by Airstream

In Which The Shadows Gather

The mansions of the Hedera family were considered to be some of the most opulent in the city, three shining jewels in the crowns of the socialite crowd. Anypony who was anypony wouldn’t dare call themselves a proper debutante unless it was at one of those famous balls, and to have attended a party in all three houses was considered an achievement in and of itself. The main reason for this was that although two of the houses were owned by the Hedera family and threw frequent parties, the third one, being the ancestral House of the Hederas, rarely opened its doors to anypony who was not there for business.

The manor itself was elegant and stately, built in the Celestial style of architecture, all stucco walls and red clay tiles. The windows sparkled cleanly in the early winter sun, and though the air was bitter cold, the grounds themselves bloomed with life in a dozen different colors besides green. A squat tower occupied one side of the House, rising up another two stories past the third floor of the House proper. Ivy could be seen climbing up the walls, meticulously kept in order to create an intricate webwork of vines that looked deceptively easy to climb. In fact, the vines themselves, while covered in beautiful red flowers, were coated in tiny, tiny thorns. The gardeners took special care in handling the plants, and even then, there was at least one pony every summer who accidentally got tangled in the things.

The wall, by contrast, was made entirely of smooth marble. No imperfection marred the surface presented to the outside world, and the wall itself faintly shone with polish. The only break in the pure white monotony of the edifice, towering above the road, was a gate, beside which was a small plaque in bronze, stating the address of the house and nothing more. The gate was impressive as well, made of wrought iron and fashioned in the shape of more vines which curled and twisted to form the House crest, a rose bordered by a half-risen sun.

Only a very few ponies made it through that gate in a week, most of them wearing well-tailored clothes, but not overtly so. They didn’t want to insult the owner of the House, because by-and-large, these ponies were all there for the same reason, and that reason invariably was either money or something related to money.

So it would have come as a shock to those who normally passed by the gate that on one cloudy day, in the middle of a cold snap that chilled even the most warmly dressed of ponies, that a single stallion, with a greasy greyish-brown mane, wearing a tattered cloak of patchwork fabric, would approach the gate, knock three times, and be permitted through. The iron of the gate swung silently on well-oiled hinges, gleaming coldly in the sun in a solemn invitation. The stallion hesitated, perhaps thinking second thoughts. With a quick shake of his head, he stepped through the gate. Immediately, it closed behind him, leaving him with no other recourse but to step further into the demesne of House Hedera.

His hoofsteps were muffled, made dull by the crunch of gravel on the well-maintained path. He cast an appraising eye around the grounds, noting that there were no visible guards to watch him as he made his way to the imposing door in the distance. Normally he would have attributed this to arrogance. There were many in this city that relied on their reputation to protect them, and he quite enjoyed disabusing them of that perceived safety. However, in the case of Lady Hedera, he felt that the reason she didn’t employ guards was simply because she didn’t need them. Her reputation was fearsome to say the least, and the stallion suspected it was for a very good reason.

So it was with trepidation that he knocked on the front door, and with even more that he stepped over the threshold into her House, the door once more opening and closing without any visible help from servants. His mane began to stand on end. Lady Hedera was an Earth pony, from a House that was traditionally averse to the use of magic in day-to-day life. What he had seen didn’t sit right with that image.

Though there was nopony in the foyer of the house to greet him, the stallion felt that he shouldn’t be wandering of his own accord. If he did, he might find something he wasn’t supposed to find. And though he was capable enough to get out of most scrapes, his intuition told him that he probably wouldn’t be getting out of anything he started here.

He cast an appraising eye around the empty space. Wealth was evident here, but not opulence. The stones in the walls were of good quality and expertly cut, the monotony broken by the occasional tapestry or painting depicting landscapes, castles, and the like. The floor was marble, and shone cleanly underneath his hooves, not scuffed or worn at all. In all, this was a House that felt perhaps too perfect, as if it had been set up to look its best, and then sealed away in time forever to preserve its worth.

“Mister Creed?” a soft and sweet voice said from behind him. The stallion jumped, a knife seemingly produced from nowhere in his hoof. He whirled, looking for the source of the voice, and stopped dead in his tracks. A young Pegasus mare with a coat of black and mane of white stood behind him. Clad in traditional maid’s attire, complete with frilled skirt and headband, she was the very picture of submissive loveliness. Her expression remained calm as he lowered the dagger.

“My sincerest apologies for startling you, sir. My name is Lily. I’ve been sent to fetch you.”

Creed, for that was the pony’s name, lowered the dagger, choosing not to say anything as the young mare led him out of the foyer. They passed into a hallway, appointed with lush carpeting in blue and gold and interrupted at regular intervals by alcoves, which contained a number of interesting and beautiful things. He saw a tree made entirely out of stone, far too detailed to be a carving, a small bird of crystal perched in its branches. An urn depicting strange creatures, beings with long limbs and claws and snouts full of teeth, was set directly across a mirror through which his reflection could not be seen, though the rest of the hallway appeared normally.

Above them towered portraits depicting the family line, masterfully done. A proud-looking stallion with kind eyes and a cane looked down at him, the gaze of fatherly command and steely resolve imposing even in paint. This, then, must have been Lord Hedera. Beside him hung a portrait of a mare that Creed was not familiar with, with a mane of black ringlets falling around her youthful face of silvery hair. Her eyes, a beautiful green, seemed to dance with laughter as he passed by. A solitary band of black covered one corner of the portrait.

And then more familiar faces appeared. Lady Hedera gazed down at him, a cool smile on her lips, her mane of blonde done up in an intricate bun. The rose of her coat seemed to gleam with health, and the ice blue of her eyes was piercing. Next to her hung a portrait of a young stallion, well-groomed with a coat of grey and mane of dark, dusky black. His face looked almost familiar. Oddly enough, the next frame was empty. After this lack of a portrait was a portrait of two ponies, twin fillies with hair of bright blonde and bright blue eyes, still very young. These, then, were the children of the House. But why was one missing?

“Here we are, Mister Creed,” the maid said quietly. Creed came to an abrupt stop. The mare refused to meet his gaze, keeping her eyes lowered. Creed felt an odd pang at the sight of her, a strange and almost urgent need bordering on a hunger for her. He shook his head, clearing the thoughts that had begun to cloud his mind, and examined the door in front of him.

They had arrived in front of an imposing double door made of solid oak, carved with pictures of capering deer and ponies intertwined with vines. In the center of the door was the seal of the Avatars united, a star and moon contained within a heart, which was in turn encircled by a sun. Creed’s hoof clenched in disgust. But now was neither the time nor the place for such emotion. The door creaked open without prompting, and the stallion stepped inside.

“Good evening, Mr. Creed,” Lady Hedera said, inspecting a hoof idly. “I’ve been expecting you. Were you able to find the House alright?”

The stallion with the greasy hair nodded. “It’s hard to miss,” he said.

“I would imagine so,” Lady Hedera said. “Especially if you had walked past it at three different points during the day, scouting for weaknesses. Oh, don’t look so surprised,” she said, seeing his eyes widen. “I had suspected you would, so I set a watcher to note when you passed by.” She gestured to a chair at the table where she was sitting, a small thing with space for perhaps six. “Please, have a seat. You’re in no danger here; if I wanted you dead you’d never have made it onto the grounds.”

Creed sat. Lady Hedera picked up a small bell from the table and rang it softly. The door swung open once more, and another pony, this one in a formal suit and tie, entered with a trolley of fruit and cheese. He swiftly and efficiently laid these platters on the table along with a decanter of wine and a chilled bottle of champagne.

“Would you prefer something stronger, Mister Creed?” he asked. “We have spirits available as well.”

“I don’t drink,” Creed replied. “Especially not in a strange House.”

“An admirable quality,” Lady Hedera said, extending a hoof. The butler poured her a glass of wine with haste, handing it over and waiting for her approval. She smiled and nodded, and the butler made his escape.

“I’d encourage you to eat,” Lady Hedera said, “But you strike me as the sort who doesn’t bother with pleasantries.”

Creed cleared his throat. “Respectfully, Lady Hedera,” he said, “I’d prefer you let me know why you invited me here. And while you’re at it, I’d like to know how you found our hideout.”

“It wasn’t hard to find,” Lady Hedera said. “Your kind are all the same, congregating in those dingy little bars and cafes. All it took was a bit of coin and I had more names than I knew what to do with. As for why you’re here, I have a job offer for you.”

“I’m not for hire,” Creed said. “Especially not by one of the Lady’s lapdogs.”

Lady Hedera arched a perfectly-shaped eyebrow at him. “You haven’t even heard my offer,” she said.

Creed shrugged. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “It’s a matter of principal.”

“And if I offered you enough money to buy your own chain of factories?” Lady Hedera asked. “Gold and jewels beyond your wildest dreams?

“Still not interested,” Creed said.

“What would you want, then?” Lady Hedera said. “Power? I could have ponies at your beck and call. A small army for you to command. Secrets? I know more than you might think. I know what Lady Everstar had for dinner this evening. What about sex? I noticed the way you looked at Lily. She’s a very sweet girl, and more than eager to please. I’ve stallions as well, if that’s what you prefer.”

Creed’s mouth tightened. “I’m not one to be bribed, Lady Hedera. If you don’t have anything else to say, I’ll see myself out.” He stood up, pushing his chair back.

“What if I offered you what it is you really want?” Lady Hedera said. “A chance to strike at Lady Everstar and her family.” She smiled as Creed suddenly froze, his ears perking up. “Ah,” she said, amusement dripping off of every word. “I have your interest now, do I?”

Creed slowly sat back down. “I’m listening.”

“There aren’t many in this city that could have found you and had enough clout to get you here,” Lady Hedera said. “I move in some high circles, Mister Creed. But I wasn’t always Lady Hedera, head of the largest House in commerce. You noticed those portraits out in the hallway, I assume?”

“I did,” he said. “I take it the Lord of the House is…?”

“Dead, unfortunately,” Lady Hedera said. “He followed his first wife a few short years after her death. A boating accident took him, terrible thing. I miss him, of course.”

“Of course,” Creed said. Lady Hedera didn’t sound like she missed her late husband very much at all.

“Thankfully, I do have something to remember him by,” she said. “Two twin daughters that I love very much. Grappa and Fern are both at boarding school, though.”

“And the other two portraits?” Creed asked.

“My stepson, Vino,” she said. “A newly minted Knight of the Evening Court. I believe you and he met recently.”

The portrait’s familiarity made sense now. He was that upstart soldier from the Square! A chill rushed down his back. That knight was…her son?

Not my son,” Lady Hedera said, reading his expression. “And I certainly didn’t call you here to reprimand you for his own stubbornness. As I said, Mister Creed. If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have gotten in the gate.”

Creed wasn’t so sure. One didn’t cross Lady Hedera lightly, in any way. She may have hated the boy and would still want his head for trying to kill him.

“And the blank frame?” Creed asked cautiously. He cautiously swiped a knife from the table as Lady Hedera took a sip of her wine. It never hurt to be careful.

“My husband’s daughter,” Lady Hedera said. “She is no longer a member of this House. I haven’t seen her in years. “

“What’s the point of all this?” Creed asked. “What do the portraits have to do with the job you have for me?”

“The job and the portraits are related,” Lady Hedera said. “The job is simple. Tomorrow will be the tryouts for a new platoon of soldiers under the guidance of Lady Everstar’s whelp, Serale. Vino will be among them, and as such, I am going to be attending the event. Now, the Crown has…reasons…to question my loyalty. So, the organization I work with has sent me an operative. She is going to make an attempt on my life. I want you to supply her with additional forces in order to neutralize any mundane resistance she may come across.”

“You want me to hire my brothers out to you?” Creed asked, repulsed. “Lady Hedera, I don’t know what kind of organization you think we are, but we aren’t mercenaries. We fight for change.”

“You misunderstand me, Mister Creed!” Lady Hedera asserted, her voice wounded. She took a sip of wine and cleared her throat. “I want you to begin working with me. You and I both want the same thing. I’m offering to fund your ‘organization’, and not just with money. As I said, this is the largest trading House in all of Equestria. Information, resources, safehouses, I can provide you with whatever you need. You could really make a difference, finally get that elusive ‘change’ of yours.”

Creed sat stunned. If her offer was genuine, then the Contheistic League would have everything they needed to bring down the corrupt gods who ruled over mortals like himself. They would go from just another gang to a real force for change! For good! He imagined being able to stand with brothers and sisters in revolution at his side, strong and willing to fight for what was right. A chance like this didn’t come often, and all it would take was one word.

“Deal,” he said. “With a few conditions.”

Lady Hedera said nothing, choosing only to arch an eyebrow and gesture for him to continue.

“Firstly,” he said, “I meet the mare we’re escorting. If she can’t hold her own, or can’t keep quiet, she’s going to get ponies of mine killed, and I won’t have it. Secondly, if you want us to do something, you let us know. If it doesn’t run counter to the League’s interests, we’ll get it done, but we’ll do it our way. Third and most important. We will work with you, but it’s still our League. We aren’t your army.”

“I never intended for you to be,” Lady Hedera said. “I was quite sincere when I said that I wanted to work with you.”

Creed regarded her suspiciously. “Why?” he asked. “Don’t you stand to lose a lot as well?”

“And we come to the portraits once more,” Lady Hedera said. “Tell me, Mister Creed. Do you believe in courtly love? Love between a knight and Lady, for example, or two nobles?”

It was an odd question, and one that Creed didn’t see as having a bearing on the situation at hand. “I…suppose so?” he said. “There are certainly enough stories about it. For foals and the like.”

“Exactly,” Lady Hedera said. “They’re stories, Mister Creed. Those who might be called ‘common’ are privileged in that they marry for love. Usually. Nobility like me, however…well, we marry for other things. Political advantage. Economic strength. Ending a feud. That sort of thing. It’s simply expected of us. So when I married my poor late husband, I can assure you love was not involved. I married him for a very particular reason, Mister Creed. I had a goal in mind when I did so. You and your League help me to further that goal.”

“And that goal would be?” Creed asked.

“Private,” Lady Hedera said. “But in the end, the same as yours. I want Lady Everstar dead. I want her dead, along with her little brat and the other three whores of goddesses who lord over everything like they own Creation itself. And the sooner it can happen, the happier I shall be. The happier we all shall be.”

“Indeed,” came a new voice, low and melodic. Creed spun in his seat only to find a blade at his neck, held there by a nondescript stallion in a jacket and tie. He hadn’t even heard him approach. Creed began to sweat.

“If you wouldn’t mind, Brother Chance,” Lady Hedera said, “He’s a guest.”

“He’s dangerous,” the stallion said. “And good with a knife. Like the one in his lap.”

“I can assure you,” Lady Hedera said, “I noticed. And I wasn’t unduly worried.”

“Let him go, dear Brother,” the melodic voice said again, filing Creed’s ears like poisoned honey. “He’s hardly a threat.”

Creed felt rather than saw the knife leave his neck, and turned, this time much more slowly, to see who had spoken.

The mare standing off to one side wore a mask of silver which gleamed in the low light of the room. Across it was a bird stamped in pitch black, wings stretching to either side of the mask as if to conceal the clear damage that had been done to a once-beautiful face. Most prominent of all was the short and jagged stump of a horn, shattered by some incredibly powerful force. Knobbed scars showed around the edges of the mask, and the eyes that peered out from it gleamed the white of blindness, although Creed could sense that they saw far more than they let on. Her features otherwise were finer than any he had ever seen, and again Creed could feel his thoughts cloud with an animal need.

She smiled, revealing perfect white teeth stained with something dark. “I see you too,” she said. “There are not many who see this mask and live to tell of it. My name is Nightshade, my dear Mister Creed. I am told your brothers will be escorting me in my task?”

Creed blinked once, twice, found words he had forgotten. “Yes,” he almost blurted. “Yes,” he said, far more restrained. “Will six be enough?”

Nightshade’s head tilted. “Six…” she murmured. “ You think highly of these ponies. Six will suffice, if they are strong enough and quick enough.”

Creed nodded jerkily. “They’ll be enough,” he said. “We’ve been practicing for this sort of thing for a long time.”

“Good,” Nightshade said. “I’ll have need of them.”

She turned to Lady Hedera. “He will do,” she said. “I could detect no subterfuge on him. His intentions are easy enough to read.”

“Now hang on,” Creed said. “I’ve agreed to escort you on a condition. How do I know that you’ll be able to keep up? No offense, but that horn of yours looks damaged.”

Nightshade smiled, and indicated the plate of fruit that had been left on the table, a negligent gesture with only one hoof. As Creed watched, the fruit began to wither and die, mold sprouting from every piece and consuming the tender flesh at a rapid pace before that, too, began to wither and die. Soon, nothing was left on the plate but a pile of small gray dust.

“I wield more power than you might think, Mister Creed,” Nightshade said. “I shall be able to defend myself ably. My only concern is that your ponies may not be able to keep up.”

“Necromancy…” Creed said, awestruck and horrified.

Nightshade smiled, showing the stains on her teeth once more. “Necromancy. Blood magic. Black magic. Consorting with demons. Thrall-making and mind breaking. I know a great many things, Mister Creed. This is why not many live to tell of my mask.”

“Mister Creed, I can assure you that Nightshade has no intention of harming you or your associates,” Lady Hedera said. “She and I are part of the same organization, and as I’ve said, our goals and yours line up almost exactly. If she were to hurt you, she would be hurting us all.”

“Unless being hurt is something you enjoy,” Nightshade said, her dead eyes glittering with what could almost be called mirth, thought Creed didn’t think she even knew what mirth was anymore. “I can arrange that.”

Creed cleared his throat. “That won’t be necessary. Thank you.”

Lady Hedera rang the bell on the table once more, and within seconds, the door had opened to reveal a butler in a suit and bow tie, a sheaf of papers tucked neatly under one foreleg.

“These are the directions your ponies will need to follow in order to meet Nightshade tomorrow. Your route takes you through the sewers. I take it your League is familiar with them?” Lady Hedera asked. She smiled at the look on Creed’s face, knowing that she had it right. “Meet her tomorrow at noon. She’ll already be inside.”

“Sunlight disagrees with me,” Nightshade said. “Normally it would not, but I had some difficulty when I first arrived. You won’t need to worry; I will still be able to fight well tomorrow.”

Creed said nothing, merely nodding stiffly as he took the papers with one hoof, trembling slightly and wondering what manner of deal he had just made. Necromancy! He was escorting a necromancer!

“You’re doing the right thing,” Lady Hedera said. “I know you have…reservations, Mister Creed. But if you want change, you must be willing to do whatever you can to see it done. My compatriots and I are ready to see the goddesses fall. Can I count on your resolve?”

Creed swallowed, closed his eyes, found his center. Necromancy was hardly the worst thing that would need to be done to ensure freedom from oppression. And he wouldn’t back down from the fight. He would see the goddesses burn.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said in a voice harder and colder than flint. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Lady Hedera smiled, picking up the bell and ringing it again. This time it was answered by a familiar face.

“Lily,” Lady Hedera said to the maid that was currently executing a picture-perfect curtsy, “Mister Creed’s business is completed here. Please escort him out. Via the long way.”

Lily nodded meekly and waited for Creed before she took him by one hoof, escorting him out of the room. The door closed behind them, and Creed exhaled a sigh of relief. He’d pick six of his second-best comrades to go. He didn’t want Lady Hedera knowing exactly what they were capable of. Not yet.

“Are you alright, Mister Creed?” Lily asked innocently as they walked. “You look distressed.”

Creed snapped back to reality. “I’m fine,” he said roughly. “Lead on. Your employer said something about a ‘long way’?”

Lily smiled. “I like the long way. It’s always more interesting.”

They turned down a hallway, this one lined with doors, each of them made of solid brown wood, and each of them locked. They stopped in front of one, and Lily withdrew a key from her dress, hanging from a chain around her neck.

“What’s the long way?” Creed asked as the door opened.

Lily’s smile turned from sweet to something more. “It goes through a bedroom,” she said. Creed didn’t resist as she pulled him inside the room, locking the door behind her.

“He may prove difficult to control,” Nightshade said. “He has principles, and a strong will. Those could be dangerous in the long run.”

Lady Hedera drained her glass dry. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “If he shows signs of independence beyond what we’ve allotted for, I’ll have him removed.”

“I could make a thrall of him,” Nightshade said. “It wouldn’t be hard.”

“No,” Lady Hedera replied. “I’ll need a sharper mind than even you could provide after breaking him. The ponies that follow him do what he says without question. They won’t follow us, at least for a while. By the time he’s outlived his usefulness we’ll have their loyalty, but not before then. Mother told me this.”

She set the glass down, regarding Nightshade calmly. “Are you feeling back up to snuff?” she asked. “By all accounts Serale will be heavily defended, and myself along with her. If you get caught before the attack, your chance at redemption might be gone, Sister.”

Nightshade inhaled, exhaled. The tip of her horn burst into black flame, wavering in a nonexistent breeze. “For a failed attempt?” she said. “More than sufficient. I will be able to approach, fire, and leave. But I suspect you would like me to do more.”

Lady Hedera smiled, nodded. “I would indeed. As a favor to me, Sister, for the use of my House. Were you discovered here, there would be some…awkward questions.”

Nightshade inclined her head to indicate she should continue.

“As you know,” Lady Hedera said, “My stepson, Vino, is coming of age. He is currently in service to the Crown as a knight. But his father’s will was very clear. Once his service is completed, he shall return home to take the mantle of the House. There is no love lost between either of us, Sister. I have no doubt he would cast me out of this House if he could. Tomorrow, I would like you to make another attempt. A successful attempt.”

Nightshade grinned. “And on whom would you like this attempt to be made?” she asked.

Lady Hedera leaned forward in her chair, a toxic smile curled across her face. “Kill my stepson,” she hissed. “I care not what is done with him, but I want him dead! Kill Vino Hedera as I killed his father and sister.”