“I must admit, I was rather taken aback by the sentence you handed down,” Celestia said, her light-form sipping at a cup of tea. She looked to Luna and Cadance, who both nodded. “I think we all were.”
Twilight took a mouthful of the dregs of her own cup, the bitter taste of coffee filling her with much needed energy and the whiskey within coiling in her stomach warmly. She’d been neglecting sleep again, and the weather was getting cold. “I stand by it,” she replied, her tone terse. “I’m not in the habit of letting criminals go free simply because they cooperated in other matters. She had a much reduced sentence, believe you me.”
“And the fact that Cobblestone has somehow managed to get close to your daughter in a week and a half has nothing to do with it,” Cadance said quietly. “Especially considering you and Serale have never been as close as you thought you should be.”
Twilight set her cup down, making eye contact with the rose-colored Alicorn. “Pick your next words carefully,” she said, “You’re dancing very close to a ledge.”
“A week and a half, and Serale and Cobblestone are unusually close,” Cadance said thoughtfully. “Close enough that the thief has been remarkably compliant, and your daughter, who was so well-behaved, has spent her first week in Court defying you both publically and privately. It’s been noticed.”
Twilight winced. “It’s that bad, is it? You’ll need to give me the name of your agent, whoever they are. They’re remarkably perceptive.”
Cadance gave her one of her dazzling smiles, the ones that made fools of mere mortals. “Sorry, Twi. Secrets are secrets.”
“Perhaps you aren’t handling Cobblestone’s sentencing as neutrally as you’d like us to believe, Twilight,” Celestia ventured. “Aside from your obvious dislike for her, is there another factor?”
Twilight held up one hoof. “It’s not that I don’t like her,” she said, “I truly have no feelings on the young mare either way.”
Cadance rolled her eyes. “I wish you would have feelings on some young thing soon,” she said, “I haven’t been to one of your weddings in absolute ages.”
“Some of us have better things to do than get tangled up in trysts, Cadance,” Twilight said, “Like running a country.”
“Maybe you’d find the untangling of the country easier if you spent more time tangled in the sheets,” Cadance said, “I know it does wonders for me.”
“The point is,” Twilight said with a glare, “That I’m beginning to think Cobblestone’s arrival isn’t as spontaneous as it appears to be.”
“Do you think it to be something orchestrated, Twilight?” Luna asked. “For something that momentous to happen at a time like this, is it possible that Cobblestone might not be what she appears to be?”
The unicorn nodded slowly. “I suppose it’s no use hiding it,” she said. “I think Cobblestone might be an agent of another power, whether she knows it or not.”
“Do you have any proof of this?” Celestia asked.
“Not proof,” Twilight said, “More of a feeling. And there have been signs. Even if she isn’t a potential spy or assassin or saboteur, it’s all too likely that she could be brought in as one.”
The three Alicorns looked at one another.
“Twilight,” Luna said gently, “While your caution is, for the most part, commendable, isn’t it more likely that Cobblestone is simply a pony who was in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“I’d be inclined to believe it as well,” Twilight said, “If not for the fact that she has been at the center of far too many disparate but unfortunate events.”
“What do you mean?” Cadance asked.
Twilight’s horn flashed, and her cup began to refill itself as she spoke. “When I spoke with Cobblestone during her transportation back to Starfall, Libra indicated to me that she had been tampered with. That is, something had gotten into her head, and was preventing her from sharing certain information.”
“Your point?” Luna asked derisively. “You lifted the compulsion, did you not?”
“The one who laid it was known to her as Dis,” Twilight said.
There was not a sound to be heard from the three Alicorns as she continued.
“Discord has been quiet for a hundred years at least,” Twilight said, “And for a brief while, I thought he had finally stepped away from the playing field. Apparently not.” She sat and watched as the three Alicorns attempted to process what she had told them.
“Well,” Celestia said, breaking the silence, “That’s certainly…news.”
“Out of the three of you, Celestia, I’d have thought you’d react the most strongly to hearing about Discord. You don’t exactly have a good history with him,” Twilight said.
Celestia chose instead to sip at her teacup.
“Discord…” Luna breathed. “Where has that old demon been all this time?”
“Last time I saw him, he was heading into the Forest in the north of my realm. I lost track him after that little meeting. He can be difficult to find when he wants to be. And that’s not all.”
“There’s more?” Celestia asked.
“The Forest itself seems to be angry,” Twilight said.
“How do you mean?” Cadance inquired.
“Increased activity by the Fae, for one,” Twilight said, “In all three Courts. More sightings of the creatures inside. A few fields near the edge have been reclaimed. New growth has sprung up overnight. What’s more, I’ve not been able to get ahold of Radiant Zenith. It’s not surprising, considering her tendency to disappear for decades at a time, but I should be able to get an idea for where she is, at least.”
“And you haven’t got one?” Cadance asked. “Do you want me to take a look for her? I remember what her heart feels like.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Twilight said embarrassedly. “Let me know what you find. On top of this, she’s also constantly in the company of something that looks like a cat, but most decidedly is not.”
“Perhaps a Fae thing?” Luna asked. “I know some of them take the shape of great cats and other animals. Or perhaps a spirit?”
Twilight shook her head. “Whatever it is, it’s old enough that I can’t discern what it is. I don’t think it’s Fae or a spirit, but I’ve been wrong before. I suspect it’s already tied to at least one disappearance around her, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be getting ready for more. I’ve been looking for the creature for two days, since the trial, and I haven’t been able to find it.”
“Perhaps it is with the child?” Luna suggested.
“I’ve asked her guards to keep an eye on her to see if it can be spotted, but they’ve not come up with anything.”
“So the Forest is angry, Discord is on the move, and something that isn’t a cat,” Cadance said. “Is that what you’re going to use to see if she’s a spy?”
“Her old gang is currently under siege from an unknown source as well, and the pattern of disappearance suggests that they’re being assaulted by somepony or something that knows their hideouts and movements very well,” Twilight said. “Obviously she can’t be doing it herself, but I could easily see her having an accomplice of some sort back in Crescent City.”
“So you think she’s a spy,” Celestia said. “And that’s why she’s in a low-security prison for six years?”
“An operative in my Court can still be useful to me,” Twilight said. “After her sentencing, whichever agency might have dispatched her will in all likelihood want her back. I’m giving them the opportunity.”
“A snare?” Luna asked. “You mean to catch those who are handling her?”
“If they exist,” Twilight said, “Which they might not. This is why, in a few days, an opportunity for escape will present itself. If Cobblestone takes it, then she is untrustworthy, and in prison she will stay. If she doesn’t, then her loyalty will be rewarded.”
Celestia quirked an eyebrow. “So let me see if I’ve got this correctly,” she said. “You intend to test this young, unassuming mare to see if she’s going to be compliant with your wishes at the tender age of fifteen? Does that remind you of anything?”
Twilight snorted. “I don’t like it either,” she said, “Trust me. But there is far more at stake here than a petty ideal. Order and Chaos don’t matter in the long run when we are faced with the possibility of the Shadow’s return. If there’s a chance that she is an agent of destruction, then I’ll do whatever it takes to give her the least opportunity to do her work.”
“And if she is not what you think her to be? What if she demonstrates loyalty and dedication?” Luna asked.
Twilight set her cup down. “If she is what she says she is…” She sighed. “Then I’ll have a lot of apologizing to do. And…I might have a proposition for her.”
“A proposition?” Luna queried. “How do you mean?”
Twilight massaged her head with one hoof, working out a headache. “Consider my position,” she said.
“I have two potentially powerful young mares at my disposal right now, my daughter, who is turning into quite the politician in her own right, and this one, Cobblestone. While the forces that stand against me already show interest in my daughter, for some reason, they show more interest in her.”
Celestia nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s true. The Cult of Crows is after Serale, but Cobblestone is potentially wanted by the Cult, Discord, and a number of third parties in the Everfree, if you’re to be believed.”
“Exactly,” Twilight said, adding more whiskey to her cup. “And I have a plan to exploit that. But I would need your help in doing so, from all of you, in respect to Serale. If Cobblestone is loyal, I want her to use her latent abilities to the advantage of my daughter. But I would also like for Serale to be able to call on other allies.”
“The diplomatic tour you have planned?” Cadance asked, arching a brow. “Something to do with that?”
“If Serale is able to make good connections for herself in each of your Courts, if she falls into the kind of danger that I am unable to handle, she may at least be able to call on others to aid her,” Twilight said. “And I can assure you that if she was given the chance, Serale could prove to be more than an acceptable ally in return.”
Celestia pursed her lips. “I could arrange a few meetings with some of the more prominent nobles in my Court,” she said, “Though some of them are a bit…traditional. I could see her having a difficult time with them.”
“And I can do the same,” Luna said, “Though the atmosphere here is such that she would like as not make all of my followers either allies or enemies in their own rights.”
Cadance waved an airy hoof. “I could probably set her up with a few ‘allies’ of her own while she’s here,” she said playfully, “I know of a few Condottiero captains who are single and looking. A few knights as well.”
Twilight shot her a look. “Please do me a favor and try to keep my daughter from coming home with some sword-swinging numbskull in tow,” she said, “I don’t have the time or inclination to plan a wedding right now.”
“Love grows where it may,” Cadance sniffed, “But I’ll do my best to keep things puritanical enough for you.”
“The point is,” Twilight said, “That Serale could prove to be a very deadly opponent on a political battlefield with the proper alliances being made. But due to her unfortunate…condition…she lacks physical force to back that up.”
Luna looked her dead in the eyes. “Which is where young Cobblestone comes into play?”
Twilight nodded. “My plans for her are twofold, providing she is amiable to the idea. The first is simple. Libra has expressed an interest in taking her on as an apprentice, and I see no reason to deny her request. I would love to see Cobblestone develop her gifts and use them to better herself and others.”
“And the other plan?” Celestia asked.
“As my daughter will rule from the light, I would like Cobblestone to court the shadows,” Twilight said. “If she can use the interest of the forces after her to gather information and relay it to me, we may gain valuable insight into their plans, even if something goes wrong.”
The three Alicorns reacted in differing ways, none of them complimentary. Cadance’s hoof flew to her mouth, her eyes wide at the audacity of Twilight’s comment. Celestia stiffened, her eyes narrowing, and Luna’s face became carefully blank, free of every emotion excepting polite disinterest.
“If Cobblestone is able to convince the Shadow, her agents, or other parties that she is open and amicable to their ideas, she could potentially use their own strengths against them, play them off of one another,” Twilight said. “Cobblestone has worked with unpleasantries before, and from Libra’s report, she could possess the necessary strength to defend herself if things go poorly, which they won’t.”
“And how do you know they won’t?” Celestia demanded. “Who are you, to put this filly’s life in danger?”
“She is a young mare who has lived a worse life than most of my spymasters, is an extremely promising mage, and is apparently devoted to my daughter in a way not many are,” Twilight said. “And I, in case you have forgotten, am the one dispatched by the Aether to ensure that not only the balance is maintained, but also to ensure that the Shadow so foolishly released by you, Celestia, is destroyed!”
“How dare you?” Celestia cried. “I will not sit idly by and allow you to ruin a young mare’s life to achieve your goals!”
“And I can ill-afford to spare one mare to the detriment of all!” Twilight shouted in return. “I thought you of all ponies would see that!”
“And you should see the absolute wrongness of what you are doing!” Celestia retorted. “You put much at risk, Twilight Sparkle!”
“Enough!” Luna roared.
There was a pause.
Luna turned to Twilight. “I can see the logic in your argument. Cobblestone, if handled correctly, could prove a very valuable piece of bait.” Twilight started up to speak, but Luna held up one hoof, cutting her off. “She would be bait, Twilight, nothing more or less.”
“As for your view, sister, it seems to me a bit narrow-minded,” Luna said. “Much as I hate to say it, Twilight has a point. Without more information, we are at a severe disadvantage in our search for our enemies. And we need every advantage we can get. While I may not agree with the idea of putting Cobblestone in so much danger, I could see how it might become necessary.”
Cadance rolled her eyes. “Typical,” she said, “You always take her side like a well-whipped spaniel.”
Luna’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Say that again?” she asked.
Cadance smirked. “I called you a well-whipped spaniel, which you are. If you care to try and make me take it back, I’d be more than happy to meet you in single combat, and we’ll see who whips whom.”
“Do not test me, child,” Luna said, “Else I may just take you up on your offer. It is not an encounter you would walk away from.”
“If you’re all quite through going at one another’s throats,” a new voice drawled, “I wouldn’t mind having a word.”
There was a rush of air, and the stench of smoke and carrion filled the air, tinged sickly-sweet with cherries and spun sugar. The shadows cast by the light-forms of the assembled peerage bent and twisted in stomach-churning ways before they detached themselves from the walls and ceiling, coalescing into a ball in the center of the room. The surface of the ball began to boil and writhe as first a limb, then a tail, then other limbs sprouted alongside a sinuous neck capped by an elongated head topped by a horn and an antler.
At last, a darkened shape straightened before the four rulers, giving a mocking bow as it did so.
“Ladies,” Discord said, “And I mean that in the loosest sense of the word, if I could have a moment of your time.”
“What do you want, Discord?” Celestia demanded.
“To warn you,” Discord said. “And to ask of you all a favor as repayment for that warning.”
“Tell us,” Luna said, “And then we may decide if your warning merits the worth of the favor.”
Discord turned to Twilight. “You have something of mine in your dungeons,” he said, “All trussed up like a chicken about to lose its head. A sneak-thief.”
Twilight nodded. “We were discussing her. What is your interest in Cobblestone?”
“Mild at best,” Discord shrugged, “But it would be an…inconvenience to us all if she were to die. I’ve taken it upon myself to give her a bit of aid. Call it a contribution to her development.”
“I hardly think of you as altruistic, Discord,” Celestia said. “What’s your game in all of this?”
Discord winked at her. “You’ll just have to wait and find out, Celestia. Though I can be kind when I have a mind to it. Chaos isn’t inherently cruel, after all. Besides, I find her interesting. She’s managed to get herself into quite the predicament, and all without you finding out what she is truly capable of.”
“And what would that be?” Twilight asked calmly.
“That would be telling, my dear almost-god. Suffice it to say, she will be my contribution to the upcoming war. So, when you speak of throwing her to the metaphorical lions, I feel that I should have a say in it.”
The draconeqqus coiled lazily in the air, supported by nothing more than his own will as he inspected a darkened talon, looking for all the world like a silhouette that had broken free of the light behind it.
“My proposal is such. Keep her close to your daughter, as you were going to. Offer her to the Shadows, as you were going to. But if she is set upon, do not save her. That shall be my purview, and mine alone. I claim her as a servant of mine, as is my right.”
Luna’s breath hissed out as she stomped one hoof in protest. “You have no right to claim a servant, Discord! You have not helped us in our duties thus far, why should you reap the rewards of seeds you have not sown?”
Discord writhed in the air sinuously, turning to face the Alicorn. “Because, little Luna,” he said, “I’ve been wandering far and wide tempering ponies for the inevitable war they will face once you go around stirring up the hornets’ nest around the Shadow. Or did you think that it would simply lay dormant and wait for you to hunt it down? No, it has been making plans of its own.”
He gestured, and a shadowy map appeared below him, outlining the coast of Equestria and the seas beyond, including the Quilinese Islands to the north. Wisps of smoke began to fill in the coastline, pouring out over the “water” in the same pattern that Twilight’s ships had been outlining in order to explore the shores beyond the coast.
As the shadows extended further and further from their origins, however, they began to dissipate, becoming thin in some places, patchy in others. The clumps that represented islands became less and less well-defined, and in some places the shadows had not touched at all.
“Equestria and its outlying islands comprise most of the known world, with the exception of a few volcanic spits of rock here and there, hardly enough to sustain sea slime,” Discord said. “Past a certain point, there is simply nothing to be seen save water, water, and yet more water. I should know, I’ve been out to see it myself. Or at least, it was thought to be so. Lady Twilight has been keeping this from you all, but there appears to be more to the world than we thought previously.”
“Impossible!” Celestia said. “I’ve scoured the face of the world a hundred times with my magic, looking for a place the Shadow could be hiding. We all have.”
“And Twilight would never have hidden something like this from us,” Luna claimed, “It would be too important to keep to herself, regardless of petty politics.”
“Actually,” Twilight said, “that’s not entirely true.”
The three Alicorns turned to face her. Twilight took a deep breath and continued.
“As it turns out, there are several islands that have appeared in the last hundred years or so in the southwestern regions of the Western Sea. I say appeared instead of formed because they do not appear to have been created recently. They’ve just…appeared. I kept it from you because I wasn’t sure if the rumors brought back from ships that swung far west to avoid storms and such were true. I’d been meaning to send expeditions, but…”
“They keep meeting with misfortune or disappearing outright, don’t they?” Discord asked mockingly.
Twilight nodded miserably. “I’d thought it was just bad luck. I held off on telling you all because I wanted something more concrete before we committed to sending more resources that direction.”
“And I think you all know why these islands are just appearing now,” Discord said. “And why there are ships disappearing in those waters.”
“Then let us go down to those islands!” Luna cried. “We can set off now and bring the Shadow to heel forthwith!”
“I wouldn’t be too hasty, dearest Luna,” the draconeqqus replied. “Why do you think I have been gone for so long? Those islands are well-warded with enchantments that I have never seen in all my years in this world. I spent a full year and a day attempting every trick in the book to get into those islands, but they are warded to my entry. I doubt any of us would do better.”
Twilight frowned. “How do you mean, Discord?” she asked.
“Any attempt to reach the islands results in you getting further away from them,” Discord said. “I managed to overcome this obstacle by rushing at them sideways for a time, but it was only a short time later that I was forced to break off my approach when all of my magic began to fail me. I could name the numerous other problems I encountered, but they all boiled down to this.”
As he spoke, the spaces where the islands should have been began to outline themselves in darkness, forming a wide clear patch surrounded by a sea of shadow, which began to pulse and bubble once more.
“This area is impassible to most magic,” Discord said, “And what little can be taken through could never be enough to prevent the destruction of a ship sent through. Airships especially would be in trouble, seeing as they rely on so much magic to keep them in the air. But even if a sailing ship could make it through the barrier somehow, it wouldn’t last long.”
“What do you mean?” Cadance asked doubtfully. “Shouldn’t the islands be uninhabitable?”
“Far from it,” Discord said with a twisted grin, “They are, in fact, filled with the most unusual monsters I have ever seen. I may not have been able to get close to the islands themselves, but the ones I could see were quite full of life. Same goes for the seas surrounding them.”
“So,” Twilight asked, “What do you propose we do?”
“Do?” Discord asked. “Why, Twilight Sparkle, we can hardly DO anything but wait. Which is why Cobblestone’s training must be handled very carefully.”
Celestia frowned. “Are you suggesting we pin our hopes on Cobblestone?”
Discord chuckled. “Hardly, Celestia. She’s only mortal, after all. But we can use her as far more than a simple piece of bait. Powers large and small are going to be approaching her if she’s used the way Twilight Sparkle thinks she should be used, so I propose she be taught to handle those powers.”
“You want me to tell Libra to instruct her in some of the techniques?” Twilight asked. “Necromancy, demonology, that sort of thing?”
Discord shrugged. “I won’t tell you how to teach her,” he said, “And I’m not really sure if those fields are…applicable to her current situation. But a background wouldn’t hurt. I believe that she should have a good grasp of Breaking magic, at least.”
“On what grounds do you think that?” Celestia demanded. “You’ve only just now shown interest in her, how do you know what she is capable of?”
Discord’s eyes rolled in his sockets once more. “I can assure you, Celly, that it’s been only recently that I’ve shown interest in Cobblestone. I’ve maintained an interest for quite some time, and I can tell you that Cobblestone will be a more than adequate agent for both Twilight and myself.”
Twilight poured herself another cup of whiskey, and considered Discord’s words. The draconeqqus had a point, at least. If Cobblestone were to present herself as a viable “agent” to those powers, it would probably be best if she knew how to handle them safely, as opposed to stepping into them blind. Not only that, but if she truly were able to wield them effectively in defense of herself or others in addition to her already powerful latent abilities, she could become a force to be reckoned with.
It wasn’t very widely known, but to qualify as the Court Mage in Twilight’s kingdom, a wide variety of disciplines were required knowledge. Alchemy, enchantment, and scrying events were all well and good, but without actual offensive spells, the Court Mage would never be able to do their job effectively. And the job of the Mage in question could get very dark, very quickly.
In fact, Libra’s first job had been to assist in the destruction of a necromancer cult that had been operating out of Cobblestone’s home city. Without her knowledge of the craft, Libra would surely have been overcome in the first moments of fighting, and it was for this exact reason the she was the only pony in Twilight’s service allowed to practice the craft as anything other than an intellectual exercise. She commanded that allowance in other areas as well, not all of them as palatable or well-known as the art of manipulating death.
And now, the suggestion had been made to allow Cobblestone to begin training under Libra, not just in the normal disciplines of magecraft, but in those shadowy and forbidden realms of knowledge as well. In essence, Twilight would be asking Libra to create a potential monster. Breaking magic, though legal, was rarely practiced, and it carried with it a terrible risk, one she knew all too well. With Cobblestone’s possibly unstable mind already under considerable stress, it might be more than the young mare could bear.
“I will ask her,” Twilight said, “But I think we should all realize that Cobblestone may not be able to handle the stresses forced upon her by these disciplines. She shows potential, true, but we don’t know how far it will carry her, or when her limits may be reached. She will learn as much as can be taught to her, assuming she is permitted to study under Libra, but I cannot promise she will be unharmed by what she learns.”
Discord shrugged. “I expect my servants to be both strong and flexible,” he said, “And from what I can tell, this will not tax her past her limits. Though she certainly will not thank you for what she may go through.”
“I don’t like it,” Cadance said, “Forcing somepony so young to learn so much.”
“Actually, most apprentices in the Evening Kingdom start around the age of twelve or thirteen, correct?” Celestia asked. “Were she on the regular schedule for training, Cobblestone would have learned her magical basics by now. She would probably be moving on to other, more advanced topics, and she may have found what it was she wanted to do with her powers.”
Twilight nodded. “Ideally, she would be learning how to harness her particular gifts in a manner best suited to their potential.”
“I don’t believe you’ve ever told us what ‘gifts’ she’s demonstrated,” Luna said.
“Libra seems to think she holds a great deal of potential in manipulating electromagnetic energy,” Twilight said. “She did fend off her attackers with lightning, after all.”
“So she’s a Bellatorae?” Cadance asked. “That sounds like battle magic to me.”
“Possibly,” Twilight said, “Or a Cantorae. It will be difficult to tell until we can find out more about her powers. Assuming she is loyal, of course.”
“I thought that the Cantorae only associated themselves with the classical elements. Fire, earth, that sort of thing,” Cadance said. “That’s why they’re called Wavesingers and Windsingers, right? What would she be called?”
Twilight smiled. “I’ve only ever heard of this affinity for electromancy once or twice, but it does exist. Should she truly possess a strong affinity for electromagnetic energy, Cobblestone would one day possess the title of Stormsinger.”