The streets of Crescent City were troublesome by day, this much was well known. However, once the sun set over the sooty spires and smokestacks of the city, the narrow alleys and cobbled streets went from “problematic” to “extremely dangerous” with surprising rapidity. The city became a quiet warzone at night, as rival gangs vied for territory and resources, plied their trades in the strongholds they did own, and all sides did battle with the constabulary. Fortunately for much of the populace, most of the territory owned by gangs was relegated to the quadrant of the city on the south side of the river, nearest to the ocean. This meant that for better or worse, most ponies could go out at night and enjoy themselves, provided they had the coin for it.
That said, there were many who chose to go to the southwest side of the city, colloquially known as “dockside”, for their nocturnal business. It was here that the most illicit of delights could be had, from houses of ill repute and even worse company, to silent shacks whose occupants charged little for the strange services they rendered. To wander these streets without knowing how to carry oneself and where exactly to go was tantamount to suicide.
However, it was across the river, in the most affluent part of town, that the greatest threat to Crescent City laid. The threat was only amplified by the fact that almost nopony knew of it, or the fact that it was there. It lay in a quiet house, affluent but unassuming, with white shutters and a fence in decent repair, though the boards could use a bit of tightening. Its neighbors assumed that it was either being renovated or put up for sale, as this was the explanation for the unusual deliveries that were completed at all hours, with remarkable speed and with little fanfare.
It was towards this house that a young colt hastened, his face carefully blank and his features blandly pleasant. He carried no weapon, wore an outfit consisting of black trousers, a simple shirt, jacket, and tie, and nodded politely at the greetings given to him without responding. He approached the door, knocking precisely four times, and waited for the sentries there to verify he was who he appeared to be, and was alone and un-coerced. With no further delay, the door opened on well-oiled hinges, and the colt stepped inside. He took the narrow stairwell up to the second floor, proceeding down the hall to the study, from which golden light spilled. Steeling himself, the colt pushed open the door and stepped inside.
“Brother Chance, it is good to see you.” the mare at the desk murmured, her back to him. He had not announced himself. “What news do you bring?”
The colt shuddered with pleasure at her voice. It was rich, musical, filling each ear with a sort of auditory honey. “The Royal Lady docked today, ma’am. She put ashore the court sorcerer Libra, and the Inheritor herself, along with the trappings of power they procured along their travels.”
The mare nodded thoughtfully, the movement causing the blackness of her coat to shimmer in the light. “Any guards?”
Chance shook his head. “None that we could see. An escort arrives tomorrow, but I believe that the Lady thought her pet Mage would be enough for one night.”
The black mare chuckled at that. “Foolish. But I am grateful for the opportunity such hubris provides.” She turned to face him at last. Her eyes gleamed white in the lamplight of the small room, seeing none of it. A mask concealed the top part of her face, made of beaten silver with the wings of a black bird stretched to each side. It could not conceal enough of it to hide the shattered horn on her forehead, or the scars which marred her otherwise fine features, the ones which had cost her sight. Her followers called her by the name she had taken for herself, the one given to her by Fate, the name Nightshade. But she was known far and wide by another name. To her enemies, she was known simply as Blind Raven, the Witch of Shadows.
Her horn sprung to life, black flame playing along its length. A drawer opened by her desk, and a crossbow was withdrawn from within. She continued to speak. “Tell me, do you know where Serale will lay her head tonight?”
Brother Chance nodded. “An inn, by the waterfront. Nice enough, but nothing incredibly expensive. She will be asleep in the corner room, with her mage next door.”
Nightshade was silent for a moment, thinking. She was a master strategist, and when she was able to plan in advance, it was almost impossible to do something she would not anticipate. Finally, she spoke. “I want you to take three of your brothers and sisters to this inn, ones who can enter and exit without being seen. There, you will accomplish two tasks. Firstly, slit the throat of the Mage while she sleeps.”
She withdrew a bolt for the crossbow, with a simple scroll of paper wrapped around it and sealed with wax. “Secondly, leave this crossbow, bolt loaded, by her bed. Let the young Lady know what it is we are capable of.”
The colt bowed, taking the weapon from her reverently. “I will see it done.”
Nightshade smiled gently, lifting him from his prostration. “None of that, Brother. We’re all of us equals here.” Leaning in, she kissed him gently, and whispered into his ear. “Let that be your reward for your information. Do this thing for me, and I shall see you rewarded further.” A wicked grin spread across her face. “Much further.”
Within the next quarter of an hour, four silent shadows flitted into the gathering darkness, quiet as crows. Their destination was a small inn, a corner room, and a sleeping noble who was even now unaware of the swift strike heading her way.
Chipped Bit was a practical pony. He had gotten to where he was by seeing ponies not as other beings worthy of his respect, but as potential threats, assets, and resources. To him, the world consisted of numbers and tables, each pleasantry and unfortunate accident being nothing more than a change in values. With this in mind, he kept his gang, small though it was, running smoothly and efficiently. For the most part, those who followed him responded well. Each found their niche, each knew their place, and as such, they thrived as best they could.
Of course, there were those among the ranks who didn’t fit in nicely, or do their work quietly. There were those who were insubordinate, or ill-suited for their jobs, those who, despite all of his best efforts, simply did not fit into the well-oiled machine that was his gang.
Ponies like Bitterroot, one of his thugs who had been scraping up “protection money” on the side, terrorizing ponies who already paid for protection from other gangs. His foolishness and greed had nearly sparked a war between Chip’s gang and the much larger and more brutal Dockside Derbies, one he would have certainly lost. This had been rectified when Chip received a complaint from a lower-level lieutenant inside the gang. The very next morning, Bitterroot had been delivered to the bar in which the Derbies were headquartered, his ill-gotten gains stuffed down his throat and his hooves tied. A knife had been included in the delivery, with a hoof-written invitation for the injured parties to retrieve their coin in the obvious manner.
Or Velvet, one of his Madams who had been found not keeping her doxies clean as well as overcharging. Such behavior would have been bad for business, very bad indeed. It was never specified what had happened to her, but she had most definitely been replaced, and a corpse bearing a striking resemblance to her had been found, dredged up from the bottom of a river on an anonymous tip.
It wasn’t that Chip enjoyed doing this, or that he had a particularly short temper, it was a simple fact that certain acts could not be tolerated. More often than not, lesser offenses carried lesser punishment. Refusing a request to work in a Parlor, for example, or scrapping in a public hallway. Pressure was applied, sanctions levelled, and more often than not, things worked themselves out. Either the individual in question straightened out and complied, or they left, and that was the end of that.
So it was with Cobblestone, at least in his eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had not complied with requests, nor had she left. And so, Chipped Bit found himself pondering what he was to do with his most reticent of thieves.
Now, Chip was always looking to expand business, and as anypony near the docks knew, smuggling was the best way to earn coin. The Dockside gangs, the biggest and meanest, were the ones who handled most of the supply coming in before auctioning it off to the smaller gangs, who would then distribute such delicacies as drugs, weapons, and other contraband among their buyers. This way, the Dockside gangs could focus on getting their goods and selling them, and the smaller gangs could turn a profit on distribution. Indeed, most contraband found further inland had been marked up threefold by using this very system.
The only problem with this, at least from Chip’s point of view, was getting a good deal on the goods right off the boat. His runners moved it very well, but the West River Gang was still pathetically small, only about a hundred all told. Chip needed coin, which translated to him needing cheaper goods. Thankfully for him, both this problem and the problem of Cobblestone could be resolved by the same pony, and this pony was sitting in front of him, sipping a glass of good scotch.
“Now, Mister Bit,” the pony, whose name was Teakwood, said, “I understand you’re looking for a way in to bigger markets. And everything indicates that you’re willing to cut a deal, perhaps even do a few favors for my boss?”
Chipped Bit nodded, faking a smile as he did so. “Indeed I am. I understand you are a busy individual, so I’ll get right to the chase.”
“That would be much appreciated, not that your hospitality isn’t wonderful.” Teakwood said. “The scotch is delicious, by the way.”
“I should hope so,” Chip said. “It’s from the barrel of stock we kept back from your shipment last summer. The Crystal Vintage.”
Teakwood’s eyes widened. “This is an expensive glass, then.”
Chip nodded. “Quite. This is what I’ve brought you here to speak about. I’d like to negotiate a lower cost with your boss, if at all possible.”
Teakwood had heard this before. The Waterfront Gang was the second-largest distributor of goods in Crescent City, second only to the Derbies. His boss, Russet, was constantly hearing requests from lesser distributors for lower prices, bigger goods, or better quality. It grew wearisome after a while.
“I hope you understand that I can make no promises on behalf of my organization,” Teakwood said smoothly. “Boss Russet makes all of the final decisions regarding who we sell to. And what we sell them.”
Chip gestured noncommittally. “I guessed as much. But I can offer him something most gangs can’t.”
Teakwood tilted his head. “And what would that be?”
“Efficiency. My runners move goods quickly, quietly, and without skimming anything off of the top. In fact, they are under orders to report that sort of thing to me.” Chip said.
“And why would they do that?” Teakwood asked. “Rat out a comrade?”
Chip smirked. “Because each team rotates often enough to keep them from forming a rapport with one another. And if they can successfully prove that a comrade is stealing from me or my customers, they are rewarded with double the cost of the stolen goods.”
Chip took a sip from his own glass before continuing. “We have moved well over a hundred loads in the past three months from various organizations, such as your own. We’ve moved everything from opium from up north, to demon glasses, to a minting press with which a buyer was manufacturing his own currency. Would you like to know how many of those we’ve lost?”
Teakwood ventured a guess, a conservative one. “Ten percent?”
Chip shook his head. “Lower.”
Teakwood was astonished. “Two percent?”
Chip grinned. “Not a single one. We’ve successfully delivered each and every piece of contraband to their buyers. Now, was any piece discovered past that point? That I can’t vouch for, but I can say without reservation that we deliver successfully each and every time.”
Teakwood was suitably impressed. “A sterling record, Mister Chip. If true. But your organization is rather small, wouldn’t you say? We sell to buyers who can deliver four times that amount in the same period, even with their losses. That’s where we invest our money.”
“Expansion comes when I can be sure that my ponies are paid. Right now, I exist at the edge of my limits. We are holding steady, neither expanding or shrinking in size.” Chip explained. “With more money, I can hire more, who can move more, which allows me to hire more, and so on.”
“But why should we invest in you now,” Teakwood asked, “As opposed to later?”
This was where Chip solved his other problem. He lowered his voice just a bit. “I could make it worth your boss’s while.” he said. “Cut him in on some of our profits, and a few of our…other assets.”
Teakwood was intrigued. “Other…assets?”
Chip nodded. “The nice thing about managing whorehouses, Teakwood, is that they are a veritable font of information. Pillow talk, whispered secrets, all of that. And mine are some of the best. For good reason, I keep a very close eye on them.”
He gestured with one hoof. “For example, I know that the Derbies are moving ashore several crates of breech-loading rifles from Trottingham tomorrow evening, between the hours of one and three in the morning, and that there will be approximately eight ponies unloading and guarding them. Should a rival gang with the element of surprise show up, there would be very little the Derbies could do to stop them.”
“You offer…information?” Teakwood asked. “That is a tempting offer, I must admit.”
Chip smiled. “Not only this, but my ladies of the evening can tell me other things as well. Like the reason why your boss, Russet, doesn’t frequent my establishments too often.”
The air at the table changed, and Chip’s smile turned predatory. “Likes them a bit younger than I offer, does he?”
“That’s hardly news, and nothing worth blackmailing him over.” Teakwood sniffed. “He’s no politician.”
“So it’s true, then?” Chip asked. “I thought it might be. What if I gave him a token of my goodwill? Something to sweeten the pot further, with the promise of more to come if he likes what he sees?”
Teakwood considered this. His boss’s appetites, while not exactly well-known, were a bit difficult to whet. He knew that Russet would be very, very interested in that part of the deal at least. And with all the other bits and pieces offered to him…it could be a very lucrative deal indeed.
“It is a very…generous offer,” he ventured. “But I would need more information first.”
“Of course!” Chip replied. “This is just to open negotiations up. That said, I would like to send a token of my goodwill to him, to show my offer is in earnest. I could send her along tonight! She’s currently asleep downstairs, and she won’t wake up until tomorrow morning at least. I can have some of mine bundle her up for you.”
Teakwood mulled it over. “Very well. What is her name?”
“Her name,” Chip said, smiling in triumph, “Is Cobblestone. And she just turned fourteen last week.”
Out in the hallway by his study, a short distance away from his office, Ivy was frozen in fear. She could hear every word.
Cobblestone was shaken from her drunken, drugged stupor quite roughly, causing her to shoot upright, horn ablaze with bright blue sparks. Breathing heavily, she looked around for the one who had accosted her, before spotting Lucky by her bed, hooves protecting his eyes from the brilliant light, sudden in the darkness of the room.
Cob dimmed her light sheepishly, wincing at the pain and nausea she felt. Eyeing the Pegasus, she sank back down into her covers. “What do you want?” she asked. “It’s the middle of the night, and I’m off.”
Lucky shook his head. “I found something.” he said, looking her dead in the eyes. “Something big, and easy, and ready to go.”
Cobblestone groaned. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you still stand by what you said earlier?” Lucky asked, his voice hushed. “About leaving?”
It took Cobblestone a moment to figure out what he meant, not that the drug in her system made thinking any easier. “You mean striking out on my own?”
The Pegasus snorted. “With Ivy and I too, remember?”
Cobblestone nodded, head aching with each movement. “I remember. Why?”
“Do you still mean it?” Lucky asked. “Do you still want to go?”
“Yeah,” Cobblestone said. “Why?”
Lucky grinned. “I found a place. Well, technically an inn. We could be in, out, and on our way with no one the wiser, and us quite a bit richer.”
Cobblestone held up a hoof, forestalling further speech. “Hold on just a minute. Slow down, and start at the beginning.”
Lucky eagerly recounted all that he had seen to her, from seeing the young mare in the marketplace to her obviously noble behavior to her choice in lodging. Most importantly, her told her of how he had seen a porter bring her bags from somewhere in the city, and lay them into her room at the inn, an easily accessible corner room. Exhibiting singular courage, Lucky had offered to help the porter with the heavy load, and had gotten a peek at some of the contents.
“There was gold in there, Cob! And not just coins, some really well-made stuff. I think some of it was from the Oligarchy. And there was fur from up north, and Quilinese jade, and all sorts of stuff!” Lucky was ecstatic. “And that’s not the best part, either.”
He produced a hefty golden coin from within his tunic. “She tipped me with this, Cob. A tip. We’ve got ourselves a real bona-fide noble, here.”
Cobblestone was perplexed. “But why would she have all of that? Furs from the Khanate, jade from the Islands, gold from the Five Kings…who carries that?”
Lucky thought. “Maybe she’s the daughter of some rich merchant with a chaperone. Maybe she’s a Bluehide, they’re navigators and traders, right?”
Cobblestone groaned. “I don’t know. Ask Ivy. Where is she, anyway?”
“I sent her to go and grab some things from the galley. She should be on her way back here now.” Lucky replied.
Sure enough, Cobblestone could see Ivy moving towards them, her face drawn and pale, more so than usual. In fact, she looked downright sick.
Immediately, Cobblestone knew something was wrong. “Ivy?” she asked, worry in her voice. “Are you alright?”
Ivy shook her head. “Cob, we need to go. Now.”
Lucky frowned. “What are you talking about? We can’t go now, it’s not yet night!”
Ivy shook her head. “No, there’s no time to explain. We need to go before anypony finds out where I was.”
“Where you were?” Cob asked. “Ivy, what’s going on? You aren’t making sense!”
Lucky grabbed the younger unicorn by her shoulders, looking her in the eyes. “Ivy, look at me.” She did so, and gradually, she was able to pull herself together. Lucky spoke very softly. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Ivy nodded, gulped once, took a deep breath, and began to speak. “Chip’s going to sell you out, Cob.”
“What do you mean?” Cob asked.
“I heard him talking with a representative from the Waterfront Gang about expanding smuggling and about what it would take to get an opening with their boss for lower prices.” Ivy said.
Cobblestone snorted. “What, is he going to send over a whore? Good luck, Incense told me the reason he never stops by is because he likes fillies.”
Ivy nodded. “He likes them to be about fourteen, apparently.” She let that sink in. It took a moment.
Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean…”
Ivy nodded. “You, Cob. He thinks you’re too much of a liability, but Russet would be able to handle you.”
Lucky interjected himself. “Wait a moment. This doesn’t make sense! Chip would never cross a line like that!”
Ivy rolled her eyes. “Unless it hurts his business. I’m sure it’s not the first time somepony from this gang has disappeared after causing trouble.”
Cob nodded. “Velvet. And Bitterroot, too. Both of them were out. And Moony, Thyme, Steelhead, there were others. But they were committing major infractions, skimming money, or performing poorly, or…”
“Stirring up trouble?” Ivy asked quietly. “Because you’ve become kind of notorious for that. Nothing overt, but you’ve talked bad about Chip before.”
Cobblestone shook her head. “I don’t believe it. No way he would do something like that.”
“What if he knew that you were planning to get out?” Lucky mused. “That might put some pressure on him.”
“And you were talking about it in the open, where anypony could hear.” Ivy said. “It wasn’t mentioned, but if you were overheard, somepony probably mentioned it to him by now. “
Cobblestone curled up, cradling her head in her hooves. “No way. It can’t be.”
Ivy snorted in desperation. “Look, maybe I misheard, maybe I didn’t. But I know I heard him say something about Russet’s tastes, and you. And he was going to dispatch a couple of his thugs to come down here and get you, so he could hand you over to that creep from the Waterfront!”
Lucky’s wings flared. “That would have been nice to know before all of this!”
“Well, if you had both listened to me before now, we wouldn’t be having this issue!” Ivy said. She turned to Cobblestone. “Isn’t what I said worth at least leaving a bit early? Worst comes to worst, we’re out of here a few hours before we would have been gone anyway.”
Cobblestone thought quickly, as quickly as she could given the effects of the drug on her system. It made a kind of horrible sense. She had been a lot more vocal as of late about Chip. It had been moving toward some sort of breaking point, she knew, but she hadn’t known it would come this quickly, or in such a horrible way. A myriad of options whirled through her mind before she finally settled on the only one available to her.
Rolling out of her cot with haste, she unlocked the lid of her chest, withdrawing her cloak, a few personal items like her dagger, a hoofful of coins, and scouring the insides for anything she might have missed. Clasping it around her throat, she slung her pack over her back and buckled her dagger into place. Turning, she looked expectantly at her two companions.
“Well?” she demanded. “I haven’t got all evening. We’re on a bit of a tight schedule, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Ivy and Lucky both scrambled for their bags and other possessions, fastening everything into place securely before they each nodded to her, ready to go. Swiftly and silently, the three of them walked out of the room and down the hall, headed for the one exit available to them.
“Now,” Cobblestone said as they walked. “Odds are good they’ll have posted guards up front, but they might not know about Chip’s plans, so we’ll just-“
She ran headlong into the chest of a rather large and burly stallion as she rounded a corner, who was flanked by two others. Near them both stood the familiar and unpleasant face of Codger, who was grinning maliciously.
“Well, if it isn’t my good friend Cobblestone!” Codger said. “We were just coming to have a chat with you. My father wants to see you in his office.”
Cobblestone kept her head about her. “Sorry, Codger. Now’s not really a good time. I’ve got some business up top. I’d be more than happy to talk to him when I get back, though.”
Codger’s grin vanished. “Wrong answer, Cob.” He gestured to the three stallions, who moved forward with obviously hostile intent. “Boys, take her down.” Noticing her two companions, he added an afterthought. “Those two also.”
The three partners in crime backed down the hallway they had just come down. Cobblestone sighed. “You sure you want to do this, fellows?” she asked, loosening her dagger. “We can both go our separate ways.”
The lead, who was named Granite, shook his head. “No can do, Cob. Boss says come ,you come.”
There was a blur from behind her, and after the sound of a brief impact, it resolved itself into Lucky, standing atop the unconscious body of her attacker, who had been sucker punched while distracted.
“Shame.” Lucky said. “Guess we’ve got us a fight.”
The two remaining thugs threw themselves at the Pegasus, only to be stopped cold by two short blasts of lightning from Cobblestone’s horn. Though they were intense, they weren’t enough to do more than scorch her opponents, diverting their attention.
Cobblestone drew her dagger, showing her teeth. “Come on, then,” she said, holding it level. “Come and take me if you think yourselves hard enough.”
The first hurled himself at her, and Cobblestone twisted the dagger, running it into his chest as he collapsed on top of her. The second, limited by the width of the tunnel, managed to wrestle the dagger from her hoof and land a solid blow, kicking back at Lucky as he did so. What he hadn’t counted on, though, was timid little Ivy deciding to act. There was a solid thud, the stallion grunted, and Ivy’s kit bag came away bloody as he collapsed in a nerveless heap. He wasn’t dead, but definitely concussed.
Cobblestone rolled the corpse off of her with a grunt, retrieving her dagger as she did so. She inwardly thanked the drug from insulating her from the horror of what she had done. She had officially gone from thief to murderer. Now, however, was not the time to dwell on that. Growling, she turned to Codger, who had gone white from fear. In the space of ten seconds, things had gone from perfectly fine to out of control for him.
“Now,” she said, wiping her dagger off on Granite’s chest before sheathing it. “I’m going up top. Tell Chip he can take my place, if he likes. And if he sends anypony else after me, I’ll make sure they come back like the one who just tackled me. Got it?”
Codger nodded, trembling.
“Good.” Cobblestone said. “Can’t have you raising an alarm, so…”
Light flashed from her horn, the air was filled with the scent of ozone, and Codger collapsed in a heap, losing control of his muscles as they locked rigid from the effect of the spell. Cobblestone took off running, her cloak flapping behind her, as her two friends followed.
“Now do you believe me?” Ivy asked as she ran. “What did I tell you?”
Cobblestone laughed, almost in hysterics. “Alright, Ivy! I admit it! For once, you were right!”
Lucky laughed, partly to distract himself, partly because of the absurdity of the situation. “Never thought I would hear that!”
As the trio barreled through the checkpoint, to the hollered orders to stop from the guards, Cobblestone turned to look at him. “Lucky?” she called, breaking from a canter into a proper gallop.
“Yes?” she shouted back.
“Shut up and run!”