Serale watched her mother with nervous anticipation. She had seen her read Cobblestone’s mind, seen her reaction to what she had found, and knew that she was not done with the young thief by a damn sight. Clearly she had ordered Libra to remain quiet through the mental link they both shared, as the normally loquacious mage had fallen quite silent. Upon receiving the scroll, she had removed the enchantment by simply siphoning it off, screwing her eyes up in pain before remarking that the spell had been “cute”, which was a worrying development in its own right. Mother was usually much more careful than that.
Twilight gently unrolled the scroll, letting it fall open. She gently caught a small black pendant that fell out of the rolled parchment, setting it to one side with her magic before turning her attention back to the letter, scanning the contents. As she read, her eyebrows drew together in puzzled frustration, before climbing back up her brow, nearly vanishing under her bangs, and finally relaxing as she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “The one who wrote this certainly knows how to get under my skin. She’s got a lot of nerve.”
“What does it say, Mother?” Serale asked.
Twilight looked at Cobblestone. “This isn’t something we’ll be discussing outside of this room, understood? If I hear word of this spreading anywhere besides the four of us, I’ll know where it came from. Your punishment would be…severe. Understood?”
Cobblestone shrank down in her chair. “Understood, Milady.”
“Good,” she said. “Seeing as you’re involved in this, I want you here, but you understand the need for privacy.”
“Yes,” Serale said, “It’s very hush-hush, but what does it say?”
“Impatient,” Twilight said, lifting an eyebrow. “But I’ll forgive it.”
She held the scroll up, reading aloud from it.
“Hello, Serale,” she began,
“You might not know me. In fact, I am sure you do not know me, unless you have paid very good attention during your history lessons. My name is Nightshade, though in a past life I was known as the Witch of Shadows. Ask your mother more about me; she should know a bit more about my sordid past. She and I have met before, long before you were born.”
Twilight broke off the letter. “She was known back then as Raven, and she was a necromancer of the worst sort. Completely amoral, was responsible for the death and subsequent enslavement of an entire village. Took nearly a half-dozen spellcasters to find her, and I hunted her down and killed her myself. Had to blind her to do it, too.”
She held the scroll back up, and continued. “But that is neither here nor there. My letter is for you, Serale. We have been watching you for some time, and would like very much to meet with you and discuss your potential as a spellcaster and a leader. We believe you have the potential to be an extraordinarily spellcaster with proper training.”
Twilight’s voice grew tight with anger. “But you haven't received that training, have you?”
“We would like to teach you how to utilize your potential in such a manner as to provide you with all the opportunities one of your stature deserves. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that we mean you no harm, quite the opposite in fact, we want only the best for you. However, we feel it is our duty to train you in the use of your magic. So we are offering you a choice. You can either contact us, or we can come to get you.”
Serale felt her heart race. Surely they didn’t think themselves powerful enough to try and take her from her home? The Regia was a fortress, and she couldn’t move about normally without nearly tripping over guards, let alone when somepony meant to kidnap her.
“Understand that you would not be forced to do so, but we would hope to count on your aid in our ultimate goal, that being the goal of deposing the despotic rule of the goddesses. Unfortunately, this also includes the removal of your mother and her government. Should you desire, use the enclosed token to contact us, and we will gladly explain our reasoning for such a goal. The long and short of it is that we believe that change is natural, and all things must come to an end for a better world to arise.” Twilight continued, her face growing more and more impassive as she read.
“Somepony has a high opinion of themselves,” Libra said, “More so for the fact that they’ve warned us they’re coming.”
“Hush, Libra,” Serale said, giving an uncharacteristic command. “I want to hear this all.”
“I understand that this is a difficult choice to make, and it is certainly not one to be made lightly. Therefore you are being granted a reprieve of one year in which to decide for yourself which path you will take, after which we will take steps to retrieve you anyway. I urge you to make the right choice, to allow us to help you with the powers you possess. My colleagues and I believe that you are a reasonable mare, and hope to count on a reply from you soon, again by the token left for you in this scroll.” Twilight recited, holding up the trinket with the black stone.
“Give your mother my greetings, and know that I wish you all the best, Serale.
Twilight set the letter down. “Well!” she said brightly. “That was certainly something. I’ve been informed that one of my old enemies has returned, she intends to kidnap my daughter, and enlist her help to overthrow me and the governments of three other countries. She was even kind enough to let us know when this was all going to occur!”
“Mother,” Serale said cautiously, “Are you alright?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, dear, I’m absolutely furious. Nearly beyond words, but not quite.”
“Who are they?” Cobblestone asked. “I kept hearing a reference to ‘we’, so who was the ‘we’?”
Twilight took a deep breath in, calming herself down. Serale could almost watch the anger drain away, disappearing into the deepest depths of her mother to be replaced with serenity. “Libra and Serale both know the name of the organization.”
“The Cult of Crows?” Serale asked. “Is that what you’re talking about?”
Twilight nodded. “I spoke to Celestia and Luna about them. They’ve got a…bit of a reputation. Or they did. According to Celestia, they were completely wiped out fifteen hundred years ago.”
“After the Celestial Wars,” Serale said, “But if that’s the case, then that means they should have a grudge with either one of them, correct?”
“But they want you, Serale,” Twilight said. “Because of your innate magical ability.”
“But I don’t have any!” Serale blurted out. “None at all!”
Twilight looked at Cobblestone, alarmed. Seeing that she already knew, Twilight returned her gaze to Serale. “They clearly think you do, Serale. And they want you because of it, which means that we’ll need to take precautions to keep you safe.”
She held up the pendant. “I’m going to have this analyzed to see if we can find out more about the magical properties it possesses. I’ve never seen this type of stone before, either. There’s something not quite right about this, and I want to know what they’re planning. Especially if it really is the return of the Cult of Crows.”
Serale frowned, looking at the gleaming pendant spinning in her mother’s grasp. It caught the light with its rotation, making it look like it was winking at her. Or blinking, like some dark, uncaring eye. She shivered, suddenly afraid of the thing. “What do you know about the Cult?” she asked, averting her gaze from the pendant.
“They were a warrior band attached to Luna’s army,” Twilight said. “Made up of non-noble spellcasters. They were used for shock tactics and to cause attrition and loss of morale. They engaged in black magic, dark even by the standards of the war. Blood rituals, demonic sacrifice, necromancy, anything to destroy the morale of their enemies. Supposedly they were called the Cult of Crows because they wore cloaks made of black feathers, and the birds followed them wherever they went.”
“What worries me,” Twilight added, “Is the method of recruitment they used to replenish their ranks.”
“What do you mean?” Serale asked.
There was a pause as Twilight decided how best to phrase this new information to her daughter. “They had a habit of choosing spellcasters of great skill and asking them to join. If they didn’t want to, then…they forced them. Eventually, they’d come around to their side and do the same thing to others.”
“How do you mean, ‘forced’?” Serale asked. “Surely they couldn’t torture somepony into joining their tormentors.”
“Don’t be so sure, Serale,” Libra said, “There’s more than one way to inflict pain on a pony. Some of them change you far more than others.”
“The point is,” Twilight said, “that the Cult clearly wants you to be a part of it, Serale. The brazen method of delivering the letter in a loaded crossbow suggests that they wanted to intimidate you, while the fact that they let us know when they’d be trying for your abduction seems to suggest that they believe we cannot stop them.”
She rolled the scroll back up. “It seems to be typically fanatical behavior. They’re devoted to their ideal to the point where they either believe they cannot be hurt, or do not care if they are. Whoever wrote the letter likely had sociopathic tendencies as well. They clearly wanted to inflict as much psychological harm as they could upon you.”
“I’d call that part a failure, at least,” Serale said. “I feel perfectly fine.”
Twilight shrugged. “And if you had woken up next to a loaded crossbow, with Libra dead in the next room? You may have been quite distraught, perhaps to the point where you might have made a bad decision and opened the scroll without checking it for potential magical hazards. Even if you hadn’t I’d expect you’d be in shock for some time afterwards.”
Serale’s hoof tightened on the arm of her chair. She hadn’t considered that. Her mother always seemed to know exactly what to say to keep her in her place. “So what do we do now?” she asked.
“That is something you and I will need to discuss together,” Twilight said, “Without others listening.”
Libra rose from her chair smoothly and without prompting. “Come, Cobblestone,” she said, “Let’s let these two talk it out.”
Cobblestone glanced at Serale. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“You are dismissed,” Twilight said, “Go and rest. We arrive at Starfall in a few hours.”
The thief still looked to Serale, unsure. She seemed nearly ready to defy her ruler.
“Go, Cobblestone,” Serale said quietly. “I’ll be fine.”
Sighing, the thief got out of her chair. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll be outside if you need me.”
She fell in beside Libra, who walked her to the door. She gave a gentle tug, swinging it open. “I know a good place to get some sleep. You still need some time to recover, after all.”
The door closed behind them, leaving Serale alone with her mother. She took a breath, readying herself. “Alright,” she said, “What do you think we should do?”
“Firstly, I think that you should be much more careful with your friend,” Twilight said. “While I don’t believe she means you harm, I’ve been a poor judge of character in the past. I’ve dealt with far more elaborate ruses than an ally who turns out to be a planted enemy.”
Serale’s brow furrowed. “Do you think I should distance myself from Cobblestone?” she asked.
Twilight shook her head. “No, but I would be careful with what you reveal to her before you get to know her better. Did you tell her that you couldn’t do magic, or did she discover it on her own?”
“She’s more intelligent than I gave her credit for,” Serale said. “She noticed that I used no magic to complete my tasks, or to escape from the ship. The pieces were not hard for her to put together.”
Twilight pursed her lips. “Intelligent,” she said, “And from all accounts possessing an above-average level of magical ability. Her limits are yet to be determined, of course, but I could see her becoming a very powerful mage with the right direction.”
“Possibly,” Serale said. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Which brings me to my next point,” Twilight said. “I want to revisit your magical education. Perhaps the reason the Cult approached you is because they managed to detect some latent magic that I couldn’t. If that’s the case, then it’s possible it could manifest. If it does, you need to be able to control it.”
“But I’ve studied magical theory extensively!” Serale protested. “What else is there for me to learn?”
“Practical application,” Twilight said. “Putting it into practice.”
“But I’d need a master for that,” Serale said, “One who knows about my deficiency. Are you suggesting I study under Libra?”
“It’s a possibility. Of course, Libra could refuse to teach you. I hold no authority over her. But I could select another teacher for you,” Twilight said. “Swear them to secrecy with magically binding oaths, that sort of thing. The only problem I have is one I need to discuss with you as well.”
Serale felt a sudden dread. Her mother had a habit of piling information onto those she was attempting to manipulate. Flustered by all of the things they were hearing, most ponies didn’t even realize they were agreeing to something when trying to answer her questions. But the most salient points were the ones at the end, the ones that drove in her mother’s point of view like nails in a coffin.
“I’d like you to consider taking another tour of absence,” Twilight said. “And here’s why.”
Her horn lit up, before the light shot upwards into the ceiling, covering the entire room in a barrier of protective sparks. Serale knew this to be her mother’s most powerful secrecy spell. It didn’t just block sound and sight from the outside in, it actually made the room unstable on an aetheric level. The room now rested in a simultaneous state of existing and not existing. The effort and complexity put into the spell would have killed most unicorns outright. Her mother slung it around with mild effort.
“Understand that what I am telling you is not to leave this room,” Twilight said. “You tell no one. Not Libra, not Cobblestone, not even me unless I’ve cast this spell first, understand?”
Serale nodded, her tight grip on the arm of her chair becoming even tighter. What did her mother want from her? Why was she suddenly so over-cautious? And what was the expression on her face? It was like Twilight Sparkle’s features were both carved from stone and imbued with lightning, stoic and twitchy. With a jolt, Serale realized she was watching her mother show fear.
“I’ve discussed this with all three of the Goddesses,” Twilight said. “And we can all agree that you were likely observed by somepony upon your arrival. Seeing as you traveled in disguise when you left the boat, it was likely that one of two parties were involved. The first was somepony on the vessel itself.”
“I don’t think that to be very likely,” Serale said, “Near everypony on that boat showed outstanding loyalty to me several times over.”
“Loyalty can be faked,” Twilight reminded her gently, “But you could be right. The second option is that you were observed by officials of another Court, possibly in Fillydelphia. They could have extrapolated your arrival date, and with that in mind, laid a trap for you when you did arrive.”
“Another Court?” Serale asked. “But I only met with representatives of the Dawn and Solar Courts! And that was only one night, a private affair! I went from boat to sky-coach to palace and back, hardly a pony knew I was arriving!”
Twilight gave her daughter a rueful grin. “You met with a representative of the Lunar Court, as well.”
Serale frowned. “Who?”
“You knew her as Swift Current,” Twilight said, “But her real name was Firefly.”
“The Pegasus who complemented my dress?” Serale asked.
Twilight nodded. “Firefly is a Lunar agent whose prowess is impressive. She’s infiltrated each court at least twice, and Celestia’s at least five different times. She’s been supposedly killed three of those times. It helps that most of her opponents think she’s a Pegasus. But that’s beside the point.”
“What is your point?” Serale asked.
“We’re beginning to suspect that our Courts may have been infiltrated by members of the Cult. Unfortunately, we have no idea how complete or widespread this infiltration is,” Twilight said. “So we’ve begun to look through our Court officials, marking the ones we think might be members of the Cult. This might lead to some…problems, however. We’ve begun to re-arm our military forces, as well.”
“Why?” Serale asked. “Why would you mobilize the military?”
Twilight sighed. “In case the infiltration turns out to be more widespread than we have anticipated,” she replied. “We’ll need forces available to combat these problems. Unfortunately, if we begin to turn our forces inward and start investigating, it might alarm those members of the Cult that have an eye out for that sort of thing. This leaves us with only one alternative.”
“It’s going to look like you’re taking the Kingdoms to war, isn’t it?” Serale said. “By mobilizing against each other and marking those who are disloyal for elimination without acting, you keep your real enemies unaware until it’s time to strike. But before you do, it’s going to look like war’s on the horizon.”
Twilight nodded. “Very astute. It’s obvious to you because you know of the…infestation. But to those without that information, it will look like a war is brewing, yes. Times are about to get hard for this kingdom, and indeed all of the countries. Which is where you come into play.”
“Me?” Serale asked. “What do I have to do with all of this?”
“The Cult seems to think it can get to you easily, which implies that they have infiltrated our Court to a greater degree than the others, or at least to a very extensive level. This is why I do not believe it is safe for you to remain in the Evening Court for long,” Twilight said. “So you’re leaving a few months after you get back.”
“But where?” Serale asked. “What excuse would I have for leaving?”
Twilight reached into the drawer by her right hoof, withdrawing a map from inside of it. “You’ve already visited our foreign peers,” she said, unfurling the document and indicating the route Serale had taken. “From here to the Gryphonic Oligarchy in the south, wintering in the Quilinese islands once you had headed back north, visiting the Minotaur Khanate in the summer, and coming back through Fillydelphia in the fall before returning here.”
Serale nodded. “Yes, but where else could I go? Visiting the Hippotigrus Tribes, or the Hives?”
“Why, you and I are going to begin strenuously disagreeing about my warmongering ways!” Twilight replied. “At which point, you will leave the Kingdom on a mission of peace to each of the Courts in order to plead for peace on my behalf, with my hard-won blessing.”
Serale was silent for a moment, puzzling it out. By leaving the Court, she would no longer be directly protected by her mother.
However, she would be well-protected, likely by a trusted retinue as well as the personal protection of each of the three goddesses. Slowly, she started to see the brilliance of it. Diplomats were very well-protected, always watched, and never stationary for too long. By leaving each Court after a short period of time, she’d foil any attempts to infiltrate her assigned group of servants.
Not only this, but while she was gone, she’d be well-sheltered from those in any Court who might want to curry favor with her by simple virtue of her very important mission. Having a small group of ponies moving around with her that she could observe closely lessened the chances of her being betrayed by one of them, especially if they were all examined and approved by her mother.
“I can see the idea working well in theory,” she said slowly, “But in practice, it might get a bit difficult. What if I’m waylaid en route from one place to another?”
“That’s what the guards are for,” Twilight said, “But we’ll be minimizing travel time by using teleportation from safe point to safe point. There are a few place where that won’t be possible, long stretches in between cities or forts, but we can bridge those with airship or train travel.”
“And you want me to work on my magical training in between meetings with the dignitaries of each nation?” Serale asked. “That seems to be a bit much.”
Twilight fixed her with a withering gaze that put even Serale’s glare to shame. “You’re my daughter,” she replied, “And I dare say that you are far more of a reader than I was at your age. You’ve a brilliant mind, put it to good use.”
“Fair enough,” Serale said. “To be honest, it’s preferable to what I thought was going to happen to me.”
“And what would that be?” Twilight inquired.
“I thought you were going to lock me up in some stronghold somewhere until you weeded out the Cult,” Serale said. “Fill every room in it with soldiers and forbid me from ever leaving.”
Twilight smiled at her daughter. “Hardly,” she replied, “That’d just be asking for trouble. Hundreds of young, attractive ponies in uniform around my daughter? I’d geld the first one that touched you personally.”
Serale rolled her eyes. “Like I’d be taken in by some thug in armor,” she said, “Swinging large and heavy pieces of metal around isn’t my idea of a useful skill.”
“To the line!” the sergeant bawled.
Vino hurried to his spot, clipping his bladeband around one foreleg as he did so, shaking to make sure it wouldn’t come off. The chipped ruby in the middle glinted at him reassuringly, as if to let him know that it would keep him safe.
“Combatants, prepare your blades!” the sergeant screamed. Sergeant Ferrous never spoke. He always yelled, screamed, hollered, and generally avoided anything that could be considered quiet speech, especially when dealing with cadets like Vino.
Vino focused, letting the bladeband activate. He immediately felt the band of steel heat up, and felt rather than saw the spellblade manifest in front of him, gleaming oiled silver-red in the light of the early morning sun. This was his last test as a squire, one he absolutely needed to pass before he could move on in his training.
His opponent, a young unicorn by the name of Gilt, manifested his blade as well, a fine-pointed needle of blue energy that spoke of quick jabs and swift parries. His own sword was considerably more robust, made for slashing through heavy armor as well as stabbing. Should he land too many solid hits on his opponent’s blade, it would surely shatter. One’s will didn’t survive too many blows like the ones he could deal out for long. Of course, it would be a task in and of itself to land a hit on a blade like that.
“Salute!” the sergeant screamed.
Vino brought his blade up in front of his face, locking eyes with his opponent. He could feel the eyes of his teacher burning into him from the outside of the ring, and forced himself to ignore everything but his opponent. This was a matter of serious import.
He felt every fiber in his body quivering in nervous readiness for the next command, and began to see the possibilities of his opponent’s movements cascade in front of him, a tapestry of moves and countermoves that forced him to open all of his senses to their fullest just as the sergeant screamed for the last time.
Gilt leapt forward, his blade thrusting at Vino’s chest in an obvious feint meant to get him to lower his blade. The Earth pony wasn’t fooled, instead lifting his blade high for the block before swinging at the swiftly retreating unicorn, forcing him to give ground as he occupied the middle of the circle.
He had counted on this happening, and both of them knew that Vino’s blade would allow him to keep the center for as long as he needed to finish his job. Gilt began to dance around the edges of his guard, the tip of his blade flickering in every now and again to test his guard, to tempt him into a particularly clumsy parry or irritated attack that would cost him dearly. Gilt had speed on his side, and he was fresh where Vino was not, but Vino had reach, power, and experience dealing with this sort of fight before.
Finally, the attack came. Gilt’s blade flashed towards Vino’s left flank once, twice, before the unicorn lunged in with the tip of his blade to land a solid hit on his chest. Unfortunately for him, Vino had fallen for this exact trick before in practice, and knew just how to deal with it. He slid to one side, allowing the blade to pass and draw along his flank, but twisted his sword forward and in just as Gilt stepped forward to follow through on his thrust.
Gilt froze with the edge of the blade along his throat, resting cool against his exposed windpipe.
“Yield,” Vino said calmly.
Gilt’s blade vanished as he sank to his knees. He grinned up at Vino. “I yield,” he said, “Not that I expected to win, anyway.”
Vino returned the grin, recalling his blade as he did so. “I didn’t expect you too, either,” he said, offering one hoof.
He pulled Gilt up to the sound of uproarious cheers from his once-betters, now equals. He called forth his blade one more, saluting Sir Ironhide with it as he awaited the command that he knew would come.
“Vino!” the venerable cavalier called, beckoning him forward. “Come and kneel before me.”
The young stallion trotted forward, stopping and bowing exactly three paces from the chair where his teacher sat. He laid his blade, still manifest, on the ground in front of his teacher, as he had time and time again. The old unicorn lifted off of the ground with a scrape, before resting the blade against the skin of his student’s left shoulder.
“My squire,” he intoned, the words memorized by rote but no less powerful for it. “You have shown mastery of blade, bow, and gun worthy of a cavalier. This night, you have been tested, and tested again. Your work was not in vain.” He dug the tip into his shoulder lightly, just barely drawing blood, before resting it on his right shoulder.
“You have shown true courage, aspired to chivalrous ideals, and learned much in these years of study,” Sir Ironhide said, “And rose from unforged metal to become as tempered steel in mind, body, and character.” The blade dug in once more, drawing a second rivulet of blood. The sword was now at his throat, resting gently against it as it had to Gilt. If he spoke, it would dig into his neck as well.
“I have seen your true worth, and found you worthy of the title of Knight and Cavalier,” Sir Ironhide said. “I would have you as a brother in battle and in spirit. What say you?”
“I accept with honor,” Vino said, feeling the scratch on his neck begin to bleed.
“Then rise,” Sir Ironhide said, withdrawing the blade and holding it aloft, “Sir Vino Hedera, and take your place as a knight and warrior!”
Another roar came from the assembled crowd, even Gilt, and Vino allowed his blade to vanish, turning to greet his new brothers. They swarmed him, but Gilt was the first by his side.
“Congratulations, Sir Vino!” he cried. “And well done!”
“Thanks, Gilt,” Vino said, “And better luck next year!”
“I’m right behind you,” Gilt said, “And don’t you forget it!”
“Out of the way, squire!” the sergeant bellowed, elbowing his way to the front of the crowd.
Vino unconsciously straightened in front of the grizzled stallion. “Sergeant!” he said, waiting on a response.
“Relax, son. Congratulations!” the sergeant said, brandishing a hoof. It took a moment for Vino to realize it was for him to shake. He did so gratefully, listening to the sergeant speak. “Thought you’d be a squire for years!” he cried. “We made a knight of you yet!”
“I have you to thank for it, sergeant!” Vino replied. “Thanks for all you did.”
The sergeant tried to say something else, but he was drowned out by the rising sea of well-wishers, who hauled Vino onto their shoulders before departing, carrying the newest young knight out of the courtyard and down the hill, heading for the city.
Sir Ironhide watched him go, a smile on his face. Vino would make a good cavalier, or he would have if he wasn’t the eldest in his House. The lad wasn’t cut out for politicking, he reflected, but he’d have made an incredible soldier. He sighed, feeling the scroll digging into his side like a dagger, a reminder of what he would have to do next.
He wasn’t sure what the contents of the scroll were, but he could guess, if the scrolling vine mark and the personal seal of his mother, Lady Hedera, were anything to go by. Tomorrow he’d need to haul the poor colt into his office, likely hung over, and send him back home to his House to begin learning his duties as an heir. He’d never see a day of real battle, let alone grow further as a knight and a warrior.
It was just as well, he reflected. These were uninteresting times, and he was glad for them. The Kingdom needed administrators more than it needed fighters, and he hoped the young warrior would never again have to draw his sword.
But all of that could wait until tomorrow. Tonight, the boy was a knight at last. He could wait until tomorrow to watch his dream die.