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~Princess Luna

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

The sugar glider Kirra had initially seemed excited. That lasted until the unicorn known only as Captain locked her out of the bridge. After vanishing for a time, she reappeared in a quietly foul temper. Stalking up to the bridge door, she gave it a kick. Xero stepped aside as she stalked aft along the corridor to the small room that served as a general place to eat and socialize. He followed. The glider leapt up onto the table and stared at the earth pony, Baz. He kept shuffling a fat deck of cards embossed with the symbol for the Elements of Harmony on the back. Five circles arrayed in a ring around a sixth. Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark sat in the middle circle, the other five with the marks of her famous friends.

“Did you help?” Kirra said.

“Help what?” Baz said.

Xero sat at the table, utterly disregarded.

The glider put her fore-paws on her hips. “The Captain. Did you help him me-proof the helm?”

Baz stopped shuffling and set the deck aside. “No. You mean you really couldn’t get in?” Not a hint of amusement showed on his face. He seemed troubled, but not by Kirra’s problem. A distance in his eyes said his heart was elsewhere.

The glider snorted. “I’m still out here. He blocked or booby-trapped every way in, even ways I never used before.”

“Whoa, booby traps?”

“Not deadly ones. Like, one of them was a sticky trap. The kind you put down for bugs. A whole yard of vent wallpapered in sticky traps. Glued down good, too. They were obvious enough not to get me but I couldn’t get past them.”

Baz resumed shuffling the cards. Then he dealt six of them face-down as if he was a fortuneteller. One surrounded by five. He appeared to be doing random things, as a pony did when they didn’t know what to do. “I dunno. You know his talent. Maybe he thought about how to kill anypony trying to get in, and that helped him work out all the ways to get in? Then he just made sure the traps he set weren’t deadly. Or he thought about where to set a trap to kill somepony trying to get in, and then blocked it or set a harmless trap, and then he did it again, until there weren’t any ways left for somepony to get in? I dunno. Just guessing.”

Kirra’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been thinking about this.”

“Well, yeah.” Baz resumed shuffling the rest of the deck. “Like, the Captain’s not evil. You only get your cutie mark when you realize your destiny and accept it. He can’t have an evil talent. So yeah. I’ve been trying to work out how it can be used for good. There has to be one.”

Kirra plopped onto her rump, tail twitching. “Maybe the obvious?”

“What’s the obvious?”

Eyes downcast, Kirra almost whispered. “Killing things.”

“But…that’s wrong.”

“I said things. Not people. You think it was wrong to kill that thing in the tree? On the roof?”

Baz shuddered and fumbled the deck. He caught them and tapped the cards straight. “Oh. Like…fighting evil. But I thought you were supposed to try and make them not be evil.”

“Yes. You should try and help. Sometimes you can’t. I think that the Captain’s talent is for the ones that can’t be saved but have to be stopped. He’s scared. He likes using his talent. He’s scared if he uses it to kill evil monsters he’ll stop needing a reason and just need an excuse. Then someone dies who didn’t deserve it.”

“Makes sense. I guess.”

Kirra inhaled longer than seemed possible before letting it out as a sigh. “He can’t be happy. Not really. This isn’t his destiny.” She hopped up onto all fours and shook herself from head to tail. “Bazzie?”


Her tail twitched back and forth as she seemed to find the ceiling suddenly interesting. “Did you notice the thing that zebra didn’t say?”

Xero scowled where he sat, but he couldn’t interfere. His special talent to go unseen only worked as long as he was a passive observer. A zero in the equation. If he tried anything to distract them…and he had a number of tricks that would have done it…he would suddenly become visible. Even committing himself to an action would do it. He was a very limited spy: unable to shift a page or open a door without suddenly becoming noticeable to all present.

Meanwhile Baz gave the glider a flat look. “What?”

“He never said that Tradie showed up in Aura at the same time that Smog disappeared. He was careful not to say anything that would make us realize it. Tradie delivers some kind of cursed jelly-jar or something directly to the Princesses. Then he vanishes so that even Smog’s goons can’t find him. Then he turns up in Aura and now suddenly Smog’s gone. You think it’s a coincidence?”

“No.” Baz said. “Cirrus, now I’m really worried about Tradewind.”

“Join the club, knucklehead.” Kirra said. “You going to turn those cards over?”

“I just laid them out for…I dunno.” Kirra flipped them over, going clockwise around the outer five. They had text and numbers on them, some kind of intricate game, but each one also had a picture. The cards had pictures of Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie. By that point, Baz stared as if the cards had begun to croak like frogs. Kirra flipped the middle one. Twilight Sparkle. Baz blinked, very slow and deliberate. “Wow.”

Xero quelled a sudden mingled surge of fear and anger. Kirra meanwhile became openly outraged. “You dirty cheat! No wonder you always win this game, you…” She lunged forward and kicked the deck in his hooves to spray him with cards. Then she became a grey streak that vanished somewhere Xero wasn’t able to spot.

Baz sat there with cards stuck in his mane. “B-but I didn’t…”

Kirra streaked back, popping into sight as she leapt onto the table. Pop-eyed scared. “That sorcerer isn’t in his cabin.”

“You went in his cabin?”

“Past it. The door was open. He’s not there!”

“Well, he hasn’t come past me.” Baz said.

Their eyes met, and they spoke as one: “Engine room.”

Xero left the table and hurried to his cabin. Sitting on his bed, he adopted an old-fashioned meditative pose and allowed his talent to relax. His hips complained from being flexed in unfamiliar ways. Baz trotted past mere moments later with the glider on his head. Kirra spotted Xero and hit the brakes by pulling backwards on the earth pony’s ears. He skidded to a rearing halt. “Ow!” He noticed Xero and jumped. “Whoa! Bloody heart attack here!” He shook his head until he dislodged Kirra, who hit the ceiling and clung. “Not funny, Kirra.”

Kirra gave Xero a look of deep suspicion, peering under the top of the doorframe, head upside-down. “No, it’s not. He wasn’t in there, Baz.”

“I was meditating.” Xero said. In the back of his mind, something like giggling wind-chimes scratched at his awareness. The minor wind-spirit was like a weak windigo full of mischief rather than malice. Only a very distant cousin to a windigo. It had been behind those cards falling as they had, and opening his cabin door, which Xero distinctly recalled shutting.

“Uh-huh.” Kirra’s tone oozed skepticism.

Baz groaned. “Come on, Kirra. He’s paying a hundred thousand bits for us to fly him to Aura. He’s a customer. You’re usually nice. Why not with him?”

“He’s a sorcerer.”

“Sorcery isn’t evil.” Xero said. “It’s how you use it.”

“A not-evil sorcerer who works for Smog. The same Smog who sent the Nightmare to kidnap Tradewind. Yeeeaaah.”

Xero was tired. Just…tired. He was older than he should be and he’d die after fewer years than he deserved. “I admit I’m a criminal. You could say I’ve done evil things. Maybe I was evil once. I chained myself to an evil thing.” His fore-hoof went to his neck, remembering the feel of the enchanted noose when it went tight. “For a long time now, I’ve been trying to find a road out of the dark. I was willing to die to see Miss Ossuary destroyed, if I could be sure she would be destroyed.”

“Uh, he did say that.” Baz said. “And I saw him being strangled before that pegasus saved him. He’s not so ugly now.”

“He works for Smog.” Kirra said.

“It was that or die.” Xero said. One of the things he was tired of doing was keeping the truth a secret. “I had done something stupid and bound something too powerful for me. I would have been dead in three years. He gave me the knowledge and the means to strike a pact with the thing and lessen the strain of binding it. For a price. For an oath of loyalty. A binding oath. I feel loyal to him. It feels real. I suppose it is real, as when I made the vow I was sincerely prepared to be loyal forever if only he could save me. I’m not allowed to stop feeling or being loyal to him.”

They didn’t say anything at once. Xero closed his eyes. No tears fell, of course. The word xero meant dry. He had chronically dry eyes. To the point that he needed eyedrops to keep from being forever bloodshot. However appropriate blood-red whites and yellow irises would be for a sorcerer. Not once in his life had Xero ever shed tears. Not even when he cried. Not even as a foal. Not tears of laughter or pain or sadness. Not so much as a drip caused by grit in his eye. That didn’t mean he was heartless, though for a time he worried it might mean exactly that. Xero had never been very nice zebra. Especially when younger. Distant: an instinct not to get involved, mistaken for coldness. In his heart, he knew that kindness was never going to come naturally to him.

Xero had begun to see the point in making the effort. He had made it with Icepick and that had turned out well. He felt a small but very solid satisfaction about that. Life had disappointed Xero. He had hungered to be a somepony rather than a nopony, which his talent seemed to be saying was his destiny. Xero had sought to be powerful, not a zero. He had gained great power. But it was an evil power that he could never flaunt. He had become powerful and still almost nopony knew he existed. Those that did were criminals or police, and none of them liked him.

Something touched his fore-hoof. Xero was surprised, but he merely opened his eyes. Decades of being tormented by Miss Ossuary had destroyed his startle reflex. Kirra stood on the bed with one small warm fore-paw on his hoof. She seemed to want to meet his eyes, a challenging glint that dared him to. So he did. There was something there, tickling behind his eyes. Something that saw beneath the surface. He never would have noticed if not for long practice at knowing when something else was spying on his mind. Not everypony could look deep into another’s eyes and see the truth of the heart behind it. Kirra could. Xero had heard about her spotting Agent Pearl, ‘the Nightmare,’ in Equadoe. Overcoming a glamor like that wasn’t an easy trick. It was a sign Kirra might have been able to become a sorcerer. He felt not the slightest urge to tell her that.

Kirra looked away first. “You’re very lonely.” Xero had been expecting something insightful, but it still managed to stab right through him. Kirra hit him with another. “You know, you don’t have to stay in here. You can come out and sit with us.” That was exactly what he had been doing earlier, though he hadn’t realized the real reason why. Xero had assumed it was just to gather information. He was lonely. Had been, for so long it had just become how things were.

“No more being rude?” Baz said. Kirra spun away and took a flying leap that battened her onto the earth pony’s face with her membranes spread. His indignant snort puffed them out.

Kirra giggled. “No more being rude. I’m headed for the engine room to see if I can’t get this classy lady to go a little faster. You can teach Mister Green the Elements of Harmony.” She dropped to the floor and kicked Baz’s hoof. “And none of your cheating.”

Baz sputtered but Kirra scampered out of sight before he could say anything sensible. The earth pony and zebra exchanged a look that didn’t convey much information in either direction. Xero was professionally unreadable. Looking for deeper layers in Baz was like cutting open an apple to count the rings. What you saw was what you got. The earth pony rubbed his mane with a hoof and found a card. He gave it a sheepish wave. “It’s pretty complicated, but if you want I have regular cards too.”

Unfolding from his false meditative pose, Xero winced as his hips gave a pop each. He had felt giddy-young again when Miss Ossuary died, but it had been a false vitality. Like eating bitter greens, then drinking water. The water tasted sweet, but it wasn’t. It just wasn’t bitter. His youth was gone and he was never going to get it back. “I think I’ll try to acquaint myself better with the Elements of Harmony.”

Baz nodded and moved out of sight, no doubt to harvest the scattered cards. The deeper meaning had clearly sailed over his head. Xero was reminded a little of Icepick. No deeper layers there, either. Pausing to ease his back, Xero returned to the common room. He helped pick up the cards, taking a moment to study them. By the time Baz began his enthusiastic but erratic attempts to give a tutorial, Xero had already worked out some of the basics. The game appeared to have a hidden moral. No Element was greater than any other. Not even Magic. Each had strengths and weaknesses, but the only unbeatable combination was to gather all six Elements together. That was tricky, and always rare. There were many ponies in the world, but how often did six suitable avatars of the Elements all come together in true bonds of friendship?

Not often enough.


A few peaceful hours passed. Not playing for real, just sparring as Xero learned how to play. Nor were they truly pleasant hours. Baz clearly worried about Tradewind, but he didn’t ask Xero any questions.

The Just in Time raced southeast on a direct line toward Aura. Xero hoped her name would prove prophetic for him. He didn’t have much hope. There was almost no chance of flying in and somehow rescuing Smog from danger. He would if he could. He must. But that wasn’t why he was ordered to head for Aura in the event Smog seemed to vanish. Smog trusted Xero because Xero had no choice but to be trustworthy. He had a combination of power and knowledge that made him, in theory, very dangerous to Smog. In reality, he was no danger. He was headed to Aura to work a sorcerous ritual that would locate Smog if he was alive. There was no known power or spell that could block or shatter the resonance they had woven between them.

Xero had the sinking feeling that he was going to be like a doctor at a deathbed, there to check for vitals and formally announce time of death. That was his job: to make it official. To confirm that Smog was dead, imprisoned against his will, or had willfully forsaken Aura. In any of those cases, all Tartarus was going to metaphorically break loose in Aura. Deep in his bones Xero knew Smog was dead. The haste, the dipping deep into his emergency funds, all of it, was just honoring procedures. One last demand of loyalty.

There were others like him. He had no idea who, and they didn’t know about him. All he knew was that all of them had a degree of skill in sorcery. Some would have already been in Aura. The ones further out were insurance against the local ones being somehow negated. They might have confirmed it by now. The ones outside Aura would be coming to the cloud-city at all possible speed to do the same thing that he would do. His haste might be pointless. He must come to Aura and perform the ritual to confirm the truth to himself.

Confirmation would free him from any obligation of loyalty to Smog. The same went for the rest like him. Xero somehow doubted that the other sorcerers were as atypical as him. Perhaps a few. All of them? Impossible. Smog hadn’t tolerated competition. Lesser monsters were turned into useful tools that served his will, or destroyed. No middle ground. An unknown number of sorcerers, most of them genuine black-hearted villains, were in…or converging on…Aura. They were all going to slip their muzzles.

Xero felt a great many unpleasant emotions about that, but fear for his life wasn’t one of them. He could simply wrap his talent around him and walk out of the chaos: touching nothing and touched by nothing. Like a coward.

All Tartarus appeared to break out aboard the Just in Time. It announced itself with a clang, a clink, and a brassy cloing-oing-oing. A scream of near dog-whistle shrillness came on its heels. Baz shot to his hooves. Xero looked up from his cards, startled only on the inside. A grate on one wall, concealed by thin strips of the ubiquitous carpet glued atop its crosshatched bands, clanged down like a drawbridge with its chains cut. Kirra sallied forth, still emitting a noise capable of melting earwax. The glider hit the floor, bounced like a ball, and then began to do something like frantic arrhythmic break-dancing.

Even as a tumbling blur, there was no mistaking that she had turned pink. The kind of violent pink that almost seemed to glow. She seemed to be dusted in pink glitter as well. Xero put down his cards and began to rise. The stink invaded his nostrils. It was, technically, perfume. Something like mixed fruits. This smell suggested the fruits were a little past their sell-by date. Even without it, the odor was so strong it made his eyes and nose burn. He could taste it, and it did not taste like fruit.

Full-chested laughter, loud despite the closed door between the laughter and Xero, came from the helm. Baz made a surprisingly bass noise, something like a gagging bullfrog. He ran out of the room, took an audible gasp, and ran back in with his cheeks puffed out. He grabbed at Kirra, missed, and then leapt back with a snort as she battened onto his face. Moving blind, he stumbled for the port hatch and opened it. A small recessed balcony sat outside, its railing flush with the hull to either side. Xero retreated to the starboard hatch. Closing it behind him, he panted to flush the perfume from his lungs. Fumbling out his eyedrops, he gave each eye a triple dose.

It appeared that Kirra had tried and failed to circumvent a booby-trap.