Red Right Hoof

by Japko

First published

Cutie Mark Crusader Crime Investigators, yay!

A few years had passed, and after too many disappointments, the Cutie Mark Crusaders group has fallen apart. The fillies abandoned hope in getting their cutie marks by constantly trying something new, and instead followed the path of standard, boring careers. Their lives are about to take a big twist as they get on track of a serious crime.

Chapter One: The Walk

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter One: The Walk

The grave-still silence of the hallway was suddenly disturbed, as a staccato of rapid, rhythmical hoofsteps filled the space, echoing between bare white walls.

It was a beautiful evening, and the setting sun merrily trickled through rows of identical, tall windows, painting the floor tiles with deep and warm red color.

But a pony had no time to enjoy the romantic sunset. The pony had a job to do, and it was not one of his most enjoyable jobs. Why did it always have to be him who passed the bad news? He wasn’t the youngest one in the department anymore, not for the last two years at least. But still, it was always him who they sent to Room 518 whenever things got ugly. Of course he was outstanding when it came to stressful confrontations, but he really didn’t ask for this, and he wished somepony else would be picked to take care of such things, at least from time to time.

Theoretically, it was already evening, and most of the department’s employees had called it a day and went home, and so could he. Theoretically, all this could wait until tomorrow. But he knew that the boss definitely wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t inform him right away.

The hoofsteps stopped, but the echo still filled his ears like a presage to what waited for him on the other side of the door. The door he stood by wasn’t very impressive. It was made of dark mahogany with a simple, small carving which said ‘518’. The sudden veil of silence pressed against the pony’s ears as he stared sheepishly at the number. Without too much hesitation, he took a deep breath, knocked and opened the door.

Technically smoking was forbidden in the whole building, but, as usual, the rules didn’t apply to those who stood high in the hierarchy. The heavy smell of cigar smoke – this fresh and this which had been accumulating in carpets, furniture and curtains for years – momentarily attacked his nostrils. It was one of the reasons why he hated to come here, but still definitely a minor one. He had numerous reasons to hate visits in the room 518.

Behind an extensive wooden desk, which was bending under the weight of towers of papers, folders and binders, sat a grayish stallion with dark circles under his eyes. He was wearing his usual old brown suit. A recently put away cigar still smoldered in an ashtray along with at least ten other scraps. The subtle trails of smoke, lazily swirling in the air, were the only movement in the room, as both stallions stayed still, staring into each other’s eyes.

“Just say it,” the pony behind the desk decided to finally break the silence.

“Excuse m-” a pony started.

“The bad news.” The Boss’ voice was dry and rough like a sheet of sandpaper. “It’s not really difficult to guess you’re coming with some bad news. You’ve been working here for years and you still haven’t managed to learn a proper poker face, son. It’s an important ability in our profession, you know. Even if you spend all your day in papers.”

“Yes. Yes, sir,” a pony said slowly.

“So, say it already!” The Boss almost shouted. “This day won’t get much worse anyway, be it with this news or without it. How bad can it be?”

“Actually…” The pony swallowed nervously. He thought he had a delicate way to say it, but now he was just biting his lip in desperate attempts to come up with something. Unable to think of anything, he just took another deep breath.

“We got a report from Cloudsdale fifteen minutes ago, sir. Agent PF13 didn’t show up to a priority one meeting.

“That’s”– he gulped –“that’s automatically a ‘missing’ status, sir. Agent PF13 is missing.”

The grayish pony slowly hid face in his hooves. For a long while he didn’t say anything. “Tell me that at least she didn’t have-”

“She had,” he cut in before he could bite his tongue. Interrupting his boss wasn’t a smart move. But he quickly regained his posture and finished what he was saying. “The exact purpose of the meeting was to hand them over. It’s… It’s missing as well, sir.”

The Boss slowly shook his head. “I hate this job.”

* * *

There is this common view that unusual things happen only to extraordinary ponies.

Actually, most ponies would disagree right now. They would say that it’s not true, that in most cases it’s the grey and inconspicuous ones who are blessed (or cursed) with crazy adventures. But that’s just what they would say, because it’s expected of them to say such words. To reassure the boring and dull ones that their lives can be exciting too, if they only believe, yadda yadda, all that junk of empty words.

The actual truth is that everyone expects simple and cozy existence for the wimps, and for those few extraordinary ones – fascinating adventures and life full of wonders. Deep down we all believe that this is the natural way of life, a universal law, and this is how our world should work.

However, sometimes various errors in causation occur, and a regular pony gets thrown into some surprise adventure that may or may not overwhelm them. I would lie if I said that I had never dreamed of something like this happened to me.

Let’s be honest. I’m not an exciting person by any means, and I’ve never claimed myself to be. Since my very first days I’ve been living on a farm, where nothing amazing ever happens, and where everything is ordinary. The farm was the place where I basically spent all my childhood and where I was raised by my siblings. Yes, I have no parents, and that’s probably the only unusual thing about me. They both died in an accident when I was virtually still a baby. I know their faces only from old photographs. I can’t say I miss them, since I had never really known them, but I must admit that the melancholy of not having mom and dad around can get painful sometimes. As a kid, I often cried myself to sleep, especially after those days when I encountered many happy fillies and colts with their parents, like during school plays and such.

Well, I can’t really complain too much, because even if I have never had parents, I’ve always had my big brother and sister, who took care of me and raised me the best they could. I sometimes wonder how I would turn out without them, probably as a total wreck. On the other hoof, my best friend didn’t have so much luck – she had nopony, not a single family member to raise her and give her that warmth of which I received so much from my bro and sis – and she still ended up a wonderful pony, without too many issues.

I have never done anything to consider myself unusual. I know a few quite famous ponies, but that doesn’t count. My sister is one of the holders of the famous Elements of Harmony, so that’s pretty neat. As a result, I personally know all the bearers of the Elements. Oh, and I know a zebra. She’s a shaman of some sort. But the fact that I know a bunch of interesting ponies doesn’t make me special in any way. I’ve always been a bystander when something interesting was happening. And, to be honest, I had never expected anything else. I was rather happy with my life as it was. I can’t say there were many things I disliked about it.

What I hated was my lack of a cutie mark. When you live in a small town like Ponyville, you can rarely allow yourself to be different and stand out in a group. I don’t know why, but while in a big city you can be anypony you want and you know it, in a small town you constantly feel this stress to follow the path that everyone else is taking. Normally, I wouldn’t care so much about not having a cutie mark, but the social pressure made me feel that I needed one as soon as my first peers started to get theirs. I was terrified by the thought of a possibility that I would be on the grey end, an outcast, ridiculed for not having a special talent of my own. But it didn’t appear, and slowly it became my obsession. With my two friends – also without their marks – we formed a little club, a secret society, as we liked to call it, to do whatever we could to obtain the desired images on our flanks, like our lives depended on those.

When I look back, I sometimes wonder if there were any things we hadn’t tried. Of course without any result whatsoever. I can’t say I don’t miss those times though. It was a ton of fun to use every single opportunity to check if our special talents were hiding in this or that activity. Who knows, maybe we should consider being blank flanks a good thing. If we had gotten our cutie marks, we wouldn’t have so many great memories, and we probably wouldn’t have become such close friends.

But every fire burns out eventually. At some point you can’t keep deluding yourself that picking random things will get you a cutie mark. You have to face the truth that some ponies need to learn to live without one and move on.

It’s not like we suddenly decided to terminate our Cutie Mark Crusaders group, but it slowly became obvious that we had lost faith in our crusade. When we were hanging out, we preferred to just have fun together, instead of chasing the illusion of finding our special talents by trying more and more ridiculous things.

More time had passed and we eventually finished school. We all got good grades, but still all we could feel was the bitter taste of defeat. The school chapter of our lives was over, and we were still blank flanks. Nopony mentioned it, even Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, but everypony knew well how humiliated we felt.

Choosing your life path without the compass that a cutie mark is can be very hard. They all kept saying that I was full of potential, but I didn’t feel it. I only felt lost and scared. I decided to stay on our farm until I came up with any idea for my future. The work with the orchards always needs another set of hooves, and things got a lot more complicated since our grandma had passed away. When she was around we had no idea how much of a help she was.

Anyway, it happened that I stayed on Sweet Apple Acres with only my siblings, and it seemed that it had sucked me in for good.

Meanwhile, Scootaloo decided to join the weather team. She, like myself, claimed it was only until she found anything more ambitious, but I knew that she enjoyed her job, because it was a lot easier to spend time with her idol, Rainbow Dash. She liked it there.

The actual blow that tore our Cutie Mark Crusaders group apart was done by Sweetie Belle. Unlike Scootaloo and me, she had some plans. We were not sure if those were her own or rather her parents’, but it turned out that she wanted to continue her education. We thought she meant some kind of a music school. After all, she was a natural-born singer, even if she was struggling with a severe case of stage-fright. But Sweetie Belle wasn’t going to any music school. She was leaving to Fillydelphia to study law. Law! It was so random that we burst into laughter as we stood, but it died quickly as we realized that she was being serious.

And that’s how the Cutie Mark Crusaders had come to an end. Without a single success, without a blast. Only with a quick punch of brutal reality that forced us to grow up. Right in the face.

Those were the thoughts that stirred in my mind when I was walking between the apple trees of our orchard with a can of anti-bug spray, when Scootaloo broke the silence.

“So, today’s Friday,” she grunted from the shade of the trees, not opening her eyes. “Are we gonna go somewhere or not?”

Scootaloo was one of these types who preferred to work like crazy if it meant she could finish her daily job faster and have more time for herself. As a result, she often dropped by to Sweet Apple Acres pretty early to hang out with me until I finished my chores.

“I don’t know, Scoot,” I replied. “In the beginning of summer there is usually almost as much work as during the Applebuck Season. I might have to do some overtime today.”

“Uuurgh!” She threw her hooves in the air. “I’m so bored!”

Scootaloo wasn’t in the best of moods. And no wonder. She tried her best not to show it, but it was obvious she was feeling downward awful. She was just after a breakup and she wasn’t taking it too well. Nothing unusual though. She was always like this after a breakup, and… well, let’s just say she had had quite a few of those in her life. Don’t get me wrong, Scootaloo wasn’t the kind of a cold-hearted femme fatale, who was never satisfied with any boy she met. In fact it was rather the opposite. Each time she tried to commit to some relationship, she instantly got the feeling of not being good enough and tried to escape in shame which only she understood. The guys were usually more than patient in such situations. The reason why everyone was so understanding was simple. Scootaloo was hot. Not just attractive, I really mean hot as jalapenos dipped in tabasco. And it wasn’t even the kind of beauty you’d expect from ponies like Sweetie Belle’s sister Rarity – the beauty which is a result of years of hard work on your style and fabulosity, years of making sacrifices and suffering for the cause. No, Scoot was walking (or flying) perfection in her natural state. She didn’t give a damn about how she looked and she still managed to be gorgeous anyway. She could just wake up, splash her face with some water and she was ready to go. It was ridiculous, and many girls hated her so much for that. I’d never, ever seen her using a hairbrush, I kid you not.

Nevertheless, she never considered herself attractive, and she seemed genuinely shocked whenever somepony showed their interest in her. And the physical beauty wasn’t her only virtue, oh no. She had this absolutely adorable, compelling, and quite boyish personality that let her easily get along with anyone, regardless of their gender or age. She easily found common frequencies with all the boys, and her spontaneity didn’t let anyone be bored with her around, of course if she wasn’t in one of her depressive phases.

That was her problem. Scootaloo was a one big borderline roulette. One day she could be euphoric and seemed able to take over the world, while the other day she turned into a walking pile of misery. I sometimes got this urge to secretly keep a diary of her moods, because it seemed that those two extremes evened themselves up perfectly.

“How about we go to Sugarcube Corner?” I shot in the dark. I needed to come up with a neutral ground that wouldn’t remind her of the recently ended relationship. I had no idea whether they liked to go to Sugarcube Corner together or not. But Pinkie Pie was a miracle worker when it came to cheering other ponies up, so there was a big chance she would help me make Scootaloo smile.

She nodded. Thank goodness.

Despite still having some work undone, I left it as it was. I was sure AJ would give me a lecture about proper work ethics when I got back, but I had a more important thing on my head. My best friend needed to be cheered up and it was my job to make her feel better. Or die trying.

Half an hour later we were sitting by our favorite table in the Cakes’ cafe. Pinkie, after exchanging some understanding looks with me, started preparing her ice cream specialty. She called it The Jumbo Heart Attack Murder Blast and it was not included in the regular menu.

If you don’t want to waste your time and nerves on attempts to understand the female psyche, just focus on sweets. Always works.

Scootaloo was one of those ponies who found it extremely important to be miserable when they felt it was the right thing to do in a certain situation. But even she finally surrendered to the magnificence of Pinkie’s dessert. Facing this amount of sugar, everypony was powerless. Another good thing was that with her level of physical activeness, she never had to do anything as silly as counting calories.

Scootaloo started to complain, and it was a big step forward.

“I’m totally not girlfriend material, you know. No wonder he dumped me.”

“You dumped him,” I corrected with my mouth full. Yeah, I was raised in a barn, I know.

“Well, yes, but I just said out loud what he had in his mind. He didn’t really like me, but he was just too nice to say it to my face.”

“Scoot, look, you can’t just-”

“It’s because I’m useless. I’m not good at anything. How is it even possible to not have a cutie mark at this age?”

I rolled my eyes. Here we go again.

It’s funny how ponies can change. Back in the CMC days it was usually her who kept the spirits up each time we failed with our attempts. No matter how much work had gone to waste, she would always take it with a smile and boosted our morale before we tried something new. Now it seemed that the roles had switched.

“Scootaloo, relax. A cutie mark is just an image on your flank. It does picture your most special talent, but the lack of it doesn’t mean you don’t have a talent. What if you have too many and you haven’t discovered which one is the most important to you?” In case you’re wondering, those weren’t just empty comforting words. I really meant it.

It took her a long time before she learned to fly. It was quite odd for a pegasus as athletic as her to learn it so late, but she did it eventually. And she still somehow made an advantage out of it. Her ability to mix ground and air stunts was amazing. But she tended to neglect those, instead focusing on something she wasn’t exactly good at. She constantly looked up to Rainbow Dash and she was crazy about her speed and agility. She wanted to be just like her, even if she had talents Dash could only dream of. I told her that countless times, but she never listened. That reminds me of another thing at which she was way better than anyone I’ve ever known – persuasion. You wouldn’t expect something like that from a pony like Scootaloo, but boy, was she a skilled talker. She could easily sell you your own mane. Twice. And you still would return for more.

“Yeah, right,” she grunted in response. “When is Sweetie Belle going to come back? The semester should be ending soon, right?”

“I think so,” I said, glad that she was willing to change the topic, even if it was the same thing we had talked over for the last two weeks. We were, of course, in contact with Sweetie, but from what she reported, her school was a complete mess, and she didn’t know anything either. The exams were constantly moved, and the deadlines postponed. If you asked me, I wouldn’t say it was a sign of a good law school.

“We should totally do some crusading when she gets back!” There it was. Terrible mood – poof! – full excitement. Scootaloo was nothing but a bundle of deterministic chaos. “And I’m not joking. I mean it. We should write down some ideas, even right now, so we already have a plan when she arrives.”

I sniggered. As silly as it might sound, I actually liked the idea. Of course I considered it myself not once and not twice, even if not seriously, but as I mentioned, whatever Scootaloo said, it always sounded more exciting than if you said it yourself. Who cared that we weren’t little fillies anymore? Our crusading was always lots of fun, and it wouldn’t hurt – too much – to have some more of it, even if it might look silly from the outside.

“Sure,” I said with a smirk, “but it’s gonna be tough to come up with anything we haven’t tried yet.”

“There’s always something new.” Could you believe it? Literally a minute ago it was me who tried to help her fight down her defeatism. “If you can’t think of anything, I’ll do it no problem.”

She offered to walk me back home. We took the longer route through a grove near the Everfree Forest and the northern railroad. It was the strolling path we liked to take since forever, because above it Rainbow Dash had her own practice track, and Scootaloo always hoped we would come across her and admire her flying skills.

The grove was rather a small one. It was maybe two hundred meters of walking under a thick canopy of trees and suddenly it ended like it was cut with a huge knife and you entered a vast plain with the edge of Everfree to your right. It was still a while before the sun was supposed to hide behind the horizon, but the sky was already slowly being painted with a subtle shade of orange.

Scootaloo couldn’t stop talking.

“… And, you know, she is totally gonna be excited about it. In fact, I think she’ll want to suggest something alike to us too, I’m sure of it. Just think about it: being stuck for almost a year with a bunch of boring law students. Only boring ponies decide to go study law. I have no idea why Sweetie would want to do such a thing. She’s definitely too cool for that. I tell you, when she gets honest with us, she’s gonna admit that the school sucks and that she wants to get back to Ponyville. Anyway, she’ll love the idea of parachuting. Yeah, I know it’s stupid to think that any of us is going to get a cutie mark from parachuting, but it’s all about fun, right? And remember that one time when we were zip lining and we almost broke our necks when the rope wore through? That’s what I’m talking about- hey, what’s that?”

Extraordinary things happen to ordinary ponies. Even before I turned my head to see what Scootaloo was pointing at, I got the feeling that something strange was about to happen. Something unusual, freaky, even scary. Something that you wouldn’t expect to happen to somepony like me.

It was hard for me to notice at first, but I saw it eventually. Something yellow shone through tall grass by the rail. We got off the road and slowly approached it. Suddenly I realized what the thing was and I felt my heart freeze. Scootaloo must have seen it too, because she sprang up and quickly flew up to the object.

It was a pony.

“Ma’am?” she asked hesitantly.

It was a yellow-coated pegasus mare. She lay inertly in the grass, facing the ground.

“Ma’am?” Scootaloo repeated. “Can you hear me?”

No answer.

I swallowed through a suddenly squeezed throat. I’m kind of a doom prophet, you know. I always jump to the worst possible conclusions in my mind when I’m scared.

I reached out my shaking hoof and touched the pony’s side. As I feared, it was cold as ice. I bit my other hoof not to scream.

“Scoot, let’s leave…”

But she wasn’t listening to me. Her eyes narrowed and she parted her lips a bit. She knew it already as well. But unlike me, she wasn’t scared. She was fascinated. With a swift move, she grabbed the body by a shoulder and turned it upwards.

This time, biting my hoof didn’t help.

I had never seen a face like this before. Frozen as a silent scream mask, pallid like a stone, with blind eyes staring into nothingness… But the worst thing was the tongue. Huge, swollen and dark, sticking out from between yellow, tartar-stained teeth. Why I noticed such details, I had no idea.

The whole world sunk into a void, leaving only this grotesque monstrosity. I didn’t realize I was screaming until Scootaloo slapped me in the face. The effect was instant. “We have to report this to someone,” I started babbling. “We have to tell the police we have to leave we have to report say someone now…” I wouldn’t have guessed I could talk so fast and say so much with only one breath. Scootaloo grabbed me by my shoulders and looked into my eyes.

“Easy, Applebloom,” she said slowly and calmly. How could she be so calm in a situation like this?! “Let me look around.”

“Look around?” My brain was currently having problems with processing information. “For what?”

“Umm…” she hesitated. “For clues, I figure.” She winked and turned around. She’s a psycho, I tell you. “Think about it. It’s not just a dead body. She obviously didn’t have an accident. She was strangled. This”– she turned back to me –“is a murder case.”

I didn’t know what was more terrifying. The fact that I was standing next to a dead body of a young mare, or that horrific twinkle in Scootaloo’s eye.

“That makes it even more important to report it to the police as soon as possible,” I almost pleaded. I talked to her back, as she was sniffing around the corpse like a dog. “It’s definitely not a good idea-” I stopped when I saw my friend freeze like she was suddenly petrified.

“I… don’t think that would be the best idea.” There was something different about her voice. When she looked back at me, her eyes were wide open and filled with nothing but fear and confusion. She was showing me something.

When I saw it, I fell on my haunches.

Scootaloo was holding two cyan-blue feathers.

Chapter Two: The Surprise

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter Two: The Surprise

It felt like eternity as Scootaloo and I stared at each other, unable to say a word. Thousands of thoughts were spinning in my head, suggesting implications and horrible thoughts, most of which I wasn’t able to comprehend. But in the end, they all led to a simple conclusion. A look in my friend’s eyes confirmed that she was thinking exactly what I was thinking. Words hung between us like a pair of scissors, ready to cut the line that held the world’s integrity together.

The meadow around us was silent. Not a single bird was chirping. No insect made the slightest noise. The world shrunk to three ponies, one of whom was dead.

“Let’s… Let’s not be hasty,” I said eventually, unable to put up with the silence anymore.

“Hasty with what?” What was that supposed to mean? Was she mocking me?

“What I’m saying is, let’s not jump into rash conclusions, is all.”

“Applebloom, listen to yourself.” Scootaloo shook her head. “Do you know any other pegasi with this color of coat and feathers? And mind that Ponyville isn’t a big town at all.”

“Just because we don’t know anypony with this coat hue, doesn’t mean there are no such ponies, though.” I wanted to convince her, but I didn’t believe my own words either. As a matter of fact, I wanted to convince rather myself than her.

“This is the route she takes every day, and barely anyone even ventures into this region, unless they’re traveling north.” Scootaloo turned towards the body again. “I don’t know what happened here, or how, but it did.”

I sighed. “Do you really believe Rainbow Dash could have murdered this person?”

“Murdered?” she mused. “As a matter of fact, no, I don’t think so. But it seems she was directly responsible for this pony’s death.” She drew out the feathers again. “Look at these. They’re ragged and covered with dirt. When you murder someone, you usually have an advantage over your victim. And Rainbow Dash isn’t the type that would let herself to be surprised. No, I don’t buy the murder explanation. I think they were fighting, and this lady… well, lost.”

“So, let’s report it to the poli-”

“No.” Her voice hit me like a whip. How did she do that? “I won’t even let anyone consider Rainbow Dash being a murderer.”

“Don’t you think that even if we managed to deduce as much, the professionals won’t be able to?” I grimaced. “Besides, what do you want to do? Take the feathers away, so they don’t have a clue leading to her?”

Scootaloo looked deep into my eyes. I didn’t like that look at all. “No,” she said, “there will be no case at all. We are going to get rid of the body.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. “This isn’t the best time to be joking around, Scoot. In case you haven’t noticed, we are not playing some game here. We are dealing with an actual dead body!”

“And that’s why, to protect Rainbow Dash, we must take it away from the crime scene!” she shouted at me. I waved my hooves to quiet her down. After all, we were still pretty close to the town’s suburbs.

“And then what?” I crossed my hooves. “Do you have any plans for what to do when ponies will start looking for a lost mare, smart girl?”

“Yes. Yes I do.” Scootaloo smirked. “I am going to get to the truth behind this myself. And I will prove Dash’s innocence.”
“You can’t be serious…”

“I am one hundred percent serious.” She was. I had known her long enough to be able to know when she wasn’t exactly sure about her own words. And this definitely wasn’t one of these cases. She was convinced she wanted to do this, and there was no way to persuade her not to. “Now, I am aware how… problematic this is. Even if I get to the bottom of it, I’ll have to admit that I played vigilante and mixed myself into a crime investigation. So I am not going to force you to help me with this, unless you want to.”

I stayed silent, as my instincts and my common sense fought with the stupid and irrational loyalty to my friend’s beliefs. I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to end this madness before it had an opportunity to get out of hoof. If I had gone to the police station at that very moment, everything might have gone the easy way, and even if it meant betraying Scootaloo’s trust, she would have thanked me when it all was over. But, of course, I had to make the stupid decision.

“You’re insane, Scootaloo,” I said eventually. “Without somepony to control your reckless behavior, you would probably end up hurting at least yourself.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed with a cunning smile. “I knew I could count on you, AB.”

I freed myself from her crushing hug. I swear, sometimes I think she has no idea what a ‘serious situation’ means. “So what’s your plan, detective?”

“First of all, we can’t just stand here, right?” she replied with barely withheld enthusiasm. “Our clubhouse is the nearest safe place from here, right?”

“I thought you wanted to get rid of the body!”

“I do. But first we need to take it somewhere, where nopony will be looking for it. We’ll think of what to do with it later. Maybe we will notice something important in the meantime. Now let’s go!” Without any hesitation, she approached the corpse, and just like it was a bag of apples, she started to load it on her back. Have I mentioned that she was a psychopath? Because I was becoming surer of that with every action she took. “Don’t just stand there, Applebloom. Help me with this.”

Fighting my instincts, which were not sure if it would be better for me to throw up or run away, I hesitantly took some of the corpse’s weight on my shoulders, flinching under the touch of ice-cold body. Soon we were slowly carrying it across the field, almost perfectly masked by the tall grass.

Suddenly, I tripped over something, nearly falling to the ground. Something was lying in the grass, barely visible in the falling dusk.

“What are you doing?” Scootaloo asked, also almost losing her balance.

“There’s something here. It looks like a suitcase.”

“A suitcase? Here?”

“Yeah.” I picked it from the ground and showed her.

“Okay, let’s take it and go. We’ll check it out later.”

* * *

Long years ago, when we first saw that terrible ruin, we couldn’t believe that it had ever served any purpose to anyone. The clubhouse from Applejack’s childhood was in a shape for which ‘terrible’ would be a big understatement. Basically everything was either broken or rotten, and it didn’t look safe to even walk on its floors.

At first I wanted to just leave it as it was and never speak of it again, but the truth was we needed some space for ourselves and it didn’t look like we might have another chance to have a clubhouse of our own, unless we built one from scratch. So eventually I changed my mind and grabbed a hammer.

When I think of it now, it feels like working on this clubhouse was the first thing in my life that I did with genuine passion. At the very moment when I stepped inside for the first time alone, the whole concept of the final look appeared in my mind, and I started to make it reality at once. Surprisingly enough, making it habitable was relatively easy, or at least it felt relatively easy to me, and I managed to do the basics rather quickly. But even after we had actually turned that sad wreck into an actual clubhouse, I didn’t stop my work on it. It became the apple of my eye, my baby. I constantly kept improving it, fixing broken parts, decorating… slowly it became the clubhouse every foal could ever dream of.

Even after all these years, there was still something to be done with it, and I gladly devoted a fair portion of my spare time to play with it. Not long ago, with some of the money I had saved (working on a farm is hard, but it pays off good) and Applejack’s connections, we managed to provide it with electrical wiring, so now it had not only electric lighting, but even a fridge and a radio.

If I was to name one thing in my life that I was really proud of, it would be the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse.
With Sweetie Belle gone, we weren’t spending as much time there as we used to. Scootaloo and I still liked to hang out there, invite friends and throw little parties, sometimes even spend nights there, but without Sweetie it wasn’t the same anymore. It didn’t hold me from sweeping the floors regularly and watering the flowers though.

“Turn on the light,” Scootaloo asked. I was dizzy from all the stress and confusion, and I just blindly followed orders. If she told me to jump off a cliff, I wouldn’t even ask why.

She carefully placed the body by one of the walls and swept a drop of sweat from her brow.

“Please turn her around,” I asked Scootaloo. We managed to close the mare’s eyes, but the terrifying tongue still stuck out of her mouth, and it made me sick to just look at her face. I sat heavily on the couch. “Now what?” I suddenly felt very tired. Not only I had a long day of work behind me, but also all the strained nerves finally started to loosen up. Besides, carrying a dead body around wasn’t an easy task either.

“Now,” said Scootaloo, as her eyes rested on the suitcase, “let’s see what’s inside this thing.”

“Do you think it’s connected?” I asked. “I mean, things like this don’t usually get tossed around like trash, and it looks… expensive.”

We both examined the suitcase. It looked very solid, was pitch-black and used a code lock. It made a very official impression, like it belonged to a person that was very important. I could almost hear it saying “it’s unwise to open me”, but after some point of critical mass of bad decisions you don’t care anymore. You just say “screw everything, let’s see how far we can go until we fall miserably” and jump on the crazy train ride with the rest of the world that has gone crazy.

I didn’t care about the consequences anymore. I just followed what Scootaloo was doing. What was done was done, and I couldn’t turn back now. My brain decided that I can’t get into any bigger trouble, so I might as well get over it. Was it Scootaloo’s psychopathic personality that was slowly taking over me?

“It’s locked,” I stated shortly.

“Nothing a good old crowbar can’t deal with, right?”

“Yeah, but it would be destroying private prop-” I broke off. “It’s in the toolbox behind the couch…”

I have a confession to make. I love tools. And not just like to have them and operate with them. I have some kind of primal lust for good quality tools. I have a feeling that it’s not exactly healthy, but every time I see a new type of a screwdriver or a good hammer, I have to buy it. I need it. Normal girls my age like to collect expensive perfumes or clothes, while the only thing I ever felt like wearing was my immortal bow I inherited after my mom. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wearing it, even though they all tell me I’m too old to wear one.

But yeah, tools. They just kept coming since I couldn’t stop, and it meant that I constantly needed bigger and bigger toolboxes to store them all. The one I currently had behind the couch was already huge enough for me to have to step into it as I was looking for something, and I knew it wouldn’t be enough forever. Addictions are a horrible thing.

Scootaloo trotted towards my toolbox while I laid on the couch, trying not to think too much about what we were doing. At that point, I was pretty sure I had had enough stress for one day. And I didn’t expect any more.

“Aaahh!” screamed Scootaloo.

“Aaahh!” answered something from… inside the toolbox.

“Aaahh!” I followed mindlessly. When your brain is not capable of controlling your emotions anymore, you can only do whatever the others are doing. Like a sheep, no offense to the sheep. Basically, I had no idea whether I was even scared. I just screamed to follow the group.

“Aaahh!” Our trio kept screaming until the voice from the box had come to its senses.

“What are you doing here?” Spike awkwardly stuck his head out of the toolbox.

“What are w e doing here?” Scootaloo looked like she had just been hit in the face. “Spike, this is o u r clubhouse! The question is what are you doing here!”

“I… nothing. Sorry. No reason. I was just… passing by.”

“You are hiding in my own personal favorite toolbox,” I said, fighting down my headache, “and you claim you don’t have a reason to do so. What the hay are you doing here?”

Spike stood still for a while, red like a tomato. “Do you promise not to tell Twilight?”

“We don’t know,” Scootaloo and I said in unison and hoof-bumped. We did that involuntarily, not even looking at each other, whenever we said something at the same time.

“Depends on how bad it is,” I added

“And on our mood.” Scootaloo smirked.

Spike hung his head down. “Twilight and her stupid books. She read somewhere that eating too many gems becomes addictive to dragons. Which is not true! I’ve been eating gems almost every day since I can remember, and I didn’t notice any signs of addiction. Still, she didn’t believe me and decided to limit the amount of gems for me, so… I have to hide.”

“But why here?” Scootaloo dramatically threw her hooves in the air. “And why in Equestria would you hide from us? Did you want to give us a heart attack?”

“I… sort of panicked,” he shrugged. “And gems taste terrible if they’re not chilled, so I prefer to use a freezer, and you have a big one- hey, what is Spitfire doing here?”

“Huh?” I completely forgot about the body out of all this! “Who?”

“W- what are you talking about, Spike?” Scootaloo asked, suddenly very pale. “This is not Spitfire.”

“Yes, she is.” The dragon jumped out of the box. “I couldn’t mistake that hair. Is she asleep or something?”

“Who’s Spitfire?” I had no idea what or who they were talking about.

“There’s no way this would be her…” my friend mumbled to herself. She looked more terrified with each passing second.
“She does look a bit different without her Wonderbolt uniform on, doesn’t she. Hey, Spitfire!” Spike took a step towards the corpse, but Scootaloo grabbed him by his shoulders.

“Spike, just go home,” she said with trembling voice. “Go home, and don’t tell anyone about what you saw here. Not a word to anyone. Forget everything what you saw tonight, do you understand?”

The dragon took a step back, just now realizing that something wasn’t right. His eyes were shooting between me and Scoot. “What is going on?”

I looked at my friend, and she hid her face in her hooves.

“Please, we don’t want to drag you into this,” I said to Spike. “This isn’t something you want to be a part of, trust me. This isn’t a thing anyone would like to be a part of.”

“You know how not convincing that sounds, right?” he replied, giving me an ironic-gloomy look. “Seriously, did something bad happen? Why isn’t she-”

“She’s dead!” Scootaloo shouted. Her eyes were glistening like she was just about to burst into tears. “Happy? This mare, who you claim is Spitfire, is dead. That’s what happened.”

Now it was Spike’s face’s turn to drain of any color. “What? This isn’t funny, you know…”

“Like hell, tell me about it!” I barked at him. I knew I shouldn’t have. But I was very, very tired.

“Did…” He hesitated. “Did you do this to her?”

“What?” I looked at him with disbelief. “Why would you even say that?”

“I don’t know, maybe because there’s a fucking dead body in your clubhouse! What did you expect my reaction to be?”

“What is wrong with you?!” I shouted at him. “How dare you-“

“Guys!” Scoot’s whip voice silenced us instantly. She sat down, staring at the floor. Just now I could see how tired she was too. She did her best to keep the positive attitude all that time, but even she had her limits. At that moment she looked like a little pony that had bitten much more than she could chew. She slowly raised her head and looked me deep in the eyes. “We need help.”

I sighed, relieved. “Good. I’ll go to the poli-”

“No,” she cut in again. “Spike, with your flame you can send a letter to anyone, right?”

“To anyone I know personally, yes.” It seemed that he had had enough already and was beyond the point of asking questions. “But only Celestia has the ability to send something back to me.”

“We don’t need a reply.” She stood up and opened a drawer. From inside she brought a sheet of parchment, a quill and a bottle of ink. “Write just: ‘Come here ASAP. We need you.’”

Spike didn’t object. He scribbled the words quickly and looked at Scootaloo. “To…?”

“Sweetie Belle.”

“How is-”

“Do it.”

Spike shrugged. He rolled the letter and lit it up with a short breath of green fire. It disintegrated, getting slowly eaten by the odd flame. I often wondered if it was a natural ability of dragons, or if Spike wasn’t an ordinary dragon. After all, he didn’t even have wings, and I used to think that all of them have a pair. I even wanted to ask him that a few times, but I was afraid that it might hurt him. I don’t know why, it would feel odd to just walk to a dragon and ask why he doesn’t have any wings.
The smoke dissipated into thin air.

We all jumped when a sudden flash of green flame lit up the darkness outside and a muffled ‘pop’ echoed between the trees. Our hearts stopped for a while. Within a split second my brain had already created a few scary scenarios with absolute certainty that we were doomed.

The door to our clubhouse opened with a bloodcurdling howl. From the darkness emerged an obscure silhouette of a white-coated pony wearing a fedora and a wide smile.

“Well, I did expect some kind of welcome,” said Sweetie Belle, “but I must say this form managed to surprise me.”

Chapter Three: The Detectives

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter Three: The Detectives

The Boss looked deep into the pony’s eyes. A heavy curtain of smoke hung between them like a thick veil, almost opaque to his sight. But the pony felt like the Boss could see him clearly anyway, like he was being observed through a one-way mirror.

He believed that this time he could make a proper poker face. Yesterday’s words hurt his pride much more than he thought they did, and he made his best effort not to show any weakness this time. He tried his best not to speak first, though the pressing silence was almost unbearable.

Eventually, the boss leaned back in his chair and laughed.

“You’re making progress, son,” he said, letting out another cloud of smoke. “Slowly, but still. Good to know at least one person here tries to do their job.

“So, what news do you have for me?” His face once again turned into an impenetrable mask of absolute seriousness.
The pony felt crestfallen by sudden mood changes of his superior. “I, umm…”

“We may have all night,” the Boss hissed angrily, “but I have more important things to do than listening to your idiotic stuttering!”

They indeed had all night, and it made all the employees more edgy than they normally were. After Thursday’s disappearance of Agent PF13 everything went crazy. The small council ordered a crisis state, making everypony work overtime and without so-called “unnecessary breaks”. After a long night and most of the following day of searching, basically everyone was sleep deprived, tired and on the verge of beating up their colleagues. The fact that it was Friday evening didn’t help the issue. However, the Boss and the rest of the directorate was adamant. There was no rest until the agent was found, no discussion.

The pony hesitated before speaking up. He didn’t know how the Boss would react to what he came with. Knowing him, the outcome was totally unpredictable.

“I… have some good news and some-”

“Don’t play games with me, kid!” A puff of smoke hit the pony’s face like a physical blow. “This is supposed to be a status report, not some stupid play with tension.”

The pony clenched his teeth, but quickly calmed himself. No beating around the bush? Let him have it then.

“Our agents have located Agent PF13.”

The Boss’ eyes flickered, but his face didn’t show much change. “Finally something! Bravo! It’s nice to know that the taxpayers’ money doesn’t entirely go to waste.”

“She was confirmed dead.”

This time the grayish stallion couldn’t keep his countenance. The flickers in his eyes vanished, giving place to sharp icicles aimed towards his subordinate.

“What do you mean ‘dead’?”

“Exactly what the word stands for, sir.” the pony said coldly, his eyelid not even twitching. “Agent Spitfire, codename PF13 was found dead today at 17:13 CEqT just outside the northern borders of Ponyville by the scout agents PM03 and PF24.”

“Have they secured the body? What has the inspection shown? Was it retrieved from the crime scene already?”

“That’s… the strangest part, sir. According to the common procedures, in these circumstances our agents have to monitor the crime scene from safe distance for at least six hours after having found the body. And it says in the report that at 20:42…” the pony hung his voice.

“At 20:42 what?” The Boss’ face suddenly went very pale. “For Celestia’s sake, if you stutter once again while giving me a report, you’re fired! I’m warning you.”

The younger pony gulped. “It says that at 20:42 two unidentified, late teenage fillies came to the crime scene and took the body with them.”

“Two fillies?! This is getting ridiculous!” All the papers jumped on the desk as the stallion hit it with his hoof. “And why are they still unidentified? And what about the parcel?”

“Their descriptions and photos were sent with the report as well. Our specialists started working on them immediately. The photos are poor quality, but Ponyville is not a big town, so they should be identified relatively soon. They also took the suitcase with them.”

The Boss stayed silent for a longer while, breathing deeply.

“They didn’t intervene?”


“Good,” the Boss said, getting off his chair. “I want them monitored full-time, without any interventions. No matter what, you got that? Anything happens, you report to me, at any time of night or day. Finding out those fillies’ identities is the top priority now. Tell the news to the whole crew, and make a full-time shift schedule. I’m calling the crisis state off for a while, since the agent was found. Let everyone who isn’t needed right now get some rest. We need the whole team in good shape, because this situation can mean anything. Don’t let your guard down. This case smells very fishy to me.” He approached one of the wardrobes and opened it. A hinged bed slowly descended on the floor. “I am going to get some rest too, cause I can barely think straight. But I’m staying here. In case of any news, and I mean any, call me here through my internal number. Now good night.”

* * *

“You are insane. Completely nuts. What is wrong with you?”

Sweetie Belle wasn’t happy. She walked around our clubhouse, constantly shaking her head and muttering something to herself, occasionally shouting out loud comments referring to our sanity.

At first we wanted to tell her the whole story in one go and in detail, but not only did it turn out Scootaloo and I had a problem with keeping the details consistent, but also Sweetie seemed closer and closer to exploding with each word said, so we had to consider cooldown breaks. One thing was certain: Sweetie Belle didn’t approve of our decision to remove the body from the crime scene, especially since we mentioned the mysterious suitcase that came along. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t blame her for that. The more she grumbled at our foolishness, the more I realized how stupid of me it was to let myself get dragged into this whole mess. To let Scootaloo play with my brain which was always so soft to other ponies’ opinions and points of view. I hated to admit it, but I couldn’t help but agree that Sweetie was right.

She didn’t even want to look at us, only walked in circles and made her anger very clear to us. She was a skilled drama queen, but, after all, she had a great teacher.

Everypony has to have some kind of a personal hero when they’re growing up. Many are too proud to admit that they do look up to someone else, no matter if it’s a pony close to them or some public figure, but it’s rather obvious to me that to build our own character we need a model. For Scootaloo, who was raised as an orphan, it was a pony she admired all her life, Rainbow Dash. I had my beloved sister Applejack, who basically taught me everything I know. Sweetie Belle… well, she and her personal idol didn’t always get along perfectly, but she had never denied that she wanted to be like the sister of her own, Rarity.

A long time ago, if somepony had asked me, I would say that the only thing these two had in common was the sole fact that they were biological family. To be honest, I’ve never really known Rarity that much. Sure, I knew all of my sister’s closest friends, at least to some degree, but it’s not like I was actually friends with any of them. Well, maybe except Pinkie Pie, but everyone is friends with Pinkie Pie. The age gap between us was a natural boundary that wouldn’t let any knowledge about the depths of our personalities flow, so I rather knew each of them much more by face than by heart. Rarity was probably the most distant to me. She was too occupied with keeping her style and reputation for me to get to know her at all. Basically, all she was to me was her style and reputation. Which, of course, was the exact opposite of who Sweetie Belle ever was. Whenever I tried to compare my friend and the obscure figure of her sister, I could never feel a common frequency. And I would have never guessed they could ever become similar in any way, at any point in time.

As it turned out, I was wrong.

Back in day, if the word ‘style’ was mentioned in the same sentence as Sweetie Belle, the idea was so ridiculous you couldn’t help but smirk. She was a clumsy filly that couldn’t touch anything without breaking it. She unwillingly, but constantly, put herself in any kinds of trouble, of course beside all the trouble our trio put ourselves in again and again as the Cutie Mark Crusaders. And on top of that, she was devoid of any sense of taste. She often dreamed of becoming a designer, but she was nowhere close to having any sense of what looked good and what didn’t. She has always had a stunning voice though, and nopony could deny that. She was a wonderful singer, but she would never show off her talents publicly, probably scared that something would go terribly wrong. When Sweetie announced that, instead of following the path of a musician, she chose law, I was afraid that the only chance to set her straight in that matter would just be gone.

And somehow, in a magical way, this ugly duckling had managed to turn into a beautiful swan. When did it happen? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe it was a long process that I neglected to pay attention to, and one day I just realized the Sweetie I had known had become a whole new pony. A pony that started to acquire her own taste and style, a filly that slowly turned into a pretty mare. Against all odds, Sweetie started to resemble her big sister. Suddenly, when I saw them both walking down the street, I could easily tell they were indeed true sisters. But even with all that, Sweetie Belle was much more to me than just style and reputation. With all the changes, she still was our beloved friend, a real Cutie Mark Crusader.

Yet, there were times when Rarity’s school of drama definitely spoke through her. Like right now. Such overly emotional behavior was their common hallmark.

“I can’t even think of a single reason why you would even consider doing something as reckless and stupid as stealing a dead body from a crime scene you had found by accident!” Her voice vibrated with the impression of absolute self-righteousness. “To be honest, the idea of Scootaloo doing something like this doesn’t surprise me that much, but you, Applebloom? What stupid reasoning did she use to bring you into this?”

I opened my mouth to say something, but Scootaloo cut in. “You didn’t even let me get to the point!” she shouted, swinging a crowbar in the air. It was a good crowbar, very good quality steel. It looked really pretty in my collection, and I avoided using it so far, because I didn’t want to risk it getting a scratch on its original varnish. Seeing Scoot picking it up without asking for my permission and carelessly playing with it made me feel a bit uneasy, but I withheld my protest. I prefer to think that I’m not that weird yet. There will be time for that when I’m older.

“Oh look,” Sweetie Belle ground out, “there’s a point in your logic. I can’t wait to hear it.”

These two loved to argue. At this point I could tell for sure that the thing they missed the most while Sweetie was outside Ponyville was the ability to yell at each other. They rarely agreed about anything and used almost every chance to confront their conflicting opinions. Even if there wasn’t a good reason to argue, they usually managed to find one. Their creativity was almost endless. There were times when I would get irritated by that, but I managed to get used to it and treat it like a normal thing. Besides, it’s not like they disliked each other. Quite the contrary – these squabbles seemed to make their bond even stronger. It was their sport.

“Maybe if, for once, you kindly shut your pretty mouth when I’m talking and let me finish a single sentence-”

“Maybe if, for once, you kindly make any sense!”

“See?” Scootaloo turned to me. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

I sighed. “Girls, I know you must enjoy it, but this is definitely not the best time to argue. We have a serious problem here.”

“That’s my point!” My unicorn friend smacked her hoof to the floor. “I don’t think you even see the seriousness of the problem. And I still don’t see a single reason.”

“Just show her, Scoot,” I said.

“Show me?” asked Sweetie, baffled. “Show me what?”

“This,” Scootaloo said, picking up the feathers from the couch and waving them before Sweetie’s eyes, “is what we found right next to the body. Do you understand now why we had to do this? If Rainbow Dash is involved in this in any way, I will do everything to protect her, and…” She stopped, seeing how Sweetie Belle’s face became even whiter than usual.

“Oh Celestia…” murmured the unicorn, “this is not good at all, girls. This is bad.”

“Look, I know what you’re thinking,” I interrupted quickly, “but this doesn’t have to mean that it was a murder, and that-”
“No. Dammit, girls, this is really bad. Before I came here, I went to see Rarity first to say hello. And Twilight was there too, asking about Dash.

“No one has seen Rainbow Dash since yesterday.”

The silence that fell was as heavy as a boulder. Sweetie Belle hid her face in her hooves. “Why didn’t you tell me this first? It complicates everything!”

“Well duh, I know it does!” Scootaloo shouted. “This is the reason why we took the body with us.”

“And your motivation was what? To ‘protect’ Dash? From what? From being accused? Has it even crossed your mind that it might not be the case after all? Look at these feathers. Look at the body. Both look like they would after a brawl. And the only thing that came to your minds was that Dash was the person who killed this mare? You didn’t consider a possibility that they could have been on the same side? Maybe someone else killed her and took Dash with them! Maybe she is in life-threatening danger right now, and your so-called protection is standing in the way to help her. Is it so hard to use your head from time to time?”

She was right. I knew she was right, and so did Scootaloo.

“This doesn’t add up,” she continued, “the theory of Dash being the culprit here. You say it’s Spitfire, one of the Wonderbolts. Rainbow Dash has always wanted to be one of them and she met some of them personally, probably including this Spitfire. We don’t have any reason to consider this option more likely.”

“So what do you suggest?” I asked.

“If it was just murder, I wouldn’t consider it, cause what you’ve done is a crime, and I don’t want to see your, or should I say our now, sorry asses in a jail. But this seems like something much more serious, and there might be lives at stake. Applebloom, Scootaloo, we have to go to the police.”

“But we still can-”

“Shut up, Scootaloo,” she barked, “you’ve done enough already. This is beyond us. Drop it. I can go alone, but it’ll be better for both of you if you come with me.”

I just nodded; I knew we had to do it. Scootaloo murmured something about not having much of a choice and she agreed too.

I turned to Spike, who still sat on a couch, petrified and apparently completely forgotten by the rest. “Spike, listen to me. You weren’t here, okay? You’ve seen nothing, you haven’t heard a word about any dead mare whatsoever. Are we clear?”

The dragon nodded.

“Answer me, are we clear?”

“Y-” he stuttered, “yes. Girls, I’m begging you…”

“Just go.” I pushed him towards the door, and watched him leave without looking back.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?” Scootaloo asked, peeking through the curtains.

“He’d better,” I replied, “I don’t want to see him hit by any collateral damage. What do we do with the body? Put it in the fridge?” I felt like some switch in my brain had clicked and let me think more clearly.

“In the fri- okay, makes sense.” Sweetie waved her hoof. “But if we come out of this with our flanks in one piece, we throw the fridge away. And don’t expect me to touch the body either. And take that damn case with you when you’re done. I’m waiting outside.”

* * *

When we left the clubhouse, it was already after dusk. The sun managed to make its way beyond the horizon, but it wasn’t full night yet. The last remains of orange glow glimmered on the west. The sky was dark purple with the first stars coming out, and I could feel the first waves of cool evening air soothing the world after full day of the sun’s heat. Normally I would enjoy it – I always found early evenings during summer time the most relaxing and pleasant. The wind stops blowing, the air gains its one of a kind smell and taste, the night bugs start their concerts in the grass…

But not this time. This evening was marked with death, murder. It was filled with fear and confusion, guilt and concern. The cool air against my skin left the impression of a dead body. The owls in the trees stared accusingly from the branches. I was scared. Not of anything in particular, not even of the idea that Rainbow Dash could be in life-threatening danger or even already dead. It was this obscured, fuzzy fear, putting things in the corner of my eye, sending shivers down my spine and bristling my coat. I felt observed from the shadows, like I was a part of a twisted show that had set me up with an odd situation and watched how I would react to it.

Sweetie was right. No matter the outcome, what we did was a crime. A crime we dragged her into without thinking. She definitely was angry with us much more than she showed, and I couldn’t blame her. The fact that my thoughts revolved around this made me feel even worse. I was worrying about myself, while us answering for what we had done was the smallest problem here. In fact, it-

“Hi, girls!” A rainbow-colored shape flew above our heads and did an effective loop.

“Hi Rain-” We froze at the exact same moment. My jaw dropped, and I turned to my friends, probably looking like an idiot. But that didn’t matter, cause their faces looked pretty much the same. Sweetie Belle only silently said “what?”.

Scootaloo was the first one to come to her senses.

“Hey Rainbow Dash, hey! Wait up!” she yelled, starting to run in her direction, spreading her wings.

“What the heck are you doing?!” Sweetie Belle hissed through clenched teeth.

“Shhh!” Scootaloo hissed back and soared into the air.

“What… what the, what… What is this idiot doing?” Sweetie babbled, not looking at me. “Is she really, I mean… what in the flying…”

“I don’t know, but hush,” I replied, “we can hear them from here.”

“Hi there Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo happily shouted. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Where have you been?”

“Oh, you know, here and there… Training and, uh, stuff. What’s up?”

“Do you remember that fanclub you had there? The one I kind of used to be the leader of back then?”

“What?” Sweetie Belle whispered to herself.

“Yeah, I remember something,” Dash replied with a voice that probably was supposed to sound casual.

“You know, they still exist, and they asked me for a favor, as their former leader. They’re all too shy to do it for themselves, so they came to me, and I’d really hate to let them down, so… Could you please give me a feather from your wings?”

“Oh. Ooooh.” My unicorn friend smirked. “That blockhead is brilliant. You clever orange bastard you.”

I nodded.

In response, Rainbow Dash only flapped her wings, and with a twisting move she swiftly pulled out one of the feathers with her teeth. “There you go. Now I’ve got to go, cause I am really late to one thing I totally forgot about,” she said and rushed towards Ponyville, leaving a rainbow trail on the background of the violet sky.

“Who’s the boss?” Scootaloo laughed, landing and stirring a cloud of dust in our faces.

“Let me see, let me see. You earned a cookie with this.” Sweetie Belle trotted towards her.

“I think I earned at least a kiss,” the pegasus said with a triumphant grin.

“Guys, correct me if I’m wrong,” I interrupted, “but I think this sort of changes our plans. Are we still going to the police now then we know Dash is safe?”

“Hell no!” they both shouted in unison. “We first need to see if these feathers match,” Sweetie added, “and we need some reasonable light. I can try magical light, but my aura can screw up the color perception. Then, we will decide what to do next. Scoot, can we go to your place?”

“I guess so. My roommate doesn’t care about anything, ever. We could bring an elephant there and she wouldn’t even notice anything suspicious. Let’s go.”

And so, we took a turn and headed towards the western suburbs. After a while I noticed my two friends start chatting as my thoughts drifted away. And then I realized one more thing. The fact that we had just seen Rainbow Dash relieved me much more than I thought it would as well. All the fear and concern backed off, replaced by a new thing – excitement. As much as I hated to admit it, I finally started to understand how Scootaloo must have felt from the beginning. It didn’t matter that this whole situation was grim and terrifying. It was something we all hadn’t encountered for a long time. Adventure. Weird and twisted. An extraordinary adventure for a trio of ordinary ponies. Suddenly, my heart didn’t want me to go to the authorities.

Scootaloo lived in a small house near the edge of town. It was a mixed neighborhood, filled with many young ponies, usually loud and lively till the curfew, and often beyond, especially on Fridays. At this hour many of them were out, still playing some games, hanging out, having barbecues and much more. Many of them waved and shouted greetings to Scoot, but she only answered shortly and moved on. We tried to act natural, but some of the nervous atmosphere had to leak through, especially considering that we had the suitcase. Luckily, no one seemed to even notice it.

When we finally entered the house, we immediately closed the door behind us and headed to Scootaloo’s room. Walking through the hall, we had to pass by Green Rose’s room.

“Hey, I’m back,” Scootaloo said, peeking inside.

“Mmmhmmm,” we heard in response. Green didn’t even look at us, being completely absorbed by the book she was reading. She was always reading something and didn’t like to interact with other ponies. She probably hadn’t even noticed our arrival, and the hummed reply was just a reflex to a situation in which she heard someone’s voice. I’d known her for quite some time already but we had never had any real conversation. Scoot was right – it didn’t matter that she was home. We could even talk about us having killed someone and she wouldn’t notice. And if she did, she probably wouldn’t even care.

It was interesting to compare these two flatmates’ rooms. While Green Rose’s was spotless and shiny, Scootaloo’s cave was… It looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape. Everything was everywhere. Books and comic books laying around, empty or half-empty cups on the floor, messy bed. If I didn’t know my friend, I would assume someone had somehow found out about our secret and pillaged the room for something.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she said, “and I’ll make us some coffee, cause this may be a long night. I hope there are some clean cups left.”

The first thing we did was to draw the curtains so no one could see anything from the outside. And as soon as she came back with a jug of strong, cheap coffee, we started investigating the feathers.

“Yep, these are definitely the same color,” Sweetie stated eventually. “No chance of a mistake. These belong to Rainbow Dash.”

“So, where does it leave us?” Scootaloo asked, sipping from her cup.

“We have to adjust our hypotheses then,” I said. “We have a confirmation that these feathers found at the crime scene belong to her, because it’s rather safe to assume they don’t belong to any other Pegasus, since the probability of finding an exactly matching coat color is basically zero. And we can, of course, eliminate the option that Dash herself was killed or kidnapped there. This makes the theory that she was responsible for that death more possible. However, this doesn’t add up at all, if you ask me.”

“Why do you say so?” Sweetie finally took off her fedora and hanged it on the bed’s edge. “I mean, I agree, but I want to see if we agree.”

Another wave of excitement struck me at that moment. We were actually investigating a crime. It was so thrilling! “Let’s just think about it for a while,” I started. “Let’s say she did kill Spitfire. What happened then? The body was just lying there in the grass; it wasn’t buried anywhere or even hidden. That would mean only two things – she wanted someone to find her, or she panicked. The first one doesn’t make sense, so I’ll drop it unless you can think of a reason not to. The panic option sounds much more logical. We all know Rainbow Dash and we know she would never murder anyone. But she is very impetuous. I can definitely imagine her getting into a fight, even a very tough fight if the reason were serious. I don’t know if she would ever lose her mind to strangle another pony to death, but let’s assume she would.

“That would explain why we found Spitfire’s corpse just lying there.” I started circling around the room, trying not to step on anything on the floor. “In this scenario, Dash realized what she had done, panicked and fled, leaving the crime scene how we found it later. However, how would you guys act afterwards if you were in her place? I know that after we left our clubhouse I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched, and that if we stumbled upon somepony, they would know about everything. And all we did was take the body. Imagine what Dash would have to feel if she had actually killed Spitfire. No way she could just casually greet us and have a chat. She would rather avoid others and feel absolutely paranoid about everything. Not to mention that she probably saw us carrying this suitcase, and that would be another alert in her head. I don’t believe Rainbow is our culprit.”

“Pretty much what I was thinking,” said Sweetie, standing up. “She may be many things, but she is not a good actor. She wouldn’t even be capable of putting on an act like that. This whole case looks weirder with every minute.”

“What about the fact that she hasn’t been seen for the whole day?” Scootaloo interrupted. “It was a normal working day, and according to what we’ve already determined, nopony could find her. I didn’t know, cause I was in the field today and I probably couldn’t have seen her anyway. Doesn’t that seem fishy to you?”

“Oh, but it does,” I agreed, “and I was just about to get to it. As I already said, I don’t buy this simple explanation, that Dash is the killer. But we have physical evidence in form of these feathers. And that, girls, leads me to one conclusion. Rainbow Dash was…” I hung my voice.

“Framed,” Sweetie Belle finished for me. “I agree. This is the most logical explanation.”

Scootaloo nodded. “So, the first wild theory that popped into my mind seems to be true after all. But it’s hardly making sense as a whole anyway. Why would anyone ever try to frame her into a murder? I don’t have the slightest idea how to explain it. Do any of you?”

“Nope.” Sweetie shook her head.

“But I can think of something that might give us some answers,” I said.

All three of us slowly turned our heads towards the black suitcase lying on the bed. The aura of mystery almost glowed on its surface. It was calling to us, begging to be opened.

“Of course, if we assume it’s a frame,” my unicorn friend said slowly, “we should keep in mind that it’s also a part of the killer’s plan. The contents of it may serve the purpose to confuse us.”

“Yup!” Scootaloo kneeled and stuck a hoof under her bed. “But it’s the only trace we have. So let’s get to it!” She grunted and brought out a heavy crowbar.

“So, you hoard crowbars too, or do you have something to tell us?” I asked with a furrowed brow.

“Don’t ask.”

She brought the suitcase on the floor, and I stomped on the handle. Then she carefully placed the end of the tool in the split by one of the locks.

“We can still turn back,” she said with a sly grin. “We can still go to the police station, give it to them and hope that we won’t get sentenced by interfering with the law. We can still back off…”

“Do it,” I said. Sweetie only nodded.

“Ladies,” my pegasus friend started with an exalted tone, “we gathered here, after a long time, to once again throw ourselves into deep trouble, just like we are supposed to. Like always, we are going to mess up and probably hurt ourselves somehow trying to clean up after this. But we will not hold back, because this was sent to us by destiny! This is another step in our never ending struggle to find our special talents. Some would not approve of us investigating a crime, but it will never discourage us. Because this, my friends, is the job for the Cutie Mark Crusaders!”

With a loud crack, the lock fell apart as Scootaloo pressed against the crowbar with all her weight. After that, the second one let go without a problem. With my heart beating in my chest so hard that I was afraid it was about to break my ribs, I slowly raised the lid.

“What the…” Scootaloo hung her voice.

The case was filled with lots of sheets of paper, carefully tied with a few paper tapes with a few words repeating over and over on them.


Sweetie Belle’s hind legs seemed to give up and she sat on the floor. Once again, her face drained of every last bit of color.
“What does it mean?” I asked her.

“It means…” She gulped. “It means we’re in much deeper trouble that we could have imagined.”

Chapter Four: The Spies

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter Four: The Spies

“What in the world is it?” The Boss’ voice didn’t sound happy at all.

“Sir, you wanted me to call you whenever I had something.”

“Of course I did, I remember that. What is it? It’d better be good and important news.”

“I’m sorry, sir. This is classified enough not to talk about it in any other way than in private, I’m afraid. Your eyes and ears only.”

“Good. Okay then. Fine…”

“When should I see you, then?”

“Immediately. Come to the office immediately.”

The pony slowly put the receiver away and let out a long sigh. This could have gone a lot worse. His heart was still pounding, adrenaline humming in his ears. Of course he was doing what he was specifically told to do, but still, directly waking up the Boss was something he had never done before, and he had no idea what to expect. He was afraid that the intercom would blow in his face with blind fury. The pony wondered how the Boss would have reacted to someone else doing it. Sure he was rough with him, but considering that he was always angry about something, and how rough he was with basically everyone, the pony sometimes felt like he had somehow gained his sympathy over the months, especially if he managed to stay cool against the constant nagging and complaints. It wasn’t the first time when he questioned the honesty of those anger outbursts. Like it was all a weird, twisted part of the training.

Nevertheless, there were situations in which the Boss was still terrifying, no matter what. The pony knew how being suddenly woken could affect some ponies. His wife was the best example, especially when he got unexpected calls in the middle of the night. And she was nowhere close as scary as the Boss. Well, not usually, at least.

He was in the office about a minute ago, but he found his chief already wearing his suit and tie, and smoking a fresh cigar. Had he really been sleeping after all?

“Go on, son, make it quick.”

The pony smirked inside. “I have an update on the state of the case and some information about the suspects.” He put a dossier on the desk carefully, so it wouldn’t fall off with the rest of the stacks of paper. “Do you want me to give you a brief, or will you read it by yourself?”

“Both,” the Boss said immediately. “Start with the information about the suspects.”

“Yes, sir. We have the identities of all three of them.”

“Three of them?”

“Oh, right, I’m sorry. Well, there are three now. And… and one dragon. Do you still want me to begin with the identities?”

The Boss looked baffled for a split second. “All right then. If you think it would be better to start with the situation update, go for it.”

“Our agents kept observing the suspects without intervening. The body was taken into the forest, north of Ponyville, into a small house in a tree. It looks like a foals’ clubhouse, probably belonging to the suspects. As it turned out a small dragon had been hiding there, and they scared each other, though they all clearly know each other. A while later, another filly, probably the same age as the two suspects, arrived and received a magical letter just before entering the clubhouse. Around twenty minutes later, the dragon left the house and returned to Ponyville. Then, the suspects, um…” he hesitated, “they crammed Agent PF13’s body into a fridge and left, taking the documents with them. One of the agents stayed to secure the scene and is awaiting further orders. Another agent, with the sent backup, followed the suspects, who headed towards the western suburbs to a place that seems to be home to one of them, meeting a pony named Rainbow Dash on the way, and, for some reason, asking her for a feather from her wings. Further information is unavailable, because curtains had been drawn in the room they ended up in, and the agents couldn’t get close enough to eavesdrop without raising suspicion.”

“I see. Now give me the identities.”

“If I may share my thoughts, this doesn’t look good, sir. As I said, we know identities of all three of them. The first one, the earth pony, is Applebloom, the youngest member of Ponyville’s Apple Family, owners of Sweet Apple Acres. The second one’s name is Sweetie Belle. That’s the unicorn that arrived later. We found her in the Fillydelphian University’s files; she’s a first-year law student. Now I think I should mention the first unusual thing about them. Both of them are siblings to bearers of the legendary Elements of Harmony. Applebloom is sister of Applejack, the Element of Honesty, and Sweetie Belle’s sister is Rarity, the Element of Generosity.

“The third one is a pegasus. Her name is Scootaloo. Unimpressive history, no siblings, however we have information about her being close with another Element holder, Loyalty, Rainbow Dash. Therefore, all of them are connected to at least one of the ponies who were titled national heroes multiple times. And that’s not the end,” he added, seeing his superior’s eyes widening with every word he said. “I haven’t said anything about the dragon. His name is Spike, and he’s-”

“I know who he is,” said the Boss faintly, shaking his head. “I know the bearers of the Elements as well. Twilight Sparkle’s personal assistant is a part of this as well then. So Celestia’s protégée seems to be involved too.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but… does it make any sense to you? Do you have any theory what this could mean? Does it really mean that Equestria’s heroes, Celestia’s students, are involved in this international operation? That they could have organized the murder of our agent? And why would they use their younger siblings to deal with the body, if so?”

Suddenly, the Boss burst into laughter. He kept laughing for over a minute, until tears started rolling from his eyes, as the pony stood in front of his desk, absolutely confused.

“Oh dear,” he said eventually, still chuckling. “I’ve worked for… I can’t even tell how many years here, and I thought I’d seen everything already. But this case! I am speechless! I don’t know where to even start. I have no idea why and how ponies so close to Celestia herself would do anything like this. Is this treason? If so, it doesn’t make sense. Sure, these files are very important, but if they wanted to betray us, they could have done it so many times already, and with affairs of much bigger magnitude. Did their families turn against Equestria without them knowing? Maybe they don’t approve of our work! And you know what, agent? Nothing of what I just said makes any sense!”

* * *

The barbecue outside seemed to be a big party. There was a lot of laughter, loud music and jingling glass. The window was a boundary between two different worlds. In one of them ponies laughed, danced and got drunk. In the other, three fillies sheepishly stared at a broken suitcase. A suitcase full of papers filled with text that seemed to have no sense to it, like it was written in some kind of code.

“Well,” Scootaloo broke the silence, “we’re screwed. I mean, I think so. Are we screwed? Because I think we are.”

“This… really complicates things,” Sweetie said.

“I expected many things. But not quite something like this,” I added.

“I know, right?” The sudden change in Scootaloo’s voice brought me out from my reverie. I looked at her. She was smiling from ear to ear. “Do you understand what we’re looking at? This is classified data! This is spy stuff!”

“I have a question, ma’am.” Sweetie Belle raised her hoof. “How in the wild world of Equestria can you be happy about it?”

“Come on…” Scoot’s eyes wandered between the two of us, like she couldn’t comprehend our lack of excitement. “Don’t be like this, guys! Look at us! Have you ever been on such an adventure? We have found a suitcase filled with classified data, apparently encrypted too. You have to admit it. This is cool.”

This wasn’t cool. This wasn’t cool at all. It was a nightmare. Like always, every single time, we hadn’t thought anything through and put ourselves in danger. Serious danger. Come to think of it, it was exactly what Scootaloo had said before opening the case. It was just what we were. The Cutie Mark Crusaders – the troublemakers. And this time... this time I had no idea how in the world we would be able to get ourselves out of such a mess. Terrible, awful, tragic… fun?

I was shivering, sweating. My head felt light, like I was about to pass out. But under the thick cover of fear, was there something else? Did I let myself still be excited about this situation? Was I even more excited? Is there a point after which you can safely say you can’t get into any more trouble and you just lean back, laugh and roll with it? I couldn’t answer these questions, but I couldn’t think of it getting more scary, at least concerning us. The only thing that could become worse would be us getting caught. So…

“One thing is for certain,” I said. “No matter what, we can’t let anyone know we are in possession of these documents. If anyone knows, then yes, we are screwed.”

“What do you expect us to do then?” Scootaloo’s eyes pleaded. “We should just leave it? Let it go?”

I sighed. “I wish I could say it. But I know us. We all know us, girls. Even if we dropped it, we would never forgive ourselves. This has gone too far for us to give up. And even if we decided to stop now, at least one of us would, sooner or later, get back to it on her own. No. Let’s face it, we are beyond the point of no return. And you know what? We can do it. And even if we can’t, do we even have a choice?”

“Eh, you know what?” Sweetie Belle replied. “I’ve come to Ponyville for the first time in months, and within these, I don’t know, two hours, you’ve managed to provide me with much more entertainment than I had in Fillydelphia. I don’t believe this is the last surprise. And with each new one we tend to question ourselves.

“No, we can’t go back now. And I hate you for it, but you’ve managed to get me excited as well. If we managed to let ourselves go this far, we can’t be unsure whether to keep pushing forward or not. Let’s just embrace the fact that we’re a part of this and there’s nothing we can do about it anymore. Let’s go.”

“Go? Go where?” I didn’t expect Sweetie to say something like that at all!

“Where do you think we could go?” Scootaloo grinned towards me. “We’re spies now. Let’s spy on Rainbow Dash!”

* * *

Rainbow Dash was well known for her aversion to staying on the ground longer than absolutely necessary. She was literally addicted to flying, way more than an average pegasus. Even if she decided to rest for a while, sit or lie down – mostly to read, because she didn’t like to sleep either, which often resulted in random naps during the day – she did it on tree branches or in the clouds. This meant that she wasn’t technically living in Ponyville. She had her own home made of clouds, floating just outside the town’s suburbs. At this moment I was pretty sure that she made it specifically to make our lives harder.

“So, what’s your plan then?” I asked Scootaloo, who seemed to be thinking very hard.

“Huh? Oh,” she replied, “I was just wondering how to use your help here. Since, you know…” She flapped her wings a few times.

“Yeah, I was just about to ask you how you expect us to be of any use here,” I said. “At least one of us could be back in your house and keep the documents safe.”

We decided it wouldn’t be the best idea to wander around town with a suspicious looking suitcase, so we left it in a safe place. In a spot where no one would ever dare to even peek, not to mention stick a hoof in. We left it under Scootaloo’s bed, the land of horrors and grim mysteries. We were pretty sure no one would be interested in the suitcase, since no one could know about it, but I had already learned that I should never underestimate the power of a coincidence, or rather blind bad luck. Besides, I couldn’t shake off that paranoid feeling of being watched. So I couldn’t say I was fully comfortable with something as important unprotected. It would be better if at least one of us guarded the secret documents, just to be safe.

“Relax.” Scootaloo bounced off the ground and hovered above our heads. “No harm will be done to them. Anyway,” she said slowly, poking Sweetie’s horn, “maybe you have some cool spells in your magic dictionary that would be able to help us somehow?”

“Sure,” the unicorn frowned, “and I will also make you invisible and grow you a second pair of wings. I don’t know if you remember anything from the last year, but I went to Fillydelphia to study law. Law, remember? It’s not the same as magic.”

“I know, I know… I just hoped that maybe you know at least some spells to help us communicate or whatever.”

“Are you sure she’s not home at the moment? It’s pretty late already.” Sweetie nervously looked around.

“Naah.” Scootaloo waved her hoof in reply. “She never comes back home before really late night hours at Fridays.”

“But what if she does tonight?” I asked. “Sure we can be here and keep watch whether or not she is coming back, but it seems we don’t have any way to communicate with you when you’re up there in the clouds.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” the pegasus replied. “You know my relationship with Dash, she treats me like a sister and allows me to visit her home any time I want.”

“But it’s the middle of the night! It has to look suspicious, no matter how you look at it.”

“I’ll think of something if I have to.”

“You can think now, just saying.”

“No time!” Scoot soared towards the cloudy house, grinning. “Besides, I don’t like to think in advance. Waste of brain powers.”

That said, she propelled herself with a few strong flaps of her wings and, not even looking around, flew straight to the main door.

“And you wonder why we argue so much,” said Sweetie Belle, sitting on the ground beside me. “What a lovely strategy, not to think ahead so none of her precious brain power goes to waste. Her strongest side, after all.”

I didn’t reply.

At that point, all we could do was to wait either for Scootaloo to come back with or without a piece of the puzzle or for something to go terribly wrong. As the time passed, my nerves once again began to tighten. When you’re stressed, the best way to relieve it is to just talk, to have a simple conversation to take your mind off the things causing the stress. Sadly, we couldn’t talk. We had to be vigilant and look out for any sign of danger. What the danger could be – we had no idea. And it stressed us out even more.

Time was passing extremely slowly, but from my rough estimates it was already after midnight. There was no sign of Scootaloo coming back, and my mind had already started forming ridiculous grim scenarios in which someone had been there before us to set a trap which Scootaloo was supposed to carelessly fly into and she wouldn’t ever return. Minute by minute the scenarios evolved, including interrogations, torture, world-wide conspiracy and much more. It happened to me a lot. I have a vivid imagination and it often works against me. I can’t be allowed to think too much, otherwise I’ll eventually convince myself that the world is ending.

The tension was slowly becoming insufferable.


I had no idea I could jump, especially that high, from a sitting position. This time I couldn’t hold back a high-pitched scream, as I was suddenly startled so much that my world turned into white void of blind fear. Suddenly I found myself on four hooves in a position unsure whether to run or attack. A split second after, when I regained my senses I saw Scootaloo rolling on the ground, laughing, and Sweetie Belle with the most furious expression on her face.

“Are you completely out of your mind, you moron?!” she yelled at the pegasus, who couldn’t catch her breath from laughter. “Did you want to give us a heart attack?”

I just stood there, panting heavily with adrenaline boiling in my veins. Scoot could never resist a prank like this, and it wasn’t the first time she had used her sneaking skills to softly approach me from behind and, as Sweetie said, try to give me a heart attack. I hated her for that. She knew I was startled easily and she abused that knowledge.

“One day I will kill you for this.” I kicked her in her blank flank.

“Oh come on, lighten up, gals,” she said, wiping tears off her eyes, still chuckling. “I have something. Something good.”

“Wait, what? Really?” Sweetie seemed quite surprised by this news.

In response, Scootaloo showed us a piece of paper.

“A letter?” I frowned. “Were you seriously scouring through her correspondence, Scoot? That’s not cool, you know.”

“Oh forgive me for I have sinned,” she replied with venomous sarcasm. “Oh and I also have a suitcase full of secret documents under my bed and a dead body in a fridge, but I totally agree, reading someone’s letters is the worst felony I have committed in my life. Besides, it was in the trash.”

“Fine.” I sighed. “Let’s see what we have here. Sweetie Belle, could you give us some light here, I mean if you are able to perform a spell like th- ow! Hey, what was that for?”

Dear Rainbow Dash

We are sad to announce that, despite your extraordinary skills, which you have proven many times already, and highly positive marks on your teamwork and commanding abilities, we are unable to accept your application to the team of The Wonderbolts.The reason, however prosaic, is unable to overcome at the moment. The Wonderbolts are unable to hire another member to the team for as long as the team is full. When we have a vacancy, we will let you know.

Yours sincerely,
Soarin, The Wonderbolts

I bit my lip. “So…”

“So before we even start discussing this, the letter has to return to where it took it from, Scootaloo,” immediately said Sweetie Belle, interrupting me.

“But it was in the tra-”

“Doesn’t matter. Do it, and let’s get out of here.”

* * *

“Well, girls, no matter how we look at this, we have made some progress,” said Sweetie Belle, sitting on the headboard of Scootaloo’s bed.

We were back in Scoot’s house. The first thing I did after coming back was to check under the bed and see if the suitcase hadn’t been stolen. Luckily, it seemed untouched. Green Rose, the least problematic roommate in all of Equestria, was already asleep, and according to Scootaloo, there was no chance she could ever be woken up by a third party, even if the house was being incinerated by a rabid dragon. Nevertheless, we still preferred to stay quiet.

“I’m not sure if it was the best idea to leave the letter there though,” I said. “I mean, it is a hard evidence in our case, no matter whether we consider Dash guilty or not. If it gets thrown away permanently, we will lose an item very important to our investigation.”

“I am aware of that,” she instantly replied. “But keeping the investigation to ourselves is the top priority now. We have super -secret documents and we have to worry about our flanks. Say, Scoot, was the letter on top in the trashcan?”– the pegasus nodded –“then we can assume she received it not long ago. She probably got angry and threw it out as an impulse, and there’s a high chance she’ll want to get it back. We can’t risk her getting suspicious after not finding it where it should be. Also, haven’t you found anything else?”

“No.” Scootaloo shook her head. “I am pretty sure there was nothing else we would find interesting, and I know her house very well.”

“What does it tell us?” I asked, scratching my head. “Can it count as a motive?”

Sweetie opened her mouth to say something, but Scootaloo took her ground. “Of course it can. I mean…” she hesitated, looking at Sweetie. She signed for her to continue.

“I mean, think about it. Rainbow Dash, for a long, long time tries to get to The Wonderbolts. She does everything she can to be seen by them, in which she succeeds a few times. She manages to get to the academy for the best fliers in Equestria and scores very high. We can say she becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming one of them. And what does she get? Nothing. She doesn’t get accepted, and why? Because there are no slots available. Now, what would a psychopath do in a situation like this?”

I nodded slowly. “Make a slot available.”

“Exactly.” Scootaloo sat back on her bed and poured some of the cold coffee to her cup. “It’s not hard to come to such a conclusion when you think about it. It’s easy… almost too easy. If we look at the case, having only dry facts available, not knowing our suspect, this sounds like a logical explanation, especially with the knowledge about her obsession. But we are in a better position than a detached observer. We know Dash. We know she is definitely not a psychopath, so we can assume it’s a part of the plan of our killer.”

“I agree.” Sweetie jumped off the headboard. “But that leaves us with at least two important questions we don’t know answers to. One – in what way is the letter connected to the case? Did the killer use an opportunity like this to achieve their goal or did the killer arrange it? If the first theory is true, they must have planned to frame Dash for a longer period of time, tracking her moves and waiting for the right time to strike. If the second one is true, it means that either the letter was forged – which would be risky – or this case is bigger and there are more figures involved, like that Soarin who wrote the letter. We must also take into consideration the possibility that it’s no more than a coincidence, no matter how unlikely it is.

“The second question, much more problematic if you ask me, is how the damn suitcase is connected to all this. Nothing we have at the moment has any logical connection to it. Should we include it as a part of the frame? If so, how would that be important to make Dash look guilty of murder? Or maybe the suitcase is the core of the whole problem, and the body is a smokescreen to make it look less important? But if the documents a r e important, why were they just lying around? And why around Spitfire? Were they lost by the culprit? Was Spitfire some kind of an undercover agent? This is really making my head hurt.”

“If only we were able to understand what’s written on those papers,” I sighed, “maybe we could understand at least some of it.”

“Don’t you know anyone who is good at beaking codes, Sweetie Belle?” asked Scootaloo.

“From what I know, there are a few specialists in one faculty of my department, but there is no way I’m dragging them into a case like this, especially since we’re trying to keep it a secret. Besides, do you think any of them would care enough to help a first year student? Well okay, Doctor Feint possibly would. Maybe. He’s a nice guy and he likes me. But I already mentioned why I think it’s not the best idea, and what’s also problematic, he’s probably far away in Fillydelphia, possibly even farther, since it’s summer vacation.”

“So what’s our next step?” asked Scootaloo with a disappointed look on her face.

“We have to focus on what we’ve got,” I replied. “And all we’ve got is one track now, which leads us to Soarin and The Wonderbolts. I can’t think of a reason not to look into that however we can. But there is one thing we haven’t discussed yet, and which, I think, is very important.”

They both looked at me quizzically.

“Don’t you think we’re running out of time with every passing minute?” I said. “We’re talking here about a celebrity missing. Someone will notice it very soon. And if she indeed was some kind of agent, it can be safe to assume that they’ve been looking for her already for some time. I know we can say to ourselves that we shouldn’t worry too much, that there is nothing that can connect us to the case, but sometimes the smallest negligence can expose us. And the flowing time is our disadvantage. We have to act fast if we want to get out of it in one piece. The problem is…” I hung my voice. “The problem is that I have no idea how we can get out of it in one piece.”

* * *

All the lights on Sweet Apple Acres were out when I came back home. It wasn’t surprising at all, since everyone in my family preferred to go to bed early and wake up early to catch more daylight for work. Of course it was Saturday tomorrow, but it’s hard to break habits for specific days of the week. Since Granny Smith passed away it changed a little bit, but still, it was difficult to see lights on in the house after midnight. Of course from time to time Applejack or even Big Mac liked to go out for a Friday evening, but they never stayed late if they were home. I had no idea whether or not they were sleeping or hanging out with friends, so I decided to quietly sneak in without anyone noticing. I was a big pony already, but my sister’s motherly complex forced her to interrogate me every time I was out for “too long”. And I have to admit – I am a terrible liar. If she caught me and asked what I was doing, I could come up with a story, but I doubt she would believe any of it. Besides, I was certain Applejack was angry with me leaving my work in the middle of a busy afternoon. Did all of that happen with only a few hours? It was really hard for me to believe that. It felt like a week. And left me as tired as it actually was a week.

Scoot and Sweetie agreed with me that waiting was not advised, but we also all agreed that staying up all night with nothing to do would be a terrible idea and that it would be way better to get some sleep and have a fresh mind in the morning. We had to come up with some sort of a plan and each of us promised to think of something by sleeping over the issue.

As I lied in bed I tried to think of a way to push our pitiful investigation forward. What could we do anyway? We were just three girls from a small town. We weren’t important in any way, so how could we even make an appointment with someone like Soarin (who, as Scootaloo explained, was one of the most important Wonderbolts in the team, like Spitfire)? And if we somehow could, what then? Threaten him? Tie him up and squeeze the answers out of him? I almost laughed out loud at those thoughts. All we could do was to observe him from afar and maybe search his house for clues like we did with Rainbow Dash’s home, but it would be a thousand times more risky. The fact that they all lived in the sky didn’t help. Scootaloo was the only one who could get there, and even with her persuasive personality, she was only one pony. The more I thought of it, the more difficult it seemed.

“Talk about biting more than we can chew,” I whispered to myself, wrapping a blanket tightly around my body, despite the night was hot.

So, an extraordinary adventure happened to a bunch of ordinary ponies. Was that what I expected it to be? Was that a cruel joke the fate had pulled on me, having heard my thoughts and hopes? Did it really think a dead body in my fridge and a suitcase full of encrypted intelligence documents was something I would want and enjoy? Was that a challenge? A punishment? A spectacle for the fate to laugh at? Different thoughts spinned inside my head, and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep that night.

A loud knocking sound brought me out from my reverie. I looked around, confused and startled. I had no idea what was going on for a while. Bright sunlight poured through my window, and for a second I wondered whether everything that had happened wasn’t just a bad dream. But another staccato of knocks dispelled the doubts. It was Scootaloo, floating by the window and bashing the glass with her hoof. I grunted and slowly crawled towards her and opened the window.

“Guess who I just saw in town,” she said, poking my head with her hoof.

I almost broke my legs running down the stairs. I passed Applejack in the kitchen, barely seeing her. “Where are you going, Applebloom?” she shouted after me, but I didn’t bother to reply. With a delay, my brain communicated with my nose, and I stopped with my hooves almost screeching on the path and ran back. Right, it was Saturday morning after all. I grabbed two freshly baked fritters from the counter and ran off, almost trampling my sister on the way.

“What in the hay are you-” she started again, confused.

“No time, sis! See ya!”. I stormed out of the house and followed Scootaloo downtown.

Chapter Five: The Monster

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter Five: The Monster

The main office was as busy as always. Ponies scrambled together, barely avoiding collisions between each other in the endless rush of putting stacks of paper and binders from one place to another. The phones kept ringing like crazy, and barely anyone cared enough to pick them up. It wasn’t necessarily a sign of rush hours. That was how it looked every day, including Sundays. In this kind of work, there were no free days in the week, and agents had to be available most of the time. The world behind the curtain did not sleep, did not rest.

The pony hadn’t gone home for the night. He had to spend it in the office, lucky to have caught at least those three or four hours of sleep in the corner in his emergency sleeping bag. Now he was bringing himself back to life with a cup of hot coffee, trying not to realize that he was in the center of a buzzing hive. He leaned back in his armchair and laid his hooves on his desk, caressing a steaming cup of pitch-black beverage. Those were his morning fifteen minutes and no one could take them away from him.

“Agent.” A familiar, sandpaper-like voice brought him back to earth, and he almost sprayed coffee all over his desk and himself.

“Sir!” he almost yelled, nearly tripping over his own legs as he jumped off his chair.

“Easy, son,” The Boss barely held back a smile, as the pony tried to cool down his burned tongue. “I haven’t come down here in quite a while to see how you were doing. I suppose you will now try to tell me that usually you work yourself to the bone, and I just happened to have found you in this one moment when you are slacking off, huh?”

The pony tried to say something, but he changed his mind. He only clenched his teeth and tried not to look too guilty.

“Never mind,” The Boss said, quickly ending the awkward silence. “I’m here for a report on the situation. Do you have anything for me?”

“I…” the pony stuttered, “I’m sorry, sir, but I just woke up, and no one has given me anything yet. I promise I will notify you as soon as I hear about anything.”

“Hey, Jonquil, I’ve got some classified info for the big guy, and-” A young mare with a coat resembling dark chocolate entered the cubicle and froze mid-step. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I will be back later, I’m sorry.”

“Wait,” The Boss said quickly as she started to back off. “I’m guessing it was me who you were referring to, so why don’t you hand it to me right now?”

The mare just gave a dossier to him and swiftly escaped.

The Boss ripped the CLASSIFIED seal off with a quick move and started reading. The contents consisted of only one sheet of paper. His face didn’t even twitch. Suddenly he threw it on the pony’s desk and smacked it with his hoof.

“Meet me at my office in an hour,” he barked and turned around. “Finish your coffee first. This will be a long day.”

“What do we do?” the pony asked before he could bite his tongue.

“It’s time to take some action,” replied The Boss, walking away.

The pony diffidently looked at the piece of paper on his desk. It contained some information that didn’t seem important, but the mark left by The Boss’ hoof underlined a single line typed in bolded font.

Connection found. Suspect 02 – Scootaloo, female, pegasus – parents: Dispel (father), Lilyscent (mother)

The pony cursed, not even trying to make it quiet. He knew what it meant.

* * *

I rarely showed it and I almost never said it, but I had always looked up to Scootaloo, and I probably always will.
It is a common thing to meet someone for the first time and be amazed by their personality, how differently they act compared to all the other ponies you know. They are like a random piece of chocolate in a batch of tasteless ice cream; everything is dull and boring until you stumble upon them and bite. Suddenly the world explodes into fountains of flavor. The sad thing is, the more you get to know them, you realize that under the coating they are just like every single one of us. They are still important to you, but the taste wears off and blends with the rest.

Scootaloo was the exact opposite. What originally attracted me to her was that she was just like me. We didn’t have our cutie marks. We were underachievers, fooling ourselves that our lack of discovered talent meant lots of potential and endless possibilities. But under the veil we were just lost fillies supporting and relying on each other in a never-ending struggle. We were almost hopeless, and we would be totally hopeless without each other.

But the more I looked at her, the more I tasted her personality, the more intriguing she became to me. The deeper I dug, the more I found. The most inspiring thing about her was how, well, free she was, so to speak. She was the master of her own destiny, and the impression was so strong that I often wondered whether her lack of an image on her flank was actually a cutie mark in being utterly flexible, and therefore showing nothing. A cutie mark superposition.

As I have already mentioned, Scootaloo had never had parents. She spent her youngest years in some orphanage, and she never cared enough to look up which one or even in which town. Obviously it wasn’t Ponyville, because there had never been an orphanage here. She didn’t care. When she was big enough to go to school, for some reason they just moved her to Ponyville, to a tiny dorm where only a few foals lived. She hadn’t had anyone to take care of her other than two elderly mares that ran the dorm. She wasn’t loved by anyone, she wasn’t raised by anyone. The social service only took care of her enough so she was able to stay alive, and that was it.

And yet, she still had all the strength in her, all the smiles and cheerfulness she not only showed, but infected everyone around with. It was all so genuine and beautiful. How could she do that? How could someone that was never loved as a child have grown into someone like her? Or maybe that was the reason? Maybe having nothing was the price of being free? I knew I could never leave my family. She was devoid of such problems. If she wanted, she was able to do anything, be anyone, with nopony to tie her down. Even us, Sweetie and myself. Even after all those years, not once did she get interested in who her parents were. She didn’t need them, and she had proven it.

Could I be happy in a situation like her? I, for the thousandth time, asked myself. What if I suddenly lost Applejack or Big Macintosh? It was tempting to fantasize about what-ifs, even dark scenarios, but that idea also scared me to death. Without them I wouldn’t be able to keep on living. They were a part of my world that would fall to pieces if even one of them disappeared. We were the tripod holding Sweet Apple Acres up. With even one of us gone, it would collapse to dust. For a brief moment, I wanted to run back and simply tell AJ how much I loved her and hug her until she, like always, would pretend to suffocate in my embrace. I wanted to see one of the smiles only she could share, taught by our Granny Smith’s rule, ‘Smile like there ain’t no tomorrow.’

But I couldn’t turn back again. We had to hurry, because there was no time to lose.

Soarin was in town. Could it be a coincidence or was it too much for it? If he was a conscious part of the scheme, why would he risk exposing himself by showing up in Ponyville just after his teammate had been murdered? But if not, what would he be doing here? I haven’t heard of any Wonderbolts visiting our town, other than that one time when one of them visited to coordinate the water feeding procedure for Cloudsdale. Come to think of it, that could have been Spitfire.

“Are you sure… it was him?” I panted, trying not to stay behind.

“Yes, I recognized him.”

“You couldn’t… recognize… Spitfire!”

“Well, you’ve seen her face, right?” She grimaced. “Besides, I had never seen her without her uniform. And guess what, Soarin isn’t here incognito. He is wearing the Wonderbolt uniform.”

“I have no idea whether I should consider it more or less suspicious that way anymore,” I replied. “Should we tell Sweetie?”

“No time for it, I’m afraid. I’m not sure if dropping by for you was the best idea either. We could lose him.”

“Do you at least know where he went?”

“You’ll never guess.” She waited a few seconds for me to try and guess, but I had no idea. “He went to Diamond Tiara’s house.”

I stopped. “Are you sure? Why would he go there?”

“I have an idea, but come on, there is no time to lose. I’ll explain when we’re there.”

Diamond Tiara’s house wasn’t hard to find. It was situated near Ponyville’s center, and it was huge, well, at least relatively, considering the rest of the architecture around. If there was a building in our town that could be called a villa, that would be it. I always hated it. In the middle of the rustic buildings Ponyville consisted of, it grew between them like a tumor, screaming, ‘look at me!’ pompous and kitschy. Or maybe I got such an impression because of who lived there. It’s funny how we can perceive things differently depending on our relationships with ponies connected to them.

Diamond Tiara was, along with her sidekick, Silver Spoon, the worst pony I’ve ever met. She was the only child in a rich family, and she adored showing it on every single step. She basically looked down on everyone she met and believed that the world revolved around her. She was always a bitch, but she became absolutely obnoxious when she got her cutie mark. She was one of the last foals in our school to get it, but once the image showed up on her flank, she started to ridicule me, and later Scoot and Sweetie as well, because we didn’t have ours. Like we wanted to have a cutie mark like that. What did it even mean – a tiara? It sure matched her name, but it also said that the only thing she was good at was being a spoiled brat.

Luckily, she moved out as soon as she had finished school. She went to a private university in Canterlot, created specifically for spoiled kids from rich families like herself. I wondered if a change of environment could help her become less of a jerk, but I didn’t count on that.

“Do you think he’s still here?” I asked, trying to spot any movement inside the house, but its front faced east and it was impossible to see anything with the morning sun reflecting in the windows.

“What I am sure of is that he entered this house, cause I wouldn’t have mistaken it with any other. I suppose he could have left when I went for you, though I don’t think he would have visited for less than twenty minutes.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Despite having had a long run, I had still just been dragged out of bed, and I still had problems thinking straight. I had no idea what action we could take to work anything out of this situation, so I decided to rely on Scootaloo.

“I don’t know. The most important thing is to get as close as possible without raising suspicion and hope that we’ll see or hear something useful.” She bit her lip.

With our options rather limited, we had no better plan than to just split up and “accidentally” bump into each other by the mansion’s front window and hope for it to be the right one so we could do some eavesdropping. If we missed, we had no backup plan. It was Ponyville, a small town, and everypony knew each other. We couldn’t pretend to be plumbers or anything like that.

One of the things that I absolutely couldn’t handle were forced casual chats, and Scoot neither, apparently. We had never had problems with just talking before, but now we both realized that we were devoid of any topics whatsoever when the situation needed that. Suddenly, when I had to come up with something to cover up the fact that I wanted to spy on someone, I found my head totally, absolutely empty.

So we met at the right spot, greeted each other cheerfully and… that was it. For a few extremely long seconds, all we were able to do was to sheepishly stare at each other in awkward silence and hope that the other one would come up with something quick.

The rescue came from someone that we would have never expected to ever help us in any way. Well, the word ‘help’ probably wouldn’t be the best thing to call it either.

“Well, well, well.” We both knew that high-pitched, mocking voice too well. It always meant trouble. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

I flinched inadvertently upon hearing the voice. The times when I was scared of school bullies were long gone, but the old habits died hard, as they say.

Diamond Tiara, our arch-nemesis from school times, slowly approached us. She wore huge sunglasses in thick frames with the letters UoC engraved in the middle. All she carried was a pair of light saddlebags, but behind her I could barely see a colt, about our age, bending under the weight of countless heavy bags and suitcases. It seemed that not only Sweetie Belle managed to have finished her exams this summer earlier than expected.

“What a lovely view to see in the morning. Two blank-flanked beggars at my house’s doorstep. If you want some bits, just say it. I can spare a few if you dance for me.”

Scootaloo instinctively ruffled up her wings. “Go to hell you stupid who- ow! What was that for?”

I kicked my friend in her shin, maybe even a bit too hard. But I needed her to shut up before she said something we would both regret later. A sudden idea sparked in my brain, and for that moment it looked too promising for me to let it slip away.

“Come on, Diamond Tiara. Do we really need to keep on going like this?” I put on a tired, bored tone. “Don’t you think we are too old for that?”

I could not see her eyes behind those huge shades, but I would bet my rump that she furrowed her brow. It was the first time I had talked to her in quite some time, and it was the first time that I did it without the impression of being inferior, without fear or awkwardness. It must have completely baffled her little brain.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” she replied, trying to maintain her haughty posture, but a little note of confusion could be heard in her voice. “How else would I talk to a blank flank like you?”

“I just thought that, you know, we were all adults here,” I said with my voice perfectly calm. “Adults tend to at least pretend to tolerate and respect each other all the time. Can’t we try and do the same? Maybe…” I hung my voice. That was risky. “Maybe you don’t consider yourself grown up enough to do it, huh?”

I stepped on thin ice, and I was fully aware of that. She wasn’t the most clever pony I knew, but even she was capable of seeing through such obvious provocation. Either way, I had to do it, and I hoped her impenetrable wall of thoughtless disdain would be helpful for once.

She grinned sarcastically in response. “Only when they have a hidden agenda in such behavior. And what do the two of you have that I would ever consider valuable?”

“Indeed,” I sighed and looked down at my hooves. “The thing is… I don’t even know how to say it. We actually came here hoping to see you. We would like you to give us some advice.”

“Wh- oh! Yes, that.” Scootaloo almost blew it, but she realized in time that I had a reason to say such heresy. She wasn’t an idiot. Diamond Tiara was, and her stupidity was my hope.

“Advice, she says,” she mused slowly. As predicted, her pride and self-admiration were even stronger than her contempt towards us. After all, what’s more flattering than being asked for advice? Oh Diamond Tiara, if only I had known before how easy it was to manipulate hot air balloons like you.

“And what would you want to know?” She smiled condescendingly.

“Well, what do you think?” I replied slowly, carefully picking words. “Look at our blank flanks. We have to make a few good life choices, or else we are doomed. We really need someone to show us the right way.”

“I knew it,” she chuckled. Jackpot. Now there was just one more thing.

Diamond Tiara sighed theatrically with excessive imperiousness. “If it’s that important to you, I can’t say no. Even you aren’t worth being left without helpful advice. I’ll let you into my house, because it’s not something to be discussed outside. But remember to behave, because it is not a barn.”

She turned around and whistled at the colt carrying her luggage.

As they were looking away, I looked at Scootaloo and winked. She winked back.

We were in.

Diamond Tiara took my words about pretended respect more seriously than I had expected her to, maybe even treated them as a challenge. She was briefly greeted by her father, who emerged from a corridor for only a short while, not even seeing us there. Then she went looking for the housekeeper, who, as it turned out, had a free day on Saturday. She showed us the way to the living room, mumbled something about hot beverages and left, looking for the kitchen. I figured she wasn’t an expert in doing anything by herself, and even brewing a pot of tea could turn out to be a problematic issue here. Her awkwardness was my advantage; there was hope she would be gone for a while longer than she would normally be.

Still, I did not want to waste any time.

“Cover for me,” I told Scootaloo and went into the direction I had seen Mr. Filthy Rich disappearing into.
I seemed to be having a lucky day. His office turned out to be the second room I checked, and the door wasn’t even closed properly. I could clearly hear two voices talking with freedom like they were gossiping over a cup of tea. But the topic didn’t seem to be casual at all.

“You do realize what happens if we ever get caught with this, right?” said one voice.

“We have discussed this already a few times,” replied the other voice. I knew this one belonged to Filthy Rich. I knew no one else who spoke in such a manner. His voice was always calm and still, but at the same time, it was strong and domineering. Unlike his daughter’s, his wasn’t soaking with sarcasm and venomous condescendence. This stallion had no insecurities that needed to be hidden under a despiteful mask. He was aware of his value and the power of his personality. He also made sure that everyone else was aware too. The voice that would not tolerate the word ‘no’. “You clearly said that you were into the deal, therefore it must be assumed that you agreed to all the terms, which, might I remind you, were explained to you more than once. There is no turning back now, Mister Soarin.”

A loud smack of a hoof could be heard. “I know, damn it! Did I say anything about backing off? I know the plan well enough, thank you very much. And let me remind you that it was my idea. I want to make sure you know that one false step, one bad decision, may cost us very much. And no contacts, neither yours nor mine, would help us.”

“So far we don’t have to worry about any loose ends. Everything is going according to plan. And if we are diligent and careful, everything will go smoothly. I have everything under control.”

A long silence had fallen, and I was getting ready to back off quickly if I heard any hoofsteps approaching the door.

“What about Spitfire then?” Filthy Rich asked eventually. My heart skipped a bit.

“I…” Soaring hung his voice for a while. “I have taken care of her. It is done.”

I felt a shiver going down my spine. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the way he said that terrified me. Maybe it was just the knowledge that he referred to murder, but those words felt ice-cold, and they tore into my brain, echoing between my temples like a black magic spell.

“Good,” Filthy Rich replied emotionlessly. “If she interfered, we could be in trouble. No loose ends.”

“Where is Applebloom?” I almost jumped. I totally forgot about Diamond Tiara. Fighting down panic, I carefully stepped away from the door.

“She, uh…” Scootaloo hesitated. “She went there, looking for a bathroom.”

“But there is no bathroom in that corridor.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” I put every last bit of my inner strength into my voice to make it sound casual, and I forced myself to smile. “Darn, Diamond Tiara, the last time I was here, you know those few years ago, on your cute-ceañera, this house didn’t feel as huge.”

* * *

As I predicted, spying on Filthy Rich and Soarin was the easier part. Surviving Diamond Tiara’s lecture was way more difficult. At first she tried to stick to the niceness code and kept her manners, but it seemed they got quickly washed away by the tea she brewed for us, which, by the way, was awful. With every passing word she controlled herself less and less, and eventually she gave up completely and got back to her normal, obnoxious state. But no matter how terrible she was, it was already worth it. I couldn’t wait to leave this place and share the news with Scootaloo, but I couldn’t take the risk of just going out. We had to keep our cover.

I had never seen Diamond Tiara so happy before. It was the scene of her dreams. She could offend us as much as she pleased, and all we did was nod and pretend we listened carefully, even learned from her wisdom. Aside from comments about our uselessness, she babbled a lot about herself, sometimes getting into digressions about how college life was ‘smashing’ and how it was too bad that we would never be able to find out about its wonders.

I was on the verge of drifting away into my own world completely, when I heard hoofsteps. Somewhere in the corridor a door opened, and a while later I saw Diamond Tiara’s father accompanied by a blue-coated pony in a Wonderbolt sport uniform; that had to be Soarin. As they walked by the living room, Filthy Rich’s eyes rested on me for a short while. There was something strange in the way he looked at me, and when he saw Scootaloo, I could swear he slowed a tiny bit and slightly furrowed his brow. It lasted only a split second, and he instantly looked away like he hadn’t seen anything interesting. Once again I felt uneasy. Did he somehow know I had been spying on him? Was it some kind of a clever trap we walked into, like little foals? Was there a chance that he knew we had taken Spitfire’s body away?

“That was the worst thing that happened to me in my entire life!” Scootaloo yelled at me when we finally managed to free ourselves from Diamond Tiara’s hooves and were in a safe distance from her invasive aura. “You are so going to pay for my therapy, Applebloom. This horror left permanent scars on my psyche.”

“Not only on yours,” I replied, looking around. My paranoia switched on again.

“Was it at least worth it in the tiniest bit?”

“You have no idea,” I murmured, not sure if to her or to myself. “Now shut up and follow me. I need something I could actually call tea. That thing Tiara made for us was disgusting. I am sure it was expensive and fancy. No one buys something that awful unless it costs ridiculous amounts of money.”

I had my favorite café near the town square, just by the town hall. It wasn’t big, but it usually had a few tables outside, where I often sat by myself, relaxing, watching ponies and their daily lives. And it was a much better place to talk than Sugarcube Corner, where every wall, table and chair had ears, Pinkie’s ears.

Scootaloo listened to my news with her mouth wide open.

“Wow…” she commented eventually. “That is huge, Applebloom. That’s amazing! I can’t believe it. You’ve managed to find out our culprit. Are you sure he said that?”

“Absolutely sure.” I nodded. “And there was this weird way he said those words. So cold, emotionless. I don’t think it’s the first time he killed somepony. He scared me, Scoot.”

None of us spoke for a while. We all watched leaves of green tea slowly, one by one, falling down to the bottom of a glass pot.

“Well, and that’s all,” I picked up. “I couldn’t eavesdrop more, because Diamond Tiara got back and I had to go. So now we know who, but we don’t know why.”

“This reminds me.” Scootaloo leaned towards me over the table. “When we ran, I told you that I had an idea about a possible connection, something that might explain why those two stallions met. It may be far-fetched, but it’s better than nothing.

“Since you have almost nothing to do with the Weather Patrol, you probably don’t know it, but for since I work there, it’s common knowledge for me. That guy you just spied on, Filthy Rich, is one of the most important ponies when it comes to the Weather Team in this region. You see, this whole company is a state business. It’s funded from public budget. However, since it grew constantly, covering more and more of Equestria, Princess Celestia decreed more freedom for private investments into the company. And Filthy Rich is a participator, who owns over twenty percent of our shares, making him the most influential person in the business for this area. He is the guy my bosses answer to.

“And that’s the supposed link. It’s not much, like I said, but who knows. From what you said a moment ago I can tell that this isn’t just murder. This murder was just a part of the bigger plan, cutting a loose end. And since Dash is kind of his employee, maybe there actually is a connection here.”

“Another piece falling in its place,” I mused, “but we still can’t see anything in the picture.”

“There you are!” an accusing voice from behind me brought me back to the ground. I turned around and saw Sweetie Belle slowly shaking her head. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“Oh, hi, Hweetie,” said Scootaloo indistinctly, munching on a biscuit. “Sit down, we have news to tell you.”

“News? Don’t tell me you have been working on the case since morning. I thought I was the only one.”

“Oh. So you’ve found something helpful for us?” I asked.

“Yeah, kind of, but not really.” Sweetie pulled a chair and fell on it heavily. She looked very tired, like she hadn’t caught much sleep last night. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually hadn’t. That’s another thing she shared with her big sister. What’s the point in resting when there is a job to be done? I considered myself a pretty hard-working pony, but I was nothing compared to those two. As I wondered about Sweetie’s career at the university, I usually pictured her in my mind as one of the best students. I could easily imagine her pulling many all-nighters with books piled up and cups of coffee slowly growing cold, even if she was falling on her face. Sleep was for the weak, work was for the achievers.

“I almost didn’t sleep last night”- told you -“because of the endless streams of thoughts stirring inside my head. I wriggled in my bed for hours, but I couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. A triple espresso please,” she said to the waiter that was just passing by our table. “So as soon as I saw the sun rising, I took a chance and went to Twilight’s library, hoping that it might be already open. Or still open, because I know how she likes to stay up all night, reading. I was lucky. It turned out the first option was correct, and she was up very early.

“I went looking for something that could help us in the investigation,” she sighed, “but I couldn’t find anything interesting. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know where to begin. I found only useless scraps of information about the intelligence agencies and read a few things about The Wonderbolts. Their structure, their history, and their current leaders: Fiery Star, Cloudbreaker Junior and Freefaller, real names of respectively Spitfire, Soarin and Fleetfoot. Frankly, I didn’t know they used nicknames. I also hoped to find any records about Dash in recent newspapers, but there was nothing interesting. So I’m stuck.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “But you say you have some news. What’s up?”

Before I could even open my mouth, Scootaloo exploded in excitement and started to tell her our story. She did it so loud that I had to kick her under the table so she remembered herself. She embellished it in a few spots, because she wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t do that. She never told the facts exactly the way they were, and she always had to add something from herself. For every story Scoot heard there was an alternate version that she told later. Those often included dangerous monsters that made Everfree Forest beasts look like puppies, significant amounts of explosions and ponies running for their lives. Luckily even she knew that our situation was too serious for her to play with her excessive creativity.

Sweetie Belle’s sleepiness dissipated instantly. “Are you absolutely sure the conversation went like this?” she whispered, staring at us with a mixture of shock, disbelief and triumph.

“That’s what I asked her!” Scootaloo laughed and leaned back in her chair. “Anyway, we have our killer. Our job is technically done.”

“Done?!” Sweetie and I shouted in unison, both realizing that we managed to get the attention of all the café’s customers.

“What are you talking about?” I hissed to Scoot. “This is only the beginning. Only a few moments ago we both agreed that this looks like something much bigger.”

Suddenly, she snorted and burst into laughter. Sweetie and I stared at each other, confused, as she kept on laughing.

“Look at you two,” she said, chuckling. “Miss I-don’t-know-if-it’s-a-good-idea and Miss Are-you-out-of-your-mind. Look how dedicated you’ve both become. Of course I’m not a moron. I know we’re nowhere near the end yet, but seeing you two appalled by the idea of leaving the investigation was just priceless.”

Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. “And you still think this is a game. Anyway, if we may get back to the point, we can’t say we’ve got our killer. Not really. Not yet.”

“What do you mean?” Scootaloo leaned back towards us. “You heard what they had said there. Applebloom, you heard it with your own ears.”

“Until we have proof, he is nothing but a suspect,” Sweetie explained. “We can’t use the words that Applebloom heard by spying on them, because these are just words. Besides, what is the voice of three fillies against a powerful businesspony and a celebrity? If we went to the police now and accused them, we would get laughed at. We need solid proof. But at least we know where to look for it now.”

“Also,” I cut in, “if you analyze their words, you’ll notice that they do not admit to the murder. Having taken care of someone is a vague expression. The more I think about it, the more fishy it feels to me. Why did they leave the door open? Why did they use such indirect words? Did they expect to be eavesdropped? Maybe it’s a provocation?”

“No.” Sweetie Belle shook her head. “You are digging too deep now. There’s too many variables and it was blind luck that you managed to be there at that time. It’s definitely not a provocation. They have to be a bit paranoid too. It’s not easy to use direct words for murder, even if you’re sure no one is listening.”

We all pondered for a while.

“There’s also the suitcase issue,” I sighed.

“Not only the suitcase,” Sweetie replied. “Before we start looking for proof, we need to find a motive. Why did they do that? How was Spitfire interfering with their plan, and why was it so serious that they killed her?” She stood up. “Well, there’s no point in sitting around doing nothing. We need to do some research. Let’s go.”

Scootaloo winced. “Please don’t say-”

“To the library!”

* * *

As weird as it may sound to the ponies from big cities, our town square’s most active hours of the week occurred on Saturday mornings. We didn’t have your fancy-shmancy supermarkets where you can buy whatever you want whenever you want. Ponyville was a small town of small businesses, and we only had a few stores where you could buy necessities from Monday to Friday (except Quills and Sofas. No one knew what was up with that store). If you wanted to purchase less usual stuff, you had to wait for the Saturday morning and our weekly fair. Of course you could find a merchant or two basically every day, but during the fair hours you had everything in one place. It was the time when the square turned into a hive, buzzing with countless ponies yelling their offers and customers fighting over merchandise that they rarely needed anyway.

Scootaloo was lucky to have a pair of wings, so she didn’t have to squeeze through the crowd like us, but instead she could fly above our heads, not having to worry about being trodden to the ground by endless streams of ponies. For a moment I wanted to turn and check on AJ’s stand and see how the sales were doing this morning, but Sweetie kept pulling me towards library – which was perfectly across the square from the café – and I had to follow her.

“Oops, sorry!” I heard her voice and saw a few carrots rolling on the ground. She immediately stooped to pick them up and save them from being squashed by ponies who didn’t look under their hooves.

“Sweetie Belle?” said a deep male voice. It was the pony she bumped into.

“Huh?” She turned away from the carrots, and her eyes widened as she saw the stallion’s face. “Wait, what?”

“What are you doing here?” the pony asked, looking no less surprised than her. He was an earth pony in the age that was difficult to specify. He seemed middle-aged, but his voice sounded younger, and the red checkered vest he was wearing didn’t fit a middle-aged pony, or actually any pony that had any sense of good taste. Though the thing that might make him look older were the eyes, tired and with dark circles around them. They left the impression of somepony that was old, at least mentally.

“Well, this is my hometown,” Sweetie replied with a wide smile. Who was that pony, and why was she so happy to see him? “I should ask you what you are doing here.”

“Heey, what’s going on?” Scootaloo did the Scootaloo entry, which was, of course, heavy landing without any care about anyone that she could crash into. Luckily, the ponies inside her landing zone saw her in time and escaped before she could collide with them.

“Oh, by the way, these are my best friends that I told you so much about: Applebloom and Scootaloo.” Sweetie turned towards us. “Scoot, AB, this is Doctor Feint. My teacher, a criminal law specialist, and after hours, a huge cryptology enthusiast.”

Chapter Six: The Cryptologists

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Red Right Hoof

By Japko

Chapter Five: Cryptologists


A small, insignificant town in the middle of Equestria. A settlement that had never been important or noticeable in any way. A few farms, and that was it. No industry, no values for tourism, just a detached, cozy nowhere. Until Princess Celestia chose to organize a Summer Sun Celebration there on the thousandth anniversary of kicking Princess Luna to the moon. After that it became the center of all the craziness that occurred in the kingdom. According to the brief reports the pony had read a few months ago, within last year Ponyville was attacked by an alicorn possessed by dark magic, almost suffocated to death by an elder dragon, infested with civilization-threatening pests, ruled by an interspecies lunatic… and probably much more. After that, he stopped reading. There were many more annual reports due that day, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see them.

Yet, Ponyville, after all the craziness that happened to it through all this time, remained virtually intact. Same old architecture, same old sleepiness, same old simplicity of life. The pony was sure that if he was given a photograph from five years before at that very moment to compare, he would have found few minor changes.

It was a Saturday morning, the day of the traditional weekly fair. Different merchants from surrounding villages and towns streamed in and out, and the square before the town hall resembled a little anthill from the edge of the nearby forest.
“All right, agents,” the pony spoke with a tired tone, “do any of you have questions about the mission?”

There was no answer. He felt out of place as the commander of an intervention squad. The Boss assigned him to this job, and he should have felt honored, but instead he was constantly afraid of a situation in which even one of his agents would show even the tiniest hint of insubordination. He wasn’t one of those who had natural leadership skills. He preferred to work on his own, sometimes in pairs as partners, but never as someone to give orders.

Besides, he wasn’t happy at all with this assignment. If he could say no, he definitely would have done it. However, it wasn’t the best time to say no to his boss. Not in the face of an emergency like this.

“Very well then. You all have your assignments. We meet here at the appointed hour. That’s it. Good luck, agents.”

The ponies, all dressed in black uniforms, went in their directions without a word. Even far away from their assigned action areas, they moved almost without any noise. After maybe a dozen seconds, they all vanished, leaving only two ponies on the tiny clearing.

“Well, Jonquil,” said a mare with a chocolate-colored coat, “how does it feel to have power?”

The pony didn’t answer. He stared into the center of the marketplace, stirring in a strange harmony.

“Look at these ponies.” He described an arc in the air. “You know, when I first started working in the agency it was like a buck to the head. Suddenly, when I looked around me I saw a completely different Equestria, a completely different world than I had believed in. All the colors in which I was raised became darker, and all the beauty I believed in became a children’s story I put back on a shelf and never got back to it. Soon after, I found a motto that follows me to this day. That motto will follow me to my grave.”

“What is it?”

“The same one that each of us must have said to ourselves many, many times.” He adjusted the shades on his nose. “Ignorance is bliss.

“And it is our job to make sure that the bliss of our fellow citizens is maintained. Let them be ignorant. Let them see the colors in the way they should see them. Let them live this adorable bedtime story. May they be just happy with their lives, and we will take care of the rest. By any means necessary.”

He sighed and clenched his teeth. By any means necessary.

* * *

“You still haven’t answered my question,” said Sweetie. “Why are you here? I would have never expected you in Ponyville.”

We returned to the café that we had just left. Sweetie Belle, of course, ordered another strong coffee, and so did the rest of us. This day was already tiring, and it wasn’t even noon yet. And we all braced for much, much more to come.

“Well,” Doctor Feint started, sipping on a cup of cappuccino, “maybe you were not aware of it, but I own a small holiday house not far away from Ponyville. I come here every summer vacation for half a month, sometimes more. If you had known me before, we would have probably met here more than once. I really like your fairs and I try not to miss any of them. Now, tell me how I can be of your service this time.”

“Huh?” Sweetie looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

“Oh come on,” he smirked. “I don’t claim to be super smart, but even I can clearly see you want something from me. When I saw you at the marketplace, you looked at me like I was a Hearth Warming Eve’s present you were hoping to get. Go on then, what do you need me for?”

We looked at each other, puzzled. Scootaloo bit her lip. I nodded. If he really was a good cryptologist, he indeed could be our hope. Sweetie Belle nodded back.

“Doctor Feint… can we trust you?” she asked timidly.

In response, he snorted. “Oh, I would expect better from you, my dear. That is one of the silliest questions one can ask.”
“I’m serious.”

“So am I.” He leaned back in his chair. “So what if I say yes? Frankly, I don’t really know it myself. Depends on what you need. Besides, what if you couldn’t trust me? Would I say no? From my experience, if someone says yes, that’s a sign you should think twice before trusting them. So my answer is: I hope so.”

“Fine.” Sweetie shook her head. “I will take my chances then.

“As you have correctly guessed, we do have a problem that we can’t handle on our own. We roped ourselves into something that may be too overwhelming for us. We have this friend here, in Ponyville. Her name is Rainbow Dash.”

“Oooh boy,” Feint interrupted. “I can see where this is going. What did Dashie do this time?”

“Wait, you know her?” Scootaloo furrowed her brow. “I mean, sure, you might have heard of her, since she’s done a few things for which she can be considered famous, but… you said it like you knew each other personally.”

The doctor shrugged. “Maybe that’s because we do know each other personally. I dare say we know each other very well. We are relatives.”

“You what?” Sweetie’s jaw dropped. “Are you her uncle or something?”

“Not quite. I’m her cousin. Well, not quite either. My father and her father are cousins. That means we had common… great-grandparents if I recall correctly. So I guess that makes us second cousins. Is that correct? I’m not good at this.”

“Yep,” I replied instantly. Well, no surprise, right? I’m an Apple. Our family tree had always been huge and branchy. With the amount of closer and further relatives, twisted connections – sometimes tricky, since there were a few controversial cases of loosely related Apples marrying each other – I was an expert in reading the concentration of mutual blood between ponies. It was a science that everyone in my family was good at. As an Apple, you could never know when you might stumble upon a distant member of your family. And it was always a good idea to do a little research on every pony you became closer with, just in case you might find yourself in one bed with them at some point.

“So, as you can see, I do indeed know Rainbow Dash,” said Doctor Feint. “Now what’s the problem with her this time?”

“Well…” Sweetie Belle gulped and lowered her voice. “We believe someone is trying to frame her for murder.”

The weak smile on the doctor’s face faded. Not instantly. Like his brain processed the information at much lower rate than it usually did. He blinked rapidly a few times.

“Excuse me?” he spoke, very slowly. “I hope you’re joking.”

I shook my head. “No, unfortunately, we are not joking. But fortunately for Rainbow Dash, it was us who found out about this mess first. Otherwise, she would probably be losing a trial for murder right now.”

“But…” Doctor Feint’s eyes travelled between all three of us, like searching for any hint telling that we weren’t being serious after all. “What do you mean, framed? And what murder? What the hell are you talking about?

“All right. Listen.” He composed himself. He took a deep breath and conspiratorially looked around. “This is definitely not the right place to talk about it. We need some private space so you can give me the details there. Meet me at my house in an hour. I will give you directions. And make sure no one is following you.”

I felt a cold shiver down my spine. The paranoia about being watched hit me again. “What do you mean, following us? Why would anyone follow us?” I asked, trying to convince myself that it was only my imagination.

“You claim Dashie's being framed,” he replied. His old, half-closed eyes drilled through my head. “If someone is trying to frame somepony else, they will likely keep an eye on the situation. You didn’t take that into consideration?”

“Well…” Sweetie hung her voice.

The stallion hid face in his hooves. “I get it. Just be very careful from now on, okay? Make sure that you get there without anyone on your tail. Is that possible for you?”

“Oh well.” I smirked, struck by a sudden idea. “I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

* * *

I asked my whole family about it, but nobody could give me a satisfying answer. Applejack didn't know. Big Macintosh didn't know. Granny Smith used to know, but she forgot at some point, and eventually she took that knowledge, hidden somewhere in her deep memories, with her to the grave.

Sweet Apple Acres had a tunnel. A secret passage, so to speak. It began in one of our cellars and ended somewhere in the woods. And no one knew what it was for. Nopony even had an idea why it was built in the first place. Maybe it was an emergency exit, maybe a place to hide and run in dire situations, maybe just a fantasy of my ancestors that had too much spare time. In the end I stopped caring. The thing that mattered was that the tunnel existed. I had always considered it the coolest thing in Sweet Apple Acres. After all, what's more exciting for a foal than mysteries and secret passages? Actually, what's more exciting for anyone than mysteries and secret passages?

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle obviously knew about it. Oh, how many times we had made up stories about the tunnel. How many times we had traveled back and forth through it for no real reason. A few times we even thought of making a few ramifications, but Big Macintosh explained that without proper supports, they would probably collapse and that we should stick to the safe passage the way it was.

Despite the whole relationship between the tunnel and me, I had never imagined it would actually become useful at any point in my life. But it did.

The idea was simple. If we had anyone on our tail, we had to lose them. And what would be more effective than making the potential tail believe that we were somewhere inside my house, when actually we were far away, in the woods, on our way to Doctor Feint?

Sweetie Belle, being the stallion's favorite student, managed to get infected with his passion and knew a few of the absolute basics of cryptology principles. One of them was that one doesn't really need a huge amount of text to work on decoding it. Of course the more the better, but after a certain amount, it usually became negligible. Therefore, we decided not to bring the whole suitcase with us. We went to Scootaloo's house, carefully copied everything from the first sheet and put the suitcase back under the bed. Having dealt with that, we simply walked towards Sweet Apple Acres, like we just wanted to hang out there.

"Applejack?" I decided to check if my siblings were home. It was highly improbable, considering the fair, but better safe than sorry. I wasn't a little foal anymore, so entering the tunnel could raise suspicions. "Mac?"

No answer. I shrugged and led us to the basement.

As I mentioned before, the passage was my playground, and I loved to have fun with my playgrounds. A secret tunnel wasn't so secret unless it was somehow hidden. Originally it was just a door in the wall, and I couldn't have left it like that. I found an old wardrobe and, with some work, managed to install hinges on its back wall. I turned it into a camouflaged vestibule to my tunnel. Impressive, right?

Even if someone followed us inside my house, which I doubted, they would have some serious problems finding this. Not wanting to lose any time, we got in.

"How do you think he will react?" Scootaloo asked in the dim light coming out from Sweetie's horn.

"What do you mean?" I replied.

"Imagine yourself in his situation," she said. "He has come here for vacation, and suddenly we come up to him and tell him that his younger cousin has been framed for murder. If you ask me, his reaction was relatively calm for such news. Now we are going to tell him that it's connected to some kind of conspiracy including intelligence information, the Wonderbolts and the Weather Patrol. This may overwhelm him."

"We are not telling him about Soarin and Filthy Rich," Sweetie Belle cut in.

"What? Why?"

"Because we just need him to decrypt this data. The less he knows… the less everyone knows, the better. We do not want him to be a part of this, and probably neither does he."

"She is his cousin," I noted. "I would assume he'd want to help his relative."

"Maybe you're right," Sweetie replied after a short pause. "Still, we don't want to put him in danger, agreed? And we want him to only decipher this, nothing more. We will handle the rest. Also, the thing you say, that he'd help his cousin, can actually be a bad thing. What if he gets too emotional? We had to do everything we could not to approach this issue with emotions. For him it would likely be even more difficult."

The walk through the tunnel was harder than I remembered. I hadn't been there for quite some time, and I just now realized how much I had grown since the last time. We all had to walk with our heads bent down, and the whole passage felt claustrophobic in general.

My paranoia once again woke up inside my head. Doctor Feint's words disturbed me more than I showed. I imagined somepony waiting for us at the end with an ironic smile and saying the cliché 'well, well, well' at the very moment we stuck our heads out of the hole. I tried to fight them, but they were stronger than me.

Eventually, we made it to the end. The tunnel finished with a tiny natural cavern, formed by a stream in a crack between two rocks. The exit wasn't masked in any way. The creators, whoever they were, didn't consider a possibility of anyone squeezing themselves between the said two rocks. And they were probably right.

As we climbed out, we found ourselves in deep forest. I knew that we were no farther than half a kilometer away from the edge of our apple orchards, but there was no chance that we could be seen from there. Regardless, I pushed my friends forward. Maybe it was because of too much contact with fiction, but I always followed the "never say never" rule.

"We need to get to the road." Sweetie looked around.

"No, we don't," I replied. "I know every inch of these woods. I also know this house, I just never knew who lived there. This way." I pointed with my hoof.

"Are you guys as excited as I am?" Scootaloo grinned. "This could be a huge step forward in our investigation."

"As a matter of fact, I am," replied Sweetie. "Especially after the events of this morning."

"And that is because…?"

"Look." She stopped. "Remember when we discussed the suitcase problem? That it can be either a smokescreen or the core issue of the whole situation? Now we know that not only Soarin is involved, but also Filthy Rich. A big suspect means a big case. Which would lead to the conclusion that the files are indeed important. It would, if not the fact that the suitcase was simply not taken. Normally I would consider it a sign of the killer's sloppiness, but from what Applebloom said, Filthy specifically mentioned no loose ends."

My eyes widened. "Are you suggesting that…" I hung my voice, but with a gesture Sweetie encouraged me to end my thought. "That they left it there on purpose?"

She nodded. "And I can think of two reasons why they would do that. It could be a hoax, which is possible, but in my opinion unlikely. Even if someone is heartless enough to kill another pony for their own interest, I would assume that Filthy Rich is wise enough not to leave a corpse on his trail unless it's absolutely necessary. And there are easier ways to pull a scam without the necessity to murder someone, not to mention that intelligence agencies must have some hidden ways to prove the authenticity of top secret papers. Too risky. That's why I believe that option two is more likely. That these files needed to be found in a certain way, by… I don't know, Police? Agents? I hope that decoding them will lead us to their scheme."

"They teach you stuff like this on the first year?" Scootaloo furrowed her brow.

"No." Sweetie smirked in response. "I'm just clever.”

* * *

Doctor Feint’s house lay in the middle of a small plain within the forest. It was made entirely of wooden logs, except for a tiny brick chimney. There was no road leading to it, only an insignificant path, ending at the main road to Bridleburg, according to what he said when he was giving us instructions. I felt a bit uneasy visiting a place like this – detached from civilization, owned by a much older pony that I didn’t even know. But it was much more difficult to be scared when I had my two best friends with me.

We knocked on the door, and the stallion opened it immediately.

“Come in,” he said, and closed the door. “Good that you made it quick. I am losing my mind here.”

He took us to the main room of the cabin. It looked exactly like a typical holiday house on the inside as much as it did on the outside. There was a soft rug, a sofa and two armchairs, cheesy landscape paintings on walls, and, of course, a fireplace. As cozy as it could be.

But there was apparently no time to waste on admiration of the décor, cause the stallion seated us on the sofa and immediately demanded that we tell him the whole story. So I did. We decided I would be most suitable for doing that, because Sweetie wasn’t with us since the very beginning, and Scootaloo had those bad tendencies of telling the story her way.

I kept everything brief and straight to the point. I wanted him to hear it free from our bias and suspicions. Also, following Sweetie's suggestion, I skipped the events from the morning. He didn’t interrupt me, but at the moment I told him about the body and the feathers, he cursed quietly. And the further I went, the more he frowned.

When I finally finished, a long silence fell between us.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said eventually. “As much as I appreciate what you did for my cousin, because believe me, it was an amazing thing to do, I don’t believe you can do anything about this case. And you might have put yourself in mortal danger. I understand,” he raised his voice when Sweetie opened her mouth to say something, “ that you want to do this anyway, and that you will even if I forbid you. I know, because I was in a similar situation once as well.

“Yes, I had a wild case of my own,” he continued, seeing our surprised faces. “And I know that if I had turned to the police with it, it would be lost because of their stiff investigation procedures. My common sense is screaming right now, especially considering that it’s my relative we’re talking about, but I know better than common sense. Sweetie Belle, you are my star student, and I believe in you. Having heard your story, I already know what you need me for, and I will do everything I can to help you. In return, I want only one thing from you three. Please, save my cousin.”

It was time to get to work. Doctor Feint went to the kitchenette to make some tea for us. I used this time to look around a bit more. From a few looks I could tell he was a traveler. A few of the paintings indicated that. There was Neighagra Falls, a street of Vanhoover, even a scene from the Frozen North. There was also a lot of souvenir trash everywhere. Mosquito net hat, classic snowglobe from Canterlot, wooden fish figurines from seashore regions… I also spotted a few postcards on the fireplace. One, showing some monumental buildings, was written in a very rough manner, like the author was not entirely sober.

I wish you were here, buddy. Our exotic beer tasting isn’t the same without you. If you don’t come with me next year, I will be seriously offended. I hope they pay you well at least.

The other one was a photograph over a dozen young ponies grinning towards the camera with tents and a big fireplace in the background.

Dear Doctor Feint,
We took your advice and made this trip after all. You were right, this is the best way to spend summer! We all hope you are having as much fun as we are.
Best regards,
General Law graduates, class year 1006

The last one was definitely written by a mare. Not only because of the contents, but because of the very feminine style. The picture showed a beautiful beach of Horseshoe Bay.

Dearest Feint,
I miss you so much already. Please come as soon as you can. I’ll always be waiting…

“Do you have a wife, Doctor?” I asked, putting the postcard back in its place.

He looked at me with a sad gaze and sighed. “I… used to. She passed away a few years ago, giving birth to my son that didn’t survive it either.”

I felt like I was hit by a train. “I am so sorry…”

“It was devastating, yes, but I had to keep on going.” He smiled sadly. “She had always wanted to have a cabin in the woods, and I built it in her memory. I come here every summer so I never forget her.”

I had no idea what to say, and neither did my friends. Thankfully, the stallion put his smile back on. That weird expression in which all his face was smiling except his eyes, which stayed as tired and old as they always were. “All right then! Here’s our tea. Now show me that code.” He cracked his neck so loud that for a moment I was afraid he had broken it.

I had always thought that breaking codes was a one-pony job. Well, in fact I had never thought about breaking codes enough to wonder how many ponies would it require, but I expected one. It turned out that not only it could go faster when a few ponies were working on it, but also someone like me, who had absolutely no idea about it, had a chance to be useful in the process. If someone heard us not knowing the context, they would probably think we were "very special". Especially Feint. It seemed like he had entered a different, abstract world inside his head. He shouted a lot of incoherent things, stared at the paper, expressed his thoughts out loud. Our job was to swim in the abyss of his babble and fish out those moments when he actually said something to us, wanting us to write something down, do a simple calculation, count intervals between certain letters. We worked like this for a long time, taking breaks very often, till we noticed that sun was setting.

"We made huge progress, girls," he said eventually, wiping a drop of sweat off his brow.

"We did?" Sweetie frowned at the piece of paper before her. It was filled with incomprehensible gibberish.

"Yes. We can exclude about eighty percent of the common ciphers. And we can be quite sure it’s none of the simplest ones. You've been a great help. We are much closer to breaking it."

"We are?" I tilted my head.

"Yes. We actually can break it eventually, which is good news, and frankly, unexpected."

"We can?" Scootaloo just stared sheepishly at the stallion.

"Yes!" he said faintly, and heavily sat on the floor. "Now go home, before your absence gets suspicious."

We left the cabin with our brains steaming from overexertion. I imagined mine melting like a slice of cheese on grilled bread. All three of us staggered as we walked like we were drunk.

"Do you understand any of this?" I asked.

"Nope," they both replied in unison.

"Good." I nodded. "Because I was afraid that I was just an idiot."

The refreshing evening wind cooled my face a bit. I couldn't wait to reach the stream and dip my head in it. It took me a while to find our way back to the cracked rock and the entrance to the secret passage, but I did it eventually. We walked back barely talking at all. We were too tired to create theories, to analyze what we had. We all wanted the same thing. To finally lie down in our beds and forget about the whole world for these few hours of blissful oblivion of sleep. When we stepped out of my special wardrobe and climbed upstairs, the sun was already far beyond the horizon. Infecting each other with yawns, we managed to determine the place of our meeting for the next day, and then each of us turned towards their way to bed.

As I waddled back to Sweet Apple Acres, I stopped for a while and frowned. All the lights were out. And it wasn't a Friday anymore. I shrugged and continued walking. The main door was unlocked. The key was hanging on a nail like it always had. "I'm hoooome," I shouted. Applejack, even if she slept, would have woken up and shouted something back. She didn't.

I was very thirsty, so I dragged myself to the kitchen to have at least a glass of water. I turned the light on.

I saw two plates with half-eaten dinner on the table, and some of it in the pot on the stove. My heart started to beat faster. "AJ?" I shouted, much louder this time. "Big Macintosh? Are you home?"

I felt panic slowly gathering within me. My throat squeezed like someone had tied a knot on it. I stormed out of the kitchen and ran upstairs, calling for my siblings. There was no answer.

I checked all the rooms, but there was no sign of them anywhere. I ran out onto the porch. I saw a plow that Big Mac was trying to fix. I saw a small cart that Applejack must have brought back from the orchard but she didn't park it in the barn.

Suddenly, I noticed a movement. The silhouette of a pony, barely visible in the twilight, stood in the gate of our farm. I froze, terrified. I could easily tell that it was neither my brother nor my sister. For a few seconds that felt like eternity, I just stared at the figure, afraid to move a single muscle. Then I saw it waving to me.

Then it waved again.

Baffled, I just started walking towards it. Eventually, I recognized it, and I felt a slight wave of relief. It was just my neighbor, old lady Goldquill.

"Oh Applebloom," she groaned.

"Mrs. Goldquill, what are you doing out at this hour?"

"Applebloom, sweetheart," she cried. "They took them, I saw it. I saw it through my window."

I felt my knees bending under my weight.

"Who was taken? And by whom?" I almost yelled at her.

"Your brother and sister. They took them."

"Who? Who are they? Tell me!"

"They dressed in black. They had these dark glasses on their noses…" I saw tears forming in her eyes. "They just entered your house and took them out. And then walked away. I don't know what happened. Do you know anything about it, Applebloom? Applebloom…?"

I wasn't listening to her anymore. I was galloping towards Ponyville, almost breaking my legs on the way. Adrenaline hummed in my ears, pressed against my temples. Everything was blurry as I ran. And I just ran. Somewhere. Anywhere. To find them. To catch them. I didn't even know where to start looking. My brain wasn't working at all. Ponies in black. Black. Not police, couldn't have been police. Agents. What would they want? Why take my family? Run. Find them. Fast. Before it's too late. Run.

"Applebloom!" I heard a voice. It was like a slap to my face that brought me back to my senses. I slowed down and looked around.

"Applebloom, here." It was Sweetie Belle, trotting towards me. I was trying to say something to her, but I was panting too heavily to articulate a single word.

"I was on my way to you," she said. I only now noticed how worried she looked. "Applebloom, something wrong must have happened."

I looked at her quizzically for a brief moment, and then I understood. "No." I shook my head. "No, please, don't say-"
"I can't find Rarity anywhere. She's missing."

* * *

In the end, everything is a matter of perception. There is no such thing as bright light. You may have problems opening your eyes in the middle of the night, when someone turns the bulb on in your bedroom, but what is that light compared to daylight? What's daylight compared to staring straight into the sun?

But sometimes, even the sun may seem like nothing but a spark.

I stood in the middle of the street. Ponies passed by, talking, laughing, dragging carts. They surrounded me, barely avoiding me on their paths. Yet, they weren't there at all. I could hear no sound, I felt no presence other than myself. I stood in the middle of an endless void. In darkness that clung to me like tar. On the other end, I saw Sweetie Belle, barely. She was saying something to me.

"This isn't happening," I whispered.

"Applebloom," she said, biting her lip, "where are Applejack and Big Macintosh? Are they home?"

I stared at her, unable to say a word. I only slowly shook my head.

She clamped her eyelids. "This is bad. This is very bad. Do you have any idea what might have happened to them? Where they could be?"

"Black," I stuttered. I knew I had to pull myself together. "Dressed in black."

"Dressed in black?" She leaned towards me. "What else did you see?"

I shook my head. "No. I didn't see them. It's what my neighbor told me. She saw them being taken away by ponies dressed in black. Do you think they could be…"

"I'm afraid so. But why would they come for them? What would they even want from them? And if they took our siblings, they…" Her eyes widened.

"Rainbow Dash!" We shouted together and broke into a run. If they had Dash, everything was for nothing. We had to find her before them, but I already knew it was too late. And even if it wasn't, we had been exposed already. It was just a matter of time before they got us all. Either way, I refused to give up. I had to keep running.

We weaved between buildings, jumped over fences, ran through gates. We knew Ponyville inside out. If somepony started at the same time as us, they would never get anywhere as fast as we would. Keeping that thought in mind, I managed to see a tiny ray of hope. I turned into another narrow alley.

And I stopped, my hooves almost screeching on the cobblestone. On the other end of the alley I saw a stallion. He was dressed in black, but he definitely didn't look like an agent. What he was wearing was not a suit, but a skin-tight outfit that seemed like it was made from one, very long scarf. His head was hidden under a short hood, and his face covered with the scarf-like cloth like the rest of his body. I could only see his eyes, burning like two violet fires in the darkness. A thought passed through my head that it felt like it was midnight on a moonless night, even though the sun had just set, and it shouldn't be so dark.

The eyes hypnotized. Once again I felt all the world around me being pushed aside, fading into nothingness. The eyes were all that remained. I could see flames inside them, promising… death. The sweet, calming embrace of death. The darkness budged – he stepped forward. I saw a few shreds of blackness condensing beside him.

"Go to sleep, little filly." The whisper struck my ears like an explosion and echoed inside my head. The frazzles of darkness started to change. They stretched forward, became more solid. Their ends narrowed, forming arrow-like shapes. "Go to sleep, little filly."

I felt a hot drop going down my cheek. Don't cry in front of death, Granny Smith once said.

The arrows shot all at once.

I closed my eyes.

* * *

What should one expect from dying? Specifically, from being stabbed by half a dozen of razor-sharp darts? Should one anticipate sudden pain, the feeling of flesh being torn apart? A force throwing them back on a wall? A sudden strike of weakness?

I did expect all of these. What I didn't expect was a series of metallic noises, like a bunch of spoons thrown into a big pot.

I stood there for what it felt like eternity, waiting for my legs to give up and for haziness from all the wounds. But none of it came. I dared to open one eye.

I saw… something. It looked like a spider web made of thin threads of purple light, and it hung about twenty centimeters before my face. The space between the threads was translucent and shone faintly with the same color.

I still wasn't able to move. I could just see the pony on the other side of the shield. His eyes didn't hypnotize anymore. The flame burned with anger, but... they weren't looking at me anymore. I sensed a movement on my right side, but I wouldn't dare to turn my head. With an accompaniment of a furious cry, the odd shield shot forward, and hit the surprised black pony with a loud slam. He slumped down a wall, noiselessly. The presence by my side took a step towards him. Purple coat, indigo hair, star-shaped cutie mark.

"Don't you try any tricks," Twilight Sparkle said calmly. "You have nowhere to run."

What answered her was a quiet, mocking chuckle.

"Who are you?" asked Twilight. Her horn began to glow with faint purple light. "Show your face, now!"

The chuckle turned into a loud laughter. The masked stallion raised his hoof and… sent her a kiss.

Then he vanished. Didn't run, didn't teleport, didn't become invisible. He just merged with the darkness, leaving a small puff of black smoke.

The purple unicorn jumped into his direction, but it was too late. "How?!" She stamped her hoof. "I threw a blocking spell!"

"I'm sorry to interrupt…" I heard Sweetie's voice, "but… I think one slipped through."

I heard a thud. I turned around and saw my friend on the ground. Her cream-white coat was stained deep red in the spot between her left shoulder and her chest, and the stain was getting bigger. My heart stopped.

"Twilight!" I screamed. "Twilight, help her!"

She was by her side in a split second. She immediately started examining the wound. There was no sign of the object that did it to her, but it left a deep, badly bleeding hole. Sweetie moaned in pain. Twilight's horn lit up, and the bleeding seemed to stop, or at least it slowed down significantly. But the gaping hole remained as it was.

"We need to get her to the hospital," I cried.


It felt like I was slapped in the face. I looked at Twilight in disbelief. "What are you talking about? She might die!"

"They won't be able to help her in the hospital."

Once again this evening, I felt my legs giving up.

"Please don't say that," I almost pleaded. "Please don't let her die!"

"I won't," she replied immediately. "It's not as serious as it looks. None of her vital spots were damaged, and I stopped the bleeding for now. And… yeah, the sedative spell worked. She will sleep for a while.

"Look," she said, seeing that I was not convinced. "You know what that was? That was black magic. These wounds can be healed only with certain spells. Extremely rare spells, which no one at the hospital has access to, because there shouldn't be any need for them, ever. But I do have them, in the library. So stop panicking, and help me, okay?"

She was right. I couldn't let myself panic, and if I was to be of any help, I had to pull myself together.

"Okay." I nodded. "What do we do?"

"No one can see her like this, so we have to teleport," she explained. "But teleportation is a very difficult spell, especially when you want to bring somepony else along. I need you to grab me by my hoof and visualize the main hall of my library. I can't afford to waste energy, so you're not coming with me. I'm sorry, but I have to take that risk. Run to the library and don't look back. You won't be safe until you're inside. Ready?"

I nodded.

"Three, two, one…"

I closed my eyes and tried to think of as many details of the main hall as I could. Then I felt a tingle, and when I opened my eyes again, they were gone. All that was left was a dark sticky stain where Sweetie had been a few seconds ago. For what felt a thousandth time today, I galloped.

As I sprinted, I realized that my vision was becoming blurry. I was crying and I wasn't even aware of that. How did all of that happen? Everything shattered in my hooves. About 24 hours ago the biggest problem I had was Scootaloo's broken heart. Now, I wasn't even sure if she was alive, Sweetie Belle had almost been killed, Rainbow Dash was soon to be charged with murder, and my brother and sister were being held captive by special agents. I wanted to lie down, curl up and cry till I died. I wasn't allowed to do that. I had to run.

I stormed into the library, almost breaking the door down. I rested against the wall, panting heavily, and... I completely fell into pieces. I didn't care that I was seen like that. I sobbed, sniffled, and let out torrents of tears.

My downfall. My despair, to which no one answered.

When the shivers passed, and I calmed down a bit, I dared to look around. All the curtains were drawn, and all the lights were on. In the middle of the hall, strictly in the center of a magical circle, lay one of my dearest ponies I've ever met, pale like death herself, with her beautiful coat dirty with blood in many spots. She was unconscious and breathed calmly like nothing was the matter. Beside the circle I saw a few books tossed around, and Twilight Sparkle. She clenched her teeth so hard that I could almost hear them grind, and her mane was soaked with sweat and stuck to her face. The air in the room was pulsating with magical power.

I stood up. "Can I… help somehow?" I asked, wiping out the tears.

"Yes, you can," she said with a weird voice, without breaking the spell. I had no idea about magic, but I got the feeling that such concentration had to be impressive. "Find the counter-magic section and look for the Cloverluck Spell; the older the book, the better the chance. And don't interrupt me unless you find it."

I immediately started looking for it. I found the section quickly, but with the spell it wasn't as easy. I almost asked where Spike was, because he would definitely be better in this than me, but I bit my tongue in time. Eventually, I did it. It was indeed in an old tome, in which it was hard to turn a page without the risk of making the whole tome fall apart. I put it at Twilight's hooves and backed off. Soon after, she levitated it before her eyes and started another incantation.

Suddenly, the main door slammed open, and I saw an orange and purple lightning flew inside.

"Sweetie Belle!" she yelled and almost collided with Twilight. I grabbed her swiftly by her tail and pulled her away from the center of the hall.

"What happened to her?" She had panic in her eyes. "Is she gonna be okay?"

"Yes, now shh!" I hissed at her. "Don't distract Twilight. I'll explain it to you."

I took a deep breath. "We have been compromised, Scoot. They found out about our investigation. They must have known for a while, and when we lost them in that tunnel, they… they came for my brother and sister. Some agents, I mean. And they took Rarity too. I found Sweetie downtown, and we went to see if Rainbow Dash wasn't taken by them as well." I gulped. "But we were attacked by some weird unicorn, who tried to kill us, and Twilight saved us at the last moment. As you can see, not entirely, cause he managed to get Sweetie. Twilight patched her up, and she'll be fine, but that bastard got away."

I saw the door closing. It was Spike, trying to catch his breath.

"Spike came for me in my home," Scootaloo explained. "Twilight ordered him to get me. And when he told me that Sweetie was hurt, I dashed here immediately. Sorry, Spike," she turned to him.

In response, he only waved his hand, still panting too much to speak.

"What now?" I asked.

"Now you come with me," said Twilight. I hadn't even noticed that the magic aura in the room dissipated. Now she just stood there, turned towards us, soaked with sweat and panting heavily. From the look of her eyes I could tell that she wasn't happy. "Spike, keep an eye on Sweetie. If anything happens, tell me."

Having said that, she walked towards one of the doors, and invited us inside. As it turned out, it was a small kitchen. She showed us two chairs, and we sat there. She took the seat on the other side of the table. She didn't say anything. Only stared at us. After a while it started to feel a little awkward.

"Twilight, I-"

"Shut up!" she yelled at me. I almost fell off my chair. It was the first time I saw Twilight Sparkle yelling at someone. I had never seen her as furious before either. She barely could sit still on her chair.

"You idiots," she ground out after a while. "Do you know why you're still alive now?"

"Y-yeah." I felt I was blushing. "Thank you for that."

"Oh no," she bitterly laughed in response. "You shouldn't be thanking me. You owe your lives to Spike. Yes, Spike," she repeated, seeing the looks on our faces. "If he didn't break that promise he had made for you yesterday, you would all be dead now. He saw Rarity being taken away by ponies who looked like intelligence agents, and he got scared enough of the situation to come to me and spill the beans.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" She buried her face in her hooves.

"We thought-"

"I don't care what you thought!" She yelled again. "What matters is what you didn't think. And frankly, it seems to be everything."

"We had to protect Dash," Scootaloo said quietly.

"Oh, we will see what Dash has to say about it, when Owlowiscious gets back here with her."

"No!" Scoot's eyes widened. "She can't know about this!"

"I'm sorry, Scootaloo, but your concept of handling this doesn't seem to work." Twilight sighed. "Why did you do that? What was the logic in stealing a dead body from the crime scene?"

"We had to protect Dash," I said.

"Protect? From what? From being falsely accused? If we assume that the accusation would be false, of course, because it doesn't necessarily have to be. And if it was, your actions still make no sense. Why would you even think that you were better in holding such an investigation than ponies qualified for that? Do you think you're smarter than them? And even if, with a lot of luck, you managed to somehow find the culprit not being Rainbow Dash, what would you do? All that you could do in such a situation would be going to the police with solid proof and hope that they were nice enough not to throw you into jail for interfering with a criminal investigation.

"That's why," she mused, "I think there is something more to it. You have working brains, and you had to know that simply going to the Ponyville's police station was the only logical option, if it was only about Rainbow Dash. But it wasn't, was it?"

We didn't say anything. What would be the point? She already knew the answer.

"It wasn't about her, not entirely. It was also about you. How long has it been since the last cutie mark crusading you did? You still can't get over the fact that you don't have cutie marks, am I right? You saw it not only as danger Rainbow Dash was in. You saw it as an opportunity for yourselves. Two birds with one stone. A win-win situation. What could possibly go wrong?"

A long silence fell.

"I hoped…" Scootaloo almost whispered, "that at least Sweetie would benefit from this. Her being in law school and all…"

"Yeah, and look where it led her," Twilight replied, and immediately cringed at her own words.

Scootaloo's whole body shivered, and she hung her head down.

"I'm sorry." Twilight got off her chair and tightly hugged Scoot, who trembled in quiet spasms. "I don't know why I said that."

I already mentioned that Scoot was an emotional see-saw. She switched moods all the time, often without any logic behind it. I saw her depressed, even despaired, so many times that I lost count ages ago. But I had never, ever seen her crying.

Crying Scootaloo was the saddest thing I've seen in my whole life.

"It will be okay," Twilight whispered in her ear, stroking her mane. "We will find a way to make it all right. And Sweetie Belle will be okay too. I took care of that. She will be fine in no time. Trust me."

There was a knock on the door.

"Coming." Twilight gently let go of Scootaloo and walked towards the door. "What is it, Spike? Did Sweetie Belle wake up?"

"No," the dragon replied, "but Owlowiscious is back, and he brought Rainbow Dash with him."

Hearing those words, Scootaloo jumped off her chair and galloped to the main hall, almost trampling them both on her way. "Rainbow Dash!" she shouted, starting to cry again. "You're all right!" She literally jumped onto the pegasus, squeezing her like she hadn't seen her for at least a few years.

"Yeah…" Dash said, confused. "Can someone explain what is happening?"

Twilight sighed. "Sit down. We need to talk."

* * *

"Please tell me it's not true…"

The silence was so heavy that I could hear a fly buzzing on the other side of the kitchen. The four of us – Twilight, Dash, Scootaloo and myself – sat by the table in the library's kitchen. Spike was still in the main hall, keeping an eye on Sweetie Belle, who could wake up any moment. I wished I was there with them.

"Please tell me it's not true," Rainbow Dash repeated. "Spitfire can't be dead. Why would anyone do such a thing?"

"That's one of the questions we were trying to answer," Scootaloo replied.

"But we can't focus on that now," said Twilight. "Girls," she looked at me and Scoot, "you know that you cannot play private investigators anymore. It has gone too far. We are going to the police."

Scootaloo froze. "But-"

"No buts." Twilight hit the table with her hoof. "It has to be done, and you know it. Don't be afraid. I know our commissioner pretty well, and we will do our best to work it out somehow. If everything is done properly, you won't be punished too hard. But I have to be honest with you. You can't escape punishment now. All we can do is hope for them to be easy on you. The best way to do so is to admit to what you've done, and to be honest with your intents. Besides, there's a more important issue than potential punishment for your crime. You are apparently being hunted. By someone who knows black magic, and that's terrifying news. Trust me, if there's one thing you should be worried about, it's him. The police will protect you.

"However, you have also messed with the intelligence, and that's another thing. When you're safe, I will try to use my connections and see what they want with your siblings. Don't worry too much about them, though. They didn't do anything wrong, and they should be released soon.

"Now tell me, does anyone else other than the six of us present in this library, know about this whole mess?"

I couldn't help but make eye contact with Scoot. "No," she replied, before I could say anything.

"Scootaloo," Twilight sighed, "please, for once, make it easier, not harder. Who have you dragged into this?"

I bit my lip. "He wanted to stay out of this. We promised we wouldn't drag him into this mess. So please don't do it either…"

"And he can be in mortal danger now, like you." Twilight Sparkle looked deep into my eyes. "Tell me who it is."

"His… his name is Doctor Feint," I said, looking down.

"What?!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. "What does Feint have to do with it? How do you even know him?"

"Who is Doctor Feint?" Twilight looked confused.

"Well, he is Sweetie Belle's teacher at the university and Rainbow Dash's relative," Scootaloo explained.

"He has a holiday house near Ponyville," said Dash. "I didn't even know he was here already for this summer vacation."

"He is also a cryptologist," I turned to Twilight. "I mean, hobbyist cryptologist, but very good. We hoped he could help us break the code of the documents Spitfire had with her."

"Yeah, that's another thing," Rainbow Dash cut in. "What in the world is that all about? I still can't follow you. What documents? What agents? Do I get it right that AJ and Rarity were taken away by them? And what the hay is that with my feathers? I don't understand a damn thing!"

"We will explain everything later, Rainbow," Twilight said calmly. "But before that, you have to tell us something. As you heard, we will go to the police with this case, and we can't do it without mentioning the feathers. It means you will be a suspect in a murder case."

"But I didn't do anything!"

"I know. We all believe you. That's why the girls took it in their own hooves, to somehow prove that you are innocent. But the first thing they'll want to know is what you were doing yesterday."

"What do you mean? There was nothing special going on yesterday."

"Rainbow Dash," Scootaloo spoke. "We couldn't find you all day yesterday."

"But I was-" she stopped. She looked at us with her mouth wide open. "What… how? I thought I had a normal day at work yesterday, but now that I think about it, I can't remember anything. I just had a vague memory of my rut, but now it feels like… like when you dream of something and think it has actually happened, and then something makes you realize it was a dream after all."

"I was afraid of that." Twilight slowly nodded. "Probably a memory wipe. Very nasty spell."

"Do you think that she could have interacted with the killer?" Scootaloo brightened up. "Could she point him out if she remembered?"

"If she remembered, then yes. But, as I said, it's very nasty. It doesn't hide the target's memories. It doesn't muffle them with an illusion that they don't exist anymore. This thing literally wipes out memories from a certain period of time. We won't be able to recover them from your head, Rainbow. They don't exist anymore."

"Come on," I moaned, "I thought magic always had a back door. There are no antidotes?"

"There are no antidotes for destruction." Twilight's horn lit up. She levitated a napkin over the table. "Just like there is no magic antidote for dying. You can prevent it, but you can't undo death." She easily tore the napkin apart. "In certain cases, you can repair something, like rebuilding a house of cards destroyed by a gust of wind. Or to perform a surgery to save someone from death."

The horn lit up a little bit more, and the napkin started to sew itself back together. When it finished, it slowly fell on the table.

"Look at it," the unicorn said. "What you have in front of you is a patch of memories that was once treated with a memory block spell. With some effort, we can assemble it back together, but there will always be a scar on it, a line of irregularity that marks the spell. It's like scar tissue on your body. On the other hoof, we have the memory wipe." Suddenly, the napkin burst into flames and burned instantly. "No matter how hard I try, I can't bring it back. It's gone. But! Tell me, girls, is it gone in every possible way?"

"Well…" Scootaloo said timidly. "We have some ash left."

"That's it." Twilight nodded. She was obviously very proud of this presentation. I would say she was even enjoying herself. "We have some ash. That's what is left in Dash's head for yesterday. You can't tell what color that napkin was, can you. Or what its shape was. Every napkin would leave a pretty much identical pile of ash after it was incinerated. The brain can't leave a blank spot for hours of consciousness, so it fills it with the everyday rut, something that is in every napkin, regardless of shape and color.

"But that can't help us in any way. However, there is something more than ashes." She stopped talking and waited for at least one of us to follow her thought. It didn't happen. "Breathe," she said.

"The… smoke?" I asked, unsure.

"The smoke," Twilight repeated. "You see, magic is in many ways similar to matter. There are a few common laws, like the preservation of energy. There is also something that can't be quite understood by someone who can't control magic. The equivalent of the preservation of mass. What we just witnessed was a simple combustion reaction. The chemical compounds present in our napkin reacted with oxygen, turning into combustion products, mostly carbon dioxide and water. In fact, there is something like magical smoke. Magical reactions leave residue, which takes a while to dissipate. The wiped memories aren't memories anymore, but by the smoke you can tell that it was memories that were burned. The problem is, it's very subtle and hard to notice."

"How exactly is that helpful, though?" Dash asked. "If I understand it correctly, you won't be able to distinguish anything from it."

"That's true." Twilight smiled slyly. "But if you breathe in another room, you won't smell the smoke. Here, you can."

"Of course!" I slapped my forehead. "If we can determine where it was done, it can be a valuable clue for our investigation!"

"And now I realize how unwise of me it was to tell you all this," the unicorn said slowly. "Applebloom, I told you already. There is no more investigation for you. We are-"

There was a knock on the door. It opened, and Spike walked in.

"She woke up," he said.

"Just in time," Twilight stood up. She turned to us. "We are going to the police, now."

I wanted to run there immediately, but Scootaloo kicked me in my shin under the table, so I slowed down.

"Should we tell them about Filthy Rich and Soarin?" she whispered to my ear when the mares left the kitchen.

"Not yet," I whispered back. "This is our bargaining chip. We can use it to either avoid charges, or, if we handle this in a smart way, even stay in the game thanks to it, who knows?"

"Do we want to?" Scoot sighed. "Twilight has a point. We did almost get killed, and especially Sweetie."

"It's different now. We must expose this investigation now. And if we're lucky enough to be considered protected witnesses, we are as safe in the game as if we are out of it. Besides, do you want to leave it?"

"No." She shook her head.

"I'm pretty sure neither does Sweetie." I grinned. "Now let's go to her."

* * *

Sweetie Belle was in a much better shape than we expected her to be. It seemed that Twilight's spell worked very well, and she even managed to close the wound. She explained to us that it didn't at all mean that it was healed. According to her, Sweetie was extremely lucky, because not only had the arrow missed her heart, it also missed a crucial tendon. If it had hit a few millimeters farther to the left, she would never be able to walk, or even move her left foreleg, again. She needed some time at the hospital, and she wasn't allowed to move a lot for the time being. Otherwise, she seemed to be fine. Even the pain wasn't that bad, at least from what she said. Thankfully, Twilight also managed to get rid of that terrifying blood stain on Sweetie's coat. With that, she informed that, for someone who had never seen injuries bigger than a papercut, blood loss always seems much worse than it actually is.

Of course, we had to explain the whole situation development to Sweetie Belle, including the latest resolutions. To our surprise, she didn't oppose any of them, agreeing to all the terms of Twilight's plan. At that point, I felt a strange strike of sadness, like I already knew that it was over for us. A brief moment of a realistic view on the situation, aware that no policeman would allow three fillies, barely adults, to join a serious investigation. The realization of how right Twilight was, telling us that we should consider ourselves very lucky if we would have our butts in one piece after all that we had done. I avoided looking into Scoot’s eyes in fear that she would see my defeatism.

We packed Sweetie on a makeshift stretch that Twilight was supposed to levitate to the police station. We all agreed it was safer to arrange the protection before we sent her to the hospital. Better safe than sorry.

The night was dark. The moon was hidden beyond clouds, and only a few stars shone through several breaks in the thick cover spread across the sky. I smiled sadly at the similarity to our case. The main path, the shiny, silver passage to our success, was taken away from us. But despite all the logs thrown under our hooves, there were some tiny rays of hope that refused to give up.

"Excuse me, do I have the pleasure of addressing misses Applebloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle?"

I turned around, startled. That voice came out of nowhere. To my surprise, I saw a pony, walking almost right beside us. He was wearing a black suit. I felt my heart freeze to a block of ice.

"Y-yes?" I stuttered out.

"That's fantastic. My name is Agent E-25 from the Equestrian Intelligence Bureau, pleasure to meet you." He smiled, but his face immediately changed its expression. "I am very sorry to inform you of this, but you are under arrest as suspects of murder of first degree and illegal possession of top secret documents. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you."