• Published 22nd Jul 2012
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Rites of Ascension - CvBrony



Twilight makes a new spell and starts the gears of fate with her ascension to alicornhood. (Writing started before Season 3.)

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Oncoming Storm

"Hang on, guys!" Twilight braced herself against the chariot's safety rails as Luna flew towards them, knowing full well what was coming. A bright flash of moonlight blue later, and they had passed through more spacetime than should be possible. Of course, as a result, her stomach was starting to make noises about staging a rebellion, and opinion polls weren't looking too great in her inner ear region, either.

They were now untold thousands of kilometers away from where they had been. A sunny, cool winter day had been replaced with a noticeable increase in temperature (though it was still cold) and clouds on the horizon that were so dark they nearly matched Luna's coat. Yet, they shouldn’t have been quite that ominous, as they had arrived just outside of Cloudsdale and its area of influence.

"Hey, Twilight, am I seeing double, or is it just me?" Spike asked, pointing first left, then right.

"Kind of?" Twilight looked where he had pointed, and found that each direction had a white, covered chariot being pulled by three armoured pegasi. The possibility of more illusions was pushed to the side when she saw their emblems, however. One had the coat of arms of the Duchy of Roan, while the other had Canterlot's. Each opened their side doors as Luna's chariot approached, revealing exactly what she'd expected: Blueblood and Charlemane.

"Um, what's going on?" Rainbow asked. "I assumed we'd get briefed or something."

"That was the plan," Bloodmoon said. "But, I'm not sure by who. We were supposed to meet up with another chariot here, I know that much."

"I'm betting this is politics." Spike pulled out a sheet of paper and started writing. "I'm going to ask what's going on before we fly out of range of the leyline."

"I think Spike is right." Twilight lit her horn, preparing the teleportation spell to adjust for the fact that everything around her still felt like it was moving. "I have a choice to make. Do I work with the Council, or Prince Blueblood?"

Rainbow chuckled and leaned back in her seat. "Isn't that like choosing between a colonoscopy and a tube up your butt?"

The entire chariot shared a round of laughter, even the pegasi pulling it, which only garnered strange looks from the other ponies as their chariots moved closer.

"Lady Sparkle, the Council would like to request your cooperation!" Charlemane yelled, holding up a hoof to block the wind from stinging his eyes. "One of our own has been taken from us, and we implore you for your support!"

"Hoof-rot!" Blueblood yelled back, using some kind of spell to enhance his voice. "I warned you, Chairpony! I warned you all that Cloudsdale was in danger!"

"Prince, now is not the time for recriminations! We are in mourning for our loss, and we seek a full account of the truth!"

"You seek a narrative, not a truth, Chairpony! Cloudsdale was granted great leeway to operate with little oversight at the behest of the Council! Now it is tearing itself apart! The Council has failed, and it is time for the Crown to take the lead!"

"That's enough!" Twilight clanged her hoof on the railing, ringing it like a church bell. "This is my investigation, not the Council's! Charlemane, go home!"

"Lady Sparkle, I'm–"

"You've already planned for my refusal to listen to you!" Twilight sneered. "You knew damn well I would choose Blueblood over you the moment you saw his chariot!"

Charlemane sighed and nodded, then closed the door to his chariot. It flew off a moment later.

"Damn, Twi!" Rainbow clapped her hooves, eliciting even more applause from Spike. "You shut him down!"

"Yeah, well, he fired my brother, and Trixie thinks the new Royal Guard Captain is out to get her. I wouldn't be shocked at all if the Council is connected to that, too. I can't pretend to be the Council's ally when they're constantly out to get my friends and family.

"Wait here, guys, I'll go chat with Blueblood. Bloodmoon, if he does something that makes me throw him overboard, make sure he doesn't splat. After, you know, a good few moments of freefall."

“Oh my!” Bloodmoon hid a rather cheeky grin behind a leather wing. “Sounds to me like there’s some juicy history there!”

“If by ‘juicy’ you mean ‘he’s a completely perverted pig who damn near turned my friend Rarity off stallions forever,’ then yes. Yes it is. Back in a few." Twilight motioned for the chariots to pull up alongside each other, then teleported to Blueblood's side when she had a clear line of sight.

"You know, you could have jumped over." Blueblood rubbed his eyes like someone who had been unprepared for a camera flash.

"Teleportation is less risky when we're this high in the air." Twilight pulled the door to the chariot shut and sealed the chamber with a privacy shield, covering everything from the windows to the seats in an opaque purple hue. "Now, talk. What exactly is going on?"

Blueblood sighed, pulled out a packet and gave it to her. "Last evening, Duchess Artfeather had a business meeting with a garrote wire in her living room. There was also a break-in at Cloudsdale Armories HQ, and more threats of violence have surfaced. Artfeather's husband, Duke Esteem, a trophy husband of a stallion, closed the factories 'until the security threats could be addressed.'"

Sweat started to leak from Twilight's pores, and her colon was making threats nasty enough to make her stomach denounce it. "That's fifty percent of Cloudsdale's work force on idle. Based on their recent losses, I'm betting they aren't paying their workers in the meantime, which means..."

"Cloudsdale is on fire." Blueblood pulled a picture from the packet of ponies with actual pitch forks, torches, and even Maratov Cocktails. "There's a protest, or really more of a mob, outside the Duchy Manor. Other large groups are roaming the airways and cloud lanes, looting and destroying businesses. Some have been contained by the local police, but wherever they aren't overwhelmed, officers are joining in.

"Security at the weather factories is already defeated. Protesters have seized control of the machinery and have helped set up thunderstorms surrounding the city. What police forces are left have concentrated on protecting the Armories' factories, warehouses, Fort Hurricane military base, and the Duchy Manor. Some groups of protesters are hardening cloud pathways so solid objects can rest on them, only to burn said objects."

Twilight looked over the documents, her stomach tying in more knots with each page. "Some of the protestors have military firearms?"

"We think we've confiscated all of them that have gotten loose in the city so far. They weren't hard to spot. But if the warehouses fall, tens of thousands of firearms could fall into civilian hooves. The military base supply is also a concern, but the soldiers there have buttoned up their fortifications. Anypony stupid enough to trespass is in for lethal fire, and the signs around the base state as much."

Twilight opened a compartment under the seats and helped herself to some of Blueblood's hundred-bits-per-bottle spring water, chugging the entire container. "I honestly don't know what I can do about the protesters. I can subdue a small number of civilians at once, but a whole mob? It would take a lethal level of force to scare them off."

"I agree. General Blaze is on her way along with two brigades. With them are police forces from Germaney, Manehatten, and the Bittish Isles. The soldiers will secure critical areas, while police will deal with riots. Your job, meanwhile, is to investigate the Duchess's murder and the break-in at Cloudsdale Armories. Don't engage the protesters unless absolutely necessary. It will take time for your reinforcements to arrive, so until then, don't put yourself in unnecessary risk."

"Got it." Twilight stuffed the packet into her saddlebags. "Anything else for me?"

"Other than the bill for that water?" Blueblood smirked. "Yes, one thing. Auntie says Cloudsdale's current position is outside of a leyline. However, based on its current speed and direction, it's heading for a whole cluster of them. Reinforcements specifically for you are awaiting your signal, and will be available in approximately eight hours, though this can change if the city changes speed."

"Mobile city means leyline status shifts. Makes sense." Twilight hit the privacy shield with a bolt and let it dissolve away. She then opened up the chariot door and aimed her teleportation spell at the Night Guard chariot. "Trixie has been sent to the hospital in Canterlot. Have Celestia give me an update as soon as she can. I'll have Spike send updates on Gryphonia before we leave range of this leyline. My visit was... eventful."

With a spark, she was back with her friends, and their chariot began a climb. She told them of what had happened, and what they had to do.

"And here I was hoping for a nap." Rainbow stretched and yawned, then gave her wings a flap. "We did just get out of a hell of a fight."

Twilight shared a look with Spike. "Well, you know, Rainbow, you aren't going to be joining us right away."

"What?! How come?"

Twilight reached out and poked Rainbow in the shoulder.

"Ow!"

"That's why. After we're dropped off at the manor, the Night Guard will take you to Fort Hurricane for treatment. When the doctors there release you, then you can join us."

Rainbow groaned and pretended to roll over dead. "Freaking Gilda. A real murder mystery and I'm missing it!"

"Better than permanent damage to your shoulder." Bloodmoon tapped the chains sticking out of him. "Trust me on that one."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Rainbow blew a raspberry at him. "Doesn't mean it doesn't seriously suck."


Trixie clenched her eyes shut and groaned, stirring from her slumber. Pricks of fire danced all over her body, like little hot needles poking her everywhere. Even her tongue was getting in on the act, though it was her chest that was getting top billing.

There was also a gentle hum moving back and forth over her, and when she opened her eyes she found a blurry green splotch moving with it. Behind it was a bright, fluorescent white light, and a figure of some kind in between them.

"How are your eyes? Can you see?" the figure asked with a voice as soft as a cloud, but still one that sent a chill down Trixie's spine.

After a few blinks, things started to come into focus. The figure had a billowing mane of pastel colours, and a look of genuine concern, rather than the stoic smile usually associated with the Princess of the Sun.

"It's starting to clear up. What happened? Where am I?" Trixie held a hoof in front of her eyes. "What are you doing to me?"

"The 'where' is easy. You are in Canterlot Castle's medical ward. As for what happened, your wellspring was attacked by an unknown method. I honestly don't know what to make of it."

Trixie's heart skipped a beat, then made up for it with a series of thuds hard enough to emulate getting hit in the chest with a hammer. "My... wellspring? Am I dying?"

Celestia shook her head. "No. Whatever they did to you seems to have had no lasting damage. Everything is returning to normal." She clicked off the strange device and held it to her chin. "Twilight was right to request that I personally care for you. This would be beyond any other doctor's ability to treat. However, by the time I would be able to figure this out and devise a treatment, it appears you will have been back to normal for days, if not weeks.

"The wellspring is more durable than many give it credit. It is very difficult to destroy by means other than simply killing the owner. But ultimately, things can be done to it and a pony's leylines. I've lived a long time, and seen many such things, but I must be honest with you." She lifted a glass of water and took a sip. "At this point in time, I have no idea what they did. The only thing I know for sure is that you are recovering. At this rate, after a few days of rest, you should be fine."

Trixie exhaled and issued a demand to her heart to chill out, then gripped onto the blanket covering her. "Okay, okay, that's good. That's good." She turned her focus to the device; it appeared to be cobbled together from a half-dozen other objects, was vaguely cylindrical in shape, and had a small light on either end.

"Don't concern yourself with this little bauble," Celestia said, putting the strange object away. "I shouldn't even have it. It's a rough copy of a relic from long ago, but also the only tool I have that might have given me a clue as to what happened."

"But you said you'd be able to treat me if I wasn't getting better..." Trixie mumbled. "You're a doctor? How?"

"Live as long as I do and you pick up some things." Celestia gave her a sly smirk. "Normally, I do not intervene in medical issues for my subjects. If word truly got out about my medical knowledge, I would have ponies lined up from here to the Hinterlands seeking treatment. I'd never be able to actually run a country like that. So, I keep it relatively secret and don't volunteer my, shall we say, services."

"Then, why me? Why is Trixie not left to–?"

"Well, my little pony, like any rule, I make exceptions in certain circumstances. If it's of great importance to national security, for instance. Or, if the pony was injured performing a great deed for Equestria." Celestia gave her a wink on that one. "The third exception is if it was either through my or my sister's direct error that the injury happened. A few hundred years ago I accidentally sat on one of my subjects and broke a few of his ribs. That was a memorable exception..."

Trixie chuckled and immediately slapped her mouth shut with both hooves. "Sorry..."

"It’s fine, I expected a giggle for that one. Although," Celestia leaned in close, darting her eyes around and checking the room. "I would appreciate it if you didn't mention that little incident to my sister. She'd never let me live it down; not for thousands and thousands of years."

Trixie nodded and crossed her heart. "Thank you. For all you've done. And for the armor. It saved my life."

"We've already recharged it should you ever need it again. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have at least three different crises to manage." Celestia got up and opened the door, but stopped to let in a nurse with a food tray. "Oh, I almost forgot. I want you to stay here for a couple of days for observation, just in case. But, other than that, I think you'll be fine."

Trixie made a pseudo bow since she couldn't do a real one in a hospital bed, then let her nerves deflate as a tray of food was placed before her.

I'll be fine? Depends on who you ask. She took a bite of sandwich and chewed. I bested one of them, sure, but only barely. I need to get better. I need to fight.

If I don't, I'll never be free...


If she hadn't done so three times already, Twilight would have whistled. It had taken a little time to get to the city, which meant that they had been able to watch the city "grow" from vague collection of clouds on the horizon to towering mega-city made of clouds. All done while being serenaded by Rainbow's snoring.

"I swear, it seems like this place gets bigger each time I'm here." Spike took out the pair of binoculars he got from Gryphonhelm and scanned around. "This time around it looks like it's made out of thunderstorms."

"That would be the protest blockade." Twilight arched her back and leaned against the side of the chariot and scratched an itch. "Speaking of, this is an open air vehicle. Are we equipped to be flying through supercells? Or should I formulate a shield for us?"

Bloodmoon tapped Spike on the shoulder to get his binoculars and gave them to Twilight. "Take a closer look. Not at the storm itself, but at its sides."

"Okay." She turned to the very edge of the forward-most storm, seeing another one behind it.

"It's a little hard to see like this, but those clouds are really a few miles apart, at a minimum. They can only be so close before their winds interfere with each other and they start to merge, often messily. The magic generated by our flying is more than enough to keep the errant bolt away as long as we stay between the storms."

"Ah! Makes sense. I should have thought of that, really, but I'm not exactly used to flying around and making storms." She zoomed in with the lenses, and tiny, fast moving dots formed at the limit of her vision. "But that also means that's where the protesters will be. Maybe a shield is a good idea after all."

"You would think so, but that is incorrect." Bloodmoon tapped a small flap on his armor, opening a compartment and pulling out a large, red, silken cloth. He waved it open in the wind, then wrapped it around his back. Two clasps secured it to his armor, each just underneath a fringed epaulette. "Take it from an old noble. If you put up a shield, you look scared, and no matter how powerful the barrier, you’ll invite an attack. Not to mention the PR risk; I've no doubt there's media with newsreel cameras everywhere.

"Instead, we fly in like we're utterly unconcerned and in command. If they still try to attack, Rainbow and I will... provide an electrifying performance."

Twilight flopped over on the railing. "I really don't like having to talk about hurting citizens so casually. I mean, I know it's one thing to feign strength, and another to just take abuse. But I'd still prefer to avoid that kind of thing."

"Everypony does."

The flight continued, gaining speed for a time but slowing as they approached the gap between the clouds. A veritable hive of flying pegasi were buzzing about, gathering into formation ahead of them as Spike poked Rainbow to wake up. One by one the protesters linked up and tied ropes between them, forming a kind of net directly in their path.

"And just where do you think you're going?"

A group of pegasi flew down to them, led by a orange-maned stallion with a purple coat and an improvised frock of blue fabric. "This is a pegasus city. No horn-heads allowed. Beat it before we rip off her amulet and send her overboard."

A very large part of Twilight wanted to teleport onto a cloud without her saddlebags or torc, while another large part of her would have preferred to laugh out loud and give herself butterfly wings. But, since Rainbow and Bloodmoon had taken up flanking positions to the chariot, she settled for a yawn. It had already been a long day, after all.

Bloodmoon boomed in a scarlet baritone, "Sir, this is a chariot of the Night Guard, not a commercial craft. We have sworn an oath to fight to the death to protect both Her Sovereign Highness Princess Luna and her Ladyship, Grand Mage Sparkle."

Twilight's ear flicked at that. Me too? Really? Luna must have issued orders to give me the highest consideration in protection. Possibly because she's probably a thousand times more durable than I am.

Bloodmoon continued, "Lethal force has been authorized to protect its occupants, without warning. Attack us, and you will die. Painfully."

"Don't listen to them!" the stallion yelled back. "We are pegasi! This is what we wanted! A city just for ourselves! If we let the freaking Grand Mage in, she'll shut this all down!"

"Hey, leader dude." Spike waved his hand to get his attention. "The Equestrian Compact guarantees freedom of travel and equal rights and access under the law. Plus, I'm pretty sure what you're doing right now counts as ‘unlawful detention,’ which is a Class-C Felony and is a step away from ‘highway robbery.’ Literally. Only reason you aren't under arrest right now is because we got more important things to do than play with you. Things important enough that if you try to stop us from doing them these two will fry your butts and fly through your ashes. Move."

He blew some fire onto his claws and let the sulfur burn on the tips, then rubbed his hands together to flare it up like a match. "And if you go anywhere near this chariot, you'll be lucky to have any flesh left to burn, capisce?"

A few more of the net pegasi broke off, staying close but far enough away to let the chariot pass with room to spare. Yet, enough ponies remained to block the way.

"Get back there you cowards!" The leader flew directly in front of the chariot and held his forelegs out to his sides. "We can do this! We are the moment, here and now, this is what it comes down to! For our tribe, for our families, for our foals! We must stand united and call their bluff!"

"Oh, it is so not a bluff." Rainbow flapped her wings extra hard a couple times, and the air under them boiled with rage. Sparks danced in a cloud of pure black smoke, growing and churning behind her.

"You take the net ponies, Rainbow." Bloodmoon licked his lips, followed by his fangs. Slowly, his mouth creeped open wider as he polished the sharp set of teeth. Then, they grew. What was once an odd but intimidating set of almost primate-like canines now bore more resemblance to the needle-like fangs in the mouth of a large cat. "I want the tough guy over there. I'm thirsty, and he looks delicious."

"Get back here! We have to stay strong! Don't let their lies intimidate you!" The leader huffed, grinding his teeth and screaming at the top of his lungs. In the cold air his breath was literally forming a little cloud of its own. "Two days! Just two more days and we'll win!"

Two days? Twilight stood up in the chariot and lit her horn, letting it flare bright enough to cast a tint on the ponies remaining. "Hey. You. What happens in two days?"

"Uh-oh." Spike chucked, cracking his still-flaming knuckles. "Now you've done it. You went and got her attention. I'd save yourself some trouble and give up now, man. You're freaking toast."

"I'm not saying anything, and you can't make me!" The leader spread out his wings and folded his forelegs, hollering at the sky. "We are still fifty strong! You have eight!"

"We have a Wonderbolt." Twilight pointed a hoof at Rainbow and started weaving her magic into a spell. "I'd take her over a hundred pegasi. And yes, I can legally compel you to talk. As of this moment, you are under arrest. Surrender immediately or I will take you by force."

"Never! We will stand and fight! This is for Cloudsdale! For all pegasi everywhere! We will not bow down to the unicorns and let them take everything from us! Never again will we of the sky be under their hooves!"

Bloodmoon shook his head. "Tch tch tch. And there's your second mistake."

The leader cocked his head to the side, the tiniest hint of fear threatening to break him like a glass bottle dropped from a third story window. "Second?"

Twilight unleashed her spell in a torrent of purple and orange light that slithered through the air and struck like a starving, enraged anaconda. It twisted and contorted itself around the leading pegasus, pulling in ambient wind and water mana to turn into lightning. Flashes and cracks pummelled him, fangs of magic to paralyse and shock. If he was screaming, it was drowned out by both the rumble of the spell and the sympathetic lightning in the storms. When it was done, the spell was a series of glowing ropes binding his limbs to his body. As he started to twitch and fall, Bloodmoon dove into him, reaching through the ropes to put a pair of shackles on his forelegs.

Rainbow guffawed and slapped her knees, rolling around on an invisible floor. "I'm thinking the first mistake was to bloviate like a moron while the bucking Grand Mage was winding up a spell! Ha!"

Even the two normally-silent members of the Night Guard inside the chariot were chuckling.

The captured stallion was tossed in the vague direction of the chariot, letting the charioteers shift to the side to let him land on an open spot.

"Now then," Bloodmoon cooed, licking his fangs once more. "Who's next?"

The entire rest of the flock scattered and scampered away like ducks running from a hound.

"Let's get moving, ponies. Bloodmoon, Rainbow, fly alongside us. Give any other roadblocks the stinkeye." Twilight grabbed on to the chariot as it shot forward, now winding its way between the storms.

"Ohhh... Ugh... My head..."

Spike put out the fire in his hands and gave the captive a thump on the chest. "Hey. Wake up. We've got questions."

"I'm... ugh, I'm not answering a damn thing." He wriggled on the chariot floor, spitting and missing Spike’s boots by an inch. "I have rights."

"Says the pony trying to secede from Equestria, the nation which guarantees those rights." Twilight leaned back in her seat and yawned. "But, whatever. I'm okay with it."

"We are?" Spike and Rainbow asked in turn, their faces having just enough shock in them for Twilight to continue her little game as planned.

"We are. I have more important things to do than interrogate this guy right now. He's already going to jail for assaulting royalty, leading an insurrection, inciting a riot, and impeding a crown investigation. I'll have oodles of time to chat with him whenever I want later." She turned her head ever so slightly, looking at him out of one calm, cool eye. "But since we're apparently on a timetable of two days, I'll just drop him off at Fort Hurricane and let you Night Guard handle the interrogation."

"Oooh, way to screw the pooch there, pal." Spike shook his head in disbelief. "You had the opportunity to work with Twilight Freaking Sparkle, Element of Magic, proponent of friendship and cooperation, friend to countless ponies of all tribes..."

"Oh! Oh oh!" Rainbow danced in mid air, ready to explode with laughter. "And now he gets the ponies even the Council is scared of instead! Ha!"

"Pretty much. Hope you're comfortable down there on the floor." Twilight took out her notebook and began a quick sketch of the captured pony. "It's probably the most comfort you're going to have for a while. I mean, I don't know anything about Luna's interrogation methods, but I do know her teaching methods, and she is one creative pony, let me tell you."

"Okay, okay, I'll talk!" The stallion struggled against the bindings but only got electrocuted again for his trouble. "It's the storms. They're going to pick up a ton of water at Lake Triumvirate and then put down force-five tornadoes in Canterlot!"

Twilight turned a page in her notebook and started a map from memory. "Canterlot Duchy or the city itself?"

"First one, then the other." He struggled again, trying to stand but just flopping about like a fish. "There's a guy. I don't know his name, I've never met him, but I've heard about him. He says we'll demand independence or we'll flatten the whole place."

"Then he's an idiot." Bloodmoon scoffed, flying closer to the chariot. "Soldiers and police are already on their way, and Canterlot has its own military base."

"Yeah, but there's millions of us!" He tugged at the frock on his back with his mouth, loosening it from his chest. "You'll never be able to take us all!"

"Oh, please." Bloodmoon rolled his crimson, cat-like eyes. "Millions? I bet the actual protesters don't even total a half million, and I'm being generous. They're all angry, but also scared. The moment they're confronted with so many ponies, they'll scatter and disperse. Even if you actually had the full support of the populace, we're still bringing in enough police to handle it. And even if that wasn't the case, if it truly came down to defending innocent towns, this would stop being a protest, and turn into a massacre.

"Don't you see? You're doomed one way or another."

"We'll see about that, you–"

"I wouldn't insult him if I were you." Twilight gave him a light kick to secure his attention. "I'm still dropping you off at Fort Hurricane, and you're still under arrest, and you're still getting interrogated by the Night Guard. I'm just not charging you with terrorism now.

"Besides, he looks thirsty."

His pupils became pinpricks as he watched Bloodmoon lick his fangs again. "He's... He's not really a vampire, is he? It's still daylight out..."

"Please. As if a high class vampire such as myself would be affected by something as silly as the sun. Who do you think I am?"

There was a pause, and the stallion looked at Twilight's eyes. "Please tell me he's joking..."

"Well, you know, I've always thought that vampires couldn't exist, but I've seen so much crazy, impossible stuff already, half of it involving Luna, that I'm just not sure anymore." Twilight gave Bloodmoon a little wink. "Don't drain him completely, okay? We could still use more intel."

"Help..."

Twilight hit him with a sleeping spell so he wouldn’t make a further fuss, and he was out like a light.

The chariot surged onwards, threading a needle in between two towering storms. However, they were but an appetizer compared with what was to come. Cloudsdale wasn't like any city on the ground. Cloud structures didn't have to worry about cumulative weight; each level could independently support itself. The city had the entire sky all to itself, and it used it.

The towers that highlighted the city were every bit as tall as the thunderstorms, reaching up to the bottom of the jet stream, where wind stabilization efforts began to fail. They looked down on the skyscrapers of Manehattan like redwood trees looked down on dust mites. Buildings the size of mountains were the starting point, not the end goal like unicorns or earth ponies. The only habitations that were reasonable were the separate cloud homes some pegasi made, which dotted the sky in certain areas like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Others were more clear by regulation, with spaces between one cloud to the next measured in kilometres, not yards. Pegasi could navigate these spaces in a few minutes, while any earth pony or unicorn would have to either hire a pegasus taxi or take the long, lonely, and potentially dangerous cloud roads.

In the center was a maze of clouds that made up the bulk of the city, larger than any storm short of a hurricane. Its two-dimensional area, just what it could cover on a map, was bigger than the cities of Manehatten, Prairis, and Whinnyapolis combined. Add in the sheer vertical height, and it was far and away the largest city in the world. It was, until recently, with the invention of cloudwalking amulets, the most tribally one-sided. It was the city where pegasi lived, loved, worked, grew up, and grew old. It was sacred "ground" for anything with wings.

The clouds were everything to Cloudsdale and all cities like it. They provided power, water, surfaces to place things, even allowed for the management of garbage and waste. Now, though, everything was shifted by a dark blue lense. What was once the brightest city in all Equestria was now a pit of darkness and gloom, with nearly every cloud taking on the dark blue of the sentinel storms that had been set up to keep interlopers out.

Whether that was merely the result of the clouds blocking the sun coloring things differently, or of the clouds themselves changing, Twilight wasn't sure.

Bloodmoon inched back towards the chariot. "Lady Sparkle, we are currently over the unclaimed land between Canterlot, Stalliongrad, and Germany. Cloudsdale is heading directly for Canterlot. This ruffian was correct, it will arrive in two days' time. I estimate approximately eight hours before we are within range of a leyline. This could change based on the speed of the city itself."

Twilight nodded. "That's about what I expected. How long until we get to the Duchy Manor?"

"It's just beyond the next cloud bank. An RGIS agent is already there. After we drop you off, I recommend you wait for us to pick you up. The Cloudsdale Armories HQ and Fort Hurricane are at opposite sides of the city. Travel on your own will not be safe."

'We'll see." Twilight signalled to Spike, who produced one of Twilight's old, filled notebooks she had worked on during her recovery. "I took out a gryphon battlemaster and Gryphonhelm Tower this morning, Cardinal. 'Not safe' has officially become my standard operating procedure, and I don't know how the timing of things will work out today."

"Good thing, too." Spike pointed out to the distance. "Because I don't think this is going to be anything approaching 'safe.'"

The Manor was coming into view, and it was surrounded. The decorative gates were being swarmed with ponies chanting and clamouring in a sea of protest signs and torches. Fires burned around the perimeter, and it looked like the only reason the pegasi weren't storming the place by flying around things were the armed police hovering in their way.

"Hey, who's that? Down there, on the other side of the gates." Rainbow asked, turning with the chariot and pointing to the speck below.

A voice at the edge of hearing mumbled something, followed by the telltale sign of feedback through a speaker.

"Sounds like somepony trying to give a speech." Twilight said, ear twitching as the tiny voice was quickly drowned out by the boos of the crowd. "And it's not going too well."

The voice grew in volume as they approached, revealing a harried, tired-looking stallion addressing a crowd out for blood. "Please, everypony, remain calm! I can assure you, the Emergency Distribution Plan is not going into effect! Nopony is out for your jobs! We are–"

The crowd erupted into a symphony of jeers, and a wave of small objects flew over the fence, pelting the stallion on the podium and forcing him to flee.

"Wow. I think they're using actual rotten tomatoes down there." Rainbow held a hoof over her mouth as she chuckled. "I know it's mean to laugh at him, but you have to admit, the crowd went above and beyond there."

Twilight smirked, but didn't agree farther than that. "Bloodmoon, take us above the crowd and set us down at the rear entrance. I'm not in the mood to be pelted with fruit."

The chariot circled around behind the Manor, which could probably have housed half of Ponyville's population all by itself. The central tower was lit in gold light, and far taller than the rest of the structure. It had three wings, two to either side of the front, and one leading behind it.

Also behind it was another crowd at least at large as the other.

"Yeah, I don't think avoiding fruit is going to be possible, Twilight." Rainbow landed inside the chariot in one of the few open spots. "What do we do?"

"Hmmm..." Twilight stood up and surrounded herself with a basic shield; not much for combat but more than enough for stones and produce, and it was an invisible type. She did the same for Spike, then leaned over the edge of the chariot. "Rainbow, ride with Bloodmoon and the Night Guard to Fort Hurricane. Drop off our prisoner, get treated, then find us. We'll either be here, the Armories HQ, or somewhere the giant crowds aren't." She pulled out a piece of paper from Spike's bag, then scribbled the name of a pegasus and restaurant. "Bloodmoon, after we leave, go and find this pony. Tell him to find me. He'll probably be at this restaurant; his family owns it. Charioteers, take us in so we're hovering over the landing site. I'll teleport down from there. Maybe that'll startle them into not throwing stuff at us."

"As you wish, Lady Sparkle." Bloodmoon signalled the charioteers, and they went into a short dive, coming to a rest over a leading bay.

"Spike, grab on." Twilight charged her horn for a moment, and when she felt Spike’s claws on her, she tore through that familiar gap in spacetime. Thunder heralded her arrival. The pegasi were no doubt used to the sound, but not when it came from a unicorn suddenly appearing from nothing. Her normal teleportation wasn't enough for the effect; she had used Shining's.

It got the job done.

The crowd hushed in an instant. The small, demure unicorn had violated the very fabric of reality to make her entrance, and she did so standing next to an adolescent dragon.

Step by step Twilight approached the rear entrance, a dingy little cargo door made out of wood that hadn't been stained in ages. A number of police officers guarded it, along with a pair of pegasus MPs – Military Police – armed with heavy cannons. In front of her was a magic barrier, which was just barely keeping the protesters at bay. There was a hole in the shield, blocked by two ponies armed with nasty looking mounted cannons.

"Unicorn, go home!"

"Get her amulet!"

"Hit her horn!"

Twilight glanced at the direction of the threats, cold and cool like a glacial river. The mob, once a living ocean of violence waiting to happen, hushed into a calm lake of scared, nervous ponies worried for their future and uncertain of what to do.

"My ponies," she said, then cleared her throat for something more. She didn't have speakers to help her, so she had to use something else. "My ponies, please, remain calm. I am here, I am with you! The promise of Equestria does not limit itself to a privileged few, but for the freedom of all! I feel your uncertainty, and I understand! Know that there is but one way forward, not as separate tribes, but as one nation, united not by mere blood, but by the ties of friendship and fellowship! Bonds deeper than any politician, stronger than any quarrel!

"I am here to do what I can to make things right! To make us all whole! What that will mean, however, I must discover for myself! For now, hold strong, for this is Cloudsdale! Your home! And it will be heard!"

A tsunami of applause hit her almost as strong as the illusionary gryphon did just hours ago, along with chants of her name that covered her skin with pinpricks of tingles and delight. Holy crap. Did I really just do that? She did her best Cadence impression, putting on a smile and waving to the crowd as she walked towards the manor, flanked by the two MPs.

"Amazing speech, Lady Sparkle!" A pegasus mare in a business suit hovered over the gates, along with a small stallion with a motion picture camera. "My name is Verity Printy with the Canterlot Chronicle. Care to give us an exclusive for our newsreel? Ponies want to know what the Crown is doing about Cloudsdale!"

Twilight shook her head. "I'm afraid I can't comment on my current objectives. When I'm ready to release information, I'll do so. Until then, I ask that ponies remain calm."

"But if we could just have–"

One of the MPs flew up and forced her away, gently.

"Thank you, Sir." Twilight gave him a nod of approval as she entered the manor, and the din of the crowd hushed somewhat as the door closed behind her.

"Wow, Twilight! That was amazing!" Spike bounced in excitement, pumping his fist in the air. "You got the crowd on your side just like that!"

"All things considered, that was something else. Won't last long, though, judging by the mood out there. Being a unicorn isn't buying me any favours. And what was that line about 'get her amulet?' I don't have a... Wait, don't tell me..."

"I'm afraid so, Lady Sparkle." One of the MPs said, his voice hoarse and gruff, like he hadn't slept in a week. "The crowd is targeting non-pegasi, stealing their amulets and letting them fall once the residual spell wears off. We have some ponies trying to catch them, but they're getting chased around by more protesters on the outskirts of the city."

"Ugh. I've already had enough of this tribalist nonsense today." Twilight's stomach growled, interrupting her and complaining about the lack of food lately. "Quiet, I'll feed you later. Anyway, my instincts say they're getting played. I'm not sure by who, but somepony has to be benefiting off of this, and at the expense of the whole city."

"Oh, thank goodness you're here!" A pegasus stallion came running up to them with bags under his eyes. He wore a dark blue silk suit likely worth more than Twilight's yearly stipend when she was a librarian, and he had a dark gold mane with a light green coat. He was also the pony that had tried, and failed, to calm the ponies outside with a speech moments ago. "I'm Duke Esteem, husba– former husband of Duchess Artfeather."

"The Crown of Equestria expresses our condolences for your loss, Duke." Twilight bowed her head for a moment, letting her ears fold back. It doesn't matter the rumors I've heard or what I think of this stallion right now. Tread lightly; he just lost his wife.

"Thank you, Lady Sparkle." He returned the bow, going far deeper than most other nobility would. "Please, you must help me. Everything is falling apart! They told me I might have to lead the Duchy one day; they never said anything about putting it back together!"

"First things first, Duke. I need you to take me to the scene of the crime so I can start my investigation. Right now I don't know what I'm dealing with."

"Right, of course, Lady Sparkle. This way." The Duke turned around and led them down a long, fancy hallway that was taller than a hallway had any right to be. Each room they passed had a small table outside of it with an art deco lamp. Chandeliers bathed the path in a warm, golden light for what seemed like a mile, and given where they were, it might just have been that long.

Twilight pulled out a fresh notebook and readied her pen as she trotted alongside the Duke. "I'm sorry I have to ask these questions, Duke Esteem, but it's important that you answer them. Do you know of anypony that wanted to harm your wife?"

"Ugh." The Duke hopped over some invisible object like he'd been tripped. "She was a Duchess, Lady Sparkle. That list would take all day."

"Sounds like Twilight's kind of list!" Whack! "Ow!"

Twilight caught her pen as it bounced off Spike's head. "Sorry about that, Duke. You say she had enemies. Do any of them stand out?"

"Not that I know of. She and I didn't share much. Oh, sure, my name is on a lot of things, but she was the mastermind. I just smiled and tried my best to look handsome."

"I see. I'll need a list of guards and any other ponies that were here at the time of the murder, as well as anypony who had any kind of access to the building but weren’t scheduled to be here. I'll also need to talk to the guards that were on duty last night as soon as possible. And, I know this sounds insensitive, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask this..." Twilight took in a breath and swallowed. "Where were you at the time of the murder?"

Esteem paused in his walk, stock still like a statue. "Here. In my room on the upper level. We don't sleep together. We barely see each other... Saw, pardon. I spend most of my time holed up, reading."

"Do you have anypony who can confirm that?"

"No. No, I suppose I don't. Do... Do you think I was the one who–"

"I don't think anything yet. That will be up to the evidence I collect and organize." Twilight waggled the notebook in her magic. "But I need to be aware of all the facts."

"Of course. I apologize, Your Ladyship. I didn't mean to put words in your mouth."

"I understand. This is a very rough time for you. I took no offense.

"Now, when you were talking to the crowd, I heard you mention an 'Emergency Redistribution Plan.' Care to elaborate?"

"Oh. That nasty business. It was leaked shortly before Artfeather– Wait, does it have something to do with–"

"No idea. Again, I don't want to jump to conclusions. What exactly is it?"

"I've only just heard about it myself. Again, my wife handled all this. Apparently, after the Siege of Canterlot, the military was worried an enemy might try to take out Cloudsdale, or at least the factory. The plan was classified, and called for the resources to be in place to create dozens of smaller factories, each capable of making any kind of weather. Should Cloudsdale fall, they would be created quickly, and scattered across all the Duchies in Equestria."

"Ah, I see." Twilight scribbled down a note in her log. "Which would mean minimal weather control interruption, and make it nearly impossible to shut down all the factories at once. It'd be an extremely redundant system, highly resilient to attack on a national level."

"Right, that's what the paper said. But it was leaked, and everypony thinks it's what we are doing, instead of what we would do only in a catastrophe. Hence, mass protests with ponies that just won't listen, no matter what I do."

"Help is on the way, Duke. They'll bring back the peace, while I'll investigate what happened here."

The pair turned a corner to the right, continuing down an equally absurdly long hallway, this one with the occasional step upwards. As they climbed, the ceiling grew closer, and the lighting darker. By the end, what was once a path of bright, golden light was an indoor alleyway of blues and blacks.

"Is that the room?" Twilight asked, pointing to a door on the right being guarded by an MP.

"Yes. You'll excuse me if I don't enter it with you, Lady Sparkle. She might not have loved me anymore, but I did her."

"I understand. I may need to ask more questions later, however, and given the danger outside I must ask you to stay in the building."

"Of course. I'll be in my room if you need me," Esteem said, bowing and turning to leave as the MP approached Twilight.

"Lady Sparkle," the MP said as he saluted. "A civilian Forensic Investigation team arrived before we did and took photos of the room and carpet in the hallways. There were signs of hoof prints in the carpet." He reached into a pouch on his uniform and pulled out a package. "These are copies of the photos."

Twilight took them in her magic and scanned through them. Each was numbered and had a small ruler next to them for reference.

Spike leaned over her shoulder, watching as the images flicked by. "That's a lot of pictures. Can you get anything from this, Twilight?"

Twilight nodded, the gears in her head already turning at high speed. "Yes. The only hoof prints within the room appear to be either from a pair of stock pony mares, or an exceptionally small stock pony stallion. There is another that is likely either from a draft mare, or a stock stallion. He was only in the hall. The mess in the pictures has all the hallmarks of a struggle."

Spike took one of the pictures in his claws, tilting it and holding it up to a light. "It's a start, I guess. So, two perps, right?"

"Exactly. In fact, here, Spike." She tossed him the notebook and pen. "You take notes. I'll break down the evidence, you put it on record."

"You got it!" Spike gave her a salute and started scribbling on the pages. "Two perps, one stock mare, one stock stallion."

Twilight closed her eyes. Keep calm. There will be a dead pony in there. She was murdered. It's our job to collect evidence, and use that to figure out who it was. We can't do that in the grip of rage, in the shadow of overwhelming instinct. Alicorn or not, only calm logic will do.

Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control of the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and is under my command.

Twilight's eyes opened, stripping away the obfuscation of the physical world, and revealing the metaphysical. The ambient magic in the hall bubbled and flowed like molasses, with multiple elements piling on top of each other. The wellsprings and leylines of the MP and Spike were visible under their translucent bodies. She was ready.

Twilight took a step into the room and took stock. As expected, it was a mess. Books were scattered about, along with glass and blood. Duchess Artfeather lay dead on carpet, her head and neck in a pool of her own blood and her wings broken at her sides. Her pinions were dyed in a rainbow arrangement, somewhat like Dash's mane, although the bases of the feathers were all a golden hue.

Hoof prints were scattered all about, many still with evidence markers. They were exposed by cutting out the carpet, except for where it was holding other evidence, like Artfeather’s body. There was a little furniture, including a wooden table with lamp, a china cabinet, and a bookshelf filled with the kind of trashy romance novels Rarity secretly hoards. Each fit the art deco motif of the building, and was relatively undisturbed. In the center and on the floor was a chain, more broken glass, and some kind of lantern-like frame.

Her magic sight was telling her little, however. Underneath Artfeather was a pool of miasma mixing with the blood, but the rest was covered under the same blanket of rolling, random mana as the hall outside. If anything, it seemed to have a source in the middle of the room, directly over the unknown metal frame and chain.

The most unexpected thing, however, was a pony with a rather elaborate longcoat draped on her back. It was dark blue with yellow accents, including the insignia of the Royal Guard, RGIS Division. On her back was a polearm with two curved blades, one on each end, that were currently folded in on themselves. The unicorn glanced at her with calculating orange eyes.

"Welcome, Lady Sparkle," she said, adjusting her glasses. "I've been expecting you."

"Lieutenant Intelligentsia? What are you doing here?" Twilight took a careful step forward, dancing around the evidence markers. "Didn't Celestia tell you to take on less work, not more?"

"I made her a bargain. I've dropped a number of other projects on some of the 'better' candidates in exchange for this assignment. I've always wanted an excuse to poke around Cloudsdale Manor and Artfeather's businesses. This gives me carte blanche to search whatever I deem worthy of investigation."

"Let me guess." Spike folded his arms and gave her a grin. "Cloudsdale Seventeen?"

Intelligentsia tapped her nose. "I don't know how much you two know, but RGIS was about to come down on Cloudsdale Armories like a ton of bricks. Artfeather did a good job of using politics to hold us off, I'll give her that, but with all the shenanigans we were finding, it was inevitable.

"Now we're adding finding her killer to our to-do list as well, and you'll be taking the lead on that. Anything you need from the Guard, let me know, and I'll see that you get it. Funds are not an issue, but given the situation, personnel will be, for the next little while."

"Fair enough. I'm looking forward to working with you, Lieutenant."

"Likewise, Lady Sparkle. Shall we begin?"

"Absolutely." Twilight set up the scene in her mind, matching the hoof prints in the photographs with the numbers and floor, setting up a sequence. "Artfeather entered first, and moved... there, next to the china cabinet."

"I concur." Intelligentsia pulled out a ruler and laid it out next to a pair of the hoof prints. "Artfeather's hooves are slightly larger than whoever killed her. We're lucky we arrived before the clouds returned to neutral. It allows us to establish their movements to some degree."

"Right. Now, the killer... She entered second, and..." Twilight walked around some, careful not to step on anything important. "This hoof print is different. The killer is standing on her two hind hooves, but see this front print? The hoof mark is thicker than the others. She was bowing, showing respect. If she had time to do that, if she interacted with Artfeather first, it says she either knew her killer, or the killer presented herself as an agent of some kind."

"Uh, Twi? Agent?" Spike tapped the book with the pen. "Care to translate into Equuish?"

"I mean, it’s possible she either was a government or company official, or was impersonating one." Twilight winced as she looked down at the body. "What was Artfeather like? Rarity seemed to think she was the jealous type."

"Jealous, haughty, large ego, greedy... And a bit paranoid." Intelligentsia pulled out a sheet of paper. "Here's her profile in brief."

Twilight took it in, adding it to her knowledge and molding it to the situation. "So, a pony she knew then. That would narrow it down.

"Now, the killer managed to gain her trust somehow, or already had it, because from the hoof prints, she turned around, facing that table..." Twilight squinted, narrowing her focus to the piece of furniture.

"Hold on, hold on!" Spike scribbled with his pen at breakneck pace, or at least "break paper" pace, as the tip poked a hole in a page. "This is a lot of information to take down. Way more to go on than what you found in Wintervale."

"No where near done yet, Spike. Pardon me, Gen, I need to get over there." Twilight tip-hoofed over to where Intelligentsia was, and stood over the table, eyeing it. "There's a ring of condensation residue here."

Intelligentsia pulled out a camera and took a picture of it. "I noticed that as well, Lady Sparkle. I believe it significant, but other than that, I'll let you draw your own conclusions. See if our trains of thought meet at the same station."

"Ah, independent verification. Gotcha. Let's see... Given the size of the ring..." Twilight looked down from the table at the broken glass on the carpet. Some of it was crystal clear and from a wine glass whose bell had been shattered, though there was still a piece of it intact with a few drops of red in it. The rest was green, the remnants of a bottle broken in two large pieces plus a variety of smaller ones.

After Intelligentsia snapped a few more pictures, Twilight picked up the bottom of the bottle and placed it on the residue. "Perfect match. In fact, there’s more. Much more." She brushed the bottle with the very tip of her ear, sensing a slight chill. "The bottle had a spell on it to keep it cold, hence the condensation. This is a cloud building, climate controlled for heat. The high humidity meant the water formed quickly."

"Those spells aren't too hard to come by. Lots of unicorns know it. Some bottles are even sold that way." Spike circled something on the paper and continued, "So we know what caused the ring, but the spell by itself doesn't give us much of a lead... But there's something that doesn't make sense. This is nice and plush carpet on top of cloud. There's no way a wine glass or bottle would break from a little fall like that, not even with a perfect drop."

"Excellent observation, Spike!" Twilight clapped her hooves in applause. "I'm promoting you to Deputy Investigator!"

"Depu– Wait, that means I'm stuck taking notes each time we do this."

"Another excellent observation! It also means you get to make those. In fact, you're expected to!"

Even Intelligentsia couldn't contain a chuckle at that.

"Fine." Spike sighed in defeat and readied himself to write again. "What's next, oh fearless leader."

"Well, look at the carpet under the glass." Twilight knelt down, getting a close look and a whiff of wine. "I don't see any hoof prints here, do you?"

Spike shook his head. "Your eyes are better than mine, Twi. If you say it’s not there, it's not there."

"Fair enough. Now, if the fall didn't break these, and neither did a stomp of a hoof, then something else must have. Given their position and the fact that both of them are broken, I think the bottle fell on top of the glass, which means the glass was on the ground first. Though the wine glass is thicker than what unicorns tend to use, I still think that if it was the other way around the bottle wouldn't be broken. Thus, another piece of the timeline is filed in."

"I'm impressed, Twilight." Intelligentsia rewound and popped out her film roll, swapping it for another. "I came to the same conclusion just before you arrived. Although, there's one more thing I saw, though I don't know if it's relevant."

"Anything could be. What did I miss?"

Intelligentsia picked up a piece of the broken bottle, then peeled off its label, revealing a different label underneath. "This isn't a real bottle of Roan Manor 971. I don't know if the intruder gave this to Artfeather or if she already had it, but it's a fake. The only way to get real Roan 971 is to be a friend or family member of Charlemane's, and he and the Duchess have long been at odds. This is an el cheapo brand with a fake label."

Spike held in a chuckle for a moment before breaking out in full laugher. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I can't help it!"

"Yeah, well, get it out of your system; there's more notes to take." Twilight moved again, placing herself between the body and the bookshelf. "The heavy hoof prints over there look like she was stomping, or more likely, bucking from being choked. Then, there's only one set of prints for a bit, suggesting she tried to fly, but that would only tighten the garrote."

She carefully tilted the head of Artfeather, examining the wound on her neck, then checked her head, including her eyes. "There's petechial hemorrhaging here, consistent with strangulation. There's also a perimortem wound on her head that appears to be blunt force trauma."

"... Wow." Intelligentsia staggered back, rubbing her head like she'd been hit with a ten pound epiphany. "I was going to just tell you that. I have to admit, I never expected a student of Celestia to know stuff like that. Then again, given her medical knowledge, maybe I should have."

Twilight lifted up one of the books on Artfeather's back, along with one of the scattered feathers. "I had a lot of time to read up in the hospital, and I'm a quick study. I brought some spells to help with it, too.

"Not quite done yet, though. The fact that she's underneath the books tells me she had them fall on her. Based on that, the head wound, the feathers scattered in the room, and the missing hoof prints... I think she tried to fly, but was simply tossed into the bookshelf instead. The addition of a head injury knocking her around and disorienting her further likely sealed her fate. The heavy hoof prints under the wings tells me the killer probably stomped on them right here, just before the Duchess died."

"What about the blood under her head?" Spike turned back a few pages and showed her a list of the evidence. "You haven't mentioned that yet."

"That's relatively simple." Twilight tilted Artfeather's head up, exposing the cut on the neck. "There's bruising along where the wire sliced into her throat. In fact..." She gave something a little tug, finding a nearly invisible wire lodged in the skin. "The murder weapon is still here. Only a unicorn could manipulate something so thin with this much precision and force."

"We should keep that to ourselves for now." Intelligentsia turned to the darkened window outside. "The tribalist element out there will have a field day if they find out."

Twilight nodded, half paying attention to her. "Agreed. Now, as far as her cut throat is concerned, I don’t know if that was what killed her, or was just a coup de grace done to make sure of her death if strangulation wasn’t enough. It’s a minor point, though one I’d like clarified. A Medical Examiner will be able to find out for sure, so it’s only a matter of time.

"There's a few things I can't figure out, though. One is the glass and metal in the middle of the room, and the other is why there's so much random ambient magic in here. The latter is especially bad because there's no way I’m going to be able to get a thaumic profile on anything here."

"I think I can answer both of those questions, Lady Sparkle." Intelligentsia pulled out a photograph from a different time and place, showing a kind of glass ball with a glowing mixture of different coloured clouds. "This is a 'mana bomb,' which is what I think the glass and metal was. When shattered, it spews forth a decent amount of random mana types for a while. It does no physical damage, but it's very good at erasing magical traces. Makes it impossible to use thaumic profiles as evidence."

"And there's the last piece of the puzzle, for this room anyway." Twilight signalled for Intelligentsia and Spike to follow as she exited the chamber. "Now, let's talk to the guards."


"These are all of them?" Twilight asked, pacing around the line-up of guards employed by the Duchy to protect the Manor. Each was a pegasus stallion, and most were either ex-military or ex-police, and all of them were draft ponies. "I don't see any signs of a recent fight on any of them."

One of them scoffed at her and poked her in the chest with a hoof. "Like you'd know what a fight looks like."

"Hey, pudding-for-brains." Spike grabbed hold of the stallion's wing and gave it a twist, eliciting a yelping howl. "This morning she defeated a gryphon battlemaster, then followed it up with damn near killing the Gryphonic Princess next in line for the throne."

Intelligentsia dropped her camera to the floor. "She did what?!"

"Made a ton of work for you, I guess." Twilight gave her a whispered "sorry." "And Spike, let him go. I don't want to start a fight before I even interview them."

Spike released him, but then lit one of his claws on fire and shook it in a warning.

"Now then, everypony." Twilight switched into her magic sight, eyeing them all over once more. "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to go down the line, and you're going to tell me what you saw - anything that you saw. If you lie to me, you'll be in a lot of trouble when I find out. And trust me, if you lie, I will find out.

"We'll start with you. Where were you stationed, and what did you see around the time of the murder?"

"I was guarding the vault room, ma'am. Nothing out of the ordinary. At least, indoors."

"And outdoors?" Twilight asked.

"Protests started getting bad around four last night. Clouds got dark."

"Twilight," Intelligentsia interjected, "that's five hours before our estimated time of death."

"I see." Twilight stepped to the next pony. "Well then, what about you?"

"Upper chariot bay, ma'am. I didn't see anything. I closed the doors after we received news of the Duchess's murder."

Twilight analyzed his face, looking for lies, but finding nothing but a feeling at the back of her mind, and an itch on her back. "Right. Next guard, what did you see?"

"Main hallway,” he said with a flat stare. “I didn't see anything."

"There are windows bigger than my tree house in that hallway. Are you sure you didn't see anything? What about the protests?"

"I didn't see anything."

"You know it's perjury to lie to a Grand Mage, right?" Intelligentsia asked. "We find out you're lying, and you get put away for that, even if you beat an accomplice rap."

"I didn't see anything."

"That so?" Twilight pulled out a photograph and held it up to his face. "Even though the hoof prints led straight past your post?"

"I didn't see anything."

"Sure. Okay. Let's go with that for the moment." Twilight took a step back, following his leylines with her eyes. They were calm and controlled, with no hint of any contamination in the light blue veins.

"Twilight, something is very wrong here. I don't like it. I want to deploy."

Twilight could feel Aurora shiver in fear, even though the torc was still. It was like a terrified filly was hiding among her legs. I agree, something isn't right, but I don't think it's an immediate threat. Don't deploy.

"Okay, next up..."


"That's all of them accounted for and detained." Intelligentsia shut the door and stretched, then put up a privacy shield around the room they had borrowed. "This has turned out to be quite the day, and it's really only getting started."

Twilight hunched over and rubbed her growling stomach. "Don't remind me. Did you get the plans I asked for?"

"Right here." Intelligentsia pulled out a roll of blueprints too long and thick to logically fit in her pouch and put them on the table for Spike to go through.

"Holy crap." Spike started counting the number of pages, but gave up at around twenty. "I knew this place was huge, but damn. What do we need these for again?"

"If I'm right, we really only need the one with the main hall and the upper chariot bay." Twilight pulled out two markers, one black, one red. "These two. Here, spread them out and hold up the list of guards."

"If you're doing what I think you're doing, then it's brilliant." Intelligentsia took off her glasses to wipe them off. "Let me guess, the red X's are going to be the ones that kept repeating 'I didn't see anything.'"

"I was going to use O's, but yes, that's the gist." Twilight marked up the plans, putting in the black marks for the more normal responses first, then the red for the ones that kept repeating that one line. "Now, take a look at this."

"Whoa. It's a path!" Spike traced the series of red marks with his claw, starting with the chariot bay, going down a lift to the main hall, and through the stupidly long walk clear through to the murder room. "We know how they got in!"

Twilight nodded. "Yeah. The only red marks are along this path; the guards stationed anywhere else weren't doing a parrot impression. As a result, I now have enough information to reconstruct the events of the crime. Here's how it went down.

"The culprits, one mare and one stallion, probably both unicorns, landed via chariot in the upper bay. There, they were confronted by the guards, who never stood a chance.

"One of the perpetrators used either a geas, or more likely, Power Words combined with a memory charm, on both of the guards. They told them 'You didn't see anything.' The result was likely a pair of temporary vegetables, giving the intruders enough time to perform their task.

"They then went down the lift and into the main hall, wiping the minds of every guard they came across. The mare then confronted Artfeather, who accepted her as friendly. At some point she turned her back, and the killer struck, draping the wire around her. Artfeather struggled, bucking and trying to fly so hard she sent feathers flying, but only got knocked into the bookcase.

"The murderer then stomped on her wings, breaking them. The Duchess passed out, and the assassin pulled very hard, cutting the throat before leaving for the door. Then, one of the two intruders tossed the mana bomb, erasing quite a lot of evidence. They knew exactly what they were doing. This was calculated."

"I agree with all of your findings, Lady Sparkle." A large stack of forms appeared from inside Intelligentsia's coat pocket, along with a pen. "Don't worry about the paperwork. I can get that. You focus on finding the truth, especially the two big things we're missing here."

"What's that?" Spike asked. "She pretty much figured it out."

"Except for the 'who,' Spike." Twilight seethed over the plans, her mind trying to think of anything she might have missed. "Whoever did this is good. We spent three hours hunting for the smallest clues and interviewing the staff, and we don't have a single lead on their identity. But, that's not what worries me the most. There's a hole here that I can't resolve yet."

"There is?" Spike asked, scratching his head. "It seems solid to me."

Intelligentsia stepped forward, picking up a pen. "Actually, it's enormous, Spike. And it happened right here." She marked a spot at the door to the crime scene. "Just when the killer first encountered Artfeather.

"Query: If these ponies were capable of using a geas or Power Words, why did they not use them on Artfeather? If they had, there would have been no struggle."

Spike was struck, his voice and breath silent in the cool, still room.

Twilight folded her forelegs. "In my mind, there can only be one answer: They couldn't. What we are missing is why.” She rolled up the plans and gave them back to Intelligentsia. "Don't let anypony see this, and don't tell anypony about it that you don't personally trust and is in RGIS. Also, stay here and keep poking around, see what you can find."

Intelligentsia rubbed her hooves together like she was just given a treasure chest. "Oh, I intend to. I take it that you're leaving, then?"

"Yeah. Spike and I are going to let Esteem know that we're going to Fort Hurricane and that he should stay put."

Intelligentsia peeked at her from over the frame of her glasses. "And where are you really going?"

"Cloudsdale Armories HQ. I have a feeling these are connected crimes, and I want to find the link before anypony can cover it up!"

Author's Note:

Took longer than I wanted, but here's 54! Patreon will update very soon. Remember, people in the Patreon chat get lots of insight and sneak peaks! :D

Big chapter, huh? I'm always nervous when I put up a chapter, though this one makes me more nervous than most. It's my first crack at a crime investigation scene like this. Remember, I'm writing this story to practice and improve for original writing, and there's no better example of the learning process than a chapter like this! Things may have to be edited further and changed if it turns out I screwed up. :P The basic story will remain intact, though.

I got sick recently, which slowed me down, because... well, being sick means I can't think straight. The hot weather also didn't help any. (I have no A/C.) Next up, tomorrow I'm going on a week-long vacation, though I should still have a little time to do some writing. After that, I'm diving back in full steam on writing.

Remember, Designing Intrigue updated recently! :D

As always, thanks again for sticking with me!

-Cv

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