• Published 11th Sep 2017
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Midnight's Shadow: Succession Crisis - Ponibius

Midnight Sparkle is given a new assignment when the Count of Honeyfield dies without a heir. Her task of finding a heir is complicated as the estate’s residents plot for the late count’s estate—and more than the late count might be laid to rest

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Chapter 3

My thoughts whirled as I stared at Shining Quest’s corpse. I pushed aside my shock with a force of will as several screams sounded behind me. Drawing upon my learning and experience, I turned to Stalwart. “Keep everyone out of this room. I would not have the scene of this murder tainted by ponies wandering about and destroying evidence.” After a moment’s consideration, I added, “And do not allow anypony to leave either. Somepony might have seen something.”

The sergeant nodded. “Of course, Magus.” He turned in the doorway and set to it with seasoned efficiency.

That taken care of, I returned mine attention to the room, my horn lighting as I bathed the room in blue light, taking in the details one at a time: Glass from a broken window lay scattered about the floor. Tear marks in the carpet that worked their way from the window and towards Shining’s corpse. The furniture between Shining and the window had been knocked to the side. The corpse itself lying on the floor near the wall adjacent to the window.

I carefully approached the corpse and examined it with a spell. The cause of death was readily evident: her throat was a ruin, and had opened her heartsblood into a pool which stained the carpet. ‘Twas not a clean wound like one left by a slashing dagger, but a torn mess that must have been infinitely painful ere her swift and inevitable passing. The nearby furniture, walls, and floor had also been sprayed by blood when her throat had been opened up. Further examination showed additional wounds—a trio of light gashes adorned her side, along with other nonlethal smaller slashes and bruises. Neigh, Shining had been slain by a singular and terrible wound.

I stepped to the window, mindful of how the glass had fallen, and poked my head out into the night air. The room was on the second floor of the castle, and I saw no one outside. The full moon lit the area, so either there was no one out there or they were well hidden amongst the shrubbery and apiaries surrounding the castle.

Looking down, something of note caught mine eyes. A magical globe of light illuminated a series of gashes along the stone walls. It was difficult to tell from my vantage point, but it seemed they made their way straight up the castle wall.

Before I could consider what to do next, a cry of anguish sounded from behind me. “Shining!”

I turned to see Shining’s patron, Coin Count, trying to break his way past Stalwart. While Coin’s efforts were frantic and desperate, Stalwart was the larger pony and a warrior besides. “Shining!” he called out once again. “What happened to her?!”

Seeing that the merchant was bound to hurt himself if he kept trying to force himself past Stalwart, I turned to address him and the other ponies gathered by the doorway. “Shining Quest is dead,” I informed them.

Coin jerked as though struck and ceased his struggle with my bodyguard. “What? N-no, it cannot be. Let me see her!” He pushed against Stalwart with renewed vigor, but the guardpony held him back.

“I cannot allow that,” I informed him. “I am investigating this murder and cannot have thee disrupt the scene of the crime.”

“You cannot prevent me from seeing my friend!” Coin exclaimed. “I will not believe she has passed until I have seen her myself!”

I worried I would need to use some spell to restrain Coin, but before I was forced to such action Captain Freezy Hail forced her way through the crowd along with a squad of the house guard. I wondered why it had taken them so long to arrive. Mayhaps Freezy had been far from the incident, or mayhaps not. ‘Twas too soon to say yet.

She nodded to a pair of the guards and motioned for them to assist Stalwart. “That is quite enough. Cease this display ere I am forced to toss you in the dungeon for the night.”

That took the fight out of Coin, his struggles ceased and his ears wilted. “But Shining...”

“She is gone,” I firmly told him. “Her throat was torn out, her life’s blood splattered all about the floor during her last desperate struggles to—”

Stalwart loudly cleared his throat. “Magus, I do not think he needs to hear the details of his friend’s death. Especially one so ... macabre.”

“Aye?” I looked to Coin, his face now so deathly pale that he seemed ready to faint away. Mayhaps Stalwart had a point. He usually had a better grasp than myself about giving this type of news to ponies, for whatever reason. “Very well then. My condolences, Coin Count, but I assure thee I am quite capable of identifying a corpse when I have seen one. I have seen many corpses during my life and possess magic to confirm when somepony has passed from this life. Shining is quite beyond anypony’s help now.”

Coin’s eyes widened as he stared at me “But, but—”

Freezy cut him off. “If the magus says there is nothing to be done, then the matter is settled.” Coin attempted to raise a further objection but Freezy firmly overrode him. “Coin, allow my fellow guards to take you to the parlor to absorb what has occurred.” She turned her gaze to the the crowd gathered. “That goes for the rest of you too. I will inform everypony what exactly has occurred after I have examined the room and made sure that the castle grounds are safe.”

The presence of a bloodied corpse naught but a few steps away from us firmly announced that the castle was far from safe. Especially if what I suspected about what had slain Shining was true. Still, while there was a murmur of discontent amongst the crowd they dispersed and allowed the guards to corrall them to the parlor.

After they had all departed, Freezy turned to the door and entered the room of the corpse. “I take it you have already looked around, Magus?” she asked, not bothering to look in my direction as she addressed me.

“Aye, I have already examined the room and the corpse,” I confirmed. “While I suspect I have seen everything of note, I still wish to go over the room more carefully.”

“Why?” Freezy’s gaze shifted from the corpse to the broken window. “It seems pretty obvious what happened: something came in through the window and then slew Shining. What more need be said?”

I raised my nose as I addressed the house guard captain. She was right that the creature which had slain Shining must have come in through the window, for the glass shards had fallen into the room rather than outside. Still, I did not appreciate her lack of attention to detail. “I desire to be thorough in mine investigation. There might be other clues that might escape a cursory glance, such as what had caused Shining’s sudden and agonizing death.”

Freezy narrowed her eyes. “And what have you discovered?”

“A great deal, if not as much as I desired.” I stepped over to Shining and pointed to her wounds. “Whatever manner of creature responsible used teeth and claws to slay her. It climbed up the side of the wall, its claws allowing it to gain purchase as it dug into the stone before breaking through the window, as thou noted. Shining had been surprised by the sudden onslaught, for she backed away from the beast with either herself or her attacker knocking over the furniture between the window and where she was slain. It probably pounced on her after it had cornered her and then drove her to the ground to do its grisly work. Her throat wound could only have been caused by a bite, and the slashes along her side show where the beast held her still while it delivered the coup de grace. That is a common method of slaying prey to many predators.”

Freezy frowned deeply. “And then it fled back from whence it came?” She stepped to the window, looking out it to see the moonlit landscape beyond.

I nodded. “Aye, likely so. There are blood drops leading from the corpse and to the window.”

“Then ‘tis likely some monster,” Freezy said, her wings twitching. “I can scarcely imagine anything else could do this.”

“‘Tis likely,” I agreed. “But there is something curious about this bloody business.”

Stalwart raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Look at the corpse.”

Freezy returned to look at Shining. “What about it? The killing wound is obvious. There is no mystery here.”

I shook my head. “I disagree. Tell me, why would a typical monster attack a pony in such a fashion?”

Stalwart frowned in contemplation. “Normally when a pony is attacked by a monster, ‘tis either because it is hungry or because the pony intruded upon its territory.”

“That is so, at least whenever ‘tis a monster that is purely driven by beastly urges. But look at Shining’s corpse.” I pointed at her belly. “Whatever attacked her did not tear open her belly and seek to consume her organs and their valuable nutrients. Neigh, the only major wound she suffered was the one to her neck. Whatever beast slew her must have been at least the size of a pony, and thus would not have been sated by that one bite. Not after all the effort it took to climb up the castle wall.”

Freezy pursed her lips as she digested this. “That is ... true. Though mayhaps ‘tis merely that the monster was scared off when the castle was stirred into action.”

“‘Tis possible, but I think it unlikely,” I said. “This creature was not so scared of ponies that it was dissuaded from attacking somepony in this castle, despite all the obvious signs of pony activity around here. Though pray tell, has there been news of any other incidents like this in Honeyfield or the surrounding communities?”

Freezy shook her head. “Nothing like this. We have had to deal with the odd manticore or timberwolf pack, but this is something quite different. I daresay that this will cause no small ruckus all throughout the countryside once word spreads.”

“No doubt,” I said. The murder of a self-described noblemare inside the home of one of the great houses of Equestria would cause no small stir, even if for no other reason than the unusual nature of the event. “So we can assume that rumor would have spread like wildfire if this had been occurring elsewhere. There would be a great outcry if some great beast was breaking down the doors of ponies and slaying the occupants therein, yet we have heard of is no such thing. With that in mind, I must assume that this is an isolated incident to just here in Castle Honeyfield.”

Freezy’s eyes narrowed. “What does that tell us? Is this creature targeting the castle specifically?”

I rubbed my chin as I considered the facts before me. There were still a great many unknowns, but there were truths coming to the surface in this mystery. “‘Tis possible the occupants of this castle were targeted, or mayhaps just Shining. ‘Twill be too soon to tell until we identify the monster or it attacks more ponies.”

Freezy’s wings snapped out. “I am not about to let this creature kill more ponies! I will rouse the full strength of the house guard, and we will run down and destroy this monster!”

I turned my head to the broken window and the darkness beyond. “I would advise ‘gainst that course of action. At least just yet.”

Freezy drew herself up to her full height and stalked over, her disdainful visage towering over me. “And why is that, Magus? If I say the guard is to go forth and seek battle, then they will do so.”

I narrowed mine eyes, not appreciating her attempts to intimidate me. “Mayhaps thou canst do so, but such a venture is unlikely succeed at this late hour. Likely ‘tis a nocturnal hunter we deal with, considering it ambushed Shining during the middle of the night. Not only will it be harder to find the beast in the darkness, but it will be at its strongest, while your soldiers will be weary and all but blind. Thy pegasi will lose many of their advantages if they try and follow this beast’s tracks.”

Freezy’s wings twitched. “That is perhaps true, but we must hunt this monster down ere it hurts anypony else.”

“That I wholeheartedly agree with,” I assured her. “But we must do so intelligently, lest we lose more ponies by squandering our advantages.”

“Then what do you propose?”

I considered what resources we had at our disposal. “We wait until the morn to seek this monster. Hopefully it will be asleep by then, and if we are lucky there will be a trail to follow to its lair. Failing that, my magic should suffice to discover it. Am I correct in assuming that Rumble’s hounds are trained to track?”

Freezy nodded. “Aye, they are.”

“Excellent.” I clapped my hooves together. “Then I recommend you have a patrol of thy ponies guard the castle throughout the night and ensure the beast does not linger nearby. I also suggest sending a squad of thy soldiers to Glazing to make whatever arrangements needed to safeguard the town from the predations of this beast.”

Freezy’s eyes narrowed. “Need I remind you that I am not under thy command? I answer only to House Honeyfield.”

“And House Honeyfield answers to Her Highness,” I countered, growing tired of the mare’s contrariness. “And I am an agent of Princess Celestia, and mine authority supersedes thine own. In case there is any ambiguity, I am taking charge of this investigation and I expect thy cooperation in both hunting down this monster and protecting the ponies of this county. Am I understood?”

Freezy visibly stiffened and when she spoke ‘twas through gritted teeth. “Aye.”

I nodded. “If thou hast any objections to mine instructions, raise them and I will heed, but elsewise do not squander time. Thou wilt do as I have said and more. I wish for thee to have a troop of thy best guards mustered at first light.”

“Will you be retiring for the night in until then, Magus?” Freezy asked with a deep scowl.

I shook my head. “I shall question everyone in the parlor. Mayhaps somepony saw or heard something that will be of aid.”

Stalwart was next to speak. “We should also make arrangements for Shining’s body.”

I frowned slightly. “Aye, see if a couple of servants can be roused to see to it that she is cared for as best as can be done.”

While there was little that could be done for the recently dead, there was still work to be done for the living.

Hours of interviewing the ponies in Honeyfield Castle proved to be a largely fruitless endeavor. The first pony whom had entered Shining’s room after her death had done so because she had heard a great ruckus shortly followed by a scream. She claimed she had seen nopony but Shining herself, already dead, and had been given such a fright that she had fled the room. Though the fact she had been found hiding within her own quarters with the door locked put some suspicion on her intentions to procure help.

Interviews with others yielded no better results. My growing frustration with the lack of success in finding out anything of value was only compounded by the ceaseless barrage of questions about what I knew. This was all the more annoying when I had already told everypony all I felt confident about telling them, namely that some monster had slain Shining Quest and that measures were being taken to deal with the matter. Apparently mine assurances had not been nearly enough to calm everypony gathered, and thus every imaginable detail had been demanded of me. The matter was not helped when Duke Blackwood demanded to know why I was bothering everypony with questions instead of going out and slaying the beast right that moment.

By the time I had grown exhausted with asking my questions and dealing them in kind, I had decided to return to my room. The whole experience made me far more sympathetic towards Mother, and I had a greater appreciation of her foul moods after dealing with so many ponies in such a manner. My patience had long been overstretched after being asked for the hundredth time what monster had attacked Shining.

I was quite weary by the time I was ready to retire. It had taken some convincing to make Stalwart go to bed instead of staying up until the morning. It had not been until I had assured him that I would cast alarm wards over my room that he finally relented. I wanted him to be at his best the next day. ‘Twould not do for my bodyguard to be dragging himself about in a half-dead state when there was a monster to slay.

Thus it was to my surprise and growing irritation to find Émeraude already in my quarters. She gave me a wry grin as she sat on my bed, one that I desperately wished to sink into. It had been a long day, and the next promised to be longer still, but I could hardly ignore one of my hosts. Especially when she occupied my bed.

Émeraude spoke as I entered, her tone bright and welcoming despite the late hour and what had occurred earlier in the night—or rather, earlier this morning. “Greetings, Magus Midnight. I hope you are not so eager to get to bed that you cannot speak with me for a time.”

I narrowed mine eyes and tried to keep the irritation out of my voice. “Not so eager that I would try and sleep in my bed while you lie in it.” Admittedly, I was curious why the fey was here in my quarters. I doubted she merely wished to exchange pleasantries after the night’s foul events.

Émeraude chuckled and stretched herself across the mattress, seemingly delighted at mine irritation. “I for one do not think that such an unpleasant idea.” Her eyes flicked over me as she kept up the wry smile of hers. “You are more than comely enough to entice me.”

I took a step back and felt my cheeks burn. “D-did you come merely to try and seduce me?”

The fey hummed to herself and stroked her cheek. “Tempting, but neigh. First, there are other things to speak of.”

Regaining my mental balance, my eyebrow raised. “And what are those things?”

“Can you not guess? I can see the intelligence that sparkles behind your eyes, and I would hate to think that you do not use it.”

“I can guess, but that does not mean I would be right,” I said. “Still, ‘tis not hard to imagine that you wish to speak about the events surrounding Shining’s death.”

“That sounds like a reasonable guess,” she agreed with a nod.

“Indeed.” I examined her closely, trying to gain a measure of the fey—not an easy thing to do when many amongst the fey were natural deceivers. “Though I cannot help but note that you do not seem overly concerned about the death of one of your guests under your roof.”

Émeraude shrugged. “Mayhaps I have reasons not to.”

Taking a stab at Émeraude’s behavior, I asked, “Such as the fact that Shining came under your roof under false pretenses?”

Émeraude’s smile widened. “You have uncovered the truth already?”

I sighed and took off my cloak, placing it on a nearby hook against the wall. “A truth I would have discovered far quicker if you had told me she was an imposter at the start. ‘Tis within your domain to tell who is and is not of your blood, aye?”

She nodded. “Your knowledge is of course what one should expect of a magus. But alas, you know the rules of the fey: I cannot simply give what I know so readily.” Something twinkled behind her eyes. “Not without an equal exchange.”

“And knowing Shining was not a true member of House Honeyfield would have meant no small amount to me...”

“Indeed so.” Émeraude stretched and then climbed out of the bed. “It really can be irritating. Sometimes even a fey just want to come out and say something, but we are shackled by our natures.”

“Of course, you are not telling me anything I do not already know,” I pointed out.

“And thus what I am saying means nothing to you, and is hardly an exchange,” Émeraude agreed. “Still, sometimes reminders are useful.”

Sensing she desired something from me, I carefully reexamined our conversation. ‘Twas worth bearing in mind that the fey could not lie, though they could deceive in any number of ways. They could imply, misdirect, omit facts, state things in the form of questions, and avoid answering a question directly. I needed to be careful, for I might be wading into a dangerous game by talking with one of the sidhe.“There is something you wish to tell me, but you cannot just come out and say it?”

Émeraude’s smile became a feline grin that flashed her teeth. “I knew you were a sharp one. ‘Tis good to hear that you will be of use to me. I was beginning to worry.”

I pursed my lips. She wanted me to know something, but what? “Does this have something to do with Shining’s death?”

“Do you have another explanation for why I am here?” Émeraude asked as she walked past me and into the living room of the guest quarter.

“That is what most readily comes to mind,” I said, following after her. “Do you know what killed Shining?”

The fey turned to face me, and her yellow eyes seemed to glow in the darkened chamber. “What is that information worth to you?”

I felt a familiar hiss within the back of my mind. “Careful, Midnight. Thou walkst on thin ice,” Queen Corva said. “The slightest misstep with the fey can lead to disaster.”

“I am aware,” I thought back at her. “I am no fool.”

“But you are curious,” Corva shot back. “And she knows it. I can sense it in her, and her kind knows how to prey on mortal weaknesses. They crave to do so, for it is their nature.”

Warning in mind, I turned my full attention to Émeraude. “What is it you desire? All fey have their price.”

Émeraude tsked and shook her head. “‘Twill not be that easy, I am afraid. How much it is worth to you is tied into what I can sell it for.”

I let out a frustrated sigh. “A pity then coin is not something the fey normally cares about.”

“Some may, but I am not one of them,” Émeraude confirmed. “I live quite comfortably here, and wealth is not among my concerns.”

Thinking carefully, an idea struck me. “I am giving aid by hunting down a monster that has slain one of your guests. Is that not worth anything?”

Émeraude shook her head. “I am afraid not. As a magus, ‘tis your duty to seek out the guilty and deal with any monsters that threaten ponies, neigh?”

I frowned. “That is true, aye. So in other words, I cannot sell a service that I am already obligated by duty to give.”

Émeraude nodded. “Such is the burden of titles. ‘Twas a fine attempt, but sadly lacking. Though if you are having trouble coming up with a price...” She grinned and poked my belly. “You could always offer your firstborn. That would buy you a great number of answers you might desire.”

I blinked. “N-neigh! I will do no such thing!”

Émeraude covered her mouth as she chortled. “Come now, I would be able to give you much of what you desire to know. Mayhaps even more. If ‘tis foalbearing you are uncomfortable with I am sure we could make an arrangement. It has been quite some time since I have had a child in any event, and with your ... unique bloodline, ‘twould certainly be worth the discomforts.” She leaned in to whisper, her hot breath tickling my ear. “And the act to create the child would certainly be ... pleasurable.”

My cheeks burned as I took a step back away from her and vigorously shook my head. She was probably just teasing me at this point, or at least partially so, but her proposal still shook me. Especially over what it entailed. “I am not nearly ready to be a parent. Especially in such a ... mercenary manner.”

I could not even believe that I was discussing this! Aye, it was true the fey had a preoccupation with the children of ponies, for while a fey’s actions were dominated by their nature and an adult pony was less flexible, the minds of children are easily crafted towards their desires. But for her to be so forward about it...

Émeraude puckered her lips in a pout. “A pity, then. I really do think we could make it work. But if you are not interested, then you will need to find some manner by which to discover what you desire to know. For a great many things are happening around Honeyfield that you should know of.”

I frowned as I considered her. “You mean besides Shining’s death?”

“Come now, surely you see that matters involving the succession are highly irregular.” Émeraude lounged upon a nearby chair. “High Stakes’ sudden death, his significant debt, a stallion suddenly appearing and laying claim to his estate, a false claimant attempting to steal the county and break the Compact—need I go on?”

I lowered myself into a chair opposite her, feeling so fully comfortable after the long day I had experienced. ‘Twas a struggle to not just fall asleep right then and there. “I admit, I found myself facing quite the tangled web when I came to Honeyfield. I had only just begun to unravel it when this newest turn of events transpired.”

Émeraude’s eyes caught the moonlight. “Aye, and now Shining has been slain. Does that not make you curious about what else might be happening under the surface in Honeyfield?”

“Of course it does.” I suppressed a tired sigh as I rubbed my eyes. “But first I must make sure this monster does not kill again.”

“Understandable. Still, do not get so wrapped up in current events that you neglect the past. Especially ones that served as the catalyst for recent woes.”

I fought through my fatigue to try and think. Playing word games with a fey was not something I should attempt while tired. “What are you talking about? Where should I start with my investigations?”

Émeraude’s pointed ears twitched, and it was a few seconds before she answered. “What brought you to Honeyfield?”

“Her Highness sent me,” I said. “She wished for me to help her decide who should become the count. I have already said this.”

Émeraude grumbled something under her breath and rubbed the side of her temple. “What event brought you to Honeyfield?”

I frowned, my frustration growing. The truth was to be seen right out of the corner of my vision, but I could not bring myself to focus on it. “Count High Stake’s death. Why are you bringing that up? You said that he died of natural causes.”

Émeraude’s ears twitched again. “I said he was dying of disease. His health had been failing for some time.”

I crossed my legs over my chest as I carefully reviewed her words. “Are you saying he did not die naturally?”

She remained silent, but a smile slowly spread across her features.

Feeling I was on the right track, I pressed forward. “Somepony hastened his death then? Or caused his condition, even?”

“Those are your own words and not mine, Magus.” She shrugged. “If they are your own, and you decide to go into the family cryptand wish to examine High’s corpse because you have suspicions about his death, then I cannot stop you.”

“And where exactly are these catacombs?”

Émeraude stood up from her chair. “I could show you if you wish. There is little sense in allowing a guest go down to the dark crypt of my descendants all alone.”

A spark of worry lit within me. Going into the House Honeyfield crypt alone with Émeraude during the middle of the night had the potenital for many evils to befall me. There was the obvious possibility of being betrayed by my host, being eaten by some foul undead, or falling prey to some forgotten trap laid out by a paranoid and long-dead noble. Then of course there was the monster that had slain Shining to worry about. All were unpleasant deaths I would prefer to avoid.

Pity then that my curiosity had been sparked. Émeraude clearly wished for me to know something, and considering I did not wish to make a bargain with her my options were limited. I could wait until the morning to go to the crypt, but that time was already allocated to dealing with the monster. Who knew when next I would get an opportunity to take care of this, especially when Émeraude had come now of all times to approach me? More than likely that was not a coincidence.

In the end, I decided on my course of action. As Mother had instructed me, caution had its place, but there came a time for bold action. Still, there remained means by which I could lean the odds in my favor.

“You will of course protect me as your guest as you show me the crypt?” I asked. Her answer would tell me much. While a fey’s nature was often difficult to deal with, there were ways to take advantage of it.

Émeraude nodded. “But of course. How could I do elsewise?”

Deciding that answer was as good as I was going to get where my security was concerned, I got up and retrieved my cloak. “Then let us go.” I pulled a rejuvenation potion from my saddlebags and drank it, feeling renewed energy within my tired limbs. ‘Twas not as good as a good night’s rest, but it would have to do. Time was short.

‘Twas not long before Émeraude and I found ourselves before the House Honeyfield crypt. It was located a little ways from the castle, implying that the living residents of Honeyfield did not wish to be quite so close to their dead ancestors, as was the case with many ponies. Death was a specter most did not wish to be regularly reminded of, and while it could not be totally avoided, it could be ignored for a time. Hence why we assigned special places for the dead.

The existence of necromancy was another reason to keep the dead separate. Nopony wanted zombies or specters to rise up from under their home and devour the living.

The entrance to the crypt was an ornate thing, perhaps excessively so. Small statues of hounds, bees, and honeycombs outlined the doorframe. Based on certain parts of the statues being more sun-bleached than others, they must recently have been cleaned of the vines and moss that covered many of the gravestones surrounding the crypt in preparation for the late count’s funeral.

Given the circumstances, I thought it best to do what I could to ensure that I was not about to get myself killed. “I trust there are no undead within the crypt or other dangers I need worry about?”

Émeraude grinned. “None that I am aware of. The only undead down here is the ghost of my poor niece Ruby Horizon.”

I quirked an eyebrow. “And this spirit has not been dealt with?”

“She is relatively harmless.” Émeraude shrugged. “She has not attacked anypony and mostly keeps to herself unless sought. Some of her descendants and magi have attempted to put her to rest, but thus far none have been successful.” She turned her head to look at me. “If you wish, I could tell you her tale while we descend into the crypt. For a price, of course.”

“And that price?” I asked wearily.

“For you to answer a few questions relating to the tale,” she answered. “You need not reveal any of your secrets if ‘tis not your desire, but you must answer the questions honestly.”

I frowned as I considered the proposal. “And what would you gain from such an exchange? It sounds like a queer thing to suggest.”

“I am curious about how you think, Magus,” Émeraude answered. “‘Twill also pass the time while we walk, and I do hate being bored.”

This could be some sort of trap, but it seemed unlikely that I could be ensnared by some simple story. Naturally I would have to be careful in this, but I was curious as to why Émeraude wished to tell me this tale. The fey rarely did anything without reason, and I would learn nothing if I turned back now.

After careful thought, I nodded. “If I need not reveal any compromising secret, then I agree.”

A tingle ran up my spine and Émeraude’s eyes flashed, her features seemed all the more angular in the moonlight. “Then ‘tis a bargain. Follow me.”

We entered the crypt together. While pitch black inside, my darkvision spell allowed me to see as though we strode in daylight. The entrance to the crypt opened into a room dominated by a sarcophagus engraved with the relief of a stallion in platemail. A quick reading of a worn plaque revealed this to be the resting place of Count Steel Grace, founder of House Honeyfield.

I watched as Émeraude’s gaze drifted over her father’s sarcophagus. “So, I believe I bargained for a story?”

She nodded slowly, leading the way further into the crypt. “Aye, let me tell you the story of Ruby Horizon. Ruby had two older brothers, Jasper Sunrise and Azurite Dawn. Jasper, being the elder brother, became the Count of Honeyfield after their mother died of plague. Problems quickly manifested, as Jasper was ... ill-suited for the role. He used the county coffers to feed his pleasures, knew little of self-restraint, possessed a short temper and a boisterous demeanor that put him at odds with his neighbors, and held little interest in the necessities of governance. Soon the coffers were empty and Jasper found himself encircled by enemies. Even Honeyfield’s friends abandoned it.”

“A most precarious time in Honeyfield’s history, then,” I remarked. “‘Tis always foul times when a pony who ascends to a title of nobility does not have the talents for it. I take it this story will not be a happy one?”

“I am getting to all of that,” Émeraude said somberly. “But first I will ask my first question of you: what is to be done with such a pony? One who find himself in power but is poorly suited for the position?”

“That depends on whether I consider him a friend or an enemy,” I said. “Were he the latter, I would take advantage of his weaknesses to eliminate him.”

A slight, feline grin spread across her features as she lead me further into the crypt. “And if he were a friend?”

It took me a couple of moments to decide on an answer. “If mine ally were incapable of managing his affairs, then I would suggest gaining an advisor who could run his estate for him. Many a land has been well served by a capable second running the affairs of state for their sovereign.”

Émeraude leaned her head closer to mine, coming uncomfortably close as her voice dropped to a whisper. “Now I wonder whether that is your mother’s influence I hear, or your own thoughts? ‘Twould not be surprising you would think favorably of grand viziers, given your mother’s position.”

“‘Tis a matter of fact,” I argued, shifting a step away from her in the claustrophobic hallway. “I could recite a score or more of ponies who served as a second-in-command and left everyone better served. And aye, I would name Mother amongst them.”

Mother was far from the most beloved mare in Equestria, but she had served well as grand vizier and archmagus. She would hardly have held her titles for so long if she were not so capable. Especially when she often came under the royal displeasure. Princess Celestia was greatly aided by Mother’s help, and I would imagine that her help would be all the more badly needed under a less capable monarch. Granted, a corner of my mind wondered if Mother would not place greater weight on her ambitions if Equestria were not ruled by a benevolent and capable immortal ruler, but I quickly squashed the notion before it led in unfortunate directions.

Instead of arguing the point, Émeraude shifted her line of questions. “But I would ask this: what if the pony born to a title of nobility will not listen to wise council and instead led his land to disaster?”

My frown deepened at the much tricker question, for every answer I could think of had unhappy aspects to it. In such a scenario, there were two main answers I could come up with. The first was to do nothing, remain loyal to one’s ruler, and follow his commands while continuing to try to advise a wiser course. That was a problematic proposition, to say the least, and only seemed to invite misfortune. So that left the second solution.

“Then mayhaps that pony should be stripped of power,” I suggested. “Either formally or by a de facto reduction to a position of impotence.”

“A coup, then?” Émeraude raised her eyebrow in an amused look. “You would so readily unleash the chaos that comes with disrupting the normal process of succession? Surely you know of the discord that can cause. ‘Twas not that long ago that this land was ripped asunder because ponies questioned who should rule Equestria. A cure that does more harm than the disease is hardly a cure.”

I shook my head, knowing that this was a likely argument against my second proposal. “‘Tis not an option I would take lightly, for any means. For removing a rightful ruler or at the very least reducing them to a position of impotence can have dire consequences. The Lunar Rebellion is proof of that.”

Émeraude inclined her head in a slight nod. “You do not seem to be blind to the dangers, at least. Even when successful, a coup can have lasting consequences.”

“The fact that this land still suffers the ravages of the last war is proof of that,” I agreed.

“And so it was with my family.” Émeraude stopped before one of the sarcophagi lining the hallway and she placed a hoof on it, her features unreadable. The inscription revealed its owner as Jasper Sunrise. “Azurite argued repeatedly with his brother and how he ran their estate, saying that he was too free with the county’s money and readily made too many enemies, but Jasper ignored his warnings. Jasper was always a proud pony, and he did not like being told how to manage his affairs, insisting the younger brother should respect the elder. Then one of their arguments became too heated. Words became shoves, shoves became blows, and as both of their blood boiled, daggers were drawn. Ruby cried for them to stop, but it was already too late; the two of them tumbled down the stairs, and when they came to rest ‘twas Jasper who never arose again, a dagger plunged into his body.”

“Was it Jasper’s or Azurite’s blade which smote him?”

Émeraude turned her head stare from the corner of her glowing yellow eyes. “Does it matter, in the end?”

Sensing the question was more than rhetorical, I considered mine answer carefully. “Neigh. ‘Twas murder once steel was drawn.”

My fey host sighed and shook her head. “To this day, I am unsure who drew their dagger first. I only came ‘pon the scene after Jasper had been slain, and while Ruby had been there from the start she did not see who resorted to kinslaying.”

“A pitiful affair, then.” I could not imagine what the two younger siblings must have felt as they stared at the bleeding and slowly cooling corpse of their elder, partially because I did not have a sibling into whom to sink a dagger in an act of kinslaying. “How did everypony react to this evil that had befallen them?”

Émeraude spoke in barely above a whisper. “Azurite, in a panic, said that Jasper had fallen down the stairs and onto his own dagger. An accident, he said.”

“A poor attempt to cover up his misdeeds,” I declared. “It does not seems likely many would believe him, and you were certainly not fooled by the charade, much less the sister saw the whole ordeal.” No doubt the multiple stab wounds would have argued against the idea that a mere accident had happened, even before one considered that some of them would seem self-inflicted. ‘Tis rare that a knife fight does not result in both opponents receiving nasty wounds, whatever the ultimate outcome.

Émeraude shook her head. “Neigh, I was not—and ‘twould have surprised me if many of the servants of the castle were fooled either. But the thing was that Jasper had never been particularly loved by most of his servants, and they no doubt guessed the reasons for why he had been slain. Many felt equal or greater loyalty to Azurite, who had always been kind to them, whilst many still did not wish to run afoul of the new Count of Honeyfield. After all, a stallion who could slay his own kin could certainly end their lives if ‘twas the only way to preserve his own.”

That was often the way of things when it came to interactions between the strong and the weak. ‘Twas usually so much easier to say nothing and keep one’s head down during times of turmoil in the hopes the storm would abate rather than make oneself noticeable and subject to whatever wrath that might attract.

“But what of yourself?” I asked. “I doubt you were so easily cowed.”

Émeraude stared down at her slain nephew’s sarcophagus for a long moment before answering. “‘Tis not my role to determine the course of my house, magus. Neigh, it had been laid out before my very conception that I would advise my family, and aid and protect them, but never to rule them. My father did not wish for a fey to dominate his house, and took precautions ‘gainst that in the Compact.”

And now we saw the truth of it. Émeraude could not defy her very nature if ‘twas written upon her before her birth. “So you stood aside as Azurite became count, but what of Ruby?”

Émeraude’s head hung slightly as she moved deeper into the crypt. “At first she had been struck dumb by what she had seen. She had always been a gentle soul, and the sight of seeing one brother slay another was too much for her to absorb at first. Eventually, she knew enough to be horrified by the situation she found herself in: a kinslayer now ran her noble house.”

“And her course?” I asked, curious how this tale would end.

“I first would ask you a question.” Émeraude’s eyes narrowed as she turned her gaze back upon me. “What is more important? The harmony of the state, or justice?”

“I would think justice would aid in the harmony of the state,” I was quick to argue.

Émeraude shook her head. “We both know ‘tis not so simple. While justice is important for a ruler to pursue, to rule ablely sometime demands that the ruler act immorally. There are many times where a ruler must lie and deceive, quash rivals before they can be a threat, and seek the aid of important allies even when it demands actions they find distasteful. Tell me, how many times has your mother committed evil acts in the name of Equestria?”

‘Twas my turn to break eye contact with Émeraude. “More times than I know.” I knew that my mother was hardly a virtuous mare; she made passionate and well reasoned arguments for her less savory actions, but while many of them might have been necessary that was not to say they were good either. She had used a child as a bomb ‘gainst his warlock father, provoked duels to slay rivals, and had slain many less virulent foes both directly and indirectly, yet she was still grand vizier and an archmagus by the grace of her princess.

Émeraude nodded. “And for another example, was it just to destroy the earth ponies’ government? Near as I can tell, half of the earth ponies voted for and then fought for Celestia, and yet she disbanded their government at the end of the war. Was that justice?”

“‘Tis not so simple as justice or injustice,” I countered. “The earth ponies’ government was in shambles by the end of the war. The countryside was aflame as neighbor slew neighbor. It needed to be halted ere we had nothing but corpses to feed upon.”

“New elections could have been held,” Émeraude countered. “A friendly government established. ‘Twould have been more fair to the earth ponies than merely absorbing them into Unicornia, especially when so many had bled and died for Celestia’s cause.”

I shook my head. “That would have taken time, and had no guarantee of success. With madness that had infected the land ‘twas likely that another election would have been just as corrupted by fraud as the one that had started the war.”

“So you argue that the harmony of the state was more important than doing what was just?”

I frowned deeply. “Aye, at least in this case. Nopony was served by chaos, and only famine would have followed if the earth ponies’ internal war had continued.”

Émeraude’s eyes flash and a cool smile spread across her lips. “Then what of the dissolution of Pegasopolis?”

I felt myself stiffen despite myself. “That was a necessity if Equestria was ever to have peace.”

One of Émeraude’s eyebrows rose. “Is that so? A nation with thousands of years of proud history was destroyed for the indiscretion of a select few? All those centuries spent defending Equestria meant nothing after one war?”

I scowled at the fey, for I enjoyed not the subject of Pegasopolis. “Aye, for ‘tis a matter of survival for Equestria. If Pegasopolis had not been destroyed and the clans disbanded, there would have been another war within a generation. That I guarantee. Defeat at the hooves of shopkeepers, nobles, magi, and farmers would have wounded pegasi pride, and ‘twould be a wound they would never forgive. ‘Twould have been the height of foolishness to continue to depend on the clans for our defence. Another war could easily have lead to Unicornia’s defeat, and from there we would have been inflicted with a Pegasopolian hegemony that would have resulted in yet more civil war.”

“And what of the common pegasi?” Émeraude asked. “Many of them have been reduced to poverty in both body and spirit. Instead of being proud warriors they now push clouds under royal supervision, (1) work as messengers, or as mercenaries and house guards for lordlings. And those are often the fortunate ones.”

1. This time period saw the beginnings of the Weather Service, with weather pegasi under the close supervision of the Royal Guard. Though it would take a couple of centuries for a Weather Service that we could recognize today to form.

She did have something of a point. After the dissolution of the clans, the great mass of the pegasi had been left without a purpose. While some had skills that could be of use elsewhere in the economy, the majority were solely trained in the martial arts and knew not else but war. That resulted in a great many pegasi falling into poverty, for most did not even know how to use money, having always depended on unicorns and earth ponies to provide for their needs. Many pegasi had not done well for themselves since, and there were plenty of roving bands of pegasi bandits ravaging the countryside to this day. (2)

2. It is not known how many pegasi were involved in banditry immediately after the Lunar Rebellion, but estimates by historians range from the hundreds to well into the thousands. Large bands of bandits that ravaged the countryside and even took over whole groups of towns proved to be the first real test of Shadow Kicker’s reformed Royal Guard, and it took over a decade of bloody skirmishes and the events of the Morning Wars before the problem finally abated.

Still, I was resolute in my stance. “While the effects of some of the reforms after the Rebellion are unfortunate, they are a sad consequence of what needed to be done. The clans’ power needed to be utterly broken lest they rise again to threaten the Crown. In the end, most of those pegasi who have been harmed by my mother’s laws are also the ponies that would have served as the soldiers for a fresh war. The consequences of the laws that broke the clans have led to much unhappiness, that is true, but a war would cause a magnitude greater of evil. Once again I state: ‘twas necessary.”

“As you say, magus.” Émeraude shrugged uncaringly. “Azurite was of a similar mind, and once he became count he proved to be a capable master—even if he came to be count through evil means. He diligently saw to the affairs of his county and its people with both skill and intelligence,and soon made peace with his ruffled neighbors and returned the county to prosperity. Happy times had returned and the land was content. But Ruby was slow in stirring herself to action. Conflict was not in her nature, and she did not wish to quarrel with her brother, whatever scruples she possessed. At first she pleaded with her brother to step down as count and seek atonement for his evil act, but he rejected her pleas, saying that his county needed the strong hoof he could provide. ‘Twas some time before started her conspiracy to remove her brother.”

Émeraude stopped before another sarcophagus, the inscription to this one marking itself as belonging to Ruby Sunrise. “Seeing that she could not convince her brother to stand down, and not desiring her house to be stained by being ruled by a kinslayer, she sought conspirators with which to work with. She dared not go to the other noble houses or to the crown out of fear for how ‘twould undermine her own house. So she sought the aid of the house guard. But here she had chosen poorly. Azurite was always regular in his payment to his guards and saw to their needs, and soon one of those approached by Ruby revealed the conspiracy to his count.”

“I cannot imagine that Azurite took his sister’s betrayal well.” The wounds cut by betrayals tended to be the deepest, after all, and those done by family deeper still.

Shaking her head, she continued, “Neigh, even if his reaction was measured. He had guards loyal to him seize her and lock her within one of the castle towers, removed all her conspirators from positions of prominence within the county, and thus quashed the conspiracy in its infancy. But while Azurite was angered by his sister’s defiance, he still felt the guilt of his actions and did not wish to harm her. Thus, he kept her prisoner within the tower, and gave her every comfort circumstances allowed.”

‘Twas not hard to imagine where this solution to the coup would have problems. “A gilded cage is still a cage, and there was the problem about how long he intended to keep his own sister locked up. Sooner or later that would become the subject of all sorts of rumor and trouble.”

“That is indeed true,” Émeraude agreed. “Already rumors were spreading across the countryside that Azurite was a kinslayer, and his imprisonment of his sister did little to improve his reputation. Azurite pleaded with Ruby to drop the matter, and swore that he would set her free if she would but subject herself to silence about Jasper’s fate. But Ruby did not waver on getting justice for her fallen brother, instead insisting that Azurite should step down from his position and admit his crimes and throw himself at the mercy of the Royal Sisters.”

“Not much room for compromise then,” I observed. A prickling started at the base of my next and I felt ... something within the crypt. I could not determine what had set my senses on edge. This was something that did not sit well with me, for I am not easily disturbed, but something within this crypt left me uneasy.

Émeraude shook her head. “Neigh, it did not. I fear that they were both quite stubborn in this. Ruby sought justice, and came to dig in her heels on the matter. Azurite wished to see his house and county prosper, and he worried what would happen should the truth come out on what had happened to Jasper, both for himself and his house.”

“So what happened?” I asked. “It seems something of a stalemate of wills had occurred.”

“Aye, it became a protracted contest of wills.” Émeraude’s eyes lingered on Ruby’s sarcophagus. “But eventually something gave. Over time, Ruby’s confinement wore down her soul. Azurite always selected his sister’s captors so she could not turn them to her cause. No shining knight came to her rescue, or clever commoner with a plan to sneak her out, no war launched by queens or nobility to free her from her confinement as the years dragged on. It seemed she would never know freedom or justice.”

I frowned as it sounded like there would not be a happy ending to this story. “And what of you? Did you do nothing as this misfortune fell over your family?”

Émeraude’s head hanged and she did not meet my gaze. “Aye, many times. Mine attempts to negotiate between my niece and nephew failed, and Azurite could not be convinced to release his sister, for he felt the threat she posed to his rule was too great if she would not accept a geas. I offered Ruby her her freedom, to spend the remainder of her days running under the stars and moon, to hunt and feast, and for the sylvan forest to be her eternal home.”

I raised an eyebrow. “She did not accept being aided in her escape? But why? It would have given her the opportunity to do as she willed.”

The fey turned her head to looked at me out of the corner of her eyes. “Come now Magus, surely you can ascertain why?”

I scowled, the crypt growing colder as I considered the situation. “Because you cannot do anything not directly covered by your duties or for that which has not been bargained. That begs the question, what was your price for Ruby’s freedom?”

Émeraude’s features became more angular and the glow in her eyes grew. “That she give up her claim to Honeyfield and leave her home to come with me to my other home in the realm of the fey, never to return to this plane.”

“And demand she give up her quest for justice,” I reasoned. A spark of curiosity hit me, and I decided to pursue it. “Tell me, did you make a similar offer to Azurite to offer him a similar opportunity out of this conundrum?”

Before mine eyes, Émeraude’s features became more pony-like and the glow in her eyes faded. “Neigh. Honeyfield requires a pony of the blood of my father to maintain the Compact.”

My eyes narrowed as my suspicions grew. “But Ruby was also the blood of your father, neigh?”

“She was, aye,” Émeraude carefully answered.

I tilted my head and blinked slowly. That was most curious. She offered Ruby an opportunity to get out of her woeful situation, but did not do the same for Azurite, and I suspected there was a reason for that just below the surface. “And what of Jasper? Did he receive your offer of freedom as well?”

The corner of Émeraude’s mouth quirked. “He did indeed.”

“Curious. You offered an opportunity for freedom that would release them from the shackles of their station and duties, but not to Azurite.” I crossed my hooves over my chest. “I have to wonder why. Was it because he was the best suited to rule the county?”

“That sounds like a reasonable explanation,” Émeraude answered in an irritatingly mysterious way. Ponies accused magi of being obtuse, but I wondered if we could really compare to the fey.

Not wanting to spend the entire night in a gradually cooling crypt, I decided to push the conversation forward. “So if her brother would not relent, she could not escape, and she did not take your offer, what was left for her?”

“Not a happy ending, I am afraid.” Émeraude’s hoof lingered on the top of Ruby’s sarcophagus. Her ears wilted as she spoke somberly. “Time went on with no change to her condition. Freedom seemed further and further away, and all her plans for her future were ground into the dust. In time she lost hope, and where hope fades there can only be despair.”

“And hope is something every pony needs,” I responded. “‘Tis as essential as water. For what is there to look forward to if there is no hope in it?”

Émeraude nodded. “Indeed. And so Ruby took the only option she felt left to her. One day she threw herself from her tower window.” She grimaced and her hoof scraped against the sarcophagus’ top. “To predictable ends.”

“And I take it that is how the Ruby of today came to be?” There was a prickle on the back of my neck, and I turned my head to see what was behind me.

A translucent figure floated in the hallway, equine in shape but clearly not of the living world. The ghost of Ruby Horizon’s neck was twisted at an utterly unnatural angle, likely in the direction in which it had been broken in her final moment of life. The top of her head was cracked in as though struck by a mace, and blue ectoplasm continually dripped from the eternal wound. Her gaze was vacant, her eyes downcast a she looked at nothing. Most telling of all to me were her lips, which had been sewn together to leave her as silent in death as she had been in life.

Émeraude let out a long sigh at the spirit of her long dead niece. “She has haunted this crypt ever since her death. Sometimes she briefly returns to the castle, usually to the tower that was her prison, but that is all.”

“And she has attacked no one?” I eyes the ghost warily. Many such beings could be extremely dangerous if provoked, especially those who had died violently. Likely Ruby was a spirit with unfinished business, doomed to wander the earth until they were satisfied. A most pitiful existence, I imagined. ‘Twas not one I wished for myself.

Émeraude shook her head. “She has not. Ruby was quick to make her current condition evident to her brother, but even then she did not harm him.”

“And Azurite’s reaction to his sister’s undead state?”

“It caused him no small consternation.” Émeraude stepped to a nearby sarcophagus further into the crypt and studied it intently. “He felt no small guilt for what had happened to Ruby, and constantly questioned what he might have done differently to avoid the tragedy that had befallen his family.”

I nodded to Ruby’s spectre. “A little late to save his sister’s life. ‘Twould be far more productive to put that spirit to rest.”

“And that also plagued his thoughts.” Émeraude patted the lid of the sarcophagus to draw mine attention to it:

Count Azurite Dawn
Brother, Husband, Father, and Beloved Count
Ever Dutiful

“He feared calling on a magus to free Ruby from this existence,” Émeraude continued, “for a clever magus might have discovered his crimes and thus bring to ruin everything he had worked for. He did not wish for his children to know him as a kinslayer, and ‘twas no small worry how that knowledge might undermine his house. Already more than one pony suspected foul deeds after Jasper’s early death and Ruby’s suicide.”

“It does not sound like he had many options available to him if he could not seek outside assistance,” I pointed out. “At least if he did not have a capable and trusted magus within his household.”

Émeraude shook her head. “Neigh, such was not an option for him. Instead, he considered other ways he might pacify Ruby.”

“Blood for blood?” I asked. “His death in atonement might have broken the curse infecting his family.”

“Indeed so.” Something flashed behind Émeraude’s eyes, though I could not read her thoughts. “But that choice was taken from him. A gryphon incursion some years later drew his attention, and a lucky arrow brought an end to the story of these unfortunate siblings. Or at least, that phase of it.”

“It is not a happy story, I admit.” It made me wonder once again exactly why I was down here. Was she expecting something of me, trying to pry information from me, or some other unseen purpose?

“It is one of my family’s most woeful tragedies.” Émeraude turned to face me. “How would you judge my late nephew? Was he a victim of circumstances, a vile manipulator and plotter, or perhaps something else?”

I tilted my head as I considered what I had been told. “Without having known the pony, I would say he did the best he could given the circumstances. 'Tis unfortunate that his siblings would not be more cooperative towards him, but in the end he did what was best for the ponies of his county.”

A enigmatic smile spread across Émeraude’s lips. “So you think his kinslaying and other crimes are excused because he was a good ruler? Can a just rule be build on a foundation of evil?”

“'Tis mine experience that most every great house has skeletons built into its foundations,” I answered evenly. “Your sire slew many gryphons to gain the fame that made him a lord, led many ponies to their deaths, and no doubt made other compromises along the way. Your existence is proof of that. I would not excuse or ignore Azurite’s actions, but to be a leader means that necessary actions must be taken rather than wholly virtuous ones.”

“And what of Ruby?” Émeraude nodded her head to the ghost. “How would you judge her?”

“I am afraid my judgement will not be a kind one.” I shrugged. “She was a fool, if mayhaps a virtuous fool.”

Émeraude’s eyes narrowed. “And your reasoning?”

I blinked slowly as mine argument formed in my mind. “Because her actions were foolish or weak. If it was her intention to oppose her brother, she should have denounced him immediately ‘pon the death of Jasper whilst his blood was yet fresh upon Azurite’s hooves. This would have allowed her to play the stage of life to her advantage, and ‘twould have been simple to have her brother thrown down and disgraced. Instead, she wavered and took her time making a decision, and by the time she did so the window of opportunity had already passed. Bold action is needed during times of crisis, and instead she wasted her time on careful contemplation.”

“That is one way to argue it,” Émeraude said neutrally. “But the murder caught Ruby off guard. Who could not have brought herself to believe that one brother could bring himself to slay the other? Not all can react instantly to such shocking actions. What was she to do once the shock had worn off and the window of opportunity closed?”

I shrugged. “Either accept the new status quo or carefully plan his downfall.”

“Though she tried the latter and failed.”

I shook my head. “That is because she was not nearly careful enough. The ponies she courted were of mixed loyalties and had much to gain from betraying her, as one of her conspirators did. Neigh, a different course needed to be taken.” I rubbed my chin as I formed a scheme.

“If I were her and I was determined to see his end, I would consider seeking a favorable match—preferably to one of the great lords or ladies of Equestria. Once married, I would whisper into the ear of my spouse and denounce my brother. From there I would conspire with them. I would get them to join my cause either out of moral repugnance over Azurite’s actions or out of cynical practicality. Once the conspiracy was confirmed, I would wait for the right opportunity, such as a holiday.

“Visiting my brother, I would encourage the general merriment of the occasion. Then, once it was dark and everypony asleep due to food, drink, and the excitement of the day, I would strike. I would seize Azurite with my spouse’s house guard so as to behead any resistance, as well as disarm and capture Honeyfield’s guard to prevent them from causing trouble. With that done, ‘twould be a simple matter of securing the rest of the castle and then making my brother pay for his crimes. My spouse and I would then rule over Honeyfield, justice done. As my spouse's reward, our children would rule both their estates and Honeyfield, therefore strengthening both our houses with our union.”

Émeraude smiled widely as I finished the outline of how I might deal with the problem. “You are a most devious mare, Magus Midnight. I most approve.” Her eyes glittered as she stepped so close to me so that we nearly brushed up ‘gainst one another. “Mine appraisal of you has only risen. Know that my offer for a bargain back at the castle is still open, and you need not limit yourself merely to the affairs we deal with now. There is much I could tell or teach you of. More than you even realize. The benefits to both of us could be ... considerable.”

I instinctively took a step back as she purred her last word, my heart thumping hard in my chest as I was reminded that I was in very close proximity to a very comely creature. “I-I have been told t-that a crypt is no p-place for discussing such things.” Though besides practical issues of crypts typically possessing strange necromantic energies and the fact they were often havens for the undead, I did not understand why everypony else seemed so averse to such places. Even my wonderful collection of skulls seemed to upset a great many ponies that saw them.

Émeraude brushed aside a lock of my mane. “That is perhaps true. Besides, the hard stone of my family’s crypt is hardly the most comfortable of places for more ... intimate moments.” She smirked and brought her face closer to mine. “Still, ‘tis something to think over, is it not?”

My throat tightened as her lips came tantalizingly close to my own. “I-I think we can discuss this later after our p-present business is finished, and I have had a good night’s rest. Now is not the time to consider such ... permanent decisions. Also, your niece is watching.”

Émeraude blinked and took a step back from me, her eyes darting to Ruby’s misshapen ghost. “Mine apologies, it seems I have forgotten myself as passions overcame me. I had nearly forgotten what had drawn me down here.” She chuckled softly. “But there will be time for that later. I believe we were speaking of my poor Ruby before?”

“Aye that is so.” I cleared my throat, and tried to put more amorous thoughts aside. I was far too tired for these matters, but a magus perseveres despite fatigue. “Did not magi come to try and free Ruby from her mortal bonds?”

“Several magi have been hired over the years to attempt an exorcism, but none were successful,” Émeraude conceded. “They might have sent her away for a time, but she always came back.”

“And what methods did they use?” I asked, now curious about how this matter had gone on so long.

“The usual exorcism spells available to them.” Émeraude sighed and ran her hoof through her mane. “It seems that mere spellwork alone was not enough to deal with a ghost that had been around as long as she.”

I tilted my head as I carefully considered her words. “Did the magi that came to assist know of her story?”

Émeraude shook her head. “They knew some of the details, but not the complete story. By the time they came, Ruby’s story had long fallen into family myth. The generations immediately succeeding Ruby and Azurite were quick to forget the messy details, wishing to move beyond what was unpleasant to think about.”

“I see.” One of the greatest tools magi had at their disposal was knowledge, but a poorly informed magus could readily be hamstrung. “And no doubt they were wary of making a deal with you to find out more.”

Émeraude smirked. “They did not trust me for some reason, despite the fact that I cannot say a lie.”

A picture of the situation formed before me. “And I also doubt that the best of the magi of the time were sent to Honeyfield. Not when Ruby has not harmed anypony, and for the most part stays here within the crypt, which in turn rarely sees any use. Even then, if somepony visited during the day and brought with them some minor protections Ruby would probably not even make an appearance, so there would be little prestige to any magus that freed Ruby’s spirit from this world and thus little emphasis to deal with the matter.”

The fey nodded. “As well reasoned as always, Magus.”

There was always plenty of work to be done for any magus, and when there were so many dangerous monsters, spirits, and other dangers to Equestria, those magi who took to the field had plenty of work to occupy their time. A relatively harmless ghost would cause little cry from the countryside to be dealt with, and even those magi who typically dealt with the undead had more pressing subjects to deal with. If I had to guess, the magi who had come to Honeyfield were of no renown and of little skill, perhaps just magi passing through this county, and had been asked by the presiding count to see if they would exorcise its familial crypt. Having only heard sparse parts of the truth of Ruby’s unfortunate death, such a would-be exorcist would not have all the details that might have helped them, and thus thought more with their horn than their head.

But now I knew better, and a spark of inspiration struck me. “Émeraude, would you mind if I made a modification to Azurite’s sarcophagus? ‘Tis one I feel is necessary as a magus of Equestria.”

“If you feel ‘tis a matter of your duty, then I will not stop you.” Émeraude took a step back to leave me room to work.

“My thanks.” I stepped up to the resting place of the long dead count, Ruby floating in the corner of my vision as she watched me work. I bent down and with a spell I carefully turned precise lines of stone into mud, then scraped out that mud with my dagger.

Émeraude raised an eyebrow as she watched me intently. “And what are you doing?”

“Seeing to it that the truth is exposed.” I finished and stood up straight to examine my work. A final line had been added to the epitaph of Azurite’s sarcophagus that simply read as: Kinslayer. I drew myself up and made my words clear and concise. “Count Azurite Dawn, I, Magus Midnight, denounce thee kinslayer, slayer of thy brother, and unjust imprisoner of thy sister. I so declare, as a royal magus, that thy crimes will be known and condemned before all and thy memory damned for thy infamy.”

My words echoed off the stone of the crypt and soon faded into the oppressive darkness. But there was a change in the air after my words had been said. Where before there had been the continual feeling of being watched, there was now ... nothing. I turned my head to see that Ruby had vanished. There had been no final words, no mementos—just the silence of oblivion now that her brother’s crimes had finally been condemned.

Émeraude smiled, though ‘twas a bittersweet gesture. “Thank you, Magus. This unfortunate business has been unresolved for far too long.”

“It feels like too little too late.” I drew my cloak closer to me, a new sense of fatigue falling over me. “A few scratchings on a sarcophagus and a few empty words to the dead. Anypony they might have effected are long dead; there seems little justice in mine actions.”

“And would you have done any less?”

“No.” Mine eyes flicked to the strange guardian of the Honeyfield family. She had been central to her family’s history, and I suspected she had not told me all she had really known where this incident was concerned. What was I to think of her? She simultaneously manipulated and defended her family, moving them like pieces on a board and yet seeming to love each and every one of them. Mayhaps ‘twas merely part of her nature, to be amongst ponies but to have the nature of a fey. Was any of this her fault when she did not have true free will? What is more, what should be done with her? ‘Twas most disconcerting.

I decided to move onto other business for now. Endlessly questioning myself over philosophy was getting me nowhere. “If there is nothing else, please escort me to the late Count High Stakes’ resting place. The night grows long, and there is much that needs to be done in the morning.”

“But of course.” Émeraude turned to lead the way, seeming content with my exorcism of Ruby’s ghost. I could not help but think this had been one of her purposes for drawing me to this crypt. This fey struck me as too crafty for this to be a happenstance, and she would have reasons for Ruby to be put to rest after so much misery. Lesser magi had clearly not been up to the task, and she had probably seen an opportunity to have a more skill magus deal with the matter—all while leading me on to some other thing she desired me to see. As I had been warned, the schemes of the fey were not to be taken lightly, for they were as deep, confounding, and dangerous as the murky depths of the ocean.

Still, ‘twas not long before we arrived as Count High Stakes’ sarcophagus. There was a sense of newness to the sarcophagus, with it only having been recently carved by artisans and placed within the crypt. The craftsmareship was middling at best compared to others within the crypt. Whether that was because of the level of skill of the artisan hired or lack of funds, I did not know. Whatever the case, I was before my objective.

“May I remove the lid?” I asked. “I wish to examine the corpse.”

“You may.” Émeraude stood to the side. “Do you require assistance?”

“I am fine.” I did not wish to risk incurring some minor debt to the fey. The sarcophagus’ lid soon became enrapt in my magic, and I lifted it up with the scraping of stone against stone. Once I had lifted it high enough, I gently placed the lid to the side to keep it from being broken. That done, I stepped up to the sarcophagus to examine High Stakes.

The late count’s corpse was largely intact. The preservation magics had not yet dissipated in strength. Something that was a bit unusual, since there was little reason to put so much power in a spell.

“So tell me, Émeraude” I spoke. “Who cast the preservation spell? Was it you?”

The corners of Émeraude’s mouth smirked ever so slightly. “Now whyever would I do such a thing?”

Why indeed? It did not take me long to confirm that the magic preserving the corpse was no unicorn’s spell. Neigh, this was the queer magic of the fey. Still, I cast mine own preservation spell ‘pon the corpse to maintain it. I had a feeling that it was best to make sure that it did not decay anytime soon if Émeraude had gone through so much trouble.

That done, I carefully examined the corpse. Sadly, the late count’s skull was aesthetically unimpressive, and would sit poorly upon my shelf of skulls if I opted to claim it. A spell revealed no obvious wounds, though it was not one intended to study a corpse and took me some time to sift through the various warnings about all of the body’s organs having failed. This made it difficult to tell exactly what had killed the stallion, though I had been told that High had died suddenly during the night after having been on his death’s bed for some time. Thinking the matter over, I cast a new spell that was intended to detect a specific cause of death and I was rewarded with a quick answer.

“Ah, it seems that the count was poisoned. How interesting.”

Émeraude’s teeth flashed in an all too predatory smile.

Author's Note:

I'd like to thank my editors Chengar Qordath and Comma-Kazie, and my prereaders Trinary, Rodinga, Swiftest, Bronywriter, wolfstorm56, Stupidhand14, Alicorn Priest, and Poison Claw for all their help with putting this story together.