Twilight Everstar was many things. She was an able warrior, an extraordinary magician, a visionary scientist, and a plotter without peer. She counted only four other beings in all of the world as her equals, and she had humbled them all at one point or another, though the same could not be said for them. She had built a kingdom from the ground up with no prospects, no funding, and with a relative few ponies at her back, starting with only a single city and expanding this to a thriving empire in a matter of a few centuries. She had, in that time, fought four minor wars, redefined the way magic was taught, started an industrial revolution, and led countless expeditions abroad to discover more about the world than had ever been known before, even in Equestria’s brightest days.
What she was not, however, was tolerant of fools or sycophants. It was just her luck, then, that they tended to gather in her Court, most of them holding a title of nobility and demanding her attention as a result of this. And while the mare standing in front of her was certainly no fool, she was among the worst of the flatterers in her Court.
“Lady Everstar,” Aura Hedera said in a voice as rich as mulled wine, making an elegant bow, “It is so good of you to receive me on such short notice, and equally as good of you to attend in person, instead of sending one of your esteemed servants.”
Her voice echoed through the high hall, reflecting off of the polished marble and softly glowing glass that comprised the Throne Room in the Regia. She was kneeling in front of the throne Twilight sat upon, raised only slightly from the floor and flanked on both sides by mages and soldiers, who stared straight ahead without acknowledging one of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom.
Twilight acknowledged the bow with a slight nod of her head, indicating that the noblemare should rise. “Lady Hedera. Good to see you once again, I had already missed your company since the party. Charming as always, I see.”
Lady Hedera straightened, keeping her eyes averted, though it was quite unnecessary. “Your Ladyship is too kind. It is not difficult to compliment you.”
Twilight suppressed the urge to gag. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” She knew full well why Hedera was here, she was here for much the same reason as the other claimants had requested appointments with her.
“I wished merely to speak with you about my daughters, Lady Everstar. It is a matter of some importance, though nothing extraordinarily so,” Lady Hedera replied.
Twilight quirked an eyebrow. “Is that so? They seem a bit young for matchmaking, or do I miss my guess?”
Lady Hedera laughed, a high, airy giggle that set Twilight’s teeth on edge. “A fine jest, your Grace! No, Grappa and Fern are too young to take a husband, that much is certain, though I’ve caught them peeking at the soldiers on parade with a discerning eye. I wished to speak about their potential for training.”
Twilight allowed herself a tolerant smile. “I understand completely. They show great magical promise, from what I have been told. You wish to discuss the possibility of their apprenticeship to a tutor?”
Lady Hedera leaned forward earnestly. “Your Grace has read my mind! Did you, perhaps, receive the missive I sent several weeks past? It gave more detail to what I wished to ask you.”
Yours and about twenty others, Twilight thought, but she kept her face neutral. “I did. You wrote concerning the availability of Magus Libra, did you not?”
“Indeed I did, your Grace. While I understand that there must be many who wish to apprentice under the Magus, I had hoped to ask if there was any qualification to be met, any way to ensure my children can put their best hoof forward for her. They do study so hard and practice so well, I would hope that they are given good teachers.”
You mean you want to know if I’m amicable to an agreement to force Libra into teaching those two. “Unfortunately, I cannot say for certain which traits Libra might find desirable in your daughters, Lady Hedera. Magus Libra is my Court Sorcerer, and as such, she is given autonomy in her decisions, including what to look for in an apprentice, or indeed if she wishes to take one at all,” Twilight said, her tone appropriately regretful. “As I told Sir Derelle when he asked me the same question, Magus Libra has indicated that she would take an apprentice of her own, but she has not indicated when or if she still intends to do so.”
Lady Hedera’s smile didn’t falter a bit. “Of course, Lady Everstar. You said you had spoken to Sir Derelle? I wasn’t aware he was seeking a mentor for his daughter.”
“Oh, yes, there are many in the Court, nobles and those without titles, who would be very eager to see their children apprenticed under Magus Libra.” And have the prestige that comes with, thought Twilight.
“And while we are on the subject of apprenticeships,” Twilight said, artfully cutting off any further discussion on the topic, “How is Vino progressing? Last I had heard, he had taken a squire’s position under Sir Ironhide.”
Lady Hedera’s smile dimmed by the slightest margin. “He does well enough, Lady Everstar. He’s always been more inclined to practical pursuits, but he acquits himself well on the field of combat. Sir Ironhide says he shows a good deal of potential as a cavalier.”
Twilight nodded. “The Evening Guard could always use a steady hoof and a strong back. He’d do well as an officer, I think, perhaps out on a border fort. But,” she said, noting the briefest sour look that had crossed over Hedera’s face with some satisfaction, “Perhaps he might find another, worthier pursuit. Only time will tell.”
“Your Grace is far too kind,” Lady Hedera said with a bow. “I shall be sure to relay your praises to him. Vino will be thrilled, I’m sure.”
“I wish him the very best,” Twilight said warmly. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”
“No, Lady Everstar,” Aura replied, rising once more. “I am sure you are very busy. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”
“It was my pleasure,” Twilight said, straightening in her chair. “Give my regards to your family, and know you are ever welcome in my residence.” About as welcome as a nest of vipers.
“Evening Reigns,” Lady Hedera said, the traditional formal farewell coming easily to her.
“Evening Reigns,” Twilight replied.
Lady Hedera prostrated herself once more before rising. She turned precisely, trotting the length of the throne room before disappearing into the halls beyond. The doors were closed behind her with a clang, and Twilight sighed to herself before checking the time on the clock opposite her throne. It was nearly time.
“Announce a special recess!” she called to the guards by the door, making sure she was heard. “I might return with the afternoon cases, but it is unlikely.”
Without waiting for an affirmative response, she lit her horn up, and disappeared from the throne room in a rush of air, reappearing in her own study, far above the throne room. Sighing with relief, she stripped the circlet from her brow and threw her formal attire to one side before changing into her familiar shift. Normally, she would have had ladies-in-waiting to help her with this chore, but nopony save her daughter was permitted in this room. So changed and mildly refreshed, she took a cursory look around the study, ensuring nothing was out of place.
Twilight’s study was far more dangerous and incredible than it looked, and it looked near-deadly already. An assortment of chemicals sat in flasks by her desk, each of them carefully monitored by homunculi to ensure the experiments contained therein did not slip control. Two entire walls were lined with books, some in languages that no longer existed, and the ones that were legible to the untrained eye promised vast stores of magical and scientific knowledge. An exact replica of the Regia and the surrounding grounds occupied one table, next to another replica of Celestia’s palace, Luna’s Tower, and Cadance’s manor up north. Each faintly glowed with light, letting Twilight know that they were active and working properly.
Another wall was covered entirely in weapons, from spears to swords to pistols and rifles. There was even a small ballista mounted on the wall, with shafts resting in a rack close by. Each of them was by Twilight’s own design, and each of them was far more powerful that what they seemed to be. This was why they were currently on Twilight’s wall instead of being used in her armed forces, they were simply too powerful to be used without strict supervision. A small clock chimed the hour on her wall, and Twilight crossed the room, avoiding another half-dozen experiments as she did so, and opened a small door in the wall, proceeding up a small spiral staircase. She stopped upon reaching another door, which she opened with a small jolt of magic.
The room she entered was made entirely out of crystal. At least, that is what it appeared to be. The walls were lined with crystals, each of them charged with enough power to level a small section of forest, and each of them precisely calibrated in such a manner as to work in perfect harmony with the ones next to them, both physically and magically. Each crystal had a twin, an exact copy in three other locations, only accessible by three others possessing power of a similar magnitude.
Focusing, Twilight began to pour magic into the floor beneath her, causing the crystals to light up with a pale violet glow. As they lit up, the magic spread across the floor, lighting hundreds of crystals in sequence as it crept up the walls, over the ceiling, and permeating the small room with a soft purple glow that made everything seem fuzzed around the edges.
It wasn’t long before the light began to flow away from certain spots and congeal in others, and as it did, the spell became easier and easier to maintain, the other three chambers adding their power to her own. As the rooms became more and more magically charged, they drifted closer and closer to one another through the fabric of space, time, and magic. It was in this manner that the four rooms resolved themselves into one, and Twilight Sparkle found herself joined by Luna, Celestia, and Cadance, in every manner but the physical one.
“Twilight!” Cadance said with a smile. “Good of you to join us! I trust everything is going well in the Kingdom?”
“I think not, Cadance,” Luna replied, seeing the expression on Twilight’s face. “Lady Twilight has no desire to join in these weekly chats unless she has some news to impart.”
Celestia’s face was creased with concern. “Is everything alright, Twilight?”
Twilight took a deep breath. “I am afraid not. I was just informed yesterday that an attempt was made on Serale’s life.”
There was a gasp from Cadance, and murmurs of concern from Celestia and Luna. “Is she alright?” Celestia asked, her voice troubled. Her mane, crimson as the sunrise, seemed to whip faster in agitation.
Twilight nodded. “She escaped without harm thanks to a thief that had broken into her inn room with intent to rob her. An accomplice cried an alarm, and she and Libra were able to drive them off. A message was left for her, however, warded with a powerful enchantment. We won’t know what it says until I can get it off, here in the Regia. Two days’ wait.”
“How did the attackers know where she was? I was unaware of Serale’s whereabouts until just now,” Luna said. “Who was able to inform the assassins of her location?”
“Thus far, I haven’t gotten any leads on who is responsible or how they knew that Serale had arrived in Crescent City, let alone where she was sleeping. And they displayed an unusual set of skills, or so Libra informed me.”
“Unusual?” Celestia asked. “How so?”
“The attackers were Pegasi, well trained and obviously skilled,” Twilight said. “But Libra reports them using magic, at least to neutralize the thieves, who were both unicorns. Two teams of four, and they also seemed to show signs of mental communication. They moved far too well without speaking aloud or gesturing.”
“Can you trust Libra’s testimony in this?” Cadance asked. “Surely being attacked must have affected her perception of events.”
“Libra allowed me to view her memories, and glean what information I could from them,” Twilight said. “I must say I concur with her recollection of events. There was, however, one more piece of information I wished to share with you all.”
“That being?” Luna enquired.
“They managed to capture a Pegasus alive in order to interrogate him for further information. Before he committed suicide by self-immolation, he told Serale that he was a member of an organization called the Cult of Crows.”
Celestia and Luna traded glances. Twilight seized upon it immediately. “What is the Cult of Crows?” she demanded. “And why is it targeting my daughter?”
“I do not know why the Cult would be targeting Serale,” Celestia replied, “But this is not a new group. It’s old. Very, very old.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “How old?”
“It dates back to the Celestial Wars. Back to the old Empire, and the struggle for power between Celestia and myself,” Luna said. “You know that during that war, I gathered most of the unicorns to my side, correct?”
Twilight nodded. “The Houses, and the private armies they sponsored. About a third of Equestria’s population, correct?”
“Correct,” Luna conceded. “But not all of the unicorns, even the great spellcasters, were members of noble houses. These common mages formed themselves into roving warbands, under my control in name but making their own decisions for themselves. Save one, the most devoted and depraved of the roving warrior tribes.”
“The Cult of Crows?” Twilight asked.
Luna nodded. “They were my most feared spellcasters, powerful, ruthless, and absolutely devoted to me. They would strike where least expected, using some of the vilest magic to aid in their quest for glory. Necromancy, summoning demons, blood rituals, all these and more they used to spread terror into the hearts of my enemies. Even among my most hardened soldiers, they were feared for their brutality and sadism.”
“Not only that,” Celestia added, “They specifically targeted those who could not defend themselves. They burned fields, razed villages, slaughtered the old and young alike to raise as necromantic thralls. That was a mercy for some. For better soldiers, they would simply break their will, turning them into the worst kind of mindless servants. They usually drove these ahead of them as berserkers or raiders. They were called the Cult of Crows because they not only wore cloaks of black feathers, but you could track their progress by watching for the massive flocks of the birds feasting on the dead they created.”
“And now you say they are back,” Luna said. “This is troubling. I was under the impression that they had been killed to the last when I was defeated. There were only five or so left at that point.”
Celestia nodded in agreement. “I made sure of it. They made a brief resurgence during the early years of my reign, but they were far weaker then than they were before. After that, I authorized some of my most loyal servants to go town to town, seeking them out and destroying any trace of any of the Lunar Cults. All record of their existence was purged from memory. I made sure of it using the Elements.”
“So how are they back?” Twilight asked. “Or is it a possibility that a new group has taken the name unknowingly?”
“Perhaps it is only a misnomer,” Cadance suggested gently. “It has been nearly two millennia since they Cult was founded, correct?”
Luna shrugged. “Perhaps. But what troubles me is the fact that Pegasi were sent to kill Serale. The Cult of old never used Pegasi in their activities. They would only accept unicorns among their ranks.”
“I can’t imagine they did much recruiting,” Twilight said dourly. “They seemed to be a rather unpleasant bunch.”
“They didn’t ‘recruit’ normally,” Celestia said. “If they located a spellcaster of appropriate strength, they would make an offer of membership to them. If it was refused, they would be tortured, often to the point of insanity. Eventually, they grew just as twisted and dark as the ones who had captured them. It was only a matter of time at that point.”
“This is beside the point,” Luna said dismissively. “They are long since gone, scourged from the earth by Celestia’s fire. But now a new Cult has arisen, and they seem to use Pegasi. And what is more, they have somehow imbued them with magic of their own.”
“It’s definitely something I’ve never heard of,” Cadance said. “Perhaps they were using some sort of enchanted device? Bracelets of some kind, armor, something like that?”
Twilight shook her head. “The bodies were checked. Nothing of that nature was found on any of them.”
“For that matter, who would have sent them?” Celestia asked. “It’s bold to the point of arrogance, and extremely bloodthirsty. Discord wouldn’t have done anything like that, and last I heard, he was stirring up trouble down near the Oligarchy. It almost reminds me of…”
“My tactics of old,” Luna said quietly. “Aggressive, domineering, designed to engender as much fear as possible in the targets. Striking when least expected, at the weakest point possible. While my opponents slept.”
“Do you think it possible?” Twilight asked. “Could it be…it?”
“The Shadow?” Cadance said, her voice hushed. “That could make sense, but we haven’t heard anything from it since the founding of your Kingdom. Not even a whisper, except for…you know.”
Celestia’s face was grim. “If the Shadow has begun moving, then we might be in serious trouble. Not only from threats from abroad, but threats within, as well. Somepony in Twilight’s service knew when Serale would arrive and where she was going to be, and organized a strike that very same day. I’d imagine only a select few ponies are privy to that information, am I correct?”
Twilight nodded. “The crew of the ship, a few members of my household, and that was it. Unless…the ship was one of mine. The Royal Lady, one of my fastest. Serale’s departure wasn’t exactly quiet. Perhaps somepony noticed her absence, and which vessel she took?”
“Which does nothing to help narrow the pool of suspects,” Luna growled. “Not to mention Serale stopped at several ports on her travels. She could have been noted in any one of those.”
Cadance’s eyes widened. “This potentially means that this Cult could have been in any one of them, or even all of them! If its members could use magic offensively without possessing any natural ability, what would stop them from using it to blend in with native populations, or even recruiting from them?”
“These individuals could be anywhere, from Crescent City to the Khanate to Ashtar. Perhaps even in our own employ,” Celestia said, her voice troubled but not panicked. “We must be very careful about what steps we take from this point forward. Who knows what could happen if they discovered we knew about them?”
“This is troubling news indeed,” Luna said. “If the Shadow has begun to move, and her agents have permeated our lands, who knows what damage they could do without warning?”
Twilight’s voice was not loud, she had not raised her voice in the slightest. Nonetheless, all three of the Alicorns ceased their conversation and turned to face her. Twilight was silent for a moment, sorting out her thoughts, and then she looked up at the three of them.
“Here is what we are going to do. Firstly, we will begin to update one another using this room weekly, as we have been. This will allow us to keep abreast of our plans with one another, and to exchange any information we may uncover. Secondly, we will begin to build up our forces. We must do this in such a fashion as to suggest we are doing this in response to one another.”
“You mean to take our countries to war?” Celestia demanded.
“No, only to the brink of it,” Twilight replied. “We will express concerns about the quality of leadership in our armed forces, and among our politicians. Investigate your top leaders personally, and the ones you deem trustworthy shall examine the rest for signs of unusual behavior, signs of corruption, and so on. This changing of the guard will keep us all too busy to start a war, even if we wished to. Call it…a modernization and policy review. Word it how you will.”
“And then what?” Cadance asked. “After we’ve built armies and gotten them ready for war, do we just sit back and wait?”
Twilight snorted. “Hardly. Once you have begun to find the traitors in your camps, have them marked but not eliminated. Upon completion of this task, have them removed. If all goes well, this will leave our forces relatively intact in the way of command. The Cult can’t be too large, else it risks exposure, and so even if there should be members in the ranks, they will be unable to move without risking exposure and execution.”
She paused, choosing her next words carefully. “I would also recommend that you do the same to political leaders and important figures in your lands. Visit them, invite them to you, do what you will, but make sure that they are all available to be checked. We might not get them all, but this way we can surely discover some few. They must be removed at the same time as your military leaders.”
Cadance, Luna, and Celestia all nodded. It would be difficult, and would undoubtedly seem strange, but it would be done.
“I have an idea,” Cadance said. “Seeing as everything is so spread out. Instead of traveling all over and visiting nobles and generals and such, why don’t we find a way to gather them all in one place? Surely it would be easier to check them then. We wouldn’t get everypony, but a healthy majority would be there.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Luna asked. “It’s not like they’ll be eager to rub shoulders with one another with war apparently on the horizon.”
The room was silent for a moment, until Celestia’s ears pricked up and she smiled. “I’ve got it,” she said. “What about a lucantur?”
“That could work,” Twilight said. “A friendly contest, to maintain good relations. A festival, a tournament, healthy competition in the spirit of fellowship, formal dinners, it would draw nearly every important family in my kingdom, if only for the social aspect.”
“I could always use more Songbirds in my retinue,” Cadance said, “Good talent is hard to come by.”
Celestia nodded in agreement. “I could bring my delegation along, at least the ones I haven’t checked personally by that point.”
“And I will bring those I suspect along as well,” Luna said.
“How long would it take us to put this in motion?” Cadance asked. “Without letting anypony know.”
Twilight shrugged. “Give it six months after we begin buildup, which will start immediately. A year to prepare it all.”
Celestia nodded. “And for location?”
“Ponyville,” Twilight said. “Neutral ground. Where else?”
Luna and Cadance nodded in approval, and so too did Celestia after a moment’s hesitation. Twilight sighed, realizing that things were about to get much more complicated than they already were.
“Very well. We’ve all got things to take care of, so I suggest we leave it off here for today,” Twilight said. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”
Celestia and Luna were silent. “Tell Serale I send my best wishes,” Cadance said. “And I wish for her safety.”
Luna nodded. “Keep her safe, Twilight. It would be dreadful indeed if something were to happen to her.”
“I second that,” Celestia said. “She’s a wonderful young mare who shows a great deal of promise. Please, keep her safe.”
Twilight smiled gratefully. “I’ll be sure to pass along your good wishes,” she said. “Though I think you have little to worry about where her safety is concerned. Serale is well guarded, and knows about the dangers inherent in traveling through unfamiliar territory, even if it is technically home. She isn’t one to take stupid risks.”