• Published 2nd Jan 2017
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The Casebook of Currycombs - AugieDog

In a world tucked somewhere between Equestria and Victorian London, the aardhorse detective Currycombs solves crimes with her friend and colleague, the unicorn medical mare Silver Scalpel.

  • ...

6 - The Case of the Extraneous Equine

It's at this point in my narrative that I must beg the reader's indulgence. For while certain of the events that I've presented heretofore might seem a bit on the extraordinary side, the events to follow are such that, even as I was experiencing them, I found myself nearly unable to believe they were actually occurring.

After my first glimpse of the mysterious mare who'd caused Epona's Column to vanish, the atmosphere in the apartments I shared with Currycombs steadily thickened as if before a thunderstorm. Currycombs grew more agitated than ever I'd seen her at the impending release of Violet Peony from police custody, and the sounds she extracted from her poor hammer dulcimer at all hours of the day and night qualified more as moans and utterances than anything one might classify as music.

Even worse, however, were those hours when she lay sprawled across the chaise lounge in our sitting room, one foreleg as often as not draped across her face and the phrase, "I'm a fool, Scalpel," murmuring from her lips. This all went on for a week until, on the night before Violet Peony would trot forth a free mare, the metaphorical thunderstorm finally hit.

Currycombs had shown herself more lethargic than usual that entire day, not venturing from her couch for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I had no idea when last she'd taken a case, and my attempts to engage her interest by reading crime notices from the evening edition of the Ehwazton Times didn't even meet with grunts.

At last, I'd had enough. "This is unhealthy, Currycombs," I said, folding the paper with my magic and setting it neatly upon the table between us. "Your obsession with Ms. Peony—"

"Obsession?" Currycombs whipped her foreleg away from her eyes, and they shone like those of the fever patients I'd treated on the frontier. "The nearest thing to a murderer Hevosenvalta has seen in generations, Scalpel, and I'm about to let her fly from my hooves!" She leaped up and began stomping back and forth between the sofa and the windows that looked out upon Bakery Row. "If she wishes to return to her familial home in Lauraceous Gardens, she'll be not half a mile away, flicking her ears at all things right and proper, and I'll be able to do exactly nothing! Nothing!"

I chose—perhaps unwisely—to speak. "The law has determined that she committed no crime."

"The law??" The stomp Currycombs gave dented the wooden floor. "The legal system of Hevosenvalta is the only thing I account to be more of a fool than I am! I never should've turned Peony over to Shetland Yard!" She stomped again, creating another divot. "I should've dealt with that vile succubus myself!"

Which brought me to my hooves. "Now see here! Surely you're not advocating some sort of vigilante justice??"

She snorted. "Law and justice have at best a nodding acquaintance, and in a case such as this where the one has proven itself so woefully inadequate, the other must take precedence!"

"Impossible!" I doubt that my stomp left any sort of a mark: for all that Currycombs was shorter than I, she was an aardhorse and outweighed me by several stone. I leveled the hoof I'd stomped accusingly at her. "As you have argued yourself, the very basis of civilization—!"

A knock at the door interrupted me. "Dr. Scalpel? Ms. Currycombs?" someone called, and I recognized it as Anisette, the apprentice to Mr. Trencher, our landlord and the owner of the Panini Emporium above which our rooms were situated.

My ears tightened against my head; I spun, activated my horn, and pulled the door open. "Forgive us, Anisette," I said to the wide-eyed pegasus on the other side. "Our discussion became a bit agitated. Please convey our apologies to Mr. Trencher and any we might've disturbed."

She blinked. "Disturbed? Oh, no, doctor! It's just that Ms. Currycombs has a rather, umm, determined client, and—" A dusty purple glow appeared around Anisette's muzzle, squeezing her mouth closed as her eyes widened even further.

"That's enough of that," an oddly accented and nasally voice said from the hallway. The purplish glow expanded, surrounded Anisette, lifted the young mare bodily from the floor, and moved her through the doorway into our apartment.

My mane bristled at the sheer profligacy of the power being channeled into the spell, and my mane bristled even further when a cloaked figure in a large slouching hat stepped in behind Anisette, that same lavender magic springing forth to push the door closed. The barest rustle of sound behind me, and Currycombs moved to my side, her ears perked and her eyes more focused than I'd seen them in a week.

"Both of you," the new arrival said, and I became certain she was a mare although her head remained downcast, her hat blocking any view of her face. "Stay right where you are, please. None of us wants this to get ugly, so I'll ask the little horse girl to remain." Her magic didn't so much flare as ooze, something thick and unnatural about it as she set Anisette onto the floor between herself and the part of the room where Currycombs and I were standing.

"Now see here!" I exclaimed, a number of retorts springing to my tongue.

But Currycombs slid half a pace forward, her shoulder pressing against mine, her attention not straying from our uninvited guest. "Hostage taking?" she asked, the quiver in her voice one of excitement, I could tell. "Surely there's no need for such melodramatics between the two of us."

The mare froze, and I did as well. The concealing hat; the shadowy cloak; the lavender magic radiating power from each and every flex: this was our mystery mare, the one we'd caught spying on our apartments, the one who'd absconded with Epona's Column!

Silence filled the room until our visitor drew in a shaky breath. "I don't trust you," she said. "I don't trust any of you creatures! I don't trust what I'm seeing or what I'm thinking or what I'm doing! But I can't— I haven't— There isn't—" Her head snapped up, her face younger than I'd expected, white rimming her eyes and her lips pulled back. "My name is Starlight Glimmer, and I'm not a horse!"

The word bristled my mane yet again, but Currycombs pushed me back a bit more forcefully than before. "None of us are," she said, and I'd never heard her speak more gently. "We're equines, and as such, we can talk calmly and quietly without threatening anyone. In fact, it's your manner of speech that leads me to believe that you're not yourself right now, so perhaps we can sit down and speak some more?" Still without looking away, she waved a hoof at the furniture behind us. "You've come here for help, and I can think of nothing more fascinating than assisting you in regaining your rightful shape."

I somehow restrained myself from gaping at the back of Currycombs's head, but our guest—Starlight Glimmer, if one were to believe such as outlandish name—dropped her jaw, a visible shiver passing through her. "A trick," she muttered after a moment. "How do I know you're not just saying that to capture me?"

Currycombs's ears flicked, and I caught a sour whiff of annoyance drifting up from her. "I have a more-than-passing familiarity with a large percentage of this world's languages, and I've studied the way the physical differences among our neighbors—griffins, dragons, kobolds, minotaurs and the like—affect their pronunciation of our modern Equish. The nasal quality of your voice intrigued me the moment I first heard it, and one possible explanation would be you having spent most of your life speaking without a muzzle." She touched the end of her nose with a hoof.

A shiver of a more violent nature shook Ms. Glimmer; her eyes rolled closed, and she pitched forward onto the floor. Leaping past Currycombs, I managed to cushion her head before she struck, dropped to my knees beside her, and deployed my diagnostic spells. "She's fainted." Brushing her hat away revealed a matted purple and blue mane and a horn displaying a raw sheen that screamed of overuse. "I'm reading extreme levels of physical and mental stress exacerbated by fatigue and malnutrition."

Glancing away, my gaze next found Anisette, now free of her restraints, her scent salty with fear as she clutched her hooves to her chest and stared at my sudden patient. "Off you go, lass," I said. "This no place for anyone who needn't—"

"On the contrary." Currycombs spun, leaped over the chaise lounge, and pushed it with her head across the room to where I knelt. "I'll ask you, doctor, to settle our client here as comfortably as you can. Anisette?" She fixed what I could only call a giddy expression upon the young pegasus. "Is Mr. Trencher likely to come looking for you at this time of the evening?"

Anisette's gaze flickered back and forth between Currycombs and the unconscious mare I'd surrounded with my silver magic. "I...I don't think so, Ms. Currycombs." Anisette shook herself. "The dinner rush is over, and I'd set the dish washing spells to running before this lady appeared at the door asking for you."

"Excellent." Currycombs waved vaguely toward the door. "Perhaps you could bring up some bread and barley broth? I have a feeling our client will be needing some actual food here once Dr. Scalpel awakens her."

"Client?" I squeezed out through clenched teeth. Ms. Glimmer weighed physically less than a unicorn her size should have, but the magic that crackled over, around, and through her even in her current incapacitated state wrestled against mine in a most disconcerting way. Still, I raised her from the floor and did my best not to dump her too unceremoniously upon the lounge. "Currycombs! Surely you can't mean—"

"But I do, Scalpel." The gleam in her eye had passed feverish and entered a realm I'd come to know all too well during the several months of our acquaintance. "Whatever manner of being this Ms. Glimmer is, she needs our help."

"You mean—?" The volume of air set in motion by Anisette's gasp would've snuffed candles had any been placed near her. "She's really not an equine?"

I snorted, but Currycombs gave me one of her infernal grins. "Perhaps you could examine her shoes, doctor?"

Blinking, I directed my attention downward. "She...she has none!" I looked more closely at her chipped and damaged hooves. "I'm detecting the residue of some odd cushioning spell and—" I swallowed. "The most brute-force sort of healing has been done here! Multiple times! But no reputable doctor would ever cast such grotesque magic!"

"Exactly," Currycombs more whispered than said. "She has no experience with hooves and therefore no understanding of how to maintain them. You've already noted the puffiness around her horn, I assume, indicating that she has no experience with magic and is learning to cast spells very much on a 'trial and error' basis. Add to that my linguistic analysis, and it becomes clear that she is indeed telling the truth." She turned slightly narrowed eyes toward Anisette. "The bread and broth?"

Anisette blinked, then gave a little gasp. "Oh! Yes! Of course!" And she raced from the room with a speed of which I'd not thought her capable.

Chuckling, Currycombs nodded to me. "Now, how gently can you awaken her, doctor?"

I swallowed and extended a waver of my magic into the shifting tumult of her own, stroked her power as one would a frightened dog, and coaxed my way through to the uneasily shifting center of her mental processes.

She cried out, her eyes shooting open, her power clutching mine in a grip like nothing I'd ever felt before. "Be at ease, Ms. Glimmer!" Currycombs called quietly but intensely. "You are exactly where you had hoped to be: among friends who wish to help you!"

Her frantic gaze fixed itself on mine, then shifted past me to where Currycombs stood. The tendons along her neck slowly sank, and the clench of her magic began to relax. "You believe me," she said, and it was more a statement than a question, her eyes rolling closed again. "I've been so afraid for so long, I don't— I can't— I haven't got the words."

My magic still monitoring her vital signs, I shook my head. "She needs sleep."

"No!" Desperation filled her voice, but she moved in less frenzied a fashion as she struggled to sit up, blinking rapidly and repeatedly as if to clear her vision. "There's no time! The guy I followed to get here, he's leaving as soon as his girlfriend's out of jail or whatever, and if I don't follow him back, I don't know how I'll ever get home again!"

Currycombs moved to my side, and I looked over, wanting to ask her if this could somehow be a reference to Violet Peony. But the way Currycombs's ears were folded so deeply into the red tangles of her mane that they nearly vanished gave me all the answer I needed. "Very well, Ms. Glimmer," Currycombs said, the words as taut as the string of a drawn-back bow. "I've asked young Anisette to bring us up some provender, and then you will tell us the sequence of events responsible for bringing you here."

The expression on Ms. Glimmer's face was that, I would say, of a drowning mare beholding an approaching vessel. She answered my questions readily enough—no, she didn't need the lounge slid any closer to the fireplace, but yes, she would happily accept one of my blankets to drape about her shoulders—but I'm almost entirely certain that she didn't look away from Currycombs the whole time. Currycombs busied herself with moving our motley selection of chairs to the spot just inside the front door where we'd set Ms. Glimmer, and she was shoving the table into the middle of the ring she'd created when Anisette returned only slightly out of breath with a nearly full tureen of soup and enough bread to founder a party twice our size.

A rumbling arose from Ms. Glimmer's interior, and the four of us finished off the bread and the contents of the tureen in short order, about half our provisions passing between Ms. Glimmer's lips. The air of tightness surrounding her relaxed further, and that in turn relaxed the tightness of my own shoulders. Yes, eight or ten hours of sleep would've been the best medicine for her at this point, but if her predicament was indeed wrapped up in the imbroglio surrounding Violet Peony, then time was, alas, not on our side.

With our supper concluded, Currycombs leaned forward from her perch on the edge of the large easy chair she usually occupied when listening to a client. "Now, Ms. Glimmer, I'll ask you to begin at the beginning and to leave no detail unremarked no matter how trifling it might seem."

And with Anisette and I likewise hanging on her every word, she began.

"It's just...it all seems like a dream, a weird nightmare that started—" She gave a choked sort of laugh. "I don't really know when it started. I mean, I don't know how long it's been since I fell through that old mirror and—" She stopped again, took a breath, and blew it out. "From the beginning, though, you said.

"My name is Starlight Glimmer, and I'm a human being. You don't seem to have any of us here, but we walk upright on our two hind legs, and our forelegs end in hands instead of hooves."

"Oh!" Anisette gave a small flap of her wings. "Like a minotaur, Ms. Glimmer?"

The smile Ms. Glimmer turned toward Anisette was perhaps the most natural expression I'd yet seen from her. "I should've guessed a world full of unicorns and pegasi would have minotaurs, but where I come from, only humans can talk and think and all that." She brushed one front hoof along her snout. "Our faces are pretty much flat like you said, Ms. Currycombs, and I have skin there instead of this horsehide. It's the same lavender color, though, and my hair's the color of my mane, but I don't have a tail back home..."

She shook her head. "I grew up in a small town called Sire's Hollow, but when my test scores showed that I was going to need better schools than the little ones we had nearby, we moved to the capital city of Canterlot where my grandmother lived in a big old house not far from Crystal Prep, one of the best schools in the country, maybe even the world!"

The excitement in Ms. Glimmer's voice caused me to revise downward the age I'd assigned her after my cursory examination when she'd lost consciousness. Somewhere in her late teens or early twenties seemed much more likely than somewhere in her early thirties no matter how developed her magical abilities.

"My grandmother and I..." Ms. Glimmer shifted against the cushioned lounge. "I...I don't really know if I can explain this, but, see, my world runs entirely on scientific principles. We haven't got anything even remotely like magic anywhere at all, but there are still a lot of people who like to believe that magic exists even though no one has ever demonstrated any sort of real magic in a controlled setting."

Just the thought of it made my horn tingle. Yes, certain of our non-equine neighbors had very little ability to channel the natural force known as magic, but I could hardly imagine how civilization could possibly develop in a people who lacked even the slightest access to magic's all-pervasive touch.

But Ms. Glimmer was going on. "Now, I'm really into science and tech and all that—my dad sometimes calls me his little know-it-all." The corner of her mouth twitched. "But Grandma, she used to talk all the time about magic and mysticism and the fairy creatures she knew were slipping around just out of sight. We used to get into these big arguments—or I guess I used to get into these big arguments. She'd just smile and tell me I didn't know as much about the world as I thought I did.

"Which just got me madder, of course." She waved a hoof. "The point is, everything kind of started with her. Because after she died last month—" The breath she took rattled in and out. "Or maybe it was the month before that, now. But that's when things got weird."

Anisette had drawn her front hooves up to her chest, but now she stretched one wordlessly toward Ms. Glimmer. Ms. Glimmer nodded to her with a twitch of a smile. "Grandma died pretty suddenly: one afternoon, she wasn't feeling well, so she went to her room to take a nap, and when Mom went to get her for dinner, she couldn't wake her up. The ambulance took her to the hospital, and she...she died two days later without ever opening her eyes again."

Again, her breath caught. "It turned out that, in her will, she had this whole section made out specifically to me where she left me this great big old mirror in the basement and this whole weird story about how her great-great-great grandmother or somebody like that way back had been given this mirror by—" Swallowing, she looked around the ring at the three of us in turn. "By some guy who claimed he was actually a magical unicorn. He called himself Starswirl the Bearded."

My face, I'm certain, reflected the blankness I saw on Currycombs's.

Ms. Glimmer blinked. "You don't know who that is?"

I gave as gentle a shrug as I could. "It's not a name I learned in school, I fear."

"But—" Her ears dipped.

"Please, Ms. Glimmer." Currycombs in general masked her impatience imperfectly, but this time, possibly in deference to our guest's delicate condition, she made the effort. "Time is of the essence as you know, so pray continue, if you would."

Ears still partially folded, Ms. Glimmer seemed on the verge of objecting, but she shook her head quickly and went on. "So I was maybe a little upset with Grandma." She shrugged. "I mean, I'd seen the mirror down in the basement plenty of times. She'd never said a single thing about it, and now, saying it was some weird magical artifact, well, she'd pretty much gotten the last word in our argument, hadn't she? It kept poking at me like a sore tooth, and the night after her funeral, I went down into the basement and..."

Her eyes lost focus. "I kind of shouted at the mirror a lot, and way more viciously than I'd ever shouted at Grandma. I got really riled up, too, and without even thinking, I swung a fist at the mirror, swung at the image of my shouting self, and...and my fist passed right through." She swallowed with such force, I could see it travel down her neck. "It was like punching fog except that it...it grabbed me. It pulled me off balance, and I fell forward, hitting the glass but not...not hitting anything. The light cut off, the air I sucked in all cold and dry, and I was rolling, flailing my arms and legs, fetching up on my side, and...and..."

She held up a foreleg, her eyes wide and staring at it. "They weren't my arms stretched out over the rough stone floor, and I didn't have hands anymore. I felt all unbalanced and misshapen: it took me like ten minutes just to get up onto all fours." Her leg dropped back to the cushions. "I wasn't even a horse! I mean, we have horses back home, but they're just animals, not like you people here even though you look a lot like them. But what I saw when I looked up—"

A shiver quivered her flanks. "I was in this cave, and all along the walls everywhere stood these mirrors, hundreds of them, all glowing with this weird grayish light! And reflected in the mirrors, looking back at me, the only thing in the whole cave, was this...this thing that looked like a kids' toy or something out of a cartoon! It had my color skin, my color eyes, my color hair, this stubby unicorn horn sticking up from its forehead, and when I moved, it moved! And I realized it was me, but it wasn't me at all!"

At this point, Ms. Glimmer was gasping more than breathing, and I reached out to place a comforting hoof upon hers. Anisette, however, leaped bodily from her chair and wrapped a leg around Ms. Glimmer's shoulders. "Take courage, please, Ms. Glimmer!" she entreated. "These are trials you've successfully overcome, and you are here in safety with us now!"

Pressing her head against Anisette's chest, Ms. Glimmer murmured. "I'm sorry. I haven't had anyone to tell this to, so it's all been kind of bubbling and festering inside me."

I nodded. "If recollecting becomes too much for you, let us know, and we'll bring this interview to an end."

"No!" she said, her voice at once much firmer. She pushed herself into a more upright posture and smiled warmly at Anisette. "Thank you, Anisette. I'd like to say that I won't need to lean on you again, but I'm pretty sure I will."

Without hesitating, Anisette wriggled into a position partially reclining across the end of the chaise lounge. "Then I shall remain here close at hoof."

For another fraction of a moment, I thought Ms. Glimmer might be preparing to pass out again: her eyes drew closed, and she wavered in place. But she took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and continued. "I looked at myself—or at the little pony thing I'd become—in all those mirrors for I don't know how long. And then, well, then I realized that I wasn't sure which mirror it was I'd fallen through.

"I mean, yes, it had to be one of the three or four closest to me—I hadn't tumbled all that far—but the cave floor was solid rock and not covered with dust or dirt or anything helpful like that. So I just picked the nearest mirror, touched the surface with my weird not-even-a-hoof thing, and it grabbed me again. I couldn't help laughing, thinking it was going to pop me back into Grandma's basement, but instead..."

She reached out and rested a hoof on Anisette's. "I fell into another cave, this one darker and smokier with a couple of flickering lanterns hanging on hooks beside a big wooden door. I still had lavender horse legs underneath me, I saw right away, but now I had actual dark purple hooves instead of the weird stumpy things I'd had a few seconds ago.

"I stood up, and a bell started ringing, the whole place shaking so hard, it almost tipped me over again. Something rumbled behind me, and I spun around just in time to see a slab of rock sliding down to cover the mirror I'd just come through. My ears began buzzing, and everything smelled sickly sweet all of sudden. It made me feel dizzy, and I...I think I must've passed out."

"The fiends!" Currycombs whispered harshly. "No wonder Furlong's investigation proved fruitless!"

We all turned to look at her, and she started back as if awakening from a dream. "Pray forgive me, Ms. Glimmer." Currycombs's jaw was set with a determination I'd only seen from her in some of our more perilous cases. "My outrage at hearing of your poor treatment is causing me to conjecture in advance of the facts. Please continue."

Ms. Glimmer swallowed and nodded. "When I came to, I was tied to a bed by these golden glowing ropes. I know now that they were magic, but, well, like I said, in my world, we have science instead of magic, so I just thought I was seeing a glow because I wasn't quite recovered from whatever had knocked me out. The room around me was small and lit only by the light coming in from a tiny window up along one wall. Between me and that wall stood these two horses staring at me, a unicorn and a pegasus. But since I was still a horse, too, I figured they might be people. So I asked out loud, 'Can you talk?'

"My voice sounded weird, and my lips felt so big and flappy, it was like I'd just been to the dentist. I couldn't imagine horse people would speak the same language as me, but if they spoke any language, I thought they might recognize that I was trying to communicate. So I asked more questions—where am I, can you understand me, things like that—but they just kept staring at me and not making a sound.

"I made eye contact with them each in turn, told them my name, where I'd come from, everything I could think of, really. But they just flicked their ears till I gave up and stopped, my stomach feeling like I'd swallowed multiple rocks. Then the pegasus turned away and walked across the room to a door I hadn't even noticed in the wall at the foot of my bed. He pushed it open with a hoof and stepped out; the unicorn followed, the door swung shut, and I was left all alone."

She rubbed her hoof over Anisette's. "I panicked then. I mean, really panicked. I remember thinking that I needed to hear what was happening in that next room—I mean, somebody had to have tied me down, and maybe they were on the other side of the door. I was straining at the bonds, straining to make out any sound of voices or anything, and...and then my forehead starting to tingle in a way I'd never felt before. Something above me started to glow, and—"

Reaching that same hoof up, she touched the base of her horn. "And suddenly, I could hear two people talking quite distinctly. 'Exactly as the prophecy said,' one voice was saying.'

"'No,' said a second, slightly deeper voice. 'Whoever—or whatever—this Starlight Glimmer is seems to know nothing of the Word or the Promise. She might be one of the creatures the prophet warned us against for all we know!'

"'But we don't know,' the first voice said. 'And without our hierophant—'

"'We have a hierophant,' the second voice interrupted. 'Her family may believe that they've renounced us, but they haven't, and—' The second voice broke off with a gasp. 'That's what this is, Hope! This creature was sent to us to bring back our hierophant!'"

Currycombs gave a snort, and when I glanced over, her ears were folded so tightly against her head, they practically vanished into her red mane. The tightness all along her jaw had increased, and had she been a unicorn, I would've been concerned that the fire in her eyes might escape and ignite the furniture. "Forgive me again, Ms. Glimmer," Currycombs said. "I'm merely reflecting upon Hope Springs and Violet Peony and coming to realize that I've not been so thoroughly and wholeheartedly lied to for such an extended period of time on any case I've ever worked. They have a great deal to answer for, the both of them, but I think my plan will—"

I cleared my throat in as ostentatious a fashion as I possibly could. "Perhaps we could allow Ms. Glimmer to finish her tale, Currycombs?"

"Yes, please!" Anisette set her other forehoof atop Ms. Glimmer's. "For I find myself on the very edge of my seat wondering how Ms. Glimmer managed her escape!"

For a moment, I thought Currycombs might object, and I was prepared to invite her to join me on the other side of the room so I could explain to her how curatively cathartic it can be for traumatized patients to recount the circumstances by which they surmounted their difficulties. But Currycombs simply nodded. "By all means, Ms. Glimmer, do continue. It's not until the morning that we must begin to move against our adversaries, so the more details you can provide, the better prepared we shall be."

Tears shone in Ms. Glimmer's eyes. "Thank you, all of you, for everything. And please, call me Starlight, okay? I...I haven't had a lot of friends in my life, but the three of you..." She sniffled, and I levitated a linen kerchief toward her. She took it in her strangely rough magic, wiped her eyes, and went on.

"Well, the second voice quickly convinced the first voice, the one he'd called Hope, that they could use me to force their hierophant to come back. I didn't know what they were talking about and didn't want anything to do with any of it, and, well, I have to admit that I panicked again. All I wanted was to get out and get away, and I must've—"

She rubbed her horn again. "I've come to understand that I'm a lot more magical than most other unicorns here, and when I began struggling against the bindings, I must've triggered it again. Because everything around me blinked, and I found myself suddenly outside under a darkening sky, lying on my back in what felt like thousands of sharp, tiny rocks.

"I sat up, not sure if I was dreaming or imagining things. But then everything had been like a dream at that point, so I rolled over, struggled to my feet—or to my hooves, I guess—and found that I was up on top of a cliff, big jagged stones sticking out of the dirt all around me.

"Ahead of me down at the bottom of the cliff lay what looked for all the world like a mining camp out of some old western movie: a row of six or eight little cabins, only one with lights showing; a bigger building facing these little cabins; and a stretch of railroad track running between the cabins and the bigger building. The tracks led to the mouth of a mine dug into a part of the cliff face to my right, and the mine and buildings and everything seemed to be down at the end of a canyon, a sandy trail winding away into the tall rocks to the left.

"For an instant, all was quiet. Then, I heard a voice shout, 'She's gone!' so loudly, the sound echoed from the bluffs. I blinked, then two horses—or what did you say you call yourselves? Equines?"

I nodded as did Anisette, and Ms. Glimmer—or since she'd asked us to call her Starlight—Starlight nodded back. "Two equines, then, came charging out of the lighted cabin, the same two equines, I realized quickly, that I'd seen when I'd woken up. They were calling to each other in the voices I'd heard from the other room, too, and when the unicorn's horn began glowing, the pegasus spreading his wings and leaping into the sky, I froze in place, wanting nothing more than to disappear.

"Which I guess I did, because when the pegasus flew by, I swear he looked right at me without seeming to notice before he swept past and moved on. I was feeling the warmth on my forehead again, and watching the unicorn below casting light from his horn, I began to realize that magic—or something like it—must work in this place."

She sniffled. "I could almost hear my grandma laughing at me about all this, and thinking about her made me more determined than ever to get back to where I was supposed to be in my proper shape and as my proper species.

"Right then, though, I settled in at the top of the cliff and concentrated on being invisible or whatever I was doing. Night was falling pretty quickly, too, so the other unicorn and the pegasus went back inside after not that long. I stood, checked all around the little canyon without seeing any other lights, and then thought very hard about making the air ahead of me solid. I was able to step up onto it like an invisible box, so I focused my energy toward getting the box to drift down to the floor of the canyon."

It took a bit of effort to keep myself from objecting. A spell of such complexity, and she cast it merely by thinking?

Then, of course, I recalled that this young lady had caused the entirety of Epona's Column to both levitate and vanish. And that made it quite a bit easier to hold my tongue.

"Once I'd reached the ground," Starlight was going on, "I directed my horn to mask any sound I might make and any scent I might give off." The tiniest smile flickered across her snout. "Back home we have these things called hazmat suits, and I imagined myself wearing an invisible, horse-shaped one so nothing outside would be able to affect me."

Currycombs chuckled. "Might you be able to teach Dr. Scalpel that spell? I can see it being useful in a variety of situations."

I had to snort at that, but Starlight simply shrugged and smiled. "Sorry, Ms. Currycombs. I don't know how I'm doing it, so I sure couldn't show anyone else. It did let me move soundlessly up to the window of the lighted cabin, though. The blind was pulled down with the light shining around the edges, but I could hear talking and moving around from inside.

"'Be insistent,' the deeper of the two voices said: that was the one that belonged to the unicorn whose name I still don't know. 'This is the event we've been awaiting for hundreds of generations, and we can't allow a few little arguments about protocol to stand in the way of the Order fulfilling its mission.'

"'Right,' said the other, the pegasus called Hope. 'And you're sure the portal will be safe while you gather the rest of the members?'

"The unicorn laughed. 'It's got a thousand years of protective spells woven into it. And even if this Starlight Glimmer is a monster as powerful as those the Prophet warned us of, there's only one of her here now. She'll never risk destroying the mirror and jeopardizing her fiendish mission.'

"'Right,' Hope said again. 'Then if all goes well, I'll be back in a month with Collier and Keuper Marl's daughter.'

"'All will go well,' said the unicorn. 'The whole Order will be waiting here, and once our hierophant's dealt with this monster, we can deal with her.'"

Starlight shivered on the sofa. "His voice got very hard when he said that, and, well, we have a saying where I come from: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This hierophant's family had apparently broken away from the equines guarding the mirror or whatever they were doing, so if I could follow Hope when he went to find her, maybe I could convince her that these guys were wrong about me, that I wasn't a monster. Maybe I could get her to uncover the mirror and send me back through or something." She shivered again. "It was the best plan I could think of. The only plan, really..."

In the ensuing silence, Anisette touched Starlight's hoof again. Starlight sighed and leaned against her. "The two of them left the cabin after that with saddlebags over their backs. I kept right behind them through the winding maze of fissures—that's why I need Hope if I'm ever going to find the place again—and after a couple hours, we all squeezed out of a narrow crevice onto the flatland of a desert, a starry night sky spread out all over everywhere.

"The two said good-bye to each other, and the unicorn went off to the right along the big crumbly rock face we'd just come out of. Hope turned left, and I stuck with him.

"He trotted on all night, stopping every couple hours to rest, drink from his water bottles, and chew on some of the snacks he'd brought. I started getting a little worried because, well, I was magically filching from his supplies, and that meant he only had half as many provisions as he thought he did.

"Fortunately, though, we reached some little town about sunup." Starlight gave a tired giggle. "In the old western movies, they would've called it a one horse town, but, I mean, everybody was a horse, so..." She shook her head. "Sorry, I'm getting a little..." Her eyes pulled closed, and she gave a giant yawn.

"Starlight." I leaned forward. "You need to rest."

"Yes'm." She sighed and blinked. "Just the basics, then, for the rest of it. The town had a train station, and Hope bought a ticket to a place called Ehwazton. I snuck on board after him, but I was finding it harder and harder to keep my invisibility suit in place."

I nodded. "That's the standard limitation on concealment magic: the more eyes, ears, and noses the spell must fool, the more power it draws."

Starlight brushed a hoof across the lapel of her coat. "That's why I picked up this sporty little outfit when I got to town. Wearing an actual cloak seemed to make it a little easier to concentrate on a cloaking spell."

With some effort, I refrained from launching into a lecture on the elementary principles of sympathetic magic, and Starlight went on:

"I had a few touch-and-go moments dodging the conductors on the train, but I kept Hope in sight the whole time. I could hardly believe it when we pulled into your city here—I think you equines must have much sharper senses of smell than us humans do 'cause the scents everywhere were just about overwhelming. But I followed Hope all over the whole time he was trying to find this hierophant, saw him when he finally introduced himself to Violet Peony, heard the argument when she took him home to meet her dad, and—" She swallowed. "I'm pretty sure they killed him together."

"Of course!" Currycombs made a sort of choking noise, her eyes wide. "Since Peony's parents fled from San Pinto before she was born, they doubtless never even told her of the honored place she was meant to have as hierophant! Hope Springs likely appealed to her abundant vanity, and her father's refusal to let her go while continuing to disparage the mirror cult would've enraged the both of them!"

Currycombs leaped to her hooves and began pacing back and forth along our wall of windows. "Peony didn't trust Springs, however, and tried to frame him alone for the crime. I spoiled that, so she began ingratiating herself, flirting and feeding his budding infatuation with her. For his part, Springs was giving her a romanticized account of the luxury and privilege that awaited her in San Pinto—this is, in fact, the information I confirmed during my visit to Nougat Prison, Scalpel—and now that I know he's been dangling a word as opulent as 'hierophant' in front of her, her desire to head west with him seems much more understandable."

I nodded, the mix of anger and triumph on Currycombs's face quite effectively stilling my tongue. "Two murderers," she said then. "A pair of fiends beyond any born in centuries."

"Yeah." Starlight shivered and nestled closer to Anisette. "My whole idea of talking to Peony about getting me back home went out the window as soon as I saw her in action." She straightened, her face brightening. "But that's where I first saw you, Ms. Currycombs, when you were investigating the crime scene at Peony's house."

She slumped against Anisette again, her eyes losing focus. "Back where I come from, we have these great old mystery stories about a detective named Churchill Downs. I always loved how she could solve any crime just by being so smart, and...and you reminded me of her. Then Peony was in jail and Hope wasn't going back to the desert and I was getting a little desperate—and a little crazy, I guess, and homesick and tired and not having anyone to talk to and being afraid all the time and sleeping so much then not being able to sleep at all so I don't even know how long I've been in your city or even in your world and then I put together this whole weird scheme to see if you were really good enough to help me and...and...and..."

This last mumbled comment got an arched eyebrow from Currycombs, but even she knew that Starlight had fallen into half-conscious rambling at this point.

"Still," Starlight said with another yawn, "I should've come here openly a month ago, but I couldn't...I wasn't...I didn't..." Her breathing deepened, and half-conscious became unconscious.

Anisette looked up from our guest. "Please, Ms. Currycombs," she whispered. "You'll help her, won't you?"

I had never seen the fire in Currycombs's eyes burning as brightly. "Oh, yes," she said, her voice soft but deeply determined. "No force on this world—or any other world, for that matter—will keep me from bringing this case to a successful conclusion." She pushed herself to her hooves. "Scalpel, you and Anisette tend to our client. I've arrangements to make and only a few hours in which to make them." And before I could so much as move, she bolted out the door.

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