• Published 19th Jun 2012
  • 1,757 Views, 155 Comments

Cutting Ties - fic Write Off

  • ...

Curse, Bless Me Now

The cute mare seated near the end of the bar had been watching me for a good ten minutes. I tried to keep a disinterested gaze directed down at the oaken counter and play it cool, but I couldn’t keep a smile locked away forever. Tossing back the last of my cider, I turned to look at her again, but found her already walking toward me. She slid into the seat next to me, winked, and said in a deep, scratchy baritone, “Hey, sleeping beauty. Do that on your own time.”

I blinked hard and raised an eyebrow at her. Leaning in a little closer, she brushed her forelock out of her eyes and opened her mouth to speak again.

A loud thud sounded directly in front of me. My eyes snapped open, overwhelmed with a sudden wash of sunlight, as I tilted back in my chair past the tipping point and crashed to the floor. Shaking my head to stir up the dust inside, I looked up at Stakeout and the file folder he’d flung onto my desk. “Nap time’s over, junior,” he growled through his one-sided smile.

“Yeah. Sorry.” I righted my chair and plopped back into it, the springs creaking their protest. “What’s this?” I flipped open the folder’s cover and leafed through the first few typewritten pages.

“Your new case. It’s time. We’ve gotta pick up the slack.” Everypony had been dancing around that particular topic lately. Golden Shield hadn’t been seen in over two months. Of course, his urgent cases had been taken up immediately by other detectives, but the lesser ones had languished until somepony up the chain of command decided that it was time to admit he wasn’t coming back. Which, apparently, was now. “You get the gem. Enjoy.” He relished that a little too much.

Taking the folder, I swiveled around to face out the window, where the spires of the royal palace towered above the city. Some were close enough that the early afternoon sun glanced off the stained-glass windows and left multihued spots strewn over the case reports. Check that—my case reports. I flipped right past the boilerplate forms. Everypony knows those are useless. Behind them were a few newspaper clippings. The first one—“Rare Colt Born in Canterlot”—finally jogged my memory.

The Curse. How could I forget? Oh, well. Gotta start somewhere. I pulled that column out from under its paperclip and unfolded it.

“Push, Blaze! You’re doing great.”

The mare lying in the bed gritted her teeth and took a sharp breath in through her nose. Shaking with effort, she bore down, finally ending with a gasp as more beads of sweat ran down her face.

“I can see a muzzle! C’mon, Blaze! Almost there.”

Star Blaze gave one last push, then collapsed into exhausted laughter as she heard an indignant cry. “What—what is it?” she asked, her legs trembling.

“It’s a unicorn, dear!” Star Streak answered, beaming at his wife. “A colt! Hi there, little Star Shine! Welcome to Equestria.”

Wrapping the foal in a blanket, a nurse carried him over to a scale and took note of his statistics. “Pulse good, lungs sound good.” She unwrapped one corner of the blanket. “Four little hooves,” she added, smiling. “Coat: white. Mane and tail: white.” Jerking her hoof away with a start, the nurse gingerly reached back over and pried an eye open. “He’s... he’s... albino!” she screeched, her pen falling to the floor with a clatter. She backed out the door, never taking her eyes off the colt, and galloped down the hallway.

“Honestly!” remarked the doctor, shaking his head. “To think that in this day and age...”

“Wh-what’s wrong?” asked Star Streak, a hoof raised to his mouth. “What does that mean?”

The doctor clicked his tongue as he shook his head. “Absolutely nothing. It’s an old mares’ tale. Albinos are quite rare, and some believe that they’re haunted by evil spirits. It’s utter nonsense. I’ve seen several in my time. Never a unicorn, but there was nothing wrong with any of them.” Smiling, he patted Star Blaze on the shoulder. “Congratulations on your son. Now, excuse me for a moment. I’m going to have a word with her supervisor.”

As he stalked out, the remaining nurse carried Star Shine over to meet his parents.

I stared out the window for a moment, wondering what that would be like. I’d always thought I’d like to have foals some day, but who has time for a relationship? Between recruit training, detective school, and working the past year as a member of the Canlerlot Police Department, I was barely likely to encounter my landlord’s scowling face, much less some pretty thing that might be willing to put up with me.

Back to the folder, then. The next thing in there was a stack of incident reports. More than a dozen. The first two were from over a year ago, but the rest were all filed within the past eight months, including three that had been stuffed in the folder after Golden Shield had gone missing. Remarkably consistent, all of them. A pony would be attacked by an unseen assailant and left unconscious, his skin shriveled as if dehydrated, and his coat flecked with gray. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever encountered before. Sure, ponies’ memories can be unreliable, but having so many agree in that level of detail made it pass the sniff test in my book.

Seeing that two of the earliest victims had been the colt’s parents, and that the colt himself had been attacked on at least three occasions, I decided that these cookie-cutter reports just weren’t going to be good enough. The first was riddled with the usual spelling errors and uninspired monosyllables of the front desk staff, and the rest made liberal use of ditto marks. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get anywhere with these.

Tossing the papers back onto my desk, I leaned back in my seat and rubbed a hoof on my chin. The sun having advanced a bit more across the sky, the multicolored spots refracting through the palace windows had migrated over to my desk. I always wondered if the Princesses climbed those towers and looked down over the city. Do they watch us and make sure we’re doing a good job? I have to think they could solve most crimes pretty quickly if they had a mind to, but I guess they’ve got more important things to do. I smiled back up at the nearest spire in case Celestia was looking now. I’m trying my best. I really am.

With the sinking feeling that often comes from acting instead of just planning to act, I rose to my hooves, grabbed my hat and coat, and headed for the door. Oh! Forgot one thing—I stepped back to check the paperwork one last time and verify the Star family’s address. Rural area a short way out of the city. Perfect. I let my mind wander too much as it is. A walk in the country wasn’t going to help matters.

An hour later, I strolled up to a two-level house set back against the forest. A neatly-kept lawn and flowerbeds surrounded the front, and the neighbors’ homes stood a good distance away. On the opposite side of the road, a logging trail led out of the woods, where a few workers were hewing timbers for use on the newest railroad expansion. I stepped up onto the brick porch and knocked on the door while levitating my badge out of my coat pocket. Immediately, I could hear a small dog yapping and scratching at the door.

“Max! Hush!” rang out a voice on the other side. “Get back in the kitchen!” A light click-click of toenails on hardwood receded into the distance as a stallion opened the door. “Yes?”

“Mr. Star Streak? I’m Detective Gumshoe from the Canterlot Police Department,” I said, holding my badge up. “I’ve been assigned your case while Golden Shield is... away.”

“Oh!” he replied, a look of relief washing over his face as his shoulders relaxed. “I hadn’t heard anything in a while. I was afraid you’d given up. Please come in.” He led me to a couch in the sitting room and motioned toward it as he took the chair facing me. “Can I offer you something to drink, detective?”

“No, thanks.” I waved a hoof and smiled at his generosity, running my eyes over the dark-stained cherry furnishings, brass fixtures, and well-stocked bookcases. “I just wanted to go over your incident report again. The official version isn’t what I’d call useful. Can you describe what happened?”

He looked at the ceiling for a moment, then stared at the wall beside me. “I heard a sound like... whispering. Or rustling leaves. I was heading to bed, so I was groggy from napping on the sofa already. I just remember the hallway looking darker than it should. Next thing I know, I’m waking up with Blaze—that’s my wife, Star Blaze—looking down at me. She looked horrified.”

Streak hunched his shoulders up and shuddered. “I felt mostly okay, but a little weak. But when I saw myself in the mirror, I looked old. Very old. My skin was all wrinkly and shriveled, and I had gray streaks in my coat, mane, and tail.”

“Hm. You look fine now.” I floated out my pen and notepad from the inner pocket of my trenchcoat and scratched down a few details.

“Blaze took me to the doctor the next day. He didn’t know what to make of it.” Shrugging, he leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “By the next week, I was back to normal.”

“There were no signs of a break-in?” I waved a hoof toward the door and turned to see if there was any evidence of damage to the locks.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t in this house, anyway.”

“Oh?” That detail had escaped my eye in the report. Not a good start.

“No. We used to live in the city, but... things got a little testy after a while.” Giving a grim smile, he fidgeted with his hooves. “After several of the neighbors were attacked, they didn’t exactly want us around anymore. They started believing in the curse and got scared. You know about the curse, right?”

I nodded as I tipped my hat up a bit. “I don’t put much stock in that. Somepony’s taking advantage of it. And playing on a little colt’s fears will get him a quick introduction to the business end of my hoof before I haul him off to jail.”

One little snort of polite laughter later, he continued. “We moved out here to keep some distance from others. It’s worked so far, in a way. But Shine—he’s our son—has to live at school now. He’s in his first year at the School for Gifted Unicorns, and it’s too long a commute from here, so he’s boarding there. Whatever it is followed him. A couple of students were attacked.”

Jittering hooves held to his temples, he lowered his head and spoke through gritted teeth. “I was scared for him, but at the same time, thought he’d be safe. It’s never gotten anyone more than once so far, except for Shine—four times now—but just barely each time. Something’s toying with him, I think, but I can’t trust it’ll stay that way.”

He looked back up, pleading with his eyes. “Golden Shield assigned two officers to stand guard once the incidents at school began. It was our first evidence that somepony was following him. They never saw a thing, and yet three students were attacked. It’s been quiet since then, though. Maybe we scared whoever it was off. The guards were reassigned after Shield went away. What happened to him anyway?”

“I-I don’t...” Struggling to find an explanation I was willing to give him, I settled on an easy one. “I don’t know exactly. A leave of absence, I guess. When was the last time you heard from him?”

Rolling his eyes upward for a moment, he answered, “I remember it because it was the last time we took Shine back to school after a weekend break. He walked Shine to his room, checked in with the two guards in the hallway, and left.”

After jotting down a few choice pieces of information, I flipped over to a fresh sheet. “Do you mind if I speak to Shine? Is he here?”

Star Streak shook his head, then turned toward a faint growling sound in the hallway. “Max! Back in the kitchen!” he shouted, pointing a hoof. The little dog grudgingly obliged, taking the opportunity to get in one final grumble. “He’s been back at school for a couple of months now. Final exams are next week, then he’ll be home for the summer.”

“Since he’s a minor, I’ll need your permission to speak with him. I was planning on going by the school tomorrow. Is that okay?” I flipped my notepad shut and stowed it with my pen back in my pocket.

“Sure,” he replied. “Whatever will help.”

“And is Star Blaze around?”

“No. She’s gone shopping in town.”

I nodded, rubbing thoughtfully at my chin. That’s something they teach you in detective training. Always look like the wheels are turning. Always look like you know exactly what’s going on. “I think that’ll do it, then. Thank you for your time,” I said, standing up and tipping my hat. “I’ll keep you updated if we learn anything new.”

“Thank you, detective,” he responded, taking the business card I offered him before seeing me out.

The next morning, I headed into the office to do all the little unfortunate bits of busywork that any desk job entails, and administered my first dose of caffeine. Feeling a bit more chipper for it, I walked on over toward the School for Gifted Unicorns, which lay adjacent to the palace. I passed by Pony Joe’s on the way, feeling that next need for a stimulant tugging at me to make a detour, but I resisted. I had an appointment to keep.

I smiled up at the palace towers again until they disappeared from view behind the school’s administration building. “Detective Gumshoe, CPD,” I mumbled to the receptionist, flashing my credentials. “I’ve got an appointment with the headmaster.”

He flipped through the day planner on his desk until his hoof landed on the appropriate hour. “Yes, i have you right here. Mortarboard is in her office. Go right in,” he said, indicating the door behind him and to the left.

Knocking and poking my head in, I saw a petite unicorn mare seated at a large mahogany desk. She rose and nodded a greeting, walking over to shake hooves with me. “My, news travels quickly!” she said. “We only just found out, and I didn’t think the police had been notified yet.”

“Notified of what?” I asked, slipping into one of the richly upholstered guest chairs, some of my weight still borne on my shoulders as I sensed I might need to stand back up shortly.

“That another incident has happened. We just found the student an hour ago. He’s in the infirmary.” She peered over the frames of her glasses at me. “I assume you’ll want to speak with him, but perhaps we should wait until the nurse has said it’s okay.”

Nodding, I sank the rest of the way into my chair. “If we could, I’d like to discuss Star Shine.”

“Yes, a bit of an odd bird, that one. He has much potential, but he’s never managed to capitalize on it.” She steepled her hooves on the desk in front of her and looked down to collect her thoughts. “His talent level is exceptional, but not unprecedented. However, he chooses to coast as much as possible. He does extremely well on all of his exams, but quite poorly on homework and class projects. It all averages out to a passing grade, but speaks to a poor work ethic.”

“I’m sure the stress of these last several months must be affecting him. At least he’s keeping his head above water.”

Mortarboard frowned in thought and nodded. “Yes. You aren’t the first to suggest such an idea. I’m quite willing to see how he does in the next semester, but it may not improve if this... whatever it is... is still going on. Are you making any progress?”

By the book, I rubbed my chin, deep in thought, and nodded. “Yes. Is Star Shine available?”

“I’ll have one of the teaching assistants take you to his room.” She rose and went over to the door, casting her gaze around the lobby. “Copper Lamp! Could you come over here, please? I need you to take the detective here up to the first-year dormitory, and then on to the infirmary after that.” Leaning back inside the doorway, she added, “Is there anything else you need, Detective...?”

“Gumshoe. No, ma’am, that’ll do nicely.” I got up and followed Copper Lamp through a winding path of hallways, finally arriving at a third-floor room overlooking a large courtyard. Stepping inside, I saw a white colt with white mane and tail, leaning over an array of worksheets and textbooks. “Star Shine?” I asked, prompting him to turn a pair of pale pink eyes on me.

“Yes?” He swung around in his chair, and as he walked toward me, I noticed the lack of a cutie mark on his side.

“I’m Detective Gumshoe. I’ve taken over your case from Golden Shield.” Tension immediately melted away in his features as he ran up and hugged me, his ears down flat.

“I’m so glad you’re here. It’s been weeks since Shield was around, and he made me feel safe.” He looked up and into my eyes as the first few tears rolled down his cheeks. “I don’t know why it’s teasing. It wants me dead, but it’s playing games first, and now it’s started again.” His body shook now with the full force of his sobs. “At least it’s away from mommy and daddy now.”

I hugged him back and let him cry it out. Poor kid’s had a lot to deal with. Makes me think again about whether I’d make a good dad. “Shine, do you know the student that was attacked last night?”

He sniffled once and nodded. “My roommate. Everypony that gets close to me gets hurt. I wish it would stop!”

Kneeling down to meet him at eye level, I said, “It’s okay. I’m here to keep you safe. We’re gonna figure this out.” After a moment, he gave a weak nod, his eyes glued to the floor.

“What happened to Shield?” he asked in a small voice.

“He’s gone away for a while. But it’s okay. I’m here now. I’m gonna go talk to your roommate, but I’ll be back tonight to see if we can catch whoever is stalking you. Shield had the right idea of good old-fashioned surveillance. Okay?” Reaching down with a hoof, I lifted his chin up. He kept his eyes cast downward, but nodded again. “When did you last see him?”

“Last time I came back to school from break,” he answered sniffling as he brushed a hoof across his nose.

“Okay. I’m going to go talk to your roommate now. You let me handle this, and don’t worry about a thing.” He gave me another little nod.

“I’ll see you later, then. Copper Lamp?” Peeking around the door frame from where she was waiting in the hallway, she beckoned for me to follow her, leading me down two flights of stairs and to the far end of the building.

When I walked up to the young victim, the nurse was still dabbing a piece of gauze at a nasty gash on his side. His wrinkled skin and graying mane stood in stark contrast to his otherwise youthful appearance. “Are you Star Shine’s roommate?”

“Yes, sir,” he croaked, wincing with the effort of speaking. “Silk Ascot, sir.” Looking over the nurse’s shoulder, I could see the long cut running across his namesake cutie mark.

“It’s alright,” I reassured him, trying to give him as disarming a smile as possible. “It’ll come back in full color. They always do.” Directing my attention to the nurse, I pointed at the wound she was bandaging. “How’d he get that? None of the attacks have done that before.”

“He was carrying a letter opener when it happened,” she replied, shaking her head. “He fell on it.”

“Do you remember anything?” I asked Ascot, getting a solemn head shake in reply. I patted him on the shoulder and walked out without saying another word. I could have told him that it’d wear off soon, or that he’d be okay, but there’s nothing you can do for that raw fear except prove that it’s got no reason to be there. In this case, it did.

Copper Lamp led me back out to the main lobby outside Mortarboard’s office. From there, I returned to the station to pick up a couple of beat cops for that night’s watch. If that sick pony tried anything again, I was going to be there to stop it. I didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter. I’d find a way.

Two nights later, I was patrolling the dormitory’s halls for my third late night in a row. One of the uniformed officers stood outside Shine’s door, and the other watched the building’s entrance. And absolutely nothing had happened the entire time.

A drizzling rain had been falling for hours now, and as I nodded another greeting to the guard at the entrance, I poked my head out the door. The smell of damp grass greeted me. Not bad, but it’s not like that strangely pleasant, dusty odor when the rain first starts.

“Hold down the fort for me,” I said to the officer. “I’m going to go grab a few hours’ sleep.”

As I headed down the street in the direction of my apartment, I caught my head dipping a few times. I passed Pony Joe’s restaurant, all locked up for the night. Sure could use some of his coffee right now. Oh, well.

The clock atop the bank on the corner showed nearly two in the morning. That bar near my place would still be open a little longer. No harm in a quick drink before bed. I had to circle around part of a city block to get there, but found that familiar neon light blazing into the night. The only other soul in sight, a pony standing by the newsstand down the street, flicked a blade through the twine binding his package of wares, and tossed the newspapers onto his shelf to await the morning rush hour.

Funny how this place always lines up with a view of the palace. The sign’s bright green light gave way to the large, dark shape looming over it in the background, a few flecks of candlelight showing from windows here and there. I looked up at them, sending a stream of raindrops off the back of my hat. Are you watching, Luna? Am I doing a good job?

Walking past a smattering of patrons sitting by themselves, I slid into a stool at the counter. The bartender ambled over and gave me a friendly smile. “Another late night?”

“Yeah. Give me whatever cider is on tap tonight.” He nodded and drew me a frothy glass. Heh. Frosted Mug. His parents had some guts naming him that. There were more diplomatic ways of going about it, and it’d be years before he could even use one, anyway. Whatever. Suits him now.

I must have nursed that cider for an hour, punctuated by the occasional jangle of the bell on the door, and the short bursts of rainy white noise that floated through just after. Mug sat near the end of the counter, tapping his hoof to the soft jazz playing on the radio behind him and keeping to himself. Nopony wants to talk at this hour of the morning, anyway.

Tossing back the last swallow, I clinked a few coins and a generous tip onto the bar, then headed back out into the now-heavy weather. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. I was on my last legs to begin with, and cider doesn’t do a thing to wake you up. Starting to get cross-eyed, I stumbled down an alley toward the back way into my place. Nearly tripping on a loose cobblestone, I regained my hooves and shook my head. Then I noticed.

I didn’t hear the rain anymore. I didn’t hear anything. Well, not exactly. There was a faint sound, like wind-blown leaves. Leaning against a trash bin, I rubbed at the knee I’d scraped on the ground. As I bent down, something under the bin caught my eye. Some brown fabric. It looked familiar. I gave it a tug, but it was caught underneath, so I lit up my horn and tried to levitate the bin a bit. The sound got louder.

“Gumshoe?” The voice echoed in the darkness as I tried to attach some meaning to it.

“Gumshoe?” I felt something cool on my face and blinked my eyes halfway open, looking up into daylight and Pony Joe’s worried features. “Ah! There you are. Are you okay?”

I tried to sit up, but he pressed a hoof to my shoulder, keeping me down. “Whoa there! You probably shouldn’t move yet.”

“What...?” I began, but he was already answering.

“I just opened. Came back here to throw out my first load of garbage, and here you were.” His ears pricked up as his eyes brightened. “Hold on a sec. One of my customers is a paramedic. Don’t move.”

I groaned and rubbed my head, the narrow stripe of sky above me still spinning in a fog. Smells of fresh coffee and donuts teasing my nose, I was trying to sit up again when Joe returned. “Sir, please stay down,” the paramedic said. “You shouldn’t move until I’ve had a chance to look at you.” He looked at my eyes, checked my pulse, and scanned me over for any obvious signs of injury. “I don’t see anything alarming. I think it’s safe to bring him inside. Get a little coffee in him.” Glancing back down at me, he gave a scolding smile. “Have a bit too much to drink last night? Probably shouldn’t be doing that at your age.”

I shook my head. My age?

He and Joe helped me up and walked me through the back door to a seat at the counter, where Joe poured me a steaming cup of straight black coffee. “I haven’t known you to drink, Gumshoe, but you look like a wreck,” he said, shooting me a disapproving glance. It was then that I noticed I had been holding something in my left hoof the whole time. Looking down, I recognized it: a wadded-up detective’s trenchcoat, with a badly-frayed right lapel, just like Golden Shield always wore.

“I-I didn’t...” I caught sight of my reflection in a stainless-steel napkin dispenser. A few wrinkles showing. A few gray streaks scattered through my mane. I shoved myself back from the counter, sending the stool clattering to the floor. “It’s alright, Joe. I know what’s going on.”

I hurried out the door and galloped at top speed down the road, back toward the school. Only an emergency could tear me away from a cup of coffee at this hour. When I arrived at campus, there were already several uniformed officers milling about, and Stakeout was in an animated discussion with the one who’d been guarding the entrance.

“Celestia’s sake, Gumshoe, what happened to you?” he asked, stomping his way over to me. “You were due back here hours ago, and nopony’d answer at your place. Where’ve you been?” His tone of voice softened and his eyes shot wide open as he scanned me over. “No. No freakin’ way.”

“Never mind,” I yelled, shoving my way past him as I panted for breath. “Where’s Star Shine? Is he okay?”

“He’s in class,” Stakeout shouted after me. “You gonna file a report on this?”

“Yes! Later! And send some officers to the alleys around Pony Joe’s. I have a feeling they’ll find Golden Shield.”

I walked around behind the main office to where the auditorium stood, and went back to the rehearsal room. Through the window, I could already see Shine blaring away on his trumpet, holding out a long, extended note while the violins and flutes flitted through their ornamentations. The conductor motioned them to a stop as I stuck my head through the doorway, chest heaving. “Shine! Come with me!”

The conductor nodded, and Shine packed up his instrument, trotting into the hallway with me. When he saw my condition, he gasped and folded his ears back. “Y-you too?”

I nodded, waving off his concern. “I’ll be fine. But are you okay? Nothing happened last night?”

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. His eyes widened as he gaped at me.

“Good.” I let out a sigh and let myself sink against the wall. Forcing a cheery glint in my eye, I said, “I didn’t know they taught music here. What other classes do you take?”

Shine relaxed as a small smile crept across his face. “Orchestra, history... The rest are all magic classes. Final exams are next week, so I’ve been practicing my spells.”

“That’s great.” I patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t worry about anything except your classes. I’ll handle this business.”

He gave a meek nod as his gaze sank, lingering for a moment on the bundle I carried. “Is that...?”

“Yeah,” I said, following his line of sight. “I found it last night. I’ll take it in for evidence. Maybe we can learn something from it.” I looked back through the doorway, where the conductor had let the other students put their music and instruments away. “Looks like it’s almost time for the next class. Go on.” I nudged him down the hallway and watched him go as he cast one last wary glance at Golden Shield’s coat.

Sitting at my desk, I stared at the coat piled there in front of me. I’d looked over the exterior already without finding any clue as to how it had ended up in that alley. I spun around in my chair to face out the window, seeing those dancing lights atop the palace again. Halfway through cracking a smile, I saw Stakeout’s reflection as he walked up behind me. I turned toward him with an eyebrow raised, but his expression already answered whatever question I might have asked.

“We found the trash bin you described. Shield was about two blocks away, stuffed in a storm drain. Looked the same as the rest—gray, wrinkled... but worse.” His unfocused eyes stared at the wall as he shook his head.

My eyes shot wide open. Looking slowly up at him, I pricked my ears forward. “So, it’s murder, then?” He nodded slowly, gravely, his ears drooping. Tension ran like a shock up my back. Murder cases were extremely rare. They can make you or break you. Often both. “How could a pony...?”

Stakeout shrugged and ran a hoof over the stubble on his chin. “Congrats, junior. You’ve got the biggest case in the department now.” He actually wasn’t being sarcastic. He looked like he felt sorry for me.

With a sigh, I started going through the pockets of Shield’s coat. Badge in the left pocket, as usual, and nothing in the right. Inside pocket, empty as usu—

I pulled out a small notepad, identical to my own. Golden Shield never took notes. Why would he have started? The first page contained an appointment: Sunday, 1600. Only the second page contained anything else; the rest were blank. It read: Check exam dates! Then, down below: First one clinches it—heading back over.

I leaned back, resting my cheek against a hoof. I stood up quickly and rushed out the door, making sure to grab the case file—my case file—on the way. I had to get back to the school before the office closed.

I dashed into the school’s lobby while the receptionist was still locking up the file cabinets for the day. Out of breath, I wheezed, “I need to see Star Shine’s academic records! Now!” He looked to Mortarboard, who was just stepping out of her office. She nodded.

I took his quarterly grade sheets and spread them out on a table, adding the incident reports from my file below. Every date matched up. The first attack at school—three days before the first exams. The second attack—two days before the next test. The third test—nothing. Nothing? Why nothing? Moving on—midterms, third attack; exam, fourth. It kept going, right up until now. Me. Finals early next week.

What about the two before Shine started school? “Are these all the exams?” I asked the receptionist.

“Yes, all the graded ones.” His curious expression lit up suddenly. “Oh! There’s the entrance exam!”

First one clinches it, indeed. Good call, Shield. The true first exam also had a corresponding attack. And I have to assume the oldest attack was for practice. But why no corresponding attack for that third test?

History class. No magic.

“Is Silk Ascot still in the infirmary?” I shouted, grabbing the receptionist by the shoulder.

“Yes,” he replied, backing away. “He’ll be released tomorrow.”

“Where is Star Shine now?”

“At dinner, I assume. They should be dismissed in half an hour or so.” He began to tremble under my questioning.

I swept my incident reports back into their folder, and strode toward the dormitory. “I’m through with those papers. Thank you. And have a message sent to the police station. I want four officers here in exactly an hour. Send them up to Shine’s room.”

Becoming flustered, he tidied up the pile of records as he continued to shake. “But... my shift is over! I was heading home!”

Stopping in the doorway, I shot him a glare that told him obedience was not optional. “This is a murder case! Do you know how often one of these comes up?”

“M-murder?” He held a hoof to his chest and nodded emphatically. “Y-yes, sir!”

I dashed up to Shine’s room and took up a position where I could watch the door, wedging myself into a dark corner of the small lounge area at the end of the unlit hallway. Then I waited. And wondered. I’d suffered much milder effects than most of the victims. Why was that? What was I doing when it happened? Trying to levitate that trash bin. What difference did that make? It was too heavy to use as a weapon, and I’d barely gotten it off the ground anyway.

The sounds of voices and hoofsteps snapped my attention back to the stairwell. A few dozen students filed up, horns lighting the way, and meandered off to their rooms. At the end of the line, Star Shine went through his door, and then closed it behind him, the narrowing sliver of light from inside fading to nothing. After hearing the creak of his bedsprings, I waited in the faint evening light diffusing through the windows.

The pervasive silence felt like pressure on my ears. I jerked my head toward any little sound, but dared not otherwise move. Once I was satisfied that at least half an hour had passed, and that nopony else would be along, I stepped out from my hiding place and approached the door. A pale yellow glow engulfed the doorknob and turned it without a sound, then swung it inward.

Star Shine sat on the bed, his back to me. A single light bulb blazed from the ceiling, but somehow failed to penetrate the gloom, leaving the entire room bathed in thick shadows. Reaching up from the other side of the bed, a small tendril of the blackness touched him on the shoulder. “Just a little. I need to be able to study tomorrow.” He winced from the contact, and caught himself before falling over.

I stepped the rest of the way in and cleared my throat. His head whipping around to face me, Shine’s look of utter shock melted away as he averted his gaze downward and folded his ears back. “You found something, didn’t you?”

“Golden Shield’s notepad. I found the pattern of your test dates very interesting. I just don’t know how you do it.”

“So somepony knows my schedule. That’s all.”

“Including your entrance exam?” I took another step closer. “Maybe so. I’d thought of that. But Golden Shield came back later that night after you returned to school. You lied. He confronted you with what he knew, and you killed him for it.”

Star Shine was crying now, and his ears, initially perked at my intrusion, lay flat. “I didn’t want to. I really liked him. But this is all I have, and he was going to take it away from me. What would I be then?” I hadn’t noticed a change, but suddenly the room wasn’t draped in shadows as it had been when I’d first entered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the black shape looming behind me, but too late. “I’m sorry. I liked you, too,” he squeaked.

A cold shock shot through my body as I hit the floor. My vision going fuzzy as it faded, I found myself unable to move, staring up and out the window.

It’s funny how your mind slows things down when they’re happening so fast.

In the distance, blurry pinpoints of light dotted the palace’s silhouette, drawing my eye to the highest pinnacle. Twinkling lights. Are you up there, Luna? I tried. I really did.

Overhead, the single bulb shone as it had before, its light keeping the shadows at bay. Bright light that the darkness wouldn’t approach. I remembered this feeling of being drained from some earlier time, but when? It seemed like ages ago. What had happened? I was trying to levitate something. I had lit my horn up to lift... Lit my horn up. Light. Something snapped a dam of thought in my head.

That’s why I hadn’t been affected as much as the other victims! I’d been casting a levitation spell at the time. I’d been creating light.

I mustered my last bits of concentration and flared the brightest light spell I could. The shadow released me immediately, scrabbling for the room’s recesses and gradually dissolving into the air as I kept my spell going for minute after minute. Panting heavily, I lay on the floor for a moment longer before passing out amid vague sounds of hoofbeats.

Two weeks later, I had mostly recovered and had been back at work for several days. Sitting at my desk, I signed the last form and filed it away. Celestia had already made her judgment, and that was that. Normally, a case wouldn’t be routed to her so quickly, but this was no normal case. I drummed a hoof on the desktop for a moment, then turned to look out the window, up at the palace’s towers. Did I do enough, Celestia? Do you approve?

I sighed and stood up. I owed the colt that much. Grabbing my hat and trenchcoat, I left the office and walked over to the palace. I made sure to grab a take-out cup of coffee at Pony Joe’s on the way. When I arrived, I tossed my empty cup in a wastebasket and trotted on to the sparsely-populated prison wing. Leaving my hat and coat with the guards, I stepped into the waiting area.

Princess Celestia stood there, gazing down the hallway.

Freezing in shock, I bowed deeply before she had the chance to turn around and notice me. “Your Highness.” I had never been this close to her before, save once—at my graduation—and even then, I’d never spoken to her.

“Gumshoe. Rise, please,” she said, inclining her head toward me. I stood and met her eyes. “I am pleased with what you accomplished on this case. You have made quite a name for yourself.”

I looked away and rubbed a hoof on the back of my neck. “Well... Golden Shield did all the detective work. I just followed his lead.”

“Do not discount your ability to understand the clues. But, more to the point, I was referring to your bravery. And your presence, here and now, attests to your compassion.” She gave me a warm smile that meant more than any medal could. “You know—sometimes, if I get a spare moment, I go up to one of the palace’s towers,” she said, waving a hoof toward the ceiling. “Only once every few months, maybe. I look down over the city, and am pleased to see it function so well. It reminds me that I have so many ponies of good character watching it for me, so that I do not need to do so myself.”

My mouth hung open as I sought in vain for a proper response, but Celestia just motioned me toward the guard that had arrived to escort me to Star Shine’s cell. He led me down the hall and into a large room with powerful lights shining from every angle, preventing any shadows. Flipping on a similar set of lights within the room’s smaller inner chamber, he unlocked the door and let me in.

I knelt down near where Star Shine lay huddled in the corner, ears straight back. “Hi there, Shine. How are you doing?” He shrugged and creased his brow a little further. I sank the rest of the way to the floor and waited in silence.

Finally, he said in a tiny voice, “I’m nothing now.”

“No, you’re not,” I said, putting a hoof on his shoulder.

“My parents both went to school there. I couldn’t let them down, but... I’m no good at magic. I needed help. Then I found it.”

“It made your magic more powerful?” He nodded. “And you think you needed that to define yourself?” He shrugged.

I raised his chin so he’d look me in the eye. “I’m like most unicorns. I can only cast a couple of spells well. Do you think less of me for it?” Unable to turn away, Shine rolled his eyes downward and shook his head as much as he could. “If that was really your talent, don’t you think you would have gotten a cutie mark for it by now?” I let his chin go so he could look at his blank flank.

“I-I never thought of that.” He looked back up, letting his shoulders relax and perking his ears up halfway.

I tousled his mane as I stood up to leave, casting a smile back at him. I was glad to see him in a little better cheer, but didn’t like the hint of a smirk I thought I saw tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Passing back through the waiting area, I bowed again. “Do not worry,” Celestia said, her mane somehow billowing in the windless room. “We will get him the help he needs. I will see to it personally. When we have that thing starved off of him, the real work begins: healing the mind, and somehow dealing with what he has done.” She smiled at me, her eyes twinkling. “I hope you will visit occasionally.”

“Yes, your Highness,” I said with a quick nod, then claimed my hat and coat on my way out.

Stepping into the sunlight outside the palace, I looked up and over my shoulder at the spires almost directly overhead. You don’t need to watch, Celestia. I do my best. I really do.

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!