by Airstream

First published

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

Twilight Sparkle, known to all but the three Goddesses as Lady Everstar, the Evening Sage, has ruled over her kingdom for nearly five centuries with all the wisdom and grace of which she is capable. Her lands are wild and exciting, the prospects good for those with brilliant minds and daring hearts. But now something has changed in the Evening Kingdom, something has changed the balance of power so profoundly that even Twilight herself cannot tell how events may unfold.

Across the ocean, an ancient evil is stirring, its dark hunger can finally be realized. Its servants are many, brutal, and cunning. They are found among the lowest of lows, and the highest of highs. With the balance of power so disrupted, it is at last time for their shadowy plans to come to fruition, to cast off the darkness and strike against the night.

It will take the power of goddesses, magic both familiar and ancient, and the most unlikely of heroes to save not only the Evening Kingdom, not only Equestria, but the entirety of Creation as we know it.

Sequel to Lines and Webs and Dusk's Dangerous Game. Knowledge of the previous stories is not needed, but reading them is, of course, encouraged.

Followed by Courts of The Magi.


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Before the Evening, there were the Sun and the Other, and they existed as equals.

The Sun was of Order, and she desired to see all things grow and thrive, in their rightful place and time, and was as a mother watching her foals, a shepardess watching her flock. And she did set the firmament below, and demanded that the Aether from which she was born cease her spinning, and began to make the very first parts of Creation, and laid the foundations of the worlds.

The Other was of Chaos, and he was capricious and cruel and joyous in all things, and desired only the pleasure of change, and ruled as a king and beggar alike, taking his amusement from the confounding and comforting of those he encountered. And he did set the blackness of the night and the blueness of the day, and the spaces between all things were his domain, and each space was filled with the potential for change.

And they fought as brother and sister, and built and destroyed without ceasing, and there was born between them hatred and enmity. And the Aether saw this and knew it could continue no longer, and so from the formless mass came the Moon.

The Moon was of Balance, and she was desirous of the progression of Creation, and so she did set herself against her brother and sister, and in time, the foundations of the worlds and the spaces between were bounded by her will, and so began the first of the worlds.

And so it was that the worlds were created, and each was full of the firmament and the spaces between, and the Moon looked upon it and found it good, and called to her brother and sister, and in their own time, they too found it good.

And so it was that the Moon gathered to herself earth from her sister’s firmament, and called forth the mists of her brother’s realm, and set herself to creating forms with which to populate the worlds, and so she sculpted until she found the forms pleasing.

And so she took the forms to herself, and breathed upon them, and lo, such was her skill and power that they trembled and shook, and so life was brought to the worlds…

Taken from the Book of the Evening Star, Chapter One, Verses One through Eight.

The autumn air was crisp and chill as the three goddesses trotted up the steps of a castle both ancient and new. The Regia towered overhead, the four towers stretching toward the sky like grasping fingers, each of them reflecting shimmering light in the dying glow of the sun. Banners in white, purple, and red hung from each window, trailing in a slight breeze and lending an almost ragged air to the massive palace. The time was drawing closer to dusk, and it was then that the banners would be switched over to black until the sun rose once more, over a new and glorious dawn. There was a reason for the banners, a reason for the visitation of the Three. Today was a very special day. Today, for the sixth time in her life, Twilight Sparkle was going to die.

“Are you sure it’s six?” Cadance asked as they proceeded up the steps to the Great Hall, pointedly ignoring the guards standing at attention, rifles slung and bayonets gleaming. “I could have sworn it was seven.”

“It’s actually seven.” Celestia replied after a moment of thought. “Technically, this is the sixth time in her reign that she’s died, but the seventh overall.” The fact that she had been largely responsible for her once-student’s death remained politely unspoken.

Luna frowned in thought. “I do believe this is the only time we have all been asked to attend her wake.”

“Was there a wake? I thought we were the only ones arriving. No nobles, no Guild representatives, the palace is dark tonight.” Cadance noted.

“No guards, no entourages, no servants either. I admit feeling somewhat vulnerable knowing the Moonguard are waiting at the gate instead of by my side.” Luna admitted.

Celestia nodded in agreement. “It is highly unusual. Perhaps she has something up her sleeve?”

Cadance snorted. “How could she do anything to hurt us? She’s pushing one hundred, and we’re hardly going to let her gum us to death. Powerful as she is, she won’t risk using her magic here.”

“If anypony could come up with a way to trap us, it would be Twilight.” Celestia said. “For one as young as she is, she has proven to be a remarkably canny ruler.”

Her sister snorted as they began the long walk through the antechamber to the hall. She nodded kindly to a passing maid, who curtsied before the three rulers. “I think she means well. Relations between the Evening Court and Celestial Court have been cordial as of late, and I can think of no reason for her to attempt something now.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s important enough for all three of us to be summoned here to watch her die.” Cadance surmised.

“Indeed it is.” A new voice confirmed, ringing throughout the hall.

The voice belonged to an old mare, dressed in a simple shift of black fabric and wearing a circlet of tarnished bronze. Her face was deeply lined, expressing good cheer and vast knowledge both, and her tricolored mane had mostly gone grey. Beneath the fabric of her clothing, a light flickered and guttered like a candle in the wind. Her violet eyes, still sharp and clear as a hawk, peered at them through a pair of spectacles perched precariously on her nose.

The three goddesses bowed their heads respectfully, the mare before them returning the gesture.

“Celestia, Luna, Cadance, I’m glad you came.” She said. “Forgive me for not rushing to meet you, these bones are getting old.”

“Lady Everstar.” Cadance replied, using the name the unicorn had taken for public use. “An honor, as always.”

The unicorn chuckled at that. “Come, let us proceed to my quarters. It is much more private there, and we will not be bothered.”

As the four walked, headed for one of the towers, Celestia attempted to strike up a conversation. “A marvelous night for a death, if you were to choose it. The banners looked particularly lovely.”

Everstar regarded her coolly. “I thought you might like them. I wanted to keep the tradition of one banner from each tower, but my advisors decided to surprise me this time around. And I agree, the weather is particularly good for fall. I’ll need to send my regards to Discord.”

“You know, if you employed a weather squad to keep the city clear, you’d have less trouble with the weather.” Cadance remarked, glancing out of a window over the dusty spires of the city below.

“That doesn’t work here, as you well know.” Everstar replied gently. “The clouds go where they will, and the weather rarely responds well to prodding. Honestly, I’m amazed you and Celestia are able to keep things as clear as you do.”

“All it takes is a bit of cooperation and concerted effort.” Celestia said. “With ponies working in harmony, things move rather swiftly.”

“I’m sure.” The unicorn said dryly. “Well, I’m sure you’re all wondering why I called you here today.”

The three Alicorns nodded in concert. The question had been bandied about excessively since they had met at the entrance to the inner city an hour ago.

The mage’s eyes sparkled and gleamed with ill-contained excitement. In that moment, she was not Everstar, she was Twilight Sparkle once more, and the look she wore would have been familiar to those who knew her fondness for experimentation.

“I’ve been working on something in secret for the better part of a year. Nopony knows about it, nopony has a clue that I’ve been focusing my energies on this, all for a reason.”

Luna nodded thoughtfully. “I did notice a lack of sleep on your part. You’ve been using magic to keep yourself awake?”

“Abusing it. Maliciously.” Twilight corrected her as they stopped before a nondescript patch of wall. She tapped several stones in quick succession and pressed on the hard stone, causing a section of wall to swing open on silent hinges. “Quickly, come in.”

The three Alicorns filed in nervously as the door swung shut behind them. Their horns lit up as Twilight took the lead. “I’ve ordered this tower cleared for safety reasons, which is perfectly true. However, it’s also a great way to ensure privacy.”

“The whole tower?” Celestia asked.

Twilight nodded. “The whole tower. You’ve seen what it looks like when my Flame finally goes out. Things get a bit dicey.” She halted for a moment, her hoof hovering over the flickering light in her chest as she bent slightly.

“Are you alright?” Cadance asked, concerned for her. She bent down to examine the elderly unicorn. “Here, let me see.”

Twilight waved her away “It’s nothing. An old heart, old lungs, rheumatism, arthritis, it all adds up. Working down here has been murder. Besides, I’m dying tonight. Any magic used to relieve my symptoms would be a waste.” She straightened, her bones crackling and popping. “Come. We’ll need to go down below the castle for this, so it’s a bit of a walk.”

The passage angled downward steeply, roughly hewn stone lining the walls and floor and ceiling. There were no branching passages, no sconces for torches or magelights, just a straight corridor that went below the towers of the Regia, down and down and down again until the foundations of the palace were left far behind. The walk was made in silence save for the echo of shod hooves and the rasping breaths of Twilight Sparkle. More than once she stopped, clutching at her chest. No help was given or requested.

As they descended, each of the goddesses became aware of a slight pulse to the air, which resolved itself into a steady beat that was both familiar and maddeningly mysterious. A glimmer of light was seen at the end of this tunnel.

The chill and damp in the air increased suddenly, and Twilight’s hooves picked up a bit as they neared their destination. With little warning, the corridor opened up into what could only be described as a vault. The top was lined with the same rough stone, a massive dome that stretched up almost above the light of their horns. A walkway several feet in diameter stretched around the walls, evenly made save for a platform which connected it to the passage they had just emerged from. Below that walkway lay a pit, from which the smell of wet earth and clay rose to meet them. Something in the mud below threw ribbons of light and shadow across the walls in sinuous patterns.

In the center of this platform stood a table, on which stood a loaf of bread and wheel of cheese, a bottle of wine, and a clock, from which the steady ticking noise spilled forth, filling the cavernous space with the steady beat of time. Twilight limped towards the table, producing cups from thin air as she did so.

“Please, come and join me. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a drink with an old nag?” she asked, eyeing the three Alicorns in turn.

Luna was the first to stride forward, accepting a glass of wine graciously. “What is this place? The atmosphere here seems…familiar.” she queried, her voice hushed.

“The foundations of the castle, unless I miss my guess.” Celestia said, walking forward with Cadance by her side and joining them all at the table. “And unless I am very wrong, this is the area in which the ley lines beneath the castle converge.”

Twilight said nothing, choosing to sip at her wine.

Cadance asked the next question. “So why are you choosing to die here?”

Twilight snickered. “Refreshingly open way to ask that. It’s because of what’s in that pit. This project is what I’m choosing to die for. Or rather, the end result.”

“I don’t follow, I’m afraid.” Celestia said.

Twilight nodded. “Over the years, I’ve had lovers and mages alike grow very close to me, and as a result, there have been some…incidents.”

Luna, who had been sipping at her glass, choked. Cadance’s eyes grew wide, and Celestia froze, her body extremely still. If what Twilight was insinuating was true, then the object she had in that pit was rare and powerful, worth its weight in gold a hundred times over and filled with enough potential energy to perform some amazing magic.

“I had some issues with using crystal to contain the energies, but with enough time and effort, the Jeweler’s Guild was able to supply me with a useable sample of metastable carbon allotrope.” Twilight said, glancing over to the pit where her prize was kept.

Luna blinked. “Metastable…?”

“Diamonds, Aunt Luna.” Cadance said. “She used a diamond to hold the energy.”

“Something similar to that, yes.” Twilight said brightly, blinking dimly and pausing to cough. “Apologies. My time is swiftly drawing to a close, so I must be brief. In fact, I believe the sun is set to go down in a little less than ten minutes.”

Celestia waved a hoof. “It will set when I tell it to set, not before. If you want more time, I can certainly afford it to you.”

The elderly mare chuckled. “I think I’ve had quite enough of being old for now. But I suppose you’re wondering why I have a gem containing a fragment of my soul in that pit, and what I intend to do with it. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing whether my efforts will be rewarded or not. This is why I asked all of you here. It was not to trap you or launch some scheme against you. It’s quite the opposite, actually.” She paused to rasp out another cough.

“I need you three here to contain the energy from my death. I believe that taking the energy into myself will increase my power by some margin, but I cannot be sure. I don’t know what will happen, but I know that my demise will be…spectacular.”

The clock chimed softly, and Twilight’s ears perked up. “That’s my cue. Please, tell me you will assist me in this.”

There was silence from the table. What Twilight was asking was no small feat. Each of them had seen the kind of magical power she could produce, and the thought of being trapped in a room with it did not appeal to the goddesses. And yet, there was an element of curiosity to the entire scenario, one that was extremely appealing. The many deaths of Twilight were constant, but they were definitely never boring.

“I will stay.” Luna said. “I would counsel caution, but I feel we are past this point.”

Cadance shrugged. “I honestly have no idea what could possibly come from this, but I admit a certain interest. I’ll assist you.”

Celestia was silent for a brief while, until the clock on the table chimed once more.

“Please, Celestia.” Twilight asked, her aged voice quavering. “As a favor? To me?”

Celestia sighed. “To protect those who would otherwise be hurt by your foolishness. And yourself. But I am owed an explanation when all is said and done.”

Twilight said nothing, instead choosing to give a quick, jerky nod before her horn lit up and she vanished into the darkness of the pit.

The interior of the hole in the ground, for that is what it was, was damp with groundwater and slick with clay, causing the old mare to stumble briefly before catching herself. The clock chimed for a third and final time, the sound barely reaching into the pit, as Twilight reached her goal, a small wooden box inside of which a tiny stone lay.

It shimmered and sparked with power, as if it contained a small thunderstorm or bonfire, casting light in warm gold and breathtaking silver across the earthen walls of its resting place and causing shadows to veer wildly across the ground, writhing like serpents up the sloped sides of the pit and coiling up into the black of the ceiling.

Twilight fumbled for her shift, casting it to the side and baring her chest as she labored for breath. The crystal embedded there, gleaming in the shape of a six pointed star and flickering with a scarlet and violet flame all its own, guttered and went out for the briefest of moments. The strength went out of her knees, and the mare pitched forward, barely managing to drape herself over the box. Her chest heaved, and her eyes rolled back in her head. Though she wasn’t aware of it, Twilight Sparkle was suffering a minor stroke.

The crystal in her chest flared again, mauve light throwing her prone form into sharp relief before it went out for a second time. The mud around her steamed and spat with a sudden outpouring of heat, and she groaned in pain, clutching at her chest. Again it flared, flickering once before going out. The light returned, beating with the failing heart of its host in short, staccato patterns, faster and faster flaring in and out the light growing dimmer even as the beats became near-constant. Tendrils of flame began to eat through her coat, little violet and crimson candle flames erupting over her body as Twilight Sparkle lay heaving in the mud, dying her seventh death.

And just as suddenly as it had begun, the light stopped. The pit lay dark save for the light of the gem in its depths, obscured by the mare cradling it to her chest in her last moments. Dusk had fallen.

With a roar of power that echoed with the fire of a dragon and the rush of tides, light filled the pit, rising from the limp form of Twilight Sparkle as the silhouette of her broken shell rose into the air, sparks dripping from her hide as the magic of Creation, of life itself filled the pit below. The gem, made of the hardest substance known, was obliterated in an instant, the power it contained remaining strangely separate from the magic inhabiting the soul of Twilight Sparkle.

Cadance, Celestia, and Luna acted in concert, their horns lighting up in order to contain the massive amount of energy being released, funneling it back into the depths from whence it came. But it was not only this that they watched warily, checking for signs of weakness in their protective enchantments. Each of them felt it, the ley lines beneath them heaving and churning like they too were alive, pulsing with magic far greater than even they could hope to contain.

The scarlet fire and purple sparks of Twilight’s transformation met and clashed with the gold and silver mist that seemed to comprise the gem, and for a moment, each power looked like they would fly apart, too different to ever reconcile. But whether it was the fragment of Twilight’s soul trapped within it, or the ley exerting itself in some strange way, or sheer chance, there was a meeting of the magic, an acceptance between the two. Bits of clay rose into the air, blasted from the walls by the force of what had been unleashed, and it was around these that the light coalesced, gold and silver driving deep into the loam.

The outline of Twilight Sparkle’s body, miraculously preserved by magic, blurred and shifted, strange energies digging into it, stripping away old muscle and scars, clawing out the ravages of age and replacing what had once been old with the vigor and life of youth. Though she was not conscious, the shrinking mare’s eyes were wide and staring, and her limbs jerked and twitched with increasing strength.

The three goddesses were tiring quickly, their shields barely holding any of this in check, though they knew they must keep their stances steady in order to prevent destruction of an even greater scope and magnitude from occurring. The heat and light were unbearable even to their immortal eyes, and the winds of time and space themselves threatened to knock them down, and all would be lost. Valiantly, they struggled to keep this force contained, teeth gritted, shoulders hunched, wings spread in defiance of the spectacle before them.

Finally, when it seemed as though no more could be endured, the light began to fade to darkness, the gale dwindling to a wind and then a breeze, the heat replaced once more by the cold of the underground.

“Twilight?” Celestia called. “Twilight, are you alright?”

A high pitched voice answered her dazedly from the bottom of the pit. “Celestia, Luna, Cadance. Come down here…I need you.”

Without a thought, they hurled themselves into the pit, plummeting perhaps a hundred feet down before spreading their wings and catching their falls. The light of three horns filled the dark, revealing a huddled form resting in the mud, breathing heavily from her exertions. Three forms stepped forward, ready to render aid if necessary. And all three forms stopped short upon hearing the quiet cry of an infant.

Twilight Sparkle, once more young, looked up at them all, her eyes filled with wonder and joy. “Come and see. She’s beautiful.” And with that, she turned to her three peers, cradling a newborn filly to her chest.

Her coat was grey, a silvery grey so pale as to be almost white, gleaming pearlescent in the dim light of the pit, and her warm purple eyes were open and inquisitive, taking in the world. These were framed by a shock of short golden hair, down-soft and promising curls later in life. But it was her horn that gave them all pause. It should have matched her coat, or failing that her mane, but it matched neither of those things. Instead, her horn was clear, the clear of glass. Or a diamond.

“She looks like…” Cadance began.

Twilight nodded. “Yes. Tarantella. My first wife.”

Luna was stock still, realizing what had occurred. “Twilight…you made her. Out of clay and magic came a child.”

Twilight looked at them all. “I suppose I did, at that.” She smiled, exhausted. “Certainly unexpected. But not entirely unwelcome.”

“Are you going to keep her?” Celestia asked gently. “Do you want to?”

Twilight drew the child closer to her chest without realizing it, hunching over as if to protect her. Celestia backed away. “Alright, then. I was only asking.”

The unicorn sighed. “I have lived for four hundred and fifty years after I should have died, Celestia. I’ve been reborn six times, had wives and husbands both, and friends beyond counting. But I’ve never…I never thought I could…”

“Have a child of your own?” Celestia inquired.

Twilight nodded. “I’m going to keep her.”

“Have you thought of a name?” Cadance asked. “I know it’s sudden, but she should have one.”

Twilight was silent for a moment, lost in thought and the trusting eyes of her child. “She reminds me so much of Tara…I’ll use her mother’s language for her. What about…Serale?”

“Serale?” Luna asked.

Twilight nodded, slowly at first, but more emphatically the longer she thought on it. “Serale. It means evening. What do you think?”

Cadance smiled. “Serale is a lovely name.”

Celestia concurred. “As lovely as she is.”

Tilting her head, Luna studied the child. “A good fit, I think.”

Celestia’s horn lit up. “Might I give her a blessing? I know it’s tradition to wait until she is a year old, but it feels…right.”

Twilight studied her closely, looking at Celestia for any hint of deception before nodding once, presenting her foal to her.

Celestia touched her horn to that of the foal. “I bless you with beauty and grace. May the sun shine brightly for you always.”

Luna stepped forward as well, lighting her horn and repeating the gesture. “And I bless you with intelligence and curiosity. May you always find wonder in the space between the stars.”

Not to be outdone, Cadance also gave a blessing. “May your heart be as warm and loving as the dawn, and your affections always returned.”

Twilight bowed her head gratefully, and the godmothers of the foal did likewise. They stood there in respectful silence for a long while, and it was only at the chime of the clock did they turn and make their weary ascent to the world above. Four had gone down, but five returned. For better or worse, what they had all witnessed down in the shadows changed things. It would be a longer while still until they knew just how mighty and profound that change would be.

In Which We Travel Forward

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Fifteen Years Later

“C’mon, Cob!” the teenaged filly whined, stamping her hooves against the cold. “Would you pick your mark and make the lift?”

“Hush, Ivy.” the elder of the two said, ears erect and eyes darting amongst the crowd. A chill breeze whistled through the alleyway, causing a strand of filthy brown hair to fall in front of her eyes. Cobblestone shivered as icy fingers picked their way through her coat, the off-white stained with dirt, tar, and other things best left unmentioned. The ragged cloak on her back did little to ward away the oncoming winter, but she drew it close anyway. It was better than nothing, which was what her unfortunate companion was wearing.

Ivy frowned, rolling her eyes and trying to stay silent. It didn’t last long. “I’m freezing, tired, hungry, and I’ve been out all night without any warm clothes. All you need is one more lift, Cob. You don’t have to steal Everstar’s bucking crown, just cut a purse and have done with it!”

Cob backed into the rail-thin filly, pushing her partner back as a constable strolled by the alley, wings tightly folded to keep him warm, though he wore the thick woolen coat of burgundy red that they all did this time of year. A nightstick swung by his side, stun runes gleaming in the early morning light. Both shrank into the shadows instinctively at the sight of this. Constables could be nasty if you looked wrong. The older mare glared at Ivy.

“Shut up, stay here, and be ready to move when I get back. I found my mark, but it might get hairy before all is said and done.” She winked at her charge, dispelling any lingering fears. “Better safe than sorry, eya?”

“Oyeh.” Ivy confirmed, an amused smirk on her face. She enjoyed watching Cobblestone work more than almost anything.

And with that, Cobblestone slunk out of the alley, trailing behind a group of ponies about her age, though considerably warmer and better-off than she. Doing her best to look like she belonged without alerting the group they had picked up a passenger, she trailed them down the road, looking for the older stallion she had spotted just moments ago. Smiling brightly at the constable, who nodded in return, Cob melted into the crowd, approaching the unicorn in a roundabout way, eyes firmly avoiding the purse dangling from his belt.

He was well groomed, likely either a minor noble or in the service of one himself, and wore an embroidered vest of deep green and gold under a thick cloak of the same green as his vest. It was a bit patchy, but very well broken in, and Cobblestone knew that she wanted it as soon as she saw it.

She enjoyed robbing unicorns the most, largely because of the challenge they presented for her. Her magic wasn’t exactly what most would call well-developed, but there were a few things she excelled at, among them very small and subtle spells that were hard to notice under the right conditions. This one had the confident air of somepony used to power, and lots of it. This more often than not translated to a substantial payoff when she robbed them blind.

Moving with the currents of the crowd, she drifted closer and closer to her target, who was preoccupied with a stall of pastries and the pretty mare selling them. The smell made her stomach growl, but Cobblestone shook her head to ward off the pangs of hunger. Seeing her opening, she took it.

“Whoa!” she cried, careening into the stallion and sending them both head over hooves. She watched with interest as he grabbed at his pouch, making sure it was still there as they hit the ground. Clearly, this had happened to him before. They landed in a heap, tangled up as both of them tried to arrest their sudden descent to the ground to no avail. In the blink of an eye, both hit the ground, breath whooshing out of their chests. Cobblestone scrambled to her hooves, apologizing profusely as she helped the stallion up.

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not usually this clumsy,” she said, wincing in pain as she dusted him off. “Somepony bumped into me, and I just got knocked off balance, is all. Are you alright?”

The stallion grumbled briefly before meeting her eyes. “Goodness, girl! Be more careful in the future! Keep your eyes open in these crowds, otherwise you’ll get hurt!”

Cobblestone nodded emphatically as the stallion continued, taking her in.

“And who are you with, anyway? You can’t be more than fifteen; shouldn’t a young lady such as yourself have a chaperone? Dressed like that, you’ll catch your death of cold in no time! And land’s sakes, I can see your ribs! Doesn’t your family feed you?”

At this Cobblestone managed to summon up a few tears. They weren’t entirely fake, grit was in her eye and the collision had hurt. The hitch in her voice, though, was what sold it. “I-I’m sorry, sir. It were just an accident, is all. Please don’t be mad at me.”

The stallion’s eyes softened at that. “Where are your parents, miss?”

“Underground, sir.” Cob said, keeping her eyes averted. “Have been near on two years. Sister too, dead of pox. Don’t know why I didn’t go, but I’ve been living best I can.”

His eyes widened. “How old are you? Don’t you have any relatives?”

The unicorn shook her head. “Me ma said something about an aunt here in Crescent City, but I can’t find her. None of the foals’ houses will take me either, they say I’m too old, rightly so sir. I’m fourteen.” That last part was true, the rest being about as false as a Changeling whorehouse.

The mare at the counter clucked in sympathy. “Poor dear, you’ve been alone all this time? How do you get by?”

“I’m apprenticed to a seamstress, miss, upriver a ways.” Cob said, waving eastward. “She does what she can, but it’s difficult to keep everypony fed, seeing as her husband’s run off and she’s eating for two, if you know what I mean.”

The stallion shook his head. “Shameful. Run off when he found out, did he?”

Cobblestone didn’t say a word, just keeping her head down and averting her eyes. “Miss Stitch sent me out to buy some bread and a few apples for dinner, said we’d have a nice breakfast before starting in on work today.” She reached back under her cloak, as if expecting to feel something there. Her eyes widened as she gasped. “My pouch! It’s gone!”

The stallion’s nostrils flared. “Unbelievable! So that’s why you were bumped into!”

Cobblestone managed to sob. “That was a week’s wages I lost! Miss Stitch will be so disappointed!” The tears came thick and fast now as her shoulders shook. “What am I going to tell her?”

Quick as a flash, the stallion was by her side, cradling her. “There, there. It’s alright. How much was in there?”

“A f-full three silvers!” Cob choked out. “We worked so h-h-hard for those! And I lost it!”

The stallion shushed her, taking off his own warm cloak and draping it over her. “Oh, don’t cry, dear! It’ll be alright! Here, look!” He took out his own purse, shaking it in front of her. “There are six silvers in there. I was just on my way to the bank to get more, you can have the whole pouch, and the cloak, too! It’s a bit old, but better than that thing you’re wearing.”

The mare selling pastries nodded, drawing out two of her breakfast pies and putting them in a bag for her. “And here you are, miss. These are fresh baked, perfect for breakfast. On the house for your Miss Stitch and yourself.”

Cobblestone sniffed, shaking as she took in what was offered to her. “D-do you mean it? Both of you?”

They both nodded. “It’s only right.” the stallion said, smiling at her. “But you should hurry home. There might be more thieves around here who would love to have that money pouch. Go right back, don’t stop for anything except a constable, alright?”

The young mare threw her hooves around his neck, squeezing tightly. “Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is wonderful!”

The greying stallion patted her on the back awkwardly. “It’s quite alright, dear. Hurry on home now,” he said, pulling away. “And good luck to you!”

“And you, sir!” Cobblestone said, backing away. “Thank you so much!”

She wove back through the crowd towards her alley, vanishing from his sight behind a large group of workers carrying barrels through the market crowd. Smiling to herself, she felt the heft of the pouch in her grasp and the warmth of the pastries in her hooves. Slipping into the alleyway, she sat down beside an astounded Ivy.

“You’re a regular artist, Cob.” she said, admiration in her voice. “That was beautiful.”

“I love the helpful ones,” Cobblestone replied, sliding out the pastries and passing one over. “They’re so eager to give over what they have that I hardly ever need to pick them. She withdrew from the lining of her older cloak a pocket watch, swiped from the stallion’s vest pocket when they had collided. “That plus the silvers makes it a good haul for me.” She undid the clasp of her ragged old article of clothing, allowing it to drop to the side.

Ivy looked at her strangely. “You’re giving me this?”

Cob shrugged. “Sure. I’ll sew my pockets into this one later on tonight, since we’ve got tonight off. You need it more than I do. In the future, though, steal some warm clothes.” She withdrew the other pastry from the bag with her magic, holding it up to her mouth and getting ready to take a bite before the nausea hit.

She groaned, lowering the warm pie as she felt the familiar urges rising up again. Her stomach weakly heaved and her vision blurred, pulse pounding in her ears, before she forced everything back down. The pie went back in the bag, to be saved for later. “Damn,” she said. “I was looking forward to having that warm.”

“How long has it been?” Ivy asked. “Since you last hit the Den?”

Cob thought. “About a day, I think. It’s getting worse and worse.” Her stomach did another flip, and her face turned faintly green. “Looks like I know what I’m doing tonight.”

Ivy shook her head. “You should at least try to make an effort to get off of that stuff, Cob. It’ll kill you if you’re on for too long.”

“I can stop whenever. Right now, it’s what keeps me from ripping off Chip’s head.” Cob growled. “Just because I’m fourteen doesn’t mean I’ll be heading into one of his Parlours to keep some old stallion warm at night, and hang the pay, too.”

Ivy said nothing, perhaps wisely. They sat there for only a moment before the great clock near the docks began its chime.

“Shit, it’s seven already?” Cob said, shooting to her hooves. “We’re late!”

Ivy crammed the rest of the pie in her mouth, reaching for the burlap bag containing the haul for the night and scooping the pouch of silvers into it. Picking up the cloak as well, she slung it over her shoulder, quickly fastening the clasp.

Cobblestone rose, nearly stepping on the hem of the cloak, which was sized for a full-grown stallion, not her. She made a note to take it in a bit as she fastened it and they both broke into a run, heading for the sewers and the only path available to thieves, the Low Road.

Hooves clattered off of the stone walls of the Crescent City sewers as the two thieves rushed to keep their appointment with Chipped Bit, their benefactor, leader, and all around ass of a gang boss. Turns were made seemingly at random, shouted nonsensical words heard and accepted by unseen eyes, hidden markers obeyed with ease as they wove deeper and deeper into the damp tunnels, heading for the lair of thieves where they were late for tribute.

Soon enough, the rough stone and dark corners of the sewers gave way to flickering lanterns and unevenly cobbled floors. The duo slowed from a near-sprint into an almost disinterested trot as they approached the last checkpoint between them and their ultimate destination. Unfortunately for them, this last checkpoint contained a pony who was habitually difficult.

“Well, now!” the scrawny young Pegasus colt sneered, flipping a strand of greasy black mane out of his watery blue eyes. “If it isn’t Ivy, back from up top! And Cob, too. What’s the matter, Cob? You get lost up there? You’re near half an hour late for tribute.”

“Unlike you, Codger, some of us take pride in our work and pick our targets, thanks.” Cobblestone replied, wrinkling her nose in distaste. Codger’s piebald coat was covered in some strange, tight-fitting red fabric that was richly embroidered and stained with filth. “And what in Shadow’s name are you wearing? You look like a particularly ugly phoenix in that.”

Codger sniffed disdainfully. “Wouldn’t expect you to know. They’re in style up in the Evening Court. Red’s in, white’s out.”

“And you’re going to be in the Evening Court sometime soon, then?” Cob inquired sweetly. “Didn’t know they let scum like you in there.”

The barb hit deeper than it should have, and his face contorted. “You’re calling me scum? Look who’s talking? You’re already on Father’s bad side, and he’s grooming me to take control of this gang once things are said and done.” He moved in close, lowering his voice. “Face it, Cob. You’re slipping, and one day you’ll slip just a bit too far. Then it’s a Parlor for you, or out in the cold and filth.”

Cob remained perfectly still. While Codger was an annoying little toad, he did have his father’s ear. And like it or not, she worked for his father. “We’ll just have to see then, won’t we?”

Codger didn’t budge. “Either way, I’ll be sure to pay you a visit. If you end up in a whorehouse like I think you will, I’ll be sure to stop by and play. And if you choose to get out? Well then…” He smirked unpleasantly. “No gang to protect you, and nopony to hear you scream. I won’t even have to pay.”

That crossed a line. Cob’s horn sparked with static, and a short arc of lightning jumped from her horn, hitting Codger right between the eyes. This was followed up by a short step to the side, and a sharp kick into his gut. The breath left the Pegasus with a rush, and Codger collapsed on the ground, gasping for air.

“Thanks for letting me pass, Codger. You’re such a sweetheart.” Cob quipped, stepping over the wheezing miscreant. She turned to Ivy. “You saw that?”

The bony unicorn nodded once before joining her mentor. “He threatened you. I saw. Like Chip says, ‘Beating’s fine, rape’s over the line’.”

Cobblestone checked herself, making sure she looked at least halfway presentable and her partner did likewise, before she stepped to the door and knocked on it precisely four times. She waited only a moment before the door creaked open, and a rich, calming voice issued forth from the brightly lit chamber within.

“Cobblestone. Ivy. Please, come in.”

The duo did so, leaving the door to shut on Codger, who was just picking himself up as it clicked shut. The room they found themselves in was well-appointed, with colorfully painted walls depicting old battles, and numerous desks at which a small group of clerks sat, running figures reporting the income from all of the gang’s dealings in smuggling, robbery, thievery, and prostitution. Magelights hung from the ceiling, providing a gentle glow to the objects inside, and the room smelled of old herbs and smoke. But it was the farthest desk, and the stallion sitting on the large chair behind it, that commanded their attention.

Chipped Bit was a unicorn who had once possessed prodigious strength, working as a bodyguard for the last stallion who had run the West River Gang. He had done his job faithfully and well, until the untimely demise of his employer left a job opening at the very top of the ladder. Disappointed as he was by the death of his old boss, the then-young stallion had managed to seize power by the simple yet effective method of setting fire to his opponents’ rooms as they slept. If they managed to stumble from their beds, coughing and choking, they were easy enough to defeat and were offered a position in his ever growing organization. All accepted. Those who didn’t make it out had no choice to worry about.

Chipped Bit sighed as he regarded the two unicorns. “I’ll ask why you’re late later. Firstly, why did you feel the need to assault my son, Cobblestone?”

Chipped Bit never used the shortened version of Cob’s name, which somehow infuriated her to no end. Using her politest voice, she made her explanation short. “He threatened to rape me, sir.”

Ivy nodded. “I can vouch for that, sir!”

Chipped Bit’s eyes narrowed as his horn lit up, and Ivy slammed to the ground, pinned by magic. “You need to learn better manners, Ivy. Speak when spoken to, not before. When I want your side of things, I’ll let you up.”

“Sir, Codger’s been crossing lines that he shouldn’t be crossing. I realize that he has on a good face when you’re around, but he held me up for longer than necessary when we were already in a hurry to see you, and he makes life down in the hideout more difficult than it really needs to be, sir.”

“He is my son, and if you’re letting him get the better of you, then that’s your problem.” Chipped Bit replied. “You’re strong, Cobblestone. Clearly stronger than he is, if what I saw through the door was any indication. We respect strength here. Use it.”

Cob kept her face as straight as possible, trying not to betray the anger she felt at this last remark. “I can only stay awake for so long, sir. He’s got friends, lackeys of his own. I can’t keep my guard up all the time.”

Chipped Bit shook his head. “No, you can’t. So what does that tell you?”

Cob froze, unsure. Saying the wrong thing here could have disastrous consequences. Luckily, Chip kept talking.

“It tells you that sometimes, you have to knuckle under and accept that some things are going to go a certain way, like it or not. Like your honestly puzzling refusal to consider a Parlor position. You can’t keep thieving forever, and I can assure your life in a house will be much easier than it is out on the streets.”

Chip rested his two hooves together, looking at her over the steeple they created. “And like it or not, recently, you’ve been bringing in less and less. I don’t keep useless things, Cobblestone. You’ve got three options here. Improve yourself, leave the gang, or find a new line of work here. And besides…” he continued condescendingly, looking at her. “I can tell that one day you will be very beautiful. You could stand to make a lot of money by working a Parlor.”

Cobblestone’s face flushed red as she struggled to contain her indignant, impotent rage at this. Chipped Bit knew how to get under her skin, and speaking down to her was one of the best ways to do it. Coupled with his amorous insinuations and his suggestion that she just lie down and let things go how they were going, this was enough to push her to the edge of restraint.

Fortunately for her, he appeared not to notice. His magic disappeared, and Ivy got back to her hooves, panting slightly with exertion. Cob had been under that spell more than once, and she knew how much it hurt, like a ton of rock pressing down on you all over. He opened a drawer, withdrawing two small ledgers labeled with their names. Flicking through the pages, he arrived at their current contributions. Turning to Ivy, he began.

“Now, Ivy, your tithe for today is set at sixty five percent. Turn over what you got today.”

Ivy did so, placing a hooffull of coins, a small golden locket, and a silver brooch gleaming with a blue stone onto his desk. Chip nodded as he examined what she had brought.

“Well, the coins are good, and the locket’s gold, alright, but the stone in the brooch is paste. Easy enough mistake to avoid, have Cob teach you how to tell the difference. I know you might be new to this, and a fair bit older than most of our thieves, But you should have a head for this by this point.” His horn lit up, and he pushed a few of the coins back to her. “I’m keeping a few extra to make up the difference. Don’t let it happen again.”

Ivy bowed her head in thanks, saying nothing. She was nothing if not a quick learner.

Chipped Bit turned to Cobblestone next. “Yours is seventy five percent, Cobblestone. I’m adding an extra five as a penalty for assaulting Codger.” He saw Cob open her mouth to protest and held up a hoof in warning. “Don’t argue or I’m taking it to eighty.”

Cob’s mouth snapped shut, and without a word, she turned out the contents of the bag, what remained after Ivy had removed her take. The watch, six silvers, one golden solar, a horn ring, and a small bag of copper dust fell onto the table. The haul was impressive, but she knew the worst was yet to come.

Chip nodded. “Add a two silver penalty to cover expense at the Den, and you’re left with one silver, eight copper.” His horn lit up, and out of the desk rose eight copper coins and a small paper bearing his mark and some writing. “Consider your debt there fulfilled. Give this to Sugar Spoon.”

As the pair bowed and prepared to leave, he rose from his desk. “And Cobblestone?” he called, waiting on her to turn around. She did so. “If you really want to keep your job as it is, you’re going to need to do something impressive, and soon. Otherwise, I wouldn’t give you another month before you’ll need to make some very hard choices.”

Cobblestone felt the back of her neck heating up as she turned for the door. As she slammed it behind her, she could hear the quiet laughter of Chipped Bit echoing in her ears.

The ship resting in the bay of Crescent City was a beautiful thing. Her decks were freshly scrubbed, her sails snapped crisply in the breeze, each line was expertly coiled and stowed where it was no longer needed. Her decks were a rich reddish brown, and the royal pennants flew gaily from each topgallant mast. Her name was painted expertly on the side in clear, golden script, and the accommodations for her guests were as luxurious as could be expected, given the amount of space available. The ship had stopped at every major port from the Khanate in the north to the great port of Fillydelphia to Ashtar Sharestan in the south, hosting Gryphons and Minotaurs and Celestial Dignitaries alike. They had stopped in the ports of the Quilin, where their way had been lit by red paper lanterns, and the roofs had curved gently and invitingly, and the populace spoke with the voices of chimes. They had seen wonders enough to last a lifetime, the crew of the Royal Lady. And Serale wanted nothing more than to be off the ship.

“Patience, Serale.” Libra said, resting a light golden hoof on her shoulder. “We’ll be on shore within the hour.”

“I know, Libra.” Serale said, looking over the railing at the bustling city. “I just want to get to shore soon. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Crescent City, and I miss being home.”

Libra smiled. “I’m sure your mother will be most interested in what her daughter has seen and learned in her travels.”

“Will she be waiting for us?” the unicorn inquired. “On shore, that is?”

The mage shook her head gently, steel grey and brown mane blowing in a stiff breeze. “Unfortunately not. She is currently engaged with a delegation from Trottingham who are complaining about logging rights. They still want to cut north of the river.”

Serale sighed. “They really need to learn about bothering what’s left of the Everfree. Even I understand the dangers of disturbing it.”

“While I happen to agree with you, the ponies of Trottingham don’t really see it that way. They see resources, fuel for their economy, a continuation of a logging tradition that has lasted for four centuries at least.” Libra said, eyeing her young charge approvingly. Serale had proved herself to be an able politician already, playing the Court perfectly without being overly confident in herself. It almost made up for some of her other deficiencies.

“They know the spells to regrow lumber. Hire unicorns to come out and cast them and they could have all the trees they need to the south. The lumber guilds won’t do it, though, because that cuts into profits.” Serale was reciting this mostly from memory, her source of amusement having come from reading up on the state of her mother’s Kingdom from an early age. After all, she was to inherit some part of it someday. She idly smoothed out the front of her dress as she thought, eyes fixed on a point in the distance.

“They can’t log further west because that’s Changeling settlements, and they need the trees. North’s out already, east takes them into the Celestial Empire, and south is Hoofington’s territory.” she continued, thinking the problem over.

Libra nodded sedately. “Which means?”

“Mother will likely arrange for them to broker a deal with Hoofington. After all, they want those northern hills of theirs clear for coal mining, having exhausted the hills to their east, so it works to both parties’ advantage.”

The mage smiled. “An excellent observation. I think your mother would be proud.” A chime from the watch in her coat interrupted her. “Ah! Time for your tea, young miss.”

Serale grimaced. “Do I have to drink that stuff?”

Libra nodded solemnly, her horn lighting up as she summoned a steaming pot to her side. She had set it to brewing as they had left the cabin. It was the last thing her young mistress needed to do before heading into town. “Unfortunately, yes. It will help with the headaches, and if you take it for long enough, we should be seeing some results. It should improve your…condition.”

The mare grumbled unhappily. “Dragonroot tea is disgusting, and even more so plain. And you can stop dancing around the issue, Libra. I told you when we left Crescent City a year ago that you could say what was wrong with me out loud. Every pony on this boat knows it, and I know they won’t say a word.”

Libra sighed. She recognized the mutinous set of Serale’s lip, having seen it often while she met with the Solar delegation. “If I agree to do so while we are in harbor, will you drink your tea without complaint?”

Serale nodded. “But say it first.”

The mage sniffed. “Very well. Dragonroot tea will alleviate your headaches, give you greater energy, and if you take it long enough, your lack of magic has a very good chance of disappearing.”

With that, the young mare took the small clay cup full of tea offered her by her companion and protector, and without pausing to cool it down, drained it in a single gulp. If it burned, she gave no sign of it.

It was an odd case with Serale. Born of the most powerful magic to the most powerful mage ever known, great things were expected of her. Her birth had been wildly celebrated, rumors about her parentage had circulated among the populace, and well-wishers had appeared from all across Equestria to bring gifts to the child of Everstar. But as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months and the months to years, less and less was seen of Serale Everstar. The last time the nobility had seen her was at her fifth birthday party, and even then she spent most of her time away from the other fillies and colts, choosing to stay by her mother’s side.

Most unicorns had magic by the time they were five. Almost none were without it by age seven. To be unable to even sense magic, let alone use it, at age ten was unthinkable. Aside from her mother, there were a very few who knew of this condition of hers. Her mother, her hoof-picked, trusted maids, the court mage and alchemist Libra, the Witch of the Wood known as Radiant Zenith, and the three goddesses were the only souls who knew of her complete inability to use magic.

In the Court of her mother’s Kingdom, it wasn’t just a liability or an embarrassment, it was a death knell. She would never marry a prominent House, never garner respect from her peers, never be taken seriously in Court. She would be the strange cripple child of Lady Everstar, a blot on the illustrious history of her House.

And so, steps were taken. When other powerful children were sent to the Collegia Arcana to learn how to become mages and paladins and clerics and mentalists, she was taught privately by her mother and the court mage, “for the safety of others”. She never appeared in public, but began to use rumor to her advantage. It was thought that her magic was so powerful and subtle that it could not even be detected when she was using it, and that she somehow knew how to shield her power from detection. In the Court, she was an unknown quantity and therefore feared and respected. Of course, the requests for audiences had begun straight away after she turned thirteen, the accepted age for audiences with the Houses. And so, after two years had passed and she could deflect them no longer, Serale asked her mother’s blessing to travel and meet her fellow leaders, in order to familiarize herself with them. It was, of course, given.

“Milady Serale, we have the landing craft available for you if you wish to go ashore.” the first mate said, approaching her before stopping a respectful distance away and bowing his head. “We can take you in at your leisure, miss, and your effects have been sent ahead.”

“Bellweather, you’ve been wonderful.” Serale said, all grace and charm once more. “Give the Captain my regards, and tell him I hope to sail with him once more someday.”

“I am delighted to receive them, Miss.” another voice said from behind her, causing her to jump. It belonged to a rather handsome unicorn stallion who sported a mane of curly red hair and laughing green eyes. “It has been an honor and a privilege to sail with you.”

“You’re too kind, Captain.” Serale replied. “Until we meet again, then.”

“I look forward to it, Lady Serale.”

Serale turned, face composed, and offered a hoof to Libra, who took it gladly. “Shall we, then?” she asked, a hint of a blush on her cheeks.

It was not long after that the boat had left the ship, sending them into harbor under its own power, that Libra turned to her young charge. A grin spread across her face. “Still sweet on the Captain?”

“Libra!” Serale hissed, face bright red. “Not funny!”

“If you say so, ‘Lady Serale’. If you say so.”

In Which Bad Decisions Are Made

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The tunnels in use by the West River Gang were well-equipped, as far as hideouts went. The facilities manned by the outlaws and their families included a recreational center in which friendly games of chess, dice, and other such activities could be performed, a small hospital manned by a really rather friendly Changeling who was loved by all and thus never charged for her services, and an armory in which several very illegal weapons were kept, such as demon glasses, fire wands, and thrall collars. However, the biggest draw in the West River Gang was also the one that cost ponies the most. It was run by an old mare named Sugar Spoon, who nominally owned a bar, and it was the downfall of many a hardworking pony. It was known simply as the Den, and it specialized in more than alcohol.

It was towards this most dubious of establishments that Cobblestone was dragging herself, still upset over the dressing-down she had received from Chipped Bit earlier. By her side, as always, was Ivy, who had taken it upon herself to chaperone her friend and mentor through the inevitable bender that was soon to come.

“It’s not like I don’t bring in more each time!” Cobblestone ranted, her temper running away with her common sense. “But each time it looks like I’ll be able to start putting money aside, he raises his damn cut again! Pretty soon I’ll have nothing to spend on food!”

Ivy rolled her eyes. “Maybe if you didn’t spend so much at the Den, we wouldn’t be having this conversation?” she suggested gently. “You’re almost free of debt. Just give over the last payment you have, and you’re good to go. Chitin would help you with cleaning up if you’d let her.” Chitin was the name of the Changeling.

The older unicorn snorted. “I told you, I’m fine. I can quit whenever I like, and I’ve got enough coin with me to have a good time tonight before getting back to work tomorrow.”

The duo rounded a corner, heading downward through an old storm drain that had not seen use in nearly fifty years. Though the drain itself was too small to house many, it served as an adequate antechamber to the actual living quarters that had been dug into one side of it. It was here that most of the criminals slept, in simple hammocks strung together from the ceiling, or cots clustered around the edges of the walls. What few possessions they had were kept in small footlockers, and they were often trapped to within an inch of their lives to protect their contents.

“And besides, it’s not like I can’t function while I’m on Dragon’s Kiss.” Cobblestone said. “It just makes me think faster, is all. I can calm down better while I’m on it.”

Ivy shook her head. “I don’t know, Cob. That stuff can’t be good for you.”

Cobblestone groaned. “Will you relax? I’m fine, really.” Her horn sparked with a pale blue light, and the chest near her cot clicked open. Had anypony else tried to open it, they would have been on the receiving end of an unpleasant amount of electricity. She withdrew a small stash of coinage from within, and added her recent haul to it before unfastening her cloak, folding it neatly before setting it inside the near-empty box. She shook the coin pouch and smiled at Ivy. “If you’re going to come with me, I wouldn’t mind the company. I’ll even buy you a drink.”

“That go for me, too?” a voice called out, before a young Pegasus flipped out of his hammock, landing on all four hooves with a graceful click. He grinned roguishly, flicking a lock of black mane out of his eyes. “Please say yes, Cob. I’ve been up top all night, and I’m parched.”

Cob snorted. “No free rides, Lucky. I owe Ivy for services rendered.”

The Pegasus clutched at his chest, grimacing in mock pain. “That hurts, Cob. Here I thought we were friends, too. I’m pretty sure that we’ve worked together enough that you wouldn’t begrudge an old friend a drink?”

“Look at you, using big words like ‘begrudge’. Where’d you learn that, the Collegia?” Ivy asked dryly.

“I could very well ask you the same, little Miss Runaway.” Lucky shot back, his grin widening. “Awfully full of yourself for somepony who’s been at this for less than a year.” He hopped a bit closer, putting a wing around her. “Of course, if you wanted, and asked nicely, I could give you some ‘extra lessons’. What do you say? Eyah?”

“Nayeh.” Ivy replied coolly. Lucky’s reputation as a flirt was all too well known. “Go chase somepony else’s tail.”

“Fine by me.” Lucky said with a pout. He waggled his eyebrows at Cobblestone. “What do you say, Cob? Up for a bit of fun?”

Cobblestone laughed. “As if, Lucky. Unless you think you can keep up with me in the Den. Bring your own coin.”

The Pegasus’s wings fluttered in a distracting manner, and as if by magic, Lucky produced a pouch similar to Cobblestone’s own. “Alright, then. But isn’t it a bit early in the day to be drinking?”

Cobblestone smirked, turning around. Not entirely by accident, the end of her tail flicked him on the nose. “Firstly, I’ve been up for fourteen hours. I’m ready for a drink. Secondly, it’s not just a drink I’m after.”

Lucky’s eyes widened, and he nodded understandingly. “Well, it’s not my regular, but I’m not exactly adverse to a bit of Kiss. That’s just me, though.” He eyed Ivy. “And what about yourself? Are you going to be throwing away your money like the rest of us?”

Ivy sniffed primly. “Of course not. I’m here to make sure Cob doesn’t get into too much trouble.”

“Good to know I have somepony watching out for me, then.” Lucky smirked.

Ivy cuffed him on the back of the head, not too gently. “Did I say anything about you?”

“Oyeh!” Cobblestone called from the doorway. “You two coming, or what?”

As the two ran to catch up with her, Ivy gave the room a final look. For some reason she couldn’t quite place, she had the feeling that it would be the last time she would see it in such a fashion again.

The Den was nothing if not cozy. The air was redolent with the scent of tobacco and opium, soothing away the troubles of every wretched soul that wandered into its seedy clutches. Laughter was common here, both the bright laughter of drunkards and the soft chuckling of those who were lost in their own drugged haze. Brightly colored tapestries hung on the walls, taking the edge off of the damp and allowing heat to build up inside the room. A long bar took up one wall, with tables scattered around the floor, their seats nearly all taken despite the “early” hour. In another corner, there lay piles of stained cushions and ratty blankets on top of which were sprawled the lonely dozers, lost in their own dreams.

Sugar Spoon offered anything that could be gotten in Crescent City, legally or illegally. Her walls were lined with the best and worst liquors, from rum to absinthe to the worst of rotgut moonshine. She even managed to get ahold of Apple Family Cider, despite the prohibitively high cost of importing the stuff. Of course, this expense was reflected in the cost of each drink. But it wasn’t just alcohol she served, as evidenced by her more relaxed customers. Many an hour was spent in her bar, as ponies paid exorbitant amounts for her wide variety of narcotics, hallucinogens, and opiates. The most popular of these was Dragon’s Kiss, and it was this foul brew that Cobblestone enjoyed the most, and had been enjoying for the past hour.

“Ivy, you still there?” Cob asked, blinking blearily.

The younger unicorn nodded patiently. “Still here, Cob. Are you alright?”

Cobblestone smiled groggily. “I’m fine. I can see all sorts of stuff, Ivy. I can see the magic coming off your horn, did you know that?”

The effects of Kiss were well known to Ivy. It accelerated the mental processes at the cost of reaction time, making everything appear to be moving at a fraction of the speed it actually was. In addition to this, it had an odd effect on unicorns. Attached as they were to magic, in high enough doses, it gave them the ability to see magic like never before. The magic inherent in enchanted items, the magic thrumming through sacred groves, the magic rolling underneath them as Earth ponies tilled the fields, or soaring above them with the Pegasi. The colors were said to be spectacular.

Lucky grinned. Though he was not able to see the magic Cobblestone could, he enjoyed the occasional cup of the bitter tea himself along with his drinks. However, he was nowhere near as inebriated as Cobblestone was, and as such was able to handle himself better. “I think she’s had enough, Ivy.” He said, looking at his companion with some concern.

Ivy nodded in agreement. “I think so too.”

Cobblestone waved them both away roughly. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I can do one more.”

Lucky shook his head, looking at the empty purse on the table next to her. “No you can’t, Cob. You’re just about to pass out, and you’re out of money.”

“Already?” Cob asked muzzily. “Could have sworn we’ve only been here an hour.”

Ivy snorted. “We’ve been at this table for nearly three hours, Cob. You’ve been incoherent for two of them.”

Cobblestone groaned. “Again? Shit.”

Lucky waved over the proprietor. Sugar Spoon began to clear away the cups as the duo lifted Cobblestone up, supporting her weight on top of them as they lurched for the exit. As they walked, Cobblestone kept talking. “Y’know, you’re a good kid, Ivy.”

“I’m only a year younger than you, Cobblestone.” Ivy replied wearily. “Don’t call me kid.”

“You’re too good for this.” Cobblestone said. “Why are ya’ here? What’s so bad at home that you couldn’t have just stayed there?”

Ivy was silent for a while. And then she spoke. “It’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cob shook her head weakly. “Don’t give me that. You got a family, which is a damn sight more than most of us got. I’d love to have a family, parents to look up to, a sister to look after.”

Lucky grimaced. “Careful, Cob. You’re starting to sound sentimental.”

Ivy said nothing as Cobblestone thought. Finally, the thief reached a conclusion. “If I had the money, I’d run off. Try my hoof at somethin’ different. Maybe…maybe I could stop taking the Kiss.”

The younger unicorn looked at her mentor strangely. “Do you really mean that? Would you leave like that?”

Cobblestone shrugged. “Maybe. But we’d need money. Somethin’ big to tide us over until we could figure out what to do, where to go.” She broke off, seemingly fascinated with the sound enchantments in the corridor, which dampened noise.

Lucky snorted derisively. “Come off it, Cob. What would you possibly do? Where would you go?”

Cobblestone was lost in her own world. “Go to Starfall, maybe. Get a job there, learn a trade. Buy a house. Have friends instead of acquaintances.” Her head lurched, and she almost retched before forcing it back down. “Be something good, not bad.”

“But you’d need money first.” Ivy said. “Something big.”

Cobblestone nodded. “You and me, kid. Shit, we could even take Lucky. If he wants to come.”

Lucky contemplated this. He shared Cobblestone’s mindset about wanting to go his own way. Most of the gang’s pickpockets and house thieves were children, the small ones who could reach tight places. Pretty soon, he’d need to find new work. Not that he couldn’t find it, the gang was always in need of muscle, or smugglers, or any other number of jobs that would have him knifed inside of five years. He was a bit better off than Cobblestone in that he wouldn’t be forced into anything, but he only had so much time before he would need to make a choice, or leave the gang entirely.

It was a hard thing, though, to leave this place. He had been here since he was eight, and Cob for even longer. This was the closest thing to a home either of them had, the closest thing to a family they were ever likely to get. It may have been horrible, and they may have been scum, but at least here, they knew ponies, could expect a friendly smile every once and a while, could know where they were going to sleep that night. Leaving the gang gave all of that up. And once they left, they were gone for good. There was no coming back.

Cobblestone moaned. “I feel like I’m about to pass out. Are we close to the rooms?”

Ivy looked at Lucky. An understanding was reached. They would be talking later. “Yes, we’re almost there, Cobblestone. In fact, we’ve just arrived, see?”

The duo helped Cob into bed. As her eyes fluttered closed, Cob looked at them both. “Hey? Ivy, Lucky?”

They both looked at her. “Yeah, Cob?” Lucky asked.

“What I said earlier? I meant it.” Cobblestone said. “I want out. We need to find a mark first. But I want out, and soon.”

Ivy nodded, tucking in her friend, who was lost to incoherence. “Alright, Cob. We’ll talk about it more later.”

As her two companions left her to sleep, Cobblestone began to drift away. Soon enough, she was drifting in a drugged stupor, and outside in the corridor, her two companions were talking.

Lucky blew air out through his nose. They spoke quietly. “So,” he said. “What do you think?”

Ivy shook her head. “I’m not good enough at this to make a choice. Is what she says reasonable? I always thought that, well…”

“There was no way out of the gang?” Lucky asked.

Ivy gave a quick, jerky nod. “It just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Wouldn’t Chip get angry?”

“Chip’s smart. He knows that he can’t con a con artist, or steal from a thief, unless they let him. Being in the gang has benefits. Security, resources, all that. Anypony unhappy with the way he does things can leave. Most are content enough to stay, so they do. Easy enough to let the troublemakers sort themselves out elsewhere.”

Ivy thought about it. “So what kind of haul would we be looking at?”

“A huge one.” Lucky said. “And that means dangerous stuff. Breaking into a house, not waking up the occupants, and taking a serious amount of wealth. You’d need three ponies at least, lucky for us. One lookout to give a signal if it looks like something’s going to go wrong, and two to do the actual stealing. Some stuff is heavy, you know.”

Ivy leaned back against the wall. “What kind of place would we need to hit?”

“Either one of the big houses on the other side of the river, or one of the businesses there. There are a couple places that could prove to be beneficial. The only problem is territory.” Lucky said quietly. “Across the river, our gang has no turf. Plus the constables are up there in force, which makes things more difficult. If we get caught up there, either by them or another gang, we shouldn’t expect any help. Hope for constables, if that’s the case. We’ll get sent to a state house, and then an indentured contract after. Other gangs will kill us all, and take their sweet time.”

“Don’t get caught, then.” Ivy said. “Good to know.”

Lucky stretched, rolling his shoulders with an audible popping noise before flexing his wings. “I think we should get started right away,” he said, peering into the room where Cobblestone slept. “After all, there’s no telling what could happen in the next few days, let alone weeks. The sooner I can pick a target and get us out of here, the happier we’ll be.”

Ivy nodded. “I’ll stop by the Den and pick up some things like bread and a few traveling flasks. Hopefully, Cobblestone will be ready to go by the time you’re back. How long will it take you to find a place for us?”

Lucky gave her his best smile, all cockiness and reassurance. “Why do you think they call me Lucky? I’ll be back by nightfall. And I’ll have the perfect place for us to case.”

Serale shifted uncomfortably under the illusion Libra had cast on her before they had stepped off of the ship’s boat. The feeling of magic against her skin, cool and shimmering like a second skin made of water, drove her half-insane. She could almost feel it seeping into her, there to be used but unreachable. Plus, it gave her the chills, and the weather was already turning cold. She drew the coat closer about her. It had been a gift from the Khan of the Minotaurs, lined on the inside with seal fur and warmer than anything she had ever worn before.

“Penny for your thoughts, Serale?” Libra asked, as they moved through the crowd.

Serale glared at her. “I thought we agreed not to use my name while we’re out here?”

Libra waved an airy hoof. “Plenty of ponies named their children after the daughter of Lady Everstar. Relax.”

Serale forced herself to do so. She was used to being in a controlled environment, even during her voyage the atmosphere on the ship had been one of gentle deference to her wishes. To be on her own with nothing more than a chaperone, in the second biggest and most dangerous city in the Evening Kingdom, was a feeling both terrifying and intoxicating. She inhaled gently, taking in the smells of the city.

It was mostly putrid, the stench of filth and sweat and closeness that managed to pervade the air in every city, regardless of how clean its citizens managed to get it. But underneath the overlying stink of the place, one could smell the things Crescent City had to offer. Spices from the market two streets over, the scent of fresh bread from a bakery up the street, the odd hint of cologne or whiff of perfume from ponies passing by, there was a lot to take in.

“I was just thinking of how long it’s been since we’ve been here last.” Serale said. “I remember thinking when we arrived that this place was so much bigger, so much more alive than Starfall. But that’s not it at all. It’s just that it’s bigger than what I was used to.”

Libra nodded thoughtfully. “And now?” she asked. “After seeing different cities, and the way they were different?”

“It feels…smaller. Diminished, but familiar.” Serale said. “Like an old shirt that might be a bit too small for you, but you know how it should fit. It’s comforting, in a way.”

This garnered a smile from Libra. “Speaking of shirts and time, do you know what day it is?”

Serale shook her head, puzzled. “Not a clue. Mid-autumn, but that’s about it.”

Libra’s smile got wider. “It’s your birthday, dear. Your sixteenth, to be exact.”

This was certainly news to Serale. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, Serale. Today is the sixteenth anniversary of the day of your birth. I was reasonably sure before we left the boat, but I confirmed it with the captain before we left.” Libra nudged her gently. “So, from me to you, happy birthday.”

Serale grinned. “Thank you. Shall we celebrate?”

“How so?”

Serale indicated a bakery. “I’ve not had fresh bread in a while, and it looks like they just took something out of the oven. I’ve got money.”

Libra raised an eyebrow. “Paying on your birthday? I think not.” She withdrew her own purse, shaking it to gauge how much was inside. “Today, it is on me.”

Soon enough, the two of them were sitting outside, hot cups of tea in hoof and fresh sweetrolls in front of them. Serale sighed, sinking back into her chair. Blowing on her tea to cool it, she allowed her gaze to roam over the crowd, taking them all in. “You know, I’ve missed this.” she said, watching throngs of ponies lazily pass by.

Libra nodded. “It is nice, to be around new ponies after so long away. After so much time among the other races, it feels good to be home.”

Serale nibbled at her roll delicately before taking a sip of tea. “I’m sad to see the end of it.”

Libra tilted her head. “How do you mean?” she asked.

“Come off it, Libra.” Serale said. “As soon as I get back to Starfall, it’s going to be right back into the cage with me. I’ll be back on my own until I can come up with some other excuse to get out of the castle in a few years and go take a tour of someplace else. No more excursions, no more new faces, no more discoveries.” She laughed bitterly at the prospect of attending Court once again. “At least I know I can trust you, right? That’s one friend I’ll have in my mother’s house, busy though you’ll be. Aren’t you supposed to be taking an apprentice soon?”

Libra snorted. “Don’t remind me. Apprenticing the odious, entitled little brats the noble houses offer will be chore enough without having to dwell on it. They’re either incompetent or entitled or both, not an actual Mage in the lot of them.” As she said this, her voice took on that iron tone that Serale knew very well from years of watching her deal with supplicants in Court.

“Neither of us is looking forward to seeing the Evening Court again, are we?” Serale asked quietly.

Libra sighed. “We both have duties, child. And it is a sad thing, to see you unhappy to return home after so long away. Your mother will be there, isn’t that a good thing?”

Serale smiled sadly. “I suppose it is a comfort. I’m looking forward to hearing Mother’s voice again.” She turned to Libra, about to make some joke, but before she could, there was a commotion from the crowd.

“Stop! Thief!” a voice cried. A young colt, perhaps eight years old, was weaving precariously through the crowd, clutching an apple to his chest, his wings flapping frantically to garner lift for him to escape. Behind him was a burly stallion wearing an apron. He was gaining on him.

It was a matter of moments before he had caught up to the younger pony, catching him up in a terribly strong grasp. He ripped the apple from his grasp before tossing him to the cobblestones, where the young one landed in a heap. Snorting contemptuously, he aimed a well-placed kick into his ribs.

“Think you can steal from me, laddie? Think again!” he shouted. Another kick landed square in the gut of the young colt, who whimpered in pain. “I’ll teach you to try and take me livelihood away!”

Serale sighed, putting her cup down and getting to her hooves.

“Serale…” Libra said warningly, reaching out for her to sit down.

The young Lady paid her no mind, pushing through the crowd towards the space that had cleared. The stallion was continuing to hurl invective at the would-be miscreant, punctuating his tirade with the occasional blow. Making her way through the final ranks, she trotted over to the young colt, standing over him protectively. The stallion looked down at her contemptuously.

“What do you want, ye blithering idiot?” he asked her.

“Why are you beating this colt?” Serale demanded, keeping her voice level.

The stallion sneered. “Tryin’ to steal from me fruit stand, he was. That sort of behavior needs to be straightened out.”

Serale nodded. “I agree completely. But that’s a matter for the authorities, not yourself.”

This garnered a chuckle from the stallion, and a few snickers from the crowd. “Is that so, wee lass?” he inquired, bending over to meet her, eye to eye. “And if I decide to get in my own punishment, before yer ‘authorities’ arrive?”

The younger mare didn’t budge, meeting him unblinkingly. “Then, as dictated in the Equal Protection Act of 387 AE, I am within my rights to render any assistance necessary to preserve the well-being of this individual, so long as I do not infringe upon the rights of any witnesses to the action, up to and including involving them in the confrontation.”

The stallion blinked. “What?”

Serale rolled her eyes. “It means that if you don’t quit beating him, I stop you, so long as I don’t hurt anypony else. Got it?”

The stallion’s eyes widened, and then narrowed. “I’d like to see you try, lassie.”

Serale smiled. “I’d love to show you.” she replied. “Fortunately for both of us, the authorities have arrived.”

And she was right. Two constables in burgundy coats had arrived, batons at their side and peaked hats cocked to one side. The larger of the two, an Earth pony, glared at the scene in front of him.

“Right.” he said, taking it all in. “What’s all this, then?”

Serale smiled at him sweetly. “We were just resolving an issue, officer. The stallion seems to be a bit confused about payment. The young colt here didn’t have quite enough to cover his purchase, and left without realizing it. I was just about to offer enough to make of for the difference, plus a few extra, seeing as this fine gentlecolt has such excellent merchandise.” She turned the same smile on the stallion in the apron. “Isn’t that right?”

The stallion, nonplussed, tried to understand what was happening. A moment ago, he had been in control of the situation. He had been stolen from, and had attempted to redress the issue as best he could. Then, this mare had shown up, taken control away, and involved the authorities. Now he was being offered an opportunity to recoup his losses, plus extra, and get on with his day. Reluctantly, he arrived at the only conclusion he could.

“That about sums it up, officers.” he managed weakly. “She hit it on the head.”

The irony of this statement was not lost on Serale, who produced her money pouch, counting out a few coins. “Here, this should be enough to bring it up to a half dozen. And keep the change to smooth out the misunderstanding.”

The stallion’s eyes boggled at the amount, and he rushed back to his stand as the crowd dispersed to fill her order. Serale managed to catch the collar of the young colt, who had been slinking away.

“Not you,” she said, looking him in the eye. “You stay here.”

The stallion returned, a bag full of apples in hoof. He offered them to her. “Here you are, miss. Sorry about the misunderstanding.”

Serale nodded appreciatively. “You need to maintain a profit, I understand,” she said, smiling a bit. “But it’s not me you should be giving those to.” She indicated the colt. “They’re his fruit.”

The stallion’s smiled soured a bit, but he managed a bit of politeness as he handed the bag over to the young colt before returning to his stand. Crisis resolved, Serale turned to the smaller Pegasus, cradling the bag near her hooves.

“And what was that all about?” she demanded. “Stealing from an honest business owner, and one so much bigger than yourself. What could drive you to do something like that?”

The colt sniffed, looking up at her. “P-please, miss,” he sniveled, eyes watery and big. “It’s for my family at home. I’ve got a sister, and money’s tight, and…”

Serale rolled her eyes. “Don’t lie to me, I can see right through those. What’s your real story?”

The tears dried in an instant. The colt gave her a grin. “Fair enough, then. Food’s for me mates, back up the street. We’re cutting purses, but can’t stop for lunch, so I thought I’d swipe a few things to help keep our strength up.”

Serale sighed. “You know I could call the constables back, right?”

The Pegasus scoffed. “But you won’t, will you? You want to avoid them for some reason. You don’t want them poking at you too much, maybe you want to avoid being pinched for something?”

Serale found the cheek of the young stallion to be amusing, at least. “You’ve got me there. I’d tell you to not do it again, but I don’t hold out much hope, so I’m just going to go with this.” She tossed him the remainder of her coin, pouch and all. “Here, take an early day. And at least try to reconsider your life choices.”

“No can do, Miss. Got to eat to live, got to steal to eat. Otherwise we might get along, hey?” he said. “But you’ve done me and mine a favor, so I’ll do you one. I’ll let the others know about you, they’ll keep their hooves away from the rest of your valuables, at least for today. And you’ve got my thanks, miss.”

And with that, the young colt wove back through the crowd, vanishing into its tides with ease. Serale watched him go, shaking her head, before returning to her seat and picking up her tea. It had cooled to just the right temperature. She could feel the eyes of Libra burning into her from across the table, but ignored them for as long as she could. Finally, she could take it no longer. She looked up, meeting her companion and mentor’s eyes.

“Yes?” she inquired.

“I hope you realize that was foolish.” Libra said. “You could have been hurt, or discovered. And then I’d have to help you, and any hope of anonymity you would want to preserve would have disappeared like so much smoke.”

Serale took a bite of her roll before washing it down with more tea. “Hurt? Not likely. I’ve faced worse in the past year, and we both know it. Besides, I need to get back into practice for the Court. Thinking on my hooves will be essential.”

Libra sipped at her tea. “But that’s just it, Serale. You are a noble of the Court. And that was not thinking, that was throwing yourself into a situation and then bluffing your way back out of it. In the Court, that’s tantamount to suicide.” She took note of Serale’s disinterested gaze before making one last attempt to hammer some sense into her still-young charge. “At least consult with me before you go off like that again. Please?” she asked. “Let me help if it comes down to it.”

Serale sighed. “Fine. But for the rest of the day, you and I are going to not worry about the consequences. Time enough for that when we get back. Deal?”

Libra agreed without hesitation. “Deal.”

Lucky watched the pair in the café from his rooftop spot, and he knew he had his perfect mark. Anypony throwing money around like that was bound to have more of it, and lots of it. And they looked like travelers, though without being able to hear them he couldn’t be sure. Travelers meant easy to carry things, things both valuable and portable. And an inn was much easier to break into than a house.

The Pegasus nodded to himself, sure in his choice. These two were perfect. He’d follow them to where they were staying, and be back with plenty of time to get Cobblestone and Ivy and make the robbery. It was turning out to be a good day after all.

In Which The Plot Thickens

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The streets of Crescent City were troublesome by day, this much was well known. However, once the sun set over the sooty spires and smokestacks of the city, the narrow alleys and cobbled streets went from “problematic” to “extremely dangerous” with surprising rapidity. The city became a quiet warzone at night, as rival gangs vied for territory and resources, plied their trades in the strongholds they did own, and all sides did battle with the constabulary. Fortunately for much of the populace, most of the territory owned by gangs was relegated to the quadrant of the city on the south side of the river, nearest to the ocean. This meant that for better or worse, most ponies could go out at night and enjoy themselves, provided they had the coin for it.

That said, there were many who chose to go to the southwest side of the city, colloquially known as “dockside”, for their nocturnal business. It was here that the most illicit of delights could be had, from houses of ill repute and even worse company, to silent shacks whose occupants charged little for the strange services they rendered. To wander these streets without knowing how to carry oneself and where exactly to go was tantamount to suicide.

However, it was across the river, in the most affluent part of town, that the greatest threat to Crescent City laid. The threat was only amplified by the fact that almost nopony knew of it, or the fact that it was there. It lay in a quiet house, affluent but unassuming, with white shutters and a fence in decent repair, though the boards could use a bit of tightening. Its neighbors assumed that it was either being renovated or put up for sale, as this was the explanation for the unusual deliveries that were completed at all hours, with remarkable speed and with little fanfare.

It was towards this house that a young colt hastened, his face carefully blank and his features blandly pleasant. He carried no weapon, wore an outfit consisting of black trousers, a simple shirt, jacket, and tie, and nodded politely at the greetings given to him without responding. He approached the door, knocking precisely four times, and waited for the sentries there to verify he was who he appeared to be, and was alone and un-coerced. With no further delay, the door opened on well-oiled hinges, and the colt stepped inside. He took the narrow stairwell up to the second floor, proceeding down the hall to the study, from which golden light spilled. Steeling himself, the colt pushed open the door and stepped inside.

“Brother Chance, it is good to see you.” the mare at the desk murmured, her back to him. He had not announced himself. “What news do you bring?”

The colt shuddered with pleasure at her voice. It was rich, musical, filling each ear with a sort of auditory honey. “The Royal Lady docked today, ma’am. She put ashore the court sorcerer Libra, and the Inheritor herself, along with the trappings of power they procured along their travels.”

The mare nodded thoughtfully, the movement causing the blackness of her coat to shimmer in the light. “Any guards?”

Chance shook his head. “None that we could see. An escort arrives tomorrow, but I believe that the Lady thought her pet Mage would be enough for one night.”

The black mare chuckled at that. “Foolish. But I am grateful for the opportunity such hubris provides.” She turned to face him at last. Her eyes gleamed white in the lamplight of the small room, seeing none of it. A mask concealed the top part of her face, made of beaten silver with the wings of a black bird stretched to each side. It could not conceal enough of it to hide the shattered horn on her forehead, or the scars which marred her otherwise fine features, the ones which had cost her sight. Her followers called her by the name she had taken for herself, the one given to her by Fate, the name Nightshade. But she was known far and wide by another name. To her enemies, she was known simply as Blind Raven, the Witch of Shadows.

Her horn sprung to life, black flame playing along its length. A drawer opened by her desk, and a crossbow was withdrawn from within. She continued to speak. “Tell me, do you know where Serale will lay her head tonight?”

Brother Chance nodded. “An inn, by the waterfront. Nice enough, but nothing incredibly expensive. She will be asleep in the corner room, with her mage next door.”

Nightshade was silent for a moment, thinking. She was a master strategist, and when she was able to plan in advance, it was almost impossible to do something she would not anticipate. Finally, she spoke. “I want you to take three of your brothers and sisters to this inn, ones who can enter and exit without being seen. There, you will accomplish two tasks. Firstly, slit the throat of the Mage while she sleeps.”

She withdrew a bolt for the crossbow, with a simple scroll of paper wrapped around it and sealed with wax. “Secondly, leave this crossbow, bolt loaded, by her bed. Let the young Lady know what it is we are capable of.”

The colt bowed, taking the weapon from her reverently. “I will see it done.”

Nightshade smiled gently, lifting him from his prostration. “None of that, Brother. We’re all of us equals here.” Leaning in, she kissed him gently, and whispered into his ear. “Let that be your reward for your information. Do this thing for me, and I shall see you rewarded further.” A wicked grin spread across her face. “Much further.”

Within the next quarter of an hour, four silent shadows flitted into the gathering darkness, quiet as crows. Their destination was a small inn, a corner room, and a sleeping noble who was even now unaware of the swift strike heading her way.

Chipped Bit was a practical pony. He had gotten to where he was by seeing ponies not as other beings worthy of his respect, but as potential threats, assets, and resources. To him, the world consisted of numbers and tables, each pleasantry and unfortunate accident being nothing more than a change in values. With this in mind, he kept his gang, small though it was, running smoothly and efficiently. For the most part, those who followed him responded well. Each found their niche, each knew their place, and as such, they thrived as best they could.

Of course, there were those among the ranks who didn’t fit in nicely, or do their work quietly. There were those who were insubordinate, or ill-suited for their jobs, those who, despite all of his best efforts, simply did not fit into the well-oiled machine that was his gang.

Ponies like Bitterroot, one of his thugs who had been scraping up “protection money” on the side, terrorizing ponies who already paid for protection from other gangs. His foolishness and greed had nearly sparked a war between Chip’s gang and the much larger and more brutal Dockside Derbies, one he would have certainly lost. This had been rectified when Chip received a complaint from a lower-level lieutenant inside the gang. The very next morning, Bitterroot had been delivered to the bar in which the Derbies were headquartered, his ill-gotten gains stuffed down his throat and his hooves tied. A knife had been included in the delivery, with a hoof-written invitation for the injured parties to retrieve their coin in the obvious manner.

Or Velvet, one of his Madams who had been found not keeping her doxies clean as well as overcharging. Such behavior would have been bad for business, very bad indeed. It was never specified what had happened to her, but she had most definitely been replaced, and a corpse bearing a striking resemblance to her had been found, dredged up from the bottom of a river on an anonymous tip.

It wasn’t that Chip enjoyed doing this, or that he had a particularly short temper, it was a simple fact that certain acts could not be tolerated. More often than not, lesser offenses carried lesser punishment. Refusing a request to work in a Parlor, for example, or scrapping in a public hallway. Pressure was applied, sanctions levelled, and more often than not, things worked themselves out. Either the individual in question straightened out and complied, or they left, and that was the end of that.

So it was with Cobblestone, at least in his eyes. Unfortunately for her, she had not complied with requests, nor had she left. And so, Chipped Bit found himself pondering what he was to do with his most reticent of thieves.

Now, Chip was always looking to expand business, and as anypony near the docks knew, smuggling was the best way to earn coin. The Dockside gangs, the biggest and meanest, were the ones who handled most of the supply coming in before auctioning it off to the smaller gangs, who would then distribute such delicacies as drugs, weapons, and other contraband among their buyers. This way, the Dockside gangs could focus on getting their goods and selling them, and the smaller gangs could turn a profit on distribution. Indeed, most contraband found further inland had been marked up threefold by using this very system.

The only problem with this, at least from Chip’s point of view, was getting a good deal on the goods right off the boat. His runners moved it very well, but the West River Gang was still pathetically small, only about a hundred all told. Chip needed coin, which translated to him needing cheaper goods. Thankfully for him, both this problem and the problem of Cobblestone could be resolved by the same pony, and this pony was sitting in front of him, sipping a glass of good scotch.

“Now, Mister Bit,” the pony, whose name was Teakwood, said, “I understand you’re looking for a way in to bigger markets. And everything indicates that you’re willing to cut a deal, perhaps even do a few favors for my boss?”

Chipped Bit nodded, faking a smile as he did so. “Indeed I am. I understand you are a busy individual, so I’ll get right to the chase.”

“That would be much appreciated, not that your hospitality isn’t wonderful.” Teakwood said. “The scotch is delicious, by the way.”

“I should hope so,” Chip said. “It’s from the barrel of stock we kept back from your shipment last summer. The Crystal Vintage.”

Teakwood’s eyes widened. “This is an expensive glass, then.”

Chip nodded. “Quite. This is what I’ve brought you here to speak about. I’d like to negotiate a lower cost with your boss, if at all possible.”

Teakwood had heard this before. The Waterfront Gang was the second-largest distributor of goods in Crescent City, second only to the Derbies. His boss, Russet, was constantly hearing requests from lesser distributors for lower prices, bigger goods, or better quality. It grew wearisome after a while.

“I hope you understand that I can make no promises on behalf of my organization,” Teakwood said smoothly. “Boss Russet makes all of the final decisions regarding who we sell to. And what we sell them.”

Chip gestured noncommittally. “I guessed as much. But I can offer him something most gangs can’t.”

Teakwood tilted his head. “And what would that be?”

“Efficiency. My runners move goods quickly, quietly, and without skimming anything off of the top. In fact, they are under orders to report that sort of thing to me.” Chip said.

“And why would they do that?” Teakwood asked. “Rat out a comrade?”

Chip smirked. “Because each team rotates often enough to keep them from forming a rapport with one another. And if they can successfully prove that a comrade is stealing from me or my customers, they are rewarded with double the cost of the stolen goods.”

Chip took a sip from his own glass before continuing. “We have moved well over a hundred loads in the past three months from various organizations, such as your own. We’ve moved everything from opium from up north, to demon glasses, to a minting press with which a buyer was manufacturing his own currency. Would you like to know how many of those we’ve lost?”

Teakwood ventured a guess, a conservative one. “Ten percent?”

Chip shook his head. “Lower.”



Teakwood was astonished. “Two percent?”

Chip grinned. “Not a single one. We’ve successfully delivered each and every piece of contraband to their buyers. Now, was any piece discovered past that point? That I can’t vouch for, but I can say without reservation that we deliver successfully each and every time.”

Teakwood was suitably impressed. “A sterling record, Mister Chip. If true. But your organization is rather small, wouldn’t you say? We sell to buyers who can deliver four times that amount in the same period, even with their losses. That’s where we invest our money.”

“Expansion comes when I can be sure that my ponies are paid. Right now, I exist at the edge of my limits. We are holding steady, neither expanding or shrinking in size.” Chip explained. “With more money, I can hire more, who can move more, which allows me to hire more, and so on.”

“But why should we invest in you now,” Teakwood asked, “As opposed to later?”

This was where Chip solved his other problem. He lowered his voice just a bit. “I could make it worth your boss’s while.” he said. “Cut him in on some of our profits, and a few of our…other assets.”

Teakwood was intrigued. “Other…assets?”

Chip nodded. “The nice thing about managing whorehouses, Teakwood, is that they are a veritable font of information. Pillow talk, whispered secrets, all of that. And mine are some of the best. For good reason, I keep a very close eye on them.”

He gestured with one hoof. “For example, I know that the Derbies are moving ashore several crates of breech-loading rifles from Trottingham tomorrow evening, between the hours of one and three in the morning, and that there will be approximately eight ponies unloading and guarding them. Should a rival gang with the element of surprise show up, there would be very little the Derbies could do to stop them.”

“You offer…information?” Teakwood asked. “That is a tempting offer, I must admit.”

Chip smiled. “Not only this, but my ladies of the evening can tell me other things as well. Like the reason why your boss, Russet, doesn’t frequent my establishments too often.”

The air at the table changed, and Chip’s smile turned predatory. “Likes them a bit younger than I offer, does he?”

“That’s hardly news, and nothing worth blackmailing him over.” Teakwood sniffed. “He’s no politician.”

“So it’s true, then?” Chip asked. “I thought it might be. What if I gave him a token of my goodwill? Something to sweeten the pot further, with the promise of more to come if he likes what he sees?”

Teakwood considered this. His boss’s appetites, while not exactly well-known, were a bit difficult to whet. He knew that Russet would be very, very interested in that part of the deal at least. And with all the other bits and pieces offered to him…it could be a very lucrative deal indeed.

“It is a very…generous offer,” he ventured. “But I would need more information first.”

“Of course!” Chip replied. “This is just to open negotiations up. That said, I would like to send a token of my goodwill to him, to show my offer is in earnest. I could send her along tonight! She’s currently asleep downstairs, and she won’t wake up until tomorrow morning at least. I can have some of mine bundle her up for you.”

Teakwood mulled it over. “Very well. What is her name?”

“Her name,” Chip said, smiling in triumph, “Is Cobblestone. And she just turned fourteen last week.”

Out in the hallway by his study, a short distance away from his office, Ivy was frozen in fear. She could hear every word.

Cobblestone was shaken from her drunken, drugged stupor quite roughly, causing her to shoot upright, horn ablaze with bright blue sparks. Breathing heavily, she looked around for the one who had accosted her, before spotting Lucky by her bed, hooves protecting his eyes from the brilliant light, sudden in the darkness of the room.

Cob dimmed her light sheepishly, wincing at the pain and nausea she felt. Eyeing the Pegasus, she sank back down into her covers. “What do you want?” she asked. “It’s the middle of the night, and I’m off.”

Lucky shook his head. “I found something.” he said, looking her dead in the eyes. “Something big, and easy, and ready to go.”

Cobblestone groaned. “What are you talking about?”

“Do you still stand by what you said earlier?” Lucky asked, his voice hushed. “About leaving?”

It took Cobblestone a moment to figure out what he meant, not that the drug in her system made thinking any easier. “You mean striking out on my own?”

The Pegasus snorted. “With Ivy and I too, remember?”

Cobblestone nodded, head aching with each movement. “I remember. Why?”

“Do you still mean it?” Lucky asked. “Do you still want to go?”

“Yeah,” Cobblestone said. “Why?”

Lucky grinned. “I found a place. Well, technically an inn. We could be in, out, and on our way with no one the wiser, and us quite a bit richer.”

Cobblestone held up a hoof, forestalling further speech. “Hold on just a minute. Slow down, and start at the beginning.”

Lucky eagerly recounted all that he had seen to her, from seeing the young mare in the marketplace to her obviously noble behavior to her choice in lodging. Most importantly, her told her of how he had seen a porter bring her bags from somewhere in the city, and lay them into her room at the inn, an easily accessible corner room. Exhibiting singular courage, Lucky had offered to help the porter with the heavy load, and had gotten a peek at some of the contents.

“There was gold in there, Cob! And not just coins, some really well-made stuff. I think some of it was from the Oligarchy. And there was fur from up north, and Quilinese jade, and all sorts of stuff!” Lucky was ecstatic. “And that’s not the best part, either.”

He produced a hefty golden coin from within his tunic. “She tipped me with this, Cob. A tip. We’ve got ourselves a real bona-fide noble, here.”

Cobblestone was perplexed. “But why would she have all of that? Furs from the Khanate, jade from the Islands, gold from the Five Kings…who carries that?”

Lucky thought. “Maybe she’s the daughter of some rich merchant with a chaperone. Maybe she’s a Bluehide, they’re navigators and traders, right?”

Cobblestone groaned. “I don’t know. Ask Ivy. Where is she, anyway?”

“I sent her to go and grab some things from the galley. She should be on her way back here now.” Lucky replied.

Sure enough, Cobblestone could see Ivy moving towards them, her face drawn and pale, more so than usual. In fact, she looked downright sick.

Immediately, Cobblestone knew something was wrong. “Ivy?” she asked, worry in her voice. “Are you alright?”

Ivy shook her head. “Cob, we need to go. Now.”

Lucky frowned. “What are you talking about? We can’t go now, it’s not yet night!”

Ivy shook her head. “No, there’s no time to explain. We need to go before anypony finds out where I was.”

“Where you were?” Cob asked. “Ivy, what’s going on? You aren’t making sense!”

Lucky grabbed the younger unicorn by her shoulders, looking her in the eyes. “Ivy, look at me.” She did so, and gradually, she was able to pull herself together. Lucky spoke very softly. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Ivy nodded, gulped once, took a deep breath, and began to speak. “Chip’s going to sell you out, Cob.”

“What do you mean?” Cob asked.

“I heard him talking with a representative from the Waterfront Gang about expanding smuggling and about what it would take to get an opening with their boss for lower prices.” Ivy said.

Cobblestone snorted. “What, is he going to send over a whore? Good luck, Incense told me the reason he never stops by is because he likes fillies.”

Ivy nodded. “He likes them to be about fourteen, apparently.” She let that sink in. It took a moment.

Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean…”

Ivy nodded. “You, Cob. He thinks you’re too much of a liability, but Russet would be able to handle you.”

Lucky interjected himself. “Wait a moment. This doesn’t make sense! Chip would never cross a line like that!”

Ivy rolled her eyes. “Unless it hurts his business. I’m sure it’s not the first time somepony from this gang has disappeared after causing trouble.”

Cob nodded. “Velvet. And Bitterroot, too. Both of them were out. And Moony, Thyme, Steelhead, there were others. But they were committing major infractions, skimming money, or performing poorly, or…”

“Stirring up trouble?” Ivy asked quietly. “Because you’ve become kind of notorious for that. Nothing overt, but you’ve talked bad about Chip before.”

Cobblestone shook her head. “I don’t believe it. No way he would do something like that.”

“What if he knew that you were planning to get out?” Lucky mused. “That might put some pressure on him.”

“And you were talking about it in the open, where anypony could hear.” Ivy said. “It wasn’t mentioned, but if you were overheard, somepony probably mentioned it to him by now. “

Cobblestone curled up, cradling her head in her hooves. “No way. It can’t be.”

Ivy snorted in desperation. “Look, maybe I misheard, maybe I didn’t. But I know I heard him say something about Russet’s tastes, and you. And he was going to dispatch a couple of his thugs to come down here and get you, so he could hand you over to that creep from the Waterfront!”

Lucky’s wings flared. “That would have been nice to know before all of this!”

“Well, if you had both listened to me before now, we wouldn’t be having this issue!” Ivy said. She turned to Cobblestone. “Isn’t what I said worth at least leaving a bit early? Worst comes to worst, we’re out of here a few hours before we would have been gone anyway.”

Cobblestone thought quickly, as quickly as she could given the effects of the drug on her system. It made a kind of horrible sense. She had been a lot more vocal as of late about Chip. It had been moving toward some sort of breaking point, she knew, but she hadn’t known it would come this quickly, or in such a horrible way. A myriad of options whirled through her mind before she finally settled on the only one available to her.

Rolling out of her cot with haste, she unlocked the lid of her chest, withdrawing her cloak, a few personal items like her dagger, a hoofful of coins, and scouring the insides for anything she might have missed. Clasping it around her throat, she slung her pack over her back and buckled her dagger into place. Turning, she looked expectantly at her two companions.

“Well?” she demanded. “I haven’t got all evening. We’re on a bit of a tight schedule, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Ivy and Lucky both scrambled for their bags and other possessions, fastening everything into place securely before they each nodded to her, ready to go. Swiftly and silently, the three of them walked out of the room and down the hall, headed for the one exit available to them.

“Now,” Cobblestone said as they walked. “Odds are good they’ll have posted guards up front, but they might not know about Chip’s plans, so we’ll just-“

She ran headlong into the chest of a rather large and burly stallion as she rounded a corner, who was flanked by two others. Near them both stood the familiar and unpleasant face of Codger, who was grinning maliciously.

“Well, if it isn’t my good friend Cobblestone!” Codger said. “We were just coming to have a chat with you. My father wants to see you in his office.”

Cobblestone kept her head about her. “Sorry, Codger. Now’s not really a good time. I’ve got some business up top. I’d be more than happy to talk to him when I get back, though.”

Codger’s grin vanished. “Wrong answer, Cob.” He gestured to the three stallions, who moved forward with obviously hostile intent. “Boys, take her down.” Noticing her two companions, he added an afterthought. “Those two also.”

The three partners in crime backed down the hallway they had just come down. Cobblestone sighed. “You sure you want to do this, fellows?” she asked, loosening her dagger. “We can both go our separate ways.”

The lead, who was named Granite, shook his head. “No can do, Cob. Boss says come ,you come.”

There was a blur from behind her, and after the sound of a brief impact, it resolved itself into Lucky, standing atop the unconscious body of her attacker, who had been sucker punched while distracted.

“Shame.” Lucky said. “Guess we’ve got us a fight.”

The two remaining thugs threw themselves at the Pegasus, only to be stopped cold by two short blasts of lightning from Cobblestone’s horn. Though they were intense, they weren’t enough to do more than scorch her opponents, diverting their attention.
Cobblestone drew her dagger, showing her teeth. “Come on, then,” she said, holding it level. “Come and take me if you think yourselves hard enough.”

The first hurled himself at her, and Cobblestone twisted the dagger, running it into his chest as he collapsed on top of her. The second, limited by the width of the tunnel, managed to wrestle the dagger from her hoof and land a solid blow, kicking back at Lucky as he did so. What he hadn’t counted on, though, was timid little Ivy deciding to act. There was a solid thud, the stallion grunted, and Ivy’s kit bag came away bloody as he collapsed in a nerveless heap. He wasn’t dead, but definitely concussed.

Cobblestone rolled the corpse off of her with a grunt, retrieving her dagger as she did so. She inwardly thanked the drug from insulating her from the horror of what she had done. She had officially gone from thief to murderer. Now, however, was not the time to dwell on that. Growling, she turned to Codger, who had gone white from fear. In the space of ten seconds, things had gone from perfectly fine to out of control for him.

“Now,” she said, wiping her dagger off on Granite’s chest before sheathing it. “I’m going up top. Tell Chip he can take my place, if he likes. And if he sends anypony else after me, I’ll make sure they come back like the one who just tackled me. Got it?”
Codger nodded, trembling.

“Good.” Cobblestone said. “Can’t have you raising an alarm, so…”

Light flashed from her horn, the air was filled with the scent of ozone, and Codger collapsed in a heap, losing control of his muscles as they locked rigid from the effect of the spell. Cobblestone took off running, her cloak flapping behind her, as her two friends followed.

“Now do you believe me?” Ivy asked as she ran. “What did I tell you?”

Cobblestone laughed, almost in hysterics. “Alright, Ivy! I admit it! For once, you were right!”

Lucky laughed, partly to distract himself, partly because of the absurdity of the situation. “Never thought I would hear that!”

As the trio barreled through the checkpoint, to the hollered orders to stop from the guards, Cobblestone turned to look at him. “Lucky?” she called, breaking from a canter into a proper gallop.

“Yes?” she shouted back.

“Shut up and run!”

In Which Things Get Worse

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The Hospitality Inn, located by the riverside in the northern part of the city, was as close to luxury as any pony possessing a reasonable amount of money could possibly hope to achieve. The rooms were well cleaned, though not exactly spacious, and a number of amenities were available for purchase, such as delivered meals, laundering services, barbering, and some small amount of shopping, available for reasonable prices and a small amenity for the one providing coin. Boasting an impressive thirty rooms, it took up a half city block on its own, providing access to the market district, the harbor, and the riverside shops which were quite the attraction for many visitors to Crescent City. The top rooms afforded a mildly impressive view of the harbor, as well.

It was in two of these rooms that Libra and Serale were bedded down that evening, having grown quite tired of sleeping in close proximity to one another on their extensive travels. The spoils of their journey were kept quite safely under lock and key in the chests near their beds, individually packaged and ready for transport when the riverboat that had been dispatched for them arrived tomorrow morning. Dinner had been eaten, sights had been seen, a few gifts had been purchased by Libra for Serale, and at last, the mentor and her young charge had settled down for the evening. However, there was still one thing to accomplish.

“Are you sure she’ll want to speak to me, Libra?” Serale asked. “Mother can be very…busy. Especially tonight, it being her birthday as well. Won’t there be a party for her?” It was tradition for the two of them to speak to one another on their birthday, no matter where they were. On her last birthday, Serale had been much surprised to see her mother’s face appear in a scrying glass in her cabin. It had been the only thing good about that birthday, as the ship had been caught up in a rather nasty storm, and had spent several days rolling and pitching in rough weather.

Libra focused on the mirror, making sure everything was properly aligned. “Of course she will. You’re her daughter, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make sure you at least speak to one another tonight.”

Serale shifted uncomfortably, staring at her own reflection. She had finally removed the illusion, or, rather, Libra had, just a few minutes before. She pushed up a few hairs that had fallen across her eyes, and smoothed out the elegant shift she had put on earlier. She sat up a bit straighter, as well. If anypony had seen her behaving this way without knowing who it was she was speaking to, they would have said she was preparing to meet a foreign dignitary. Somepony powerful, enigmatic, and more than a little dangerous.

Libra noticed her young ward’s behavior. “Relax,” she admonished her. “Everything is going to be fine, I promise.”

Serale groaned. “I can’t! This is the first time I’ve seen her in a year! Shouldn’t I be trying to make a good impression?”

“You have no need to impress your mother, Serale.” Libra replied. “She already thinks very highly of you.” Her horn sparked, flashed, and the mirror began to glow. “Now, I’ll be in the next room when you are finished. Your mother will maintain the connection, so you relax and enjoy your conversation.”

Serale watched her go helplessly, watching as the door shut behind her before turning her attention back to the mirror. She steeled herself, using the techniques that she had been taught in her mother’s Court to reduce anxiety and sharpen her focus. She needed to be on top of her game for this. Focusing, Serale controlled her breathing. She was ready, she was prepared. She was-

“Serale!” the mirror said, a bright and warm voice emanating from it before a shape appeared in its depths. Blurry at first, it soon resolved itself into a form that the young mare knew all too well. The mare in the mirror was tall, slender without being skinny, a bright bronze circlet resting on her brow that glowed with purple and reddish flame. She was clad in a gown of purple, with silver dragons embroidered across the front and sleeves. Her mane was done up in a simple braid, tied off with golden wire, and her hooves were clad in simple black slippers. Twilight smiled at her daughter. “It’s so good to hear from you! How have you been?”

Serale cleared her throat nervously. “H-hello, Mother. It’s good to see you, as well. You’re all dressed up, am I interrupting anything?”

Twilight waved a hoof. “Hardly. The party’s going on outside, but I slipped away so I could spend a bit of time catching up with you.”

“I won’t take too long, then.” Serale said. “I apologize for interrupting.”

“Don’t worry! You are more important than the party by a long shot.” Twilight said with a laugh. “Believe me; I’ve had plenty of birthday parties. How was the trip back from Ashtar Sharestan?”

This was enough to warm Serale up a little. She gave a nervous smile. “It’s as marvelous as you described,” she said. “The spires and dome, the aeries, the Hall of the Resurrected, the Palace of the Five Kings, it was amazing!”

“And they treated you well?” Twilight asked. “I sent word to Mahtaram to make sure you were well-received, not that she needed reminding.”

Serale nodded. “She might be a bit old, but she’s still as sharp as ever, Mother. She sends her warmest greetings, and wants me to remind you that you’re expected at her five hundredth birthday party in a few years.”

“Five hundred already?” Twilight asked. “She doesn’t look a day over three hundred.”

Serale relaxed further. Without even realizing it, she was slowly being drawn out of her shell by her mother. “Says you,” she teased. “What birthday is this, again?”

“It is officially my thirty second birthday,” Twilight said, her eyes sparkling. “Unofficially? Five hundred and forty two. But it’s easier to put thirty two candles on a cake, so the chefs generally go with that.”

Serale laughed. “How’s the cake this year?” she asked. The cake of Lady Everstar was the subject of parlor legends around the kingdom. Every year it was different, and every year it somehow managed to throw off everypony’s guess completely.

“Honey sponge cake with truffles and cream. Four layers, if you can believe it.” Twilight replied. “I’ve no idea how the pastry chef did it, there was no magic involved, and by all rights it shouldn’t be able to support its own weight.”

“Anypony close this year?” Serale asked.

“Lady Hedera thought it might have been a sponge cake with four layers, but she didn’t count on honey. Most others thought I would go with a traditional chocolate.” Twilight replied. “I’m glad she missed her guess.”

Serale tried to put a face to the name. “Lady Hedera, is she the one with the twin daughters?”

“And the son about your age, yes.” Twilight replied. “Incidentally, your presence has been sorely missed at Court. I’ve been fending off the young colts with a stick. Actually, the guards have. I pretend not to notice.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “They are persistent, aren’t they?”

Twilight smiled. “Get used to it. I’m expected to take a partner eventually. But enough about me, what about you?”

Serale was nonplussed. “What about me?”

“Did anypony catch your eye while you were off on your adventure? Anypony on the ship? Perhaps someone in the Islands, or in Fillydelphia?” Twilight asked. “Perhaps not Fillydelphia, I heard that stop didn’t go so well.”

Serale blushed, both at the questions her mother was levelling, and the recollection of the events of her first and only night in Fillydelphia. The city, she reflected, was nice enough. Its inhabitants, however, left much to be desired. “ I can’t really say anything notable about either of those topics,” she murmured. “It’s not really something I’d prefer to dwell on.”

Twilight’s grin turned up even further at the corners. “Oh, come on. That incident with the ambassador? And the bit with the soufflé? And the flautist from the orchestra?” Twilight lowered her voice. “Or was it the other thing which caused you to blush? A crush on a crew member, perhaps?”

Serale’s cheeks were burning red. “I’d prefer not to say,” she demurred. “If you understand.”

Her mother leaned in conspiratorially. “Come on,” she wheedled. “You can tell me. I won’t laugh, I promise. I’ve had lots of experience with this kind of thing.”

Serale waffled back and forth a little bit before making up her mind. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll tell you. But only in return for one thing.”

“Name it.” Twilight said.

“I need a week’s privacy when I get back home,” Serale said, “In order to sort everything out. To get ready for Court and such. And I’ll need Libra to do it.”

“Done!” Twilight said triumphantly. “As far as I know, you’re working on something incredibly big you picked up on your travels, and can’t be disturbed. Will that work?”

Serale nodded. “That will do nicely.”

“Good, now tell me.” Twilight said.

Serale’s voice lowered. “The ship’s captain.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, then flicked upwards in thought, then narrowed appreciatively. “Good choice,” she said. “Fairview is an able commander, and extremely kind to those beneath him. He’s on a fast track for success in the Navy, something of a rising star.”

Serale glanced out of her window into the harbor, where the ship lay at anchor. “I’m sure he is.” she murmured.

Twilight took note of the wistfulness in her daughter’s tone. “I can’t wait to see you again when you return home,” she said. “I’ve got a surprise for you when you arrive.”

Serale’s ears perked up. “A surprise?” she asked. “What is it?”

Twilight laughed. “If I told you that, it wouldn’t be a surprise!” she replied. “Suffice it to say that it is a joint gift, from one of the ambassadors here as well as myself. And I think you’ll like it very much.”

Serale smiled once more. “I’m looking forward to seeing you soon, Mother,” she said. “We’ll be back in a few days.”

Twilight smiled. “I know, mia stella e anima. And I’m so, so glad to have you coming back home to me. Be safe tonight. I know Libra’s with you, but Crescent City is full of all sorts of unsavory types.”

The three fugitives from the underworld burst out of the drainage chute into the light of the moon, panting hard. They had been pursued with ridiculous haste through most of the tunnels, but they had the advantage of being lighter and smaller than their targets, which meant that they were able to lose them with a bit of effort in the confines of the tunnels, which they knew well from their frequent forays into the city.

“Well,” Lucky said, panting as he came to a stop in the shadow of a ramshackle storefront. “They certainly didn’t make that easy. Is everypony alright?”

“I’m okay,” Ivy said. “Just a bit out of breath, is all.”

“What about you, Cob?” Lucky said. “How are you doing?”

Cobblestone was wheezing hard, clutching at her chest. Her head swam and her vision blurred, phantom shapes chasing each other around the edges of her vision. She focused on regaining her breath, fighting back images of the stallion she had pushed a knife into back in the tunnels. It had been so dark and confusing that she couldn’t even remember his face, and she doubted she would ever know who it was she had just killed not half an hour before.

“Cob?” Ivy asked, laying a hoof on her shoulder. “You okay?”

The unicorn shook her head violently, trying to clear her vision. A sour taste rose in her throat, and she pushed Ivy away just in time to release a stream of vomit into the nearby gutter, coming to her knees as she did so. She retched again, and then again, before the contractions in her belly stopped and she was shakily able to regain her footing. Ivy and Lucky watched silently as she wiped her mouth, spat once, and then turned to them both.

“Sorry,” she said. “Too much Dragon’s Kiss and too much activity. I’m feeling better now, though.”

“Good,” Lucky said. “That’s good. Now, we need to find someplace to hunker down for tonight. We can get moving again tomorrow, find a new target and get out of here.”

“No,” Cobblestone said, shaking her head. “We go tonight, we get our loot tonight, and we get out of town on the first riverboat tomorrow. I want to be as far away from Crescent City as possible.”

Ivy looked at her worriedly. “Cob, that’s an awfully tall order. You’re not exactly at the top of your game right now. What if something goes wrong?”

Cobblestone’s nostrils flared angrily before she drew her dagger and flung it with pinpoint accuracy at Lucky’s head. Before the stunned Pegasus could react, it buried itself in the wood a half-inch above his head, directly between his two ears, quivering lightly. Her horn lit up, and the dagger detached itself from the wood, executing a lazy flip so the point was flying directly at her chest before she plucked the weapon out of the air.

“You were saying?” she asked, not revealing that the dagger had landed far lower than she intended.

Lucky swallowed audibly, feeling at the top of his head as he spoke. “Well, I for one think that we’re fairly low on options. We can bed down for the evening, hit the target and hope for the best, or find somepony else to rob blind. After that little display, I’m switching my vote to ‘do it anyway’. What about you, Ivy?”

The younger mare was silent for a while before she spoke up. “If you’re sure that you are up to it, Cob, I’ll go along.”

Cobblestone nodded. “I’m up for it. I’m sure. Let’s go.”

Lucky nodded. “Alright then. Let’s move uptown a few blocks, and we’ll find a good spot to go over the plan.”

The trio began their trek northward, keeping to the shadows both out of habit and as a precaution against any of Chip’s thugs who had followed them up to the surface. Lucky’s sharp eyes saved them more than once from roving bands of muggers, patrols of constables, and other ponies with whom contact would be undesirable. There were more of these than one might think. Even if no ill will existed between the denizens of the slums and the three moving through them, every eye that could spy them could then be persuaded to divulge that information to the wrong ponies for the right price. So it was that progress was slow, each route checked and double checked until the three of them got closer to the market, closer to the crowds, and farther away from the territory Chip’s gang controlled.

Finally, Lucky signaled a stop, and the three of them hunkered down in an old alley, where they wouldn’t be disturbed by the bustle of the nearby crowds. Gathering them in close, he withdrew a sketch of the inn, below which was a plan of the top floor. As he had been able to get inside the inn, this second drawing was well-detailed.

“Now,” he said, laying it out. “They rented two rooms, right next to one another. The younger of the two took the corner room, which had a bed, a chest at the foot of it, and a chest of drawers by the window. The floors are carpeted, which makes moving quietly a lot easier for those inside of it. I helped to load the majority of the valuables into the chest, which we can presume has been locked, but once we get it away, we can jimmy the lock, or failing that, smash the damn thing.”

Cobblestone indicated a line outside of the hotel plan. “And what’s that?” she asked.

“The river.” Lucky said. “This limits our options for approach. If we try to come at it from the waterfront, things can go wrong pretty badly. Which is why I took the liberty of disguising myself and securing a room with the coin I carried today, as well as Ivy’s money, which I lifted from her chest when she was distracted. Sorry about that.”

Ivy glared at him. “I would have given it to you, you know.”

Lucky shrugged, turning back to the plan. “Right then. You and Cobblestone will enter the inn with me, and we will proceed to our room down the hall. At this point, I will get to the roof from the window, providing a lookout while you two approach the two rooms. I’ll make my way to the windows, and we shall both gently lift the chests out of the rooms. We shall retreat to a location I have already scouted out a few blocks away, and regale ourselves with how clever we all are. Any questions?”

Ivy volunteered a timid hoof. “Which room will I be going in?”

“Well, which would you like?” Cobblestone said. “We’ve got more knowledge of the corner room, but the other will have a lighter load, which means it’ll be easier to get out.”

Ivy considered. “You said the other room had an older mare in it?”

Lucky nodded. “Both of them were Earth ponies. One a little older than Cob and myself, and one I’d peg around fifty or so.”

“I’ll take the room next to the corner.” Ivy said. “She might be hard of hearing, which makes it a bit easier.”

Lucky nodded. “To the daring go the spoils, then.”

Cobblestone’s eyes swept over the map again. “So we lift the chests out. First the lighter, then the heavier chests. How do we get out?”

“Hopefully, you can close the windows and doors with nopony the wiser, and simply walk out into the night,” Lucky said, folding the map up. “But in case things go south, the river is right below. You can both swim, right?”

Cob and Ivy nodded. Lucky smiled. “Then we’ll just evade the authorities like we usually do, get warm, and try again another day. We may just scrounge up enough for passage upriver, and then steal enough to get us back on our hooves when we hit the Capitol.”

The three ponies were in agreement, then. Soon enough, they were moving back uptown, mixing in with the crowd, and drawing ever closer to their destination.

The front desk of the Hospitality Inn was run by an absolutely delightful mare by the name of Charity, and her husband Stalwart, a retired enlistee in the Evening Kingdom’s army. He had spent most of his career as a border fort quartermaster, before a chance trip to Starfall, the capital, had caused him to run into his future wife. This was not a figure of speech. They had quite literally collided outside of an inn much like this one, and had fallen for one another hard. It was a short while later, after his contract had expired, that the two had taken their life’s savings and invested them here, in Crescent City, opening the Inn nearly twenty years ago. Stalwart’s long experience and military efficiency kept the inn running like clockwork, and Charity’s wonderful disposition helped guests and workers alike feel as if they had finally come home.

“Welcome back, Master Blue!” Charity chirped from her desk. “And I see that you have brought friends of yours! You’re in luck, I was about to close up the desk for the evening.”

Lucky smiled at her. “I certainly have, Ms. Charity. These are two friends of mine in town, and we’ve only just now been able to catch up.”

Charity was no fool, and the two mares, hardly more than fillies, did not look friendly in the slightest. But years of life in Crescent City had added a canny edge to her cheerful disposition, and so she did nothing more than raise an eyebrow as Lucky steered his two “friends” up the stairs to the room he had rented for the evening. They did, at least, look competent enough to handle themselves should something go wrong, and if it did, the constables were right around the corner if needed.

Upon reaching the room and closing the door behind them, both Cob and Ivy extricated themselves from Lucky’s embrace with incredible speed.

“Remind me next time we do this that your entry plans are horrible.” Cob grumbled, shivering. “I feel dirty.”

Ivy nodded. “I think I need a bath.”

“You two can have all the baths you want and then some once we finish this job, and then we never have to have an ‘entry plan’ again.” Lucky reminded them. “After all, we’re going straight after this, right?”

Both of the mares nodded. Lucky seated himself on the bed. “Now all we have to do is wait a bit. Give them time to settle in, make sure nopony is still up, out, and about.”

Cob stretched out, sighing and enjoying the luxury of not having to watch her back for a change. Still a bit dizzy, she leaned her head against the wall, letting the effects of the drug wear off. Though she wasn’t as tipsy, she could still see traces of magic in the air, weaving through the room like the threads on an old tapestry. It was quite relaxing.

Ivy sunk into a chair that was placed in the corner. “So,” she said after a moment. “Do we know anything about the ponies we’re robbing? At all?”

Lucky gestured noncommittally. “Possibly a young lady from a merchant family. She has a chaperone, which means she’s probably being shown the ropes on how to conduct business. She didn’t do too badly either, that’s for sure.”

“Maybe she’s from House Bluehide,” Cob suggested. “They trade a lot of stuff in Crescent City, it’s their main port. Well, the only big port, really.”

Ivy shook her head. “No, she’s not a Bluehide, they’re all unicorns. I’d guess she’s a Hedera. They’re mostly Earth ponies.”

“How in the bloody blue blazes do you know that?” Lucky asked.

Ivy shot a withering glance at him. She was surprisingly good at it. “Unlike most of the ponies in the gang, I pay attention to who moves what in the city. All those crates down by the harbor, the ones stamped with the compass mark? Those are Bluehide. Their stuff gets unloaded here and either loaded onto riverboats for points beyond, or gets sold further up the coast to traders from the Celestial Empire.”

Cob leaned forward. This was a side of Ivy she hadn’t seen before. “Alright, then what about the Hederas?”

“Well, they’re mostly land traders, doing caravans and such. They have a lot of reach, too. They go from the Gryphonic Oligarchy in the south up to Fillydelphia, and all the way out to Canterlot at least.” Ivy said.

Now it was Cob’s turn to be amazed. “Alright, seriously. How do you know all of that?”

Ivy smirked. “It’s all about watching the flow of things. Go to the market, ask a few questions. The Hedera caravans have that leaf mark on them, the three pointed one inside a vine. They’ve moved all sorts of stuff. Gems from Fillydelphia, metal from the Oligarchy, manufactured goods from all over…I mean, it’s a pretty extensive list.”

There was silence for a few brief moments. And then, from Lucky, “Ivy, you have the strangest hobbies.”

Cob wasn’t so dismissive. “Seriously, how do you know all of that? There’s no way you could have picked that up by watching crates.”

Ivy’s smirk lessened. “True. I had a bit of prior knowledge…before.”

Cob pressed her for more. “Go on. What do you mean?”

Ivy shrank back. “I…I don’t want to talk about it now. It’s not the right time.”

Lucky stared at her. “What do you mean, ‘not the right time’?”

“Look,” Ivy said, running a hoof through her mane in a way Cob had never seen her do before. “If everything goes according to plan, and we grab our loot and make it to Starfall, I’ll tell you then. I Pinkie Promise.”

“What in Dusk’s name is a Pinkie?” Cob asked.

Ivy tilted her head. “You know? I’m not really sure. I must have picked it up somewhere. It means that I swear on my life that I’ll tell you. That’s all I know.”

Lucky shook his head. “Right. On that note, I think we’ve waited long enough. Anypony hear movement?”

There was a brief silence as they listened, and then both of the unicorns shook their heads. The Hospitality Inn was deadly quiet. Lucky spread his wings, opening the window as he did so.

“I’ll be ready right outside,” he said, one hoof on the sill. “Move quick and quiet like, and I’ll see you both soon, eyah?”

“Eyah.” Cob and Ivy echoed, and without further ado, each drew lockpicks from their packs, opening the door as they did so. Ivy checked the hallway she could see, which was clear. Cob did the same, and found it likewise devoid of passerby. The duo counted to one, two, three, and slipped into the hallway, hearts pounding and ready for the task ahead.

The squad of assassins were each hoof-picked for their speed, stealth, and skill in the art of ending lives quickly and unexpectedly without raising a fuss. Each was clad all in black, each carried a dagger and each of them would see their task through at the cost of their own lives without a second thought. To ensure nopony would be taken alive in case of a fight, each carried a vial of a swift poison that would be downed if the authorities drew near. They numbered four, with their handler, the stallion in the jacket and tie, waiting across the river. He had been watching the Inn for hours, making sure nothing was wrong, and at last he gave the signal to begin.

Time now, brothers. Good hunting.” he thought, and then the four Pegasi began their tasks, sweeping from the sky on swift, soot-blackened wings. They plummeted like crows, but before they could alight on the roof, they veered off course, climbing back into the sky. The stallion frowned. “Trouble, brothers?

One of the Pegasi touched his mind respectfully. “There is another Pegasus on the roof. He is unaware of us, but is slowly moving towards the corner room. He clearly has skill at remaining unseen.”

The stallion considered. He did not like dispensing of lives uselessly, but he had his task and would see it done. “Remove him. Do so swiftly.”

The four plummeted again, and there was a short gasp from the rooftop before the Pegasus touched his mind again. “It is done.”

Did he die well?

As well as could be expected.” the Pegasus replied. The stallion bowed his head, sending a quick prayer to Fate to help his unknowing brother find rest.

He lifted his head. “Continue in your work.” he ordered.

The four Pegasi crept towards the windows as the stallion watched. Though he didn’t know the name of the Pegasus on the rooftop, there were two in that inn who did. Lucky’s luck had run out.

In Which Everything Changes

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The Inn was absolutely quiet when the duo of thieves crept into the hallway, silent as could be. They moved with the instinct brought by extended practice, movements fluid and subtle, keeping to alcoves and always, always checking to make sure that nopony was out in the hallway to spy on their clandestine activities. This meant that while progress was constant, it was also not as quick as it could be. Time needed to be taken in order to note which doors still had light spilling out from underneath, which floorboards would creak when pressure was applied, and so on. Thus, it took them nearly a full minute to progress down a hundred yard stretch of hallway.

They had robbed houses before, and so they easily slipped into a modified version of the procedure they had used for that. Ivy halted just before the door, while Cobblestone crept right up to the lock, accepting a small set of picks from underneath Ivy’s cloak. She crouched down, withdrawing two of the tools from her bag. The locks on the Inn doors were good, but Cobblestone and indeed all of the other thieves in the West River Gang were far better.

Cobblestone shook away a wave of dizziness, the last of the drug making its way through her body. There was a rattle from the lock, and she dropped one of the tumblers out of order, resetting the whole thing. She silently cursed herself for her foolishness before carefully withdrawing the pick and starting all over again. It was almost what she imagined meditation to be like, Cob reflected. She was able to focus on a task so completely that she could shut all other distractions, even her sense of self, completely out.

With a small click, the lock opened, and Cob tried the handle of the door. It turned smoothly in her magical grasp, and she nodded to Ivy, who took the picks from her and crept to the second door. They would open the doors simultaneously, ensuring that they could get to their prizes more quickly. Cob would have the worst time of it, opening the door, then the window, then lifting the chest, and closing everything back up before closing the door behind her. Ivy would, if things went wrong with Cob’s end of things, simply escape through the window or door. Cob would be caught flat, Ivy could get away free.

It took her younger accomplice a bit longer, but eventually, Ivy managed to jimmy the lock on the door open, and each took up their position outside of the rooms. Cobblestone mouthed a countdown, three, two, one, and each of them opened the doors smoothly, stepping inside and closing them behind themselves to cut off light from the hallway.

To the untrained observer, it would appear that the hallway of the Hospitality Inn was completely deserted. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

The first thing Ivy noticed when she entered the room, looking for a hiding spot, was that the window was already open. Smiling quietly to herself, she crept towards a shadowy spot on the wall where she could hide herself reliably and wait for Lucky to appear and help her lift the valuables from the room.

She frowned. Something seemed off about this place. Aside from the still form in the bed nearby, she got the distinct feeling that she was not-

Strong hooves grabbed her from behind, and she could feel something swinging towards her throat. Reflexively, she bit down on the hoof over her mouth, twisting her body just enough so that the silent dagger meant for her throat instead traced a line along the side of her neck, thankfully avoiding anything important. She drew in breath to shout, but a swift punch to her ribs caused the air to rush from her lungs. She kicked back, and was rewarded with a grunt of pain from her unknown assailant, who had been hiding by the door when she walked in.

Rolling away, she managed to light her horn on reflex before a second shadow made a motion at her, and the light around her horn winked out. Ivy staggered to one side, suddenly weakened. She felt cold, as if she had just had all of her strength sucked right out of her, and her hooves went numb as the second shadow detached itself silently from the wall and slid towards her as the first one attempted to grab her from behind. Thankfully, he only managed to grab her cloak, and before the second shadow could take her down, she did the only thing she could do under the circumstances.

Ivy took a deep breath and screamed as loud as she could.

Cobblestone’s ears pricked up at the sudden noise from the next room, and only the lethargy of her slowed reflexes managed to stop her from flinching right back into the waiting hooves of a Pegasus, who grasped a dagger in hoof. On reflex, she summoned light, casting bright blue illumination into every corner of the room and getting her back to a wall. When she saw what awaited her, she almost wished she had not.

The two Pegasi looked at her, eerily quiet as they both drew their daggers simultaneously, as if they were puppets on the same string. Their eyes were purest black, narrowed in the light, and without another word, they lunged at her, ready to kill.

Cobblestone rolled to one side as the figure on the bed managed to stir, and she caught sight of a horn on its head before a wing blocked her view, swinging right at her nose in an attempt to break it. She turned, catching it on one cheek before taking another step back. As she watched, what appeared to be a black flame appeared in the hoof of one of her assailants, and he thrust it towards her. Her light flickered and dimmed, and Cobblestone felt very cold indeed.

Grunting, she lowered her horn, letting loose with a blast of concussive force that should have stopped the Pegasus right in his tracks. Indeed, it did blow him back a fair distance, slamming him into the wall near the window and causing him to drop his dagger, but it also left her woefully unprotected from the second assailant. Seeing an opening, the Pegasus swung his dagger at her neck, hoping for a killing blow.

The unicorn on the bed, who had just been roused from an otherwise pleasant sleep, careened into him with surprising force, kicking off of the bed to give herself extra power. The two of them rolled towards the wall that separated one room from another, crashing into it with enough force to make it rattle. If the occupants weren’t awake before, they certainly were now.

Ivy desperately avoided the two Pegasi, but there was only so much she could do in these close quarters. Dancing back towards the door, her every thought focused on getting away and free enough to escape, not defeating her two attackers. She could feel hot blood weeping from the line on her neck, and already two more cuts had been carved into her flanks and chin, almost serrating her eye. She could see the occupant of the bed out of the corner of her eye, and had only a moment to note the unexpected horn on her head before one of her assailants broke off, attempting to throw his dagger at this pony while his compatriot came in low, digging into her chest with the edge of the dagger before she could pull away. Ivy was running out of time.

And then the horn on the bed lit up, and the room exploded into light and sound and fury. Ivy was blown back against the wall, her vision flickering, before the two Pegasi followed her likewise. The unicorn looked at them, eyes glowing purple-white along with her magic, before the force keeping her pinned to the wall slammed her down onto the floor. The unicorn rolled out of bed, easily holding the three of them down with her face twisted into a contemptuous snarl. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could do so, there was a thud from the wall behind her. Eyes widening, she turned to the wall, and with a flash, blew a hole right through it, stepping into the room beyond.

“Serale!” she cried.

Cobblestone ducked when she felt the magic building up in the other room, the drug allowing her to see the massive amount of power that had been unleashed. She was not a moment too soon, as a bolt of energy the size of her head impacted the wall, disintegrating a good piece of it instantly. Shaking the explosion off, she took advantage of this distraction to launch herself towards the window, only to find one of the assassins waiting for her.

She felt magic grab at her back, forcing her to the floor along with every other pony in the room. She could see several other shapes huddled in the adjacent room through the smoking wreckage of what had once been a bed, and hoped beyond hope that Ivy was not one of them. The unicorn wielding all of this power stepped through, surveying the situation and leaving her back to the room behind her. This was an unwise move on her part.

One of the Pegasi, blazing with black flame, rose to his hooves silently, taking up his dagger as he did so. Cobblestone tried to move, to make noise, but the enchantment held firm for her, and she remained pressed to the ground by the sheer force of this pony’s will. Digging deep, she threw everything she had against the barrier of light pressing her to the ground.

And much to her surprise, it moved.

Gritting her teeth, she tried again. And again. And again. Her head ached, her vision blurred, she almost passed out, but she mustered herself for a final push just as the pony behind the Mage raised his dagger. Focusing with her horn, she pushed as hard as she could, and was extremely surprised when not only did the barrier around her fall, but a bolt of heat and light sped forth from her horn in a jagged line, hitting the Pegasus high in the chest, and extinguishing the flame around him with definite finality. As he fell, the air around them seemed to explode into noise, deafening all present.

Belatedly, she realized that she had broken every shield, and that the Pegasus by the window was moving to escape. Focusing her will again, she tried to push more of herself through her horn, but she spasmed and fell convulsing to the ground.

The Mage turned, realizing what had just happened as the remaining Pegasus at her hooves attempted to stand. The unicorn he had been tangling with, the sleeper, refused to let him up, twisting her body sinuously and somehow managing to pin his wings to the ground, where he lay impotently. Cobblestone watched as the Pegasus by the window managed to hurl himself through, leaving one Pegasus alive and well. What he did next would haunt Cobblestone for the rest of her days.

“Put the filly down!” Libra shouted, making sure to enunciate each word in an exaggerated fashion. Her head pulsed as she struggled to adjust to the burst eardrums she had just received. Her vision swam, and it was only by reason of this that she did not put a bolt of magic through this Pegasus’s head. She didn’t trust her aim at all.

The Pegasus dragged the young filly in a cloak to her hooves, holding her in front of him like a shield with a dagger at her throat. His black eyes were wide with panic, and she could almost see the thoughts running through his head. Internally, she cursed herself for leaving the two that had been in her room unaccounted for.

“Cob!” the filly was screaming, her words all too clear despite the loss of hearing. “Cob! Get up!”

The Pegasus said nothing, only pressing the knife into her neck in order to shut her up. He began to move towards the window, and Libra watched helplessly as he prepared to make his escape. She shouted again, horn blazing with magic.

“Put the filly down and drop the knife!” she ordered. “Surrender, you can’t get away!” She knew it to be true. There were likely constables approaching the inn from above and down every side street. The Pegasus was on borrowed time as it was.

The young unicorn struggled uselessly as she was dragged towards the window, still caught in the grip of the Pegasus. Libra could almost feel the eyes of the unicorn who had cast that spell watching her friend being dragged away kicking and screaming. The pair halted at the window as the struggling of the filly grew ever more frenzied despite the knife at her throat. And then things finally came to a head.

The young mare in the cloak slammed her head back into her would-be hostage taker, causing his head to fly back. As she leaned forward, however, the knife dug into her throat, leaving a long red line that sprayed blood across the wooden floor of the Inn. Libra, seeing a shot, took it. Her beam of magic drilled through the Pegasus’s head cleanly, causing him to topple out of the window, dragging the weakly struggling mare behind him. Though nopony in the room could hear it, there was a splash from outside as both ponies fell into the swift water of the river, disappearing into its murky depths.

Libra swore, casting healing magic on herself and restoring her popped eardrums before doing the same to the rest of the room. It was not one of her better ideas.

“Ivy!” Cobblestone screamed, trying to pick herself up. “Ivy! No, dammit, no! Ivy!”

“Quiet!” Libra snarled, reinstating the magical bonds that had proved so ineffectual before around both her and the Pegasus. She poured more power into them this time, ensuring that they could not move from their spots. She added a gag for good measure. The mage turned to Serale. “Are you hurt, Lady Serale?”

Serale released her hold on the Pegasus, dusting herself off and checking herself over. Her tone was level, but Libra knew her charge well enough to see the panic in her eyes, behind her practiced regal mask. “No, no. I’m fine, thank goodness. Glad I practiced my self-defense when we were away, and certainly glad you showed up when you did. Thank you, Libra.”

Libra nodded. “Please have a seat on the bed, Lady Serale. The authorities should be arriving in a moment to deal with these two, but in the meantime I would like to get what information I can.”

She turned to the unicorn, as she seemed younger. Her tone was as icy as a northern winter. “Now. Tell me who sent you here tonight, and why they want to kill the Evening Heir.”

The unicorn seemed unable to speak. She gazed at her captor with wide eyes, unsure of what to say. Libra applied more force, pressing her into the floorboards. “Answer me!”

Serale raised a hoof in supplication. “Hold on, Libra. I don’t think they were here to kill me. At least, she wasn’t.”

Libra glared at her captive suspiciously, not taking eyes off of her. “Explain, Serale.”

“She came in from the opposite side, and when that other pony screamed, she attacked the Pegasi that were in here. I hardly think that she would have done so if they were working together.” Serale said, gazing at her. “In fact, without her assault on one of the Pegasi, I would very likely have been killed.”

“Then why were they here?” Libra asked. “Who sent them?”

Cobblestone grunted under the force applied to her. “Nopony…sent us. Spotted you earlier today…tried to rob you.”

“There, you see?” Serale said. “Not an assassin, just a thief. One with morals, I might add. Instead of running, she chose to fight.”

“Dubious morals, at best.” Libra said. “I have a feeling she was trying to save her own skin rather than yours, but at least she isn’t a killer.” She turned to the other captive, the Pegasus. Finally, she could hear the cries of the constables gathering in the street below.

“Who sent you?” she demanded. “Why are you here?”

The Pegasus looked at her blankly, saying nothing. Instead, his head twitched just a bit, indicating a spot under the bed Serale was sitting on. Serale, catching on fast, reached underneath, pulling out a loaded crossbow, with a scroll tightly wound around the shaft.

“Libra,” she said, her voice small. “It has my name on it.”

“From the Cult of Crows to you, false Goddess,” the Pegasus said suddenly. He smiled an unpleasant smile. “May your reign be short and tragic.”

There was a rush of black flame, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air as the Pegasus began to somehow incinerate himself, the magical flame eating through his body much quicker than any normal fire could. It did not spread to the floorboards, or even give off much heat, but it was a matter of a minute before nothing remained of the Pegasus save a charred, blackened skeleton. He had not stopped smiling the entire time, and even in death, his skull seemed to wear a mocking grin.

The room was silent after that. There was really nothing to say. They were found just like that not a minute later, when the first of the constables opened the door. Words were said, information exchanged. Deference was paid where it was due, and though no more sleep was had that night, an extra vigil watched diligently until the early light of morning and beyond.

Cobblestone huddled in one corner of the hard, chilly cell she had been thrown into several hours ago. It was a state-run prison, which meant conditions here were marginally better than the conditions in a city gaol, but the prisoners were certainly not made comfortable. Not to mention, the security here was much tighter than normal, and for good reason. Around her were the very worst of Crescent City, and that was saying something. Killers, rapists, the dregs of society were housed above, below, and to all sides of her.

Not that it mattered much, she reflected. That had been Serale Everstar, the child of Lady Everstar herself. And she had been mixed up in a plot to kill her. True, she was just a thief, but it was almost guaranteed that she would hang for that on principle. It was almost preferable to the other option, which would be for her to rot in this cell for the rest of her life.

No, she reflected, it would be far better to have her short drop, sudden stop, and a pauper’s grave in a rundown cemetery without even a headstone to mark her passing. She snorted humorlessly. Better than her friends would be getting, that was certain. She had seen them take Lucky’s body from the roof as she was led away. He’d be examined and incinerated like as not. And Ivy…tears formed in her eyes as she thought about Ivy. She blinked them away, but the memories stubbornly refused to go with them.

Ivy had panicked. She had never been cut out for this life, she had lived too well for too long, and look where it had gotten her. Struggling like that instead of coming up with a plan? Cob knew better than that, any pony who spent more than a few years on the streets knew how to get away from a knife to your throat, or they had died trying.

Well, Ivy had died trying. Cob sniffed, curling in on herself as she recalled that struggle, those cuts along her friend’s face, the moving towards the window. She remembered seeing Ivy’s head go back, and that jerk from the Pegasus, and the long red line across her throat…and the drop. Gone forever, either swept out to sea or settled into the watery bed of the river to be picked apart by the current and the fish.

Another spasm tore through her body, and Cobblestone hissed in pain, clutching at her horn. Whatever she had shot, whatever had come out of her, it had hurt far more than anything she had ever done before. She didn’t even know what it was that she did, let alone how to do it again! And if she could do it again, she certainly would. But the band of cold iron around her horn reminded her that doing so would be a futile waste of effort. She wore one of the biggest inhibitor rings they had around her horn, blocking her power thoroughly. She shuddered. At least it wasn’t permanent. She had seen the ex-prisoners begging for coin in the city, rings folded tightly around their horns, married to the very bone itself. To a unicorn, it could be considered a fate worse than death.

The door at the far end of her hall opened with a clang, and she could hear the sound of hoofbeats echoing off of the cold iron walls of the prison. Her heart sank, knowing that they were coming for her. Sure enough, two guards in burgundy coats stopped in front of her cell. One of them hefted a set of hobbles and a bridle, while the other brandished a baton.

“No funny business from you, eh?” Baton said. “You either come quietly, or I beat you until you’re quiet and you come anyway.”

Cobblestone nodded meekly, and he withdrew a set of keys from his pocket, opening the door to her cell. Bridle approached, and she allowed her hooves to be bound and the bit to be placed into her mouth. It tasted of old spit and sweat. The guard gave a gentle tug, and Cobblestone followed along, getting used to the small steps she was now forced to take.

Her new acquaintances in the cells around her, sensing her fear, began to cheer and make catcalls at her as she was led away.

“Hey there, lovely! You look good with a bridle in!” one skinny stallion called to her, a lecherous grin across his face.

Another pony, this one burly, rushed to the bars, startling her as he reached out. “Come on over, my little pony. I don’t bite hard, promise!” he said, opening his mouth wide to reveal that he had filed his teeth down to points.

“Keep moving, prisoner.” Baton said, not looking at her. “It’s the last time in your life that you’ll be seeing these lowlifes.”

Cobblestone’s heart leapt into her throat at that. She was being led to an execution! Panicking, she tugged on the bridle, putting up a fight and managing to pull away from the other guard, who was unprepared for her attempted escape. Half-running, half-hopping, she sped back the way she came, gaining a dozen steps on the guards before they were able to turn around and get her. Bridle pulled out a whistle, blowing it as he chased after her. Immediately, two Pegasi dropped from alcove above her, chasing her down and bringing her to the ground as the four guards piled on top of her, restraining her as the first guard began to apply his baton.

“Stop resisting!” he shouted, raining down blows on the unicorn. “Stop resisting or I will knock you unconscious!”

Cobblestone, afraid, confused, and in pain, reached for her magic by instinct. She felt her vision flicker, her head go numb, and right before she lost consciousness, she heard the clatter of the inhibitor ring as it split in two.

“You said it took how many guards to get her down here?” Libra asked.

The Commandant of the prison sniffed. “It took six when all was said and done, though the last two probably were not needed, seeing as the prisoner lost consciousness shortly thereafter.” In an effort to salvage his pride, he added “To be fair, it happened right at shift change. And she slipped her inhibitor ring.”

The mage thought about that. “What are the ratings on those rings?”

“She was wearing a Class Four dampener,” the Commandant said. “In addition to standard hobbles and bridle.”

Libra nodded thoughtfully. “Well, that certainly gives me an idea of what to expect when transporting her.”

“Are you sure you’ll be needing to escort her personally, Magus?” the Commandant asked. “I’m sure we could hold her here until a proper transfer team could be assembled.”

Libra gave him a look that could have stripped paint. “Commandant, we have two dozen Royal Grenadiers, fourteen mages, four Changelings, and myself on our boat in addition to Lady Serale and our normal crew. We shall be able to more than handle a pubescent prisoner for three days on the way back upriver.”

The stallion threw up his hooves defensively. “Just making sure, Magus.” he shuffled a few papers around. “One thing more, Magus Libra.”

Libra looked at him inquisitively. “And what would that be?”

He slid the paper across the table towards her. “The prisoner shows signs of heavy and regular drug use. Dragon’s Kiss, to be precise. The teeth are stained green, her coat has fallen out in places, and there is some bloating in her abdominal area.”

Libra looked over the paperwork, concerned. “How old is she?”

“We estimate her age to be around thirteen to fifteen, Magus, though without her telling us we have no way to know. We only have a name for her now.”

“So young…” Libra murmured. She set the paper down along with several others, bundling them into a folder. “So we should be expecting signs of withdrawal?”

“Unless you are planning to allow her continued use of the drug in your custody,” the Commandant said. “I would give her about two days before the effects of drug loss begin to take their toll. Do you have a healer on board your vessel, or shall I provide one?”

“I shall administer treatment of her myself.” Libra said, gathering Cobblestone’s paperwork into a bundle.

The Commandant nodded respectfully. “Very well, Magus. If you’ll follow me, I will take you to our holding cell.”

Together, they both walked out of the room, down the stairs from the office of the Commandant to a smaller room, outside of which were stationed two guards and two soldiers, in uniform and with rifles slung. The guards looked justifiably nervous. The two ponies were elite Grenadiers, evidenced by the red stripe down the legs of their pants. Each had seen at least five years of service, and had been in combat frequently over that term of service.

The Commandant nodded to his guards, one of whom withdrew a key from his coat pocket, turning it precisely in the door before stepping away and allowing the prison head to step through, followed by Libra.

“We’ve got her sedated for now, the effects being scheduled to last for another four hours, plenty of time to get her aboard your ship.” the Commandant said.

The young mare was suspended between two guards, both of them unicorns. They took her weight with ease. Her horn had once again been encased in enchanted iron, and instead of hobbles, she wore manacles with stiff metal bars between them, preventing her from moving her legs at all. They had even put another bridle in her mouth, this one locked in the back.

“I can assure you this is all necessary,” the Commandant said. “She has been upgraded to a serious transport risk, and neutralized accordingly.”

Libra bent closer and examined her, before standing up angrily. “I told you she was not to be beaten or harmed in your custody, Commandant. She has clearly suffered abuse here.”

The greying stallion shrugged. “She shouldn’t have attempted to resist transport.”

Libra shook her head, turning to the guards. “You two, come with me. We’re taking this mare, this child out of here,” she turned to the Commandant. “And you can expect to be hearing more from me. Good day, Commandant.”

Without another word, she turned and marched out of the cell, the two guards and the Grenadiers in tow. The Commandant watched her go, ensuring she was out of sight before letting out a sigh of relief. One did not become the head Magus in the Evening Court without serious talent and incredible cunning. And he had the feeling that he had just barely escaped having that talent and cunning directed squarely at him.

“Tell me of the failure,” Nightshade said, her mask gleaming in the early morning light.

The well-dressed stallion stared straight ahead, reciting the events as if by rote. “A group of thieves attempted to rob the rooms as we were entering them. They were able to raise an alarm, and the Mage awoke in time to ensure our defeat.”

“Bad luck, then?” Nightshade queried. “An ill-timed twist of Fate?”

The stallion chose his next words very carefully. “Yes, ma’am. Fate tested us, and we failed.”

“Failed, yes, that would sum it up,” the unicorn said. “And yet, I cannot help but wonder if we mightn’t have failed completely, had things gone differently.” She turned to the wall behind him. “What say you?” she inquired.

The Pegasus groaned, barely held in place on the wall by the nails driven through his legs and wings. His eyes rolled in his head. He gave no answer, though the stallion privately suspected that was because his voice had long ago given out. No sound escaped this room by design. Nightshade took matters into her own hooves.

Nightshade shook her head, disappointed. “I do not blame you, Brother Chance. You used the tools you had as best you could,” she said, casting her sightless eyes up to where the Pegasus hung. “It is not your fault that one of them was faulty and failed in its purpose. Even if you had used your tools and had them all fail in their tasks, I would not be angry.”

She spun, seizing a knife from her table and hurling it through the air, where it landed, quivering, in the Pegasus’s right wing. “What angers me,” she said without missing a beat, ignoring the screams of the Pegasus, “Is that your Brother did not fulfil his duties to the utmost.”

Black fire came from her splintered horn, and the nails and knives vanished, leaving the Pegasus to fall a dozen feet to the floor. He crumpled in an undignified heap, barely moving. Nightshade helped him up, seating him in a chair.

“Brother Chance, I have nothing more to say to you. I am not angry, nor am I disappointed in you, though I am disappointed in our failure. We delivered our message, though we did not kill the Mage as instructed. When you feel he is up to it, please take Brother Tertius to be healed down below. We cannot afford to lose more of our comrades.”

Brother Chance nodded only once, hoisting the Pegasus onto his back as he gently closed the door behind him. For a moment, the room was quiet, and Nightshade was alone. Closing her eyes, she lost herself in the embrace of the Shadows. It did not take long before she felt a familiar and welcome presence in her mind.

Child. Have you succeeded in your task?

“No, Mother. The Mage yet lives, though the message was delivered.”

Unfortunate. A minor setback, however. I now see why the attack failed. Rest now, I shall send new instructions in your dreams.

“I live to serve, Mother.”

The Shadows caressed her mind, sending thrills through her.

I know, child. I know.


Yes, child?

“I love you.”

And I you, my child. Sleep now. I shall watch thy rest.

In Which Plans Are Made

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The first thing Cobblestone was aware of was warmth. She hadn’t been warm in months, since the leaves had started turning and she had managed to get ahold of a new blanket for her cot. Thinking of her cot got her thinking about something else she was feeling, which was the feeling of resting on something soft. Incredibly soft, actually. She shifted herself drowsily, and was much surprised to feel that no matter which way she seemed to move, the softness was there to support her, to cushion her in its warmth. There was also something resting on top of her, something heavy and warm. She speculated idly that she might be dead. Confused, she slowly opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was wood. A wooden wall, curving gently to one side of her, rose up to the ceiling, also made of wood. And the thing she was lying on was a bed, an actual bed. She hadn’t had anything aside from a hammock or a cot since she was a little filly, and even then she had needed to share it. A massive down comforter was draped over her, and she was resting on top of clean, fresh sheets. She even had a pillow. Cobblestone blinked, confused at her predicament. She clearly wasn’t dead, unless the afterlife was made of wood. Which it could very well be.

Rolling over, she took in the rest of the room that she occupied, which wasn’t much. A small chest near one wall gleamed blue in the warm glow of the magelight overhead, and a small mirror directly above it allowed her to see her mane, ruffled and sticking off to one side in a most undignified manner. She smoothed it down as she took in the rug on the floor, the small bench which was undoubtedly for guests, and the door, which was shut tight. Curious, she got out of bed and tugged on the door handle in order to open it. She was not at all surprised to find it locked. Gradually, she put everything together.

She was clearly still being detained. But why was she being treated so well if she was still technically a prisoner? The room she was in didn’t look like any cell she had ever seen, though her experience in that area was thankfully rather limited. And for that matter, where was she? Who built a prison out of wood, and gave her a room with a mirror and a warm bed? She trotted over to the chest, and was surprised to find it full.

Her things were on top, minus a few notable exceptions, her lockpicks, her knives, that sort of thing. The cloak she had been wearing was in there, folded and recently laundered. A few other odds and ends, like her sewing kit (no needle), her small pouch of coins, and other bits and sundries were all there as well. Beneath that were other things, things that were not hers. Lucky’s knapsack was in there, containing a few items such as a small quena flute, a whittled wooden bear, and a snuffbox containing nothing more than a few glass beads. Cobblestone was surprised. Lucky hadn’t shown any inclination towards being creatively inclined.

That was unpleasant to think about. For a brief moment, Cobblestone had been able to put Lucky and Ivy out of her head. Gently, she packed away the rest of the things in the trunk, closing it tightly. She looked at herself in the mirror. It had been a long while since she had done so. She looked terrible. Her eyes had developed bags, her mane hung limply around her shoulders, and she could see bruises dappling her entire body.

That was not all, however. The ring was gone from around her horn, but there was instead a strange pendant hanging close to her neck, from which a small crystal hung. She tried tugging on it to take it off, but it was too tightly bound to her neck to do so, and the chain was too strong to break when she gave it a sharp yank. There was a clasp on the back, with a slot to put a very small key or pin inside, but it resisted every one of her efforts to undo it. Cobblestone frowned, pondering her next course of action.

There was a polite knock on the door, and Cobblestone jumped.

“Miss Cobblestone?” a voice called. “Are you awake?”

“Yes!” Cob called, before clamping both hooves over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to answer, but the voice had caught her by surprise.

There was a rattling at the door, the clank of a key in the lock, and the door opened wide. A younger Pegasus mare with a coat of blue and wearing a grey and purple tabard, perhaps five years her senior, stepped through the door. She smiled brightly at the confused unicorn.

“Good evening, Miss. My name is Turquoise, and I’ve been sent down here to fetch you.”

“Fetch me where?” Cobblestone asked suspiciously.

The Pegasus moved to the bed, making up the mussed covers. “I’ve been instructed to help you wake up, which you appear to have done, and then take you upstairs to give you an idea of where you are.”

Cobblestone shuffled to the door, moving as quietly as possible. If she could make it to the hall, she could probably outrun the Pegasus while she figured out her next move.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.” Turquoise said, without turning around. “It won’t work.”

Cobblestone bolted for the door. She made it about a half dozen steps out into the hallway before the crystal around her neck flashed, and her legs froze in place. Unable to halt her momentum, she toppled over, hitting the deck hard. She groaned, looking up at her surroundings. She was in a small hallway, along which were several other doors. A few ponies in the hallway gave her strange looks, among them two uniformed soldiers, who had been stationed right outside of her door.

“Told you that wouldn’t work, Miss,” Turquoise said, exiting Cob’s room and closing the door behind her. She turned the key in the lock, making sure the door was secure before assisting the young thief. At a touch from Turquoise, Cobblestone’s legs could move once more. “That’s a Restraint Pendant, one of the new ones from the Regia itself. If you get too far away from me, you’ll find it hard to keep moving.”

Cobblestone took a few shaky steps, looking at the pendant around her neck with newfound respect. “And what’s to stop me from using magic to get this thing off?”

“It’s fairly strong, Miss,” Turquoise said. “That, and your magic is restricted while using it. You’ve got some levitation, and that’s about it.” She dusted the thief off. “Now, if you’ve got no further questions for me, Miss, I really do think we should be going.”

“I’ve got a million questions,” Cob growled, “But I think I’ll get more out of you if I let you take me wherever it is we’re going.”

“You catch on quick, Miss Cobblestone!” Turquoise said, as the two of them began to walk down the narrow hallway. “Don’t fret, you’ll have all the answers you want in a moment.”

“That’s fine,” Cobblestone said . “But could you tell me where we are, at least?”

“We’re about ten miles outside of Crescent City, having just cast off,” Turquoise said, as the two of them began climbing a staircase up from the dimness into relatively bright sunlight. “Moving towards Starfall as we speak!”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “How are we…moving?”

The duo stood on the deck of a riverboat, surrounded by busily bustling ponies, passengers, and others. Two tall smokestacks stretched to the sky, from which clouds of white smoke billowed, powering the massive wheel at the back of the ship, which was currently pushing them upriver with surprising speed. And that wasn’t all. Three tiers of rooms stretched upwards from the deck, each supported by pillars wreathed in ornate filigree, from which a steady stream of finely dressed ponies came and went. At the top was a fourth floor, though it was smaller, containing maybe one or two other rooms but affording the best view.

“Welcome aboard the Jolly Cooperation, Cobblestone,” Turquoise said. “Now, let’s hurry up to the top deck, there are a few ponies needing to speak with you.”

“I’m coming down there right now!” Twilight said, pacing angrily in front of the mirror. “I knew I should have had you stay on the ship an extra night.”

“Don’t you dare!” Serale said. “We’re on the ship right now, and moving out of Crescent City, so there’s no need for you to leave Starfall!”

“You were nearly killed, Serale! Assassins nearly slit your throat, and the only reason you’re still alive is because of sheer, dumb luck!” Twilight said. “I’m coming down there, and that’s final!”

“Yes, I was nearly killed, but the situation is under control, Mother!” Serale stomped one hoof in exasperation. “I’ve got everything well in hoof as it is, and we’re only three days away from home. Have extra guards waiting at the next stop, though I don’t know where they’ll sleep.”

“That’s not good enough,” Twilight said. “What if there are more of them? What if they’ve made it onto the boat?”

“That’s why we brought the Changelings as part of the security detail, Mother. They’re able to detect deception with no problems. But there are already a lot of potential suspects on the boat, so bringing more ponies on will only make their job harder. Besides,” Serale said, looking at Libra, who was very pointedly not involved in the conversation. “I have Libra along, and if there’s an actual attack, she’ll be more than enough of a threat to any assault.”

“Yes, but Libra’s one pony, and she’s not exactly perfect!” Twilight said. “No offense, Libra.”

“None taken, Milady.” Libra said.

“She may not be perfect, but I’d take her over another hundred of the guards you want to cram onto this boat!” Serale countered. “It may be your craft, but other ponies should be able to use it as well, right?”

“Not if they’re sent to kill you, Serale!” Twilight said. “I don’t like it. If something happens to you, if you’re separated from the guards around you in any way…” Twilight’s voice trailed off, as she realized what it was she was going to say.

“If I get separated?” Serale asked. “What do you think will go wrong if I get separated?”

“Don’t give me that, Serale!” Twilight said. “You know perfectly well that you won’t be able to protect yourself.”

Serale’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, so just because I can’t use magic, I’m helpless?” she asked, fire in her voice. “Because I can’t use magic, I’m six years old and an idiot? There’s no other recourse than magic, is that right?”

Twilight held up a hoof “Serale, I didn’t mean-“

“Of course you did, Mother,” Serale said. “I know exactly how you feel about my ability to handle myself, because I’ve been living with that point of view my whole life!”

She indicated the deck below, which was swarming with guards. Not that her mother could see them. “It’s not like I’ve ever had a chance to handle my own affairs, or find out if I might actually be good at something other than being cooped up in the Court, because every time I try something, I end up getting swaddled in cotton because I can’t use magic!”

“Serale…” Twilight said, but her daughter cut her off.

“Because it’s not like other prominent families can handle themselves without it, it’s not like the Pegasi or Earth ponies can’t get along without magic of their own! I certainly couldn’t don a disguise of my own and try my hoof at something new! For love of the Ley, I had to agree to take Libra along with me when I wanted to see more of the world!” Serale cried. “No offense, Libra.”

“None taken, Lady Serale.” Libra said.

“The point is, I can handle myself, and you never realize that because every chance you get, I’m kept ‘safe’ by your refusal to let me do anything without ten guards, three escape plans, and half the palace on alert!” Serale cried. “But no, I don’t get to handle this on my own, I’m too fragile, I can’t do magic, therefore I am completely useless at everything!”

“I don’t want to lose you!” Twilight shouted at her mirror.

There was a beat of silence as both parties were shocked into quietness. Serale’s mother never shouted. She would raise her voice to be heard, or give an endless lecture, or sternly reprimand her wayward daughter, but towards Serale, Twilight had never, ever shouted.

“I don’t think you understand, Serale,” Twilight said quietly. “I have enemies. Many, many enemies, in places you wouldn’t think I do. And because of this, my daughter, you have enemies. And they are waiting, always waiting, for an opportunity to strike at either me or you.”

Twilight sat down right in front of her mirror. “Before you were born, I had died six times. I allow myself to be reborn once I reach a hundred or so, which has happened three times. Do you know what the other three times were a result of?”

Serale shook her head, still mute.

“They were all of them violent. I’ve been stabbed, shot, beaten, burned, poisoned, smothered, and thrown from high places by my enemies multiple times on my journeys abroad, and I managed to survive all but three of those occasions by dint of skill with magic and some quick thinking,” Twilight said. “But with you, there is nothing to fall back on save your own physical ability and the ones around you. Take your allies away, and you have nothing but yourself to rely on.”

“But if I never find myself a way to practice my own abilities, then I won’t ever be able to defend myself when everything has gone wrong, and I don’t have anypony to rely on but me!” Serale said. “Don’t you understand?”

Twilight nodded. “I do understand, Serale. And it’s not something we’ll be able to resolve now, but I agree that your concerns need to be addressed.”

“Don’t you dare,” Serale said. “Don’t you dare try to Court me into staying silent on this. When we arrive, I will talk to you, because we need to talk about it. When I get back, not here and now, because you are not going to get on this boat.”

Twilight put a hoof to her forehead, closing her eyes and trying to calm herself down. She took a few deep breaths before opening them again. “Alright,” she conceded. “I won’t come down there. There is a detachment of mages in Riverton that will be assigned to your boat, a party of six. I’ll relay the orders. That way, there aren’t many more passengers aboard, and you can be adequately protected while still maintaining some autonomy. But you stay on the riverboat, understood?”

Serale nodded. “Understood. I look forward to seeing you when I return.”

There was a quiet knock at the door, and Libra put an eye to the peephole to see who it was.

“Turquoise and her charge,” she reported.

“I’ll see you soon, daughter.” Twilight said.

“And I you, Mother. I love you.” Serale replied.

“I love you as well.”

The mirror went blank, resolving itself back into Serale’s reflection. She took a moment to check her appearance, smoothing out a few wrinkles in her dress and fixing an errant lock of her mane, before nodding to Libra to open the door.

Libra did so to reveal Turquoise, who was standing next to a disheveled looking teenager who looked like she had seen better days. The duo walked into the room, and Turquoise waited by the door. Libra closed it behind her, and Serale watched the younger mare as she carefully examined the entire room, noticing how her eyes flicked to the windows and the skylight above her, potential avenues of escape, before she considered those around her.

“Was she any trouble?” Libra asked.

“We had a bit of a fall on the way up here,” Turquoise said, “But aside from that, she seems to be doing alright.” She withdrew a small crystal pin from her wing, handing it over to Libra, who locked it in a small drawer in the room’s drawing desk. “Will you be needing anything else, Lady Serale, Magus Libra?”

“No, thank you, Turquoise,” Serale said kindly. “If you could not wander too far? We might need you to escort our guest back to her room when we’re finished here.”

Turquoise executed a textbook-perfect bow before quietly leaving the room, shutting the door behind her as she went. The small, well-furnished space was quiet for a brief moment before Serale decided to break the ice.

“Please, have a seat,” she said, indicating a nearby chair. “I’m sure you must be tired.”

“Not really,” Cobblestone said, keeping on her hooves. “Just woke up.”

“Hungry, then?” Serale asked. “It must have been a while since you ate. We have a few things here, or I could send for food from the galley.”

"No, thank you," Cobblestone said. "I'm not hungry."

The silence stretched out once more, smothering the cabin in an uncomfortable heavy fog.

"Is there anything I can offer you?" Serale asked.

Cobblestone kept a wary eye on Libra and Serale as she shuffled her hooves nervously. “Mostly, I’d like to ask a few questions.”

“Understandable,” Libra said. “But I really would recommend you sit down. We’re going to be here for a while.”

Cobblestone did as she was asked, taking a seat near the window, where she could see the deck below. Serale did likewise, with Libra bringing over a small table and a chair for herself. “Now,” Serale asked, “Where would you like to begin?”

Cobblestone thought for a moment. “I suppose,” she said slowly, “We could start with why I’m here, instead of back in Crescent City.”

“Normally, you’d have been tried in your city for the crime of robbery as per usual,” Libra said. “However, because of your…unfortunate choice in targets, and the fact that you were tangled up in the attempt on Lady Serale’s life, your sentencing has been moved to Starfall, in a Royal Court, as opposed to a normal court.”

Cobblestone frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Simply put,” Serale said, “Your case has been deemed important enough to be tried by my mother, as opposed to an appointed judge.”

“Your mother,” Cobblestone asked slowly, “Being…”

“Lady Everstar, yes,” Serale said. “She’ll be the one listening to all of the evidence surrounding the case. There’s a reason for that.”

“Please,” Cobblestone said. “Don’t let me keep you from explaining.”

“You’re involved in an attempt on my life, which means that your testimony is important to helping the authorities of this Kingdom find out more about the assailants. As we have no way of knowing which group did it, or how far their reach is, the safest place for you is in custody of my family,” Serale said. “If we were to turn you over to regular authorities, there is a possibility this group could strike at you that way.”

“And there’s no way they could get at me when I’m in Starfall?” Cobblestone asked. “Because that logic sounds a bit flawed, no offense.”

Serale tilted her head. “You seem awfully at ease for somepony in your situation.”

“How do you mean?” Cobblestone asked.

“I would have expected some small amount of deference from you,” Serale said. “Something like nervousness. And for being told that your life is in danger, you’re handling yourself extremely well.”

“Never met a real noble before,” Cobblestone said. “Should I be doing something differently?”

“Traditionally, using the noble’s title is considered polite,” Libra said. “It would be proper to address Lady Serale as such.”

Cobblestone looked at the mage. “And what should I be calling you?”

Libra smiled tolerantly. “My Court title is Magus Libra, but I possess no noble rank. Libra is fine.”

“Lady Serale and Libra,” Cobblestone said, trying the words out. “I’m Cobblestone. But I guess you knew that. And the reason I’m so calm about the fact somepony is trying to kill me is because I’m from Crescent City. Somepony is always trying to kill you there.”

“That’s a very…pragmatic point of view.” Serale said.

Cobblestone shrugged. “I’m a pragmatic pony. Got to eat to live, got to steal to eat. So I steal.”

“Why does everypony keep saying that?” Serale asked. “Aren’t there places to go for handouts? Or shelters? For that matter, don’t you have a family?”

“Firstly, all of the kitchens set up to help ponies like us are out of food an hour after each meal starts. And most of us are in a line for that long just to get in. Same goes for shelters, and you run a pretty big risk of having anything with you stolen by others if you go there. Secondly, no I don’t have a family. Not anymore. Thirdly, gangs offer better food and shelter than most of the kitchens and shelters do,” Cobblestone said.

Libra frowned. “What do you mean, you have no family?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Cobblestone said.

“That’s fine,” Serale said. “It’s not relevant to the situation at hoof, so let’s move on, shall we?”

She got out of her chair, crossing the room to a cabinet, out of which she withdrew a crossbow bolt, around which was wrapped a small scroll of paper, with her name on the outside in delicate calligraphy. She brought it back over to the table, setting it down in the center.

“There’s an enchantment on this, or so Libra tells me. A rather nasty one, too, one of the ones that gets inside your head and does things to the way you think. We don’t have the tools here to siphon off the magic, so we’ll likely wait until we get back to the Regia to open it. Now,” she said, looking at Cobblestone, “I’d like to tell you that you’ll be completely safe in Starfall, but this is some fairly high-level magic. We’re talking an enchantment only a few steps below Libra’s level in power, and she’s the best Mage in the Kingdom.”

“You’re too kind, Lady Serale,” Libra said.

Cobblestone stared at the scroll. “I know it’s possible for some magic users to put a tracker spell on things. I’ve nearly been caught a few times because of that. Did you check it?”

“Of course,” Libra said. “Nothing to speak of. I examined it thoroughly.”

“The point is,” Serale said, “Odds are very good that whoever did this is a mage of no small power. The majority of mages of this caliber are in the capital itself.”

“And I’m headed right for that mage, is that right?” Cobblestone said. “The one who is incredibly powerful?”

Libra nodded. “You don’t need to worry, Cobblestone. You’re in our custody, and you’ll be just fine. We’ve got more guards coming on at our next stop in about a day, and while our mystery mage may be in the capital, they’ll have a lot more difficulty moving against you or Lady Serale there.”

There was another silence as Cobblestone considered the relative truth of the statement. She knew nothing about life in Starfall, but she didn’t really see herself as having much choice in the matter. She was on the boat, and was going to have to accept that circumstances were out of her control. For now. She eyed the drawer where Libra had kept the pin. Odds were very good that the pin in there was the one needed to open the pendant around her neck. If she could get ahold of it, she might be able to make a break for it. For now, though, she needed to cooperate.

“So…what happens to me after everything settles down?” Cobblestone asked, eyes going back to the scroll on the table.

Serale shrugged. “I imagine you’ll be sent to a reintegration house in the city. Sort of like a less strict version of a prison. You’ll have an indentured contract to the Kingdom after that point; work off the costs of rehabilitation plus a bit more to put away, and then you’ll be released from custody with some work experience. Not a bad life if you behave well in the house, they provide references and such. Your crime was theft, so I can see you having a ten-year contract after your release. Fifteen years all told, isn’t that right, Libra?”

The Mage regarded the young criminal in the chair. “That’s one option, though I would like to speak to you on another matter, young miss.”

Cobblestone looked at her. “And what would that be?”

“I would like to ask you about that spell you used the other night. In the Inn. Have you done that before?” Libra asked.

Cobblestone shook her head. “Never. I don’t even know what I did, let alone how I did it.”

“Fascinating,” Libra said. “You never used that much power before?”

“No, I didn’t,” Cobblestone replied, exasperated, “Why? You’re the most powerful mage, I’m sure that whatever I did is something you’ve seen plenty of times.”

“Actually, that’s not entirely true,” Libra said. “I’ve only seen magical power of that magnitude during my auditioning process in the Court. Granted, there was more control involved in those spells, but you have a very unusual gift, Cobblestone.”

“What do you mean?” Cob asked.

“Last night, when you were pinned down by my magic, you managed to break the barrier spell I had laid down to keep everypony from moving, which was impressive in its own right. It’s not my strongest restraining spell, but it is certainly one of the more powerful ones. And then, after all of that, you managed to call lightning. Do you know how rare that is?” Libra asked.

Cobblestone shook her head. “I’ve always been able to use a bit of magic, maybe a bit more than others my age, but nothing like that. I don’t even know where that came from.”

“Magic comes from the application of will,” Serale said. “Your will was strong enough to temporarily overpower Libra and strike down that assassin. That is impressive, especially coming from somepony with little to no formal training on how to use her power.”

Libra nodded her agreement. “And you used lightning. I’ve seen ponies use fire, or air, or force, but those who have a natural affinity for electromagnetism are few and far between. You aren’t unique, Cobblestone, but you are very, very uncommon.”

“What are you saying?” Cobblestone asked, confused.

“I’m saying you have a gift,” Libra replied calmly. “And it would be a shame to waste it. You have enough power to be called a Mage in your own right someday, Cobblestone. With the proper training, and firm guidance, you could become very powerful indeed.”

“Is this a proposal?” Cobblestone asked. “Am I being offered something?”

“Call it an idea,” Libra said. “Apprenticing to become a mage would be a significantly shorter period of study than incarceration and indenture to the state. Not easier, you understand, but the average apprenticeship for a mage is four to five years before they’re off to find their own work. If you cooperate with us during the trial, and don’t cause any trouble, I might be able to find a teacher for you.”

This was definitely unexpected for Cob. A mage? Her? She was a nopony, less than nothing. Less than two days ago, she had been sleeping in a sewer, trying to figure out a way to avoid ending up in a whorehouse. She wasn’t anything special, hay, she didn’t even know how to replicate the magic that had distinguished her!

“I know it’s a lot to consider,” Libra said, “But do yourself a favor and think over it.”

Cobblestone nodded, preoccupied with the idea. “I will,” she said.

“One last thing,” Serale said. “There is the matter of your physical health.”

“And what do you mean by that?” Cobblestone asked. “I’m perfectly healthy.”

Serale arched an eyebrow. “All evidence to the contrary,” she said primly. “I am, of course, referring to your current addiction to the substance known as Dragon’s Kiss.”

“Oh,” Cobblestone said. “That.”

“Yes, that.” Serale said. “As of now, you will find it very difficult, bordering on impossible, to find this substance. Therefore, I am taking it upon myself to inform you that the next several days will likely be very unpleasant for you.”

“You’re joking,” Cobblestone said. “There’s no way for you to get it out of the way now?”

Libra shook her head. “If you had used something like opium, or you drank too much, I could have done something. But Dragon’s Kiss is a magical drug. There is no easy cure for it. You’ll need to endure the withdrawal.”

“You’ll be well cared for and have everything you need to help you through it,” Serale said. “I’ve made several studies on this sort of addiction. Yours is a relatively light case. We estimate withdrawal will take two to three days before you are able to function appropriately.”

“So I’ll still be flat on my back when we get to Starfall?” Cobblestone asked.

“Not necessarily,” Libra said. “There is a way to speed the process, at least at the beginning.”

“Libra is able to eliminate the last of the drug from your body, including the reserves that your body holds before withdrawal begins. It’s commonly known as a Sober-Up Spell. This means withdrawal will hit you in a few hours, and hopefully, the effects will be lessened when we arrive in Starfall,” Serale said. “But she needs your permission to do so.”

Cobblestone thought about it for only a moment. “It’s like ripping a bandage off, then. Let’s go.”

Libra blinked. “That was…abrupt.”

The thief shrugged. “No point in waiting around for it. Get it done.”

“Very well,” Libra said, bringing over a shallow basin with her magic. “Please keep in mind that this spell may feel unusual. You may feel some tingling or pinching near the nape of your neck ,and your vision may blur. Don’t worry, this is natural. You may experience weakness or loss of balance after the spell is over, and you may feel a need to vomit. If you do feel such a need, please use that basin. These feelings should subsist after about a minute. If they last longer than that, let me know, alright?’

Cobblestone nodded. “Okay.”

Libra shut her eyes, a light purple glow building up around her horn. The light got brighter, and Cobblestone felt her knees go weak, as if her legs had fallen asleep. Thankful to be sitting down, she watched as her vision did indeed begin to blur, and her stomach did a peculiar flip, as if she had suddenly turned upside down and had forgotten to do the same with her insides. She struggled valiantly to hold her stomach in, to no avail. She retched, bending her head over the basin, but thankfully, nothing came out. At last, the light faded, and Cobblestone managed to clear her head.

Serale reached for her, but Cobblestone shrugged her off. “I’m fine,” she growled. “For now, anyway.”

“You did fairly well, Cobblestone. That was a remarkably quick recovery.” Libra said.

“So glad I could entertain you,” she gasped.

Libra withdrew the pin from the drawer, before her horn flashed twice. “Turquoise will be along in a moment to take you back to your quarters. I’ll be along later tonight in order to see how you’re doing. There should be water and such in there as well. It will be a rough evening, so somepony is down there to keep an eye on you. Is there anything else you’d like? Books, an extra light, anything like that?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “I’m fine. What about the restroom?”

“Let your chaperone know, and they’ll escort you to the head down the hall from your room.” Libra said.

“Cobblestone?” Serale said, as Turquoise arrived and she began to head for the door.

“Yes, Serale?” Cobblestone said. “Lady Serale, I mean.”

“I never thanked you,” Serale said. “For acting on my behalf in Crescent City. You could have just left and saved yourself, but you chose to stay and fight. And you have my thanks for that. Without you, I’d likely be dead.”

Cobblestone didn’t say a word, simply turning away and leaving the room without acknowledging the gratitude she had just received.

“I don’t understand,” Serale said after she had gone. “Did I offend her?”

“Her ‘rescue’ of you cost her two of her dearest friends, Serale,” Libra said. “I don’t think you’ll find her very forgiving of that, at least not now. Those wounds are still quite fresh.”

In Which A Move is Made

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Cobblestone groaned, pulling the covers over her body as her limbs trembled and her stomach did flips in on itself. The withdrawal had begun almost as soon as Libra had completed her spell, and she had collapsed into her bed not an hour ago after getting some water down at the insistence of Turquoise, who had made sure everything she had needed was available before calling in one of the deckhands to keep an eye on her. He was under very simple instructions, those being to sit and keep watch over the invalid in the bed, and to report if he thought anything to be wrong with her. He seemed nice enough, though he didn’t have much to say. He had taken out a shirt with a substantial hole in it soon after sitting down, and had lost himself in clumsily darning it.

The unicorn on the bed had experienced this sort of sickness before, but only rarely, and even then it had been for a night or so at the most, not three straight days. She had been weak for days afterward, hardly able to keep food down, and more often than not she had needed to dip into her savings to keep her tithe up in the face of Chip’s relentless culling of her earnings. Cob was not at all looking forward to the next few days, or over-much to what came afterward.

A hissing filled her ears, the sound of the river rushing passed suddenly unbearably loud, and she attempted to smother the sound with her pillow with some success, but before too long, the chills wracking her body turned instead to scorching heat, and sweat broke out over her entire body, causing her to kick the covers away weakly. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the icy cold she had felt at first, or the all-consuming fire she now felt burning through her veins.

She took the pillow away from her face just in time to see the stallion approach her, glass of water in hoof. She reached for it, but he pressed her back into the pillows without a word, instead holding the glass to her lips. She drank, suddenly parched, but her feeble sips caused her to choke and splutter, and he took the glass away.

“Small sips, Miss. Take it easy.”

She nodded, and he held up the glass once more, allowing her to take tiny mouthfuls of water in. Little it may have been, but Cobblestone found it took every ounce of control she had just to make sure it all got down without a fuss. She managed a thankful smile before the fire in her body faded, to be replaced once more by ice. Her watcher, seeing her discomfort, drew the covers back over her before returning to his chair and his shirt, leaving her to suffer in her bed once more.

Groaning again, she stared at the grain in the wall of the ship, watching it twist and bulge in unnatural ways despite her best efforts to convince herself it was just an effect of the withdrawal. Stars began to creep in around the edges of her vision, and she shook her head weakly to rid herself of them, to no avail. She shut her eyes tightly in order to block them out, but they showed when she closed her eyes, as well. Before long, she felt the mattress begin to move underneath her, as if she was falling, and it was a short while later that she dozed off into a fitful sleep.

Her dreams were not at all pleasant, made even less so by the angry demands of her body for more of the drug she had grown so used to. The occasional grunt or yelp soon faded away into small whimpers of fear as the demons in Cobblestone’s head exacted their toll on her strength, both physical and emotional. Soon, though, even that faded, and Cobblestone slipped into a sleep deeper still as the ship reached its first destination, the city of Riverton.

The river flowing through the Evening Kingdom had many names, depending on who was speaking of it, where they were from, and in what manner they were addressing the mighty ribbon of raging water. Near Canterlot, it was known as the Sunfall River, as it originated in the mighty curtains of water that flowed without ceasing from the mountain itself, under the demesne of Celestia. As it wound past other towns, around hills and through fields, it took on other names, names like Cumulus River or The Rapid Run, and as it curled through the trees near the border between the Celestial Empire and the Evening Kingdom, it became the Darkling River, dappled by shadow and sunlight in equal measure, belonging to none. As it rushed through the Capitol of the Kingdom, near the Regia, it became the Starlight River, and from then on it became the Copperglow, the Trotson, the Murmur River, and many more names, each from a new town or a new group who had settled near it. By the time it reached the mighty ocean into which it emptied, it was simply The River. And it was as such that most called it.

The steamboat that was currently working its way upriver had stopped for the evening in the city of Riverton, to take on fuel and passengers as well as to give the passengers already aboard a chance to stretch their legs and see the sights. While not a large town, Riverton was possessed of a certain charm that came from the amalgamation of many different groups, cultures, and the traditions that came with. Its cuisine was something to be admired as well, a unique hodgepodge of different styles and preparation techniques that had given rise to something completely new and exciting.

“I wish I could go out and see some of Riverton,” Serale said, looking out over the town below. “The food here is supposed to be delicious.”

“Time enough for that when we aren’t just getting over an attempt on your life,” Libra said. “There will be other journeys, and other opportunities to come back here.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Serale said. “Has anypony been down to check on Cobblestone?”

Libra nodded, pouring herself a glass of water as she did so. “There is a chaperone for her in her room, a crew member. He’ll be taking care of her until we continue on tomorrow morning, and then Turquoise will resume her watch. Will that suffice?”

“I suppose,” Serale said. “Though I would like to see three shifts there instead of two. Twelve hours is a long while to watch anything, even an invalid.”

“We’ll speak on that later,” Libra said. “For now, there are a few things that needed taken care of.”

“Such as?” Serale inquired, watching the gangplanks being lowered and the traffic between ship and shore begin. It irked her to be so close to a new place, and to have sworn not to visit it. Even Fillydelphia had been a new place for her, and she had visited as much of it as she could in the short time available to her.

“The six mages who will be accompanying us the rest of the way to Starfall would most likely want to speak with you,” Libra said, “And you still need to have your tea for the evening.”

Serale grimaced. “Do I really have to?”

“The mages will be expecting you to at least acknowledge them, Serale,” Libra said. “And you should be able to handle yourself with grace if you need to.”

Serale waved one hoof dismissively. “I meant taking the tea. The mages I can handle, goodness knows I’ve met with plenty before.”

There was a knock at the door, causing them both to jump. Neither of them had been expecting company. Libra set her glass of water down carefully.

“Get behind me, Lady Serale,” she said, creeping over to the door. The memory of the assassins was still fresh in her head, and it was with great care that she looked through the peephole to see who was waiting on their doorstep.

Her shoulders slumped. “Of course,” she said. “It would be them.”

Grabbing the handle and opening the door wide, she plastered a polite smile on her face. “Mares, gentlecolts,” she said. “It is good to see you all. Please, come in!”

The group that entered the sitting room, silently and without acknowledging Libra, were imposing enough without the utter silence they had surrounded themselves with. They were dressed all in gray, save for the black of their boots, spattered with mud and grit. Their shirts and trousers were plain and without adornment, save for a single small red star over the left breast, and they each wore a heavy jacket of grey wool, with a hood drawn tightly over their heads and horns. Grey swathes of fabric hid all of their faces save only for their eyes, and at their side, each carried a long, straight sword, plain and without adornment. They numbered six in all, and it was not until the door had been closed behind them that the one in front, the leader of the group, spoke.

She bowed to Serale, a gesture almost courtly in nature, before removing the mask in front of her face and speaking softly. “Milady, my name is Puzzle. I apologize for not announcing our arrival, but we find it aids in our work if speak only rarely in public. We have been assigned to your personal guard by orders of Lady Everstar, until such time as we are deemed no longer necessary for your defense. I am not sure if you know of our order, or what we do, but we are called-“

“Magekillers.” Serale said flatly. “Yes, I know of you. And while I find the notion of six of you in my personal service excessive, I am, of course, pleased to have your company. Are you aware of why you have been assigned to protect me?”

Puzzle blinked, taken aback by Serale’s words. To her credit, she recovered admirably. “All we know is that a threat has been made against your life, ma’am. We are here to provide extra security in a discreet fashion.”

Serale eyed the uniforms of the six ponies in front of her. “Unless you travel veiled from sight and sound, I would hardly call you discreet. Allow me to enlighten you as to the reason for your sudden reassignment. You will, of course, refrain from repeating what I am about to tell you. Libra, would you be so kind as to prepare my tea?” There was no offer made to the six ponies, who were shuffling uncomfortably under the withering gaze of the young noblemare.

Serale settled into a chair, indicating that her guests should sit as well. Reaching for the scroll with her name on it, she tossed it to Puzzle, who caught it gently. “Don’t open that if you value your sanity,” Serale suggested, “There’s an enchantment on it that will melt your psyche with admirable efficiency. That was delivered to me via crossbow bolt, the bolt being still in the weapon itself. It was placed in my room by two assassins, while an equal number of their associates attempted the murder of Libra, my erstwhile companion and the Court Sorcerer.”

Puzzle’s eyes widened in surprise. “And how did you escape, Milady?” she asked. “If you don’t mind my asking, that is.”

“A thief had attempted to break into my rooms at the same time, and her arrival distracted the two killers. Her compatriot in the other room sounded an alarm before being overcome, and Libra and I were able to fend them off shortly thereafter.” The fact that Libra had done most of the work and that Serale had been nearly killed went unsaid.

Serale continued. “That thief, a witness in all of this, is currently being detained belowdecks under guard. She is currently asleep, as I was informed by a worker shortly before your arrival. She will remain in this room under guard until we reach Starfall, at which point I would imagine you will be reassigned to…whatever it was you were doing previously.”

Puzzle’s eyebrows knitted together as she concentrated on the scroll. “But who did this?” she asked. “Who would have the resources to orchestrate such an attack?”

“That certainly seems to be the question, doesn’t it?” Serale asked. “Somepony with power, and lots of it. Hence your assignment. Your rooms have already been cleared, and are on the floor directly below this one. Arrange guards how you will, though your services will only be required at night, when Libra is unable to perform her duties.”

One of the other Magekillers who had remained standing stepped forward. “With all respect, Miss, we should be closer to you during the day, as you’ll be moving around deck extensively, correct?”

Serale’s eyes narrowed. “Firstly, Magekiller, I will be leaving this cabin only rarely. I have been away from home for a very long time, and have no wish to associate with those onboard any more than I have to, given recent events. Secondly, Libra’s protection shall be more than adequate on those rare occasions when I do leave this room. Is that understood?”

Cowed, the stallion stepped back into line, bowing his head as he did so. Serale turned back to Puzzle, whose face betrayed absolutely nothing at the reprimand of one of her own. “Do you require further information, or will that suffice?” Serale asked, her every word rimed with ice.

Puzzle shook her head. “That will be quite sufficient, Milady.”

“Very well, then,” Serale said, accepting a cup of boiling, rancid tea from Libra. “You are dismissed.”

As the Magekillers donned their covering cloths once more and began to file out, Serale drained all of the boiling liquid from her cup. “And, Puzzle?” she called.

Puzzle turned around. “Yes, Milady?”

“Next time, announce yourself before approaching these quarters. You might find me in a better mood if you do.”

Puzzle bowed her head quickly before hurrying out of the room, the door closing behind her with a satisfactory click as Serale allowed herself a small grin.

“Was that truly necessary, Serale?” Libra asked. “They are only here to protect you, after all.”

Serale grimaced at the taste of her tea. “They came on board this ship unannounced, entered this room without thanking you for your welcome, and attempted to speak without my leave. You and I both know that they can be unforgivably arrogant, so I thought it best to head them off before they built up steam. And besides,” Serale said, her easy smile returning, “It’s not like you didn’t enjoy watching them get put in their place.”

Libra tried very hard not to smile, and failed miserably. “Perhaps you’re right, Serale,” she said, accepting the empty cup from the young Lady, “It did my heart a bit of good to see them taken down a peg or two.”

The clock on the wall chimed nine o’clock, and both of them looked at it in surprise. “Is it that late already?” Libra asked. She yawned. “It has been an extremely long day.”

Serale nodded. “You can go on to bed, Libra. I’m going to stay up and do a bit of reading, see if I can relax a bit.”

“Are you sure, Serale?” Libra asked. “It’s been a long day for you as well.”

Serale nodded. “I’m positive. I won’t be up too long, an hour or two at the most. Go on to bed, I’ll be along soon.”

Libra bowed her head briefly. “Very well then, I’ll be in my room if you need something.” She opened the door to the small quarters that she would be staying in. “Good night, Lady Serale.”

“Good night, Libra,” Serale said, withdrawing a book from the shelf nearest the window and fetching a reading light for herself. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Soon the silence in the parlor was broken only by the steady breathing of a mare with her book, and the occasional turn of a page.

Cobblestone woke with a start to find that the light in the small room had gone out, and she instinctively knew that she was alone. Her thoughts whirled and twisted before she remembered where she was, back on board the steamboat headed upriver. She shook her head, noting that the sickness in her stomach had subsided, at least for the moment.

“Hello?” she called. “Is anypony there?”

There was no answer save for the gentle creaking of timbers. Her throat burned, and Cobblestone used her magic to grab a glass and some water, bringing them close to her face to drink. The pale blue glow threw weak shadows around the room, barely managing to drive back the shadows that surrounded her, and so she could have been forgiven for missing the face at the foot of her bed for a moment. And then it spoke.


The unicorn yelped, dropping the glass onto the floor, where it shattered into pieces. The light around her horn went out, and when she managed to turn it back on, the face was no longer at the foot of her bed. Instead, it was right beside her.

“Cobblestone,” Ivy whispered, blood dripping from the wound in her neck, her face torn away by fish, “Why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you save me?”

“Ivy!” Cobblestone said. “Oh, Ivy, how are you here? What happened?”

“You killed me, Cob. I needed you and you killed me.” Ivy said. She reeked of rot and the silt of the river bottom.

Cobblestone leaned away from her friend. “No. No, Ivy, I did everything I could do to keep you safe. I…I just wasn’t strong enough, that’s all.”

“It’s cold at the river bottom, Cob.” Ivy said. “It’s so cold down there, alone in the black.”

“Ivy…Ivy, what are you…how are you…”

The darkness seemed to gather around Ivy like a shroud as she gazed down at her onetime friend without mercy or compassion. The shadows pressed in close around them both, and Cobblestone felt them resting on her like a blanket of mud, clammy and weighing her down. The light began to fade, and Cobblestone struggled to breathe, the shadows were filling her mouth and nose, and she couldn’t scream or call for help, and the shadows pressed in closer, and Ivy was dragging her down into the dreadful deep black…

Cobblestone woke up with a start, a cry dying in her throat and tears in her eyes as she sat straight up in bed, before her stomach turned over and she retched over the side of the bed, splattering the floor with thin bile. Her entire head throbbed, and she felt sore over her entire body before she sank back down into bed with a moan. The stallion sitting in the chair across from her woke up with a start, his face turning sympathetic as he saw what had happened.

“Come on, Miss,” he said. “We’ll get you to the head, and from there, if you have a coat or cloak, I’ll take you up on deck for some fresh air.”

Cobblestone, with a titanic amount of effort, managed to get out of bed on her own, and the stallion withdrew her cloak from the chest before gently fastening it around her neck. The strings, however, insisted on getting snarled in the pendant around her neck, and it was with a brief snort of annoyance that the stallion withdrew the crystal pin from his jacket pocket, undoing the clasp in back of the necklace.

“Don’t go getting too excited, Miss,” he said, setting it to one side, “It goes right back on in a moment.” He tied off the ends of the cloak, and re-fastened the necklace around her neck before tucking the pin back into his pocket.

“Come on, then,” he said, supporting her as they lurched to the door and through to the hallway beyond. He turned to the two guards in the hallway. “We’ve got a bit of a problem in there, could one of you get another deckhand to help clean that up?” he asked.

One of the guards sighed and trotted off down the hall, as they both hobbled in the other direction. Cobblestone could feel her legs burning with the effort of keeping her up, and she gasped for air that burned her lungs as though they were filled with needles. She kept at it, though, knowing that anything was better than that horrible, suffocating blackness which had woken her minutes before.

Upon arriving at the cramped wooden stall which held the “head”, Cobblestone rushed forward, bursting through the door as her stomach emptied what contents were available to it into the simple wooden bowl as the door swung shut behind her. She retched twice , tears dripping from her eyes, before she pulled herself together, wiping her eyes with one foreleg and standing up a bit taller than before.

The stallion was in the hallway, waiting patiently for her to finish up, when she passed through the door once more, shivering slightly with the effort she had put forth.

“Feeling better, Miss? Would you like to take a turn around deck?” the stallion asked.

Cobblestone swallowed, wetting her mouth, before she replied. “Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I would like that very much.”

Together, the two of them ascended the stairs onto the deck, stepping out into the open once more. Cobblestone shivered in the river breeze, drawing her cloak a bit tighter around herself before the shakes subsided, leaving her merely uncomfortable as opposed to freezing. As the duo promenaded around deck, Cobblestone actually found that she was getting used to the cool air, and that the freshness of the breeze above deck was helping her to clear her head with remarkable speed.

“You know, I don’t even know your name,” Cobblestone murmured, leaning against the deckhand for support as well as warmth.

“Applewood, miss. My name’s Applewood. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the stallion said.

The pair walked around the deck in companionable silence after that, taking in the night, the stars, and the lights of the nearby city before the walk turned back towards the staircase leading belowdecks. Cobblestone gripped tightly at Applewood’s shoulder when she saw the staircase again.

“Please,” she said, almost pleading, “Can we take one more turn around deck? I can’t go back down yet, not yet.”

Applewood nodded silently, and they continued past the staircase and around deck once more. Cobblestone focused on the sky, looking at the far-off lights of the stars and taking comfort in their cold glow. She shuddered whenever she looked at the swift-moving river, and came to the realization that she could not wait to arrive at her destination and put solid ground between her and the blackness below her hooves. So preoccupied was she with the stars, and so preoccupied was her companion with the city, that they failed to see the well-dressed stallion in front of them until they had collided with them both.

“Pardon me,” the older stallion said, “I seem to have wandered off course a bit.”

Applewood frowned. “How do you mean?’

The stallion smiled. “I’m looking for one ‘Cobblestone’, a young filly who was supposed to be belowdecks, but I’m up here instead. Would one of you happen to be her?”

Cobblestone frowned. “That would be me, sir.”

The smile got wider, and Cobblestone noticed what appeared to be a single, long fang glinting in that smile, directly above a matted, curled goatee . “Oh, really? And who would your companion be, then?”

“I’m Applewood, sir, a deckhand aboard this vessel. Can I ask why you were needing to speak to Miss Cobblestone?”

“I think not,” the stallion said, before reaching out with one hoof and lightly tapping him on the head. Applewood’s eyes flashed white before they cleared, leaving him with a blank gaze on his face. Without a word, he turned around and began to make his way back to the stairs, heading belowdecks. The stallion watched him go with a smile on his face.

“Easy enough to handle, much like his great-great-great-great aunt,” the stallion said. “Poor lad doesn’t exactly suffer from an overabundance of brains.”

Cobblestone took a step back, her weakened legs shaking with exertion and fear. “Who…no, what are you?” she demanded.

The stallion sighed before rising into the air, floating on a cushion of air without a care in the world. He rested his head on one hoof, gazing at Cobblestone with eyes of crimson and yellow. “Who I am is immaterial, and you’d have no idea what I am if I told you, and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. For now, you may call me Dis. Both of your questions were idiotic, so I’ll give you another one to see if you get anywhere.”

Cobblestone swallowed, silent for only a moment until she found her courage. “Why are you looking for me?” she asked.

His eyes flashed in approval. “Not entirely useless, then. Good, good. You might prove to be interesting yet.”

He landed back on the deck with nary a care in the world, pulling an apple from somewhere Cobblestone couldn’t quite see before taking a large bite out of it. “You see,” he said, his mouth full, “I’m here to help you, believe it or not. I’m here to put you on level ground, and to let you know exactly what you’re getting into.”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked warily. “And why should I trust you?”

“Another excellent question, my dear!” Dis said. “You’ll need to ask yourself that last one quite a bit! As to what I mean, I’ll tell you a few things, and let you figure them out yourself.”

“Either get on with it, or be on your way!” Cobblestone said. “Before I make you.”

The mocking grin on Dis’s face grew wider, more predatory, like the toothy smile of some great cat. “I should dearly love to see you try that, Cobblestone.”

“What is it you want?” the unicorn asked. “I’m done with games.”

“Far from it, my dear,” Dis said with a chuckle. “You’re only just getting started with them. Big games, small games, games you won’t even know you’re playing, games where you play others without their knowing, you’ll be playing all sorts of games soon enough, some of them with very high stakes.”

“You mean the Evening Court?” Cobblestone asked. “I’m just going to testify there, and that’s it!”

“Oh, come now,” Dis replied, tossing the apple over the railing. It made no splash. “You’re going to Starfall, as somepony involved in an assassination plot against the daughter of the Evening herself, a pony infamous for her plots and deceptions. And you’ll be involved with Serale Everstar for a while more, I’m sure. You’ll play games, Cobblestone. It would be foolish to think otherwise.”

“So, that’s why you’re here?” Cobblestone asked. “To warn me that I might be manipulated in Court?”

Dis shook his head. “No, Cobblestone. Anypony with brains knows that you’ll be manipulated in Court. That’s to be expected. What I’m here to warn you about is your being manipulated outside of Court. You may not realize it yet, but by getting involved with Serale Everstar, you’ve become both player and piece on a board that counts gods among its number. Be ready.”

Cobblestone hadn’t thought of it that way. Serale was related by blood to Lady Everstar, who had in fact brought three goddesses to heel in the early days of the Kingdom, who had in fact been instrumental in its formation and built it from the ground up. She politicked with beings of immense power, and counted innumerable enemies and allies among this veritable pantheon of peers.

“Trust no one, not your closest friends or truest allies, and realize that your enemies may not be all they appear,” Dis whispered, suddenly close to her. He smelled faintly of carbon and rot, causing Cobblestone’s nose to wrinkle. “And I have one more gift for you, should you choose to accept it.”

Cobblestone felt him slip something into her cloak’s lining, into a pocket that was surely not there before. “That’s a replica of the pin to the pendant around your neck,” he murmured. “Tomorrow, you’ll have the chance to make a break into the town of Autumn Station. There, if you’re lucky, you’ll find an ally to help you in your journey.”

Cobblestone’s pulse quickened. “You mean to help me escape?” she asked.

Dis pulled away, his eyes filled with the promise of all sorts of unpleasantness. “Escape? Possibly,” he said, his face unreadable. “Or perhaps I just enjoy stirring up trouble and making ponies squirm.”

A bell rang out across the water, shattering what had up to that point been an unnatural stillness. Dis’s grin turned rueful. “Ah, that’s my time,” he said. “I made sure the passengers on this vessel would not notice your absence. By my reckoning, you’ve about two minutes before the guards outside of your room and your dear chaperone realize you aren’t there.”

“But why?” Cob asked, as he began to trot away. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because, Cobblestone!” the strange stallion called, reaching the gangplank, “I enjoy changing the rules of games!”

Cobblestone watched him disappear into the darkness before bolting on unsteady legs for the ladder, in a hurry to get to her room before somepony noticed her absence. In her rush, it didn’t even occur to her that the events of her dream had been completely forgotten.

Serale stood by her window, watching Cobblestone hurry down the hatch. She wasn’t sure who that stranger was, or what he had done to the deckhand, but she somehow knew, deep in her gut, that whatever he had put into Cobblestone’s cloak was meant to help her escape.

Something told her that alerting Libra would be a bad idea, and so she came up with an alternate plan. Tomorrow, that stallion would be relieved of duty. Tomorrow, she would watch over Cobblestone. And if by some miracle she should escape, Serale would be sure to bring her back.

In Which There Is A Meeting Of Nobles

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Twilight Everstar was many things. She was an able warrior, an extraordinary magician, a visionary scientist, and a plotter without peer. She counted only four other beings in all of the world as her equals, and she had humbled them all at one point or another, though the same could not be said for them. She had built a kingdom from the ground up with no prospects, no funding, and with a relative few ponies at her back, starting with only a single city and expanding this to a thriving empire in a matter of a few centuries. She had, in that time, fought four minor wars, redefined the way magic was taught, started an industrial revolution, and led countless expeditions abroad to discover more about the world than had ever been known before, even in Equestria’s brightest days.

What she was not, however, was tolerant of fools or sycophants. It was just her luck, then, that they tended to gather in her Court, most of them holding a title of nobility and demanding her attention as a result of this. And while the mare standing in front of her was certainly no fool, she was among the worst of the flatterers in her Court.

“Lady Everstar,” Aura Hedera said in a voice as rich as mulled wine, making an elegant bow, “It is so good of you to receive me on such short notice, and equally as good of you to attend in person, instead of sending one of your esteemed servants.”

Her voice echoed through the high hall, reflecting off of the polished marble and softly glowing glass that comprised the Throne Room in the Regia. She was kneeling in front of the throne Twilight sat upon, raised only slightly from the floor and flanked on both sides by mages and soldiers, who stared straight ahead without acknowledging one of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom.

Twilight acknowledged the bow with a slight nod of her head, indicating that the noblemare should rise. “Lady Hedera. Good to see you once again, I had already missed your company since the party. Charming as always, I see.”

Lady Hedera straightened, keeping her eyes averted, though it was quite unnecessary. “Your Ladyship is too kind. It is not difficult to compliment you.”

Twilight suppressed the urge to gag. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” She knew full well why Hedera was here, she was here for much the same reason as the other claimants had requested appointments with her.

“I wished merely to speak with you about my daughters, Lady Everstar. It is a matter of some importance, though nothing extraordinarily so,” Lady Hedera replied.

Twilight quirked an eyebrow. “Is that so? They seem a bit young for matchmaking, or do I miss my guess?”

Lady Hedera laughed, a high, airy giggle that set Twilight’s teeth on edge. “A fine jest, your Grace! No, Grappa and Fern are too young to take a husband, that much is certain, though I’ve caught them peeking at the soldiers on parade with a discerning eye. I wished to speak about their potential for training.”

Twilight allowed herself a tolerant smile. “I understand completely. They show great magical promise, from what I have been told. You wish to discuss the possibility of their apprenticeship to a tutor?”

Lady Hedera leaned forward earnestly. “Your Grace has read my mind! Did you, perhaps, receive the missive I sent several weeks past? It gave more detail to what I wished to ask you.”

Yours and about twenty others, Twilight thought, but she kept her face neutral. “I did. You wrote concerning the availability of Magus Libra, did you not?”

“Indeed I did, your Grace. While I understand that there must be many who wish to apprentice under the Magus, I had hoped to ask if there was any qualification to be met, any way to ensure my children can put their best hoof forward for her. They do study so hard and practice so well, I would hope that they are given good teachers.”

You mean you want to know if I’m amicable to an agreement to force Libra into teaching those two. “Unfortunately, I cannot say for certain which traits Libra might find desirable in your daughters, Lady Hedera. Magus Libra is my Court Sorcerer, and as such, she is given autonomy in her decisions, including what to look for in an apprentice, or indeed if she wishes to take one at all,” Twilight said, her tone appropriately regretful. “As I told Sir Derelle when he asked me the same question, Magus Libra has indicated that she would take an apprentice of her own, but she has not indicated when or if she still intends to do so.”

Lady Hedera’s smile didn’t falter a bit. “Of course, Lady Everstar. You said you had spoken to Sir Derelle? I wasn’t aware he was seeking a mentor for his daughter.”

“Oh, yes, there are many in the Court, nobles and those without titles, who would be very eager to see their children apprenticed under Magus Libra.” And have the prestige that comes with, thought Twilight.

“And while we are on the subject of apprenticeships,” Twilight said, artfully cutting off any further discussion on the topic, “How is Vino progressing? Last I had heard, he had taken a squire’s position under Sir Ironhide.”

Lady Hedera’s smile dimmed by the slightest margin. “He does well enough, Lady Everstar. He’s always been more inclined to practical pursuits, but he acquits himself well on the field of combat. Sir Ironhide says he shows a good deal of potential as a cavalier.”

Twilight nodded. “The Evening Guard could always use a steady hoof and a strong back. He’d do well as an officer, I think, perhaps out on a border fort. But,” she said, noting the briefest sour look that had crossed over Hedera’s face with some satisfaction, “Perhaps he might find another, worthier pursuit. Only time will tell.”

“Your Grace is far too kind,” Lady Hedera said with a bow. “I shall be sure to relay your praises to him. Vino will be thrilled, I’m sure.”

“I wish him the very best,” Twilight said warmly. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”

“No, Lady Everstar,” Aura replied, rising once more. “I am sure you are very busy. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

“It was my pleasure,” Twilight said, straightening in her chair. “Give my regards to your family, and know you are ever welcome in my residence.” About as welcome as a nest of vipers.

“Evening Reigns,” Lady Hedera said, the traditional formal farewell coming easily to her.

“Evening Reigns,” Twilight replied.

Lady Hedera prostrated herself once more before rising. She turned precisely, trotting the length of the throne room before disappearing into the halls beyond. The doors were closed behind her with a clang, and Twilight sighed to herself before checking the time on the clock opposite her throne. It was nearly time.

“Announce a special recess!” she called to the guards by the door, making sure she was heard. “I might return with the afternoon cases, but it is unlikely.”

Without waiting for an affirmative response, she lit her horn up, and disappeared from the throne room in a rush of air, reappearing in her own study, far above the throne room. Sighing with relief, she stripped the circlet from her brow and threw her formal attire to one side before changing into her familiar shift. Normally, she would have had ladies-in-waiting to help her with this chore, but nopony save her daughter was permitted in this room. So changed and mildly refreshed, she took a cursory look around the study, ensuring nothing was out of place.

Twilight’s study was far more dangerous and incredible than it looked, and it looked near-deadly already. An assortment of chemicals sat in flasks by her desk, each of them carefully monitored by homunculi to ensure the experiments contained therein did not slip control. Two entire walls were lined with books, some in languages that no longer existed, and the ones that were legible to the untrained eye promised vast stores of magical and scientific knowledge. An exact replica of the Regia and the surrounding grounds occupied one table, next to another replica of Celestia’s palace, Luna’s Tower, and Cadance’s manor up north. Each faintly glowed with light, letting Twilight know that they were active and working properly.

Another wall was covered entirely in weapons, from spears to swords to pistols and rifles. There was even a small ballista mounted on the wall, with shafts resting in a rack close by. Each of them was by Twilight’s own design, and each of them was far more powerful that what they seemed to be. This was why they were currently on Twilight’s wall instead of being used in her armed forces, they were simply too powerful to be used without strict supervision. A small clock chimed the hour on her wall, and Twilight crossed the room, avoiding another half-dozen experiments as she did so, and opened a small door in the wall, proceeding up a small spiral staircase. She stopped upon reaching another door, which she opened with a small jolt of magic.

The room she entered was made entirely out of crystal. At least, that is what it appeared to be. The walls were lined with crystals, each of them charged with enough power to level a small section of forest, and each of them precisely calibrated in such a manner as to work in perfect harmony with the ones next to them, both physically and magically. Each crystal had a twin, an exact copy in three other locations, only accessible by three others possessing power of a similar magnitude.

Focusing, Twilight began to pour magic into the floor beneath her, causing the crystals to light up with a pale violet glow. As they lit up, the magic spread across the floor, lighting hundreds of crystals in sequence as it crept up the walls, over the ceiling, and permeating the small room with a soft purple glow that made everything seem fuzzed around the edges.

It wasn’t long before the light began to flow away from certain spots and congeal in others, and as it did, the spell became easier and easier to maintain, the other three chambers adding their power to her own. As the rooms became more and more magically charged, they drifted closer and closer to one another through the fabric of space, time, and magic. It was in this manner that the four rooms resolved themselves into one, and Twilight Sparkle found herself joined by Luna, Celestia, and Cadance, in every manner but the physical one.

“Twilight!” Cadance said with a smile. “Good of you to join us! I trust everything is going well in the Kingdom?”

“I think not, Cadance,” Luna replied, seeing the expression on Twilight’s face. “Lady Twilight has no desire to join in these weekly chats unless she has some news to impart.”

Celestia’s face was creased with concern. “Is everything alright, Twilight?”

Twilight took a deep breath. “I am afraid not. I was just informed yesterday that an attempt was made on Serale’s life.”

There was a gasp from Cadance, and murmurs of concern from Celestia and Luna. “Is she alright?” Celestia asked, her voice troubled. Her mane, crimson as the sunrise, seemed to whip faster in agitation.

Twilight nodded. “She escaped without harm thanks to a thief that had broken into her inn room with intent to rob her. An accomplice cried an alarm, and she and Libra were able to drive them off. A message was left for her, however, warded with a powerful enchantment. We won’t know what it says until I can get it off, here in the Regia. Two days’ wait.”

“How did the attackers know where she was? I was unaware of Serale’s whereabouts until just now,” Luna said. “Who was able to inform the assassins of her location?”

“Thus far, I haven’t gotten any leads on who is responsible or how they knew that Serale had arrived in Crescent City, let alone where she was sleeping. And they displayed an unusual set of skills, or so Libra informed me.”

“Unusual?” Celestia asked. “How so?”

“The attackers were Pegasi, well trained and obviously skilled,” Twilight said. “But Libra reports them using magic, at least to neutralize the thieves, who were both unicorns. Two teams of four, and they also seemed to show signs of mental communication. They moved far too well without speaking aloud or gesturing.”

“Can you trust Libra’s testimony in this?” Cadance asked. “Surely being attacked must have affected her perception of events.”

“Libra allowed me to view her memories, and glean what information I could from them,” Twilight said. “I must say I concur with her recollection of events. There was, however, one more piece of information I wished to share with you all.”

“That being?” Luna enquired.

“They managed to capture a Pegasus alive in order to interrogate him for further information. Before he committed suicide by self-immolation, he told Serale that he was a member of an organization called the Cult of Crows.”

Celestia and Luna traded glances. Twilight seized upon it immediately. “What is the Cult of Crows?” she demanded. “And why is it targeting my daughter?”

“I do not know why the Cult would be targeting Serale,” Celestia replied, “But this is not a new group. It’s old. Very, very old.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “How old?”

“It dates back to the Celestial Wars. Back to the old Empire, and the struggle for power between Celestia and myself,” Luna said. “You know that during that war, I gathered most of the unicorns to my side, correct?”

Twilight nodded. “The Houses, and the private armies they sponsored. About a third of Equestria’s population, correct?”

“Correct,” Luna conceded. “But not all of the unicorns, even the great spellcasters, were members of noble houses. These common mages formed themselves into roving warbands, under my control in name but making their own decisions for themselves. Save one, the most devoted and depraved of the roving warrior tribes.”

“The Cult of Crows?” Twilight asked.

Luna nodded. “They were my most feared spellcasters, powerful, ruthless, and absolutely devoted to me. They would strike where least expected, using some of the vilest magic to aid in their quest for glory. Necromancy, summoning demons, blood rituals, all these and more they used to spread terror into the hearts of my enemies. Even among my most hardened soldiers, they were feared for their brutality and sadism.”

“Not only that,” Celestia added, “They specifically targeted those who could not defend themselves. They burned fields, razed villages, slaughtered the old and young alike to raise as necromantic thralls. That was a mercy for some. For better soldiers, they would simply break their will, turning them into the worst kind of mindless servants. They usually drove these ahead of them as berserkers or raiders. They were called the Cult of Crows because they not only wore cloaks of black feathers, but you could track their progress by watching for the massive flocks of the birds feasting on the dead they created.”

“And now you say they are back,” Luna said. “This is troubling. I was under the impression that they had been killed to the last when I was defeated. There were only five or so left at that point.”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “I made sure of it. They made a brief resurgence during the early years of my reign, but they were far weaker then than they were before. After that, I authorized some of my most loyal servants to go town to town, seeking them out and destroying any trace of any of the Lunar Cults. All record of their existence was purged from memory. I made sure of it using the Elements.”

“So how are they back?” Twilight asked. “Or is it a possibility that a new group has taken the name unknowingly?”

“Perhaps it is only a misnomer,” Cadance suggested gently. “It has been nearly two millennia since they Cult was founded, correct?”

Luna shrugged. “Perhaps. But what troubles me is the fact that Pegasi were sent to kill Serale. The Cult of old never used Pegasi in their activities. They would only accept unicorns among their ranks.”

“I can’t imagine they did much recruiting,” Twilight said dourly. “They seemed to be a rather unpleasant bunch.”

“They didn’t ‘recruit’ normally,” Celestia said. “If they located a spellcaster of appropriate strength, they would make an offer of membership to them. If it was refused, they would be tortured, often to the point of insanity. Eventually, they grew just as twisted and dark as the ones who had captured them. It was only a matter of time at that point.”

“This is beside the point,” Luna said dismissively. “They are long since gone, scourged from the earth by Celestia’s fire. But now a new Cult has arisen, and they seem to use Pegasi. And what is more, they have somehow imbued them with magic of their own.”

“It’s definitely something I’ve never heard of,” Cadance said. “Perhaps they were using some sort of enchanted device? Bracelets of some kind, armor, something like that?”

Twilight shook her head. “The bodies were checked. Nothing of that nature was found on any of them.”

“For that matter, who would have sent them?” Celestia asked. “It’s bold to the point of arrogance, and extremely bloodthirsty. Discord wouldn’t have done anything like that, and last I heard, he was stirring up trouble down near the Oligarchy. It almost reminds me of…”

“My tactics of old,” Luna said quietly. “Aggressive, domineering, designed to engender as much fear as possible in the targets. Striking when least expected, at the weakest point possible. While my opponents slept.”

“Do you think it possible?” Twilight asked. “Could it be…it?”

“The Shadow?” Cadance said, her voice hushed. “That could make sense, but we haven’t heard anything from it since the founding of your Kingdom. Not even a whisper, except for…you know.”

Celestia’s face was grim. “If the Shadow has begun moving, then we might be in serious trouble. Not only from threats from abroad, but threats within, as well. Somepony in Twilight’s service knew when Serale would arrive and where she was going to be, and organized a strike that very same day. I’d imagine only a select few ponies are privy to that information, am I correct?”

Twilight nodded. “The crew of the ship, a few members of my household, and that was it. Unless…the ship was one of mine. The Royal Lady, one of my fastest. Serale’s departure wasn’t exactly quiet. Perhaps somepony noticed her absence, and which vessel she took?”

“Which does nothing to help narrow the pool of suspects,” Luna growled. “Not to mention Serale stopped at several ports on her travels. She could have been noted in any one of those.”

Cadance’s eyes widened. “This potentially means that this Cult could have been in any one of them, or even all of them! If its members could use magic offensively without possessing any natural ability, what would stop them from using it to blend in with native populations, or even recruiting from them?”

“These individuals could be anywhere, from Crescent City to the Khanate to Ashtar. Perhaps even in our own employ,” Celestia said, her voice troubled but not panicked. “We must be very careful about what steps we take from this point forward. Who knows what could happen if they discovered we knew about them?”

“This is troubling news indeed,” Luna said. “If the Shadow has begun to move, and her agents have permeated our lands, who knows what damage they could do without warning?”


Twilight’s voice was not loud, she had not raised her voice in the slightest. Nonetheless, all three of the Alicorns ceased their conversation and turned to face her. Twilight was silent for a moment, sorting out her thoughts, and then she looked up at the three of them.

“Here is what we are going to do. Firstly, we will begin to update one another using this room weekly, as we have been. This will allow us to keep abreast of our plans with one another, and to exchange any information we may uncover. Secondly, we will begin to build up our forces. We must do this in such a fashion as to suggest we are doing this in response to one another.”

“You mean to take our countries to war?” Celestia demanded.

“No, only to the brink of it,” Twilight replied. “We will express concerns about the quality of leadership in our armed forces, and among our politicians. Investigate your top leaders personally, and the ones you deem trustworthy shall examine the rest for signs of unusual behavior, signs of corruption, and so on. This changing of the guard will keep us all too busy to start a war, even if we wished to. Call it…a modernization and policy review. Word it how you will.”

“And then what?” Cadance asked. “After we’ve built armies and gotten them ready for war, do we just sit back and wait?”

Twilight snorted. “Hardly. Once you have begun to find the traitors in your camps, have them marked but not eliminated. Upon completion of this task, have them removed. If all goes well, this will leave our forces relatively intact in the way of command. The Cult can’t be too large, else it risks exposure, and so even if there should be members in the ranks, they will be unable to move without risking exposure and execution.”

She paused, choosing her next words carefully. “I would also recommend that you do the same to political leaders and important figures in your lands. Visit them, invite them to you, do what you will, but make sure that they are all available to be checked. We might not get them all, but this way we can surely discover some few. They must be removed at the same time as your military leaders.”

Cadance, Luna, and Celestia all nodded. It would be difficult, and would undoubtedly seem strange, but it would be done.

“I have an idea,” Cadance said. “Seeing as everything is so spread out. Instead of traveling all over and visiting nobles and generals and such, why don’t we find a way to gather them all in one place? Surely it would be easier to check them then. We wouldn’t get everypony, but a healthy majority would be there.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Luna asked. “It’s not like they’ll be eager to rub shoulders with one another with war apparently on the horizon.”

The room was silent for a moment, until Celestia’s ears pricked up and she smiled. “I’ve got it,” she said. “What about a lucantur?”

“That could work,” Twilight said. “A friendly contest, to maintain good relations. A festival, a tournament, healthy competition in the spirit of fellowship, formal dinners, it would draw nearly every important family in my kingdom, if only for the social aspect.”

“I could always use more Songbirds in my retinue,” Cadance said, “Good talent is hard to come by.”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “I could bring my delegation along, at least the ones I haven’t checked personally by that point.”
“And I will bring those I suspect along as well,” Luna said.

“How long would it take us to put this in motion?” Cadance asked. “Without letting anypony know.”

Twilight shrugged. “Give it six months after we begin buildup, which will start immediately. A year to prepare it all.”

Celestia nodded. “And for location?”

“Ponyville,” Twilight said. “Neutral ground. Where else?”

Luna and Cadance nodded in approval, and so too did Celestia after a moment’s hesitation. Twilight sighed, realizing that things were about to get much more complicated than they already were.

“Very well. We’ve all got things to take care of, so I suggest we leave it off here for today,” Twilight said. “Is there anything else you wished to discuss?”

Celestia and Luna were silent. “Tell Serale I send my best wishes,” Cadance said. “And I wish for her safety.”

Luna nodded. “Keep her safe, Twilight. It would be dreadful indeed if something were to happen to her.”

“I second that,” Celestia said. “She’s a wonderful young mare who shows a great deal of promise. Please, keep her safe.”

Twilight smiled gratefully. “I’ll be sure to pass along your good wishes,” she said. “Though I think you have little to worry about where her safety is concerned. Serale is well guarded, and knows about the dangers inherent in traveling through unfamiliar territory, even if it is technically home. She isn’t one to take stupid risks.”

In Which There Is An Explosion

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“I do not think it wise, Serale,” Libra said doubtfully. “It seems to be a stupid risk, and one entirely unnecessary.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “Please, Libra? I’ve read every book in the selection already, and I’m going insane cooped up like this. I can’t even feel the breeze on my face, even though I can see it out of the windows. At least I’ll be able to ignore it belowdecks!”

“But why would you want to keep watch over Cobblestone?” Libra asked. “She is in the middle of withdrawal! Do you really want to tend to her as she is? Not to mention she could still be dangerous, which is why I am loath to let you down there by yourself.”

“Then give me a guard!” Serale said. “Station one of the Magekillers outside the door with the guards already there. I’m sure they would love the chance to do something other than patrol the decks without speaking to anypony. I know they can talk to guards.”

Libra frowned. “Why the sudden urge to see her? Surely you could find something better to do than to watch over an invalid who is also a felon.”

“Like what?” Serale asked. “Practice my forms, or my rifle work? Until we leave this ship, there isn’t a lot for me to do. And besides, if I’m going to be honest…I feel a bit sorry for her.”

“Sorry?” Libra asked. “How so?”

Serale, for once in her life, was at a loss for words. “Well, it’s…hard to explain. When I saw her a few days ago, she looked like she had seen so much, been through so much, and so young…did you see the bags under her eyes, the ribs through her coat? She’s half-starved and I’m sure she’s got plenty of diseases and maladies we don’t know about. She was half-dead even before the guards at Baygate got to her.”

Libra considered her young charge. She did have a point. Libra had noticed the way that Cobblestone carried herself, like a wounded kitten that had trouble trusting anything to get too close, or a dog that had spent most of its life being kicked by its owner. The young unicorn was broken in more ways than one, and mending her would be a job for years, not days or months.

“And did you notice the way she looked when you spoke?” Serale asked. “She looked terrified. And I’m sure she’s still grieving over her friend, and in shock. Seeing her killed right in front of her like that. I’m not sure if I should be impressed by the fact that’s she’s still so composed, or pity her for it.”

Libra held up a hoof, forestalling her further. “I see your point, Serale. You want to care for her?”

The young Lady nodded. It wasn’t a lie, not really. She did want to care for Cobblestone, her being part of the reason she was still alive. Serale knew the assassins hadn’t been sent to kill her, but in the heat of the moment, anything might have happened, and it was thanks at least in part to Cobblestone’s action that she was alright. She did pity the poor mare, and that was no lie either. She wasn’t even lying about the reason she had initially decided to watch over her. If Cobblestone did something stupid and got caught, any chances of her being treated like…well, like a pony instead of just a prisoner went right down the drain. No apprenticeship, no chance to live a normal life, no prospects at all. She’d be in a reformation house soon enough, trained in some useless skill that wouldn’t make use of her talent, and turned out to try and find work with no references and a criminal past. She’d be back in a prison in a few years, if that.

So yes, she was caring for Cobblestone by covering for her in this instance. And who knew? Maybe she had just imagined the strange stallion giving her something last night, and all of her suspicions would have been for nothing. But if she was going to try something, it would be soon. There was only one more stop tonight, and then it was straight on to Starfall come morning. There’d be no chance for escape there.

“You understand what caring for Cobblestone entails, Serale?” Libra asked. “You’ll need to give her water, and get her to eat something, even if she has no appetite for it. You may need to clean up vomit or other bodily fluids. You might need to wet her brow or cover her up as required. You might need to escort her to the head, and help her there if she has difficulty. This is not an easy task.”

Serale nodded her understanding. “I think I owe it to her to make sure she makes it through this as easily as possible. I owe her my life, Libra. Any action I can take to repay that debt is an action I will take.”

“Very well,” Libra said, “But you will have a guard outside. I’ll go get Puzzle, and you’ll be able to go down and begin your duties. This shift is eight hours, so somepony will be along around midnight to relieve you. Will that be alright?”

Serale nodded. “I’ll be alright, Libra. I promise.”

Cobblestone’s fitful sleep was disturbed by the sound of the door opening. She grumbled, pulling the covers back over herself as another wave of chills crashed over her prone form. The throbbing in her head prevented her from hearing much, but the voice sounded familiar. Blearily, she rolled over to see who had entered her room. Her vision blurred at the sudden glare of light, and when she had finally blinked away the sleep from her eyes, she was much surprised and more than a little vexed to see Serale standing by her bed.

“Cobblestone? Can you hear me?” Serale asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “Yes,” she said, voice rasping, “I can. Why are you here?”

Serale smiled. “I’m here to keep watch over you for a while. Is that alright?”

The bedridden unicorn nodded. She swallowed before saying “Sure. Not like I could stop you anyway, right?”

Serale turned to Puzzle, who was standing by the door. “Thank you, Puzzle. I think we’ll be fine.”

Nodding silently, the Magekiller gently shut the door behind her, leaving the two of them alone. Serale sighed, surveying the room. It was rank with the stench of sweat and other scents best left undescribed, and the heat was oppressive. Though she wished she could air it out, Serale knew that Cobblestone’s temperature was likely dangerously low as it was.

“Could I have some water?” Cobblestone asked.

Serale nodded, fetching a glass and a pitcher from the small table by the fireplace. Gently, she poured a glass for the invalid before holding it up to her lips.

“Here,” she said, “Drink slowly. We don’t want you to choke.”

Cobblestone closed her eyes, focusing on getting water in without dribbling or choking. She was partly successful, with a stream of water spilling from the corner of her mouth onto the covers. Serale waited until she had finished before fetching a cloth, wiping the water away. Using the same cloth, she dabbed some of the sweat away from Cobblestone’s brow.

“Feeling better?” she asked. “Do you want to sleep?”

“Can’t,” Cobblestone said. “I’ve tried, but I just can’t sleep anymore today. I’ve been sitting here bored for the past few hours.”

“Would you like to talk?” Serale inquired. “Do you feel up to that?”

Cobblestone shrugged noncommittally. “Sure. If you’d like.”

Serale smiled, pushing the chair next to Cobblestone’s bed. “Perfect! What do you want to talk about?”

Cobblestone looked at her like she had snakes crawling out of her ears. “You suggested it,” she said, “I thought you’d know what to talk about.”

Serale was nonplussed, not used to speaking with ponies who were so blunt. “Well,” she said slowly. “What about your hobbies? Your interests? What do you like to do?”

“Aside from the thieving and Dragon’s Kiss?” Cobblestone asked.

Serale nodded, blushing a bit. She hadn’t meant to bring that up.

Cobblestone thought for a bit. What hobbies did she have? She hadn’t really thought of anything she did as a “hobby”, it was mostly practicing skills she would need later. For that matter, what of those could she say in front of a pony who basically amounted to a princess?

“Well,” she said, “I’m a fair hoof at sewing. Clothing’s hard to come by, so I make sure the things I do have are well taken care of.”

Serale’s eyes lit up at this. “Really? Do you make your own clothes?”

Cobblestone chuckled weakly. “I haven’t needed to buy or make clothes since I became good at thieving. I just maintain what I have.”

“Would you mind if I took a look at some of your work?” Serale asked. “Oh, it’s not me judging or anything!” she said, upon seeing the wary look on Cobblestone’s face. “I was taught how to sew from a very young age. Mother insisted, actually.”

After a moment of consideration, Cobblestone nodded. “Sure. My cloak is in the chest over there,” she said, indicating the blue-painted box near the mirror. “It’s nothing special, but I did a bit of repair work on it when I got it.”

Serale brought the cloak back over to the bed, turning it over in her hooves as she examined it. This was not entirely innocent, seeing as she was looking for whatever had been slipped into the cloak last night. She did find a pocket, but it was empty, much to her frustration.

“So…” Cobblestone said, watching her examine her cloak. “What else did you do from a very young age?”

“Hmm?” Serale said, before her eyes cleared. “Oh! Well, I think I covered most of the basics with my Mother. I learned about agriculture, helped to maintain an apple orchard, studied meteorology, learned to bake and cook, cared for animals, learned biology, and learned how to sew before I was six. I spent a good deal of time in the Library studying about magic and science, and how they could be used together. And I enjoyed learning how to use a rifle. I was on the castle’s junior rifle team before I left, actually.”

Cobblestone blinked. “You learned all of that?” she said incredulously. “There’s no way. Your head would explode.”

Serale frowned. “Well, what did you learn?” she asked. “Surely you’ve got a list of skills I’d find dizzying, having grown up on the streets and all.”

If she was offended, Cobblestone didn’t show it. “Well, there was the usual. How to run, how to hide in a crowded place. How to notice if you were being followed. How to find a warm place when it was cold, how to beg if you couldn’t steal, how to run on rooftops. That one was actually a lot more difficult than I’d thought it would be.”

Serale listened as Cobblestone continued on. “How to pickpocket, how to cut a purse, how to fight fair, how to fight dirty, how to test if food or drink was rotten or poisoned. Then there was how to fit in with a gang, how to work in a team, how to run a one-pony con, or a two-pony con, short and long. How to use a knife, how to drink…huh.”

“See?” Serale said. “You know plenty.”

“No,” Cobblestone said, “Not that. I just realized something.”


“For somepony who’s the daughter of the most powerful Mage in the country, you don’t use much magic. In fact, I haven’t seen you use any.” Cobblestone said.

Serale nodded. “I was raised to look at magic as a very powerful tool, only to be used when absolutely necessary. Libra says most ponies use it too frequently as it is, it’s like watching children playing with explosives.”

Cobblestone smirked. “Sounds about right. I’ve known plenty of ponies who got into more trouble than they could get out of with their magic.”

“Is what you told Libra true?” Serale asked. “Had you never used magic of that magnitude before? When you came to the inn, that is.”

Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “Not that I can remember. I was always good with using spells like that, though. Using electricity, I mean. Nothing that big.”

She smiled. “I can remember first learning how to make that shock trap, the one I put on my chest back in the gang. It was easy to put on, but it took me forever to get it back off again. I remember Lucky had to get me to the healer we had because it went off in my face once, a few years back…”

Cobblestone fell silent, remembering Lucky. Her eyes blurred again, tearing up, she told herself, from the pain. She bowed her head, determined not to let the young noble see her cry. It took only a moment to put her mask back on.

“Apologies,” she said. “I’ve lost friends before; you’d think I would be used to it by now.”

Serale sat in silence, taking in the pony before her. It was really was almost like watching a wounded animal, she thought. Not only that, the wounds here were still fresh.

“So,” Cobblestone said, her voice entirely too steady. “What was it brought you to Crescent City? Some big party? Buying a boat? Or was it just a vacation?”

Serale fiddled with the green fabric of the cloak in her lap, suddenly uncomfortable. “No, actually. It was a trip. I had left the Regia for a year to go and speak with dignitaries from other nations, sort of show my face to them. It was my first real responsibility as a noble and a member of my mother’s House.”

“A member?” Cobblestone asked. “No offense, but isn’t it just…y’know, you and her?”

Serale laughed, a bit more at ease at the joke. “It’s true. It’s a small House, but one with a good record. And it was more for me than anything else. I wanted to leave the Regia for a while, see something new.”

“So Crescent City was a stop for you?” Cobblestone asked.

The young Lady shook her head. “No, it was my homecoming. This boat was sent to pick me up from Crescent City, seeing as the ship I came in wouldn’t be able to go upriver.”

“Some homecoming,” Cobblestone said. “Sorry about that. Crescent City isn’t a good place to live, but most ponies can go a week or two without somepony trying to rob them or kill them.”

“Or both,” Serale added delicately.

It was Cobblestone’s turn to laugh, the exertion of which caused her to wince in pain. “True,” she gasped. “True. Shadow be damned, but that hurt.”

“Are you alright?” Serale asked, leaning forward to check on her. “Do you need help?”

Cobblestone waved one weak hoof. “I’m fine. Nothing worse than a bad hangover, I promise.”

They sat for a moment in companionable silence, the only sound heard being the steady rush of Cobblestone’s breathing and the whisper of water by the hull. A thought occurred to Serale, but it took a moment more of working up her courage before she was able to give voice to it.

“Cobblestone?” she asked.


“Why were you there that night?” Serale asked, averting her eyes. “I know you were there to rob us, but...why? It had to have been dangerous, more so than cutting purses and picking pockets. So why were you trying to break into our rooms?”

Cobblestone was silent for a brief moment, and Serale had the impression that she had come very close to crossing a line, if she hadn’t stumbled over it already.

“Forgive my rudeness,” she said quickly. “I shouldn’t have asked that question, it was impolite and foolish.”

“I did it for a simple reason,” Cobblestone said. “I did it because I needed to.”

Serale frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Tell me, Lady Serale,” Cobblestone said, “Do you know how much one of those pieces of Gryphic art is worth, just in materials alone?”

“They’re priceless,” Serale said, “Older than almost any nation in Equestria.”

“Wrong,” Cobblestone said. “They’re worth a very definite amount. One of those could keep a family fed for years. It could buy them all sorts of clothing, give them a good home, send their children to be apprenticed, or to a school if they’re thrifty. If I had one of those ‘priceless’ pieces, I wouldn’t need to be a thief anymore. None of us would have.”

She stared straight ahead. “Do you know what it’s like, to not know if you’ll freeze or not in the winter? To wonder where your next meal is coming from, if it’s coming at all? To wonder how much longer your ratty old clothing can hold together and keep you warm? Do you know what it’s like to wonder if you might need to start taking jobs that are even more demeaning than thieving? To look at your body and realize it’s the only thing you have of value?”

“Of course you don’t,” Cobblestone said, “But I do. I know it too well. I’m lucky to have had two friends I could trust enough to help me in what I attempted. But I don’t have them anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Serale said. “I didn’t realize.”

“Most ponies like you don’t,” Cobblestone said. “I don’t blame you for it. You spend so much time up in your big houses and high towers that you hardly even see us. Why would you notice us?”

Cobblestone shifted in her bed, drawing the covers over her shaking form. “I tried to steal what you had because I thought I needed it more than you. I was out of prospects and desperate, and Lucky thought you looked like you could afford your losses. So it was you we tried to rob.”

“Cobblestone,” Serale said, “I-“

And it was at that point that the back half of the boat exploded.

The shock of the explosion threw them both from their seated positions against the bulkhead, where they collided painfully with the wall, sliding to the ground.

“Cobblestone!” Serale said, picking herself up off of the floor. “Are you alright?”

The unicorn groaned. “I’m alright,” she said, “Just dizzy. What happened?”

The door flew open, revealing Puzzle, whose sword was out . “Lady Serale!” she bellowed. “Are you alright?” Smoke from the corridor began to fill the room.

“We’re both alright!” Serale said. “What happened?”

“The engines blew out!” Puzzle said, rushing over to help them both up. “Thankfully we had just docked. It’s a general evacuation, everypony off. We need to go, now!”

Serale nodded, snatching up Cobblestone’s cloak and fastening it around the younger unicorn’s neck, helping her up as she did so. “Understood!” she said. “Are you ready to move, Cobblestone?”

Cobblestone nodded weakly. “I’ll keep pace,” she said, “Let’s go!”

The trio toppled out into the hallway, as the ship began listing hard to portside. Thankfully for them both, Cobblestone’s quarters were starboard. The general quiet of the ship had been replaced with chaos and noise, orders being shouted and the screams of the frightened and wounded filling the air. Serale choked on smoke, coughing as they stumbled down the corridor towards the stairs.

“Go on!” Puzzle shouted, shoving Serale towards the stairwell. “Go!”

“Cob first!” Serale said.

The young thief, seeing no use in arguing, scrambled for the steps, Serale and Puzzle close behind. She almost slipped once, but it was with remarkable speed that she burst into the clear air of the deck above, struggling to keep her footing.

The sight of the ship filled even Puzzle with fear. Massive flames, fifty feet high at the very least, clawed towards the sky, the heat enough to be felt even from midway down the deck. As they watched, transfixed, another explosion rocked the deck, sending massive clumps of wood and metal skyward. A fresh round of screams filled the air.

“Lady Serale, get off of the boat,” Puzzle said. “My assistance is needed here. Find a guard, and do not leave their side. Magus Libra will be along shortly to collect you.”

Serale found herself unable to move, her hooves frozen in place.

“Go!” Puzzle barked. Without looking back, she lit her horn up. A massive column of water rose from the river, playing over the inferno near the stern, causing steam to rise into the air in billowing clouds.

Cobblestone tugged at Serale’s collar, forcing the stunned noblemare into motion. Together, they both stumbled across the tilted deck, leaning on one another for support, headed for the docks on the port side of the ship, where a crowd had begun to gather. Together, they approached the edge of the dock, only to be stymied by a gap of at least twenty yards of water.

“We can’t make that!” Serale said, aghast.

“Of course we can,” Cobblestone said. “We just need to get a running start, is all. Watch!”

She grabbed Serale by the shoulder, backing them both up a good distance away from the gap. “With me!” she said. “Don’t stop running once you start, and kick off near the edge! Ready?”

Serale swallowed nervously before nodding. “Ready.”

“Go!” Cobblestone said, breaking into a dead sprint.

Together, the two of them thundered down the deck, rapidly approaching the edge of the dock. Faster and faster they flew, until, all at once, they both leapt for their lives, soaring through the air.

They cleared the dock with a few inches to spare, stopping themselves short before they collided with anypony.

“See?” Cobblestone said, panting hard, “It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump.”

Serale nodded. “I suppose you were right. Let’s find a guard.”

Cobblestone grinned. “Sorry. Don’t think I’m amiable to that.” She held up the pin that Serale had been carrying, the one that let her control Cobblestone’s collar. “Took it when I pulled you towards the dock. No offense, your Ladyship, but I’m not going to rot in some minor’s prison on the off chance something better comes along.”

She inserted the pin into her collar, which detached, clattering to the dock. “My copy was downstairs, in my pillow, so I’ll thank you for the loan of yours.”

Serale crept toward her, but was brought up short when Cobblestone held up a knife. “From Puzzle’s belt. She looks like the type that has spares.”

She pulled the hood over her head, obscuring her features. “All the best, Lady Serale. Tell your mother I said hello.”

And just like that, she vanished into the crowd.

Serale moved quickly, scooping up the collar, pin attached, before fastening the thing around her own neck, seeing as she had no place else to put it. Roughly, she began to push her own way through the crowd, seeking Cobblestone, but hoping not to draw attention to the thief.

It was no easy task. Though she was sick, Cobblestone still moved with admirable skill, nearly impossible to keep track of in the throngs of ponies gathered to render aid or gawk at the spectacle, the crowd moving in all directions at once. Serale realized that when she was well, Cobblestone would be impossible for all but a trained observer to spot, if she didn’t want to be spotted. It was only by dint of the green cloak on her back that Serale was able to spot her at all.

At last, Serale burst free from the crowd, looking about wildly for the escaped invalid. It took a moment, but she was able to see Cobblestone, who was climbing a pile of lumber that was resting by one of the buildings near the river, evidently having decided that the roads were too dangerous for her. Or possibly to discourage being followed.

Serale’s eyes narrowed. She charged towards the woodpile, scrambling up the precarious pile of pine as Cobblestone made the roof, her cloak waving a sardonic farewell to her pursuer. Growling, she leapt from the pile, her hooves finding purchase on the roof. With a titanic effort, she managed to make it onto the roof, only to see that Cobblestone was two or three roofs ahead of her.

Sprinting headlong at the edge of the building, Serale pushed off of the edge, plummeting towards the next roof. She landed with a grunt, scrabbling for a bit on the slick tiles before continuing forward, hooves rattling on the roof as she pursued her quarry.

This building was a bit taller, and Serale barely managed to make it up before she realized that she was gaining on Cobblestone. The mare was smaller, slower, and sick. As she watched, Cobblestone stumbled to one side, nearly falling off of the roof as Serale leapt to the next building, now separated by a single rooftop.

Cobblestone shot a panicked look her way before making her next jump, barely managing to clear the thirty yard gap between her and the building before tumbling and barely managing to catch herself. She grinned, sure that Serale wouldn’t dare make the jump on her own.

Her grin vanished as Serale picked up speed, waiting until the very last moment before making the jump. She seemed to soar on invisible wings, hooves outstretched as her face contorted into a determined grimace, lips curled in defiance of Cobblestone’s escape and the laws of gravity, before she landed on the roof, losing her footing almost immediately.

She slammed into Cobblestone, who only had the most tenuous of grips already, and together, the two of them tumbled off of the roof into a nearby alley, where they landed on top of what appeared to be bags of flour. Serale felt Cobblestone shift under her, groaning.

“Oh, hush,” she said, taking the pendant from her own neck and re-fastening it around Cobblestone’s, “You’ve nopony to blame for that by yourself.”

“Hoy!” a voice called from the mouth of the alley. “Is somepony back there?”

“Yes!” Serale called back, thinking fast. “Just my sister and I.” She rolled off of Cobblestone, who got to her hooves shakily.

The voice turned out to belong to a rather burly looking Earth pony stallion. “Are you two alright? You ought to be more careful, there’s some dangerous types around here. Either of you see what made that horrible racket?”

“Hey, Tin!” a voice called from the alley. “Who’s that back there?”

“Just a couple of young ladies who wandered off path a bit!” Tin replied.

“That so?” the voice replied, and the owner of it came into view, along with another stallion. “Well, they must be lost, right?”

Serale realized that the three stallions now blocked their path out of the alley. “Yes, we’re just looking to get back to the river is all. Could you gentlecolts let us past, perhaps?”

Tin’s compatriot, a dun brown Pegasus, gave a leering grin. “Sorry, miss, but we just wouldn’t feel right letting two young mares such as yourselves wander around this part of town alone, especially if they might get robbed! Somepony might take a shine to your valuables!”

“I assure you, gentlecolts, we’ll be quite alright,” Serale said, “But we really must be on our way.”

She stopped when the third pony, also a Pegasus, with a scar across his eye, pulled out a knife. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, “Why don’t you two just leave what baubles you’ve got here with us? We’ll take good care of ‘em, right, Tin?”

Tin nodded. “Sure we would. I think you best do as he says, miss. Give us what you’ve got, starting with that pretty little piece around your sister’s throat.”

Cobblestone’s face twisted in fury, and her horn lit up, but her face contorted in pain and she sank back down, her magic once more inhibited by the pendant. Serale realized she was on her own.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Serale asked. “What if you’re caught?”

“All the police are down helping that ferry, miss, “ Tin said, “But that’s not your concern.”

His voice hardened. “Necklace. Now.”

Serale sprang from her back hooves, landing on her front and springing neatly over his back, catching him on the back of the head with her hind legs as she tumbled gracefully through the air. He stumbled forward, his legs spreading wide to catch himself just in time for Serale to land behind him, aiming a sharp kick directly in between his rear legs.

The dun colored Pegasus lunged for her, and Serale hit the ground, bending her legs as he soared over the top of her, colliding with the wall of the alleyway. She rolled to once side, springing to her hooves and spinning, kicking the knife out of the scarred Pegasus’s hooves before turning to avoid the wild punch he had thrown at her, flattening herself against the wall. She retaliated with a smart punch to his throat, causing the unlucky Pegasus to collapse in a heap. She hadn’t collapsed his windpipe, but he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.

“You bitch!” the remaining Pegasus cried, launching himself at her. She rolled away from the collapsed Pegasus, putting herself between the trio and Cobblestone. The Pegasus rebounded from the wall, not giving her any room to breathe. Serale put a hoof wrong, and stumbled, landing on her back just in time for the Pegasus to come down on top of her. She winced, anticipating a blow to the face or body.

It never came. Before he could land his punch, something massive and howling like a demon came barreling out of the darkness, like a bolt of black lightning. Serale caught the brief impression of claws, teeth, and two pointed ears before the thing latched itself onto the Pegasus’s face, growling and spitting up a storm as it clawed at his soft spots.

Angrily, the Pegasus tossed the beast away, but Serale had come to her hooves at this point. It took only a quick barrage of punches in the right locations before the Pegasus collapsed, unconscious. Serale swept the alleyway as she had been taught, looking for any further assailants before determining that she and Cobblestone were safe for now.

“Are you alright?” Serale asked, helping the unicorn up. “That looked like it hurt.”

Cobblestone’s eyes were wide. “Where did you learn that?” she asked, awestruck.

“That trip of mine wintered in the Quilinese islands. I found myself with little else to do, and an instructor agreed to teach me. Four months with him garnered the results you just saw,” Serale said.

There was a growling sound from the darkness of the alleyway, and Serale set her hooves, ready to face whatever it was that had come out of the back of the alley to aid them. The noise grew louder and closer, causing Serale to tense up, before a black cat came sauntering out of the shadows, sitting in front of them with its tail curled around it. It looked incredibly pleased with itself.

Serale relaxed. “Well, I suppose I should thank you,” she said to the cat. “You saved me a lot of pain.”

The cat looked unimpressed, instead choosing to pad over to the restrained unicorn. It rubbed itself against her legs, twinging in and around her hooves before settling against her side, where it began to purr.

“I could have sworn that cat was a lot bigger,” Serale said. “Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know,” Cobblestone said, “But I think he likes me.”

“He?” Serale asked. “How do you know?”

“It seems to fit,” Cobblestone replied.

It did indeed. The cat stood straight, the late afternoon light gleaming off of his pitch-black fur, which glimmered with an almost unnatural sheen. He yawned impatiently, exposing needle-sharp teeth before his tail began to twitch.

“Do you suppose he has a name?” Cobblestone asked.

Immediately, the cat lay down, stretching his paws out in the self-satisfied manner that only cats could manage. His mouth opened. “Haaaau…haaaaauuuu…haaaaaauuuuub…hooooob.”

Serale blinked. “Did…did he just say Hob?”

Cobblestone nodded. “That’s what I heard. Is your name Hob?” she asked the cat.

The cat chose not to dignify that with a response, choosing instead to resume his purring.

“I’m keeping him,” Cobblestone declared.

Serale nodded. “He does seem to like you. And he’s brought you good luck, despite him being a black cat and all. I think he’d be a good companion for you.”

“Serale?” Cobblestone said.


“For what it’s worth…I’m sorry. For running, I mean. But I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if I make it to Starfall, if I’ll end up in prison or worse. I can’t…I can’t take that kind of risk. I had to run,” Cobblestone said. “But you caught me, fair and square. This was kind of my last opportunity. So I’m sorry, and I’ll understand when you tell about what happened here.”

“What happened?” Serale asked. “You have a strange way of looking at it. If I recall, you were so frightened by the explosion, you wanted to put some distance between us and the ship, and so I accompanied you on a walk up the road. We didn’t want to disturb the guards, who had their hooves full with evacuation, so we didn’t bother with an escort.”

Cobblestone blinked. “But…why?”

“Because I get it,” Serale said. “You’re scared, far from home, everything you knew is upside down, and you feel like you’ve been dragged into something much bigger than yourself. You feel weak and helpless, like you’re going to slip up and have no way to recover from it, right? I know how that feels.”

Cobblestone nodded jerkily. “Yes, but…why would you know how that feels?”

“My mother is the next best thing to a goddess, and she rules against three actual goddesses. Next to her, I’m almost nothing. That’s why I left the Regia a year ago, to find a way to make myself feel like I could do something,” Serale said. “I needed a break and some perspective.”

Her tone grew serious. “So I see a bit of me in you. And you know what? I will personally guarantee that you do not end up in a prison after your testimony. If I need to, I’ll pardon you myself, understood? I’m going to be here for you, Cob. You can trust me. You’ve got a friend. Just don’t try to stand alone, alright?”

Cobblestone nodded, wincing in pain as she did so.

“Come on,” Serale said, supporting her. They began to hobble down the alleyway, cat in tow. “Let’s get you back to the ship.”

“Serale?” Cobblestone murmured. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Serale replied.

“I won’t tell anypony,” Cobblestone said, “I promise.”

“About what?” Serale asked.

“You didn’t use magic back there,” Cobblestone said. “Even when your life was in danger. Every unicorn does that, even the young ones. You can’t use magic, can you?”

Serale stiffened. Cobblestone continued. “It’s ok, I understand. I was a late bloomer, too. Didn’t learn magic until I was nearly eight years old. So I get not having it. And I won’t tell.”

Serale sighed. “You are part of a group of very few ponies that know that. I’m not joking when I say that the information you have is worth your life.”

“Great,” Cobblestone said, “Another thing.”

It was then that they both began to laugh, loud and long down the street, hobbling towards the waiting crowd, for a minute at least. It was only when the laughter died down that Cobblestone spoke again.

“I won’t tell, Lady Serale, I promise.”

“Just Serale, Cobblestone,” she replied. “And I won’t tell anypony either. After all, that’s what friends are for.”

In Which There Is An Explanation

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“So…” Libra said slowly, taking in the two slightly singed and scruffy-looking ponies standing before her with a critical eye, “Explain to me again why you two not only were not present near the docks, like you had been instructed to be, but also appear to have acquired a few scrapes and a large cat?”

“Well, Magus, it happened sort of like this,” Cobblestone said. “When the explosions happened, Lady Serale and myself were pretty frightened, and we barely made it onto the dock without having to swim for it, and I’ve never been much good at that, especially in the state I’m in. I don’t rightly remember what happened right after that, seeing as there was so much noise, but…”

“Cobblestone wasn’t feeling well before the accident,” Serale cut in smoothly. “She showed signs of panicking, so she and I took a bit of a walk up the road to get away from the crowd and the ship. We both got a bit scuffed up trying to get out of the crowd, and she and I collided on the walk, knocking us both over.”

“You both, being of relatively sound mind and having fair to excellent reflexes, just tripped over one another in the road?” Libra said, arching an eyebrow.

“To be fair, ma’am, we were a mite distracted,” Cobblestone said. “And I’m still sort of shaky from the withdrawal as it is. It was likely my fault. The collision, that is.”

Serale nodded her agreement. “It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the reason why we’re scraped up. We had a collision, and took a fall.” From two stories up.

“And the cat?” Libra asked, eyes fixed firmly on Hob’s black bulk, currently curled against Cobblestone’s leg, apparently asleep.

“He showed up right after we fell,” Cobblestone said. “He seems to have taken a liking to me. Followed me back here, anyway.”

“I examined him for any illnesses or signs of damage,” Serale said, “And he looks to me to be just fine. Definitely not a house cat, he smells a bit.”

One of Hob’s eyes cracked open at that, regarding the Lady with supreme disdain before drooping shut again. Clearly, he hadn’t taken offense to the insult.

“Forgive me for not taking your word at that, Lady Serale,” Libra said, “But I’d like to examine him myself, if that’s alright.”

Serale looked at Cobblestone. “I don’t really think of him as my cat,” she said, “So it’s not really my decision.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “That’s fine by me. Just be careful with him, alright?”

Libra nodded, bending over to the cat’s level before lighting her horn. Hob looked up at her, his yellow eyes narrowed suspiciously and his tail twitching nervously. “Does he have a name?” Libra asked.

“Hob,” Cobblestone replied. “His name is Hob.”

“Hello, Hob,” Libra said gently, “I’m just going to check you over, alright?”

Hob’s paw shot out and slapped her across the nose, causing Libra to jerk back and the light of her horn to flicker out. Hob growled deep in his throat, the fur along his back bristling menacingly. It was quite clearly not alright with Hob.

Libra’s eyes narrowed, her horn lighting up. A jet of light shot from her forehead, striking the cat full on and enveloping his entire body in violet light before the cloud of sparks dissipated with a snap, leaving Cobblestone standing next to one very annoyed, loud, and bristling cat which spat at Libra once before it sprinted off into the crowd outside the inn.

“That is…odd,” Libra said, furrowing her brow. “I’ve never really gotten that kind of reading from a cat before.”

“What do you mean, odd?” Cobblestone asked. “And what did you do to him?”

“I checked him for illnesses, parasites, and enchantments. It was harmless and painless,” Libra replied with a sniff. “He’ll be fine. And he was fine, by the way. Except for an unusual feeling to the spell.”

“What do you mean, Libra?” Serale asked.

“The spell felt normal, but I got some sort of feedback from the cat itself, as if he had been near somepony doing magic for a long time,” Libra said. “Not that one of you couldn’t have done it. Well, not you, Cobblestone, but I don’t think you would have used magic without reason, Serale.”

The duo shot each other a quick glance before Cobblestone shook her head. “No recent magic that I know of, ma’am.”

Libra’s frown turned introspective. “Then there is something very odd about that cat,” she said. “I’d refuse to bring it along, but I have the distinct feeling it would find a way onto our transport regardless, so I suppose I don’t have much of a choice. It seems very close to you, Cobblestone.”

The thief shrugged, saying nothing. It was a bit of an effort. The fall from the roof had taken its toll, and combined with the stress of the near-robbery and the ongoing withdrawal, she knew she’d have no problems sleeping tonight. This did not go unnoticed by Libra.

“You’ll need to wait a bit on the sleeping, Cobblestone. Thankfully, our belongings were salvaged from the explosion, but nopony is getting back on the boat. They’ll be turning it back downriver tomorrow morning to be moored someplace that can afford the necessary repairs, but it will take us no further. I’ve already arranged for transport to meet us here, which will arrive in a few hours.”

Serale quirked her head. “That transportation being?”

“An airship, Lady Serale. One from the Second Fleet, along with accompanying vessels to provide an escort back to the city.”

Serale groaned. “There’s no way to make my return anything but loud and noticeable, is there?”

Libra shrugged apologetically. “Unfortunately, no. The riverboat was going to be noticeable enough, but returning via airship is going to be more ostentatious, I’m afraid.”

“Terrific,” Serale snarled, her face contorting in frustration. “As if it wasn’t going to be bad enough returning home, now I have to do it in an attention-grabbing manner. A fine welcome home, gone a year and suddenly everything wants to kill me!”

Cobblestone edged away from her. Serale was intimidating enough even when not in a mood, to see her losing her temper was borderline frightening.

“Serale, might I suggest going to find a room and cooling off?” Libra asked. “You’re having a bit of a snit.”

As if a switch had been flicked, Serale’s face went from being lined with stress to a serene, almost blank calmness. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke once more, her voice was much more level. “Thank you, Libra. Is there a room where I can spend some time alone?”

Libra nodded. “We’ve rented the inn. Pick a room. And you’ll be fine this time, they’re all guarded.”

“Wonderful,” Serale said. “Pardon me, Cobblestone. I’ll speak more with you later.”

Without giving Cob a chance to speak, she turned from the table, hurrying up the stairs near the back of the common room and disappearing from view. Libra and Cobblestone both watched her go, concerned for her safety.

“So she told you?” Libra asked Cobblestone. “About her…problem?”

Cobblestone, though surprised, didn’t show it. She did, however, realize that she needed to be very careful about what she said next. “No,” she said, “I figured it out. Seeing a unicorn do things the way she does is unusual.”

“Which is why she chooses to spend most of her time alone, segregated from her peers by necessity,” Libra said.

“Must be lonely,” Cobblestone said. “Having all of those ponies who want to be around you, and choosing to turn them away.”

Libra looked at Cobblestone. “You ran.” It wasn’t a question.

The thief nodded. “I was scared and I ran. Serale took the necklace off, and I just kept going. She chased me down, brought me back. How did you know?”

“We brought up your possessions and found a small crystal pin among them similar to the one used to undo your restraints. A few questions pegged a few ponies running on rooftops, culminating in an alleyway in which several miscreants were nursing headaches, among other injuries. Serale’s work, no doubt.”

Cobblestone sighed, meeting Libra’s gaze. “So what now?”

“I ask you a few questions,” Libra replied, “And what happens next depends on the answers.”

Cobblestone nodded tersely. “Okay. Go ahead.”

“What did you intend to do if you got away?”

It was an odd question, but after a moment, Cobblestone had an answer. “Find someplace to lay low for a while. Find a job with one of the ships going past. Make some money, find a place to settle down. Riverton looked nice.”

Libra nodded. “Who gave you the pin?”

Cobblestone tried to speak, she really did, but the words wouldn’t come out, like there was something lodged in her throat. She struggled for a moment before giving up. “I can’t tell you. Not that I don’t want to, I actually can’t.”

Libra frowned. “Curiouser and curiouser. You’ve been psychically blocked. I can tell by looking at you. So somepony gave you the pin, told you about where to run, and then what? Was there anything else?”

Cobblestone found she was unable to speak again, and so settled for shaking her head.

“Very well. Somepony clearly had an effect on your mind. Understandable, you were distressed,” Libra said. “We’ll be taking a closer look at that later. But for now, I have one more question.”

“Go ahead,” Cobblestone said.

“Did Serale bring you back? Or did you come back with her?”

“I didn’t resist, if that’s what you were asking,” Cobblestone said.

“That isn’t what I’m asking,” Libra said. “Did you make the choice to come back, or did you come back because you had no other options?”

Cobblestone was silent, thinking about her answer. Why had she come back? She could have taken advantage of Serale’s distraction to get the pin from her, or picked her pocket and gotten the pin back right after the fight. It wouldn’t have been hard. She could have left her there, kept running, maybe even gotten away. But she hadn’t. Why?

“I think it was a bit of both,” she said. “If you understand what I mean.”

“Go on,” Libra said. “Explain to me.”

“I was thinking a bit before I ran,” she said. “About what I wanted to do with myself, if I wanted to run or stay, if I could get away, if it was really worth passing up a chance at escape for something good that might happen. I could wait, make my testimony, and possibly have everything I ever wanted, or I could try my luck and make my own way. And you know which option I chose.”

“You chose to betray our trust in you and make an escape,” Libra replied.

“No, I chose not to take what you said at face value. I’ve never had an offer made without some sort of string attached to it. There’s no such thing as a free meal. I learned that growing up very quickly. And what you offered sounded like a free meal. So I chose another option. I could rely on myself, like I have before, and make my own way. Then I won’t be surprised if somepony sticks a knife in my back, I’ll have had only myself to blame.” Cobblestone said, looking out of the door of the inn at the busy crowd outside.

“Everything I’ve gotten, my place in life, my money, the clothes I wear, all of it is because I went out and took it, made it mine,” Cobblestone continued. “I didn’t have friends, I had partners, ponies I could trust to help me only because I was helping them. The two you found in the Inn, my partners, were there because we all wanted to get out of Crescent City. We stuck together for safety and to get what we couldn’t alone. The Pegasus was a pony I knew for years, and he tried to rob me blind more times than I could count.”

“So you chose to rely on yourself because that’s all you had to rely on?” Libra asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “At first. Right up until I fell off of a rooftop and we ran into some trouble.”

“And then what happened?”

“Serale happened. She stood up for me, fought for me, when she didn’t have to. And then she called me something I’ve never actually been called before. She called me her friend.”

Cobblestone’s voice was tinged with awe. “A friend. Me. Who had just moments before tried to run away from her, nearly gotten her killed, had been nothing short of a headache for everypony involved. Just like that, I was a friend to her. And that’s when I realized that I could stop running. I had somepony to rely on, somepony who could protect me if I could protect her. I’ll not abandon Serale Everstar. You have my word on that.”

Her voice was small once more. “For what it’s worth. So I came back of my own accord. There’s your answer.”

Libra nodded. “I’ll be reserving judgment for now. But based on what I can see now, I don’t see much of a reason to punish you further. Had you caused harm to anypony, or through your actions caused harm to Serale, there would be a much different outcome. But as it is, you’ll stay in custody. And I’ll see about getting you that apprenticeship still.”

Cobblestone bowed her head gratefully. “Not that I’m not thankful, but why? You had rules, I broke them.”

“Because you weren’t in your right mind when you did. And you could call me something of a bleeding heart when it comes to those in need,” Libra said. “I know a bit about hardship and self-reliance. And loneliness. You’ve made a friend in Serale, Cobblestone. I hope you realize what that means. She’s going to go through a lot. Be there for her. And if I find out that you’ve taken advantage of that friendship, you and I will be having words. Is that understood?” Libra’s face might as well have been carved from granite, so hard and unforgiving it was.

“I’d never go back on our friendship,” Cobblestone said, “But you have my word.”

“Good,” Libra said, “Then the matter is settled for now. I’ve been examining you for signs of mental influence, and aside from the mental block, I can find none. We’ll remove it when our ship arrives. Until then, you should get some rest. Pick a room upstairs. If you’re hungry, I’ll have somepony bring food up.”

Cobblestone bowed her head once more. “Thank you, Libra. You won’t regret this.”

“I know,” Libra said simply. “Now go.”

Cobblestone turned, walking across the floor of the common room and up the worn wooden steps of the inn before disappearing from view. Libra watched her go, a faint smile on her face.

Cobblestone had a lot of potential, she thought to herself. Power, drive, determination, all of them the beginnings of an excellent mage. Who was she to judge the filly for her shortcomings? She had a few of her own. And besides, she could understand the feeling of being on the run all too well. It wasn’t many who knew it, but before her meteoric rise, she’d spent some time on the wrong side of the law. Never got caught, but it had been a hard thing to become legitimate.

Twilight Everstar had known, of course. Somehow, she always knew. It was whispered that she ruled over Thought just as Princess Cadance ruled over emotion, but in truth Twilight couldn’t read minds, she just had nearly five hundred years of experience with ponies. And she had known, and she had forgiven her. That was probably the most important part, the forgiveness.

She just hoped that her Mistress would be as forgiving when she arrived with the airship to collect her daughter.

Serale sat with her back to the door, her eyes closed tightly and her tail wrapped around her like she had seen her mother do when she really needed to focus on something. She concentrated on controlling her breathing, letting deep, steady breaths in and out as she tried to calm down. Meditation was hard for her, but it was an important skill to learn, especially for her.

There was a sound at the door, which swung open.

“Oh, crap! Sorry!”

“Is that you, Cobblestone?” Serale asked.

The almost-white mare stood at the door, shuffling her hooves awkwardly. “Um. Yeah.”

“Come in. You don’t need to worry about me,” Serale said, opening her eyes, “I’m fine. I could use some company, actually.”

“Okay,” Cobblestone said, her voice slightly wary, “Sure.” The door closed behind her.

Serale turned to look at her. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Cobblestone blinked in surprise. “I’m alright. A bit tired, but I think…I think I passed the low point of the withdrawal. I’m feeling better, at least. I’ll probably sleep like a rock tonight, but other than that, I’m doing fine. You?”

“I’m doing just fine,” Serale said.

“Really? Because you looked a bit angry down there,” Cobblestone said, “More than you should have, actually.”

“I said I’m fine!” Serale snapped. Her heart sank as she saw Cobblestone flinch away from her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her shoulders slumping. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice at you. I didn’t mean to.”

Cobblestone smiled. “It’s alright. Just startled me, is all. Is something bothering you?”

Serale shook her head. “No, not really. It’s just…sometimes I get into these moods, Libra calls them ‘snits’. Mother has them too, but only ever in private. I get cranky, irritable, I lose my temper easily. If I’m not careful, I can say things that I don’t really mean to say.”

“How do you mean?” Cobblestone asked.

Serale shrugged. “I don’t really know how to describe them. I say hurtful things about others, things I probably shouldn’t know. I don’t know how I know them, but I do. And if I get up a head of steam, it’s hard to stop. Things can get…unpleasant.”

Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “You mean you can read minds?”

Serale laughed a bit at that. “No, not at all! It’s more like reading ponies, except I don’t use body language and I can’t really control it. Mother does it too, except never in public. She says it’s because I have a bit of her Flame in me. It gives me a bit of a temper. So I’m careful not to get too excited in public.”

“What happens if you do?” Cobblestone asked.

“Remind me to tell you about my stop in Fillydelphia,” Serale replied. “Or the time I won an insult competition with a Khan of the Minotaurs.”

“I don’t know,” Cobblestone said doubtfully, “It sounds like magic to me. Mind reading? I’m pretty sure there are ponies who can do that. Mentalists, right?”

Serale nodded. “Some can. But their subjects know about it. Reading a mind isn’t as insidious as most think, seeing as it’s pretty easy to notice somepony else pulling up your memories, especially without your permission.”

“Makes sense to me,” Cobblestone said. “But then, I don’t know much about magic in general.”

Serale gave her a half smile, feeling the stress ebb away. “Really? What do you know about it?”

“I know that unicorns can do it.”

Serale waited on more, but found nothing forthcoming. “That’s it?” she asked incredulously. “All of it?”

Cobblestone shrugged. “Told you I didn’t know much.”

“You don’t know about Earth pony magic? Or Pegasi and their magic?” Serale asked. “Or about the Cross?”

“Pegasi have magic?” Cobblestone asked.

Serale rested her face in her hooves. “Whoever becomes your teacher will have their work cut out for them. You know less than a child in magic kindergarten.”

Cobblestone nodded. “Never had much of a formal education.”

Serale cleared her throat. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll teach you the basics. Ready?”

“Alright,” Cobblestone said. “Go for it.”

“There are three types of magic innate in ponies,” Serale said. “There’s our magic, unicorn magic, which is unique in that we use it consciously. We can shut it on and off, make it do different things, and so forth.”

She held up her hoof. “Then there’s Earth pony magic. Their magic comes from the land itself, and they use that magic to help things grow, to work with animals, and so forth. Here in the Evening Kingdom, it’s more difficult for Earth ponies to do so, because they work different, sometimes opposing jobs. In the Celestial Kingdom, they work together on one job at a time, so the work is easier.”

“Why don’t we do that?” Cobblestone asked.

“Because we have stronger ley magic, the magic in the land itself,” Serale replied. “So even though they find it difficult to use, Earth ponies here get more results than the ponies in Celestia’s kingdom.”

“Okay,” Cobblestone said slowly, “So we use magic from inside ourselves, and Earth ponies use magic in the land.”

“Right,” Serale said, “And they cannot control the magic. It applies itself to whatever project they’re working on. So they couldn’t be tilling a new field and direct their magic to help their apple crop grow. It doesn’t work.”

Cobblestone nodded. “So what about Pegasi?” she asked. “What kind of magic do they have?”

“It’s not really clear where Pegasi draw their magic from,” Serale said, “But they use it to help them do their jobs in the sky. By all rights, Pegasi shouldn’t be able to fly with wings the size they are. They’re heavy, and the wings are small. Magic comes into effect there, helping them fly. Also, they use it to help manipulate the weather.”

As Serale had anticipated, Cobblestone looked at her like she had said that she was actually a two headed pink dragon.

“They use it to bucking what?” she asked, before clapping her hooves over her mouth. Her cheeks colored as she faintly blushed. “Sorry.”

“You heard me,” Serale said. “They use it to manipulate weather. It works better near the edges of the Kingdom because of the massive ley lines here. They make things grow wild and without prompting, and that includes the weather. Pegasi can’t manipulate it here, but they can most anywhere else.”

“That’s insane,” Cobblestone said. “So they can just push a snowstorm away, or bring in rain for the fields?”

“They schedule the seasons in the Celestial Kingdom, too,” Serale said. “In some places, they come together as a community to help discard the last remnants of winter.”

Cobblestone shook her head disbelievingly. “You’re pulling my hoof,” she said. “There’s no way.”

Serale held one hoof up. “Cross my heart,” she said.

Cobblestone leaned in closer. “You said you went to Fillydelphia?” she asked. “Did you see them doing it?”

Serale nodded. “Strangest thing I’ve seen in my life. They scheduled a sunny day for us to arrive, and then when we left, brought in snow clouds because harvest had been brought in.”

Cobblestone’s eyes lit up. “That’s so strange!” she said. “What else do they do differently in the Solar lands?”

Serale leaned in closer, lesson quite forgotten. “Well,” she said, “They have this thing called a Talent Mark…”

Riverton was famed for two things, its food and its complete lack of inhibition when it came to matters of love. The city was a hotspot for young colts and mares of all descriptions for exactly this purpose, and was also a fairly popular destination for married couples both new and old. Indeed, it was said that if this city had not lain within the demesne of Twilight Everstar, it would have felt right at home near the Manor of the Dawn herself, so vibrant and rich were its denizens’ love for life and one another.

It was to this city that a peculiar young mare had come, late one night, dressed all in black and with her head swathed in bandages that concealed the entirety of her head. She was led by a young colt in a jacket and tie, who shepherded her like one would a sister, or perhaps a lover. The guards at the gate to the town, wary of sickness, had no objections to letting her in after a brief tale of the young mare’s affliction and her desire for some quiet rest away from the cruel and hectic life of Crescent City, a rest which Riverton seemed to be able to offer her. After coin had been exchanged, the duo had been admitted with little fuss at all, and had even earned well-wishes from the guards at the front gate.

“We are almost there, Sister,” the colt murmured as they proceeded down the road towards the riverfront. “Our brethren have a holy place nearby where they are gathered even now.”

Nightshade smiled at this. “I am glad. Fate may have allowed us speed and a safe journey, but I wish to remove these accursed wrappings from my eyes and let my horn breathe once more.”

It was then that they had arrived at their destination, an old building just moments from the river itself. The sign on the front read “Striped Hide Charms and Herbal Remedies”, and though the hour was late, there was still a light burning in the window. The building itself was imposing, painted black and covered in strange runes and pictures of animals unseen by any in the town. The very air of the place seemed to discourage visitation, but it was inside this building that the two ponies went, the door swinging open and shut behind them without any visible prompting.

The inside was little better than the outside in the way of reassurance. Dusty phials lined the walls, gleaming in the dim light which permeated the room with a sickly orange glow. The skeleton of some strange winged beast dangled from wires from the ceiling, phantom limbs stretched wide as if to swoop down on those entering the shop and devour them whole. The floor itself was scoured with marks and gouges just a bit too regular to be random, and bundles of too-sweet herbs dangled in bunches from the walls and ceiling, competing for space with scrolls of indeterminate age and origin, in a hundred different tongues, none of them speaking anything good.

All this paled in comparison, however, to the shopkeeper standing behind a filthy glass display case, underneath which were laid strange curved daggers stained with something that might have been rust, old flutes carved of pale, pale bone, silver jewelry that gleamed with blood red stones, and other, more obscure things whose purpose could only be guessed at.

“Welcome, weary travelers,” the aged zebra said, his voice dusty as the scrolls on his walls. His eye gleamed an unpleasant yellow in the light, the slit pupil contracting at the sight of them. “You look as though you have journeyed far. Might I interest you in some of my wares?”

The colt nodded twice. “My Sister is ill. I have heard many things about the power of Crows. Have you a talisman to help her heal?”

The zebra nodded in return upon hearing the code phrase spoken. “Such things are too powerful to keep in the front of my store. I have many wondrous items in back for the Worthy. Would you care to see them?”

“I would,” Nightshade said, “But allow me a brief moment to compose myself. We will not be disturbed?”

Her voice let the shopkeeper know exactly who he was dealing with. It fairly rang with the authority of Fate itself. “Of course not,” he said. “These walls are more secure than they look to be.”

Nightshade said nothing, instead choosing to remove her cloak, letting it fall to the floor.

Her horn lit up with black fire as she stripped the bandages from her eyes, the aura covering her face in a black half-mask of magic. The linens, stained brown on the inside, fell to the floor gracefully as she let the magic fade to reveal her mask once more in place, the silver filigree shining bright even in the dim light of the shop.

The shopkeeper clutched at his chest as her sightless gaze lit directly on him, her white eyes piercing into his soul with the ease of a dagger between the ribs. Her lip curled contemptuously.

“Stand aside and let us pass, Brother,” she said. “I have been charged with judgment on the one behind that wall. She has disobeyed the orders of Fate and must be punished.”

The zebra scrambled to one side as Nightshade’s horn flashed again and the wall behind him simple ceased to exist, revealing a small room, empty save for a few chairs and a rug on the floor. The stallion in the jacket and tie leapt the counter, trotting over to the rug before pulling it to one side. Her shattered horn flashed once more, and the trapdoor it had concealed flew off of its hinges, ripped from them to the wall furthest away from Nightshade.

“Enough!” an aged voice called. “Enough! I will be out in a moment, Fate curse you! My old bones take a moment to climb these steps.”

Nightshade motioned to the stallion to step away from the hole. He did so with haste, moving to stand beside her once more. It was a moment more before an elderly zebra, her eyes rheumy with age and a staff clutched in her hooves, managed to climb out of the hole and stood facing her attackers.

“Am I addressing Sister Ruti?” Nightshade asked.

The zebra nodded. “You know I am, child. What is your business here?”

“Sister Ruti, you disobeyed our Mother. You hexed the engines on the riverboat that came by here a day or two ago, and sent a nightmare to one of the occupants, did you not?”

“I put a hex on a boat which disturbs the water too greatly, and put a dream-dagger in the head of the one who thwarted Mother’s plans, yes,” Ruti said.

Nightshade sighed. “You know why I am here, Sister.”

“Aye, Sister,” Ruti said. “I know. I’ll go quietly for you.”

Nightshade’s horn flashed, and the zebra was annihilated in an instant, her staff plummeting to the floor before being caught by the stallion in the jacket and tie. She turned to the other zebra from behind the counter. “Gather them here,” she said, “As of now, I control this Family, until Mother appoints another.”

The zebra choked out his acceptance before stumbling out of the door, leaving the two ponies alone. Nightshade’s horn lit up, and the staff floated out of her companion’s grip. Gently taking it from the air, she rested her weight on it. Inhaling briefly, she activated the staff, green flame pouring out of the top of it. As she concentrated, however, the color of the flame darkened. Soon enough, it too was black.

In Which There Is Shipping

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The night sky over Autumn Station was quiet and clear, the void sprinkled with tens of thousands of stars that watched over the resting denizens like myriad eyes, gleaming in silver and red and blue, their gaze broken only by the occasional fast-moving cloud. This would have been a fine night for a walk under the stars, perhaps with friends or lovers, but tonight was not one of those nights. A ship lay smoking at the docks, a hundred passengers were taking up all available rooms at the two inns, and the city was, in general, much more busy than it had any right to be considering its small size. Even the quiet of the night it did possess wouldn’t be lasting too long. Despite the far-too-early hour, most ponies had given up on sleep entirely.

On the outskirts of town, a small bundle of ponies waited, surrounded by a few bags and a host of Royal Grenadiers, as well as a few ponies who were scampering to and fro from the town to the site, ensuring nopony and nothing were left behind. In the middle of this crowd waited three ponies, surrounded by silent figures in grey cloaks, chatting quietly amongst themselves.

“How long until the ship arrives?” Serale asked Libra, stamping her hooves to warm herself up despite her heavy coat. Without realizing it, she nestled deeper into the seal fur surrounding her.

“We should be hearing them in a few minutes,” Libra said, “But we’ll be underway within the hour, I should think.”

“Does this town even have an airship tower?” Cobblestone asked. “I don’t see one.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Libra replied, “But these ponies in the Second Fleet are skilled at getting ponies and supplies on and off of the ships without special moorings, and without much of a delay, either.”

“So we’ll be using a basket and line?” Serale asked.

“Likely,” Libra replied. “It shouldn’t be much of an issue. Are you warm enough, Cobblestone?”

The unicorn shrugged. “I don’t know if I’m warm or cold anymore. I’ve had so many hot flashes and cold spells standing here that I don’t even know what temperature it is.”

Libra frowned. “You should have said something. If your core temperature gets low down here, we might have some problems when we climb above a few hundred feet.”

Cobblestone blanched. “A few hundred feet?”

Serale nodded. “Most of our airships cruise anywhere from a thousand to three thousand feet above the ground. There are more and stronger winds up there, which makes them faster.” She looked at Cobblestone. “You knew that, didn’t you?”

Cob shook her head. “The only time I’ve seen airships is when they were coming in to dock in Crescent City! I didn’t know they got that high!”

“Relax,” Libra said, “you’re more likely to be in a boating accident than to come to harm in one of these airships.”

“Oh, now I feel a lot better,” Cobblestone said, looking at the still-smoking riverboat behind them. “Just full of confidence.” Her face turned slightly green as she contemplated the heights she would be traveling at. “How long will we be on these airships?”

“A few hours at most,” Libra said, “And most of that will be belowdecks, where you won’t even have to look at the ground if you don’t want to.”

“I usually try to,” Serale said, “But at night, there isn’t really much point. So we can all take a bit of time to relax before we get to Starfall.”

Cobblestone focused on taking a few deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. She shivered; her stomach feeling like it had twisted itself into a knot. Her hooves trembled, her head ached, she wanted nothing more than to sleep, and she had almost died on this trip three times, from the assassins to the withdrawal to the explosion. At this point she just wanted to find the nearest quiet bedroom and barricade herself inside.

“It’s going to be alright, Cobblestone,” Serale said, “We’ll be right here, and these things are safer than most houses. I’ve taken a look at how they’re built. Safety is always first.”

“And besides,” Libra said, “They’re traveling with elite troops, all of them Pegasi. I think they’ve been in Lady Everstar’s employ since the beginning of this Kingdom. If you somehow managed to go over the side, they’ll catch you before you’ve realized you’ve fallen.”

Serale looked at Libra strangely. “The Condottieri are coming with the ships? Why? They only ever accompany-“

“Listen!” Libra said. “I can hear the engines.”

And sure enough, there came a faint sound, a low throbbing drone that seemed to start from one corner of the sky and roll of them all slowly, like a blanket made of low music. It started out low, faint at first, but as they listened, the sound began to grow louder, and louder still, new tones coming in as the ships drew closer.

“I can’t see them!” Cobblestone said, looking towards where the noise had originated from. “Where are they?”

“Puzzle!” Libra called. “Please have your ponies light their horns now!”

Without hesitation, the six Magekillers lit their horns, each of them emitting a bright light that burned blue in the night, forming a ring around the passengers as they did so. Other ponies began to do the same, lighting horns and torches to provide a landing spot for the incoming airships.

Cobblestone blinked in the sudden light, her night vision gone haywire for the briefest of moments before she screwed her eyes shut tight, before opening them to slits. She scanned the sky, looking for the shapes of the airships, and it was a scant minute later that she was able to find them, three cruisers gliding in low among the treetops.

The inbound airships were different from the ones she had seen daily in Crescent City, these being military instead of simple cargo or luxury craft. Their profiles were sleek, the sides and canvas of the ships painted in muted colors with only a few identifying insignia to proclaim their purpose, as opposed to the gaily colored pleasure boats she had seen before. Even from this distance, she could see the hatches along the sides from which the powerful guns of the ships would fire once opened. They kept a very strict formation, with little to no variation between them, seemingly without communicating in the open.

As Cobblestone watched, one of the ships, the one in the middle, broke away from its companions, which began to circle above the area where they waited, guarding its descent. The roar of the engines went from loud to deafening as it dropped lower and lower, until it was a scant hundred feet off of the ground. A team of six Pegasi vaulted over the sides, anchor lines held in their hooves, and they landed at equidistant points from one another, pounding their lines into the ground with spikes they withdrew from belts around their sides. Once they were secure, the ship dropped more lines, from which other ponies plummeted, rappelling down them with the skill born of extensive, exhaustive practice. In less than two minutes, the ship was secure, and a perimeter of guards had been deployed to the ground around them. More ponies began to drop to the ground, carrying with them equipment and gear to help them raise their cargo up to the ship. One of them, an Earth pony sergeant in muted grey, with a close-cropped mane and a scar running along one side of his jaw, trotted up to them before snapping a crisp salute.

“Chief-Sergeant Grandlaw, reporting for pickup duty, Milady,” he said, his voice gruff and respectful. “We’ll be underway in a few moments, if you’d care to accompany me to where we’re constructing the basket.”

Serale inclined her head, indicating he should drop his salute. He did so, but remained at a position of stiff attention. “I would be happy to accompany you, Sergeant. However, one of my companions is ill, and is suffering from the effects of the cold. Would you happen to have something to help her warm up?”

Sergeant Grandlaw eyed Cobblestone suspiciously. “I think we might, Lady Serale. However, my orders are to retrieve you first and foremost. If you accompany me, we can arrange for a coat to be sent down for your hoofmaiden.”

Cobblestone coughed in surprise. Hoofmaiden? Her?

“That would be fine, Chief-Sergeant,” Serale said. “Shall we?”

The sergeant offered her one hoof, and together, they headed for the area where the basket was being assembled. With a final flurry of activity, the enlistees constructing it managed to finish assembling the structure, one of them holding a side open for her to climb into before closing it behind her.

It was a simple invention, but one that had proven to be remarkably effective. The basket was lightweight, having a floor made of strong, light wood, which was fastened inside of a specially made cloth sling that was made of durable canvas. The canvas sides rose up to chest height, providing a restraining barrier for whichever pony or piece of equipment was inside it, and each side had several rings through which lines could be threaded and fastened, ensuring that the basket’s own lift kept the sides sturdy. The lines ran up to the cargo hatch at the stern of the ship, which opened wide to receive the package as they rapidly ascended through the gap, and closed behind them once they were safely inside.

Cobblestone watched this all with awe in her eyes. She had never flown before, and had never considered the possibility of her making it on board and airship, let alone a military craft.

“Are you alright?” Libra asked. “You seem a bit starstruck.”

“I’m fine” Cobblestone said, “Just impressed. And a bit nervous. They were up pretty quickly.”

As she spoke, the cargo hatch opened up again, sending the basket back down for its next passenger, containing Sergeant Grandlaw, who was holding a bundle of cloth in one hoof. A scant few meters from the ground, he jumped out of the basket, letting it hit the ground, before trotting over to the two remaining passengers, who met him near the basket.

“For you, Miss,” he said, holding out the cloth. “It’s a sky-duty surplus jacket, but it’s warm and about your size. Get it fastened while I escort the Magus up.”

“She’s under detention, Sergeant,” Libra said. “She’s cooperative, but I’d feel better if you could have an escort assigned to her just in case.”

The sergeant nodded sharply before turning over one shoulder. “Corporal Sandbar!” he yelled. “Report with haste!”

A young uniformed Pegasus came barreling out of the crowd before clattering to a stop in front of them, the tools around his belt clanking as they swayed. He came to the position of attention .”Corporal Sandbar reporting, Sergeant!” he brayed.

Chief-Sergeant Grandlaw gestured at Cobblestone. “This young mare requires supervision. She goes up with the next basket. She is not to leave this area until then, understood?”

Sandbar stiffened even more, if that were possible. “Understood, sir.”

The sergeant took in Cobblestone, who was struggling with the jacket. “And help her with that damned thing,” he said, “Before she strangles herself with it.”

With that, he and Libra climbed into the nearby basket, and with a quick tug from the Sergeant, the duo began to rise. Cobblestone could not watch them go, preoccupied as she was with the jacket, which seemed to consist mostly of buckles.

Sandbar watched her for a moment, amusement in his eyes, before stepping in to help her.

“Right,” he said, “The trick with these is to match like to like.”

He indicated the brass clasps that dominated the front of the jacket. “Connect brass to brass, those are the actual buttons. Start at the bottom and work your way up.”

Cobblestone did as she was told, fitting her hooves through the sleeves before marrying the two sides of the jacket together.

Sandbar moved behind her. “The regular metal clasps are for connecting to the rigging, or attaching tools, except for one set along the back. You should be able to feel them along your spine. Let me just fasten those up for you.”

“What are those for?” Cobblestone asked as his hooves moved up her back, fastening them with practiced speed.

“Those are called storm buckles,” he said. “When we fly through rough weather, we use these to buckle our overcoats onto our backs so they don’t fly around and get caught in something. They buckle together when they’re not being used.”

He finished the last buckle. “And there we are!” he said. “All done. It’s a good fit, Miss.”

Cobblestone felt the jacket retaining her heat already, and smiled at the young soldier gratefully. “Thank you,” she said, “That’s much better.”

“Not a problem,” he replied. “Which bag was yours, Miss? I can send it up with you.”

She indicated the rough canvas bag that contained most of her belongings. “That one,” she said.

He handed it to her just as the basket hit the ground once more, Sergeant Grandlaw waiting on her expectantly. “There you are, Miss,” he said, “If you’re feeling ill, remember not to look down until you’re safe inside the ship.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” the sergeant said, “You are dismissed.”

Sandbar nodded once before returning to whatever his prior duties may have been, leaving Cobblestone standing alone by the basket. She turned upon hearing an expectant cough from the sergeant.

“Waiting on you, Miss,” he said.

Cobblestone hurried into the basket, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary engaged in this particular activity. She stepped inside, surveying the ground once more, and felt the sergeant give a tug on the line.

Before the basket had gone too far off the ground, however, a small black shape rushed forward from out of the darkness, making a truly heroic leap into the basket next to Cob, who jumped to see what had caught up with her.

Hob stood by her hooves, an immensely pleased expression on his face as he twined around her hooves, choosing to curl up underneath her, where he began to purr.

“What in the Shadow’s name was that?” the sergeant exclaimed, craning his neck to see Hob regarding him with calm eyes. “How did he get here?”

“He’s mine,” Cobblestone said as they rose up into the air, keeping her eyes tightly shut. “He ran off a bit earlier. I’m glad he decided to come back.”

“We don’t generally allow cats on board our vessels,” the sergeant said.

“Check with Lady Serale and the Magus Libra,” Cobblestone replied, her eyes still shut tightly. “They’ll vouch for him.”

“Lady Serale has been escorted to the captain’s quarters as per our orders,” Grandlaw said. “We’ll need to wait to hear from her.”

There was a clang as the doors behind them shut tightly, and Cobblestone opened her eyes. She was standing right next to a catwalk made of wood and rope, upon which Sergeant Grandlaw was already standing. He offered a hoof, which Cobblestone took, clambering out of the basket and slinging her rucksack over one shoulder.

“Welcome aboard the HLS Discernment, Miss,” Sergeant Grandlaw said as they began to walk, Hob padding behind them, “She’s four hundred and forty-eight feet in length, with thirty eight feet at the beam. Runs on three Class Nine engines, reaches thirty four knots, and can reach a maximum cruising height of nearly twenty five hundred feet for nearly four hours. She’s got eight independently targeted Executor-class guns on each side, and four Judgment-class bombards pointed down below in addition to her air defense guns up above. Crew of three hundred enlisted, twenty five officers, and able to carry twice as many again for transport.”

They passed through a wide open area in which several groups of ponies were running to and fro hauling crates and boxes to one side or another as they entered and exited through a hatch above them, swinging from lines or flying in the relatively tight spaces between. Not only this, but the engines were idling, filling the space with such noise that Cobblestone’s headache, which had been abating, came back with a vengeance. The noise was terrific here.

“She’s got to be loaded evenly, else we’ll spend all of our time correcting course!” the sergeant shouted over the racket they were making. “Her outsides are plated steel, welded tight and reinforced throughout the ship to ward off fire, and the gas-bag’s got about twenty layers of enchantments on it! She’s top of the line, can give and take punishment all day if she wants!”

He grabbed a set of earmuffs, tossing them to her. Cobblestone clamped them over her head as they walked through the belly of the ship, the catwalk spanning the entire length. Above them she could see the gunnery deck, deserted save for a few watchful sentries watching them go, and in front of them was a wall made of more metal, through which others were passing quickly, limited by the narrowness of the catwalk.

As they, too, passed through the doorway, Sergeant Grandlaw indicated that she should take off her headgear, which she did. Much to her surprise, she found the noise from the engines had diminished from a deafening roar to a dull, ever-present thrumming. She sighed in relief as she felt the throbbing in her head cease, letting her think clearly again.

“Once we’re in the air and on our way, it’ll be a few hours before we’re back in Starfall,” Grandlaw said. “The Fleet actually just left a few days back on maneuvers, which is why we were able to respond so easily. In the meantime, I’ll need to ask you to remain in the common room, seeing as you’re under detainment. Upon our approach to the city, you’ll be allowed on deck to disembark, or to view the approach if you’d like.”

Cobblestone shook her head. “I think I’ll be fine down here, thanks.”

“If that’s what you’d like, Miss. The common room’s right down this way,” he said, indicating a hall to their left.”

He was interrupted, however, by the arrival of a uniformed unicorn who wore the same muted grey, but with simple golden epaulettes on his shoulders. Sergeant Grandlaw snapped to, saluting the other pony, who returned the salute easily.

“Sergeant Grandlaw?” he asked, curiosity written across his face, light yellow in color and framed by auburn hair.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” the sergeant replied. “How can I be of assistance?”

“I’ve been sent to fetch one of the passengers we’re taking on, by the name of Cobblestone. She went up with you. Is this her?” he asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “I’m her,” she said. “But why do you need to see me?”

The lieutenant inclined his head slightly. “My name is Lieutenant First Grade East. I’ve been ordered to bring you directly to the captain’s offices for an examination.”

“Sir, this mare requires an escort, being under detention,” Sergeant Grandlaw said.

Lieutenant East smiled gently. “Her power is restrained by the pendant around her neck, Sergeant. She’s lucky to have the use of her legs right now. We’ll be fine. You are dismissed.”

Grandlaw stiffened, throwing a swift salute before about facing and continuing down the hall towards the common area, leaving Cobblestone alone with the officer.

“You’ll have to forgive the sergeant,” the lieutenant said, “He’s from a border fort and doesn’t quite understand the idea of a gentlecolt soldier. He’s much too stiff.” He offered one hoof. “Shall we?”

Together, the pair walked down a second corridor, one which had only a few other doors along its length before culminating in a single heavy door at the far end, outside of which two guards in dress uniforms were posted, rifles slung over their shoulders, gazes straight ahead and nigh-unblinking.

The lieutenant let go of her hoof. “I’ve been told to wait outside for you,” he said, “Just go on in. You’re expected. Knock before, somepony will open the door for you.”

Cobblestone looked at him mistrustfully before hitching her knapsack higher on her back. A weight on her leg reminded her that Hob was following her closely, and the thought of his being there, even if he might not be much use in a fight, gave her a bit of courage. Whoever the captain was, they clearly had a lot of interest in her. Taking a deep breath, she walked up to the door and knocked four times, suddenly reminded of her last conversation with Chipped Bit. She swallowed reflexively, and the door opened. She stepped inside, the door shutting behind her.

“Cobblestone?” a mare asked from her seat behind a desk to her left. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

She indicated a seat in front of the desk, in between Serale and Libra, who said not a word to her. Cobblestone, her legs shaking, did as she was told, leaving her bag by the door before sitting down directly across from the mare behind her, her own eyes locked onto the other’s violet ones.

“Can I get you anything?” the mare asked. “Water, anything like that?”

Cobblestone shook her head meekly.

“Good,” the mare said, “Then we can begin. I’m going to ask you a few questions, alright?”

Cobblestone nodded, still not saying a word.

“Firstly,” she asked, “Do you know who I am?”

Cobblestone nodded, her throat dry as she tried to get the words out to speak. “You’re…you’re…”


“Lady Everstar,” Cobblestone managed to get out.

The purple mare behind the desk nodded, the light in the center of her chest flaring as she did.

“Indeed I am,” she said, “And I’ve been told by Libra that you’ve had something done to your head. Mind if I take a look?”

Cobblestone bowed her head. “If you’d like, Milady.” Even she knew that one.

Lady Everstar came around the desk, her every hoofstep delicate and precise. She stopped in front of Cobblestone’s chair, and it was as if Cobblestone could feel the power radiating from her, pouring out of her body like heat, nearly physical but not quite. A gentle hoof found her chin, lifting Cobblestone’s head up so their gazes met once more. She smiled.

“Now, I just want you to relax and don’t worry if things start to feel a little strange. You’re absolutely safe with me, and if you start to feel any pain or stress, just let me know, and I’ll stop, ok?”

Cobblestone nodded, not taking her eyes off of the near-goddess in front of her. She flinched as Lady Everstar’s horn lit up, and felt her own horn light involuntarily as the two leaned closer and closer together, nearly touching.

Suddenly, she felt something strange on her horn, like it had been enveloped in warm sand, and all at once, she felt an immense, yet gentle, pressure on her mind, something completely alien to her, causing a little thrill of fear in her stomach. Her muscles tensed, and Cobblestone found herself almost springing backwards out of her chair before a voice sounded in her head.

Relax, Cobblestone. It’s just me. I’m going to look at your mind to find the block and get it removed, alright?

Cobblestone found herself unable to move her head, instead thinking her affirmation at the presence in her mind.

With that, she could feel the magic spreading across her mind, filling it in like warm water, sifting through her memories and thoughts without leaving a trace or handling anything too roughly. Cobblestone found herself actually cooperating with the search for whatever it was Lady Everstar wanted in her head, knowing that the sovereign bore her no ill will and would do her no harm.

Her vision shifted, blurring for a moment, before resolving itself far too sharply and fading to normal once more. She felt happy, sad, furious, and fearful in quick succession before her entire body erupted into pins and needles and she momentarily forgot how to breathe. The problems resolved themselves all at once, leading her into a state of euphoria that vanished as quickly as it came.

Found it, the voice said, now I just need to…ah!

Cobblestone’s world went pink for a moment, and there was the vague impression of plaid and the smell of chocolate and soap before she tore her eyes away from Lady Everstar’s, slumping in her chair and breathing heavily. She wasn’t sure how she knew it, but she realized that the entire process had taken only a moment, in between one eyeblink and the next.

Lady Everstar straightened, her expression self-satisfied, before returning to her seat behind the desk, dabbing at her brow with a small cloth.

“There!” she said triumphantly, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Cobblestone blinked, trying to rid herself of the frankly odd impressions that the spell had left behind. She coughed, tasting cherries and spun sugar, and tried to ignore the idea that her coat was actually comprised of sunlight.

Focusing, she marshalled her thoughts, driving the sensations away and remembering why she had needed to get the block removed in the first place.

“His name was Dis,” she said, “Or at least, that’s what he called himself. He did something to one of the deckhands, mentioned something about his ancestors. He gave me the pin and told me to use it at Autumn Station, that there would be a diversion. He said I’d find an ally there.”

Hob leapt onto the desk, staring Lady Everstar right in the eyes as he did so. As usual, he was not impressed.

“I take it this was your ally?” she asked with a chuckle, her face amused.

“Either that or your daughter, Lady Everstar,” Cobblestone said, “It was there that we got to know each other better.”

Serale looked at her appreciatively before turning to the desk. “Cobblestone’s a good pony, Mother. I promised her my protection.”

“You did, did you?” Lady Everstar asked. “Well, we can’t have you going back on your word. She’ll have it.”

She frowned, looking at the cat. “There is something odd about this one,” she said. “Some sort of residual magic.” She looked closer at him, her brow furrowing as she inspected the cat closely. Unlike Libra’s attempt, this was not met with any undue hostility. Lady Everstar turned to look at all of him, from his head to his haunches, even going so far as to look into his fur. After a minute of this, she straightened up.

“Well, then. You’ve certainly got something special here,” she said. “I’d keep Hob close, were I you.”

Cobblestone frowned, surprised. “I never told you his name,” she said.

“You didn’t need to,” Lady Everstar replied. “I knew it already.”

“What is he?” Serale asked.

“I can’t say,” the purple unicorn said. “He’s older than you think, and means you no harm. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

She withdrew a crossbow quarrel from beneath her desk, laying it on the table. “I took this from among your things, Serale. I also took the liberty of removing the curse from it. Nasty little thing, had quite a hook on it.”

With a small application of her magic, she broke the seal on the scroll. A wide, impish smile spread across her face. “Who wants to know what it says?” she asked.

Lady Hedera yawned and stretched, laying her ledgers and contracts to one side for the night. There was much to do, and so little time to do it. Normally, she would have handed this off to one of her many, many clerks or servants, but some of the contracts were rather sensitive, and she didn’t trust anypony other than herself with the necessary documents. Papers in tow, she trotted over to her nearest bookcase, pulling on a volume labelled “A History of House Hedera, from Rose Manes to Riches”.

It was enchanted to respond only to her touch, and were any other pony to attempt opening it, the contents it normally would have revealed would be incinerated in seconds, blinding the poor fool permanently as well. The shelf swung open, revealing a hollow in the wall that she placed the folio of documents into, making sure that it closed tightly. She had been show the knack by her husband before his unfortunate passing, and someday, when she was on the way out, she’d pass it to her son.

Reaching for her bell, she rang it three times before setting it down and waiting on a servant to appear. It was not long before one entered the room, a young mare in servant’s attire, done up well except for her missing headband.

“Yes, mistress?” she asked.

“Tell the maidservants to prepare a bath, after which they are to leave. I am not to be disturbed,” Lady Hedera ordered, “And be quick about it, girl.”

The maid curtsied before hurrying from the room to do her employer’s bidding. Lady Hedera went after her at her own pace, knowing that when she arrived in her bathing room, there would either be a hot bath or some freshly unemployed servants waiting for her. She demanded perfection from her staff, and the longer they lasted in her employ, the more respect they would garner when they either became too old or outlived their purpose, and she released them from their contracts.

She only ever took newly indentured servants, ones with long contracts and no experience, still young and eager to please. In the employ of House Hedera, she made sure they were up to snuff, ensuring that they were ready to fulfill the needs of whatever House they would eventually end up in. Most others had the same job until their contracts expired. She rarely kept a servant for more than a few years.

“You there!” she snapped at a passing cleaner, who immediately sank into a bow, “Did you see the maid who rushed through here?”

“Yes, Lady Hedera,” the cleaner replied.

“What was her name?”

“Lily, Lady Hedera,” he said, his eyes still averted.

“Let my head of House know that she is to be given ten strokes of the cane for being improperly attired,” she said idly. “I’ll not have sloth in this house.”

“Of course, Lady Hedera,” the cleaner murmured, his head still bowed.

“Well?” Hedera enquired. “Stop scraping the floor and go!”

This served to galvanize the unfortunate pony into action, as he rushed down one of the many well-appointed hallways to find the head of House and let him know of the punishment. He’d need to wake him up, but the Head was used to it.

Sighing, Lady Hedera continued upstairs to the third level of the house, looking forward to her bath. Her hoofsteps fell muffled on the thick blue carpet in the center of the hall, one that she had ordered brought in after the death of her husband. He had left the marble floors bare, and the endless echoing of hoofsteps had driven her to distraction. She passed under his portrait, one hoof resting on a chair and the other holding a cane, his kind eyes following her as she passed. She sighed, shaking her head. She had loved her husband, but he had been awfully soft at times.

At last, she arrived at the baths, her presence awaited by no less than four attendants, waiting to hear if their preparations met with her standards. She inspected the room, breathing in the scents of lavender and feeling the heat of the steam in the air, rising in waves from the water. She noted her perfumes and soaps were within easy reach, the doors were secured, and all appeared to be well.

“I have no further need for you,” she said to her attendants, “You may go. Do not let me be disturbed.”

Rising without a word, they simply curtsied and left, closing the last open door behind them as they went. Lady Hedera was, at last, alone. She made one last inspection, checking for listening ears or unlocked doors and windows.

Sighing to herself, she unfastened the dress from around her neck, working the buttons open and stepping out of it before tossing it into a hamper near the door. It would be meticulously laundered and pressed by tomorrow, if she for some reason made the unconscionable choice of wearing the same thing two days in a row. At last, she ascended the steps to her bath, sinking into the nearly scalding water and adding a few salts and such to improve its cleansing effects on her skin.

She fondled the pendant around her neck, turning the dark crystal over in her hooves. She allowed her mind to idly drift, feeling the stone catch hold of her consciousness and allow her to project it if she so desired. Her mind expanded, and she waited for the feeling she knew would come.

She smiled as she felt it, the young maid receiving her punishment. She was almost tempted to ride along, just for the sake of experience, but realized that she simply had too much work to do. Using the pain of the maid, she allowed the crystal to activate, using the sensation as a catalyst to connect to the greater still magic waiting for her.

Child. How goes your task?

“As well as could be expected, Mother. My servants are slow to learn, but once I deem them worthy, they leave my House bearing your Glory. Even now, they work in the Houses of many.”

You are careful, I take it?

“Of course, Mother. My work is delicate. Molding young minds is a gentle process. Some resist, some need to be shown your Way. I inspect each of them personally.”

You do good work, my child. Prepare, the child of the False Goddess arrives soon.

“We shall be ready for her. I’ve attended to her servants myself.”

I am well pleased with thee, child. Your reward for this shall be great.

“I live to serve, Mother. We all do.”

In Which There Is A Plan

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Serale watched her mother with nervous anticipation. She had seen her read Cobblestone’s mind, seen her reaction to what she had found, and knew that she was not done with the young thief by a damn sight. Clearly she had ordered Libra to remain quiet through the mental link they both shared, as the normally loquacious mage had fallen quite silent. Upon receiving the scroll, she had removed the enchantment by simply siphoning it off, screwing her eyes up in pain before remarking that the spell had been “cute”, which was a worrying development in its own right. Mother was usually much more careful than that.

Twilight gently unrolled the scroll, letting it fall open. She gently caught a small black pendant that fell out of the rolled parchment, setting it to one side with her magic before turning her attention back to the letter, scanning the contents. As she read, her eyebrows drew together in puzzled frustration, before climbing back up her brow, nearly vanishing under her bangs, and finally relaxing as she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.

“Well,” she said after a moment, “The one who wrote this certainly knows how to get under my skin. She’s got a lot of nerve.”

“What does it say, Mother?” Serale asked.

Twilight looked at Cobblestone. “This isn’t something we’ll be discussing outside of this room, understood? If I hear word of this spreading anywhere besides the four of us, I’ll know where it came from. Your punishment would be…severe. Understood?”

Cobblestone shrank down in her chair. “Understood, Milady.”

“Good,” she said. “Seeing as you’re involved in this, I want you here, but you understand the need for privacy.”

“Yes,” Serale said, “It’s very hush-hush, but what does it say?”

“Impatient,” Twilight said, lifting an eyebrow. “But I’ll forgive it.”

She held the scroll up, reading aloud from it.

Hello, Serale,” she began,

You might not know me. In fact, I am sure you do not know me, unless you have paid very good attention during your history lessons. My name is Nightshade, though in a past life I was known as the Witch of Shadows. Ask your mother more about me; she should know a bit more about my sordid past. She and I have met before, long before you were born.”

Twilight broke off the letter. “She was known back then as Raven, and she was a necromancer of the worst sort. Completely amoral, was responsible for the death and subsequent enslavement of an entire village. Took nearly a half-dozen spellcasters to find her, and I hunted her down and killed her myself. Had to blind her to do it, too.”

She held the scroll back up, and continued. “But that is neither here nor there. My letter is for you, Serale. We have been watching you for some time, and would like very much to meet with you and discuss your potential as a spellcaster and a leader. We believe you have the potential to be an extraordinarily spellcaster with proper training.”

Twilight’s voice grew tight with anger. “But you haven't received that training, have you?

We would like to teach you how to utilize your potential in such a manner as to provide you with all the opportunities one of your stature deserves. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that we mean you no harm, quite the opposite in fact, we want only the best for you. However, we feel it is our duty to train you in the use of your magic. So we are offering you a choice. You can either contact us, or we can come to get you.

Serale felt her heart race. Surely they didn’t think themselves powerful enough to try and take her from her home? The Regia was a fortress, and she couldn’t move about normally without nearly tripping over guards, let alone when somepony meant to kidnap her.

Understand that you would not be forced to do so, but we would hope to count on your aid in our ultimate goal, that being the goal of deposing the despotic rule of the goddesses. Unfortunately, this also includes the removal of your mother and her government. Should you desire, use the enclosed token to contact us, and we will gladly explain our reasoning for such a goal. The long and short of it is that we believe that change is natural, and all things must come to an end for a better world to arise.” Twilight continued, her face growing more and more impassive as she read.

“Somepony has a high opinion of themselves,” Libra said, “More so for the fact that they’ve warned us they’re coming.”

“Hush, Libra,” Serale said, giving an uncharacteristic command. “I want to hear this all.”

I understand that this is a difficult choice to make, and it is certainly not one to be made lightly. Therefore you are being granted a reprieve of one year in which to decide for yourself which path you will take, after which we will take steps to retrieve you anyway. I urge you to make the right choice, to allow us to help you with the powers you possess. My colleagues and I believe that you are a reasonable mare, and hope to count on a reply from you soon, again by the token left for you in this scroll.” Twilight recited, holding up the trinket with the black stone.

Give your mother my greetings, and know that I wish you all the best, Serale.



Twilight set the letter down. “Well!” she said brightly. “That was certainly something. I’ve been informed that one of my old enemies has returned, she intends to kidnap my daughter, and enlist her help to overthrow me and the governments of three other countries. She was even kind enough to let us know when this was all going to occur!”

“Mother,” Serale said cautiously, “Are you alright?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, dear, I’m absolutely furious. Nearly beyond words, but not quite.”

“Who are they?” Cobblestone asked. “I kept hearing a reference to ‘we’, so who was the ‘we’?”

Twilight took a deep breath in, calming herself down. Serale could almost watch the anger drain away, disappearing into the deepest depths of her mother to be replaced with serenity. “Libra and Serale both know the name of the organization.”

“The Cult of Crows?” Serale asked. “Is that what you’re talking about?”

Twilight nodded. “I spoke to Celestia and Luna about them. They’ve got a…bit of a reputation. Or they did. According to Celestia, they were completely wiped out fifteen hundred years ago.”

“After the Celestial Wars,” Serale said, “But if that’s the case, then that means they should have a grudge with either one of them, correct?”

“But they want you, Serale,” Twilight said. “Because of your innate magical ability.”

“But I don’t have any!” Serale blurted out. “None at all!”

Twilight looked at Cobblestone, alarmed. Seeing that she already knew, Twilight returned her gaze to Serale. “They clearly think you do, Serale. And they want you because of it, which means that we’ll need to take precautions to keep you safe.”

She held up the pendant. “I’m going to have this analyzed to see if we can find out more about the magical properties it possesses. I’ve never seen this type of stone before, either. There’s something not quite right about this, and I want to know what they’re planning. Especially if it really is the return of the Cult of Crows.”

Serale frowned, looking at the gleaming pendant spinning in her mother’s grasp. It caught the light with its rotation, making it look like it was winking at her. Or blinking, like some dark, uncaring eye. She shivered, suddenly afraid of the thing. “What do you know about the Cult?” she asked, averting her gaze from the pendant.

“They were a warrior band attached to Luna’s army,” Twilight said. “Made up of non-noble spellcasters. They were used for shock tactics and to cause attrition and loss of morale. They engaged in black magic, dark even by the standards of the war. Blood rituals, demonic sacrifice, necromancy, anything to destroy the morale of their enemies. Supposedly they were called the Cult of Crows because they wore cloaks made of black feathers, and the birds followed them wherever they went.”

“What worries me,” Twilight added, “Is the method of recruitment they used to replenish their ranks.”

“What do you mean?” Serale asked.

There was a pause as Twilight decided how best to phrase this new information to her daughter. “They had a habit of choosing spellcasters of great skill and asking them to join. If they didn’t want to, then…they forced them. Eventually, they’d come around to their side and do the same thing to others.”

“How do you mean, ‘forced’?” Serale asked. “Surely they couldn’t torture somepony into joining their tormentors.”

“Don’t be so sure, Serale,” Libra said, “There’s more than one way to inflict pain on a pony. Some of them change you far more than others.”

“The point is,” Twilight said, “that the Cult clearly wants you to be a part of it, Serale. The brazen method of delivering the letter in a loaded crossbow suggests that they wanted to intimidate you, while the fact that they let us know when they’d be trying for your abduction seems to suggest that they believe we cannot stop them.”

She rolled the scroll back up. “It seems to be typically fanatical behavior. They’re devoted to their ideal to the point where they either believe they cannot be hurt, or do not care if they are. Whoever wrote the letter likely had sociopathic tendencies as well. They clearly wanted to inflict as much psychological harm as they could upon you.”

“I’d call that part a failure, at least,” Serale said. “I feel perfectly fine.”

Twilight shrugged. “And if you had woken up next to a loaded crossbow, with Libra dead in the next room? You may have been quite distraught, perhaps to the point where you might have made a bad decision and opened the scroll without checking it for potential magical hazards. Even if you hadn’t I’d expect you’d be in shock for some time afterwards.”

Serale’s hoof tightened on the arm of her chair. She hadn’t considered that. Her mother always seemed to know exactly what to say to keep her in her place. “So what do we do now?” she asked.

“That is something you and I will need to discuss together,” Twilight said, “Without others listening.”

Libra rose from her chair smoothly and without prompting. “Come, Cobblestone,” she said, “Let’s let these two talk it out.”

Cobblestone glanced at Serale. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“You are dismissed,” Twilight said, “Go and rest. We arrive at Starfall in a few hours.”

The thief still looked to Serale, unsure. She seemed nearly ready to defy her ruler.

“Go, Cobblestone,” Serale said quietly. “I’ll be fine.”

Sighing, the thief got out of her chair. “Fine,” she said, “I’ll be outside if you need me.”

She fell in beside Libra, who walked her to the door. She gave a gentle tug, swinging it open. “I know a good place to get some sleep. You still need some time to recover, after all.”

The door closed behind them, leaving Serale alone with her mother. She took a breath, readying herself. “Alright,” she said, “What do you think we should do?”

“Firstly, I think that you should be much more careful with your friend,” Twilight said. “While I don’t believe she means you harm, I’ve been a poor judge of character in the past. I’ve dealt with far more elaborate ruses than an ally who turns out to be a planted enemy.”

Serale’s brow furrowed. “Do you think I should distance myself from Cobblestone?” she asked.

Twilight shook her head. “No, but I would be careful with what you reveal to her before you get to know her better. Did you tell her that you couldn’t do magic, or did she discover it on her own?”

“She’s more intelligent than I gave her credit for,” Serale said. “She noticed that I used no magic to complete my tasks, or to escape from the ship. The pieces were not hard for her to put together.”

Twilight pursed her lips. “Intelligent,” she said, “And from all accounts possessing an above-average level of magical ability. Her limits are yet to be determined, of course, but I could see her becoming a very powerful mage with the right direction.”

“Possibly,” Serale said. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Which brings me to my next point,” Twilight said. “I want to revisit your magical education. Perhaps the reason the Cult approached you is because they managed to detect some latent magic that I couldn’t. If that’s the case, then it’s possible it could manifest. If it does, you need to be able to control it.”

“But I’ve studied magical theory extensively!” Serale protested. “What else is there for me to learn?”

“Practical application,” Twilight said. “Putting it into practice.”

“But I’d need a master for that,” Serale said, “One who knows about my deficiency. Are you suggesting I study under Libra?”

“It’s a possibility. Of course, Libra could refuse to teach you. I hold no authority over her. But I could select another teacher for you,” Twilight said. “Swear them to secrecy with magically binding oaths, that sort of thing. The only problem I have is one I need to discuss with you as well.”

Serale felt a sudden dread. Her mother had a habit of piling information onto those she was attempting to manipulate. Flustered by all of the things they were hearing, most ponies didn’t even realize they were agreeing to something when trying to answer her questions. But the most salient points were the ones at the end, the ones that drove in her mother’s point of view like nails in a coffin.

“I’d like you to consider taking another tour of absence,” Twilight said. “And here’s why.”

Her horn lit up, before the light shot upwards into the ceiling, covering the entire room in a barrier of protective sparks. Serale knew this to be her mother’s most powerful secrecy spell. It didn’t just block sound and sight from the outside in, it actually made the room unstable on an aetheric level. The room now rested in a simultaneous state of existing and not existing. The effort and complexity put into the spell would have killed most unicorns outright. Her mother slung it around with mild effort.

“Understand that what I am telling you is not to leave this room,” Twilight said. “You tell no one. Not Libra, not Cobblestone, not even me unless I’ve cast this spell first, understand?”

Serale nodded, her tight grip on the arm of her chair becoming even tighter. What did her mother want from her? Why was she suddenly so over-cautious? And what was the expression on her face? It was like Twilight Sparkle’s features were both carved from stone and imbued with lightning, stoic and twitchy. With a jolt, Serale realized she was watching her mother show fear.

“I’ve discussed this with all three of the Goddesses,” Twilight said. “And we can all agree that you were likely observed by somepony upon your arrival. Seeing as you traveled in disguise when you left the boat, it was likely that one of two parties were involved. The first was somepony on the vessel itself.”

“I don’t think that to be very likely,” Serale said, “Near everypony on that boat showed outstanding loyalty to me several times over.”

“Loyalty can be faked,” Twilight reminded her gently, “But you could be right. The second option is that you were observed by officials of another Court, possibly in Fillydelphia. They could have extrapolated your arrival date, and with that in mind, laid a trap for you when you did arrive.”

“Another Court?” Serale asked. “But I only met with representatives of the Dawn and Solar Courts! And that was only one night, a private affair! I went from boat to sky-coach to palace and back, hardly a pony knew I was arriving!”

Twilight gave her daughter a rueful grin. “You met with a representative of the Lunar Court, as well.”

Serale frowned. “Who?”

“You knew her as Swift Current,” Twilight said, “But her real name was Firefly.”

“The Pegasus who complemented my dress?” Serale asked.

Twilight nodded. “Firefly is a Lunar agent whose prowess is impressive. She’s infiltrated each court at least twice, and Celestia’s at least five different times. She’s been supposedly killed three of those times. It helps that most of her opponents think she’s a Pegasus. But that’s beside the point.”

“What is your point?” Serale asked.

“We’re beginning to suspect that our Courts may have been infiltrated by members of the Cult. Unfortunately, we have no idea how complete or widespread this infiltration is,” Twilight said. “So we’ve begun to look through our Court officials, marking the ones we think might be members of the Cult. This might lead to some…problems, however. We’ve begun to re-arm our military forces, as well.”

“Why?” Serale asked. “Why would you mobilize the military?”

Twilight sighed. “In case the infiltration turns out to be more widespread than we have anticipated,” she replied. “We’ll need forces available to combat these problems. Unfortunately, if we begin to turn our forces inward and start investigating, it might alarm those members of the Cult that have an eye out for that sort of thing. This leaves us with only one alternative.”

“It’s going to look like you’re taking the Kingdoms to war, isn’t it?” Serale said. “By mobilizing against each other and marking those who are disloyal for elimination without acting, you keep your real enemies unaware until it’s time to strike. But before you do, it’s going to look like war’s on the horizon.”

Twilight nodded. “Very astute. It’s obvious to you because you know of the…infestation. But to those without that information, it will look like a war is brewing, yes. Times are about to get hard for this kingdom, and indeed all of the countries. Which is where you come into play.”

“Me?” Serale asked. “What do I have to do with all of this?”

“The Cult seems to think it can get to you easily, which implies that they have infiltrated our Court to a greater degree than the others, or at least to a very extensive level. This is why I do not believe it is safe for you to remain in the Evening Court for long,” Twilight said. “So you’re leaving a few months after you get back.”

“But where?” Serale asked. “What excuse would I have for leaving?”

Twilight reached into the drawer by her right hoof, withdrawing a map from inside of it. “You’ve already visited our foreign peers,” she said, unfurling the document and indicating the route Serale had taken. “From here to the Gryphonic Oligarchy in the south, wintering in the Quilinese islands once you had headed back north, visiting the Minotaur Khanate in the summer, and coming back through Fillydelphia in the fall before returning here.”

Serale nodded. “Yes, but where else could I go? Visiting the Hippotigrus Tribes, or the Hives?”

“Why, you and I are going to begin strenuously disagreeing about my warmongering ways!” Twilight replied. “At which point, you will leave the Kingdom on a mission of peace to each of the Courts in order to plead for peace on my behalf, with my hard-won blessing.”
Serale was silent for a moment, puzzling it out. By leaving the Court, she would no longer be directly protected by her mother.

However, she would be well-protected, likely by a trusted retinue as well as the personal protection of each of the three goddesses. Slowly, she started to see the brilliance of it. Diplomats were very well-protected, always watched, and never stationary for too long. By leaving each Court after a short period of time, she’d foil any attempts to infiltrate her assigned group of servants.

Not only this, but while she was gone, she’d be well-sheltered from those in any Court who might want to curry favor with her by simple virtue of her very important mission. Having a small group of ponies moving around with her that she could observe closely lessened the chances of her being betrayed by one of them, especially if they were all examined and approved by her mother.

“I can see the idea working well in theory,” she said slowly, “But in practice, it might get a bit difficult. What if I’m waylaid en route from one place to another?”

“That’s what the guards are for,” Twilight said, “But we’ll be minimizing travel time by using teleportation from safe point to safe point. There are a few place where that won’t be possible, long stretches in between cities or forts, but we can bridge those with airship or train travel.”

“And you want me to work on my magical training in between meetings with the dignitaries of each nation?” Serale asked. “That seems to be a bit much.”

Twilight fixed her with a withering gaze that put even Serale’s glare to shame. “You’re my daughter,” she replied, “And I dare say that you are far more of a reader than I was at your age. You’ve a brilliant mind, put it to good use.”

“Fair enough,” Serale said. “To be honest, it’s preferable to what I thought was going to happen to me.”

“And what would that be?” Twilight inquired.

“I thought you were going to lock me up in some stronghold somewhere until you weeded out the Cult,” Serale said. “Fill every room in it with soldiers and forbid me from ever leaving.”

Twilight smiled at her daughter. “Hardly,” she replied, “That’d just be asking for trouble. Hundreds of young, attractive ponies in uniform around my daughter? I’d geld the first one that touched you personally.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “Like I’d be taken in by some thug in armor,” she said, “Swinging large and heavy pieces of metal around isn’t my idea of a useful skill.”

“To the line!” the sergeant bawled.

Vino hurried to his spot, clipping his bladeband around one foreleg as he did so, shaking to make sure it wouldn’t come off. The chipped ruby in the middle glinted at him reassuringly, as if to let him know that it would keep him safe.

“Combatants, prepare your blades!” the sergeant screamed. Sergeant Ferrous never spoke. He always yelled, screamed, hollered, and generally avoided anything that could be considered quiet speech, especially when dealing with cadets like Vino.

Vino focused, letting the bladeband activate. He immediately felt the band of steel heat up, and felt rather than saw the spellblade manifest in front of him, gleaming oiled silver-red in the light of the early morning sun. This was his last test as a squire, one he absolutely needed to pass before he could move on in his training.

His opponent, a young unicorn by the name of Gilt, manifested his blade as well, a fine-pointed needle of blue energy that spoke of quick jabs and swift parries. His own sword was considerably more robust, made for slashing through heavy armor as well as stabbing. Should he land too many solid hits on his opponent’s blade, it would surely shatter. One’s will didn’t survive too many blows like the ones he could deal out for long. Of course, it would be a task in and of itself to land a hit on a blade like that.

“Salute!” the sergeant screamed.

Vino brought his blade up in front of his face, locking eyes with his opponent. He could feel the eyes of his teacher burning into him from the outside of the ring, and forced himself to ignore everything but his opponent. This was a matter of serious import.
He felt every fiber in his body quivering in nervous readiness for the next command, and began to see the possibilities of his opponent’s movements cascade in front of him, a tapestry of moves and countermoves that forced him to open all of his senses to their fullest just as the sergeant screamed for the last time.


Gilt leapt forward, his blade thrusting at Vino’s chest in an obvious feint meant to get him to lower his blade. The Earth pony wasn’t fooled, instead lifting his blade high for the block before swinging at the swiftly retreating unicorn, forcing him to give ground as he occupied the middle of the circle.

He had counted on this happening, and both of them knew that Vino’s blade would allow him to keep the center for as long as he needed to finish his job. Gilt began to dance around the edges of his guard, the tip of his blade flickering in every now and again to test his guard, to tempt him into a particularly clumsy parry or irritated attack that would cost him dearly. Gilt had speed on his side, and he was fresh where Vino was not, but Vino had reach, power, and experience dealing with this sort of fight before.

Finally, the attack came. Gilt’s blade flashed towards Vino’s left flank once, twice, before the unicorn lunged in with the tip of his blade to land a solid hit on his chest. Unfortunately for him, Vino had fallen for this exact trick before in practice, and knew just how to deal with it. He slid to one side, allowing the blade to pass and draw along his flank, but twisted his sword forward and in just as Gilt stepped forward to follow through on his thrust.

Gilt froze with the edge of the blade along his throat, resting cool against his exposed windpipe.

“Yield,” Vino said calmly.

Gilt’s blade vanished as he sank to his knees. He grinned up at Vino. “I yield,” he said, “Not that I expected to win, anyway.”

Vino returned the grin, recalling his blade as he did so. “I didn’t expect you too, either,” he said, offering one hoof.

He pulled Gilt up to the sound of uproarious cheers from his once-betters, now equals. He called forth his blade one more, saluting Sir Ironhide with it as he awaited the command that he knew would come.

“Vino!” the venerable cavalier called, beckoning him forward. “Come and kneel before me.”

The young stallion trotted forward, stopping and bowing exactly three paces from the chair where his teacher sat. He laid his blade, still manifest, on the ground in front of his teacher, as he had time and time again. The old unicorn lifted off of the ground with a scrape, before resting the blade against the skin of his student’s left shoulder.

“My squire,” he intoned, the words memorized by rote but no less powerful for it. “You have shown mastery of blade, bow, and gun worthy of a cavalier. This night, you have been tested, and tested again. Your work was not in vain.” He dug the tip into his shoulder lightly, just barely drawing blood, before resting it on his right shoulder.

“You have shown true courage, aspired to chivalrous ideals, and learned much in these years of study,” Sir Ironhide said, “And rose from unforged metal to become as tempered steel in mind, body, and character.” The blade dug in once more, drawing a second rivulet of blood. The sword was now at his throat, resting gently against it as it had to Gilt. If he spoke, it would dig into his neck as well.

“I have seen your true worth, and found you worthy of the title of Knight and Cavalier,” Sir Ironhide said. “I would have you as a brother in battle and in spirit. What say you?”

“I accept with honor,” Vino said, feeling the scratch on his neck begin to bleed.

“Then rise,” Sir Ironhide said, withdrawing the blade and holding it aloft, “Sir Vino Hedera, and take your place as a knight and warrior!”

Another roar came from the assembled crowd, even Gilt, and Vino allowed his blade to vanish, turning to greet his new brothers. They swarmed him, but Gilt was the first by his side.

“Congratulations, Sir Vino!” he cried. “And well done!”

“Thanks, Gilt,” Vino said, “And better luck next year!”

“I’m right behind you,” Gilt said, “And don’t you forget it!”

“Out of the way, squire!” the sergeant bellowed, elbowing his way to the front of the crowd.

Vino unconsciously straightened in front of the grizzled stallion. “Sergeant!” he said, waiting on a response.

“Relax, son. Congratulations!” the sergeant said, brandishing a hoof. It took a moment for Vino to realize it was for him to shake. He did so gratefully, listening to the sergeant speak. “Thought you’d be a squire for years!” he cried. “We made a knight of you yet!”

“I have you to thank for it, sergeant!” Vino replied. “Thanks for all you did.”

The sergeant tried to say something else, but he was drowned out by the rising sea of well-wishers, who hauled Vino onto their shoulders before departing, carrying the newest young knight out of the courtyard and down the hill, heading for the city.

Sir Ironhide watched him go, a smile on his face. Vino would make a good cavalier, or he would have if he wasn’t the eldest in his House. The lad wasn’t cut out for politicking, he reflected, but he’d have made an incredible soldier. He sighed, feeling the scroll digging into his side like a dagger, a reminder of what he would have to do next.

He wasn’t sure what the contents of the scroll were, but he could guess, if the scrolling vine mark and the personal seal of his mother, Lady Hedera, were anything to go by. Tomorrow he’d need to haul the poor colt into his office, likely hung over, and send him back home to his House to begin learning his duties as an heir. He’d never see a day of real battle, let alone grow further as a knight and a warrior.

It was just as well, he reflected. These were uninteresting times, and he was glad for them. The Kingdom needed administrators more than it needed fighters, and he hoped the young warrior would never again have to draw his sword.

But all of that could wait until tomorrow. Tonight, the boy was a knight at last. He could wait until tomorrow to watch his dream die.

In Which They Arrive At Their Destination

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Cobblestone was roused from an uneasy sleep by a gentle hoof on her shoulder. She started, grabbing reflexively at the offending appendage and twisting her body in an attempt to gain leverage over her unknown assailant before she forced herself to freeze, remembering where she was. She blinked twice, focusing on the face in front of her. The blur of rest resolved itself into a close metal room, lit by the glow of electric lights from the hallway.


The mage gave her a pained smile. “Hello, Cobblestone. Would you mind letting go of my hoof? I’ll need that back, and this is actually quite painful.”

Cobblestone released the Magus sheepishly. “Sorry. Old habit.”

“Understood,” Libra said, rubbing her foreleg and frowning at her, “We’re approaching the city. I know you’re not fond of heights, but I thought you might like to see the approach to the capital. It’s an impressive view from this far up.”

Cobblestone considered for a moment before nodding, giving a satisfied yawn and rolling out of her bed. “Sure,” she said, buttoning the jacket she had been given back up. “So long as I’m not getting too close to the edge, I think I’ll be fine.”

“Excellent!” Libra said, offering the young mare her hoof. “By the way, where did you learn that hold?”

Cobblestone took it. “I had it used on me in a street fight when I was eight. I asked the colt that did it to teach me. That wasn’t the whole thing, you’re supposed to get the other pony down on the ground”

“And he agreed?” Libra asked as they stepped into the hallway, Hob close behind.

Cobblestone shook her head. “No. Not until I kicked him between the legs and watched him drop. I took his earnings for the day and said I’d give them back once he taught me how. Took me about ten minutes.”

The Magus looked at her disapprovingly. “And did you return what was his?”

“What do you think?” Cobblestone asked.

Libra seemed unperturbed by this. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected less,” she said.

Cobblestone sighed. “Fine. I gave him half. I had enough for a dinner at that point anyway; two or three copper more wasn’t going to get me much in the way of another meal. I handed off the half I took to another thief who was short some.”

“Rather altruistic of you,” Libra remarked as the continued down the hallway, reaching a flight of stairs that clearly led to the deck.

“Not really,” Cobblestone said. “She owed me a favor after that.”

“What favor?”

The unicorn shielded her eyes as they stepped onto the deck, the first rays of dawn piercing after the relative gloom of belowdecks. “Don’t know. I never got a chance to collect; she fell off of a rooftop the next week. Bashed her head open on the cobblestones and died in about a minute.”

Libra raised a hoof to her mouth. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “I’m not. I was the first one there, got her cloak off of her. Kept me warm through that winter. And she was a lousy pickpocket anyway.”

She caught Libra’s disapproving eye. “What?” she asked. “She’d have done the same to me and more if I let her. She was a goner as it was, we could all see it. I took the cloak from her and called it even.”

Libra shook her head sadly. “You didn’t have much growing up, did you?”

Cobblestone’s shoulders slumped. “Worked since I was five,” she said. “Two years as an eye catcher, another two as a lookout, and five as a lifter.”

“And before that?” Libra inquired.

Cobblestone averted her eyes. “That’s between me and myself,” she said. “And that’s all I’ll say about it.”

“Fair enough,” Libra said as they approached the edge of the deck, avoiding the uniformed ponies rushing to and fro. She pointed. “Look!” she exclaimed, indicating a gleaming ribbon set into the landscape below. “That’s the river we were supposed to be on coming in.”

Cobblestone squinted into the distance, her hooves still a safe distance from the edge rail. The black cat that had been tailing her sat down beside her, tail wrapped against the cold and wind. “What’s that over the horizon?” she asked. “That jagged looking smudge?”

“That’s Homehive,” Libra said. “A Changeling settlement. The Queen lives there.”

Cobblestone focused on the air around the hive, and sure enough, she could see several black shapes winging their way around the strange, twisted spires, which reminded her strangely of crooked unicorn horns. As she watched, a few of the shapes broke off from the hive, headed towards them, silhouetted in the early sun.

“What are they doing?” she asked.

“The Changelings often follow ships in,” Libra said, “Especially large ones like this. They make sure nopony on board has duplicitous intentions approaching the city.”

“What?” Cobblestone asked.

“They make sure nopony is approaching the city with the intent to harm,” Libra said. “Changelings are experts on detecting emotion, good enough that they can often deduce your intentions by reading your feelings.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Cobblestone said.

“That’s why we assigned one to you on the boat,” Libra continued, “For your safety and the safety of those around you.”

“Pardon?” Cobblestone asked. “Because it sounded like you said there was a Changeling taking care of me.”

“Yes,” Libra said, “Turquoise. She didn’t tell you?”

“She didn’t,” Cobblestone groused. “Now that’s rude.”

“Is that a problem?” Libra asked. “Does it bother you?”

“I spent a lot of time around Turquoise on the boat,” Cobblestone said, “She was one of my regular caretakers. And not once was it brought up, not once did she shift back.”

“Turquoise prefers the form she wears over her natural form,” Libra said, “She doesn’t spend much time near the Hives, and has since she was a hatchling. I personally think she’s more comfortable as a pony than a Changeling.”

Cobblestone frowned. “That’s odd.”

“I imagine it comes from spending a lot of time in the Court,” Libra said. “Enough time there is enough time to learn a lesson about keeping information close to the chest.”

Cobblestone said nothing, instead choosing to watch the Changelings as they hummed their way by the sides of the ship. After a minute, she turned to Libra. “Nopony should have to be secretive about what they are,” she said. “Even our crew took a bit of pride in being thieves. It sounds like she’s not proud of her heritage.”

Libra shrugged. “There are some ponies who still act uneasily around Changelings. Especially outside of the Kingdom. In Celestia and Cadance’s lands they’re looked at as monsters.”

“Hoy all hands!” a voice called, erupting from nearby speakers. “Prepare for docking procedures! Starfall sighted off of the starboard bow, one o’clock north, fifteen hundred down!”

Libra’s face lit up. She grabbed Cobblestone’s hoof, dragging her across the deck as the ship erupted into activity. The young thief’s stomach dropped as they began to lose altitude, but she noticed that the deck still remained perfectly level, the sign of a skilled helmsman. Together, they arrived at the starboard railing, where they peered towards the front of the ship at another smudge on the horizon.

“Is…is that it?” Cobblestone asked, awe in her voice. “Is that…”

“Starfall,” Libra said. “Largest city in the Evening Kingdom, third largest in Equestria, and home to Lady Twilight Everstar of House Everstar, the Rebel Evening. The most advanced, magical, and industrious city in the known world, home to nearly five million ponies at last quadrennial census.”

There was a mixture of pride and longing in her voice as they drew closer. “Home to the largest population of unicorns in Equestria, and the second largest population of Changelings. Home to the Grand Museum, the Heroic Graves, and the Grand Guild of Magical Craft, as well as the Collegia Arcana.”

She swallowed. “Home. My home. Fates above and below, how I’ve missed her.”

Cobblestone said nothing, her eyes wide as the small settlements below gave way to larger towns, forts and depots and rail stations growing together and in towards the grand city on the horizon. It was huge! Already the city spread dominated the entire skyline, spires and smokestacks and ramshackle buildings vying for space with the grand edifices of governmental power behind massive walls that appeared to be hewn from solid stone, rising thirty feet or more above the ground and feet thick. They did little to contain the city, which appeared to have spilled over the sides, sprawling out into the surrounding countryside like a tidal wave of densely packed urban jungle.

“Those are the Outer Walls,” Libra said, as they sped over them. “The first of three.”

“This is incredible!” Cobblestone said. She could see that beyond these walls were others, pointing into the city like the spokes of a giant wheel.

“The city is zoned for industry, commercial, and residential use in the lower two tiers,” Libra explained, indicating the walls. “Each of the eight sections of the outer City is appointed a manager called a Borough Governor, whose job it is to address problems and delegate resources in their sector with the help of their fellows. Anything they can’t handle is brought to the attention of their supervisors in the Old City or midtown.”

“What are those?” Cobblestone asked, pointing at the strange-looking grooves in the city below. They were deep, with what appeared to be walls separating them into sections, and emptied right before the walls.

Libra followed her hoof, narrowing her eyes as she tried to pick it out. They widened when she saw what Cobblestone was pointing at. “Those are the emergency channels,” she said. “There were problems with fire several decades ago, and so those were created. If a fire alarm is rung, then the channel is filled with water. The gates funnel it to where it’s needed, and bucket brigades use it to put out the fires. It’s only ever used for large fires.”

The speakers on the boat came to life once more. “Docking in four minutes. All unsecured cargo should be tracked, all unsupervised cargo buckled down. Deckhands clip to lines, engines throttle to two-thirds speed.”

Libra’s horn flashed, and a line rose from the deck, clipping itself to the buckles on Cobblestone’s back. “Careful not to get too close to the edge,” she said, “A fall from here won’t kill you since you’re buckled in, but you might hit a building before somepony can get to you and pull you up.”

The ship passed over another set of walls, these containing much older and larger buildings, as well as several large and spindly spires that supported airships much like their own. Cobblestone watched them pass by curiously. “What are those?” she asked. “They aren’t houses.”

“Most houses are in the lower city. These structures are either historic parts of the old city, the headquarters of noble Houses, governmental buildings, or Guild halls,” Libra said. “In addition, most of the military buildings are here as well. Armories, barracks, that sort of thing.”

“Then we’ll be stopping here?” Cobblestone asked.

“No,” a new voice said, “We will not.”

Libra turned around quickly before sinking into a bow, and Cobblestone spun to see Lady Everstar with Serale at her side before doing likewise.

“Milady,” Libra said in a low voice. “My apologies. I had wanted to see home once more, and to show Cobblestone Starfall as well. If you were looking for us, I apologize for making it more difficult.”

Lady Everstar gestured to them both, and they rose. “Hardly,” she said. “I was actually coming up to get the view myself. Serale expressed a great desire to see the city, and I felt obliged to let her up here.”

Serale said nothing, choosing only to give Cobblestone the barest of nods, her face impassive. Cobblestone returned the gesture, perplexed at Serale’s suddenly withdrawn attitude. She had been rather animated just a few hours before.

“Has Libra explained to you what will happen once we’ve docked?” Lady Everstar asked her.

Cobblestone’s head snapped around, and she averted her eyes. “No, Lady Everstar.”

“Just ‘milady’ will do,” Lady Everstar said, “But it’s a good habit to use formal titles unless told otherwise. Libra, would you be so good as to explain?”

Libra sighed. “Yes, milady.” She turned to Cobblestone. “Technically, you are still a prisoner in transport and awaiting trial, so before you are led off of the boat, we will be forced to hobble you, though we can forego the bridle if you promise your cooperation.”

Cobblestone attempted to protest, but a raised hoof from Libra interrupted her. “Please wait, I am not finished. You can ask me questions after I am done.”

Libra took a deep breath. “Now. You will be led from the airship tower to a nearby coach, and once you are loaded into the coach, it will be drawn to a high-security detention house in the Old Town. There you will await trial until such time as your case can be heard, a period of about one week. Let me stress that this is not a prison, it is a house. You will be able to have supervised visits with legal counsel, medical staff, and friends, and free reign of the domicile apart from certain areas.”

“Like what?” Cobblestone asked.

“Like staff quarters, storage rooms, that sort of thing,” Libra said. “You will not have access to items which could be weaponized, and magic is dampened in the house and on the grounds. You may roam the boundaries as long as you like, though you must be inside by nightfall, and certain items such as books or other such materials will be made available to you upon request and after approval.”

“Which brings me to the next point,” Libra said, “You will be monitored constantly by staff, which I believe consists of a few guards trained in nonlethal detention techniques, several maids, and a head of House. Many of them we once lawbreakers such as yourself, but I can assure you that they will not be aiding you in any escape attempts. Lady Hedera trains them quite well, and they have each been personally selected for their integrity.”

“It’s really not as bad as it sounds, Cobblestone,” Serale said, a faltering smile on her face. “I’ve visited houses like that before, they’re actually quite nice.”

“Will Hob be able to come along?” Cobblestone asked, looking at the cat, which was busy peering out over the city below.

Lady Everstar shrugged. “I see no problem with it. He’ll be restricted to an indoors environment, however. I seem to recall a prisoner sending messages to the outside using a cat once, about two hundred years ago.”

They passed over the last set of walls, massive things at least forty feet high, and the cluttered majesty of the buildings below gave way to a rather bucolic scene, an open field with was crossed with a very few paths. Cobblestone saw a vast garden off to one side, and beyond that something that could have been a hedge maze, but those were quickly forgotten when compared to what stood before her.

A grand palace, a collection of buildings made of stone dominated by four massive towers, towered over even the airship, as it coasted in to land at a spire that seemed positively demure by comparison. These towers were all linked by bridges that spanned hundreds of yards through the air, made of wrought stone that even from a distance looked intricately carved. The buildings themselves were just as ornate, if not more so, seeming to be all at once wonderfully ethereal and incredibly durable.

“It’s all of it carved from one stone,” Lady Everstar said, “Even the windows were made by thinning and treating stone until it became transparent. Of course we added in metal fittings and wood trim, but this whole palace was made out of a single massive stone.”

“How?” Cobblestone asked, her voice quietly amazed. “It must have taken decades!”

“We finished it in eight years,” Lady Everstar said, “The first unicorns and I. I brought the stone, a small mountain, and placed it over the ruins of the old castle that once stood here. One of my very best friends, who had once been one of my most bitter enemies, helped with the design. I can still see her hoof in the place. She always did pay attention to the little things. I meant this place to be a symbol, a place that shows how much we are capable of when allowed to strive for great things. Aside from the first rough cuts, I had no part in the shaping of this place.”

Cobblestone listened as Lady Everstar continued. “This was all the work of mortal ponies, unicorns and earth ponies and Pegasi alike. Eight years of hard work, and when it was all done, this place stood as a monument to the power of will. The rest of the city is the same. Designed by mortals, provided for by mortals, and built by mortals.”

There was a jolt as the docking arms of the ship shot forth from their hatches, extending out towards the tower, where they were met by long coils of rope, expertly tossed to catch hold of the hooked ends of the metal arms. The ropes were fed into winches, which slowly but surely reeled in the Discernment, whose engines idled with the low growl of some massive cat.

“Cobblestone, you’ll need to be restrained before you’re allowed to leave the ship,” Libra said. “We can fit you with light manacles.”
Seeing no other option, the unicorn bowed her head in assent. A quick flash from Libra’s horn, and Cobblestone winced as she felt cold iron bands materialize around her hooves, linked together to keep her from doing much but walking. There was a click as the bands fastened shut and locked tightly.

“Would you like to keep the pendant on?” Lady Everstar asked, “Or would you prefer a horn ring? The latter is more noticeable, but some ponies feel a bit nauseous when they have the pendant on.”

“I’ll keep the pendant, Milady,” Cobblestone said. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Lady Everstar said, motioning for two guards that had been hanging back to step forward. “These two will escort you to your carriage. Your bag is on its way down as we speak. Is there any other business you wish to conduct on the ship?”

“May I speak with Lady Serale?” Cobblestone asked.

“Of course you can,” Serale said, forestalling any attempt at speech from her mother. “Mother, Libra, if you wouldn’t mind? I’d prefer a bit of breathing room.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow archly, but stepped back, indicating that the guards and Libra should do so as well.

“Will you visit?” Cobblestone asked.

“I’ll try,” Serale said, “At least once before the trial starts. More often than that if I can, there will be some things I need to attend to in Court.”

Cobblestone nodded to herself. “Be careful, alright?”

“I should be telling you the same,” Serale replied. “Don’t go doing anything stupid, and stay in the house. You’re liable to make yourself sick if you spend too much time out of doors in your condition.”

The subtext was clear. Don’t try anything stupid, especially escape attempts. It will go badly for you.

Cobblestone nodded in affirmation. “I’ll be careful. See you soon.”

She turned to the two guards. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

They moved smoothly to her sides, flanking her as she was escorted across the gangplank, making a point not to look back as she was unhitched from the ship lines at the tower and bundled inside. It was only once she was moving down the stairs, made of wrought iron, that she allowed her mask to slip a bit, her shoulders slumping and her face drawn with worry.

She wouldn’t have tried to run anyway, had she made it here without befriending Serale. There was no way she would have been able to escape a house made especially to contain prisoners, slip through multiple checkpoints, and flee into the countryside. Even if she had made it out by some miracle, she’d spend her time out as a fugitive. Nopony escaped when they attracted the notice of Lady Everstar.

They emerged from the relative darkness of the tower into the light of the morning sun, and Cobblestone felt a tug on her right side as she was led off towards a carriage that looked more like a metal box on wheels than anything, bearing no emblem or decoration, with a few slits for windows. A waiting guard opened the door into the carriage, revealing a low wooden bench and padded floors. AS promised, her bag appeared to be securely fastened to the top of the transport.

“It’s a quick ride, Miss,” the guard on her left said, helping her to the carriage. “Less than a quarter-hour to the house proper, and then we can get you unpacked.”

Cobblestone took his hoof gratefully, stepping into the small space before turning around just in time to see Hob jump in behind her. The guard blinked.

“Was that cat following you before?”

Cobblestone smiled. “He’s hard to notice most of the time. He’s mine.”

The guard shrugged, shutting the door. Cobblestone heard the distinct thud and click of the latch on the outside, before the rattle of metal against metal suggested the addition of a lock. There were two sharp knocks on the side, and the carriage started forward with a jolt.

As she settled in, Cobblestone looked at the small black cat that was curled up on the bottom of the carriage. This was the first time she had actually been alone with the cat since she had gotten him, and she decided to perform an inspection of her own.

“Come here, you,” she said, hauling the cat into her lap. Hob squirmed for a minute before settling in, finding a comfortable position in her lap and beginning to purr softly. Cobblestone checked him over, noting that he didn’t show any signs of having ticks, fleas, or other parasites she had seen in the mangy strays of Crescent City. He was also remarkably solid, lean musculature rippling underneath his coat like taut springs. Thankfully, he was rather relaxed, and so he was soft to the touch.

“Where did you come from, eh?” she asked, scratching absently behind the cat’s ears. “And why did you end up following me all the way here? Did Dis send you?”

Hob’s ear twitched. Hardly.

Cobblestone jumped, sending the cat flying out of her lap. Hob twisted in the air, landing lightly on the ground. He glared at her disdainfully. Rude.

Cobblestone clutched at her head. The voice wasn’t her own, but she could tell it wasn’t coming from the cat himself. Somehow, he was speaking silently into her head, a pleasant tenor.

Hob’s tail coiled around his paws. Relax. If you want me out of your head, I’ll tell you how.

“Son of a sway backed, half-sheared hobble horse!” Cobblestone said. “What the buck are you?”

Language, he said, stretching out. I’ve been sent to keep an eye on you.

“By who?” Cobblestone asked. “Dis?”

Hob’s glare became somehow more disdainful. I already said no. Be calm, the one who sent me is a friend.

“What’s their name?” Cobblestone asked. “Who sent you?”

Hob’s tail gave a pleased twitch. Better. As to that, I’m afraid she said not to tell you. All I will say is that she is an ally.

Cobblestone began to hyperventilate. “Get out of my head. Now.”

Hob sank to the floor. As you wish. It is simple to shut out the thoughts of others when they are directed at you. You are going to create a barrier in your mind. It will be hard at first, but with time, you will be able to maintain a barrier with little effort, and you won’t even know it’s there.

Cobblestone’s hooves tightened on the bench. “Teach me.”

Firstly, try to imagine walls going up around the inside of your head. Sturdy ones. While you’re doing that, reach for your magic. Don’t let it out through your horn, just hold it.

Cobblestone did as she was instructed. It took her a moment, but she was soon aware of a strange stillness in her head, like she was suddenly cut off from a sense she hadn’t known about before. She reached for more power, and was rewarded with that feeling solidifying around her mind. It was, aside from comforting, remarkably peaceful.

“Did…did it work? Was that it?”

Hob was silent, choosing only to yawn. Cobblestone watched him warily. Either he was keeping quiet, or she really had shut him out. As the carriage rattled on, she realized that Lady Everstar and Libra were right. There was definitely something damned odd about that cat.

“Interesting,” Aura Hedera said. “And you said that this…Keystone?”

“Cobblestone, Lady Hedera,” the servant said.

“Right, Cobblestone. You said she appeared close to Everstar’s daughter?” Hedera inquired sweetly.

The servant kept his eyes averted. “I believe so, my Lady. They spoke privately before she was detained, and appeared to be quite close from what I could glean of their brief time together and Lady Serale’s reaction when she was taken away.”

“Fascinating,” Lady Hedera murmured. “Very well, you are dismissed.”

The servant withdrew from the study, leaving her to ponder. The aristocrat checked her clock, making sure she was still on schedule to receive guests in an hour. Seeing that she had plenty of time, she poured herself another cup of tea and considered what she had been told.

So, Serale had finally opened up to somepony, had she? It was about time, the wretched filly had spent most of her life quite secluded from the Court, and as such she had acquired an air of mystery that was equally tantalizing and frustrating. But why had she chosen such a…common pony, out of all the possible friends she had made?

Mentally, Lady Hedera ran through the likely list of prisons she had been sent to. While a pony awaiting the trial would be put up in one of the Guest Houses, the carriage had been spotted leaving the western gate from the palace, meaning that she was headed to one of three possible houses.

It occurred to her that she had no idea why the pony in question was being imprisoned, or for what purpose. She’d heard rumors that the young commoner was a thief, but that hardly seemed like cause for a formal trial in the Evening Court. Maybe she had attempted to rob Serale? But then why was she not being imprisoned wherever she had been caught?

There was only one solution. She would need to speak with the stupid thing herself. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but there had to be a reason for the visit in question. An official, formal visit.

She pondered a plausible cause for her to arrange a visit with the girl. She rejected the idea of a social call out of hand; there was clearly no precedent for a friendly visit there. Likewise was the pretext of a goodwill visit equally idiotic. She sighed, sipping at her tea. Her mouth wrinkled at the edges, unseemly lines marring her otherwise smooth features. The one who had brewed this had made it too strong, but tolerably so.

An idea occurred to her. She did, on occasion, visit those awaiting trial to gauge their potential as servants. In fact, she got some of her best recruits in this fashion, but she hadn’t made a visit to her usual prisons in absolute ages. Her duties to Fate had kept her rather busy. It would not be seen as unusual if she made a call to offer this Cobblestone employment after her sentencing. She made an attractive offer, an alternative to time spent in a reformation house by agreement with Lady Everstar herself.

Lady Hedera nodded to herself. That could work. That could most definitely work.

A gentle chime interrupted her chain of thought, and she lazily waved in the direction of the mirror on the opposite wall from her desk, allowing it to go from reflective to receptive.

“Pardon me, Aura,” a familiar voice called from the mirror, “Have I interrupted you?”

The mare plastered a smile on her face. “Not at all, Vino!” she said. “If you had been, I hardly would have picked up, would I?”

“I suppose…” Vino said, his tone perplexed. “I wanted to talk to you about the letter I received.”

Lady Hedera frowned. “Is something wrong?”

Vino’s eyes widened, and he held up an apologetic hoof. “No, not at all! It’s just…I thought you were going to call me back home after my training with Sir Ironhide, not allow me an assignment!”

“Does this displease you?” Aura asked. “I can arrange to have the assignment withdrawn if you prefer to return home. There would be no shame in that.”

Her stepson nearly sputtered as he tried to backtrack. “No, that’s not what I meant at all! I’m more than happy to have an assignment, especially to something as prestigious as the Court Guard! It’s just…I was wondering why you changed your mind.”

Lady Hedera arched an elegant eyebrow. “Well, there were a number of reasons. The first being that you seemed to express a desire for further military service. While I would normally have taken that into account and brought you home regardless, I also made a promise to your father before he died that I would keep you safe and happy. And, if I am to be blunt, you are not needed here at home for a while yet.”

Vino frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that things are running smoothly here, and there is no reason for you to forsake your dreams and duties to your nation so that you can honor your obligations to the House,” Lady Hedera replied. “You’ve grown remarkably since your father’s death. But I feel that you could do with a bit more experience in matters other than how to run a House. So I requested you be given a good assignment, somewhere you can grow as a stallion before returning home.”

Vino, as usual, was lost for words. “Th-thank you, Aura. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“Of course, dear,” Lady Hedera replied, “I’d just ask that you do me one favor.”

“What’s that?”

She smiled sweetly. “Write to me frequently. I’d like to know what you’re up to, how things are going in your life. Once a week, more if you can. And calls like this would be welcome, time permitting. We’re both busy ponies. And despite any differences we may have had, I still worry about you sometimes. It will do me good to hear from you.”

Vino bowed his head. “Of course I will.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Lady Hedera replied. “Now I really should go. I’ve got some paperwork to sort through. Unless there was something else?”

Vino shook his head. “No. No, ma’am.”

“Be safe, Vino. I’ll speak to you again once you’ve arrived at the Regia,” Lady Hedera said.

Her son smiled. “I’ll let you know once I’ve settled in. Evening Reigns.”

“Evening Reigns,” Lady Hedera said, hating the words as they came out of her mouth.

The mirror went reflective again, and Aura sighed with relief. Vino had proven remarkably easy to maneuver into the necessary position with the help of her contacts on the inside of the palace walls and his frankly idiotic obsession with becoming a warrior. So she would have somepony close to the inside of the Court at all times, somepony that she could at least rely on, if not trust.

She picked up the bell from her desk, ringing it once. It was only a moment before one of her servants opened the door, a young Pegasus in formal wear.

“Yes, Milady?” he asked.

“Tell the House Head he is to request access to the prisons and Guest Houses so that I can survey potential recruits,” Lady Hedera ordered. “Tell him to use the usual channels, but to make sure that the affirmative is given within a week.”

The Pegasus’s eyes remained averted. “Is there anything else, Milady?”

“A fresh pot of tea,” Lady Hedera said. “That is all.”

The Pegasus bowed his head lower and withdrew, leaving Lady Hedera to her own devices once more. She picked up her cup, swirling the murky brew inside as she stared into its earthy depths.

“Cobblestone,” she said, as if trying the name on for size. “I should very much like to meet you.”

In Which Lunch Is Served

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Serale shifted in the chair uncomfortably, feeling the itch of the gown against her as she attempted to keep a neutral expression on her face. The stallion on the floor had been droning on and on for the past fifteen minutes about some point of order that was obscure as it was useless, and it was beginning to grind on her nerves, though her mother seemed to be as attentive as she ever was when hearing cases. Thankfully, she was seated at the head of the gallery to the right hoof to her mother, mostly out of the stallion’s field of vision. Focused as he was on making a point about tax law and the potential application of tariffs to barley grown in the Solar lands, he was unaware of her heroic attempts to stifle a yawn.

Serale had been home for five days now, and had been attending Court for the past three by request of her mother, who seemed to be under the impression that her daughter would somehow manage to get herself shot at or blown up if she was left to her own devices. She let her gaze idly wander to the guards by the door, almost positive that there were more here now than there had been when she left a year ago. There had been only a pair then, hadn’t there? Not six.

“So you see, Milady, there is indeed a precedent for raising tariffs in order to allow our smaller farms to remain competitive in providing non-staple crops to the populace, as demonstrated by the case of Dundee Orchards versus Apple Family Orchards in the year 374 of Our Evening’s Reign, meaning that…”

Serale let her attention wander as well, surveying the gallery across from her, half-full as usual, mostly with lawmakers and the occasional noble representative desperate or unfortunate enough to be assigned as a representative to the Court from their Houses. She noticed that the representative from House Bluehide and House Hedera were seated a scant two seats from one another, which was unusual, seeing as they usually competed for business from the Courts. Perhaps they were considering an alliance in this matter? Of course, it could have been a ploy by one House to suggest they were weak enough to ally in the hopes that a competitor would make a foolish move.

The young unicorn groaned internally. She was bored enough that she was engaging in House politics. Surely there were better things she could be doing with her time than sitting in the throne room, listening to somepony pontificate on a two percent increase in taxation on foreign barley. Her stomach growled softly, reminding her that she hadn’t yet eaten, having woken up late this morning and left for the Court in a rush. Thankfully for her, the current supplicant was the last one scheduled before the midday recess, and she would have several glorious hours to eat and enjoy herself doing other things before she was required to be in here again.

Twilight Sparkle held up a hoof, cutting the stallion off. She was about to speak, and the shifting ponies in the stands to either side of her grew silent and still.

“Thank you, Mister Leaven. I believe you’ve given me quite enough information on the subject to ensure that I make an acceptable decision,” she said, her voice ringing out into the hall with composure and force that Serale had never been able to replicate.

Twilight Sparkle looked to her scribe for the day, the one who noted down the decisions she made. Returning her gaze to the pony in front of her, she made her choice. “Although I cannot recommend a raise of two percent in the taxes of barley, I agree with your view on the subject, that they should be raised in order to help our farms remain competitive. Therefore, I will ask that tariffs be raised one point three percent, which allows for an easing of pressure on the farmers without raising the overall price of barley too high, something which we must be careful to avoid. Will that be sufficient?”

Leaven, an Earl of no real importance, was being offered a very generous deal, and he knew it. He was lucky to be receiving such an opportunity, as his crop of barley was usually both more expensive and lower quality than the stuff imported from Equestria proper. There was a murmur of surprise from the Court at this decision from those who paid attention to that sort of thing. Raising tariffs had led to conflict with the Solar government more than once.

“That will more than suffice, Milady. I thank you.”

Twilight Sparkle inclined her head magnanimously. “You have come a long way to plead your case, Earl Leaven. I respect your determination and persistence in requesting an audience. Please, rest in the Regia tonight before returning home. Your case is closed. The midday recess is hereby announced.”

The doors to the hall swung open, and Serale rose with the rest of the nobility to exit the throne room, enjoying the swell of quiet conversation from the room as the assorted nobles began to discuss what the legislation passed today meant for their Houses. Lady Everstar had been unusually agreeable with the Earl, and extending him such a blunt invitation would surely cause some rumors to begin circulating among the more lascivious of the gossips who had attended today.

She was approached by one of the guards who had been standing by the doors. “Milady Serale? Your presence is requested by Lady Everstar. Please remain behind.”

Serale stopped short. She looked at the guard, raising an eyebrow. “I see. Did my mother indicate why she needed me here?”

To his credit, the guard remained absolutely stone faced when confronted with Serale’s displeasure. “I believe she wished to take her meal with you, Lady Serale. Shall I inform her you have other plans?”

Serale sighed. “No, I don’t have other plans. Very well. I’ll stay here.”

She found a nearby seat and waited for the hall to clear out, which was a lengthy enough process as it was. At last, the doors were closed, leaving the room empty save for her mother and herself, at opposite ends of the hall.

“Serale,” came her mother’s voice, not raised but still somehow audible from her throne, “Come here.”

Serale did as she was told, approaching the throne and stopping a respectful distance away from the dais. “I was told you wanted me here for lunch?” she asked.

Now it was Twilight’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Indeed,” she said. “No need to be so formal. I can assure you that I don’t want anything from you, just a chance to catch up. Aside from your welcoming dinner the night you got back, we’ve hardly seen each other. And formal dinners aren’t exactly good for intimate conversation.”

“True,” Serale allowed, “But it’s still a bit unusual. Do you usually take lunch here?”

Twilight’s horn lit up, and a table just short of large appeared in front of her along with two chairs, able to seat four or six if necessary. A bell sounded, and from one of the side doors came a procession of servants, carrying soups, sandwiches, salad, and other light foods along with drinks. “It depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes I eat here; sometimes I have food brought to my study.”

Serale had never been to her mother’s study, but like everypony else, she had heard the stories of what wondrous things were kept in that locked and warded room at the top of the highest tower. The door itself hadn’t unlocked in years, as Twilight preferred to simply blink right into it. Long distance teleportation was difficult enough, but she had somehow warded the room so that if anypony else were to attempt it, they would find themselves appearing in a specially designed cell in the palace dungeons with a splitting headache.

Serale approached the table, seating herself without help from the servants, who were too slow to stop her from pulling out her own chair and sitting down.

“May I serve you, Lady Serale?” one of them asked, a young unicorn colt who could hardly have been old enough for the job. He looked petrified.

Serale smiled at him. “Thank you, but no. You’ve done well enough, you are dismissed.”

He withdrew along with the rest of the servants, who knew better than to try and serve Lady Everstar her own food. Among the nobility, she was known as the most self-sufficient, and Luna help the poor soul who tried to coddle her.

“So,” Twilight asked, taking a sandwich and a ladle of soup. “Are you settling back in? Does the Regia feel familiar again?”

“Incredibly so,” Serale replied, serving herself a plate of salad. She’d felt stifled the moment she walked into the main hall from the airship field. “It’s like I never left at all.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Twilight said, missing the point completely. “I’d hate for you to feel unhappy when you’re back home.”

“You certainly seem to be more welcoming,” Serale replied, “Offering the Earl the opportunity to stay here in front of the Court like that.”

Twilight said nothing, choosing merely to chew on her food while her eyes sparkled at Serale, as if to indicate that she had not the slightest idea what her daughter was talking about.

Serale rolled her eyes. “Is it really necessary to hand the gossip-mongers something like that? Ponies will talk.”

Twilight swallowed. “Well, Earl Leaven is a rather nice pony. A good head for business, handsome enough, kind to his House, really everything one could look for in a marriage.”

“He’s twice your age!” Serale said. She hesitated, considering what she had just said. “Well, perhaps not your actual age, but definitely more than twice your physical age.”

“The longer I live, the less I find myself caring about that sort of thing,” Twilight said. “Besides, I merely pointed out that he is an excellent prospect for marriage, I never said I was going to marry the poor fool.”

Serale shuddered. “Good. You could definitely do better than the Earl.”

“And what about you?” Twilight asked. “Any loves at first sight I should know about in your week at Court?”

“Is that what this is about?” Serale asked. “Why you asked me to lunch?”

Her mother laughed. “Oh, goodness no!” Twilight giggled. “Not at all! I was merely curious, is all.”

Serale sighed. “No, Mother. Nopony has tried to sweep me off of my hooves since I arrived. Your daughter’s honor is safe. I’ve not even had the time to go anywhere besides my quarters and the Court.”

Twilight nodded. “I know. I’ve been getting you to Court for a reason, you know.”

The younger unicorn frowned. “How do you mean?”

Twilight’s expression went from pleasant to exasperated. “Surely you didn’t think I brought you here to keep an eye on you?”

Serale blushed. That had been exactly what she thought. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t exactly realize…”

Her mother set her sandwich down. “Serale, I brought you into Court so you could see how things work here,” she said, “To allow you time to understand where ponies stand in the Court. You’re here to help prepare you for the trial, or did you forget about it?”

Serale flushed an even brighter red. That had been the exact reason she was losing sleep at night. When she wasn’t being bored to death by the supplicants brought to the Court, she was busy worrying about the upcoming trial, and how Cobblestone was going to handle it.

“I hadn’t realized I was going to speak there,” she replied. “I thought it was only going to be Cobblestone.”

Twilight shook her head. “You, Cobblestone, and Libra were the three involved in the Crescent City incident. We’d have brought in the attackers as well, but, well…”

“They self-immolated,” Serale said. “I’d wanted to speak to you about that, by the way. Do you know of a spell that can do that? Cause you to burst into flame on command? Libra didn’t seem to know, but you’ve got more experience in the matter than she does.”

“No,” Twilight replied, “That’s what worries me. For unicorns, yes. For Pegasi, no. This is one of the reasons we need to have this trial in a public Court, to satisfy the nobility and to hopefully tempt our conspirator into making a foolhardy move once they realize they’ve left themselves exposed.”

“And what happens when they do?” Serale asked.

Twilight gave her daughter a rueful grin. “I actually needed to speak to you about that. Libra has proven time and again that she can handle herself if something goes wrong, and Cobblestone is in protective custody. I’d like you to consider the possibility of forming a personal guard.”

“A…personal guard?” Serale asked, confused. “As opposed to the regular Guard?”

Twilight nodded. “Exactly. A dedicated group of ponies to protect you without needing to worry about the potential of being reassigned or additional duties. You’d have a say in the selection process, but I’d like to approve the final roster when all is said and done.”

Serale held up a hoof. “Hang on. What if I don’t want a personal guard?”

“You need one,” her mother replied. “There’s already been an attempt on your life, two if we’re considering the rather inconvenient ‘accident’ that crippled the riverboat. And you’ll be leaving the Regia in a few months, so you’ll be getting a detachment of soldiers then. Wouldn’t it be better for you to know who they were before then?”

Serale searched wildly for another objection before she realized that she had played right into her mother’s hooves. Again. She couldn’t argue against the fact that she needed protection, and she couldn’t refuse at this point without looking like a petulant child at best. She sighed.

“Fine. I choose them, no help from an advisor. How many did you want me to pick?”

Twilight shrugged. “At least ten, I’d prefer around thirty. And try not to pull them all from one group. For one, it will overspecialize them, and for another, I don’t want to have an entire troop of soldiers reorganized because a platoon went missing.”

“Thirty!” Serale exclaimed. “You want a guard of thirty troops for me?”

Twilight held up a conciliatory hoof. “I understand it seems excessive, but it’s better to remain safe than sorry in this case.”

Serale felt heat rising in her chest. “Thirty! That’s not a guard, that’s an entire troop in and of itself! Guards, spellcasters, officers…what do you think warrants a guard of thirty?”

“You know full well the answer to that,” Twilight said. “Thirty seems light to me. I would have selected fifty, but I know how much you value your freedom of movement, despite your assurances that you are, in fact, happy to be home.”

Serale winced. “Was I that obvious?” she asked.

“You were positively transparent,” Twilight replied, “And clearly out of practice after a year away from Court. You could not have looked more bored if you tried. You’ll need to work on that before you leave, otherwise the foreign Courts will eat you alive.”

Serale’s face flushed, and her pulse pounded in her ears. “May I be excused?” she asked, her meal quite forgotten and anger rising in her chest.

Twilight waved a hoof. “Take the day off. Go calm yourself down, consider the proposal, and return to me after morning Court tomorrow. Understood?”

Serale nodded, pushing her chair back and hurrying out of the throne room, leaving her mother alone in the massive empty space.

Twilight sighed, returning to her meal, which tasted like ash in her mouth. One day her daughter would get herself into more trouble than she could handle, she just knew it.

“You may begin!” the line sergeant said, and the prone ponies on the ground began gently squeezing their triggers, the rifles cracking as they sent shots downrange. Each rifle was relatively new, featuring a five-round “clip” that allowed for the expulsion of each round’s shell and the reloading of a new round, simply by sliding a bolt backward and then forward again. The exercise today was practicing the accurate fire of ten rounds at an acceptable rate without jamming. Each shooter was being graded on accuracy and time combined, so it would do no good to sacrifice one for the other.

Serale watched as the enlisted ponies took aim at their targets and fired, impressed by the speed with which they spent their ammunition and reloaded their rifles. Her right hoof itched, and she felt herself leaning forward into a firing stance almost instinctively. She had to get her hooves on one of those and give it a try.

The shots tapered off, and Serale stepped forward. They had been finishing their exercises for the day, so she wouldn’t be interrupting their practice if she engaged them now. Her eyes met the eyes of the line sergeant, which widened in recognition as he stiffened.

“Third Troop Second Line, tench-hut!” he snapped, and each and every one of them snapped to instinctively. He saluted her rigidly. "Lady Serale, ma’am! Are you here for inspection?”

Serale motioned for him to put his hoof down. “You and your ponies can relax, sergeant. I was here admiring the new rifles. They weren’t in use when I left, and I’m something of an enthusiast. Would you mind terribly if I tried my hoof at using one?”

The sergeant shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m afraid we don’t have any spares available, but we do have ammunition for you if you wish to use a soldier’s weapon.”

Serale smiled, brightly. “Excellent!”

She turned to the waiting soldiers. “Would one of you be so good as to lend me the use of your weapon?”

The closest soldier stepped forward, offering his. “Be careful, Milady. This has a bit more kick than a target rifle.”

Serale’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Is that so? Do you think me unable to use it effectively, corporal?”

The stallion blanched. “Not at all, ma’am! Just a friendly warning, is all.”

Serale took a deep breath, collecting herself. It wouldn’t do her any good to snap at a pony for a minor breach of etiquette. She smiled. “My apologies, corporal. Perhaps you’re right.”

An idea came to her. “Perhaps you’d like to engage in a friendly competition? I always tend to do better when shooting against another pony.”

The stallion shuffled his hooves nervously. “I don’t think that would be proper, ma’am.”

“Nonsense. I insist,” Serale said, “Just to show there are no hard feelings. No harm done, just a friendly competition. What do you say?” Her smile grew, and she rummaged into the bag at her side, withdrawing a gold piece. “I’ll put this up against anypony who outshoots me.”

The stallion’s eyes widened. “Alright, ma’am. I’ll take that bet.”

Serale turned to the sergeant. “Is that alright, Sergeant? Extra incentive for practice?”

The sergeant shrugged. “So long as it has your approval, I see no issue with it. Our last exercise concluded our training for the day, and we were heading back to barracks from the castle range.”

Serale turned to another pony. “Then may I borrow your rifle, private? The corporal needs the use of his.”

The private proffered his rifle silently, and Serale ran a quick check over it for dirt, rust, or cracks, all of which she had dealt with before.

“Are you ready, Corporal?” she asked.

The corporal nodded. “Yes, Milady.”

Serale walked to the line, unslinging the rifle from her back as she did so. She turned to the corporal. “It’s a friendly contest, soldier. Smile.”

The corporal gave an uncertain grin, sinking into the prone position further down the line from her as he did so. The sergeant’s horn lit up, draping two new targets downrange. “Each of you has two clips to fire in as short a time as you can. Accuracy is graded as well. Are you ready to begin?”

Serale held up one hoof, fiddling with the sights on hers. “These are a bit misaligned,” she said. Finally, she was satisfied. “Alright. Ready.”

“Begin,” the sergeant said.

Serale sighted down the barrel of the rifle, to the sights at the end. She lined up with the center of the target, as she had been told. She corrected for wind, raised her barrel slightly, and fired.

The rifle rocked gently against her shoulder as the bullet flew downfield, striking the center of the target precisely. She worked the bolt, expelling the shell and slotting a new round into place. She fired again, just in time to hear her opponent fire his first round. It too hit the center of the target, almost exactly where she had put the first one. She worked and fired again. And again. Her opponent fired his second round. She fired her fifth and final round just as he fired his third, and slid the bolt back, ejecting the clip as she reached for the new one and slotted it in.

She fired again, grouping her shots together while maintaining her steady pace, just like she had been taught. She worked the rifle again and felt something catch. A round had jammed. She snorted in annoyance, and pulled the bolt back, smacking one hoof against the side to re-seat the round. She felt rather than saw it settle into position, and the bolt came forward again smoothly. This had cost her, though, and her opponent had already fired his first round from the new clip by the time she got her second out.

The competition became a race, with Serale slightly in the lead. She kept calm, sending her third and fourth rounds into the same tight group before focusing exactly on the center of the target, gripping her rifle tight before sending a final round right into the same spot she had put her first. She held one hoof up, signaling her completion just as the corporal sighted and fired his last round.

The soldiers behind her made not a sound, staring wide-eyed at the targets as the sergeant brought them forward. The corporal had shot very well, with the exception of two or three shots that deviated from center, but he had shot like a novice compared to Serale. There were individual holes, but they existed around the edge of tattered paper that formed a hole around the size of Serale’s hoof, perhaps a bit smaller.

Serale smiled when she saw it. Mother had told her to calm down, and shooting was one of the best ways to relieve stress that she knew. The new guns fired like a dream, she’d proven to herself that she was at least able to defend herself competently, and she’d managed to clear her mind of the upcoming trial and her mother’s schemes for at least a while. A net win, all things considered.

She offered her hoof. “Well shot, Corporal. Better than a lot of the ponies I used to shoot with in the Rifle Club. What’s your name?”

“Corporal Pillar, ma’am,” the Earth pony replied, taking her hoof and shaking it. His mane, close-cropped and blond, was dappled with sweat and dirt, like much of his body. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Serale said. “A pleasure.”

She thought for a moment. Truth be told, the corporal was one of the better shots she’d seen in years, even using the new rifle. And there was something about him that she liked very much indeed. “I’d like to speak to you in private, Corporal,” she said, “About your duties here at the Regia.”

Cobblestone stared at the encyclopedia before her, turned to a picture of some sort of exotic flower, before closing the book with a thud and a sigh. She’d been here for five days, and while the house was large and the ponies that worked in it were kind, she was going stir-crazy. The garden was small, and she was not allowed out without a guard. The workers were pleasant but would not carry on a conversation, and every offer of help she made was met with polite refusal, including things like laundry, dusting, and cleaning. Cobblestone would have been happy to do any and all of those chores if it would provide some measure of relief from the boredom that was day to day existence in the house. Even the meals were bland, and the same every day. If she had to eat one more plate of boiled string beans and mashed potatoes without any seasoning, she was going to go insane.

It was made worse by the presence of Hob, who she could feel keeping close tabs on her without actually being seen. More than once she had quickly turned around just in time to catch a black tail vanishing around a corner, and she knew that the cat was never more than a room or hallway away from her, even when she slept, which was often, seeing as it was one of the few things she could do to relieve boredom.

She briefly considered going outside to get some exercise for the third time that day, but decided against it. There were only so many sprints or pushups she could do in a day without feeling like an idiot, and she wasn’t allowed to run too fast or else she could lose sight of her “chaperones”. Nor could she sew anything, as that would require the use of a needle, which she was not allowed to have. Same went for a whittling knife and numerous other implements that could be used for her escape. She was supervised while using a fork, for Luna’s sake.

And Serale hadn’t visited. The first two or three days had been understandable, seeing as she surely had obligations and needed to settle back in, but five days was a bit much. It was possible that she was busy, being one of the most important nobles, but Cobblestone couldn’t help feeling a bit hurt. It was almost like she was being forgotten here, kept in comfort but otherwise ignored completely. That combined with the padded, supervised environment she found herself in got under her skin more than anything else.

She was scheduled to be seen in two days. That was the one thing that she had to look forward to here. Cobblestone sighed, trotting to the nearby window, which overlooked the garden and the street below. It was nailed shut and made of thick glass, but she still enjoyed spending some time in front of it now and again. She spent some time watching passerby, trying to guess at their business. Soldiers were obvious, nobles less so, and those who would be deemed as “common” were as varied in purpose as they were in appearance.

She frowned as a large carriage painted in red with golden vines pulled up in front of the house, and the coachman scrambled to the door, which he opened, folding down a set of gilded stairs before moving to one side. As she watched, an imperious looking mare in expensive clothing stepped out of the coach, her fine featured wrinkled against the sunlight until the coachman handed her a parasol and a small basket from inside the vehicle, which she accepted gratefully.

She approached the guards on duty and began speaking with them, smiling and laughing to a conversation Cobblestone couldn’t hear. She frowned, trying to read the noble’s lips from a distance with no success. One of the guards accepted a small scroll from the mare, which he unfurled and began to scan.

Suddenly there was horrendous pressure on her mind, and Cobblestone fell back from the window, clutching at her head as a voice began to speak loudly.

Cobblestone! Listen to me! That mare out there is dangerous.

“Hob?” she grunted. “How are you…”

I’ve had to overwhelm your mental defenses, the voice said, But there’s no time! You have to listen!

Cobblestone said nothing, merely thinking her agreement at the cat, all she was capable of doing.

Take nothing from her unless she has eaten or drank it first. Accept gifts so long as they don’t come with a promise, and whatever you do, don’t agree to any deals she makes you. Do you understand?

Cobblestone nodded as the pressure let up. “I understand,” she said, “But what makes her dangerous?”

No time to explain. I’ll be nearby just in case. And keep your mental defenses up while she’s here. She’s not a magic user, but I don’t trust her.

All at once, the pressure vanished, and Cobblestone slowly straightened out, looking out the window just in time to see the guard hand the scroll back to the mare and let her through the gate. The well-dressed mare walked gracefully up the garden path, and Cobblestone heard her knock on the door.

Silently, she prepared herself to meet…whoever it was that had shown up downstairs. She checked her reflection in the glass, pulled herself together, and walked out into the hallway, ready to meet this strange and supposedly dangerous individual.

“Miss Cobblestone?” a voice called. It belonged to Charity, one of the maids who worked here. “There’s somepony here to see you!”

Cobblestone broke into a trot, heading down the staircase to the front hall, taking deep breaths as she did so. She took the last few steps two at a time, and stepped out into the hall just in time to see the door close behind the well-dressed mare, whose face lit up upon seeing her.

Charity smiled demurely as she made introductions. “Lady Hedera, this is Cobblestone, our guest here. Cobblestone, this is Lady Aura Hedera, the head of House Hedera.”

Lady Hedera smiled at her, her expression warm and open. “Hello, Cobblestone. It’s good to meet you.”

She held up the basket. “I’ve been wanting to speak to you. Have you eaten? I’ve brought lunch.”

In Which First Impressions Are Made

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The parlor of the house was used rather infrequently, due to the lack of visitors most guests received. Legal counsel was usually taken in an upstairs office, and most ponies unfortunate enough to be detained in the house were considered to be dangerous enough that not many volunteered their time to be alone in the same room with them. That being said, the household staff kept it just as conspicuously clean and ready for use as the rest of the house, if not more so. After all, most guests in any proper House were entertained in the parlor first, and impressions were everything.

All of this was lost on Cobblestone, who was currently in the middle of a rather tense silence with the Lady across the table from her, who was smiling pleasantly as she sipped from a cup of tea. Thankfully, conversation was being forestalled by Charity, who was busying herself with the last pieces of lunch and their arrangement on the table, along with the tea set that she had seemingly produced from nowhere and apropos of nothing, as if it had been pulled from her apron, or perhaps the skirts of her dress. This brief reprieve was not to last, however.

“That seems to be the last of that,” Charity said brightly, “Is there anything else I can get for you, Lady Hedera?”

Lady Hedera smiled indulgently. “No, thank you, Charity. You’ve done admirably.”

Charity beamed at this faint praise before turning to Cobblestone. “And you, Miss Cobblestone?”

Cobblestone shook her head mutely, her hoof clamped around the teacup to stop the delicate china from rattling. She swallowed. “No, thank you, Charity,” she managed to get out.

The Pegasus bowed her head respectfully. “I’ll leave you two alone, then,” she said. “The bell by the sideboard is there if you need anything, ring and I’ll come quickly.”

“Thank you, Charity,” Lady Hedera said lightly, “But I think we’ll be just fine. You may go.”

The young mare said not a word more, backing out of the parlor and sliding the door shut behind her, leaving the two visitors alone in the room together. Cobblestone maintained her silence, choosing only to sip at her tea as she had seen Lady Hedera do a moment ago. Nervously, she felt herself wishing for Hob by her side, if only as a means of distraction from the mare who was calmly regarding her from across the small table in a manner that reminded her unpleasantly of her old employer.

“So,” Lady Hedera began, “Cobblestone. How have you been? Comfortable, I hope?”

“I’ve no complaints, Lady Hedera,” Cobblestone said. “Aside from being confined, that is.”

The older mare nodded understandingly before gesturing to the table. “Please, take some food. You have to be bored silly of the same thing every day. It’s all fresh, from the sandwiches to the fruit.”

Cobblestone thought fast. What was safe and what was not? She seized upon a solution. “I wouldn’t presume to eat without your company, Milady. Or before you had begun your meal.”

Lady Hedera smiled at her, seemingly pleased. “So polite! Though you’re being awfully formal with me. I’ve brought the food for you, dear, so you needn’t worry about offending me. Go ahead, take what you want!”

Cobblestone bowed her head as she had seen Charity do, hoping to borrow some of the Pegasus’s demure nature. “I insist, ma’am. After you.”

The Lady’s smile slipped a notch before reasserting itself, so quickly that it might not have happened at all. “You’re being awfully cautious, Cobblestone. Is something worrying you?”

“No, Lady Hedera,” Cobblestone said, “Just trying to be polite.”

“You don’t trust me?” Lady Hedera asked her. She chuckled upon seeing Cobblestone’s expression of alarm. “Oh, you don’t! Well, we shall simply have to fix that! I have a solution, if you’re willing to listen.”

Cobblestone said nothing, merely choosing to nod her head as she fought back a blush that was inexplicably asserting itself across her face.

Once again, Lady Hedera gestured to the food in front of her. “Pick what you want from what’s available. I’ll do the same, and take a bite of each to show you that nothing’s wrong with the food. Will that satisfy you?”

The burn across Cobblestone’s face intensified as she nodded, ceding defeat. “Yes, Lady Hedera.”

She mechanically began to pull food onto the plate in front of her, ending up with two half-sandwiches, a small bunch of grapes, and a sliced peach, a delicacy she hadn’t had since two summers ago. As she watched, Lady Hedera selected two more sandwiches, along with grapes, a peach, and a small puff pastry.

Cobblestone watched as she took a small, precise bite of each, chewing quietly and thoroughly before setting each item of food back down. She took a small sip of tea to wash it down before raising a napkin to her lips and dabbing delicately. Thus refreshed, she turned to Cobblestone.

“Will that satisfy you, dear?” she asked, her voice full of humor and good cheer, her eyes sparkling.

The young thief nodded. “I suppose,” she replied.

“Then dig in. I insist!” Lady Hedera said.

Cobblestone did as she was asked, raising the peach to her lips before taking a small nibble of the fruit. Her eyes widened. It was delicious. Suddenly her stomach roared with hunger, and it was all she could do not to shove the rest of the thing in her mouth all at once. With an enormous effort, she set the fruit back down, wiping her lips with the napkin by her side.

“It’s very good,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Lady Hedera said, “And you’re quite welcome.”

They sat in somewhat more companionable silence after that, lost as they were in the truly excellent food in front of them. Cobblestone had never tasted such fare in her life, such luxuries as white bread and fresh fruit being rarities at best in her previous line of work. It took a titanic amount of will not to exclaim with pleasure as she tried each piece of food on her plate, keeping her face as neutral as she could under the circumstances. At last, the meal was finished, and both ponies set their plates to the side as they concluded their lunch.

“How was it?” Lady Hedera asked. “Would you like more?”

Cobblestone fervently wished for more, but forced herself to shake her head. “No,” she said levelly, “Thank you.”

The blatant lie wasn’t lost on Lady Hedera, but she let it go, the very picture of magnanimity. She picked up her tea, sipping at it once more.

“So, Cobblestone,” she inquired sweetly, “Why are you here?”

Cobblestone was nonplussed. “Ma’am? I thought you knew.”

Lady Hedera shook her head. “Not at all, dear. I routinely make stops like this, it’s fairly well known. I take it you’re not from our fair city of Starfall?”

“No, Lady Hedera,” Cobblestone said, “I’m from Crescent City.”

The Earth pony noble nodded her head thoughtfully. “I thought it might be from somewhere near there,” she said, “You’ve a bit of an accent. Not that that’s bad, of course!” she said, seeing the look on Cobblestone’s face, “I simply mean to say it’s noticeable. Quite charming, actually.”

Again, Cobblestone felt herself blushing like a filly. What was wrong with her? She never blushed!

Lady Hedera continued speaking. “I tour minor’s prisons and houses like this looking for ponies who would be suited for work in a noble house in the position of a servant. I know many young ponies who turn to a life of crime do so because they have no other recourse, and many of the ponies that are ‘trained’ in the prisons or rehabilitation centers have difficulty finding work elsewhere. So, I find those who seem amenable to the idea of working in a noble house and offer them training and an indentured contract.”

She took a sip of tea, draining her cup before continuing. “Now , there are certain ponies who would rather not take the contract, and others who would like to but don’t possess the necessary qualities for work, or have a history of violence or antisocial behavior, and so on. Much as I would like to help them, I lack the resources to address their needs, and so I instead help them by setting up boardinghouses for freshly released prisoners and other services. Those who do meet my criteria, however, are trained in my House and often find work with many other Houses for the remainder of their contracts, and sometimes beyond.”

Cobblestone frowned. “You don’t keep them on as your own servants?”

“No,” Lady Hedera said, “Not many. Most go to other houses, including the Regia. Many choose to stay on as paid servants after their contract expires, and by all accounts everypony is happy with the arrangement when they do.”

“Forgive me for saying this,” Cobblestone said, “But why are you doing this? What profit do you turn from it?”

The Lady smiled. “You’re rather cynical for one so young,” she said, “But you’re right. I do make a profit. As most of my servants are indentured, I have little in the way of expenses when it comes to salary. Most contracts stipulate a small payment for services, and I stick to the lowest denominator after paying for bed, board, and upkeep. It seems fair, seeing as my House also pays for training and the exclusive right to visit these ponies and forge contracts with them. I also make a fair amount when I sell off the contracts of those ponies.”

“But how long is a contract?” Cobblestone asked.

“Usually around ten years plus the time necessary for their incarceration,” Lady Hedera said. “My training lasts for about three of those years, and it’s fairly intensive. I’m nowhere near as pleasant to those I train as I am being to you.”

“Why is that?”

“To prepare them for a master or mistress that may be stricter than others. Some Houses, especially the older ones, still use corporeal punishment to discipline failure,” Lady Hedera said. “It’s for their own good.”

Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “And you’ve come here to see if I’m the kind of pony who would be suited for that kind of work?”

Lady Hedera nodded. “You’d need to be the crème de la crème. Not just another Jane Doe, as it were. And I must say that I am rather impressed with you so far. You’ve exhibited poise, politeness, and a singular amount of courage. In fact, were you not currently incarcerated here, I would have pegged you as simply another commoner, albeit a well-behaved one. This brings me to the original question about why you’re here.”

Cobblestone felt an irrational surge of pride at being complemented by the pony in front of her, coupled with an intense desire to impress her. She halted the deluge of words that were about to spill from her mouth, instead attempting to see what it was her conversational partner was looking for. Hob’s words echoed in her ears. This pony was not to be trusted, despite all of the kindness she showed.

When did I start listening to Hob? Cobblestone wondered.

“I’m not really sure it’s my place to say,” Cobblestone demurred, using her best vocabulary in retaliation, “The circumstances surrounding my arrest were a bit delicate.”

The noblemare smiled encouragingly. “It’s alright, dear. I understand if you don’t want to incriminate yourself, that’s a very wise move. I simply wish to know why you’re here, what you were arrested for. The particulars can stay with you.”

Cobblestone thought long and hard about how to phrase what came next. She didn’t want to volunteer any more information than she needed to, but holding too much back could prove just as bad in the long run, serving to pique Lady Hedera’s interest and leading to more personal questions.

“I was arrested for theft,” Cobblestone said, “I broke into the inn where Lady Serale was staying and attempted to rob her. I’m being held here while awaiting a trial by Lady Everstar. It was bad luck on her part and mine, I didn’t know she was royalty and I was caught pretty easily.”

Lady Hedera’s eyes widened. “You attempted to rob Lady Serale? I’m surprised she didn’t fry you on the spot.”

“What do you mean by that?” Cobblestone asked.

Lady Hedera leaned in close. “You mustn’t think me a gossip,” she said, “But Lady Serale has a reputation for being…less than social at the best of times. She doesn’t appear in Court often, but she has a reputation for being quick to anger.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” Cobblestone lied, “It was Magus Libra who ended up detaining me. I was brought upriver with their guard, and only ever spoke with Lady Serale a few times.”

“I can see the Magus took a personal interest in you,” Lady Hedera said. “You must have given her some trouble!”

Again Cobblestone was perplexed. “How can you tell?” she asked.

“Your pendant, dear,” Lady Hedera said, “As somepony intimately familiar with the penal system, I’ve come to recognize a restraint pendant when I see it. High grade, too. You’ve got a gift, it would seem. Have you had any formal training?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “No. I grew up on the streets, I never had any education.”

Lady Hedera nodded thoughtfully. “Well, I can certainly understand that. Did Magus Libra speak to you about it?”

“Yes. She said if I showed signs of reformation, she would see if she could find somepony for me to apprentice under,” Cobblestone said. “I’m not sure how to feel about that, to be honest. I never considered the possibility of becoming a mage.”

“Well, the training is difficult, and oftentimes you’d be competing with other apprentices for favor,” Lady Hedera said. “There are a number of ponies who don’t make it through an apprenticeship at all. But the knowledge is valuable, to be sure. I certainly hope you become a mage, dear. You strike me as a pony that knows the value of power.”

Cobblestone frowned. “I’d have thought you’d want me to try and become a servant.”

Lady Hedera gave the barest of shrugs. “A servant’s life isn’t incredibly exciting compared to that of a mage, my dear. But yes, if it turns out that you are unable to become a mage, whether it is because you lack a teacher or cannot complete your apprenticeship, I would very much like to have you as a student of mine. Despite your…rough edges, I think you’d make a fine servant. I like you, Cobblestone.”

Again, Cobblestone flushed at the praise. She bowed her head almost unconsciously. “Thank you, ma’am.”

The clock on the wall chimed, and Lady Hedera looked at it in surprise. “Goodness, two o’clock already? Time flies when you’re having fun, I suppose. I hope you’ll forgive me, Cobblestone, I have some ponies to meet in an hour.”

Cobblestone blinked, looking at the clock. She could have sworn it was noon when they had begun talking.

Lady Hedera rung the bell, and a moment later, Charity’s head appeared in the door. “You called, Milady?”

“Yes,” Lady Hedera replied, “I’m afraid I have to return home, Charity. Would you be so good as to walk me out?”

“Of course, Lady Hedera,” Charity replied, “It would be my pleasure.”

Lady Hedera rose from her chair, extending a hoof towards Cobblestone. “It was a joy speaking with you, Cobblestone,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I sincerely hope to speak with you again. Best of luck in your upcoming trial!”

Cobblestone shook her head dazedly, standing and taking Lady Hedera’s hoof in her own. “The pleasure was mine, Lady Hedera,” she replied. “Thank you for taking time out of your day to visit me.”

“I’ll leave the rest of the lunch with you,” Lady Hedera said, “And I’ll send somepony by to pick up the basket in the next few days. Please, enjoy the food. I know how meals here can get a bit boring.”

Cobblestone said nothing, choosing merely to bow her head as Charity and Lady Hedera left the room, the door to the parlor sliding shut behind them. A sinking feeling made its home in her chest. She’d lost at least an hour of time, and hadn’t the slightest clue as to where it had gone, or where it had been taken from. And why had she been grinning like a vapid idiot anytime Lady Hedera said anything remotely nice about her? She had been too easily put at ease by a few kind words and a basket of fruit and bread.

That could have gone better, Hob said as he leapt onto the couch behind her. She had you wrapped around her hoof from the moment you touched the tea.

“I checked the tea,” Cobblestone said quietly. It wouldn’t do to have Lady Hedera or Charity hear her talking to a cat.

The sugar bowl and the cream as well? Hob inquired.

Cobblestone’s heart skipped a beat. She’d taken her tea with sugar, and a healthy bit of it at that. Lady Hedera had taken hers plain.

I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered, Hob said. She got what she came here for without any help from the sugar.

“Like what?” Cobblestone murmured.

She knows you know the Lady Serale. That and where you’re from, and what your plans are for the future. And admit it, you were a little bit charmed by her attitude.

“She’s a charming pony,” Cobblestone replied. “Were you here the whole time?”

Hob’s tail twitched irritably. Of course not. I came in when the maid opened the parlor doors. I was listening from the stairs though, under the pretext of a nap.

“Just the pretext of a nap. Sure.”

Impudent child, Hob said. Were I not bound to protect thee, I would filet you and crunch on your bones.

“Bold words for a small cat,” Cobblestone said.

Hob glared at her reproachfully. Surely you cannot be so dense as to think me a simple housecat.

Cobblestone grinned. “Of course not. I think of you as an annoying housecat.”

Hob’s ears flattened in exasperation. You are incorrigible. Regardless, I would be on guard from here to the point of the trial. Lady Hedera will surely have you watched.

“How?” Cobblestone asked. “I’m behind guards and walls and a dozen different enchantments I’m sure nopony told me about.”

Fifteen, actually. Some of them quite nasty. Hob said, curling up beside her. Besides, she has no need to bypass these walls. Her eyes and ears are already inside. One of them served you tea.

Sir Vino Hedera, Eldest of the House, fourth in his line to bear the title, and most recent of Sir Ironhide’s squires, was late.

Not incredibly late, he had been told to report to the Commandant-In-Chief’s office by three o’clock, but the fact remained that it was approaching three fifteen, and he was still late, a crime that could be seen as rude in the circles of the nobility, but a transgression that bordered on the unforgiveable among those ponies who chose a martial lifestyle. It was because of his inexcusable lateness that he was beginning to panic, though he knew where he was supposed to go and who to speak to once he arrived in the Regia.

The well-built Earth pony hadn’t quite broken into a panicked gallop yet, but his trot was a good deal quicker than it needed to be, and the fact that the floors here were polished to a reflective sheen only exacerbated the wide corners he was taking at an unhealthy speed. Already he had nearly collided with several aides, an unfortunate private who was mopping the floors, and a suit of antique armor. Contributing to his high speed was the hefty pack on his back, spattered with mud and wobbling menacingly whenever he made a sharp turn.

Rounding yet another corner, he took the second staircase he came to at a healthy clip, mounting the stairs two at a time and praying that the Commandant hadn’t left yet. Reaching the top of the stairs, he made a right turn, noticing that the click of his hooves on the stone floors had been replaced by the muffled thud of hoofsteps on carpet. It was then that he knew he was close to his destination, and sure enough, there at the end of the hallway was a simple wooden door with a pane of frosted glass set in the window, with words etched in the bottom.

Captain Roughshod, Commandant-in-Chief, Court Guard.

Taking a deep breath, Vino composed himself, wiping the sweat from his brow and straightening the pack on his back before raising his hoof and knocking three times at the door.

“Enter!” a rich, low voice called, and Vino did as instructed, pushing the door open and stepping inside the Commandant’s office.
The office was well-appointed and excruciatingly clean, the wooden shelves that covered the walls shining with polish and adorned with various citations for bravery and merit as well as old weapons, pictures of long-disappeared regiments, and a bafflingly large array of awards from at least a dozen different military orders across the Kingdom.

The floor was wood, covered only partially by a large carpet covered in various constellations and depictions of warriors and battles long since passed. Two chairs sat in front of an imposing wooden desk, claw-footed and engraved with the seal of the Kingdom. Behind the desk were two flags, the flag of the Court Guard, and Lady Everstar’s personal banner. These only served to accentuate, rather than distract from, the stallion behind the desk.

“Vino Hedera!” the uniformed stallion said with delight as he turned his chair to look at him. “It’s good to see you made it in one piece!”

Captain Roughshod was every bit as incredible as the stories surrounding him claimed, Vino thought. His one green eye gleamed with cutting wit and good health, shining brightly in contrast to his spotless white coat and his close-cropped, blonde mane. The patch over his other eye was well-oiled leather, embossed with a six-pointed star that had been placed there by Lady Everstar herself. His uniform was spotless, though the top button on his jacket remained unbuttoned, lending him an air of relaxed, roguish charm.

Vino stopped directly before the rug on which the chairs rested and snapped a crisp salute, which Captain Roughshod returned. “I apologize for my lateness, sir,” he said, his voice strong, “I was detained for longer than I had thought I would be at the city gates.”

The Captain waved a dismissive hoof. “That’s quite alright, Sir Vino,” he said. “I’d nothing scheduled for the rest of the afternoon as it was. It’s not every day one of Old Ironhide’s squires gets assigned to my Guard.”

He glanced at the pack on Vino’s back. “That looks heavy,” he said, “Set it down and take a seat. Don’t mind the mud; we’ve got cleaners for a reason.”

Vino did as he was told, setting his bag down and sitting in the chair to his left. Captain Roughshod’s horn lit up, closing the door behind him and leaving the two of them alone to speak privately.

“Sir Ironhide’s told me you show quite a bit of promise as a cavalier,” he began conversationally, “And if half of what he’s told me is true, I’m inclined to agree with him. First in bladed weapons, third in rifles, third in pistols, second in hoof-to-hoof, and first in field survival out of twenty students! It’s an impressive record, to be sure.”

“Thank you, sir,” Vino said.

The older stallion smiled and nodded. “I’m glad you got assigned here, to tell you the truth. As it turns out, we’re looking for talented new soldiers and officers right now. Rumor has it there’s going to be a need for them sooner rather than later.”

Vino frowned. “How do you mean, sir?”

The unicorn leaned back in his chair. “There’s been movement on the border between the Evening Kingdom and the Celestial Empire. Forces are being moved, defenses strengthened, everything points to an inevitable conclusion. I’ve received orders to begin running my ponies through exercises, and to review leadership among the regiments assigned to the Regia.”

“You’re talking about war?” Vino asked. “Between us and the Celestials?”

Captain Roughshod nodded. “Hopefully it can be prevented. Talks are still open between our countries, after all. But there’s always the possibility. And that’s not the only part, though it’s certainly the bigger or the two issues.”

“What would the second one be, sir?” Vino asked.

“Lady Everstar has seen fit to begin forming a personal Guard for her daughter,” Captain Roughshod said. “Just got the paperwork this morning. Anywhere from thirty to fifty, depending on the need. I’ve been given orders to begin sorting through ponies who would fit well into such an organization.”

Vino said nothing, choosing instead to ponder the situation. A war? The last one had been nearly a hundred years ago, and the conflict had been relatively minor, according to his teacher of military history. They were still repairing the damage done between the two nations even now. If the army at its current size were to go to war with the Celestial Empire, the conflict would be larger than any seen since the Evening Rebellion.

And why would the daughter of Lady Everstar require a personal Guard? She had hardly left the Regia at all before her journey last year, and even then she had only departed with the Court Mage. If she had returned, why had there suddenly been a need for a Guard of her own? Surely she would only need a ceremonial guard, if that.

“Regardless of the unusual circumstances,” the Captain said, “I’m certainly glad to have you as part of the Guard. There’re several openings for low-level command positions available, most of them being instructor positions for new recruits.”

Vino shook his head clear of distractions. “My apologies, sir. What were those positions, again?”

The Captain smiled. “There are three. The first opening is for a quartermaster in the South Quadrant, helping to supply new recruits with their uniforms. Three days of work per week, one of which is filling out requisitions for new equipment to keep stocks up. The second is a rifle coach for the sharpshooters, a slot which you are qualified for. Six days of work, five hours per day out on the range and another hour drilling cleaning procedures with the soldiers. The last is an open duty, meaning you’d be assigned to whichever Guard unit needed an officer for certain periods of time.”

He opened a drawer in his desk, withdrawing paperwork and laying it on the desk. “You could spend some time on Throne Room duty, or you’d be assigned to Nightwatch for two weeks. It’s mostly a mixed bag depending on where you’re needed. If it turns out you’re a natural at a certain type of work, I could see about having you permanently assigned there. Questions?”

Vino nodded. “Which would you recommend, sir?”

Captain Roughshod’s eye widened. “Well, let’s see… quartermaster probably wouldn’t make much use of your talents. If you enjoy shooting, the sharpshooter coach would be a good fit for you, though it can get repetitive. Honestly, I’d probably pick open duty. Varied work, lots of opportunities, you’d see a lot of things most ponies wouldn’t see at all.”

“Then that’s the one I’ll take, sir.” Vino said. “I want to learn as much about the Guard as I can, and help wherever I’m needed.”

The Captain nodded. “A good choice, Sir Vino. While assigned to the position of open duty, you would be awarded the rank of lieutenant, which puts you a good deal above most of the other junior officers, while still having you subordinate to those running the stations you’d be assigned to. I’ll have a packet sent along to your quarters with the details.”

“Thank you, sir,” Vino said. “I’ll be sure to read it thoroughly.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” the Captain said, “I’ve taken the liberty of giving you a few days to settle in before you’re assigned. It will give you time to familiarize yourself with some of the Regia, as well as giving you a chance to rest after your journey. Seventy miles is a healthy distance to travel in just three days, especially on hoof.”

He put some of the papers back in the desk, taking the ones that remained and bundling them up in a neat pile. “I’d also recommend you apply for potential assignment to the Guard. If my suspicions are correct, then Lady Serale may do some more traveling in the near future. Not only would you be taken along with her, I’d rest better knowing somepony with your skills and disposition were assigned to help protect her from any potential harm.”

Vino frowned. “I don’t follow, sir.”

“I mean that if the Evening Kingdom and the Celestial Empire are truly moving towards war, I could see Lady Serale being sent on a diplomatic mission in the future. She’s been traveling before, perhaps her mother will want her sent out again to engage in peace talks. From all accounts, she’s a formidable political opponent,” Roughshod said. “And besides, it’s a grand opportunity to be part of an entirely new branch of service. Were I you, I’d jump on the opportunity to join up.”

“Do you really think Lady Everstar would do that, sir?” Vino asked. “Send her daughter into a hostile nation like that? There’s certainly no love lost between Lady Everstar and Celestia.”

Captain Roughshod shrugged. “I don’t know, Sir Vino. I’d imagine Lady Serale could defend herself. Be that as it may, though…I’d rather we be safe than sorry.”

Charity smiled and hummed to herself as she prepared the table for the evening meal. It had been so very good to see Lady Hedera again, to show her that all of the time and effort she had put into her training was paying off. And to think that Cobblestone might have the same opportunity as well! She hoped that the young thief would make something of herself, really she did.

She eyed the vial on the top shelf, and the clear liquid inside. Her smile slipped few notches, and she felt the smallest pangs of regret at what that vial meant. Perhaps Cobblestone wasn’t the bright young mare she had thought her to be. At least, that was what Lady Hedera claimed, and as she had learned over and over in the past, Lady Hedera always knew best.

Her instructions were very clear. If Lady Serale were to visit, she was to smile and do her best to serve them both in any way necessary to ensure their comfort. After the Lady had left, she was to slip the contents of the vial into Cobblestone’s meal. It was odorless, tasteless, and dissolved quickly without a trace in any food or drink, provided she mixed it well.

It was unfortunate, Charity thought, that Cobblestone was deemed so dangerous as to warrant her own death. But the young Pegasus took comfort in the fact that the poison wouldn’t activate until Cobblestone was asleep, and her death would be quite painless. To anypony else, it would appear like she had simply died of complications brought on by her lack of health.

The clock by the stove chimed, reminding Charity to set the water to boil for the evening’s potatoes. She turned the burner on, watching the flame spring to life before she turned back to her potatoes. She hummed a calming song to herself as she peeled, taking pleasure in the simple task.

It all came down to the little things, she thought. The little things really did make life much easier.

In Which a Walk Is Taken

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Serale took a deep breath, checking herself over in the mirror. Noting an errant lock of hair, she frowned, pinning it back up into her sensible bun before smoothing out the front of her long sleeved dress, ensuring the belt was secure and the fabric remained unwrinkled. She was expected downstairs in two hours to present her opinion on the matter of the guard to her mother, which was why she was getting ready to leave now, before she was expected to be anywhere at all. With luck, she would be out the front gate of the Regia before anypony was wiser for it.

She grabbed a simple necklace from the box by her mirror, checking the hue of the stone against the white fabric of her attire. The stone was red, which she supposed was adequate for the task at hoof, and besides, it was one of the least ostentatious pieces of jewelry she owned. She drew a small hair clasp from the box, made of burnished bronze, her mother’s metal of choice, and fastened it securely into her mane to keep the last locks of hair up. Her mane curled naturally, but she had never seen the appeal of it, preferring to have it straightened. She lifted a cloak of dark blue fabric from the wall, fastening it around her neck. The hood would do her good in avoiding recognition if she needed it.

As ideas went, it was simplicity in itself, which was why it worried her. It seemed almost too simple. She was going to visit Cobblestone today, and that was final. Her mother expected her to be in Court, which would leave her no time to uphold her promise to her friend before the thief was due to speak tomorrow, rendering her a liar. So, she would simply grab as few guards as she could, act like she was supposed to be leaving the castle, and simply walk out of the front gate.

It wasn’t like she was being forced to remain in the Regia either, she reflected, as she once more smoothed out the front of her dress, more to soothe herself than to eliminate a wrinkle. She had just never had reason to leave before. She wasn’t even sure if she was forbidden to leave, all Serale knew was that her mother had expressed disapproval if the matter came out. She had never been explicitly told she was not allowed to leave the Regia.

Justifications firmly in place, she left her mirror, her shoulders straightened and her head high, the very picture of regal poise and grace. Serale strode to the door of her chambers, throwing it open as she cast an eye around for guards. Seeing none, she huffed, realizing that she would need to pull them from somewhere else if she were to have an escort from the castle. She headed for the nearest public place, which was the antechamber to the throne room, knowing that there would surely be a few on duty there that would be able to accompany her on her trip.

As she walked, she passed by a few maids, who merely bowed their heads in deference to her station as she passed. Serale knew most of them by name, having had most of them since she was a little filly herself, and knowing she could trust each of them to keep a secret. She returned their murmured greetings with the barest nod of her head, more out of haste than any desire to place herself above them.

She passed through the west foyer, the last private part of the Regia before she was exposed to the visitors to the castle, and the room in which it was expected she entertained guests of her own when the time came. She had, thankfully, never had much use for it. The idea of sitting in a room, sipping tea and giggling over gossip, did not appeal to her in the absolute slightest. Laying a hoof on the knob of the double doors, she took another deep breath in, and before she could stop herself, pushed them wide open.

She was immediately greeted by the sight of a large room, well-furnished, in which several equally well-furnished ponies sat, waiting their turns to pass through the grand doors of the Throne Hall and present their case to the ponies inside. Some of them had been sitting here for days or weeks, arriving before the Court opened and leaving after it had closed, risking forfeiture of their case if they were not present to speak their piece.

A few of them raised their heads in surprise when the door opened and Serale stepped out among them. Normally, she took a more circuitous route that carried her past the crowds and into the galleries of the Hall without being too public. For her to enter the antechamber itself was a rare event. A few attempted to catch her eye, hoping to speak with her, but she busied herself with one of the guards standing by the door, preventing them from conversing with her.

“Pardon me,” she asked the uniformed Pegasus stallion quietly, “But I’ve some business I need to attend to, and I shall need an escort. Is there anypony free?”

The stallion was silent for a moment, thinking without letting it show on his face, and Serale had started to believe he hadn’t heard her when he spoke.

“I’m not sure, Milady,” the Pegasus said. “Most of us here are required to stay at our posts. I believe your best option would be to request an escort from the Captain of the Guard. I’m sure he could have somepony for you in an hour or so.”

Serale’s heart sank. She hadn’t thought about the possibility of nopony being available. Nodding her thanks to the guard, she set off down the corridor, head spinning as she thought of a way to ask for an escort without alerting her mother to her plans. If she approached Captain Roughshod, he would surely alert her mother. It was his job, after all. And much as she wanted to believe it, she couldn’t see mother allowing her to leave the castle on such short notice, especially when she was supposed to be speaking with her mother later that day on official business. So concerned was she with the predicament before her, she almost crashed into its solution head on.

With a thud, she bumped headlong into a pony in uniform, who careened into the wall while she took a few dizzy steps back, catching herself before she fell. Shaking her head clear, she looked around to see who it was that she had bumped into. A well-built Earth pony stallion was resting in an alcove that thankfully no longer housed a rather expensive urn, it having been moved a few days before. He appeared to be engaged in fixing his uniform, having not seen who it was he had collided with and muttering an apology.

“Sorry miss,” he said, adjusting a lieutenant’s chit on the front of his shirt, “Wasn’t looking at where I was going, I’m new and got a bit lost…”

He trailed off on seeing who it was he had, in fact, collided with. His eyes widened, and the color left his face, fading it from grey to almost-white. He sank to one knee, averting his eyes immediately. “My apologies, Milady Serale,” he said, “I didn’t realize…I wasn’t looking…”

Serale straightened up. “It’s quite alright, Lieutenant,” she said, her voice strong and steady. “I wasn’t paying my path much mind as it was. You may rise.”

The young stallion did so, still keeping his eyes carefully averted. “My sincerest apologies, Lady Serale. The fault truly rests with me, I shouldn’t have been wandering as I was.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “You are not at fault. We both were distracted, there is nothing to be ashamed of there...”

She looked more closely at the lieutenant. “Vino?” she asked. “Vino Hedera? Is that you?”

The stallion shuffled his hooves nervously. “Yes, Milady Serale.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “In uniform, no less? I thought you were going to be taking over your father’s estate!”

“My stepmother has the situation well in hoof,” he replied. “I’ve got time for a brief tour of duty before I need to resume my role as the head of the family. I was awarded a commission in the Court Guard. I just arrived yesterday.”

An idea occurred to Serale. “You said you’re assigned to the Court Guard? Where?”

“Wherever I’m needed,” Vino replied, “For however long I’m needed.”

A smile spread over Serale’s lips. “Excellent. Are you doing anything now?”

Vino’s voice grew wary. “No, Milady. I was actually familiarizing myself with the layout of the castle, I don’t begin my official duties for a few more days.”

“Wonderful,” Serale said triumphantly, “Then I’ll be enlisting your help. I need an escort that I can trust to be discrete and competent, and that’s going to be you.”

Vino’s puzzlement was obvious. “Milady? Why don’t you request an escort from the Captain?”

“Because I don’t have the time or inclination to do so, Lieutenant,” Serale said, “And you’re standing here, in uniform, without any duties to occupy your time. I’ve work for you to do. Are you armed?”

Vino nodded, showing her the bladeband around his foreleg.

“Then we’re off!” Serale said. “I hope you’ve learned how to use that, Vino. Or should I call you Sir Vino now?”

“Whatever you like, Milady,” Vino said. “But can I ask why you need me to accompany you?”

Serale turned and began walking back down the corridor, Vino following like a cowed spaniel on a lead. She turned to regard the baffled knight behind her. “We’re going for a walk,” she said, “To visit a friend, and catch up along the way.”

She noticed the stallion lagging behind. “Come along!” she called, “We’ve got a fair distance to cover!”

“Lady Serale,” Vino asked quietly as they passed through the main gate, out into the street beyond, “Pardon my asking, but who, exactly, are we going to visit?”

“A friend of mine that I met on my trip home,” Serale replied smoothly, “Who is currently being detained for theft, among other things.”

“And you need me to protect you?” vino asked, curiously.

Serale smiled. “Hardly,” she said, “I do, however, require an escort when I leave the Regia. And as my mother has some legitimate concerns regarding my safety, I need a guard who can be discrete.”

Vino’s heart skipped a beat. “Do you mean to say that you aren’t supposed to have left the palace?” he asked.

Serale shrugged. “I was never explicitly forbidden from leaving,” she said.

“But you were never given permission,” Vino said.

“Not in as many words, no,” Serale replied.

Vino stopped in his tracks. “We’re going back,” he said.

“No we aren’t,” Serale said, “ I made a promise to the pony we are going to visit, and I intend to see the promise kept.”

“Lady Serale,” Vino pleaded, “We must go back! You could be in danger!”

Serale continued to walk. “This didn’t seem to be an issue when we were leaving the palace,” she said, “I wonder why?”

“Because I assumed you had a plan!” Vino exclaimed, “And your mother’s blessing!”

“I do have a plan,” Serale replied, “Walk to where she is being kept, visiting with her briefly, and going back home. I would prefer it if you were there as an escort, but it isn’t necessary.”

“I have to alert the guards,” Vino said, “You’re the Lady’s daughter, for Luna’s sake! You can’t simply walk down the middle of the street in broad daylight with one guard and no plan!”

Serale looked back over her shoulder. “You could do that,” she said, “But that leaves me walking down the street with no escort for who know how long?”

She continued to walk, Vino close behind her. “Your safest option is to remain by my side and keep close to me, which incidentally is my safest option. I wouldn’t worry about retribution, you’ll have my full support. You followed an order and did what you thought was right, Sir Hedera. It’s hardly your fault I took advantage of that.”

Vino remained close, realizing that she was, in fact, correct. And just as precocious as she had been when he had left for his training as a squire, during the few times he had seen her.

“It’s been quite a while since we’ve spoken, Vino,” she said. “How have you been?”

Vino chose to say nothing. Serale Everstar might be able to command his obedience, but she could not command him to carry on a conversation with her. He would remain silent until such time as he could be relieved, and only then would he give a deposition to the Captain, and then avoid Serale like the plague.

“Are you giving me the silent treatment?” Serale said. “I must admit, that’s something I’m not used to. The last time somepony refused to speak to me was…actually, that was usually me. When I was eight.”

Vino remembered that. It had been the last party he attended before leaving home at eleven. Serale Everstar had just turned eight years old, and a party had been thrown for the occasion. She had spent the entire thing refusing to socialize with any of her party guests, choosing instead to remain buried in a book for the entire event. The party had been something of a disaster.

“Do you recall which way the South Armory is?” she asked him. “The House is near there, but I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with the streets.”

Vino was, in fact, familiar with the route to the Armory. He had passed it on the way up to the Regia.

He indicated a side road. “That way, Lady Serale,” he said. He shut his mouth directly after speaking, refusing to give her the satisfaction of hearing him speak.

Serale eyed him amusedly before shaking her head and crossing the street, Vino following close behind. She looked around as she did so, noting a curious lack of pedestrian traffic. The streets should have been full of ponies coming and going from the Regia, but aside from her and Vino, there were hardly any ponies at all on the thoroughfare, lending the scene a certain surreal feeling.

“Where is everypony?” she asked confusedly. “Isn’t this the main entrance to the castle? I thought this route was supposed to be busy.”

“The security around the Regia has been tightened,” Vino replied. “Something to do with an incident in Crescent City.”

“Mother…” Serale muttered. Of course her mother had tightened security around the Regia. It was only logical. Even still, it seemed a little extreme.

“Pardon, Lady Serale?” Vino asked. “Did you say something?”

Serale shook her head. “Pay it no mind. Although I am starting to regret the idea of needing an escort. If the entire route to my destination is going to be this barren, I hardly need protection.”

The two of them walked in less than companionable silence for a while, each refusing to speak for different reasons. Serale was only now beginning to see how wide her mother was casting the net in order to look for the group that had made an attempt on her life. If her mother was worried enough to order traffic to her own seat of power choked, to refuse the simple passage of ponies near the walls of the Regia, shouldn’t she be taking the threat just as seriously?

She glanced over her shoulder at Vino, whose face was impassive still, undoubtedly still angry over her taking advantage of his good nature and trusting disposition. It would not be the first time she had done so, nor would she have been the first to do so. He wasn’t exactly bright at the best of times. And he was her only protector if something were to go wrong. The thought was less than comforting.

Vino was faring little better. Whatever Lady Serale was up to, she was doing it without the blessing of her mother, perhaps even in defiance of her wishes. Not only was this going to cause a headache for him once it was discovered that she was missing, it also left her open to potential attack from a threat he couldn’t combat. She was surely proficient enough in magic herself to defeat any serious threat, but that only meant that the things she could not overcome were things he would certainly have difficulty with.

The two ponies continued their sedate pace now that Serale was sure they would not be stopped and sent to the palace. She was, of course, doing this to visit Cobblestone, but that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to enjoy every moment of time spent away from the Regia. Before leaving, she had never had much opportunity to simply walk around outside of the palace, and she would certainly be taking advantage of the opportunity as it stood.

Serale shook her head at her audacity. Her mother clearly had her reasons for keeping her in the Regia, and on the surface, she agreed with her mother’s motives entirely. It was only logical for her to be kept safe when faced with a deficiency such as hers, especially in light of certain events. Still, some part of her rankled at the idea of being confined to the palace once more, especially after she was allowed to leave and being able to see so much of the world beyond!

“Vino?” she asked. “Would you mind terribly if I asked you a question?”

The stallion said nothing, choosing instead to plod along in silence next to her.

“You’ve lived in the city most of your life, correct? At your family’s House?”

A moment passed before the stallion responded. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

“It just occurred to me,” she replied, “Have you ever actually visited the outskirts of the city, the parts nearest the walls? I know most nobles live nearer to the palace than the outside of the city.”

Vino’s eyebrows furrowed. “No. Why would I? There’s nothing there that we can’t get close to the palace, and besides, a lot of the city’s unsafe for nobles.”

“It’s strange. I’ve lived here all my life, same as you, and I hardly know a thing about Starfall itself. I don’t know anything about the ponies that live here, or what they’re like, or how they live. All I’ve ever gotten is census data and history books.”

“I was told that the only important parts of the city were the Guilds and courts, because that’s where ponies had their voice,” Vino said. “I’m sure if you asked your mother, she could arrange a tour of the Guilds for you. And most of the important cases from the courts go to Lady Everstar anyway.”

“But that’s only a part of it,” Serale said. “The Guilds and courts are important. But so are the dress shops and fruit stalls and schoolhouses, and all of the ponies that use them. Be honest. Outside of a Guild, how many common ponies do you know personally?”

“None,” Vino said immediately. “Not one.”

Serale nodded excitedly. “Exactly,” she said, “So how can we, the ones who interpret the laws and lay down taxes, know about what ponies want? Mother always told me that ruling meant serving ponies just as much as they served you, and that the reasons we made choices for ponies is because we had been chosen to be good ponies, that we had earned the trust of those supposedly beneath us.”

“What are you getting at?” Vino asked.

“This pony we’re visiting,” Serale said, “She’s about as common as they come. And she’s exactly the kind of pony we need to be helping, in any way we can. The society my mother set up failed her in every possible way. No family, no schooling, no prospects, the only reason she attempted theft was to keep her and the few friends she had alive.”

They turned down a wide avenue, seeing at last a few more ponies on the street, wandering around on their business. Serale continued. “And despite all of that, she’s good, and decent, and if she were given the opportunity, she could be kind. The only problem is, she’s never been given that opportunity.”

They were close to the house now, it was only a few streets away. Vino considered what Serale was saying. It was true that he had never personally befriended anypony who could be considered “common”, just as it was true that the pony they were visiting was in fact a criminal. Frankly, he couldn’t see much of a reason why she would risk the wrath of her mother to visit a common thief. He supposed he would find out once they-

“We’ve arrived,” Serale said. “This is the place.”

Vino was snapped out of his reverie, and looked up at the rather plain brick building across the road, protected by a high brick wall broken only by a wrought iron gate. Even from the road, he could almost see the enchantments hanging heavy in the air, causing the branches on the trees inside the fence to rustle in a nonexistent breeze. The windows were set into the bricks directly, and even the wooden door looked incredibly solid beneath its white paint. Of course, this building could have been mistaken for the home of a particularly security-conscious noble or mage, had it not been for the two guards standing in front of the gate.

Serale fixed a smile on her face before crossing the road, Vino in tow. She nodded to one of the guards as she pulled up short of the gate.

“Good morning,” she said, “I’ve come to speak with Miss Cobblestone. Is she available?”

“Just woke up an hour ago,” one of the guards said, “Should be finished with breakfast. I imagine your company will be appreciated, Lady Serale, she’s missed you.”

It occurred to Vino that there was no way for the guard to have known this unless Cobblestone was under incredibly close surveillance.

“Might I go inside?” Serale asked sweetly. “I’m afraid I’ve plans this afternoon, so I would like to speak with her as soon as possible in order to maximize time.”

The guard nodded. “You’re welcome inside, Lady Serale,” he indicated Vino. “He, however, is not.”

Serale turned to Vino, her face apologetic. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting, Vino?” she asked. “I’ll ask them to send somepony to relieve you once I get inside.”

“No need, Milady,” the guard said, tapping a crystal set into the wall, “There’s a café down the street where he can wait.”

Serale flashed a grin. “Wonderful,” she said. “If you wouldn’t mind, Vino? I’ll only be an hour or two.”

Vino bowed stiffly. “I’ll be here, Serale.”

The gate opened, and Serale stepped through. “See you soon, Vino!” she called.

It was only after she had begun walking down the path to the front door and Vino had reluctantly headed for the supposed café that he realized he had not brought any money with him.

Thorn was a simple pony with simple needs, and he met those needs as best he could. He needed food, so he took it. He needed money, so he took that, too. He needed the occasional release, and so if he found a pretty enough mare, he took her. Whether or not she wanted the taking. He spent the majority of his time in a certain large park near the district of Westgate, which, as could be inferred from the title, was located near the westernmost gate of the city.

It was a nice enough place, if one lived simply like Thorn. There was a river with water, and it ran clean through the park, pollutants filtered out by means of magic. There were plenty of places to sleep if one knew the park like he did, and those places to sleep also meant places to hide, which was an unfortunate necessity on occasion, as his activities did tend to attract the wrong sort of attention, both from the authorities and others.

On this particular morning, as most mornings, Thorn was loitering by the riverbank and hoping for breakfast to wander by. He had spent the past hours sleeping off the effects of a hangover gotten from coin that was certainly not his own, brought about by very cheap gin. A quick dip in the river had been enough to clear the cobwebs of sleep from his head and served to cause his stomach to rumble loudly. Thorn was a big pony, one might even go so far as to call him huge, his size a tremendous advantage when it came to intimidation, and he ate accordingly.

He was in luck, he thought. There, from his vantage point in the trees, was a young unicorn mare walking alone along the path, carrying with her a curious bag that appeared to be woven from wicker, grass, and other bits and bobs of plant matter. The bag didn’t concern him. The contents, however, did. Apples, beautiful fruit like nothing he had seen before, were contained in that bag. They almost seemed to glow and shimmer in the early morning light, almost possessing light of their own. Thorn’s stomach growled with hunger, and he leapt from the trees almost without realizing that he was doing so.

The mare took a step back before smiling at him brightly. Her features were finely formed, almost sharp in composition but not quite, and the solitary ear he could see through her thick, curly red mane tapered to a fine point like that of a bat. It was difficult to guess her age, she could have been anywhere from thirteen years old to thirty, and most distinctively of all, she was absolutely covered in tattooed bands around her neck and hooves, intricate and tangled lines of ink.

“Good morn, sirrah!” she chirped, her voice a clear and rolling brogue. “You nearly gave me a fright, leaping from the trees like that!”

Thorn found himself staring at her mouth. He had almost been sure that her teeth came to points, but when he looked closely, they had seemed to vanish. He shook his head, instead focusing on the bag by her side. “Those’re pretty apples, girl. You get them near here?”

“Nay, I’ve brought them from home, far and away from here,” she said. “To keep me provisioned on my search. Prithee, couldst thou render me aid?”

Thorn frowned. “The buck you sayin’, girl? Y’ sound like one o’ them actors in a play. You an actor?”

The mare’s eyes lit up. “Would that I was, sir! I should dearly love to be a minstrel. I lack the gift, however. Nay, sir, my name is Lea mac Baobhan mac Niamh du Feinan, and I have been given leave to travel in search of my companion! Wouldst thou have seen a black tom pass this way? He answers to Hob, though mayhap he did change it. He’s a flighty sort.”

Thorn’s temper grew short. He had not the slightest idea what the strange mare in front of him was saying, but he knew that for some reason, she wasn’t afraid of him. He growled, leaning forward.

“Gimme the apples, girlie, and I won’t hurt you,” he said, towering over the slip of a mare.

She took another step back. “Fie, sir! If thou doest steal these victuals of mine, then what will be left for me?”

“Not my problem,” he grumbled. “Give ‘em over.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Thour’t naught but a coward and brigand!” she exclaimed. “Stand and deliver thy name, ruffian!”

Thorn made a grab for the basket, but he must have misjudged the distance, because his hoof fell far short of the mark, though the mare didn’t appear to have moved at all. His grumble turned into a snarl.

“I’ve had about enough games!” he roared. “Hoof ‘em over, or you’ll regret it!”

“I conjure thee, cease your attempts!” the mare said. “Give over thy name, and let us not quarrel!”

Thorn rushed the mare, and was once more perplexed to find that she was not standing precisely where he thought she was. He stomped a hoof in frustration, leaving a perfectly circular impression in the earth.

“Girl, when I’m through with you, if yours isn’t the sorriest flank in Starfall, it’ll certainly be the sorest!” he howled.

The air around the mare seemed to fall still. Her gaze became predatory, and the sharpness of her fine features became much more apparent. When she spoke, it was around delicate fangs, and the air around her smelled of fresh rain, growing plants, and something faintly unpleasant.

“Thou overblown, underdeveloped, dirt-rutting scoundrel! Tempt me not to chastise you, lecherous dog! Cease thy efforts and give your name, or find your punishment more severe than you might think!” she cried. “I conjure thee for the third time, give your name!”

Thorn squared off with her, his eyes narrowed. “My name’s Thorn, you bitch,” he said, “And I’m gonna break you in half!”

“Thorn you are in name and nature!” she cried. “And I find it only fitting that you wear your name with pride!”

Her horn flashed, and a bolt of pale green light soared forth, hitting Thorn directly in the chest. Thorn flinched, expecting force or fire, but instead, the light skittered across his front, causing his hair to stand on end but otherwise leaving him unharmed.

“Long may you stand and tall may you grow, o Thorn by the path!” the mare said, walking away without a thought.

Thorn attempted to pursue her, but was perplexed to find that his hooves seemed to be fixed to the ground. Glancing down, his eyes widened. Creeping up his hooves like the tide were small sprouts, almost like saplings. He attempted to scream, but could not. The sprigs of growth shot up around his body, pressing in tighter and tighter around him as they fused into a single growth. Thorn felt the blood in his veins thicken and freeze, replaced by sap. He felt his bones become heartwood, his muscles the springy outerwood, his coat to thorns. Around him grew the tree, branches spreading wide, leaves gleaming in the morning light, roots anchoring firmly to the ground.

The mare, Leanan mac Baobhan mac Niamh du Feinan, watched her handiwork from the path with an approving nod. The thorn tree had grown strong and tall, she noticed. At the very least, Thorn would stand for a long while, giving shade and shelter to those who needed it, instead of taking from them what was rightfully theirs.

Turning away, she began to search the park for her own lost cat.

“Here, puss!” she called softly. “Come along! Here, puss!”

In Which There Is Cake

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“So,” asked Serale, settling into the armchair from Cobblestone, “How has your stay been so far?”

Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “I’ve been bored out of my skull. Everything here is too…safe.”

“Safe?” Serale inquired. “How so?”

Cobblestone thought for a minute, compiling a list of all the myriad infractions, major and minor that had been perpetrated against her during her matriculation at this awful place. “I’m not allowed to be outside for more than an hour at the most, and even then for no more than three hours a day. Meals are served at three set times every day, and I’m expected to be there for each one. I’m not allowed to leave until I’ve cleaned the plate and had two drinks. I can’t help with any of the tasks here, even mending my own clothes.”

She looked up at the ceiling as if praying for patience. “No loud talking, no singing, no running indoors, I’m not allowed to take more than one nap per day to relieve the boredom, and to top it all off, there is nothing to do here that interests me. At all.”

“There’s an entire library upstairs,” Serale suggested, “You could use that.”

“Books never held much interest for me, thanks,” Cobblestone replied.

Serale grimaced. “I’m terribly sorry it took me so long to come down here. Mother’s had me in Court every day since we got back, and I’ve been completely unable to get down here and see you. You must have been terribly bored and lonely.”

“It’s not so bad,” Cobblestone said. “Yesterday, I got a visit from a noble mare by the name of Lady Hedera. Do you know her?”

Serale’s eyes widened. “Lady Hedera came to see you?” she exclaimed. “She’s one of the most powerful and influential mares in the city! Her family owns most of the trade routes in Equestria! Why was she visiting you?”

“I think she was looking to see if I had ‘potential as an indentured servant’, or something like that,” Cobblestone said. “She seemed nice enough. She even offered me a job if it turns out I don’t get an apprenticeship!”

“Her philanthropic work is legendary,” Serale said. “She’s helped so many ponies. She’s set up farms down south, provided employment to hundreds of reformed criminals, and she’s even involved in the Equestrian Crusaders!”

Cobblestone raised an eyebrow. “You seem to know an awful lot about her,” she said. “Is she a role model of yours?”

Serale flushed a bit. “Sorry. I know her from her Court duties, she and my mother work together often. But she really is a wonderful pony. A touch sycophantic, but then so are a lot of ponies back in the Court. I grew up with her son.”

Cobblestone’s ears pricked up in interest. “Oh, really? Somepony has a crush, does she?”

Serale rolled her eyes. “Please. Vino’s a nice colt, but he’s about as dense as a lamppost and seems to think he can solve the majority of his problems by swinging heavy things around. It’d be a cold day in Tartarus before I considered him to be anything other than an acquaintance, or perhaps a distant friend.”

“Deny all you want, but I think there’s something there,” Cobblestone teased. “Somepony’s been making morning prayers to Cadance!”

Serale’s eyes narrowed. “Even if I did put stock in that sort of Celestial tripe, I’d like to think that Princess Mi Amore di Cadenza, a ruler in her own right and my Aunt, would have better things to do than go gallivanting around matchmaking for me. Besides,” she sniffed, “I could do much better than Vino.”

Cobblestone held up a defensive hoof. “Fair enough, fair enough. Oyah, you’d think I’d chucked mud at you.”

Serale shook her head, distracted. “That’s not why we’re here,” she said. “We’re here because you’ve a Court hearing tomorrow. Have you been told what to expect from the counselor we sent you?”

Cobblestone nodded. “I tell my story, you tell yours, Libra tells hers, and then Lady Everstar gives her judgment after a period of deliberation. Then I get sentenced if I’m found guilty, and that’s the end of it.”

“The charges against you are breaking and entering, attempted theft of Royal property, and two charges of assault against Libra and myself,” Serale said. “There were a number of other charges, including disturbing the peace and drug abuse, but seeing as they were relatively minor, they were dropped.”

“I appreciate that,” Cobblestone said, “I don’t have the money to pay the fines for those.”

Serale smiled at the joke. “You will likely be found guilty, as I’m sure you’ve realized. Libra and I have you dead to rights. But seeing as you saved my life directly after committing these crimes, I think my mother will be inclined to be lenient.”

Cobblestone considered this. “Something the counselor didn’t mention,” she said, “Is what the sentence would be if your mother decided not to be lenient.”

Serale’s smile vanished. “Well,” she replied, “Breaking and entering carries with it a charge of three years jail time for adults, in your case it would be two. Theft of Royal property would be another five years, and assault carries with it a charge of six years per charge. Potentially, you could be in prison for around twenty years.”

“But I’m sure you’ll be fine!” she said upon seeing the look on Cobblestone’s face. “For one, nopony’s gotten the maximum sentence for those crimes in the past fifty years. Even if mother wanted to be strict, you’d get ten years at the most if you were an adult. Seeing as you aren’t, you’d get perhaps seven years in a rehabilitation facility as a child.”

Cobblestone took a deep breath. “Good,” she said. “The thought of twenty years in prison isn’t a good one.”

There was a knock on the parlor door.

“Come in!” Serale called.

Charity opened the door just a crack, enough for her to stick her head through. “Pardon me, Milady. Miss Cobblestone, seeing as tonight is your last night with us and you’ve been such a pleasure to have around, I thought I’d make something special up for you at supper tonight. Is there anything you’d like from the market?”

The bitter taste of Dragon’s Kiss was the first thing that came to mind, but Cobblestone pushed the thoughts away. She had just been through the consequences of that, and had no desire to relive them. Frowning, she considered what she could possibly ask for. She drew a blank, largely because she had never really developed a particular favorite food. Back in Crescent City, she had eaten whatever she had come across.

“Cake,” she blurted out. “All I’ve had in the past week is healthy, bland food. I’d love to have something sweet.”

Charity smiled. “I’ll pick something up for you to eat after your meal. I know a particularly good pastry chef in Lantern Plaza who makes a wonderful chocolate cake. Will that do?”

Cobblestone nodded her head jerkily. She didn’t trust Charity, though the Pegasus had given her no reason to distrust her. “Thank you,” she managed, “I’d like that.”

Charity inclined her head respectfully towards Serale before the door closed, leaving the two of them alone.

“She seems nice,” Serale said.

Cobblestone snorted. “Hob doesn’t like her much,” she said without thinking.

Serale looked at her strangely. “Why would you say that?” she asked.

Cobblestone hadn’t meant to reveal anything about Hob. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt that the less she said about Hob’s ability to speak to her, the better.

“He tends to avoid her whenever she comes by,” Cobblestone said. “That and he’s hissed at her twice.”

Serale nodded thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve always preferred the company of dogs myself, but I suppose Hob would have a reason.”

“I suppose so,” Cobblestone said.

“Clearly you trust him,” Serale replied, “Your face turned white as a sheet when she came in. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Cobblestone said, “Just nervous.”

“I hate to say this,” Serale said, “But you should be.”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone said.

“I mean that as of tomorrow, you are going to be interacting with the Court on a regular basis,” Serale said, her tone deadly serious. “There are ponies in that hall that have been brought up from birth to lie, manipulate, and double-deal with the very best, and when you approach the throne tomorrow, you’re going to become another asset to them. They will try to use you, and if you let them, it won’t go well for you.”

“I’ve learned how to cheat, lie, and swindle too,” Cobblestone scoffed. “I think I can handle a day in Court.”

Serale shook her head. “I don’t think you understand. Ponies in the Court don’t use knives or lay hooves on one another. Mother would never allow it. But tricking others out of their fortunes, taking advantage of poorly worded contracts, learning all of your secrets, all of that is literally the only thing they do. Day in, day out, for years at a time. If you aren’t prepared, not only could you lose everything you hold dear, you could affect the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of others.”

She looked Cobblestone in the eyes before continuing. “The ponies in Court play games with contracts affecting thousands of jobs, millions of acres of land, and fortunes vast enough to buy fleets of airships or small armies of guards. Several ponies my age get together on weekends and gamble with chips representing deeds to townships. They use them as game tokens, Cobblestone. And every bit of that extraordinary wealth is earned, because they know exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to.”

Cobblestone frowned. “So why are you warning me about this? I just won’t talk to anypony but Lady Everstar.”

Serale rolled her eyes, exasperated. “For the rest of your time here in Starfall? Cobblestone, you’re associated with me. Not just me, but Libra as well, and after the trial, you’ll be associated with my mother. Do you know how many ponies would love to use you in order to possibly influence what we do?”

“I hardly even know your mother!” Cobblestone said. “Or Libra! I mean, I know you better than I know them, but still…”

“I don’t think that would matter,” Serale said. “You’re connected, or at least you will be, in the eyes of the public to my family and Magus Libra.”

“Whoever tries to get something out of me will be sorely disappointed,” Cobblestone grumbled. “Mostly because I hardly know anything about your family at all, or…whatever Libra does.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Serale said. “To help you with this sort of thing. You hardly have any Court manners at all, and you know nothing about how to conduct yourself under social pressure. You’re much more used to knocking somepony’s head against a wall if they’re too nosy, yes?”

“I just punched them, usually,” Cobblestone replied. “But I see your point.”

Serale smiled brightly. “Then you’re willing to learn a few things?” she asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “Yeah. I’ll learn a few things.”

Serale straightened in her chair. “Good,” she said. “First lesson. Don’t ever volunteer more information than you have to without seeming rude. I’ve had some success with…”

Vino sat in the café, the glazed expression on his face indicating that he wasn’t hungry so much as extremely, violently bored. The pretty young waitress had been nice enough to start a tab for him, flashing a pearly white smile at him when he sat down and was given a menu to look through before he could protest his lack of funds.

“You don’t worry about it, soldier!” she had chirped, “I’ll take a rain check on that payment.”

And so he sat, one croissant and one cup of coffee steaming slightly in front of him, bored out of his mind, and wondering how Serale was handling herself. For that matter, he wondered how he was going to explain this to Captain Roughshod when he returned to the Regia to find it in an uproar. Out of all the first impressions to be made, his was going to be the impression of incompetence and unprofessionalism.

Luckily for him, the café had outdoor seating, open to the air and well-equipped with comfortable chairs, wide tables, and a low fence in between the seating area and the crowd. Vino had always enjoyed pony watching, seeing the crowds moving and shifting soothed him, somehow. It was like watching the movement of waves in a pond, or dust in an old house catching the beams of light.

This particular crowd was a market crowd, and a busy one at that. This square was known as Lantern Plaza, named for the large lantern set in the middle of the square, and was famed for its sweetshops and chocolatiers. Indeed, the scent of baking sweetbread, melting sugar, and fresh chocolate permeated the square to the point of being almost, but not quite, overbearing.

Vino smiled, lost in memory. This had been one of his favorite places to visit when he was a colt, back when his father was still alive. In fact, it had been something of a tradition for them to stop by after his father had finished with his business in Court as a reward for Vino’s patience. His sister had been quite a bit younger then, not old enough to stand on her own hooves, and between her and mother, it was hard to find a moment of peace in the Hedera house. Vino and his father would often sit in a restaurant or on a bench with their newfound delicacies and simply savor the moment, and one another’s company. Those were better times.

“Copper for your thoughts?” the waitress said as she stopped by to refill his coffee.

Vino was jolted out of his reverie by her arrival. He smiled at her sheepishly. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here,” he said. “I was just remembering coming here with my family when I was younger.”

The waitress smiled at him again as she leaned in to top off his cup. “Have you been gone very long?” she asked.

Vino nodded. “A few years,” he said. “I just returned a day ago.”

The waitress’s smile widened, dimpling her cheeks. She tossed her head, the blonde ponytail of her mane flying back over one shoulder. “Well then,” she said, “Welcome back.”

Vino returned the smile, charmed by her friendliness. “I’m glad to be back,” he replied.

“I suppose you haven’t reconnected with anypony you left behind,” she said. “Friends, family, marefriend, that sort of thing?”

“I spoke with my family very briefly yesterday,” Vino said, “And I’ve only run into one pony you could potentially call a friend.”

“No special mare?” the waitress asked. “Seems a shame, handsome stallion like you.”

Vino shrugged. “I haven’t had much time, to be honest,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll find somepony eventually, though.”

The waitress’s smile, had gotten wider, if that were possible. “Well,” she said, “Keep looking. I know plenty of mares who’d be interested in a handsome young stallion in uniform.”

“I’ll do that, miss,” Vino said. “Thank…you…for…?”

His attention was caught by something in the crowd. Or more accurately, somepony. Even more accurately, a group of ponies.

There were at least five of them, if not more, and each of them wore a shoddy tabard that appeared to have been hoof-stitched out of strangely colored and patterned fabric, lending them a sort of motley appearance, like one would find on an old jester or harlequin.

Each of them carried long staffs, and attached to those staffs by ropes around their necks were what could only be called wicker effigies. Vino’s eyebrows furrowed, trying to take a closer look, and then widened when he realized what the figures on the staffs were supposed to represent.

The first of these was painted a bright, garish pink, with a crudely painted face smeared across the head that seemed to consist largely of a pair of bright red lips pursed in an exaggerated pout. A crudely scrawled heart on her flank and the set of pink and purple wings on her back let everypony present know that this was a representation of Cadance.

The second was whitewashed save for a streak of red down her back that was clearly supposed to represent her mane, though it also appeared to have trickled down her horn as if to suggest that it had drawn blood. Vino suspected both interpretations were correct. A sun on the flank and white wings on the back identified this as Celestia.

Her twin, Luna, was painted black. Apparently blue paint had been unavailable. Still, a white moon gleamed fresh on her flank, and black wings jutted from her sides, though these appeared to be those of a bat. Whoever had constructed these hadn’t done much research. Luna’s identifying feature appeared to be a set of red-painted fangs and two pale, pupil-less eyes.

It was the fourth and fifth effigies that gave Vino pause, however. These two were clearly cast from the same model. One was painted purple with a bloodred star on her flank, and the other was a dull gray, with no mark at all save a horn fashioned of clear glass. Both of these appeared to have shrewd, shifty expressions on their faces, and the purple one appeared to have a set of military medals nailed to her chest.

Vino watched as these five ponies and their strange representations of the four Avatars strode to the center of the square, holding them aloft as they did. The crowd watched them go, curiosity and wariness mixing and mingling in their eyes. The procession stopped, and Vino realized what the fabric of their tabards was made of. Each scrap of cloth had come from a different part of the four nation’s flags.

The Earth pony who appeared to be the leader of the group stepped forward, his greyish-brown mane hanging greasily from his scalp and the red sun gleaming on his chest in the morning light. He thrust his pole into the cobblestones, where it stuck fast with the aid of a fastening spell before hopping up on a park bench.

“Brothers and Sisters!” he cried loudly enough to be heard through the crowd. “You have all been led astray! Please, lend me your ears!”

Vino’s full attention was on the speaker now, his meal quite forgotten. He didn’t like the tone of voice the stallion was using. It promised violence later on. He reached for the bladeband around his foreleg, making sure it was still fastened there.

“The ponies you see before you have elevated themselves above you! They claim to be gods that have the right to rule over you, instead of you ruling over yourselves! These false gods have lied to you from birth! Their control over you is near-absolute! But I tell you now, they are no different from any other pony!”

“Lady Everstar leads us well!” a voice called from the crowd. “She saved us from Celestia’s tyranny!”

“And as soon as she had defeated her, Everstar took the throne for herself!” the stallion retorted. “Is that the mark of a pony who cares about tyranny, save for how she can exert it over us?”

The voice fell silent, letting him continue. “Nay, Brothers and Sisters!” the stallion cried. “Everstar is no better than Celestia! Her rule promises to be just as long and just as powerful as Celestia’s was before she cast her rival down! With the help of her ally, Luna, she has created a society based around exploiting the hard work of others! Tell me, when was the last time ‘Lady’ Everstar walked among you, as she did in the early days of this great nation? When was the last time you spoke to her?”

The crowd was silent as the stallion continued to wax oratory. “And who is to say that she does not control you, just as Celestia controlled our ancestors in the days of old? We’ve all heard the rumors of what she can do! You all know what she’s been accused of! Reading your thoughts, seeing what you believe, who is to say she cannot change them herself? Or worse, who is to say her alliance with the Changelings isn’t as beneficial as she’d have you believe?”

“The Forest protects us!” another voice called out. “The Forest and its magic!”

“You mean the Forest that even now is being cut away for more factories, more farms?” the stallion retorted contemptuously. “Why, just yesterday, I heard it said that she’d sold off another thousand acres of it to be cut down for profit by one of her pet nobles! Does that strike you as an act of protection?”

“No!” a voice cried from the crowd, and it was echoed by a few more.

“And do you, the ponies she is supposedly sworn to protect, the ones who sweat in those factories and work on those farms, the ones that cut down and haul those trees, do you see any profit from the work you undertake to damn yourselves?” the stallion asked.

“No!” several voices shouted in unison. Vino felt his heart speed up a bit, and he stood from his seat.

The stallion gestured wildly to the effigies now driven into the ground. “Do these ponies care for you? Do they, for all of their supposed divinity, answer prayers to put food on your plates, or a roof over your heads?”

“No!” came the refrain.

“No they do not!” the stallion bellowed. “We fight in their armies, help run their empires, because we are told to step into line and worship them as the gods they are! But we say no!”

Vino turned to the waitress. “Who are they?” he asked her quietly.

“They call themselves the Contheistic League,” she said shakily, her face fading from a healthy blue to a pale eggshell. “They come around every now and again, start shouting at ponies. But I’ve never seen them carrying those before.”

“And they’re just allowed to do that?” Vino asked. “Stand there, and preach a message of hate, and call for a revolt like that?”

The waitress swallowed. “They never hang around long enough to be caught,” she said.

Vino stood up straight. “Right,” he said. “Go inside, lock the door. If you’ve a communication crystal inside, use it to alert the authorities.”

He didn’t wait to see if the waitress followed orders, instead vaulting the railing and heading into the crowd. He loosened the top button on the collar of his uniform, just to be safe, before pushing in further to the now-sizeable mob of ponies.

“We offer you the chance to fight!” the stallion was saying. “To take your lives into your own hooves, and to join us in our crusade against tyranny!”

Vino felt the crowd part around him as he strode to the front of the pack, ponies dispersing as they sensed trouble brewing. He kept alert as he made eye contact with the stallion on the bench.

“You there!” Vino said, pointing at him. “Have you been permitted to speak here?”

The stallion’s lip curled. “I need no authority from the false goddess!” he proclaimed. “Or one of her jackbooted thugs.”

“If you’re not permitted to speak in this location,” Vino said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist that you move along. You’re blocking traffic through the square, and if there was an emergency, ponies might not be able to make it away in time.”

“The only danger to the ponies here is you!” one of the other League members said, pointing at him, her voice shrill. “You, and your desire to stop the truth from being heard!”

Vino held up a hoof defensively. “I have no objection to you speaking your piece,” he said calmly. “But I do object to you doing it here, now, with no permission to assemble and preaching a message of hate.”

“Bug lover,” one of the other members rumbled. “Traitor to your own kind. You know they’re parasites, right?”

Vino’s hoof tightened. “I’m asking you again, before the authorities arrive. Leave. Now.”

The leader smirked down at him. “And if we don’t?”

“Then by the power entrusted to me by the grace of Lady Everstar, I will take it upon myself to detain you until you can be taken into custody,” Vino said.

It was at that point that the stallion who had called him a bug lover swung his staff at him, hoping to catch him off-guard.

Vino saw it coming out of the corner of his eye, stepping away from it almost fast enough to avoid contact. Thankfully, the staff was encumbered by the Cadance effigy on top of it, and instead of landing a solid blow on the back of his neck, it instead grazed along Vino’s flanks as he turned to deal with this new threat.

He focused on his bladeband, feeling the metal warm up around his hoof as a blade comprised of the same spelled metal materialized in front of him, shining bright silver-red in the sunlight. He spun in order to keep all of his potential assailants in view just in time to see another pole flick towards his face. He brought the blade up in a riposte motion, shredding through the Luna effigy before taking the tip off of the pole itself, leaving him standing in a pile of shredded wicker and wood.

Vino brought the blade up en garde. “Last chance,” he said. “I know how to use this.”

The ponies dropped their poles, pulling knives from the folds of their tabards and advancing towards Vino in a semicircle as the ponies of the crowd began to scream and scamper every which way to avoid the violence. Vino’s eyes tracked each individual member of the group, his training coming to him easily. He hopped up onto the bench behind him, thankful that there were no Pegasi in the group, only Earth ponies. Had there been either unicorns or Pegasi, he would have needed to adjust his strategy.

Suddenly, a whistle sounded in the distance, followed shortly by another. Vino smiled. Either the waitress had made the call, or one of the crowd members had alerted a constable. Either way, help was on the way.

The leader stared at Vino as if to burn the face of his opponent into his memory before turning away, sheathing his dagger.
“Let’s go!” he barked, and the five ponies sprinted into the crowd, tearing the tabards from their shoulders and dropping the daggers as they did. Without them, they blended into the crowd easily, and inside of a minute, they were gone.

Vino dispelled his blade, climbing off of the bench and waiting for the authorities to arrive. He would have some explaining to do. A thought occurred to him, and he groaned. Bad enough he was going to be disciplined for letting Lady Serale leave the castle. Now he had gone and gotten himself into trouble with the police, as well.

Charity hummed a tune to herself as she left the cake shop, parcel safely tucked into her saddlebags. The vendor had been most kind, giving her a freshly baked one for a steeply discounted price in exchange for her help in settling a new pane of glass into his display case. While it wasn’t exactly her specialty, Charity was quite good at following instructions, and with minimal fuss, the pane had been settled and she was on her way in a matter of moments.

Her ears pricked up at a commotion from the square ahead of her, and she could see a rather sizeable crowd gathering near a strange group of ponies, who were shouting indistinctly as they crowded around to hear what they had to say. Charity shook her head at the display, and resolved to take another path home, one that was perhaps a bit longer, but would have less traffic. Turning down a wide avenue shaded by lemon trees, she set off.

The walk in summer was much more pleasant, she reflected as she made her way down the street. The skeletal branches overhead were covered in fresh blossoms and growing fruit, and the entire way would be redolent with the scent of lemon blossom. Lights were strung amongst the trees, unlit now, but when night fell they would twinkle and shine like a million stars year-round. The effect was, however, lessened when she could see the unlit bulbs amongst the branches.

Charity thought of Cobblestone, and her face fell. It really was a shame that Cobblestone would need killed. She had almost prayed that Lady Serale would stay away today, but Fate clearly had other plans. She would do her duty, and do it well. At the very least, the poison would be quick and painless, an opiate to end her suffering.

A tingling sensation on the back of the Pegasus’s neck caused her wings to rise reflexively as she turned to survey the street behind her. Aside from one or two ponies walking in the other direction, there was nopony behind her. Chiding herself at her foolishness, Charity forced her wings back down and kept walking, her pace perhaps a little faster than it needed to be. She resolved to cut her walk by a bit by using an alleyway she knew of that connected the street she was on to the one near the house. Normally she refused to use it, seeing as it was never clean, but its use felt…appropriate.

Briefly, Charity considered letting the others in the house know of her duties, but she decided against it. Lady Hedera had trusted her to complete the task, and bringing her compatriots into things only complicated a simple task. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoiled the soup, after all!

As she passed by a window, she caught the reflection of something massive and black creeping up behind her, and spun around defensively, wings spread wide. But again, she was greeted with only an empty street. Heart hammering in her chest, she took a brief moment to calm herself, the tingling spreading from her neck up and down her spine, causing the mane on her scalp to stand on end. Swallowing, she continued towards the alley at a brisk pace.

It was simply nerves, she told herself. To receive such a task from Lady Hedera herself was a huge honor, and she was simply nervous about getting it done correctly. It was understandable, seeing as she hadn’t killed before. Thoughts of a cup of tea sprang to mind, and she promised herself a good hot cup as soon as she arrived back home. Or perhaps a stiff drink. She shook her head, pushing those thoughts away. Drink was what had landed her in trouble in the first place, and she had sworn never to touch the stuff again.

She ducked into the alley, eyes fixed on the street ahead of her, and the familiar sun-kissed cobbles leading to the safety of her home. There was a crash behind her, and Charity broke into a trot, nearing a canter as she hurried towards the end of the alleyway. A growl, low and rumbling, caused her to hurry still quicker, and she was nearing a gallop when something leapt from overhead, landing in front of her.

Charity took a hasty step back, a scream rising in her throat before she got a good look at what had so rudely cut her off. It died before escaping when she realized that she had been pursued by a black cat. Her hammering heart slowed as she began to chuckle, amused at how frightened such a small creature had gotten her.

“Hello, puss!” she said. “You gave me quite a fright!”

The cat said nothing, choosing merely to regard her with glowing green eyes. Charity recognized him immediately. This cat was the black tom that had accompanied Cobblestone during her stay at the house.

“Hello, Hob,” Charity said kindly. “How did you get out? Been prowling, have we? Caught anything yet?”

Hob blinked, regarding her dispassionately. He took a step forward, hissing as he did. Charity took a step back out of reflex, noting how large his teeth were. Hob was bigger than he appeared, too. Though she hadn’t noticed it before, the cat was really quite solid.

“Go on!” she said, batting at him. “Shoo! Go hunt somewhere else!”

Hob refused to move, yowling as he hunched his shoulders. The yowl turned into a growl considerably deeper than he should have been able to make, and Hob’s claws extended as he raised one paw, his ears laid back flat and his fur bristling. He took another step forward, and Charity realized something wasn’t right.

“Go!” she said. “Scat! Go on!”

She spread her wings, ready for flight, and the cat rushed forward, stopping only a few steps away. Hob was now easily up to her chest in height, and the more his fur bristled, the larger he appeared. His fangs gleamed like knives, his claws like meat hooks. His limbs were spindly and long, his mouth too full of teeth and fixed in an impossibly wide grin, his tongue a bit too red. His eyes were alight with an intelligence that was as alien to her as the intelligence of a hawk was to a fieldmouse.

Charity was petrified, her wings frozen to the sides as Hob’s tail flicked back and forth, reminding her of strays she had seen before they pounced on prey. The smell of raw meat was on his breath as his growl became something of an amused purr that could just as easily have turned into a snarl. Gone was the housecat. Here was something new, and altogether terrifying.

Charity pumped her wings for altitude, but it was too late. With an otherworldly screech, the thing Hob had become jumped after her, and its claws fastened around her throat. Thankfully for her, Hob didn’t play with his meals as most cats did. His great jaws fastened around the unfortunate Pegasus’s throat, and with a quick jerk of his head, he broke her neck in a swift, businesslike fashion.

The beast in the alley bent down, taking the body of the Pegasus into its mouth and swallowing her whole with seemingly little effort. The muscles of his throat worked once, twice, and were still. Satisfied, the thing began to groom itself, shrinking as it did, becoming the cat once more. Before too long, Hob sat on the floor of the alley alone, the sleek sides of his belly just perhaps a bit rounder than normal.

He coughed once, expelling a loose feather, and bent low, expelling an unharmed parcel, completely dry and none the worse for the ware after its trip. He bent low, sniffing at it delicately. Hob sneezed, satisfied at the smell of freshly baked chocolate cake before he bent low, taking the string binding it together in his mouth before turning back down the alley, box dangling from his jaws and his tail waving jauntily in the air. Cobblestone would be pleased.

In Which There Is A Trial

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“State your name for the Court, please.”

The mare in front of the throne shuffled her hooves nervously. “Cobblestone, Milady.”

Lady Everstar looked down on her from her throne, carved of old wood and inlaid with swirling flames of bronze. “And your place of residence?”

Cobblestone cleared her throat, her mouth suddenly dry. “Until recently, I lived in Crescent City, Milady. Near the docks.”

The assembled crowd murmured at that. Cobblestone was not the first pony they had listened to today, the first Royal trial in more than a decade. Magus Libra had given testimony earlier, and it was rumored that the Lady’s daughter herself would be forced to make an appearance, seeing as the matter included her. An attempt on her life had been made, after all.

“Miss Cobblestone, of late from Crescent City, the charges arrayed you are as follows. You are charged with the crimes of breaking and entering, attempted theft of Royal property, two charges of assault, and one charge of substance abuse, the latter of which has been mitigated to a fine in lieu of incarceration. Do you understand the charges as I have presented them to you?” Lady Everstar asked, her voice stern.

Cobblestone nodded her head. “I do, Milady. Yes.”

“And how do you plead?”

Cobblestone swallowed again, her chest pounding. “I plead guilty to these crimes, Milady.”

The Court murmured again. By pleading guilty, Cobblestone had effectively thrown herself on the mercy of the Crown, hoping for clemency in her sentencing in return for the actions she had undertaken on behalf of Serale Everstar. Not only this, but now her future hung on the words of the young Lady herself.

“Please describe for the Court your role in the events on the night you were arrested.” Lady Everstar said, her voice perhaps a shade warmer.

Cobblestone nodded, her head spinning as she attempted to sort out the series of events. She had practiced it in her mind, but she hadn’t slept much last night.

“I and two others had decided that we had nothing more to gain from working with one of the gangs in our part of town, and since we didn’t have the money for a new life somewhere else, we would need to get it somewhere. Lucky, a Pegasus I had worked with before, spotted a pony in the market district earlier that day who appeared to be extremely wealthy. He followed her back to an inn near the river, and talked his way into assisting her with her luggage, upon which he snuck a look at the contents.”

Lady Everstar held up a hoof. “Am I correct in assuming this was Serale Everstar?”

“Yes, Milady,” Cobblestone said. “Though we didn’t know it at the time.”

“I see,” the monarch said. “Continue.”

“I was woken up later that evening by Lucky. He, the other pony in our group, Ivy, and I then attempted to leave the hideout without alerting anypony. We were almost successful, but ran into a group of thieves in the gang that we had run into trouble with before, who tried to stop us from leaving.” Cobblestone said, thinking back to the scuffle in the tunnel.

She shuddered at the memory of her killing the stallion in the tunnel. She wasn’t even sure of his name. “We managed to lose them eventually,” she said, “And once we’d had time to recover, we headed off for the inn. Lucky had gotten us rooms.”

“Why?” Lady Everstar asked. “Were you planning on hiding what you stole there?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “No, Milady. There was no way to enter the inn from the outside without being spotted by guards from the road. Our plan was to wait until the inhabitants were asleep, at which point Ivy and I would pick the locks on the doors and move the things out of the rooms through the windows. Lucky would stow them on a nearby rooftop until we left, at which point he would have the locks on any of the boxes open and we could take what we needed.”

“When you say ‘what we needed’,” Lady Everstar said, “What do you mean by that? Were you not intending to take as much as you could?”

“It wasn’t discussed,” Cobblestone replied, “But I don’t think we would have carried as much as we could with us. For one, it would have weighed us down, and for another, it would have been hard to hide all of it in case we needed to. All we really needed was a few things we could sell in order to get the coin for a new start somewhere else.”

“And where did you intend to run with this?” Lady Everstar inquired.

Cobblestone bowed her head. “Starfall, Milady.”

The Court broke into soft, suppressed laughter. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on them. Cobblestone had robbed the ruler of the city she was planning to move to, and she had certainly gotten her new start in Starfall!

The laughter continued for a moment, Lady Everstar waiting patiently for the tension to release itself.

“Order,” she said, almost lazily, and the assembled nobles and bystanders shut their mouths immediately. “So you were planning on picking the locks from the inside and moving the items outside?” she asked Cobblestone.

“Yes, Milady,” Cobblestone said.

“And then what happened?”

The unicorn shuffled her hooves nervously, her heart speeding up once more. “Well, we planned on having Ivy lift out hers first, as she had taken the room with fewer pieces of luggage in it. That was the room Magus Libra was in, Milady. I was the more experienced one, so I took the room with more boxes and the younger pony. Your daughter, Milady.”

“Did you intend to cause harm to the occupants of the rooms if they woke up?” Lady Everstar said. There was warning in her tone.

“No, Milady,” Cobblestone said quickly. “Our plan was to jump out of the windows into the river if something went wrong. It flowed right underneath the rooms, and both Ivy and I could swim.”

“What happened when you entered the room?”

Cobblestone closed her eyes, remembering the shadows, the still of the night.

“I didn’t see anything at first, until it was almost too late. Ivy must have seen them first, Milady, because it was her scream that sent me moving back almost into the hooves of a Pegasus that had somehow gotten behind me.”

She broke off her story. “I’ve spent years being quiet, Milady, and I know how to listen to your surroundings to tell if somepony’s there. This Pegasus…he moved like a ghost, ma’am. I didn’t hear a thing.”

Cobblestone continued. “I threw up a light to see what went wrong and got my back against the side wall, and that’s when I saw the two Pegasi. They were both black all over, and it may have been the light, but I could’ve swore they didn’t have pupils in their eyes, Milady. They were just pitch black all the way through.”

“What happened then?” Twilight asked.

“They both came at me with daggers,” Cobblestone recounted. “I managed to get out of the way, and I saw a pony sitting up in the bed. I tried to hit one of the Pegasi with magic, ma’am, but he did…something.”


Cobblestone’s brow furrowed as she remembered. “This…this black flame appeared in his hoof,” she said, “And he kind of shoved it at me. And I could feel the magic go out of me, like it just disappeared. And I felt cold, colder than I’ve ever felt before. I managed to get up enough power to hit him, but I only knocked him back a bit.”

Cobblestone started shaking, her words coming faster and faster. “I saw the pony on the bed throw herself at the other one, and I heard an explosion from the other room, and then I kind of felt the spell in the other room being cast, and I got low. Then there was another explosion, and the wall was gone, and there was somepony standing in the hole.”

“I tried to get away,” she said, her voice cracking, “And stick to the plan, but then the Magus did something, and everypony fell over. I couldn’t get up, but I saw one of the Pegasi in the other room do the thing with the black flames and get up, but I couldn’t talk. So I had to push, but it wasn’t working, and then I pushed again, and again, and then finally I could get up. I couldn’t shout, so I just pointed my horn at the Pegasi and cast a spell at him.”

“What spell?” Lady Everstar asked.

Cobblestone shook her head wildly. “I don’t know,” she said, “Lightning. There was thunder and a bright light, and then I couldn’t hear and I smelled ozone.”

Tears welled up in the young unicorn’s eyes. “And then I fell over,” she said, “I fell over ‘cuz I couldn’t stand up no more…”

Her voice slipped back into thieves’ talk, like she had spoken when she was young. “An’ one of the bastards picked up Ivy. He had a knife up against her throat an’ he was trying to…to move to the window. An’ I couldn’t hear, and I felt Libra shouting, an’ I was trying t’ get up. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get up. An’ I see Ivy, and she’s shouting. She shouted my name, an’ she wanted me t’ help her, beggin’ me to help.”

Cobblestone swallowed a lump in her throat. “But I couldn’t. An’ Ivy put her head back, an’ she bashed him in the nose. An’ then, an’ then, the knife came ‘cross her neck, and th’ Magus fired, an’ I saw Ivy bleeding from th’ line on her neck. An’ then she was gone.”

Cobblestone sobbed quietly. “She was gone an’ I didn’t help her.”

It had been a long time coming and now it had arrived at the worst possible time. Hot tears fell from her eyes, hitting the floor around her as Cobblestone’s shoulders shook and she forced back heaving, desperate sobs. She’d failed her only friend, a friend that had depended on her. It took all of her strength not to fall to her knees, but she managed to stay on her hooves. She needed to finish.
Gradually, she pulled herself together. She wiped the tears from her eyes with a single swipe of her hoof, and cleared her throat, straightening in front of the entire Court unbowed by her experiences. Cobblestone was dying on the inside, but she wasn’t about to show more than she had to here.

“Apologies,” she said, sticking her accent back where it belonged, “I didn’t mean to waste your time.”

Lady Everstar looked at her strangely. “You’ve been through a lot,” she said, not dispassionately. “I would have been worried or suspicious if you hadn’t shown emotion at that.”

“They found Lucky on the roof with a broken neck,” Cobblestone said. “Apparently the Pegasi had the same idea as us, only in reverse. Land on the roof and come through the windows.”

“Is that the last of it?” Lady Everstar asked. “Everything that happened?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “Magus Libra assumed I was there as a partner to the Pegasi. I told her I was a thief. There was one Pegasus left after all of this happened, so she turned to interrogate him.”

“Do you recall what, exactly, he said?” Lady Everstar said.

“Not exactly,” Cobblestone replied. “He said something about the Cult of Crows. And that he wanted Serale’s reign to be short. And then he set himself on fire.”

“How did he do that?” Lady Everstar asked. “He was pinned to the ground, wasn’t he?”

Cobblestone shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, Milady. I assumed it was some sort of spell. The flames were black. After that, there wasn’t much said except for Magus Libra checking to see if Lady Serale was alright, and then the constables arrived to take me into custody. That’s all there was.”

Lady Everstar nodded, clearly going over the details while the Court began to buzz, speculating on what they had just heard. From all accounts, it sounded like Cobblestone was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, reflecting the testimony of the Magus from earlier. But were her actions enough to warrant leniency in her sentencing? By all accounts this Cobblestone had acted entirely in her own self-interests and the interests of her co-conspirators.

Lady Everstar held up a hoof, curtailing the hum of conversation. She looked at Cobblestone.

“I have not yet decided on whether or not your actions deserve leniency,” she said. “So I would like to ask you some questions about your story, and your motivations for what appears to be a life of unrepentant crime. Understand that you do not need to answer these questions, but refusal to do so, or answering them untruthfully, may reflect badly on you.”

Cobblestone bowed her head. “I understand, Milady.”

Lady Everstar was silent for a moment. “I suppose my first question is where your parents were during all of this.”

“My mum died,” Cobblestone said, “When I was about five. I don’t know who my father was, or where he is now. Probably dead as well.”

The Lady tilted her head. “Why do you think that?”

“Because mum told me he was a knife for hire, and they tend not to last too long in Crescent City unless they’re particularly careful,” Cobblestone said. “And careful knives don’t visit whores.”

There was not a sound from the Court.

“And how did your mother die?” Lady Everstar asked.

“She was out of her mind on moonsugar and fell off of a building,” Cobblestone said, “Or jumped. Carrying another child, too. She never used to touch that sort of thing, but times were hard and she hadn’t been getting many customers. I guess she needed an out.”

Lady Everstar nodded thoughtfully. “And what did you do after her death?”

Cobblestone crossed one hoof in front of the other, a gesture she hadn’t used since she was a filly.

“I found work with the gang I eventually left, Milady. I worked as a lookout first, then as a distraction for other thieves, and then I became a thief myself.”

Lady Everstar leaned forward. “And why did you join the gang? Why weren’t you sent to an orphanage?”

Cobblestone choked back a laugh. “The orphanages in Crescent City don’t have a good reputation, Milady. Even I knew that when I was five. And I knew ponies in the gang, ponies who could keep me safe and fed and put a roof over my head when I worked for them.”

“Did you enjoy what you did?” Lady Everstar asked.

She thought about that for a moment. “I’m…not really sure, Milady. I was good at it, and I enjoyed being good at what I did. It was dangerous, and I was almost caught a few times, but…I don’t know if I enjoyed it or not. It was what I did. There were good and bad moments.”

The unicorn on the throne leaned back, eyes piercing Cobblestone like needles. “So, if you were well provided for, and you were at least reasonably sure of what you were doing, and you didn’t hate the work, why did you decide to leave the city?”

“It’s…complicated, Milady,” Cobblestone said carefully. “How much do you know about gangs in Crescent City?”

Lady Everstar’s mouth quirked up in an amused smile. “Assume for the moment I know nothing of them.”

Cobblestone nodded. “Each gang is run by a boss. Mine was named Chipped Bit. The bosses organize the gang and plan jobs, and when we work together we’re well cared for. In return, the bosses take a cut of each job we do. Some of that cut goes into their own pockets, and the rest goes towards whatever the gang as a whole needs. Bribes, weapons, supplies, that sort of thing.”

“So they act as administrators?” Lady Everstar asked.

“Yes,” Cobblestone said. “And depending on your job, they take a different cut. Mine before I left was at seventy percent or so. That’s because Chipped Bit didn’t want me to be thieving anymore.”

“What, then, did he want you to do?” Lady Everstar inquired.

Cobblestone took a deep breath, slightly embarrassed. “He wanted me to work in a Parlor. A whorehouse.”

The monarch nodded slowly, letting Cobblestone’s words sink in. And then, “Cobblestone? How old are you?”

Cobblestone averted her eyes. “I’m not completely sure, Milady. I don’t remember my birthday. I know I’m fourteen, though.”

There were gasps, murmurs, and cries of outrage from the galleries. Surely fourteen was far too young! The ponies in the stands understood prostitution. They might have agreed or disagreed with the practice as the case may have been, but fourteen was hardly more than a child! One as young as her should have been in school or an apprentice, and the only thoughts along that line should have been which colts she might have fancied or not! The voices grew louder as unrest spread through the Court.

“Order!” Lady Everstar’s voice snapped, ringing across the hall. Power crackled along the edges of her words, and the Court fell silent as the grave. She gestured to Cobblestone, her expression softening.

“Please continue, Cobblestone. Is this why you left?”

Cobblestone nodded. “I’d refused to go before, which is why Chip was raising my cut. But the night I left with my partners, Ivy said that she heard him planning to sell me to another boss. We didn’t stick around much after that.”

Lady Everstar inclined her head graciously. “Thank you for being upfront and honest, Cobblestone. Your testimony in this case has been valuable. Please return to the antechamber. Your sentence will be passed once we have finished with testimony.”

Cobblestone bowed her head shakily, and retreated back through the hall, the whispers from the gallery following her as she trudged the seemingly interminable length of the marble floor back through the doors, out into the antechamber cleared of visitors save for a few guards. The doors behind her slammed shut, mercifully cutting off the source of the noise.

Immediately, Cobblestone began to shake. Her stomach was burning, and it felt like she was going to throw up if she could clear the massive lump that had formed in her throat. Her vision blurred, and she staggered to a set of couches nearby, hoping to collapse on them.

A hoof on her shoulder stopped her short, and she swung her head around to see who had grabbed her. It was Libra.

“I was hoping you were alright,” she said with a sad smile. “You nearly lost control during your story, didn’t you?”

Cobblestone nodded, unable to reply. Of all the times to have a breakdown, she had chosen the absolute worst.

Libra drew her in close, and Cobblestone tensed up before she realized that the older mare was embracing her. She relaxed into the hug, noting dimly that the mage smelled faintly of parchment and pine needles. She was warm, too.

“Come,” the spellcaster said. “Let’s sit by the double doors over there. I’ve got some tea and a few restoratives to help you regain some strength.”

Together, the two of them drifted over to a nearby table, which was indeed set up near a set of double doors that were shut tight. Cobblestone sat down on a chair without really thinking about it, her mind preoccupied. A cup was offered to her, and she accepted, sipping at the brew mechanically.

“That’s peppermint,” Libra said. “It’s my favorite, always used to help me after a bad day. Is it too hot? Too strong?”

Cobblestone shook her head. The tea was surprisingly good, comforting and refreshing all at once. She took another sip and was much surprised to find that the lump in her throat appeared to be dissolving away, and her stomach had settled again.

Libra watched her sip at her tea carefully, settling back in her own seat as she did so. She indicated a tray of biscuits sitting near the teapot. “You’re welcome to those,” she said, “If you want them.”

“Thank you,” Cobblestone croaked, before clearing her throat. “Sorry. Thank you.”

Libra nodded understandingly. “Do you want to talk?” she asked. “I’m an excellent listener.”

Cobblestone paused, and then she nodded quietly.

Libra waited patiently for a moment, and then spoke. “I promise whatever you say will stay between the two of us,” she said, “Nopony else will hear it. Not other mages, not Serale, not Lady Everstar, unless it sounds like you’re planning on hurting yourself or somepony else.”

Cobblestone set her tea down. “Everything’s happening so fast,” she said. “Leaving Crescent City, coming here, getting told I’m good enough to be a mage and that I might be a target for some cult…and I realized in the Court that with everything that’s happened, I’ve hardly thought at all about Ivy or Lucky. And it’s strange, you know? I can see everything about that night crystal clear, but for some reason, I can’t remember Ivy’s face. Or I don’t want to.”

She took a deep shuddering breath. “I mean, I know what she looked like. She had green eyes, and a brown mane, and her coat was a kind of red-brown color. And I know she had good teeth, and that she was going to be pretty someday. But I put it all together, and…I just don’t remember her face. And I feel horrible.”

Libra nodded. “It’s natural to have a poor memory of traumatic events. I’d give it time. Eventually, you’ll recall it. I should know, I’ve had my own fair share of bad memories.”

At that moment, the doors beside them opened wide. The guards snapped to attention, and Libra stood, indicating that Cobblestone should as well. The unicorn scrambled to her hooves just as a young mare in formal clothes, with her mane done up in an intricate bun, strode proudly through the doors. With a star, Cobblestone recognized who it was. Serale, clad in scarlet velvet with a deep purple trim, her mother’s colors, was going to speak next.

The doors to the throne room opened wide, and without a word to either of them, Serale proceeded through the massive portal, her pace never changing and her posture never faltering as they rumbled shut behind her.

“She seems so confident,” Cobblestone said. “How is she not nervous?”

Libra smiled gently. “She’s had more practice. Both at speaking in public and hiding her emotions. She’s plenty nervous, believe you me. I imagine she’ll be just fine. Serale is her mother’s daughter in every way, a public forum is her ideal battlefield.”

“I hope so,” Cobblestone said. “I have the feeling that much of what happens to me is resting on her shoulders right now.”

Libra took a sip of tea. “Are you worried?” she asked.

Cobblestone nodded. “Another reason to feel guilty. If we hadn’t chosen to rob you, Ivy and Lucky would still be alive.”

“But Serale and I would be dead or worse,” Libra replied. “And thanks to your intervention, intended or no, we are sane, happy, and healthy. Never forget that, Cobblestone. Your actions led to good. I know Serale won’t forget it.”

“State your name for the Court, please.”

“Serale Everstar.”

Serale waited for the next question from her mother, who was bound by law to introduce her as another witness, though she obviously knew all of the information already.

“Please state your place of residence,” Twilight recited in an almost-bored tone.

“I am a resident of the Regia here in Starfall,” Serale replied. As if you didn’t know.

“Miss Everstar, please state in your own words the events that transpired on the night you were attacked.”

Serale took a deep breath, attempting to project as loudly as her mother did.

“Magus Libra and I had just arrived in Crescent City that morning, and our journey having been a long one, I was eager to leave the ship that had until then been our home, and see some of the city for myself. We disguised ourselves in order to discourage any unwanted attention, collected a few of our things, and went to shore to celebrate our homecoming and the day of my birth.”

She stood up a bit straighter before continuing. “The day itself was relatively uneventful, marked only by visiting a few shops and procuring rooms at an inn near the river that separates the northern and southern parts of the city. I’m afraid I can’t quite recall the name; I believe it was something along the lines of the Hospitality Inn. After settling in and taking our meals, Magus Libra and I both went to bed.”

“Am I correct in assuming this is the same inn in which the defendant Cobblestone would later be entering?” Twilight asked.

Serale inclined her head in agreement. “Yes. I believe an accomplice of hers assisted us with our belongings, the majority of which had caught up with us by the time we were ready to retire for the evening.”

“Continue,” Twilight said.

“The Magus and I were asleep around eight o’clock in the evening or so, and the next chime I remember hearing from a clock was at one in the morning, approximately forty minutes after the attack. It was likely that Cobblestone and her compatriots attempted to enter our rooms around midnight or so, perhaps a bit after. It was then that she encountered the two Pegasi who had infiltrated my room.”

Serale took a moment to sort through the sequence of events, which were somewhat jumbled in her mind. “I seem to recall that a scream from the other room had partially woken me from sleep, and it was upon seeing three ponies struggling on the floor of my room that I became truly aware of what was happening. As I began to move, the unicorn that I would later come to learn was named Cobblestone managed to get off a shot with her magic, though it seemed to be curiously dim and muffled, as if I was seeing the light through a veil. It was at that point that I saw an opportunity.”

Serale allowed herself to blush. “I must not have been thinking correctly,” she lied smoothly, “Because instead of reaching for my magic, I recalled a self-defense lesson I had been taught by one of the Quilinese when Libra and I wintered in the Islands, and I chose to engage the other Pegasus in direct combat, and threw myself off of the bed at him. I managed to subdue him just in time for Magus Libra to remove the wall separating the two rooms, at which point she pinned all of us down in order to determine which ponies were threats that required neutralization.”

“At any point during the fighting, did Miss Cobblestone show signs of attempting bodily harm on you, or other signs of aggression?” Twilight asked her daughter, giving her an opening.

“Miss Cobblestone not only showed no signs of violence aside from self-defense during the fight,” Serale said, “I also had the opportunity to interact with her during her transport to Starfall, and I found her to be compliant with her captors as well as averse to violence as a solution except in dire need.”

Her mother nodded to herself. “Continue,” she said.

“As I had no desire to distract Magus Libra, I remained still,” Serale said, “And my vision was partially obscured by the remnants of the wall, so I couldn’t see what was happening in the other room. I do know that Cobblestone managed to free herself from the bonds used by the Magus, and utilize her magic to fashion an electromagnetic discharge, the strain of which drained her of most of her energy. This bolt of electricity was directed at a third, unseen attacker.”

“Unfortunately,” Serale continued, her voice growing regretful, “This proved enough for the fourth assailant, in the other room, to take one of Cobblestone’s accomplices as a hostage in an attempt to ensure his own escape. Cobblestone, while visibly distressed, was unable to utilize her own magic, and I was continuing to restrain the second Pegasus in my room, the first one having perished at the hooves of Miss Cobblestone. I did not wish to endanger the hostage with a poor shot, nor did I wish to risk the other Pegasus to escape my grapple, so I refrained from using my own magic. After a brief struggle, the hostage attempted to evade her captor, at which point he slit her throat. Magus Libra managed to kill him shortly thereafter.”

“And after this turn of events, what happened?” Twilight asked her.

“The Magus took over restraining him and began to interrogate both Cobblestone and the Pegasus, under the assumption they had been working together. I pointed out that since they had been attempting to murder one another, it seemed unlikely, at which point Cobblestone informed us that she had no designs on hurting either of us, and was merely after our valuables. Libra attempted to interrogate the Pegasus for information, but aside from delivering a short message he did not say anything more before self-immolating.”

“What was this message?”

“A loaded crossbow had been placed by my bed,” Serale said. “He said it was a gift from an organization called the Cult of Crows to me, the child of the False Goddess. He also wished my reign to be both short and tragic before he burst into flame, at which point continued conversation seemed to be a bit pointless for all involved parties.”

There was a chuckle from the stands at Serale’s dry and dark wit. Despite the very real fact that she had been in danger, and potentially still was, the young mare seemed to be completely unflappable.

Even Twilight allowed herself a small smile before waving her hoof. “Order,” she said, and the Court settled down. “You said that you had travelled with Cobblestone on your return to Starfall, and that you had spent time with her,” she said, “What was your impression of her in that time?”

Serale blinked. Her mother had given her what essentially amounted to a blank check, allowing her to sing whatever praises and heap whatever damnations she wished for the moment.

“Driven,” she said. “Cobblestone possesses a singular drive to do whatever it takes to not only survive, but thrive. She was, by her own admission, an excellent thief, but I feel that if it came to pass that her best chance to succeed in life was to become a painter, or a stonemason, she would paint masterpieces and build walls to last lifetimes.”

“Not only this,” Serale continued, “I believe, given the chance, Cobblestone could become a great pony. She is talented magically, loyal to those she deems friends, and I think if she were given the chance, she could be every bit as kind, proud, and upright a pony as can be found in Equestria. The only question is whether or not she can be given that chance.”

“And I believe she should,” Serale continued. “Cobblestone has had a hard life, I think. Her actions didn’t come from greed or the desire to take from others, her actions came from the desire to see her and her fellows survive. If she is given a chance to improve herself and allow her talents to grow, in order to give her the tools to succeed without violating the law, I could very easily see her not only becoming a law-abiding citizen, but also a great mage.”

Twilight Sparkle nodded her head thoughtfully as she considered her daughter’s words.

“Thank you, Miss Everstar,” she said, “Your testimony in this case has been valuable. Please return to the antechamber to await your summons, at which point yourself, Magus Libra, and the defendant will be required in this hall once more to receive the sentence. You may go.”

Serale bowed low, averting her eyes from her mother as she did so, before pirouetting delicately and promenading the length of the hall out of the throne room, aware of all eyes on her as she walked. A few quiet murmurs arose from the stands, but Serale could tell that the assembled ponies had been impressed with her testimony. She was glad. It had taken considerable rehearsal last night in order to come up with the right words to say, though it hadn’t all been by rote.

The doors shut behind her as she allowed the façade of poise and self-confidence to vanish, rolling her shoulders back and allowing her body to relax. The heavy fabric of the dress was suddenly smothering, and she could feel a headache starting right behind her eyes as she approached the table where Libra and Cobblestone sat.

“Well,” she said brightly, “I think it went rather well. Are you feeling alright, Cobblestone?”

The thief nodded, sipping at the dregs of her tea. “I’m doing better, thanks,” she said. “Libra helped me to calm down after my testimony.”

“I simply reminded her that we are both supporting her, and regardless of the sentence, we shall continue to do so,” Libra said. “And that she needed to trust that we had her best interests in mind.”

Serale nodded. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, Cobblestone,” she said. “You’re a good pony, underneath it all. And I think mother knows that.”

Cobblestone smiled shakily, the first one she had given in a long while. “Thanks,” she said. “I mean it. You’ve both treated me well, and I appreciate that.”

Serale sat down, pouring herself a cup of tea as she did so. “Libra and I both owe you our lives,” she reminded her. “Helping you in your hour of need is the least we could do in return.”

“Just remember,” Libra said. “No matter what happens, how bad it seems, that you’ve allies in Lady Serale and myself.”

“We’re by your side, Cobblestone,” Serale said. “And don’t you forget it.”

Three ponies stood before the throne of Lady Everstar, Avatar of the Evening and ruler of the Forest, awaiting judgment from the Throne of Oak and Bronze. The throne room was quiet, save for the shifting of the Court in their seats as they craned their necks for a better view of the trio, and the entire space seemed to be filled with a terrible tension ,the tension that spills from the blade of an executioner, or the tension that fills the loop of a noose.

Twilight Everstar sat upon her throne, looking down at the pony she was passing judgment on, as well as the two that stood to either side of her, her most trusted advisor and her only daughter. Her gaze lingered on Cobblestone like an almost physical weight, pressing her into the floor and pinning her there as if to hold her down, preventing her from escaping the justice of the Evening.
“Cobblestone of Crescent City,” she said, and at those words, even the creaking of the seats fell silent, as ponies froze, not willing to miss a single word of what was spoken here.

“You have been accused of the crimes of breaking and entering, attempted theft of Royal property, and the assault of both my daughter, Serale Everstar, and the Court Magus, Libra. You have pled guilty to these crimes in exchange for clemency in your sentencing. Normally these charges carry a weight of up to but not exceeding twenty years of incarceration or indentured servitude with the possibility of parole for good behavior.”

Lady Everstar’s voice gained strength. “However, because of your cooperation in the investigation of the attack on Serale Everstar, as well as the unfortunate circumstances of your upbringing and the rationale behind these crimes in addition to your youth, any time spent in prison will be served in a reformation center or juvenile rehabilitation center.”

Cobblestone tensed up, feeling her pulse pounding in her ears. This was it, the sentence.

“You are hereby sentenced to six years of incarceration in Bluewater Reformation Center, Juvenile Ward. As you have been deemed a possible escapee due to your actions during transport, there will be no possibility of parole. Sentence to be carried out immediately.”

In Which Lies And Truths Are Told

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying? Cobblestone asked.

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

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you say, so shall it be.”

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

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

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

The stallion bowed. “It shall be done.”

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

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

“Mother?” she asked. “Are you there?”

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

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

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

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

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

Nightshade remained silent, waiting for her instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Serena,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

In Which The Princesses Have Tea

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“I must admit, I was rather taken aback by the sentence you handed down,” Celestia said, her light-form sipping at a cup of tea. She looked to Luna and Cadance, who both nodded. “I think we all were.”

Twilight took a mouthful of the dregs of her own cup, the bitter taste of coffee filling her with much needed energy and the whiskey within coiling in her stomach warmly. She’d been neglecting sleep again, and the weather was getting cold. “I stand by it,” she replied, her tone terse. “I’m not in the habit of letting criminals go free simply because they cooperated in other matters. She had a much reduced sentence, believe you me.”

“And the fact that Cobblestone has somehow managed to get close to your daughter in a week and a half has nothing to do with it,” Cadance said quietly. “Especially considering you and Serale have never been as close as you thought you should be.”

Twilight set her cup down, making eye contact with the rose-colored Alicorn. “Pick your next words carefully,” she said, “You’re dancing very close to a ledge.”

“A week and a half, and Serale and Cobblestone are unusually close,” Cadance said thoughtfully. “Close enough that the thief has been remarkably compliant, and your daughter, who was so well-behaved, has spent her first week in Court defying you both publically and privately. It’s been noticed.”

Twilight winced. “It’s that bad, is it? You’ll need to give me the name of your agent, whoever they are. They’re remarkably perceptive.”

Cadance gave her one of her dazzling smiles, the ones that made fools of mere mortals. “Sorry, Twi. Secrets are secrets.”

“Perhaps you aren’t handling Cobblestone’s sentencing as neutrally as you’d like us to believe, Twilight,” Celestia ventured. “Aside from your obvious dislike for her, is there another factor?”

Twilight held up one hoof. “It’s not that I don’t like her,” she said, “I truly have no feelings on the young mare either way.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. “I wish you would have feelings on some young thing soon,” she said, “I haven’t been to one of your weddings in absolute ages.”

“Some of us have better things to do than get tangled up in trysts, Cadance,” Twilight said, “Like running a country.”

“Maybe you’d find the untangling of the country easier if you spent more time tangled in the sheets,” Cadance said, “I know it does wonders for me.”

“The point is,” Twilight said with a glare, “That I’m beginning to think Cobblestone’s arrival isn’t as spontaneous as it appears to be.”

“Do you think it to be something orchestrated, Twilight?” Luna asked. “For something that momentous to happen at a time like this, is it possible that Cobblestone might not be what she appears to be?”

The unicorn nodded slowly. “I suppose it’s no use hiding it,” she said. “I think Cobblestone might be an agent of another power, whether she knows it or not.”

“Do you have any proof of this?” Celestia asked.

“Not proof,” Twilight said, “More of a feeling. And there have been signs. Even if she isn’t a potential spy or assassin or saboteur, it’s all too likely that she could be brought in as one.”

The three Alicorns looked at one another.

“Twilight,” Luna said gently, “While your caution is, for the most part, commendable, isn’t it more likely that Cobblestone is simply a pony who was in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“I’d be inclined to believe it as well,” Twilight said, “If not for the fact that she has been at the center of far too many disparate but unfortunate events.”

“What do you mean?” Cadance asked.

Twilight’s horn flashed, and her cup began to refill itself as she spoke. “When I spoke with Cobblestone during her transportation back to Starfall, Libra indicated to me that she had been tampered with. That is, something had gotten into her head, and was preventing her from sharing certain information.”

“Your point?” Luna asked derisively. “You lifted the compulsion, did you not?”

“The one who laid it was known to her as Dis,” Twilight said.

There was not a sound to be heard from the three Alicorns as she continued.

“Discord has been quiet for a hundred years at least,” Twilight said, “And for a brief while, I thought he had finally stepped away from the playing field. Apparently not.” She sat and watched as the three Alicorns attempted to process what she had told them.

“Well,” Celestia said, breaking the silence, “That’s certainly…news.”

“Out of the three of you, Celestia, I’d have thought you’d react the most strongly to hearing about Discord. You don’t exactly have a good history with him,” Twilight said.

Celestia chose instead to sip at her teacup.

“Discord…” Luna breathed. “Where has that old demon been all this time?”

“Last time I saw him, he was heading into the Forest in the north of my realm. I lost track him after that little meeting. He can be difficult to find when he wants to be. And that’s not all.”

“There’s more?” Celestia asked.

“The Forest itself seems to be angry,” Twilight said.

“How do you mean?” Cadance inquired.

“Increased activity by the Fae, for one,” Twilight said, “In all three Courts. More sightings of the creatures inside. A few fields near the edge have been reclaimed. New growth has sprung up overnight. What’s more, I’ve not been able to get ahold of Radiant Zenith. It’s not surprising, considering her tendency to disappear for decades at a time, but I should be able to get an idea for where she is, at least.”

“And you haven’t got one?” Cadance asked. “Do you want me to take a look for her? I remember what her heart feels like.”

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Twilight said embarrassedly. “Let me know what you find. On top of this, she’s also constantly in the company of something that looks like a cat, but most decidedly is not.”

“Perhaps a Fae thing?” Luna asked. “I know some of them take the shape of great cats and other animals. Or perhaps a spirit?”

Twilight shook her head. “Whatever it is, it’s old enough that I can’t discern what it is. I don’t think it’s Fae or a spirit, but I’ve been wrong before. I suspect it’s already tied to at least one disappearance around her, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be getting ready for more. I’ve been looking for the creature for two days, since the trial, and I haven’t been able to find it.”

“Perhaps it is with the child?” Luna suggested.

“I’ve asked her guards to keep an eye on her to see if it can be spotted, but they’ve not come up with anything.”

“So the Forest is angry, Discord is on the move, and something that isn’t a cat,” Cadance said. “Is that what you’re going to use to see if she’s a spy?”

“Her old gang is currently under siege from an unknown source as well, and the pattern of disappearance suggests that they’re being assaulted by somepony or something that knows their hideouts and movements very well,” Twilight said. “Obviously she can’t be doing it herself, but I could easily see her having an accomplice of some sort back in Crescent City.”

“So you think she’s a spy,” Celestia said. “And that’s why she’s in a low-security prison for six years?”

“An operative in my Court can still be useful to me,” Twilight said. “After her sentencing, whichever agency might have dispatched her will in all likelihood want her back. I’m giving them the opportunity.”

“A snare?” Luna asked. “You mean to catch those who are handling her?”

“If they exist,” Twilight said, “Which they might not. This is why, in a few days, an opportunity for escape will present itself. If Cobblestone takes it, then she is untrustworthy, and in prison she will stay. If she doesn’t, then her loyalty will be rewarded.”

Celestia quirked an eyebrow. “So let me see if I’ve got this correctly,” she said. “You intend to test this young, unassuming mare to see if she’s going to be compliant with your wishes at the tender age of fifteen? Does that remind you of anything?”

Twilight snorted. “I don’t like it either,” she said, “Trust me. But there is far more at stake here than a petty ideal. Order and Chaos don’t matter in the long run when we are faced with the possibility of the Shadow’s return. If there’s a chance that she is an agent of destruction, then I’ll do whatever it takes to give her the least opportunity to do her work.”

“And if she is not what you think her to be? What if she demonstrates loyalty and dedication?” Luna asked.

Twilight set her cup down. “If she is what she says she is…” She sighed. “Then I’ll have a lot of apologizing to do. And…I might have a proposition for her.”

“A proposition?” Luna queried. “How do you mean?”

Twilight massaged her head with one hoof, working out a headache. “Consider my position,” she said.

“I have two potentially powerful young mares at my disposal right now, my daughter, who is turning into quite the politician in her own right, and this one, Cobblestone. While the forces that stand against me already show interest in my daughter, for some reason, they show more interest in her.”

Celestia nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s true. The Cult of Crows is after Serale, but Cobblestone is potentially wanted by the Cult, Discord, and a number of third parties in the Everfree, if you’re to be believed.”

“Exactly,” Twilight said, adding more whiskey to her cup. “And I have a plan to exploit that. But I would need your help in doing so, from all of you, in respect to Serale. If Cobblestone is loyal, I want her to use her latent abilities to the advantage of my daughter. But I would also like for Serale to be able to call on other allies.”

“The diplomatic tour you have planned?” Cadance asked, arching a brow. “Something to do with that?”

“If Serale is able to make good connections for herself in each of your Courts, if she falls into the kind of danger that I am unable to handle, she may at least be able to call on others to aid her,” Twilight said. “And I can assure you that if she was given the chance, Serale could prove to be more than an acceptable ally in return.”

Celestia pursed her lips. “I could arrange a few meetings with some of the more prominent nobles in my Court,” she said, “Though some of them are a bit…traditional. I could see her having a difficult time with them.”

“And I can do the same,” Luna said, “Though the atmosphere here is such that she would like as not make all of my followers either allies or enemies in their own rights.”

Cadance waved an airy hoof. “I could probably set her up with a few ‘allies’ of her own while she’s here,” she said playfully, “I know of a few Condottiero captains who are single and looking. A few knights as well.”

Twilight shot her a look. “Please do me a favor and try to keep my daughter from coming home with some sword-swinging numbskull in tow,” she said, “I don’t have the time or inclination to plan a wedding right now.”

“Love grows where it may,” Cadance sniffed, “But I’ll do my best to keep things puritanical enough for you.”

“The point is,” Twilight said, “That Serale could prove to be a very deadly opponent on a political battlefield with the proper alliances being made. But due to her unfortunate…condition…she lacks physical force to back that up.”

Luna looked her dead in the eyes. “Which is where young Cobblestone comes into play?”

Twilight nodded. “My plans for her are twofold, providing she is amiable to the idea. The first is simple. Libra has expressed an interest in taking her on as an apprentice, and I see no reason to deny her request. I would love to see Cobblestone develop her gifts and use them to better herself and others.”

“And the other plan?” Celestia asked.

“As my daughter will rule from the light, I would like Cobblestone to court the shadows,” Twilight said. “If she can use the interest of the forces after her to gather information and relay it to me, we may gain valuable insight into their plans, even if something goes wrong.”

The three Alicorns reacted in differing ways, none of them complimentary. Cadance’s hoof flew to her mouth, her eyes wide at the audacity of Twilight’s comment. Celestia stiffened, her eyes narrowing, and Luna’s face became carefully blank, free of every emotion excepting polite disinterest.

“If Cobblestone is able to convince the Shadow, her agents, or other parties that she is open and amicable to their ideas, she could potentially use their own strengths against them, play them off of one another,” Twilight said. “Cobblestone has worked with unpleasantries before, and from Libra’s report, she could possess the necessary strength to defend herself if things go poorly, which they won’t.”

“And how do you know they won’t?” Celestia demanded. “Who are you, to put this filly’s life in danger?”

“She is a young mare who has lived a worse life than most of my spymasters, is an extremely promising mage, and is apparently devoted to my daughter in a way not many are,” Twilight said. “And I, in case you have forgotten, am the one dispatched by the Aether to ensure that not only the balance is maintained, but also to ensure that the Shadow so foolishly released by you, Celestia, is destroyed!”

“How dare you?” Celestia cried. “I will not sit idly by and allow you to ruin a young mare’s life to achieve your goals!”

“And I can ill-afford to spare one mare to the detriment of all!” Twilight shouted in return. “I thought you of all ponies would see that!”

“And you should see the absolute wrongness of what you are doing!” Celestia retorted. “You put much at risk, Twilight Sparkle!”

“Enough!” Luna roared.

There was a pause.

Luna turned to Twilight. “I can see the logic in your argument. Cobblestone, if handled correctly, could prove a very valuable piece of bait.” Twilight started up to speak, but Luna held up one hoof, cutting her off. “She would be bait, Twilight, nothing more or less.”

“As for your view, sister, it seems to me a bit narrow-minded,” Luna said. “Much as I hate to say it, Twilight has a point. Without more information, we are at a severe disadvantage in our search for our enemies. And we need every advantage we can get. While I may not agree with the idea of putting Cobblestone in so much danger, I could see how it might become necessary.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. “Typical,” she said, “You always take her side like a well-whipped spaniel.”

Luna’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Say that again?” she asked.

Cadance smirked. “I called you a well-whipped spaniel, which you are. If you care to try and make me take it back, I’d be more than happy to meet you in single combat, and we’ll see who whips whom.”

“Do not test me, child,” Luna said, “Else I may just take you up on your offer. It is not an encounter you would walk away from.”

“If you’re all quite through going at one another’s throats,” a new voice drawled, “I wouldn’t mind having a word.”

There was a rush of air, and the stench of smoke and carrion filled the air, tinged sickly-sweet with cherries and spun sugar. The shadows cast by the light-forms of the assembled peerage bent and twisted in stomach-churning ways before they detached themselves from the walls and ceiling, coalescing into a ball in the center of the room. The surface of the ball began to boil and writhe as first a limb, then a tail, then other limbs sprouted alongside a sinuous neck capped by an elongated head topped by a horn and an antler.

At last, a darkened shape straightened before the four rulers, giving a mocking bow as it did so.

“Ladies,” Discord said, “And I mean that in the loosest sense of the word, if I could have a moment of your time.”

“What do you want, Discord?” Celestia demanded.

“To warn you,” Discord said. “And to ask of you all a favor as repayment for that warning.”

“Tell us,” Luna said, “And then we may decide if your warning merits the worth of the favor.”

Discord turned to Twilight. “You have something of mine in your dungeons,” he said, “All trussed up like a chicken about to lose its head. A sneak-thief.”

Twilight nodded. “We were discussing her. What is your interest in Cobblestone?”

“Mild at best,” Discord shrugged, “But it would be an…inconvenience to us all if she were to die. I’ve taken it upon myself to give her a bit of aid. Call it a contribution to her development.”

“I hardly think of you as altruistic, Discord,” Celestia said. “What’s your game in all of this?”

Discord winked at her. “You’ll just have to wait and find out, Celestia. Though I can be kind when I have a mind to it. Chaos isn’t inherently cruel, after all. Besides, I find her interesting. She’s managed to get herself into quite the predicament, and all without you finding out what she is truly capable of.”

“And what would that be?” Twilight asked calmly.

“That would be telling, my dear almost-god. Suffice it to say, she will be my contribution to the upcoming war. So, when you speak of throwing her to the metaphorical lions, I feel that I should have a say in it.”

The draconeqqus coiled lazily in the air, supported by nothing more than his own will as he inspected a darkened talon, looking for all the world like a silhouette that had broken free of the light behind it.

“My proposal is such. Keep her close to your daughter, as you were going to. Offer her to the Shadows, as you were going to. But if she is set upon, do not save her. That shall be my purview, and mine alone. I claim her as a servant of mine, as is my right.”

Luna’s breath hissed out as she stomped one hoof in protest. “You have no right to claim a servant, Discord! You have not helped us in our duties thus far, why should you reap the rewards of seeds you have not sown?”

Discord writhed in the air sinuously, turning to face the Alicorn. “Because, little Luna,” he said, “I’ve been wandering far and wide tempering ponies for the inevitable war they will face once you go around stirring up the hornets’ nest around the Shadow. Or did you think that it would simply lay dormant and wait for you to hunt it down? No, it has been making plans of its own.”

He gestured, and a shadowy map appeared below him, outlining the coast of Equestria and the seas beyond, including the Quilinese Islands to the north. Wisps of smoke began to fill in the coastline, pouring out over the “water” in the same pattern that Twilight’s ships had been outlining in order to explore the shores beyond the coast.

As the shadows extended further and further from their origins, however, they began to dissipate, becoming thin in some places, patchy in others. The clumps that represented islands became less and less well-defined, and in some places the shadows had not touched at all.

“Equestria and its outlying islands comprise most of the known world, with the exception of a few volcanic spits of rock here and there, hardly enough to sustain sea slime,” Discord said. “Past a certain point, there is simply nothing to be seen save water, water, and yet more water. I should know, I’ve been out to see it myself. Or at least, it was thought to be so. Lady Twilight has been keeping this from you all, but there appears to be more to the world than we thought previously.”

“Impossible!” Celestia said. “I’ve scoured the face of the world a hundred times with my magic, looking for a place the Shadow could be hiding. We all have.”

“And Twilight would never have hidden something like this from us,” Luna claimed, “It would be too important to keep to herself, regardless of petty politics.”

“Actually,” Twilight said, “that’s not entirely true.”

The three Alicorns turned to face her. Twilight took a deep breath and continued.

“As it turns out, there are several islands that have appeared in the last hundred years or so in the southwestern regions of the Western Sea. I say appeared instead of formed because they do not appear to have been created recently. They’ve just…appeared. I kept it from you because I wasn’t sure if the rumors brought back from ships that swung far west to avoid storms and such were true. I’d been meaning to send expeditions, but…”

“They keep meeting with misfortune or disappearing outright, don’t they?” Discord asked mockingly.

Twilight nodded miserably. “I’d thought it was just bad luck. I held off on telling you all because I wanted something more concrete before we committed to sending more resources that direction.”

“And I think you all know why these islands are just appearing now,” Discord said. “And why there are ships disappearing in those waters.”

“Then let us go down to those islands!” Luna cried. “We can set off now and bring the Shadow to heel forthwith!”

“I wouldn’t be too hasty, dearest Luna,” the draconeqqus replied. “Why do you think I have been gone for so long? Those islands are well-warded with enchantments that I have never seen in all my years in this world. I spent a full year and a day attempting every trick in the book to get into those islands, but they are warded to my entry. I doubt any of us would do better.”

Twilight frowned. “How do you mean, Discord?” she asked.

“Any attempt to reach the islands results in you getting further away from them,” Discord said. “I managed to overcome this obstacle by rushing at them sideways for a time, but it was only a short time later that I was forced to break off my approach when all of my magic began to fail me. I could name the numerous other problems I encountered, but they all boiled down to this.”

As he spoke, the spaces where the islands should have been began to outline themselves in darkness, forming a wide clear patch surrounded by a sea of shadow, which began to pulse and bubble once more.

“This area is impassible to most magic,” Discord said, “And what little can be taken through could never be enough to prevent the destruction of a ship sent through. Airships especially would be in trouble, seeing as they rely on so much magic to keep them in the air. But even if a sailing ship could make it through the barrier somehow, it wouldn’t last long.”

“What do you mean?” Cadance asked doubtfully. “Shouldn’t the islands be uninhabitable?”

“Far from it,” Discord said with a twisted grin, “They are, in fact, filled with the most unusual monsters I have ever seen. I may not have been able to get close to the islands themselves, but the ones I could see were quite full of life. Same goes for the seas surrounding them.”

“So,” Twilight asked, “What do you propose we do?”

“Do?” Discord asked. “Why, Twilight Sparkle, we can hardly DO anything but wait. Which is why Cobblestone’s training must be handled very carefully.”

Celestia frowned. “Are you suggesting we pin our hopes on Cobblestone?”

Discord chuckled. “Hardly, Celestia. She’s only mortal, after all. But we can use her as far more than a simple piece of bait. Powers large and small are going to be approaching her if she’s used the way Twilight Sparkle thinks she should be used, so I propose she be taught to handle those powers.”

“You want me to tell Libra to instruct her in some of the techniques?” Twilight asked. “Necromancy, demonology, that sort of thing?”

Discord shrugged. “I won’t tell you how to teach her,” he said, “And I’m not really sure if those fields are…applicable to her current situation. But a background wouldn’t hurt. I believe that she should have a good grasp of Breaking magic, at least.”

“On what grounds do you think that?” Celestia demanded. “You’ve only just now shown interest in her, how do you know what she is capable of?”

Discord’s eyes rolled in his sockets once more. “I can assure you, Celly, that it’s been only recently that I’ve shown interest in Cobblestone. I’ve maintained an interest for quite some time, and I can tell you that Cobblestone will be a more than adequate agent for both Twilight and myself.”

Twilight poured herself another cup of whiskey, and considered Discord’s words. The draconeqqus had a point, at least. If Cobblestone were to present herself as a viable “agent” to those powers, it would probably be best if she knew how to handle them safely, as opposed to stepping into them blind. Not only that, but if she truly were able to wield them effectively in defense of herself or others in addition to her already powerful latent abilities, she could become a force to be reckoned with.

It wasn’t very widely known, but to qualify as the Court Mage in Twilight’s kingdom, a wide variety of disciplines were required knowledge. Alchemy, enchantment, and scrying events were all well and good, but without actual offensive spells, the Court Mage would never be able to do their job effectively. And the job of the Mage in question could get very dark, very quickly.

In fact, Libra’s first job had been to assist in the destruction of a necromancer cult that had been operating out of Cobblestone’s home city. Without her knowledge of the craft, Libra would surely have been overcome in the first moments of fighting, and it was for this exact reason the she was the only pony in Twilight’s service allowed to practice the craft as anything other than an intellectual exercise. She commanded that allowance in other areas as well, not all of them as palatable or well-known as the art of manipulating death.

And now, the suggestion had been made to allow Cobblestone to begin training under Libra, not just in the normal disciplines of magecraft, but in those shadowy and forbidden realms of knowledge as well. In essence, Twilight would be asking Libra to create a potential monster. Breaking magic, though legal, was rarely practiced, and it carried with it a terrible risk, one she knew all too well. With Cobblestone’s possibly unstable mind already under considerable stress, it might be more than the young mare could bear.

“I will ask her,” Twilight said, “But I think we should all realize that Cobblestone may not be able to handle the stresses forced upon her by these disciplines. She shows potential, true, but we don’t know how far it will carry her, or when her limits may be reached. She will learn as much as can be taught to her, assuming she is permitted to study under Libra, but I cannot promise she will be unharmed by what she learns.”

Discord shrugged. “I expect my servants to be both strong and flexible,” he said, “And from what I can tell, this will not tax her past her limits. Though she certainly will not thank you for what she may go through.”

“I don’t like it,” Cadance said, “Forcing somepony so young to learn so much.”

“Actually, most apprentices in the Evening Kingdom start around the age of twelve or thirteen, correct?” Celestia asked. “Were she on the regular schedule for training, Cobblestone would have learned her magical basics by now. She would probably be moving on to other, more advanced topics, and she may have found what it was she wanted to do with her powers.”

Twilight nodded. “Ideally, she would be learning how to harness her particular gifts in a manner best suited to their potential.”

“I don’t believe you’ve ever told us what ‘gifts’ she’s demonstrated,” Luna said.

“Libra seems to think she holds a great deal of potential in manipulating electromagnetic energy,” Twilight said. “She did fend off her attackers with lightning, after all.”

“So she’s a Bellatorae?” Cadance asked. “That sounds like battle magic to me.”

“Possibly,” Twilight said, “Or a Cantorae. It will be difficult to tell until we can find out more about her powers. Assuming she is loyal, of course.”

“I thought that the Cantorae only associated themselves with the classical elements. Fire, earth, that sort of thing,” Cadance said. “That’s why they’re called Wavesingers and Windsingers, right? What would she be called?”

Twilight smiled. “I’ve only ever heard of this affinity for electromancy once or twice, but it does exist. Should she truly possess a strong affinity for electromagnetic energy, Cobblestone would one day possess the title of Stormsinger.”

In Which Potential Is Revealed

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The lights flickered on, and Cobblestone groaned, rolling over in bed. She knew that if she was not on her hooves in the next two minutes, she would be reprimanded by the guards as they passed by. Sure enough, she could hear the steady beats of their gaits as they turned down the corridor.

“Time to get up!” one of them cried. “Breakfast is in ten minutes! Clean your rack and let’s move!”

Cobblestone yawned, opening her eyes slightly, wincing as the bright lights of her cell drove their little daggers into her. She had always hated mornings, and the regimented lifestyle she was forced to endure certainly wasn’t helping change her opinion of them.

Grumbling, she rolled out of bed, standing up on wobbling hooves just as the guards marched past her cell, checking inside to make sure she was up. The one closest to her nodded approvingly as they went by, glad to see she was finally adapting to the schedule set for her.

Sleepily, she stretched the covers back over her bed and tucked the top back in. It was both easier and warmer, she found, if she didn’t pull up the edges of the covers while she slept. And she needed all of the warmth she could get. The “mattress” she slept on was about as thin and hard as a sheet of plywood, and the cells themselves were kept at a cool temperature without becoming dangerously cold.

Cobblestone glanced at the desk where Hob was still asleep, his ears twitching as he dreamed. She didn’t know much about cats, but somehow she doubted that he was actually asleep, nor did he need to eat as often as he claimed to, or at all. Complaining had become his favorite pastime when he was alone with her, and the only reason she tolerated it was because it was better than having no company at all.

Finishing her bed, she stomped her hooves against the stone of the floor, waiting for the cell door to open. The strange shimmering, she had found, was far more effective than a set of bars could be. The closer she got, the more difficult it was for her to move forward, until it was an effort to lift a hoof when she was more than half a meter away from the corridor. The hum at the front of her cell stopped, and so too did the shimmering. Cobblestone’s stomach growled as she stepped into the corridor, ready to start her day.

She waited in line with the other “guests”, as they were called, for the order to go ahead. Her first time there, she had attempted to walk down the corridor by herself, and had almost immediately been restrained by one of the guards and held back in her cell until the other prisoners had all gone ahead. By the time she had been allowed to go to breakfast, what was available had already been picked over pretty well.

A single tone sounded, like that of a bell, and almost in unison, the line began to move forward along the path that they all knew so well towards the mess hall. They filed out of the cell block, down one hall, down another flight of stairs, turned right, and were shuffled through the doors of the room where most of the facility met at one point or another. The smell of starch and musty air wafted towards them.

Cobblestone shuffled into line, took a tray, and received a bowl of dull oatmeal and a small apple before moving down the line to get a cup of milk. Straining a bit, she managed to lift the tray into the air with her magic. A bead of sweat formed along her brow. She wasn’t allowed to do much more than that, and the spells woven into the walls would make sure that she didn’t, but this was only the second time she had been able to lift the tray on her own.

Magic was like any other muscle, she reflected as she sat down to eat. It grew weaker with disuse, and she hadn’t used hers properly in quite some time. And she had strained it recently, too. She still had the occasional headache, still woke up at night smelling ozone and with the impression of blinding light lingering behind her eyes. And her magic felt different, somehow, like she was seeing with someone else’s eyes, or feeling with their skin.

She mechanically began to spoon the oatmeal into her mouth, pausing only occasionally to wash it down with the milk. The spoon, made of a soft material she could not identify, rattled in her bowl as she took a few quick bites out of the apple, chewing these thoroughly. She had always liked the taste of apples, and though these were small, they were surprisingly good.

Speaking of muscles, she thought, today was the day where she was going to finally be allowed some exercise, having just been cleared to do so by one of the staff doctors yesterday. She needed it, too. She could almost feel herself going soft, losing valuable skills and strength she had not used recently. She frowned, finishing off the apple. Cobblestone was going soft, and the young mare didn’t like it one bit.

Getting up, she joined the small crowd of ponies who were standing by a large-ish door to one side of the one she herself had stepped through a few moments before. This was the door to the exercise yard, and the brisk morning air she hadn’t felt in nearly a week. Come to think on it, she hadn’t seen the outside world in nearly a week, either. Cobblestone was determined to enjoy as much of it as she could, too, because the use of the exercise yard came at a cost. Today she would meet with a counselor for the first time, who would begin to discuss with her what options she could take.

It wasn’t as if she was afraid of them, Cobblestone mused, far from it. The guards here were considerably more kind than the ones of the Crescent City jails. No, it wasn’t fear. It was the idea of being deconstructed that she didn’t like. Sitting in a room once a week with a pony who knew how to open you up at the most basic level, one who could get you to reveal things about yourself you would never tell a soul about, all without you realizing you were going along with it, that was what she wasn’t too fond of. And that was once a week, she had been told. For years. No wonder half of the ponies here looked like they wouldn’t last five minutes in a back alley. If they could get your thoughts out of you, who was to say they couldn’t put something in?

“Look alive!” the guard by the door said. “Keep to the track if you’re running, today’s counterclockwise. If you’re going to be using the exercise yard, stay in the boundaries of the yard. No fighting, no pushing, no horseplay. Got it?” The crowd mumbled general assent, which appeared good enough for the guard. He stepped aside as the door opened wide, and the assembled crowd began to file out.

The courtyard wasn’t large, a square perhaps three hundred meters in length per side, and it was comprised of concrete walls, from the tops of which stretched a net of steel cables, in order to prevent Pegasi from flying into or out of the space while still giving them enough room to stretch their wings and fly about another forty meters up.

Cobblestone joined the group heading towards the track, and broke into an eager trot which turned into a slow canter as she felt her muscles limber and warm, driving away the chill of the late autumn air. She began to run in earnest, the canter speeding up into an almost-gallop as she left all but the most swift of her fellows behind. Ahead of her were three ponies, two of them Pegasi, but lagging behind them was an Earth pony it looked like she could catch. The unicorn smiled to herself, and began to push her limits.

She drew up next to the Earth pony, who was panting heavily herself, and the two of them exchanged a look. Cobblestone flashed her companion a grin, and the Earth pony relied with a brief nod, accepting the challenge. The duo, matching speeds, began to speed up, moving to the inside of the track. Their hooves pounded on the ground, digging into the softness of the earth as they rounded the far corner and began galloping into the straightaway.

Cobblestone exulted in the feeling of stretching her legs, feeling the breath come heavy and fast, relishing the burning in her legs as they protested their overuse, shedding the cobwebs of stillness from themselves and becoming strong again. She and her partner took the next corner hard, gaining even on the Pegasi who were up ahead of them, and sped down the straightaway. So preoccupied was she in her race that Cobblestone did not notice the much larger pony until he had stepped on the track ahead of her, eyes intent of the lifting equipment he was going to use.

The resounding collision was, needless to say, spectacular. Cobblestone slammed into his side, sending them both tumbling head over tail over hoof down the length of the track for a good twenty yards at least, before the rolling ball of pony and dirt and regret came apart and skidded to a halt in a shower of pebbles and grass. The yard became deadly silent.

“Son of a whore!” the Earth pony raged in a heavy Trottingham accent, standing up and shaking dirt from his eyes. “Who did that?”

Cobblestone picked herself up from the ground just as he spotted her, blinking heavily to clear her head as her vision improved just in time to see the broad shoulder of the Earth pony before it hit her hard across the face, sending her down onto the ground again with him following. The force was unbelievable, rattling her hard enough that she felt her teeth vibrate as her head slammed back down into the ground.

Frantically, she threw a hoof at her assailant, catching him on the side of the head as he straddled her, his hooves raised to pummel her into the dirt. The blow managed to throw him off-balance just enough for her to roll out from underneath him, getting onto her hooves as he did the same. Some dim part of her noticed guards rushing towards them both, but realized that they were a bit too far away to restrain this monster before he could take her head off. She was on her own, at least for the moment.

Her horn flashed brightly as she attempted to blind the colt, succeeding in doing so and enraging him further. Odds were good that she could evade him now, until the guards showed up, but the fight wouldn’t end today. She’d see him again, and next time, Cobblestone might not be so lucky. It was best to end it now.

The Earth pony threw a punch near where her head would have been had she not moved it just in time, and stumbled forward into her, hoping to close for a grapple. Unfortunately for him, Cobblestone was no stranger to street fighting , and as he did so, her own hoof flew through the air, impacting him right in the throat, followed by another blow to the side of his head as she reared, only just clearing the top of his head as she did so.

His face, normally a ruddy red, turned even more so as he collapsed, wheezing for breath. She hadn’t struck him with enough force to do any lasting damage, but it was definitely enough to take him out of commission for the immediate moment. Seizing her moment, she bent down next to him to whisper in his ear.

“Next time, you won’t get to walk away. Stay away from me and we won’t have trouble.”

She felt strong hooves on her shoulders as the guards arrived and began to lead her away, and noticed that the other ponies in the yard were looking at her with a healthy mixture of respect and fear. As she was hustled out of the prison yard, she smiled to herself. Maybe there were still ponies here with a bit of fight left in them, and maybe she hadn’t gone entirely soft.

Vino regarded the letter in front of him with a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. It was well-written, on fine parchment, using the finest calligraphy instead of the typeset letters that were so in vogue with the military minds of the day. For all of that, though, this document was in fact military in nature. The content was proof of that.

“To Sir Vino Hedera,” it read, “Lord-In-Waiting to the mantle of House Hedera, greetings and good health.”

“Sir, I hope this letter finds you well, and if it does not, I hope that the news which I am about to impart shall improve your stature in some small measure. As you may have heard, I am assembling a small personal guard, numbering approximately sixty fine fighters and spellcasters, for the dual purposes of defense and political necessity.”

Vino had, in fact, heard. It was practically the only thing anypony was talking about these days, aside from gossip about the recent trial involving the young thief, which for some reason stood out in the public’s eye.

“After I enlisted your aid in recent days, I was tasked with the formation of this group, as well as the recruitment of those I would wish to have in my personal service. You have shown remarkable ability since your arrival in Starfall, combining both discretion and competence with skill and good sense. It is therefore my wish that you attend the final auditions for the formation of this guard, and try for a spot as one of my personal knights.”

The newly-minted knight winced at that. If he were to arrive, the competition would be fierce, and his opponents would likely be far more skilled than he. Vino was unsure if he would do anything other than humiliate himself by showing his face at a competition that would surely attract some of the finest military talents in the kingdom.

“I realize this letter maybe a bit forward, and for that you have my apologies. I write this to you in the hopes that its personal nature conveys my earnestness in this offer, and my sincere goodwill towards you, regardless of what my past actions may have indicated. I have absolute faith in your martial ability, and look forward to your arrival at the final audition in two days’ time with hope in my heart.”

The letter was signed with a neat, curling valediction, “Evening Reigns, Her Ladyship Serale Armonia Everstar.”

Vino read over the letter again, for what must have been the tenth time that day. It made no sense; the signals given off here were quite frankly baffling. The expensive paper, the deliberate and delicate application of ink, the wax seal bearing her personal insignia, all for a request that he audition? He sniffed the parchment, almost but not quite sure that he could detect the slightest hint of perfume. Perhaps he was imagining things.

He set it to the side with a moan. He needed to talk to somepony about this, but he didn’t exactly have close friends here in the capital. Except…he did have something perhaps better than friends. He had family. Quickly, he rose to his hooves, standing in front of his mirror. He noted the time, mid-morning. Aura never saw clients before noon.

Reaching out, he pressed his hoof softly to the surface of the mirror, waiting for the rush of tiredness that meant the spell inside had taken his energy in lieu of magic to fuel its connection. He cleared his throat, shuffled nervously, checked his reflection, and then spoke.

“Show me Aura Hedera.”

The mirror rippled strangely, went completely blank, and after a brief moment of waiting, a new reflection faded into view. Lady Hedera’s visage filled the mirror, blonde hair lying freshly curled and damp against the rose of her coat. She arched an eyebrow at Vino in surprise, though not displeasure.

“Vino!” she said. “I must admit, I wasn’t expecting a call from you. How are things at the palace?”

Vino bowed his head briefly in deference. “Aura. Things are going well here. I apologize for not having the time to write, I’ve been a bit busy with the reprimand from my superiors and…”

“Did you say you received a reprimand?” Lady Hedera inquired sharply, her tone taking on a dangerous edge. “Whatever for?”

“That’s what I was calling about,” Vino said. “When I started my first day of duty here, I…ran into somepony.”

“Who?” Hedera asked.

“Lady Serale Everstar,” Vino said. “And she…I suppose you could say she ordered me to accompany her out of the palace on a mission to visit a friend of hers. A convict.”

Lady Hedera’s perfectly maintained eyebrows slid up her brow slowly. “Really?” she said, her voice becoming carefully neutral. “And what about this earned you a reprimand?”

Vino flushed ever so slightly. “I found out only after we departed that she was ordered by her mother not to leave the castle grounds.”

“Ah,” Lady Hedera said, “I see. Well, that would have earned you a talking to, I suppose.”

“That would have been bad enough,” Vino said, “But after we arrived, she dismissed me because I wasn’t allowed inside. She sent me to a shop down the road from the house, one in Lantern Square.”

“Was that you?” Lady Hedera asked. “I’d read something about a conflict between a young knight and a group of anarchists.”

Vino slumped. “It was.”

Aura tutted, shaking her head. “Oh, Vino,” she said disparagingly, “What have you gotten yourself into?”

“That’s not the point!” Vino said. “Today, I received a letter from Lady Serale asking me to join the personal guard she’s forming. Not only that, it was her own calligraphy, sealed with her own seal. I think she might have used perfume, too.”

Lady Hedera became still, and any onlooker would have remarked how much she looked like a hunting beast in that moment, one who had just spotted particularly slow or stupid prey. “I’m sorry, dear,” she said politely, “Could you say that again?”

“Serale Everstar sent me a letter asking me to be one of her personal knights,” Vino repeated, “Written herself, sealed herself, and I think she might have sprayed perfume on it, and I have no idea of what any of this could possibly mean! Is this a love letter or a job offer?”

Aura laughed. “Oh, Vino!” she said brightly, “I suppose it would be a little of both! In the current parlance of the Court, a letter written personally and signed personally means that you favor whomever you are sending it to. The fact that Serale Everstar used perfume means that she has an emotional investment in your success as well. Perhaps not love, but something similar, like a strong desire to know you better!”

Vino’s brow furrowed in thought. “So…it’s a sign of favor?” he asked.

Aura nodded. “Significant favor,” she said, “And it indicates that you’ve done something to earn Lady Serale’s affection, if not precisely her love for you. What’s wrong, Vino?” she asked, noting the troubled look on her son’s face. “Surely this is good news for you!”

“It is,” Vino said, “But I wonder if it might be too good? I’ve never really distinguished myself in front of Lady Serale. Why has she chosen me to be part of her personal guard?”

Lady Hedera pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Perhaps it is because she knows you,” she said. “Others competing for a chance to serve her are likely career soldiers, ones she does not know well. She knows you, Vino. Your father once told me that you and she often played together as foals. Perhaps she still harbors some fond memories of you?”

“Maybe I should decline her invitation,” Vino said. “There must be others better suited to the job than me.”

“No!” Aura cried, her face twisting unpleasantly. She blinked, composing herself. “Apologies, Vino. I did not mean to shout. It’s just…to decline this invitation would be the height of rudeness, and a potential scandal at that. Lady Serale took a great risk sending that letter to you. If it was known in Court that you scorned her invitation…”

“So I’m required to attend this…spectacle?” Vino inquired angrily. “Or else we both become social pariahs?”

“You are required to attend,” Lady Hedera said calmly. “And politely decline a position among the ranks of her guard if you so desire, though I don’t know why you would.”

“I don’t want to serve her because I feel like she used me,” Vino said. “Picked me up and tossed me aside. What says she won’t do it again?”

“That letter,” Lady Hedera said. “I think I know why she sent you such a personal note. It’s her apology, Vino. She’s trying to make up for it, I think.”

Vino started to speak, but Lady Hedera held up one elegant hoof, forestalling him. “I can’t tell you what to do, Vino. You’ve grown up and now you make your own choices. But realize that Serale Everstar may have used you because that’s all she knows, Vino. Maybe, somewhere underneath the veneer of polish she puts on for the Court, there lies a young mare who is scared and needs a protector.”

There was the sound of a distant chime, and Aura’s eyes flicked off to one side. “I have to go, dear,” she said. “Do well, and consider my advice. You bring great credit to your House, Vino. Talk to you soon.”

Her image faded out, replaced with Vino’s own reflection once more. The young knight considered himself in the mirror. He hadn’t thought of his situation in that way. His eyes went to the letter on the bed, then back to his reflection in the mirror. He sighed.

He would go to the audition, and he would make his decision there. Maybe his mother was right after all, maybe this was a genuine gesture of goodwill and, just maybe, it could have been a cry for help.

Miles away, Lady Hedera stood alone in her study. She walked delicately to the window, gazing out over the rooftops below to the castle which loomed in the distance.

“What game are you playing with my Vino, Serale?” she murmured. “What do you have in store for him?”

Serale considered the portfolios in front of her, and wondered about the letter she had sent to Vino.

It had taken every ounce of her skill with letter-writing in order to get the proper message across in the way she liked, and for a time, she had tossed aside nearly fifty sheets of parchment, some with full paragraphs and others with but a few lines on them. On some of these, the message didn’t quite come out right. On others, her writing had become sloppy, as she had accidentally slurred a word or two to the quill which sat upon her desk, perched in its inkwell expectedly.

She had finally gotten the right letter, written the right way, after nearly six hours of trial and error on her part. She had been very careful with the wax and even more so with her seal, a signet ring she had not used since the day she had received it on her thirteenth birthday, a gift from her mother. A few carefully applied dabs of the rose water she used on occasion, and the letter was finally ready. She had handed it to one of her most trusted maids, and told her not to stop for anything save the Lady herself. Of course it was going to generate gossip, but she simply needed Vino to understand how important it was that he attend the tryouts.

Serale had not been idle in the six days since Cobblestone had been imprisoned. She had thrown herself into the task of choosing her guard, and had requested detailed dossiers on every member of her mother’s spellcasters and soldiers who had applied for a position in the ranks of her newly formed protectors. The boxes currently occupied a full third of her room, their contents strewn across every available surface, including the floor in front of her door. She had not left her room in nearly four days, ordering meals sent straight to her and turning away every maid or visitor who attempted to see her for any other reason.

There were precisely two thousand, eight hundred and ninety-four applicants for the guard itself, of which more than two thirds had not made the final cut according to Serale’s criteria for the competence she expected in their field. Left with about eight hundred serious contenders, she began to systematically eliminate most of them based on one simple criterion.

Serale wanted soldiers and mages with a healthy disrespect for authority and a record of new and original thought.

The idea had come to her after she had been dismissed from her mother’s study and had realized that she would need a guard of a different type than the one her mother wanted. Twilight wanted good, reliable ponies protecting her daughter, one that could be relied upon to follow the orders of their superiors and keep her safely contained behind a wall of discipline.

Serale didn’t want that. Serale wanted fighters, not soldiers. She wanted ponies that she could rely on to be fierce, to react quickly to problems as they arose. Where her mother wanted logic, she wanted creativity. Where discipline was valued, Serale wanted camaraderie and spirit, like the Condottieri tribes of the northern mountains, the ones that she had only ever seen once or twice guarding her Aunt Cadance like packs of barely-tamed wolves.

That was why it was so important to have officers who thought the same way, or could at least be made to. Vino showed promising signs, though his service record was by far the shortest of any applicant she was considering to help her lead this motley band of miscreants. He had apparently shown great skill with nearly every weapon he had trained under, could think under pressure, and was above all a natural-born leader, though his strategic mind left something to be desired. It was absolutely imperative that he try for a position with her guard.

It wouldn’t be easy, however. She had already requested most of the rank and file troops be transferred under her direct command, and the responses she had received were invariably ones of simultaneous relief and warning. Be careful with him, they said. He talks back, doesn’t obey the proper procedures, won’t stop suggesting crazy ideas. You’ll have your hooves full. Serale liked what she heard in those letters. It meant she was on the right track.

Fifty regulars were chosen, all of them competent and disliked. Five spellcasters were to be chosen next, already being assembled in the Regia for their competition in the morning. This left slots for five captains, each of which to command ten ponies and one spellcaster as support. Invitations had been typed up and sent out at her express order, calling to knights, rangers, and scouts stationed near the city and inviting them to compete for a new and honorable title.

Serale estimated half of them would arrive for the challenge, which meant she would be dealing with around thirty assorted fighters when the day came. One in six weren’t bad odds, she decided. Much as she would have liked to help Vino, there was no practical way for her to do so without exposing her potential aid, and then the whole thing would fall apart.

Vino would do just fine, she told herself. He was more than competent. According to Sir Ironhide, he was something of a prodigy with a weapon. And he had the perfect amount of ability and deference to help her lead what was sure to be a very ragtag team of ponies, at least at first. The dossiers didn’t lie, though. If his influence was not among her officer corps, his combination of charisma and deference, then her chances of making her new guard work would be very slim indeed.

In Which There Is Some Much Needed Counseling

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In retrospect, Cobblestone thought, she should have seen it coming.

The ring around her horn itched, and the shackles, while padded, were quite firm around her hooves. She was flanked by two guards to her front, and her rear was guarded by another of them, their expressions uniformly bored as they faced forward silently. The two in front were suspending her via magic, cradling her in a warm-ish, almost stifling cocoon of energy as they all trotted down the hall to her appointment.

After she had won her fight with the colt on the track, Cobblestone had entertained vague hopes that she might be deemed unfit to begin counseling, but the decision had apparently been made to allow her to go ahead with her meeting. Only now, she would be doing it in chains. Cobblestone was getting tired of the chains. She’d never been a big fan of jewelry before her capture, and her experiences so far all but guaranteed that the young thief would never voluntarily wear a necklace or bracelet again for any reason.

The trio of guards stopped, and so too did Cobblestone, the slight lurch forward causing her to lose her train of thought. They were in front of an old wood door, one that was well-polished and gleamed with health. If Cobblestone didn’t know better, she would have said the thing was made of live wood. It unnerved her.

One of the stallions knocked on the door respectfully, and after a brief moment, it opened silently on well-oiled hinges, swinging wide to reveal a well-lit room colored in warm yellows and greens, and covered in shelves on which were displayed a number of odd instruments and books, some of them familiar and others mystifying.

“Leave her by the couch!” a feminine voice called, “I’ll be right with her!”

The guards did as told. Cobblestone hovered forward, through the door, and stopped near the couch. She noticed with a pang of worry that the guards who had been so determined to stay close to her had, in fact, refused to enter the room, and their faces looked the slightest bit worried behind the stoic masks they usually wore. The door swung shut once more, leaving Cobblestone standing rather stiffly by the couch.

With a clatter, the restraints fell away from her legs, though the ring remained on her horn. Cobblestone examined her legs on reflex, checking them over for injuries and such, before she decided to take stock of her situation.

The unicorn who had called for the door to be shut was standing behind a desk, putting a stack of papers away and leaving the surface of her desk, made of the same shining wood, pristine save for a blotter and inkpot. Her coat was a neutral gray, and her mane a slightly darker shade of black. Her eyes, in comparison, were a shade of riotous gold, and everything about them demanded attention from the casual observer.

“Good morning, Cobblestone,” she said, her voice calm and welcoming, like she was greeting an old friend, “How are you doing?”

Cobblestone shrugged noncommittally. “Fine, I suppose,” she said.

“My name is Brandywine,” the unicorn said. “I’m this facility’s resident Cleric and head counselor. Please” she said, indicating the couch, “Have a seat.”

Cobblestone sat, not wanting to appear uncooperative. Perhaps if she was compliant enough, she could leave this place early. It was already putting her on edge. It was too pleasant, like it was some kind of magical ideal of what a counselor’s office should be like. She was feeling right at home, and she’d hardly been in here for more than a minute.

Cobblestone’s brow wrinkled suspiciously. Remembering the lessons Hob had given her, she visualized walls going up in her head. Focusing on them, she turned her magic inward, what little she could muster, and with a bit of effort, she managed to shield her thoughts. Immediately she noticed that she was much more on edge, and that she could feel the distinct presence of somepony in her head that was not her.

“Stop that,” she said, her eyes screwed up tight. “And get out of my head.”

Brandywine’s eyes widened. “My apologies,” she said. “And I mean that sincerely. Here.” She closed her eyes, and Cobblestone felt the pressure on her head lessen immediately. “I’m so used to letting my natural abilities flow that I often forget that I have them on.”

Cobblestone opened her eyes, and noted that the room felt much less familiar to her, which she took to be a good sign. She looked at Brandywine. “What do you mean, ‘natural abilities’?” she asked.

“I’m a Cleric, dear,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”

Cobblestone shook her head no.

“I use the emotions and thoughts of ponies to help with the healing process,” she said. “I specifically am known as a Strummer. I make a psychic connection with others and use my own emotions to help bring about certain emotional states.”

“It’s not as wicked as you might think!” she exclaimed hurriedly, seeing the look on Cobblestone’s face. “For one, the more I influence your own emotions, the more yours influence me. And I can’t make you feel anything you aren’t already feeling, at least a little. I don’t put feelings into you. I just…encourage the ones that are already there.”

“So…you were trying to make me feel at home?” Cobblestone asked.

Brandywine nodded. “That’s why I’ve painted this room to be a more pleasant color than the rest of the facility, and keep it well lit. It puts ponies at ease, and lets me help them relax. Life in confinement is stressful. I consider it a bit of a kindness I can offer to ponies. I can usually get a feel for their moods when they enter my office. I do my best to help them with that.”

“Do they know what you’re doing to them?” Cobblestone asked.

The other unicorn’s lips curled in a little moue of distaste. “Not in as many words, no,” she said. “To be perfectly honest, I oftentimes don’t realize I’m doing it. It just sort of…comes naturally.”

She shook her head. “But enough about me, Cob. Let’s talk about you! I’d heard you had some trouble in the exercise yard today.”

Cobblestone nodded slowly. “I guess you could say that,” she said, once more on edge. Was this the part where she got peeled apart?

“Tell me what happened,” Brandywine said kindly. “I’m here to listen.”

So Cob recounted the tale of her morning, from the waking up and shuffling downstairs, her faint twinge of pride at being out of bed on time, her desire to get a good run in, all of it. She left out the part where she felt afraid she was going soft, and tried to gloss over the details of a fight as best she could.

“And why did you feel the need to whisper to the colt?” Brandywine asked. “The fight was over, wasn’t it?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “That fight was. I won the next fight by letting him know I was willing and ready to go again if he tried anything.”

“And do you think it worked?”

Cobblestone thought about that for a minute. If she knew ponies like she thought she did, the answer was obvious. “It depends on if he’s been in a lot of fights before.”

Brandywine cocked her head. “How do you mean?”

Cobblestone took a moment to figure out how to explain to this clearly upper-class pony the principles of a street fight and the culture that surrounded each engagement. “Where I come from, ponies respect strength,” she said. “If you’re strong, you can basically do whatever you want to the ones weaker than you. So you need to go out of your way to make sure you come across as strong, so ponies don’t try to start something you don’t want any part of. Like a fight.”

“So you have to fight, sometimes,” she said, “And when you do, you need to let the ones who challenged you know that you’re willing to fight again if you win.”

“And if you don’t win?” Brandywine inquired politely.

“Then you have something to prove,” Cobblestone said. “You have to prove you can handle yourself in a fight.”

“So you’ll be challenged again?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “No. If he’s smart, he’ll find somepony he can beat in a fight to prove he’s still not one to be crossed. If I’ve beat him before, he won’t want to fight me again, at least not until he’s regained some confidence.”

Brandywine nodded slowly. “You seem to have a remarkable grasp of how pones think,” she said.

“Not really,” Cobblestone replied. “I just know how to fight, is all. I hope he does, too. Then he won’t bother me again for a while.”

Brandywine chuckled. “I see,” she said. “You look thirsty. Would you like some water?”

Cobblestone nodded, accepting a glass poured from the Cleric, which she cradled in her hooves. She waited on the counselor to drink from her own glass before doing the same to her own. If the counselor recognized her suspicion, she showed no signs of it.

“So when are we going to start counseling?” Cobblestone asked. “Not that I don’t like talking with you, but I thought we only had a bit of time.”

The unicorn arched an elegant eyebrow. “Tell me, Cobblestone,” she said, “What is it that you think a counselor does?”

“Isn’t it you job to figure out what ponies are doing wrong?” Cobblestone asked, “So you can ‘fix’ it?”

Brandywine shook her head. “No, Cobblestone,” she said. “I don’t find you what’s ‘wrong’ with you, nor do I try to ‘fix it’. That’s not my job. My job is to help you come to terms with who you are. The best way to do that is by talking with you, about you. Once you know who you are, you can find what parts of you that you don’t like, and take steps to fix them. I’ll be there to help you.”

“That sounds too good to be true,” Cobblestone said skeptically. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” Brandywine said.

“Bullshit.” Cobblestone’s tone became hard. “There’s always a catch. What is it?”

“I’d have thought you knew the ‘catch’ already,” Brandywine said. “You’re here in the mornings for an hour each day, unless you’re sick. If you don’t want to talk during the session, I’ll have to reschedule you for another time slot during your free time. Aside from that, there’s not catch.”

“So you and I have to talk each day for an hour?” Cobblestone asked.

Brandywine nodded. “Usually about you. If we run into trouble discussing something, I have ways to make that easier for you, too.”

“Like what?” Cobblestone asked. What Brandywine was saying sounded an awful lot like “We have ways of making you talk.”

“Well, I’m trained in mental magic, but that’s a last resort,” the Cleric said, “So I know a number of ways to make things easier for you. Approaching fears slowly, using rewards to help you negate feelings of unpleasantness attached to certain events, that sort of thing. I’ve had great success with using tea as a reward.”

“Tea?” Cobblestone said doubtfully. “How does that qualify as a reward?”

“You’ve never had my tea,” Brandywine said mischievously, a twinkle in her eye. “Maybe later on, you and I can share a pot. Suffice it to say, we’ll find ways to help you come to know yourself. And I say we, because my job is to help you along that journey. It’s my calling.”

“What do you mean, ‘calling’?” Cobblestone asked. “If you don’t mind my asking, that is,” she said, feeling as if she might be crossing a line.

Brandywine shrugged her shoulders simply. “I was trained by a master in the Celestial Empire,” she said. “He himself was Imperial. Much of my training was focused on me finding the calling that spoke loudest to me, the thing I felt I could do the best. I’d always liked ponies, so helping them seemed like a natural step.”

“You were in the Empire?” Cobblestone asked. “Is it true that they have Pegasi pushing the clouds around?”

Brandywine nodded. “It was a sight to see, to be sure! But it’s true that things there aren’t as unstructured as we are used to. Still, it’s good to be back in my home country.”

There was a moment of brief silence, as Brandywine appeared to reminisce about her days in the Empire. Cobblestone considered her counselor seriously, wondering about what else she might have learned there, and how she could have made it back. All the stories she had heard involved being dragged away by gangs of ponies with no faces and being tossed in a bonfire if you tried to leave Celestia’s lands.

“But that’s enough of that,” Brandywine said, jolting Cobblestone out of her own thoughts, “I’d like to get to know you a little better. Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

“What do you want to know?” Cobblestone asked.

“Whatever you feel comfortable telling me,” Brandywine said. “Start wherever you like.”

Cobblestone thought. Should she tell her about herself before she got to Starfall? Or would this stranger like to hear more about why she was in prison? Would it be proper to discuss how she still felt an almost burning need to have another cup of Kiss? Or how she felt like she was waiting on a promise made to her by a pony who had no need to keep it, and might not even have the authority to keep it if she wanted to? The fact was that Cobblestone had quite a lot to talk about, and she had almost no time to talk about it.

She flicked through her memories, and realized that no matter what she talked about, that the pony in front of her would be a constant companion for the next six years. She shivered. Six years was a long time. If she was going to be here for that long, she might as well get something out of it, and Brandywine seemed to be trustworthy, at least as far as she could tell. She took a deep breath, and decided on a topic.

“I guess…do you want to hear about the first time I stole something?” she asked.

Brandywine nodded silently, her magic fetching a pad of paper and a pencil. “Do you mind if I write this down?” she asked. “I find keeping notes helps me in my work, but I don’t need it if you don’t want me to.”

“That’s fine,” Cobblestone said, “Are you ready?”

Brandywine nodded, her pad at the ready.

“So,” she began, “When you’re one of the youngest in a gang, you start out as a lookout while other ponies rob houses and that kind of thing. So after Mum died, I had nowhere else to go. I joined up with the West River Gang, the one she had worked with. You don’t get a free meal there, but you did get work and shelter. So I became a lookout.”

“I did that for about a year without anything going wrong,” she said. “And then we went to go and rob this house that was upriver a ways, one we’d been scouting out for about a week…”

“So that’s when she said we’d meet next week, and I ended up leaving,” Cobblestone said, climbing into her bed.

Fascinating, Hob said drily from his customary place on her desk. And will you be taking tea with her, too? Maybe learning new tricks? I’ve heard the best rewards come from rolling over and speaking on command.

“You’re one to talk,” Cobblestone said. “You’ve hardly said a dozen words to me this week unless you wanted me to sneak you food. Which isn’t easy, by the way.”

Oh yes, Hob said. The champion thief is having trouble sneaking out scraps. I would weep for your incompetence if I weren’t so used to it by this point.

“If you’ve got a problem with the way I do things, then go ahead and leave!” Cobblestone said. “Find another pony willing to tolerate a talking cat and good riddance!”

I chose you, child, Hob said. And whether or not you realize it, that means Something.

Cobblestone snorted. “You’re infuriating.”

The feeling is quite mutual, I assure you, Hob said, But perhaps you are right. I have been remiss in speaking to you, child. The fault is mine. I allowed the mood of this place to overcome me. It is…oppressive.

Cobblestone frowned. She didn’t like the atmosphere here, but it didn’t feel that bad. Not bad enough to warrant Hob’s silence for the better part of a week.

“Do you…do you want to talk about it?” she asked. “How do you mean, ‘oppressive’?”

Can’t you feel it, child? Hob asked. The dull uniformity of this place, the quiet monotony. It seeps into my bones and stifles my heart in its pumping. I’m choking on the dying dreams of the ponies surrounding you, like the stench of rotting fruit. What’s worse, it’s starting to cling to you, too.

Cobblestone thought to herself. Hob was right, in a way. The prison still terrified her in many ways, but she could almost feel that terror giving way to a dull acceptance, and from there into complacence. Hadn’t she been bemoaning the loss of her abilities just that morning?

Neither you nor I are meant to rot in a cell, Cobblestone, Hob said, his dry voice gaining the tiniest hint of passion. To see you slipping into the role of a quiet prisoner is something almost profane. And since you and I are, for the moment, together, I would have little choice but to follow you into that complacency.

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone said. “Why can’t you just leave?”

Because I chose you, Hob said, exasperated. Daft girl, must I explain everything? I have been sent to aid you. I could no more stray far from your side than you could separate yourself from your horn.

He leapt from his spot near the desk, bounding exactly once across the floor before landing in the bed where Cobblestone lay, The mare flinched for a moment before relaxing. His coat was remarkably soft and warm. The tomcat curled up next to her.

Besides, he said, You can be quite entertaining at times. I watched you in the exercise yard. You fought like a disreputable bitch. I approve.

Cobblestone chuckled, allowing Hob to lie against her, feeling his soft breaths against her coat. “I learned from the best. So if we can’t stay for long, and if I’m supposed to take Dis’s advice and not ally myself with anyone, what’s our best option?”

Hob gave an irritated flick of his ear. That meddlesome idiot never told you to avoid allying yourself, Cobblestone. He warned you to be careful. Putting your trust in the Evening Court already led to your incarceration here, so I wouldn’t recommend doing it again.

“Serale told me to hold on and she’d get me out soon,” Cobblestone murmured. The lights in the cell block went out, and a hush even greater than the one that had presided over the space before fell across the cells. She held still, waiting on her eyes to adjust to the darkness. A single slat of moonlight spilled into her window. It would remain for perhaps an hour before the heavenly body left her for the evening. The time it spent in her window was growing shorter, as well. Winter was on its way, and with it came the rotation of the heavens.

That may be. But do you really want to rest your freedom on Serale Everstar’s mercy? Or her ability? A unicorn who cannot do magic is a poor excuse for a unicorn indeed.

“I might not trust her mother, but I trust her,” Cobblestone said. “I suppose you’re right, though. Maybe she won’t be able to get me out. That leaves me with two options. The first would be attempting to contact Lady Hedera.”

Hob growled deep in his throat. I’d sooner stay here than see you in her service, he said. She does not bode well for you, Cobblestone. But yes, she is an option. One I would suggest you not take.

“So the second,” Cobblestone said, her voice contemplative, “Would be for me to make my own way. Wait for an opportunity to get out, and take it.”

Spoken like a true wildcat. I approve.

Would that really be the best course of action? Cobblestone didn’t know. Even if she did escape, a dubious proposition in and of itself, where would she go? She couldn’t stay here, clearly. Hiding under the nose of Lady Everstar was an exercise in foolishness, but she had nothing to her name, not money or connections. She didn’t even have her cloak. If she procured transportation, would she really want to return to Crescent City?

And if she did, how would she make her living? She had no skills other than her thieving, and she knew all of the raw magical talent in the world wouldn’t make a difference if she couldn’t find a teacher. Perhaps it would be better to flee the other way, towards the Celestial Kingdom. She could sneak across the border; find her own way to a better life for herself. Maybe, if she was very lucky, she would be able to find a teacher.

She discarded the idea almost immediately. She would fare no better there than she would were she to stay here, and as an added burden, she would be trapped in a place that was rumored to be almost akin to Tartarus manifested.

Cobblestone groaned. There were no good options available to her.

Might I offer a suggestion? Hob asked. Simply wait for an opportune moment, and when it comes, be ready to take it.

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “You’re the all-powerful cat. A guard can walk right by this cell and not notice you sunning yourself on the window. I’m watched every day and night, because new prisoners are considered dangerous here.”

The wardens of this place are wise to fear you, Hob said. But for reasons even you are not aware of. Dis would not have chosen you if you were not extraordinary, child. Nor would I have.

“Please,” Cobblestone groused, settling into bed. “If I were so ‘extraordinary’, I’d probably be able to think of a way out. Or force a way out. Or something.”

Hob, without warning, turned his head and nipped her sharply on the flank.

“Ouch!” Cobblestone exclaimed, squirming away from the cat, which was still once more, as if nothing had happened. “What was that for?”

Hob opened one eye, which glowed yellow in the dim light. You were being self-pitying, which has not once helped anyone accomplish anything.

Cobblestone picked Hob up with her magic, lifting him out of her bed and setting him back on his table against his yowls of protest. “You’re not sleeping with me tonight, you little fiend. That hurt.”

Better to be angry than morose, I think, Hob said, curling up on the desk. At the very least, it makes you more interesting.

“Goodnight, Hob,” Cobblestone said grouchily, and then she raised her mental defenses, blocking the cat out.

Hob closed his eyes, and Cobblestone settled in with the vain hope of falling asleep soon. She wouldn’t get much rest that night, her head filled with the thoughts of what to do next, how to facilitate her removal from prison, and all of the options available to her. As the last shimmering beam of moonlight began to vanish from her cell, Cobblestone’s eyes began to flutter shut. It may have only been a dream, or it might not have been, but before she fell into an uneasy slumber, Cobblestone could have sworn that she saw the face of a young mare peeking through the bars of her window, watching her closely.

The Prancing Pony was one of those establishments that straddled the line between seedy and well-kept, its location by the river near the gates attracting a healthy mix of pilgrims and locals, and its excellent ale keeping the gold flowing into its coffers with ease. It also never hurt that the barmares were pretty, the food more than decent, and the entertainment was usually of high quality.

More often than not, the pub could be counted on to be open and rollicking with good cheer well into the night, and the ones that lived near and might be kept awake…well, they were certainly welcome to air grievances with the proprietor, and he usually did an excellent job of keeping on their good side. A well-placed gift of food to a hungry family, or a lengthy chat with a new father over a mug of the Pony’s best brown nut ale never went awry.

The Prancing Pony was almost always a place of good cheer, but inevitably, there would be a point in time where it was anything but. Tonight was one of those rare nights where everything went wrong, and the bar’s owner, Hops, blamed it on the fact that the fiddler they had hired for tonight had shown up sodden with drink and with a tuneless fiddle. He had lasted for perhaps fifteen minutes onstage, before a well-thrown pewter mug collided quite violently with his head, thrown by one of the patrons with more discerning musical taste and fewer scruples than their peers.

“Stupid idiot,” Hops growled, sliding another mug down the bar to its waiting recipient, a Gryphon who caught it eagerly and drained it dry before grabbing his kit and polearm from the wall and heading into the night. He never worried about drunken Gryphons, the massive bastards managed to hold twice the amount of ale as the best of drinkers, and even if they did get tipsy, they almost always chose to collapse in a corner, rather than smash up his furniture.

A table in the corner began to speak in raised voices, and the experienced ears of the barkeep pricked forward in order to catch the possibility of a fight before it started. Thankfully, the voices crescendoed in a laugh rather than blows, and a crisis was avoided. Hops wiped his brow nervously, and knew it was only a matter of time. Food and drink drew in his customers, but without something to occupy them, this packed house would surely begin to find other ways to entertain itself.

Hops’ eyes flicked across the bar to the bouncer by the door, an old ranger by the name of Twiggy. Twiggy was a certain misnomer, seeing as the stallion in question was roughly the size of a barge. Even Twiggy looked to be unnerved by the crowd, and Twiggy never looked unnerved by anything. It was going to be a bad night, he could just tell…

“Pardon, sirrah?”

Hops blinked, his gaze meeting that of a young mare whose face was possessed of very fine features, dominated by deep green eyes and framed by a mess of frizzy red curls. She smiled at him, and Hops could have sworn there were fangs in her smile before she tossed a lock of hair out of her eyes, distracting him. When he looked again, they were gone.

“I was passing by, and noticed thy lovely tavern, quiet as a grave save only for the babble of thine erstwhile patrons. Such a house as this shouldn’t suffer so without music. Wert thou in need of one, perhaps?” she said, her voice a rolling brogue as clear and beautiful as a stream of fresh water.

Hops noticed the satchel slung over her back, marking her as a traveler. “Can you sing or something?” he asked. “Our performer for tonight showed up drunk and can’t play a note on that fiddle of his.”

The young mare inclined her head. “I possess a passing familiarity with the fiddle, goodsir. And I would fain exhibit what modest skill I doth possess with my voice as well. Would that suffice?”

Hops felt his spirits lift. He might not replace any furniture tonight after all! “Girl, if you can play a fiddle and sing, you’ll have whatever you want for your work!”

The young mare shivered. “An…intriguing proposal, sirrah. I accept. And my name is Leanan du Feinan, if it please you.”

“Please me or don’t!” Hops said, grabbing the fiddle from the slumped over “musician” who was currently curled up against the side of the bar. “Just get up there and play!”

The young mare nodded, grasping the fiddle with her magic before making her steady way through the crowd, to the raised platform that passed for a stage. Shrugging her pack off to the side, she seized the fiddle in her hooves, balancing on her hind legs, much to the approval of the crowd. There weren’t many unicorns who used the old styles of playing anymore.

She drew her bow across the strings, releasing an evil-sounding hiss, before her brows furrowed and she tweaked a few strings, tuning the instrument. She tuned and plinked, plinked and tuned, before finally she was satisfied. Another draw of the bow released a low, warm sound, rich as honey and twice as sweet.

The inn fell silent, hanging on the anticipation of the next note, and the strange young mare grinned a wicked grin before drawing it across the strings in a sharp, stiletto pattern that caused the pulses of the assembled drinkers to race and jump while their ears set themselves on edge all at once. The pattern resolved itself into a complex whirlwind of notes that seemed to be reaching out to the crowd, begging them to rise from their seats and begin to dance, to follow the tune where it might lead them. Indeed, a few of the more wine-touched patrons did just that ,taking to the dance floor and kicking up their hooves.

And then she began to sing.

Her voice was a pleasant alto, lilting and sweet, the sort of sweetness that wormed its way into your dreams and drove you mad with wanting. This alone would have sent the patrons into a frenzy, but it was what she was singing that turned them all wild. Words flowed from her mouth like a font of foreign wine, intoxicating and tantalizing all at once, almost familiar but maddeningly alien. Though they were foreign words, their meaning was very clear.

Let me take you away, they said. Abandon your cares and dance awhile with me, dance until you cannot anymore. The night is young, and so are you.

When the authorities arrived later that night, in response to reports of a disturbance, howls and screams unlike any the neighbors had heard, they were baffled to find The Prancing Pony completely empty. Not a scrap of evidence remained that anypony had been in trouble, save for a few spilled mugs of ale and a couple of overturned chairs. Aside from that, though, there was nary a clue to be found.

Noted in their report was the fact that there was a very fine fiddle left behind, resting neatly next to a discarded apple core.

In Which There Is Darkness And Light.

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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.

In Which Our Heroines Prepare Themselves

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Libra had the strangest feeling of déjà vu.

“Explain to me,” she said, her voice calm, “Exactly what happened here.”

The Commandant of the prison, a greying Pegasus stallion with a stiff mustache, shuffled his hooves nervously. “Well, Magus Libra,” he said carefully, “It would appear that sometime last night, there was an…incursion.”

“Incursion.” Libra said flatly, raising an eyebrow. The stallion began to sweat profusely.

“Yes Magus. The intruder managed to make her way past and in some cases through the guards, and from what we can tell, immediately made her way up to this cell block, to the cell you see before you.”

Libra eyed the cell. The magical energy that had once powered the cell was nowhere to be found, though the runes themselves could be seen, burned black into the stone where they had shorted out. It was a small miracle the entire cell hadn’t exploded outright.

“The other prisoners on the block heard the intruder speak with the occupant of the cell,” the Commandant continued.

“Cobblestone,” Libra said, peering at one of the runes more closely. “Her name is Cobblestone.”

The stallion bowed his head. “As you say, Magus. Reportedly, the intruder made her way up to this cell, and was overheard requesting that the prisoner accompany her out of the prison. Presumably Cobblestone refused, because it was at that point that the intruder became violent.”

“And was it at that point that the cell block was destroyed?” Libra asked, referring to the somewhat dilapidated state of the block around her. “Destroyed” might have been an overstatement, but not much of one. Magical feedback hung heavy in the air, playing havoc with the horns of the unicorns laboring to replace the destroyed catwalk and mortar in the cracks in the thick stone walls. In one or two places, actual holes had been blown into the walls themselves, through which could be seen the no-longer secure interiors of the cells. The floor especially was in need of repair. Giant gouges had been dug into the floor, which was stained with something dark that smelled very unpleasant. If Libra didn’t know better, she would have said that a massive cat had been hunting in the corridor.

The stallion nodded jerkily. “Yes, Magus. When the remaining guards on shift managed to get to the cellblock, they found that the intruder had gone. Half of the prisoners were unconscious, and the other half were…well, ma’am, they were crying tears of joy. Moaning something about colors. They calmed down, of course, but it was disconcerting, not to mention difficult to get a story out of any of them.”

“And what did they tell you when they calmed down?” Libra asked. She withdrew a small knife and a glass vial from the bag at her side. Gently, she scraped a fragment of the stone into the container, sealing it shut tightly before replacing it in her bag. “Understanding they might not be reliable witnesses.”

“They said that the intruder was a witch of some kind, Magus. A dark magic user.”

“What kind? A necromancer? A sorcerer? Thrall-maker?”

“I wouldn’t know, Magus. Neither did they. They said that she was accompanied by a…thing, but their descriptions of it all vary. They all agree that it had very large teeth, though. Apparently the witch walked down the aisle, found Cobblestone’s cell, asked her to leave, and then tried to force her. There was the sound of combat, and if they are to be believed, Cobblestone actually taunted the witch. Called her a few uncomplimentary things.”

“Such as?”

The Commandant coughed roughly, his wings fluttering in agitation. “It’s not particularly proper language, but she called her a bitch and invited her to come and get her.”

“Which is where Cobblestone fell unconscious?” Libra asked.

The stallion shook his head quickly. “No, Magus. They said that there was the sound of an explosion, a few thuds, and then the witch came back down the line with young Miss Cobblestone in tow. It’s at that point that things get a bit confusing in the reports, as most of them started to cry again. What we got was something about her reaching out to them, using their strength, and something about beautiful lights. Apparently whatever the filly did managed to frighten the witch off, because we found Cobblestone unconscious, but alive, right over there.”

He indicated a spot about thirty yards down the block. “Damndest thing too. She had a cat with her, a black tom. He disappeared somewhere in here when the medical staff arrived to get her to the infirmary. Before that, he simply watched the guards restore order before slinking off in the other direction. Not sure how a stray got in here. We think he might have been here during the fight too, though I’m disinclined to believe the testimony from the prisoners about him.”

Libra looked at him strangely, the first time her gaze had strayed from the blackened runes. “What did they say about him?”

The stallion coughed, tugging at the collar of his jacket uncomfortably. “They say he fought the thing the witch had with her, Magus. Moreover, he is supposed to have won and eaten the damn thing. He was also about ten meters tall and had bigger teeth than the thing he was fighting. I don’t know if it’s true or not, all we saw was a black cat.”

“Fascinating,” Libra said.


Libra’s lips pursed. “Commandant, you are being relieved of this prisoner. She is to accompany me out of this prison whenever she recovers. You are not at fault in this matter, but it is clear to both Lady Everstar and myself that this prison is ill-suited to the containment of Miss Cobblestone and the addressing of her needs.”

She withdrew a set of papers from her bag, handing them over to the Commandant. “These are the papers ordering the transfer of her sentence and remanding her to the care of the Crown. All of the legal necessaries should be in there, I checked myself.”

The Commandant didn’t bother to read the papers. If Magus Libra said they were in order, then they were most definitely in order. Even if they weren’t, he didn’t much care to argue the point with her. Her reputation was formidable, to say the very least, and he would be glad to get both her and Cobblestone out of his prison as soon as possible.

“As a matter of fact, Magus,” he said respectfully, tucking the papers under his wing, “Our healers have determined that Miss Cobblestone has sustained only blunt trauma injuries, and even those were light, surprisingly so considering she faced off against a magic user of considerable power. She has been healed up, though we decided it was best to keep her in stasis until we could figure out what to do with her.”

“She’s unconscious?” Libra asked.

“Magically induced sleep,” the Commandant clarified. “We felt it would be kinder to her, seeing as we didn’t really know how to handle the situation. Nothing like this has happened before.”

“Take me to her,” Libra said, “Immediately.”

The Commandant bowed, relieved to have a demand to meet instead of her stony lack of emotion. “Right this way, Magus,” he said, leading her from the block.

As they walked, Libra took in the walls surrounding her, shivering a bit. She’d examined this place time and again for any hint of wrongdoing, but by all accounts and her own observations, it remained only a place of healing and guidance, nothing more. And yet, there was still something subtly wrong with this place. Maybe it was the uniformity of the cells, the perfect symmetry of their interiors. Maybe it was the feeling of being watched, or the idea of a prison designed especially for the youth. It sat wrong with her, somehow.

They turned into the corridor, the normally quiescent pastel colors of the walls stained with something dark. As they walked, Libra withdrew another vial from her bag. She didn’t even break stride as her scalpel and glass collected another sample before vanishing into the bag. They descended the stairs, avoiding the larger stain at the base. Libra didn’t bother sampling this one. She knew all too well what would have left the rusty stain behind.

They crossed through a cafeteria empty of ponies. The smell of corn mash filled the air. Good food for prisoners. Bland, but nourishing. The symmetry here continued as well. Four tables to a row. Eight seats to a table. Six rows in total, for a maximum of one hundred and ninety-two inmates. Libra could see an open door leading to a courtyard at the far end of the cafeteria. On the other side of the cafeteria, directly across from her, was a hallway, this one with a regular guard stationed at its entrance.

“How many guards were on duty last night?” Libra asked as they started down the length of the well-appointed and better guarded corridor.

The Commandant flinched, startled by the abruptness of her comment. “Thirty eight, Magus.”

“And of them, how many were slain?”

“Eighteen, and another driven insane. We’re counting some missing as slain, Magus, seeing as whatever that witch did to them probably didn’t leave much behind. Except for…”

“The bits you found wedged in the gate?”

The stallion shuddered. “Yes, Magus.”

They reached a door near the end of the hallway which opened wide to reveal the infirmary. It wasn’t a large room, perhaps twenty beds, but in the wake of last night’s events, the beds were all full. Most of the ponies were resting peacefully, others were getting there, and the few left awake were silently crying, tears of joy on their faces. A unicorn mare with a gray coat and gray-black hair stood over one of the few remaining ponies, her face screwed up in concentration.

“I’m not sure, doctor,” she said to the white-clad pony beside her. “Whatever happened to them, it’s nothing mental. Nothing I can detect, at least. I suspect the best thing to do here would be for them to ride it out. I’ll go over it in counseling with them when they have their next appointments. Schedule them to me instead of their usual counselors, I’d like to handle this personally.”

Libra waited patiently. It didn’t take long for the mare to sense her presence, her ears pricking up. She turned, the gold of her eyes meeting the blue of Libra’s. Her face remained carefully neutral.

“Magus Libra,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting a visit from you.”

“Brandywine,” Libra said. “I can truthfully say I wasn’t expecting to see you either.”

There was an uncomfortable pause between the two of them.

“I don’t suppose I could ask why you’re here?” Brandywine asked. “Or are you going to try and feed me that old line about ‘Crown business’?”

Libra smiled, a thin smile that showed no teeth. “You know me, Brandywine,” she said. “I like to keep my secrets close. Something you never did understand.”

“Mage bitch,” Brandywine spat, “Take down your walls and face me, and we’ll see who understands.”

Libra allowed the smile to curdle, turn into a sneer. “So emotional, you Clerical types. No wonder you spend most of your time in the bedsheets of better ponies.”

Brandywine’s gray coat began to flush red. “You…” she spluttered, “You…”

“Whore?” Libra asked, arching an eyebrow. “What’s the expression, Brandywine? ‘It takes one to know one’? Not that I don’t find this conversation fascinating, but I have Crown business to attend to. Move along.”

Brandywine swallowed, the red in her cheeks fading, and without another word to anypony in the room, she simply lifted her nose and strode from the room as fast as she could without seeming undignified. Libra’s smile faded as she turned to the Commandant, who seemed troubled at her treatment of his head therapist.

“Has she been in session with Cobblestone?” she asked.

The Commandant turned to a doctor, who coughed nervously before addressing her. “Only once, as a preliminary meeting, Magus Libra.”

Libra let out a slow breath, a hiss of air through her lips. “Let me see her,” she said.

Cobblestone wasn’t hard to find. She was the only pony with a partition up around her bed, isolating her from the other patients. A stasis crystal pulsed warmly above her bed, the pattern soothing, soporific for any ponies who looked at it for too long.

“As you can see,” the doctor said, “She’s more or less unharmed. A few scratches and some bruising, but considering the extent of her injuries when she was brought in, it’s a very well-marked improvement.”

“I see,” Libra said, running an appraising eye over the young unicorn. The healers here had done good work, she observed. There was nothing improperly knitted together, the lack of serious bruising meant that Cobblestone had been handled gently, and her breaths were deep and even without a hint of rasping or wheezing.

She turned to the doctor. “Wake her up, if you please.”

“Magus Libra!” the doctor said. “Miss Cobblestone cannot go anywhere for at least three days! She needs bed rest, further testing to make sure nothing went wrong!”

The Commandant rested a hoof on the doctor’s shoulder. “The Magus doesn’t have three days,” he said roughly. “Wake her.”

“You have my word, doctor,” Libra said. “No harm will come to her.”

The doctor wasn’t happy. It showed in his eyes. But there was nothing he could do. He raised a hoof, and the stasis crystal above Cobblestone’s bed flickered off.

Libra leaned in. “Cobblestone,” she said, her voice low. “Cobblestone, can you hear me?”

Cobblestone shifted, her head spinning. She wanted to wake up, but something was holding her back, dragging her back into an eternal fall. Pale hooves, a weeping neck wound, a familiar face.

Cobblestone… it whispered. Cobblestone…

Ivy leaned in close, pale and white save for a bright red smile dripping dark blood across her front. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.



The unicorn shot up in bed with a cry, hooves flailing wildly as she grabbed for purchase. Her hoof found a railing, her back the mattress. Her breath came fast and heavy, her eyes clenched shut against the bright morning sunlight. She opened them, blinked. White walls and white sheets greeted her, along with several concerned-looking ponies in white smocks, and a familiar pony with a coat of light gold and a mane of black that was further along towards gray, standing next to an important-looking Pegasus stallion in the regular guard’s uniform.

Cobblestone’s brows furrowed. “L-Libra? What are you doing here?”

“I’ll get to that in a moment,” Libra said. “Are you alright?”

Cobblestone blinked, running hooves down her body, checking herself over for injuries. “I think so. What happened?”

“How much do you remember?” one of the ponies in white asked.

Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “There was a pony. A unicorn with a shattered horn. She tried to take me out of my cell, get me out of the prison. I fought her as best I could, but…she was so strong. I almost got kidnapped.”

“And then?” Libra asked, her voice low and curious. She leaned in. “What happened then?”

“There was a light,” Cobblestone said. “And colors.” She racked her brain, trying to remember what had come next. All that remained after she was lifted into the air was covered in a strange fog, glowing with countless colors and spangled with stars unlike any she had ever seen. And then blackness, and her dreams, fading with the sunlight.

“I can’t remember what happened next,” she said. “All I remember is thinking I had to do something fast, and then everything went blurry, and then I woke up here.”

Libra nodded understandingly. “That’s to be expected,” she said. “You suffered some severe trauma after the fight.”

She frowned. “Are you feeling alright, Cobblestone? If you’re having memory gaps, perhaps you should have your head examined.”

Cobblestone shook her head. “I don’t think it was from the injury,” she said. “It feels magical, somehow. You know what I mean, right?” she asked, looking at the doctors and Libra hopefully.

“I think I do,” Libra said. “If I recall, the term is ‘magically inflicted memory loss’, correct?”

“It is, Magus Libra,” the doctor confirmed. “Cobblestone has undergone extraordinary magical stress, which has taken a toll upon her ability to recall certain information. This is why I want her to remain here, for further observation.”

“Absolutely not,” Libra said. “Milady Everstar was very specific. She comes with me.”

“I thought that I was sentenced to remain here,” Cobblestone said. “Six years, right?”

“Your sentence still stands,” Libra said. “However, you’re to be remanded to the care of the Crown under an indentured contract. I’ve been sent to collect you. Assuming you can walk out of here with me.”

“And that’s where I’m worried,” the doctor said. “Miss Cobblestone, your injuries have healed in a fashion that could be described as ‘miraculous’. You appear to be fine save for a few cuts and bruises, but the fact is that we just don’t know if that’s the case. All of our diagnostic spells came back clean, but…”

“There’s no way to be sure, right?” Cobblestone asked. “I’ve heard it before.” Before anypony there could stop her, Cobblestone threw the sheets to one side and rolled out of bed, hitting the ground on all fours, teetering slightly.

The doctor rushed forward to aid her, but Cobblestone held up a hoof, forestalling his assistance. She straightened, lifted her front hoof, and bent her back. She rolled her neck from side to side and gave her tail a flick, nearly catching it on the bedside table.

“Alright,” she said. “I’m alright. Let’s go.” She took a step forward, and her face turned a curious shade of green. She swallowed and shook her head. Cobblestone took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Now I’m alright.”

Libra smiled. She opened the bag at her side, and withdrew a length of green fabric. “I brought this for you,” she said. “It’s cold out there.”

Cobblestone reached for her cloak, clasping it around her neck. The fabric hung on her like an old friend.

“It’s a bit long,” Libra observed. “We’ll get it taken in when we get to the Regia.”

“I’ll do it,” Cobblestone replied. “I’ve always tailored my own clothes.”

The pony in the uniform, the one she just now recognized as the Warden, spoke. “Miss Cobblestone,” he said. “I feel that before you leave, you should examine the other ponies in this room.”

Cobblestone looked at him strangely. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Your actions last night had…consequences,” the Warden said. “It’s easier to show you, rather than telling.”

He drew back the curtain that had until now separated Cobblestone from the rest of the ward, revealing the other patients. Cobblestone stifled a gasp. These were ponies she knew, ponies she saw on a daily basis. All of them were comatose or approaching that state. With a jolt, she recognized the pony she had gotten into a fight with in the exercise yard, his brutal features smoothed with sleep and his cheeks streaked with dried tears.

“What happened?” she asked. “Who did this? Was it the pony who attacked me?”

“According to them,” the uniformed stallion said, “It was you.”

“Commandant, that is quite enough,” Libra said.

The Commandant ignored her. “I’m not a unicorn,” he said gruffly, “But it seems to me that this is something she needs to know. For the moment, she is still a resident of this prison, Magus. So hold your tongue.”

Libra flushed, but was silent. The Commandant continued.

“You did something last night, Cobblestone. What it was, we don’t know. And you can’t remember. Or you say you can’t. To me, there is a very easy way to resolve this issue. Brandywine is an expert at restoring memory and healing mental trauma.”

Libra stomped one hoof against the ground roughly. “Absolutely not, Commandant.”

The Commandant turned to address her. “You will either allow her to undergo a basic evaluation of her mental state, Magus, or I’ll pass these papers on to the prison board to review and we can get back to this in six months or so.”

“My orders are to have her to the Regia as soon as possible, Commandant! We can have her examined there!”

“Until I know what she did to her fellow inmates, I will not have her released!”

“That’s not up to you!”

“I beg to differ!”

“Stop!” Cobblestone shouted. An eerie silence filled the room. Even the nurses stopped in their tracks to see what would happen next. Cobblestone took a deep breath. “I’ll take the test. How long will it take?”

“No more than a minute,” a new voice said from the door. Cobblestone spun to see Brandywine entering the room. “Apologies, Magus,” she said. “I felt the tension in here reaching dangerous levels, especially with so many emotionally compromised patients nearby. I felt I was duty-bound to return.”

Libra said nothing.

“Do it,” Cobblestone said. “The sooner this is done, the sooner we can leave.”

Brandywine nodded. “Of course, Cobblestone. If you want, you can sit down. It might make it a bit easier.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Libra warned her. “You’re under no obligation.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “Might as well. It’s the easiest way.”

“Let her be, Magus,” Brandywine said. “It’s a quick and painless procedure. Not my specialty, but easy enough to do.”

Libra’s face screwed up unhappily. “Very well,” she said, subdued for the moment, “Be quick about it. We have much to do today.”

“Cobblestone,” Brandywine said, “I need you to look at me. Relax, and take down the mental barriers you have up.”

Cobblestone did as she was asked. It was odd, she realized. She was so used at this point to having her barriers up around Hob that when they were down, she felt almost naked. She shifted uncomfortably.

“Good,” Brandywine said. “Now just close your eyes.”

Cobblestone did as she was asked. Her world went black. A sensation flowed across the inside of her head, like cool water that fizzed and popped. Cobblestone was made aware of another presence in her head, something that wasn’t her.

“Relax, Cobblestone,” she heard Brandywine say. “It’s just me. I need you to think about what happened last night, help me find the way. I can’t do anything here without your help.”

Cobblestone thought back to the night before. She remembered the black shadow of the witch’s cloak, the gleam of her beast’s fangs, and she felt a thrill of fear run through her. She heard Brandywine gasp, and remembered that whatever she was feeling, Brandywine was likely feeling as well. So she felt a pang of regret as she remembered the feelings of helplessness, desperation, rage, and panic rolling over her like wave after wave, breaking against the link she shared with the Cleric. She remembered the bands fastening around her neck, and heard Brandywine sob gently. And then, all that remained was blackness.

Except the blackness was no longer impenetrable. The cool water in her head washed against it, and the blankness in her memory blurred, smeared, and was washed away like so much ash. Cobblestone remembered the fire she saw blazing in the night, the bright colors she had no words for, and the feeling of being intimately connected with every pony she had drawn from. The light in her head grew brighter and brighter still, a great conflagration of thought and magic, and then suddenly everything went dark again.

Cobblestone opened her eyes. Brandywine was swaying on her hooves, her own eyes closed tightly. A single tear ran down her cheek.

“I did it,” she murmured. “Cobblestone, you should be free to go. Commandant, she is free of mental damage, and her memories should be restored. I see no further reason to keep her here. If you need to speak with me today, I will be in my office as usual.”

The commandant’s eyebrows rose. “What did you see?” he asked. “Are you alright?”

Brandywine smiled and nodded. “We have nothing to fear from Cobblestone’s magic,” she said. “Nor should we fear for the other patients. They’re safe. Cobblestone,” she said, turning to her, “I wish you luck, and strength.”

With that, she left, leaving only Libra, the Commandant, the doctor, and a very confused young mare behind, wondering what exactly it was she had done, and what more she was capable of.

Serale looked herself over in the mirror, and realized that she was not happy with her appearance. The red of the gown she wore resembled freshly-spilled blood, broken only by two slashes of white down the hem of it. Miniscule vines were embroidered on her sleeves, falling delicately to the bases of her hooves, and stopping just short of the shoes of bronze she wore. A black chain wrapped around her neck, somber and without ornamentation. Her hair was done up in a bun, save only for a few lose strands which framed her face. She looked beautiful, formidable, and every inch her mother’s daughter.

And yet, it didn’t feel right.

Today was the beginning of the trials for the mages accompanying her Guard, set to begin at noon. Serale had wanted to present herself as a leader, one fit to command troops in combat, and yet, the only thing she had to clad herself in were silks and satin.

“I know that feeling,” a voice said from behind her. Serale jumped. Her mother was standing behind her, taking her daughter in the mirror. “The dress clothes are nice enough in court, but they don’t really translate well to use in command. I’ve come to remedy that.”
Serale bowed her head. “Mother, you startled me. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You know me,” Twilight said. “No real need for doors. I’ve come to give you something.”

“How do you mean?”

Twilight sighed. “I was going to do this sooner, but…well, you know. Things have been busy. Do you know what happened to me at the age of sixteen?”

Serale shook her head.

“When I was sixteen,” Twilight said, “Really sixteen, all those hundreds of years ago, I was sent from my home in Canterlot to a place that was hardly even a dot on the map. I spent the next ten years there, surrounded by the best friends I had ever had.” For a moment, her eyes were misty with memory, as Twilight remembered a time long past, perhaps a better time.

“It all ended in tears, of course,” she said, “But that’s beside the point. The point is, I left home for the first time at the age of sixteen, and never went back. Looking back, I wish somepony had done more to prepare me for the road ahead. It’s behind me now, but I would have been saved a lot of heartbreak with a bit of guidance. That’s something I’ve tried to give you for all of these years. And now you’ve gone and turned sixteen, and proven that I can’t protect you forever. So I’m glad I decided to give you what I did for your birthday.”

Twilight’s horn flashed, and what resembled a cube of solid stone appeared on the floor of Serale’s room. Another flash, and a line appeared around the top third, widening into a crack as Twilight lifted the lid of the box off, setting it gently to the side.

“It’s a joint gift,” she said. “Aniothrax, our Draconic ambassador, provided the materials for it. I did the work myself.” She lifted a piece of metal from the box, a helm that gleamed black in the light of the early morning. It was smooth and without adornment, almost unnaturally smooth.

“It’s not as sturdy as some of the other pieces I’ve done,” Twilight said, “But it’s still adamantium. The armor’s designed to deflect blows rather than cancel them outright, along with a few other… modifications. Well?” she said, looking Serale over, “What are you waiting for? Take off the dress, Serale. It’ll never fit under the armor.”

Serale scrambled to do as she was told, a grin on her face. Mother’s armor was legendary, even among the masters of the craft. The only ones who were considered to have a better grasp of the craft were Gryphons, who were on an entirely different level of metallurgy. At last, she stood disrobed, and reached for the bun on her head.

“Leave the bun,” Twilight said. “Much better than a braid. Learned that the hard way.” She raised an arming doublet up, holding it in the air with a critical eye. “I had to guess at your size,” she said, “So it might be a bit big. Trust me, it’s better than wearing something small under your armor.”

Serale let herself be dressed in the doublet, the belt, the leggings which fastened into the doublet with cunning little buckles that disappeared into the leather with a quick tuck, and all the rest. She relished the feel of the mail coif, black Taurish stuff that breathed almost like cotton but was strong enough to turn a spearpoint with ease. This too was buckled into place with a belt, a wider leather belt with a few loops left open for weapons she did not have. And then came the armor.

It was an almost-traditional design, the armor molded to match the musculature of her body, as the examples of ancient armor she had seen in her books had described. The grooves and mounds of the armor flowed like water, each piece buckling seamlessly into the next, fitting over her like a second skin and moving just as easily. Each piece buckled into the backplate, the last piece remaining only the breastplate of the armor. Before she picked it up, however, Twilight held up a hoof.

“This next piece is a bit different, Serale. You’ve seen our House guards, correct?”

Serale nodded. “Their armor has the six pointed star in red, correct?”

Twilight nodded. “I’m not permitted to allow you to wear the House sigil unless you are in my service, Serale. So I modified the crest for you.”

She turned the breastplate. There, in gold so pale as to be mistaken for white, was a star with five points, inside of which was coiled the sinuous form of a purple dragon, all fierce eyes and flashing scales, a green ridge running along its back. The detail was incredible, to the point where Serale could have believed it was a miniature of one of the majestic creatures themselves.

“The star has five points for now,” Twilight said, “But when you have taken your own House, you will wear the six pointed sigil of our own family. And there’s one more thing. The inside of this breastplate contains something special. There is a network of crystals inside that attune themselves to the wearer.”

“What do they do?” Serale asked.

“They charge themselves using latent magical energy,” Twilight explained, buckling the plate in place. “They use that power to ward off kinetic energy. Essentially, they absorb magic and use that same magic to deflect attack. There’s a bit of a problem, though. I couldn’t get the crystals to register low-energy attacks. Spells like stunner spells, sword strikes, axe swings, that sort of thing, it won’t block. Lethal spells and bullets, though, will do just fine. It’ll still absorb the magic from those lesser spells, you’ll just have to ride them out.”

She took a step back, admiring her handiwork, the process of nearly a half hour of preparation. “There,” she said, levitating Serale’s mirror in front of her, “Done! Take a look!”

Serale did so, and the mare in the mirror was once she almost didn’t recognize. The armor, taken together, seemed to be almost a hole in space in the shape of a mare, rendering most of her as a piece of moving night fashioned into the shape of a warrior. Her coat, normally a very light silver, gleamed the white of bone in contrast. Her bun was no longer elegant, it was instead severe. She looked like a warrior now. She looked ready to lead.

“We still have some time before you must leave for the arena,” Twilight said. “I’d like to go over how to use the armor with you. Is that alright?”

Serale nodded, her chest filling with warmth as her mother leaned in close, making sure she was safe.

“First,” Twilight said, “We have a few notches here for belt loops. I know you like to use a rifle, so it’s wide enough for a bandolier as well…”

In Which The Shadows Gather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still not interested,” Creed said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the other two portraits?” Creed asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that goal would be?” Creed asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Necromancy…” Creed said, awestruck and horrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightshade inclined her head to indicate she should continue.

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

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

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

In Which There Is Selection

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Cobblestone winced as another bucket of warm water was dumped over her head, rinsing the lye soap out of the brown of her mane. To the observer, the effect would have been noticeable immediately, her hair lightening past the shade of dusty earth and into something approaching a respectable chestnut. Thankfully she had remembered to close her eyes, getting a faceful of caustic soap wasn’t her idea of fun, but it was the best soap the prison had to offer.

Directly after leaving the ward where she had been kept, they had approached a small bathroom similar to the ones used by the prisoners, tiled in white with exposed pipes running along the walls, gleaming a bright copper. The difference here was the absence of showers. Instead, low baths were set into the floor, one of which was swiftly filled with water by an attendant nurse, who took Cobblestone’s cloak from her, hanging it on a hook by the wall.

She had been shooed into the tub by the same nurse while Libra looked on, and despite her protests to the contrary, the nurse insisted on washing the unfortunate unicorn on her own. The nurse, thankfully, didn’t appear to be taking any special joy in it, though her actions weren’t what could be called rough. Instead, they were strangely impersonal, as if Cobblestone was simply another task, like the laundry that needed doing.

“I think that shall be sufficient,” Libra said. “What about you, Cobblestone? Feeling clean enough?”

Cobblestone nodded thankfully, hoping to get out of the tub. “I’m clean, I promise. Please let me out.”

The nurse focused, her horn flashing. The basin began to drain immediately, leaving a damp Cobblestone to clamber out of the bath and search for something to dry herself with. The nurse produced a brown towel from seemingly nowhere and began to dry her with quick economy. Simultaneously, a hairbrush flew through the air towards Cobblestone’s mane and set itself to the task of teasing the knots and snarls from it, and none too gently.

It was perhaps five minutes later that Cobblestone stood straight haired, dry, and shivering on the white tile of the bathroom floor. The nurse was brushed aside gently by Libra, who smiled at her.

“I think that will do, Mira. She looks fine. Could you please bring in the packages I left in the other room?”

The mare blanched, her pale coat turning whiter as she bowed briefly, one eye hidden by a lock of errant blue hair which had slipped from her bun. The heavy door clanged shut behind her, and Libra and Cobblestone were left alone together for what seemed to the young unicorn like the first time.

Libra turned to her. “So,” she said. “I believe there are a few things I need to say before we leave, in order to clarify things.”

Cobblestone nodded, tucking her hair back behind her ears and choosing not to say anything.

“Firstly, the transfer out of this prison is conditional. You will work in the employ of the Crown in whatever way deemed fit, until the expiration of your contract. You can be assured that your work will never put you past your limits, nor will it place you in the path of harm intentionally.”

Libra’s horn flashed a light purplish-pink, and a pendant appeared from thin air, hanging suspended in front of her. It was a disk made of beaten silver, containing within its bounds a star with five points encircled by a dragon. “The work in question, unless you have any special objection, is as my apprentice. Six years is an appropriate amount of time for a term of study under a mage. Is that alright with you?”

Cobblestone’s heart began to race. She had thought that her chances of becoming a mage were gone when she was sentenced, and here was an opportunity to study magic, real magic! And not just under a mage, but under the Mage.

“I’d be honored,” she croaked. “I accept.”

Libra smiled, pride and relief mixing on her face. “Then before you put this pendant on, allow me to explain what your duties are as an apprentice. It will not be an easy path. Your days will be long and your nights will be short. You’ll be learning different ways to tap the power you have, and then practicing them with me.”

Her tone turned serious. “I must be frank, Cobblestone. There will be a long road ahead of you. Most ponies are groomed for apprenticeship from a young age, and half of them can cast their own high-level spells by the time we get them as apprentices. You’ve got catching up to do, and a lot of it. There’s going to be late nights of study and early mornings of exercise back to back for weeks on end before you can rest.”

“Most foals we get don’t make it to the status of a full Mage,” she said. “Some can’t handle the physical aspect, others can’t keep up with the studies. Some just lose interest, and I think that’s the worst way to lose a potential student. If you keep at it, Cobblestone, magic can be rewarding in more ways than you can imagine. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can receive, and not many ponies get the chance to put on a set of robes.”

It was at this point that the door creaked open, and the nurse returned, bearing with her a bundle of packages tied up in brown paper bounded with string. She said nothing, merely placing them on the floor before closing the door once more, leaving them alone.

Libra picked up the first and largest of the packages, unwrapping it gently. From within the paper she drew a mass of black fabric, seemingly shapeless, which she held suspended in the air with a mixture of pride and something approaching reverence.

“This,” she said, “Is a set of apprentice’s robes. They’re blank now, but by the time your apprenticeship is done, you’ll have earned at least seven of your twenty runes.”

Cobblestone looked at the robes. They didn’t look special at first glance, shapeless black cloth, but the closer she looked, the more she saw. The fabric itself was very high-quality, well-woven and almost fluid, like silk, but different, sturdier. Woven through it were strands of something else, some thread of a different quality that she couldn’t quite see outright.

“You’re seeing the enchantments in the robes,” Libra said. “These garments will never stain, never tear, never burn or wear away unless you’re handling something of significant magical power. They’re warm in the cold, keep out most of the rain, and keep you cool in extreme heat. That’s because the strands are woven through with stasis spells through every inch of them. Quite frankly, these robes often outlive their usefulness in our apprentices, seeing as they tend to do a lot of growing. I got these a bit big for you.”

Cobblestone admired the robes, though she did not reach for them. “So what about runes?” she asked. “Do they show how good I am or something?”

“No,” Libra said. “Each rune governs a facet of known magic, and in turn, an aspect of Magecraft. Alchemists often wear the rune Pyruseria, which governs Change and transformation, as well as Garasher, which rules over Unraveling and unbinding.”

Cobblestone frowned, shivering. Something about the way Libra had said “Change” and “Unraveling” sent shivers down her spine. “I thought each rune was for one facet?” she asked. “Why did you list two for each one?”

Libra smiled. “You’re attentive. Good. Each facet has two parts, a major and minor part. The runes reflect this.”

“We’ll have to get your things tailored and such,” Libra said, “But for now you’ll have to wear the robes as they are. We’re running late as it is.”

She unwrapped the second package, withdrawing a belt with several loops attached for holding different items. “This is to bind your robes with,” she said. “The belt itself is nothing special, but the things you will craft will be your most steadfast tools. They can be adjusted as well, to ensure the right sizing.”

The next package was also handled gently, and it was oddly misshapen. When Libra unwrapped it, Cobblestone could see why.

The hat contained within was made of the same black material as the robes, and tapered to a gentle point. A wide brim encircled the bottom to shade her eyes, and a few wrappings of fabric hung from the back, clearly meant to be tied in order to avoid it flying away.

“I know it seems ridiculous,” Libra said, “But this hat is one of the most important traditions associated with magecraft. It’s older than any current country, older even than the rule of the Princesses themselves. Every depiction of ancient mages shows them wearing these hats, and by doing the same, we carry on their noble and ancient work.”

Cobblestone took in the objects floating before her, the somber black clothing and the pendant hovering in front of her as if daring her to reach out and take them. She felt suddenly nervous, as if she stood upon the precipice of a dizzying drop into an abyss she could not see the bottom of. Suddenly, she began to reconsider.

Was this what she really wanted? Years of magecraft? Rules and lessons and endless tasks with no guarantee of success? Hob’s advice rang loudly in her ears. She wasn’t one to be tied down, whether it was by bars of steel or ones of her own devising. Maybe Dis was right, maybe the Everstar family was going to be nothing but trouble. Certainly no good had come of being near Serale, not since the night…

The night Ivy died. Because Cobblestone hadn’t been strong enough. Her fear vanished, replaced by anger. Because she wasn’t strong enough physically or mentally, not smart enough, not brave enough. It was her stupidity and bull-headedness that had forced them to rob the inn that night as opposed to waiting for a better moment. In front of her was a chance to change that, possibly the only chance she would get to remedy the mistakes she had made.

She reached for the pendant, and slung it around her neck.

The rest of the clothing came to her naturally, wrapping around her all at once as she felt herself lift into the air, the robe falling across her back and down her legs, the hat sitting on her head, the belt buckled firmly around her waist.

Libra smiled. “You look the part already,” she said. “I greet you as my apprentice, Cobblestone.”

“Thank you,” Cobblestone said. “What should I call you, Magus?”

“The traditional address is “Master or “Mistress”, Libra said, “But I think in this case I’ll settle for my title in formal settings. Informally, you can call me by my name.”

Cobblestone looked at herself in a nearby mirror. The mare there gleamed a healthy white, properly clean for the first time in a long time. Her face, while still drawn from mild malnourishment, was healthy and well-groomed, framed by locks of brown mane that held the slightest bit of curl. Even her tail, which she had long ago resigned to being tangled and full of burrs and other detritus, was well-groomed and shone faintly with health. In all, Cobblestone looked almost nothing like the pony she had been a month ago.

The robes felt right, a bit big but at the same time familiar, as if she had been accustomed to wearing such a thing all of her life. It felt right to be wearing an apprentice’s robes, like she was born to them. She smiled. She had taken the first step on her journey.

“Come,” Libra said. “We have much to do before we leave this place, and we have places to be, my apprentice.”

Cobblestone grinned. “I’ll follow you,” she said. “My Magus.”

The winter sun could not rightly be said to have beaten down on the two ponies who left the jail that morning, though it was bright enough to have at least given it a decent effort, so much so that both stood temporarily dazzled in the glare after the dim surroundings of the prison they had just left. It was just as well that they stood still, for a black coach, pulled by a team of soldiers in purple gear, approached them at the door, negating the need to walk.

“After you,” Libra said, the door to the vehicle swinging open.

Cobblestone cast an eye around the exercise yard, apparently looking for something while she shifted the weight of her rather underfilled knapsack on her back.

“Is something wrong?”

Cobblestone snapped back to attention. “No,” she said, “I was just…”

“Looking for Hob?” Libra asked.

Cobblestone nodded, relieved that she wouldn’t have to explain it to Libra. “He ran off after the witch showed up,” she said, “I don’t know where he is.”

“Nightshade is not a witch,” Libra said, “And as for Hob, I would imagine he will find you again. I have more than a few questions to ask that damned cat.”

Cobblestone climbed into the carriage, Libra following close behind her. She clung to her bag tightly, looking at the outside world as if she was seeing it for the last time as the door shut behind Libra. She sat down as the carriage began to move without warning, causing Cobblestone to jump.

“I’ve never done this before,” she confided in Libra.

Libra looked at her strangely. “Left prison?”

“Ridden in a carriage,” Cobblestone clarified.

Libra’s face turned soft, clearly chastened. “My apologies,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”

Cobblestone shrugged. “It’s not a problem,” she said. “I was just making an observation.”

Libra shook her head firmly. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I need to stop thinking of you as a thief, Cobblestone. As of now, you are apprenticed to me.”

“So what does being an apprentice mean?” Cobblestone asked. “Will I be helping you cast spells and that sort of thing? Or is it like a fisher’s apprentice where you have to bait nets for six hours a day?”

“A bit of both,” Libra said. “You’ll be learning different ways to tap the power you have, and then practicing them with me.” She lifted the shade of the window, letting in light. Cobblestone watched as they passed through the gates of the prison, and it finally struck her that she was really leaving this place and not coming back. A wave of relief washed over her.

“As I said, there will be a lot of practice,” Libra said. “I was trained with physical exercise and classroom work in the morning, and practical application in the afternoon. It’s a tradition that’s worked well so far, so I’d imagine we’ll be practicing similarly. Our first order of business is to find out what you do well in and what areas you lack skill in, so we can address them.”

“You mean like what sort of magic I can do?” Cobblestone asked.

Libra made a noncommittal motion with her head. “Magic’s only part of your education, Cobblestone. Languages are important, especially High Equestrian and Magical Runic, or Ancient Equestrian. Mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, all of these need to combine for a strong understanding of magic. It’s more than shoving energy through your horn, magic behaves certain ways, and so does the world around it. If you know how to make it work for you, then there’s no part of the world or magic that you can’t make easier.”

The carriage rattled over a bridge, and Cobblestone frowned. They weren’t heading for the Regia.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “I thought Serale wanted to see me.”

Libra looked at her, the gold of her coat glinting in the late morning light along with the pepper and cinnamon shades of her mane. “I said Milady Everstar,” she said, “Meaning Lady Everstar wishes to speak with you. However, that is for this evening. You’ll be taking a meal with her and her daughter after we finish our business at the Crown Arena.”

“What’s there?” Cobblestone asked.

“The reason that I, too, will be wearing formal attire,” Libra said. “We’re going to be assisting with the selection process of the mages that will enter Lady Serale’s service.”

Cobblestone’s heart began to beat a bit faster. “Me?” she asked.

Libra looked at her, startled. Seeing the worried expression upon Cobblestone’s face, she couldn’t stop herself from chuckling. “No,” she said. “I’ll be doing the selecting. You will watch.”

Cobblestone looked at her teacher curiously. “How do you select them?” she asked.

Cobblestone shifted nervously in her seat. The arena was huge, able to seat ten thousand, and while it wasn’t completely full, seating near the ring was occupied as a rule, and most, if not all of the ponies wore the black robes and pointed hats of mages. She herself was seated in the third row, and that was what made her uncomfortable. Her seat had been held, and the ponies to either side of her were a good deal older, wiser, and undeniably more powerful than she was.

Libra stood upon the sand of the arena, her cloak flapping in the chill breeze. With a simple movement, not even a flash of her horn, the cloak and indeed the rest of her clothing vanished; replaced by a robe very similar to the one Cobblestone was wearing. The difference between hers and the young unicorn’s, however, was where Cobblestone’s robes were completely blank, Libra’s were covered in runes. Even from a distance, it was easy to tell that Libra had long achieved mastery of her craft. Cobblestone managed to count ten, fifteen, eighteen, and finally twenty runes shimmering silver in the midday sun.

The hat perched on her teacher’s head was also richly adorned, though in addition to the band of twenty runes which circled the brim of the hat, there also was a band of colored silk, gleaming the purple of House Everstar and fastened in place with a pin in the shape of a six-pointed star. Her robes were kept under control with a belt of black leather, which held little save an arming sword, kept in a sheathe of the same black leather, unadorned save for a small ruby in the pommel.

Serale’s voice rose above the wind and the murmur of the crowd.

“Let those who would compete enter the arena!”

The portcullis on the far side of the pit began to rise, and in began to file mages of all descriptions.

Perhaps “mages” did not do them justice, and indeed, not all of the ponies arrayed in the arena wore the distinctive black robes of their craft, with only eight of the fifteen chosen similarly attired. Two wore armor of bright steel, one bearing the crest of a sturdy oak tree and carrying a hammer, and the other, standing beside him, wore the crest of a crescent moon and carried by her side a long scimitar. Three were zebras dressed in simple clothing, one carrying a staff from which dangled a totem made of feathers and shells. The final two wore armor of a different sort, mostly patchwork consisting of chain, boiled leather, and a few pieces of plate from varying sets of armor. Over these they wore cloaks of plain blue, and at their sides were straight short swords.

A murmur arose from the crowd, apparently directed at the ponies not wearing the black robes. Cobblestone noted that even the most well-decorated of the mages in the ring didn’t possess twenty runes, and an odd swell of pride rose in her chest. Apparently she wasn’t the only one to notice. A few of the ponies were shuffling nervously in the presence of the Magus, perhaps regretting their choice to come and apply.

“Those who wish to leave the arena may do so,” Serale said, her voice imperious and commanding. “There will be no shame in that. Those remaining will be facing Magus Libra, the Court Mage of House Everstar, to determine their place in my service.”

One of the zebras, as well as two of the mages in black, turned and left the arena, leaving twelve remaining. None of those still in the arena looked at all confident, despite the fact that they outnumbered the Magus by a hefty margin.

“The remaining combatants will be split into four groups of three,” Serale said. “First group. Zantira of the Golden Plains Tribe, Sir Dunlevy of Oakton, and Solaria ex Azuria, step forward.”

The pony in armor with the hammer, the zebra which carried no staff, and a mage stepped forward. A circle of energy rose up around them, keeping them in the bounds of the arena with Libra. The bounds had been clearly drawn. They fanned out, the knight taking the middle and the two others flanking him. Libra watched them all, analyzing their steps, their weaponry.

“No physical attack is to be made during the examination period,” Serale announced. “Any attempt to do so will result in disqualification. No explicitly lethal attacks are to be performed. Any attempt to do so will be met with appropriate force. The parameters for qualification are as follows.”

She gestured to the ring. “Your goal is to avoid leaving the ring. Magus Libra will be attempting to knock you out of the ring. Those of you able to knock Magus Libra out of the ring will be accepted into the ranks of my Guard with no further examination. You are to work together in this task. Aside from the restrictions I have laid, you are free do as you wish to accomplish this goal.”

Her voice hardened. “Contestants! On my mark!”

Cobblestone could feel the magical energies building up in the ring, and watched Libra’s hooves set underneath her. The three contestants had spread out, two flanking her with the armored pony in the middle.

“Begin!” Serale called.

Libra’s first moves were almost unbelievably swift. A shield flickered into existence around her, gleaming purple as the very earth itself rose up to shield her from the frankly ferocious attacks of her competitors. The wall served to obscure her as well as shielding her with startling effectiveness against the withering magical assault that had been presented. The mage’s attack, in particular, was supremely aggressive. A needle of fire, vicious and bright, immediately began carving its way through the rock and exposing the shield beneath, causing the stone to glow bright red.

The knight and the zebra were no slouches either. The zebra flicked a hoof, sending powder at the rock which appeared to eat through it with ease as she grabbed for another pouch from somewhere on the belt she wore. The knight was nothing if not straightforward. Lines of force began to pulverize the rock, causing it to crumble much more quickly than the mage or zebra could manage.

It was a surprise then when the shield was revealed to the world minus the pony that had been standing inside. The attacks ceased immediately, but it was too late for the mage in the ring. Libra appeared to one side of her, and with a flick of her horn, sent her tumbling across the sand and over the line. The zebra and knight turned to face this new threat, but it was too late for the zebra. Another magical assault sent her reeling, this time a gust of wind, causing her to put a hoof wrong and sending her out of bounds.

The knight hefted the hammer from his back, and Cobblestone had to suppress a gasp, thinking he was surely about to charge her teacher. But instead, he merely pointed it at Libra, and the next blast of energy she cast was bent to one side, seemingly diverted by an invisible shield. This wall of unseen force began to move, then, as evidenced by the pulverization of the rock wall that remained, now covering nothing, the shield dispelled.

Libra bowed her head, set her hooves, and the knight’s eyes widened in shock as she appeared to catch the wall, straining with effort. It took but a moment for her to send it back to its source, and soon the knight found himself out of the arena as well, hoisted by his own petard.

Polite applause echoed from the massed ponies of the stadium, and Cobblestone joined in. Even she could tell that Libra’s defense had been masterful, achieving results with minimal effort. The three contestants bowed respectfully to the Magus, a gesture which she returned, and waited to one side, nursing bruises and such. The knight in particular looked shaken, though his armor had protected him from the worst of it. Either he didn’t know his own strength, or Libra’s attack had genuinely surprised him. Cobblestone thought it might have been a combination of the two.

“Angelus of the Magekillers, Fulgura ex Pomona, and Rorem Secundus ex Mirantique, step forward,” Serale ordered. One pony in a blue cloak, along with two mages, stepped into the ring. They took up a similar position, waiting on the mark to begin. Libra did likewise, her stance low and guarded.

“On my mark,” Serale said. “Begin.”

The three didn’t waste any time attempting to get Libra out of the ring. Fire, force, and lightning shot forth from the three mages, in a clear attempt to overwhelm any defenses Libra would have put up. Libra, however, didn’t move from her spot, or indeed take any visible action. Instead, the lines of magic sent her way appeared to bend around her, twining around each other into a lance of pale orange energy that lashed savagely through the air at one of the mages, who was forced to roll to one side with remarkable agility and speed.

The lance continued through the air, bending back towards the other mage, who managed to get a shield up in time. The shield managed to turn the attack, but only just, failing at the last minute and knocking the mage back, but not out of the ring. Finally, it headed for the pony in the blue cloak. His face wrinkled with effort, and he drew his sword and slashed at the air in front of him with a single deft motion.

The lance split in twain, each portion speeding to one side of him close enough to cause a wind to lift up his cloak. He retaliated with another bolt of lightning, but Libra was already gone, blinking out of existence and appearing to one side. The lightning bolt sped through the air and struck one of the mages instead, knocking her out of the ring.

At this point it was only a matter of time. The Magekiller was remarkably adept in his defense, but Libra was far beyond his ability to handle. His horn flashed electric blue once, twice, as he parried probing bolts of magic and even managed to send a few back. One of these ricocheted off in the direction of the mage who had nearly been driven out of the ring, catching him off-balance just as he was recovering and sending him tumbling. But each spell drove him just a bit further back, until he was fighting on the edge of the line. Libra, seeing her chance, stamped a single hoof on the ground. The edge of the arena rose up underneath him, depositing the Magekiller over the line.

Another round of polite applause rippled through the arena, this one a bit more emphatic, as the contestants exchanged bows with one another. Though it was a formal event, clearly the crowd enjoyed a good show as much as the next pony.

Serale’s voice once more rang out through the arena. “Pacem ex Sapphirus, Honoria ex Salices, and Ceres ex Anima, take your places.”

The assembled mages murmured as the three robed ponies stepped into the ring. Two of them, Pacem and Honoria, were clearly experienced. The third, Ceres, had only seven runes on his robes, indicating that he had apparently just finished an apprenticeship. Nonetheless, he stood proudly in the ring, ready to begin.

Libra watched him intently, and even from a distance, Cobblestone could tell that the elder mage was troubled. But aside from her expression, she made no move to stop him from taking his place.

Serale paused for a bit longer than was necessary, perhaps realizing that the pony in the arena was younger than his peers. But as he showed no signs of leaving, she spoke. “Contestants, on my mark,” she said, her voice sharp. “Begin!”

There was an explosion of light inside the arena as the three mages let loose with a barrage of attacks. Clearly, they had come to the conclusion that their best bet was to overwhelm their opponent. Fire, the perennial favorite, flickered through the air in great amounts, causing the air inside the barrier to waver and shimmer. Libra herself was obscured by great gouts of flame, encasing her in a roiling sphere of light and heat which gradually unfurled itself into a loose pillar. Libra’s shield was visible through the black smoke that was now filling the arena, far more smoke than there should have been given the fire itself gave off almost no smoke.

It became clear what Libra’s plan was. The arena was soon full of smoke, obscuring vision and obstructing breath. Coughing could be heard, and soon the smoke was broken by three lights given off by three horns. A flash of magic, and one light went sailing from the circle, revealing a mage that looked frankly relieved to be out of the circle.

It was a stroke of brilliance, really. The first thing a unicorn did when confronted by unexpected darkness was to conjure forth a light. They couldn’t cast a spell on something they couldn’t see, after all. All Libra had to do was keep her horn dark until she could get in position, and she could find her opponents with ease.

Her opponents clearly had the same idea. A breeze picked up in the arena, dispelling the smoke and restoring sight, but it was already too late for the second of the mages. Libra’s horn spat twice, and two bolts of magic carried the mage out of the circle. She whirled, searching for her third target, a spell on her horn and ready to fire.

The bolt came out of nowhere, a coil of smoke thicker than the one around it. Bright green, it soared through the air and struck true on Libra’s side, catching her off balance. The mage stumbled, nearing the edge of the circle, and by dint of determination and sheer dumb luck, caught herself before putting a hoof over the line. Her return volley was fierce and efficient, and the young mage, Ceres, could only last a moment before he, too, was knocked from the ring. Libra’s horn flashed, and the smoke began to spiral up and away, leaving her standing alone in the ring.

There was applause from the crowd, true, but there were also murmurs and whispers about the young mage. It could have been luck or skill that allowed him that hit, where other, more experienced mages had failed to land a single blow on the Magus. Of course, she was on her third round of tryouts, and so might be winded. But Libra had been conserving her energy, or so Cobblestone thought. She shouldn’t have been tired, not yet.

The three mages bowed to Libra, who returned them all graciously. Especially low was the bow of the young mage, who appeared almost frightened, as if he might have offended Libra by daring to strike her. She returned the favor by keeping her head inclined just a bit longer than she had with the other two mages, a gesture of respect.

Serale’s voice resounded through the arena once more. “Lady Cheval du Ombre, Zara of the Great Rocks Tribe, and Prasinus of the Magekillers, on my mark,” she said.

The three ponies in the arena readied themselves, sensing weakness in their opponent. The zebra with the staff was chanting under her breath, working towards something big, while the armored mare with the scimitar and crescent moon crest had unsheathed her blade, which glowed with a blue edge. The Magekiller had thrown back the hood of his cloak, horn spitting and sparking white as he waited for the mark to begin.

“Begin!” Serale called.

Thunder roared from a clear blue sky, and a bolt of lightning sped down from above as the zebra struck her staff on the ground. The armored mare had thrown up a shield of dark blue energy in preparation for whatever was on the way, which saved her from an unfortunate early out, as the Magekiller’s horn flashed alabaster, causing an explosion of air that laid a thin layer of frost on the sand of the arena.

None of the blows landed, as Libra was already gone. What appeared next, however, was something unexpected. Three copies of Libra stood in the arena, each of them identical to the last detail. Immediately a barrage of magic erupted from their horns, each spell apparently just as real as the last. Curlicues of bright orange and pink and green spiraled through the air alongside gouts of flame and lines of purple force. What appeared to be silver serpents crawled through the air, shattering on impact with the hasty defenses thrown up by the contestants. No illusion was being cast, at least not in regards to Libra’s attack.

The zebra’s staff managed to ward off the attacks, runes flaring into life along its length, but not for long. It cost precious seconds for her to bring forth a new powder from her belt, enough to knock her back almost to the edge of the arena. The Magekiller was faring no better in his defense, clearly out of his depth. He was the first one to fall, tumbling from the arena in ignominy.

The armored pony, Cheval, was solid as a rock, secure behind her defenses. Her saber flicked through the air beside her as she searched for an opening in the magical barrages. It took her a moment, in which she appeared to be at a loss, but inspiration struck. The bubble around her turned into a half-sphere, which began to invert itself, becoming concave, trapping the spells instead of cancelling or deflecting them outright. The copy of Libra which had knocked out the Magekiller focused instead on this new target, attempting to hammer through the defenses while the first copy began to curve magic around the shield. The saber came into play here, as Cheval parried those few spells that made it around her barrier with ferocity.

The zebra slipped out of the ring, leaving the knight to face odds of three to one. She began to lose ground, but she managed to find an opening in between two particularly virulent volleys of arcane assault, and her horn flashed blue. A bolt of raw, brutish force sped towards the copy trying to get through her shield, impacting solidly and causing it to waver and vanish. A grin could be seen on her face as she began to parry the attacks coming her way more aggressively, sure of victory.

Cobblestone’s heart leapt into her throat as she sensed the tide turning in favor of the armored pony. Part of her wanted to see Libra do well, a part demonstrating loyalty to her new master, but she couldn’t deny that watching a single pony managing to succeed in fending off attacks that nopony else could was exciting.

A second opening led to another bolt, another devastating strike dispelled a copy of the Magus. She let her shield drop, using her saber to great effect as she and Magus Libra began to spar in the arena, trading blow after blow as they danced around each other. Cheval’s skill with her magic and steel was astounding, a blur of silver and blue that seemed to turn metal into a living being, a serpent striking and coiling around her in a mesmerizing and deadly dance.

Libra stumbled, and Cheval struck. The blow was warded off, but now Cobblestone’s teacher was on the defensive, bending attacks away from her that rained down thick and fast upon the beleaguered Magus, driving her back to the edge of the circle and defeat. She was five steps away from the edge, now three, now one, now on the very edge of the line. Cheval’s horn flashed, her saber pointed at Libra as she roared with effort, and the bolt sped true.

Libra flickered and vanished.

From the knight’s right and behind her, there was a shimmering, not noticeable in the light show that had heretofore dominated the arena, but now dispelled and obvious to all who saw it. Libra dropped the spell of invisibility she had laid upon herself, and with a neat flick of her horn, tossed the knight out of the ring with a minimum of effort.

There was a moment of perfect quiet in the arena, as the ponies attempted to realize what had just happened. When they did, the applause was deafening. Cobblestone joined them in cheering, both for the deft maneuvering of the Magus and for the skill, tenacity, and ferocity of her opponent.

Libra bowed her head to the crowd, then to each of her defeated opponents in turn.

Serale rose from her seat, and the applause died down. The contestants in the arena, along with Libra, kneeled respectfully.

“Well done, contestants!” she said, her voice rolling forth clear as a bell and sweet as a bird. “Your prowess is clear, and your reputations well-deserved. You have fought well, and for that you should be proud. However, only five from your number may be selected. Magus Libra judged your strength, and so she shall choose those deemed suitable from among you.”

Libra nodded only once before rising and drawing the arming sword by her side. Well-oiled steel gleamed coldly in the light of the day, and she held it aloft for a moment before proceeding to where the contestants remained kneeling.

The tip of the sword was laid first on the knight wielding the massive hammer.

“Sir Dunlevy of Oakton,” Libra said, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

The stallion said nothing, merely rising as instructed, drawing his hammer, and approaching the box, kneeling before it with the head of his hammer resting on the ground.

Libra’s next selection was the Magekiller. “Angelus of the Magekillers,” she said. “Rise and approach the Lady.”

Her sword came to rest next on the shoulder of the zebra with the staff. “Zara of the Great Rocks Tribe,” she said, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

She approached the mage who had managed to strike her. She appeared to consider him for a moment, wavering in her choice before the tip of her sword came down, resting on his shoulder. “Ceres ex Anima,” she said sternly, “Rise and approach the Lady.”

Finally, she turned to the armored pony who was resting as much as kneeling, her face soaked with sweat and her sides still heaving with exertion. The blade fell true, resting on her shoulder. “Cheval du Ombre,” Libra said. “Rise and approach the Lady.”

The armored pony rose, joining her new comrades in kneeling before Serale, who watched over them with an expressionless gaze. As the knight knelt before her, Serale spoke.

“Chosen,” she said, “Do you swear to do me good service, to use your powers for the common good, and to remain loyal to me and those under me until such time as I hold your obligations fulfilled?”

“Aye!” came the answer from the five kneeling ponies.

“Do you swear to obey the orders of those I appoint over you, and to lead those placed under you with bravery, fairness, and kindness?”

“Aye!” came the answer.

“Do you swear to give me your utmost, to fulfill your oaths to me in their totality, and to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to fulfill your service?” Serale asked, her voice ringing true and bright.

“Aye!” came the third and final refrain.

“Then rise in my service, as my soldiers, confidants, and servants,” Serale said. “And begin your service in my Guard!”

There was a long cheer from the crowd as the five rose, proud to serve their lady as her spellcasters. Cobblestone cheered as well, eager to applaud them and caught up in the moment, though it was not for them alone that she cheered. It was in that arena that she had seen what a great mage was capable of, and she had come to realize exactly how lucky she was to be apprenticed under a master such as hers.

In Which Our Heroine Almost Becomes A Proper Lady

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“I still don’t see why I couldn’t have talked to Serale after the tryouts were over,” Cobblestone said, trying very carefully not to move so the seamstress, an excitable older mare who apparently had a propensity for cake, could make adjustments to her dress. The mare, by the name of Velvet, could hardly manage to contain a scandalized gasp at the lack of proper title, something Cobblestone took a small amount of joy in. After all, she had spent the past hour being jabbed with pins.

“Because Lady Serale has other tasks to attend to,” Libra said. “Among them introducing her new mages to the soldiers they’ll be working with. They need to be acquainted with their compatriots by the time the officers are selected tomorrow.” She examined the dress Cobblestone was wearing with a discerning eye. “Recite again the proper order of formal dinner ware from left to right.”

Cobblestone did her best to contain a sigh. Libra had started coaching her directly after she had left the arena with not a care in the world for her dusty and sweaty state. Immediately they had set course for a well-known dress shop, this one in fact, so that Cobblestone would have something to wear at the dinner that night. When Cobblestone had asked about why she couldn’t just wear her robes, Libra had launched into an explanation on the different types of formal situations, of which there were many.

So it was that Cobblestone had spent the past hour on this podium, being measured and dressed and prodded, both with magic and pins. If she hadn’t known any better, she would have sworn that the seamstress was taking pleasure in causing her pain.

Thankfully, she had been able to have some say in what sort of thing she was wearing, which was perhaps the only good thing that had happened since they stepped into this place. Avoiding the ridiculously frilly monstrosities that were apparently in vogue at the Court, she had opted for simpler, more subdued clothing, one dress of dark blue and another of green, a perennial favorite color of hers.

“Salad fork,” Cobblestone said slowly. “Then dinner fork, then the plate…”

“What other dishes might be there?”

Cobblestone thought. “Dessert plate or bread plate on the left. Soup bowl on top of dinner plate, which gets removed after the soup course. Water goblet nearest the plate, followed by the red wine glass and then the white wine glass.”

“Continue,” Libra said.

“Salad knife goes nearest the plate, then the dinner knife. Then comes the spoon, the soup spoon, and the dessert fork. Dessert fork may go in the soup spoon,” Cobblestone said, gaining confidence. Her eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Napkin arranged on the left. Don’t tuck it into the collar of your shirt, ever.”

Libra stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. “You were almost entirely correct,” she said approvingly. “The dinner knife is the one nearest the plate. Count yourself lucky this is an intimate affair, larger formal dinners make the use of numerous other utensils.”

“I don’t understand why I’m going to have to learn them all,” Cobblestone said. “It’s not like I’m going to be attending a lot of formal dinners.”

“Think again,” Libra replied smoothly. “You’re a friend of royalty, which means you’ll be coming to these events more often than you think. Even if you think of yourself as an apprentice, you’re my apprentice. I’m not just a mage; I’m a high-level functionary in the Court. And while it’s not expected of me to have my apprentice with me at every formal event, you’ll be expected to make an appearance at least once in a while.”

Cobblestone grimaced, partly at the idea of being forced to mingle with a bunch of ponies she would have robbed a month ago without a second thought, and partly because she had been jabbed with yet another pin. “Define ‘once in a while’. Please,” she said, remembering to be deferential. Libra had explained the importance of deference in public, even if it wasn’t necessarily expected in private.

Libra looked at her approvingly, noting the request. “I’d imagine there would be a few regarding my position as the Court Mage, probably alongside the other mages. You’d mingle with apprentices, and I with the masters. Very formal events which I’m expected to attend as a matter of Court, which is to say Royal affairs. If Lady Serale decides to host a ball or some such, you may attend.”

“I’ve never been fond of this kind of thing,” Cobblestone said. “Fancy clothes and manners just aren’t my idea of a good time.”

“We all need to make sacrifices,” Libra said. “They’re not so bad when you get used to them.”

“You can step out of the dress now, miss,” Velvet said. “I’ve got all the measurements I need.”

Cobblestone did so, as quickly as she could while being careful. If she managed to tear a portion of the delicate fabric, or pull a pin loose, it would be back up on the podium for her. Breathing a sigh of relief when she made it out of the dress, she stepped off of the podium.

“Your first dress is already being worked on in the back,” Velvet said, tossing her mane out of her eyes. “I’ll have the girls start on this one as well. They should be done in perhaps an hour. While you’re waiting, could I offer you some tea?”

“That would be lovely,” Libra replied with a smile. “Is there a place to take it that’s more private than here on the floor?”

Velvet returned the smile. “Don’t you fret, Magus. There’s a study in the back that never gets any use. I’ll have a girl show you there and bring the tea later.” She turned to the back. “Rose!” she called.

A young unicorn mare with a coat and mane of dark red, wearing a dress of plain black fabric, appeared within moments. “Yes, ma’am?” she asked, adjusting the spectacles that perched precariously on her nose.

“Take these two to the old study in the back,” Velvet said. “And let Ivory know that I’m sending this dress back to her for alterations. It needs top priority, any other project gets put aside. Done within the hour, understood?”

The mare nodded. “Understood, ma’am. The blue Empire dress is marked to be let out near the back of the hem but taken in near the front. Which one of those did you need?”

“Taken in, dear,” Velvet said. “I’ll be back in a minute to supervise. While you’re at it, would you mind terribly asking Cozy to warm up a pot of tea with the necessaries? Not a full service, you understand.”

Rose smiled brightly, an action which caused her nose to wrinkle. “I’ll pass it along,” she said. She turned to Libra and Cobblestone, curtsying as she did so. “If you two will follow me, I’ll show you to the waiting room.”

They were taken back through the shop, past a large, long room that was home to low tables, upon which rested busy sewing machines and bolts of fabric, along with sundry other implements of the tailor’s profession, and housing a half-dozen young mares and fillies, all of them quite intent on their work despite the calamitous noise sent up by the machines. They stopped for a brief moment.

“Ivory!” Rose called. “Cozy!”

Two mares perked up. “Miss Velvet’s sending back the second special order!” Rose shouted. “Ivory’s to stop her order and get ready to receive, and you need to warm up a half-service, Cozy!”

One mare, white as her name implied with a light blue mane, nodded, setting aside her current project, a handsome black jacket. The other, a tannish-brown mare wearing a slightly too-small apron hurried off through another door. The other mares, who had paused to listen, returned to their work in a matter of moments.

“Sorry about that,” Rose said meekly as they continued on, down a hall of whitewashed walls and faded purple carpet. “It’s powerful hard for them to hear, not being near the door and all. I’m senior apprentice, so I need to be standing by ready for Miss Velvet’s command.”

They arrived at a nondescript wooden door, alongside which hung a brass key. Rose took the key from the hook, turned it in the lock, and passed it to Libra. “The door locks again from the inside,” she said. “If you need anything, just pull the bell ringer on the inside. Somepony will be along shortly to assist you.”

She curtsied once more and retreated back down the hall to her station in the long room, leaving Cobblestone and Libra to enter the study by themselves, a simple room containing nothing more than a table and a few chairs, along with empty bookshelves on the wall.

“So that’s what a seamstress’s apprenticeship is like,” Cobblestone said as Libra closed the door behind them. “That’s a lot of ponies to teach at once.”

Libra nodded. “Thankfully, their training doesn’t need to be specialized. They can learn their lessons from one another just as well as from Velvet, and still come out alright.”

“They seem friendly,” Cobblestone said. “I suppose they’d have to be, living together like that.”

“Think again,” Libra said. “They may be friendly now, but eventually they’re going to be competing for business, and they’re already competing for favor from Velvet herself, in order to see who’ll take on the shop when she retires in a few years. Apprenticeships for artisan positions like this can be cutthroat.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Come!” Libra called. “The door’s not locked!”

The mare with the apron cantered in, a tray containing a tea set and small plate of biscuits suspended in front of her. “Here you are!” she exclaimed gaily. “Tea for two. Anything else while you wait?”

Libra smiled at her. “Nothing save privacy,” she said. “Come and get us when the second dress is packed and ready to go.”

The mare nodded, curtsying before leaving the two of them alone once more. Cobblestone reached for a small pastry to one side of the plate, but found her magic blocked by Libra.

“Stop,” the Magus said. “First, pour the tea. Don’t spill.” She lit her horn and waited.

Cobblestone frowned, and reached for the teapot, grasping it with her magic. It stubbornly refused to budge. Furrowing her brow, she tried harder. The porcelain pot rattled, but didn’t move. Straining, she managed to lift it into the air.

“To work proficiently with magic, you must be able to be precise as well as strong,” Libra said. “One or the other will never be good enough.”

Cobblestone grimaced, managing to move the pot over one of the cups. Gently, she attempted to tip it, only to find that the pot was difficult to tilt as well as lift. She glared at Libra. So she wanted to test her? Fine. She’d pass it with flying colors. Slamming her will against Libra’s, she set the teapot to tipping, shaking and rattling over the cup. Her attention was focused entirely on the teapot and the cup, and she felt a small thrill of victory as she saw a stream of fragrant brown liquid flow into the cup.

She attempted to tip the pot back up, but found her will blocked once more. Panicking, she noted that the cup was about to overflow, and desperately jerked the teapot back up to its original position. She watched as a single drop of tea dripped from the spout of the pot, landing on the table.

Libra’s horn flashed, and the teacup rose into the air, the tea rising out of it and spiraling back into the pot, leaving it dry. “Again,” she said. “While you pour the tea, tell me how to properly address a margrave in a formal setting.”

Cobblestone gritted her teeth, beginning the arduous process of pouring the tea again. “The proper term of address for a margrave,” she said, “Assuming you meet them in Court…”

Cobblestone rubbed her temples, wincing with pain. She had needed to pour a half-dozen cups of tea, straining all the while, before she had managed to go without spilling. Only when she had managed to fill the second cup, after four tries, had she been allowed to drink and eat. She hadn’t gotten to enjoy it, either. By the time she’d halfway finished her cup, the dresses had been done and they’d left.

After leaving the shop, everything had resolved itself into more noise and activity, from a ride to a hairdresser who had made her bathe (again!), this time in water that smelled like roses before trying to yank her mane out of her head, finally compiling it into something called a “chignon” that felt like it was pulling the skin of her face back. She’d hardly had time to breathe and adjust to the new sensation before she’d had powders and makeup slapped onto her face, a process which made her cough, which meant that it had taken even longer than usual to complete.

She’d scarcely arrived at the Regia before she’d been taken into a side room, with a final admonishment by Libra to behave herself during the dinner. There she’d been forced into a dress (the green one, she’d insisted on it despite all the recommendations from the attendants she wear the blue), and had half a dozen shoes and bracelets slipped on and off her hooves before the attendants apparently decided on shoes of black, twining up her legs in a manner reminiscent of smoke. A necklace of black silk with a blue stone had been set around her neck, and before she could do more than glance herself in the mirror, she’d found herself bustled down a corridor, arriving in an atrium where the clock told her she was more than fifteen minutes early for her dinner.

Of course, she’d been left alone.

Not completely alone, as the atrium was attached to the corridor, and the corridor was in use by various servants and staff. But her attempts to make eye contact or even be acknowledged by the clearly busy passerby left her feeling more alone than if she had been completely isolated. Not only this, but the break had given her time to realize exactly how far she had come, and begin to panic accordingly.

What was she doing? She was a street urchin from Crescent City! By rights, she should be cutting purses or scrapping in an alley, not having a dinner with the bucking Evening Lady! She didn’t belong here, she didn’t deserve the things she had. Putting her in a dress was like dressing a rat in fine silks, and teaching her magic was like trying to make a knife out of butter. She began to pace, a habit she had never put much stock in, lost in her thoughts.

What if she made a mistake? What if Libra had made a mistake, or Lady Everstar? What if she wasn’t anything special at all? She’d be found out during the dinner, she was sure. She’d make some sort of unforgiveable error, or say something foolish, and then she’d be out on her tail with nothing to show for it, not just a common thief, but one who was seen for the waste of space she was.

“Miss?” a voice called, a low baritone. “Are you alright?”

Cobblestone’s head snapped up to see who had addressed her. A soldier stood in the hallway, an Earth pony with a grey coat and a mane of dark, dusky black. The shining chits on his shoulders marked him as some sort of middling officer, and she recognized the shield badge he wore as that of a knight.

He smiled at her. “Are you lost, Miss?”

Cobblestone swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. “No,” she managed to say. “I’m just waiting. I guess I’m nervous.”

He nodded understandingly. “First time in the Regia?” he asked.

Cobblestone shook her head. “Second,” she said. “I’ve just moved in, I suppose. I’m supposed to get a room after this dinner.”

“Not to worry,” the knight said soothingly. “Your House wouldn’t have sent you if they didn’t think you were ready to be part of the Court.”

Cobblestone’s heart skipped a beat. “I’m actually…I’m not part of a House,” she said. “I’m not noble. Quite the opposite, actually.”

The stallion grinned. “You could have fooled me,” he said. “You certainly look the part.”

Cobblestone felt all of her fear begin to melt away at the sight of that grin. Immediately she began to relax, her confidence returning. “I’m Cobblestone,” she said, offering a hoof to shake. “Pleased to meet you.”

The stallion bowed low, taking her hoof in his. His lips brushed against it gently. “My name’s Vino,” he said. “Vino of House Hedera. The pleasure’s mine.”

The clock on the wall began to chime seven. Cobblestone took her hoof back, her face hot. “That’s my cue,” she said.

Vino smiled. “Good luck, Cobblestone. I hope to see you around.”

He turned away and set off down the hall on his errand, leaving Cobblestone standing alone, watching him go. The door to the dining room opened, a servant sticking his head out. “Miss Cobblestone?” he asked. “Dinner is served. Please, come in.”

The dining room was an intimate room, built for perhaps a dozen ponies in total including servers. Paneled in wood, it was lit from above by a chandelier of magelights, glowing softly in yellow and white. The light glinted off of three well-polished windows, overlooking a courtyard below and the city beyond that. A door of simple red wood stood off to one side, clearly the entrance to the kitchens, if the smells were to be believed, and there was little to distract from the table in its center save an ornate grandfather clock against one wall, keeping silent time.

The table seated six in a circle, covered to the floor by a white tablecloth, but only three places were set. Despite herself, Cobblestone immediately swept the table to examine the silverware, and was both surprised and relieved to see that there was an extremely simplified setup at the table, consisting of one fork, one spoon, and one knife. One goblet for water and one glass for wine stood by the plate, and a soup bowl rested to the side of the plate as opposed to on top of it. Cobblestone felt a small pang of disappointment, realizing that she had been coached on table manners she likely wouldn’t need to use.


Cobblestone tore her gaze away from the table to see Serale rushing towards her, her face alight with joy. The last space between them was covered by a small jump, and Serale threw her forelegs around the young mare’s neck, embracing her closely. She held her friend at length, examining her.

“You look wonderful!” Serale babbled excitedly. “I hope the servants treated you well, I know they can be a bit much sometimes, especially when it comes to things like dresses. How was your trip up? I wanted to speak to you at the tryouts today, but there was just too much to do!”

“It’s good to see you too, Serale,” Cobblestone said, trying to get a word in edgewise. “Your servants were just fine.” She remembered that it laid on her to continue the conversation before dinner. “I’m not used to wearing this sort of thing, so the credit for my looks goes to them.”

Serale smiled radiantly. “They had a wonderful canvas to work with, I’m sure.” The smile lessened a bit. “I wanted to get you out, really I did. Mother and I have fought about it for a week. Was it horrible?”

Cobblestone shrugged. “Not too bad. Better than Crescent City was, that’s for sure.”

“I heard there was a break in,” Serale said. “What happened? I want to hear all about it.”

“Now, now,” a new voice chimed in, warm as wine. “Let the poor girl breathe.”

Cobblestone’s eyes boggled. Lady Everstar had appeared without a sound, seemingly out of thin air. Instinctively, she kneeled, averting her eyes. The purple unicorn giggled. “You can stand up, Cobblestone. No need to stand on ceremony here, this is strictly informal.”

Cobblestone rose warily, still not daring to look her ruler in the face. “Thank you, Milady. It was good of you to invite me to dine with you.”

Lady Everstar raised an eyebrow, impressed. “I see Libra has been coaching you,” she said. “You learn quickly. That’s good.” She gestured to the table. “Shall we sit?” she asked. “I think we’ve all skipped meals today. I don’t know about you two, but I’m famished.”

Serale and Cobblestone took their seats quickly. Cobblestone waited to see what Lady Everstar was going to do, so she wouldn’t make a misstep, but the only thing the monarch seemed interested in was the little bell by her plate. Picking it up delicately, she gave it a quiet ring. Immediately, a door on the far wall swung open, a cream-colored pony wearing a white smock and apron passing through. Several trays laden with covered plates floated behind her.

“Mademoiselles,” she said with a thick accent, bowing low behind a mane of black, “Tonight’s meal will be served in an informal Northern style. Our style of preparation for tonight showcases traditional dishes from across the Kingdom, and consists of five dishes. Tonight’s soup is cream of chanterelle mushroom with barley, inspired by cuisine native to Trottingham. This is followed by the entrée, a Gryphonian dish known as kuku sabzi, flavored with herbs and tomato along with naan bread.”

As she spoke, the tops of the dishes removed themselves, revealing a tureen of pale white soup and what looked to be a disk of green bread flecked with red. Sure enough, flat pieces of bread were laid alongside it in such a manner that they resembled a rose. The next cover lifted to reveal green vegetables soaking in wine.

“Alongside is a simple dish of cold asparagus vinaigrette seasoned with fresh pepper, popular in and around Crescent City. Our final dinner dish is a spiced pumpkin mash, a specialty of Ponyville, and tonight’s dessert is chocolate mousse with winter fruit. Wine shall be along shortly. May I bring anything else for you?”

Lady Everstar’s horn flashed, and the goblets on the tables filled themselves with red wine. “I think we’ll be fine, Kettle. Please inform the servants that we are not to be disturbed until the bell rings again.”

The chef bowed once more, pivoted, and strode from the room without another word. Cobblestone watched her go, and when she turned back to the table her plate had apparently been filled, along with Serale’s and Lady Everstar’s.

“Well?” Lady Everstar inquired. “Dig in!”

Both Serale and Cobblestone did as they were told. Cobblestone looked at the food on her plate, unsure of where to begin. Most of what was on her plate were things she’d never even heard of, with the exception of the asparagus. Deciding that there was as good a place as any to begin, she speared a piece of the asparagus with her fork, cutting a small portion. She lifted it to her mouth, hesitating for a moment, and put it in.

Her eyes widened in shock. Every taste in the dish was clear and present, and most of all, harmonious. The red wine in the dressing laid alongside the strong notes of pepper, all complimented by the smooth tastes of the asparagus itself. She chewed thoroughly, marveling in the sensations, before swallowing.

Lady Everstar watched her with a smile. “Good?” she asked.

Cobblestone nodded furiously. “It’s amazing,” she said.

Serale shook her head. “I don’t know how you could stand that,” she said. “I hate asparagus.” Sure enough, there was none on her own plate.

“I prefer the pumpkin,” Lady Everstar said. “It’s…”

Her eyes narrowed. “Hold on a moment,” she said. Her horn lit up with fuchsia magic, and the entire tablecloth lifted up. A moment later, she dragged a black, furry shape from underneath the table by its tail, holding it up in the air in a cocoon of magic. It yowled once, but went still once it saw Cobblestone.

“Hob!” she cried. “How did you get here?”

I walked, the cat said, flicking its ears irritably. Tell her to put me down, please.

Cobblestone had no need. Lady Everstar set the cat down near Cobblestone’s chair. Immediately, Hob leapt into Cobblestone’s lap, where he curled up, purring.

“There’s something strange about that cat,” Serale said, her food quite forgotten. “I’m sure he wasn’t here when I walked in. I mean, I even watched the servants lay the tablecloth. Where did he come from?”

Tell them nothing, Hob said. The mother knows, and the daughter has no need to.

Cobblestone concentrated. I’m not comfortable keeping secrets from Serale, she replied.

I mean her no harm, I swear by my Power.

Cobblestone sighed, settling for stroking Hob near the nape of his neck. His purring deepened, becoming almost audible. “I’m not sure,” she said. “He has a habit of popping up wherever he’s least expected. I’m glad he’s here, I was worried about him.”

Serale frowned, watching the cat. “That still doesn’t make any sense!” she said. “How could he have known where you were, or…”

“Serale,” Lady Everstar said, returning to her dinner, “What’s the rule regarding magic at the table?”

Serale’s face flushed. “It’s not appropriate conversation,” she muttered. “Sorry, mother.”

Lady Everstar took a sip of wine. “Cobblestone,” she said. “While I understand you’re glad to see Hob again, I’m afraid he’ll need to leave. If he can find his way to the kitchens, or be patient, I’ll have something made for him.”

Acceptable, Hob said. And appreciated. I’ll let you three get acquainted, shall I?

With that, Hob slunk to the floor, padding on silent paws across the room and out of view. There was silence for a while, which was broken by Lady Everstar.

“So!” she said brightly. “I’ve heard that the tryouts for your knights are tomorrow, Serale. How do you think they’ll go?”

Cobblestone busied herself with the food, keeping quiet while Serale spoke about credentials and experience, logistics and the like. She idly checked the clock in the corner of the room, and sighed internally. It was going to be a long dinner.

In Which Coffee Is Served

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Cobblestone set her fork down with a sigh. Dinner had been wonderful, and the conversation had begun to flow more easily once the topic of her apprenticeship had come up. It was a subject they were all familiar with, Lady Everstar especially. She had given very good advice on how to prepare for apprenticeship under Libra, her standards, and the reputation she would be expected to uphold, which was an outstanding one.

Apparently Libra was something of a celebrity in the Court. Her appearance and rise were as mysterious as they were meteoric, she having arrived after the last Court Mage, a stallion by the name of Sunstone, had passed. Distinguishing herself with her intelligence and wit along with frankly incredible power, she had quickly carved a spot for herself as one of the most prominent mages in the court, and it was only a matter of time until the title of Court Mage had become hers. Nopony had been surprised, despite her relative youth at the time. She had been thirty four.

She’d been a breath of fresh air in a Court that badly needed it, Lady Everstar had explained. Under her rule, the standards for qualification as a mage in Lady Everstar’s service had been lifted to stringent heights, unseating several prominent mages who were not quite up to snuff. At the same time, she had expanded the pool of applicants by agreeing to test mages who were not certified with the numerous guilds in the city, upsetting the old order even further.

It was only a matter of time until the already formidable organization of mages in service to the Crown had become even more adept and powerful. Lady Everstar’s cabal of magic users, the finest in the land, was young, adaptable, and powerful. Soon Libra had turned them onto rogue spellcasters and dark magic users alike, ushering in an era of peace within the Kingdom that had not been seen for decades. She herself had led numerous campaigns on sorcerers, necromancers, and warlocks alike in the name of her Lady, her drive and determination matched only by her prowess and almost eerie intuition.

And yet, for all of her prowess, Libra had never taken on an apprentice of her own, nor shown any desire to. Neither had she asked for a reward of any kind, not titles or riches or land beyond that which was allotted to her, the simple sobriquet of “Magus”, and a room in the Regia from which she coordinated the larger magical workings of the Kingdom. Cobblestone was the first young pony in which she had taken any interest, aside from Serale.

“Libra was sort of like a second mother to me,” Serale said, cutting a small piece of mousse off for herself. “Especially when I left home to travel. She might seem prickly, Cobblestone, but she’s a very kind pony when you get to know her. I came to value her company as much more than a protector.”

“Speaking of protection,” Lady Everstar said, “I think it’s time we turned in for the evening. You need to be up early for the tournament tomorrow, Serale.”

Serale rolled her eyes. “I suppose so,” she said. “Cobblestone, do you know where your room is yet?”

“I’ll fill her in,” Lady Everstar said. “I need to speak with her alone for a moment.”

Cobblestone’s heart began to race at the thought of being left alone with Lady Everstar, who, despite her jovial appearance, still intimidated her. She was acutely aware of how insignificant she was in comparison to the mare she had taken dinner with.

Serale’s gaze flicked from Lady Everstar, back to her, back to her mother. She looked like she was going to say something, but thought better of it. She gave a simple curtsy, murmured “Good night”, and proceeded out of the hall at a sedate pace. Cobblestone watched her go, and cringed upon the shutting of the door behind her.

“Now,” Lady Everstar said, picking up the bell from its resting place on the table, “I think we should take coffee. What say you?”

“If you’d like, milady,” Cobblestone said.

Lady Everstar sighed. “If we’re going to be speaking frankly, you’re going to need to drop the formality, Cobblestone. Do you want coffee? Tea? Brandy?”

Cobblestone’s thoughts were awhirl. Was it a test? Was Lady Everstar waiting to see if she was greedy, or analyzing her choice in drink? “Coffee,” she blurted. “Please,” she added lamely, almost as an afterthought.

Lady Everstar nodded. She rang the bell, and immediately a servant came through the door, bowing before her.

“Please have the service cleared up, and give my compliments to Kettle. Tonight’s meal was wonderful. Cobblestone and I will be taking coffee, please have it brewed in the normal fashion.”

The servant bowed even lower, scraping the floor, and retreated to the kitchen. Lady Everstar turned to Cobblestone. “Hold on for a moment,” she said, and her horn lit up. Cobblestone felt a pinching sensation near the nape of her neck, everything blurred, and suddenly she was somewhere else.

Plain stone walls surrounded her, covered with charts and maps depicting everything from anatomical outlines of dragons to complex fractions of magical circles to strange locations unknown to Cobblestone, maps with place names like “Ashtar Sharestan”, “Roam”, and others. These scraps of parchment and heavy paper vied for space with towering bookshelves, each of them laden with tomes and texts and treatises on a thousand different subjects, some in languages Cobblestone couldn’t begin to comprehend.

Above her were suspended a veritable flock of models, ranging from astronomical sets depicting the stars which shone above to dragons, gryphons, Pegasi, and other, stranger creatures in flight. Alongside them soared airships, ranging from the newest and most efficient frigates to ancient ships that really did look like vessels that could take to the seas, suspended below vast and fragile looking balloons.

Shelves and tables lined the walls, containing models, skeletons, and experiments of all descriptions. Flasks of chemicals bubbled next to bowls of sand that shifted and twisted in the air, as if trying to take flight. One jar contained a fragment of deep blue smoke or mist that writhed and struck at the sides of the glass, trying to get out. Among these experiments scuttled beings of wood and clay, some with too many eyes or legs, all of them busy and frighteningly precise.

But it was not these which caught Cobblestone’s attention. One entire wall was covered in racks, and in these racks were weapons. Swords and spears and bows and rifles covered the wall, some like she had never seen before. They were inlaid with stones that gleamed with indescribable colors, and tiny runes that she could not understand, but sensed brought them strength and durability and enhanced their deadliness far beyond what they should have been.

“Do you like it?” Lady Everstar asked, noticing the awestruck look on Cobblestone’s face. “Everything in here is part of my ongoing research into the nature of magic and reality. This is my personal study. Only a select few ponies are allowed in this room, and then only by invitation.”

A chime sounded, and a small table that had been standing empty to one side was suddenly occupied by a small brass pot, along with two cup, a bowl of sugar, and small pitcher of cream. The rich smell of fresh coffee began to permeate through the air.

“We’ll give it a moment to cool,” Lady Everstar said. “For now, I want to know what you think.”

“It’s…it’s amazing,” Cobblestone said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“I often make my important decisions in here,” Lady Everstar said. “It helps to clear my head when I’m working on problems or new experiments.”

Cobblestone nodded emphatically. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I did my best problem solving when I was sewing.”

Lady Everstar looked at her strangely. “You sew?” she asked.

Cobblestone flushed, realizing that she was probably a novice compared to most of the ponies the Lady knew. “A bit,” she said. “Mostly patching things, sewing up tears, taking things in or letting them out again, that sort of thing.”

“It’s a useful skill,” Lady Everstar said. “Don’t be embarrassed by it. I personally have never gotten the hang of it. I suppose I just don’t have the patience…but I digress. I suppose you can guess why I’ve brought you up here?”

Cobblestone shook her head, mystified.

“I wanted to ask you about what happened at the prison,” Lady Everstar said. “And based on that, to talk about your training with Libra. I have some of the details, but I want to hear it from your point of view.”

Cobblestone sighed, feeling her stomach sink. Though it had been a long day, and she had been able to push aside the worst of the memories, they were still fresh in her mind. She felt herself starting to shake, and she felt curiously cold.

“Here,” Lady Everstar said kindly, handing her a cup of coffee. “You look like you’ll need this. I’m sorry to bring up something like this, especially when you’re still coping with it, but I need all the memories in your mind to remain fresh.”

“Why can’t you just reach in and take them?” Cobblestone asked.

Lady Everstar’s mouth drew down in a frown. “I will never, for any reason, transgress in your mind without your express permission, Cobblestone. That is a promise. I know from experience how traumatic that can be, and the only reason I did so on the airship was to make sure you weren’t being influenced by somepony when we were talking. I want your view of things, Cobblestone, in your own words.”

Cobblestone nodded, and took a small sip of her drink, feeling the bitter draught warming her as it slid down her throat. “She called herself Nightshade,” she said, “Nightshade of the Crows.”

“I’m familiar with the name,” Lady Everstar said. “Go on.”

“She said that she was there to collect me, and when I said no, things got ugly,” Cobblestone explained. “I managed to get out into the corridor by throwing Hob at her, and he did…something. Do you know what he is?” she asked.

Lady Everstar nodded, but said nothing. Cobblestone saw that no further information was forthcoming, and continued.

“I was trying to stall for time until the guards got there or until I could find a way out, but she was too strong, and I didn’t have much magic to use. I don’t know where she was getting her strength from, even the guards didn’t have access to a lot of their magic in the prison. She shook me around and beat me up a little, and she was dragging me out of the cell block, and then something happened that I don’t really know how to explain.”

Cobblestone took another sip of her coffee, fear coiling low and cold in her chest, the drink doing nothing to drive it away. “I began to black out,” she continued. “But I didn’t. When my eyes opened back up, I could see things. I saw lights, like fire but in different colors. And I could see the moon through the roof of the building, and the stars, but I couldn’t see anything else. The rest of the world was black. The…the flames, I guess…were coming from different ponies. Even Nightshade had one, but it wasn’t as bright as the others. And then I realized that I could do things with the lights.”

Lady Everstar interrupted her. “These flames. You said they were coming from different ponies? And a different color for each one, right?”

“Yes,” Cobblestone affirmed. “I noticed mine was the same shade of teal as my magic.”

“Fascinating,” Lady Everstar muttered. “Continue, please.”

“I reached out for the lights,” Cobblestone said. “Like, I used my magic to reach out to them like I would an object. And I could feel myself getting stronger. But at the same time, I felt things that weren’t my feelings, and I was remembering things that weren’t my memories. It almost felt like…”

“You were using the souls of those around you,” Lady Everstar said.

Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. “That’s exactly it! Do you know what that was? Do you know what I did, or how I can control it? Will it happen again?”

Twilight shook her head slowly. “I don’t know what it is exactly,” she said, “But I have a theory. For some reason, you can see the souls of those around you. I can do it too, though I’ve managed to keep it under control. Cobblestone, I want to try something with you. Do you trust me?”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “What do you want to do?”

“Do you trust me?” Lady Everstar repeated, her own purple eyes meeting Cobblestone’s blue. There was no hint of malice there, or deception, and Cobblestone knew the signs of both.

“I…yes,” she said. “I trust you.”

Lady Everstar picked up a scalpel from a nearby table. “Hold out your hoof,” she said.

Cobblestone did so. She watched as Lady Everstar drew the scalpel across her foreleg, drawing beads of blood that met and began to run down her leg.

“Repeat after me,” she said. “Blood and Bone, Wood and Sand, time of knowledge close at hand. My mind my own, and set me free. Open my eyes, and let me see.”

“Blood and Bone,” Cobblestone dutifully intoned, “Wood and sand.”

She frowned. She could hear an echo, almost like a mocking voice was reciting it along with her. “Time of knowledge close at hand.”

Her head began to buzz. “My mind my own,” she grunted, feeling her teeth buzzing. “And set me free.”

A lance of pain shot through her head, and she hissed with discomfort, squinting. “Open my eyes,” she said through gritted teeth, “And let me SEE!”

Her horn flared into life unbidden, and she felt a wave of invisible heat crackling along her back, as if she had caught fire. Before she could do more than yelp in pain, however, it had vanished, and when she opened her eyes, the world was different.

The first thing she was aware of was herself. She was a being of blue flame, crackling with power like a roaring bonfire mixed with the fury of a lightning storm. She raised a hoof, marveling at the beauty of her magic, before something else caught her eye.

Another being was in the room, though her flame burned steadier and brighter than Cobblestone’s, a reddish-purple that pulsed with steady life. In the center of this conflagration, however, was a core of white-hot magic that was so bright she could not bear to do more than glance at it.

“How do I turn it off?” she grunted.

Lady Everstar’s voice came to her muffled, as if from far away or through a layer of thick cloth. “Imagine raising your mental defenses,” she said. “This time, imagine putting them around your whole body, in your own shape. Let them define you.”

It took Cobblestone several minutes to figure out what she was talking about, but by degrees, she managed to regain her sense of self. Finally, she put the last defenses in place, and just as suddenly as it appeared, her new sight vanished, leaving her gasping with effort on the floor, looking around the study once more, now seemingly mundane in comparison to what she had seen.

“Fascinating,” Lady Everstar said. “And troubling. You are a very rare pony, Cobblestone. One might go so far as to say one of a kind. No wonder so many are interested in you.”

“What…was that?” Cobblestone gasped. She tried to rise, but failed. “I can’t…I can’t move.”

“You just shoved your soul back in your own body,” Lady Everstar said. “Give it a moment. As to what that was, I’ve taken to calling it ‘soulsight’. And as far as I could tell, only beings of great power could manage it at all, let alone control it at the level you apparently can. I always thought that sight was the most power one could manage, but you’ve gone one step beyond. Cobblestone, you can not only see souls, you can use them.”

The purple unicorn thought for a moment, and then pulled out a journal, setting a quill to writing while she talked. “This makes my next step in your training imperative,” she said. “And this is where I fear you may hate me.”

“Hate you?” Cobblestone wheezed. She could feel life returning to her hooves. “What do you mean?”

“Cobblestone, you were never going to be sentenced to prison for long,” Lady Everstar said. “I had…I had set up a test for you, one that was going to be triggered in a night or two. The power reserves to your cell were rigged to malfunction and give you the opportunity to escape. We…no, I thought you might have been sent as a spy, or had some programming to return to whoever sent you when you had the chance.”

The quill continued to scribble as she drained her cup. “But now I see that not only did you not have any compunction laid on you, you couldn’t have had anything laid on you!” she exclaimed. “At least, not anymore. Enchantments like the ones I thought you might have had on you are woven into the soul, Cobblestone. They become part of us, an integral piece of our selves. But you would have broken something like that as soon as you first reached out with your newfound powers. It would have burned away like tree bark in a bonfire.”

“So…nopony can mess with my head?” Cobblestone asked.

Lady Everstar shook her head wildly, her tidy bun coming undone. “No, your mind and soul are two different things. Mental compunctions rarely last long without the pony in question noticing something is wrong, or exhibiting signs of being controlled, unless the enchantment gets tied into their deeper self. That takes time and effort, and in your case, it would be wasted effort. A simple shrug would burn it right away.”

Cobblestone stood up woozily, swaying on her hooves. She reached for the cup clumsily, and almost dropped it, but caught it at the last moment. She drank the coffee down to the dregs, feeling herself becoming steadier. “You tricked me,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go to prison, and you tricked me.”

“You have no idea how sorry I am,” Lady Everstar implored. “When I heard the news about the attack, I sent Libra down right away. I would have come myself, if I had thought it wouldn’t draw unwanted attention to you. Cobblestone, I betrayed your trust. I know I can never undo that. But from now on, you will have my total honesty, especially in regards to you and your future.”

“Tell me what you know,” Cobblestone said. “Where did this power come from? Why can I do this?”

Lady Everstar spread her hooves in supplication. “I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “That’s just it! I’ve got a few theories, but nothing else, and I don’t want to lead you down the wrong path. As soon as I know something concrete, you’ll be the first to know.”

Whatever this was, Cobblestone reflected, it was dangerous. She knew that if she wasn’t careful with her new powers, she could seriously harm somepony, or several someponies. And the most powerful and ancient mage in the world knew nothing about what she could do. Her heart began to race. What if she lost control of her powers again? What about them made her so appealing to so many ponies? What was she going to do?

“I need you to keep your trust in me,” Lady Everstar said. “Your education with Libra is going to be very different from the education afforded to most apprentices. What you can do, Cobblestone, goes far beyond the boundaries of known magic, well beyond even Breaking magic, and that’s one of the most dangerous disciplines there is. You’re going to be learning some very dark stuff. I know you’ll be able to handle it, though, because of the power you wield.”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “Why do I need to learn that?”

“To know your enemy,” Twilight replied. “You’re going to learn some dark magic, and in doing so, learn that dark is not inherently evil. It’s what you do with it that matters.”

She noticed the paleness of Cobblestone’s face, and smiled reassuringly. “You don’t need to worry, Cobblestone,” she asserted. “You won’t cross any lines. I wouldn’t allow it anyway. But this is going to help you define your magic. By learning those disciplines, you’re learning the closest thing we have to controlling what you can do. Breaking magic especially will be of great help to you.”

Cobblestone thought, unsure. What she did hadn’t felt dark, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that what she was doing was almost horrendously dark. Manipulating the very souls of others, their essential selves, with or without their permission? Whatever she did, she needed to be careful. If she wasn’t she could become a monster.

What if she already had? Those ponies in the prison hospital were catatonic because of her. Brandywine had said they were safe, but she only knew their minds were intact, not their souls. What if she had damaged her fellow inmates permanently?

“You don’t need to worry,” Lady Everstar said, almost reading her mind. “I went to the prison today and examined them myself. It was a near thing, but you stopped just short of permanent damage to them. Your fellows will recover in time.”

“I can’t let this thing get out of control,” Cobblestone said. “If I do, ponies could get hurt. A lot of ponies.”

“Which is why you need trained,” Lady Everstar explained calmly. “Libra and I are already formulating a plan for how to teach you. You can relax, Cobblestone. We won’t allow you to lose control again.”

Cobblestone nodded her head quickly. “Alright,” she said. “I trust you both.”

“There’s another way to maintain focus that I’ve found to be useful,” Lady Everstar said. “I’d like you to take a weapon and learn to use it.”

Cobblestone’s eyes widened. “I couldn’t!” she protested. “I mean, I don’t know how to use anything except a knife, let alone a spear!”

“All the better,” Lady Everstar said. “You’ll have no bad habits to unlearn. Learning a martial discipline promotes focus, discipline, and inner strength as well as physical fitness, all of which you’ll need in spades to control that power. I’d recommend you learn one even without your powers. Now,” she said firmly, “Choose.”

Cobblestone gulped, approaching the wall. She immediately shied away from the bigger weapons, the great swords and guns and spears. She examined a set of pistols, but something about them didn’t feel right. Her eyes were drawn to the far right of the rack, where several swords hung waiting. She felt herself drawn to them, and let her hooves carry her to one near the end.

The hilt was unfinished, or at least looked it. There was an empty socket in the pommel which gaped like the yawning maw of a hungry beast, gleaming silver in the light. The rest of the hilt was wrapped in simple black leather, studded for better grip. Cobblestone lifted it from its space on the wall, and felt an urge to draw it. She grasped the hilt with her magic, and drew perhaps an inch of it from the scabbard, hissing like the crackle of sea foam.

She got the briefest image of a metal the black of the space between the stars, and a strange chill washed over her, but before anything more could be seen, she felt Lady Everstar seize the sword roughly, slamming it back into the scabbard and yanking it away from her with a cry.

“No!” she shouted, before collecting herself. “Cobblestone, are you alright?”

Cobblestone shook her head wildly, clearing her thoughts. “I think so,” she said. “What was that?”

Lady Everstar breathed a sigh of relief. “I apologize,” she said. “I thought I had put this one away. It’s not for use.”

“Why?” Cobblestone asked curiously. It had looked like a fine blade.

“This sword,” Lady Everstar said nervously, “Is far too dangerous to be used by gods or mortals. I regret ever having made it, and I dare not destroy it. I keep it here, under lock and key. Cobblestone, you must promise me you will never tell a single soul about this sword. Swear by your power as a mage.”

Cobblestone nodded, frightened. “I swear,” she said.

Lady Everstar sighed with relief. “Choose another,” she said. “And put this sword out of your mind.”

Cobblestone turned back to the wall. The pull to the sword had been strong, but there was another on the wall that seemed to call to her. She scanned the wall, trying to find the one that seemed right. Most were too long or too short, others were inlaid with jewels or runes that seemed to gleam with ill-contained energy.

One caught her eye. The hilt was made of bronze, curved with a guard to protect the hoof of whoever was wielding it. The blade itself was curved as well, not precisely a scimitar, but also not as straight as a saber might have been. She grasped it with one hoof, drawing it forth with a ringing sound. She grinned. The blade gleamed bright in the light of the study, embossed with tiny runes in the shape of a flame in bronze. She twirled it experimentally, trying to imitate what she thought a warrior would look like. It felt right in her hooves, like it belonged there.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

“I called it Noonfire when I forged it,” Lady Everstar said. “But it is your sword. You should name it after your first battle. It’s tradition.”

Cobblestone sheathed it, taking the scabbard up as well. Remembering her manners, she bowed low. “Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”

“I expect great things from you, Cobblestone,” Lady Everstar said. “I cannot wait to see you prove me right.”

In Which A New Day Dawns

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The morning sun fell gently on Cobblestone’s face as she shifted in her sleep, sinking deeper into the covers of her bed. She was sleeping the boneless sleep of the very young, of the very tired. Every now and again, she would begin to grow restless, the smoothness of her face creased by worry, but the cat by her side would simply twitch his tail or an errant whisker, and she would settle back into dreamless sleep. She had earned it, given what she had endured over the past days, and what she surely would endure in the days to come.

She had been given this room, termed a “guest room”, last night, as the quarters she would be using for the rest of her time at the Regia were still being prepared. The servant who had showed her where she was to be sleeping had apologized profusely for the small size of the room, informing her that her actual quarters would be half as big again, containing her own workspace and eventually a library. The room she was in now was bigger than any place she had ever lived, ever.

Windows high in the air opened and shut individually with the flick of a switch, and so too did the curtains open and shut. The bed was enormous, the size of a small carriage, and was possessed of a mattress softer than anything Cobblestone could have conceived of sleeping on. A wardrobe stood empty to one side that could likely hold her and three more ponies of her size easily, and the bath in the other room was bigger than some ponds she had seen in Crescent City.

The room was silent save for the quiet ticking of a clock by the side of her bed, paneled in ivory and gold and ebony. Not a sound permeated the peace that had fallen over the room after Cobblestone had fallen asleep last night, not the sound of the servants in the hall outside, nor the sounds of the bustling castle grounds, dealing with the business of the coming day. And then, just as suddenly, there was a sound.

“Wake up,” said a voice that reminded her of charcoal and curdled milk. The stench of candy floss filled the room. “Wake up, daughter of Clarity.”

Cobblestone shot awake immediately, only to find herself pinned to the bed by a massive but gentle force. It was all she could do to turn her head and regard the stallion standing by her bed. The sunlight glinted off of the single fang in his grin, and she could see every individual hair in his matted gray goatee, but it was the eyes she found herself focusing on. They gleamed with the unpleasant promise of violence, unbridled rage, and utter insanity.

“Dis,” she said, her voice strained with effort. “What do you want?”

“Be silent, you little whelp,” the stallion snarled. “Do you know what it is you’ve done? What favors you’ve called on? Do you know what Archetypes you have invoked with your little stunt last night? Speak to me again and I’ll have you smeared to ashes, and damned be the consequences.”

The pressure on the unicorn increased, and Cobblestone’s survival instincts kicked in, warning her to keep very, very still. She watched as Dis readjusted his bloodred tie nervously, straightening his rumpled suit. “You were meddling with forces neither you nor your oh-so-precious Lady Everstar could understand,” he growled. “And now I’m being held accountable for your actions. Count yourself lucky that you called upon them, Cobblestone, or I would have killed you myself.”

Cobblestone looked at him, her heart racing. He could do it, she knew. He could crush her into a tiny speck with an errant thought. So why wasn’t he doing it? And for that matter…

“My mother’s name,” she said. “How do you know her name?”

Dis gave her a contemptuous look. “I know everything about you,” he said. “From the first word you spoke to the first step you took. I know how many times you’ve stolen to keep yourself fed, Cobblestone. I know every desire you ever had, and every mistake you’ve ever made. I Know you, Cobblestone. Otherwise I’d have left you to rot on that ferryboat, or let you die in the alleyway where you met that cat of yours.”

Cobblestone managed to glance at Hob, only to see him laying still, his chest rising and falling evenly. Still asleep, then.

“Your use of the power you possess puts me in a very delicate spot,” Dis said. “Not to mention that abominable oath you took.”

He shook his head, pacing back and forth. “I thought you were smarter than this, Cobblestone. I thought you knew what you were doing. Everything I’ve told you, for your own good, even! Out of the goodness of my heart! I tell you not to ally yourself with the Everstars, and the first thing you do is let yourself become the pet of their own pet mage. I tell you not to get tied up in deals with things you don’t understand, and you go and tweak the noses of gods!”

A pipe that had not been there before appeared in his mouth, and he began to puff on it nervously. The smoke, shimmering pinkish-gray, began to coil around his head. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is why I chose you in the first place. But really, Cobblestone. There’s stirring up the pot, and then there’s…this.”

“You still haven’t explained what it was I did, exactly.”

“You made a deal, you little idiot,” Dis said, puffing his pipe more agitatedly, until hardly a thing could be seen of his face behind a shimmering cloud of smoke. “A deal with powers beyond the ken of mortals. By invoking blood, bone, wood, and sand, you borrowed power from things. Big things. Hungry things. They noticed you, Cobblestone. If you thought you had attracted the attention of some unsavory sorts before, you should know that compared to what you called up last night, they’re ants to a bull.”

Cobblestone felt her blood turn to ice. More things interested in her? Besides the Cult?

“You weren’t supposed to be able to do what you did,” the dun-colored unicorn continued. “Not for a while yet. The fact that you managed to awake your ability this early, and use it like you did, makes you very interesting for a great many reasons. The least of which being that you have absolutely no control over these bouts of magic.”

“What do you mean?” Cobblestone asked. “I thought I had it under control. Lady Everstar told me how to shut it off!”

“What you did with your mind was like putting a dike made of paper in front of a lake. A lake made of fire. Your control is tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst,” Dis said. He grinned through the haze of smoke, exposing his long, yellowed fang. “That power is…capricious. Chaotic. And it will only get worse with more ponies around, more sources of power for it to feed on. You were fine with Lady Everstar alone, and you may be able to control it in a room with half a dozen others. But more than that, and you’ll feel your control over it start to waver. And that’s a pinkie promise.”

“What’s more,” he continued, “You’ll be forced to maintain control over yourself day and night, especially when you’re casting spells. That means no more outbursts of anger, no more jumping for joy, no tumbling head over hooves in love, not unless you can keep that power of your under control, which you most definitely cannot. Because if you lose control of your power, if you slip up and are unable to regain control…”

His grin spread wider, and he chuckled. “I’ll need to…reprimand you. Give your brain a hard reset, as it were. Not by any desire of mine, you understand. I’d much rather you lose control of it, it’s far more interesting. But such is the price I must pay in order to stop those nasties I was telling you about from just making you disappear in a puff of smoke.”

He blew a cloud of too-sweet smoke into her face to illustrate his point, and Cobblestone felt her head begin to spin. Sure enough, she could feel something running ragged on the edge of her personality, a gnawing at the base of her mind, like little rats nibbling away. She shuddered.

“How do I stop it?” she asked desperately, her voice beginning to fill with panic. “There has to be a way.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Dis said. He held out his pipe, and it began to grow wider and taller. The stem curled in on itself, becoming a handle. Soon enough, he was holding a mug which contained a familiar brownish-black liquid, resembling tea. The bitter smell of anise filled the air. “A small amount of Dragon’s Kiss will allow you to bleed away excess power and keep it more or less under control for a day. But you’ll need to be careful. Too much, and you won’t be able to do much more than watch as you reach inside the souls of others and turn them into the drooling wrecks you almost made your cellmates.”

Cobblestone would have flinched away if she could have, but Dis’s magic held her in place. She felt a pang of desire, a primal want that filled every fiber of her being. She could almost taste the stuff on her tongue, and her body ached with the memory of phantom warmth and languid heaviness. She closed her eyes.

“Get it away,” she said, “Please. I’ll do whatever you say, I’ll stop talking. Just…just get it away.”

“What’s the matter?” Dis said mockingly. He lifted the cup to his lips and drained the whole thing dry. It was all Cobblestone could do not to cry out at the sight of the object of her desire being consumed by another. “I thought you liked the stuff. And besides, it’s rude to refuse a drink. Didn’t your precious mentor teach you that? You’ll need to ask her to make it for you anyway, so you had better get used to it.”

Cobblestone said nothing, shuddering with the effort of repressing her desire for the drug. It was like being in withdrawal again. She curled into a ball, pressing her eyes shut, and tried to ignore the unicorn standing by her bed.

“Spoilsport,” Dis said. He reached out and patted her on the head. “You haven’t even heard the best part! The part where I come in!”

“As of now, I’m going to be watching you. And since I’ve been forced to take a role in your development, I have a few expectations. When I speak, you listen. When I tell you to do something, do it. It’s for your own good, after all. Do you understand?”

He waited expectantly for her to speak up. Seeing nothing forthcoming, he continued. “I’m required to keep you alive until you can master your powers, Cobblestone. I need to keep you from causing too much trouble too soon, otherwise your power is going to cause a bigger headache than you’re worth. So I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Remember that, Cobblestone. No matter where you go or what you do, I’ll be keeping one of my eyes on you.”

A ruby red eye winked out of the cloud of smoke, leaving only one of the gleaming orbs regarding her balefully. “And I know exactly what kind of magic you’ll need to learn to bring that magic under control, Cobblestone. It’s a personal favorite of mine, messy and imprecise as Breaking magic is. You’ll have many opportunities to turn down the wrong roads, Cobblestone. So many wrong choices, so many things to lead you into the shadow.”

The cloud around his head grew darker, the pink fading to be replaced by black. “So if I decide you’ve decided to get a bit too chaotic, or that you’ve made deals with the wrong devils, then you’ll find me there. And then you really will vanish in a puff of smoke,” he said, his voice losing some of its false good cheer, becoming almost a growl, bestial and gravely. “Do I make myself clear, Cobblestone? Behave. Cause all the trouble you like. But make sure you can control it, or else I will personally find you and make you scream.”

Cobblestone nodded, cowed. “I understand,” she whispered.

“What was that?” Dis asked, holding a hoof up to where his ear should have been.

“I…” Cobblestone swallowed nervously. “I understand.”

“Good!” the unicorn exclaimed. The smoke around his head thinned and vanished, as if it was never there. He smiled warmly, all traces of his threatening nature almost gone. “And just to make sure you do…” He reached out and gently tapped Cobblestone on the head.

Cobblestone felt the threads of her sanity snap apart, flying away into checkered oblivion as she reeled, suddenly disconnected from the world around her. Nothing made sense, she had lost all sense of reality, of rational thought, of her essential self, and she was distantly aware of a screaming noise that keened and hummed in impossible ways, the background wailing of the universe, and the great unbridled howling of madness and chaos became part of her, and consumed her, and the sound went on and on and on and on and on…

And just as suddenly as it had begun, the sensation ceased. Cobblestone’s world coalesced around her, and she felt the shattered remnants of her mind knit themselves back together like nothing had happened at all. She shuddered, coughed, and almost retched, though something held her back. Her eyes cleared of the tears that had formed in them, and the first thing she saw the psychotic gaze of Dis, watching her closely.

“A taste of my discipline, dear Cobblestone,” Dis said with a wink. “You were driven completely and utterly insane for the space of a heartbeat. Displease me again, and I’ll see what I can do with a minute of your time.”

The alarm clock by her bed chimed the hour, and Dis straightened up. “Now, rise and shine!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “You’ve got a busy day ahead with your new teacher, and a new friend besides! I hear the tournament today is going to be absolutely marvelous!”

And as quickly and quietly as he had arrived, the unicorn vanished, leaving not a trace of himself behind, save for the barest whiff of sweet tobacco smoke and candy floss.

Cobblestone lay still in her bed for only a moment before she rose, trembling slightly, and got up. Hob regarded her lazily as she did so, not moving a muscle as she trotted to the bathroom to begin freshening up, knowing she reeked of sweat and fear.

Did I miss something? You seem disturbed, he said.

“No,” she replied. “You didn’t. Get up. We’ve got a tournament to attend.”

The room was spartan in decoration, and unremarkable save for a stand on one wall, upon which was hung a set of armor, unadorned and slightly dented, though lovingly polished. An unfinished letter lay upon the writing desk, squared neatly with the inkwell and quill, both of which were thoroughly cleaned and laid in their proper places, waiting to be used. The pony sleeping in the bed rested easily, covers tight and tucked against his body. The far edge of the bed had been made up with hospital corners.

Occasionally, the stallion’s ear would give a twitch, or his tail would flick itself to and fro fitfully, and once in a very great while, his entire body would shake, before settling down once more. He had been told he was a restless sleeper, but thankfully it never evolved past the occasional spasm. It was familial, he had been told. Another simple quirk of his biology. It usually meant nothing.

Today, though, the stallion was clearly troubled. Occasionally, he would flinch, or moan quietly in his sleep. A careful and quiet soul might have heard him protest softly under his breath.

“No,” he said quietly. Again, more forcefully. “No. No, Tannin! Tannin, no!”

Vino’s alarm clock went off with a clatter, shaking him from a fitful and uneasy rest into a cold and darkened room. The earth pony reached out and shut off the alarm, and simply lay in bed for a moment, an unusual act for the normally diligent knight. He wasn’t sure what he had been dreaming about, but he knew it hadn’t been good. He stretched, noting that he felt slower today, less sure of himself. But perhaps that was just the morning lying heavy on his bones. He closed his eyes and sent out a silent prayer, as he did every morning before rising.

Please, he thought. Grant me the strength to do what I must, the patience to accept that which I cannot change, and the courage to uphold the knight’s title that I lay claim to.

He rolled out of bed without further preamble, and mechanically began to remake it, lost in his thoughts. He shivered, not from the cold, though the room was chilly. A strange sense of foreboding hung in the air, oppressive and thick as smoke. He had learned to trust these instincts of his, and had prospered for it more often than not.

Last night had been a perfect example, he thought, opening his wardrobe and reaching for his bag of cleaning supplies, ready to start the day. He had been on his way back to the dormitories where he was staying, but had found himself inexplicably drawn down one of the side passages instead. Just as he was about to give up and turn back, he realized where he was.

The mare was nervous, that much he could tell. She looked young, though it was impossible for him to say how young. Her dress was the green of the needles of a pine, and while inexpensive and out of the general fashions of the Court, it had fit her well. Though she wore it with the poise of a goose made of granite, there had been a strange grace and surety to her movements that belied something more to her than the casual emptiness of many ladies Vino encountered in his work. He had stood speechless for a moment, captivated by her every smallest movement, before he remembered where he was.

“Miss?” he had called after finding his voice. “Are you alright?”

Her had eyes met his, a piercing blue, and Vino had almost taken an involuntary step back. There was hardness in those eyes, a fierce will that reminded him uncomfortably of Aura’s. Summoning his courage, he had mustered a smile.

“Are you lost, miss?”

She had regarded him for a moment before choosing to speak. “No. I’m just waiting. I guess I’m nervous.”

She hadn’t looked it, Vino reflected. Far from it, in fact. Compared to the vapid mares he often saw giggling and flouncing about the Regia, the young mare, whose name was Cobblestone, reminded him of nothing more than a knife, steel and edge as opposed to the flimsy silk of her peers. He had had only a moment to introduce himself before the clock struck seven, and her appointment had begun.

Her face stayed fresh in his mind like none other, and if he were a fool, he might have thought it was love. And perhaps that is what it was. But more than that, it was a familiarity, a deep seated knowing that whoever she was and wherever she had come from, they had met before.

It was strange. He could have sworn he had seen her before, or somepony very much like her. She had occupied most of his thoughts last night, as he had tried to remember just where he had seen that face before. It had kept him so wrapped up, in fact, that he hadn’t been able to finish the letter explaining to Lady Serale why he would not be serving in her Guard…

Vino’s eyes widened, and he glanced at his clock. A full hour late! The tournament!

Panicking, he dropped his cleaning supplies and began to buckle on his armor, the practiced motions speeding the process, but nowhere near fast enough. Boots, greaves, cuisses went on in less than three minutes, lashed tightly and flexible enough for him to move. The cuirass came next, buckled securely, and the gorget, which was the most finicky piece of them all. It snapped into place after a full minute of fidgeting. His bladeband was next, the spelled metal flowing up and around one foreleg before settling in its usual spot, and he grabbed the helmet from the stand, jamming it roughly over his head before charging out of the door and down the hallway.

In his rush to leave, all thoughts of what he would say to Lady Serale had vanished from his mind entirely. And the letter remained on his desk, unfinished and waiting silently.

The six ponies which approached the entrance to the sewer, blinking in the morning light, did not know the nature of the pony they were to meet. If they had, it was all but certain that they would have kindly told their leader Creed that they would decline his request, and then promptly galloped as fast as they could out of Starfall, out of the Evening Kingdom, and would not have stopped until they were well into the mountains north of Canterlot, or their bodies completely collapsed in on themselves. Had they attempted this, they may have been saved.

But Creed was nothing if not pragmatic, and he knew the value of having a powerful ally. Selecting a group of middling “lieutenants” in the Contheistic League, ones who were becoming more and more vocal in their criticism, he had approached them with an offer of peace and the chance to distinguish themselves for the cause. He had been very convincing.

So it was that they had received their directions, been told who they were to meet, and set off on their merry way to the sewer entrance where they were to meet Nightshade, in a section of town that was abandoned save for a few empty warehouses. Weapons had been collected beneath their cloaks, battle plans had been formed in case things went sour, and they considered themselves prepared for the task ahead, which they knew only was a chance to strike at a member of the nobility and so weaken the hold of the Evening Throne. They were prepared for anything, those half-dozen troublemakers. Or at least, so they had thought.

“Good morning!” the black mare chirped happily, waving at them from the entrance to the tunnel. She took a swig from a flagon of cider that she had with her, wiping her mouth with the back of one hoof. She stifled a burp with one hoof, and giggled daintily. “Pardon me! I’ve had a long walk, and I was terribly thirsty.”

She offered the flagon to the anarchists. “Care for a drink?” she inquired sweetly. “It’s very good!”

The self-appointed leader of the six, a brutish Pegasus by the name of Fidget, glared at the beverage as if it had insulted his mother. “You’re supposed to be our guide?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“That’s me!” Nightshade said with a dazzling smile. The mask over her eyes, gleaming bright silver in the morning, sparkled almost as much as her voice did. It was very nearly a painful amount of joy. “I’m going to be the one taking the shot at Lady Hedera this morning. I just need you to keep an eye out and make sure none of the guards get to me.”

“I don’t believe it,” Fidget said. “This is some kind of joke, right? Creed set this up?”

Nightshade pouted. “You don’t think I can handle myself?” she asked.

“You’re a blind unicorn with half a horn,” Fidget said. “I don’t think you could handle a starving kitten.”

Nightshade set the flagon of cider down carefully, not wanting to spill any. “Would you like for me to show you what I am capable of?” she inquired sweetly. “I’d be more than happy to demonstrate.”

Fidget rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Do whatever you want to do so we can get this done.”

He had perhaps half of a second to regret those words before he and his five friends were sprawled neatly to the ground, squirming like insects pinned to cork. Fidget attempted to gasp in pain, but no sounds could escape his mouth. He could feel the magic savagely pressing against the small of his back, right where his wings met in their most sensitive spot. The agony was excruciating.

And then it vanished. Nightshade gazed down at him, a patient smile on her face. “Do I meet with your expectations?” she asked.

Fidget could do little more than nod weakly. The mare helped him to his hooves. “There you are,” she said. “You’re alright. The pain should subside shortly. Are the rest of you well?” she asked of the group. There were various murmurs of assent.

“I apologize for having to do that,” she said, “But we’re on a schedule. Here,” she said, brandishing the flagon once more. “For you all to share. As an apology.”

Fidget accepted the flagon thankfully, quaffing a mouthful of the sweet juice. It left a refreshing tartness lingering on his tongue, and he passed it along to his companion, who did likewise. The flagon passed from pony to pony, until the last agent drank the final dregs of the drink.

“It’s sort of bitter,” he said, grimacing.

Fidget smacked his lips thoughtfully. There was indeed a bitterness that hadn’t been there before. He coughed, a bit unsettled by it. “Right,” he said, “What are we…we…” He coughed again. So did the pony who had spoken.

“Where did you get that juice?” he asked, as his throat dried up. “That stuff is terrible.”

Nightshade’s smile curdled on her face. “It’s a special preparation of mine,” she said. “Apples, spices, and a few herbs I’ve gathered. Don’t worry. They’ll take effect in a moment.”

Fidget coughed, and coughed again, realizing something was very wrong. His vision blurred, and the coughing and gagging of his fellows echoed curiously in his ears. His heart was laboring under what seemed to be incredible stress, and it was becoming more and more difficult to take a breath, as if his lungs were shriveling up.

“Poison!” he gasped. “You bitch! You poisoned us!”

“Calling what you just drank ‘poison’ is like calling a dragon a lizard,” Nightshade said. “But don’t worry. I wouldn’t kill you, not really. I have need of you.”

Fidget tried to scream as he felt his heart stop, toppling over onto the cobbles of the road. Some distant, detached portion of him noticed that he was the last one to have done so. Shadows began to creep in at the edges of his vision, tinged with pulsing red. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think, all he could feel was agony.

And yet, he didn’t die. The blackness remained, the heart in his chest was terrifyingly still, but instead of getting weaker he felt himself becoming…stronger. He lifted his head, and whimpered in horror as he saw what was happening to his companions.

Their health withered away, leaving their coats dull and lifeless, and their eyes appeared curiously sunken, deep-set in their skulls, which were now much more prominent, rising against their cadaverously tight skin. Their ribs were more prominent as well, and cords of lean muscle could be seen twisting and writhing under their coats like steel cables. Fidget could feel the same happening to him as well.

“What did you do?” he groaned. “What have you done to us, you…”

He looked at the mare who had fed them this drug, and felt something tugging at the back of his mind, an irresistible compulsion. The sentence, and indeed most of his thoughts, disappeared completely, replaced by the overpowering desire to stand. He did so, noting dimly that his companions were doing the same.

“Good,” Nightshade purred. “You are strong, I can see that much. And you respond well to my commands. You’ll make a fine revenant. Speak, Pegasus. Who controls you?”

“You do,” Fidget replied dully, realizing as he said it that it couldn’t be more true. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he could comprehend anypony else, including himself, controlling his actions.

Nightshade tossed her head proudly, the silver of her mask darkening to black as she did. She made a negligent gesture, and a staff appeared in one hoof. “Follow,” she said, and Fidget found himself wanting nothing more than to do so. The pack of revenants and their mistress disappeared into the sewer, leaving behind only a broken flagon, glinting wetly in the light of the morning sun.

In Which An Inevitable Climax Is Approached

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Serale bent over the washbasin, feeling her stomach churn uneasily as her cheeks colored from their usual pale silver to a light green. She gasped, a sharp pang of discomfort traveling the length of her body, and sighed as the feeling of nausea and stress disappeared. She turned on the faucet, pouring herself a glass of water, and drained the cup dry in three quick gulps. Refilling her glass, she did it again, this time taking it more slowly, savoring the feeling of water sliding down her throat, coating her stomach with cooling liquid and lessening the fire in her belly. Gradually, she felt the burning in her insides fade away to nothing. She frowned. That was unusual.

Running the water again, she splashed a bit on her face, waking herself up some. She needed to get ready soon, needed to look her best. The armor her mother had given her would be appropriate wear for today, but she would need time to get it on, time she might not have if she didn’t hurry. She smiled. Who was she to worry about schedules? The tournament would start on her orders, and nopony else’s. She looked at herself in the mirror, brushing an errant lock of her mane out of her eyes. She really did need to get it cut; it was getting far too long.

A white flash in the mirror, a blur of purple and white, and she spun around, gasping. There was nopony else in her bathroom. And yet…

Quickly she strode to her bedroom door, throwing it open. A maid was waiting outside, head bowed demurely.

“Good morning, Lady Serale,” she said, “Are you ready to begin getting ready?”

“Needlepoint, would you mind terribly fetching one of the guards from outside?” Serale said, her voice level, “I think there may be somepony in my bathroom.”

Needlepoint’s eyes widened. She nodded once before bolting down the hallway, the clatter of her hoofbeats fading into the distance. She would be back in thirty seconds or less with two guards in tow, that much Serale knew. Serale stole a nervous glance over her shoulder, her breath shallow and rapid. It was foalish to think so, but she could have sworn there was somepony in the bathroom. Even though there was no place for them to have hid, she felt a very real danger.

Two guards, pistols drawn, tore around the corner with Needlepoint in hot pursuit. Serale stepped to one side to allow them to pass, shrinking back a bit as they approached the washroom, checking behind the pillars and in the washbasin and newly installed shower. Their search was meticulous, one even going so far as to stick his head out of the window far too small for anypony to have entered or exited from, checking to see if an assassin was clinging to the outside. Upon completing their sweep of the bathroom, one of the guards holstered his pistol, trotting over to her.

“Nothing in there, Milady,” he said, inclining his head respectfully. “Would you mind describing what you saw, exactly?”

“I thought I saw movement in my mirror while I was washing up,” Serale said, a bit embarrassed now that her fears were proven to be unfounded. “No distinguishing features, just a sort of whitish-purple blur. I suppose…I suppose it could be the stress of the past weeks. My sincerest apologies, sergeant. I’ve wasted your time.”

“Nonsense, Lady Serale,” the sergeant replied gruffly, eyes straight forward. “Protecting you is our charge. I’d rather be overcautious than have you not decide a potential threat is dangerous. Would you like us to remain posted by your door while you are…properly attired?”

Serale glanced down, realizing to her chagrin that she was clad only in her nightgown. Normally if she had gone bare, the sergeant wouldn’t have batted an eye, but approaching somepony in a nightgown could be construed as an invitation for something more personal than was appropriate.

“Ah,” she said, flushing, “Yes. Please. Would you mind terribly sending in Needlepoint and Pluma to help me put on the armor? And close the door behind you.”

“Quite right, Milady,” the sergeant said stiffly. “Corporal!”

The second guard snapped to attention from pointedly contemplating one of the bedposts. “Sir!”

“Post to the left of the door,” the sergeant said, “I’m fetching Lady Serale’s maidservant.”

Serale let them go, studying her hooves, which were shaking quite badly. For some stupid reason, she couldn’t get the thought of the sergeant out of her mind. He wasn’t bad looking, she mused. She wouldn’t have minded if he had pressed the invitation she hadn’t meant to give. It might have been quite…

She quashed that train of thought before it could go any further. It was conduct unbecoming of a Lady, and she would have put his job at risk by propositioning him in any way. Even if she did choose to have some sort of illicit liaison with him, and here she felt herself flushing hotly again, it would never end in anything but heartbreak.

“Milady Serale?” Needlepoint asked from the doorway. “Are you ready to begin?”

Serale nodded, gulping as she did. What in Equestria was wrong with her today? She didn’t feel like this normally. It had to be the stress of the choosing, it had to be.

“Duck your head, miss,” the other maid, a plump unicorn by the name of Pluma, admonished her. “Else we can’t get the jerkin on.”

Needlepoint lifted the breastplate off of the rack, and Serale felt her eyes drawn to the dragon twining around the star. Though it was impossible, she could have sworn she saw its eyes flash. Immediately, a memory came to her unbidden, a great purple serpent waiting inside of a tree lined with books of ancient knowledge, of being consumed by flame in a thousand different colors, and a voice echoing in her ear.

“Use it well, dear.”

Serale yelped and jumped back at the sight of the breastplate, absolutely convinced for a split second that the entire room had been consumed in fire. Pluma and Needlepoint looked at her worriedly, and Serale realized that she had lowered her head, pointing her horn at the dragon on the plate as if she were going to gore it.

Serale forced herself to straighten up and take a deep breath. “I’ve decided not to wear the armor today,” she said. “I think a simple dress will do just fine. Perhaps the blue one with the silver braiding?”

“Lady Serale,” Pluma said slowly, “Would you like me to call for a physician?”

“No, Pluma,” Serale snapped, her voice brittle. “What I would like is for you and Needlepoint to put the armor away, help me into my blue dress, and fulfill the terms of your employment.”

Pluma jerked back as if stung, a hurt look on her face. Serale had known the maid for years, and considered her something of a friend. She had never treated her servants as, well, servants. Immediately she felt a deep wave of remorse.

She exhaled slowly. “My apologies, Pluma,” she said, “And you too, Needlepoint. I’ve been on edge for a few days, and probably not sleeping as much as I would like. Perhaps I will see a physician after the tournament today, but right now I have a duty to perform. If you two aren’t too offended, would you mind terribly helping me find something to wear for today?”

Pluma’s expression softened. “Of course, Milady,” she said warmly. “You’ve been worked powerful hard for the last while. It’s to be expected that you’d be under some stress. Needlepoint,” she called, “Fetch Lady Serale’s blue dress and the gold shoes.”

She took Serale by the hoof, walking her over to the mirror. “I’ll just brush and oil your mane,” she said, “We’ll let it hang loose today, if that’s alright with you”

Serale nodded, trembling as she sat in front of the mirror. She took a deep breath as Pluma massaged a bit of oil into her mane, working it in with the brush and comb. The young Lady could already feel herself relaxing under her ministrations, and she closed her eyes contentedly. She really did need to take a break after all was said and done.

She looked into her reflection, and for the briefest moment, she could have sworn her normally purple eyes had turned candle-flame blue, and her mane fiery red, before flickering back to normal. Pluma hadn’t noticed. She felt the heat in her stomach rising again, and choked back another scream. Maybe a physician wasn’t such a bad idea either.

Vino rounded the corner of the building at a sprint, armor clattering as a warning to anypony who might have gotten in his way. His breath remained strong and even, as he took a running leap over a low wall separating him from his eventual goal of the arena, which he could see looming in the distance. Gone were the uncertainties of what he would say to Lady Serale when he saw her, or the numerous tasks that he would need to complete today, or even the numerous niceties and protocols he had to observe as an officer in the Regia. Now he was but a pony in armor, late and pushing himself to the best of his ability.

Vino loved moments like this, moments where he was able to shut his mind off and just react, like he had in training. Running like this felt right, like he had been born to pursuit and exertion and battle. He wasn’t meant to be a Court pony. Vino was meant to fight.

The young knight was so focused on his destination, the stone walls of the Field of Trials, that he almost failed to notice the stately mare and her guards passing by until he was a few short meters from colliding with her. Grunting, he thrust his front hooves down into the ground, sending a spray of grit in front of him as he slid to an abrupt and somewhat undignified halt.

The mare arched an expertly plucked eyebrow at him. “Vino,” she remarked, “Good morning.”

Vino bowed his head respectfully, to her as well as the guards flanking her, who regarded him impassively. “Good morning, Aura,” he intoned respectfully. “How are you?”

“I’m doing well,” she replied, “But you look to be a bit shaken up. Did nopony tell you?”

Vino felt a sinking feeling in his chest. “Tell me what?” he asked.

“Lady Serale is running a bit late. The tournament is not set to begin for another hour. I was just about to take a stroll through the gardens here to pass the time,” Lady Hedera explained. “Would you care to accompany me?” The question was given as a polite inquiry, but Vino had known that voice for seven years. It was not a request, it was an expectation.

He bowed his head in deference once more. “I’d be happy to,” he said.

“Wonderful!” Lady Hedera beamed. She turned to the two guards, each wearing the colors of her house. “You two are dismissed,” she said airily. They said not a word, merely paying proper obeisance and retreating along the path. She looked up to Vino, her ice-blue eyes meeting his own chestnut. “Walk with me?” she inquired.

“Of course,” Vino answered. They began a stately circuit of the arena, towards the small garden on the far side that was meant as a place of peace and quiet reflection for those who needed a break from the rigors of the Field. They passed a few ponies along the way, each paying their proper respects, ranging from the barest inclination of their heads to stepping off of the path completely to allow them to pass by. Vino felt uncomfortable when they passed that pony, a servant wearing the tabard of a very minor house.

“So,” Lady Hedera said, breaking the previously amiable silence between them. “I’m pleased to see that you’ve decided to accept the role in Lady Serale’s new guard, as well as a bit surprised. I’d quite thought you were going to respectfully turn her down.”

Vino glanced down, only just now really aware of what it was he was wearing. “Oh,” he said gruffly. “I’d honestly forgotten that I put the armor on. I was a bit distracted getting ready this morning.”

Aura shook her head. “Honestly,” she said, her tone weary, “I could never understand how you or your father could forget you were wearing something as cumbersome as armor. You take after him in more ways than one, I suppose.”

“Sorry,” Vino said sheepishly. He felt his cheeks flush as he realized how silly he must have looked sprinting through the castle in full armor. “I really must have been somewhere else. I woke up late and didn’t realize until I glanced at the clock, and I suppose I just did what came naturally.”

“You’re more observant than that,” Lady Hedera said. “What in the world could have kept you so preoccupied that you neglect the time?”

“Well,” he replied slowly, “I met a mare on the way back to my room last night.”

“Oh?” Aura said as they entered the garden. She bent over to smell one of the winter roses that were just now coming into bloom. “And what was her name? Do you know which house she was from? All the mares adore a colt in armor.”

“I didn’t catch her house or family name,” Vino said, a not-quite-lie. “Her name was Cobblestone.”

Aura, normally poised and unflappable at the worst of times, jerked like she had been stung. Her eyes flashed with icy interest, and Vino could have sworn he felt the temperature in the garden drop several degrees. “I see,” she said, “And how did you come across this young lady?”

“She was waiting for an appointment in one of the antechambers, I wasn’t sure who it was with,” Vino said. “She looked nervous, so I tried to reassure her. She went in for her appointment and that’s the last I saw of her.”

“Interesting,” Lady Hedera said, her composure returning. “And she made an impression on you? Was she pretty?”

Vino realized what Aura must be thinking. “O-oh!” he stammered, his face burning, “That’s not it at all! I just felt like I knew her from somewhere before, like we had met previously. I stayed up too late trying to figure it out.”

Lady Hedera’s expression changed to one of relief. “Oh, thank goodness,” she sighed. “I thought you might have become infatuated with her.”

Vino frowned. “Would that be so bad?” he asked. “I was under the impression that you couldn’t have cared less whom I was courting, noble or common.”

“Well, naturally I would prefer you married into another noble family,” Lady Hedera replied smoothly, “But succession of the House passes to you regardless, so you could theoretically marry whomever you wished.”

“Then why would it be an issue if I was caught with Cobblestone?” Vino asked. “I mean, I just met her last night, what’s so bad about her?”

“Was the mare you encountered white, with a brown mane and blue eyes?” Aura inquired curiously. “A unicorn? Perhaps a bit on the thin side?”

Vino stared at her. She had described Cobblestone to a tee. “Well, yes,” he replied. “How did you know?”

Aura smiled sympathetically. “You met the mare who was accused of stealing from the Crown,” she said. “She’s a cutpurse and thief from Crescent City. From what I understand, she had a very rough life before her run-in with Lady Serale.”

She pursed her mouth thoughtfully. “You said she was in the Regia last night?” she asked. “That’s odd. She was sentenced to a term in a juvenile prison, last I heard.”

A criminal! Vino’s mind reeled. The intriguingly familiar and admittedly attractive mare was a thief and a cutpurse, and a convicted one at that. What was she doing out of prison, and how had she managed to come by what was surely an expensive dress, not to mention an audience with officials at the Regia! Maybe…

“Should we be warning somepony?” Vino asked. “What if she was planning on something? Maybe she wanted to rob the castle!”

“Calm down, boy,” Lady Hedera said gently. “If she were trying to rob Lady Everstar after doing the same to her daughter, I pity her. I think it’s far more likely she had her sentence discretely purchased by the Crown.”

“Why would they do that?”

“It’s possible they wanted her services for something,” Lady Hedera said, shrugging. “I don’t really know. But if I were you, I’d keep my distance. I don’t know how ‘reformed’ you could be after less than a week in jail.” She sighed. “But that’s not important. Just don’t let thoughts of her distract you during the tournament today.”

Vino chuckled uneasily. “About that,” he said. “I’d actually hurried out to try and speak with Lady Serale and explain why I was turning her down. I don’t think I’d be a good fit for her guard.”

“I see,” Lady Hedera said. “What makes you think that? Is it because of that incident with the sneaking out?”

Vino considered. “That’s part of it,” he admitted, “But I think it’s also because I don’t know much about the guard. It feels like I’m being taken advantage of again.”

“Well, of course you are!” Aura said. “That’s part of the oath you took, remember? To protect and defend and obey the Crown. Serale’s part of the Crown, so it’s only natural she’d take advantage of you.”

“I suppose,” Vino muttered, unsure.

Aura’s tone turned warm, her expression sympathetic. “Vino, darling,” she said, “I know you and I don’t always see eye to eye on everything. Well,” she amended, “On a good many things. But can I offer you some help?”

Vino glanced at her untrustingly. Aura had never shown interest in his good will before, so why would she start now? But he could detect no malice in those blue eyes of hers, and so he said nothing, allowing her to continue.

“Do you dislike Lady Serale?” she asked. “I only ever saw you and her playing together a few times, but your father assured me you were once rather close.”

“As close as any pony could get to her,” Vino grumbled. “She didn’t mix with other colts and fillies much.”

“And can you blame her?” Lady Hedera replied. “Growing up isolated in a castle with only her mother for company, no siblings or even cousins to confide in. I know how close you and Tannin were before…well, before the accident. Serale never had that privilege. I don’t think she could even confide in her mother, seeing how busy Lady Everstar is with running the kingdom. What if she simply never learned how to make friends?”

Vino had never thought of it like that. Whenever he had seen Serale growing up, she had always hidden behind a book or the skirts of one of her attendants. She’d only replied in sentences of a few words, and even then never about anything interesting. The closer he had tried to get, the further back she had seemed to shrink, until he was forced to leave her alone for fear of making her cry or worse.

But what if it had just been shyness? He’d always thought she was trying to be standoffish on purpose, not wanting to make friends. What if she had simply never learned how? What if…what if that was why she had visited the thief? Had she found a friend in her? She’d apparently spoken in her defense at her trial, though he hadn’t heard it except through hearsay. And if so, that meant she had picked him to accompany her. Maybe it really was only because he was new and wouldn’t know that she wasn’t to leave the castle, but it was also possible she picked him because she might have some trust in him.

“She could be reaching out to you, Vino,” Lady Hedera continued. “Serale Everstar doesn’t have many friends, and she asked for you personally. She wants your sword by her side, Vino.”

Vino wavered, his thoughts a jumble. “I’m not sure,” he said. “But why would she want me? Companionship would be fine. All she would need to do is ask. But as for a soldier…I’m hardly more than a novice when it comes to fighting. By the Crown, I’ve only had my knighthood for a month!”

“Because you are your father’s son,” Lady Hedera said. “Through and through. Your father’s line have been warriors of great skill since the founding of the Kingdom, and I can tell that you are no different. It’s there in the way you hold yourself, the way you never hesitate to do what’s right. You’ve studied under the great Ironhide, and were one of his youngest graduates. Right behind…”

“My father,” Vino finished. His hoof brushed against his bladeband. He was silent for a moment, contemplating the earth. What would his father have done? It was a question he had asked himself more than once, and yet the answers hadn’t yet led him wrong.

His father was loving, dependable, and perhaps a bit stern to his children. He’d had a noble’s title and an officer’s rank, and had worn them both with pride. He had been unwavering in his loyalty to the Crown even as he turned a once-obscure House into the premiere trading power in Equestria, calling every favor he had rightfully earned through his considerable career to do it. What would he, a devoted father and husband and soldier done? He would have protected the innocent, and been glad to serve his country in any way he could.

“I’ll do it,” Vino said. Immediately he felt a wave of warmth wash over his back, and he smiled. He was doing what was right, he knew. “I’ll try out and give it my best.”

“Then you had best get into the arena,” Aura said with a smile. “I know I don’t say this often, but…I’m proud of you, Vino. Do your best, and win or lose, keep that in mind.”

Vino said nothing, only giving her a tight smile before jamming his helmet back on his head and charging off headlong towards the towering walls of Starfall’s largest stadium. Aura watched him go, a fond smile on her face. She waited until she was quite alone to let it fall.

Vino had been predictable as ever. The boy was so desperate to emulate his father that it only took the slightest implication he wouldn't live up to his father’s legacy in order to make him dance like another puppet on the string. Lady Hedera checked the sun overhead. She had best go sit in her assigned seat soon, or else she risked it being taken, and she couldn’t have that.

After all, she wanted to look her best for her assassination.

Cobblestone flew pell-mell down the corridors of the Regia, not pausing for an instant as she wove through servants, past trolleys, and around guards as they regarded the young mare in billowing black with a mix of consternation and confusion, which only deepened as the large black tomcat which was perhaps a half-dozen paces behind her did his best to catch up. If the servants and guards didn’t know better, they would have sworn that the cat looked exasperated as well.

You know, I’m all for spontaneity, Hob said, But you still haven’t explained to me why you’re attempting to chase down the Magus. Or for that matter, why you look like a schoolfilly cornered by timberwolves.

“Dis,” Cobblestone panted out of breath. “Latent power. Need a potion. Gotta find Libra.”

Eloquent as ever, Hob replied drily. Truly words for the bards.

"You go ahead and laugh,” Cobblestone panted as they found the stairway that supposedly led to Libra’s chambers, “But this is serious.”

Undoubtedly. From what I can gather, you had a dream about Dis?

“Not a dream. He was there. I felt it. I believe what he was saying,” Cobblestone said, taking the stairs two and three at a time. Her breath was coming even heavier now, and she was grateful for the fabric along her back wicking away the sweat and heat. “Where in the tower is her study, anyway?”

Top floor. Not too far now, Hob said. But I don’t know if she’ll be in it.

“It’s worth a shot,” Cobblestone replied. “Otherwise there’s no way I’ll be able to handle being around a crowd of that size.”

The duo wound their way up the tower, spiraling higher and higher above the palace grounds. Cobblestone noted dimly that she could see the arena where the tournament was to be held through the windows which punctuated the walls at regular intervals, a small crowd of spectators pouring into the stands to watch the tryouts which were to take place soon. Cobblestone fervently hoped that Libra hadn’t left yet. She was her only hope.

Watch out! Hob exclaimed, and Cobblestone reacted instinctively, throwing herself to one side as a door in the tower opened, narrowly avoiding an elderly Mage who blinked at her owlishly as she tore by with nothing more than a hasty apology to mitigate her transgression.

“You’d think she didn’t want company,” Cobblestone panted, huffing and wheezing. She was in better shape than she had been in a while, but the climb was still arduous. “I swear, if she wasn’t the only one who could help me right now…”

Not much further, Hob said encouragingly. A few more floors, Mistress.

Cobblestone found the energy to snicker at that. “Did you just call me ‘Mistress’?” she teased through heavy breaths. “There’s a new one.”

Hob growled low in his throat. I’m glad I could amuse you.

“What’s next?” Cobblestone asked. “Should I get you a collar and bell? Maybe a leash?”

It was perhaps not the best decision she could have made, for Hob chose to avoid telling her of the imminent danger up ahead. So preoccupied was Cobblestone with the cat by her side that she forgot to check where she was going, running headfirst into the imposing oak door in front of her.

“Ow,” she groaned, looking up at the great slab of wood that had so rudely interrupted her climb. The knocker, a brass dragon with a ring clamped between its jaws, glowered down at her disapprovingly, as if judging her haste poorly. Clambering back to her hooves, Cobblestone smoothed out the front of her robes and raised a hoof to knock. She needn’t have bothered. The door swung inward soundlessly and there in the doorway stood Libra, blinking at her in surprise.

“Cobblestone?” she asked. “What are you doing here? Were you not supposed to meet me at the arena?” She examined the door. “And why did you head-butt my door?”

“Libra,” Cobblestone said hurriedly, “I need to ask you a favor, and I don’t have much time.” She winced, feeling her head for damage.

Libra swung the door open wider. “Come in,” she said, “Come in. Let me get you something for the headache.”

Cobblestone followed her, Hob in tow, as the door swung shut of its own accord behind her. The dimness of the room was broken only by a few shafts of light from the windows, falling like spotlights on various implements of magical craft displayed proudly on tables. Delicate instruments of copper and glass hummed and whirred and spun in their own rhythms, and alongside them were pieces of parchment being used by animated quills, apparently taking notes of their own without direction from the Magus.

Libra turned the lights up, and Cobblestone’s eyes widened in awe. Displayed on the wall before her were racks upon racks of glass vials containing liquids in a dozen different colors, overlooking a low workbench covered in glasswork and pewter cauldrons. As Cobblestone watched, a pinkish mist began to rise from the bottom of a glass retort, condensing near the beginning of the pipette into a strange blue liquid that appeared to have the consistency of paint.

“What is that?” she asked, indicating the liquid, which was dribbling into a small ceramic bowl.

“That?” Libra asked, confused. She followed Cobblestone’s hoof to the retort. “Oh,” she said. “Distilled essence of beauty. One drop per three hours can enhance the physical attractiveness of the ingestee.”

“Whoa,” Cobblestone said, leaning in closer to see the potion brewing, “Does it work?”

Libra smiled. “Of course,” she said, turning back to her shelf of potions and rummaging through the racks, “If you don’t mind the side effects. All of my volunteers have had a smile frozen on their faces the entire time the potion was in effect. Still working on that.”

She withdrew a small vial of clear liquid. Grabbing a pewter mug from an adjacent table, she poured the contents in, mixing it with a small quantity of a whitish powder. “Here,” she said, holding out with her magic for Cobblestone. “Drink the entire thing.”

Cobblestone did as she was told, tipping the entire cup back in one go. She almost gagged on the taste of old metal and tree sap, but managed to swallow the foul-tasting mixture with a bit of effort. Almost immediately she felt the pain from running into the door begin to fade, replaced with a sensation not unlike cool mint enveloping her head, lending her clarity of thought as well as relief.

“Better?” Libra asked.

“Better,” Cobblestone affirmed. “Thank you.”

Libra smiled. “Of course,” she said calmly, taking the cup back. “Now, what was so important that you needed to try and break down my door?”

Cobblestone swallowed, suddenly nervous. “I…well, it’s hard to explain,” she said shakily. The reality of the situation was just now beginning to dawn on her. “I had a visit from Dis this morning.”

Libra’s visage, open and welcoming, was suddenly stone. “I see,” she said. “And what did he say?”

“He said that the power I have wasn’t properly contained,” Cobblestone said. “That I couldn’t keep it under control on my own. I don’t know what you know about what Lady Everstar and I did last night, but she woke something up. That’s why he was there,” she said, almost choking on the words as they began to spill out, faster and faster until she could hardly control the torrent of information spilling from her lips.

“He told me that the more I was around ponies, the worse it would get, and that if I lost control of it, he would show back up and do something to me. He said that until I could learn how to get it under control I needed something to help me control it.”

“So you came to me,” Libra said. “What do you need? If I don’t have it, I can mix it for you.”

Cobblestone took a deep breath, unsure if Libra would believe her. “He said it was Dragon’s Kiss,” she told Libra truthfully. “And I know what it sounds like.”

“It sounds like you want me to make you more of the drug that nearly ruined your life once in a dangerously irresponsible attempt to do so again,” Libra said. She stared directly into Cobblestone’s eyes, searching there. Cobblestone let her look. She didn’t have anything to hide.

“Very well,” Libra said. “Until we can get somepony to take a closer look at you, I’ll humor you. But if I find out this was an attempt to acquire narcotics…”

“I’ll head back to Bluewater myself,” Cobblestone said desperately. “I swear, Libra. I wouldn’t be asking you if I was that desperate to get Kiss, I’m only doing this because…well, because you’re the only one I can trust.”

Libra said nothing, only nodded shortly before rising, turning her back on Cobblestone, and grabbing vials off of her shelves seemingly at random. “You’re in luck,” she said. “Many of the components in Dragon’s Kiss are similar ones to a certain tea I help to brew for the Lady Serale in order to promote magical growth.”

“Has it worked so far?” Cobblestone asked.

Libra shot her a pointed look. Cobblestone blushed sheepishly. “Right,” she said, “Sorry.”

“The components are nearly exact, save for the ratios in which they are mixed,” Libra said, grabbing another cup and measuring out a small amount of a silvery powder that reminded Cobblestone of lead shavings. She dumped the powder into the cup before adding two drops of a blue liquid and a healthy measure of what looked like water but smelled like apple cider vinegar. Her horn flashed purplish-red and a puff of smoke rose from the cup, curling in the air. She cast about her for a moment, looking for something.

“Where did I put the ichor?” she mumbled to herself distractedly. “Almost done, Cobblestone.”

As she said this, a low chime echoed through the chamber. Libra froze, leaving the potion unfinished. The tone echoed again, and then a third time. Libra bowed her head and sighed. Her horn flashed once more, and her robes appeared on her body, along with her hat and sword.

“Lady Everstar wishes to see me,” she said, “Now. Cobblestone, I will meet you at the Field of Trials with the potion, don’t worry. They were delayed, but they are going to start soon, and you need to attend on Lady Serale’s orders. You need to go. I will send you down there myself.”

“But what if I can’t handle being around that many ponies?” Cobblestone asked fearfully, her heart beating fast.

“You need to be strong,” Libra replied. “And trust me. I will be along in a few minutes with the potion. Focus on keeping yourself contained, and I promise you that everything will turn out alright.”

She took a step back, and Cobblestone could do little more than grab Hob and hold on tightly before Libra’s horn burst into eldritch flame and the world around Cobblestone began to blur and run together. She felt an unusual pressure that seemed to manifest under her skin, and she had the distinct impression of being pulled apart and reassembled as everything faded to black.

New colors and sensations manifested themselves around her, and with a rush and a bang, Cobblestone suddenly found herself sitting in stone seats, overlooking a wide open field. The smell of freshly tilled earth filled her nostrils, and the murmur of a thousand voices reached her ears. Hob squirmed and managed to extricate himself from her grip, landing in an undignified heap on the ground.

That was uncalled for, he said.

“Cobblestone?” a familiar voice called.

The spell-shocked unicorn turned to address the voice, and found the bright and happy face of Serale directly to her right. She jumped, startled. The young Lady flinched back herself.

“Sorry,” she said, “Teleportation can be a bit disorienting. Where’s Libra?”

Cobblestone struggled to find words for just what had happened. “Lady Everstar called,” she managed to get out, “She sent me on ahead.”

Serale said something, but Cobblestone only registered a distant buzz. She could feel the presence of every spectator in the stands, and each one was like a small weight pressing on her mind. She could keep them out for now, but if things took too long, she would be in trouble.

“Cobblestone?” Serale asked, “Are you alright?”

Cobblestone shook her head. “Yes,” she said, “I’m fine. Just disoriented.”

“It’s to be expected, dear,” another voice chimed in, this one melodious and welcoming. “I’ve never had a head for that sort of transportation myself."

Cobblestone looked to her left. She gasped quietly upon seeing the elegant mare to her left. Lady Hedera smiled at her pleasantly. “Good morning, Cobblestone,” she said, “It’s good to see you’re doing well.”

In Which Troubling Information Is Revealed

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The Field of Trials, part of the greater Regia complex, was a building with a unique and unusual history. Its construction in the early days of the Kingdom had been fiercely opposed by most of the nobility, who had held the purse strings to the project, on the grounds that it emulated the culture and values of the empire they had just seceded from. Those who supported it, mainly the common ponies, did not quite have the political or economic clout to push for its advance.

The eventual decision was made, as so many were in those days, by the young Evening Lady herself, Twilight Everstar. Calling upon the sacred powers she had taken for her own in the previous conflict, she had called forth the Field of Trials whole and true from the bones of the mighty earth, raising it as a towering testament to the bravery of the Evening Kingdom’s warriors with as much thought as a lesser pony would give to the Sunday wash.

Upon the outraged protests of the nobility, she had calmly informed them that she would be reclaiming the history of Equestria for her own ends, that the arena was here to stay, and if they disliked her decision, they were more than welcome to attempt to put it back under the earth. This stance had shaped policy in the Kingdom for centuries to come, and had nipped the burgeoning arrogance of the noble houses squarely in the bud.

The arena itself was a proud building hewn from what appeared to be a single piece of marble, which had not in four hundred years weathered or cracked in the slightest. Ornamented with arches and statues in three tiers, it was able to seat more than twenty thousand ponies as spectators, and a series of columns and platforms above provided both shelter for the earthbound spectators as well as a resting place for an additional five thousand Pegasi.

The floor of the arena was made of thousands of hexagonal tiles, able to be adjusted at a moment’s notice via magic into a variety of configurations, from hills and hollows to mazes and interconnected platforms. They were watertight as well, allowing for the arena to be flooded if necessary for certain trials. In a city full of wonders, the Field of Trials was considered one of the most revered and respected. It was certainly one of the oldest.

The series of tunnels and preparation chambers beneath the Field of Trials, known as the hypogeum, were a welcome relief from the brightness and bitter wind that occupied the rest of the arena. Glowing the soft yellows and blues of magelights, the complex beneath the arena floor boasted three separate medical facilities, an enormous armory, and even private chambers for competitors to compose themselves in and rest on small cots and benches. The second level, deeper beneath the floor of the arena, was home to numerous containment pens, rarely used, for the keeping of animals used in the quadrennial lucanturs held in the city.

It was into these tunnels that Vino rushed, armor a-clatter, with the fervent hope that he would not be considered disqualified for his lateness. He had no idea how to get to the staging area for the fights, and was worried he would need to wander, but his fears were soon assuaged by a guard at the entrance to the tunnels.

“Name?” the mustachioed sergeant demanded unhurriedly, checking a roster by his side.

“Vino of House Hedera,” the young knight replied, scraping the ground nervously.

“You’re in the second group of fighters,” the guard replied, “Also known as Manticore. Down this hall, take the first three rights. You’re late, but then the competition’s been delayed. Hurry.”

Vino thanked the guard and bolted into the tunnel, hooves echoing off the walls. The ground underneath his shod hooves was roughly cobbled, in contrast to the rest of the walls, which were precisely cut, clearly the product of skilled unicorn artisans.

Vino hurried around the first corner, noting as he rushed past them that the walls were also decorated with tiny bas relief images of combat and heroic deeds, knights and dragons and Fae all clashing in a jumbled and beautiful mess. Soon enough, he arrived at a door made of bronze banded in iron, through which muffled voices could be heard. Thinking better of knocking, Vino simply opened the door and walked in.

The room was filled with the chatter and laughter of what looked to be at least thirty fighters, all of whom appeared to be gathered around a single low table, hewn from one solid piece of wood that gleamed a dark red under the glow of the lights. On the table was a tray, upon which rested a single band of blue silk. One of the warriors, a grizzled old unicorn with a red mane and white coat, looked up from polishing his weapon, a hefty looking axe, and grinned.

“Looks like the last of us has arrived!” he shouted, and the entire rest of the group turned to Vino and let out a cheer, a few waving before turning back to the table, their weapons, or their companions. The unicorn shouldered his axe and trotted over to vino, the studded leather of his armor swinging in time with his beard, braided and threaded with silver rings and woven through with a green ribbon that matched his eyes, which sparkled with good cheer. He stuck out one hoof, which Vino took gratefully.

“Welcome, lad. I’m Afi. Afi Refrsson. And if yonder roster’s to be believed, you’d be Vino of Hedera, unless I am very much mistaken!”

Vino found an instinctive like for this pony, who had greeted him so warmly. “Call me Vino,” he said by way of greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Afi grinned, exposing a golden tooth. “And a pleasure to meet you as well!” he boomed. “I’ll admit, Vino, we were beginning to get worried! There’s a full thirty of us here, and the roster’s a bit out of tilt if one’s missing!”

His horn lit up red, and the ribbon floated off the table, hovering in front of Vino. “Take the ribbon,” he said. “Tie it on somewhere. You’ll be identified by it when you’re fighting your opponent.”

“We’re fighting each other?” Vino asked. “It’s a tournament?”

“Each of us gets a round against another member of the group, someone other than your color of ribbon. You’ll be fighting no Manticores today,” Afi explained. “Instead you’ll be fighting ponies from Dragon today. It’s a grand melee!”

“And I take it you belong to Dragon?” Vino asked, realizing what the green ribbon in Afi’s beard meant. “If the Manticores wear blue.”

“Aye, lad. I’m with Dragon.” Afi said proudly. “I met most of my team members, and they’re upstanding types, but a little too ‘city’ for my tastes. Lots of shiny uniforms and shinier commissions.”

“You know, if you make it into the new Guard, you’ll be wearing one of those uniforms and have one of those commissions,” Vino warned him.

Afi grinned broadly. “I certainly hope so, lad!” he exclaimed. “Life as a Ranger tends to be short and hard. If I give good service, I can retire comfortably with a nice chest of gold for my trouble.”

“I take it you’re not doing this out of any sense of duty?” Vino asked drily.

Afi’s face grew somber. “I’ve served this Kingdom faithfully for many a year, lad,” he warned, “But I’m getting older and losing steps slowly. Duty might be enough for you young colts full of piss and vinegar, and it did me as well, but I can’t be a Ranger forever, and duty won’t keep the hearth warm or the belly full when you’re older. I intend to give good service for four or five years and take my leave.”

He perked up. “But that’s me, lad!” he said. “I’m a simple pony. I’d like to think I’m dependable and not hard to read. What about you? Your armor is new, I can tell. And you do not act like so many knights I have seen in my time. Who are you to have garnered such an invitation?”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Vino said, “But I’m not sure why I was invited to try for a Guard position. I knew Lady Serale growing up, but aside from that, I’m nothing special. I’m good with a gun and a blade, but that’s about it.”

Afi looked at him closely. “You know,” he said, “You remind me of somepony. Somepony familiar. You said you were a Hedera? Was your father Silvanus Hedera, by any chance?”

“You knew my father?” Vino asked incredulously.

“Knew him?” Afi said. He barked with laughter. “Lad, I studied alongside him at the Academy! He and I had rooms across from one another! Now I know I’m old, I might get the chance to fight alongside the sun of Silvanus! Imagine that!”

“What was he like?” Vino demanded. “He never talked much about his service, even though everypony else did. Is it true he was in Lady Everstar’s guard? Did he really fight up north?”

Afi nodded. “It’s true,” he said. “He fought against Minotaur raids up north, and fought like a true warrior. Always where the fight was thickest, and never gave ground if he could help it. And he was in the Crown Guard at one point. He didn’t stay long, though. He had a family at that point, wanted to give them a better life. Resigned his commission, hung up his sword, and started into trading. A damn shame, too. Haven’t seen a warrior quite like him since.”

Vino contemplated what he had been told. His father had been tight-lipped about the days before Vino’s birth as a rule, and the only time he had ever been forthcoming about his service had been when Vino had found a box full of his old medals on display in his father’s parlor. Calmly, Silvanus had informed his son of what each one meant, citations for bravery, ribbons for certain tours of duty, and so on. He had not told him what each one was awarded for. It was then and remained today one of the great mysteries of Vino’s childhood, one of the many that had surrounded his father and his work.

“You’ve gone awfully quiet,” Afi observed. “Nervous?”

Vino shook himself out of his reverie. “No,” he said, not really sure if he believed it, “I’m not. Why would I be nervous?”

Afi grinned. “I would be nervous. You see that pony over there? The one in the dark armor?”

Vino looked where he was pointing. Sure enough, standing alone in one corner was a pony all in black, from the heavy looking plate armor they wore to the sturdy wool cloak on their back. The pony in question was currently engaged in maintenance of their shield, which was without device and heavily used. A helmet wrought in the shape of a snarling wolf concealed their head.

“That’s one of the most fearsome fighters in recent years,” Afi said. “Whoever it is, they don’t go by any name, don’t display any loyalties to a House I’ve heard of, and haven’t been beaten yet. He’s only known by the title of ‘Mace.’ On account of the mace, you see.”

Vino noticed the extraordinarily large mace leaning up against the wall, and dimly realized that he was shaking a bit. For the pony wearing that armor to be able to wield that mace, they would have required massive strength.

Afi gestured to another corner, where three ponies in armor were chatting with one another, two of whom looked remarkably similar, one stallion and one mare with similarly braided black manes and palomino coats, green ribbons twined in their tails. Their only separating features were the veritable holocaust of scars running over their bodies. “Those twins over there are from the southern lands, learned most of their tricks from the buffalo. They fight with spears like nopony I’ve ever seen, back to back. The lad’s named Red Tail, and the lass is named Silent River. They’re inseparable.”

“Sounds like you’re in good company,” Vino said warily.

“Aye, though they’re the only ones with any real backbone,” Afi said cheerfully. “Most of the rest are uniformed types and knights like yourself. No offense, Vino,” he added quickly. “If you’re anything like your father, I’m sure you’re a true terror on the battlefield.”

Vino stretched his neck idly, gazing up towards the ceiling, but stopped short. “There’s something up there,” he said quietly. “Perched on the rafter.”

Afi glanced up and grinned when he saw what Vino was talking about. “That’s Ahan,” he said quietly. The shape perked up. “He’s a dirty rotten bastard who wouldn’t know the sharp end of his pike if you shoved it up his arse.”

The shape detached itself from the ceiling, spreading massive wings as it did so, and landed in a flurry of feathers and fur before the two ponies. The gryphon drew itself up to a towering height, the brown leather of his armor nearly matching the shade of his plumage. “And you, Afi Refrsson, are an imbecilic barbarian who picks his nose with his axe.”

He bowed his head ever so slightly in Vino’s direction. “I am Ahan of the Kingdom of Durmasagarti, son of Neezhoo, son of Mahtaram. It will be an honor to fight alongside you today,” he said, indicating the blue ribbon tied to the haft of his long spear, a strange looking weapon with a leaf bladed tip that shone sharply in the dim light.

Vino returned the favor, recalling a distant scrap of some etiquette lesson. He bowed low, making sure to lead with his left hoof instead of his right. “You do me honor,” he said. “I am Vino, son of Silvanus, son of Hedera. I beg your pardon for my rudeness.” What rudeness that was, he didn’t know, but he had been taught it was always better to err on the side of caution with gryphons, who were prideful and quick to anger.

Ahan snorted, an odd whistling sound that sounded almost like a chirp. “I left behind the old manners when I left my father’s home,” he said. “There’s no need to bow.”

Vino nodded. “It’s rare to see a gryphon so far north,” he said, “What brings you here?”

“Mercenary work,” Ahan replied scornfully. “I guard caravans making their way here. As well as other things. I made a name for myself a while back during a border conflict and was approached by a messenger from the castle asking if I wanted steady work. This was it.”

“Am I the only one who came here because I felt an obligation other than money?” Vino demanded incredulously. “No offense to either of you, but I’m wondering why Serale Everstar decided to create a guard apparently comprised of soldiers for hire.”

“A good mercenary is oftentimes better than their more ‘altruistic’ counterpart,” Ahan said calmly. “You get a job, you sign a contract, you complete the job, and you get paid. If you break the contract, you don’t get paid, and you don’t get hired as easily. Whereas honor and loyalty will only last as long as a warrior has faith in them.”

Vino blinked. “I…hadn’t thought of it like that,” he said. “I suppose that makes sense, who knows how long Lady Serale will need this guard? It’s better to have a group of good hired ponies…or gryphons,” he amended, “Than somepony whose only tie to her is loyalty.”

Afi smiled. “You’re not as dense as you look, lad,” he said, clapping him on the back. “Besides, you’re not the only pony here who showed up because of loyalty.”

“I’m not?” Vino asked.

“Of course not!” Afi exclaimed. “Just the only interesting one.”

“Attention!” a new voice called from the doorway, and the room fell silent. An imposing pony, wearing the bars and stars of a high-ranking officer in the castle Guard, strode into the room, bearing a tray of small cups in his telekinetic grip. Two watery blue eyes peered out from under an expertly cut mane of greying (and thinning) blonde hair, and a mustache that looked like it had seen better days was perched precariously on the end of his nose.

“I am Major-General Bombard, the Commander of the Watch for the Field of Trials. Today’s match is a very simple one. The lot of you have been divided into two teams. Manticore, signified by a blue ribbon, will be fighting against Dragon, signified by the green ribbon, in a grand melee. The last six standing on either team will be accepted into the newly formed Guard under Lady Serale as its leading officers.”

He proffered the drinks as the assembled warriors began to gather round. “These are potions of discorporation specially calibrated by top mages. You will feel perfectly solid to your teammates and most of your surroundings, but there is a catch. You will be unable to be harmed by the weapons of your opponents, save for a certain effect which I shall elaborate on. And for those of you disreputable sorts who think to harm your teammates in order to better your chances, think again. That has been accounted for.”

The tray was passed around. Vino noticed the liquid was colored either blue or green, and he discretely picked a blue potion off the tray, noting who did likewise.

“If you are ‘struck’ a fatal or debilitating blow by one of your opponents, you will discorporate, reforming back here in this preparation room. You will be compensated for your time and escorted from the arena with honor. Keep in mind that this effect only applies to those who have consumed the differently colored potion from your own, the properties of which last for an hour. Drink these potions now.”

Vino did as he was told, draining his in a single gulp. It tasted faintly of berries, and he felt a dizzy rush for the briefest moment, but it quickly cleared. His fellows did likewise.

“Wonderful,” the Major-General said. “Collect your things, contestants. The melee is set to begin in ten minutes.”

Vino stood by along with the other knights who had carried their weapons with them as the non-regular types collected their equipment. He used the opportunity to quickly tie the blue ribbon around his foreleg, above the knee. He noticed that many of the knights wore green. Afi had been right, then, most of his compatriots were ones he would be fighting against.

A few wore blue, though, raising the visors of their helmets to smile at him or simply nodding at him encouragingly. Gradually, the other contestants began to file back. Ahan stood next to Vino, his stance and expression calm.

“Are you ready, son of Silvanus?” he inquired gently. “You smell of fear. Your first taste of battle?”

“I got here two weeks ago,” Vino muttered, “And already I’m in over my head.”

“If that were true, you would not be here,” Ahan said. “I sense greatness in you, Vino of Hedera. The blood of ancient powers runs in your veins. Have faith in yourself and trust your senses. You are capable of more than you know.”

“Teams form into lines!” General Bombard called. Vino fell in behind Ahan, near the back of the line. He scraped at the cobbled floor nervously. One of the knights in green noticed this and murmured something to his compatriot, who snickered quietly. Vino tried not to notice and kept his eyes forward.

“Open the door!” the General called. The great wooden door creaked open, and he took the head of the column, which began to file out of the room.

Vino tried to quash his nerves, and took a few deep breaths as they stepped out into the hallway. He didn’t know why, but his senses were telling him that something was very, very wrong.

Libra was an apparently direct mare, if nothing else. If a problem presented itself that she had solved a certain way in the past, she was one to attempt the same method again. She kept a simple schedule, lived an almost ascetic lifestyle, and was plain and forthright in her speech as a rule. However, this was merely a façade, a veneer of civil placidity that veiled a much more complex and wily mind than would appear to the average pony. Her opponents, both political and otherwise, had oftentimes learned this the hard way, and far too late.

So when a summons arrived for her in the middle of a potion brewing session with a young mare hardly more than a filly herself, Libra’s response, while seemingly direct, was a simple indicator of a much grander scheme. She reassured her new apprentice, whom she judged able to handle her unfortunate affliction for a brief period, banished her to the field where she was supposed to be attending and was already late, and, checking to ensure her robes and hat were not askew, reached through the fabric of time and space and magic to answer her mistress’s summons.

It was a curious thing, she thought to herself as she traveled near-instantaneously through the use of her spell. She was being disassembled and reassembled, a task she had performed countless times. Theoretically, she could go anywhere she knew of, anywhere she could hold a picture of in her mind. Within reason, of course. Trips to far-distant lands were still beyond her. But anywhere in this castle, or indeed anywhere in the city itself, was no more than a brief thought away for the Magus.

The door she appeared in front of with a loud pop was made of simple stone, completely inaccessible through mundane means, and did not appear in the plans for the Regia. Nopony save Lady Everstar had any idea where in the castle it was, or even if this particular room was in the Regia to begin with. And even more curiously, travel by magical means into or out of the room beyond the door was simply impossible. No magical spells could be detected in its making; no runes were visible to any of Libra’s senses or arcane trials. And yet, she could only ever enter or exit by a single door.

It was upon this door that Libra knocked thrice, her blows echoing far longer than they should, and waited patiently.

The door split open down the middle, swinging open on massive and silent hinges to reveal a most curious room. A gentle breeze, warm and soft, blew through the air, carrying with it the scent of jasmine and roses and pine. It stirred the branches of great trees and rippled through fields of grass, softly causing the world to undulate under the pale light of a summer morning. Birdsong filled the air, and as Libra watched, a pair of rabbits raced across the footpath in front of her, headed for their burrow by the bank of a creek running swiftly, chuckling to itself.

The fact that this room existed without care, or that it existed at all, was not what made it unusual, far from it. What made it unusual was that every last thing was made of stone.

The grass was soft to the touch, and even smelled like fresh grass, but to pluck a blade would be useless folly. The tree’s leaves occasionally fell, far more swiftly than they should, before disappearing and reappearing back on their branches before hitting the ground. The rabbits were friendly, but their weight was substantial and their fine hair was nothing more than stone cunningly crafted, or perhaps they were the victims of some curse that had befallen this place in ancient times. So too did the birds glance at her curiously, the stone eyes in their heads reminding her uncomfortably of the gazes of the dead.

Libra steeled herself and stepped into the room, the door whispering shut behind her. She followed the path before her down towards the banks of the river, where she knew her mistress would be waiting for her. If she closed her eyes, she knew that she would be able to fool herself into thinking she was wandering through some bucolic meadow. But nothing here greeted her gaze but the hardness and greyness of stone, save for in one spot.

A splash of color was silhouetted on the bank, a small wooden table set for two, along with a chair upholstered in red and a stool with a cushion of the same color. On the table rested a crystal pitcher filled with crystal clear water, brought from outside. The water here set in the throat like concrete. Upon the stool was a Pegasus in leather armor, with a coat of black and livery of rose pink, drinking deeply from a glass in front of her. Upon the chair sat Lady Everstar, sovereign of the Evening Kingdom and the undisputed champion of her subjects. She looked frightened.

“Libra,” she greeted the unicorn, “Good of you to come so quickly.”

Libra gave a curt bow. “I live to serve, Milady.”

“This is Stella,” Lady Everstar continued, and Libra saw that there was indeed a star on the Pegasus’s flank, trailing what appeared to be feathers in its wake. “She flew here nonstop for two days and nights to deliver a message to me from Princess Cadance. Stella, would you mind repeating the message? It’s alright, I trust Libra like I do myself.”

Stella finished her glass of water and addressed the Magus. When she spoke, it was with a high-pitched, piping voice, stilted with the accent of a native New Classical speaker. “Buongiorno,” she said. “The Dawn Princess, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza Allegretta, sends her warmest greetings and salutations to her colleague, Lady Twilight Everstar, Duchess of the Forest and Keeper of the Evening. She wishes to inform you that her search for the Witch of the Woods, known to her as Radiant Zenith, has been unfruitful. Even with all her power, searching across the land, she was unable to find Radiant Zenith, which she finds worrisome in the extreme.”

The Pegasus paused for air. “She can find no trace of her, nor any lingering emotion in the areas she would frequent indicating a sense of purpose which would indicate a desire to travel. My Princess is nonplussed, and awaits the recommendation of her colleague before she will attempt to search further. Princess Cadenza sends her regards, wishes the Lady her continued good health and cheer, and awaits a response via this courier, who she feels to be more trustworthy than means of magical communication.”

Stella paused respectfully to allow Libra time to process this information. “This concludes the message,” she said helpfully.

“Thank you Stella,” Lady Everstar said. “I’d like you to go for a walk while I discuss this with my advisor.”

Stella smiled brightly before hopping off the stool and trotting off down the road, not looking back once. A butterfly appeared to catch her interest, and she was pursuing it soon enough. Libra watched her go, feeling a pang of sympathy for the marked Pegasus.

“Well?” the Lady asked. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s bad news,” Libra said. “If Princess Cadance couldn’t find her, even with her power…”

“Then something’s wrong,” Twilight said. “My thoughts exactly. Radiant Zenith doesn’t travel often except when I invite her to Court, and what travels she does take are confined to the Everfree Forest. If she’s not there…”

“Her power is invested in the Forest,” Libra mused. “I thought she couldn’t leave, even if she wanted to.”

“And within the Forest, she’s the closest thing to a god there is,” Twilight continued. “Which means that whatever happened was big.”

“Powerful enough to take her down, but also discreet enough that we didn’t notice until now,” Libra said. “Who knows when this could have happened? What do you think happened?”

“I’ve got an awfully good guess, seeing as the most powerful beings in the world are ones I’ve been keeping track of except for one.”

“Discord?” Libra asked. “Cobblestone claimed he visited her this morning.”

“I noticed,” Twilight said. “As soon as he entered the Regia I had a spell trained on him that would have turned him into stone or worse. And I don’t think this was him. He doesn’t have the clout to take on Radiant, not anymore. Which leaves us with one option, the Shadow or one of its familiars.”

“If Princess Cadance sent this message to you, Milady, then there’s a very good chance Celestia received a messenger as well.”

“I’d thought of that,” Twilight acknowledged, “And Cadance is right to send a messenger instead of our usual magical communique. Whatever it was that could have handled Radiant Zenith would be more than powerful enough to eavesdrop on my conversations with the other Avatars. This throws other, more threatening implications my way. I’ll have to redouble the security spells on the tower, but in the meantime, I’m going to investigate her cottage.”

Libra bowed. “Very well. Shall I accompany you?”

Lady Twilight shot her a look. “Of course you’re coming. I’ll need your power in this as well, and two sets of eyes are better than one.”

“And what of the Pegasus?” Libra asked.

“I’ll leave her here. Odds are good she won’t even notice we’ve gone.”

Libra bowed her head in silent assent. Twilight took her hoof in her own, maintaining a firm but comfortable grip, and with a murmur, her horn lit up, shining brightly even in the sunlight of the room, a beacon of purple power in a sea of gray. Libra felt something tugging at the nape of her neck, and she felt herself swirling apart, tunneling through the fabric of reality for the second time that day.

As suddenly as it had begun, the ride was over. With a loud bang, the duo appeared in a small clearing, dead leaves crunching underhoof as they fell a few short inches to the ground. Libra took a moment to compose herself before drawing her sword smoothly out of its sheath with her magic and surveying the spot where they had landed.

A small house, set into the riverbank along which swift water flowed, greeted her, the brass knob in the doorway gleaming and well-polished in the weak light of the winter sun. A small chimney protruded from the embankment, seemingly jutting up from the top of a hill, and a single circular window overlooked the river and porch, which protruded into a dock where a small boat, hardly more than a skiff, was moored. It radiated welcome and good cheer, a beacon of civility in the undoubtedly hostile lands of the Everfree Forest, nearly a hundred miles from the city of Starfall.

At least, it would have radiated civility.

The door swung loosely in the wind, hanging crookedly within its frame. The window was shattered, letting air in alongside a massive hole in the wall, which had splintered the deck and snapped it in two. The boat was half submerged, protruding from the water like a gravestone. A small garden which had until recently held both vegetables and flowers lay churned up by heavy movement. Something was wrong, very wrong indeed.

“Stay close,” Twilight warned. “Whatever did this could still be around.”

The Magus and the Lady crept closer to the ruined house, their horns lit and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. As they approached, they began to notice other details. Burns littered the entryway, small spots where magical bolts had missed their mark. A knife, made of some sort of strange black stone, lay discarded and snapped in two, the point embedded in the door itself and the hilt laying in the disturbed soil. What was most unusual, however, were the clear prints by the door, and the jagged lines of claw marks.

Long lines scored into the door alongside splintered holes implied that something big and hungry, or many somethings, had battered their way through the door heedlessly, a move that had cost them dearly. It was clear by the smears of ash on the floor that the first attackers had run into Radiant Zenith’s wards. A print, one of many, was marked in the ash, an almost triangular central pad surrounded by four toes, each tipped with lethal claws.

“These are unusual marks,” Libra whispered as they crossed the threshold. Twilight nodded her assent.

The interior of the house was worse off than the exterior. The carefully crafted wood panels on the walls were shattered and cracked, and an old potbellied stove to one side was burst seemingly from the inside. Swatches of blood stained the walls dark brown, and a dozen pots lay crumpled in various places throughout the sitting room. A desk appeared to have been rammed through a nearby wall, its side stained with yet more blood and heavily dented, but not broken.

“No bodies,” Twilight murmured. “Radiant wasn’t holding back. This house has been abandoned for a while.”

“Look,” Libra said, indicating the study, visible through the open door and the hole in its wall. “There’s something in there.”

Twilight’s horn flared brighter, ready to fire off a dozen spells at a moment’s notice as they silently crept towards the study. She reached out with one hoof and pushed the door open wider, wincing slightly at the creak it made. Libra had been right. There was something in there.

The body was a crumpled mess, though its form was still relatively recognizable. Broad, powerful shoulders gave way to two long, sloping arms culminating in powerful prehensile paws, which mimicked the obscenely muscled legs that were at one point attached to its torso. A wide neck supported a head dominated by a brutish muzzle filled with sharp teeth, and pointed ears atop eyes that at one point had gleamed with mad intelligence, avarice, and bloodlust. It wore a short leather jerkin, and a cape made of feathers which were sickeningly similar to those on the wings of Pegasi, and was completely covered in mottled brown fur.

“Do you know what this is?” Libra breathed.

Twilight nodded. “I met a creature like this once, very long ago. They haven’t been seen under Celestia’s sun for the better part of two millennia.” She swallowed. “It’s a Diamond Dog. Diamond Dogs walk Equestria once more.”

In Which The Climax Is Reached

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Cobblestone shifted uncomfortably in her seat, both due to the chill in the air, which managed to permeate even through the protection afforded by her robe, and due to the swirling presence of nearly ten thousand souls in close proximity. She struggled with the tides of strange energies, feeling snippets of shared emotions and even a few stray memories that she knew not to be her own floating by. The sky above her was slowly fading to a blackish hue, and the young unicorn could have sworn that she was seeing stars at high noon.

Slamming her eyes shut, she focused on rebuilding the wall inside her head, taking the burgeoning power she felt there and compressing it with all of her might into a tight ball, which she imagined mortaring up inside a massive vault, sealed behind as many mental barriers as she could throw up. Gradually, she felt the effects of the magic lessen, and she could breathe normally again, at least for the moment.

Where was Libra? She has said that she would be along in a few minutes with the potion, but it had been nearly half an hour since then. The competition was set to begin soon, and Cobblestone didn’t know if she could keep herself composed for long. That had been the third time she had been forced to rebuild her mental defenses, and it was getting harder and harder for her to do so.


Cobblestone opened her eyes to see Serale looking at her strangely. “Are you alright?” she asked. “You look terrible!”

“I’m fine,” she grunted. “Headache, that’s all.”

Tell her, Hob urged. By keeping her misinformed, you put everypony here as well as yourself in danger.

Shut up, she shot back with a vengeance. The cat flinched slightly, imperceptible to any observer, but she could feel it. I can keep this under control until Libra gets back. Besides, Lady Hedera is sitting to my left. I don’t trust her.

A wise policy, Hob said, Which does you no good if you lose control of that magic and explode.

“I’m not going to explode,” Cobblestone muttered.

Serale looked at her perplexedly. “Beg pardon?”

“I said I feel like my head’s going to explode,” Cobblestone stammered, “But I’ll be fine. I’ve had worse, it’ll go away soon.”

Well, I’m convinced.

Shut up.

“If you’re feeling unwell, I might have a restorative in my clasp,” Lady Hedera said, her tone sympathetic. She opened a small purse up, rummaging around in it before withdrawing a small glass bottle, inside of which was a few white capsules. She proffered the bottle. “Here,” she said, “Take one of these. They should reduce the pain a bit.”

Cobblestone, seeing no polite way to refuse the offer without sounding suspicious, accepted it. “Thank you,” she said. Flicking open the wire clasp, she tipped a pill into one hoof, swallowing it dry. Resealing the bottle, she returned the vessel to the purse. Immediately, she felt a spreading warmth in her chest that seemed like it would indeed have relieved any pain, were she feeling any.

“Better?” Lady Hedera asked.

Cobblestone nodded weakly. “Better,” she managed to get out. “What were we talking about?”

“I was mentioning that my son was going to be competing in today’s competition,” Lady Hedera said.

“Oh?” Cobblestone said distractedly, realizing that the warmth from whatever she had just taken was making it more difficult for her to concentrate on her magic. Gritting her teeth, she managed to stymy a particularly powerful surge of power, which caused everything to go blue for a moment.

“He just got here a few weeks ago,” the Lady continued, “And only received his knighthood a week or two before that. Frankly, Lady Serale, I was surprised to see he was considered for the position.”

“Well, Vino’s training records show promise,” Serale said conversationally, “And I think he would do well in balancing out some of the more…flamboyant personalities that are auditioning. Assuming he makes it through.”

“And do you?” Lady Hedera pressed. “Think he’ll make it through, that is.”

Serale regarded her coolly. “I can’t show any favoritism to one particular contestant,” she said. “I wish him the best of luck, as do I the rest of the candidates. He’s skilled enough in combat, even if he is inexperienced. I think he’ll do well.”

Cobblestone’s brow furrowed. “Wait,” she said. “Vino? You said his name was Vino?”

Lady Hedera nodded. “Vino of House Hedera,” she said. “Why? Do you know of him?”

Suddenly, and from seemingly everywhere and nowhere in particular, a horn blew a clarion call low and sweet, and the assembled spectators fell silent, waiting expectantly for the call for the tournament to begin. Serale rose from her seat, checking herself over as she did to ensure that she looked her best.

Cobblestone watched as Serale stepped forward to the amplification crystal, clearing her throat as she did so. The young noble drew herself to her full height before letting her imperious voice ring out across the expanse of the arena to well over ten thousand ponies, Changelings, and even a few Gryphons.

“Fellow subjects of the Evening Kingdom!” she cried. “We are gathered here today to witness some of the best warriors this fine realm has to offer!”

The crowd roared in approval, stomping their hooves and whistling. The Changelings, as usual, expressed their approval by humming. Serale held up a hoof, and the crowd gradually grew still. Cobblestone was thankful for that, as she could feel their excitement brushing against her.

“Thirty fine fighters gathered from across my mother’s nation have been assembled here, to fight in two teams! All shall be recognized for their fine achievements in the field, but in the end, only six shall remain, offered positions in my personal Guard! They have been divided into two teams, from which the winners shall be selected,” Serale said, gesturing to the two gates on opposing sides of the arena, closed with heavy iron portcullises.

“The winners may be from one team or the other,” she continued, “Or all from one. This shall be a grand melee, held in the old tradition! Fighters must exert themselves until they are forced to yield, at which point they shall retire.”

Ponies in the stands began to murmur excitedly. Melees were extremely dangerous at the best of times, with average fighters. Two teams of serious contenders would undoubtedly be quite the spectacle.

“I wish for those serving me to be true warriors, those who will fight without holding themselves in reserve! As such, these contestants have been given magical aid, to ensure that they will not need to worry about harming their opponents. There shall be no death here today,” Serale proclaimed, and Cobblestone felt a wave of disappointment wash over her from the crowd. She groaned softly.

“It is high noon!” Serale cried. It was obviously a signal, as the two portcullises began to grind open. “Let the contestants emerge! Let them present themselves for the competition!”

The crowd cheered once again as two lines of ponies began to file into the arena, one from each gate. One team was led by a bannerman carrying a green pennant embroidered with the sinuous form of a dragon, and the other was led by a blue pennant marked with a snarling manticore. In almost-perfect unison, the two lines bent towards the box, arranging themselves in a half-circle for the spectators to view.

As one, they bowed to the box, waiting on Serale’s signal, which she gave. A quick bow of her own head, the slightest inclination, and the two teams immediately split apart, filing towards opposite ends of the arena. Cobblestone felt her heart begin to beat a little faster as the two sides arrayed themselves in formation.

“Which team would your son be one?” she asked Lady Hedera, not caring that she was the one initiating conversation with this mare.

“Manticore, I believe,” she said, shading her eyes with one hoof, peering down at the arena floor. “Yes,” she said, pointing, “There. In the bright armor. It’s new, so his is easily noticeable.”

Cobblestone followed her gesture, and her heart skipped as she realized that Vino would be arrayed in the middle of the line. In her experience, the thick of the fight was never a good place to be. She drew the black of her robes closer around her, clutching Hob as she did so.

You needn’t worry, Cobblestone, Hob said reassuringly. Lady Serale has high hopes for Vino. He would not have been invited if he weren’t capable in a fight.

That’s not what I’m worried about, she thought back, I know he’s a good fighter. But so are all of the rest of them. And I have the awful feeling something’s about to go wrong.

Vino fiddled nervously with the visor of his helmet. The blue flag of Manticore was thrust down into the sand, and he realized that there was no backing out of it now. He felt his heart begin to pound, and his limbs went weak with nerves. He stopped himself from shaking, but only just. He didn’t want his comrades to hear him quaking in his armor.

“Son of Silvanus,” Ahan said, shaking the feathers of his wings out lightly, “Stay close by me. With my glaive and your sword, we can easily keep our enemies at bay.”

“Deal,” Vino said, with much more confidence than he felt. He frowned. “Your spear wasn’t a glaive before.”

“No,” Ahan replied, “It wasn’t.”

Then came the first sharp blast of the horn, the readying call. Vino slammed his visor into place, and focused on his sword. Reddish energy flowed into the metal, and the bladeband left his foreleg, hovering in front of him and ready for his call. He glanced to his left, and then his right, taking it all in.

The stands of the Field were packed nearly to the brim now, twenty thousand spectators cheering and waiting on a show. He was in the middle of the line, with Ahan to his left and another armored knight to his right. The tiles of the Field felt oddly textured beneath his hooves, and he was glad for the heavy shoes he wore, in order to protect them. That was a lesson he had only needed to learn once during his training.

Across the field, standing under the green banners, were arrayed fifteen opponents, each of whom were undoubtedly far more experienced than he was. He could see Afi off to one side, hefting his axe, his red mane streaming in the wind, and near him the two twins raised by the buffalo. Across from him, however, were nearly a dozen more knights in shining armor, hefting maces, spears, swords, flails, and other implements of battle. And he knew that the newcomer he appeared to be would be attracting their attention.

“Don’t take to the air,” he murmured to Ahan, thinking quickly. “You’ll never get off the ground with the half-dozen flyers they have.”

“An insightful bit of advice,” the Gryphon returned. “The three knights directly across from us mean to eliminate you first. Shall we surprise them?”

“Let’s,” Vino said. His heart began to beat faster, and suddenly he felt the distractions of the world fade away. The color faded out of the world, and it was as if he stood alone on the battlefield. He swung his sword experimentally, the weight of it feeling good. He was ready.

The horn sounded, and the crowd let out a roar as the two sides charged towards one another. Vino felt his muscles burning as he forced himself into a quick trot, then a canter, and finally a full-tilt gallop, his sword pointed directly at the thick of the enemy. Quickly he crossed the first quarter of the field, his hooves flying over the cobbles, and before the enemy could make the halfway point, he had passed it, catching the charge on the back third.

The knight in front of him looked at him with wild eyes, visible behind the slit of his visor. Vino’s blade pierced the helm through that slit, and the knight discorporated immediately before spiraling down into the stones of the arena. Vino sensed rather than saw a flail swung by one of the knights who wanted to single him out, and caught the blow easily with his sword, maintaining his momentum as he wheeled left, now behind the enemy line. He was vaguely aware of another blow on his right flank, but it hardly hurt him at all, and the tangle of chain and sword he and his opponent to the left shared was of greater importance.

The other knight, older and more experienced by far, attempted to wrench Vino’s bladeband away from him, but Vino had been expecting that. The tug the knight gave had the added bonus of putting more power behind Vino’s thrust, and he was able to guide his sword through the knight’s armor, catching him in the gap between the gorget and the breastplate. The knight evaporated a moment later, leaving his mace behind.

“Vino!” a voice called, and a blur of feathers and fury was suddenly standing beside him, the haft of his spear twirling to parry the blow of an axe that would have lodged between his shoulder blades. A quick flick of the glaive, and Ahan had claimed victory over his opponent. The Gryphon did something with his face that Vino assumed was a grin, which he returned, though it wasn’t visible through his visor.

There was a terrible crash from behind them, and Vino turned to see that the two lines of battle had met in earnest, though Manticore was obviously the better-off. Dragon’s line had split in twain thanks to Vino’s charge, though they had managed to seal the gap at a heavy cost.

“That was a foolish thing to do,” Ahan said. “You left the entire formation behind. What were you thinking?”

Vino blinked at him. “Thinking?”

“Never mind,” the Gryphon said. He pointed at the right flank of the Dragons, where they appeared weakest. “Shall we?”

The pair hit the fighters from behind, sowing confusion among the ranks that lasted for only a brief moment. Neither had been lucky with their blows, and the group of green-clad knights was able to disengage from their fight, leaving a few defensively-minded individuals to hold off the half-dozen or so Manticores from aiding their compatriots.

Ahan readied his glaive, and Vino his sword. They were outnumbered five to two, and the knights knew it, charging in a group. Two of the knights took to the air, pumping their wings furiously to lift themselves and their armor above their opponents. Vino knew how dangerous armored flyers were. They wouldn’t even have to use their weapons, just fall on their opponents and trust their armor to take care of them.

“Keep the flyers up there!” he barked to Ahan, “Don’t let them fall on us!”

Ahan merely nodded, flicking his glaive up as a defensive measure and backing behind Vino, who faced the three knights, who had spread out and were looking for an opening. Vino’s gaze flicked from one to the next, unsure which one was to lead the charge. The one directly across from him looked to be the strongest and best-armed, but he wasn’t sure. Vino felt a twinge of awareness that set his tail on end, and he turned just in time to parry a thrown spear from the knight on his right, who drew a short sword and followed it up with a charge, his comrades close behind.

Vino parried the sword-thrust, and threw a hoof at the side of his opponent’s head, knocking him into the path of the well-armed stallion who was charging him. He just barely managed to fend off a sword-stroke from the knight to his left, a desperate maneuver that bought him some breathing space, but not enough. He hissed as the sword swung towards his flank instead, scraping along his armor. Had he not been wearing it, that blow would have opened a cut eight inches long to the bone.

He struck out with the pommel of his sword, ramming into the disarmed knight’s head with enough force to drop him to the ground, only to realize that this left him facing two opponents who very much wanted him dead. The heavily-armed stallion confirmed this by swinging his maul directly at Vino’s head, just barely missing him. His compatriot made another move, which Vino blocked, turning the point of the thrust that had been made towards the knight’s companion.

Vino backed up a step, flicking the point of his sword back around in a sort of clumsy cut, and was gratified to see that it impacted the neck of the sword-wielding knight hard enough that it penetrated the armor. The knight disappeared, leaving Vino to face the maul wielder.

Vino didn’t have much experience with mauls and hammers. Sir Ironside had been insistent on the use of swords, axes, and polearms, but he had been insistent that other weapons were not part of the knightly code. Vino thought of only one trick that might work, and even then it was a long shot.

The stallion swung the maul over his head, building up momentum, and then swept it towards Vino’s face. Vino didn’t even bother to block, simply giving ground as the maul swung towards him again. Clearly this was a favored tactic of the knight, and for good reason. Even if Vino managed to get his sword in the way of the maul, it wouldn’t matter. The weighted weapon would shatter it and continue on through. Unless he timed it just right.

Twice more the stallion swung, once at his legs and once at his head, and then Vino acted. He stepped forward, into the path of the maul, and shoved his sword towards the haft of the weapon with all his might. The sword jerked back, almost catching Vino in the shoulder, but he was rewarded with the sound of splintering wood, and he quickly chopped back in the other direction, striking a deadly blow on the side of his opponent’s head. His opponent disappeared, and Vino was rewarded a brief moment later by the sound of the heavy iron head of the maul clattering against the arena floor.

“Vino!” Ahan cried, and the young knight turned just in time to see the Gryphon drive his glaive into the breast of one of the Pegasi. He pointed behind him, before turning to fend off the other one. “Ware!”

The steady clank of armored hooves on stone mingled with the jingle of mail on leather, and Vino knew who was behind him before he turned.

Afi grinned at him, his eyes full of something like pride. “Well, lad. Well, well. You proved yourself quite the warrior there. That was masterful.”

The black knight beside him said nothing, his face obscured by the wolf helm he wore. Mace’s shield hung at the low ready by his side, the weapon he was named for pointing straight at Vino. A clear challenge.

“As you can see, there aren’t many left on the field,” Afi said. “Ten by my count. We’ll leave them to it. Mace here saved my arse when I lost my axe, and I owe him. He wants a challenge, lad.”

“And if I refuse?” Vino asked, bringing his sword up.

“We knock you out proper-like,” Afi said, the laughter in his eyes becoming something more feral. “You’re good, lad, but not good enough to take on us two.”

Vino looked around the arena, at the box, at the warriors who were even now diminishing in number. It wouldn’t be long before there were only a few left, and their eyes turned towards the young knight as an easy target. It mattered little now who won or lost. The majority of those still on the field would be in the guard as it were. He felt the eyes of the crowd on him, and sighed, knowing what he must do.

“I accept.”

“Defend yourself,” the knight in the wolf’s-head helmet boomed, and before Vino could do more than set his hooves, the knight was upon him.

Vino’s first thought was of the knight’s incredible speed, despite his obvious skill with the mace. He was forced to execute a rather unwieldy roll to one side to avoid being cratered into the arena floor, and he could feel the shockwave the mace gave off through the ground. He came to his hooves, his sword at the ready, and swung at the knight’s back. It wasn’t chivalrous, but then, Vino didn’t think this warrior would be holding to the old codes of combat.

He was right. The knight hurled himself at Vino, mace swinging at his legs in a clear attempt to lame him, and Vino’s only recourse was to spring forward, meeting the knight in a grapple. The duo struggled for a moment, landing a few ineffectual blows, before springing apart. Vino called forth his bladeband once more, and the mace rose into the air by the knight’s side.

Vino decided he wasn’t going to give the black knight the opportunity to attack him again. He leapt forward, his sword whistling towards his opponent’s unguarded right shoulder, and he scored a solid hit, though the blade failed to penetrate the armor. The dark-clad fighter slid back smoothly, out of range, but Vino kept at it, pressing his advantage. He knew that if he managed to keep the black knight from swinging his mace, he could keep him off-balance.

Evidently his opponent had the same idea. His shield swung around, catching Vino’s sword, and a swing of his mace just managed to clip the side of Vino’s helm, denting it a bit. Vino staggered back, feeling blood pouring down his face from a cut above his left eyebrow. He held up a hoof. The black knight stopped his assault and waited.

“Do you yield?” he asked calmly, a sonorous voice rattling the greaves around Vino’s legs.

“Sir Knight, please allow me the opportunity to remove my helm. I am blinded by it currently.”

The knight said nothing, merely nodding while Vino undid the clasps, tossing the now-useless piece of metal to one side. He shook the blood out of his eye, blinked once, and nodded gratefully. “When you’re ready,” he offered.

The black knight hefted his mace and rushed Vino, but Vino had learned his lesson from the mace before. The metal head rushed towards the ground from above the knight’s head, heading around towards his now unprotected chin, but Vino decided instead to step inside his opponent’s guard as he had done before turning the mace aside. He raised his sword to make the parry, committed to his stroke, and realized belatedly he had forgotten about his opponent’s shield.

The blow was a sound one, the shield catching him in the side and sending him skidding across the arena floor. The crowd gasped in sympathy, and that was when Vino realized that the remaining fighters had disappeared. He glanced around, saw Ahan and Afi standing to one side and watching, and a small cadre of blue-clad knights to one side. There were seven fighters left in the arena, all told.

He attempted to stand, and sat back down just as quickly. Dizziness came over him, and he realized dimly that there was a faint ringing in his ears. The black knight stalked up to him calmly, and levelled his mace at his head.

“Do you yield?” the knight in black asked calmly.

Vino raised the hoof around which was coiled the metal of his bladeband. “I…” he said, “I…”

And then there was an explosion.

Serale’s heart had been in her throat for the entire melee.

Vino, easily recognizable even from a distance, had led the charge across the field with a speed and ferocity that surprised even some of the veteran guards in the box around her, cleaving through the enemy line like a hot knife through paper. He had accounted for five “kills” on his own, and with the Gryphon by his side, the two of them had taken more than half of the enemy out of commission. It had been a miracle that the knights in green hadn’t been completely wiped out, thanks in no small part to the services of an old ranger and knight in black.

Vino had held his own against great odds, but even Serale was sure his time had come when he faced the knight in black, who had challenged him to single combat in front of twenty thousand screaming and hollering ponies, Gryphons, and Changelings. He’d had no choice. The Ranger and the knight had dispatched or wounded ten knights between them, and were more than a match for him together, she knew.

The knight in black was clearly more experienced, but Vino had managed to keep the entire crowd guessing with his tenacity and willingness to keep his opponent off-balance, even at expense to himself. Vino hadn’t realized it, but during the fighting, he had taken at least a half-dozen shallow cuts and blows to the torso and head. It finally took a substantial blow from the black knight’s mace to give him pause, and even then, it was only for a moment as he removed his helmet.

Serale snuck a look over to Cobblestone, who was looking paler and paler by the minute. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to invite her this morning. The mage’s apprentice huddled deep in her robes, the dark fabric only accentuating the paleness of her face, and was wincing in apparent discomfort, whether from her own headache or in sympathy for Vino, she didn’t know.

There was a great shout from the crowd, and Serale snapped back to the arena. Her heart sank as she saw Vino tumble limply across the arena floor, his blade gone and blood streaming down his face. The black knight stalked toward him, mace at the ready. Vino attempted to get back up and fight, but put a hoof wrong and sat back down hard. Serale groaned, feeling an enormous wave of disappointment wash over her. Now the knight was levelling his mace, offering Vino the chance to yield, and…

One of the stadium’s walls exploded outwards in a shower of rubble, spraying massive pieces of stone out over the arena floor. The cries of the crowd turned to screams, as the dust settled and a figure was revealed, standing in the gap. A tattered black cloak whipped in the winter wind, matching the black of her coat, and a mask of beaten silver shone brightly in the sunlight. Even from here, Serale could tell that a bird was emblazoned upon it, a crow in black.

Six other ponies climbed out of the hole, their movements unnatural and their heads held at odd angles. At a gesture from the cloaked pony, they sped from the hole, setting upon the beleaguered fighters below. The panicked crowd began to stream from the exits, and it was a brief moment later that Blind Nightshade, the Witch of Shadows, raised a single hoof , pointing it at the royal box. Black energies began to gather along it, and Serale realized that if they did not leave the box soon, they would most certainly perish.

Cobblestone cried out, clutching at her head as she toppled over, and Serale looked down at her friend in concern. The young mage’s horn began to spark and crackle, and a clap of thunder was heard from overhead. Serale looked to the sky, her eyes wide, as a bolt of lightning lit with a thousand colors sped from the darkening sky. It was headed right for her.

In Which Serale Discovers Her Birthright

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The first thing Vino was aware of was a strong hoof on his shoulder, hauling him to his hooves. He looked to see who was tugging on him, and got a glimpse of a wolf’s helm and black armor before he was stood upright. The black knight said something he couldn’t quite hear, and then laid a hoof alongside his head.

Vino shook himself, his thoughts clearing back up. “What?” he cried.

“Fight, you foal!” the black knight said, gesturing towards the hole in the stands. Vino’s eyes widened as he saw the figure standing there, shrouded in smoke and dust. Lurching, hobbling shapes were lumbering out of the hole around it, some of them headed right for him. Vino counted six. He lifted his bladeband, gathered his focus, and called the sword forth from the steel.

“There!” the knight said, his voice joyous. He hefted his mace and shield. “Come! Charge!”

Vino lifted the sword up and charged the approaching figures, noting as he did so that the Gryphon was coming in low overhead, having gotten airborne. He assumed that the other knights along with Afi were right behind him, bringing up the rear. He wished he had his helmet. Fighting with the face exposed was dangerous at best and suicidal against any kind of experienced opponent, a gesture of desperation. There would be no turning to smoke if a blow was landed on him by these figures.

Vino felt a sense of trepidation settling over him as they approached the far end of the stadium and he could see the lumbering figures better. They were ponies once, that much was clear. But whatever the cloaked pony had done to them, they weren’t anymore. Their eyes shone with pallid light, and their coats had lost all luster and were falling out in places. Their teeth were yellowed and pointed, and thought they were slow, Vino could sense the strength and savagery contained within those seemingly frail forms. He wasn’t fighting mortal opponents. These were the undead.

“Take their heads off!” the black knight said, somehow managing to be heard over the screams of the departing crowd. “There isn’t a damned thing, living or dead, that can hurt you without a head!”

And then they were upon their opponents.

Two of the creatures turned to him, and giving out low howls of hunger, suddenly picked up speed, charging him with a quick motion that could only be described as scuttling. Vino raised his sword to ward off the blows that were sure to fall, and then thought better of it. Instead, he swept his sword at the neck of the ghoul approaching his right, and was rewarded with a solid thud. The monster’s head rolled on the floor, staining the tiles reddish-black with ichorous blood.

The other creature, getting in close, attempted to bite at his face, but Vino jerked his head back. The creature’s teeth met the steel of his gorget, splintering as they did. The corpse did not appear to be bothered by this in the slightest, as Vino backed up so he could use his sword. Making a leap back, he waited for the thing to come into range once more, and then swung his sword, burying it in the thing’s skull. Wrenching it out with all of his strength, Vino completed the movement by severing the head of the thing.

“Vino!” Ahan called from above, “Look out!”

Vino, without thinking, dodged to one side, and not a moment too soon, as the creature whose head he had severed charged by, cranium newly attached and teeth gnashing. It howled a rasping howl, furious at missing its prey, or at least that’s what Vino thought.

“What in the name of the Princes are these things?” the black knight cried as he backpedaled, the monster in front of him repairing the damage from his mace-swing as he did so. “I have never fought undead like these!”

An axe whistled through the air, lopping off a reaching hoof from one of the revenants that was about to bring down Ahan. Vino spun to see Afi, with three knights in tow, bringing up the rear as he had hoped he would. “I know these!” Afi said, his voice urgent. “They’re revenants! Powerful undead, the work of a master of dark magic!”

“How do we kill them?” the black knight roared, laying about him with his mace. The revenants, three of them, were refusing to give him room to breathe.

“Burn them!” Afi replied, as Vino began to fend off the attentions of his own two revenants. He noted with a distant worry that one of the other revenants, giving up on the black knight, had turned its attention to him and was joining its brothers in the assault. “The only way is to burn them!”

“What are you waiting for?” Vino barked, punching one of the undead in the head while he decapitated another, buying him some time. “You’re a unicorn! Light them on fire!”

Afi grunted, burying his axe in the skull of the newcomer as he and the three knights lined up next to Vino. “Can’t,” he managed to get out, before wrenching the axe free. The corpse began to repair itself immediately, but it bought a moment of breathing space. “Magic’s not my strong suit. Axework is.”

“You’re joking!” Vino said as he fell back into the line. It was the only hope he had, as his companions would be able to work more efficiently in formation. He thrust his sword directly into the chest of the revenant in front of him, which did not impede it in the slightest. He shoved back the beast, narrowly avoiding its teeth in his cheek, and managed to free his sword as the revenant Ahan had been engaging from above joined the fray. Apparently the undead were having the same idea.

The thought chilled him. He’d studied how to fight against the undead as a matter of course, and he’d learned that the biggest weakness of the undead was their mindless nature. But these creatures didn’t appear mindless at all. They reminded him more of wolves than anything else, the pale light in their eyes exhibiting a cunning intelligence and malevolence aimed squarely at him.

One of the knights yelped and dropped to one knee, having put a hoof wrong. Instinctively, Vino and the others in the line stepped forward, raising their weapons to drive the undead back, but it was a moment too late. The revenants rushed the gap left in the small group, using their superior strength and endurance to butt aside his companions. Vino and the other warriors were forced to fall back form a split second, which was apparently all the ghoulish creatures needed.

It was brief, the suffering of the knight, as the revenant on top of him broke his neck in a quick and businesslike fashion before the entire group shuddered in apparent ecstasy. The lights in their eyes began to burn a bit brighter, and Vino could have sworn their movements were more coordinated before the whole group, now numbering five, rushed him directly.

“They seem to like you, lad,” Afi said conversationally as he hefted his axe. The other two knights were behind the revenants, and though Vino could see Ahan taking to the air once more, he knew that the Gryphon would not arrive in time. Five on one were not good odds.

“Clear!” barked a strange and almost-familiar voice, coming from behind the pair, and Vino and Afi reacted on instinct, each jumping to one side.

A wave of blistering flame, thick with oily smoke that reeked of brimstone, roared through the air in shimmering waves, catching the pack of revenants dead on. Immediately they sent up a howl of protest which was swiftly extinguished as they began to crumble, their shadowed forms visible through the rippling flames shedding mass as Vino watched in horror and awe. Within perhaps ten seconds, there was nothing left of the monsters, and when the smoke cleared, a small pile of ash floated away on the breeze.

“I never thought I’d get a clear shot,” the voice said. Vino turned to see who had just saved his life. His jaw dropped.

Standing to one side was a pony clad all in armor, her coat an ashen gray and her mane the black of tar, hanging in limp strands about her face. A single scar traced its path from her lip past one eye, the red-slitted pupil framed by green focused on the last remaining revenant, who had decided discretion was the better part of valor. Her mouth, already contorted from the scar, curled in a contemptuous sneer and she sighted in on the fleeing monster. A single bolt of oily fire sped forth from the smooth and curled horn, sharpened to a point, on her forehead, and the creature dropped, consumed by flame as it screamed pathetically, a sound which set Vino’s teeth on edge.

The knight in black armor grinned, exposing a set of fanged teeth, bone white, as she did so. The expression swiftly vanished, replaced with a well-used scowl as she saw Vino ogling her. “Keep staring, and I’ll pry your eyes out,” she growled.

Vino quickly averted his gaze. “Apologies,” he said. “I just…I’ve never seen a pony like you before.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snarled. “A pony like me?”

“Well,” Vino fumbled, desperately seeking a way out of the conversation. “You see, you’re kind of…”

“Ugly? Deformed? Strange? Terrifying?” the knight asked him scornfully. “What exactly were you going to say?”

“Not to interrupt,” Ahan said diplomatically, keeping his head bowed, “But the royal box is currently under attack. Shall we intervene?”

Cobblestone woke to thunder and heat and the smell of ozone. Immediately, her mind went to Serale. She knew that smell all too well, it featured prominently in her dreams. She vaulted to her hooves, wincing in pain as she did so, and checked on her friend.

The young Lady was in bad shape. She was smoking gently, limp and unresponsive and crumpled in a small heap on the floor of the box. Cobblestone rolled her onto her back, checking her for a pulse and breathing. Thankfully, the unicorn was breathing, albeit shallowly, and her heart remained strong and steady. She wasn’t in good condition, that much was obvious, but she wasn’t dead. Unfortunately, Cobblestone didn’t know how to help her any further.

An idea came to her. She glanced out onto the field, seeing the fighters engaging the small shapes near the mouth of the cavern created by the explosion. And just as soon as she saw the cloaked figure raising a staff conjured from black flame, it disappeared, reappearing a few scant yards away. Cobblestone crouched low, her horn sparking painfully as she did so. She noted Lady Hedera cowering in fear along with a few other nobles, none of whom had the wherewithal to run or defend themselves. The guards stationed in the box appeared to be catatonic, no doubt the work of the witch down below. It was up to her.

“Hob,” she growled, “Defend Serale.” She drew the sword she had chosen from the scabbard at her belt, grateful she had seen fit to buckle it on this morning. She knew next to nothing about how to use it, but it felt better than going up against Nightshade barehoofed.

“The rest of you, go!” she shouted at the nobles. “Get out of here!”

“How noble!” the necromancer cried from the floor of the arena. She began to rise into the air slowly. “Standing between my prey and I. But I fear you are far and away outmatched this time, Cobblestone. I was overconfident and paid the price. Not this time.”

She gestured with her staff, and Cobblestone felt herself picked up and flung through the air, hurtling towards the back of the box, where she struck with a sickening crack. Spots filled her vision as she took to her hooves again, this time reaching on the magic inside her. Without really knowing what would happen, she forced the power through her horn, and was rewarded with another bolt of electricity, turning the air in front of her to plasma.

Nightshade warded the bolt away with her staff, but the motion cost her. She swung the magical implement back around, the end trained squarely on Cobblestone, and the young apprentice threw herself to one side as a bolt of poisonous green energy issued forth from the tip, splattering the wall behind her and eating a hole through it. This exchange was enough to galvanize most of the other nobles out of the box, screaming as they ran, save for Lady Hedera and Serale.

Cobblestone picked herself back up, nearly tripping over her robe in the process, and leapt from the higher seats directly towards the dark Mage with a shout, leading with the tip of her sword. Nightshade, her unseeing eyes able to sense her still, brought the staff up in an attempt to juxtapose it between herself and Cobblestone. Cobblestone felt the sword wrenched out of her grip as she and Nightshade met, tumbling to the floor in a jumble of hooves, horns, and clothing.

Cobblestone smelled the musty stench of long-rotten flesh as she attempted to get back up, disentangling herself from the necromancer, and with a single quick motion, she managed to get between Nightshade and the box. The necromancer also rose, a bit more stiffly, before meeting Cobblestone’s brown-eyed gaze with her own milky white stare. The mask over her face slipped and came loose, exposing the mass of white scar tissue beneath, weeping pus and blackened near the horn.

“If you want them,” Cobblestone panted, “You’ll have to go through me.”

Nightshade gestured, and her staff rose into one hoof. She pried the sword from its solid length, and tossed it contemptuously at Cobblestone’s hooves. “Defend yourself,” she said.

Cobblestone had a split second to pick the sword up before Nightshade caused the arena floor in every direction to erupt in black flame. Cobblestone stepped back with a yelp, unsure of what to do. Thinking fast, she slammed her will out into the ground around her hooves, and found that the black flame did not approach her, at least not as fast. She backed up quickly, finding her back to the wall as the flames began to rise higher and higher, not seeming to harm Nightshade despite their heat.

“Power enough,” Nightshade murmured as she advance calmly, “And a good grasp of what to do with it. I could see why my mistress wanted your services. You would make an excellent Crow, Cobblestone.”

“Bite me, you bitch,” Cobblestone spat. “I’m not going to let you harm Serale or anypony else here.”

“You care for the young Lady,” Nightshade said. She swept her staff to one side, and a path opened up between the two ponies, bereft of fire. “I am not here for the daughter of the Evening. My quarrel is with the other one. The Lady of the trading-house.”

“You want Lady Hedera?” Cobblestone asked, panting with the effort of keeping the flames at bay. “Why?”

“That is no business of yours,” Nightshade said. “Do not interfere, and I will pledge to you on my power that your friend will come to no harm today. My mistress would not allow it.”

Cobblestone eyed the flames surrounding her, tall and black enough to blot out the sky overhead. She was badly outmatched and she knew it, barely able to keep even this enchantment at bay. She tried to reach for the strange power that had filled her before, to initiate the soulstare like she had back in Lady Everstar’s study. It wouldn’t come. She was exhausted and out of options.

“All I have to do is let you go?” Cobblestone asked. “I have your word?”

“On my power,” Nightshade repeated solemnly. “I shall not touch a hair on the head of your friend. Or your cat,” she added as an afterthought, “Though no cat like him I have seen.”

Cobblestone’s shoulders slumped. She was tired, she thought, so very tired. The will of Nightshade lapped at her feet with the flames, which edged in closer as she fought valiantly and lost ground to the slowly advancing inferno.

“Now, thief, it’s your turn,” Nightshade said. “Choose. You stand upon the brink of the abyss, but it is not too late. Choose my offer, or the fire.”

Cobblestone said nothing. Instead, she spat at the hooves of the black unicorn. “Go to Tartarus,” she growled.

Nightshade said nothing, merely waved her staff. Cobblestone caught fire and began to scream as her defenses failed, one by one. The heat and the pain built and built, each moment becoming agony compounded upon agony. Senselessly, she reached out for something to save herself,