• Published 1st Jan 2014
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Stormsinger - Airstream

After four hundred and fifty years of uneasy peace, the balance of power in Equestria has shifted.

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In Which Lies And Truths Are Told

“What in the name of Tartarus were you thinking?” Serale cried, her face livid. “Six years in custody? After Cobblestone placed her trust in us? You’re going to consign her to some dank cell and let her rot there?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “She’s hardly going to rot. It’s not like she’s been buried underground, she’ll be treated fairly and with dignity. Visitation rights and all.”

“That’s not the point!” Serale countered furiously. “The point is that we promised Cobblestone at least a chance to prove herself and develop the gift she has, and just when she thought she could rely on others to watch out for her, now she thinks that we stuck a dagger in her back!”

“Really?” Twilight shot back, “Because I recall the deal being if she comported herself well, and made no attempt to escape custody, that she would be awarded the opportunity. It wasn’t a blank check, she had to earn her chance.”

Serale paced the floor of the small study behind the throne where they had gathered, careful to avoid bumping into Libra, who had taken a position off to the side. She’d followed her mother back here directly after the trial, pausing only briefly to comfort Cobblestone and to let her know that she would try and undo what had been done.

“The only attempt she made was directly after a riverboat had exploded,” Serale said, “And to be honest, I was considering joining her in sprinting as far away as I could! Fighting a riverboat fire with little to no magic isn’t exactly my idea of a safe activity.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that she ran,” Twilight said, her face still expressionless.

Serale swallowed the anger that had been building up inside of her chest. She would do Cobblestone no good by blowing up in front of her mother like a petulant child.

“She was frightened. And alone. And she had no idea what was going on, she was going through withdrawal at the time. In any court of law other than yours, I’m reasonably certain that I could prove she was not in her right mind at the time,” Serale said bitterly.

Twilight shrugged. “A deal was made and she violated terms. That’s the end of that.”

Serale fumed silently, unable to come up with a counter-argument to save her friend.

“Mistress, surely you don’t need to keep your daughter out of the loop?” Libra asked. “She’s got as much right to know about this as we do.”

Twilight shot her a look that caused Libra to shrink in her chair. “I was getting to that, Libra. Thank you.”

“Getting to what?” Serale asked. “Mother, what are you planning?”

“If you had chosen to speak with me yesterday, instead of gallivanting off with Lady Hedera’s son, I would have let you know and spared you the surprise,” Twilight said, her tone full of reprimand. “But what’s done is done, I suppose.”

Serale snorted in exasperation. “Mother,” she said, “What did you do?”

“I provided Cobblestone with an opportunity to demonstrate her loyalties,” Twilight said. “She is to remain in her prison for a period of seven days. During that week, she is going to be under the impression that she has been betrayed, but thanks to your words of encouragement, as well as the encouragement of Libra, she will hold on to the hope that she will be retrieved from her prison.”

“And later she’ll be released?” Serale said. “Told she’s free to go?”

“Not quite,” Twilight said. “At the end of that time, an ‘opportunity’ to betray your trust in her will present itself. Should she take it, she’ll be confined to her cell for the remainder of her sentence. If she refuses to do so, then she will be released into the custody of the Crown, at which point we direct her contract for the next six years.”

Serale recoiled in horror. “That’s sick,” she said. “Manipulating her like that? Setting her up to fail? You know as well as I do that she’s going to want that chance after what you’ve done to her. And even if she doesn’t, what then? You think she won’t find out? That when she does, she isn’t going to think we are just as bad, if not worse, than the life she left behind?”

“Cobblestone struck me as a sensible pony,” Twilight said. “Given time, she’ll understand why we had to do what we did.”

“You’re going to have to explain this to me,” Serale said, “Because I’m hearing all of this from you directly, and I still don’t understand why you’re doing this aside from a twisted desire to see Cobblestone tread water.”

Twilight frowned. “I’m disappointed in you, Serale,” she said. “You can’t see my reasoning? Very well, then.” She glanced towards a mirror on the wall, polished to an unusual sheen, before beginning.

“It was too clean,” she said. “Your encountering Cobblestone. She’s about your age, lonely like you, and is just familiar enough to be relatable, while just exotic enough to be interesting to you. She’s remarkably compliant considering her criminal background, and to top it all off, she’s been involved in both attacks on your life in some capacity.”

“You think she’s a spy?” Serale asked.

Twilight shrugged noncommittally. “It’s possible,” she said. “I personally think that if she is, she doesn’t realize that she is one. When I examined her mind, in addition to the magic laid upon her by ‘Dis’, I found traces of mental magic. More so than she would have had wandering around undefended in a city, which suggests that she was very close to a very powerful Mentalist for a very long period of time.”

“So why is she being given a chance to escape?”

“To tempt her handler into recalling her,” Twilight said. “If they think she’s been incarcerated, then there is every chance that they will influence her to attempt escape and return, either for reassignment or disposal.”

The way she said it, ‘disposal’, sent chills down Serale’s spine.

“And do you think that’s something that will happen?” Serale asked. “Do you really believe that Cobblestone is some sort of…some sort of thrall or mind puppet?”

Twilight shrugged again. “It’s a possibility I am unwilling to discount,” she said. “If it turns out that Cobblestone is, in fact, innocent and perfectly in control of her actions, as I hope she is, then all we will have to worry about is her animosity. I will gladly accept blame for that, if this turns out to be the case. However, if it turns out that she truly is working for an enemy, or has ulterior motives, then we will have suffered no serious betrayal and can rest assured that a threat to your life has been removed.”

“I must admit some discomfort with the idea of this deception as well, Milady,” Libra interjected. “It is a serious breach of any trust that may have been built between not only Cobblestone and yourself, but Cobblestone and Serale as well. You are both tarred with the same brush, as it were.”

“That may be, Libra,” Twilight said, “But I think we would all feel worse if Cobblestone were to plant a knife in either my daughter or myself.”

“I would counsel you to reconsider, Milady,” Libra said. “You may have no need to befriend Cobblestone, but Serale stands to lose much more in this than yourself.”

Twilight’s eyes flashed. “Libra,” she said in low tones, “You can either remain here, silent, until I have finished speaking with my daughter, or you may take your leave.”

Libra said nothing, choosing merely to rise from her chair, bow low, and disappear with a flash and a pop, leaving mother and daughter alone in the room together.

“You had no call to do that, Mother,” Serale said. “Libra was only trying to serve in my best interests.”

Twilight shook her head. “No,” she said, “She was trying to serve you in what she thought were your own best interests. I will not pretend that she didn’t have a point, but Libra did not have all of the information available. That is another reason I commanded her to leave.”

Serale frowned. “I thought you gave her a choice.”

“I said she had a choice,” Twilight said. “But she knew better than to take it. That’s beside the point.”

“Then what is the point?” Serale asked. She was growing tired of the endless layers of deception her mother seemed to think she needed to operate under.

“There is another angle to this whole thing,” Twilight said. “Something I haven’t been able to figure out yet. I think Cobblestone might be in danger, and through her, you.”

“What makes you say that?” Serale asked, her interest piqued.

“A few events that don’t make sense,” Twilight said. “Forces taking an interest in her that shouldn’t even notice her. The fact that she seems to be followed by a trail of misfortune wherever she goes. Old powers, powers I haven’t felt move in decades, are suddenly very active, and all of them moving towards her. I don’t know if it’s something she did, or if those forces merely want to use her distress to get at you, but they are there, and they are moving.”

“Mother, you need to explain,” Serale said, “What exactly do you think is coming after her, or me, or us?”

“Dis has shown his face again after being quiet for nearly a century, “Twilight said, “Her cat is a creature of the deep Forest, something older than I can say, something without a name. I don’t even know his true nature, and most of all, I don’t know why he’s choosing to follow her around. He’s attracted attention, though. The Forest is angry, Serale. Angrier than I’ve ever seen it. Ever.”

Twilight’s horn flashed, and a map appeared on the table. She indicated a blank patch in the westernmost part of the map. “There is something happening in the Western Sea. All ships that I’ve sent to scout the area, to see if there are new lands not yet discovered, haven’t returned. Something big enough to disturb the flow of the ley, and whatever it is, the other rulers and I have agreed that it is focusing its attentions here.”

“And one other thing,” she said. “I sent agents of mine to check on Cobblestone’s old gang. Somepony, or some…thing, has been hunting them down, picking them off one by one since she left. What it is, I can’t say. Maybe it’s coincidence. Maybe it isn’t. But whatever it is, none of my best operatives have been able to so much as give me a description. If it was sent to hunt her down, she may be in more trouble than we thought. And it may have moved already. The house where she was staying recently had one of its staff disappear.”

Serale’s head was reeling at the revelation of all she had just been told. “Why haven’t you told Libra about this?” she asked. “Surely she should know, too!”

Twilight shook her head. “Libra has been assigned another task,” she said, “And isn’t required to know about all of what I’ve told you. She knows some of it, to be sure, the bit about the cat, and the fact that there is some sort of disturbance back in Crescent City, but aside from that, her energies need to be focused elsewhere.”

“But if Cobblestone is in danger, and she’s outside of our official custody, then…” Serale’s eyes narrowed. “You’re using her as bait. Again. You made sure it was publically known where she was going to be, how long she was going to be there, and that we weren’t protecting her. You’re hoping that whatever is coming for her will try and strike at her in the prison!”

“They will never get the opportunity,” Twilight said. “As soon as we think that Cobblestone is in danger, the ponies I’ve assigned to protect her will move and take on whatever threat it is.”

“And you’ll get your threat removed,” Serale said, “But I don’t recall traps ever working out well for the bait.”

Twilight looked her daughter in the eye. “Cobblestone will be protected. Just as well protected as you are, Serale. I know how much she means to you, and I promise I will never let anything happen to her. Understood?”

Serale looked away from her mother. “I understand,” she said.

The next thing she knew, her mother had drawn her into a warm embrace. “I know what you must think of me, Serale,” Twilight murmured, her voice suddenly wearied and sad, “And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry that I have to show you this part of me. I would like nothing more than to make sure you saw me as a mother, and not as a ruler. All I’m trying to do is keep you safe, Serale. That’s all.”

Cobblestone spat the bridle from her mouth as she stumbled into the cell she was to be kept in, the bar along the back of her neck disengaging with a “click”. Furious, she kicked the bridle back at the guards outside of her cell, the taste of old cloth and salt heavy on her tongue. If she could have, she would have whipped it at them with her magic, save for the fact that the walls of this place were lined with some sort of enchantment, one that prevented her from using any magic at all.

The cell itself was spacious enough, four plain white walls and a single window made of incredibly thick glass, from which she could see the courtyard she had arrived in an hour ago, and some of the city beyond. If she were to crane her neck, she would have been able to see a bit of the river, but she was currently preoccupied with the guards outside of her cell.

“And I hope you choke on that, you mangy, flea-ridden, limp-horned excuses for pack mules!” she shouted.

The guards, dressed in neutral green uniforms, looked at the bridle before one of them glared at her disapprovingly.

“Calm down, Cobblestone,” he said, eyes flicking up to the horn she had called “limp”. “We’re here to help you, and we can’t do our jobs if you’re going to be violent like that.”

Cobblestone chose to say nothing, instead snarling at the two guards as she turned away from the wide open space between her and the hallway. She expected to hear the clang of bars or the crash of a door, but instead, all that came was a gentle, almost soothing hum. She glanced back over her shoulder, noticing that the forms of the guards were now slightly blurry, as if she was viewing them through a mild heat haze.

“Your counselor will be along in a moment to speak with you,” the other guard said. “In the meantime, I suggest you relax and get acquainted with your new surroundings. You’ll be here for a while, so it can’t hurt to get familiar.”

Cobblestone chose to say nothing, instead trotting to the window. It was a clear dismissal, and the two guards departed soon after she turned away. She stared out of the window, trying to calm the bubbling anger in her chest before she had another outburst.

The room did help her calm down, she had to admit. No sharp edges, no bright colors, nothing to set her off. She raised a hoof to one wall, and found it had some give, as if it were ever so lightly padded. She privately suspected it was. The room was devoid of clutter, save for a small desk set into one wall, a bed set into the opposite wall, and a small alcove with a door, which she opened to reveal a small water closet before shutting the damn thing again.

Cobblestone sat down on the bed, which was softer than it looked to be. She took a deep breath, calming herself as she looked out of the window and the light of the early afternoon. There, alone for the first time in a while, she thought about what had happened after the trial.

It wasn’t comforting. The courtroom had exploded into noise and derision after her sentence was handed down, with some ponies calling for her release, others calling for a more stringent punishment, and still others declaiming their own points of view and agendas, some of it directed at her, some at the Lady, and some at each other. Serale had drawn her into a close embrace as Cobblestone had sat, stunned, by the judgment that had been rendered.

“Hold on, Cobblestone,” Serale had murmured into her ear, “I’ll fix this. Just hold on.”

After that, she had been swept away by two guards, while another two grabbed Cobblestone roughly by the shoulders and began to hustle her down the length of the hallway. Ponies had formed a crowd by the door, and with the shock of the sentence, everything had dissolved into noise and motion and light and color. She had been hauled down one corridor into another corridor, her and the guards only. There had been a bridle, a restrictor ring, the pendant pulled from her neck. There was a transport carriage. There was a ride. There was a destination.

Then had come the inprocessing. The guards, the last remnants of the palace she had stood in not long ago, had departed. New ones, wearing uniforms of green, had taken hold of her, not roughly, but firmly. She had been guided into a building, had been checked for any smuggled items, anywhere she could have hidden them, a search that left her sore. She had been “bathed” with a hose that sprayed lukewarm, soapy water, soap that smelled of lye and almost burned her skin. A smock of paper-thin fabric was given to her, and she had put it on almost mechanically.

Then the guards had come, and she had gotten mad. She couldn’t do magic in here, true, but she was quick and sneaky and had almost gored one of them with her horn before they subdued her. She was not beaten, she wasn’t hurt, they merely held her down until she stopped struggling, not a word being spoken. The ring had come off; they explained that only certain ponies could use magic in this place, her new home. The bridle stayed in.

She had walked past cells, cells like the ones she had left behind in Crescent City, but different. The ponies in those cells had been dangerous, defiant, like they were wild animals waiting to be let free from their cages to hunt down their prey. These ones, the ones that were all around her age, they were…different. And not in a good way. Many of them seemed drained, sluggish, like all of the fight and spirit had been scooped out of them with a spoon, and dull, flavorless filling had replaced it. Worse still were the ones that smiled at her brightly, waving at a new guest as she was escorted to her own cell. Those were older, nearer to release than their counterparts. Perhaps they were nearing the end of this…process, whatever it was.

“Drab little place, isn’t it?” a mocking voice called from the corridor. “One wonders how these ponies haven’t gone completely insane.”

Cobblestone’s eyes widened, and her head whipped around to see a familiar shape standing in the light of the corridor outside of her room, distorted slightly from the strange energy near the edge of her still totally-open cell.

“Dis,” she breathed. She straightened, putting power into her voice. “Why are you here?”

The strange pony bowed, the rumpled fabric of his suit seeming to shift in unusual ways as he did so. “Why, I came to see an incarcerated friend!” he said cheerfully. “And to talk with you, perhaps try to cheer you up. I can assure you we won’t be bothered, the guards are somewhat…busy.”

There was a short, yelping cry from downstairs, and the rushing of hooves to investigate the commotion.

Cobblestone approached the edge of her cell. “I find it hard to believe that you came all of this way just to see me,” she said, “When you could be off doing…whatever it is you do.”

He smiled, the single fang in that grin gleaming pearly white as he stroked his goatee. “I suppose you’re right,” he said, “But I’m afraid you are what I do, Cobblestone. I find interesting ponies such as yourself, and trust me when I say that you are very, very interesting.”

Cobblestone swallowed nervously. There was something very predatory in that smile of his. “And what do you do when you find them?” she asked.

“Make their lives even more interesting, of course!” Dis replied. “Speaking of which, you haven’t disappointed at all. I have so enjoyed watching you try and keep your head above water all this time. Getting yourself thrown into jail was a masterstroke. I just had to come by and ask. What was it you planned on doing next?”

Cobblestone laid her ears back in warning. “If you’ve come here to mock me, I don’t have to take it from you,” she said.

“Actually, you do,” Dis replied with a gleam in his eye. “Seeing as you’re trapped in this cell and all.”

Cobblestone glared at him, and Dis did nothing to her but return her eye contact with an ever-widening smile.

“I suppose I can’t blame you much,” he said, “Considering what you’ve wandered into. Still, I expected a bit more from a smart little pawn like you. Perhaps you need a reminder as to what it is you were to watch out for?”

“You told me to watch out for ponies who wanted to use me in the Court,” Cobblestone said. “I did that.”

Dis shook his head. “Are you sure?” he said. “Because if I recall correctly, I told you that Twilight Everstar was infamous for plots and deception, and you still decided to put your trust in her for some strange reason, as well as putting trust in her daughter, who I can assure you has the potential to be just as dangerous as her mother, appearances to the contrary.”

“What are you saying? Cobblestone asked.

The stallion sighed, shaking his head. “I’m not telling, and you’ll find out soon enough. But as I have taken you under my arm in this, I came to give you a friendly reminder. You have options, Cobblestone.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you don’t have to ally yourself with the Everstars, or the Hederas, or even me,” Dis replied. “Especially not me. Consider that in the past few days, you’ve had offers from two very powerful houses seeking your allegiance. It was well-played, if I do say so myself. But alliances tend to come with strings, and you don’t seem the type to deal with them well.”

“You’re saying I should try to escape,” Cobblestone said.

“I’m suggesting you be…flexible,” the other pony replied. “To that end, I’ve brought along something that is supposed to be of help to you.”

Cobblestone caught something moving out of the corner of her eye, and nearly shouted in alarm when she saw Hob calmly melt out of a section of shadow on her wall just barely wide enough to hide him, though she was certain that he hadn’t been there a moment before.

“He seems to like you,” Dis said. “And he will like as not prove his worth to you many times over if you trust him. I wouldn’t, personally, as the wretched thing has a tendency to switch allegiances as he wants.”

Perhaps if I found a master worthy of my loyalty, I would remain with them, Hob replied smoothly. One has yet to appear.

Dis chuckled, an unpleasant sound like the call of a strangled seabird. “Fair enough,” he replied.

“Somehow I don’t think I’ll be allowed a pet,” Cobblestone said, “No matter how good my behavior is.”

Hob twitched an ear at her irritably. Do you really think me unable to hide myself when company is near?

“I’d keep him close. That beast knows what he’s talking about,” Dis said. “But I’d watch out for his previous owner. There’s one you don’t want to meet.”

Cobblestone frowned, looking down at Hob. “Previous owner?” she asked. She looked up. “What previous…owner?”

The hallway was deserted save for a few shadows, and Cobblestone shivered, suddenly glad that whatever was keeping her inside her cell was juxtaposed between her and that hallway.

“And you’re sure that she is not among their number?” Nightshade asked.

The Pegasus bent his head in regret. “We were careful to leave no trace of our presence, Sister,” he said. “She is not here in the city.”

Nightshade stopped herself from chewing on her lip in thought. “Very well,” she said, “Return to our place of rest and await my command there.”

“It shall be done, Sister,” the Pegasus replied.

Nightshade smiled at the glass. “And be sure to keep on guard,” she said, “The streets are dangerous now. Guards will be looking for us.”

“As you say, so shall it be.”

Nightshade cleared the dusty mirror in the back of the shop with a wave of her hoof, dispelling the farseeing spell cast upon it to link it to the one in her study. She stood silent for a moment, contemplating, before turning abruptly and exiting the back room of the shop, grabbing the staff on her way out.

“Did you receive any useful intelligence from our Brother?” the stallion in the jacket and tie asked.

Nightshade shook her head. “Unfortunately not,” she said, light glinting off of her sightless eyes. “I shall have to commune with Fate to inform her of our failure. Have the zebra brought up from the storeroom, and call an assembly of our brethren. We may have need of them.”

The stallion bowed. “It shall be done.”

Nightshade lifted him up with one hoof. “Come now, Brother. No obeisance is needed. Gather the followers.”

Orders dispatched, she returned to the back room, laying the staff not by the door, but in the far corner of the room, away from a small circle set into the floor. Each of her fellow leaders had their own ways of focusing, whether it was a crystal, or an isolation cell, or a circle like hers. The staff in the corner was another foci, which was why she needed it far away from her own corner.

“Mother?” she asked. “Are you there?”

The pressure was immediate and all-encompassing. I am, child. I see your brothers and sisters have not found the one we seek.

“No, Mother. We believe her to have fled the city, or perhaps she is in custody of the False One.”

Indeed she is, the voice continued, An agent of mine revealed her to me. She is in the place known as Starfall. A prisoner there, freshly incarcerated.

“It will be difficult to strike at her there,” Nightshade murmured. “She is sure to be watched.”

This servant of mine has already begun to set wheels in motion, in the hopes of bringing her to me. If all goes well, the young one will enter my service willingly, and soon enough.

Nightshade remained silent, waiting for her instructions.

However, I do not think that she will do so, Mother said. Therefore, I shall require your services once more, my most faithful of servants.

“I live to serve,” Nightshade replied, filled with ecstasy at the praise she had received and the thought of serving Fate further.

You are to go to the city of Starfall, and there find the one we seek. Find her, and bring her to my side. You will know what to do when you arrive.

Nightshade bowed her head. “We will leave immediately. I expect we shall arrive at Starfall in a matter of ten days or so.”

The pressure increased, stopping just short of becoming uncomfortable. Unacceptable. You must be swifter.

Nightshade grunted. “Of course,” she gasped, “What measures would you like me to take?”

She felt the pressure reach into her mind, reach in and twist something that she hadn’t known was there, and a memory rose to the forefront of her mind, a solution to her current problem. A slow, lazy grin spread across her face.

“How many would you like to be left?” she asked.

You may take all, save your companion. He requires none of the supplements you do. Go now. Waste no more time.

Nightshade felt the presence recede from her mind, going as swiftly as it had come. She felt a pang of hunger in her stomach, and felt a faint dizziness that she had not in a good long while. She called the staff to her, holding it to one side as she opened the door once more.

The stallion in the jacket and tie had completed his work with remarkable speed. Assembled in front of her were a good dozen ponies, in front of which stood the old zebra whose shop this had once been. Nightshade smiled at them all, a good sign if ever there was one.

“Though you have strayed from your paths,” she said, “Fate has decreed that you are worthy of continuing in your service to her. It is not your fault that your leader led you astray and abused her power, countermanding the wishes of Fate, and so you are being called upon to serve once more.”

“How may we serve, Sister?” a mare in the back called, her voice quivering with a fervent desire to please. “We shall undertake any task!”

Nightshade stepped forward, gesturing to the stallion in the jacket that he should step back. “Come forth!” she called. “Come forth, brave sister!”

The crowd parted to reveal a slightly tired-looking mare, on the heavier side but by no means rotund. Her eyes shone with feverish devotion, and Nightshade sensed in her a kindred spirit, one who was devoted as she was.

“What is your name?” she asked the mare.

“Serena,” she replied.

“Serena,” Nightshade said, “You and your brethren are to help me reach my next goal.”

And with that, she sunk her teeth into the mare’s throat, ripping it out as neatly as taking a bite of bread.

From the exterior of the shop, muffled shouts and screams of panic could be heard, a great disturbance rising into the air, muffled by the boards of the shop. Ponies walking by shuddered and kept walking, knowing that even if they called the law on the occupants of that shop, it would have made no difference. And besides, everypony knew who the real power was in this dried-up little part of town.

It was a short hour later that two ponies departed, one with a mouth stained with something wet and dark, galloping like the fires of perdition were licking at their hooves. They showed no signs of stopping or slowing as they passed through the gates of the city, their path taking them north and east, along the widest road. If asked about their destination, any pony along the path would have said they were headed straight for Starfall.

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