipate sudden pain, the feeling of flesh being torn apart? A force throwing them back on a wall? A sudden strike of weakness?
I did expect all of these. What I didn't expect was a series of metallic noises, like a bunch of spoons thrown into a big pot.
I stood there for what it felt like eternity, waiting for my legs to give up and for haziness from all the wounds. But none of it came. I dared to open one eye.
I saw… something. It looked like a spider web made of thin threads of purple light, and it hung about twenty centimeters before my face. The space between the threads was translucent and shone faintly with the same color.
I still wasn't able to move. I could just see the pony on the other side of the shield. His eyes didn't hypnotize anymore. The flame burned with anger, but... they weren't looking at me anymore. I sensed a movement on my right side, but I wouldn't dare to turn my head. With an accompaniment of a furious cry, the odd shield shot forward, and hit the surprised black pony with a loud slam. He slumped down a wall, noiselessly. The presence by my side took a step towards him. Purple coat, indigo hair, star-shaped cutie mark.
"Don't you try any tricks," Twilight Sparkle said calmly. "You have nowhere to run."
What answered her was a quiet, mocking chuckle.
"Who are you?" asked Twilight. Her horn began to glow with faint purple light. "Show your face, now!"
The chuckle turned into a loud laughter. The masked stallion raised his hoof and… sent her a kiss.
Then he vanished. Didn't run, didn't teleport, didn't become invisible. He just merged with the darkness, leaving a small puff of black smoke.
The purple unicorn jumped into his direction, but it was too late. "How?!" She stamped her hoof. "I threw a blocking spell!"
"I'm sorry to interrupt…" I heard Sweetie's voice, "but… I think one slipped through."
I heard a thud. I turned around and saw my friend on the ground. Her cream-white coat was stained deep red in the spot between her left shoulder and her chest, and the stain was getting bigger. My heart stopped.
"Twilight!" I screamed. "Twilight, help her!"
She was by her side in a split second. She immediately started examining the wound. There was no sign of the object that did it to her, but it left a deep, badly bleeding hole. Sweetie moaned in pain. Twilight's horn lit up, and the bleeding seemed to stop, or at least it slowed down significantly. But the gaping hole remained as it was.
"We need to get her to the hospital," I cried.
It felt like I was slapped in the face. I looked at Twilight in disbelief. "What are you talking about? She might die!"
"They won't be able to help her in the hospital."
Once again this evening, I felt my legs giving up.
"Please don't say that," I almost pleaded. "Please don't let her die!"
"I won't," she replied immediately. "It's not as serious as it looks. None of her vital spots were damaged, and I stopped the bleeding for now. And… yeah, the sedative spell worked. She will sleep for a while.
"Look," she said, seeing that I was not convinced. "You know what that was? That was black magic. These wounds can be healed only with certain spells. Extremely rare spells, which no one at the hospital has access to, because there shouldn't be any need for them, ever. But I do have them, in the library. So stop panicking, and help me, okay?"
She was right. I couldn't let myself panic, and if I was to be of any help, I had to pull myself together.
"Okay." I nodded. "What do we do?"
"No one can see her like this, so we have to teleport," she explained. "But teleportation is a very difficult spell, especially when you want to bring somepony else along. I need you to grab me by my hoof and visualize the main hall of my library. I can't afford to waste energy, so you're not coming with me. I'm sorry, but I have to take that risk. Run to the library and don't look back. You won't be safe until you're inside. Ready?"
"Three, two, one…"
I closed my eyes and tried to think of as many details of the main hall as I could. Then I felt a tingle, and when I opened my eyes again, they were gone. All that was left was a dark sticky stain where Sweetie had been a few seconds ago. For what felt a thousandth time today, I galloped.
As I sprinted, I realized that my vision was becoming blurry. I was crying and I wasn't even aware of that. How did all of that happen? Everything shattered in my hooves. About 24 hours ago the biggest problem I had was Scootaloo's broken heart. Now, I wasn't even sure if she was alive, Sweetie Belle had almost been killed, Rainbow Dash was soon to be charged with murder, and my brother and sister were being held captive by special agents. I wanted to lie down, curl up and cry till I died. I wasn't allowed to do that. I had to run.
I stormed into the library, almost breaking the door down. I rested against the wall, panting heavily, and... I completely fell into pieces. I didn't care that I was seen like that. I sobbed, sniffled, and let out torrents of tears.
My downfall. My despair, to which no one answered.
When the shivers passed, and I calmed down a bit, I dared to look around. All the curtains were drawn, and all the lights were on. In the middle of the hall, strictly in the center of a magical circle, lay one of my dearest ponies I've ever met, pale like death herself, with her beautiful coat dirty with blood in many spots. She was unconscious and breathed calmly like nothing was the matter. Beside the circle I saw a few books tossed around, and Twilight Sparkle. She clenched her teeth so hard that I could almost hear them grind, and her mane was soaked with sweat and stuck to her face. The air in the room was pulsating with magical power.
I stood up. "Can I… help somehow?" I asked, wiping out the tears.
"Yes, you can," she said with a weird voice, without breaking the spell. I had no idea about magic, but I got the feeling that such concentration had to be impressive. "Find the counter-magic section and look for the Cloverluck Spell; the older the book, the better the chance. And don't interrupt me unless you find it."
I immediately started looking for it. I found the section quickly, but with the spell it wasn't as easy. I almost asked where Spike was, because he would definitely be better in this than me, but I bit my tongue in time. Eventually, I did it. It was indeed in an old tome, in which it was hard to turn a page without the risk of making the whole tome fall apart. I put it at Twilight's hooves and backed off. Soon after, she levitated it before her eyes and started another incantation.
Suddenly, the main door slammed open, and I saw an orange and purple lightning flew inside.
"Sweetie Belle!" she yelled and almost collided with Twilight. I grabbed her swiftly by her tail and pulled her away from the center of the hall.
"What happened to her?" She had panic in her eyes. "Is she gonna be okay?"
"Yes, now shh!" I hissed at her. "Don't distract Twilight. I'll explain it to you."
I took a deep breath. "We have been compromised, Scoot. They found out about our investigation. They must have known for a while, and when we lost them in that tunnel, they… they came for my brother and sister. Some agents, I mean. And they took Rarity too. I found Sweetie downtown, and we went to see if Rainbow Dash wasn't taken by them as well." I gulped. "But we were attacked by some weird unicorn, who tried to kill us, and Twilight saved us at the last moment. As you can see, not entirely, cause he managed to get Sweetie. Twilight patched her up, and she'll be fine, but that bastard got away."
I saw the door closing. It was Spike, trying to catch his breath.
"Spike came for me in my home," Scootaloo explained. "Twilight ordered him to get me. And when he told me that Sweetie was hurt, I dashed here immediately. Sorry, Spike," she turned to him.
In response, he only waved his hand, still panting too much to speak.
"What now?" I asked.
"Now you come with me," said Twilight. I hadn't even noticed that the magic aura in the room dissipated. Now she just stood there, turned towards us, soaked with sweat and panting heavily. From the look of her eyes I could tell that she wasn't happy. "Spike, keep an eye on Sweetie. If anything happens, tell me."
Having said that, she walked towards one of the doors, and invited us inside. As it turned out, it was a small kitchen. She showed us two chairs, and we sat there. She took the seat on the other side of the table. She didn't say anything. Only stared at us. After a while it started to feel a little awkward.
"Shut up!" she yelled at me. I almost fell off my chair. It was the first time I saw Twilight Sparkle yelling at someone. I had never seen her as furious before either. She barely could sit still on her chair.
"You idiots," she ground out after a while. "Do you know why you're still alive now?"
"Y-yeah." I felt I was blushing. "Thank you for that."
"Oh no," she bitterly laughed in response. "You shouldn't be thanking me. You owe your lives to Spike. Yes, Spike," she repeated, seeing the looks on our faces. "If he didn't break that promise he had made for you yesterday, you would all be dead now. He saw Rarity being taken away by ponies who looked like intelligence agents, and he got scared enough of the situation to come to me and spill the beans.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" She buried her face in her hooves.
"I don't care what you thought!" She yelled again. "What matters is what you didn't think. And frankly, it seems to be everything."
"We had to protect Dash," Scootaloo said quietly.
"Oh, we will see what Dash has to say about it, when Owlowiscious gets back here with her."
"No!" Scoot's eyes widened. "She can't know about this!"
"I'm sorry, Scootaloo, but your concept of handling this doesn't seem to work." Twilight sighed. "Why did you do that? What was the logic in stealing a dead body from the crime scene?"
"We had to protect Dash," I said.
"Protect? From what? From being falsely accused? If we assume that the accusation would be false, of course, because it doesn't necessarily have to be. And if it was, your actions still make no sense. Why would you even think that you were better in holding such an investigation than ponies qualified for that? Do you think you're smarter than them? And even if, with a lot of luck, you managed to somehow find the culprit not being Rainbow Dash, what would you do? All that you could do in such a situation would be going to the police with solid proof and hope that they were nice enough not to throw you into jail for interfering with a criminal investigation.
"That's why," she mused, "I think there is something more to it. You have working brains, and you had to know that simply going to the Ponyville's police station was the only logical option, if it was only about Rainbow Dash. But it wasn't, was it?"
We didn't say anything. What would be the point? She already knew the answer.
"It wasn't about her, not entirely. It was also about you. How long has it been since the last cutie mark crusading you did? You still can't get over the fact that you don't have cutie marks, am I right? You saw it not only as danger Rainbow Dash was in. You saw it as an opportunity for yourselves. Two birds with one stone. A win-win situation. What could possibly go wrong?"
A long silence fell.
"I hoped…" Scootaloo almost whispered, "that at least Sweetie would benefit from this. Her being in law school and all…"
"Yeah, and look where it led her," Twilight replied, and immediately cringed at her own words.
Scootaloo's whole body shivered, and she hung her head down.
"I'm sorry." Twilight got off her chair and tightly hugged Scoot, who trembled in quiet spasms. "I don't know why I said that."
I already mentioned that Scoot was an emotional see-saw. She switched moods all the time, often without any logic behind it. I saw her depressed, even despaired, so many times that I lost count ages ago. But I had never, ever seen her crying.
Crying Scootaloo was the saddest thing I've seen in my whole life.
"It will be okay," Twilight whispered in her ear, stroking her mane. "We will find a way to make it all right. And Sweetie Belle will be okay too. I took care of that. She will be fine in no time. Trust me."
There was a knock on the door.
"Coming." Twilight gently let go of Scootaloo and walked towards the door. "What is it, Spike? Did Sweetie Belle wake up?"
"No," the dragon replied, "but Owlowiscious is back, and he brought Rainbow Dash with him."
Hearing those words, Scootaloo jumped off her chair and galloped to the main hall, almost trampling them both on her way. "Rainbow Dash!" she shouted, starting to cry again. "You're all right!" She literally jumped onto the pegasus, squeezing her like she hadn't seen her for at least a few years.
"Yeah…" Dash said, confused. "Can someone explain what is happening?"
Twilight sighed. "Sit down. We need to talk."
* * *
"Please tell me it's not true…"
The silence was so heavy that I could hear a fly buzzing on the other side of the kitchen. The four of us – Twilight, Dash, Scootaloo and myself – sat by the table in the library's kitchen. Spike was still in the main hall, keeping an eye on Sweetie Belle, who could wake up any moment. I wished I was there with them.
"Please tell me it's not true," Rainbow Dash repeated. "Spitfire can't be dead. Why would anyone do such a thing?"
"That's one of the questions we were trying to answer," Scootaloo replied.
"But we can't focus on that now," said Twilight. "Girls," she looked at me and Scoot, "you know that you cannot play private investigators anymore. It has gone too far. We are going to the police."
Scootaloo froze. "But-"
"No buts." Twilight hit the table with her hoof. "It has to be done, and you know it. Don't be afraid. I know our commissioner pretty well, and we will do our best to work it out somehow. If everything is done properly, you won't be punished too hard. But I have to be honest with you. You can't escape punishment now. All we can do is hope for them to be easy on you. The best way to do so is to admit to what you've done, and to be honest with your intents. Besides, there's a more important issue than potential punishment for your crime. You are apparently being hunted. By someone who knows black magic, and that's terrifying news. Trust me, if there's one thing you should be worried about, it's him. The police will protect you.
"However, you have also messed with the intelligence, and that's another thing. When you're safe, I will try to use my connections and see what they want with your siblings. Don't worry too much about them, though. They didn't do anything wrong, and they should be released soon.
"Now tell me, does anyone else other than the six of us present in this library, know about this whole mess?"
I couldn't help but make eye contact with Scoot. "No," she replied, before I could say anything.
"Scootaloo," Twilight sighed, "please, for once, make it easier, not harder. Who have you dragged into this?"
I bit my lip. "He wanted to stay out of this. We promised we wouldn't drag him into this mess. So please don't do it either…"
"And he can be in mortal danger now, like you." Twilight Sparkle looked deep into my eyes. "Tell me who it is."
"His… his name is Doctor Feint," I said, looking down.
"What?!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. "What does Feint have to do with it? How do you even know him?"
"Who is Doctor Feint?" Twilight looked confused.
"Well, he is Sweetie Belle's teacher at the university and Rainbow Dash's relative," Scootaloo explained.
"He has a holiday house near Ponyville," said Dash. "I didn't even know he was here already for this summer vacation."
"He is also a cryptologist," I turned to Twilight. "I mean, hobbyist cryptologist, but very good. We hoped he could help us break the code of the documents Spitfire had with her."
"Yeah, that's another thing," Rainbow Dash cut in. "What in the world is that all about? I still can't follow you. What documents? What agents? Do I get it right that AJ and Rarity were taken away by them? And what the hay is that with my feathers? I don't understand a damn thing!"
"We will explain everything later, Rainbow," Twilight said calmly. "But before that, you have to tell us something. As you heard, we will go to the police with this case, and we can't do it without mentioning the feathers. It means you will be a suspect in a murder case."
"But I didn't do anything!"
"I know. We all believe you. That's why the girls took it in their own hooves, to somehow prove that you are innocent. But the first thing they'll want to know is what you were doing yesterday."
"What do you mean? There was nothing special going on yesterday."
"Rainbow Dash," Scootaloo spoke. "We couldn't find you all day yesterday."
"But I was-" she stopped. She looked at us with her mouth wide open. "What… how? I thought I had a normal day at work yesterday, but now that I think about it, I can't remember anything. I just had a vague memory of my rut, but now it feels like… like when you dream of something and think it has actually happened, and then something makes you realize it was a dream after all."
"I was afraid of that." Twilight slowly nodded. "Probably a memory wipe. Very nasty spell."
"Do you think that she could have interacted with the killer?" Scootaloo brightened up. "Could she point him out if she remembered?"
"If she remembered, then yes. But, as I said, it's very nasty. It doesn't hide the target's memories. It doesn't muffle them with an illusion that they don't exist anymore. This thing literally wipes out memories from a certain period of time. We won't be able to recover them from your head, Rainbow. They don't exist anymore."
"Come on," I moaned, "I thought magic always had a back door. There are no antidotes?"
"There are no antidotes for destruction." Twilight's horn lit up. She levitated a napkin over the table. "Just like there is no magic antidote for dying. You can prevent it, but you can't undo death." She easily tore the napkin apart. "In certain cases, you can repair something, like rebuilding a house of cards destroyed by a gust of wind. Or to perform a surgery to save someone from death."
The horn lit up a little bit more, and the napkin started to sew itself back together. When it finished, it slowly fell on the table.
"Look at it," the unicorn said. "What you have in front of you is a patch of memories that was once treated with a memory block spell. With some effort, we can assemble it back together, but there will always be a scar on it, a line of irregularity that marks the spell. It's like scar tissue on your body. On the other hoof, we have the memory wipe." Suddenly, the napkin burst into flames and burned instantly. "No matter how hard I try, I can't bring it back. It's gone. But! Tell me, girls, is it gone in every possible way?"
"Well…" Scootaloo said timidly. "We have some ash left."
"That's it." Twilight nodded. She was obviously very proud of this presentation. I would say she was even enjoying herself. "We have some ash. That's what is left in Dash's head for yesterday. You can't tell what color that napkin was, can you. Or what its shape was. Every napkin would leave a pretty much identical pile of ash after it was incinerated. The brain can't leave a blank spot for hours of consciousness, so it fills it with the everyday rut, something that is in every napkin, regardless of shape and color.
"But that can't help us in any way. However, there is something more than ashes." She stopped talking and waited for at least one of us to follow her thought. It didn't happen. "Breathe," she said.
"The… smoke?" I asked, unsure.
"The smoke," Twilight repeated. "You see, magic is in many ways similar to matter. There are a few common laws, like the preservation of energy. There is also something that can't be quite understood by someone who can't control magic. The equivalent of the preservation of mass. What we just witnessed was a simple combustion reaction. The chemical compounds present in our napkin reacted with oxygen, turning into combustion products, mostly carbon dioxide and water. In fact, there is something like magical smoke. Magical reactions leave residue, which takes a while to dissipate. The wiped memories aren't memories anymore, but by the smoke you can tell that it was memories that were burned. The problem is, it's very subtle and hard to notice."
"How exactly is that helpful, though?" Dash asked. "If I understand it correctly, you won't be able to distinguish anything from it."
"That's true." Twilight smiled slyly. "But if you breathe in another room, you won't smell the smoke. Here, you can."
"Of course!" I slapped my forehead. "If we can determine where it was done, it can be a valuable clue for our investigation!"
"And now I realize how unwise of me it was to tell you all this," the unicorn said slowly. "Applebloom, I told you already. There is no more investigation for you. We are-"
There was a knock on the door. It opened, and Spike walked in.
"She woke up," he said.
"Just in time," Twilight stood up. She turned to us. "We are going to the police, now."
I wanted to run there immediately, but Scootaloo kicked me in my shin under the table, so I slowed down.
"Should we tell them about Filthy Rich and Soarin?" she whispered to my ear when the mares left the kitchen.
"Not yet," I whispered back. "This is our bargaining chip. We can use it to either avoid charges, or, if we handle this in a smart way, even stay in the game thanks to it, who knows?"
"Do we want to?" Scoot sighed. "Twilight has a point. We did almost get killed, and especially Sweetie."
"It's different now. We must expose this investigation now. And if we're lucky enough to be considered protected witnesses, we are as safe in the game as if we are out of it. Besides, do you want to leave it?"
"No." She shook her head.
"I'm pretty sure neither does Sweetie." I grinned. "Now let's go to her."
* * *
Sweetie Belle was in a much better shape than we expected her to be. It seemed that Twilight's spell worked very well, and she even managed to close the wound. She explained to us that it didn't at all mean that it was healed. According to her, Sweetie was extremely lucky, because not only had the arrow missed her heart, it also missed a crucial tendon. If it had hit a few millimeters farther to the left, she would never be able to walk, or even move her left foreleg, again. She needed some time at the hospital, and she wasn't allowed to move a lot for the time being. Otherwise, she seemed to be fine. Even the pain wasn't that bad, at least from what she said. Thankfully, Twilight also managed to get rid of that terrifying blood stain on Sweetie's coat. With that, she informed that, for someone who had never seen injuries bigger than a papercut, blood loss always seems much worse than it actually is.
Of course, we had to explain the whole situation development to Sweetie Belle, including the latest resolutions. To our surprise, she didn't oppose any of them, agreeing to all the terms of Twilight's plan. At that point, I felt a strange strike of sadness, like I already knew that it was over for us. A brief moment of a realistic view on the situation, aware that no policeman would allow three fillies, barely adults, to join a serious investigation. The realization of how right Twilight was, telling us that we should consider ourselves very lucky if we would have our butts in one piece after all that we had done. I avoided looking into Scoot’s eyes in fear that she would see my defeatism.
We packed Sweetie on a makeshift stretch that Twilight was supposed to levitate to the police station. We all agreed it was safer to arrange the protection before we sent her to the hospital. Better safe than sorry.
The night was dark. The moon was hidden beyond clouds, and only a few stars shone through several breaks in the thick cover spread across the sky. I smiled sadly at the similarity to our case. The main path, the shiny, silver passage to our success, was taken away from us. But despite all the logs thrown under our hooves, there were some tiny rays of hope that refused to give up.
"Excuse me, do I have the pleasure of addressing misses Applebloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle?"
I turned around, startled. That voice came out of nowhere. To my surprise, I saw a pony, walking almost right beside us. He was wearing a black suit. I felt my heart freeze to a block of ice.
"Y-yes?" I stuttered out.
"That's fantastic. My name is Agent E-25 from the Equestrian Intelligence Bureau, pleasure to meet you." He smiled, but his face immediately changed its expression. "I am very sorry to inform you of this, but you are under arrest as suspects of murder of first degree and illegal possession of top secret documents. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you."