by Mysterious Stranger

First published

When Twilight discovers particles that are linked to magic, she creates a new field in forensic science and begins a crime-solving spree across Equestria. However, one criminal in particular will put her science through the ultimate test.

Any place where a earth pony has touched the ground. Any spot where a unicorn has used magic. Wherever a pegasus has flown through the air. With the help of a newly discovered particle that reveals how magic affects the physical world, Twilight can track the actions of all kinds of ponies. However, an unprecedented wave of crime is starting to sweep across Equestria, and a common link between many of the cases indicates the existence of a dangerous new foe. Someone who can perform impossible feats without using magic at all. Can Twilight's cutting edge science compete against a criminal mastermind who seems to have no limits?

Chapter 1: Observational Study

Twilight Sparkle's eyes felt like they were on fire. Performing scientific experiments while sleep-deprived was a combination begging for disaster, and disaster had obliged. Twilight stomped on the broken shards of glass vials, but the pain caused by her reckless staggering was nothing compared to the flaming sensation in her eyes.

What the experiment was she could no longer recall; her agony made everything else irrelevant. Instead of her study, she could only see bright and colorful lights, exploding in her vision like rainbow firecrackers. Distantly she heard a voice, frantically speaking words she didn't understand. Perhaps if the lights weren't so bright and her eyes didn't hurt so much, she would have a chance of comprehending the speaker.

Slowly yet miserably, the pain in her eyes subsided to a dull ache, but the sea of colors remained the same. Finally, she identified the speaker.

"Twilight! Please, answer me! What happened?" Spike said.

Twilight blinked rapidly, but the colors stayed in her vision. They were no longer exploding, but were instead flowing about and glowing brightly.

"I did something wrong," Twilight said with a wince. "I... I think I've blinded myself. Sort of."

"Can you see anything at all?" Spike said. "How many claws am I holding up?"

Twilight turned her head towards the sound of Spike's voice. But before she could guess or start to explain anything, the swirling colors slowed, conforming into the shapes of things in her study. Spike was visible before her, his body a canvas for the colors along with everything else. His arm was stretched out towards Twilight, but she was still unable to answer his question.

"Give me a moment," Twilight said. "I think my vision is getting better."

Gradually the colors stopped moving completely, and Twilight was able to see that purple was the most prominent among them. A large amount of green was concentrated on Spike's face. Although his arms were not yet their usual purple, Twilight was now able to see how many claws he was holding up.

"Two. You're holding up two claws," Twilight said. "But they're really colorful, along with everything else in the room."

"Not from where I'm standing," Spike replied. "Are you all right now?"

The colors slowly faded to reveal the world as Twilight normally saw it. Spike was watching her anxiously. A microscope was on her desk with the slide still on it. Her books, notes, and vials were on the floor. Tentatively Twilight stepped over the jagged shards and reached out with her magic to retrieve a broom from the other side of the room.

"I'm all right," she said as she began to sweep. "I was trying to learn a new spell and it backfired on me. It did something to my vision, made me see some strange mishmash of colors."

"W-what was it supposed to do?" Spike inquired.

"Basically, grant me the ability to see things at the microscopic level. I was using this ordinary microscope to see if it showed me the same things as the spell," Twilight said. "I'm not sure why I got the colors instead." She tilted her head to the side as a thought occurred to her. "I wonder if the colors would reappear if I cast the spell on the room instead of myself?"

"At two in the morning, I can't really say that I care," Spike said with a yawn as he rubbed his eyes. "If you're fine, I'm going back to sleep."

Spike departed from the room as Twilight levitated her books and notes back up onto her desk. Part of her wanted to go to bed herself, but the other part of her knew she wouldn't be able to sleep if her curiosity was piqued. She closed her eyes as she tried to recall the exact thoughts that had triggered the wayward spell.

Her horn flashed; a beam of light lit up the floor to create a glowing white disc, rapidly expanding and covering the room with a multitude of colors.

Twilight gave a short squeal at her success. Instinctively she squinted to protect her eyes, but it proved to be unnecessary. With the spell working on the study room itself, it did her no harm. She levitated her quill and notebook to take notes.

They promptly turned purple. The exact same shade of purple as the rest of the items on her desk.

Twilight glanced around. Not every surface in the room was colored. The ceiling was completely normal, and the floor was too except for a few splotches of green and light blue. Intrigued, probing, she reached out with her magic to touch the ceiling. The part directly affected by her mental touch blossomed into purple.

"No way," Twilight whispered in awe as repeated the trial on the ceiling again, creating a second purple smudge.

Twilight giggled as she drew an arc under the two smudges, creating a smiley face. Next came a heart, followed by another two hearts before signing her name.

"Spike!" Twilight called out. "You need to come see this!"

"Do I have to?" came Spike’s groan from the upstairs bedroom.

"Yes! Yes you do—it's the discovery of a lifetime!"

After a few moments Spike trudged back in, rubbing his eyes with one arm. Twilight couldn't help but notice that the lower half of his face turned green as he entered the study room. Spike glanced around the mostly purple room.

"What, did you discover how to paint with light?" he said.

"I'm not entirely sure what I've discovered," Twilight admitted.

"You said it was ‘the discovery of a lifetime’." Spike folded his arms.

"It still could be!" Twilight trotted on the spot. "When I recast the spell on the room instead of myself, all these colors showed up. And I discovered that everything I touch with magic turns purple."

"I see a few other colors in here too," Spike said. "There's green and blue on the floor."

"Those were already there. At least, they appeared after I cast the spell."

"So any time you or someone else uses magic, it leaves behind a mark?"

"It can't be that," Twilight said, shaking her head. "I've never seen anything about that in any magic textbook I've ever read. Magic vanishes completely after being cast. The only thing it adds to the physical plane besides the alteration of the target is light, but that disappears after the spell is complete too. It's scientific fact."

"Well, maybe all those textbooks are wrong," Spike suggested. "Maybe they all assumed magic was traceless because they couldn't see it without the spell you just came up with. It’d be like before molecules and atoms were first discovered, right?"

Twilight looked up at her doodles on the ceiling. "Could I… really have discovered something that no one else ever has before? Something that makes every textbook on magic I've ever read inaccurate? I… I just don’t know, Spike. Magic has existed since the beginning of time—it just doesn't seem feasible."

"Suppose someone who had never read any of those books came in here and saw you smearing everything with magic," Spike said. "What would it look like to them?"

"It would look like magic leaves a mark," Twilight conceded. "But if that's the case, it means that everyone has the wrong idea on how magic works. I’d have to write a book—publish a proper thesis with trials and results—to make them see the truth."

"So what's stopping you?"

"Well… I-I've… never written a book before," Twilight stuttered. "How should I even begin?"

"You’ve written essays before, right?" Spike said.

Twilight nodded. "Of course."

"Then just do that, but make it longer."

Twilight blinked twice, taken aback by how simple Spike made the idea sound. She grinned as her mental gears began to turn.

"I'll need sources, data, witnesses to back this up," she said thoughtfully as she began to pace around the study room. "Lots of evidence—the scientific community will reject my ideas unless I make a really strong argument. Oh, but I need to study this more first! I need to know what I'm talking about!"

Twilight snatched up a piece of glass with magic, turning it purple. Turning back to her desk, she set the shard beneath the microscope.

“Great.” Spike yawned again. “I'm going back to bed—again. Have fun with that.”

"I honestly can't comprehend how you could sleep at a time like this," Twilight said as she adjusted her microscope.

"Yeah, well, if you ever discover an infinite source of energy or something in the middle of the night, I still want you to wait until morning to tell me about it all right?"

Twilight smiled and rolled her eyes. "Have it your way, Spike."

"I’m serious. The only thing worth waking me up for is threat of injury or death," Spike said adamantly.

"All right, all right, I get the message!" Twilight said with mock exasperation. "You can go back to bed now."

"Oh I will, just try not to stay up all night over this, all right?" Spike requested.

Twilight scoffed. "I'm an adult, Spike. I can take care of myself."

"Oh please, you wouldn't last a week without me. You'd starve to death while reading a book."

"Did you miss the part where I said you could go back to bed?" Twilight hinted.

Spike threw up his claws in a gesture of surrender and backed out of the room. His footsteps faded as the door slammed behind him.

Still smiling to herself, Twilight turned her attention back to her microscope. The hours flew by as she studied. A note here, a simple experiment there. Eventually, her vision began to blur, so she pulled her head away from the microscope and closed her eyes.

Twilight awoke to bright sunlight streaming in through the window above her desk, and an irritating soreness in her neck and back. Wearily she leaned back in her chair to relieve the soreness as she skimmed over her notes.

"I knew you wouldn’t make it to bed," Spike said as he walked into the room with a dustpan. "I really hope you weren't up all night."

Twilight rubbed the back of her neck, already regretting her decision. "No, I eventually fell asleep, but not before I made some progress with this."

"Such as?" Spike prompted as he began sweeping up the pieces of glass from the night before.

"I think I've determined some of the properties of what I saw last night," Twilight answered. "Spike, those lights we saw might actually be particles that exist in two different planes."


"It's just a theory, but I'm fairly sure that the lights were coming from particles that somehow exist in both the physical plane and the magical plane," Twilight clarified, her voice rising with excitement. "Even with a microscope they're completely invisible. However, the spell I invented causes them to glow, so I can see where they are, even if I can never see the particles themselves."

"So why are there different colors?" Spike said.

"That I don't know. Like I said, it's just a theory. I still need to do a lot more research before I can even think about starting that book. I should probably get back to it right now."

"Twilight, I realize you're excited about this, but you really need to slow down," Spike said. "If you keep going like this you're going to make yourself sick. If you're not sleeping enough, will you at least pause long enough to eat something?"

As if agreeing with Spike's plea, Twilight's stomach rumbled.

"I suppose it wouldn't set me too far behind to get a quick breakfast," Twilight said sheepishly.

"You say that as if there's some sort of deadline. You literally just discovered this last night," Spike said.

"You're right, Spike," Twilight admitted. "I'm putting way too much pressure on myself again, aren't I?"

"To be fair, it sounds like the discovery of a lifetime. So a little relapse is understandable," Spike replied.

Twilight smiled and got up from her chair, only to wince as her spine protested. Most assuredly, no scientific breakthrough was worth this misery if it could be helped.

She made her way through the library’s upper levels before reaching the kitchen. Something with no preparation required would be ideal so she could back to her research as soon as possible.

Twilight opened the fridge and glanced inside. "Spike?" she called out. "Did you eat the last apple?"

"I had it with my lunch, like, an hour ago!" Spike called back.

Twilight scowled at the open fridge. Although it wasn't lacking in food, there wasn't anything else that could eaten without preparation. A quick examination of the freezer and the pantry yielded the same results.

She wondered if it would be quicker to just make something or run out and buy more apples from the market. She bounced between the two ideas in her head before settling on the latter. Besides, if Applejack was running the stand, Twilight would get the chance to say hello.

Twilight went to retrieve her saddlebags and some bits from her bedroom before quickly trotting down the stairs. "I'm running out to buy some apples!" she announced to Spike as she went out the front door.

Without even taking the time to see if Spike had heard her, Twilight briskly galloped down the road towards the Ponyville market. Despite herself, a guilty grin appeared on Twilight's face when she noticed how high up in the cloudless sky the sun was. She really had woken up in the middle of the afternoon. Even compared to her days when she was really bad at maintaining healthy sleeping patterns, this was extraordinarily bad.

Twilight promised herself it would never happen again as the dirt road widened into the crowded and colorful hustle bustle of the Ponyville market. As was usual for that time of day, the market was in a shopping frenzy: vendors proclaimed their wares to passersby while customers either silently paid for their purchases or haggled loudly to be heard over the din. Twilight weaved her way through the crowd until she found Applejack behind her stand.

"Afternoon, Twilight!" Applejack said. "Here to buy some apples?"

"Yes, and also to say hello," Twilight replied. "Seven bits for a large bag, right?"

Applejack's friendly grin fell away instantaneously. "Nine bits."

Twilight balked at Applejack's sudden shift in demeanor. "Oh. Uh, I'm sorry, I honestly thought your going price was seven," she said. "Did you not have as good a harvest this year?"

"Actually, we did even better than last year's harvest," Applejack said bitterly. "We could have gotten by with six bits per bag if we'd wanted."

"Then why the price rise?" Twilight said. "You're not, um, mad at me are you?"

"What? No, no, I ain't mad at you all, Twilight," Applejack said quickly. "We've just had to raise the prices for everypony 'cause we got robbed."

"Robbed?" Twilight repeated.

"Shoot, no, that's not the word. We were... ah, burglarized," Applejack said. "I went out to harvest the apples this mornin’ but a lot of ’em were already gone."

"Are you sure Big McIntosh didn't already harvest them?"

"He said he hadn't. I even asked little Apple Bloom and Granny Smith. We got to pokin' around and we saw that some of the buckets we used to collect the apples were gone too.”

"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry to hear that," Twilight said. She placed a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder.

"You and me both," Applejack said with a sigh. "Just wish I had some way to find the rascal so I could give ’em a piece of my mind."

Righteous anger swelled up in Twilight at whoever had caused harm to Applejack's business. It was a frustrating thing to know that someone out there was responsible, and there was no way to give the Apples justice. Even the Elements of Harmony, for all their power, couldn’t be used against an enemy whose identity was unknown.


The idea struck Twilight so hard she stiffened. Was it possible that her new discovery could help? Theoretically, a unicorn could have been the culprit, magicking the apples out of the trees without the noise caused by bucking them. If that was the case, could the unicorn by traced by her or his magic? Or, at the very least, could the apples be traced?

Twilight knew her odds were slim. Her new science was still in the infantile stage, after all. But what better way to work out its kinks than to start applying it? A grin crept onto her face as plans and theories began to form in her mind.

"You know what, Applejack? I think I just might be able to grant that wish."

Chapter 2: Hypothesis Testing

Twilight could tell from Applejack's expression that she was taken aback. Her reaction was understandable; after all, it wasn't every day that someone offered to track down the pony who had robbed you.

"Well, ah, Twilight, I'm chuffed that you're willin’ to find whoever robbed my family and I. But how exactly do you plan to do that?"

"I made a new discovery last night," Twilight said, clopping her hooves together. "I don't know much about it, but I'm willing to bet it can help me solve the case."

"What sorta discovery?"

"How to describe it..." Twilight said thoughtfully. "Actually, wait, better idea. I’ll show you."

Twilight fired a beam of pink light into the ground. On impact, it produced a glowing white circle that rapidly expanded. Some surprised bystanders jumped back to avoid being touched by the circle, a few yelling out in alarm. Hearing the commotion, several more heads turned towards the scene.

"Ooh, pretty!" a nearby filly said.

"I don't get it. Looks like all you did was add some colors to the ground," Applejack said.

Twilight observed the effect of her spell and saw that her friend was right. Only the ground was splashed with colors, with not a drop to be found on Applejack's stand or the apples on it. To the best of Twilight's knowledge, that meant neither the apples nor the stand had ever been touched by magic.

"You know, I'm not entirely sure what's going on with the ground, but check this out." Twilight reached for an apple with magic. When she levitated the fruit up, it turned purple, stem and all. "Pretty neat huh?"

"It's purple," Applejack stated flatly. "No offense, Twi, but I don't really see what good that does me."

"This apple turned purple because I used magic on it," Twilight explained. "If my theory is accurate, my spell should show where the magic of other unicorns has been used."

"You reckon you can find the culprit by following their magic?"

Twilight nodded. "It’s worth a try. I think I'll head over to Sweet Apple Acres before the trail gets too cold."

"That'd be swell. But before you go, think maybe you could undo these here colors?" Applejack held up the tainted fruit. "I might have a hard time sellin’ this purple apple."

"Actually, um, I haven't figured out how to undo it yet," Twilight said sheepishly. "But it does wear off eventually. Sorry!"

"Ah, well, maybe it'll draw customers." Applejack set down the apple with a sigh. "Best of luck to you."

Even as Twilight turned about and briskly walked away from the apple stand, several ponies moved in to get a closer look at the colorful scenery around it.

"Is that a purple apple?" someone asked Applejack. "Do you have any more?"

Twilight smiled as she trotted away.

Before long, Twilight reached Sweet Apple Acres’ boundary fence. After passing through the gate, she glanced around. As was usual for “apple-bucking season,” a large number of wooden buckets were gathered around the bases of the trees.

A thunk came from nearby. Following the sound, Twilight spotted Big McIntosh kicking a tree over a small crest nearby. Luscious, ripe red apples fell into the buckets at his hooves.

"Hello, Big Mac," Twilight said as she approached him. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

Big McIntosh paused in his task and turned towards Twilight. "Eeyup."

"Applejack told me that your farm got robbed last."

Neither anger nor any other apparent emotion passed over Big McIntosh's face as he nodded. "Eeyup."

"Where exactly were the apples stolen from?"

Big McIntosh turned again and walked off without a word, Twilight in tow.

They walked all the way to the western-most part of the property. Many trees around were noticeably absent of apples and buckets on the ground. For what was apparently an overnight heist, it was impressive how many apples had been stolen. Twilight figured that only a unicorn with very powerful magic could have performed such a job.

"So this is where it happened?"


"Do you mind if I cast a spell to see if I can track the missing apples?"

Big McIntosh shook his head. "Nope."

Twilight prepared the spell and unleashed it upon the area. Instead of starting as a circle on the ground this time, she focused on turning it into a giant white orb that expanded in all directions. As usual, colored spots covered the ground, although not as many as there had been at the market and not as diverse in color. There were even a few on the tree-trunks.

Twilight paid none of those details any mind, for her attention was on the branches of the trees. Much to her dismay, however, there were no glowing colors up there.

"Oh, shoot." She stomped the ground. "I thought for sure that would work. Maybe the spell only shows were my magic has been used."

"Nope," said Big McIntosh.

"Yes, well, there are all these other colors that show up each time," Twilight said. "But they don't make any sense. I can't fathom why there would be traces of magic on the ground, unless some unicorns just like to go around touching it."

Big McIntosh calmly walked up to tree, spun on his forelegs, and gave the tree a buck so powerful that Twilight felt the vibrations through the ground.

Twilight's eyes widened, but not simply because of Big McIntosh's impressive display of strength. Two splotches of green light appeared on the tree precisely where the stallion had kicked it.

"There was… magic in that kick," Twilight said. "But how? Earth ponies aren't supposed to be… magical."

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Twilight found herself questioning their validity. After all, hadn't it only been yesterday that "scientific fact" had been thrown into uncertainty? If the conventional wisdom about magic had been wrong in that respect, there really wasn't any reason that error couldn't extend further. If Twilight were to disregard what she thought she knew about magic, what her eyes told made much more sense. What she saw explained the colors on the ground and on the trees. Everywhere that an earth pony's hoof touched, magic was there also.

In light of this fact, Twilight could now see where Big McIntosh had walked; glowing green hoof-prints trailed behind him.

"In order to have a special connection to the earth, earth ponies channel magic through their hooves!" Twilight said. "Big Mac, you're a genius!"

Big McIntosh tilted his head to the side, as if seriously considering the praise. "Nope," he said, though a grin flickered across his face.

Armed with her new knowledge, Twilight scanned the trees and the ground. While green was the dominant glowing color, there was still a noticeable blue that had bucked every tree at least once. Moreover, there was more of the same color on the fence.

Scarcely able to contain her excitement, Twilight fired her spell onto the grassy downward slope beyond the fence. A trail of glowing blue hoof prints led away from the scene of the crime.

Twilight grinned. She had no idea how an earth pony could have stolen so many apples in one night, but she could find out how later. Finally, an actual lead!

Not trusting herself to jump the fence without landing wrong, Twilight teleported herself to the other side and began to follow the blue spots. Every few seconds, she renewed the spell to extend its range further as she went. At one point the trail turned, prompting her to follow it in zigzags down the hillside. Soon the path straightened up and continued towards the woods at the bottom of the hill.

Twilight's excitement peaked when she spotted a cave a little ways into the woods. She quickened her pace as she passed through the tree line; sure enough, the blue hoofprints led right up to the cave. The culprit had to still be in there—

A red leg swung out in front of her, forcing her stop. Twilight glanced at the leg's owner.


"Nope," Big McIntosh said.

"Ooh, good point, the thief might be on alert if he’s still inside." Twilight said. "Probably not the best idea to rush right in there. But how am I supposed to solve the mystery if I don't go in?"

Big McIntosh looked around with a slight frown, and then picked up a large fallen branch with his mouth. Holding it aloft, he strode towards the cave himself.

Twilight didn't move. “Oh. You be careful then!”

Big McIntosh grunted what might have been an “Eeyup” as entered the cave.

Right away, someone—or something—jumped at him.

“Big Mac!” Twilight rushed forward, horning glowing.

Big McIntosh staggered on his hooves as he took several hits, but then lashed back with his branch, knocking the attacker further back into the cave.

Twilight charged in after him and fired her spell, paralyzing the ambusher. For a moment everything was quiet. Her horn glowed again, this time with a simple illumination spell.

The cave was nearly filled to the top with apples. Larges piles all around, mostly unscathed save for a few apple cores on the floor. Oddly enough, there were also several logs in the cave, long and thin ones. The stolen buckets were there too, stacked up neatly in a corner.

Twilight turned her attention to her target. Encased in a field of magic was an earth pony stallion, his eyes wide with shock.

"This mystery is solved," Twilight said proudly. "I suppose now would be good a time as any to get someone to actually arrest this guy."

"Eeyup," Big McIntosh agreed.

The entire population of Ponyville had gathered in the town square, watching as Royal Guards put shackles on the apple burglar's legs. Not once had he spoken, even after the paralysis spell had worn off.

Twilight stood by Spike and her five closest friends as she too watched the Royal Guards load the thief into the back of an enclosed chariot. Princess Celestia stood next to Twilight as well, observing with a slight frown on her face.

"I must admit, Twilight, I was very surprised when I got your letter. It has been a very long time since something like this has happened."

"I'm still try’na figure out how he filched so much of our crop," Applejack said as she scratched her head. "That fella took enough apples to stock a dragon’s hoard."

"I think I know how he did it," Twilight said. "In his hideout, he had a lot of logs. Because the theft took place on the outskirts of Sweet Apple Acres, he might even have started during the day without anyone noticing. All he had to do was line the logs up on the side of the hill. Once that was done, he could easily transport all the apples by dumping the bucket on the other side of the fence. With the logs acting as rails, gravity did the rest."

"That orchard is pretty far from the house," Applejack said. "Pretty smart thinkin' Twi."

"Speaking of smart thinking, I heard that you discovered a new spell?" Princess Celestia inquired.

"That and more," Twilight said, her face burning. "It’s a real game-changer considering what we know—or think we know—about magic, so I don't want to say much about it before I'm absolutely certain. I think it may involve the discovery of very unusual particles though."

"Oh? What sort of particles?"

"I... don't actually have a name for them yet," Twilight said. "They might have a lot of different qualities to them, so the name would have to accurately represent the entirety of what they are. Or, at least, what I think they are. For now... I think I'll call them magical bi-planar luminescent particles."

"That's… quite a mouthful, darling," Rarity said.

"Well, yes." Twilight admitted. "But it represents what I think they are."

"How about you call them ‘magicles’?" Spike suggested.

"No, that's not proper grammar," Twilight said with a wave of her hoof. “The word 'magical' is an adjective, not a noun. You can't make it plural by adding an 's'."

"No, not 'magicals'," magicles," Spike clarified. "Magic plus particles. Magicles."

"I like it," said Rainbow Dash. "It's catchy."

"It certainly rolls of the tongue easier," Rarity said. "Magicles."

"Magicles magicles magicles magicles!" Pinkie Pie yelled with a bounce after each word.

"But that's not even a real word!" Twilight protested. "It's a made-up word!"

"Just try sayin' it, Twilight," Applejack suggested. "Magicles."

"Doesn't matter what she thinks—majority rules!" said Rainbow Dash. "Magicles."

"Um, I think yours is nice too, Twilight," Fluttershy said. "Magical bi… um, what you said."

Twilight opened her mouth to point out it was her discovery and therefore her call, but was instead interrupted by her stomach rumbling.

"Oh my gosh, I still haven't eaten all day," she said. "I don't suppose I could buy some apples at your usual price now, Applejack?"

"Twilight," Applejack chuckled. "After all that you've done for the Apple family today, you can have some on the house!"

Tough Break sat alone in his cell, staring at the cobblestone floor. He had been so sure that his plan to steal all those apples had been flawless, but here he was anyway. Somehow, he had been found out. But Tough Break wasn't so much concerned about his imprisonment as he was his employer. His employer wouldn't be happy that Tough Break had failed to do what he had promised.

"You had one job," someone behind Tough Break suddenly hissed.

Tough Break spun around, but of course only the cobblestone wall was behind him. Above his head was a little barred window, too high for him to see out of. During the day it allowed in sunlight, but now the cell was pitch black.

"I'm sorry, I messed up!" Tough Break said quickly. "But since I'm here, you might as well let my wife and daughter go. I can't do anything for you here. There's no point in you holding on to them."

"Thanks for the suggestion, but I think I'll keep them close by anyway. They're not my concern right now, though. You are."

"L-look, I didn't r-rat you out. I n-never said anything about you, I didn't say anything at all," Tough Break stammered.

"A wise choice, most certainly. But your court date will arrive before you know it, and you are very much a liability. I can't afford to have any liabilities."

"J-just promise to let them go, okay?" Tough Break begged. "Please!"

For a moment there was no sound.

Tough Break started to wonder if his blackmailer had actually left to release his wife and daughter.

The ceiling shuddered.

A single scream rent the night as it came crashing down.

Chapter 3: Emotional Bias

Twilight's study room was a complete mess, but that was of no concern to her. Why take the time to tidy up when history-changing scientific breakthroughs were about to occur? In light of that, details such as appearance or even basic hygiene seem irrelevant; Twilight hadn't even showered or brushed her teeth for two days. Instead, she had gotten straight to work after waking up earlier the next morning. Her disheveled mane warranted no thought while papers filled with hastily scrawled notes surrounded her. Some were on the floor, on her desk, and even on the ceiling thanks to anti-gravity spells. Twilight's recently discovered but as-of-yet “officially” unnamed spell was active upon the room, coating it with glowing colors—predominantly purple.

Twilight groaned as she scanned the papers levitating in front of her. She had hit a roadblock of sorts, and wasn't sure how to proceed.

Spike chose that moment to walk in carrying a plateful of pancakes. "I thought you might like to eat breakfast in here," he said as he held out the plate. "I made them just the way you like them."

Twilight didn't even turn around. Instead she kept her attention devoted to her science. Idly, she stroked the wall to her left with magic, leaving behind a luminescent purple stain. She studied it for a moment, frowned, and turned back to her notes.

"Twilight, I brought you pancakes," Spike said, his voice louder than before.

Twilight picked up a blank sheet of paper with her mouth and began to gently drag it along the wall she had touched with magic.

Spike rolled his eyes. It seemed only the most desperate of measures would get Twilight's attention now. But before Spike could act, Twilight suddenly noticed him.

“Spi—oh, there you are, I was just about to call for you. Could you do me a favor and make me emotional?”

Spike blinked twice. "What?"

"I'm trying to figure out why the magical bi-planar luminescent particles have different colors," Twilight said. "You would think that my magic would be pink since that's the color my horn emits, but instead I always get purple. I'm trying to see if there is a correlation between emotion and color."

"So you want me to do something that will get a strong reaction from you?" Spike asked incredulously.

"More or less. Either positive or negative, I've yet to try either one."

"Well, I did just make you a batch of your favorite pancakes." Spike held up the plate again. "You want some?"

"Oh, thank you Spike!" Twilight said gratefully. "I would very much like—"

Spike spat green fire at the pancakes, instantly reducing them to ash.

Twilight's grateful expression melted. "Oh."

"You gonna do your thing or what?" Spike prompted.

Glumly, Twilight turned her attention to the wall and touched it with magic; an identical purple blotch painted the spot.

"Aw, nothing," she said with a sigh. "And I didn't even my get my pancakes."

"Oh, uh, I can make more," Spike said quickly. "Sorry about that."

“No, it’s fine, I asked for it. Tell you what, how about you make some more and I'll come downstairs to join you,” Twilight suggested. “I should probably take a break from this anyway.”

"Deal." Spike turned and exited the room.

Twilight took a few minutes to stack up her notes and then made her way downstairs to the kitchen. A fresh batch of pancakes was already on the table, still steaming hot; Spike stood at the counter, flipping more pancakes with practiced dexterity.

Twilight levitated up a book and began reading as she ate. Just before she could consume the last bite, there was a knock on the front door.

"Kind of early for a library visit, isn't it?" Spike raised an eyebrow.

Twilight stiffened as she remembered she still hadn't showered or brushed her teeth. "Could you get that, Spike? I'm not quite ready for visitors yet." She dashed up the stairs while Spike went to answer the door. After freshening up in record time, Twilight came back down to discover a clearly distraught yellow pegasus eating pancakes. Instantly, she felt bad for keeping one of her best friends waiting.

"What's the matter, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked with concern.

"Oh, Twilight, it's the most awful thing." Fluttershy sniffed. "Some of the animals have been driven out of the forest. Their homes have been destroyed."

"Destroyed? By what?"

Fluttershy shook her head. "I don't know. I didn't dare go into the woods myself. I was hoping you could come with me and help."

"Of course I will," Twilight promised. "We'll go right now."

"I'll clean up breakfast and open the library," Spike offered.

"Thanks, Spike. Hopefully, we'll have this fixed before too long," Twilight said. "After you, Fluttershy."

Fluttershy sniffled again. “Thank you, Twilight.”

As they traveled towards the outside edge of Ponyville, Twilight tried to imagine what could have destroyed the animal's habitats. It couldn't have been a forest fire, or someone would have seen smoke. A rampant monster from the Everfree forest was a possibility, or even some naive campers. If it was the latter, Twilight had in mind to give them a good scolding. If the former, she was willing to let Fluttershy take the reins; Fluttershy had always had a way with animals, monsters included.

When the two mares reached the woods, they began traveling inward between the trees. Minutes passed by as Fluttershy led, following some sort of path Twilight couldn't detect.

“Here we are, Twilight. Look at all those poor trees.”

Twilight gasped. It was a large rectangular area absent of trees. Much to her fascination, long wooden beams stretched across the area overhead, with the tree canopy sitting on top of them. Twilight deduced that from above, the clearing was undetectable without sacrificing space below the canopy. There were more wooden beams all over the place, shaping the outlines of a construction in progress. Nearby, larges piles of dirt sat by giant holes in the ground inside the structure. Twilight also spotted tools such as saws and shovels, safely tied to some of the upright beams by chains and padlocks.

"What is this place?" Fluttershy wondered.

"A construction zone," Twilight answered. "One that someone went through great lengths to hide from the rest of the world. It's so deep into the woods, no one might ever have found it if it weren't for your animal friends."

"Does that mean somepony is building something here illegally?" Fluttershy asked.

Twilight shrugged as she started to walk forward to get a better look. "Could be."

Twilight came to an abrupt stop as she recalled what had happened the last time she recklessly entered a crime scene. It had only been because of Big Macintosh that she had narrowly avoided an ambush. For all she knew, criminals could be hiding in the holes.

Twilight lifted up a nearby rock with magic and hurled it into one of the holes in the ground. No reaction. A little more confident, Twilight approached the framework and and glanced around.

"Fluttershy, how old do you think this thing is?"

"Well, um, it can't be too old." Fluttershy flew up to better inspect the framework. "The wood looks freshly cut, and there's piles of wood dust on the ground that hasn't been washed away by rain yet. And those tree tops on the, um, top are still green. Cut off from the rest of the trees like that, they won't stay that way."

"Maybe the tree tops are fake?" Twilight suggested.

"The leaves look real, and it still has its bark," Fluttershy replied. "I've never seen anyone do this to trees."

"Well, we can either wait for someone to come back, or we can trace them with my, um… shoot, that still needs a name… We can trace with them with my magical bi-planar luminescent particle finder spell."

"That's a very good name," Fluttershy said a little too quickly.

Twilight closed her eyes while she mentally prepared the spell. Once her thoughts were gathered, her horn glowed to life. The white sphere exploded outward until about half of the clearing was in its radius. She scowled slightly; she had been hoping for something bigger.

Regardless, Twilight began to study her surroundings. The first thing she noticed was that Fluttershy's wings were glowing light blue.

"Oh, that's interesting. Your wings are magical," Twilight said.

"That's... great I guess?" Fluttershy said hesitantly as she glanced her own wings. "They'll turn back to normal soon, right?"

"They will. Even sooner if you step outside of the spell's range," Twilight said. "Could you do me a favor and fly around? I want to see if I can track your progress through the air."

Fluttershy did so, and Twilight was pleased to see specks of blue light trailing behind the pegasus. Not only that, but the underside of Fluttershy's hooves also glowed light blue. Twilight smirked as she realized the irony. Originally she had thought her spell would only be useful for unicorns. Now, it seemed, it actually worked better for tracking pegasi and earth ponies. To the best of Twilight's knowledge, unicorns were untraceable unless they used magic. Of course, assuming it worked on earth ponies was based off the examples of Big Macintosh and the criminal they had caught together. Twilight hoped they were the norm, not the exception.

"Well? Does it work?" Fluttershy asked as she gently landed in front of Twilight.

"Lift up your hoof real quick," Twilight requested.

Fluttershy did so, revealing a faint blue smudge of light underneath.

"It works, even better than I expected." Twilight turned her attention back to the crime scene.

Five different colors were present, which presumably meant five different ponies had been there. There were spots all over the ground, on the tools, and on the beams. Twilight also noticed that some of the spots on the ground were smaller than others, basically specks like Fluttershy's wings had given off. The five different colors were too abundant for Twilight to guess their routes on the scene, but she spotted what appeared to be a trail of glowing green blots leading away from it.

"There. Right there," Twilight said as she pointed a hoof at the trail. "If we follow that, we should find one of the construction workers for this place. When we find him, we'll have answers."

“I hope we don't interrupt him doing anything important.”

Twilight smiled to herself. Only Fluttershy could be concerned about someone who had destroyed animal's habitats for a secret building project. Twilight took the lead, using her spell like a flashlight to follow the suspect. Twilight and Fluttershy conversed as they went, but the longer they traveled the more weary Twilight felt as she strived to maintain the spell. Unlike last time, the suspect was evidently not located nearby.

Just moments before Twilight wanted to call for a break, she and Fluttershy at last came upon a log cabin from behind. The two mares circled around to the front and approached the front door. Twilight exchanged a glance with Fluttershy, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Chapter 4: Unorthodox Solutions

Twilight took a giant step back after knocking on the door, bracing herself for anything.

"What do we do if he's not home?"

Fluttershy’s question barely floated into Twilight’s ears, so focused was she on the sound of heavy steps approaching the door. She could have sworn she even felt them vibrate in the ground.

An eye momentarily peeped through the blinds of a side window. Next came the rattle of chains before the door swung open to reveal a massive earth pony. The stallion looked down at Twilight and Fluttershy, his brow raising slightly.

"What is this, a singing telegram or something?" he asked gruffly.

Fluttershy positioned herself behind Twilight.

"Ah, not quite." Twilight coughed to clear her throat. "We're actually here to investigate… whatever it is that’s being built in the middle of the forest."

The stallion stiffened, but quickly regained his composure. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Twilight had to make an effort to keep her impatience at bay. The stallion was obviously involved, but for whatever reason he wanted to play ignorant. "The construction, of course," she replied matter-of-factly. "You know, the one you've been working on?"

"What makes you think I've been working on building something?"

"Because I have a magical science that proves you were there," Twilight snapped. "Quit wasting my time."

"Wasting your time? You're wasting my time with these accusations," the earth pony said stiffly as he started to close the door.

"Don't you dare close that door on us, buster!" Fluttershy said suddenly as she stepped forward. "Don't you know how rude that is?"

The stallion paused. His mouth opened but no words came out, for Fluttershy had locked eyes with him and was refusing to let him get away.

"We came all the way here because that thing you're building has robbed a lot of animals of their homes!" Fluttershy continued. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"

"Whoa, geez, lady! I'm not the one who picked the spot! I'm just doing my job, see!" the stallion gestured toward his cutie mark, an image of a hammer and nail. "I'm just the construction guy! Now lose the angry eyes, will you?"

"So who hired you?" Twilight asked.

"That's confidential." The stallion smirked. "I can't tell you that without breaching contract. I will say, however, that it’s entirely legal, even if it’s being kept under wraps."

"Are you absolutely sure?" Fluttershy softened her gaze and batted her eyelashes, her voice laced with honey. "We're not going to tell anyone about it. We're just looking out for the animals. That's all. All those adorable little critters without a home."

As the stallion’s mouth opened and closed rapidly, Twilight could sense that Fluttershy was on the verge of getting through.

"I really shouldn't say..." he said weakly.

Much to Twilight's alarm, Fluttershy actually reached out and gently touched the stallion's leg with her hoof.

"You would be doing us a huge favor if you did. It would mean a lot to me."

The stallion relented, glancing from side to side. "You didn't hear it from me," he muttered. "His name is Filthy Rich, I'm sure you've heard of him. He hired me and some other guys to quietly build a factory for him. He got a deed for the land—I saw it myself. He said he didn't want his competitors to catch wind of his plans, that's why it’s a secret."

"Thank you very much for your help," Fluttershy said sweetly as she lowered her hoof. "We promise we won't tell him how we found out."

"I'm sure you won't because I never even gave you my name," the stallion said with a smirk. "And I think I'll keep it that way. Good day to you—now leave me alone." He pulled the door shut and locked it, leaving Twilight and Fluttershy alone.

"Where did you learn to charm like that?" Twilight inquired as the pair walked back toward town.

"Rarity taught me," Fluttershy said simply. "She said I needed help."

"Wow. She did a fantastic job."

"Thanks, Twilight.” A faint tinge of pink colored Fluttershy’s cheeks. “She knows a lot more than just dresses. So, um, do you know where we can find Filthy Rich?"

"I remember Applejack mentioned him once. I believe he owns the Barnyard Bargains retail chain," Twilight said. "The original store is in Ponyville."

"Could you come with me to confront him?" Fluttershy requested. "I don't want to do it by myself."

"You sure? You seemed to handle that other guy pretty easily." Twilight nudged Fluttershy with a knee, and winked.

"O-oh, that was, um… I mean, I was mostly thinking about the animals—"

"I’m sorry, I was only joking," Twilight said with a giggle. "Of course I’ll help you. Besides, this whole thing has me curious too."

Without stopping at the construction site, the return trip did not take as long. Despite this, Twilight and Fluttershy were panting slightly by the time they reached the Ponyville commercial district.

On the outside, Barnyard Bargains bore a strong resemblance to an actual barn; its shingled walls were painted red with white borders. Unlike a barn, however, it had many giant pictures inset along its walls of what appeared to be happy customers using products and wearing clothes of the same color scheme as the building. The general store’s entrance was composed of glass doors flanked by fake barn doors.

"Well, looks like we found our target," Twilight said.

"Where would we find Filthy Rich?" Fluttershy asked.

"I would imagine he has an office,” Twilight said. "I don't want to sneak in, so let's just go into the store and figure it out from there."

Twilight used her magic to pull open the glass doors as she and Fluttershy approached, allowing them to pass through. The store interior consisted of a shining white floor and tall aisles full of all sorts of merchandise. At the back of the building, Twilight and Fluttershy found a set of double doors, not marked with words but clearly not intended for shoppers. On the doors were small windows, which Twilight used to glance inside.

"Can I help you?"

Twilight spun around, startled by the red-vested mare’s appearance. "Oh, yes please. We're looking for Filthy Rich."

"Filthy Rich? His office is behind the help-and-return desk at the front of the store," the employee replied.

"May we speak to him?"

The mare shifted her hooves. "I... don't actually know the answer to that question," she said. "I mean, he'll come out when a customer is upset and asking for him, but I'm guessing this is about something else."

"It is," Twilight said. "Can you ask him to meet with us? It's about his... important project. He'll know what we're talking about."

The employee raised her brow at Twilight's vague description, but went off toward the front of the store nonetheless. A couple minutes later she returned.

“Mr. Rich has requested you both in his office.”

Twilight and Fluttershy exchanged a glance.

That was quick, Fluttershy mouthed as they followed the employee back to the help desk.

Maybe too quick? Twilight responded while another employee behind the desk guided them to Filthy Rich's office door.

After letting Fluttershy enter first, Twilight shut the door behind her.

Twilight wasn't sure what she had been expecting the office to look like, but was surprised all the same. The walls were made up of a dark, glossy wood. A single ceiling fan with an inbuilt globe lit up the entire room: covered in awards, framed certificates for generous donations and sponsorships, and even a full-size portrait of the smiling owner and his smirking daughter.

Filthy Rich himself sat at a desk of the same wood, his stoic expression fixed on Twilight and Fluttershy. If not for the fact that Twilight knew his reputation as a publicly upstanding citizen, she might have been intimidated by his slick black mane, and the bright red tie over his brown coat. Back straight, he seemed to be waiting for them to approach before he spoke.

But the truly eye-catching thing about the room stood behind Filthy Rich, facing the door. It resembled a unicorn yet was clearly not a real one. It was a golden machine, with pistons visible in the joints of its four legs and neck. It possessed a mane and tail made out of light-blue artificial fibers, and glowing eyes of the same color. It had a mouth as well, which did not open as words came out.

"You are not construction workers," it stated flatly.

"Quite right," Filthy Rich added. "To be honest, I was expecting someone else."

"Sorry about that," Twilight said. She nudged Fluttershy, and the pair stepped forward. "We're here about your secret construction project and… um, what is that?"

Filthy Rich rubbed the sides of his head with his hooves. "Wonderful. Two corporate secrets leaked in one day. Forget about my… friend for a moment and let’s focus on what brought you here instead."

"Would you care to explain, Fluttershy?" Twilight offered, trying not to look at the machine and failing.

Fluttershy rubbed the red carpet with her hoof. "Oh, um, well, you see, Mister Filthy, we—"

"Rich, please," the business pony interrupted. "Mr. Rich."

"Oh, sorry. Mr. Rich, my name is Fluttershy, and I look after many animals that live in the forest. A lot of them lost their homes when you cleared out so much of the forest for your construction."

"Would it do me any good to ask how you connected the project to me?" Filthy Rich asked.

"We spoke to one of your workers," Twilight said. "He didn't give us his name, but we managed to get yours from him. To be fair, we caught him off-guard with our already knowing about the project."

"I'll worry about that later," Filthy Rich said. "So, Miss Fluttershy, what you're telling me is that some animals have been driven out of their homes by the project, is that correct?"

Fluttershy nodded. "That's right. I was hoping you could do something about it."

Filthy Rich clasped his forehooves together and leaned forward. "And what exactly would you have me do?"

"Um, you could maybe stop building?" Fluttershy suggested weakly.

"I don't see how that helps the animals, or me," said Filthy Rich. "To be honest, I didn't give much thought to clearing out a small part of the forest because I thought the animals would just find somewhere else to live. But you're telling they're distraught about the whole affair?"

"Very distraught," Fluttershy said. “My house and yard are both louder and more packed than ever before.”

"All right. Well, halting construction won't give them their original homes back." Filthy Rich said. He raised his forehooves and placed them upon the table. "Is there any other way to make them less upset? Some form of compensation?"

"Not really," Fluttershy replied. "The only things animals really want are food, water, and shelter."

Filthy Rich gazed up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Food, water, and shelter? Well as a short-term fix, I think I have a solution for at least one of those problems."

Twilight and Fluttershy watched in disbelief as a small crowd of forest creatures rejoiced. Birds were singing, squirrels were chittering, and others celebrated with other noises. The cause of their celebration sat in a large pile in the forest.

"Marshmallows," Twilight said incredulously. "He bought them marshmallows."

"I wasn't even aware they came in bags that big," Fluttershy said in awe. "It will take weeks for them to eat it all."

"Well, they're certainly not upset anymore, that's for sure."

A mouse ran up to Fluttershy and held out a marshmallow as big as its body.

"Oh! Thank you, Mister Squeakers," Fluttershy said gratefully as she accepted the treat. "I guess everyone got what they wanted in the end, didn't they?"

"For the time being, at least," Twilight said. "The animals are happy, and Filthy Rich got our silence about his secret factory and his machine. I wish I knew why he had a machine that looked like a unicorn, but I guess some things will have to stay a mystery."

"I wasn't expecting it to be this easy," Fluttershy confessed. "I was expecting him to not even care about the animals. But he does—he just didn't mean to upset them. He's actually a very nice pony."

"I thought the same," Twilight admitted. "I guess just because someone is very good and making money doesn't mean they're cold and uncaring. Ooh! That's a letter for Princess Celestia right there."

It was the gaping hole in the wall that drew Cyrus’ curiosity at the Crystal Empire Museum. Only moments before he had made his rounds through the building, his incredibly bored mind studying every detail. The floors, walls, and ceiling were a polished white, with glowing light stones making visibility just as easy as being outdoors. The displays throughout the museum were just as dull to Cyrus as the ceiling: wax figures, plaques, and models represented the Empire's long and occasionally violent past.

Normally, Cyrus hated seeing the same stuff every time he took the night shift, but as he stood facing the hole revealing the dark streets outside, he had to admit that seeing the same things every night was preferable. Forgetting his boredom entirely, the crystal pony glanced around, looking for any sign of something that could knock down a wall. It couldn't have happened very recently or he would have heard the wall collapsing.

Cyrus briskly trotted down the hallway, his head swinging from left to right. Being the only one who was supposed to be in the museum that night, it was ultimately his responsibility to find the intruder. Cyrus was grateful for the well-lit halls and the crystal armor he wore, although an actual weapon to use would have been nice too.

Cyrus' search led him into the King Sombra exhibit, his least favorite place in the entire museum. King Sombra's reign may have taken place a thousand years ago for most of Equestria, but for the crystal ponies it had been only months since Sombra's rule ended. A wax figure of King Sombra stood in the fray of a mock-battle scene, his army of darkness versus the might of the Empire.

Cyrus borrowed a sword from a wax figure who appeared ready to lop the head off of a black pony with green orbs for eyes. The sword was made of plastic, but it made Cyrus feel a little bit more confident.

An abrupt clank caught Cyrus's attention. With sword in mouth he spun toward the direction of the noise. Standing on a pedestal surrounded by broken glass was a full suit of armor. Unlike the plastic adorning the wax warriors in the room, the suit of armor on the pedestal was made of genuine earth pony steel. It was a true relic, and it now had one armored leg standing on the floor instead of the pedestal. The armor clanked three more times as it stepped off completely, crushing glass pieces underhoof as it did so.

Cyrus scowled at the sight. Had he arrived sooner, he might have caught the intruder before he or she had put on the armor. Now the only way he would be able to see the intruder's face would be to lift up the slitted visor. He charged forward, sword pointed at the intruder's head.

An armored leg snapped up and out, catching him in the chest.

Cyrus dropped the plastic sword as he flew backwards. He knocked over the wax figure of King Sombra before landing on his side.

"Strong, aren't you?" he grunted as he rose back up to a standing position. "Go ahead, try to do that again. I dare you."

Without a word the armored assailant strode toward Cyrus, clanking all the way. Some kind of mist had started to obscure the gleaming white floor around the suit of armor, but Cyrus hardly paid it any mind. Instead he zigzagged in for another strike, only to be knocked into the wall by another casual slap by the intruder.

Cyrus's vision blinked in and out as the mist began to fill the room. Like something ethereal, the armored attacker walked through the haze and swept Cyrus' legs out from underneath him. Before Cyrus could get up again, the assailant placed an armored hoof on Cyrus' exposed underside and began to apply a crushing force.

Unable to move or even breathe, all Cyrus could do was watch the slitted visor of his assailant until he couldn't see or feel anything anymore.

Chapter 5: Confounding Variable

Twilight had a silly grin on her face and a bounce in her step as she departed the train. Every time she visited the Crystal Empire, its pristine beauty never failed to impress her. The Crystal Empire train station was actually a bit of a distance away from the city-state, allowing a full view of its gleaming glory. Its white-and-blue castle stood at the heart of the Empire, with pointed towers poking at the sky like great, icy stalagmites; by comparison, the rest of the buildings in the city seemed merely jagged against the skyline.

Unlike the rest of the Frozen North it inhabited, the Crystal Empire sat in a vast expanse of green fields. A crystal gate decorated with levitating gems marked the simple dirt road that led from the train station to the actual city. Spike, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Applejack all paused to take in the sight as they, too, disembarked.

"I'm so glad we made the time for this," Rarity remarked as she casually flicked her mane. "I've never actually been to the Crystal Empire Museum before."

"This is actually my second time going," Twilight said. "But the brand new exhibit on King Sombra opened today for the first time. I'm looking forward to seeing it."

"It's very brave of the crystal ponies to put something so recent in their museum," said Fluttershy. "I read in the Ponyville Express that it was very controversial."

"That's part of what makes the Crystal Empire so fascinating!" Twilight’s eyes shone much like the city. "What they consider recent history goes further back than anything else the rest of Equestria has to offer. Being a thousand years behind everyone else, you could say that the entire city is a piece of history!"

"You think I'll be mentioned at all in the exhibit?"

Twilight turned her head to Spike, who was riding on her back. "I would hope so. If not, someone, will be getting a very stern talking-to about the exclusion of such an important historical figure." Her grin widened. "Oh, I can hardly wait!"

Twilight had to suppress the urge to break out into a full gallop as the group stepped onto the city’s main path. The road became smooth purple crystal before long, with not a fracture or jagged edge to speak of.

Twilight took the lead as she guided her friends along the streets, until they at last reached their destination. The Crystal Empire Museum was two stories tall: a mostly rectangular structure, with steps leading up to an entrance, flanked by tall pillars that supported the slanted roof.

Twilight, still making an effort not to leave her friends in the dust, noticed right away that something was off. Two stallions in silver armor stood in front of the museum entrance, blocking the way. Perplexed, Twilight slowed as she approached the museum; two sets of eyes tracked Twilight's movements as she came up the steps. "What's going on here?"

"The museum is closed," the guard on the left answered.

"Closed?" Twilight’s mouth fell open. "B-but why? The King Sombra exhibit was supposed to open today!"

"We're not at liberty to say why, only that you cannot enter at this time," said the guard on the right.

“O… oh. Okay. Well, you sirs have a good day.” Twilight walked back down the steps toward her friends, her head hung low.

"Aw, cheer up, sugarcube," Applejack said with a sympathetic rub on the back. “There’s still plenty of things to do in the city. We'll just swing on by another time.”

"Ooh! We can go get ice cream! And crystal rock candy!" Pinkie Pie suggested, bouncing on the spot.

"I cannot believe you're all giving up so easily," Rarity said with a huff. "I swear, I always have to be the one who solves these sort of problems when they come up. Fluttershy, would you be a dear and charm more information out of those guards?"

"What? W-why me?" Fluttershy hid behind Rainbow and ducked her head.

"Have I not trained you in the art of flirting?" Rarity frowned and took a step forward. "Are you implying that my teachings are insufficient to handle such a crisis?"

"But, they're royal guards!" Fluttershy protested. She squeaked as Rainbow leaped into the air, leaving her exposed once more.

"They're also stallions, dear," replied Rarity, a gleam in her eye. "And that makes them vulnerable."

Spike developed a sudden interest in the ground and began scratching at it with his foot.

"Just watch and learn," Rarity said confidently as she sauntered up the steps of the museum.

"Museum's closed," said the guard on the left.

"Oh, it is? How awful!" Rarity lamented, raising her hoof to her forehead for dramatic effect. "And after my friends and I came all this way! Whatever could have caused such a tragedy?"

"That information is classified," the guard on the right replied. "You'll have to come back later."

"Oh, well of course that's exactly what such noble stallions such as yourselves ought to say," Rarity said with a smile. "But I would be ever-so-grateful to at least know why we can't enter this majestic building."

"I'm sure you would," the guard on the left said. "But we still cannot say."

"Hey, sis—why so glum?" a voice from behind Twilight said suddenly.

Everypony spun around; Captain Shining Armor stood before them all, decked out in full ceremonial garb.

“Big brother!” Delighted by the surprise, Twilight embraced him in a hug.

"Good to see you, Twily," said Shining Armor as he returned the gesture.

"Good to see you too," said Twilight as she stepped back again. "What are you doing here?"

“There's been a break-in at the museum,” Shining said as his eyes narrowed. "The King Sombra exhibit, specifically. I'm here to see if it might be a sign of his return. We’re trying to keep it all hush-hush for the moment though, at least until we know more."

"Well, I hope it's not him." Twilight shuddered at the memory of the Crystal Empire's former conqueror. "But if there's a crime to be solved, I might be able to help."

"Oh? You mean like one of your friendship problems?" Shining Armor inquired.

"That's part of it, but I developed a new spell recently, and… you know what? This would be easier to explain with a demonstration." Twilight waved a hoof behind her. "You think you can get me onto the crime scene? The guards won’t let us in. I know they’re only doing their job—"

“Say no more, Twily.” Shining winked and strode past everyone. “I am the Crystal Prince—if I can't get you inside, nopony can.”

Befitting of his royal and military status, Shining Armor strode up the museum steps with head held high and back proudly straight. About halfway up he paused; Rarity was still in the act of trying to charm information out of the guards.

“—Oh and of course I could create a positively dazzling addition to your already-beautiful peytrals—”


Rarity turned around, ceasing her efforts. “O-oh my, Prince Armor!” she remarked, taking on an expression similar to one that Spike pulled after being caught eating ice cream after midnight. “What a pleasant surprise—”

"Miss Rarity, in the future, I would greatly appreciate it if you did not attempt to manipulate my soldiers into disobeying orders," Shining Armor said flatly.

Rarity's face turned beet-red. She nodded before meekly retreating back down the stairs.

Shining Armor turned his attention to the guards. "You can let my sister and I through, privates."

"All due respect, sir, you have to give us the password first," one of the guards replied.

"Milk, Lima, Puma, Foxtrot, Indigo, Milk," Shining Armor stated. "For your adherence to protocol, expect a bonus with your next paycheck."

The two guards grinned as they stepped aside.

"We'll catch ya later, Twi," said Applejack. "Don't worry about us. Just catch that rascal the same way you nabbed that nasty apple thief."

"Will do," Twilight promised as she entered the museum, her brother leading the way.

Brother and sister traipsed through rooms full of artifacts and displays before the reaching the Sombra exhibit. Twilight’s eyes widened she saw the exhibit. The scene consisted mainly of a large mock-battle, complete with realistic wax figures. Royal guards that looked just like their modern counterparts—armor and all—fought against ponies in mismatched armor. Twilight couldn't help but noticed that every pony that wasn't a crystal pony had completely green orbs instead of eyes.

But Twilight could also tell that there was several things wrong with the exhibit. The wax figure of King Sombra lay on the floor, along with a fake plastic sword. Glass shards littered the floor around a shattered display case nearby, now empty of whatever it held.

"The Crystal Prince has arrived!" announced a guard already in the room.

Despite herself, Twilight twitched. The speaker had been standing so still that she had sincerely taken him to be another wax statue.

"At ease, soldier," Shining Armor said. "Where is the guard who was supposed to be on watch?"

"Gone, Your Highness. We’re still trying to figure out where."

A light-blue crystal pony entered from an adjacent room. Upon noticing Twilight, she turned up an eyebrow. "Who is this? Why is she in my crime scene?"

“Ah, Detective, there you are.” Shining aimed a hoof at the mare. “Detective Frosted Glass, this is my sister: Twilight Sparkle, Protégé of Princess Celestia. I think she'll be able to help with this case."

"Nice to meet you," Twilight said.

"Likewise," Frosted Glass said evenly. "So, how can you aid this investigation?"

"Oh, um, I have a spell that can trace magic."

Frosted Glass’ eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that? Magic can't be traced."

"So we’ve always believed," Twilight replied dryly. "But nonetheless, I have a way. I discovered it not too long ago."

"You did? And, Miss Sparkle, may I ask—has your new discovery been lab-tested? Peer-reviewed?" Frosted Glass snorted. "If not, I'd rather not have you do something that I can't rely on."

"I've already solved two crimes using my method," Twilight countered. "It's reliable."

"Anypony with a degree in forensic science can tell you that magic is untraceable," Frosted Glass said icily. "So I'm sure you'll understand why I'm still skeptical after a mere two trial runs."

"Twilight, how about you just cast your spell?" Shining Armor suggested. "Time is wasting."

"Sure, let's just dump a spell with unpredictable results all over the crime scene." Frosted Glass rolled her eyes. "Because experimental spells always produce the desired result."

It took considerable willpower on Twilight's part to not make a sarcastic remark of her own, but instead focus on her magicle-revealing spell. Purple energy enveloped the tip of her horn and transformed into a white ball of light that exploded outward. Everypony but Twilight reflexively braced themselves as the whiteness expanded past them, encompassing the entire exhibit.

Soon as is flashed, the white light vanished. Twilight eagerly scanned the room for the telltale glow of magicles.

Nothing. “Nothing at all.” She tilted her head and groaned.

"Well, would you look at that—absolutely nothing happened," Frosted Glass remarked with a sneer. "All things considered though, that could have gone a lot worse."

While Twilight was starting to find Frosted Glass highly annoying, she held her tongue. Instead, her concern grew over the fact that the spell appeared to have failed.

“Hold on.” She aimed her horn at the floor. “Let me just test it again where I’m standing.” With that, she reached out with her magic to touch the floor. In response, the tile she touched turned purple.

"The spell is working… there just wasn't any magic involved in this crime!" Twilight said.

"Are we seeing the same thing?" Frosted Glass stared at the purple spludge. "Because to me, it just looks like you turned my crime scene into a fluorescent canvas."

"I suppose I did, more or less," Twilight said, sensing an opening to make her case. "According to my research, wherever magic has been pulled into the physical plane, it leaves behind a special kind of particle. A magical bi-planar luminescent particle."

"That's quite a mouthful," said Shining Armor.

“So I've heard,” Twilight deadpanned. “Regardless, that is what they are. I've used them to track unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi alike. However, if this crime scene is any indication, crystal ponies have no magical bi-planar luminescent particles on their bodies. Otherwise, all of you would be glowing somewhere right now."

"Well, if no magic was involved, that rules out the possibility of Sombra," Shining Armor said. "The culprit must have been a crystal pony upset about the exhibit."

"I wouldn't rule out magic just yet," Frosted Glass said. "It seems to be the only explanation for the culprit's entrance."

"Teleportation?" said Twilight.

"Try a giant hole in the wall," Frosted Glass said. "Just down the hall. I'd argue that only powerful magic could have taken it down. Not only that, there’s condensation all over the walls and floor of the crime scene. Explain that without magic, Miss Sparkle."

"Perhaps I don't need to," Twilight said as she inspected the bottom of her own right forehoof. "Unicorns don't make magicles with their hooves like earth ponies and pegasi do. If the culprit is a unicorn that used magic to take down the wall, I should be able to find magicles there. As for the condensation, I have no idea just yet."

Frosted Glass gestured towards the hall. "Well, since you've put your magic all over this part of the crime scene, you may as well finish the job. Follow me."

Twilight ignored the implied contamination and walked down the hall, Shining at her side. She spotted the damage the very moment she came around the corner: a gaping hole large enough for a pony to walk through, along with a pile of rubble on the inside. Chunks of the wall were crystalline in nature, the same light-blue as the museum’s exterior. Other parts of the rubble were a polished white, which matched the wall on the inside. Through the hole, Twilight could see that the crime scene was blocked off from the street by yellow tape, and two guards standing outside had their backs facing the hole.

"As skeptical as I am of your methods, Miss Sparkle, it would be nice if you found something," said Frosted Glass. "I've already gone all over this with tried-and-true forensic methods, but yielded nothing."

"If there's magic involved, something will come up," replied Twilight as her horn glowed to life. A burst of energy struck the rubble, transforming once again into a white sphere that grew outward, enveloping the area around the ruined wall.

Alas, no magicles.

A crippling wave of self-doubt washed over Twilight. Had could the spell not have revealed any magicles? Had she been wrong all along about her theories? Could it be that the spell really was as unreliable as Frosted Glass thought?

Frosted Glass tsked. "So much for that. There's no way this wall was broken by physical force alone, it's too thick for that. Clearly, your magic trick doesn't work as well as you would like."

"No offense, detective," Shining Armor cut in, "but if your way of looking for evidence has failed, I don't think you have any right to criticize my sister's way."

Frosted Glass' face lightened a shade of red or two when she heard Shining Armor's words; Twilight made a mental note thank her brother later.

"The way I see it," he continued, "We don't know how the wall was knocked down. However, I'm willing to bet that the condensation we found in the exhibit might have something do with this."

"I already had the condensation analyzed," Frosted Glass said. "There wasn't anything special about it, save for the fact it was found in an unusual place."

"So if our only real lead is the water, we need to find out how it got there," Twilight said. "If we do that, we might find out how the wall came down, which might lead to our missing guard and the culprit."

Frosted Glass leaned in and brushed the wall with her hoof. "It isn't wet here. Perhaps the hallway?"

Twilight moved back into the hallway and dragged her hoof along the wall. "Nothing here either."

"Are we missing something?" asked Shining Armor. "Is there anything at all we haven't looked over?"

Twilight thought back to what she had noticed when she first saw the exhibit room. "That statue of King Sombra had been knocked over, and there was that display case with the shattered glass. Oh! Do we know what was taken?"

"According to the records, that case held a suit of armor made out of earth pony steel," said Frosted Glass. "Very thick, very heavy. Not exactly something you could gallop around in unless you were in very good shape."

"Maybe the missing guard took it?" said Twilight.

"I already thought about that," said Frosted Glass. "The guard's name is Cyrus, by the way. In order to wear the armor, he would have had to remove the crystal armor he was already wearing. Since we didn't find any crystal armor anywhere, the only other possibility would be for him to walk out with two sets of armor on him, which would have over-encumbered him."

"Hmph. Almost no evidence, but still a very complicated case," said Shining Armor.

"Uh, Twilight?" came a small voice from behind.

Twilight turned around; it was Spike, clutching a scroll in his claws. "What is it, Spike? Is that a letter from Princess Celestia?"

Spike nodded. "It's about the pony who tried to steal Applejack's apples. He's missing."

"Missing?" said Twilight.

"Yeah, uh… Princess Celestia says that the ceiling of his cell was destroyed, and also the outside wall," said Spike.

"I don't believe this. Two destroyed walls?" Frosted Glass brought a hoof to her face and rubbed.

"If it's the same culprit as ours, he sure gets around fast," remarked Shining Armor.

Twilight frowned thoughtfully. "If that's the case, this other crime might give us the information we need." She turned to her brother. "I'm going to need a chariot to Canterlot."

"I as well," said Frosted Glass. "This is clearly related to my case here."

Consider it done," Shining Armor replied. Turning his attention to a nearby guard he said, "Go get a chariot."

After the guard saluted and galloped away, Spike jumped up onto Twilight’s back. "So… just who in Equestria has the ability to knock down two walls, back-to-back, without getting caught?"

Twilight glanced back at the Sombra exhibit she had just come from. "I don't know," she said. "But magicles or not, I'm going to find out."

Chapter 6: Break Through

Twilight's vision blurred as she entered her tree-home. She didn't see Spike anywhere in the library, but she thought nothing of it. It was very late, after all, and he was probably in bed already. Twilight intended to do the same just as soon as she was done.

Her hooves fell heavily on the stairs as she ascended. When was the last time she had gotten a full night's sleep? If she recalled correctly, not since she had made her discovery. But that wasn't the reason she had been out so late. Ever since the incident at the Crystal Empire Museum, crimes started popping up all over Equestria. A few of them were solvable, sometimes even without the use of Magicles. The culprits were just common thieves and ruffians; in terms of crime-solving, mere child's play.

Twilight cast a spell as she entered her study. Various candles scattered about the place lit up from her magical spark. She turned her attention to the wall, which was home to a very large map of Equestria. There were circles written in ink all over the map. A few of them were connected to other circles by string held in place with tacks. Some circles were isolated, and the same went for the some of the tacks.

Twilight rubbed her eyes with a hoof as she plucked another tack off a nearby desk and stuck it into the map. There were too many tacks. Too many unsolvable crimes. Impossible crimes with destroyed walls and nary a trace of magic. She shook her head to keep herself awake while she stared at the map. She tried to think, but her mind refused to form a rational thought. She couldn't see any new patterns. Maybe there weren't any patterns. Thefts, kidnappings, destruction... all over the land. None of it made any sense to her. Equestria had clearly been facing a wave of crime, but the why remained as elusive as ever.

She let out a frustrated groan and stormed out of the room. All she wanted now was to get some sleep.

Taking care to not make any more noise, Twilight entered the bedroom. Spike's bed lay on the floor, but Spike wasn't in it. Twilight glanced out the window at the moon.

It was well after midnight.

"Spike?" Twilight called out softly. She cast another spell to light all the remaining candles in the room. Still no dragon. "Spike?"

Fueled by anxious energy, Twilight did a quick sweep of the entire tree-home, lighting up every room with candles as she did so. Her heartbeat accelerated with every second that Spike didn't appear.

"No, no, no no no, please no!" Twilight returned to the bedroom and cast her magicle-finding spell. White light flashed across the room, revealing silver hoof prints leading up to Spike's bed and away from it. Twilight's anguished cry shook her entire home. "No!"

The empty bed wavered in Twilight's vision, swaying in a sea of dark possibility. Spike had been kidnapped, no doubt about it. But the crime was solvable. Twilight had her magicles. Using her magic to reveal more of the silver hoof prints, Twilight bolted down the stairs and out the front door.

Spike awoke to the sound of something crashing. He stiffened on reflex, an act which made him aware that something was very wrong. Instead of lying in his cozy bed, he found himself sitting upright in total darkness, his arms bound behind his back.

Spike shifted in his seat. Yes, he was in a chair, and his wrists were wrapped in rope. He held his breath as he desperately tried to think of a way to escape. Somewhere nearby he heard muttering; whoever had taken him was close.

The solution to his predicament occurred to Spike so suddenly that he would have smacked his own forehead had his arms not been bound. His claws were still very free.

He began to slice at the rope binding his wrists just as he heard the sound of hooves clacking against tiles, steadily drawing close. As quietly as he could, he finished his severing job and stood up in his chair. A door creaked open and the sound of a switch being flipped was heard. The very next moment, a painfully bright light burst into existence, directly into the eyes of both Spike and his captor, a brown coated earth pony wearing a black hooded cloak.

"Ah, dang it!" the stallion said as he covered his eyes with his leg. "I thought that was going to be a lot dimmer."

Spike squinted his eyes as he jumped down from his chair. He was in a closet full of cleaning supplies, and there was only one door. He bolted for the exit, but was blocked by the stallion sticking his hoof out.

"Whoa! Hold on there, little buddy—I'm on your side!" the stallion said. He squinted his eyes, same as Spike, who saw that his eyes were silver. Spike didn't believe the claim for a second, and struggled to shove past the leg in his way.

"Rrrr... Let me go—you can't keep me here!" Spike said.

"Not until I give you the message!"

Spike stopped pushing. "What?"

The stallion stood firm. "A message. For you to deliver to Twilight Sparkle."

Spike took a step back and crossed his arms. "Well, you have the right dragon. You could have just sent it to me, though. I'm basically her walking mailbox."

"Yeah, well, I had this whole act planned out which would have been better. I was gonna walk in and look all shadowy and mysterious in my black cloak here." The stallion flicked at his hood with his hoof. "But the light was too bright and stuff and it totally killed the mood."

"Are you going to give the message or not?" Spike asked.

"Can we do it with the lights off?" the stallion pleaded.

Spike rolled his eyes. It was amazing how quickly the situation had gone from scary to inconvenient. "Do what you want."

The stallion snatched a flashlight up off a nearby shelf and switched off the lights. He turned on the flashlight and pointed it up past his face. "You know not who I am, but I am your ally," he began, his voice dark and spooky.

Spike's arms remained crossed. "Doubt it."

The stallion didn't react to Spike's comment. "The answer that Twilight seeks lies with one pony... Filthy Rich."

"I don't know who that is."

"Twilight does. Trust me, she'll know who I'm talking about."

"You haven't been spying on her, have you?" Spike asked.

"No!" the stallion said quickly. "I just... have my ways of getting information."

"You're making that up."

"Time is short! Twilight draws closer, remember my message. Investigate Filthy Rich."

"How do you know she's getting closer?"

"She has this thing that lets her magically trace ponies," the stallion said as he held up a hoof. "Earth ponies have a magical connection with the ground, so she can see everywhere we walk. You didn't know about that?"

"I did. I'd just like to know how you did."

"No time! Maybe later." The stallion backed up and shut the door, leaving Spike alone in the darkness. Suddenly the door opened again, but only just enough for the stallion to stick his head in. "Oh, and tell her not to follow me," he added before pulling his head back out.

The door closed again, followed the sound of a lock turning. Spike tried the handle just to be sure. It didn't open. Not wanting to wait for Twilight in the dark, Spike turned the light back on and sat down. After a few minutes of silence, he heard the sound of someone galloping. With a crunch, the door to the closet was suddenly ripped off its hinges, revealing Twilight on the other side. Her eyes and face were wet, but Spike only had a moment to behold the sight before Twilight flung herself down before him and wrapped him up in the tightest of hugs.

"I thought I had lost you forever," she whispered.

"You didn't," Spike replied as he gladly returned the embrace. "I bet we can still catch the guy if we hurry."

Twilight looked down at Spike, her eyes still misty. "O-oh, that's right. Where did your kidnapper go?"

"He left just a few minutes before you got here. He said to tell you not to follow him, but I say we should anyway."

Twilight stood up, a look of determination setting over her face. "I agree completely, Spike. It's time for all these kidnappings to stop."

Spike grinned as he hopped up on Twilight's back. "You know what I'm going to say now, don't you?"

Twilight smirked as she glanced over her shoulder at Spike. "You'd better not," she warned teasingly.

Spike stuck out his arm and pointed a claw towards the closet door. "Hi-ho, Twilight!"

Twilight let out a short laugh as she cast her Magicle finding spell. A cone of white light from her horn revealed a set of silver hoof prints on the floor. Once they had exited the hall, Spike easily identified his location: The Town Hall of Ponyville.

Twilight swept her spell back and forth across the floor of the main room to find the trail. There were colored spots everywhere, but the color silver was unique among them. Spike held on tightly as Twilight quickly followed the silver spots out the main entrance and into the night. For a while it was just a silent run, save for the sound of Twilight's hooves against the dirt road—

Twilight screeched to a halt, nearly flinging Spike of her back.

"Why'd you stop?" Spike asked.

"The trail's ended," Twilight replied. She breathed heavily as she looked around with the white cone of light. Her horn flashed, creating a larger range for the spell that reached the cottages on both sides of the road. The silver hoofprints appeared to have stopped in the middle of the road.

"What, did he start walking on his knees or something?" asked Spike.

Twilight shook her head. "I don't think so. Look, Spike—see those tinier red specks around the spot where the trail ends?"

"Pegasus magic, right?"

"Correct. I bet he arranged to get flown out of Ponyville. It's a slow way to escape though, not really practical. Why would he do it that way?"

"Well, he did say he knew about your technique for tracing earth ponies."

Twilight glanced at Spike in surprise. "You spoke to him?"

"Yeah, he... said he was on our side, believe or not. And that you should investigate Filthy Rich."

"Really? Wow. Did he say why?"

"His exact words were, 'the answer that Twilight seeks lies with Filthy Rich.' I trust you know who that is?"

Twilight let out a long breath. "I do. He was tied to one of my earlier cases, the one that Fluttershy brought to me."

"Oh, right, that case you said you couldn't talk to me about because of a promise!" Spike scratched his chin thoughtfully. "So... does that mean that Filthy Rich is responsible for the crime spree Equestria's having?"

"It could be. I don't know. I'm too tired to think about it right now, to be honest."

"Let's go home then and figure it tomorrow. It's been a long night."

"That it has," Twilight agreed. "I'm so glad I found you again, Spike. I was really worried."

"I could tell. You ripped out a door to find me earlier."

"Oh, geez. I did, didn't I?" Twilight chuckled. "I guess that makes two things to worry about tomorrow."

Chapter 7: Established Link

Twilight found herself standing outside Barnyard Bargains that morning. The big barn-themed supermarket looked the same as ever, but now it held an air of mystery. What secrets did it contain? Who could have imagined that the next big lead in her ongoing investigation was so close to home? At least, she hoped it was the next big lead; Spike's kidnapper seemed to think it was, in any case. After all the horror she had been through the night before, she reasoned she was entitled to a lead.

Twilight felt Spike's weight upon her back, but she turned her head to check for his presence all the same. She could hardly be blamed for her paranoia; the logical side of her mind knew she would eventually relax her guard, but for now she wouldn't be going anywhere without Spike. She figured that Filthy Rich would most likely not be happy about Spike knowing the corporate secrets that she and Fluttershy had sworn to never share.

Twilight didn't like the fact that her promise had been broken, but at the time she had no idea that Filthy Rich would become relevant to her ongoing war with crime. After taking a moment to steel herself for the inevitable confrontation, Twilight strode into the supermarket. It took her no time at all to the find the door to Filthy Rich's office.

A nearby employee noticed Twilight approaching the door and intentionally moved into her way. "Can I help you, miss?" he said calmly.

From his tight expression it was obvious that he expected to be yelled at. Twilight felt a little bad for him. He probably had to deal with many ponies demanding to see the manager.

"I'm here to see Filthy Rich," she said.

The stallion's brows went up at the mention of his employer's name. He looked between Spike and Twilight for a moment before moving out of the way with a shrug. Twilight continued on her way and went right on in without knocking.

The surprised look on Filthy Rich's face was oddly satisfying to Twilight. She reminded herself that she didn't know exactly how Filthy Rich was involved with Equestria's crime spree, if at all. The office's dark wooden decor was no different than her last visit. The golden unicorn-shaped machine even stood in the exact same spot.

"What is that?" Spike said when he saw the golden construct.

"Better question," Filthy Rich said without missing a beat. "What are you doing in here?" As he spoke, the machine swiveled its head towards Filthy Rich, and then back to Twilight.

Twilight gulped. the construct had spoken during her last visit, but seeing it move unnerved her. Its glowing blue eyes held no friendliness. "I... uh, need your help," Twilight said.

Filthy Rich leaned over his desk and pressed his fore-hooves together. "I'm not opposed to helping, but you can't just barge into my office like this." His brow furrowed. "I would prefer it if you asked permission to enter my office if you feel the need in the future."

"Ah, right. Yes, sorry," Twilight replied. Heat rushed to her face. Already, she could feel the conversation slipping out of her control. Hadn't she come to question Filthy Rich? It seemed now that she was on the defensive.

Filthy Rich waited silently while Twilight tried to re-organize her thoughts.

"I'll get straight to the point," she said at last. "You know how Equestria has been facing a wave of crime recently?"

Filthy Rich nodded. "Yes. It's very troubling, to say the least. I've heard that among the culprits who are caught, none of them ever say why they did it."

"I've heard the same," Twilight replied. "I've been... helping with the investigations. I even helped catch some of the perpetrators. However, a large portion of the crimes have been deemed unsolvable." Twilight took a deep breath, hoping that Filthy Rich didn't ask how exactly she had been helping. The last thing she wanted was yet another pony criticizing her magicles. "Last night, somepony kidnapped my assistant here, Spike. As you can see, I got Spike back, but I also got a message from the kidnapper."

"He told me to tell Twilight that you had answers," said Spike.

Filthy Rich leaned back slightly in his chair. "He did? That's... wow. I have to be honest with you, I have no idea what he means by that. If I had any information on the crimes, I would have told the authorities."

Twilight felt the bitter twinge of disappointment. Whether Filthy Rich was lying or truly ignorant, it seemed that answers were still beyond her reach. Perhaps Filthy Rich had answers without realizing it?

"Okay, well, maybe you can tell a little more about your secret factory in the woods? What are you planning to produce there?"

As she expected, Filthy Rich looked annoyed when Twilight mentioned his secret factory. He tilted his head towards the unicorn-shaped machine. "The factory is where my friend here is going to be mass-produced."

Twilight turned her attention back the machine. Finally, some answers! Even if this turned out to be a false lead, she was dying to know what was up with the golden contraption. "What exactly is he?" she asked.

"I am Talos," the machine answered, still without opening its mechanical mouth. "I am the world's first automaton."

"He's kind of creepy," Spike said.

"He's a prototype," said Filthy Rich. "Very few ponies know about his existence. The model that will be available for purchase will have a working mouth. He's designed to accomplish any task with the greatest efficiency possible."

"That's incredible!" Twilight exclaimed. "So he can move around and talk?"

Talos stepped forward, his pistons hissing faintly as he did so. "Indeed I can. I am the ultimate assistant."

“Oh yeah?” said Spike. "I bet you can't breathe fire."

Talos glanced over at Filthy Rich. "Perhaps I should."

Filthy Rich shook his head. "Not in the budget. It would be very dangerous anyway."

Twilight moved in closer to examine Talos. "So how does he work? What gives him the power to move and talk?"

"His designers could explain that better than I could," said Filthy Rich. "His ability to move comes from an internal hydrogen engine. As for the talking, that's magic."

Twilight looked into the automaton's glowing blue eyes. "I didn't know that there was magic spells for making things talk."

"A researcher from Celestia's school for gifted unicorns developed it for me," said Filthy Rich. "For the life of me, I don't see how any of this relates to the fellow that kidnapped your assistant."

With a start, Twilight realized that she had gotten sidetracked. To be fair, Talos seemed like a revolutionary idea, much like her magicles. "You know, I don't see the connection either," she admitted. "I guess I was just hoping that I could find a lead through you."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Filthy Rich said sympathetically. "Is there any other way you think I can help?"

Twilight shook her head. "Not at the moment. I guess I should get going then."

"Feel free to drop by if you think of something later. My door is always open." Filthy Rich smiled. "So long as you knock first, that is."

Twilight returned the smile in kind. "Thank you, Mr. Rich. Have a nice day."

Once Twilight and Spike were outside the store, she cast a teleportation spell that took her and Spike back to her study room instantly. Spike slid off of Twilight's back as she gazed forlornly at the map of Equestria with all its tacks and strings.

"I really thought I had something this time." She sighed. "I guess your kidnapper was just trying to throw us off the trail."

"I dunno about that," Spike said. "He took a huge risk sneaking into our home. I think he was telling the truth when he said he was on our side."

"Well he has a funny way of showing it." Twilight huffed. "'The answer you seek lies with Filthy Rich.' What a bunch of bologna."

Spike grinned. "If had said the answer stood with Filthy Rich, then we would have known it was Talos."

Twilight glanced at the decorated map of Equestria again. Spike’s statement caused something within Twilight’s mind to click. Could it be? "Actually…” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe Talos is the answer."

Spike's grin vanished. "How do you mean?"

Twilight began to walk around in a circle, deep in thought. Be it instinct, a gut feeling, or something else, she got the distinct impression that Filthy Rich had given her the last few pieces necessary to finally move the case forward. But what were they? The answer felt close. Very close.

"Think this through with me, Spike. I think you were on to something about Talos." Twilight paused to take a deep breath. "Let's start with a simple review of everything we know so far. Equestria is being plagued by two kinds of crimes: solvable ones, and unsolvable ones. For now, we're going to focus on the latter. The common elements for the unsolvable crimes are destroyed walls and no traces of magic. But one of the unsolved crimes had a third element."

Spike's eyes widened. "The robbery at the Crystal Empire Museum."

Twilight nodded. It was coming to her now. Spike seemed to be getting it as well. "That's right. There was condensation all over the crime scene. None of the other break-ins had that."

Spike hopped up and down, scarcely able to contain his excitement. "Oh! Oh! I know where you're going with this! I know how it's connected!"

Twilight beamed with pride. "Then by all means, my fellow detective, reveal the answer."

Spike rubbed his palms together vigorously. "Okay, here goes. Talos is connected to the robbery at the Crystal Empire Museum because..."

Twilight rolled her eyes when Spike drifted off. "Going for the dramatic reveal, I see."

"But of course," Spike said with a confident smile. "Think you could give me a drum roll?"

Twilight conjured a drum and set of drumsticks into existence with a magic spell. While suspended in the air, they performed a drum roll.

"Because... Talos is powered by a hydrogen engine," Spike said.

Twilight dispelled the drum set with a flash of magic. That settled it. She and Spike were on the same page for sure. "Very good, Spike. Care to elaborate?"

"Water is a byproduct of hydrogen engines," Spike said, pointing a single claw straight up. "If you used a machine powered by a hydrogen engine to bust down a wall, you could expect it to leave condensation behind."

"If walls all over Equestria are being broken down that way, why was the Crystal Empire Museum the only one with condensation?"

"Oh, right." Spike rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I didn't think about that. I don't know."

"Come on, Spike," Twilight said encouragingly. "You made it this far. Think about what was taken from the Museum. Do you remember?"

Spike closed his eyes and squeezed his fists. "Yeah... there was a suit of armor taken. A suit made out of Earth Pony steel, which is very heavy. A guard went missing too. We know he wasn't the one who took the armor, because his own armor wasn't left behind. It would have been impossible for him to leave with two sets of full armor."

Twilight grinned. "And we know that magic wasn't involved with the theft either, because my spell didn't reveal any traces of it."

"I was going to say that!" Spike protested. “But yes, that's right. The armor wasn't stolen by any regular old pony.” His eyes snapped open as the answer that Twilight was seeking finally hit him. "It was stolen by Talos! If he's strong enough to break down a wall, then he would also be strong enough to carry two suits of armor and a crystal pony! But because of the extra strain, his engine had to work extra hard!"

"And because his engine was working hard, it produced enough water to form condensation that we could notice!" Twilight scooped up her dragon assistant into a big hug and spun around. "You did it, Spike!"

"Next time, I'll figure it out before you do," Spike said with a grin.

"It's not a contest, Spike. We're doing this for Equestria." Twilight set Spike back down. "I suppose we should determine our next move now."

"Get Filthy Rich arrested, obviously."

Twilight shook her head. "Not yet. All we have right now is a suspect. Talos, who might be following Filthy Rich's orders, is probably the only thing in Equestria capable of breaking down walls without magic. He told us himself that he was the only automaton in existence."

"But he could be lying. He and Filthy Rich," Spike said.

"That's true, but I think we can at least partially trust Filthy Rich. Why would he lie about Talos's power source?"

Spike shrugged. "Huh. You got me. I can't think of any reason."

"Me neither. What we need now is more information on both Filthy Rich and Talos. Spying on them might do the trick."

"But if they're guilty, won't they be extra careful now? You told them about the kidnapper and that you were investigating Equestria's crime wave."

Twilight stomped her hoof on the ground. "Shoot! I did, didn't I? There's gotta be another way. We're closer than we've ever been before."

Spike tapped his chin with a claw. "Oh! I know! if we assume Filthy Rich wasn't lying about how Talos is able to move, could we also assume that—"

"That's right!" Twilight interrupted. "Filthy Rich said that a researcher from Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns developed the spell that allows Talos to speak!"

Spike crossed his arms and made a pouty face. "Aw, I was hoping I would get to explain it to you."

Twilight laughed. "Oh Spike, you've already been a great help. I never could have gotten this far without you." She pulled him in for another hug. "We're a team, Spike. We're going to crack this case together."

"You know, you're really huggy today," Spike said.

"You disappeared yesterday. I get extra hugs now."

"Okay, fine—just try to take it down a notch while we're out investigating, okay?"

"Deal." Twilight released Spike. "Now then, let's go pay my old school a visit, shall we?"

Chapter 8: Taking Notes

Twilight looked skyward as she stepped off the train with Spike riding on her back. A tower of white and gold could be seen a few blocks away, its pointed roof poking the underside of a cloud. While touching the clouds didn’t take much for the mountain-high city of Canterlot, it still struck Twilight as an impressive feat of architecture. She walked towards it, following the curve of the road.

As she got closer, she was able to see more towers and a large marble slab that bore six all-too-familiar words: Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. Young unicorns were spread across the green grass of the campus. Some sat at tables, others walked around, and still more practiced spells under the close supervision of their instructors. One filly managed to imprison herself inside a magic sphere; her limbs flailed helplessly as she floated upward, at least until her teacher popped the sphere like a soap bubble.

Twilight continued on, her destination being the research tower at the rear of the campus. She didn't know how she was going to track down the researcher that Filthy Rich had mentioned, but where better to start?

As Twilight entered, a mare sitting behind a horse-shoe snapped desk glanced up at her.

“Hi! I was hoping you could help me find the researcher here who developed Talos?”

The mare blinked twice. “Ah... I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are referring to.”

“Oh…” Twilight mentally scrambled for another route to the information she was seeking. “Um, if someone here developed a spell that could make a machine think and speak, who would it be?”

The mare took a moment to ponder the question. “I couldn’t list you any names off the top of my head,” she said, lowering her hoof, “but that sounds like something that could come from the Department of Mental Magics. They’re on the fifth floor.”

“Great! Thank you very much!” Twilight made for the stairs and quickly reached the fifth floor: a white marble hallway with over a dozen wooden doors.

“Ah geez, are we seriously gonna try every single door?” Spike sighed.

“Looks like it,” Twilight said, also sighing. “And so begins the tedious leg of our investigation.” Twilight approached the closest door and knocked.

“Come in!” said someone from inside.

Twilight peered over her shoulder at Spike. “Okay, leave the talking to me, Spike.” After affirming his quick salute, Twilight entered the office. Sitting behind a desk was a bearded unicorn, hunched over a stack of papers. A quill dipped in red ink floated nearby.

Twilight recognized him instantly. “Professor Gray Matter!” she exclaimed.

Gray Matter glanced up. “Hmm? You’re not in any of my classes, are you?”

“Not for a long time. Twilight Sparkle?”

“Twilight Sparkle… Twilight Sparkle…” Gray Matter muttered. “Ah, yes! The filly who threw up during their final test!”

Twilight winced as the embarrassing memory resurfaced. "Um—” she coughed “—y-yes, that was me.”

“You never told me about that, Twilight,” Spike whispered into her ear.

“Anyway—!” Twilight coughed a few more times to clear her throat and regain her composure “—Professor, I’m currently seeking the creator of a spell that could make a machine think and talk. Would you happen to know anything about that? The machine is called Talos.”

“Waitaminit, back up—” Spike leap-frogged over Twilight’s head to land in front of her “—I wanna know more about the vomit incident. Did you hit anypony?”

“Spike!” Twilight protested. “Now is not the time for that!”

Gray Matter smirked. “Well, in regards to the spell you mentioned, I do know about that. In fact, its creator is speaking to you right now.”

Twilight had to resist the urge to cheer for joy. “Really? Could you tell me more about it? I’m trying to gather information for an incredibly important investigation.”

“Certainly. You mentioned Talos, so I imagine you are already aware of my employer’s identity?”

Twilight nodded. “Filthy Rich—Talos is his secret project. I wouldn’t normally pry into others’ private business, but…” She dragged a hoof along the carpet. “Well, I think there might be a connection between Talos and Equestria's crime wave.”

“Is that so?” Gray Matter looked up thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine how those two things could be connected. Though to be fair, I too have been following recent reports related to the crime wave, and it appears to have started not too long after I cast the spell on Filthy Rich’s machine to make it… intelligent.”

“How did you do it?” Twilight pressed. “A spell of such complexity has never been engineered before, has it?”

The ghost of a smug smile crossed Gray Matter’s face. “That’s difficult to say. After accepting the job from Filthy Rich, I tried as hard as I could to create such a spell. Animating lifeless objects is one thing, but Filthy Rich wanted more than that. He wanted an actual thinking, constantly evolving intelligence—something that could evaluate everyday problems and come up with solutions. His offer was, ah, generous to say the least. My specialty is magic that relates to the mind: Illusions, reading emotions, stuff like that. But for all my skills, I couldn’t create a sentient mind using magic.”

Twilight felt her heart drop. “Please tell me you didn't resort to dark magic.”

Gray Matter chuckled. “By Elysium, no. I wasn’t that desperate. But just when I was at the end of my rope, I caught a lucky break: the Crystal Empire reappeared.”

“The Crystal Empire?” Twilight tilted her head. “I don’t understand. How did that help you?”

“History, Miss Sparkle. In addition to bringing all those crystal ponies back to our era, the Crystal Empire also brought us a wealth of information. Books that had been previously lost to time. Hoping to find something that might help me, I paid their library a visit.”

“I take it you found something helpful?”

Gray Matter nodded. An unmarked book appeared next to him, encased in green light; Twilight thought it looked ancient, all brown and faded. “Here’s the real kicker, though. The answer I was looking for wasn’t in a textbook or scholarly article. It was in this notebook. And the best part? It appears to be a student’s notebook.” He grinned. “Such irony—I’ve been teaching students for decades, and then some student from another time has something to teach me. Anyway, I used this student’s notes to create my spell, and it worked perfectly. Or at least—” Gray Matter frowned slightly “—it seemed to.”

“Could I trouble you for a quick look?” Twilight asked.

“Of course, go right ahead.” Gray Matter directed the book over toward Twilight.

Twilight opened it up and began reading. The first page contained numerous spells, some familiar to her, others not. The margins had annotations, such as questions about the spells and magic theory in general. She skimmed through a few pages, until one particular annotation caught her eye.

More testing is required, but it looks like the mind-maker spell is a success.

Twilight looked up. “This looks like some pretty high-level stuff in here.”

“You can keep that if you want. It is but a replica anyway—I returned the original to the library, to preserve its historical value.”

“Really? Thank you!” Twilight beamed. “I'll definitely be giving this a more thorough perusal later.”

“Well, knowledge is meant to be shared.” Gray Matter sat up a little straighter behind his desk. “Now, would you care to know anything more about Talos?”

Twilight hesitated and considered her position. Grey Matter knew who she was, her reputation, and that she had made herself involved. He had made a confidentiality agreement with Filthy Rich in good faith. And yet here he was, offering her more information. Could it be dangerous to know more, straight from the horse’s mouth?

She looked sidelong at Spike—who’d remained silent beyond the mention of Twilight’s past embarrassment—and shared a look with him, as if to ask, What do you think?

Spike raised an eyebrow, and then simply shrugged, returning a look that suggested, Beats me—go with your gut.

“Not at the moment,” Twilight said as she stood up. “I’ll analyze this book first, and if I have further questions that I can’t figure out for myself, I’ll return. Thank you so much for your time.”

“You are most welcome, Miss Sparkle.” Gray Matter stood from his desk and offered first her, and then Spike, a hoofshake, before leading them to his door. “I should check up on Talos soon, myself. See if he’s functioning as intended. Good luck with your investigation.”

It was dark by the time Twilight and Spike made it back home. Together they simultaneously collapsed into each of their beds, sighing with relief.

“Another full day investigating,” Spike said after a yawn. “Progress feels nice.”

“Nice, but e-exhausting,” Twilight said, suppressing a yawn of her own. “I’m not sure where to head next, though. But I should probably start reading this notebook before chasing any more wild cockatrices.”

“Guess there’s no point telling you not to stay up all night, huh?”

Twilight rolled onto her back and rested the book over her heart. “You’re right to worry about my health, Spike. I know I haven’t been taking good care of myself ever since I made my discovery. And then the crimes began, with ever-increasing frequency.” She sighed. “But I just don’t feel like I have any choice in the matter. I’ve been too busy to do any follow-up research on my bi-planar particles, let alone publish the results. Instead, I’ve been using them to run around Equestria and solve crimes. I’m the only pony who is really prepared to handle this.”

Twilight stared up at the ceiling. “It feels like every time I stop to take a breath, every time I stop to eat something, I allow more bad things to happen! Even now, while I’m lying here, somepony else out there might be getting kidnapped by Talos, or something worse… assuming he’s the one behind it all.”

Spike groaned and put his claws over his face. “Look, Twilight. I know you mean well, but you’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. You can’t be all over Equestria at once just ’cause somepony might be up to no good.” He lowered his claw and waved it around. “And besides, why would Talos start a crime wave anyway? Why all the kidnapping? Is he keeping them all locked up somewhere?”

Twilight shuddered. “Honestly, that all the missing ponies are even still alive is the best we can hope for. Locked up somewhere. Somewhere… big.”

Twilight put her face into her hooves. Somewhere in her tired brain, something was tickling her memory. Where would a machine hide a lot of ponies? Talos probably didn’t even own a house; the only place that Twilight had ever seen him was standing in Filthy Rich’s office.

Her train of thought shifted gears. Filthy Rich. As a business pony, he would own a lot of property: housing, stores, sheds and the like. But those would be places that anypony could find, be they employees, family, or friends… no, to keep the kidnapped ponies a secret, he would need a large place. A secluded place.

Something clicked.

That’s it!

“The factory!” The struggling memory burst into her conscious mind like water breaking through a dam as she shot up to a sitting position in her bed.

Spike flinched. “What?”

Twilight half-sprang, half-fell out of her bed and shook off a sheet clinging to her leg. “Filthy Rich’s secret factory in the woods! It’s the perfect place to hide all those ponies!”

Spike’s eyes widened. “Oh! Where Talos is going to be mass produced, right?”

Twilight nodded vigorously. “Both Filthy Rich and Talos would know about it, as well as the ponies who built it. If any one of them were the mastermind, the missing ponies will all be there.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Spike leapt out of bed. “Let's go check it out!” A purple glow pinched his tail. “What?”

Hold on, Spike. We need a plan.” Twilight exhaled as she released Spike’s stretched-out form. “I’ve had way too many close calls already from charging in without thinking.” She closed her eyes to think. A horrifying image of chained-up ponies crammed together in a dark space filled her mind. Every second’s delay would be another second of suffering.

She opened her eyes. “I have a plan. We’re going into the factory—reconnaissance only,” she stressed with the last word. “At the first sign of trouble, I’ll teleport us both out.”

Twilight’s horn glowed as she focused on the spot where she and Fluttershy had found the factory. A flash later, she and Spike were gone.

When Twilight opened her eyes again, she almost didn’t recognize the factory. Instead of wooden frames, the building now stood supported by steel walls. The fake treetops remained overhead, making it indistinguishable from the surrounding forest to anyone who might be flying above. From the surface up, it was three stories tall. Giant steel double-doors were visible: no handles or knobs, but a single button on the wall next to them.

Too easy, Twilight thought. Anypony could just reach out and press that button. There must be more to it.

Twilight glanced over her shoulder. A barbed wire fence encircled her and the entire property. There was only one gate, with three large padlocks on it. She looked up. What prevented pegasi from flying over the fence? Nothing, so far as she could tell. But since she was already past the gate, there wasn’t really any need to ponder the design. She turned her attention back to the factory doors.

“Remember, Twilight—first sign of trouble, we’re outta here,” Spike said. “You can't help anypony if… something bad happens to you.”

“I know, Spike. This was my idea, remem—”

The sound of machinery starting up cut Twilight off. Gears and pistons clicked and whirred as the double doors slowly opened. As if in a dream, fog rolled out from the opening, replacing the surrounding grass with a hazy mist.

A steel suit of armor stood in the entryway. For a moment, Twilight was too shocked to move.

“Twilight? I think this counts as ‘something bad’.”

Twilight stared at the suit of armor; it remained in place, regarding her through its slitted visor.


“It’s not doing anything,” Twilight whispered. “It’s just… standing there.”

“There's no horn,” Spike whispered back.


Spike pointed at the armored figure. “Talos has a horn. There’s no room for a horn in the helmet. That's earth pony armor.”

Twilight scowled at the armored pony, hoping her expression would distract them from hearing her accelerating heartbeat. “Who are you?” she asked. “Filthy Rich?”

The armored figure tilted its helmet to the side. “No,” it said in an even tone that reverberated through the metal. The distortion made it impossible for Twilight to determine whether the armored pony was a female or a male.

Twilight waited for it to continue, but all it did was stay in place with its head tilted.

She decided to try another question. “That armor—is that the armor that was stolen from the Crystal Empire Museum?”

The armor didn't move in the slightest. “Yes.”

“So it was you that stole it.”

A hesitation. “Yes.”


The figure righted its head and looked at Twilight straight on. “If you seek answers, you may step inside. Your progress will not be hindered.”

Twilight snorted. “Yeah, right. This has ‘trap’ written all over it.”

“Your arrival was not predicted. No trap awaits you.”

“Twilight…” Spike said warningly.

“They're suffering, Twilight.”

Twilight felt her heart drop into her stomach. “Wh—who’s suffering?” she asked, though of course she already knew the answer.

“All of them. They’re here. They’re inside. Suffering.”

Twilight’s legs began to shake. “Why are you doing this?” she whispered.

“Words cannot adequately justify. You must see for yourself.”

“What are you doing to them?” Twilight screamed, hesitation giving way to rage.

The armored pony remained silent.

“He’s trying to bait you, Twilight!” Spike yelled. “Don’t go in there. Let’s get help. They’ll be there when we come back.”

Twilight's entire body shook and her eyes began to water. The idea of making those poor ponies wait any longer to be saved sickened to her. For a moment, she had to turn her gaze downward as her emotions waged war against the more rational part of her mind.

She lifted up her head and locked her sight onto the helmet’s slitted visor. “I—I’m going to come back soon,” she said. “I’m bringing all of my friends, and my brother. There’s no way you could move everypony in there somewhere else before I return. You act like you’re in control, but the truth is, this is the end for you. Whatever you’re up to, whatever your plans are, we’ll stop you together.”

Her quarry then did their most lifelike thing yet: they harrumphed. “Very well, Twilight Sparkle. We’ll be waiting. Don’t be late.

An armored hoof pressed a button on the inside of the door frame. The door slid shut with a drawn-out hiss, leaving Twilight and Spike sweating and shaking alone.

Chapter 9: The Results

Twilight appeared first at the secret factory again later that night. Applejack and Rarity trailed behind her. About a minute later, Spike appeared at the scene leading Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash. None of Twilight’s friends had been pleased about being woken up long after dark, but the walk to the factory had given them ample time for their minds to reawaken.

Six ponies and one dragon approached the triple-padlocked gate to stand before it.

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Whoever built this isn’t real smart,” she remarked, pointing atop the fence. “Three locks on the gate, but any pegasus could easily fly over that fence. Is this really the secret base of some kind of evil genius?”

“I guess the architect was banking on the idea that no pegasi would stumble upon this place by accident,” said Twilight. “Hence the treetops on the roof.”

“If it hadn’t been for my animal friends, I certainly never would have found this place,” said Fluttershy.

A thick silence hung over the group for a moment.

“It’s very drab, isn’t it?” Rarity said. “All different shades of gray—most unimaginative.”

“Don't even have no windows, neither,” Applejack added. “Not real homely at all.”

Another pause.

“You… got two bits to add about the building, Pinkie Pie?” said Twilight.

Pinkie Pie rubbed her chin with a hoof as she eyed the structure critically.


After what felt like an eternity of maddening silence, Twilight heard the sound of many hooves approaching from behind. She turned around to see Shining Armor stride out from the trees with eight crystal pony guards, Detective Frosted Glass, Filthy Rich, and Talos. The guards were carrying a large golden chest on poles. Most of the new arrivals had grim expressions on their faces. Filthy Rich looked completely bewildered, while Talos was a blank slate; Twilight was unsurprised about Talos, but she dearly wished she could see what Filthy Rich was thinking.

Shining Armor’s horn lit up as he opened the golden chest and levitated each of the Elements of Harmony over to their respective owners. Twilight took comfort in feeling the Element of Magic settle on her head. The Elements of Harmony has vanquished many evils before; it seemed only fitting that they would do so again, once the pony in armor was found.

After he finished passing out the Elements, Shining Armor walked over to Twilight to whisper into her ear. “I’m going to have the guards form a defensive perimeter around you and your friends.”

“Sounds good,” Twilight whispered back. “How much did you tell Filthy Rich and Talos?”

“Only that they were required to come guide us around the factory. I followed all of your instructions to the letter.”

“Thank you. Hopefully this will all be over very soon.”

Shining Armor looked up and motioned with his head towards the guards. As one, they moved into position around the other five Element Bearers.

“Excuse me, but what exactly are we looking for that requires all this security?” asked Filthy Rich. Already, sweat was dripping down his face. Whether he was nervous about being exposed as a criminal or just nervous about entering the factory, Twilight couldn’t tell.

“That’s none of your concern,” Shining Armor said firmly. “Just focus on leading us through the building.”

Filthy Rich glanced at the factory’s entrance and gulped. “Talos, I want you by my side the entire time.”

Frosted Glass glanced at Shining Armor. “Is it wise to allow that?” she asked.

Shining frowned at the ground for a second. Raising his head, he looked again at Filthy and Talos. “Can you lead us through without Talos next to you, Mister Rich?”

“N—no! I mean, I don’t even know how! I put Talos in charge of building this place. I haven’t even been here before.”

“You mean your machine there is the only one who knows the layout of this factory?” asked Frosted Glass.

“He has a name, you know,” Filthy Rich said, turning his nose up slightly. “I would prefer you not refer to him as just a ‘machine’.”

Shining Armor looked over to Talos. “Are you really the only one who knows the layout?”

Talos gave a curt nod. “My boss speaks the truth,” he said in his usual monotone. “I alone can guide you.”

Twilight raised a brow at Filthy Rich. “‘Boss’?”

Filthy Rich shrugged. “Talos works for me. It seemed more appropriate than ‘master.’ He’s my assistant, not my slave.”

“So what, you pay him?” Spike said.

“Well, no, but he enjoys the work. Don’t you, Talos?”

“My primary function is maximizing efficiency. Mister Rich has already spent enough of his hard-earned bits on my construction.”

“Right. He has no need of money anyway. He literally sleeps standing up.”

“If I am to guide you, I will be most effective at the front,” said Talos.

“Fine, fine, lead us in then,” Shining Armor conceded. “Mister Rich, you can stay between myself and Detective Frosted Glass.”

Twilight joined her friends inside the circle of guards while Shining Armor, Filthy Rich, and Frosted Glass lined up in front of them. Spike hopped onto Twilight’s back. Talos walked up to the gate, his pistons hissing as he did so. His horn glowed blue; a compartment in his foreleg opened up to reveal three keys. All at once, the keys floated into their locks and turned.

The gate squeaked as it opened outward.

After passing through the gate, Talos pressed the button next to the doors. Machinery hummed as they, too, opened.

The keys floated back into Talos’ leg as he stepped into darkness. The others followed him in.

After the doors closed again, Twilight could hear the hum of other machines echoing throughout the building. They were all standing on a grated walkway with rails. Four horns glowed to life: Twilight’s, Rarity’s, Shining Armor’s, and Talos’. So far as Twilight could tell, the walkway was above an abyss. All around them were more walkways, conveyer belts, giant pistons, enormous gears, and mechanical legs that looked like oversized versions of Talos’ legs. Each and every one was in motion—clicking, whirring, and pivoting. Twilight watched as pony-shaped frames traveled past their walkway on a conveyor belt.

“This place is really scary,” Fluttershy murmured.

Twilight glanced over the edge of the railing, half-expecting to see the missing ponies below, although her hornlight revealed nothing but more machinery on the floor below. The armored pony had said the missing ponies were inside the factory. So where were they?

“I’m going to check for magic use,” she said. White light shot out from her horn. Once it had faded, Twilight looked around. The grating beneath their hooves was coated with a wide variety of colors, as were the rails. Applejack had green on the underside of her hat. Rainbow Dash’s wings were magenta, while Fluttershy’s were blue. The horns of Shining Armor, Rarity, and Talos were blue as well. Talos also had a spot of blue on his side. Frosted Glass, however, had no magicles on her at all.

“Looks like a lot of ponies came through here,” said Spike as his eyes traveled up and down the walkway.

“They might just belong to the ponies who built this place,” said Frosted Glass.

Twilight cast her spell again, this time focusing it into a cone of light. Every piece of machinery bore traces of residual magic; it was impossible to make out any patterns to the colors.

The group continued along the walkway until they reached a steel door, which Talos opened. Everypony gasped when they saw what was through it: three ponies were chained to bars sticking out of a large metal pillar in the center of the room. Sweating and grunting, they pushed against the bars in order to make the pillar rotate.

“Sakes alive!” exclaimed Applejack when she saw the closest one. “That there’s the fella who robbed my family’s farm!”

“That’s the guy who kidnapped me!” said Spike, pointing at the second closest.

“That crystal pony…” Shining Armor focused the light from his horn onto the last of the chained ponies. “Is that—”

“Indeed,” said Frosted Glass. “That would be our missing guard, Cyrus.”

The three chained ponies squinted against the light as they slowed to a stop. Everypony began talking at once, creating such a din that no one could understand each other.

“Quiet! Quiet!” barked Shining Armor. “Everypony quiet down! One at a time, starting with you.” He pointed at Cyrus. “What are you doing here? How did you get here?”

“What… I’m… doing here…” Cyrus said. His eyes had a glassy look to them, and it seemed that every word he used was mentally taxing. “I… I was at the museum… there was the broken wall… the armor, somepony took the armor, we fought… then I was here.” He glanced down at the metal bar he had been pushing.

“Hold still,” Twilight cut in. “I’ll break off your chains.” With two blasts from her horn, the chains were severed, leaving only a metal collar around the crystal pony’s neck.

“Okay, that’s confusing, but onto the next,” said Shining Armor. He glanced at the pony whom Spike had identified. “Who are you?”

“Silver Bells,” the pony replied. Unlike Cyrus, his eyes danced around erratically, speech coming out in quick little bursts. “My name is Silver Bells. Uh, like the scaly fellow said, I kidnapped him. Uh, but I was coerced into doing it. Wasn’t my idea.”

Spike folded his arms. “Really? You didn’t seem like you minded what you were doing at the time.”

Silver Bells shrugged. “Well, you know. If you’re gonna be forced to do something, you may as well have fun with what little artistic freedom you have.”

“How were you forced to kidnap Spike?” Shining Armor asked.

“Threat of life,” Silver Bells replied. “Some figure in armor said I would be done for if I didn’t. But after you were rescued, I was very unwillingly brought back here and—” Silver Bells choked up, his eyes watering “—Sorry, sorry, I’m just—just really happy to be rescued. This is a rescue, right?”

Twilight severed Silver Bells’ remaining chains with another two blasts of magic.

Silver Bells glanced at her in awe. “You’re my hero now,” he said softly.

Shining Armor turned his attention to the last remaining pony in chains. “And you are?”

“I’m Tough Break,” the stallion said. The fatigue in his voice was evident, in cahoots with the faraway look in his eyes. “I came home one day to find my wife and daughter gone, and I heard a voice say that I would never get to see them again unless I stole some apples—” he tilted his head toward Applejack “—from her farm. After that one there exposed me—” he nodded toward Twilight “—I was arrested. But then I heard the voice again, the prison ceiling came down on my head, and I woke up here.”

“We were all told that we wouldn’t get any food or water unless we turned this thing all day long,” chimed in Cyrus. “So we got to work.”

“Well now you’re all free,” said Shining Armor. Copying Twilight, he broke Tough Break’s chains with magic. “We’ll get those collars off later—I’d rather not risk shooting at your neck.”

“I’ll escort the three of you out,” said Frosted Glass. She glanced at Shining Armor. “With permission, sir, these stallions most definitely have important information in their heads. I’d like the chance to question them more thoroughly outside.”

“Permission granted,” Shining Armor said with a nod. “Try not to hold them too long. I’m sure they’re eager to get back to their lives.”

“Right. Off we go then.” Frosted Glass gave the group a curt nod, turned about, and departed. The three newly-freed stallions hesitated for a moment, exchanged a glance, and then followed after her.

“I can’t believe this. Ponies being held against the will—and on my property!” said Filthy Rich.

“There could very well be more,” said Twilight. “Let’s not relax. We should keep going.”

“Right, right, of course. Lead on, Talos,” said Filthy Rich. “Good grief. This whole time…”

Talos used magic to open another door, revealing a small platform that appeared to be suspended in midair. It had railings on three sides and a gate right in front of the door.

“What’s this?” asked Rarity. “It doesn’t seem to go anywhere.”

“Elevating platform,” explained Talos. “This factory goes down several floors from the surface. A large piston beneath the platform raises it up and down, allowing transportation to any level.”

“Looks like only four will fit at a time,” said Shining Armor. He motioned toward four of the eight guards. “You four first.”

The four guards got on. Machinery hummed as the platform descended. After a few moments it came back up empty.

“Everypony else ready?” Twilight asked.

Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and one guard stepped onto the platform; Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash glided down after it. A short while later, it came up with just Rainbow Dash.

“Twilight!” she exclaimed. “You were right! The lower floors have ponies everywhere. There must be hundreds of them!”

“I knew it!” Twilight stomped a hoof on the floor. “Are they all okay?”

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Far as I can tell. They’re all chained up to machines down there. Turning and pulling stuff. From the looks of it, they’re powering the entire factory.”

Filthy Rich shot an accusatory glare at Talos. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I do not know the meaning,” Talos said matter-of-factly. “The only ponies with authorized access are the workers you employed.”

“Let’s just focus on getting them all out of here for now,” Twilight said. “We’ll obtain testimonies later.”

Twilight, Shining Armor, Filthy Rich, and Talos stepped onto the platform. As it descended, the sound of wrenching metal suddenly rose up from below.

“Uh-oh,” was all Twilight had time to say before piston and platform started to keel over like a chopped tree.

Twilight’s hooves lifted off the platform as she entered a freefall. Screaming, she fumbled in her mind to prepare a levitation spell—

Her scream caught in her throat as Rainbow Dash caught her.

Oof! Thanks, Rainbow. That was—oh no!” Twilight watched in horror as Shining Armor, Filthy Rich, and Talos were left to grip the railings for dear life.

Shining Armor and Filthy Rich yelled as they descended into the darkness. Still holding onto Twilight, Rainbow Dash flew down after them. Just before impact, Shining Armor cast a forcefield around himself and the others.

The platform smashed into the floor with a resounding crash. Shining Armor's forcefield shattered from the impact, but it had absorbed most of the blow—Both Talos and Filthy Rich shuddered as they began rising unsteadily to their hooves.

“Are you all okay?” Twilight asked once she was at the same level. “Answer me!”

Talos said nothing, letting the pistons in his legs do the talking as he regained a standing position first.

“A little shaken, but otherwise good,” said Filthy Rich as he too picked himself up. He glanced at Shining Armor, who was lying on the floor with his eyes closed. “Ah, I’m not sure about him.”

Twilight rushed over to her brother and pressed her head against his chest. Relief flooded through her as she felt him breathing. “Hey, Shining Armor?” she said gently. “Come on, BBBFF, get up.”

Shining didn't respond.

“Um, Twilight?” Spike tapped her on the shoulder.

Twilight glanced up. The machinery had quietened down. Chained ponies filled the room, watching Twilight and company expectantly. The eight guards were standing nearby, as were Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. A far-too-familiar fog obscured the floor.

Twilight glanced at the platform’s piston—it was missing a chunk from its base. “Our mastermind is close by,” said Twilight. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

“No need for that. I’m right here.”

Every ear in the vicinity perked up as the voice’s owner stepped out from behind a machine. Multiple heads turned to follow the voice. Every set of eyes that could see the new arrival stared in shock. Silence reigned for a few seconds—

“What,” Pinkie Pie deadpanned.

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