• 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 There Is Darkness And Light.

Nightshade took a deep breath of the night air, and her nose wrinkled.

“Something wrong?” her companion asked, adjusting his tie. He didn’t need to. He hadn’t broken a sweat the entire trip.

“Magic nearby. Powerful magic,” Nightshade said. “It reeks of new growth and apple blossoms.”

“Fae, then?” the stallion asked. “I would have thought that they couldn’t stand to be in the city for too long, what with all of the iron and coal smoke here.”

Nightshade shook her head vigorously, like a wolf trying to rid its snout of the stench of rotten meat. She sneezed twice, the second nearly knocking her mask askew. The action revealed a few knobbed patches of scars, which gleamed a wet white in the light of the winter moon. She re-adjusted her mask. “It matters not. We are concealed when the sun is down, she would not be able to sense us even if she wanted to, which I don’t think she does. She might be feeding.”

The stallion shrugged. “A big enough city. I would imagine there would be enough space for quite a few hunters, were they canny enough. “

Nightshade looked ahead, to the city walls. They had stopped at the last grove of trees before the city, which loomed large against the sky even from leagues away. Its size was deceptive, making it appear closer than it was. The great gates of the city were sealed shut, to open again come the morn, but they would surely make their own way into the city before the sun shone once more. The gates were only a short walk away, but they would not be using them this night.

Nightshade murmured a few brief words, the staff slung across her back unlimbering itself as a cloak woven from fabric black as the shadows themselves materialized, the cowl falling far over her face. She clutched at the staff and began to chant, low and guttural words that slithered and hissed from between her lips.

Though the shadow of the grove kept them in darkness, it was impossible not to notice the runes that began to light up on the haft of the staff, seemingly blacker than the black of night itself. They trickled down the length of the wood, spilling out onto the ground like maggots bursting from a corpse before wriggling into place around the stallion and the necromancer, encasing them in a circle of solid runes. Lines began to be drawn; rings inside of rings began to form as the spell took shape.

There was the whisper of unseen voices, the stench of sulfur, and the cold air of the night became bitter and freezing. The leaves of the trees wilted, withered, and died upon the branch. A dormouse that had attempted to scurry across the path seized and died, as did its family in their den and all of the other nearby life. There was a rush of black flame, a dull roar, and when at last the flames of perdition abated, the path was clear and barren. All that remained was a circle of frost, outlining perfectly the runes of the ritual. Soon, they too began to melt.

The shadows in the alley across from the Bluewater Reformation Center roiled and spat for a brief moment before two ponies walked out of them as calmly as two lovers out for a midnight stroll. Of course, they were not noticed. Nightshade bowed her head, going perfectly still, and reached out with her thoughts to touch those of her Mother.

We have arrived, she thought. Once I have the girl, what shall I do with her?

A rush of pleasure shot through her, and Nightshade gave a low moan. Mother was pleased.

Good, my child, the voice said. When you have found your way inside, be wary. There are powerful spells at work to limit the magic of those within. They should pose no issue for you, but be cautious all the same. Neutralize the mare, but do not kill or maim her. And do so swiftly. She is more of a threat than she appears to be.

To her credit, Nightshade didn’t scoff, or discount the advice Mother had given her. She simply nodded her head sharply to show that she understood.

When you have her, give her to your companion. He shall remain outside. You have another task after this. He shall take her to a safe place; he already knows its location. When you have either succeeded or failed, contact me.

Nightshade bowed. "I will not fail you, Mother. I swear it."

Impudent child, the voice in her head said, amused. Do not swear to promises you cannot keep.

The presence in her mind receded, the conversation with her mistress clearly at an end. Nightshade turned to the stallion in the jacket and tie.

“You wait here,” she said. “I must do this alone.”

The stallion said nothing, merely bowing his head and retreating into the shadows. Nightshade turned her back to him, and, drawing her cloak close about her, strode off into the night.

The gate in front of her was wrought iron, heavy and surely weighted with spells to keep those inside from breaking through. Nightshade stopped short in front of it, taking in the metal monstrosity in front of her. A deep breath in was released, and a cloud of steam poured from her mouth, far bigger than it should have been. The steam condensed on the cold iron and froze solid an area far larger than the mare.

Extending her hoof, she laid it upon the ice. With a solid shove and a sharp word, the iron gave way with a tortured shriek, splintering into bits that clattered on the cobblestones of the courtyard. She stepped through the portal, the shards of the gate ground to powder under her hooves. She smiled as she saw two lanterns approaching.

The two guards reaching for their pistols died with a wave of her hoof, slumping to the ground like puppets with cut strings. Quickly, because she had no desire to set off alarms, she dissolved one of the bodies, the dust spiraling up into a solid cloud of glowing sand. She inhaled deeply, pursing her lips, and the sand rushed down her throat. She shuddered, feeling the power of the guard’s soul inside of her before turning to the other one. He was deconstructed, his bones used to patch the hole in the gate and covered with a minor illusion to give the appearance of unbent iron. It would stand up to close scrutiny in all but the brightest light.

Not wanting to linger, Nightshade hurried across the courtyard, slinking from shadow to shadow towards the building in which the prisoners were kept. She reached the far wall just as a spotlight from one of the guard towers swept across the wide expanse, not thirty seconds after she had made it through the gate. She kept to the wall, following it to the next gate, the last one between her and the building.

A guardhouse was all that stood between her and the next courtyard. Her horn flashed, the staff sprung into life. She felt the mind of the guard inside, half-soft from exhaustion and a desire for sleep. It was child’s play to seize it, crush his independent thought, and force him to open the gate. His partner, confused and more alert, attempted to stop him. Her new thrall, seeing only an obstacle between him and his goal, killed him with a single blow to his head, caving in the bone of his skull and breaking one hoof in the process. That he then slumped to the floor, catatonic and twitching after she had used him mattered little to her.

Nightshade stepped through the gate, crossed through the little yard between the cell block and the wall, and with a quick murmur, unlocked the door behind which she could feel the object of her desire, quiescent in slumber. She stepped inside. With the door closed and locked behind her, silence returned to the courtyard. Only a little more than two minutes had passed.

Inside the hall, all was quiet and still. Nightshade found herself in a deserted dining hall, surrounded by low benches and only slightly higher tables. She sniffed, wincing at the sharp smell of antiseptic and bleach hanging heavy in the air. Her hoofbeats, quiet thought they were, echoed back at her doubled and redoubled off of the hard walls of the hall. A quick mutter, and she rose slightly off of the ground, gliding forward on a cushion of magic. Idly, she noted that it was indeed harder for her to call her magic here. She pushed on.

Through the doors she went, and she hissed in the sudden revelation of light, bright and blinding in the hallway. Her magic wavered, and it was only with a quick application of will that she lowered herself to the ground instead of falling. It had the added disadvantage of making her very noticeable to the two guards standing dumbfounded in the corridor.

What happened next was quick, loud, and spectacularly gory.

Nightshade’s horn flashed, the staff she carried made a negligent motion, and black fire roared from the ground, surrounding the two guards who had only just then placed hooves on their weapons. The magic in the air spread itself wide then, collecting in itself the scum of the prison, the detritus of many fragmented souls that had accumulated in its silent halls and quiet spaces since it had first been used to house the criminally insane nearly a hundred years prior. This collection of madness and murderous intent then turned on the closest targets, in this case, the two guards who were standing terrified in the center of the black fire.

Nothing could be seen of the creature that had been created by Nightshade, since her power had blown out the lights of the hallway, but the tortured screams of the guards were mercifully brief, though the sounds of crunching bones and rending flesh echoed for much longer than they should have. Nightshade cursed under her breath. She could destroy every guard in this wretched prison, given time, but there was every possibility that they would call for reinforcements from surrounding troops of soldiers, who would be much better armed and well-prepared for her.

Silently, she commanded the creature she had created to clear the corridor, and to kill anypony who set hoof in it that was not her or with her. The beast hissed its acceptance, and with a rush of air, it was gone, hurtling along the corridor in search of fresh new prey. Nightshade took the stairs two at a time. Speed was of the essence now, and she still needed time to escape this place herself.

The unicorn had long since surpassed the need for a heartbeat, but were she still so limited, it would have been racing fast. Not from the climb, or even from the feats of magic she had performed. It was not fear that sent a thrill for her. It was the excitement of the hunt, of seeing her quarry nearby and knowing that it would soon be hers. She bared her teeth in a snarl as she blew the last door from its hinges, and stepped into the cellblock, staff aflame with shadow. Behind her was the creature, fresh blood dripping from its maw.

Cobblestone woke with a start. There were hoofbeats in the hall, coupled with an odd, rhythmic thump, and the occasional tap.

“What was that?” she whispered.

Hob blinked muzzily, glancing up. I heard it too. A bang. The hoofbeats were getting closer.

He sniffed at the air, and his eyes widened. Cobblestone, he said, Hide. Now.

“Hide?” Cobblestone asked, confused. “What for?” The thud of whatever was accompanying the hoofbeats was shaking the cellblock. She could hear breaths too, heavy ones.

Hob hissed, his fur standing on end. She comes! he thought, his voice a roar in her head. Flee! Death comes for you!

Cobblestone cringed at the loudness in her head, rolled out of bed, made for her small water closet. The thuds stopped. So did the tapping and the hoofbeats. She turned, her eyes wide with terror.

There, standing in front of her cell, was a slender figure, cloaked all in black. A staff was clutched in one hoof, and behind her…Cobblestone felt her knees go weak. Behind her, towering at least ten feet in the air, was a thing, all glowing eyes and gleaming black claws surrounding a gaping knife-gash of a fanged mouth, in which could be seen the tattered green uniform of a guard and a few strings of fresh meat. Cobblestone’s eyes twinged and she realized that there was something subtly wrong about that thing. Whatever it was should not have been. It was massive, intimidating, and paled in comparison to the malevolent presence she felt standing before her, clutching the staff and regarding her from the hood of its cloak.

“Good evening,” the mare murmured, her voice low and musical. “You are Cobblestone, I presume?”

Cobblestone felt compelled to answer, even though her defenses were up. “Yes,” she said, her voice dull and speaking without her approval. “I am.”

The glint of white teeth appeared under the cowl in an expression that could not rightly be called a smile. She raised her staff, and the wall separating her from her quarry disappeared in a shower of sparks. She extended a hoof to her.

“Come with me. I have been sent to collect you.”

Cobblestone swallowed, her eyes darting left and right. Her skin tingled with fear. She spoke through a dry mouth.


The gleam of teeth vanished. The thing behind the cloaked pony began to emit a low, growling hum. “That was not a request. Come here, girl. Or it will be the worse for you.”

It was at this point that Cobblestone seized Hob in her magic and whipped the yowling cat towards her face, following him up with a charge.

The dark pony managed to duck Hob, whose claws and teeth were bared as her flew towards her, landing instead on the creature behind her. Immediately, the cat began to hiss and claw at the beast, who surprisingly enough actually gave a low grunt of pain and began to write under his claws. The pony in the cloak was not so lucky. Cobblestone landed in front of her, and with a neat pirouette, bucked her squarely in the jaw.

Her head flew back with a dull crunch and snap, her skull caved in by the blow and her neck snapped. She sank to the floor, the hood of her cloak falling away as she did so. Cobblestone turned her attention to the thing in front of her, and realized that her assistance would not be needed. Somehow, the mass of shadow and claws was fleeing the small black cat, whose fur stood on end, making him seem much bigger than he should have been. Cobblestone opened her mouth to scream for a guard, but her cries were cut off when the wood of the staff thudded into the back of her head.

Through eyes swimming with tears, Cobblestone watched as the cloaked pony dragged herself back to her hooves, head lolling obscenely on a broken neck. Her mouth was open, bared in a fierce scowl. Cobblestone got a glimpse of a mask, silver with the image of a great black bird stamped across it. With a sharp crack, her neck righted itself, and though her eyes gleamed sightlessly, Cobblestone could feel the gaze of the cloaked mare pinning her in place like an insect pierced by a needle.

“Fool,” the mare hissed, her breath suddenly visible in the air, “I would have treated you well, on my mistress’s orders. Now you will suffer.”

She thrust the staff at Cobblestone, and the young mare dove aside just as a bolt of black magic flew down the hall, cratering the wall it impacted with enough force that the whole building shook. Cobblestone, limited by the hallway, cast about her for a way out as she sprang to her hooves. Her horn flashed with the brightest light she could muster, and the mare in the cloak shrieked with pain as the light scorched her eyes, clutching at them with one hoof.

The flash proved enough for Cobblestone to see her next destination. There was a catwalk directly above the hallway for guards to patrol without disturbing the inhabitants of the cells, who were even now waking up and crying out, questioning the noise arising from the melee directly outside of the cells where they were held. Cobblestone gathered all of her strength, coiling like a spring, and launched herself at the nearest wall. Her front hooves connected just as she spun, allowing her back hooves to hit the wall behind her and lift her onto the catwalk.

She hit the edge hard, driving the breath from her, and scrabbled for purchase, just barely managing to drag herself onto the walkway. Picking a direction at random, she began to run. The decision probably saved her. The section of catwalk she had been standing on erupted in a haze of magic that obliterated the hardened metal entirely, leaving only the mage, standing on the edge of a conflagration of black and icy flame not ten feet away from her.

A length of railing, spinning through the air with a lethal whir, caught Cobblestone on the shoulder, knocking her almost off-balance. She caught herself just before she toppled over the railing. Realizing she had nowhere to run unless she wanted to present her back as a target, she spun around to face her attacker. Grabbing the length of railing with her magic, she brandished it in front of her like a club.

“You want me?” she shouted defiantly. “Then come and get me, you bitch!”

The cloaked pony growled, her staff swinging to point directly at Cobblestone’s head. Cobblestone grabbed the section of railing nearest her, vaulting over the side just as the bolt of shadow passed through the space where she had been. Swinging one-hoofed and using her own momentum, she grabbed ahold of the other railing with the same hoof, pulling herself back up onto the platform and swinging her makeshift club directly at the head of the mage.

It was only thanks to her unpredictability that Cobblestone managed to get in this second hit, and she wished she hadn’t. The bar shattered on the skull of the mage, and Cobblestone was left defenseless. Not one to give up on a task, Cobblestone swung her other hoof and punched the mage in the face. She might have well have been punching a statue for all the good it did her.

The mage smirked. “My turn,” she said quietly. Her horn flashed, black flame playing along its shattered length, and Cobblestone felt icy bands fasten about her throat, all but cutting off her flow of oxygen and burning her throat with their deadly chill. She felt the strength leaving her limbs, and was grateful for the fact that she was going numb when the mage brought her down hard onto the catwalk, the shock rattling her teeth and causing her vision to flicker. She rose into the air once more, the mage shaking her like a rag doll as Cobblestone gurgled helplessly, her vision dimming.

“Impudent wretch,” the mage hissed, “You hurt me. Me! The Blind Raven! The Witch of Shadows!”

Cobblestone began to feel very strange as the mage dropped her, half conscious, onto the catwalk. A pressure began to build up behind her horn, and she groaned with a dull, throbbing pain. Her vision blurred further, flickered, blackened.

She distantly felt herself rising into the air, like she was half-trapped in a dream, towed behind the mage like a balloon. She stopped struggling. What use would it do her? She was spent, finished. Even if she had access to more magic than it took to lift a piece of pipe, she was no match for the hooded mage. Cobblestone’s eyes closed, and she began to drift on lazy rolling waves of darkness, comforting and warm, unlike the freezing black this mage seemed to wield.

When Cobblestone’s eyes opened again, the world seemed to have changed profoundly.

All around her was blackness, a hundred shades of darkness that perfectly outlined her surroundings. Everything around her was black and more blackness, rising up above her far beyond the ceiling she knew should be there, but was not, because she could see the night sky, and the stars burning incandescent in a thousand colors, and a moon burning bright with all the colors of the rainbow and more. She looked down, shocked to see that she too appeared to burn with light in a shade that was all too familiar to her. It was teal, the same pale teal as her magic.

And it wasn’t just her. The cells below burned bright with light themselves in a dozen colors, reds and greens and blues and yellows and many more that pushed against the black, driving it back. Even the mare dragging her had magic, a dim and smoky red that looked to her like the last dying ember of a diseased fire. And Cobblestone instinctively knew what it was that she had to do.

Without knowing how, or why, or even what she was doing, she let the magic flow off of her skin, tendrils of blue skittering through the air to the flames below her, tying herself to them like ropes of energy. Up these ropes flowed riotous colors, colors matching those from the cells within. She knew without knowing how she knew that what she was calling upon were nothing less than the souls of those within the cells.

The first of the light hit her skin and she reeled, sensations and memories she had never known washing over her in a wave, the combined might of a dozen lifetimes bolstering her faltering ability. She breathed deeply, her skin seeming to glow with every color of the rainbow, and with an effort of will, broke the collar around her neck.

The mage swung around in shock, and Cobblestone noticed that though the rest of her was cloaked in shadow, her eyes burned with the same sullen red flame as the pulsing spark inside of her. Cobblestone said not a word, but instead lit her horn. The mage stepped back, her staff coming up to guard her, but it was too late.

Cobblestone let the energy flow from her horn, and suddenly the shadowy vision she had seen vanished, replaced only with the brightness of a storm’s fury, the smell of ozone, and the titanic roar of thunder. The bolt sped true, past the staff even now glowing with black magic, and impacted the mage square in the chest, knocking her tail over teakettle through the air, before she landed with a thud on the aisle below. Cobblestone swayed, incredibly weary, before sinking to her knees. The mage was dead, she had to be. Nopony could have survived a blow like that.

Of course, then the mage got up.

Even from a distance, Cobblestone could tell she was in pain, clutching at her chest where the bolt had struck, right above her heart. She was leaning upon the staff for support, and the hood had fallen from her head, leaving her face bare for her to see. The mask fell away from her face, and Cobblestone gasped. The upper half of her face wasn’t just burned, the flesh had been scorched away. Her skull could be seen, gleaming wetly in the light of the cellblock. Her two eyes, white and staring, focused on Cobblestone with cold determination, a lidless gaze that spoke of true evil.

“You will regret this,” she said, her voice calm. “You could have had in me a great ally, Cobblestone of Crescent City. Know this. I, Nightshade of the Crows, name you my enemy. Your days are numbered, child. Treasure them.”

The runes on her staff flared black but once more, and the mare disappeared in a flash of black flame, leaving behind only a mask stamped with the mark of a raven, whose hollow eyes gazed up at her balefully.

Well, that was certainly a spectacle, a voice in her head said dryly. Bravo.

Cobblestone turned her head to see Hob sitting on the walkway, his tail curled around him. His stomach bulged a bit, like he had just polished off an impressive meal.

“And what was all that?” she asked, indicating the corridor below. “What happened to that…thing?”

Hob’s tail twitched. I got rid of it. It won’t be bothering anypony anymore.

Cobblestone shook her head tiredly. “One of these days, we’ll need to have a serious talk about you.”

Assuming you live long enough to have it, Hob observed, walking over to her and curling up by her side. You have made a powerful enemy, Cobblestone. I would not relish facing her again.

“So you’ll be in the market for a new master, then?” Cobblestone asked drowsily. She could hear doors being thrown open, the shouts of guards coming to the cellblock.

Hob purred with amusement. I think not, he said, You’re finally starting to become interesting.

Nightshade gasped with pain as she directed the magic to heal what could be healed of her chest. The damnable bolt of light had not only shorted her magic, but it had seared the flesh surrounding her wound, making the process of healing more difficult by at least threefold. Blindly grasping, she at last turned her magic inward, leaning against the side of the alley where she was waiting with her companion, several blocks away from the prison.

Mother’s presence was immediate. You have failed me.

Nightshade sobbed with the pain of this acknowledgement of her shortcoming. “Yes,” she wept, “Yes, I have.”

I warned you to be careful. You have paid a grievous price for your lack of caution. The tendrils of Mother’s presence sank deep into her mind suddenly, like talons. Nightshade yelped with pain, her world obliterated by it. I should dispose of you here and now, Mother hissed, Let you return to the pauper’s grave where we found you, rotting away in the cold dark. Maybe you could be of some use to the maggots!

“Please!” Nightshade gasped desperately. “Not that! I would do anything! Please Mother, let me serve you!”

The tendrils withdrew a little. Anything, you say?

Nightshade was too exhausted for words. She merely nodded.

And you have born me good service in the past…very well. I did have another task for you, and I know that perhaps next time you encounter this mare you will not be so arrogant.

“Thank you,” Nightshade sobbed with relief, “Thank you.”

In a short while, there will be held a grand tourney at the Regia. A certain noblemare will be there, one of your Sisters.

“How would you have me aid her?”

I need that mare to gain the confidence of House Everstar, Mother said. So you will assist her in an illusion. Once your companion has repaired you, you will procure another mask for yourself. Wait for the day of the tourney. When it arrives, you will make an attempt on the life of Lady Hedera.

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