by Airstream

In Which A Move is Made

Cobblestone groaned, pulling the covers over her body as her limbs trembled and her stomach did flips in on itself. The withdrawal had begun almost as soon as Libra had completed her spell, and she had collapsed into her bed not an hour ago after getting some water down at the insistence of Turquoise, who had made sure everything she had needed was available before calling in one of the deckhands to keep an eye on her. He was under very simple instructions, those being to sit and keep watch over the invalid in the bed, and to report if he thought anything to be wrong with her. He seemed nice enough, though he didn’t have much to say. He had taken out a shirt with a substantial hole in it soon after sitting down, and had lost himself in clumsily darning it.

The unicorn on the bed had experienced this sort of sickness before, but only rarely, and even then it had been for a night or so at the most, not three straight days. She had been weak for days afterward, hardly able to keep food down, and more often than not she had needed to dip into her savings to keep her tithe up in the face of Chip’s relentless culling of her earnings. Cob was not at all looking forward to the next few days, or over-much to what came afterward.

A hissing filled her ears, the sound of the river rushing passed suddenly unbearably loud, and she attempted to smother the sound with her pillow with some success, but before too long, the chills wracking her body turned instead to scorching heat, and sweat broke out over her entire body, causing her to kick the covers away weakly. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the icy cold she had felt at first, or the all-consuming fire she now felt burning through her veins.

She took the pillow away from her face just in time to see the stallion approach her, glass of water in hoof. She reached for it, but he pressed her back into the pillows without a word, instead holding the glass to her lips. She drank, suddenly parched, but her feeble sips caused her to choke and splutter, and he took the glass away.

“Small sips, Miss. Take it easy.”

She nodded, and he held up the glass once more, allowing her to take tiny mouthfuls of water in. Little it may have been, but Cobblestone found it took every ounce of control she had just to make sure it all got down without a fuss. She managed a thankful smile before the fire in her body faded, to be replaced once more by ice. Her watcher, seeing her discomfort, drew the covers back over her before returning to his chair and his shirt, leaving her to suffer in her bed once more.

Groaning again, she stared at the grain in the wall of the ship, watching it twist and bulge in unnatural ways despite her best efforts to convince herself it was just an effect of the withdrawal. Stars began to creep in around the edges of her vision, and she shook her head weakly to rid herself of them, to no avail. She shut her eyes tightly in order to block them out, but they showed when she closed her eyes, as well. Before long, she felt the mattress begin to move underneath her, as if she was falling, and it was a short while later that she dozed off into a fitful sleep.

Her dreams were not at all pleasant, made even less so by the angry demands of her body for more of the drug she had grown so used to. The occasional grunt or yelp soon faded away into small whimpers of fear as the demons in Cobblestone’s head exacted their toll on her strength, both physical and emotional. Soon, though, even that faded, and Cobblestone slipped into a sleep deeper still as the ship reached its first destination, the city of Riverton.

The river flowing through the Evening Kingdom had many names, depending on who was speaking of it, where they were from, and in what manner they were addressing the mighty ribbon of raging water. Near Canterlot, it was known as the Sunfall River, as it originated in the mighty curtains of water that flowed without ceasing from the mountain itself, under the demesne of Celestia. As it wound past other towns, around hills and through fields, it took on other names, names like Cumulus River or The Rapid Run, and as it curled through the trees near the border between the Celestial Empire and the Evening Kingdom, it became the Darkling River, dappled by shadow and sunlight in equal measure, belonging to none. As it rushed through the Capitol of the Kingdom, near the Regia, it became the Starlight River, and from then on it became the Copperglow, the Trotson, the Murmur River, and many more names, each from a new town or a new group who had settled near it. By the time it reached the mighty ocean into which it emptied, it was simply The River. And it was as such that most called it.

The steamboat that was currently working its way upriver had stopped for the evening in the city of Riverton, to take on fuel and passengers as well as to give the passengers already aboard a chance to stretch their legs and see the sights. While not a large town, Riverton was possessed of a certain charm that came from the amalgamation of many different groups, cultures, and the traditions that came with. Its cuisine was something to be admired as well, a unique hodgepodge of different styles and preparation techniques that had given rise to something completely new and exciting.

“I wish I could go out and see some of Riverton,” Serale said, looking out over the town below. “The food here is supposed to be delicious.”

“Time enough for that when we aren’t just getting over an attempt on your life,” Libra said. “There will be other journeys, and other opportunities to come back here.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Serale said. “Has anypony been down to check on Cobblestone?”

Libra nodded, pouring herself a glass of water as she did so. “There is a chaperone for her in her room, a crew member. He’ll be taking care of her until we continue on tomorrow morning, and then Turquoise will resume her watch. Will that suffice?”

“I suppose,” Serale said. “Though I would like to see three shifts there instead of two. Twelve hours is a long while to watch anything, even an invalid.”

“We’ll speak on that later,” Libra said. “For now, there are a few things that needed taken care of.”

“Such as?” Serale inquired, watching the gangplanks being lowered and the traffic between ship and shore begin. It irked her to be so close to a new place, and to have sworn not to visit it. Even Fillydelphia had been a new place for her, and she had visited as much of it as she could in the short time available to her.

“The six mages who will be accompanying us the rest of the way to Starfall would most likely want to speak with you,” Libra said, “And you still need to have your tea for the evening.”

Serale grimaced. “Do I really have to?”

“The mages will be expecting you to at least acknowledge them, Serale,” Libra said. “And you should be able to handle yourself with grace if you need to.”

Serale waved one hoof dismissively. “I meant taking the tea. The mages I can handle, goodness knows I’ve met with plenty before.”

There was a knock at the door, causing them both to jump. Neither of them had been expecting company. Libra set her glass of water down carefully.

“Get behind me, Lady Serale,” she said, creeping over to the door. The memory of the assassins was still fresh in her head, and it was with great care that she looked through the peephole to see who was waiting on their doorstep.

Her shoulders slumped. “Of course,” she said. “It would be them.”

Grabbing the handle and opening the door wide, she plastered a polite smile on her face. “Mares, gentlecolts,” she said. “It is good to see you all. Please, come in!”

The group that entered the sitting room, silently and without acknowledging Libra, were imposing enough without the utter silence they had surrounded themselves with. They were dressed all in gray, save for the black of their boots, spattered with mud and grit. Their shirts and trousers were plain and without adornment, save for a single small red star over the left breast, and they each wore a heavy jacket of grey wool, with a hood drawn tightly over their heads and horns. Grey swathes of fabric hid all of their faces save only for their eyes, and at their side, each carried a long, straight sword, plain and without adornment. They numbered six in all, and it was not until the door had been closed behind them that the one in front, the leader of the group, spoke.

She bowed to Serale, a gesture almost courtly in nature, before removing the mask in front of her face and speaking softly. “Milady, my name is Puzzle. I apologize for not announcing our arrival, but we find it aids in our work if speak only rarely in public. We have been assigned to your personal guard by orders of Lady Everstar, until such time as we are deemed no longer necessary for your defense. I am not sure if you know of our order, or what we do, but we are called-“

“Magekillers.” Serale said flatly. “Yes, I know of you. And while I find the notion of six of you in my personal service excessive, I am, of course, pleased to have your company. Are you aware of why you have been assigned to protect me?”

Puzzle blinked, taken aback by Serale’s words. To her credit, she recovered admirably. “All we know is that a threat has been made against your life, ma’am. We are here to provide extra security in a discreet fashion.”

Serale eyed the uniforms of the six ponies in front of her. “Unless you travel veiled from sight and sound, I would hardly call you discreet. Allow me to enlighten you as to the reason for your sudden reassignment. You will, of course, refrain from repeating what I am about to tell you. Libra, would you be so kind as to prepare my tea?” There was no offer made to the six ponies, who were shuffling uncomfortably under the withering gaze of the young noblemare.

Serale settled into a chair, indicating that her guests should sit as well. Reaching for the scroll with her name on it, she tossed it to Puzzle, who caught it gently. “Don’t open that if you value your sanity,” Serale suggested, “There’s an enchantment on it that will melt your psyche with admirable efficiency. That was delivered to me via crossbow bolt, the bolt being still in the weapon itself. It was placed in my room by two assassins, while an equal number of their associates attempted the murder of Libra, my erstwhile companion and the Court Sorcerer.”

Puzzle’s eyes widened in surprise. “And how did you escape, Milady?” she asked. “If you don’t mind my asking, that is.”

“A thief had attempted to break into my rooms at the same time, and her arrival distracted the two killers. Her compatriot in the other room sounded an alarm before being overcome, and Libra and I were able to fend them off shortly thereafter.” The fact that Libra had done most of the work and that Serale had been nearly killed went unsaid.

Serale continued. “That thief, a witness in all of this, is currently being detained belowdecks under guard. She is currently asleep, as I was informed by a worker shortly before your arrival. She will remain in this room under guard until we reach Starfall, at which point I would imagine you will be reassigned to…whatever it was you were doing previously.”

Puzzle’s eyebrows knitted together as she concentrated on the scroll. “But who did this?” she asked. “Who would have the resources to orchestrate such an attack?”

“That certainly seems to be the question, doesn’t it?” Serale asked. “Somepony with power, and lots of it. Hence your assignment. Your rooms have already been cleared, and are on the floor directly below this one. Arrange guards how you will, though your services will only be required at night, when Libra is unable to perform her duties.”

One of the other Magekillers who had remained standing stepped forward. “With all respect, Miss, we should be closer to you during the day, as you’ll be moving around deck extensively, correct?”

Serale’s eyes narrowed. “Firstly, Magekiller, I will be leaving this cabin only rarely. I have been away from home for a very long time, and have no wish to associate with those onboard any more than I have to, given recent events. Secondly, Libra’s protection shall be more than adequate on those rare occasions when I do leave this room. Is that understood?”

Cowed, the stallion stepped back into line, bowing his head as he did so. Serale turned back to Puzzle, whose face betrayed absolutely nothing at the reprimand of one of her own. “Do you require further information, or will that suffice?” Serale asked, her every word rimed with ice.

Puzzle shook her head. “That will be quite sufficient, Milady.”

“Very well, then,” Serale said, accepting a cup of boiling, rancid tea from Libra. “You are dismissed.”

As the Magekillers donned their covering cloths once more and began to file out, Serale drained all of the boiling liquid from her cup. “And, Puzzle?” she called.

Puzzle turned around. “Yes, Milady?”

“Next time, announce yourself before approaching these quarters. You might find me in a better mood if you do.”

Puzzle bowed her head quickly before hurrying out of the room, the door closing behind her with a satisfactory click as Serale allowed herself a small grin.

“Was that truly necessary, Serale?” Libra asked. “They are only here to protect you, after all.”

Serale grimaced at the taste of her tea. “They came on board this ship unannounced, entered this room without thanking you for your welcome, and attempted to speak without my leave. You and I both know that they can be unforgivably arrogant, so I thought it best to head them off before they built up steam. And besides,” Serale said, her easy smile returning, “It’s not like you didn’t enjoy watching them get put in their place.”

Libra tried very hard not to smile, and failed miserably. “Perhaps you’re right, Serale,” she said, accepting the empty cup from the young Lady, “It did my heart a bit of good to see them taken down a peg or two.”

The clock on the wall chimed nine o’clock, and both of them looked at it in surprise. “Is it that late already?” Libra asked. She yawned. “It has been an extremely long day.”

Serale nodded. “You can go on to bed, Libra. I’m going to stay up and do a bit of reading, see if I can relax a bit.”

“Are you sure, Serale?” Libra asked. “It’s been a long day for you as well.”

Serale nodded. “I’m positive. I won’t be up too long, an hour or two at the most. Go on to bed, I’ll be along soon.”

Libra bowed her head briefly. “Very well then, I’ll be in my room if you need something.” She opened the door to the small quarters that she would be staying in. “Good night, Lady Serale.”

“Good night, Libra,” Serale said, withdrawing a book from the shelf nearest the window and fetching a reading light for herself. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Soon the silence in the parlor was broken only by the steady breathing of a mare with her book, and the occasional turn of a page.

Cobblestone woke with a start to find that the light in the small room had gone out, and she instinctively knew that she was alone. Her thoughts whirled and twisted before she remembered where she was, back on board the steamboat headed upriver. She shook her head, noting that the sickness in her stomach had subsided, at least for the moment.

“Hello?” she called. “Is anypony there?”

There was no answer save for the gentle creaking of timbers. Her throat burned, and Cobblestone used her magic to grab a glass and some water, bringing them close to her face to drink. The pale blue glow threw weak shadows around the room, barely managing to drive back the shadows that surrounded her, and so she could have been forgiven for missing the face at the foot of her bed for a moment. And then it spoke.


The unicorn yelped, dropping the glass onto the floor, where it shattered into pieces. The light around her horn went out, and when she managed to turn it back on, the face was no longer at the foot of her bed. Instead, it was right beside her.

“Cobblestone,” Ivy whispered, blood dripping from the wound in her neck, her face torn away by fish, “Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you save me?”

“Ivy!” Cobblestone said. “Oh, Ivy, how are you here? What happened?”

“You killed me, Cob. I needed you and you killed me.” Ivy said. She reeked of rot and the silt of the river bottom.

Cobblestone leaned away from her friend. “No. No, Ivy, I did everything I could do to keep you safe. I…I just wasn’t strong enough, that’s all.”

“It’s cold at the river bottom, Cob.” Ivy said. “It’s so cold down there, alone in the black.”

“Ivy…Ivy, what are you…how are you…”

The darkness seemed to gather around Ivy like a shroud as she gazed down at her onetime friend without mercy or compassion. The shadows pressed in close around them both, and Cobblestone felt them resting on her like a blanket of mud, clammy and weighing her down. The light began to fade, and Cobblestone struggled to breathe, the shadows were filling her mouth and nose, and she couldn’t scream or call for help, and the shadows pressed in closer, and Ivy was dragging her down into the dreadful deep black…

Cobblestone woke up with a start, a cry dying in her throat and tears in her eyes as she sat straight up in bed, before her stomach turned over and she retched over the side of the bed, splattering the floor with thin bile. Her entire head throbbed, and she felt sore over her entire body before she sank back down into bed with a moan. The stallion sitting in the chair across from her woke up with a start, his face turning sympathetic as he saw what had happened.

“Come on, Miss,” he said. “We’ll get you to the head, and from there, if you have a coat or cloak, I’ll take you up on deck for some fresh air.”

Cobblestone, with a titanic amount of effort, managed to get out of bed on her own, and the stallion withdrew her cloak from the chest before gently fastening it around her neck. The strings, however, insisted on getting snarled in the pendant around her neck, and it was with a brief snort of annoyance that the stallion withdrew the crystal pin from his jacket pocket, undoing the clasp in back of the necklace.

“Don’t go getting too excited, Miss,” he said, setting it to one side, “It goes right back on in a moment.” He tied off the ends of the cloak, and re-fastened the necklace around her neck before tucking the pin back into his pocket.

“Come on, then,” he said, supporting her as they lurched to the door and through to the hallway beyond. He turned to the two guards in the hallway. “We’ve got a bit of a problem in there, could one of you get another deckhand to help clean that up?” he asked.

One of the guards sighed and trotted off down the hall, as they both hobbled in the other direction. Cobblestone could feel her legs burning with the effort of keeping her up, and she gasped for air that burned her lungs as though they were filled with needles. She kept at it, though, knowing that anything was better than that horrible, suffocating blackness which had woken her minutes before.

Upon arriving at the cramped wooden stall which held the “head”, Cobblestone rushed forward, bursting through the door as her stomach emptied what contents were available to it into the simple wooden bowl as the door swung shut behind her. She retched twice , tears dripping from her eyes, before she pulled herself together, wiping her eyes with one foreleg and standing up a bit taller than before.

The stallion was in the hallway, waiting patiently for her to finish up, when she passed through the door once more, shivering slightly with the effort she had put forth.

“Feeling better, Miss? Would you like to take a turn around deck?” the stallion asked.

Cobblestone swallowed, wetting her mouth, before she replied. “Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I would like that very much.”

Together, the two of them ascended the stairs onto the deck, stepping out into the open once more. Cobblestone shivered in the river breeze, drawing her cloak a bit tighter around herself before the shakes subsided, leaving her merely uncomfortable as opposed to freezing. As the duo promenaded around deck, Cobblestone actually found that she was getting used to the cool air, and that the freshness of the breeze above deck was helping her to clear her head with remarkable speed.

“You know, I don’t even know your name,” Cobblestone murmured, leaning against the deckhand for support as well as warmth.

“Applewood, miss. My name’s Applewood. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the stallion said.

The pair walked around the deck in companionable silence after that, taking in the night, the stars, and the lights of the nearby city before the walk turned back towards the staircase leading belowdecks. Cobblestone gripped tightly at Applewood’s shoulder when she saw the staircase again.

“Please,” she said, almost pleading, “Can we take one more turn around deck? I can’t go back down yet, not yet.”

Applewood nodded silently, and they continued past the staircase and around deck once more. Cobblestone focused on the sky, looking at the far-off lights of the stars and taking comfort in their cold glow. She shuddered whenever she looked at the swift-moving river, and came to the realization that she could not wait to arrive at her destination and put solid ground between her and the blackness below her hooves. So preoccupied was she with the stars, and so preoccupied was her companion with the city, that they failed to see the well-dressed stallion in front of them until they had collided with them both.

“Pardon me,” the older stallion said, “I seem to have wandered off course a bit.”

Applewood frowned. “How do you mean?’

The stallion smiled. “I’m looking for one ‘Cobblestone’, a young filly who was supposed to be belowdecks, but I’m up here instead. Would one of you happen to be her?”

Cobblestone frowned. “That would be me, sir.”

The smile got wider, and Cobblestone noticed what appeared to be a single, long fang glinting in that smile, directly above a matted, curled goatee . “Oh, really? And who would your companion be, then?”

“I’m Applewood, sir, a deckhand aboard this vessel. Can I ask why you were needing to speak to Miss Cobblestone?”

“I think not,” the stallion said, before reaching out with one hoof and lightly tapping him on the head. Applewood’s eyes flashed white before they cleared, leaving him with a blank gaze on his face. Without a word, he turned around and began to make his way back to the stairs, heading belowdecks. The stallion watched him go with a smile on his face.

“Easy enough to handle, much like his great-great-great-great aunt,” the stallion said. “Poor lad doesn’t exactly suffer from an overabundance of brains.”

Cobblestone took a step back, her weakened legs shaking with exertion and fear. “Who…no, what are you?” she demanded.

The stallion sighed before rising into the air, floating on a cushion of air without a care in the world. He rested his head on one hoof, gazing at Cobblestone with eyes of crimson and yellow. “Who I am is immaterial, and you’d have no idea what I am if I told you, and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. For now, you may call me Dis. Both of your questions were idiotic, so I’ll give you another one to see if you get anywhere.”

Cobblestone swallowed, silent for only a moment until she found her courage. “Why are you looking for me?” she asked.

His eyes flashed in approval. “Not entirely useless, then. Good, good. You might prove to be interesting yet.”

He landed back on the deck with nary a care in the world, pulling an apple from somewhere Cobblestone couldn’t quite see before taking a large bite out of it. “You see,” he said, his mouth full, “I’m here to help you, believe it or not. I’m here to put you on level ground, and to let you know exactly what you’re getting into.”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked warily. “And why should I trust you?”

“Another excellent question, my dear!” Dis said. “You’ll need to ask yourself that last one quite a bit! As to what I mean, I’ll tell you a few things, and let you figure them out yourself.”

“Either get on with it, or be on your way!” Cobblestone said. “Before I make you.”

The mocking grin on Dis’s face grew wider, more predatory, like the toothy smile of some great cat. “I should dearly love to see you try that, Cobblestone.”

“What is it you want?” the unicorn asked. “I’m done with games.”

“Far from it, my dear,” Dis said with a chuckle. “You’re only just getting started with them. Big games, small games, games you won’t even know you’re playing, games where you play others without their knowing, you’ll be playing all sorts of games soon enough, some of them with very high stakes.”

“You mean the Evening Court?” Cobblestone asked. “I’m just going to testify there, and that’s it!”

“Oh, come now,” Dis replied, tossing the apple over the railing. It made no splash. “You’re going to Starfall, as somepony involved in an assassination plot against the daughter of the Evening herself, a pony infamous for her plots and deceptions. And you’ll be involved with Serale Everstar for a while more, I’m sure. You’ll play games, Cobblestone. It would be foolish to think otherwise.”

“So, that’s why you’re here?” Cobblestone asked. “To warn me that I might be manipulated in Court?”

Dis shook his head. “No, Cobblestone. Anypony with brains knows that you’ll be manipulated in Court. That’s to be expected. What I’m here to warn you about is your being manipulated outside of Court. You may not realize it yet, but by getting involved with Serale Everstar, you’ve become both player and piece on a board that counts gods among its number. Be ready.”

Cobblestone hadn’t thought of it that way. Serale was related by blood to Lady Everstar, who had in fact brought three goddesses to heel in the early days of the Kingdom, who had in fact been instrumental in its formation and built it from the ground up. She politicked with beings of immense power, and counted innumerable enemies and allies among this veritable pantheon of peers.

“Trust no one, not your closest friends or truest allies, and realize that your enemies may not be all they appear,” Dis whispered, suddenly close to her. He smelled faintly of carbon and rot, causing Cobblestone’s nose to wrinkle. “And I have one more gift for you, should you choose to accept it.”

Cobblestone felt him slip something into her cloak’s lining, into a pocket that was surely not there before. “That’s a replica of the pin to the pendant around your neck,” he murmured. “Tomorrow, you’ll have the chance to make a break into the town of Autumn Station. There, if you’re lucky, you’ll find an ally to help you in your journey.”

Cobblestone’s pulse quickened. “You mean to help me escape?” she asked.

Dis pulled away, his eyes filled with the promise of all sorts of unpleasantness. “Escape? Possibly,” he said, his face unreadable. “Or perhaps I just enjoy stirring up trouble and making ponies squirm.”

A bell rang out across the water, shattering what had up to that point been an unnatural stillness. Dis’s grin turned rueful. “Ah, that’s my time,” he said. “I made sure the passengers on this vessel would not notice your absence. By my reckoning, you’ve about two minutes before the guards outside of your room and your dear chaperone realize you aren’t there.”

“But why?” Cob asked, as he began to trot away. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because, Cobblestone!” the strange stallion called, reaching the gangplank, “I enjoy changing the rules of games!”

Cobblestone watched him disappear into the darkness before bolting on unsteady legs for the ladder, in a hurry to get to her room before somepony noticed her absence. In her rush, it didn’t even occur to her that the events of her dream had been completely forgotten.

Serale stood by her window, watching Cobblestone hurry down the hatch. She wasn’t sure who that stranger was, or what he had done to the deckhand, but she somehow knew, deep in her gut, that whatever he had put into Cobblestone’s cloak was meant to help her escape.

Something told her that alerting Libra would be a bad idea, and so she came up with an alternate plan. Tomorrow, that stallion would be relieved of duty. Tomorrow, she would watch over Cobblestone. And if by some miracle she should escape, Serale would be sure to bring her back.