Cobblestone set her fork down with a sigh. Dinner had been wonderful, and the conversation had begun to flow more easily once the topic of her apprenticeship had come up. It was a subject they were all familiar with, Lady Everstar especially. She had given very good advice on how to prepare for apprenticeship under Libra, her standards, and the reputation she would be expected to uphold, which was an outstanding one.
Apparently Libra was something of a celebrity in the Court. Her appearance and rise were as mysterious as they were meteoric, she having arrived after the last Court Mage, a stallion by the name of Sunstone, had passed. Distinguishing herself with her intelligence and wit along with frankly incredible power, she had quickly carved a spot for herself as one of the most prominent mages in the court, and it was only a matter of time until the title of Court Mage had become hers. Nopony had been surprised, despite her relative youth at the time. She had been thirty four.
She’d been a breath of fresh air in a Court that badly needed it, Lady Everstar had explained. Under her rule, the standards for qualification as a mage in Lady Everstar’s service had been lifted to stringent heights, unseating several prominent mages who were not quite up to snuff. At the same time, she had expanded the pool of applicants by agreeing to test mages who were not certified with the numerous guilds in the city, upsetting the old order even further.
It was only a matter of time until the already formidable organization of mages in service to the Crown had become even more adept and powerful. Lady Everstar’s cabal of magic users, the finest in the land, was young, adaptable, and powerful. Soon Libra had turned them onto rogue spellcasters and dark magic users alike, ushering in an era of peace within the Kingdom that had not been seen for decades. She herself had led numerous campaigns on sorcerers, necromancers, and warlocks alike in the name of her Lady, her drive and determination matched only by her prowess and almost eerie intuition.
And yet, for all of her prowess, Libra had never taken on an apprentice of her own, nor shown any desire to. Neither had she asked for a reward of any kind, not titles or riches or land beyond that which was allotted to her, the simple sobriquet of “Magus”, and a room in the Regia from which she coordinated the larger magical workings of the Kingdom. Cobblestone was the first young pony in which she had taken any interest, aside from Serale.
“Libra was sort of like a second mother to me,” Serale said, cutting a small piece of mousse off for herself. “Especially when I left home to travel. She might seem prickly, Cobblestone, but she’s a very kind pony when you get to know her. I came to value her company as much more than a protector.”
“Speaking of protection,” Lady Everstar said, “I think it’s time we turned in for the evening. You need to be up early for the tournament tomorrow, Serale.”
Serale rolled her eyes. “I suppose so,” she said. “Cobblestone, do you know where your room is yet?”
“I’ll fill her in,” Lady Everstar said. “I need to speak with her alone for a moment.”
Cobblestone’s heart began to race at the thought of being left alone with Lady Everstar, who, despite her jovial appearance, still intimidated her. She was acutely aware of how insignificant she was in comparison to the mare she had taken dinner with.
Serale’s gaze flicked from Lady Everstar, back to her, back to her mother. She looked like she was going to say something, but thought better of it. She gave a simple curtsy, murmured “Good night”, and proceeded out of the hall at a sedate pace. Cobblestone watched her go, and cringed upon the shutting of the door behind her.
“Now,” Lady Everstar said, picking up the bell from its resting place on the table, “I think we should take coffee. What say you?”
“If you’d like, milady,” Cobblestone said.
Lady Everstar sighed. “If we’re going to be speaking frankly, you’re going to need to drop the formality, Cobblestone. Do you want coffee? Tea? Brandy?”
Cobblestone’s thoughts were awhirl. Was it a test? Was Lady Everstar waiting to see if she was greedy, or analyzing her choice in drink? “Coffee,” she blurted. “Please,” she added lamely, almost as an afterthought.
Lady Everstar nodded. She rang the bell, and immediately a servant came through the door, bowing before her.
“Please have the service cleared up, and give my compliments to Kettle. Tonight’s meal was wonderful. Cobblestone and I will be taking coffee, please have it brewed in the normal fashion.”
The servant bowed even lower, scraping the floor, and retreated to the kitchen. Lady Everstar turned to Cobblestone. “Hold on for a moment,” she said, and her horn lit up. Cobblestone felt a pinching sensation near the nape of her neck, everything blurred, and suddenly she was somewhere else.
Plain stone walls surrounded her, covered with charts and maps depicting everything from anatomical outlines of dragons to complex fractions of magical circles to strange locations unknown to Cobblestone, maps with place names like “Ashtar Sharestan”, “Roam”, and others. These scraps of parchment and heavy paper vied for space with towering bookshelves, each of them laden with tomes and texts and treatises on a thousand different subjects, some in languages Cobblestone couldn’t begin to comprehend.
Above her were suspended a veritable flock of models, ranging from astronomical sets depicting the stars which shone above to dragons, gryphons, Pegasi, and other, stranger creatures in flight. Alongside them soared airships, ranging from the newest and most efficient frigates to ancient ships that really did look like vessels that could take to the seas, suspended below vast and fragile looking balloons.
Shelves and tables lined the walls, containing models, skeletons, and experiments of all descriptions. Flasks of chemicals bubbled next to bowls of sand that shifted and twisted in the air, as if trying to take flight. One jar contained a fragment of deep blue smoke or mist that writhed and struck at the sides of the glass, trying to get out. Among these experiments scuttled beings of wood and clay, some with too many eyes or legs, all of them busy and frighteningly precise.
But it was not these which caught Cobblestone’s attention. One entire wall was covered in racks, and in these racks were weapons. Swords and spears and bows and rifles covered the wall, some like she had never seen before. They were inlaid with stones that gleamed with indescribable colors, and tiny runes that she could not understand, but sensed brought them strength and durability and enhanced their deadliness far beyond what they should have been.
“Do you like it?” Lady Everstar asked, noticing the awestruck look on Cobblestone’s face. “Everything in here is part of my ongoing research into the nature of magic and reality. This is my personal study. Only a select few ponies are allowed in this room, and then only by invitation.”
A chime sounded, and a small table that had been standing empty to one side was suddenly occupied by a small brass pot, along with two cup, a bowl of sugar, and small pitcher of cream. The rich smell of fresh coffee began to permeate through the air.
“We’ll give it a moment to cool,” Lady Everstar said. “For now, I want to know what you think.”
“It’s…it’s amazing,” Cobblestone said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“I often make my important decisions in here,” Lady Everstar said. “It helps to clear my head when I’m working on problems or new experiments.”
Cobblestone nodded emphatically. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I did my best problem solving when I was sewing.”
Lady Everstar looked at her strangely. “You sew?” she asked.
Cobblestone flushed, realizing that she was probably a novice compared to most of the ponies the Lady knew. “A bit,” she said. “Mostly patching things, sewing up tears, taking things in or letting them out again, that sort of thing.”
“It’s a useful skill,” Lady Everstar said. “Don’t be embarrassed by it. I personally have never gotten the hang of it. I suppose I just don’t have the patience…but I digress. I suppose you can guess why I’ve brought you up here?”
Cobblestone shook her head, mystified.
“I wanted to ask you about what happened at the prison,” Lady Everstar said. “And based on that, to talk about your training with Libra. I have some of the details, but I want to hear it from your point of view.”
Cobblestone sighed, feeling her stomach sink. Though it had been a long day, and she had been able to push aside the worst of the memories, they were still fresh in her mind. She felt herself starting to shake, and she felt curiously cold.
“Here,” Lady Everstar said kindly, handing her a cup of coffee. “You look like you’ll need this. I’m sorry to bring up something like this, especially when you’re still coping with it, but I need all the memories in your mind to remain fresh.”
“Why can’t you just reach in and take them?” Cobblestone asked.
Lady Everstar’s mouth drew down in a frown. “I will never, for any reason, transgress in your mind without your express permission, Cobblestone. That is a promise. I know from experience how traumatic that can be, and the only reason I did so on the airship was to make sure you weren’t being influenced by somepony when we were talking. I want your view of things, Cobblestone, in your own words.”
Cobblestone nodded, and took a small sip of her drink, feeling the bitter draught warming her as it slid down her throat. “She called herself Nightshade,” she said, “Nightshade of the Crows.”
“I’m familiar with the name,” Lady Everstar said. “Go on.”
“She said that she was there to collect me, and when I said no, things got ugly,” Cobblestone explained. “I managed to get out into the corridor by throwing Hob at her, and he did…something. Do you know what he is?” she asked.
Lady Everstar nodded, but said nothing. Cobblestone saw that no further information was forthcoming, and continued.
“I was trying to stall for time until the guards got there or until I could find a way out, but she was too strong, and I didn’t have much magic to use. I don’t know where she was getting her strength from, even the guards didn’t have access to a lot of their magic in the prison. She shook me around and beat me up a little, and she was dragging me out of the cell block, and then something happened that I don’t really know how to explain.”
Cobblestone took another sip of her coffee, fear coiling low and cold in her chest, the drink doing nothing to drive it away. “I began to black out,” she continued. “But I didn’t. When my eyes opened back up, I could see things. I saw lights, like fire but in different colors. And I could see the moon through the roof of the building, and the stars, but I couldn’t see anything else. The rest of the world was black. The…the flames, I guess…were coming from different ponies. Even Nightshade had one, but it wasn’t as bright as the others. And then I realized that I could do things with the lights.”
Lady Everstar interrupted her. “These flames. You said they were coming from different ponies? And a different color for each one, right?”
“Yes,” Cobblestone affirmed. “I noticed mine was the same shade of teal as my magic.”
“Fascinating,” Lady Everstar muttered. “Continue, please.”
“I reached out for the lights,” Cobblestone said. “Like, I used my magic to reach out to them like I would an object. And I could feel myself getting stronger. But at the same time, I felt things that weren’t my feelings, and I was remembering things that weren’t my memories. It almost felt like…”
“You were using the souls of those around you,” Lady Everstar said.
Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. “That’s exactly it! Do you know what that was? Do you know what I did, or how I can control it? Will it happen again?”
Twilight shook her head slowly. “I don’t know what it is exactly,” she said, “But I have a theory. For some reason, you can see the souls of those around you. I can do it too, though I’ve managed to keep it under control. Cobblestone, I want to try something with you. Do you trust me?”
“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “What do you want to do?”
“Do you trust me?” Lady Everstar repeated, her own purple eyes meeting Cobblestone’s blue. There was no hint of malice there, or deception, and Cobblestone knew the signs of both.
“I…yes,” she said. “I trust you.”
Lady Everstar picked up a scalpel from a nearby table. “Hold out your hoof,” she said.
Cobblestone did so. She watched as Lady Everstar drew the scalpel across her foreleg, drawing beads of blood that met and began to run down her leg.
“Repeat after me,” she said. “Blood and Bone, Wood and Sand, time of knowledge close at hand. My mind my own, and set me free. Open my eyes, and let me see.”
“Blood and Bone,” Cobblestone dutifully intoned, “Wood and sand.”
She frowned. She could hear an echo, almost like a mocking voice was reciting it along with her. “Time of knowledge close at hand.”
Her head began to buzz. “My mind my own,” she grunted, feeling her teeth buzzing. “And set me free.”
A lance of pain shot through her head, and she hissed with discomfort, squinting. “Open my eyes,” she said through gritted teeth, “And let me SEE!”
Her horn flared into life unbidden, and she felt a wave of invisible heat crackling along her back, as if she had caught fire. Before she could do more than yelp in pain, however, it had vanished, and when she opened her eyes, the world was different.
The first thing she was aware of was herself. She was a being of blue flame, crackling with power like a roaring bonfire mixed with the fury of a lightning storm. She raised a hoof, marveling at the beauty of her magic, before something else caught her eye.
Another being was in the room, though her flame burned steadier and brighter than Cobblestone’s, a reddish-purple that pulsed with steady life. In the center of this conflagration, however, was a core of white-hot magic that was so bright she could not bear to do more than glance at it.
“How do I turn it off?” she grunted.
Lady Everstar’s voice came to her muffled, as if from far away or through a layer of thick cloth. “Imagine raising your mental defenses,” she said. “This time, imagine putting them around your whole body, in your own shape. Let them define you.”
It took Cobblestone several minutes to figure out what she was talking about, but by degrees, she managed to regain her sense of self. Finally, she put the last defenses in place, and just as suddenly as it appeared, her new sight vanished, leaving her gasping with effort on the floor, looking around the study once more, now seemingly mundane in comparison to what she had seen.
“Fascinating,” Lady Everstar said. “And troubling. You are a very rare pony, Cobblestone. One might go so far as to say one of a kind. No wonder so many are interested in you.”
“What…was that?” Cobblestone gasped. She tried to rise, but failed. “I can’t…I can’t move.”
“You just shoved your soul back in your own body,” Lady Everstar said. “Give it a moment. As to what that was, I’ve taken to calling it ‘soulsight’. And as far as I could tell, only beings of great power could manage it at all, let alone control it at the level you apparently can. I always thought that sight was the most power one could manage, but you’ve gone one step beyond. Cobblestone, you can not only see souls, you can use them.”
The purple unicorn thought for a moment, and then pulled out a journal, setting a quill to writing while she talked. “This makes my next step in your training imperative,” she said. “And this is where I fear you may hate me.”
“Hate you?” Cobblestone wheezed. She could feel life returning to her hooves. “What do you mean?”
“Cobblestone, you were never going to be sentenced to prison for long,” Lady Everstar said. “I had…I had set up a test for you, one that was going to be triggered in a night or two. The power reserves to your cell were rigged to malfunction and give you the opportunity to escape. We…no, I thought you might have been sent as a spy, or had some programming to return to whoever sent you when you had the chance.”
The quill continued to scribble as she drained her cup. “But now I see that not only did you not have any compunction laid on you, you couldn’t have had anything laid on you!” she exclaimed. “At least, not anymore. Enchantments like the ones I thought you might have had on you are woven into the soul, Cobblestone. They become part of us, an integral piece of our selves. But you would have broken something like that as soon as you first reached out with your newfound powers. It would have burned away like tree bark in a bonfire.”
“So…nopony can mess with my head?” Cobblestone asked.
Lady Everstar shook her head wildly, her tidy bun coming undone. “No, your mind and soul are two different things. Mental compunctions rarely last long without the pony in question noticing something is wrong, or exhibiting signs of being controlled, unless the enchantment gets tied into their deeper self. That takes time and effort, and in your case, it would be wasted effort. A simple shrug would burn it right away.”
Cobblestone stood up woozily, swaying on her hooves. She reached for the cup clumsily, and almost dropped it, but caught it at the last moment. She drank the coffee down to the dregs, feeling herself becoming steadier. “You tricked me,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go to prison, and you tricked me.”
“You have no idea how sorry I am,” Lady Everstar implored. “When I heard the news about the attack, I sent Libra down right away. I would have come myself, if I had thought it wouldn’t draw unwanted attention to you. Cobblestone, I betrayed your trust. I know I can never undo that. But from now on, you will have my total honesty, especially in regards to you and your future.”
“Tell me what you know,” Cobblestone said. “Where did this power come from? Why can I do this?”
Lady Everstar spread her hooves in supplication. “I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “That’s just it! I’ve got a few theories, but nothing else, and I don’t want to lead you down the wrong path. As soon as I know something concrete, you’ll be the first to know.”
Whatever this was, Cobblestone reflected, it was dangerous. She knew that if she wasn’t careful with her new powers, she could seriously harm somepony, or several someponies. And the most powerful and ancient mage in the world knew nothing about what she could do. Her heart began to race. What if she lost control of her powers again? What about them made her so appealing to so many ponies? What was she going to do?
“I need you to keep your trust in me,” Lady Everstar said. “Your education with Libra is going to be very different from the education afforded to most apprentices. What you can do, Cobblestone, goes far beyond the boundaries of known magic, well beyond even Breaking magic, and that’s one of the most dangerous disciplines there is. You’re going to be learning some very dark stuff. I know you’ll be able to handle it, though, because of the power you wield.”
“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “Why do I need to learn that?”
“To know your enemy,” Twilight replied. “You’re going to learn some dark magic, and in doing so, learn that dark is not inherently evil. It’s what you do with it that matters.”
She noticed the paleness of Cobblestone’s face, and smiled reassuringly. “You don’t need to worry, Cobblestone,” she asserted. “You won’t cross any lines. I wouldn’t allow it anyway. But this is going to help you define your magic. By learning those disciplines, you’re learning the closest thing we have to controlling what you can do. Breaking magic especially will be of great help to you.”
Cobblestone thought, unsure. What she did hadn’t felt dark, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that what she was doing was almost horrendously dark. Manipulating the very souls of others, their essential selves, with or without their permission? Whatever she did, she needed to be careful. If she wasn’t she could become a monster.
What if she already had? Those ponies in the prison hospital were catatonic because of her. Brandywine had said they were safe, but she only knew their minds were intact, not their souls. What if she had damaged her fellow inmates permanently?
“You don’t need to worry,” Lady Everstar said, almost reading her mind. “I went to the prison today and examined them myself. It was a near thing, but you stopped just short of permanent damage to them. Your fellows will recover in time.”
“I can’t let this thing get out of control,” Cobblestone said. “If I do, ponies could get hurt. A lot of ponies.”
“Which is why you need trained,” Lady Everstar explained calmly. “Libra and I are already formulating a plan for how to teach you. You can relax, Cobblestone. We won’t allow you to lose control again.”
Cobblestone nodded her head quickly. “Alright,” she said. “I trust you both.”
“There’s another way to maintain focus that I’ve found to be useful,” Lady Everstar said. “I’d like you to take a weapon and learn to use it.”
Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “I couldn’t!” she protested. “I mean, I don’t know how to use anything except a knife, let alone a spear!”
“All the better,” Lady Everstar said. “You’ll have no bad habits to unlearn. Learning a martial discipline promotes focus, discipline, and inner strength as well as physical fitness, all of which you’ll need in spades to control that power. I’d recommend you learn one even without your powers. Now,” she said firmly, “Choose.”
Cobblestone gulped, approaching the wall. She immediately shied away from the bigger weapons, the great swords and guns and spears. She examined a set of pistols, but something about them didn’t feel right. Her eyes were drawn to the far right of the rack, where several swords hung waiting. She felt herself drawn to them, and let her hooves carry her to one near the end.
The hilt was unfinished, or at least looked it. There was an empty socket in the pommel which gaped like the yawning maw of a hungry beast, gleaming silver in the light. The rest of the hilt was wrapped in simple black leather, studded for better grip. Cobblestone lifted it from its space on the wall, and felt an urge to draw it. She grasped the hilt with her magic, and drew perhaps an inch of it from the scabbard, hissing like the crackle of sea foam.
She got the briefest image of a metal the black of the space between the stars, and a strange chill washed over her, but before anything more could be seen, she felt Lady Everstar seize the sword roughly, slamming it back into the scabbard and yanking it away from her with a cry.
“No!” she shouted, before collecting herself. “Cobblestone, are you alright?”
Cobblestone shook her head wildly, clearing her thoughts. “I think so,” she said. “What was that?”
Lady Everstar breathed a sigh of relief. “I apologize,” she said. “I thought I had put this one away. It’s not for use.”
“Why?” Cobblestone asked curiously. It had looked like a fine blade.
“This sword,” Lady Everstar said nervously, “Is far too dangerous to be used by gods or mortals. I regret ever having made it, and I dare not destroy it. I keep it here, under lock and key. Cobblestone, you must promise me you will never tell a single soul about this sword. Swear by your power as a mage.”
Cobblestone nodded, frightened. “I swear,” she said.
Lady Everstar sighed with relief. “Choose another,” she said. “And put this sword out of your mind.”
Cobblestone turned back to the wall. The pull to the sword had been strong, but there was another on the wall that seemed to call to her. She scanned the wall, trying to find the one that seemed right. Most were too long or too short, others were inlaid with jewels or runes that seemed to gleam with ill-contained energy.
One caught her eye. The hilt was made of bronze, curved with a guard to protect the hoof of whoever was wielding it. The blade itself was curved as well, not precisely a scimitar, but also not as straight as a saber might have been. She grasped it with one hoof, drawing it forth with a ringing sound. She grinned. The blade gleamed bright in the light of the study, embossed with tiny runes in the shape of a flame in bronze. She twirled it experimentally, trying to imitate what she thought a warrior would look like. It felt right in her hooves, like it belonged there.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
“I called it Noonfire when I forged it,” Lady Everstar said. “But it is your sword. You should name it after your first battle. It’s tradition.”
Cobblestone sheathed it, taking the scabbard up as well. Remembering her manners, she bowed low. “Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”
“I expect great things from you, Cobblestone,” Lady Everstar said. “I cannot wait to see you prove me right.”