The Inn was absolutely quiet when the duo of thieves crept into the hallway, silent as could be. They moved with the instinct brought by extended practice, movements fluid and subtle, keeping to alcoves and always, always checking to make sure that nopony was out in the hallway to spy on their clandestine activities. This meant that while progress was constant, it was also not as quick as it could be. Time needed to be taken in order to note which doors still had light spilling out from underneath, which floorboards would creak when pressure was applied, and so on. Thus, it took them nearly a full minute to progress down a hundred yard stretch of hallway.
They had robbed houses before, and so they easily slipped into a modified version of the procedure they had used for that. Ivy halted just before the door, while Cobblestone crept right up to the lock, accepting a small set of picks from underneath Ivy’s cloak. She crouched down, withdrawing two of the tools from her bag. The locks on the Inn doors were good, but Cobblestone and indeed all of the other thieves in the West River Gang were far better.
Cobblestone shook away a wave of dizziness, the last of the drug making its way through her body. There was a rattle from the lock, and she dropped one of the tumblers out of order, resetting the whole thing. She silently cursed herself for her foolishness before carefully withdrawing the pick and starting all over again. It was almost what she imagined meditation to be like, Cob reflected. She was able to focus on a task so completely that she could shut all other distractions, even her sense of self, completely out.
With a small click, the lock opened, and Cob tried the handle of the door. It turned smoothly in her magical grasp, and she nodded to Ivy, who took the picks from her and crept to the second door. They would open the doors simultaneously, ensuring that they could get to their prizes more quickly. Cob would have the worst time of it, opening the door, then the window, then lifting the chest, and closing everything back up before closing the door behind her. Ivy would, if things went wrong with Cob’s end of things, simply escape through the window or door. Cob would be caught flat, Ivy could get away free.
It took her younger accomplice a bit longer, but eventually, Ivy managed to jimmy the lock on the door open, and each took up their position outside of the rooms. Cobblestone mouthed a countdown, three, two, one, and each of them opened the doors smoothly, stepping inside and closing them behind themselves to cut off light from the hallway.
To the untrained observer, it would appear that the hallway of the Hospitality Inn was completely deserted. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
The first thing Ivy noticed when she entered the room, looking for a hiding spot, was that the window was already open. Smiling quietly to herself, she crept towards a shadowy spot on the wall where she could hide herself reliably and wait for Lucky to appear and help her lift the valuables from the room.
She frowned. Something seemed off about this place. Aside from the still form in the bed nearby, she got the distinct feeling that she was not-
Strong hooves grabbed her from behind, and she could feel something swinging towards her throat. Reflexively, she bit down on the hoof over her mouth, twisting her body just enough so that the silent dagger meant for her throat instead traced a line along the side of her neck, thankfully avoiding anything important. She drew in breath to shout, but a swift punch to her ribs caused the air to rush from her lungs. She kicked back, and was rewarded with a grunt of pain from her unknown assailant, who had been hiding by the door when she walked in.
Rolling away, she managed to light her horn on reflex before a second shadow made a motion at her, and the light around her horn winked out. Ivy staggered to one side, suddenly weakened. She felt cold, as if she had just had all of her strength sucked right out of her, and her hooves went numb as the second shadow detached itself silently from the wall and slid towards her as the first one attempted to grab her from behind. Thankfully, he only managed to grab her cloak, and before the second shadow could take her down, she did the only thing she could do under the circumstances.
Ivy took a deep breath and screamed as loud as she could.
Cobblestone’s ears pricked up at the sudden noise from the next room, and only the lethargy of her slowed reflexes managed to stop her from flinching right back into the waiting hooves of a Pegasus, who grasped a dagger in hoof. On reflex, she summoned light, casting bright blue illumination into every corner of the room and getting her back to a wall. When she saw what awaited her, she almost wished she had not.
The two Pegasi looked at her, eerily quiet as they both drew their daggers simultaneously, as if they were puppets on the same string. Their eyes were purest black, narrowed in the light, and without another word, they lunged at her, ready to kill.
Cobblestone rolled to one side as the figure on the bed managed to stir, and she caught sight of a horn on its head before a wing blocked her view, swinging right at her nose in an attempt to break it. She turned, catching it on one cheek before taking another step back. As she watched, what appeared to be a black flame appeared in the hoof of one of her assailants, and he thrust it towards her. Her light flickered and dimmed, and Cobblestone felt very cold indeed.
Grunting, she lowered her horn, letting loose with a blast of concussive force that should have stopped the Pegasus right in his tracks. Indeed, it did blow him back a fair distance, slamming him into the wall near the window and causing him to drop his dagger, but it also left her woefully unprotected from the second assailant. Seeing an opening, the Pegasus swung his dagger at her neck, hoping for a killing blow.
The unicorn on the bed, who had just been roused from an otherwise pleasant sleep, careened into him with surprising force, kicking off of the bed to give herself extra power. The two of them rolled towards the wall that separated one room from another, crashing into it with enough force to make it rattle. If the occupants weren’t awake before, they certainly were now.
Ivy desperately avoided the two Pegasi, but there was only so much she could do in these close quarters. Dancing back towards the door, her every thought focused on getting away and free enough to escape, not defeating her two attackers. She could feel hot blood weeping from the line on her neck, and already two more cuts had been carved into her flanks and chin, almost serrating her eye. She could see the occupant of the bed out of the corner of her eye, and had only a moment to note the unexpected horn on her head before one of her assailants broke off, attempting to throw his dagger at this pony while his compatriot came in low, digging into her chest with the edge of the dagger before she could pull away. Ivy was running out of time.
And then the horn on the bed lit up, and the room exploded into light and sound and fury. Ivy was blown back against the wall, her vision flickering, before the two Pegasi followed her likewise. The unicorn looked at them, eyes glowing purple-white along with her magic, before the force keeping her pinned to the wall slammed her down onto the floor. The unicorn rolled out of bed, easily holding the three of them down with her face twisted into a contemptuous snarl. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could do so, there was a thud from the wall behind her. Eyes widening, she turned to the wall, and with a flash, blew a hole right through it, stepping into the room beyond.
“Serale!” she cried.
Cobblestone ducked when she felt the magic building up in the other room, the drug allowing her to see the massive amount of power that had been unleashed. She was not a moment too soon, as a bolt of energy the size of her head impacted the wall, disintegrating a good piece of it instantly. Shaking the explosion off, she took advantage of this distraction to launch herself towards the window, only to find one of the assassins waiting for her.
She felt magic grab at her back, forcing her to the floor along with every other pony in the room. She could see several other shapes huddled in the adjacent room through the smoking wreckage of what had once been a bed, and hoped beyond hope that Ivy was not one of them. The unicorn wielding all of this power stepped through, surveying the situation and leaving her back to the room behind her. This was an unwise move on her part.
One of the Pegasi, blazing with black flame, rose to his hooves silently, taking up his dagger as he did so. Cobblestone tried to move, to make noise, but the enchantment held firm for her, and she remained pressed to the ground by the sheer force of this pony’s will. Digging deep, she threw everything she had against the barrier of light pressing her to the ground.
And much to her surprise, it moved.
Gritting her teeth, she tried again. And again. And again. Her head ached, her vision blurred, she almost passed out, but she mustered herself for a final push just as the pony behind the Mage raised his dagger. Focusing with her horn, she pushed as hard as she could, and was extremely surprised when not only did the barrier around her fall, but a bolt of heat and light sped forth from her horn in a jagged line, hitting the Pegasus high in the chest, and extinguishing the flame around him with definite finality. As he fell, the air around them seemed to explode into noise, deafening all present.
Belatedly, she realized that she had broken every shield, and that the Pegasus by the window was moving to escape. Focusing her will again, she tried to push more of herself through her horn, but she spasmed and fell convulsing to the ground.
The Mage turned, realizing what had just happened as the remaining Pegasus at her hooves attempted to stand. The unicorn he had been tangling with, the sleeper, refused to let him up, twisting her body sinuously and somehow managing to pin his wings to the ground, where he lay impotently. Cobblestone watched as the Pegasus by the window managed to hurl himself through, leaving one Pegasus alive and well. What he did next would haunt Cobblestone for the rest of her days.
“Put the filly down!” Libra shouted, making sure to enunciate each word in an exaggerated fashion. Her head pulsed as she struggled to adjust to the burst eardrums she had just received. Her vision swam, and it was only by reason of this that she did not put a bolt of magic through this Pegasus’s head. She didn’t trust her aim at all.
The Pegasus dragged the young filly in a cloak to her hooves, holding her in front of him like a shield with a dagger at her throat. His black eyes were wide with panic, and she could almost see the thoughts running through his head. Internally, she cursed herself for leaving the two that had been in her room unaccounted for.
“Cob!” the filly was screaming, her words all too clear despite the loss of hearing. “Cob! Get up!”
The Pegasus said nothing, only pressing the knife into her neck in order to shut her up. He began to move towards the window, and Libra watched helplessly as he prepared to make his escape. She shouted again, horn blazing with magic.
“Put the filly down and drop the knife!” she ordered. “Surrender, you can’t get away!” She knew it to be true. There were likely constables approaching the inn from above and down every side street. The Pegasus was on borrowed time as it was.
The young unicorn struggled uselessly as she was dragged towards the window, still caught in the grip of the Pegasus. Libra could almost feel the eyes of the unicorn who had cast that spell watching her friend being dragged away kicking and screaming. The pair halted at the window as the struggling of the filly grew ever more frenzied despite the knife at her throat. And then things finally came to a head.
The young mare in the cloak slammed her head back into her would-be hostage taker, causing his head to fly back. As she leaned forward, however, the knife dug into her throat, leaving a long red line that sprayed blood across the wooden floor of the Inn. Libra, seeing a shot, took it. Her beam of magic drilled through the Pegasus’s head cleanly, causing him to topple out of the window, dragging the weakly struggling mare behind him. Though nopony in the room could hear it, there was a splash from outside as both ponies fell into the swift water of the river, disappearing into its murky depths.
Libra swore, casting healing magic on herself and restoring her popped eardrums before doing the same to the rest of the room. It was not one of her better ideas.
“Ivy!” Cobblestone screamed, trying to pick herself up. “Ivy! No, dammit, no! Ivy!”
“Quiet!” Libra snarled, reinstating the magical bonds that had proved so ineffectual before around both her and the Pegasus. She poured more power into them this time, ensuring that they could not move from their spots. She added a gag for good measure. The mage turned to Serale. “Are you hurt, Lady Serale?”
Serale released her hold on the Pegasus, dusting herself off and checking herself over. Her tone was level, but Libra knew her charge well enough to see the panic in her eyes, behind her practiced regal mask. “No, no. I’m fine, thank goodness. Glad I practiced my self-defense when we were away, and certainly glad you showed up when you did. Thank you, Libra.”
Libra nodded. “Please have a seat on the bed, Lady Serale. The authorities should be arriving in a moment to deal with these two, but in the meantime I would like to get what information I can.”
She turned to the unicorn, as she seemed younger. Her tone was as icy as a northern winter. “Now. Tell me who sent you here tonight, and why they want to kill the Evening Heir.”
The unicorn seemed unable to speak. She gazed at her captor with wide eyes, unsure of what to say. Libra applied more force, pressing her into the floorboards. “Answer me!”
Serale raised a hoof in supplication. “Hold on, Libra. I don’t think they were here to kill me. At least, she wasn’t.”
Libra glared at her captive suspiciously, not taking eyes off of her. “Explain, Serale.”
“She came in from the opposite side, and when that other pony screamed, she attacked the Pegasi that were in here. I hardly think that she would have done so if they were working together.” Serale said, gazing at her. “In fact, without her assault on one of the Pegasi, I would very likely have been killed.”
“Then why were they here?” Libra asked. “Who sent them?”
Cobblestone grunted under the force applied to her. “Nopony…sent us. Spotted you earlier today…tried to rob you.”
“There, you see?” Serale said. “Not an assassin, just a thief. One with morals, I might add. Instead of running, she chose to fight.”
“Dubious morals, at best.” Libra said. “I have a feeling she was trying to save her own skin rather than yours, but at least she isn’t a killer.” She turned to the other captive, the Pegasus. Finally, she could hear the cries of the constables gathering in the street below.
“Who sent you?” she demanded. “Why are you here?”
The Pegasus looked at her blankly, saying nothing. Instead, his head twitched just a bit, indicating a spot under the bed Serale was sitting on. Serale, catching on fast, reached underneath, pulling out a loaded crossbow, with a scroll tightly wound around the shaft.
“Libra,” she said, her voice small. “It has my name on it.”
“From the Cult of Crows to you, false Goddess,” the Pegasus said suddenly. He smiled an unpleasant smile. “May your reign be short and tragic.”
There was a rush of black flame, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air as the Pegasus began to somehow incinerate himself, the magical flame eating through his body much quicker than any normal fire could. It did not spread to the floorboards, or even give off much heat, but it was a matter of a minute before nothing remained of the Pegasus save a charred, blackened skeleton. He had not stopped smiling the entire time, and even in death, his skull seemed to wear a mocking grin.
The room was silent after that. There was really nothing to say. They were found just like that not a minute later, when the first of the constables opened the door. Words were said, information exchanged. Deference was paid where it was due, and though no more sleep was had that night, an extra vigil watched diligently until the early light of morning and beyond.
Cobblestone huddled in one corner of the hard, chilly cell she had been thrown into several hours ago. It was a state-run prison, which meant conditions here were marginally better than the conditions in a city gaol, but the prisoners were certainly not made comfortable. Not to mention, the security here was much tighter than normal, and for good reason. Around her were the very worst of Crescent City, and that was saying something. Killers, rapists, the dregs of society were housed above, below, and to all sides of her.
Not that it mattered much, she reflected. That had been Serale Everstar, the child of Lady Everstar herself. And she had been mixed up in a plot to kill her. True, she was just a thief, but it was almost guaranteed that she would hang for that on principle. It was almost preferable to the other option, which would be for her to rot in this cell for the rest of her life.
No, she reflected, it would be far better to have her short drop, sudden stop, and a pauper’s grave in a rundown cemetery without even a headstone to mark her passing. She snorted humorlessly. Better than her friends would be getting, that was certain. She had seen them take Lucky’s body from the roof as she was led away. He’d be examined and incinerated like as not. And Ivy…tears formed in her eyes as she thought about Ivy. She blinked them away, but the memories stubbornly refused to go with them.
Ivy had panicked. She had never been cut out for this life, she had lived too well for too long, and look where it had gotten her. Struggling like that instead of coming up with a plan? Cob knew better than that, any pony who spent more than a few years on the streets knew how to get away from a knife to your throat, or they had died trying.
Well, Ivy had died trying. Cob sniffed, curling in on herself as she recalled that struggle, those cuts along her friend’s face, the moving towards the window. She remembered seeing Ivy’s head go back, and that jerk from the Pegasus, and the long red line across her throat…and the drop. Gone forever, either swept out to sea or settled into the watery bed of the river to be picked apart by the current and the fish.
Another spasm tore through her body, and Cobblestone hissed in pain, clutching at her horn. Whatever she had shot, whatever had come out of her, it had hurt far more than anything she had ever done before. She didn’t even know what it was that she did, let alone how to do it again! And if she could do it again, she certainly would. But the band of cold iron around her horn reminded her that doing so would be a futile waste of effort. She wore one of the biggest inhibitor rings they had around her horn, blocking her power thoroughly. She shuddered. At least it wasn’t permanent. She had seen the ex-prisoners begging for coin in the city, rings folded tightly around their horns, married to the very bone itself. To a unicorn, it could be considered a fate worse than death.
The door at the far end of her hall opened with a clang, and she could hear the sound of hoofbeats echoing off of the cold iron walls of the prison. Her heart sank, knowing that they were coming for her. Sure enough, two guards in burgundy coats stopped in front of her cell. One of them hefted a set of hobbles and a bridle, while the other brandished a baton.
“No funny business from you, eh?” Baton said. “You either come quietly, or I beat you until you’re quiet and you come anyway.”
Cobblestone nodded meekly, and he withdrew a set of keys from his pocket, opening the door to her cell. Bridle approached, and she allowed her hooves to be bound and the bit to be placed into her mouth. It tasted of old spit and sweat. The guard gave a gentle tug, and Cobblestone followed along, getting used to the small steps she was now forced to take.
Her new acquaintances in the cells around her, sensing her fear, began to cheer and make catcalls at her as she was led away.
“Hey there, lovely! You look good with a bridle in!” one skinny stallion called to her, a lecherous grin across his face.
Another pony, this one burly, rushed to the bars, startling her as he reached out. “Come on over, my little pony. I don’t bite hard, promise!” he said, opening his mouth wide to reveal that he had filed his teeth down to points.
“Keep moving, prisoner.” Baton said, not looking at her. “It’s the last time in your life that you’ll be seeing these lowlifes.”
Cobblestone’s heart leapt into her throat at that. She was being led to an execution! Panicking, she tugged on the bridle, putting up a fight and managing to pull away from the other guard, who was unprepared for her attempted escape. Half-running, half-hopping, she sped back the way she came, gaining a dozen steps on the guards before they were able to turn around and get her. Bridle pulled out a whistle, blowing it as he chased after her. Immediately, two Pegasi dropped from alcove above her, chasing her down and bringing her to the ground as the four guards piled on top of her, restraining her as the first guard began to apply his baton.
“Stop resisting!” he shouted, raining down blows on the unicorn. “Stop resisting or I will knock you unconscious!”
Cobblestone, afraid, confused, and in pain, reached for her magic by instinct. She felt her vision flicker, her head go numb, and right before she lost consciousness, she heard the clatter of the inhibitor ring as it split in two.
“You said it took how many guards to get her down here?” Libra asked.
The Commandant of the prison sniffed. “It took six when all was said and done, though the last two probably were not needed, seeing as the prisoner lost consciousness shortly thereafter.” In an effort to salvage his pride, he added “To be fair, it happened right at shift change. And she slipped her inhibitor ring.”
The mage thought about that. “What are the ratings on those rings?”
“She was wearing a Class Four dampener,” the Commandant said. “In addition to standard hobbles and bridle.”
Libra nodded thoughtfully. “Well, that certainly gives me an idea of what to expect when transporting her.”
“Are you sure you’ll be needing to escort her personally, Magus?” the Commandant asked. “I’m sure we could hold her here until a proper transfer team could be assembled.”
Libra gave him a look that could have stripped paint. “Commandant, we have two dozen Royal Grenadiers, fourteen mages, four Changelings, and myself on our boat in addition to Lady Serale and our normal crew. We shall be able to more than handle a pubescent prisoner for three days on the way back upriver.”
The stallion threw up his hooves defensively. “Just making sure, Magus.” he shuffled a few papers around. “One thing more, Magus Libra.”
Libra looked at him inquisitively. “And what would that be?”
He slid the paper across the table towards her. “The prisoner shows signs of heavy and regular drug use. Dragon’s Kiss, to be precise. The teeth are stained green, her coat has fallen out in places, and there is some bloating in her abdominal area.”
Libra looked over the paperwork, concerned. “How old is she?”
“We estimate her age to be around thirteen to fifteen, Magus, though without her telling us we have no way to know. We only have a name for her now.”
“So young…” Libra murmured. She set the paper down along with several others, bundling them into a folder. “So we should be expecting signs of withdrawal?”
“Unless you are planning to allow her continued use of the drug in your custody,” the Commandant said. “I would give her about two days before the effects of drug loss begin to take their toll. Do you have a healer on board your vessel, or shall I provide one?”
“I shall administer treatment of her myself.” Libra said, gathering Cobblestone’s paperwork into a bundle.
The Commandant nodded respectfully. “Very well, Magus. If you’ll follow me, I will take you to our holding cell.”
Together, they both walked out of the room, down the stairs from the office of the Commandant to a smaller room, outside of which were stationed two guards and two soldiers, in uniform and with rifles slung. The guards looked justifiably nervous. The two ponies were elite Grenadiers, evidenced by the red stripe down the legs of their pants. Each had seen at least five years of service, and had been in combat frequently over that term of service.
The Commandant nodded to his guards, one of whom withdrew a key from his coat pocket, turning it precisely in the door before stepping away and allowing the prison head to step through, followed by Libra.
“We’ve got her sedated for now, the effects being scheduled to last for another four hours, plenty of time to get her aboard your ship.” the Commandant said.
The young mare was suspended between two guards, both of them unicorns. They took her weight with ease. Her horn had once again been encased in enchanted iron, and instead of hobbles, she wore manacles with stiff metal bars between them, preventing her from moving her legs at all. They had even put another bridle in her mouth, this one locked in the back.
“I can assure you this is all necessary,” the Commandant said. “She has been upgraded to a serious transport risk, and neutralized accordingly.”
Libra bent closer and examined her, before standing up angrily. “I told you she was not to be beaten or harmed in your custody, Commandant. She has clearly suffered abuse here.”
The greying stallion shrugged. “She shouldn’t have attempted to resist transport.”
Libra shook her head, turning to the guards. “You two, come with me. We’re taking this mare, this child out of here,” she turned to the Commandant. “And you can expect to be hearing more from me. Good day, Commandant.”
Without another word, she turned and marched out of the cell, the two guards and the Grenadiers in tow. The Commandant watched her go, ensuring she was out of sight before letting out a sigh of relief. One did not become the head Magus in the Evening Court without serious talent and incredible cunning. And he had the feeling that he had just barely escaped having that talent and cunning directed squarely at him.
“Tell me of the failure,” Nightshade said, her mask gleaming in the early morning light.
The well-dressed stallion stared straight ahead, reciting the events as if by rote. “A group of thieves attempted to rob the rooms as we were entering them. They were able to raise an alarm, and the Mage awoke in time to ensure our defeat.”
“Bad luck, then?” Nightshade queried. “An ill-timed twist of Fate?”
The stallion chose his next words very carefully. “Yes, ma’am. Fate tested us, and we failed.”
“Failed, yes, that would sum it up,” the unicorn said. “And yet, I cannot help but wonder if we mightn’t have failed completely, had things gone differently.” She turned to the wall behind him. “What say you?” she inquired.
The Pegasus groaned, barely held in place on the wall by the nails driven through his legs and wings. His eyes rolled in his head. He gave no answer, though the stallion privately suspected that was because his voice had long ago given out. No sound escaped this room by design. Nightshade took matters into her own hooves.
Nightshade shook her head, disappointed. “I do not blame you, Brother Chance. You used the tools you had as best you could,” she said, casting her sightless eyes up to where the Pegasus hung. “It is not your fault that one of them was faulty and failed in its purpose. Even if you had used your tools and had them all fail in their tasks, I would not be angry.”
She spun, seizing a knife from her table and hurling it through the air, where it landed, quivering, in the Pegasus’s right wing. “What angers me,” she said without missing a beat, ignoring the screams of the Pegasus, “Is that your Brother did not fulfil his duties to the utmost.”
Black fire came from her splintered horn, and the nails and knives vanished, leaving the Pegasus to fall a dozen feet to the floor. He crumpled in an undignified heap, barely moving. Nightshade helped him up, seating him in a chair.
“Brother Chance, I have nothing more to say to you. I am not angry, nor am I disappointed in you, though I am disappointed in our failure. We delivered our message, though we did not kill the Mage as instructed. When you feel he is up to it, please take Brother Tertius to be healed down below. We cannot afford to lose more of our comrades.”
Brother Chance nodded only once, hoisting the Pegasus onto his back as he gently closed the door behind him. For a moment, the room was quiet, and Nightshade was alone. Closing her eyes, she lost herself in the embrace of the Shadows. It did not take long before she felt a familiar and welcome presence in her mind.
Child. Have you succeeded in your task?
“No, Mother. The Mage yet lives, though the message was delivered.”
Unfortunate. A minor setback, however. I now see why the attack failed. Rest now, I shall send new instructions in your dreams.
“I live to serve, Mother.”
The Shadows caressed her mind, sending thrills through her.
I know, child. I know.
“I love you.”
And I you, my child. Sleep now. I shall watch thy rest.