Twilight Sparkle craned her neck as she watched the Friendship Express round the final bend and reveal Canterlot, this city shining brightly in the noon sun. No matter how many times she came back, a shiver of excitement travelled down her spine at seeing her home again. She barely managed to stay in her seat as the train station became visible, the slowing of the train seeming to stretch each moment for an eternity. Finally the screech of brakes brought the train to a halt, and with a dash that would have done Pinkie Pie proud Twilight was through the still opening doors. Around her hundreds of ponies moved between the various stopped trains and the doors which lead out into the city.
“Twily!” A shout drew the purple unicorn’s attention to a stallion making his way through the dense crowds.
“Shining!” Twilight smiled as she met her brother with a hug that sent the stallion back a step. “I was hoping I’d see you while I’m here!”
“It’s good to see you little sis,” the Captain of the Royal Guard said, his smile quickly fading. “Come on, we need to talk, but not here.”
“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked. “I’m supposed to meet somepony here, Professor Clear Mind. You remember, our old teacher from Celestia’s School?”
“That’s what I need to talk to you about. Come with me, please.” Shining glanced around, his eyes roaming over nearby ponies with practiced efficiency.
Twilight moved to walk beside her brother, a pit of unease growing in her stomach. She opened her mouth, but a glance from Shining closed it. There was something in his eyes that suddenly made Twilight feel very cold.
Shining Armor led Twilight into a waiting carriage pulled by two Royal Guards who quickly began making their way towards the palace. Twilight felt her need to ask questions growing with each passing second, but her brother’s eyes watching the streets kept her silent. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him this tense.
Finally the carriage pulled up to the main entrance to the palace and the two unicorns hopped out. Shining Armor nodded to the on duty guards, who opened the doors for them. “Now can you tell me what’s going on?” Twilight asked. “What’s got you so tense? Why couldn’t I wait for Clear Mind at the train station?”
“Not here,” Shining said as he trotted up the long corridor to Celestia’s throne room. The doors opened at his approach, and shut quickly as the two ponies entered. Princess Celestia looked up from a scroll as he doors closed.
“Shining Armor, thank you for bringing Twilight so quickly,” the Princess said, her usual smile nowhere to be seen. “Twilight, I’m afraid I have very sad new to give to you. You recently received a letter from Professor Clear Mind correct?”
“Yes, I was supposed to meet him at the train station. He said he’d just had a major breakthrough he wanted to share with me. Did something happen at his lab to keep him late?” Twilight asked.
“Twilight, Professor Clear Mind is dead,” Celestia said slowly.
Twilight felt like Big Mac had just bucked her stomach. “What, but how? He just sent me that letter yesterday. What happened?”
“There was a fire in his laboratory,” the Princess continued. “His body was found in the debris. I am so sorry Twilight.”
Twilight felt tears sliding down her cheeks. Her throat felt like it was constricting, and her hind legs gave out. “But then, why send Shining Armor to get me? Why was he acting like somepony might be out to get us?” She asked.
“Twilight, you worked with Clear Mind a lot while you were in school. Did you ever know him to conduct research with explosive or flammable materials?” Shining asked.
“What? No, his specialty was magic of the mind,” Twilight answered. “He never had any interest in things like that, at least not that he shared with me. Why are you asking me this? Didn’t he share all his research with you Princess?”
“Indeed he did, but his latest experiments he insisted on keeping the details to himself until they were completed. I assumed he simply wished to present them to everypony at once, but I now have cause to think otherwise,” Celestia said, a frown spreading across her face. “We’re keeping this quiet for now, but I do not believe it is a coincidence that Clear Mind died the very day after he made a breakthrough nopony knew the nature of.”
By now Twilight felt like somepony had thrown ice water over her. Her breathing was rapid and her throat burning. “You mean, you think somepony…murdered him?” She choked out. “But why involve me? I’m not a Royal Guard; I’ve never investigated a crime like this! I can’t catch a murderer!”
Celestia moved to gently wrap a wing around Twilight. “Calm down Twilight, remember your breathing. Just like we used to practice when you were learning your first spell.”
“In through the nose, out through the mouth,” Twilight whispered, her frantic mind grasping onto the lifeline of practice. “In through the nose, out through the mouth,” she repeated, and slowly her breathing calmed down. She still felt like an iron anvil was sitting in her stomach, but Twilight managed to meet Celestia’s eyes. “Thanks Princess, I needed that.”
A small smile replaced Celestia’s frown. “Anytime my dear Twilight,” the Alicorn replied. “To answer your question, I asked Shining Armor to bring you here because I believe you may be of help in finding out what exactly happened in Clear Mind’s laboratory. You spent quite a lot of time there as I recall.”
“I had a lot of my lunch breaks there. He always had something I could help him with, an experiment or an observation he wanted to test. He was really the first friend I made in school.” Twilight felt her chest start aching again as she saw in her mind all the days she had spent in a place that was now just a burnt pile of ash. “He taught me so much.”
“Twilight, you’re the last pony that we know Clear Mind contacted before last night. Was there anything in his letter that could help us?” Shining asked.
“Not in that letter, but a few weeks ago he said he thought he was getting close to finding a way to help his younger sister. She was in a bad accident three years ago and went into a coma. Does that help?”
“Perhaps,” Celestia mused. “Twilight, I know what you must be feeling right now, but would you be willing to help with our investigation. If my suspicions are correct, somepony wanted to stop Clear Mind’s research. I want to know who, and why.”
Twilight shakily climbed back into all four legs. “Of course I’ll help Princess. Whoever did this took one of my friends away from me. I won’t let him do it again. What can I do?” She asked, barely keeping her voice steady through sheer willpower.
“I’d like you to accompany Shining Armor to Clear Mind’s laboratory. I know that if anypony can piece together anything from what’s left it will be you,” Celestia said.
“Of course Princess, I’ll do whatever I can,” Twilight bowed.
Shining Armor gently nudged his little sister. “Come on then, we should get going. The police want to begin taking evidence back to their own facilities, but I had the Guard tell them to hold them off for now. That won’t last much longer though.”
It took only a few minutes for the two unicorns to make their way to the School For Gifted Unicorns. The first thing that struck Twilight was the quiet. Normally hundreds of students were abroad in the halls and classrooms at any one time, but now only their own steps echoed back to them. It felt to Twilight that the school itself was mourning the loss of Clear Mind.
The smell hit Twilight first, a heavy scent of burned wood, melted plastics and scorched metal. The corridor ahead was blocked off by two Royal Guards who saluted Shining Armor when they caught sight of their captain. A brief glance and their spears rose, allowing Twilight and her brother to pass. Past the check point Twilight saw the first signs of the fire. Blackened walls and charred tapestries caught her eye, and her mind easily recreated them as they were. They had never changed when Twilight had come this way, not until not.
A final turn brought the two unicorns to a half in front of a shattered door. “Twily, are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Shining asked, his eyes full of concern for his sister. “If you need a minute…”
“No, if I stop now I won’t be able to take another step,” Twilight replied. “Let’s go, I have answers to find.”
The two stepped inside the burned room, both ponies flinching as more smells entered their noses. A sickly sweet odor nearly made Twilight’s legs buckle. She’d smelled it before, on the occasions Celestia entertained the Griffin ambassadors and their personal meals had been delivered. It was the smell of burned meat. There was little left intact, even the stone walls had been scorched black. Filing cabinets and work benches had been reduced to dark chunks of charcoal, with small pools of melted glass beneath them. The air was still and heavy, with dust catching the sunlight streaming in through the door. Near the far wall a chalk outline drew Twilight’s gaze. “The body’s gone,” she whispered, turning to look at her brother. “I thought you said nothing had been disturbed.”
“The first responders who put out the fire took Clear Mind’s body to the morgue so we could find any clues as to exactly how he died,” Shining Armor said. “Would you really want to see him like that?”
Twilight closed her eyes, her mind recreating the laboratory as she remembered it. Charts and papers of complex maths lining the walls, bookcases groaning under the weight of their multi-colored volumes, and Professor Clear Mind smiling down at her as the filly Twilight Sparkle answered questions ponies several years her senior wouldn’t know. The light had always made his grey coat and white mane blend together. Once, when he’d taken her out on Nightmare Night he had joked that he didn’t need a costume because he could already pass for a ghost.
Twilight shook her head to clear her thoughts. “No, I wouldn’t,” she whispered. Forcing her mind into science mode, her eyes took in the damage to the room. Every charcoal lump, every burnt scrap of paper was a piece of a massive puzzle, and Twilight had never met a puzzle she couldn’t solve. Her horn glowing, Twilight slowly crossed the room, her hooves adeptly stepping around the debris as if it were her own research notes. “The fire wasn’t caused by magic; I don’t sense any residual spell traces. Judging by the condition of the wood fragments, it started over here,” she noted as she stopped beside the remnants of the file cabinets. Only the metal locks and rails survived. “Shining, is it ok if I move some of this? I might have a spell that can give us something to work with.” With a nod from her brother, Twilight carefully began sifting through the ashes. “Some of the paper fragments are still intact, thank Celestia that Clear Mind liked his paper to be durable,” she said.
Slowly several paper fragments came together, more orbiting like an asteroid field. “I adapted this spell from something I found in my books after Spike kept burning my notes with his sneezes when he was younger. It doesn’t last long, but it might let us see what Clear Mind was working on.” A web of gossomer threads joind the fragments together, and slowly a page reformed, still burned but with words slowly becoming visible. “Wait, something isn’t right here,” Twilight frowned. Carefully setting the page aside, Twilight gathered more ash from near the bottom of the pile. “The bottom drawer was where Clear Mind kept his private notes. It has to be here.”
“What does?” Shining Armor asked as he watched his sister slowly reassemble another burned page. It was like watching a movie in rewind as hundreds of ashes and burned scraps came back together. His sister’s eyes scanned each line and her frown deepened. Suddenly the page was thrust into his face. “What am I looking at? Just looks like a meditation guide to me,” he said as he read lines of a calming chant to empty a pony’s mind of thought.
“Exactly,” Twilight replied. “Clear Mind would never keep something like this in his cabinets. When I was here he’d check them over at least once every two hours looking for something. He had books of these yes, but he’d never just tear a page out.”
“Maybe the fire carried a burning page from a book over here,” Shining Armor proposed.
“Not a whole one; not over that distance,” Twilight said, her magic once more painstakingly reconstructing a page. “This is from Calming Your Thoughts, Volume Two. Clear Mind wouldn’t keep a basic tome like this in his lab. This makes no sense!” Three more pages were brought back by Twilight’s magic. “Shining, I think this is more serious than we thought. None of these pages have anything to do with Clear Mind’s projects.” Turning to face her brother, Twilight took a shaky breath. “Someone didn’t just want to stop Clear Mind’s research, they stole it.”