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~Princess Luna

Post in forum #1905 - An ongoing MLP Roleplay Thread, Rated PG-13.

Another teleport, another surge of nausea that was doubly bad for having two stomachs. Moon Pie managed not to puke only because she had already emptied them back at the Ivory Tower. As her churning guts quieted, she could focus on her surroundings. Black walls, floor, and ceiling where Smog had breathed his smoke into the cloud. White floatwood tables and the floatwood bar standing in sharp contrast. It strongly suggested the decorator had a diseased mind. While that was arguably true, Smog’s personal insanity wasn’t on display here. His cunning was. Anypony trying to get into Smog’s head by profiling his Den would be quite deliberately led astray. Smog was not a creature of absolutes. He saw the world in shades of gray, barring a few absolute rules like never lying. Even those were pragmatic and self-serving rather than moral. A reputation for not lying gained him more than lying ever could. Everything he did to help others was to help himself somehow. Smog’s twisted genius had even turned selfless acts to selfish ends.

The memories hit Moon Pie, and she would have rather suffered the nausea. Centuries of visiting here to report missions accomplished or rarely failed. Hundreds of hours of conversation: lessons in how to spot liars, subdue ponies, pick locks, suppress emotions, and more. Moon Pie was going to spend the rest of her life trying to unlearn some of those lessons.

Aware of the irony, Moon Pie used mental disciplines learned from Smog to lock away her boiling-over memories. Everything vanished except the present moment. Princess Luna was inscrutable. Maybe calm; maybe controlled. Jindalee rode Tradewind’s head. The former seemed to be exercising his own mental disciplines. Whatever he felt or thought, it didn’t show up on the surface. She turned an ear his way and caught the hum of a heart going even faster than a sugar glider’s normal. The latter wore his heart on his sleeve, even if he probably thought he was hiding his feelings. Fear, of course. But also hungry anticipation tempered by the guilty awareness that vengeful rage wasn’t a good thing to feel.

Moon Pie had expected feel anticipation, at least a little. She felt a lot of things, but none of it was eager. She knew what Luna planned to do to her brother. That was just too bloody far. Even the part that stubbornly refused to stop hating Smog had flinched when Luna shared that. A tiny, ancient part of her, recently unearthed, remembered Smog back when he was Breaking Dawn. Before he ran away from home. He had always seemed angry, a constant background simmer, but had never once aimed it at her. Not even when she was a pest. That part of her still loved her brother. She had to love him, or the thought of what he’d become wouldn’t have hurt so much. That was why she had tried hard not to think about his confession the last time they met. He hadn’t just told her they were siblings. He had told her he remembered who he used to be and come to hate who he had become. Smog had been a lie. Her brother had used magic to bury his true past and plant a fake one of growing up a dragon in its place. Smog had died when Breaking Dawn remembered his true past.

Just like that, Moon Pie realized why even the part that hated Smog wasn’t champing at the bit to see justice done. Smog was gone. Now Breaking Dawn was going to be punished for the crimes of Smog. Horribly punished. The punishments would be no more extreme than the crimes, but those were horrible.

Moon Pie realized her sinuses felt clogged. She remembered this feeling once before, the profound but elegant distortion of the laws of mathematics. “You circled the Den.”

“Circled?” Jindalee said.

“Like by the lake?” Tradewind said. He rolled his eyes upward to look at Jindalee. “Luna cast this spell. Um, if you headed out, you ended up heading back in. And time didn’t pass inside. Not real time. And…no time had passed outside the circle after it fell. I think that covers it.”

“It hits the key points.” Luna said. “I did not circle the Dragon’s Den. After I left you, I flew alone and unseen around the city. One circuit, clockwise. Upon bringing myself and you three here, I closed that circle.”

“The whole city?” Tradewind said. He seemed impressed, but he clearly didn’t really understand. Otherwise he would have been a lot more impressed.

“Yes. As King Sombra once did, only he stood outside that circle. I stand inside. That is why, from the outside, the city will vanish only for a moment.”

“I see.” Jindalee said. “With Aura and Umbra on lockdown, you can limit the repercussions of Smog’s absence to a defined area. Will we grow hungry in here? Aura imports its food.”

“Hunger is not an issue.”

Jindalee sported a thin smile. “Nice. Let the chaos run its course, pick up the pieces, get everything squared away, and then drop the circle.”

“No.” Luna’s horn glowed with magic. It boiled to molten white intensity before flaring out. “Every creature in Aura and Umbra, saving we four, Smog, and the ponies I brought with me, are now asleep. All of them dream, and it is a single dream. They dream that they are still awake and that time passes as it should. In the dream, they will hear a speech encouraging them to remember the virtues of Harmony when dealing with the Dustan refugees. In that dream, we who are still awake have simply vanished. The world of that dream must act exactly the same as the waking one. I walk in it now. A part of me. I shall watch how everything unfolds in Aura and Umbra with Smog vanished. Ponies charged with secret orders to cause chaos will dream they carry them out. Those with blackmail materials will release them. I shall make note of them all. When the dream ends, every dreamer will forget the dream. They will hear the speech again. Then all will unfold as it did in the dream…except this time those ponies carrying out Smog’s revenge shall be dealt with before they can carry out their mischief.”

Moon Pie managed not to stand there with her jaw dangling, like Tradewind did, but it was a close thing. Even Jindalee seemed unnerved. He recovered first. “You brought others with you?”

Luna smiled, but she seemed a little distracted and rather sad. “They wear the illusion of my appearance. I called all citizens to gather for their safety. All pegasi were commanded to land before the speech began. It is my deep hope that no pony was flying or operating dangerous equipment when they fell asleep. While they dream, my assistants shall search for injured. It is a difficult thing to truly die inside a circle such as this. If they can be healed, they will be healed. Of the unicorns I brought, many have talent for healing.”

“So…” Tradewind said. He had that dawning-of-an-unpleasant-realization tone. “Smog’s still awake. In here with us.”

“He is.” Luna said. She pulled a small white urn from under a wing and floated it above her head. When she spoke next, it was louder than the pounding dance music that usually filled the bar. “SMOG SILVERTONGUE, HE WHO WAS ONCE KNOWN AS BREAKING DAWN! I, PRINCESS LUNA OF EQUESTRIA, COMMAND THEE TO COME FORTH AND FACE JUSTICE FOR THY CRIMES!”

Moon Pie opened her eyes. She sat on the black-smog floor, cringing, with her fore-claws clamped down over her oversized ears. Tradewind hadn’t moved, but only because he had gone rigid. A frozen expression of pained shock almost pulled a hysterical giggle from Moon Pie. Jindalee had merely laid his little ears back and set his body paws as if leaning into a strong wind. The mirror behind the shelves behind the bar had cracked in two places. As Moon Pie straightened, a bottle that had vibrated near the edge tipped over.

Luna caught it in her magic and nudged it back in place. The door to the back opened even as she did. Breaking Dawn slipped through. Moon Pie stopped breathing. He was exactly like her oldest memories. Except the spearhead-shaped spines down his back were ivory, not pink. And the eye-patch, of course, with parallel lines of raised white scar where she clawed his face.

His slitted green eye went straight to that little white urn and stayed there. Moon Pie felt a slow burn of shame despite Luna having taken that from her without permission. It held Smog’s eye, the one she had clawed out. Her insurance policy that he would leave her alone: if he didn’t, she would have given it to one of his enemies. Now Luna had it…and Moon Pie was with her.

“What the bloody sodden moldy hayfries?” Tradewind said.

“He has returned to his natural form.” Luna said. She was all frost and iron now, moving forward between Smog and the others. “Hence the need for haste on my part. Should his transformation become known, it would have triggered the fall of the city.”

Tradewind growled like a dog, deep in his chest. Then it shook and transformed into bitter, mocking laughter. “Sure, okay. Why not? Let’s clap him in irons, or whatever.”

“I won’t resist.” Smog said. His voice cracked and broke like Moon Pie’s. His was a deep bass and a musical soprano. Tradewind laughed a little harder, either at the voice or words. Smog didn’t react. His eye was dull, his posture defeated.

Luna opened the lid of the little white urn. “Do you have anything to say before I carry out your punishment?”

Raising his drooping head a fraction, Smog looked Luna in the eye. “If you let me, I will do everything in my power to try and avert or minimize the harm my fall will cause to others. I will give you lists of every living creature who worked for me and a list of their crimes, as well as whether they were pushed into committing them. I do not ask for mercy.”

“Duly noted.” Luna said. “Remove the patch and the false eye, Smog. I shall return your eye to you.”

Nopony present was less than astonished, and Smog was most of all. He obeyed without a word, however. Moon Pie was more confused than anything, but then she realized this wasn’t the kindness it appeared to be. Smog popped out the little crystal ball and set it on the end of the bar, which sat near the doorway he stood before. The patch joined it. Moon Pie braced her stomachs for the sight of the eyeball flying out of the urn and over to Smog.

Deep purple-blue light flared in the urn and behind Smog’s sunken eyelid. The eyelid filled out and then lifted. The eye behind was just as green as its mate. It was bloodshot and purple light shone from the slitted pupil. Smog stared at nothing. Then he flinched. Slow as melting ice, his expression transformed into the deepest possible horror. His hind legs gave out. Muscles jumped under his skin. Tears welled up and overflowed. He gave the impression of trying and failing to scream. That awful expression just kept getting worse. Guilt and dismay and agony piled on layer after layer until Moon Pie had to look away.

“Uh…what’s happening?” Tradewind said. It came out a whisper.

“There is an elixir.” Luna said. She seemed…not quite shamed, but…maybe the word was diffident. “Tempus Redux.”

“Oh, that stuff.” Tradewind said. “Smog made me drink it. I relived my past like it was happening again.”

“Then I can skip the explanation of its effect. I soaked his eye in it, modified with what can only be called a curse. He shall relive his entire life…from the point of view of every creature he has ever harmed. He shall experience every death he has caused or ordered done. Those he ruined, he must feel their shame. Those whose loved ones he took, he must feel their grief. Those he beggared, he must feel their hunger and desperation. Those he caused to hate him, he shall feel their hate for himself. Those he forced to do evil, he shall feel their guilt. Every terror, every torment. All the misery he has caused in his life, he must now experience. He shall never be able to forget the least part of it. It shall take a minute for us. To him, it shall stretch…millennia.”

Jindalee whistled long and on a descending pitch.

“Oh…my…” Tradewind stopped, sounding choked.

“What he reaps is what he sowed.” Luna said. Now she just sounded tired. “This is not vengeance, born from the desire to cause pain upon one who has hurt thee. This is justice.”

Tradewind forced out words between hard swallows, his eyes swimming with tears. “If you’re going to kill him, just cut his head off!”

“Killing him would not punish him.” Luna said. She was gentle, but unyielding. “He wishes to die.”

“This is…cruel.” Jindalee said.

Luna turned her back on them, facing Smog. “There will be mercy. But justice must come first.”

Long moments passed in silence. Moon Pie kept her eyes shut tight. She heard it when the spell finished taking Smog’s mind on a tour through time and the minds of every creature he had ever wronged. Including, she knew, her own. She heard him collapse. Heard his throat unlock. The harsh gasping sobs hit her like hurled stones. Moon Pie couldn’t imagine what it had to be like. To know, beyond doubt, the pain her actions had caused others. To have felt it like it was her own. It would probably be impossible to make herself hurt another creature, ever again.

Her eyes popped open and she fumbled to fit her monocle back over one of them. Enlightenment had started to creep over Moon Pie. Luna moved closer and crouched beside the shattered ruin of her brother. The alicorn spoke with heartbreaking compassion. “True justice is always a lesson. It teaches that evil actions have unpleasant consequences. A punishment that destroys you teaches nothing. As it stands, what I have done to you is not true justice. I have shown you only your darkness. Now see your light.”

Smog’s clenched-shut eyes slowly relaxed, and then opened. Purple light still shone from one of the pupils. Luna rose and backed away. Smog kept sobbing, but quieter and not so raw. His expression wasn’t horrified anymore. It was harder to define. Agony mixed with awe, perhaps. The revelation of some truth as beautiful as it was terrible.

“He relives his life through the eyes of others once again.” Luna said. “This time he sees all the good he did. However cold his heart and selfish his motives, many of his deeds did have beneficial consequences for others. He funded clinics and soup kitchens. Ponies who were hurt found healing. Those who hungered found food. Smog gave the asylum in Umbra, the one named after me, certain profitable properties and businesses. The profits from those fund my eponymous hospital for the mentally ill. There have been other things. Many things great and small.”

“Does it outweigh the evil?” Moon Pie said.

Luna glanced at her. “Not even close. But it should be enough. Doing good deeds feels good. An act of kindness or generosity is its own reward. Right now, Smog is being educated in that truth. To despise his evil is not enough. He must desire to embrace goodness. If he can be reformed, there is much good he could do in the service of Harmony and the Empire.” Luna pulled out the urn, which she had put away at some point. “My sister and I are not fools. We shall keep his eye, and should he return to evil, we shall end him with it.” She put the urn away.

“But.” Tradewind said. “You didn’t put it back?”

“I made him grow a new one.” Luna said. “Rest assured, we shall keep Smog on a very strong leash. It currently falls to me to oversee certain aspects of government, things best done in shadows and secrecy. Spies and subterfuge. I neither enjoy it nor am particularly suited for it. I do it because there is no one else who can.”

Moon Pie couldn’t stop the giggle the bubbled out of her. Half of it was Tradewind’s expression of terminal disbelief. Half was the notion itself. “Smog’s being press-ganged as Chief Spook?” He’d be terrifyingly competent at it…

“Chief? No.” Luna said. “Think of him as a…consultant. No authority to command, only advise. Trusted, because I shall have him on a leash. Smog shall mysteriously vanish from Aura this day and his true fate shall never be known. He has too many enemies that would seek his death otherwise. I shall have your word to keep this secret, and know that I shall bind you by it. Attempt to reveal it, by any means, and you will find your bodies refusing to obey. Decline to promise and you shall be detained until you change your mind.” She seemed apologetic about it, but she didn’t appear to be bluffing. “Not punished, beyond involuntary confinement in comfortable rooms.”

“I promise not to tell anypony what happened to Smog.” Moon Pie said. She felt the spell slide over her like ice cubes under her skin, and shivered.

“I should like to mention,” Jindalee said, “that Freeport has always been friendly toward the Equestrian Empire. Even the extra-legal parts of it have always made certain not to offend. I hope that Smog’s list of tasks won’t include the destruction of the Longtails.”

“We have laws against that.” Luna said. “Freeport is a sovereign nation, if a small one. So long as it remains so, and not a clear threat to the Empire, we have no right to punish its criminals. That is for Freeport to do…or fail to do.”

Jindalee gave her a bow. “I promise to take the truth of Smog’s fate to my grave, Your Majesty.” He gave a little shiver and grinned. “Brisk. Trade?”

The pegasus began to speak. Smog gave a heavy snort and leapt upright. His eyes swiveled, independent of each other, but then he seemed to remember the trick of moving them as one. The left one’s pupil no longer glowed. Both of them turned aside, not looking at anypony. He saw his false eye on the bar, a clear crystal orb with faint lights and colors sliding over its surface. Picking it up, he tucked it under a wing. The patch, he ignored. Smog’s eyes had always showed his age. Now they looked even more ancient. From his perspective, it had been thousands of years since he had seen them last. Thousands of years as a helpless observer in the minds of other creatures: first experiencing the deliberate evil he had done them, and then the heartlessly calculated good. He would have had a lot of time to think.

Humility or insanity: Moon Pie didn’t see much chance for any outcome less extreme. If he was nuts, it was a quiet kind of nuts. His cracked, two-pitch voice didn’t give any clues either. “You bound me to truth.”

Luna inclined her head in a nod. “You are compelled never to knowingly speak an untrue word. Not directly compelled, but you sense the spell hovering over you. You may choose to lie…but if you do, the spell shall kill you. You are bound from other things, and you can sense what they are.”

Nodding to himself, Smog forced his gaze to each of them in turn. All the frost and venom in them was gone. They held nothing but sorrow. “For every bad thing I have done to all of you, I am deeply sorry. I know how much I hurt you.” His eyes unfocused and his expression went queasy. “Exactly.” Blinking, he seemed to fight back the memories. “If I could take it back, I would. I can’t. All I can do is tell you that I’m sorry and I’ll never forgive myself.” He blinked again and a pair of tears trickled down his scaly pink cheeks.

“You shall come with me.” Luna said.

“Yes.” Smog said. “I will confess my crimes. I understand that they merit execution.” No pride, no courage, no nobility. Just that deep, heavy sorrow.

“Your punishment is done.” Luna said. “For every evil act you have ever done, you have suffered in equal measure. Legally, the slate has been wiped clean. If ever you wish to die, simply speak an untrue word. Death shall be swift and painless, but it shall only come by your choice. I offer a much harder fate, if you have the courage. Atonement. Can you sacrifice all your hopes, dreams, time, and energy to the selfless service of harmony and light?”

Smog went on staring at nothing, but then he gave a tiny nod. Luna returned it with something almost formal before turning to Tradewind. The pegasus stared at Smog. Jindalee tapped his paw twice on Tradewind’s head. “Huh?” He stirred. “What?”

“I need your promise not to speak of what happened to Smog. Nopony must ever know what became of him. I say he deserves a chance to atone, but many of his enemies will not agree. This must be a secret you keep even from your beloved, Fantasy. I would not ask unless I must. But I must, and I ask.”

Moon Pie stared at her brother, who stared at nothing. There was something…switched-off…about his expression. The lights were on, but was anypony truly home? Insane or humbled? Bowed or broken? She wasn’t sure and she suspected she was never going to learn the answer.