• Published 5th Jun 2013
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Midnight's Shadow - Ponibius

In the aftermath of the devastating Lunar Rebellion, the newly minted Magus of Equestria, Midnight Sparkle, finds herself embroiled in the chaos in her homeland. Beset on all sides of nefarious foes, Midnight must fight to save Equestria or perish.

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Midnight Begins: Chapter 3

Midnight’s Shadow

Midnight Begins - Chapter 3

I awoke to find Gale’s legs wrapped around me. I felt her body pressed up against my back and her hot breath flowing down the back of my neck. The feeling of warm contentment I had experienced while sleeping was unpleasantly disrupted when I became aware of the close contact of my friend.

She stirred and nuzzled me. I turned my head to better look at her with a baleful glower. “Gale, why art thou nestling with me?”

“Because thou art warm and soft to cuddle with.” Gale smiled demurely and gave me a squeeze. “And thou didst not seem to find it objectionable during the night.” She leaned in and gave me a peck to the lips.

“Gah! Gale! Thou art too familiar!” (1) I felt my cheeks warm at the intimate contact between us. The knowledge that we likely had been in close contact with one another throughout the night only added to my embarrassment. I decided it would be best to remove myself from her grasp and the source of my mortification. I struggled, but between Gale’s grip and how interwoven I was with the sheets, I failed to make any headway.

1. It should be noted that kisses had a different social context during this period of time. It was socially acceptable during this era to use kisses for platonic shows of affection. Likely Midnight is being socially awkward at this show of affection.

Gale chuckled and hugged me closer. The differences in our strength became readily apparent as my struggles proved fruitless. “Do not be like that. Nothing is wrong with two good friends showing affection for one another. During my time in the Long Patrol, it was common for my comrades to gather together to share warmth.”

Having known Gale for years, it was clear to me that she was merely jesting. Those years of experience had also taught me how to visit revenge upon her. With a spell, I dropped the temperature of the surface of my body, making it icy cold to the touch. Gale let out a yelp as my body went from comfortably warm to freezing over the course of a couple moments. She pushed off of me to escape the cold, and the force and speed of her push resulted in her tumbling over the edge of the bed. She flailed her legs as she attempted to prevent her descent, but she fell to the floor nonetheless.

I looked over the edge of the bed to look down at Gale, who was sprawled upon the floor. Her lips puckered into a pout as she looked up at me. “Midnight, is my company so intolerable that thou must push me away?”

I shook my head and found myself grinning. “Thy company is fine. ‘Tis how thou shows thine affection that goes too far.”

Gale chuckled. “Thou art so cold to me.” She rolled to her hooves and stood up. “But ‘tis time we awoke and proceeded on our journey to Appleton.” The wolfish grin she flashed my way made me feel most uncomfortable. “And this will also be the first day of thy martial training.”

I groaned and pulled a pillow over my face. “Are we to continue with that plan?”

The idea of Gale attempting to turn me into some sort of soldier was not an appealing one to me. The pain such a plan would bring was no small deterrent. I had seen what new ponies in the Guard went through for their training, and I did not find it to my liking.

Not that my training with Mother had been a undemanding experience. Many of the tutors she had procured for me had been quite stern in what they expected out of my performance. Then there had been the lessons with Mother herself; while she never reached the point of wanton cruelty, she believed that fear of unpleasant consequences was the best motivation for her student. She expected the best from her daughter, and pushed me to my limits in all things.

I knew Gale well enough to know that, even if we were friends, she would not be inclined to show me much mercy in my own training. If anything, she might be driven to be harder on me because of our friendship. She did seem to be under the impression that this would better allow me to defend myself against real and present threats, and therefore, there were few reasons to show mercy. Which for me likely meant a great deal of pain. I did not like pain.

“Aye.” Gale prodded me with a hoof to encourage me to move. “Now rise. There is much to do today and a journey ahead of us. Stalwart is already up, and I would not have the two of us be responsible for delay.”

I looked and saw that Sergeant Stalwart was indeed no longer in our room. Likely he was securing rations to break our fast. He must have found mornings to be more amicable than I did.

“Very well,” I groaned. I slowly rolled off the bed and began the process of starting the day.

After a meal, we had immediately set off towards Appleton, once more with Gale and Stalwart flying and me in the sky chariot. After a few hours of tediously boring flying, my chaperones desired a break and brought us to land in an open field by a road. We had a short and unrefined meal of the leftovers from last night and some dried fruit and vegetables. My compatriots opted against the efforts making a fire or preparing a more elaborate meal for a short stop.

Gale finished chewing on a carrot and stood up. After dusting herself off, she gave me a grin that could only mean she had foul intentions. “Stand up, Midnight. Tis time for thy training.”

I groaned as I stood up from the chariot. I had chosen to lay down on the chariot, as uncomfortable as that might have been, to the dirty ground. “Must we? This seems like a great deal of effort for so little return.”

“I would not consider something that may very well save your life as a ‘little return,’” Gale said seriously. “I have been trained how to kill magi, and I know their weaknesses. I seek to address as many of those faults as I can with thee.” She pushed me along to a flat section of the field, overcoming my own reluctance with firm resolution and confidence. “One of the areas I find many magi wanting is their health. Too many of their number seem content to let their bodies wither amid books and flasks.”

It did not take much imagination to reason that Gale counted me among their numbers. “I am sure they had more important work to do than running in circles.”

Gale looked me in the eye, a serious frown crossing her features. “Aye. Pity more than one magi’s work was brought to a quick and sudden end because they ran out of breath fleeing some monster. Or because were cut down when they did not know how to defend themselves without the use of spells. Or hast thou forgotten how many of thy number were cut down during the war?” (2)

2. Unfortunately, we do not have an exact number of how many magi died during the Lunar Rebellion. Not enough records have survived the centuries for us to get an accurate count on exactly how many magi there even were during this time period. Additionally, casualty numbers are hard to determine due to the chaos of war, and especially when historians cannot even agree on the size of the armies involved.

Matters become even more complicated with magi due to the fact that magic gives them considerably more options for surviving a battle—even in situations ponies would normally consider impossible to survive. For example, Archmagus Sunbeam Sparkle herself was declared dead twice over the course of her career. The current record holder, Magus Lucky Day, was declared dead a grand total of nineteen times before old age (probably) claimed him.

All that can be said with reasonable certainty about the number of magi killed during the war is that the loss was substantial, considering that many sources from this time period speak of a staggering loss of magi and the critical lack of competent magi in the period following the war.

I paused to give thought to a proper response. It was true that a great number of magi had been slain, and the following decade after the war had been none too kind either. Mother had complained on more than one occasion about our fellow magi who had been hurt or killed, or had otherwise bungled some task because they had only thought to use magic to solve a problem instead of being more flexible in their approach. Given the logic of her argument and her personal experience, I had trouble finding a proper counter to her argument.

“I will concede thy point.” I let out a long sigh.

Gale gave me the most wicked of grins. “Given that I am reviewing thy performance on this mission, if I find thy state of physical readiness lacking, I could always recommend to Mother that thou shouldst attend a Guard training camp along with all new recruits.”

I fixed Gale with a baleful glower. “Thou wouldst not...” The prospect Gale suggested was undesirable to the extreme to say the least. Amongst libraries, labs, and towers was where I was comfortable. A soldier’s camp seemed as alien as the lunar surface to me.

She snickered and slapped me upon the shoulder. “There should be little need of that.” She flashed me a smirk that spoke of her ill intentions. “So long as thou makest thy best effort under my and Stalwart’s guidance.”

I rubbed at my face and considered my options. I saw no way out of this situation for the time being. Mayhaps I could talk to Mother about it once we returned to Canterlot. “Might we dispense with the tradition of bellowing in my face, or shall I undergo the full treatment of a new recruit?”

Gale patted me on the back. “There is little need of that. Verily, thou art making this seem like the end of the world.” She pointed at the ground. “Now if thou wilt go down and commence doing push-ups.”

“How many?” I asked.

Gale grinned. “Until I am satisfied.”

And so I was introduced to one of the true horrors of Equestria: calisthenics. True to Gale’s word, there had been no yelling. In fact, Gale and Stalwart were most courteous in their instructions. Shame for me that I quickly found my limbs straining and then burning to complete the rhythmic motions of each exercise. I was subjugated to a variety of methods of torture as I rotated between exercises such as sit-ups, push-ups, and squats. With the utmost politeness, they instructed me on how to do each exercise—often stopping me to correct my posture or criticise my technique in some way. They also worked to make sure I did not stop, despite my protests of pain and weariness.

After what felt like an eternity, Gale clapped her hooves together. “That is enough warm-ups for one day.”

I collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. “W-warm-ups?” Every part of me seemed to burn with pain and fatigue, and sweat coated my body. The idea that this was a mere ‘warm-up’ in her mind horrified me. Already death began to seem like an acceptable alternative to this experience.

Stalwart nodded and smiled in amusement. “Aye, and the children in the Kicker Compound can endure everything you did without collapsing like thyself. Even most of the new recruits in the Guard can remain standing after a similar experience.” He let out a belabored sigh. “But I suppose the sedentary lifestyle of a scholar does little to prepare oneself for this.”

Gale prodded me to encourage me to stand. “Aye, ‘tis a shame. We will just have to do this every day until she is ready for more robust training.”

“More?” I groaned, laying my head on the ground in exhaustion. My white-and-ice-blue bangs clung to my sweaty forehead and partially obscured my vision. “You are ... both ... vile fiends...”

“Aye, more.” Gale nodded smugly. I was beginning to doubt the existence of her soul. For what good-hearted pony would inflict such torture on another, much less one they counted as friend? “If time were not so pressing, I would have thee pull our cart for a time. Any proper soldier could walk fifteen miles in but a few hours, and I see no reason why thou art not capable of the same.”

I wished to protest at my poor treatment, but doing so required more energy than I possessed. I sensed no jest in Gale’s tone when she spoke of me aiding with the chariot.

Stalwart supported me as I stood up and assisted me to the chariot, looking to Gale as he spoke. “Indeed, I would have felt much better if we could have started Magus Midnight’s training under better circumstances. But for now I believe she has had enough.” Before I could let out a proper sigh of relief, he continued. “We will simply have to do the martial end of her training once we have stopped for the night.”

I could scarcely believe what my ears had heard. My legs were shaking and felt as though they were going to fall off just from the effort of standing and walking over to the chariot—much less additional training that very day.

I all but collapsed onto the chariot. “You are both trying to slay me and are but drawing out the process. There is no other explanation.”

Gale patted me on the head. “Do not be so melodramatic. Thou shalt acclimate in time.”

Stalwart shuffled through his saddlebags and pulled out a small book. “Meanwhile, read these while we fly.”

I scowled at him. “Thou hadst something for me to read all this time but did not allow me to know?” He placed the book before me, and I quickly identified it as the basic Royal Guard training manual.

“This is part of your training. Being able to function while tired is a valuable skill for that you will likely face someday. I will test your knowledge of this manual later. ‘Tis but a small book in any case—one intended to be easily carried on the road.” He looked at me with disapprovement. “Much unlike those tomes you wished to drag along.” To my surprise, he assisted me in the removal of my saddlebags. “Maybe now you will understand why I did not wish for you to carry an excessive amount of weight. You can imagine how difficult it would have been to do your exercises while carrying all those heavy books around.”

I groaned at the thought of having to carry around more weight while doing those accursed push-ups. I did not wish to think about it.

The next several days of our journey continued in much the same manner. We would wake up in whatever town we had stayed the night in; thankfully, we had not been forced to do something uncouth like camp out in the wilderness. We ate, traveled for a time, stopped to eat, “trained” with torturous calisthenics, traveled, found some town that was still inhabited to stay the night, and then tortured me some more with martial training before going to sleep for the night. I was miserable.

Gale and Stalwart’s martial training had not gone any better for me than the basic exercises. I was no prodigy in the art of martial combat, and it was evident when they showed me a number of martial moves to defend myself with. I cannot remember how many times they sought to correct my fighting stance alone—criticizing me, showing me how I should stand, and moving my body this way and that. More times than not, I could not tell the difference from how I was standing and how they wished for me to stand. That may have contributed to their growing irritation with me. Maybe.

I was really not sure which group of exercises I despised more. They were both tiring, painful, and decidedly hot and sweaty to do. Aches and pains throbbed throughout my body during the day and had even woken me up with a cramp in one of my legs one night.

I was not sure if I should have been thankful that my efforts were so pathetic that Gale and Stalwart did not even wish to have a proper spar with me like they repeatedly expressed interest in doing. I decided there was little I liked about what I was doing.

It was almost a relief when we finally arrived in Appleton. Over the past few days of flying, the gentle hills that covered much of Equestria gave way to the shallow mountains of the Appleachians. Trees seemed to cover the entire extent of the mountain range. It reminded me of that foreboding forest, Everfree, that sat so close to the capital. Hopefully, this region was not as dangerous as that monster-infested den. Nearly every forest in Equestria had some variety of dangerous creature more than capable of using some hapless pony as food, but some were worse than others.

Being up in the sky allowed me to get a good view of our destination: Appleton itself was nestled down in a valley amongst the vast forest and had a large stream running through it. Farms stretched out along the valley until they seemed to be swallowed by the forest. The simple buildings of the town were made of either brick or wood. Compared to the grace and grandeur of Canterlot, most of the homes of these earth ponies struck me as little more than hovels. As far as such things go, the town struck me as notable for how unnoteworthy it was. It seemed more or less exactly like every other Appleachian town we had thus far flown over.

We descended and landed upon the main street of the town. Several ponies watched us as we slowly came to a stop by the shoulder. Gale and Stalwart promptly untied themselves from the chariot while I stared down disapprovingly at the road from the back of the chariot.

Gale gave me a curious look. “Something the matter, Midnight?”

I continued staring and considered my options. “The street. ‘Tis nothing but dirt.”

Gale’s look became one of disapproval. “Aye, a keen observation. Thy point?”

I cocked an eyebrow at Gale, not understanding why she could not ascertain the obvious. “‘Tis dirty. Where will I step and not sully my hooves?”

I had to wonder what type of uncivilized place I had descended upon that could not properly pave its roads. Did the earth ponies enjoy becoming dirty the minute they stepped out of their homes?

Stalwart stepped around the other side of the chariot and gave me a glower. “‘Tis only dirt. You will survive.” He waved to some of the earth ponies staring at us as they passed by. I could not help but note that each seemed to have a fine coat of dirt and grime upon them. “They walk these streets every day.”

“But what if it were to rain? The streets would become awash with mud, and then I would become profoundly dirty.” I looked up at the sky and did not appreciate its broiling gray clouds.

Gale applied her hoof to her face. “Midnight, I swear by my honored ancestors that if this is what slows down our mission...”

Stalwart scraped his hoof along the dirt of the road. “This is foolishness.” Before I could protest or step away, he wiped his dirty hoof along my chest. “There, now you are dirty. You have neither died of disease nor melted. Remove yourself from the cart and let us proceed.”

I looked down at the specks of dirt that now covered my coat, almost in a state of shock at such uncouth behavior towards my person. I considered being obstinate and sitting upon the chariot until some better option was discovered, but I reminded myself that I was in Appleton for a reason. My mission, as assigned by both the Lady Protector Shadow and my mother, was to discover who or what was causing the disappearances in this village. Otherwise the feud between the Apples and the Carrots could reignite. It seemed that soil was simply going to be something I was going to have to tolerate for the greater good.

I tentatively stepped off the chariot and onto the dirty street. I grimaced at the grainy feel of dirt beneath my hooves, but tried to push the thought aside.

“Now that we have confirmed that thou wilt not be swallowed by the ground, mayhaps we will decide how best to proceed on our mission.” Gale nudged me on the shoulder. “So what is thy plan, oh great magus of Equestria?”

I levitated my saddlebags from the chariot and strapped them around my barrel. “Hast thou no advice to give me?” I asked Gale.

Gale shook her head amusedly. “Neigh. I am here but to judge thy performance, not to tell thee how to do thy task.”

I turned to Sergeant Stalwart. “And what of thee, Sergeant? What are thy thoughts?”

Stalwart returned my gaze flatly. “I am curious to hear if you have thought ‘pon what we are to do.”

Grand. It seemed that the both of them were going to make me decide how to start this investigation. I had hoped to receive some advice, but none seemed forthcoming until I put a plan forward. I had little doubt that the both of them would harshly criticize any problems in any plan I came up with. It occurred to me that ‘twas likely that the two of them had conspired to do so from the start. Still, I saw no other option to proceed.

I took a long breath to give me time to gather my thoughts. “I do have a plan. I think the first thing we should do is find the mayor of Appleton and speak with this pony. Hopefully there will be other officials in this town we can work with—such as the local watch.”

Stalwart gave a slight shake of his head. “There is not likely too much in the form of a gendarmerie or other form of guard. Not for a town this size. I would be surprised to hear that there is a full-time watchpony or sheriff.”

And so the criticism began. Criticism aside, questions came to mind with what Stalwart had just told me. “How could a civilized town function without somepony to enforce the law?”

The sergeant shrugged noncommittally. “They probably do not have the bits in a town this size to pay for such a thing. Likely the the mayor is one of the local magnates who serves in his or her office free of pay.” (3)

3. Magnates was the term for the earth ponies during this time period who owned significant plots of land and served as the economic and political elite of earth pony society.

Gale nodded. “For a town like this, usually whoever is the head of the local militia also responds to any unlawful behavior.”

I considered that information before speaking. “So the closest thing we have to a proper guard presence is likely some farmer or craftpony playing policepony?” (4)

4. It should be noted that Unicornia possessed a civil police force before the reforms of the post-Lunar Rebellion period resulted in the Unicornian police force being absorbed into the Royal Guard and militarized. Lady Protector Shadow Kicker seemed to prefer a gendarmerie, likely a result of being a former ephor of Pegasoplis. Grand Vizier Sunbeam Sparkle, for her part, wanted to centralize power in Equestria and assisted Shadow Kicker’s plans.

While the Unicornian levies, magi, police forces, and knightly orders, earth pony militias and law enforcement agencies belonging to sufficiently large settlements, and those Pegasoplian clans who had remained loyal to Princess Celestia had all been consolidated under the Royal Guard, the earth pony militias and law enforcement institutions of outlying settlements had been allowed to continue to function. This had been done out of practical considerations, as the Royal Guard was still in the middle of reorganizing and standardizing training and equipment while dealing with a number of threats. Given that the Royal Guard could not be everywhere, smaller settlementsespecially those near the frontierwere allowed to possess the means to police and defend themselves.

“Likely ‘tis so,” Gale grumbled.

That was not good news by my judgement. Virtually everypony around me had dismissed the militia as any kind of force worthy of proper recognition. Everypony seemed to agree that their performance on the battlefield during the war had been substandard at best. One of their larger contributions to the war had been for Lunar and Solar militia bands to ambush their enemies throughout the countryside, committing untold numbers of atrocities. We were still not sure exactly how many earth ponies had been felled in the disorganized slaughter.

So the idea that the militia was all I could depend upon to enforce the law in Appleton was disquieting. Little wonder the Guard had been sent in to bring order to Appleton when it had sparked into violence a few years ago. There simply was not much in the way of government to govern this area.

“That is grand news.” I rubbed the side of my head as I thought about the situation I was dealing with. “We can still talk to the mayor of this town. ‘Twould strike me as prudent to gather more information and inform the mayor that we are here.”

“That sounds advisable,” Stalwart said.

“So we will do that.” I looked around and spotted a two-story brick building that was the town’s courthouse. At least I guessed it was so, considering it was the largest building within the town. There was little reason for a typical family to possess a building that size when most of the space would go unused. I pointed to the courthouse. “Let us see if the mayor is there.”

We walked over to the courthouse but discovered that its doors were already locked. I looked up at the sun and saw that the day was not too late for a public official to be in her office. (5)

5. Courthouses often served as the seat of the local government of an area, in addition servicing court cases. They were also rarely in use until a town reached a certain size that the administration of a town required the mayor to serve full-time. Most mayors preferred to conduct the business of the town at their own homes and farms, so usually the town courthouse only saw use during town meetings, festivals, or when the circuit court came into the town to deal with any wayward trials.

“Mayhaps the mayor is out on business?” I thought aloud.

Stalwart busied himself with watching the ponies walking along the street. “‘Tis likely that the mayor only visits her office when there is actual business to be done. A town like this would not need its mayor to spend every day fulfilling her duties.”

“Aye, that would make sense. What dost thou thinkest, Gale?” After a period of unexpected silence, I looked about me and saw that Gale was nowhere in sight. “Gale? Where art thou?”

I felt irritation at her disappearance. From prior experience, I knew that she had a tendency to suddenly excuse herself from my presence without my knowledge that she was going nor where she was going. ‘Twas an annoying habit of hers, and Gale always seemed to take a perverse joy out of mocking any plan I might make.

I looked to Stalwart, whom seemed busy glancing up and down the street. “Stalwart, hast thou seen where my erstwhile friend has run off to?”

Stalwart looked to me and gave me a simple “Aye.”

Before I could ask where Gale had gone, I felt something tap my rump. I nearly jumped as I spun around to face the grinning Gale. I glared at my stealthy friend, and she continued to return nothing but that grin of hers. “Where hast thou been?”

The two of us had a bit of a contest between us to see if one could sneak up on the other on occasion. Normally I found entertainment in doing so, but the stress I was feeling was not making me prone to playing games.

“Gathering information. The mayor, Carrot Casserole, is likely at her farm in that direction.” Gale pointed down one of the dirt streets that lead out of the town.

I shook my head in frustration and started the journey to the mayor’s farm. My two companions followed along with me. “Thou couldst have told me thou wert doing so before leaving my presence.”

Gale’s grin became blatantly mischievous in character. “Aye, but my way was faster. I merely skipped the step where thou wouldst have asked me to discover where the mayor is to save time.” She gestured towards the courthouse. “I guessed that the courthouse would likely be closed for the day. Guessing that, I knew what information thee would want next for thy investigation.”

“That is true...” I was minorly annoyed with Gale, but she had correctly guessed my course of action. I had in fact desired to discover where the mayor was. I now possessed that information thanks to Gale, and we were all now making our way to her home. It seemed to me that Gale was likely allowing me to conduct my investigation as I pleased—mostly. At least as long as it pleased her to do so, in any event. Even after our years of friendship, I did not have the ability to perfectly predict my friend’s actions.

“Couldst thou at least inform me that thou wert about to depart?” I asked.

“I will consider thy request.” Gale playfully bumped into me. “Relax, learning how to adapt to the unexpected is an important skill. Thou canst not plan for everything, and attempting to do so will only drive thee mad.”

I had to work to keep from careening off the street after Gale bumped into me. I thought Gale may have underestimated her own mass with her armor and the additional weight I was under with my saddlebags on. Stalwart ended up unintentionally assisting me, and I was finally able to steady my hoofing when I bumped into him. Just from the brief contact, I doubted I could have caused him serious trouble even if I had run into him at a full gallop. He said nothing about the incident, and I felt too embarrassed to make mention.

Now walking in a straight line along the increasingly narrow street, I gave Gale a sour glance. “I like for things to be neat and orderly.”

Gale’s features became more stern. I noticed she was paying less attention to me and more to our surroundings. She was being wary, that I knew for certain. “Thou art unlikely to find ‘neat and orderly’ where half a dozen potential murders are involved. Best to start expecting the unexpected.”

My ear flickered with annoyance. “But how can I expect the unexpected? If it is expected, then it no longer qualifies as unexpected.”

Stalwart looked down at me with a firm expression. “‘Tis merely an expression. What I believe the Lieutenant Colonel meant was that you should be ready should the unexpected happen. Likely something will happen that none of us could have planned for.”

I conceded the point silently. There was far too much I did not know as of yet and thus could not take into account. I hated being in the dark. I was far too used to being able to find the information I required in a book or some other source of information.

Instead, I concentrated on what information I did have. “Gale, you implied that six ponies have now gone missing? And that they were likely murdered? I remember it being mentioned that only three ponies had gone missing in the mayor’s letter.”

Gale nodded grimly, much of her attention taken up by the farms as we passed them along the path. “Aye, ‘tis so. I did not find out much more, given I only wanted to be away for a few minutes, and the pony I talked to was rather biased in his opinions. The mayor should grant us more reliable information quicker, I think. She did request our presence.”

“Then let us hurry to the mayor’s home without delay.” My walk became a trot as I hurried my pace.

If we had gone from three missing ponies to six over the course of a few days, then matters were deteriorating quickly. I had been educated that the small towns of the earth ponies tended to be tight-knit communities, and their members closely related. It was not hard to imagine that the missing ponies were individuals everypony knew. Appleton would not have the level of anonymity that a city like Canterlot possessed. Kinship ties would only make matters more stressful. I knew my mother was not above committing great and terrible violence where my safety was concerned. Multiply that over an entire community, and I could very well be dealing with a bubbling cauldron ready to burst.

It took us some time to finally reach the mayor’s home. I had not quite appreciated the farms' distance from town nor their size from my vantage in the sky as we rode into Appleton. We passed by about a half dozen farms on the way, each with a very modest home sitting amongst the vast rolling hills filled with growing crops.

My breaths were heavy when we finally reached Mayor Carrot Casserole’s home. Trotting uphill had not been an enjoyable experience. ‘Twas not as bad as the seemingly endless flights of stairs that were necessary to traverse to get around Canterlot, but the hills of the Appleachian Mountains made up for steepness with length. I also missed the mountain air and breezes of my home city as I sweated. My exertions were further aggravated by the dirt gathering 'pon my hooves. I tried to ignore this last unpleasantness, but I still made note to have my shoes exchanged upon returning home.

The house we walked up to was the largest I had seen in Appleton. It was a two-story home, painted white with glass windows, a rarity from what I had seen in the area. Behind the home was a small structure that was doubtlessly the kitchen. (6) It seemed that the mayor of Appleton was also the magnate of the town. ‘Twas quite possible all the farms we had passed also belonged to Carrot Casserole and were being farmed by sharecroppers.

6. Due to the fire hazard an open hearth could pose to a wood building, it was common during this time period to make kitchens entirely separate buildings. This kept the main home safe from the kitchen in the event of a fire.

While I caught my breath, Gale quickly inquired to a couple of nearby ponies. We soon discovered the mayor was at one of her farm's barns. Following their directions through the fields, we eventually found her directing a few ponies moving goods into the barn.

Mayor Carrot Casserole was finishing giving instructions to another pony when we met her. The magnate was a mare in her middle years. While she possessed a layer of comfortable fat that came with age, muscles from years of hard farmwork still showed through. She possessed a light orange coat, and her mane was a shade of brown like moist dirt.

Mayor Casserole straightened her hat and approached us after dismissing her laborer. “Hail! My name is Carrot Casserole, and I am the mayor of this fine town.” Her accent had a familiar strain to it. In Canterlot, I had seen many of the earth pony magnates attempt to fake a more sophisticated-sounding accent when they dealt with ponies of a higher class. Typically, they sounded forced as they spoke in a way unnatural to them.

She reached out a hoof for me to shake, and seeing little reason to be rude to the mayor, I took it. I decided that was a mistake when the mayor nearly pushed me over when our hooves bumped into one another. I had nearly forgotten that the earth ponies preferred a strong hoofshake when they first met. “I take it that my letter reached somepony that sent all of you?”

“Um—aye.” I shuffled my hooves to try and remain standing. The mayor gave me a queer look as I kept myself from falling onto my rump. “We were sent to deal with the recent disappearances. I am Magus Midnight,” I introduced myself, making sure to avoid using either my noble title or my last name as my mother had instructed. I then motioned towards my companions. “And these are Lieutenant Colonel Gale Kicker and Sergeant Stalwart Kicker.” They all shook hooves and said polite and brief words to one another.

Mayor Casserole motioned for us to come into the barn. Getting into the shade struck me as an appealing proposition, and I followed her. “Can I interest any of you in some cider? I wager your journey parched your throats?” She moved to a couple casks and started filling a mug that had been sitting by them.

Gale leaned up against one of the barrels and smiled. “We would be most grateful for your hospitality. I am sure you know the proportions for pegasi.” She motioned in my direction. “Though for Midnight I ask that thou water hers down to half of what thou would give to thy children.” (7)

7. Due to the fact that only large cities possessed water purification talismans during this time period, most earth ponies drank alcoholic beverages instead of water in order to avoid waterborne pathogens. The alcohol in fermented drinks would typically kill any pathogens and would be significantly safer for ponies to drink. Spirits were typically significantly more watered-down than today’s alcoholic beverages.

Given that earth ponies have a significantly higher resistance to poisons, they can tolerate a comparatively higher level of alcohol in their drinks. Typically, an adult pegasus or unicorn’s drinks would be watered down to half of their earth pony cousins, and similar considerations would be made for children to avoid intoxication.

An annoyed murmur died in my throat. Though the suggestion that I ranked below a mere child in terms of alcoholic consumption irked me, Gale was watching out for me. There were severe consequences for a unicorn with my level of magical power becoming intoxicated. Still, it was not as though I could not handle a single mug of cider.

The mayor gave me my own mug, and I took a sip from my significantly watered-down cider. I nearly coughed up the strong beverage onto the ground. Even watered down, it was far stronger than I was accustomed to, and I barely maintained concentration on my magic to keep from dropping the mug. Normally all I drank was some water I summoned with my magic and maybe a little bit of watered-down wine when I felt the desire for it. This beverage burned on the way down as I swallowed it, and I started hacking. I blinked to keep my eyes from watering, lest they further add to my shame.

Stalwart turned away from his own mug and raised an eyebrow at me. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” I managed to croak out. I could feel everypony’s stares as I coughed some more.

“Mayhaps I should have asked for a fourth of what a child might receive?” Gale mused.

The mayor pulled out a handkerchief and rubbed at her forehead. “So ... ’tis good you came. Matters have only become worse since I asked for help.”

Almost on instinct, I cast a privacy spell over us. We would likely be discussing important matters, and I did not want us overheard by the farm laborers or anypony else wandering around. ‘Twas unlikely the laborers, the elderly earth pony in the rocking chair, or the children running about doing their chores had ill intentions, but I had been warned repeatedly over the course of my life to err on the side of caution. At worst, I was merely being a bit paranoid and looked foolish.

The spell cast, I decided to start with an open-ended question. Mother had warned me about starting an investigation with presuppositions about what I was dealing with, and the mere wording of a question can radically change the answer one receives. “Tell me what has happened in Appleton.”

With a weary sigh, Carrot Casserole nodded, shoulders slumped. “The times have not been fortunate. Over the past two weeks, no less than six ponies have disappeared without a trace. Nopony can make heads nor tails of it. It is getting to the point I worry everypony in the town will soon be at each other's throats. ‘Twill not be long before my family and the Apples start fighting again, and I do not know how to stop it.”

I rubbed my chin as I thought that over. “Nopony has seen anything? I doubt ‘tis usual for that many ponies to suddenly disappear in a town like this.”

“Neigh.” Mayor Casserole shook her head. “Captain Red Steel has had little fortune in asking everypony what they have seen.” She pushed up her hat and rubbed at her head. “At least nothing anypony is willing to admit.”

I took a much more cautious sip of my cider as I considered what I had been told, and I confirmed the drink was as unpalatable as before. A shame I could not dispose of the drink without offending my host. “Dost thou believe that somepony in Appleton might be responsible?”

Mayor Casserole sighed and sat down on a sack of corn. “I cannot fairly say. At first I thought it was must have been one of the Apple Clan when poor Carrot Cupcake disappeared. But then Apple Strudel went missing, then a few days later Corn Husk. Then it took us a couple days to realize Carrot Glaze was gone. Then we heard one of the local weather pegasi named Hammer had gone without a trace. And I just heard earlier today that Hazen Apple has not been seen.”

I considered what Mother had taught me about this type of situation before deciding on my next question. “Was there anything connecting the ponies who disappeared? Were they kin? Enemies? Anything at all.”

The mayor crossed her forelegs over her chest and looked to think hard on the matter. “Nothing I can think of. I mean, Hazen and Glaze tended to give each other some mean looks over some unfinished business from the war, but you get that between everypony in the Apple and Carrot Clans. Corn Husk mainly kept to himself. I never knew this Hammer. Most of the pegasi keep to themselves up in the clouds now. And Cupcake is just a filly.”

That bit of information was only helpful in how unhelpful it was. Thus far it seemed the probable victims that had disappeared possessed nothing in common. If they had any matter of connection, I would have had some sort of basis to go off of. If all the victims had been either Carrots or Apples, then I could have easily guessed that this was but another chapter in the two farming clans’ blood feud. Instead, all I had was that the missing ponies had disappeared almost entirely at random. That in and of itself was suspicious.

I tapped my chin as I considered the situation before me. “Hopefully they have not been horrifically murdered by some crazy pony and buried under their barn. Or perhaps eaten by some monster and had their entrails feasted upon. Or otherwise mutilated in some terrible way. But likely ‘tis so. There are any number of unpleasant ways for a pony who has suddenly disappeared to have died.”

The mayor bit down on her lower lip when I said that and looked down into her drink. Gale poked me in the ribs and whispered warningly to me. “Thou art acting in a manner that other ponies find unsettling, Midnight.”

“I am?” I whispered back. Gale had sat down with me a number of years ago to talk about what other ponies apparently saw as ‘unsettling behaviors.’ I did not see why some of the things I did would upset some ponies, but Gale insisted that some of the things I said and did were off-putting to most. Apparently my last comment was one of those incidents.

Gale continued to lean in and whisper with me. “Aye, ‘tis distressing to others to talk about ponies they know in such a way. Do not refer to the fact they might have been murdered or killed, at least until we know more for certain.”

I did not see why ponies would want to avoid the truth, even if it was ugly in nature. ‘Twas unlikely the ponies who had disappeared were alive unless everypony had greatly misjudged the situation, and that was the unfortunate truth of the matter. But I had learned to trust Gale’s judgement in such situations.

I nodded to Gale and sat down opposite of the mayor on the cleanest crate I could see. I decided ‘twas better to continue with more questions than dwell on my apparently taboo behaviors. “Has anypony new come to town in the last two weeks?”

The mayor considered that question for a moment before answering. “Only the Patrolpony ... Silent Forest, if I remember. I can’t remember his rank. He showed up about a week ago to help, and he has been helping Red with her search. Then there was that bard that showed up couple days before the Patrolpony. Subtle ... Subtle-something ... Subtle Song! That was her name. She has been about town playing her instrument and singing to earn bits.”

“A bard? All the way out here in a backwoods town such at this?” I thought aloud. “An insignificant hamlet such as this hardly seems like the place a reputable bard would come. A disreputable bard on the other hoof...” I rubbed my chin, and noted that Gale seemed to be rubbing her forehead in pain. Mayhaps she was developing a headache.

One of the mayor’s eyes twitched. “Mayhaps you should ask her yourself why she is here.”

I nodded. “I think I will do so.” This Silent Forest also sounded like somepony I should talk to soon. At the very least, I knew I could put a pony of the Patrol to better work than some backcountry militia captain.

Gale leaned up against one of the barn’s support beams. “Mayhaps ‘tis one of the monsters which inhabits the nearby woods that is causing these disappearances?”

Mayor Casserole rubbed at her eyes. “If ‘tis so, then ‘tis like no monster or animal I have ever heard of. It is sad, but despite what anypony does, every once in a while, some poor pony will get picked off by some sort of predator, usually somepony out on one of the farms by the edge of the forest or actually in the forest doing something like cutting a tree down. But Cupcake was last seen in town, and Hammer would not have any reason I know about go to the forest.”

She leaned forward and gave all of us a serious look. “Usually we can find out what happened when something like that comes up. Red Steel or somepony else who knows the woods will go looking and usually find the poor pony that got killed. No predator drags a pony that far from the town just to eat them. Red and that Long Patrol pony that showed up a few days ago already went around the edge of the forest but did not find anything. Not for any of the ponies who disappeared.”

Stalwart glanced over warily as a pair of laborers came into the barn and pulled out a pair of bags. “‘Tis possible we are dealing with an aerial predator. There are a number of monsters that can swoop down and capture a pony. Even a pegasus that stays in the clouds has some predators to fear.”

Now that was an unpleasant thought. Such a beast would be difficult to find and kill if that was the case. One large enough could have the hunger needed to cause multiple ponies to disappear—like a large and aggressive dragon or a nesting roc that needed additional food to feed its hatchlings. Or potentially something like a pride of manticores, though manticores tended to pounce on a target and eat it on the spot instead of taking it away. A dragon could easily cause such death and mayhem. That was an unsettling prospect. We would need to call in at least a platoon of the Long Patrol to deal with such a creature, and even then we would likely suffer terrible casualties unless we were very smart and lucky. A dragon’s natural resistance to magic would make it difficult for even a capable magus such as myself to harm it.

I put the mug to the side so that I could put my full concentration on the problem at hoof. “Hast thou ever had problems with such creatures in the past?”

“None that I recall.” The mayor drank from her mug. “The Long Patrol have done a fine job of keeping such dangerous beasts at bay. It is rare indeed when sometimes something crawls out of the Forbidden Woods.”

Gale tapped her hoof on the floor in thought. “There is also the matter that dragons are hardly inconspicuous. The Patrol maintains detailed records of the usual places any aerial predators tend to take roost, and check those places regularly. ‘Tis possible something new has moved into the area which the Patrol has not yet discovered.” She shrugged noncommittally.

Gale had served at least a couple of years in the Long Patrol, so I could safely say she knew how they operated and their capabilities. If she thought some large airborne predator at work was unlikely, then it was unlikely. ‘Unlikely’ was not the same as ‘impossible,’ but I had to narrow down what to investigate somehow; otherwise I would wander around in the hopes I would bumble into a clue by luck alone. I knew my fortune well enough to know how that plan would turn out. At best, I would uncover the monster’s identity only because it chose me as its next meal.

“I would suggest talking to Red,” the mayor offered. “She is the pony looking into this, and likely knows more than I. Last I heard, the patrolpony was also with her.”

“I think I will follow that suggestion.” I had my doubts on how useful the local militia captain would prove. This Red Steel had not yet discovered anything from what the mayor had told us, but I had not learned much that was overly helpful towards finding what was behind Appleton’s recent misfortune. I had some ideas on how to proceed, but more information was key to an investigation such as this. “Where can I find this pony?”

“She’s usually at her smithy,” the mayor said. “But lately she has been about the town trying to figure out why ponies have been disappearing.”

So, it would appear that finding this Red Steel could prove difficult. Unfortunate, but probably workable in time.

I stood up and away from the mug of cider. I hoped ‘twould appear I had merely forgotten the mug of earth pony poison rather than not consumed it as an insult against my host. I may have been in a mere barn, but ‘twas Carrot Casserole's barn. “I have no further questions for now. I will go and speak with this Red Steel and see how she might be of assistance.”

Mayor Casserole tilted her mug back to finish the cup. “If you are sure you do not have any more questions.” Everypony else stood up along with me, and we all moved towards the door of the barn. “I am willing to offer the hospitality of my home while you are all in town.”

I waved my hoof to dismiss the notion. “That should not be necessary. I am sure we can afford a room at the local inn.” I broke the privacy spell I had placed over the barn, considering I did not wish to leave a stray spell laying about.

Sergeant Stalwart coughed loudly. “Midnight, Appleton does not have an inn.”

My eyebrows raised. “It does not?” In my experience, most every town had some sort of lodgings for travelers, and it struck me as odd that it was not the same in Appleton.

“Neigh, no offense to the ponies of Appleton—” Gale nodded to the mayor “—but this town has little use for such a thing. ‘Tis not a place many visitors come to, being far from the major roads or trading routes.”

“Oh...” I now felt a twinge of embarrassment as I looked to the mayor. “I suppose we might have need of thy hospitality.” I gave her a sheepish smile.

Mayor Casserole slapped me upon the back and grinned. “I thought as much would be the case.”

If we were going to be staying in Appleton, then I would prefer to procure the most comfortable arrangements we could. With there being no inn in the town, the magnate’s house would probably have the best accommodations in Appleton. At least it was not hard to imagine the magnate would have the best rooms available, given many of the hovels I had walked past on the way to Carrot Casserole’s farm. It was certainly not the largest home I had seen amongst the earth ponies, but ‘twas a considerably larger than that of the mayor’s neighbors.

I resisted the urge to rub the sore spot that had developed from the mayor’s hearty slap, and managed to keep up a smile. “I wish we could stay, but we really must continue with our investigation.”

“Understandable.” The mayor stopped me at the door of the barn with a hoof placed upon my shoulder. I could readily see the worry within her eyes as she looked into mine. “Please do what you can. My town depends on you. Many ponies are scared right now, and nothing good has ever come from that.”

“Um, I shall keep that in mind.” I gave the mayor a smile to try and reassure her, but it felt shaky upon my lips. “I will do my best.”

A creaky, old, sandpaper-on-wood voice from my side nearly caused me to jerk in shock. “Now ya’re not gonna just let the three of them go off without somepony to show them around town, are ya?” I turned to see that the elderly pony had somehow snuck up on me despite her decrepit frame. She looked downright ancient with her extremely wrinkled skin, liver spots visible through her dark green coat, crooked, old teeth, and a scraggly and thinning gray mane. I had seen some old earth ponies in the past, but this one showed her age more than any other.

I frowned at the elderly earth pony. I did not particularly care for her suddenly bringing herself into our conversation with the mayor. “I believe we can manage to find our way around the town. I received a good view of it when we first arrived, and I doubt I will get lost in such a small town.”

The old pony turned to the mayor and glowered at her. “Ye’re not gonna show a lack of hospitality to these ponies, are ya? Send Carrot Juice with them to help show them around.”

The mayor rubbed at her eyes and shook her head wearily. “Of course, where are my manners?” She nodded to a lime green earth pony mare who seemed busy placing baskets filled with produce into the barn. “Please, let Carrot Juice show you around. She knows the town as well as anypony and should be able to help you find Captain Red Steel.”

I exchanged glances with Gale, who in turn shrugged noncommittally. At least she did not see too many problems with us receiving a guide.

Stalwart leaned down and whispered into my ear, “It could be useful to have somepony to tell us where everything is around town and where to find certain ponies. However, we shall have to be careful with our words around her.”

With neither of my companions objecting to the proposal, I nodded to the mayor. “Very well. I graciously accept thy guide to the town.”

Casserole called over Carrot Juice, who trotted over to us. The mayor gave her instructions to assist us around Appleton, and she curtly agreed to help us. With that business complete, we made our way back to Appleton proper. It was on the path back to the hamlet that I came upon an unpleasant realization when my legs started to burn from exertion and fatigue.

I was going to be doing a great deal of walking over the next few days.

I asked Carrot Juice a few questions while we walked on the path—at least when I could manage to do so through huffing breaths. Concentrating on keeping my legs moving forward without tripping over one another was making it difficult to concentrate on much else.

Carrot Juice herself was not as helpful as I would have hoped. She answered my questions in a decidedly curt manner which quickly began to grate on me. I was given the opinion she would prefer to be doing something else other than assisting me with my investigation. I was also beginning to suspect that life in the Appleachian Mountains was hard on the ponies who lived here. Unless I missed my guess, Juice looked significantly older and weathered than she really ought to, considering that she looked as though she were in the twilight of middle age rather than a decade or two younger like I suspected.

I quickly grew tired of the sun beating down on me and causing my coat and skin to burn from the heat. I found the shading from the trees along the dirt path to be wanting, and so I decided to do something about that. With a spell, I caused my shadow to shift and move, growing in density as it moved to hover over me to provide a consistent source of shade.

Stalwart pursed his lips at the display of magic. “Are you sure this is the best time to be using your magic for such things? It would be unwise to exhaust your magic if we were to suddenly find ourselves in battle.”

“I know the limits of my magic,” I said confidently. “This spell will not exhaust me.” I levitated up my enchanted canteen and poured some of the magically cooled water into my mouth. Enchanting my canteen to keep whatever liquid inside it cool had proven a wise investment by my estimations.

Stalwart exchanged a look with Gale. Gale in turn nodded and shrugged noncommittally.

I looked back and forth between the two of them. “What? Why are you two looking at each other?”

“‘Tis nothing, Midnight,” Gale assured. “Stalwart is merely concerned that thou art wasting thy magic when we could be attacked at any moment.”

I could see some of Stalwart’s concerns, given how I was all but panting as we continued down the path. ‘Tis fortunate that a unicorn’s magical reserves and physical stamina were mostly separate—at least as long as I was not foolish or desperate enough to start tapping into my very life force for magical power. Though being physically exhausted could have a negative effect on my spellcasting and vice versa. But I was only at the point physically where it took more concentration than normal to cast my shadow manipulation spell.

Carrot Juice scowled disapprovingly at my now umbrella-like shadow. “You can move your shadow at will? Just like that?”

“Something like that,” I said in the most neutral manner I could manage. Telling everypony around me as little as I could about my abilities with magic had long been ingrained into me. Mother had made sure of that with many cuffings to the back of my head whenever I started to explain too much of what I was capable of to another pony. ‘Twas generally considered unwise for a magus to explain what they were fully capable of. Knowledge was powerful, and telling anypony the extents and limits of your abilities was “akin to giving a dagger to thy potential enemies,” as Mother put it.

“Three ponies up the path,” noted Stalwart. I sensed a tension in him that was not present a moment ago.

I looked up and saw that there were indeed three ponies heading our way with deliberate purpose. This in and of itself was not terribly suspicious. We had passed by about a half dozen ponies, usually pulling along a cart filled with some sort of goods, along the path. I cast a spell to refract the air before my face to create a lens for me to see through. I immediately noticed that two of the ponies were armed and armored. I had been told that pegasi had superior vision compared to their unicorn and earth pony cousins, and so it was not hard to imagine Stalwart had seen what I now saw.

Stalwart glanced in my direction and then back down the road. “Let us halt and wait for them to come to us. Midnight, stay a couple of steps behind and between me and Gale.” He locked eyes with me, and I saw his eyes purposefully look back at Carrot Juice for a moment, warning me to be wary of the Appleton farmer. I would say he was being paranoid, but such is the way of bodyguards. I had never known a bodyguard to be reprimanded for being suspicious of somepony who was not trying to kill their charge.

I nodded and did as he instructed. I took a couple of steps back and looked around warily while the trio of ponies trotted up to us. The earth pony mare at the center of the trio stepped forward.

The coat of plates and hammerhooves she was wearing were what immediately caught my eye on the maroon-coated mare. Something flashed in the mare’s eyes that I could not recognize, and they narrowed in my direction. “I am Captain Red Steel of the Appleton Militia. Who art thou?” Her tone was crisp and clear. ‘Tis possible she had served a tour in the Royal Guard, as she lacked the accent I had heard among the rest of the ponies in Appleton.

I had to admit, Red Steel cut a much more imposing figure than the bumbling and incompetent backcountry militia captain I had imagined. While short, I could see the corded muscle under her armor, no doubt gained from years of working at her smithy. ‘Twas easy to see why her fellow earth ponies had elected her to head their militia, given her confident and commanding demeanor. She walked with the aura of a mare who was much accustomed in the use of her hammerhooves.

I took a step forward to address her. “My name is Magus Midnight. I am here to investigate disappearances in Appleton. We just came back from a meeting with the mayor and were looking for thee.”

In truth, looking for Red Steel had not been my top priority, but I was not going to let a potential moment of good fortune pass me by. As Mother had taught me, every encounter with a pony is an opportunity to gather more information, and all information is relevant in some way.

Red Steel looked past us to Carrot Juice. “Is this true, Juice?”

“Aye,” Juice replied in her typical curtness.

I was annoyed that the militia captain had not taken my word on who I was and what I was here for, but these were suspicious and dangerous times.

I decided to ignore the captain’s rudeness. “And these are my companions, Lieutenant Colonel Gale Kicker and Sergeant Stalwart Kicker. They are here to assist in my investigation.”

Taking her cue from me, she nodded to the earth pony stallion on her right. “This is Corporal Silent Forest of the Long Patrol. He has been assisting me with dealing with the late unpleasantness.” Silent Forest in turn gave us a salute, which Gale and Stalwart returned. Magi generally did not make a habit of saluting unless they were a war magi directly tied to the Royal Guard.

I immediately recognized the Patrol-issued scale mail armor on the earth-brown pony, and his standard Guard helmet covered much of his dual-green mane. The crossbow on his back was also of Guard design. This was likely the lone patrolpony that had been sent to Appleton. I had a sneaking suspicion that all of the help I would receive in Appleton already stood before me.

I then turned my attention to the only unicorn I had seen in the entire town thus far, as Appleton had proven to be an earth pony town through and through. The only pegasi I had seen up to this point had been those flying about managing the weather, and none of them seemed in any hurry to come down to talk with their earth pony cousins on the ground.

Next, Red Steel looked at the unicorn mare on her left with a disapproving frown. “And this is—”

“Subtle Song!” the teal-coated unicorn said, her bubbly joy interrupting the glowering Red Steel. She gave all of us a friendly wave. “I was traveling through the area when I heard what troubles had befallen this town, and I decided to help.”

“Aye. ‘Help.’” Red Steel repeated the word in a flat tone, expressing his opinion of the quality of aid the bard seemed to offer him.

Subtle Song smiled at Red Steel. Either she was unconcerned with Red’s demeanor or was completely oblivious to it. I was not sure which one I preferred. “I further hope my time here will give me inspiration for new songs and stories.” She levitated her lyre from off her back and strummed a few notes. “I have already learned a few notes from some popular songs in the area. Hopefully, they will be something I can use elsewhere in Equestria.”

I gave Subtle a unconvinced frown. “Thou came to a backcountry, nowhere, insignificant little hamlet like Appleton for inspiration?” I was not sure why, but I suddenly received the distinct impression that Red Steel and Carrot Juice were trying to stare holes through me.

Subtle nodded enthusiastically. “One never knows where one might find inspiration. I decided to ply my trade here in the mountains to see what I might discover.” She took in a deep breath and then exhaled with a smile. “Aye, you can taste the inspiration in the air.”

“Indeed.” I remained unconvinced. Deciding I had enough talking with the potentially eccentric bard, I turned back to Red Steel. “Mayhaps we might concentrate on trying to discover what malady has befallen Appleton?”

Red Steel grunted in agreement. “Not going to get much done standing here and talking.”

“Excellent.” I had caught my breath by this point and started trotting down the road back to the town. “Thou knowest where the home of this Hazen Apple is? I have heard that he was the latest to go missing.”

Red Steel fixed me with a scowl before following along besides me. “Aye, I do. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have a plan, but I need to visit his home to enact it.” I gave Red Steel a confident smile that caused her to shiver. I never knew why, but my smiles always seemed to cause ponies to react in much a manner.

“Very well.” Red winced and looked away from my face. “But first I would like to ask a few questions.”

I was slightly annoyed, having to waste my time answering some militia captain’s questions, but decided it would be best to be friendly with Red Steel for the moment. I might actually need her help here soon. “Then make thy inquiries.”

Red Steel pointed to my shadow, which was still hanging over my body like an umbrella. “What is wrong with your shadow?”

Captain Red Steel seemed reluctant to follow my plan, but Gale eventually convinced her to go along with what I intended to do. I asked the captain some questions on the way to Hazen Apple’s home but learned little that I did not already know. It seemed that Red Steel had kept the mayor well-informed on her activities and what she knew, and she had not discovered anything new since they had last spoken. The more I heard, the more my suspicions were raised that some great evil had come to Appleton.

Red Steel and Gale assured me that for this many ponies to have disappeared without anypony being the wiser was most unusual. In a small town such as this, ponies were much more tightly knit than they were in the great cities of Equestria like Canterlot. Ponies were more prone to seeing the unusual and noting such occurrences, especially when they were already wary such as they were now.

Mother had previously made me spend time with Canterlot’s gendarmerie, and I knew from that experience that at least some evidence was almost always left following the commission of some grave deed. The fact that there seemed to be no signs of violence or anything else suspicious or noteworthy in this case was beyond suspicious to me. Perhaps ‘twas the magus in me, but I was beginning to suspect some sort of black magic was involved in this affair. Options for misdeeds were greater when magic was involved. If black magic was involved, then Appleton could be in grave danger.

With little evidence to effectively conduct an investigation, I had decided to make my own fortune. If I could find what I desired in Hazen Apple’s home, then I could very well discover the location of the missing pony with my magic. That could save me a great deal of time spent wandering around interviewing ponies about what they had seen and looking for other evidence that Red Steel and Silent Forest had missed. ‘Twas perfectly possible the two of them had missed something, but ‘twas also possible that there was little to discover.

Red Steel told me that Hazen was a young stallion working as a sharecropper with his parents on a farm nearby Appleton—one of the ones owned by Carrot Casserole. It struck me as likely that Mayor Casserole owning many of the local farms was a source of contention in Appleton between her and the Apples. Stories of the conflicts between sharecroppers and magnates went back to before the founding of Equestria, and had only been made worse by the war when Apple Tree’s supporters had attempted to redistribute the land after the death of their leader. There were reasons why the earth ponies’ government no longer existed.

The motley collection of ponies that had gathered around me approached the two-story farmhouse. It was not much to impress by my reckoning, given it looked like the ponies who had made it had just stacked logs on top of each other and then put some form of mortar between the gaps to make a serviceable building. I preferred the stone architecture of Canterlot.

As we approached the oversized shanty, a dark red earth pony stallion came marching around the side of the building. He looked like a pony on a mission as he stomped his way up to us with a deep scowl crossing his features. “Red, did you bring those Solars to mah farm?” the stallion demanded.

Red Steel put a hoof up to try and calm the stallion. “Relax, Applesauce. They are here to help find your son.”

“Ah do not believe that for a moment.” Applesauce, going off what the captain had called him, snorted derisively. “Ya know they are here to hang a few ponies, just like last time the Guard showed up and hanged mah brother.”

Red Steel stepped up to the stallion—nearly touching noses with Applesauce. “Neigh, they were asked by the mayor to help. They are not here to hang anypony.”

“Not unless I have a reason to hang somepony,” I corrected helpfully. “I am keeping an open mind.”

Red Steel looked at me slackjawed, and I felt an uncomfortable silence settle. Stalwart’s ears had flatted on his head as he grimaced. I looked to Gale, and she made a gesture that told me to be silent.

I felt one of my ears twitch out of irritation. “What? ‘Tis not as though I will just hang ponies out of hoof. I am not a monster.”

Applesauce stepped aside of Red Steel to face me. The fact I nearly had to look straight up to look the farmer in the face made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. There are many tall ponies in Canterlot, but the pony before me was quite massive in scale—no doubt a result of a lifetime spent doing hard farm work. The angry scowl he gave me did little to raise my confidence.

Subtle Song stepped between us with a big smile on her face. “Peace everypony. Nopony wants disharmony here. Let us all take a step—”

“Quiet, hornhead!” Applesauce whipped his head around at Subtle Song fast enough to to make her flinch and take a step back. “Ah do not know you nor any of these other ponies. As far as Ah can tell, the only ponies Ah can trust right now are mah kin.”

I noticed that more ponies—likely members of the Apple Clan, ponies passing by on the road, and even some pegasi watching from the clouds—were gathering around to watch my encounter with Applesauce.

“I hope to find thy son and everypony else,” I said reassuringly. “But first I need to enter thy home to collect something.”

An anger burned behind Applesauce’s eyes as his gaze turned back to me. “More like frame me and mah kin!”

I narrowed my eyes at Applesauce and his ridiculous assertion. “Neigh, that would be a stupid course of action. I am trying to discover who or what is causing these disappearances, not lay blame on another pony. Dost thou think I am an incompetent?”

“Ah think you are an idiot,” Applesauce said, scorn lacing his words.

I could feel my patience with the stallion slowly draining away at about the same rate as my irritation grew. This should have been an easy and quick stop while I continued with my investigation, and instead I was trying to talk my way past one of the very stallions I was trying to help. The fact he was trying to intimidate me and everypony else did not raise my esteem of him.

I pointed to the home behind Applesauce. “I am going into thy home to find what I desire. As a royal magus, I have the authority to do so. Step aside.”

Red Steel stomped a hoof. “You are not going to win here, Applesauce. Withdraw for you and your family’s good. Do not be a fool.”

Applesauce’s features hardened. “Sometimes it is about more than winning and losing, Red.” He looked down at me with a sneer. “Neigh, you have no right to enter mah home without mah permission.”

I pressed my hoof to my face. “I just told thee I have the authority to enter thy home! Art thou not listening?” I let out a frustrated groan. “Enough of this.” I stepped to move past the living embodiment of stubbornness. “I do not have all day to argue with—”

My progress was rudely stopped when Applesauce’s hoof shot out and struck me in the chest with a hard shove. I was knocked to my hindquarters. I looked up at the stallion that had smote me in astonishment as I rubbed at the aching spot where I had been hit. He had struck me! Me! A royal magus and representative of the crown. I had not expected some farmer to have the audacity to cross such a line.

Stalwart’s response was immediate. The fact he had been almost continually at my side since coming to Appleton had resulted in me almost forgetting that he had been there. His hoof shot out, and his foreleg wrapped around the upraised leg Applesauce had struck me with. Bringing himself chest to chest with the Apple farmer, Stalwart jerked Applesauce’s leg and violently pushed against his side. Applesauce hit the ground with a painful sounding thump, and he gasped as the air was blown out of his lungs.

Stalwart held onto the leg and twisted it painfully to keep the farmer down. “Applesauce, you are under arrest for assaulting a royal magus.”

“I did no such thing!” Applesauce struggled against Stalwart, but my guard used his leverage on the farmer’s leg to hold him painfully in place.

“Applesauce, you fool!” Red Steel spat. She quickly moved behind Applesauce and pulled out a pair of shackles. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“What are you two—?” Applesauce struggled against the two ponies as they put him in chains. “You have no right!”

“Let mah husband go!” screamed an irate mare as she charged up to us.

Red Steel stepped up to intercept her. “Do not make this worse, Sweet Potato.”

“I think he looks good in chains, Sweet,” Carrot Juice sneered from behind me.

Gale was standing over me and looking around us wearily. “Art thou well, Midnight?”

I stood up shakily, my legs suddenly having trouble supporting me as the world whirled around. “Aye, I think so.”

The whole scene seemed a bit unreal to me as I rubbed where I had been struck. More ponies than I could keep track of were yelling at one another around me. It reminded me at least one similarly unpleasant situation I had experienced in Manehatten when surrounded by riotous earth ponies. I could see that the situation was rapidly growing worse. Likely I would be dealing with a riot if nothing were done soon.

Something neededto be done. I drew upon my magic, poured power into a spell that magnified the sound of my voice, and yelled in as commanding a voice as I could, “Enough!” The sound boomed forth and caused everypony around me to flatten their ears against their heads and flinch. Having a moment’s respite, I looked at Stalwart. “Stalwart, thou and Silent Forest stand outside the front door and guard over Applesauce. Gale and I will go inside and be quick about finding what we need.”

We all stood there for a moment as everypony gave me questioning looks after I gave out orders.

Gale pointed to one of her still flattened ears. “We cannot hear thee. Thy spell...”

Oh. ‘Twould seem I put a little too much magic into my spell in my haste to stop everypony from arguing. At least me deafening everypony had the benefit of disabling their ability to effectively argue with each other.

I had to resort to pointing to convey where I wanted everypony to go. Thankfully, I managed to successfully convey my intentions quickly enough.

Red Steel rubbed as her ears as she stepped up to me. “I am coming with you inside.”

“That is fine,” I said with a dismissive hoof wave. I walked up to the front steps of the farmhouse, and Gale and Red Steel followed me.

I really did not feel up to arguing with the earth pony captain—especially considering such an argument could result in losing the momentum I had gained. Most of the ponies about me seemed far more concerned with the ringing in their ears, and I did not want to give them time to recover.

The three of us made our way into the farmhouse while Stalwart and Silent Forest took their posts at the front door, guarding Applesauce. I could not help but notice Subtle Song as she sat down next to the two guardponies and pulled out her lyre.

The farmhouse was as modest as I had expected it to be—maybe even more so. The family that lived here did not seem to have many more belongings than were necessary for daily life, and most of what they did have was weathered from use.

Not wanting to stay in this hovel for longer than I had to, I looked to Red Steel. “Dost thou know where Hazen Apple’s room is?”

Red Steel flicked an ear. Either out of annoyance at me or because her ears were still ringing, I was not sure. It very well could have been from both, upon contemplation. “‘Tis probably upstairs.”

I followed Red Steel up the house’s creaky stairs while Gale busied herself looking about the house. I could only guess for what, but I trusted her judgement to make herself useful. Gale could be like a cat in how well she followed directions—when she was disinclined to do so, anyway. Her mother must have had some special hold on her to keep her on mission.

Red Steel pointed into one of the rooms. “This is probably his room. Now what are you hoping to find here?”

I walked into the room and began my search. “His mane-brush.”

She looked at me skeptically. “You have gone through all of this trouble to find a manebrush?”

“Aye.” I did not have to search long to find what I desired. I opened one of drawers of a nightstand. Taking a moment to examine it, I pulled out the hairs stuck amongst the bristles. “Does Hazen possess a dark green mane?”

“He does.” Red Steel watched on as I pulled out some chalk and started drawing a circle and arcane runes on the floor. “What are you doing now?”

“Preparing for a tracking spell.” I pulled out a small, plain-featured wooden doll of a pony and tied the hairs to it. “Successfully casting a tracking spell can be most difficult. Simply giving me the name of a pony is unlikely to allow me to track a pony. But if I have an aid, like a sample of their mane, the chances I will succeed go up admirably.”

Red Steel leaned down to watch my work intently. “And the circle will also help?”

“Aye; circles, as well as the arcane runes I drew and the doll, will help me concentrate, control, and focus my energies.” I put the doll into the circle and closed my eyes as I began to concentrate on the spell I would cast. Failure could result in me burning the mane hairs I had and thus destroy my best method to find Hazen Apple. “Now please be silent while I cast my spell.”

She stepped back when my horn started to glow. Visualizing the circle within my mind, I snapped it closed magically and began the process of concentrating my energies. I weaved the magical energies into the spell, focusing on the hairs within to establish a connection. I worked the delicate spell until I felt something, a presence within the spell extending beyond the room. I smiled and finished my casting. Scraping away an edge of the circle, I released the magical energies of the spell, and I felt them shoot out, creating a metaphysical string to the target of the spell.

Feeling out with my senses, I could feel that the connection with the spell was tenuous, but it was there. I would be able to follow it to Hazen as long as I made sure not to lose the spell.

“It worked.” I picked up the supplies I had used for the spell and made my way downstairs. “Come. We must go, lest the spell degrade.” I saw Gale in the living room. “Gale, my tracking spell worked. Let us go.”

“Good job.” Gale smiled and trotted after me along with Red Steel. “If we are fortunate, we may solve this mystery by the end of the day.”

“Aye, it might be so.” I opened the door and walked outside—being careful to maintain the fragile hold I had on the spell. “But we cannot dally.”

Red Steel closed the door behind us as we stepped onto the porch. “Where is the spell leading you?”

That was actually a good question. The tracking spell I had used was designed to point me towards its target, rather than telling me my distance from it. I felt along the magical pull of the spell and looked up at one of the mountains. “Up that mountain.”

“Then we have a hike to look forward to,” Red Steel said grimly. “Figures it would lead into the forbidden part of the forest.”

“Grand.” I looked at the miles-long journey we had before us and did not look forward to it. I could already feel my legs burning from the effort of climbing up a forested mountain. “I take it there are reasons why that part of the forest is forbidden?”

Red Steel looked pensively at the mountain. “It is infested with monsters of all types. Ponies do not go there for good reasons.”

“Somehow I am not surprised.” I pulled on the straps of my saddlebags to make sure they were as comfortable as they could be for the trip. “I wonder what misfortunes the universe will heap on me next?”

And that is when it began to rain.

Author's Note:

I would like to thank Chengar Qordath, Comma-Kazie, and JJ GingerHooves for all their help in editing this story and making it the best it can be.

Finally, a big thanks to all my prereaders, Infinion, droplet739, notMurphy, Garbo802, mrjerrio, q97randomguy, Swiftest Shadow, Trinary, and Incidental Pegasus No. 5 who work ceaselessly to beat me over the head for my grammar mistakes.