Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

The Living Ghost Town

“Hey, Twilight, is it just me, or are those clouds really weird?”

Twilight turned her gaze to where Spike pointed, up through the treetops of the woods. “Maybe. I’m not sure. It’s kind of hard to tell through the trees. They’re certainly darker than normal. Maybe there’s a storm coming?”

Rainbow scratched her chin. “Hmmm. I dunno. It is the season for it, and this town is probably too small to have any real weather pegasi. But they seem really, really high up there. They shouldn’t be so dark.”

“I agree.” Twilight furrowed her brow and sniffed the air. “Something is off.”

“Want me to go check it out?” Rainbow asked.

“Yeah. See if you can see the village, too. We should be close by now.”

She gave a salute. “One weather recon, coming up!”

Twilight staggered from the force of Rainbow’s takeoff. “You’d think I’d be used to that by now. Yet, here I am, nearly getting blown over.”

“I don’t think you can get used to that. It’s like getting used to having a stomach ache. It just never happens.” Spike gripped his stomach.

“True enough.”

A small boom crackled in the sky, shaking the leaves in the trees. The breeze blowing through had Twilight instinctively clutching her cloak, despite her new pegasus coat.

“Uuuummmm, Twilight, do you think we should have told her to stay with us?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘we?’ I’m the Grand Mage, which means it’s my responsibility.”

Spike gasped and pointed up at the sky. “Oh, crap, look out!”

They dove off to the side of the road in opposite directions, Twilight covering her head and gritting her teeth. A few heart-stopping seconds later, nothing happened.

“What in the world are you two doing?” a familiar voice asked.

“Rainbow?” Twilight asked, carefully uncovering her head to see her friend hovering there. “Where was the crash?”

Rainbow sighed and flopped on her back in midair. “Give me some credit; I’m a little more professional these days.”

Spike scoffed. “Says the pony that nearly blasted us to kingdom come.”

Rainbow snapped her head over. “Well, you guys should know by now that— No, you know what? Nevermind, no time. We have a problem.”

“What’s going on?” Twilight started to brush off the dirt and grass.

“Okay, so, those clouds? No way they’re normal. It’s like they’re ultra dense, and way, way up there. Higher than almost any cloud I’ve seen before. I would have tried, but there are other dark clouds to worry about. ”

Twilight heart started to race, and her eyes narrowed. “Other clouds? What’s wrong?”

“Smoke. The town is on fire!

What?” Twilight didn’t wait for a response. Before she knew what was happening, her hooves were hitting the path. She could see Dash out of the corner of her eye, and Spike's boots were not far behind.

The road darkened, not just because the clouds were blocking the sun—the dirt of the road itself changed as they got closer to town. The air was dry and carried a familiar, crisp aftertaste. The kind one would find when burning wood… or ponies’ houses.

She crested a hill and slid down the opposite slope in a shower of sediment. A rock found itself in the way of her descent, and she reacted automatically: the muscles of her legs coiled underneath her, and she leapt with all her might to clear the obstacle without shedding precious speed.

Her body sailed much farther than she had intended. Earth pony magic! My leylines! They’re working! She twisted her body and landed squarely on the opposing and much taller hill and took off right up it.

“Spike! Get to a point where you can see the town and stay put! Rainbow! The map showed a lake nearby! Start making some rainclouds!”

“Already on it!” Rainbow shot into the sky, leaving a red and yellow trail in her wake.

“Okay!” Spike’s voice already sounded far away and winded.

Take it easy, Spike. We’re counting on you. Twilight slowed as she got her first clear look at the town. “No…”

The forest had ended and the road descended into a grass-filled valley. To the north, where the red streak led, was a large lake fed by a mountain river. The mountains skirted the edge of the town, much closer now than before. A thick cloud of black smoke obscured the mighty peaks.

Flames burned the roofs of buildings, and the sounds of screaming and running ponies filled Twilight’s ears. Embers danced in the air above ponies’ homes but were quickly engulfed by a thick layer of haze.

~~Training... can’t prepare you... for everything... girl…~~

Twilight’s horn flared with energy, pulsing with anger. She reared up on her hind legs and brought her forelegs down with a powerful stomp, kicking off down the hill faster than she’d ever gone before. Bits of ash, grass, and even bugs blazed by her, occasionally striking her face.

She wrapped a shielding spell around a telekinetic bolt and fired it, deploying it ahead of her like an umbrella and binding it to her body so it would advance as she ran. Its faint purple glow formed a square in front of her, blocking the smoke and the larger debris and insects. Sheltered by its wind wake, her speed picked up even more. What would have taken her three minutes before her training now only took one, and as she rounded the corner and crossed a bridge over a small river, the cause of the fire laid itself bare.

Time slowed down for Twilight as she scanned the town, still at a full-throttle gallop. At least three wagons filled with ponies in dark robes were tossing lit torches on the thatch roofs of nearby homes. Some were using magic, while others used their mouths. There could be no question as to which ponies she was looking for.

Her eyes narrowed. There would be a reckoning.

A unicorn in the group spotted her and drew out a bright silver sword before leaping off of the wagon. Twilight didn’t hesitate. She pulled at her cloak with her telekinesis, yanking it off and firing it right at the pony along with a telekinetic blast.

The other pony countered it, using the flat of the blade to deflect the blast before flinging the cloak at the ground. With practiced ease, the pony raised his sword to her neck and charged it with a venomous orange-glowing magic.

Twilight leapt forward into a flying tackle, and the gem in her torc flared to life. Cold magic flowed across her coat with a purple-white glow, brighter than a small sun. Armor formed at her head and swept down to cover her entire body. The impending blade struck her neck with a metallic clang before deflecting towards the ground.

The pony staggered, and Twilight pressed her attack. A quick blast knocked the weapon from her attacker’s telekinetic grasp. Before the pony could register what happened, Twilight grabbed onto his neck with both forehooves and twisted her body into a twirl.

Her pegasus magic sparked to life. The attacker suddenly felt much lighter, and her hooves and fetlocks much stronger. Part of her mind caught up to how crazy she was acting, while the other part simply didn't care.

A large gust of wind pushed into her side to aid in her twirl, lifting the unicorn off the ground. She hung in the air for a moment, spinning like a top. Then she let go.

The hostile went flying, tumbling head over hooves several times before crashing back-first into the base of a multi-level fountain. The top of it cracked off and crumbled from the force, and the pony flopped to the ground, unmoving.

Twilight’s hooves caught the ground at the same time, shredding the road and leaving deep gouges in the cobblestone pavement. Her teeth clenched, and her head whipped around to face the other ponies on the wagon, pawing the ground like a feral horse.

The assailants quickly turned tail racing back the way she had come as Twilight gave chase. The earth ponies were fast, but they were weighed down by a large wagon with two unicorns sitting in the back. The wagon bounced and jostled on the cobblestone road.

Twilight noted a small opening to jump onboard, but didn’t take it. She didn’t just want them stopped. She wanted satisfaction. Instead of blasting the wagon with a telekinetic bolt, she raced forward after them, her unburdened frame and powerful earth pony wellspring launching her forward at a breakneck pace.

By the time they neared a small bridge at the edge of the town, Twilight had caught up with them. She threw her weight to the side, pulled up her hind legs, and with a single, powerful buck, kicked its wooden rear wheel right where it connected to the axle, bursting it into splinters instantly in an ear-splitting crack.

The wagon’s side crashed to the ground and scraped along in the dirt, the two earth ponies still running frantically. The extra drag sent the carriage careening off the bridge and into the river, ponies and all.

Twilight trotted up to the side of the water, taking her time to prepare a spell she had been saving for the occasion. Several seconds later, a single earth pony splashed out of the water, gasping for air and pulling himself up over its sharp, rock-lined edge. The moment he was on stable ground, he looked into Twilight’s eyes.

In his gaze, she saw fear, a terror more frigid than anything the glacier-fed waters could have possibly caused.

She cast the spell.

Purple light flared to life before quickly turning to white, shooting right at her target before breaking off in hard angles. Over and over the light bounced around the pony, until it had completely surrounded him. When the spell was done, dozens of sharp, diamond-white barriers restrained the tan earth pony in a spiky, cramped cage.

“Don’t move,” she commanded him flatly and watched as the other ponies on the wagon emerged on the other side of the river and raced away towards the forest. She lifted a hoof to follow, but stopped and turned to face back towards the town as one of the buildings cracked and crumbled into a pile of embers. Hang on, my ponies. She raced towards the town, coughing from the traces of smoke in the air.

Rainclouds were already pouring over some of the burning buildings, but at least a dozen others needed their own. “Rainbow!” Twilight cried out, looking to the sky. She pumped her legs faster down the main street to the center of town. She spotted an inn, a restaurant, and an administration building, among others.

She looked around at the surrounding ponies. Some were fruitlessly dumping buckets of water on their homes. One pony in particular staring at a burning stand with a dazed look on his face. But as closely as she looked them over, she couldn’t find anypony looking suspicious.

“Hey, Twilight!”

Her head snapped to the sky to see a red pegasus pushing a large raincloud above a house. She gave it a firm buck, and it started a downpour.

“All those ponies turned tail and ran the second you started kicking flank! I think you scared them off!”

“Damn.” Twilight stomped the ground. “I wanted to capture more of them. I only have one that can talk and… the other is probably going to need medical attention.” She took a deep breath and yelled so her next line would definitely be heard. “Have you seen a town doctor anywhere!?”

“I think I saw one near the lake! Dunno if he’s a doctor, but he was putting bandages on ponies!” Rainbow yelled back.

“Okay! Keep up the pressure on the fires! I’m going to head over to the lake and see if I can help the injured!” Twilight took off down the road ahead of her, hooves clopping over the stones past the homes and businesses. She slid slightly as the cobblestone pavement transitioned to a dirt path. I’m still not used to this speed.

Once past the buildings, it didn’t take long to find the injured, and the older yellow earth pony stallion tending to them. She trotted up to him.

He didn’t even look up. “Is it not enough that you repeatedly burn our village? Must you now attack our injured?”

Twilight cleared her throat. “I’m Sergeant Star Hunter, of Team Seventeen in the Second Battalion under General Running Blaze. We saw your village under attack during patrol and responded in kind to the attackers. I incapacitated two, and the others have fled. Do you know who they are?”

He looked up at her but only briefly. The stallion’s green eyes showed only skepticism and mistrust, and his gray mane spoke of experience. “More soldiers. I told your kind to stay out. You will bring us nothing but disaster.”

“I don’t know if you saw it, but without me arriving when I did, Wintervale would be ashes within the hour. Corporal Sunset over there is busting her flank to put out the fires. Now, I’m willing to help put a stop to this, but I need your cooperation.”

“Ha! Put a stop to it? Who do you think you are?” He finished with a bandage and got up to go to another victim. “No, no, there’s no help for us. Thank you for stopping the fires. It will make rebuilding easier, but you had best just leave.”

Damnit, I should’ve dropped the disguise. ‘Grand Mage’ would’ve made me look more helpful. Gotta stick with it now, though. Being a liar wouldn’t endear me either.

Twilight sighed. “Very well, but I will not leave until I have interrogated the remaining attackers. If you can, try to treat the one I injured as well. If necessary, I am able to send for medics, but it will be some time before they’ll arrive.”

The stallion glared at her. “No. No more soldiers. Take them and leave. There is no place for you here.”

Twilight lifted an eyebrow. Seriously? What is he thinking? She shook off the thought and cleared her throat. “That would contradict my orders. I will complete my investigation and attempt to ensure the safety of the Equestrian citizens residing here before I leave.”

The stallion huffed, flaring his nostrils. Then, another on the ground did the same thing, standing up despite his injuries. Then another stood, and another.

Twilight's heart jumped in her chest as the injured ponies followed suit, seemingly unfazed by their injures, and glared at her. Oooooookay. Yeah. This place is officially getting renamed “Creepy-town.” She turned to leave but kept an eye on all of them until she was back inside the village.

Clouds were now over all the buildings Twilight could see, and the downpour was putting out the fires quickly. Creepy though it was, Wintervale wasn’t getting burned down today. Not on her watch.

“Hey, Twi! I think I’ve got enough clouds up now!” Rainbow flew down and landed in front of her, stretching out. “But I’m beat! I could really use a nap at this point.”

Twilight smirked a bit. “Even after Boot Camp, you still think about naps.”

“Can’t help it. High metabolism, even for a pegasus. Naps just come naturally. But, I imagine you still have things we need to do.”

“Yeah. Follow me.” Twilight started her way down the cobblestone road back towards the entrance she used when she arrived as the cavalry.

“So, what’s the situation at the lake?” Rainbow asked through a yawn.

Twilight huffed through her nostrils, mimicking the stallion deliberately. “Odd. Very odd. Something suspicious is definitely going on here. Oh, and until I say otherwise, I’m Sergeant Star Hunter, and you’re Corporal Sunset. I screwed up and tried to maintain our cover, but I think we should’ve just went with the truth this time. Gotta stick to it now, though.”

Rainbow’s ears flattened as they neared the center of the town. “Ugh. Back down to ‘Corporal?’ Not cool. At least you didn’t add another lame name on there, like, ‘Shimmer’ or something.”

“It’s just a cover, ‘Sunset’. When we’re done here, we’ll be able to get rid of this stupid dye and—”

Twilight stopped dead in her tracks.

“Um, Twi? Er, ‘Star Hunter’? Ugh, that name is awful too.” Rainbow poked her shoulder. “You’re terrible at naming things, you know that?”

Twilight swallowed. “Rainbow…”

“Um, you mean ‘Sunset’?”

“Look!” Twilight pulled her over and pointed at the body lying next to the fountain, now in a pool of its own blood. “I— I think I’m going to be sick.”

The two mares raced over, side by side, and the cause was obvious.

“Whoa. Twi, this is brutal. Why did you—?”

“I didn’t!” She covered her mouth with one hoof and batted at the air with the other as if trying to swat away the both the accusation and the sight. “I-I hurt his back, yes, but cutting his throat!? He was not like this when I left, I swear!”

“I wonder how many crime drama novels have that line…”

Twilight gave her a glare and a subtle growl.

“I believe you. I believe you! Still, this means somepony came here and cut his throat after you knocked him out? Hate to say it, but I don’t think we’re going to figure out who.”

Twilight took in a long breath and ground her teeth. “The entire town is filled with suspects, and I can’t help but think there’s more to the story they aren’t telling us. Back away. I’m going to set up a perimeter around the crime scene.”

Rainbow retreated a few steps, but with a curious look on her face. “With what? We didn’t exactly bring any police tape. I mean, you aren’t a detective.”

Twilight smirked at her. “Just because I didn’t bring the hat doesn’t mean I’m not up to the task, no matter what Pinkie might say. Watch this.” She lit her horn and started a special barrier spell. One by one, a series of six barriers arranged themselves in a wide hexagon around both the body and the fountain, with one more large shield about a story up to cover the top. A short teleport later, and she was outside of the crime scene.

“See?” Twilight asked. “Who needs crime scene tape? I even tweaked them so that if an earth pony bucks it down, it’ll make a huge ‘bang’. Not enough to hurt, but enough to startle and be heard no matter where in town we are.”

Rainbow punched one of the fields, and it responded with a shimmering ripple but did not break. “Okay, gotta admit, that’s pretty cool!”

“We’re not done yet, though. Come on!” Twilight grabbed a hold of Rainbow’s hoof and teleported them both back into the crime scene. “We have to get to work to figure this out.”

Twilight pulled out her notebook and started a sketch of the body, her pen flowing over the page.

“Um, Twi? I hate to doubt you and all, but even if we do figure out who did it, what’re we going to do with them? We aren’t equipped to deal with prisoners. Especially a large number of them.”

The pen stopped in its tracks then started tapping its owner’s lip. “Damn, you’re right. Hmmm…” Twilight squinted, going over the possibilities in her mind.

“Twi? Er, Star Hunter? What exactly are we going to do, here?”

Twilight sighed. “There’s just too much we don’t know. Why were there ponies trying to burn this village down? Who is this pony, and given that I didn’t see anypony looting anything, who sent him? Why are the ponies here acting weird?”

Rainbow added, “And how does investigating this guy’s murder help answer any of those?”

“Now that, I think I can answer.” Twilight went back to sketching. “I am interested in who the murderer is, but not as much as I’m interested in the reason for starting the fires. The arson was pretty blatant, and that stallion I talked to near the lake seemed to indicate there have been incidents like this in the past. Furthermore, if I can get an accurate account of this pony, like dimensions, colors, and cutie mark, RGIS might be able to identify him. If we know who he is, we might be able to find out who he’s employed by, whom he associates with, etc. Then, we start pulling that thread to see what unravels.”

Rainbow nodded. “Huh. I guess that makes sense. Wait, you can draw?”

She tossed her book over, and Rainbow caught it effortlessly before flipping it open. “Whoa. Not bad.”

Twilight brought her head down closer to the fatal wound to examine it, and then her mind caught up to what she was doing. Gagging and forcing her lunch back down her throat, she steeled herself to, with the absolute minimal amount of magic, move the body to get a better angle to, unfortunately, see the cut as well as her stomach would allow. “I’m… Ugh, now I wish I had taken those medical courses. Urg.”

“You okay, Twi?”

“I’ll… I’ll be fine. And you’re right, I have gotten better at drawing. I’m not exactly a professional artist, but close enough for scientific documentation. I’ve been working on it over the past decade or so after reading some stuff about Leoneagle da Kitty. I hadn’t realized how much drawing could help one’s understanding of, well, everything.”

“I’m serious, Twi, this is some good work! You should, like, go back through your old stuff and save it. Somepony will probably put it in a museum. ‘Early works of the Great—’”

“Please don’t compare me to the old Maestros, Rainbow. I’m really not comfortable with it.” She lifted up the pony’s head a little, letting the wound separate. “Hmm… Looks like a rather rough cut. Serrated edge, perhaps? Or just an improvised weapon? I should’ve brought Latent Print’s The Science of Investigations with me.”

“Well, you’ve got a sketch of him. Not a lot more we can do at the moment, other than request an actual patrol to pick up the body for examination once Spike can send letters again.”

Rainbow tossed the book back, and Twilight caught it in a violet hue.

“I agree. This definitely calls for a larger investigation force. For now, though, I’ll be happy to squeeze a few more answers out of that other pony I captured.”

Rainbow blinked. “Wait a minute, timeout. You have another pony captured? Is he safe?”

Twilight made a few more notes in her book and tossed it back in her pocket. “Well, he’s certainly not going anywhere. He’s in a binding spell.”

Rainbow dragged her over with a foreleg and pointed to the buildings behind the translucent shields. “Bound up in a town with a bunch of crazy ponies?”

“Ah, crap!” Twilight flared her horn to life and brought them both outside the shield then took off running down the road towards the pony she captured. “This way! I tied him up near the creek on the other side of town!”

A reddish gold blur blitzed in front of her, going right for the river. While Rainbow went on ahead, Twilight kept her legs pumping while her mind ran just as fast. Damnit! I shouldn’t have left him alone! The moment I saw that other pony dead, I should have checked to see if he was alright! That spell has holes in it for breathing! They could just as easily be used to get a spear through!

The red blur zoomed back towards her. “Um, are you sure you captured somepony over here?”

“Yes, I’m sure! I—” Twilight slid to a stop near the river. Its banks were completely devoid of any ponies, captured or otherwise. “What!? How in the hay did he get out!?”

Rainbow landed and looked around and under the bridge. “Was he an earth pony? Could he have just bucked his way out?”

Twilight shook her head. “No way. I used ‘Diamond Light,’ which is highly resistant to earth pony magic. Somepony with knowledge of that spell or an awful lot of magical force would have had to break it.”

“Well, he’s definitely not here now. What’s next?”

“Ugh.” Twilight gripped her head with her armored hooves. “I’m getting a headache. What in Tartarus is up with this town!?”

Rainbow stopped for a moment and started sniffing the air. First a little high, then gradually getting lower until she was right over the grass where the earth pony was. “Hey, do you smell that?”

Twilight took a sniff from where she was sitting. “Smell what?”

Rainbow waved her hoof around. “It smells like ozone over here. As in, fresh lightning strike. Big one. But, lightning like that is something we definitely would’ve heard. I know I didn’t. Did you?”

Twilight shook her head and trotted over. “No, I definitely didn’t. Let me smell.” She closed her eyes and took a large whiff in then immediately gagged, coughing, choking, and stumbling backwards.

Rainbow circled around and caught her. “Whoa! You okay!? I didn’t think it was that bad!”

Twilight hunched over while her diaphragm wailed in pain. She felt herself set down on the ground gently by Rainbow, and eventually, she calmed down. “Uuuuuugh. That. HURT. Something is definitely there.”

“It hurt, so something’s there?”

Twilight pushed herself up then pushed on her horn and eyes, successfully switching to her magic sight. “A-ha! Over here! Where I caught him!”

Rainbow walked back over to the spot. “What is it? I just see grass.”

Twilight’s brow furrowed. It wasn’t quite like what she’d seen in the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. “I see… miasma. Sort of.”


“It’s a sort of corrupted magic left behind when ponies die. But, this isn’t normal. It’s not quite black.” She put her hoof out over it but withdrew it quickly. “I see… green in it. Swirled in the black. Green... and a little bit of red? And it’s not a thick, semi-solid substance like before. This is more liquid-looking. And it’s bubbling.”

“Hmmm…” Rainbow put both hooves into the spot. “What happens when I do this?”

Twilight looked closely and shook her head. “Nothing. I don’t think pegasi or unicorns can affect it. Earth pony magic, though, can help clear it up.”

“So does this mean whoever you captured was killed?”

“It sure looks that way. But with the green stuff there? I have no idea what that means. Wait… Rainbow, move over a little.” Twilight pushed Rainbow gently aside and kept looking over the grass, finding more of the miasma. “There’s more over here. Smaller blotches of it. And more, here, leading away. Rainbow, these are hoofprints!”

Rainbow leapt into a hover. “Aw yeah, super-awesome secret-magic hoofprints! The kind the bad guys don’t know about! Let’s go get’em!”

“Agreed!” Twilight got up and started running, following the hoof-shaped dots down the river. Each didn’t appear until she got very close, limiting how fast she could go. Eventually, the dots made a turn into town, leading down a smaller road. “Well, they definitely went into the village. Let’s see if— Aw, crap!”

“What is it?”

Twilight stared at the last set of dots under her, looking all around for more to no avail. “I can’t find any. They faded out these last few sets. Looks like the effect doesn’t last forever. And they’re still right in the middle of the road, too. For all we know they kept going out of town.”

Rainbow landed, fluttering her wings in annoyance. “Well, that’s a downer. Anything else we can use?”

“Hmm…” Twilight looked at one of the spots next to her hoof. “Maybe. The spot’s kind of large. A bit bigger than my hoof inside its armor. Which means it’s probably not a stock mare or foal. It’s not big enough to be a draft stallion either. So maybe a stock pony stallion or a draft mare.”

“Draft mare? I didn’t see any here, and they kinda stick out. They’re really rare. I mean, the only one I actually know personally is Fluttershy’s mom, so they have to be like, what, a bajillionth of a percent of ponies?”

Twilight rolled her eyes, and her vision returned to normal. “More like a tenth of a percent of all mares. Rare, yes, but not unprecedented. Though you’re right, we’re probably looking for a stock stallion. The question is, what did he do, exactly? It looks like some kind of murder in my sight, but, there’s no body! No blood! No tracks from dragging the body! And what was with the green stuff? I have way too many unanswered questions at this point.”

Rainbow dragged her hoof over the stones where the trail ended. “Well, there’s always the bar.”

“I doubt they would’ve dragged the body to a public place like that, Rainbow.” Twilight looked behind her towards where she had captured the other pony. “Then again, for all we know, it’s on display in the town center by now. This place just makes no sense.”

“Well, I don’t mean finding the body there. I mean, getting some drinks and sitting in the corner, nursing them. You never know what you’re going to overhear if you listen carefully.”

Twilight blinked. “That works?”

“Where do you think most of the gossip magazines get their garbage? Most of the dirt that winds up there was from somepony getting sloshed and talking too much or too loudly. Happened all the time in the ‘Bolts. Caught my fair share of snoops writing notes, let me tell ya.”

Twilight looked at the sky and noted the sun was finishing its descent over the horizon. “Well, either way, we need lodging for the night, and in small towns like these, the inn is the saloon. I’m going to head over and get us a room… if I don’t get chased out first. Tell Spike to set up camp. Then meet me there. Something tells me we’ll want a backup rendezvous point if things take a turn for the worse. I mean, worse than it already is.”

“Can do, boss!” Rainbow took off into the air in a rush, leaving Twilight to her thoughts as she walked towards the town’s center.

Disappearing bodies. Murdered ponies. Mass arson. Creepy, unusually universal hostility. What is going on here?

Twilight huffed a bit and rounded a corner, looking for the cloak she had tossed at the now-dead unicorn. On the way, she saw that the rest of the ponies were back in the town, most looking rather morose over the fire damage. Some others didn’t seem to care at all, going about their regular business now that the attack was over.

Her lungs cried out for fresh, clean air but found only the lingering scent of smoke. She shook it off and continued her survey of the town at the foot of the northern mountains. Nearly every building had some kind of damage. Only a few of the larger, more modern buildings had escaped unscathed. Ponies were piling up debris and charred wood in the streets, organizing everything to be thrown away or salvaged. They’ve done this before…

A short ways down the road, she spotted her cloak. Well, at least that’s still here. She picked it up in her magic and turned back towards the center of town, letting her telekinesis put it back on automatically. Once that was done, she retracted her armor. No sense in looking like I’m about to raid the place. For now, I “just want a room and a drink.”

She stopped in front of the inn, underneath the cracked wooden sign.

“Blank. Who in their right mind doesn’t even name their inn? What, is this ‘The Blank Inn?’ Or do they just call it ‘The Inn’ here because there’s no place else?” Twilight’s eyes went wide. Disappearing ponies. Hive-mind like behavior. No. Freaking. Way.

Her legs pushed back against the ground like a grasshopper, sending her backwards with an extra gust of wind from her magic for good measure.

She took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, looking around to make sure there weren’t any ponies watching her before charging up her horn. Changeling magic is vulnerable when exposed to many micro-disruptions. I can set up a barrier field to take advantage of that without blocking the exit.

Twilight first engraved a small magic circle then added a few spells to it. First, a special barrier to keep the spell shards I’m creating in place then another to keep them cycling in the air. Then, one more to create the low-power shards, and a last one to give them the right oscillation. There!

Her horn flashed one last time, and the circle under her hooves vanished. Her barrier had completely covered the door area. Any changeling walking in or out would be instantly exposed. Now, all that’s left is to sit back and watch some fireworks!

She trotted through the doorway; the spell fragments comprising the barrier shards in the air were completely invisible and intangible to her. If her disguise had been a glamour spell, it might have been disrupted depending on what type it was. With dye, however, she went right through.

The inside was actually rather cozy. A warm fireplace roared in the lobby, with a full bar on the right. There were a few patrons already inside, and they all hushed the moment she walked in. A brown unicorn stallion was manning the bar itself, standing in front of several large kegs with taps in them. One large staircase led upstairs to a few rooms.

The walls were all exposed wood with a light stain, except for stone around the fireplace. In fact, wood was basically everywhere and all the same color. Makes sense, I guess. Lots of forest around.

“Can I help you?”

Twilight dropped her hood and looked over at the bartender giving her the stink eye. A few more glances revealed that the entire bar was giving her the stink eye. Par for the course, Twilight thought before clearing her throat. “Yes, I need to purchase a room for the night. For two ponies.”

The gray-bearded pony shook his head. “Sorry, all full for the night. Gotta house the ponies whose homes have burned.”

Twilight facehooved. “Ah, right. Sorry. In that case, here.” She pulled out a few of her large five hundred-bit coins and dropped them on the counter. “I’d like a couple of drinks for myself and my subordinate who should be here shortly. Use the rest to help feed ponies that need help.” That is, if they aren’t all changelings.

The bartender used a hoof to pick up the coin and examine it. “That’s… mighty kind of you ma’am. We aren’t used to such generosity from outsiders.”

“I’m here to help.” She smiled at him like he was from Ponyville itself. Time to win some goodwillif I can. And if they aren’t changelings. “I was honestly rather shocked to see ponies deliberately setting fires here. If I can, I’m going to put a stop to it, Mr…” Twilight looked at his name tag. “Dirty Glass.” Oh hell. Changeling or no, that is not a name I want to see in a bartender.

Dirty scoffed. “Well, I highly doubt that, ma’am. Remote mining town like this sees its fair share of trouble from the Duchies. You’re not going to stop it. Mind you, I wouldn’t be sad to be proven wrong.”

Twilight took out her notebook. “Mining town? I thought this area was mainly agricultural. At least, most outskirts towns like this are.”

Dirty Glass reached down under the bar and used his hooves to pull out two surprisingly clean-looking glasses and started filling them from one of the kegs. “Used to be. Well, still is, really. But the companies want the minerals in the mountains. We just want to farm.”

Twilight quickly looked around the inn, spotting pickaxes and other mining implements on the wall. He’s lying. This is a mining town, or at least it is now. It’s decorated like it. That’s pride there. So why backtrack?

Twilight took both of the mugs in her magic. “Hmm. I can understand that they’d be wanting the minerals under your town if you have them, but usually they try buyouts or legal maneuvers. Arson is just beyond the pale.” Don’t press him on his inconsistency just yet. We might find out more by listening. “Still, if it is them, I want to get proof. I have more than a few friends in Canterlot that might be willing to help. If you hear anything, let me know.”

“Miss, let me level with you.” He leaned over onto the bar top. “You really don’t want to stay here. The locals won’t like you for it. I won’t like you for it. I appreciate the thought, but you should leave. Soon.”

Twilight shook her head, slumping off the bar stool. “Not yet. I promise I’ll leave soon enough. But not until I catch these attackers. If I’m lucky, I might even be able to get an audience with Princess Cadence. I know for a fact she won’t tolerate one of her towns being burned down by a corporation. Trust me, Dirty Glass. When I find out what’s going on here, there will be hell to pay.”

She walked away from him, looking around the bar. Most of the ponies in the seating area had gotten up and left, but the ones that remained were still glaring at her. Hello to you too, my little ponies. She cleared away a path to a table in the corner and sat down. Now, let’s see where this gets us.