Please visit the forums for more details, or click here to read forum #11357
Ivan hung back near the kitchen door, but to one side to avoid getting slammed like Mithril had if it suddenly swung forward. He stayed half-turned so he faced the door but kept his head turned to watch the common room. Vlad sat by the door in the opposite wall, leading out to the street. Sucking a lollipop, of course. He’d hung out the CLOSED sign and locked it. With permission from the owner. Mithril and her nutty partner Pick sat to either side of the stairs in a third wall. She still gently wiped at her nose with a handkerchief. Ivan personally wanted to head upstairs, where they knew Fantasy Longhorn to be located. Straight Arrow had nixed that after hearing Pick describe the scar-faced stallion he saw on the stairs earlier. Going upstairs with the Wandering Lute up there was apparently a great way to get an early retirement, six feet under.
There had been a round of introductions. Tense, but ponies on both sides seemed willing to make an effort to be civil. Ivan already knew three of them from the Fleet Street Station, earlier today. The unicorn with the stripes was Captain Spindrift, which Ivan suspected was an alias. The sugar glider Kirra and the skinny earth pony Baz. New to Ivan were Fantasy’s parents Berry Jam and Tankard. The last of the group was the mysteriously teleporting pegasus, Tradewind. They had pushed a pair of tables together, square things meant to seat one pony to a side, to make a rectangular one that could seat six. Kirra sat on Spindrift’s back, fiddling with his coat collar as if trying to keep it straight. That left six rumps for six chairs. Five of them clustered near one end with Tradewind on the end itself, Straight Arrow all alone at the other end. Ivan could only see Spindrift and Baz’s back from his angle, had to peer past them to see Tankard and Berry Jam.
Tradewind had been the one to talk to Straight Arrow, ears laid back and his body language looking defensive and maybe angry. Denying the accusations that he was a courier between Smog and Jindalee Longtail. Ivan would freely admit there were liars good enough to fool himself. Tradewind seemed to be one, because he stuck to his innocence and his ‘my lips are sealed with magic’ baloney in a way that seemed convincing to Ivan. Smog would want a good liar for that kind of high-level courier position. What Straight Arrow thought was anyone’s guess. When he wanted to be, the police captain could make a blank white wall look expressive by comparison.
Silence fell, as it became clear that Tradewind wasn’t budging on his lame story and Straight Arrow didn’t buy it. Ivan eyeballed Berry Jam, who had only left most of the cutlery behind in the kitchen. A set of shish kebab skewers lay on the table in front of her. They might not look as intimidating as a big old hovering cloud of pointy kitchen-themed death, but Ivan wouldn’t have cared to go up against any unicorn mare defending her daughter unless he had to. He wanted to do it even less against a mare armed with a pair of what looked like long, heavy, very sharp knitting needles. Tankard had passed around mugs of soft cider, and Ivan couldn’t help but notice that his own mug was a big, shiny, heavy-looking pewter…tankard. Baz just looked nervous and confused, even from the back. Spindrift sat there looking calm and somehow deadly despite the mess smeared on the side of his blue naval jacket and all its fastener buttons shaved off. Kirra was an inscrutable ball of fuzz, playing with Spindrift’s collar.
Moving slow enough to make it clear he wasn’t going for a weapon, Straight Arrow pulled out his pocket watch. “Less than a minute left. Do we renew the truce for another five?”
Tradewind and the others all looked at each other as if not sure who got to make that call, or if it should maybe be put to a vote. If they wondered what would happen if this truce ended, a hard look at Pick would have offered some clues. The green-eyed pegasus looked strung tighter than a high-C piano wire.
Baz whispered to Spindrift and got a sharp look in return that said ‘shut up.’ Baz gave a nod and shot a guilty look behind him toward the kitchen door. Ivan felt the tuft of fur on the end of his tail twitch and then slowly fluff out. He didn’t know what was going on, but now the quiet from inside the kitchen didn’t feel like the empty silence of nopony there. It felt like the thick hush of ponies being very quiet. Or he was being paranoid.
Was Fantasy down here now? With her bodyguard, that Straight Arrow had referred to as a ‘button colt’ for Smog? Ivan knew the term meant a hitter, even if it was outdated. Straining his hearing, he caught noises right on the edge of perception. Sounded like they came from out beyond the front door, not the kitchen. Maybe…metal? Possibly a wooden thump that sounded somehow wagon-bed-ish to him. Any other night he would have dismissed it as nothing. Tonight the streets were dead quiet. Hadn’t the Wandering Lute been pulling something with wheels when he trotted up with his one metal-sounding hoof?
The griffin had the mental image of the Wandering Lute out front of the Brass Hoof quietly pulling metal things from a cart.
Given the context, Ivan couldn’t call that a happy thought.
Then a small but definite metal sound, a clink, from the kitchen. Ivan felt the fur and feather stand up along his spine all the way from his rump to his head. “Captain…”
Almost everypony joined Pick in going tense.
Only a moment passed before the koala opened his bag. Morhoof figured it was a good idea to interrupt him before he really got started. He lowered his head to speak quietly into Perth’s ear while Fantasy and Punctuality bickered in hissing whispers. “There are more parts in the cart out front. The parts I wanted you to make into gear for the jail-break.”
Perth looked up from his bag to Morhoof, a peculiar look in his eyes. “But Fantasy got free unaided.”
“You look ready to make something for this one. Thought you could use more parts to make something bigger.” Morhoof mentally kicked himself. If Perth could make a thought-bomb that pacified the hearts of ponies in mid-combat on the fly, Morhoof was fairly confident that he was capable of making something that could do horrible things. He sure as Tartarus didn’t want something like that anywhere near Fantasy, nor himself…or anypony, really. “But, ah…try for something that’ll cause the least amount of bloodshed, and won’t level the tavern in the process. They’re all in the front room, so head out through the back and around.” Morhoof turned his attention to the two unicorns, still arguing in whispers. “Also…take Punctuality with you. If something goes wrong, you won’t be stranded.”
Perth looked to the young colt with uncertainty, seeming to contemplate it. After a moment he nodded, closed up his bag, and tip-toed over to the back door. Waited there.
Morhoof walked in between the siblings and they stopped their squabbling momentarily, looking ready to continue. “Punctuality, I want you to go with Perth and watch his back while he works his magic. If something goes awry, teleport back here with him. Can you manage that?” It’d be a lot easier to remain undetected without the colt in the back with them. He and Fantasy got under each other’s skins like only siblings could.
Punctuality glanced at Perth and then back to Morhoof, “Yeah, yeah I can do that.” He joined Perth at the back door and the two near-silently crept out.
That was better. “Fantasy, you said that you escaped police custody earlier. It could be them, but the timing with Forte Presto’s escape is too suspect for it to be a coincidence. Do you think you can try and identify them? If it is the police, I don’t want to make the situation any worse. But if it is Forte Presto’s thugs, I don’t want to waste any more time.”
Fantasy nodded. “No, it’s the police. I recognize that voice, Captain Straight Arrow.”
So it wasn’t some rabble hired by Forte Presto, but that just meant a different set of problems. “What exactly did they want with you?”
“They think that I worked for Smog, but they have no proof I did anything illegal. Because I never did any. Then Tradewind showed up, knocked out the captain, and we snuck out.”
Morhoof’s mind blanked and his ego shriveled. Uncomfortable silence fell for a time, as they waited for Perth to return carrying…or possibly riding…some mechanical contraption.
The noise, albeit quiet, caught Morhoof off-guard. His ears snapped to point in the direction it came from. His head and eyes followed suit. A door he vaguely suspected led to the pantry. He shot a glance at Fantasy, she shrugged with wide eyes and a tiny head-shake. Morhoof approached the door; the air thickened with the sense of a presence wishing to go undetected. Unfolding the pincer claw from his mechanical hoof, he probed around in his brain until he got what he was looking for. An arc of lightning jumped between the points. He didn’t look toward the unicorn mare, sensing she had followed him over. Morhoof moved to the knob side of the door. The knob lit with a purple aura. Morhoof nodded. Fantasy used her magic to quickly yank the door open. This put the door between her and whatever was inside. Morhoof leaned his head sideways to peek in, hoof ready to grapple and zap a charging enemy.
A pale purple unicorn stared back at Morhoof with wide eyes, flicking up and down between his face and the claw. He felt surprise, then recognition, then chagrin that in the fuss he had forgotten all about Bubbles. An idea sparked in Morhoof’s brain. He waved to Fantasy, peeking at him from behind the open door. She poked her head around it to see Bubbles and seemed to bite back a rude word of unwise volume.
“I have an idea.” Morhoof said. “Maybe.” Odds seemed good Fantasy might punch him for even suggesting it.
Fantasy pointed out something Morhoof hadn’t noticed. “Things just got really quiet in the other room.”
Morhoof’s turn to stifle a rude word.
“Captain…” Ivan said.
Tankard thought the surly griffin was Ivan and the one with the lollipop was Vlad. Not sure: didn’t seem important. He was busier keeping a map of the room in his head, like in the bad old days of his misspent youth. The ability to keep track of the ponies and obstacles in a room, updating the map with glimpses and noises behind him and pure guesswork. It really helped in a bar-room brawl. The old sizzle had come back. Knocking heads with a tankard was a skill he’d honed.
He had a big heavy pewter one in front of him.
Tankard sat with his back to the front door, in the middle of the room, where two square tables had been pushed together to make a larger one. The other tables and chairs had been moved aside to crowd the booths along the front and side walls, the bar along most of the back wall. His wife Berry Jam sat close to his left. She had a pair of shish-kebab skewers on the table in front of her. Tradewind the pegasus took up the end of the table to Tankard’s left. Captain Spindrift the unicorn sat across the table from Tankard with Kirra the sugar glider on his shoulders. To his right, Tankard’s left, sat Baz the earth pony. All four of them budged over to Tradewind’s end…or more like they kept their distance from the golden-brown-all-over pegasus police captain, Straight Arrow.
Vlad was by the front door, which had been locked and the CLOSED sign out. Tankard couldn’t see him but knew he was still there from the occasional click of a lollipop against beak. On the wall off to his right, a unicorn cop named Mithril and a pegasus cop named Pick flanked the start of the front stairwell. They also, and probably not coincidence, watched Straight Arrow’s back. Ivan stood to one side of the swinging door to the kitchen, off to Tankard’s left on the back wall, where the bar ended before the wall behind it did. Not the hinge side: smart of him. The police ponies and griffins all had non-lethal takedown equipment. Maybe more, hidden.
Something had just gone clink in the kitchen and the sizzle was back…and he discovered he’d lost his taste for it. No fun in fighting anymore. Tankard had too much to lose. Of course he’d fight if that was the only way to keep from losing those things, but it wouldn’t be fun. Fantasy and the Wandering Lute, who the cops thought was some kind of assassin, weren’t on his map. They had been upstairs earlier and Tankard hoped they were both a long way from here and getting further by the second. He and Berry had agreed to a truce with these off duty cops without needing more than a glance to agree on the plan: stall for time, let Fantasy run. Punctuality had vanished the moment griffins burst through the back door. He must have grabbed Bubbles when he teleported out, because she had vanished too. Bubbles inspired protectiveness of her in most ponies. Punchy had been snagged by it. It was good they were gone. Smart lad, not coming back.
Unless that had been his clink…but it was probably Fantasy. It was smartest for her to run. It wasn’t about smart. She wasn’t going to run away and abandon her family in a tight spot. Just wasn’t in her.
Tankard had his map, and a desperate semi-plan to use his magic and the tankard in front of him to do a little bar-brawl pinball, with skulls for bumpers. Spindrift might be relied on to back his play. He knew Berry would…but after a pause to brace herself. She just wasn’t naturally violent, bless her heart. Tradewind sure looked ready to wing-punch somepony across the room: telling the truth and not being believed might be one of the stallion’s hot-buttons. He sat there under a metaphorical storm cloud, fuming and simmering.
Outside Tankard’s racing thoughts, Straight Arrow had looked sideways toward Ivan; Spindrift had swiveled both ears upright and backward to point the same direction. Then he turned just enough to look behind him at the griffin with one eye.
“My captain.” Ivan said.
“I heard it.” Straight Arrow said. “It might be her.”
“Truce!” Berry Jam said. “Let’s renew it. Please?”
The police captain raised his gravelly voice. “You in the kitchen, please join us. If you offer no violence, no violence will be offered to you. Truce. You have my word.”
Spindrift got to his hooves. He did it in a slow, deliberate way that didn’t look like he was worried about setting somepony off. In bar-brawl speak, getting up like that usually signaled somepony’s temper reaching its limit. He managed to look un-silly while covered in purple stripes and glittery gems, his dark blue jacket missing its buttons and smeared green and red with booger-bomb goo and dissolver all down one side, and an adorable sugar glider perched on his shoulders. He turned toward Straight Arrow, whose eyes could have been amber stones.
Everypony had already been tense. It got a lot worse.
Kirra took a glance around, tipped her head to one side as if thinking, then grinned. Flipping up Spindrift’s collar, she fumbled underneath, grabbed something, and hauled with all her tiny might. …thread? Tankard got a good view of the way the tails of Spindrift’s long naval-captain’s jacket started to crinkle up accordion-style. Then something went twang, almost high-pitched enough to be a twing. His whole coat flipped up as if caught by a gust of wind. Kirra gave a startled squeal and dove off the unicorn’s back, ending up under the table where her squeal shattered into cackles.
The button-less coat flipped to drape inside-out over Spindrift’s head. It left his cutie mark exposed. A solid double ring of glittery gems surrounded it, itself surrounded by a starburst of wavy purple lines. The cutie mark was a spray of green leaves with a big moth on it. A drab moth, the kind that could hover like a hummingbird. It had a skull on its back. The Death’s-Head Moth.
Tankard wasn’t sure what a cutie mark like that meant, but the sight of it made a chilly void open up in his belly. It couldn’t mean anything good. Given what his instincts already told him about how Dangerous that the unicorn was…
Baz, who had an even better…or worse, depending on your opinion…view of Spindrift’s rump, let out a long semi-bray of startled laughter. Kirra kept cackling under the table. Spindrift stood there with his coat flipped up over his head, the split of its tails leaving his horn and muzzle exposed but hiding his eyes. He stood motionless, the visible part of his face slowly deepening to crimson. Rage or shame? Both? Straight Arrow leaned a little sideways to see the unicorn’s cutie mark.
His reaction was to go slack-faced, eyes wide with huge pupils.
The kitchen door swung open, very nearly unnoticed. Tankard noticed in a background kind of way, eyes locked onto that cutie mark. Bubbles crept in, like a pale-lavender version of her cousin Fantasy; wide-eyed nervous and radiating that special talent of hers for making everypony like her. “Um…”
Ivan, right beside her, jumped and did a double-take.
With a deep purple-blue flash and buzzing zap, Punctuality appeared standing on the table: Tankard saw Spindrift’s cutie mark between his son’s fore and hind legs. Punctuality faced Straight Arrow with his hooves planted and a big angry grin on his face. And a koala on his back. A koala wearing rumpled formal wear and holding something balanced before him on Punctuality’s shoulders. It looked like a small wire-mesh wastepaper bin stuffed with the whirling guts of a thousand pocket watches and alive with blue static sparks.
Punctuality half-shouted, his voice cracking to squeak through the middle half: “-and I’m all outta bubble-gum!”
Deadpan monotone, Mithril spoke a single word: “What.”
“Freeze!” Pick said. He pointed something presumably non-lethal but definitely weapon-looking at Punctuality. Tankard didn’t think: he swept up the pewter mug by hoof and hurled it over Straight Arrow’s head, right at Pick.
In the corner of his eye he saw the koala’s face, eyes hidden behind shiny little spectacles, split into a sudden maniac’s grin. He made a fist and thumped something on top of the device. By the stairs, Pick ducked, cursing. Punctuality vanished with a flash and zap, taking the koala with him…
…but not the Thing, which hung motionless in midair. It gave a metallic buzz, rising in pitch and volume in an ominous way. The mug clanged off the wall and started to bounce back. The Thing made another sound, a kind of gear-grinding hiccup.
All the lights in the common room went out.
Fantasy bolted for the still-open doorway. She had no idea what she was going to do in there; she just had to do something to save everypony.
Pain happened. Fantasy staggered back and plopped down on her rump as pain continued, spreading out through her muzzle. It felt like she had run into a wall. Somepony hit her! Shaking her head, she leapt to her hooves and tried to blink the pain-tears out of her eyes.
She blearily saw Morhoof move to stand between her and the door. He faced it, not her. He reached out his metal hoof and held it in the doorway as if telling everypony in the dark, quiet room to stop. Or maybe he was aiming some kind of built-in weapon at them? His muscles moved in a weird way. It took Fantasy long seconds to make sense of that. He didn’t hold his hoof up in the doorway. He tried to push his hoof through the doorway.
It didn’t work. Sniffing and snuffling, not sure if she had a nosebleed, Fantasy realized nopony had hit her. Somepony in there knew shield spells? Grabbing a lamp from where it hung on the ceiling, she moved it to the doorway. It lit up a bizarre sight. Fantasy had to squint and struggle to make sense of what she saw before the chaos snapped into focus. Absolutely everything, every single surface and pony, had been silvered. They reflected and warped and re-reflected and further warped…her. And Morhoof, and the lamp light. Everything had also frozen in place. A mug even hung in midair over by the stairs, with a pegasus mid-dodge avoiding it. At the table she saw her father…she thought it was him…frozen in a hoof-extended, just-threw-something pose.
The back door burst open behind her. Fantasy loosed a small shriek and lost her grip on the lamp. Its brass oil reservoir and base clanged onto Morhoof’s head. He gave a surprised grunt even as his hooves flashed up to snag it before it could fall and spill. Fantasy barely glimpsed that; spinning in place to confront whatever new threat had arrived.
Punctuality Longhorn moon-walked into the back room…badly…and then gave a rather better spin in place to face her with a hammy pose, a grin, and his pair of sunglasses on. She hadn’t seen him wear those since their brief summer holiday last year, a picnic in a hayfield. It was bright out there, out from under the eternal clouds of Aura.
The koala named Perth waddled in after the colt, tugging at his rumpled black jacket. “After pondering our fundamental goals I concluded that what we most lacked was time in which to plan and prepare before the situation in the other room devolved. Therefore I hastily constructed an entropic inhibitor.” His manner had changed, turned calm but distant on top of an unhealthy-seeming glee.
“What’s that in Equestrian, then?” Morhoof said. He sounded a little relieved and a lot sour.
“Picture a small rod inserted between two gears within a clock, preventing forward motion to continue. The mainspring remains wound and continues to exert force which is no longer able to translate from potential to kinetic form. However, simply because I have stopped the clock from expressing forward, not-trivially-reversible movement in a way that indicates time passes, this is not to say I have stopped time. If time had ceased the light you shine into the stasis field would have no time in which to fly there and bounce off things before returning to your eye.”
“So…” Fantasy said. She snatched a napkin off the big table, littered with the signs of a meal interrupted, and wiped at her poor throbbing nose. “…you froze everything solid.”
“If it helps to think like that, yes. They are not cold. No matter may move, no energy may flow. They radiate no heat, the lamps no light. Light entering the field may not be absorbed, hence their shiny surfaces. Entropy may not advance, and therefore we have no detectable yardstick by which to measure the passage of time. When the stasis field decays, to them it will seem as if they have been instantly transported forward in time. They will be in all ways unharmed. Until then the situation within cannot, in any possible sense of the word, get worse.”
“I don’t think time works like that.” Punctuality said.
Perth removed his glasses and began to polish them on a handkerchief. “It does in there, for now. Because I say so. More importantly, because my machine says so.”
“How long until it dissolves?” Fantasy said.
“An hour at minimum.” Perth said. “Two hours at maximum. Expressing a gradient of increasing probability of field collapse between those points in time. Any earlier or later decay would represent a profoundly improbable event. Therefore we should use it to prepare. Dear sir, would you be so good as to fetch my valise and cane? The usual way: I am uncertain how the bag would react to a spatial discontinuity.”
Punctuality, clearly pleased at being considered a ‘sir’ by his awesome new friend, bolted out the open back door in a clatter of hooves. Perth waddled over, coming around the island of table and stools. “I loaded the rest of your purchases into my bag, Lute. I have options.” Settling his spectacles on his leathery koala nose, he peered past them through the door. “My trap caught a pony backing out of the room?”
“Going in.” Fantasy said. She shot Morhoof a Look.
He coughed into his living hoof and avoided her eyes. “We found Miss Bubbles hiding in the pantry. They heard her, in there. I had the idea to send her in there with a simple story.” He cleared his throat again. “Confess the noise was her, and not mention we were in here too. Best I could come up with fast.”
“I see. Her magical ability to inspire positive emotional stances toward her should do much to prevent any danger she might have faced, while her innocence of violence along with said ability would have caused the others to feel considerable awkwardness about the notion of perpetrating violence or indeed rudeness upon each other in her presence.”
“In a lot fewer words,” Fantasy said, “that’s how he put it. I didn’t like it. I don’t like it. But we had no time.”
“The gambit is delayed, not derailed.” Perth said. Punctuality returned at speed, the cane and black doctor-bag hanging in his magic. Perth changed, becoming less certain but more friendly. “Ah, thank you, young sir. Now we must plan for what to do when the stasis field collapses.”
Punctuality had moved his sunglasses up so they sat on his head, his horn like a weird nose for them. “I could zap in and grab somepony and jump out with them. Put the bad guys in the cellar, we can block the door first.”
“You can grab everypony without getting tired?” Morhoof said. “Fast enough they can’t react to it before you finish?”
His tone made it clear he was prepared to believe it and be impressed, not doubting. Punctuality deflated a little. “No.”
“It was an idea.” Perth said. “We need ideas. Even a bad idea might point out a detail that inspires a good one.”
Fantasy opened her mouth to speak, and her mind went blank. She was sure she’d had some ideas but they had all evaporated.
Morhoof shrugged and moved to set the lamp on the table. His head didn’t hurt much. “Even still, what ability you do have has served an important role. And may very well again in the near future.” Morhoof would need a very big blackboard to tally the amount of times that some form of magic would have made things ten-fold easier for him. Turning his attention back to the doorway, he sifted through his thoughts for any course of action that wouldn’t end in total disaster. “Oh.” Morhoof’s lips curled into a small humorless grin. “I forgot about that.”
Fantasy, Perth and Punctuality followed Morhoof’s gaze to the open doorway onto the silvered frozen room and then back to him. Perth looked ready to facepalm, Punctuality seemed a little uneasy, and Fantasy took on a highly suspicious look. “Forgot about what?” she said.
Morhoof could have sworn he heard a faint echo of nasally laughter in the back of his head. But was it real or imagined? “Er.” he said. He unearthed the contents of a pocket. In his claw he held up a small box. It had the dull coloring of tarnished lead, felt like warm smooth wood, and had a steely clink when tapped. “I have a plan but it might be tricky to implement. In the box is a cockatrice eye, which can still turn any living creature that looks upon it to stone.” Morhoof set the box on the table next to the lamp. Holding it made his spine itch. What if he dropped it and it opened? “Too bad we don’t have another stone.”
“One is bad enough!” Fantasy said.
Punctuality furrowed his brow in thought. “But how are we going to un-stone them? And what if you accidentally look at it, then what? Or stone my parents?”
Morhoof mentally face-hoofed. “Oh right, Breaking Dawn had the antidote.”
“Who?” Punctuality said. Morhoof quietly bit the inside of his cheek to keep from cursing.
Perth chimed in. “As a matter of fact, the message you received along with this box declared that Madame Fleur Blanc had custody of the tears. So while they may be rendered stone for a time, we may eventually reverse the effect.”
Morhoof had forgotten that. He still didn’t remember when Perth had read that message, but he didn’t definitely remember disposing of the message in a way that made Perth reading it impossible. He turned to Fantasy. “What do you think?”
Fantasy took a moment before she responded. “I guess that could work, but Punchy has a point; accidents do happen.”
“Mm.” Morhoof said. He mused on this risk. Morhoof reached for a cigarette and lit it with the lightning arc between his hooks. He had matches, and had once been rather fond of the sulfuric odor. Taking a long draw, something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. The sunglasses sitting on Punctuality’s head reflected the soft illumination from the oil lamp. “History time. Does anypony here know the story of a creature with a mane and tail of snakes? And the hero that defeated her? Or more importantly, how.”
Fantasy jumped as if prodded in the cutie mark. “Oh! You mean Maredusa? She was beheaded by Purrseus the Griffon, allegedly the son of some griffin god and raised by pegasi in the Pre-Equestrian Era.” Morhoof nodded. Before even his time, if it had ever happened at all. Fantasy continued. “He avoided her gaze by using a reflective shield, looking at her in it instead of directly, so he could see without seeing. It’s up in the attic. I can go get it if you want.”
Morhoof blinked. “You have the Mirror Shield of Purrseus in your attic?” Not entirely implausible, given what else Smog had stored up there, but Morhoof thought Smog had removed all the dangerous artifacts.
The purple mare did a double-take. “Haha, no. Father dressed up as Purrseus one Nightmare Night, it was ridiculous, the costume couldn’t hide his horn and the fake-stone Maredusa head looked like she had gas pains. Good shield though.”
“Never mind, I only mentioned the tale as an example. Indirect observation defeats the magical rays of petrification beasts. Perth, do you think it’s possible to adjust Punctuality’s sunglasses so that things seen through them are clear, but in some way reflected and indirect?” Punctuality swiveled his eyes upwards to his sunglasses. “Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a new pair afterwards.”
Perth crossed his arms, looking annoyed but proud. “You are putting my skills sorely to the test, Mister Lute.” He smiled and relaxed a little, though it was a faintly worrying smile. Punctuality levitated his sunglasses to the koala. “Thank you. Within an hour? It may be possible, but I might only slow the process, rather than make you immune.”
Morhoof nodded. “That would fine, anything that prevents it from instantly turning me will suffice. I don’t plan to do any deep gazing into the box, but if I were to accidentally glimpse inside, then any enemies left un-stoned could-”
The two unicorns turned their attention to the cellar door in unison, as if they had heard a noise. “Wow, I felt that.” Punctuality said.
Fantasy just looked relieved. “Oh, okay.”
Perth was oblivious, already digging into his doctor-bag.
Morhoof stared at the cellar door. Somepony was hiding in the cellar? Was there an assassin in the bathroom and a brass band on the third floor? A troupe of clowns ready to caper from out of the cupboard? Who could possibly be left? He focused his hearing and faintly picked up the clip-clop of hooves. The cadence of walking four-legged pony gait, but…clinky. Horseshoes? …claws? ‘Wait. Oh!’ Morhoof thought. A wave of relief washed over him as he moved closer to the cellar door. “Thank Celestia he’s okay.” Morhoof wasn’t sure how Breaking Dawn had gotten in there, supposedly the tunnel into the cellar had been sealed, but the dragon-pony always had a plan ‘Z.’
“He?” Fantasy said.
Morhoof looked over his shoulder to the purple unicorn and then turned again at the creak of the cellar door’s hinges. A deeper shadow stood among the shadows, tall and imposing around eyes that should not have been that visible in the dark, which should not have been that deep in the light of the well-lit room. Morhoof’s nerves instantly turned to jagged glass. He met the piercing eyes as the creature emerged from the unnatural darkness. His mouth hung open as he was about to say something, but the only thing to escape was a whimper. Ingrained instinct kicked in: RUN! But it wasn’t quite where he wanted to go; he back-pedaled until his rump landed on a chair. Abject terror rooted him to it, unable to move his muscles save for a slight tremble. The windigo might be gone, but the thousand-year fear campaign certainly wasn’t.
Luna turned to acknowledge Fantasy, Punctuality, and finally the still-oblivious Perth in his madness-place. She used an unreadable but royal stare. The unicorns bowed, Punctuality after a slack-jawed moment followed by a prod and hiss from his sister. Luna spoke. “We require an explanation for this unnatural stasis we sensed.” Her eyes narrowed and landed on Morhoof. “We require it now.”
For better or worse, once Luna arrived she took control. Morhoof’s stuttering explanation was disjointed, starting near the end but then backtracking to explain something, then backtracking again to explain something in the explanation. She soon seemed to take pity on him. After getting him to calm down a little she prompted him through an explanation that started far enough back…with his capture of Forte…to make sense of how things in the common room had ended up frozen and shiny.
Luna thanked him, distant but polite, and walked through the doorway to the common room. The rocklike air didn’t slow her down but she did end up looking as if chromed and buffed into a living mirror-pony. She moved around the shorter Bubbles with care. After a slow circling of the room she touched almost all the frozen ponies and griffins with her horn. A flash of her deep indigo magic for each and then…nothing. She spent a moment seeming to look at the Captain before touching him. It was hard to be sure when her eyes were blank and mirrored too. He had his unbuttoned coat flipped up over his head, but his forelegs still in the sleeves.
Everypony that was going to be touched having been touched, she swung her horn in a fast sideways slash. She struck the floating wire-mesh wastebasket full of spinning, blue-sparking gears. It dented. The dent deepened as Luna stepped back. The device crumpled up as if wadded into a ball. Slower at first but faster and faster with the air around it warping light like a twisted lens. All in silence to those outside the room. Shrinking to an apple-sized ball, it went still.
Three things happened so fast they almost, but not quite, happened at once. First, everything in the room flickered from mirror-shiny to normal colors and textures. Even the frozen mirrored flames of the lamps resumed glowing. Second, everypony in the room who Luna had tapped vanished in a flash of indigo magic. Teleported somewhere else? Only Bubbles, Tankard, and Berry Jam remained. Third, the floating ball exploded in a geyser of broken gears that peppered a wide disc of the plaster-and-timber ceiling. Most of them hit hard enough to stick. None stayed hot long enough to do more than raise a few wisps of smoke if they had stuck into wood.
The roaring thud of the gear-spray shook the ceiling. A ragged wire-mesh blossom of metal landed on the table and smoked. A tankard clanged to the floor by the stairs up to the second floor. On the opposite side of the room, a dagger that had been stuck in the ceiling at some point shook loose. It did a half-turn as it fell and stuck in the floor. Bubbles gave a shriek, Berry Jam said sugar, and Tankard said a word that was a lot less sweet. Princess Luna used her magic to retrieve the dagger. Eyed it, then teleported it away. Did her best to be kind but the shock of Princess Luna appearing seemed to do most of the calming, in an ice-bucket-dousing kind of way.
Perth meanwhile remained apparently oblivious to Luna. Or at least indifferent. Luna glanced his way a few times during Morhoof’s explanation but chose not to disturb him. She didn’t say why. He was deep in his special mad-creator magic and focused on creating a pair of goggles that started out looking like twin flowers of lenses and gears but then folded up in a way that should have been impossible. But first he had to make machines to make the parts for it. The koala moved fast, as if he had made this exact thing so many times he could have done it in his sleep. Punctuality’s sunglasses donated a pair of smaller round panes cut from the smoky glass. Perth stole a glass mug and melted it down for more lenses in a thing that looked like a bell had made a baby with a tuning fork.
He completed them while Luna tried to stop Bubbles from fan-fillying all over her. He seemed to wake up…but in another way it looked more like falling asleep from hyper-awareness down to normal awake. Perth blinked a lot and fiddled with the goggles, which looked like pegasus flight-goggles except for the black frames and black cloth strap for keeping them on. The lenses looked like two holes cut in ice, opening onto the deep, clear-yet-black depths of the winter water.
When Luna returned to the back room he fumbled them, only to have Luna’s magic catch them. Perth babbled a stuttering explanation with too many long words. Luna seemed to follow some of it. She tucked the goggles away in her celestial mane, where it vanished. Then she confiscated the box with the cockatrice eye from off the table. Morhoof only looked relieved about that. He asked a timid question about Smog.
Luna pretended not to hear it. She told Perth that she had sent him his bag when he needed it and she had hidden the fight between Morhoof and Forte Presto from eye and ear: not willing to get directly involved unless she must, but giving Perth the tools he needed to stop the fight from ending in disaster. That seemed to amaze Morhoof. Perth only seemed vastly relieved.
Her magic shot out in a bright blue-edged white arc like lightning. It hit Perth and arced from him to his doctor-bag valise. Both vanished. Luna calmly assured them all…including the three unicorns who had crept to the doorway behind her…that Perth was unharmed, merely elsewhere. She zapped Morhoof next, without warning. Ignoring the babble of questions, she told the Longhorns that she would make her presence public at dawn, and they were to go about their usual business until then.
After dawn she would take emergency control of Aura and Umbra as Governor pro tempore as she dealt with the aftermath of Smog’s disappearance. It was technically martial law though Luna intended to be as peaceful and polite as she could. For the past three days she and her small army of assistants had been quietly arresting the worst of the criminals and holding them for trial. Doing it publicly would have been more in keeping with the letter of the law, she explained, but the situation hadn’t been normal. It had been essential not to alert those not yet captured that they were being hunted.
Fantasy was to wait for her summons before the Emergency Court, but it was likely to be a mere formality to confirm her innocence. Punctuality was to return to his boarding school and face the punishment for leaving school grounds without permission. He had her secret royal order not to talk about these events until an hour past dawn tomorrow. He also got a promise of a signed official pardon to get him out of that punishment…and prove he really had met Luna…but only if he kept his mouth shut long enough.
Luna stepped into the cellar door again; the shadows thickened and wrapped around her. A silvery flash, like a twinkle of moonlight off rippling water, and the shadows went back to being normal shadows…and empty. After some silent, obscurely embarrassed shuffling around, Punctuality hugged his mom and then teleported away alone. Berry Punch started putting the pile of sharp things on the table away where they were supposed to go. Tankard went into the common room to fix the mess there. Fantasy helped her mother, then went to help her father.
None of them seemed to wonder if Luna had missed the sugar glider under the table.
She almost felt complimented.
They’d clipped the tips off her talons and claws, then fitted her with a quartet of little bags for her fore-claws and hind paws. The mouths of the bags fitted snug around her wrists and ankles, with buttons. Then the manacles went on over them, hiding the buttons so she couldn’t catch one on a table edge and flick it off its threads. Bagged fore-claws meant that even if she found something to pick the manacle locks, she couldn’t have picked it up. Not even through the bag; it was too stiff. Her tail coiled up inside another bag: that one hooked onto the wide fleece-lined belt locked around her waist. An even wider belt, almost a corset, stifled her wings. It was quite comfortable and quite thoroughly disabling.
No chains between the manacles, oh no. Rigid bars: a bar between her fore-claws, a bar between her paws. A longer bar between those bars to make a whole like an ‘I’ shape. She could just about walk if she took slow mincing steps with one fore and one hind leg advancing at the same time. The rods and manacles joined with swivels: she could twist it as far as her body could go and put not a hint of breaking pressure anywhere. They had put a clamp on her beak. She could open it enough to talk but not enough to bite. They’d removed the sharp steel cap off the upper, the flint-tipped striker off the lower. Those hadn’t been designed for removal but her captors had nicely brought in a cosmetic healer to repair the cut-down tips under the metal. Repaired without being very sharp, of course.
To top off the ensemble she wore a stylish black hood that left her beak bare but covered everything else. Black gauze over her eyes. She could see out but no one could see in. If they couldn’t see her eyes, her hypnotic gaze couldn’t work on them. She only needed her stygian ebony pipe and suppression herbs to walk around bare-eyed without accidentally using her power on people. With her eyes hidden she had no way of talking them into giving her access to the pipe. Everything had been designed to be as hard as possible for the wearer to remove: every keyhole and buckle placed for maximum inconvenience.
Really, it was all a compliment. They had a sober appreciation of her cunning, her skills, and the cold viciousness she was prepared to use in escaping and surviving. All things considered, Felicia would have much rather been insultingly underestimated. She would also have cheerfully disemboweled something cute and fuzzy for the chance to simply spend five minutes free of all these restraints, even if she spent those five minutes sealed inside a cell. The ponies had designed their restraints to be as comfortable as possible without sacrificing effectiveness. Some kind of magic had to be at work to keep her from getting itchy. Simply being restrained was an exquisitely subtle and ever-growing torment.
She didn’t even remember being captured, just waking up bound with a pair of silent female griffins in golden Guard armor standing over her. It didn’t feel as any time had passed. Her questions were ignored.
When they rolled her into the courtroom standing on a flatbed dolly, doing her the courtesy of not making her waddle, Felicia was a thin shell of calm composure wrapped around a snarling fit. They moved her to the traditional spot in the courtroom for the one on trial. Unlocked her manacles from the dolly surface. Fastened her rear manacles to a round metal plate bolted to the dark oak floor. The plate had a stool welded to its surface too. She could sit down and rear up, the bars forcing her to hold her bagged fore-claws up as if begging.
Felicia pulled her left claw down and her right went up on the other end of the see-saw rod. It probably looked stupid but it wouldn’t look like she was begging. It took most of her fraying self-control not to writhe her wings under the corset-band. The griffin Guards left the room.
The courtroom was well-lit with lots of tall, narrow, frosted-glass windows in floatwood frames. There had to be more floatwood behind the dark oak paneling the walls, under the floorboards. Still in Aura. It was day. Other than that she had no idea. Windows in all four walls, at least on the upper half. A balcony for witnesses up there around three walls like an angular horseshoe. Empty. The rows of benches on the floor in the back half of the room: empty. The positions of defense and prosecutor, empty. Witness stand, empty. No bailiff, no stenographer.
Princess Luna sat behind the high pulpit of the judge’s desk. Something like a set of weighing scales sat before her, but rather than trays the chains supported a pair of small crystal bells. One was blue, the other was red.
“Normal jurisprudence,” Luna said, “requires lawyers. One makes a case for, the other against, both to the best of their abilities. Witnesses are summoned, experts questioned, evidence presented and examined. A jury of the accused’s peers vote aye or nay: guilty or innocent. The judge is there to oversee the proceedings and oft times determine the exact severity of the sentence for the guilty.” Luna’s green eyes were distant, maybe a smidge troubled. “Martial law has been declared in Aura and Umbra. There are too many awaiting trial. Things must be expedited if they are to be concluded in a timely fashion. I shall ask you questions and pass verdict based on your answers.”
“Lovely speech.” Felicia said. The red bell flashed red and gave a short chime that didn’t linger. “Ah, you have a magic lie detector.” Neither bell responded.
“These are the Scales of Mendacity.” Luna said. “The red one responds to things where the speaker believes they are not literally true. The blue one responds to things said with intent to deceive. Your compliment of my speech was false but you never intended I believe it. Sarcasm can be thought of as untruths spoken without deceptive intent.”
“If I was to speak something completely factually true, but trying to be misleading, only the blue one reacts.” That one would have lit up for everything Smog ever said…
The Princess of the Night inclined her head, all politeness. She could afford to be, sitting in a closed-court trial as an Inquisitor. “Indeed. If both react then the scales tip to show which was greater in the lie, deception or untruth. Note the small mirrors placed around the walls. What they see and hear is recorded. There shall be no secrecy in these trials. All will be revealed to the public once the emergency has passed. Let us now begin.” When she gave the date for the record, it was three days after Felicia’s last memory prior to capture.
Where had those days gone? “What happens if I refuse to talk?”
“This is your right. If you do so, you will be returned to stasis until such time as a proper trial may be arranged after martial law ends. Then you will be tried with witnesses and evidence, defense counsel, and a jury of your peers shall pass judgment on you. This expedited process is for the benefit of the innocent swept up along with the guilty. They should be identified as soon as possible. The Scales of Mendacity give them the opportunity to deny the charges against them and be believed. The guilty have no obligation to incriminate themselves. They can wait for a trial.”
Felicia’s mind felt like a panicked mouse trapped in a barrel, running in circles in a fruitless effort to find a way out or at least a corner to put at her back. Smog had trained her. Look for the flaws, look for the angles. Twist your perspective this way and that, hunt for the way out.
“I am willing to bear witness against the crimes of others for a reduced sentence.”
“Offer rejected.” Luna said. “If you should offer incriminating evidence of others it will be without hope of buying leniency. First question. What is your full legally recognized name?”
Felicia didn’t answer. Instead she gave her detailed opinion of Luna, this court, and the citizens of the Equestrian Empire. The Scales of Mendacity remained dark and silent. Felicia believed every single word she said was the genuine, literal truth. Pure acid spite boiled up inside her. This farce of a trial was going to be shown to the public? Good! They could all find out what she thought of them!
After the black griffin ran out of breath, Luna closed her eyes. She had the gall to pretend sadness. “The accused has indicated her intent not to cooperate.” The alicorn used her magic to summon, or maybe create, a large transparent crystal. Looked like a double-ended quartz spear the size of a coffin. “She will be held in timeless containment until a full and proper trial may be arranged.” Rather than float down to her, Felicia found all her fetters springing open and falling away. She floated into the air. Flapping did no good; she couldn’t even stir a breeze. The crystal shimmered as if made of water. She writhed and struggled, unable to find anything to fight against.
Once the crystal snagged her it sucked her in. She was fully inside in one confusing heartbeat. It felt like water everywhere but turned into air when it got into her nostrils and beak. The surface bounced and jiggled as she thrashed but was unbreakable. Her tail, then her hind paws, locked in place. The water froze, but no cold. Just hard.
Felicia lifted both fore-claws as fists and popped up the middle talons, glaring, hoping the alicorn would open her eyes and meet the griffin’s black ones. The coward kept them shut and her head down. The crystal flowed up over her talons and froze them in her last defiant gesture. Hope died. Anything resembling a fair trial would end with her execution. No chance to escape before then. Not even a few weeks or months of precious life in a cell waiting for trial. Things would flicker and then she would be on trial.
The warm ice crawled over her head to freeze her mind.
Waking up in a cell wearing a pair of shackles hadn’t been fun. Triple unfun because of the sheer jarring transition. One second he had been guarding the front door of the Brass Hoof tavern, jaw-dropping (and lollipop-dropping) as some gangly half-grown unicorn colt teleported into a tense moment of some tense parleying. A unicorn colt in sunglasses dropping a classic movie reference, while a koala in rumpled upper-class clothing sat on his back holding an office wastepaper can stuffed with clockwork and lighting.
Vlad vividly recalled the scene, thank you. Then he was in a cell with his eardrums popping from a pressure drop. He felt his own mental gears grinding and spitting sparks as a pair of cute but grim lady griffins in golden armor hustled him out of the cell and into a courtroom. He felt something clunk into place, recognizing it. Main courthouse in Aura, up in the tippy-top of the City Hall tower, used for high-profile trials.
The guards left him alone with…Luna.
Cirrus and Cumulonimbus! Princess Luna had a presence and charisma about ten thousand times too big for her body. One look at her big green eyes and that mane left him very confused regarding previously solid assumptions about his taste in ladies. For the first time he really understood how hippogriffs happened. Vlad peeled his tongue free from the roof of his beak, badly wishing for a stiff drink, a lollipop, and an hour or two in a dark closet trying not to go nuts.
Luna’s voice stroked up and down across his spine like frost-covered feathers. He almost forgot to pay attention to the actual words. She explained why she was here, in general and in specific. That jolted Vlad back to being worried. He’d heard rumors about the Scales of Mendacity. If they were being used then the cesspool had hit the cloud factory.
Then Luna gave the date and time for the record. It was the morning of the day after the afternoon holding his last memory. So he’d lost some time somewhere. Probably stasis crystals. Luna and Celestia had, long ago, trapped some monster named Sombra in a glacier. Trapped him outside time, even: escape was impossible to even consider until the spell ended. Now in emergencies the Princesses used it to put criminals on ice. A sweep of Smog’s criminal empire? No wonder. There weren’t enough jail cells in the twin cities for that many scumbags.
“First question.” Luna said. She jolted Vlad back to the here-and-now. “What is your full legally recognized name?”
“Vladimir Koruscokov Flintclaw.” He used his middle name so seldom he had to pronounce it with care.
“Have you any crimes you wish to confess?”
‘Right to the point.’ Vlad thought. Then he thought some more before deciding yes: he really did want to fess up about every illegal thing he ever did. No murders or anything, he’d avoid execution; he was tired of living with secrets and lies. Some time in prison and then he could start over. Smog was gone. The whole city was able to start over.
It surprised him how little time it took for him to list his evils. Mostly because a lot of it was repetitive and he just gave his sincere best guess how many times he’d taken a bribe, ‘lost’ evidence, and so on. “And that’s all I can remember.”
Luna used her magic to make some kind of note with a plain white quill pen. Looked up to meet his eyes and tilt the world under him again. “What of the Brass Hoof?”
Vlad felt off-balance for a new reason. “Oh. Sorry, your Majesty. I sincerely didn’t think of that as a crime. I mean, I realize it pretty much was, now that I think about it. ‘Citizen’s arrest’ only goes so far. I guess I’m trying to say I believe I was trying to uphold the spirit of the law when I went to the Brass Hoof and did those things.”
Their locked eyes both dropped to the Scales, which appeared prepared to back Vlad up. He hadn’t planned to lie but he knew sometimes people told lies they believed up-top but knew deep-down were wrong. How did the Scales handle self-deception? Luna made another short note. “For the crimes to which you have confessed I declare a verdict of guilty on all counts. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?”
Vlad took a minute to think. Well, not so much think as rummage around inside and try to figure out what felt true and felt like it needed saying. When he found the words he looked down at the chain between his wrists and not on the Scales. “I didn’t really regret the bad stuff I did at the time, not at first. I didn’t think it was that bad. I started to feel bad about it as time went by. Pretty soon I felt trapped, like I’d dug myself too deep to get out. I dug the hole: I’m not saying it wasn’t all my fault. Just…I ended up realizing I wasn’t a crook pretending to be a cop anymore, I was a cop pretending to be a crook. I don’t know when it happened. I changed. I wish I hadn’t done any of the bad stuff I did. This is the end of me being a cop, and I deserve that. I wish it wasn’t but I dishonored the badge. When I get out of prison I’m getting a job that lets me help people. Airship guard, I dunno.” He closed his beak, realizing he was almost babbling. “Just…I guess what I really mean is I’m sorry.”
“Vladimir Koruscokov Flintclaw,” Luna said, “as arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby sentence you to no less than five years in a medium-security prison, as demanded by law for crimes of this type and number.” Vlad let out the breath he’d been holding and closed his eyes. Could have been worse. “As Princess of the Night and co-ruler of the Equestrian Empire I extend you a royal pardon for those same crimes.” His eyes snapped open, staring down but not seeing. As she continued they slowly slid upwards to focus on her. “As emergency Governor pro tempore I hereby deputize you as acting police officer for the duration of martial law, with option for permanent employment in Aura law enforcement if your conduct during the crisis leads your superiors to believe you would be suitable for the position.”
Nothing came out of his beak but gabble.
Her expression stayed stern but her eyes might have sparkled just a little. “To declare you innocent of your crimes would flout the letter of the law. Your words, verified before the Scales of Mendacity, make it clear that sending you to prison would flout the spirit of the law. I judge you have learned your lesson. I also bow to necessity. Many in the police force are likely to be sent to prison. Aura needs as many good police officers as possible in the weeks to come.” Magic flickered along her horn and his manacles snapped open, clattered to the floor. A badge…his badge…shimmered into being on the table before him. “Go forth and do your duty.”
No doubt about it: Vlad was in love.
“What is your full legally recognized name?” Luna said.
“Ivanovich Gregor Flintclaw.”
Ivan blinked, startled into breaking his stoic composure a little. That was a startlingly blunt question. His eyes dropped from the alicorn’s face to the Scales of Mendacity. Right: blunt questions were the order of the day, since she could detect any lies. These emergency trials were supposed to be done fast, so that the accidentally-arrested innocent could be set free as soon as possible. If some of the guilty decided to confess rather than hold out for a normal trial, with all that waste of time and expense for the empire, this was a bonus.
“I do.” he said. He listed them, as best he could remember. Bribes taken, blind eyes turned, unlawful orders obeyed. Luna listened, even more stoic than he was, and made occasional notes. Ivan came to the end of his tally with the final, freshest crimes. He had followed Straight Arrow to the Brass Hoof believing it was the right thing to do and that it served the spirit of the law, but he didn’t try to deny that under the letter of it, this had been criminal trespass and intent to kidnap. “There might be more I’m forgetting. They aren’t different in type from the rest.”
Luna was unreadable, an avatar of stern judgment. “For the crimes to which you have confessed I declare a verdict of guilty on all counts. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence upon you?”
Ivan’s eyes slid back to the Scales. Then the little mirrors here and there, making records of this for the public to later see. Anything he said now, if it was the truth, no one would be able to deny it was the truth. Well. Said with sincerity and no intent to deceive. That still left the possibility of being honestly wrong. What did he have to say?
“I do. Can I have just one minute to think?”
“Yes.” Luna produced a very small hourglass from somewhere. “I shall mark it for you.” She set it down where he could see, on the forward edge of her high judge desk. She didn’t seem to be mocking his request by being literal.
Ivan thought how to explain, and when the sand ran out, he spoke. “The griffin I was when I first became a police officer didn’t regret the crimes I performed. I had no respect for the law in Aura. I sincerely believed that the law did nothing but keep the criminals in power and the victims in line. That’s not an excuse. Being surrounded by evil doesn’t give any creature the right to do evil himself. I’m to blame for my choices; I just wanted to explain why I made them.
“The griffin I have become since then regrets them all. I met a truly good pony named Straight Arrow. He made me realize that the law being corrupted wasn’t the same as the law being evil. A rotten apple can make you sick. That doesn’t mean apples are poison. He showed me what the law is supposed to be. He showed me something clean and I realized I felt dirty.” Luna was impossible to read. All he knew was that he had her full attention. Not the Scales. Him.
“I’m done with crime. I grew a conscience, or maybe just remembered I had one. I respect the laws of the Equestrian Empire, because when they’re not corrupted they serve its citizens and uphold goodness. The laws of the Empire say I must be punished for my crimes. I accept that the punishment is justice and deserved. I just wish ex-cons could be cops. I had a chance to serve good, and I blew it. I have to live with that regret for my entire life. I deserve to.”
Now for the hard part. It came out flat, because if he didn’t keep himself under tight control he wouldn’t be able to say it at all. The Scales would prove he meant it even if he didn’t sound like it. “If my boyfriend is listening: I’m sorry I lied. About us to my father, about me to you. You deserved better. I’m sorry I let you down. I understand that we’re through. I don’t deserve for you to wait for me. I want you to be happy for the rest of your life, even if that doesn’t involve me.
“…I’m done talking, Princess.”
Slowly inhaling through her nose, Luna held it, then let it quietly sigh back out. She made a few notes, selected another sheet of paper, held the quill poised in her magic.
“Ivanovich Gregor Flintclaw,” Luna said, “as arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby sentence you to no less than six years in a medium-security prison, as demanded by law for crimes of this type and number.” Ivan nodded, accepting it. “As Princess of the Night and co-ruler of the Equestrian Empire I extend you a royal pardon for those same crimes.” Ivan started, feeling his expression go blank as his brain went numb. Luna paused to sign something, maybe his pardon. She continued as if she had already said something like this many times. “As emergency Governor pro tempore I hereby deputize you as acting police officer for the duration of martial law, with option for permanent employment in Aura law enforcement if your conduct during the crisis leads your superiors to believe you would be suitable for the position.”
Ivan stared, his mind as empty as a beggar’s pocket.
The princess stared back, still stern. “To declare you innocent of your crimes would flout the letter of the law. Your words, verified before the Scales of Mendacity, make it clear that sending you to prison would flout the spirit of the law. I judge you have learned your lesson. I also bow to necessity. Many in the police force are likely to be sent to prison. Aura needs as many good police officers as possible in the weeks to come.” Magic danced up her horn. His shackles opened and fell off. A badge appeared on the table where he could reach it. “Go forth and do your duty.”
Ivan just stared at it. What?
Luna’s tone turned kind. “You believe you do not deserve a second chance. I disagree.” Her horn flashed magic again, and the world swept away into brief indigo light. When it cleared, he was in what looked like a police precinct’s barracks, where ponies slept if they were too tired to go home. Empty…?
Something hit him from behind and clinched him in a clumsy but powerful grapple. It knocked him over. “Van!”
Ivan looked up into the idiot grin of his brother’s smile.
Looking around the courtroom, Baz tried to lift his ears up from being pulled back and low. No good: he was too scared. Serious scared, not like boo-scared. One second he was laughing to see the Captain’s cutie mark was a bug of all things. The next he had cuffs on and some earth pony guards were making him come here. Princess Luna was judging him all by herself in an empty courtroom. It was like a nightmare. Baz started to hope it was one but then remembered that one of Luna’s titles was Dreamwalker. Even if it was a dream it might be real. He wasn’t sure he couldn’t be dead and this not be real.
Baz had trouble hearing her, he was so scared his ears had folded up that much. Once she finished making a speech she asked if he understood. He heard that. “Um, um…no? I mean I think the thing with the bells is to catch liars and if I’m not a liar then you’ll let me go?”
“Are you a citizen of the Equestrian Empire?”
“Um, I don’t know.” He knew he wasn’t super-smart but now he felt really stupid. Scared stupid. He had to bite his cheek not to laugh like a donkey at that even if it wasn’t that funny. Good thing he had a stool to sit on. His hind legs wouldn’t stop trembling. “The Captain handles the paperwork stuff. I was born in Freeport and I think I heard the Captain complaining once about paying taxes there even though we go all avro, sorry I mean all arvo, I mean all over, sorry.” He had lost it and had to find it again. “We don’t spend a lot of time in Freeport and he was saying, um, we shouldn’t have to pay so much tax in a place we don’t, uh, spend a lot of time. I think maybe citizens pay tax here too?” She nodded when he dared to look at her. Didn’t look mad at him. Okay, that was good. “Um, the Captain never complained about paying us two taxes. Um, he would have. So…I think I’m probably not one. A citizen here, I think. That makes sense.” He looked at the bells thing. The red one was glowing and humming. “Oh, shi-mmm.” He closed his mouth just in time. “I didn’t mean to lie!” The fear was already awful. Now it got mean. “Sorry! It doesn’t really make that much sense!”
Baz blushed. “Um, Chester K. Barrington the Third.”
She almost looked nice, now. Huh. “That you know of, have you broken the laws of the Equestrian Empire while in the empire?”
“No.” Baz said. The red and blue bells both went nuts and Luna stopped looking half-nice. “Sorry! I didn’t really mean to say no, it just popped out. You know, guilt and stuff.” That was true. Baz had to take a few breaths. Felt like he had a big rubber band around his chest. “I littered this one time. I tossed a Jolly Juice cup at a trash bin and missed. I would have picked it up…” the bells started glowing “…okay, I might have picked it up and put it in the bin. Only I couldn’t because it fell right into the clouds and I couldn’t get it.”
“Have you anything more serious to confess?”
Baz stared at her. He couldn’t look away. His thoughts scattered like a dropped bag of mice. Trying to look through his memories was like trying to sort through laundry after somepony tossed it like a giant salad. What was he even looking for? Well, he couldn’t remember or he wouldn’t have to look! He bit his other cheek not to laugh. Baz tried, but he had to give up. “I can’t think of anything, your Highness.”
The alicorn gave the bells a long look but they backed him up.
His cuffs dropped off and he almost did something his mom had worked really hard to teach him not to do, way back when he was a little foal. Right now he wanted to just go home, hug her, and then hide somewhere and shake for an hour.
“You are free to go.” she said.
Baz bolted for the door off behind him. The one he’d come in. Then he skidded to a halt as the memory of his mother whacking him upside the mane came at him like an unexpected shark when he was swimming. He turned and walked back. Bowed. You did that for royalty. You always had to Be Polite. It cost nothing but breath and sometimes could buy your life. His mom had always said that. He turned again and left.
Outside was a hallway and a grumpy-looking secretary-looking pegasus mare behind a little desk. Blonde mane in a bun, sort of a pale grey-blue-green color body. Her eyes looked down at paperwork, he couldn’t see them. “Um, Miss?” There wasn’t a nameplate. “Miss…?”
“Miz.” she said. Didn’t even look up.
This was somehow worse than Luna. This was worse than the dream where he was in school and suddenly hairless and the teacher asked questions that made no sense. “Miz, her majesty said I was free to go.”
“Lucky you.” Didn’t look up. Had that Canterlot accent.
“I don’t know what to do now.”
“You leave, obviously. Don’t you have somewhere to go?”
He thought of the airship. He had a key. Then he realized the Just in Time might be confiscated if the Captain didn’t pass Luna’s criminal test. “Maybe?”
Miz looked up and her eyes were dark, dark brown. Like, five different shades of it, all sort of stripy-speckled together, actually kind of pretty. “You have no money for a hotel?” She eyed him and he felt six inches tall. “Motel?”
Baz started to check, but then he remembered. “Wait, there’s somepony I could stay with. Not friend-friends, but-” She looked back down at her paperwork. “I’ll just…toddle off then, shall I?” She ignored him.
Miz had to be short for miz-rable.
Sitting quietly with her fore-hooves on the table, Mithril tried to ignore the cuffs on them. The thimble-like cap locked onto her horn was harder to ignore, up there on the edge of her sight. It wasn’t even magical. Just a little round mirror inside the thimble, like the ones dentists had on a stick. Rapping the point of a unicorn’s horn as they held something in their magic was enough to disrupt their grip. If she sent any magic up her horn now, the magic would be reflected right back down her horn into her. A simple lifting spell would push down on her brain. Her most powerful fire spell would turn her whole body into a bomb.
Princess Luna sat in judgment on her. Mithril kept her eyes on the wall behind Luna, on the banner with the symbol of Equestria on it. This was really, really serious. The Scales of Mendacity were usually kept locked up. There were a number of very good reasons for that.
All of the truly powerful magics were Singular. There was only one of each, and it couldn’t be duplicated. Mithril’s teachers in unicorn school had called them the Mantles. Impossible to destroy: the vessel for it might change, but the Mantle was eternal. Mithril had heard rumors of a Mantle called the Inspiration, a focus of dark magic that filled its host with creativity without restraint or sanity. There was another bound in something called the Alicorn Amulet. The Mantle phenomenon was the reason why Tartarus existed. Some evils could never be truly killed. The best that could be done was to lock them up in a place or form that didn’t let them do any harm. Pieces that couldn’t be smashed could at least be kept off the board.
It also meant there could only be one Princess of the Night. The Mantle of Night was why her mane was that rippling beauty of sparkling blue and purple. It could swap hosts, and had during the Tirek business. The host could be corrupted to use the power for evil, like the Nightmare Moon business. But the power remained, at the core, as unchangeable as the Night itself.
The Mantle of Truth had been chained in an unliving vessel long ago. It tended to drive its hosts insane. Even if the power wasn’t evil, it wasn’t good either. Honesty was a virtue. Truth simply was. A truth told with evil intent was no kindness. There was only so much raw, absolute Truth a mind could handle before it snapped one way or another. Not even capable of self-deception. Compelling others to tell the truth, forcing them to accept the truth…that could be horribly misused. The Scales of Mendacity were much more limited but a lot safer.
The Scales were kept safe so the Mantle wasn’t unleashed.
The other reason was simpler. Every citizen got the same rights of due process. If reliable magic truth-detectors couldn’t be used for all trials, they couldn’t be used for any. Besides, the burden of proof had always been placed on the prosecutor. If their guilt couldn’t be positively proven, they were judged innocent. Hard to prove a negative, and proving you hadn’t committed any crime was exactly that. The Scales only came out for emergencies when not expediting the judicial process was the lesser of two evils. In this case, it was justified so that Luna could give any innocent ponies swept up in this house-cleaning a chance to prove it and be freed without delay. Holding them imprisoned for weeks before their trial was even more unfair and unjust than using the Scales of Mendacity and a certain lack of due process.
Plus, this wasn’t even a real trial. It was a hearing. Any pony, even Mithril, could remain silent during this kind of hearing and get a real trial later, when the emergency was over. Nopony was being forced to confess their crimes. This was an opportunity that the arrested pony could accept or decline as they chose.
Mithril decided to accept it. Unlike a standard trial, the Scales of Mendacity were her chance to say she had been forced to do those crimes under threat by Smog and be believed without need for evidence to back it up. She could say ‘I was forced to do it’ and that was that. That was probably another big reason for these hearings, if not one Luna had mentioned out loud: give those Smog had blackmailed and threatened into crime a chance to prove they really had been forced.
She gave her name; her police rank and I.D. number spilled out after it on reflex. Feeling oddly detached from herself, she gave her report on the crimes she had been forced to do by Smog. The whole incredible, terrifying mission into Dust to steal live healdust spores. Mithril didn’t try to hide that Smog had waved a carrot alongside his stick. She had a bank account full of dirty money. If it wasn’t already frozen then she, Mithril, was a duck. She did add her belief that Smog had only paid her so much to destroy her credibility if she ever tried to claim he had coerced her: if he had twisted her leg to make her do it, how come she was rolling in dough?
Her temper simmered, fueled at the heart by heartache. Brando was gone. Mithril hadn’t been able to leave her city. The griffin hadn’t been able to stick around. He had run fast and far away from Smog, and she couldn’t say he had been wrong to do it. She hated Smog for being the one to drive Brando away. Luna’s presence said Smog was no longer a problem. That changed…nothing. Brando would be avoiding news about Aura. Why hunt the griffin when Smog could just send out rumors shaped to lure Brando into returning? Brando was never coming back. He’d never believe that word of Smog’s arrest was real.
Eventually Mithril ended her report, pausing a moment to try to work up some spit. Luna’s magic made a glass of cool water appear by her fore-hooves. She wet her dry throat and ordered her thoughts. Reported her criminal actions since then. Namely, joining Straight Arrow on his unsanctioned, illegal raid and attempted ‘arrest’ of Fantasy Longhorn. She explained why she had done it, but didn’t expect that to change anything. No point apologizing, not with the Scales there. She wasn’t sorry she’d done it. When the law became a force that defended the wicked and punished the innocent, she’d defy it without regret.
“Mithril,” Luna said, “as arbiter of the law and officer of the court I accept your claim of unlawful coercion regarding the majority of your criminal actions. For the confession regarding one count of unlawful trespass, I hereby sentence you to no less than one year in a medium-security prison, as demanded by law for a crime of this type. I also hereby strip you of your police commission, including your pension, and declare the monies gained through your illegal acts…however coerced you may have been…to be forfeit to the government.”
Mithril blinked. She felt tears stinging her eyes. A year in jail, earning no money, meant her house payments would eat into her legitimate savings. She would get out of prison and still have a house, but almost no money. Or sell her house and stuff right away, get out of prison homeless but with some savings. No job prospects, either way. What could she do besides policing? Security guard? Companies didn’t like to hire ex-convicts for that. But what really hurt was being told she was no longer a cop. Being a police officer was a big part of who she was and now she felt the rest of her crumpling up around the place it used to be.
Luna wasn’t done. “As Princess of the Night and co-ruler of the Equestrian Empire I hereby commute the sentence to eight thousand, seven hundred and sixty hours…one year’s worth of hours…of community service. A tracking ring shall be bonded to your horn to ensure you remain within Aura and Umbra during this time. The Cloudwalk ring you previously wore is property of the Aura Police Department and has already been retuned to them. You shall be paid a fair wage for your work. If you desire overtime hours you may take them at half pay and by doing hasten the day you complete your community service. At any time you wish, or if your work is judged to show a clear pattern of slacking or other noncompliance, you shall be sent to prison to serve out whatever hours remain of the sentence.”
“Thank you, your Highness.” Mithril said. It beat going to prison. There were ponies in there because of her. She wondered what the work would be. Using her fire-magic to keep a steam engine boiler stoked?
“As emergency Governor pro tempore I hereby deputize you as acting police officer for the duration of martial law.”
Mithril felt as if all the blood had fallen out of her brain, leaving her about to faint. “What the f-”
“If you please.” Luna said. She waited a moment but Mithril couldn’t have spoken if he tried. “These hours of deputization count toward your community service obligation. If hours remain after martial law has been lifted you will be put in service to the police force for whatever tasks they see fit to give you, be it mopping floors or continuing to act as a deputy. You shall be given the option for permanent employment in Aura law enforcement after completing your sentence, if the following conditions apply. One: you complete your sentence without spending any of it in prison. Two: your conduct during this crisis leads your superiors in the police to believe you would be suitable for hire. Three: all formerly gained pension monies, seniority, commendations, citations, and promotions are expunged from your record. You shall, if you qualify and choose to accept the job offer, be a new hire of the lowest rank and shall only advance by demonstrated competence. Blank slate. However, if your superiors so choose, your past experience in law enforcement can be considered valid in terms of justifying an expedited promotion. Not in seniority.”
“I…that’s fair. Thank you, Princess. Thank you.” She wanted to shout it, but it came out a whisper. Sniffing hard, she fought back the tears.
“Aura and Umbra shall shortly find themselves in dire need of police, as many former officers of the law are likely to end up serving quite long prison sentences. I judge your crimes to all have been forced upon you or, in one case, done through a justified lack of respect for the enforcers of the law in Aura rather than disrespect for the laws of Equestria itself. Your heart, in short, was in the right place.”
The cuffs fell away, the horn-cap popped off. Her beloved old badge appeared by the water glass. Mithril grabbed the glass and drained it, afraid if she grabbed the badge it would dissolve or something. No amount of water was going to budge the knot in her throat.
“Go forth and serve your sentence, deputy.” Luna said. The watching mirrors all around the empty courtroom flickered. “The recordings have been interrupted. What I say now has no official weight or authority.” Her suddenly-hard green eyes stared into Mithril’s and the unicorn couldn’t look away. Or breathe. “You followed your conscience in joining Straight Arrow’s vigilante action. You believed you also served the spirit of the law, but it is your conscience you truthfully claimed as motivator. You defied the law. You acted with an authority you did not lawfully have. You also declined to apologize. You explained your motivations but expressed not a shred of regret. This is because you have none.”
Luna looked away and Mithril could breathe again. For a second Luna had stopped being a pony or a person. She had been an eternal and implacable force of nature looking deep into her eyes, pressing on Mithril’s spirit, and finding what it saw less than admirable. The moment had passed and the princess seemed more disappointed than anything.
“However necessary you believed it to be,” Luna said, “what you did remained a crime. You believe that whenever the law runs counter to your personal conscience, you must break the law and do so without regret. This is why you were not simply pardoned of your one uncoerced crime. One who refuses to accept that her actions need forgiving does not deserve to have them entirely forgiven. I understand that Smog’s corruption meant those who truly served justice were forced to cleave more to their moral compasses than the letter of the law.
“This is no longer the case, Mithril. It is not an officer of the law’s duty to pass judgment, to punish, to condemn, or to pardon. Your duty is to enforce the laws and keep the peace. If you believe a pony is innocent but the situation is such that the law clearly demands their arrest, arrest them. Leave it to the courts to determine their innocence. Even if you were correct in your judgment and did no moral wrong, you have still broken your solemn vow to honor and uphold the law.” Mithril withered under those quiet, scathing words. “For that alone you would deserve punishment, and forgiveness would be conditional on your awareness that what you did is wrong. If you cannot keep the vow, do not make it.”
Luna looked down and began writing on something, dismissing Mithril as completely as slamming a door in her face. Mithril picked up her badge in a hoof that trembled no matter how hard she tried to still it. Feeling numbed and off-kilter, knocked out of true inside her head, she walked a little unsteadily to the main doors, opposite the judge pulpit. Too many emotions raged outside the bubble of shock, but shame looked to be a contender for the win. Mithril hadn’t even considered it like that. If she couldn’t swear an oath to uphold the law and mean it, with no silent ‘except when I think I know better’ exception tacked on, she didn’t deserve to swear it.
Determination head-butted shame. This was a wake-up call. Luna was trying to help. Aura would be a place where the letter and spirit of the law was one thing again. Cops in it wouldn’t have any need or excuse to do things like, well…pin griffin heads to bar-booth tables for calling her ‘granny’ in a foreign language. Not while on duty, anyway. The police Aura needed in the future were polite, straight-arrow, by-the-book cops.
Mithril felt a little better. She could do that.
Sitting at the defendant’s table in the empty courtroom, Straight Arrow listened to Her Majesty Princess Luna explain how this emergency hearing operated. It seemed rude to tell her he already knew the bylaws for martial law jurisprudence. Presumptuous as well. She had certain kinds of leeway within the law as to exactly how she could operate this hearing.
Inside, he was in chaos. Normally everything was clear. It wasn’t always simple, but he had long ago decided which way he would always choose, when no good choice existed. He would do his best to honor both goodness and the law, but if the time came when he failed to see any way to hold to one without betraying the other…he would always choose to do what was right. Then, he would confess his illegal actions in full. He was willing to give his life to defend any citizen of this great empire. How could he turn around and say he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his career, his freedom? Was his reputation more important than his life? He recognized that as pure Pride.
Going to jail for doing something right and necessary was just the price he had to pay. It was breaking the law and trying to duck punishment that surrendered the moral high ground. The price of doing the wrong thing must remain high, and it must be paid: anything else invited temptation to cross the line when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. There were times when the law was bent and corrupted to serve evil. When he was young, cheats, liars, and rules lawyers had filled him with the most terrible rage. It still did, but not the same way. He’d had an epiphany in a dream. He had been in a maze, confronted by challenge after challenge that would have been simple and easy to solve without violence, using diplomacy or cleverness. His anger at being unfairly imprisoned in the maze had taken away his power to do anything but act on the anger. Since that dream he had never forgotten that anger’s power was a seductive lie, and that embracing righteous indignation was a golden, fire-lined road to ruin. His outrage at immorality and crime had never died. It was the wind in his sails. He didn’t let it lay a talon on the wheel: Straight Arrow let his anger push but refused to let it steer.
Later he’d had quieter insights. Anger was always a symptom of something deeper. In his case, his love of goodness and his belief that the palace of civilization stood upon the bedrock of the Law. Anger came from his hurt at seeing them defiled. Under the rage was pain and sorrow. Straight Arrow tried hard to keep that in mind. To hate the crime but remember that the criminal was still a person, and crimes could be done from ignorance or desperation. That most criminals weren’t evil, and many needed help more than punishment. To his secret shame, compassion often came hard. When he couldn’t find it, he did his best to fake it: act in all ways as if he did.
He had no way of knowing the Princess of the Night had lingered after her speech. She had lingered in secret to ensnare the evil-doers that had infected Aura and Umbra from top to bottom. All he had seen was the worst of the false cops running away after their loathsome pink master vanished. All he had seen was an opportunity to finally do some genuine lawful good. No guilt from that: he had done the best he could with what he knew.
Straight Arrow couldn’t remember the moment he chose to cross the line, gather a posse, and go after Fantasy Longhorn and the Wandering Lute without uniforms, badges, warrant, or legal sanction. Straight Arrow couldn’t remember…because it hadn’t been a clear, conscious, deliberate, and regretful choice. The way such things should always be. He had acted from anger. Tradewind’s assault had pushed him to cross the line when it wasn’t yet absolutely necessary.
This evidence that anger had influenced his decision cast all his actions into the murk of self-doubt. Had he done this before? Had he gone a little too far, again and again, smugly sure his anger was on a leash while it kept nudging his hoof over the line? The anger had grown with every year surrounded by the quiet corruption in Aura. It had gone from bright fire to bitter iron but still monstrously strong. It was leaking out of his control, poisoning him. Inside his parade-rest neutrality and calm expression he felt ready to throw up. Maybe take a long hot shower with a stiff brush.
“What is your full legally recognized name?”
He tried to talk without his usual raspy tone. “Straight Arrow Toxophilus.” It hadn’t worked well but he tried to sound as humble as he felt.
“I do.” He explained his actions at the Brass Hoof, listing his logic and motivations…including his unworthy anger…and making it clear he was the one to convince other members of law enforcement, including a rookie he knew was on psychiatric probation, into aiding and abetting his criminal acts.
Luna made a note of some kind. His stomach hurt from the way she looked up at him. It was the way he had always tried and failed to look at law-breakers: with understanding and compassion. In her he saw the ideal of everything he had ever tried to be as an officer of the law…and it made him realize just how short he had fallen of his goal. “Do you have any other crimes to confess at this time?”
“Nothing that would technically be a crime within the letter of the law. If it pleases the court, I stand willing to confess a multitude of infractions that violate the spirit of the law.”
“I have obeyed orders to punish officers under my command when I knew it was undeserved.” Luna nodded for him to go on. His guilt spat out the one it had been especially gnawing. “I placed Detective Mithril on indefinite unpaid leave after she botched a raid on untaxed gemstones. I am confident she was set to that raid by ponies who knew she would find nothing.”
“These hearings are to ascertain your personal guilt or innocence. Even so, I would hear a more detailed report on your knowledge of police misconduct if not for two things: my obligation not to linger over these hearings and delay those yet to come…and my confidence that any names you might give are already incarcerated pending their own hearings. Is there any personally-initiated misconduct you wish to announce?”
“I have violated the intended spirit of orders given me by my superiors on more occasions than I could count, hiding my deliberate actions by pretended misunderstanding, ‘lost’ paperwork, or other deceptions.”
“Your motive in those actions was malicious?”
Straight Arrow felt shame bite deep. “Intensely so.” She blinked, looked at the quiet Scales as if surprised. He forced himself not to lower his eyes. “I felt and continue to feel staggering amounts of contempt and rage at those among my superiors in law enforcement who gave me orders that mock and abuse the intended spirit of the law. Even knowing most of them are likely victims of blackmail and coerced into their actions, I have failed to purge that poison from my heart. I cannot feel the slightest remorse for my secret defiance of the orders, or of telling bald-faced lies and destroying paperwork to hide my defiance. I did what I could to avoid carrying out immoral orders. When that failed I tried to minimize the damage, or gave the impression of sincere effort while deliberately failing. My chronic violation of my orders and duties is reason enough to see me fired.”
Luna gave him a long look, and while Straight Arrow was good at reading faces, she gave him nothing. After she broke the gaze, she spent another moment writing. “For the crime to which you have confessed I declare a verdict of guilty. For the admission of professional malfeasance I declare them beyond the purview of this hearing and suspend judgment. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?”
“I have always tried to obey a personal rule that if the letter and spirit of the law are in conflict, I must break the law’s letter to uphold its spirit, and afterwards confess my actions so that they may punish me as the law requires. My personal belief is that that violating the law is only justified if I am willing to suffer the consequences for breaking it. If the price of halting an atrocity is my reputation, career, and freedom…so be it.” He closed his eyes, struggling against the storm of shame, guilt, sorrow, and regret. That he managed to keep from shedding a tear filled him with disgust. His voice had become all rasp. “Your Majesty, in seeking vigilante action against Miss Fantasy Longhorn I violated my own rule. I let my anger at an earlier assault by one of her friends goad me into stepping outside the law without the due consideration I always swore I would use before such a decision. I stand ready to accept the full weight of my punishment. I deserve it even more than if I had done this while choosing the cost. I regret my lapse in judgment and for my unlawful actions. I believed my motives were pure. They were not. My outrage at those who corrupt and defy the law is something I have never managed to purge. Now it seems I never even controlled it as well as I assumed. I have betrayed myself, but worse, I disgraced the badge I wore. I’m sorry, my Princess. I failed.”
Luna spoke in a very soft, gentle voice. Her compassion hurt worse than her scorn ever could have. “Straight Arrow Toxophilus,” she said, “as arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby sentence you to no less than two years in a medium-security prison, as demanded by law for your confessed crime.” Straight Arrow nodded, pressing his fore-hooves to his burning but dry eyes. Why couldn’t he cry?
“As Princess of the Night and co-ruler of the Equestrian Empire I extend you a royal pardon for that same crime.” Straight Arrow had been still. Now he was frozen. “As emergency Governor pro tempore I hereby deputize you as acting chief of police for the dual city of Aura-Umbra. You have the option for permanent retention of this office should your service during this emergency be judged satisfactory. I have every confidence this will be the case.”
A high thin whine in his ears, like from a too-loud bang.
“To declare you innocent of your crimes would flout the letter of the law.” Luna said. “Your words, verified before the Scales of Mendacity, make it clear that sending you to prison would flout the spirit of the law. I judge you have learned your lesson. I also bow to necessity. Many in the police force are likely to be sent to prison. Aura needs as many good police officers as possible in the weeks to come. You showed good leadership skills, if not always flawless judgment.” The cuffs he wore popped off and fell to the floor with a chatter of chain. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. “Your new badge, royal pardon, and pro-tem commission now lie before you, Straight Arrow. Go forth and do your duty.”
He couldn’t move.
A static-crackle he recognized as enchanted recording mirrors being set into sleep-mode. The public record of these events had ended. Silence. Then: hooves softly approaching. She stood across the table from him. He sensed her. “Straight Arrow.” she said. Odd tone. “Look at me.” Her soft voice burned through his paralysis and moved him to lower his hooves. She…smiled? Yes, smiled! Her fore-hoof lifted to hover above the Scales. It sat right there now, in reach of his hooves. “These judge my words also. You may deny that I am right, but not that I am sincere. What I tell you now is the truth as I see it, not soothing lies to ease your suffering. Are you prepared to know your greatest flaw?”
He couldn’t look away from her cheerful, impish smile. Nodded, while dread curled up around his misery like evil vines.
“The standard to which you hold others is high but you hold yourself to one far higher yet; despite coming closer to living your ideals than many good ponies ever do, all you can see is the remaining gap you failed to close. You never stop trying, despite the agony that failing causes you. The struggle against our darker urges, not their defeat, is the essence of goodness. You need to forgive yourself for not being perfect.”
He stared, not knowing if he could believe her. Even if he did, he had a problem. He had never even realized it was a problem before, and that was the problem. “I don’t…know how.” The words hurt, pushed through the knot in his throat.
“That,” Luna said, “is your greatest flaw, and someday it might break you. I put you in a maze once.” She almost whispered now, and her smile was sad. “I showed you a flaw in your heart. I’m sorry. You did not react as I had expected. You reacted to the revealed flaw of un-tempered anger by locking yourself in a cage of harsh self-judgment. I can open the door of your cage but only you can step through. Be brave.”
Her head dipped, neck extended, and touched him between the eyes with her long horn. A spark like painless lightning leapt into him. Something turned behind his thoughts, something else shifted deep inside his heart. It was like black clouds had parted to reveal the silver moon. The feeling it caused was something he couldn’t name but ached to embrace. It seemed so distant. Some kind of crushing weight dragged at his will to approach. He fought it, desperate to reach Luna’s gift: failed. It was like flying with a bag of anchors.
Desperate to reach the light, he tore at the weights. It hurt. He kept struggling, tearing them away; it felt like his brain was being torn into pieces. Then it fell away and the pain vanished. That shining light vanished. Darkness didn’t return. A moment of quiet wonder filled him. All his past mistakes stopped throbbing like infected cuts on his conscience. Regret lingered, but the guilt and shame had faded. So much misery, felt for so long he had stopped noticing. He’d forged his self-criticism into armor lined with thorns. She hadn’t given him anything. She had shown him a path that revealed his burdens and tempted him to let them go. The absence left him feeling naked…but free. Light as a feather. Rather than joy, all he felt was relief more powerful than joy.
The tears finally came.
“Tankard Longhorn, your majesty.”
Reaching up to scratch his head, Tankard thought about that. He’d half-expected to be slapped in cuffs when he and Berry Jam had answered the summons to come up to this cloud-tower courthouse. He lowered his hoof again, thinking about what she had said about the empty courtroom and the magical lie-detector. “I’m not sure what you mean by crime, miss princess. Do you just want ones I committed by choice or are you looking for crimes I was forced into, too?”
“Any unlawful behavior on your part that you wish to confess at this time.” Luna said. “If you can truthfully claim circumstances compelled you to break the law against your will, do so. The Scales of Mendacity will verify your honest sincerity and therefore make this claim admissible evidence of your coercion.”
“Smog made me do things.” He explained about the attic full of forbidden magical artifacts, the tunnel into the cellar: working his way back to the crimes in his misspent youth. Not all of them had been forced on him, and the statute of limitations hadn’t run out on the worst few. He had a sneaky feeling it was a good idea to come completely clean.
“For all the crimes to which you have confessed I declare a verdict of guilty.” Luna said. “Coerced or no, it cannot be denied that they were crimes, they were done, and done by you.” Tankard’s heart skipped a beat. “For those crimes you performed under duress and threat of reprisal I declare you exempt from punishment due to extenuating circumstances. The blame goes to the one that coerced you. Those acts will go upon your criminal record clearly marked as such. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence upon you for the crimes for which you could offer the court no satisfactory excuse?”
Relaxing a little, or at least getting less tense, Tankard took a second to recover from his sudden fright. Whatever punishment she decided he deserved was probably going to be a lot less if he could show his sincere regret for past crimes and honest intention to fly straight from now on.
Luckily, he could do that, so he did that.
“Tankard Longhorn,” she said, “as arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby sentence you to no less than ten years of community service, a span judged by the calendar rather than the accumulation of hours in active service.”
His jaw dropped. He closed it too fast and caught the very tip of his tongue between his teeth. Ten years?!
“The first part of this community service shall take the form of offering the bedrooms-to-let and common room of the Brass Hoof Inn over as a temporary precinct house for the police during the period of martial law. You will not serve as a jail for captured criminals awaiting trial; simply as a place where police patrolling the surrounding part of Umbra may find beds to rest and food to eat. You will not be open to civilian business during this time. You shall provide these rooms and meals for no charge to the individual police. You shall charge the full fair market price to individual police if they wish to purchase intoxicating beverages. You will keep records of all expenses incurred by your duties and submit them weekly for prompt reimbursement from the treasury. Do not attempt to misrepresent your expenses for profit. The punishment for proven deliberate breach of your community service will be to serve out the remainder of your punishment in prison. Furthermore you shall receive a flat weekly payment above the costs. This money is for the support of your family’s needs during this time. After martial law is lifted, until ten years to the day from today have passed, you shall be free of all obligations save for a fifty percent discount for any officer of the law seeking food, beverages, or lodgings at your inn.”
Tankard almost bit his tongue again. “Princess Luna, fifty percent would ruin me. I’d be selling things cheaper than they cost me. We’d go out of business fast and end up homeless.”
“This is fifty percent of your profit margin, not net price of the offered good or service. You are not required to extend any pony credit or a ‘tab’ unless you choose.”
“Oh.” Still not great, but then it was a punishment. In fact with a lure of the discount he’d be guaranteed steady business from lots of police whose beats were in that chunk of Shadowville, and everypony who qualified for the discount had a job with a steady paycheck…but this was a punishment. What was the catch? “What if the cops get used to coming there, and decide to keep coming after my community service is up?”
“I cannot command such a thing be so, but it is my hope that the Brass Hoof Inn becomes established as what the common vernacular terms a ‘cop bar.’ Such a clientele should do much to discourage you from any temptations to crime.”
Catch located. Becoming a watering hole for off-duty cops also had an upside. It would take a rare kind of idiot to try and rob the place, or mess with Tankard’s family. This really was a punishment. His family’s budget for little luxuries would be a lot smaller for the next decade. It was also Luna making sure that his family was protected.
Tankard felt moved to stand and then bow. “Thank you for your lenience, your majesty.”
“Thank me by never giving me cause to regret it.” Her tone took away most of the sting the words could have held. “Go now and send in your wife for her hearing. I expect it to be a mere formality, given your comments regarding her character.”
Bowing again, Tankard obeyed. He felt…lighter. He had spent his entire adult life dreading, in the back of his mind, the day his crimes came to light and he had to answer for them. It was all out in the open now, the punishment had been declared. The worst had happened and turned out to be survivable. Smog was dead or fled. His ‘insurance policies’ had been defanged by the Princess of the Night, who was sweeping the twin cities cleaner than a new broom. No more crooked cops and bent politicians, no more evil pink monsters threatening his family, forcing him to dirty his hooves. All he had to do was not break the law anymore and he was untouchable. His bitten tongue hurt and he focused on the pain to avoid grinning.
All told, he didn’t really feel that punished.
Blinking awake, Perth found himself lying on a koala-sized bunk against one wall of a small room occupied by an uncomfortable amount of pony. He noticed the mane first, rippling like something out of a dream. Secondary details included the horn, the wings, the simple black crown, a certain indefinable air of calm authority. Princess Luna, last seen firing some kind of magic at him in the kitchen area of the Brass Hoof.
“Good morning.” he said. If he’d thought before he spoke he never would have been able to manage a quip like that with the casual manner it required.
“Good afternoon.” she said. “The spell wore off soon but you began to snore and so I had my assistants place you in a quiet place where you might rest.”
Perth realized he wasn’t wearing his black suit when he saw it hung neatly on a hanger hung from a nail on one wall. His doctor’s valise sat on a small table past the foot of the bunk, his spectacles on an even-smaller nightstand beside it. Perth settled them in place and peeked under the light blanket. He wore pinstriped blue pajamas of a sort common among the better-off in Dust. He cringed as his memories brushed against the knowledge of the multi-sided civil war raging there now.
Rubbing at his leathery nose, he became aware of a scent like fresh-cut grass and night-blooming flowers. “Thank you for allowing me to rest. I can’t…clearly recall when I last slept before this.” Everything seemed to be present in his memories but the last stretch of wakefulness was in an awful jumble with no clear sense of a timeline. “I am in trouble.”
“Unlikely.” Luna said. “Your magic is your gift and your curse, Perth Fitzhammer. We have that in common. I too have struggled with dark urges and unworthy thoughts. You have dreamed of building wondrous horrors, malevolent mechanisms. Creations that destroy. I have dreamed of the Night Eternal, when the empty peace of death lies upon the frozen world.”
Perth shivered so hard it was more of a shudder, with no idea why her words provoked such a visceral reaction. Perhaps because he believed she did indeed understand the dark siren call of entropy that had always plagued him. “I cannot deny my darkness.” he said. The need, the hunger to confess to someone who understood, overwhelmed his shame. “It is a part of me and will always be. My efforts must focus on control. When I ended the fight between Morhoof and Forte Presto, I had an epiphany. My attempt to be strictly pacifistic increased the odds of indulging my madness. My fear of going too far kept me from pushing back at all, until I was cornered and there was no choice but to go too far. I cannot allow things to devolve to a point where my madness is my only option. I must fight back while the situation remains less than desperate, in order to prevent it from becoming desperate…and prevent myself from losing all control. Non-lethal violence is worse than diplomacy, but I must not hesitate to stun a person if it will prevent them from forcing me to kill them.”
“We should discuss that further at a later time. I may have advice you find useful. For now, might we discuss your future?”
Sitting up, Perth turned sideways to face Luna, who was larger if not burlier than any earth pony in Dust. “As in, whether or not I shall have one?”
She raised an elegant bow. “Do you believe you deserve death?”
Perth’s eyes lost focus, but the eye of memory had a clarity sharp enough to cut. “You said you were there. When they fought. Not involved unless you must but hiding the fight, giving me my bag of materials and tools so I could become involved. You must have realized what I almost did. What my device could have done. I made that hideous thing. I nearly used it to destroy them utterly, even my friend.”
“None may predict what one shall do with power…except to give one power, and see what one does with it. I know what you had the power to do. More importantly, I know what you did. Alone, terrified, your inner madness let loose in a desperate gamble. You resumed control at the critical moment, proving to me…and to yourself…that you have the power to do so. Alone, doubly terrified at how close you had come to disaster…you did not kill. You did not stun. You did not immobilize. You did not freeze with indecision, and choose inaction. You made a choice to show two suffering ponies a world without hate. More importantly, you showed them themselves without hate.”
Perth went very still, feeling an odd sensation fluttering in his chest. After a long moment he concluded, with wonder, that it was the embarrassment-laced pleasure of a deserved compliment delivered by one whose opinion mattered to him. Taking what felt like his first truly free breath in days, he exhaled and the tension drained away. Some of it had weighed him down for many years. Its absence felt wonderful.
For the first time, he no longer feared being too weak to stay in control. Perth feared only a situation where desperation could tempt him to surrender control. The need for surrender, of course, meant it couldn’t wrest control from him by force. It had only ever tempted, wheedled; whispered seductive promises to end all his fear and doubt. His madness wasn’t a mighty river behind a dam. It wasn’t a monster in a cage, a fire in a furnace, a storm in a bottle. It was an empty pit. He could slip and fall; he could jump. If he stood his ground, it could do nothing because it was nothing: his madness was not Perth plus evil. It was Perth minus conscience. It hurt to care; it was a misery to feel guilt. That pit whispered an end to suffering by making him numb. It promised to make him free by severing every meaningful bond he had.
“Remember this moment.” Luna said. “Remember how you feel in this moment, and how you now view the darkness inside you. It is the truth. The power of evil is the power of darkness, silence, cold, and lies. These things are not things. They are un-things. They are the absence of light, sound, warmth, and truth. Madness is the lack of sanity.”
Looking inward, Perth focused on doing as Luna bid, and cement this moment in his memory. “There is a saying in Dust. ‘Tis better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’ I always assumed it meant it is better to do something about a situation than simply bemoan it.”
“It also means that. It is not enough to struggle against evil. Destroying evil is not the goal of the good. Their goal is to restore goodness. Generosity, laughter, honesty, loyalty, kindness. These are the elements of harmony, from which great magic is born like music is born from single notes. When one has an opportunity to do something good but allows it to pass undone from fear or apathy…this is not an embrace of the darkness, but it is a missed opportunity to feed the fire that holds it at bay. Darkness only rules where the light has died.”
Perth took another free breath. He fought a strange urge to giggle. The truth was so amazingly simple and simply amazing. The dark could not stand where light lived. All he had to do to fight his inner evil was to be a good person. Be brave enough to be good. “My apologies for the digression, Princess Luna. We were to discuss my future?”
“Indeed. You have done no crime that was not forced upon you. If you wish, I shall expedite the process of becoming an Equestrian citizen. I foresee much profit for you in patenting your mundane and reproducible creations. I have evidence suggesting you might choose to waive some patents, perhaps bequeath the profits of others toward charity?”
“I…that was the deal I struck with Smog, yes. I would freely do those things if given the chance. If my power can make the world a better place…I would find joy in that.”
“Then be welcome, Equestrian Citizen Perth Fitzhammer.” His expression must have shown his uncertainty. “It is indeed that simple, sir. While my sister and I are very careful about overruling our own laws, we do have that authority, and we use it when we judge proper procedure and due process can do nothing but slow and stifle an outcome that is both right and good. I have seen your darkest hour, when hope seemed a delusion, when no help presented itself, and vast power lay in your paws. I saw you choose the light.”
Perth felt his face turn hot this time. “Th-thank you.” Clearing his throat, he bowed as best he could while sitting; tried to look dignified and honored.
“Then I have only one thing left to say.” Luna said. Her mane transformed in a flash, becoming a wild rainbow-striped afro like that of a clown. Her face gained clown makeup, her green eyes wandered off in opposite directions, and she stuck out a long pink tongue. “Nyeeeaaah!”
Perth suffered a moment of shocked, frozen horror, and then Luna resumed her previous form, all grave and stately with no sign the bizarre event had ever happened. Then he saw how her eyes danced, making the somber expression a mask. He giggled. They bubbled up, growing stronger, until he guffawed, rolling on the bed with his legs waggling and tears streaming from his eyes. When he finally recovered he noticed she was gone, and a scroll sat on a low stool. They proved to be documents, needing only his signature to make him a citizen.
Signing, Perth quaked with aftershocks of giggles. He would have lost all respect for Queen Amanita if she had done something like that. Somehow it made him respect Princess Luna even more. His mind danced with ideas for new mechanisms, cunning but mundane. Toys for children.
Fleur Blanc walked into the empty courtroom with lifted head and sinking heart. Judgment day hadn’t come in the form she expected. Princess Luna had beaten Smog, had defanged his arrangements to destroy Aura in a storm of revealed blackmail and corruption if he was ever deposed. Had done it all so quietly that few had even realized what was going on. Smog had vanished and the promised chaos simply hadn’t happened.
It was almost a relief to finally be called to answer for her crimes. There was an end to the waiting. Her charm-hung bracelet sat heavy in an under-wing pouch. She was allowed to keep them with her but not wear them. Not during this hearing. Just in case one of them might let her fool the lie-detecting magic she’d heard rumors about all this morning.
Fleur hadn’t had them on since late last night, when she woke up out of an uneasy sleep to an awful discovery. The dual charm the Captain had given her no longer whispered its assurance that he was alive. The master key to his airship that he had given her also hung from the bracelet, hidden among the other dangly metal things. She could have taken her brother and run to the Just In Time. Hidden there until that nice pony Baz and adorable sugar-glider Kirra either arrived or it was clear they wouldn’t be arriving. Escaped the city.
Instead she had decided to cry herself back to sleep, and succeeded in the first half. Her makeup did its best but she knew she was red-eyed and haggard. Sitting at the defendant’s table, she numbly nodded her way through Luna’s explanation, gave her name when prompted. Her brother’s turn next, and his crimes were similar to hers. Done from desperation or later, from loyalty to Smog. He had made it clear they would only lose the favored position he had given them if they were disloyal. Not disobedient. He had given them the right to say no: they weren’t comfortable doing something. After mapping out the limits of their consciences, he had stopped even asking things they weren’t willing to do from gratitude for him rescuing them from poverty. The only threat that hung overhead was that he would take away what he had given them. Fleur knew everything she had done, she had done by choice.
There didn’t seem much point in trying to deny that, with these Scales of Mendacity ready to display any untruth or deception. She admitted everything: right back to the petty short-cons she and her brother had run while young and essentially homeless. She confessed to her loyalty and gratitude to Smog, her grief that he was gone. Her sinking heart didn’t rise but it did feel as if emptying out. It felt like she had an incurable malady and had decided on a dignified settling of her affairs before she died. This was the end, there was nothing left but to tidy up the frayed threads of her life and make the end a clean one.
“Fleur Antoinette Blanc.” Luna said. Fleur raised her eyes from the table to the princess for the first time. “For the crimes to which you have confessed I declare a verdict of guilty on all counts, save for aiding and abetting of crimes committed by the dragon Smog or his employees, by declining to share your knowledge of them to the proper authorities. In those cases your lips were sealed by fear of retribution, if also by less legally forgivable motives. I can find no evidence of unlawful coercion on the majority of your unlawful actions. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?”
“His promises to us, they were calculated, but he kept them. Not just ze letter of them but ze spirit. I know he was…was a monster.” Even now it felt like betrayal and disloyalty to say that. She thought she had run out of tears but her eyes found some more. Taking a shaky breath, she pulled out a grubby handkerchief and dabbed, trying to preserve her makeup from habit. “I know he saved us for ze gratitude we would feel, ze loyalty he could use as a string to make us dance.” She had to pause for another shaky breath between each sentence as she continued. “What he wanted us to do was so often wrong. I am sorry for ze bad things I did and helped do. I only did them from loyalty to one who had been good to me, after a life where nopony was. I know he never cared about me except as ze tool of his will. I know he manipulated my feelings, but I feel them. He is gone. I cannot help but be sad.” For him, and for the Captain too. She should have known the silly unicorn had too much pride to let himself be arrested. He had fought. “Princess Luna, Smog is gone, and he never asked me to keep his secrets after he is gone. I will confess all I know of ze crimes of others, if you wish it. I wish never to ever do wrong again, and I am sorry for my crimes, and—” She paused again, to breathe, trying to ease the sharp pain threatening to choke off her words. “Please show my brother Flambé mercy. He did worse than me but always for love of me.”
Luna spoke, firm but soft. “As arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby declare you non compos mentis and declare that you be admitted to a secure facility for evaluation and treatment of the mental and emotional damage inflicted upon you by the manipulations of Smog.” Fleur had one floating moment of bewilderment before, to her horror, a great swelling bubble of insulted rage grew in her. “I have high hopes that you shall soon be successfully treated and released.”
Shooting to her hooves, Fleur watched in horror from some dusty corner of her mind as she erupted into a long, vile stream of profanity in her native tongue, which had a definite advantage in the way it allowed one to string together dirty words. To say her loyalty had been false! Not just misplaced but a lie! To say she hadn’t just been manipulated but brainwashed! If she had been brainwashed Smog would have had her doing unspeakable things, with a smile! She struggled to stop insulting every aspect of Luna’s ancestry, character, and appearance, but only managed it after she ran out of breath and had to either stop or faint. She struggled not to start again, shaking with rage, unable to let herself so much as twitch or she would lose control. Fleur could have handled being called a criminal or even evil. Being called crazy…it hurt. A flicker of doubt entered her heart, maybe Luna was right? Hate bloomed that Luna could make her doubt herself like this.
When the two pegasus guards arrived to escort her off to the loony-bin, something broke inside her. Crumpled rather than snapped. Fiery rage turned to ash. She went with them quietly, operating her body as if a puppet on strings, from somewhere far away inside. The doubt gnawed and grew. What if he had hypnotized her? Could her conscience be an illusion? He hadn’t asked her to do anything she wasn’t willing to do, not for years. Was that his restraint, or was her willingness always guaranteed? Her fierce loyalty to a heartless monster, even to offering to stay with him at what seemed to be his end.
Did…did she need help?
One second he was ducking a big metal mug chucked by that unicorn bar-owner and the next he was somewhere too cushy to be a cell but not really nice enough to not be a cell. Reminded him of that room in the nuthouse he’d been in for a while. He’d woken up naked. No non-lethal takedown toys. After a few seconds of freaking out, a pair of golden-armored pegasus stallions came in an explained it was time for his Emergency Trial (they’d pronounced the capital letters too, somehow) and Luna would explain what was going on.
They hadn’t chained him up. Asked him politely to come with them. A hint of ‘if you make this hard, we can do this hard’ to it but they really had seemed like they’d be sorry to have to. Pick wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He hadn’t fought. Well. He fought with his terror. But there was something under all the panic. Kind of…relief. They walked on either side of him down a plain empty hallway. He’d run out of chances. No more probation, nopony left to spring him, Princess Luna herself had come back to the city and she was going to give him what he deserved.
The dream he’d had just before Mithril bailed him out erupted out of the dark depths of his mind. Falling into darkness, walking between rows of statues showing him every pony he had ever helped on one side, hurt on the other. Meeting Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon in a ruin. A set of double doors. Black and white. One knob a waxing half-moon, one a waning half-moon. She had told him he was balanced between light and dark but he had to choose whether to wax or wane, because trying to dance on the razor’s edge between him was going to end with it cutting him in half. He’d woken up before he could choose.
As the pegasi escorted Pick into the empty courtroom, he realized he had chosen. Later, after fighting that monster goat Uncle. He wanted to be good, do good things. He just didn’t think he deserved to. His head had stayed all twisted up, trying to claim he was sucking up to that joker Straight Arrow just so that the pegasus would get this cursed ring off his wing’s base. But Straight Arrow gave him a chance to do some genuine good as a cop and he’d come along because he had hoped it might make him feel less dirty inside.
Pick sat where they pointed, at the defendant’s table of this big fancy oak-wood courtroom. His rump hit the wood and he winced. Didn’t hurt. His body had healed with all that healdust but part of his brain hadn’t caught up to that yet. No more goat-horn stab wounds in his butt but it thought he still did. Briefly he remembered the Skulldigger note slipped in his saddlebag. A reminder they had tracked him down.
Staring at Luna sitting where the judge sat, with a set of scales hung with a pair of bells, Pick realized he didn’t give a rotten pumpkin about the Skulldiggers. They were a chump-change pack of monsters with more nastiness than brains. Smog had shown him what a real criminal empire was like. Real evil was cold and quiet and hard to notice, ruining a thousand lives with a checkmark on some documents. Not a bunch of melodramatic grave-robbers who liked to bust heads. Now Smog was AWOL and Luna had come back. The city didn’t seem to be burning with chaos. Pick didn’t think he was being paranoid in thinking there was a connection there.
Skulldiggers were so far down on his list of problems he didn’t have any fear to spare on them. The biggest on his list was right up there with a crown on her head. He listened to her explain what was up. She had never left, just hung around on the quiet abducting all the troublemakers Smog had set up to burn the city down if he ever died. And everypony else who looked like they were Smog’s little minions. They were all magically frozen or something. Now she was thawing them out one at a time, asking if any of them could say they were innocent so they could go home and stuff. Her bell-scales were a lie detector. Pick decided that he wasn’t going to test it. Lying wouldn’t stop him from being punished, just make it worse.
This was it. This was really it. This was the music and he faced it. Luna talked, he answered. He must have heard what she said. He must have made sense answering. He felt his mouth moving and her expression said he wasn’t babbling or anything. Inside his head there was this dull roar like he’d put on a pair of seashells for earmuffs. He kept hearing and answering somehow, but that was a long way off.
Inside, something was digging its way to the surface and it wasn’t going to be buried again. The reason why he thought he deserved for everypony to be out to get him, to hate him. An awful truth. He’d gone slowly crazy from keeping it locked up. It came on slow but unstoppable.
He was back in the Prancing Pony, in Dust, in the unnatural dark. He left the others upstairs and went down to the common room fast but quiet. Found Bill the bartender, former Skulldigger and informant for the Dustan Police. Blind in the dark, while Pick had the Talisman of Starless Night around his neck, letting him sense-see in the absolute dark of a black-burning magic candle. He picked up a bottle with a broken base, probably dropped in the panic when the dark fell. One fast hard stab, and the earth pony Bill was dead on the floor. Pick headed right back up for the others so they could sneak away. He’d already pushed it out of his mind by the time he got back.
Everything stopped. The roar in his head that drowned out his ears. Everything. He was pretty sure his heart had stopped. It was the most awful sense of silent stillness he had ever felt. He felt bad beyond words but he didn’t feel crazy anymore. His heart gave a sudden hard squeeze, painful in his chest, and started up double-time. The shock of remembering had almost killed him. Somehow that didn’t seem important.
“This is a long and troubling list of crimes.” Luna said. “Have you anything further to confess before I pass judgment?”
Memories came to Pick that he hadn’t experienced the first time around. She had asked him to confess. Pick had been in a weird state and his mouth had been left to do what it wanted. It had confessed everything right back to the beginning: going into a graveyard at night on a dare. Meeting Grime the Skulldigger looking for unicorn horns for the black market. Taking his first step down a criminal path.
“Murder.” Pick said. His voice sounded dead. “I murdered an earth pony named Bill in the Prancing Pony, in Dust. Former Skulldigger. Police informant. Ratted us out. I did it in the dark. I could see. He was blind. I used a broken bottle. I didn’t say a word. I snuck up, did it, and snuck away. Smog never ordered me to do that. He never asked. Maybe he was counting on me choosing to do it. This wasn’t on him. I risked the mission he put me on, to get this revenge.”
“I…see.” Luna sounded troubled but not surprised. “For the crimes to which you have confessed, I declare a verdict of guilty, save for crimes forced upon you by others via illegal coercion. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?”
“Looking back,” Pick said, “I know exactly where my life started to go wrong. The exact night I went into that graveyard for a dare. If I could go back in time for just one minute, I’d scare myself away from going in there. Even knowing this means me, like I am now, never existed. I used to break the law. I did things everypony said were wrong. I was a bad pony and I liked it. It didn’t feel wrong to me. I got out because it was smart, not because I was growing a conscience. Not really. I got a job as a cop as protection in case my past caught up with me. Nopony messes with the cops, I figured.
“Pretending to be a good guy. It felt good. Really good. I used to like having ponies be afraid of me. Then I saw them looking like they respected me. The real stuff, with trust not fear. But it was a fraud and I knew it. I wanted to deserve that respect. So I started trying to be good for real. Then Smog sucked me into the mud again. But okay. I was being forced to do it. I felt bad about it, so I was still good, yeah? Then I killed Bill and it felt wrong. He turned traitor because it was that or die. Why should he die for us? We weren’t his friends. All that kept us ‘loyal’ was knowing the rest would kill us for betraying them. He had to stay an informant or be executed. He ratted me out twice, once back then, later in the Prancing Pony, but he had to. I didn’t have to kill him.
“So yeah. I guess some good got done in the stuff I was involved in. Pretty sure Red-Eye Rasputin bit the big one. Healdust spores are out of Dust, healdust will be stronger and cheaper now. Maybe they’d end up still being done if I’d never gone rotten as a colt. Smog would have found another stooge. But even if you told me they wouldn’t happen if I went back and changed my past, I would. Too much evil. I did something even my twisted little black heart can’t forgive itself for. I wish I could.” It hurt too much for crying. It hurt too much to even sound very sad. It was almost all over. That was the only relief he needed. “Yesterday, or whenever it was, Mithril asked me if I wanted to help take down some of Smog’s untouchables. I remember thinking that even if I get punished for my evil tomorrow, how do I want to spend today? Knowing it might be my last day. I chose to spend it doing what I thought was the right thing.” He dropped his eyes from hers. “Thanks for letting me get that out. I deserve to swing. Rope my wings down and fit me for a hemp necktie. I’ll dance on air and then it’ll finally be over. Princess, just…just end it.”
“As arbiter of the law and officer of the court I hereby declare you potentially non compos mentis and declare that you be admitted to a secure facility for the criminally insane where you shall undergo evaluation and, if warranted, treatment.” Pick just nodded. No room for anything but that pure quiet pain. “If it is discovered your mental state is indeed legally sufficient to deserve punishment for your crimes, I hereby declare my solemn vow to pardon you for crimes done on Equestrian soil. Moments of valor and purity of intent shone in your tale like diamonds in the mud, and it is both troubling and encouraging that you seemed not to notice their significance. In you I see a good heart struggling under a burden of bad habits and past mistakes. The only crime I cannot pardon is the murder of William ‘Bill’ Forsooth, earth-pony citizen of Dust. It is not my right to pardon crimes done on another’s sovereign soil. We have no extradition treaty with Dust. Should they ever demand you be delivered for punishment, we must deny them irrespective of our personal opinion of the act.”
“I don’t deserve this.” Pick said. He felt things starting to crack. This odd pained calm was crumbling. “Why forgive me?”
Luna heaved a great big sigh, for a second not looking like a Princess and just looking tired. “Is it punishment to execute one who wishes to die? My mercy is cruel, Pick. I condemn you to live with what you have done. It shall only end if you find it in your heart to forgive yourself. That shall not come until you have remade yourself into a pony who you believe deserved forgiveness. If that day comes, and only then, shall you deserve an end to the pain.”
She summoned the pegasus guards back. Pick imagined taking them down and flying for it. Out one of those high-up windows hooves-first, wings over his face in case of shards. He realized the ring was off his wing. He could go anywhere he wanted. He’d gotten a lot of his payoff for the Dust mission out of the bank and hidden it somewhere safe. Grab that and retire to a tropical beach somewhere far away. Work on his music. Never do anything bad again.
Pick went with them without a fight. Even if he took them down, and he avoided re-capture by the freaking Princess of the Night, and got to his money, and got out of Aura, and got to the distant tropical beach…he wouldn’t be able to escape. His punishment was to live with what he did. Or decide he couldn’t, and carry out his own execution. Make the criminal torture himself. Nice trick. The thought of going back to the Tower made him want to hurl from pure dread, but they were the only ponies in the world that might actually try to help him stitch his torn-up mind back together.
The cruelest thing Luna had done was dangle that hope in front of his nose. That maybe…maybe someday…he might stop feeling like he had a red-hot boulder sitting on his heart. Rather than get up the nerve to end it, she made him go on living and suffering, chasing that glimmer of hope. It was the worst kind of bait too. He knew she really meant it. Those scales hadn’t done any alarms when she spoke. He really might make it out of this pit. That cruel little mercy was going to make sure he suffered for a long time. ‘Someday’ might never come, but it sure wasn’t coming tomorrow. Or next year.
Morhoof sat at the defendant's table, disarmed to the point of being down a leg, staring up at Luna sitting at the judge’s throne. A set of scales sat between them, with Morhoof's mechanical leg off to one side. He thought she might use it as a gavel to sentence him. An ever-present tingling ran through Morhoof, a familiar feeling. That feeling of being watched. Stronger than usual. He scanned the courtroom, empty save for the two of them. Nothing. He hadn’t felt entirely comfortable inside his skin since the guards woke him up and escorted him from his cell to this far grander room.
Morhoof suppressed a flinch when Luna spoke.
Not quite using the Royal Canterlot Voice, Luna ran through an explanation of the situation. It made sense considering the scope of what was being done, but none of it made Morhoof feel any better. The magical mirrors explained the being-watched feeling. Recordings of this trial naturally clashed with his desire to avoid proof he existed, and now there would be. And those scales. With the right questions and the wrong answers, well, Morhoof didn't want to think about it.
It proved surprisingly easy not to.
“Nothing,” Luna said, “that you have done outside the jurisdiction of this city matters to this court. You are not on trial; this hearing is to determine if a trial is warranted. Have you committed any crimes within Aura or Umbra for which you have not already been punished or exonerated?”
Morhoof licked his lips, which felt oddly half-numb. They matched his brain. Cotton wool seemed to wrap it. The metal cap fused to his stump ticked quietly to itself. Its bizarre mechanisms and Philosopher’s Stone fended off thousands of years of back-pay owed to Time now that Loco no longer kept him…frozen. Removing the stone would destroy it; Perth had been clear on that. Removing it would mean Morhoof crumbled to a pile of dust. And…he could say so. The Scales of Mendacity would mean Luna must believe him. As sad and sorry as his life was sometimes, he still wished to keep it.
“No.” he said.
He hadn’t planned to say that. It was a lie: he had a number of local offenses on his conscience. Only…it didn’t feel like a lie. It felt true. And the Scales of Mendacity…
What in the name of Empty Night is going on here?
That cotton-wool feeling got worse. Morhoof tried to follow what Luna said, but all that came across was a mwa-wah-fwa sound like somepony trying to talk into a muffled trombone. He answered; his voice buzzed in his throat but it made no sense. Panic scampered up his spine on icy little paws but he sat relaxed and composed with his hoof modestly cradling his stump and all this was wrong like a fever-dream nightmare and oh crap now she waved his mechanical leg around in her magic and gestured to it as she spoke but he couldn’t understand anything she said.
Then it was over, and the cotton-wool feeling retreated.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Mister Morhoof. I apologize for the inconvenience but hope that clearing your good name beyond all doubt may be some slight compensation.” His koala-forged leg drifted over to him and, with a nagging sense of unreality he lifted his stump so she could fit it to the cap that both gripped and empowered it. He wished his hoof to wiggle and the brown-enamelled metal obeyed. “Luna seemed to lose interest, picking up a quill in her magic and beginning to scribble on a paper he couldn’t see from his seat. “You are free to go. Please collect your belongings from the bailiff waiting outside the courtroom.”
Morhoof left on unsteady legs. His pouch-hung harness and pocket-laden cloak lay on a table outside the big door, as promised. He signed for it to prove he had reclaimed his belongings. Rather than fit them on, Morhoof wrapped the harness in the cloak and balanced it on his back. Almost-panic hung deep inside him like a bad taste on the back of his tongue.
Then he stepped outside the building; bright sunlight glared into his eyes and did something to his brain.
Morhoof sat on the flat mattress of a cot, in a cell, with his back against the cool stone walls of his confine. A metal door stood opposite the small square window set high up the wall. It allowed a ray of light into the cell. Morhoof stared at the dust motes floating lazily within that small bar of light. He wasn't sure how long he'd been in here, though he had noted the square of light cast on the door had shifted a decent amount since then. For as long as he’d lived, nothing had felt more like eternity than this did now. What was to become of him? Perhaps, despite all its delusions the windigo had been right about one thing; the princesses would be his downfall. His doom.
Morhoof slid his eyes from the floating dust to the polished metal cap on the end of his stump. He’d been disarmed, stripped to his hairy hide. Morhoof could feel its power now, like a coal hot enough to burn, only without pain. He could only imagine how much it would blaze to a unicorn…or alicorn. Maybe that was why she was here, not for some ancient joke-jar but the sheer presence of such a powerful magic item. An item that just so happened to be attached to himself. Morhoof slowly brought his living hoof to his face. The creator and his creation. Perhaps now it was only a matter of time before they came to pry it from his very being. And destroy it in the doing, but he doubted they’d believe him of he said so.
As if cued by his thoughts the metal door to his cell swung open, hinges groaning in protest at upholding its solid metal mass. Morhoof nearly jumped from his skin, and his bones tried to shed the rest of their fleshy prison as Luna stepped inside. Her horn glowed softly to augment the sunbeam. The passing moments felt long before he could shake off his paralysis. Something didn't feel quite right, but he didn't get a chance to dwell on it before Luna spoke.
“A short time from now, you will be questioned regarding any crimes you have committed in the twin cities, as well as for any confessions you would like to make. An opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances that might earn you mercy.”
That…didn’t sound that bad, all things considered. Compared to what he’d done, his misbehaviour in Aura was nothing at all. As for confessions of previous crimes, Morhoof saw no reason to share: he had nothing to say in defense of them.
Luna had been watching him closely, and he wondered how much she could read despite his best deadpan. “This hearing,” she said, “is mandatory for anypony suspected of being involved in the schemes and criminal empire of the dragon Smog. You will stand before, and be judged, by me. The sincerity of any claims that you make will be determined by the Scales of Mendacity.”
'Oh.' Morhoof thought. 'That’s the kicker.'
He’d heard about that artifact and a number of his nightmares had featured being questioned in its presence. Luna would have free rein to ask him anything and he'd have no choice but to remain silent or to answer truthfully, or her lie detector would call him out on it. And remaining silent in the face of an accusation meant he couldn’t truthfully deny it.
Morhoof hadn’t felt very confident before, but the few scraps to which he’d clung blew away like rags of paper in a cold wind. Though instead of blooming into panic, his creeping sense of dread faded away. Oddly, he felt almost relaxed. This was it. No escape, no evasion. The truth would finally be out. What followed would be bad, possibly fatal, but at least he didn’t have to live in fear of being caught.
Luna's horn glowed brighter and the cell door silently closed.
“Budge over.” she said.
Morhoof stared, eyes going wide, but she appeared to be serious. He shuffled sideways along the cot until his side met another wall. Luna, Princess of the Night and co-ruler of Equestria, plopped her royal rump down beside him with a gusty snorted sigh. Morhoof couldn’t have pressed further into the corner without a triangular spine. She loomed even bigger when this close. Her ethereal mane rippled. What was going on?
One green eye, the one he could see, turned to look at him. He couldn’t read her expression. “How old are you?”
Morhoof’s jaw clenched shut on pure reflex. If his tongue had been out, he would have bitten it. He knew his expression was good as a signed order of execution. Luna looked away, stared at…or through…the wall across from the cot. Yes, through. To the far-away and long-ago.
“My sister and I,” she said, “have known about you for a very long time. We took no action. You appeared benign.” A pause, a pursing of her lips and a slight shake of her head. “You appeared unambitious. The harm you did was neither widespread nor particularly malevolent.”
“You knew.” His words dropped like two lead bricks.
She turned her eye to fix upon him again. “Indeed. Your main ambition appeared to be concealing your longevity. Until recently the source of your agelessness, and your other abilities, was unknown to us. Were you weak, or were you merely discreet? Would you react politely to a visitation by us, or would you become violent? Given that you were not a dire threat, we decided not to take a gamble. Upon venturing into a cave, often one finds a cute little bat. On occasion, one finds an irate dragon. With the stakes not high or urgent, we declined to toss those dice. Indeed, on a few occasions my sister has…quietly buried…certain historical details that might have led ponies to deducing your existence. We did not know what you might do if discovered.”
It was so absurd Morhoof almost wanted to laugh. Him, weak and incompetent, had been some towering bogey-specter of mystery and dread to the princesses?
“How could you possibly not know about me?” he said. “I mean. If you knew I existed you could have learned everything.”
She looked away again, into the past. “Until recently your dreams were closed to me. The door to your sleeping mind was welded shut with crystal ice, and I dared not attempt a forced entry. A power that can affect dreams in such a way could affect me if I should enter yours.”
Loco had kept Luna frozen out? Impressive. Or not, since it had just been a bluff that Luna hadn’t called. If she had, she would have realized there was nothing to fear.
“You know…now? What I am?”
“I know what you were. Host to an unborn demon of air and darkness; of hatred and malice. It preserved you from age and tried to push you into an expression of hatred fierce enough to fuel its birth…and your death. You are, however, a melancholy pony. Strong passions are not in your nature, neither joyful nor hateful. In such dreary ennui it languished for a very long time. And so you did as well.”
“Being melancholic saved me.” Morhoof said. “What. Being an apathetic lump was an advantage?”
“In this case, yes. I am aware of the irony.” She looked sidelong at him with a hint of humour. “The destinies of individual ponies are mysterious, even to one such as I. But perhaps your destiny was to carry that cold burden, and so your nature made you able, if not glad, to bear it. You now have a different means of prolonging life, I see.”
Panic scampered along his spine. “It—”
She raised a hoof, a regal gesture that silenced him without feeling rude. “Be at peace, Perth told me all details and I have no intention of disturbing the stone. It can do naught but sustain you while attached to you and it can do naught but shatter if removed. It does no harm and poses no threat.”
“Oh.” Morhoof was a little too wedged to properly slump, but all his muscles turned into water from relief. “Thank you.”
“Perhaps you have heard tell of the Tantibus.”
What a subject change, yeesh. “I…yes. A shared dream by Ponyville, in the age of the Elements of Harmony and the rise of Princess Twilight.”
She studied the ceiling, and seemed…embarrassed. “After that…incident…I took a healthier route to managing the entity. It is obedient now, eager to help and serve. It discovered that delight is a tastier emotion than terror. My ability to send this entire city into a shared dream comes mainly from its eager assistance. It harmlessly extracted a fragment of energy from all dreamers and used that power to weave the dream.”
“Huh.” Morhoof said. Nothing else sprang to mind.
“I know what it is to have something monstrous lurk within me.”
Silence followed. Morhoof didn’t know what she wanted from him. Sympathy? Everything he thought to say sounded stupid in his mind. After the silence became awkward, she broke it with a quiet sigh. “The windigo within you is dead. All that remains is your memories of it. If you think you hear it, this is only your mind, imagining what it would have said were it here. This I so swear upon my honour.”
“I…good to know. Thank you, Princess.”
“I give you a blanket pardon for all crimes you have done in Equestrian territory before this day.”
Another sidelong glance at him, and she stood. “The Scales of Mendacity have that flaw. They do not know what is true, only what a speaker believes to be true. You will not lie when you claim to have no crimes for which you have not answered. Nor will to even intent deceit, for you will not remember this conversation until afterwards.”
“Your true nature will not be made public. No good be served in the doing, only harm to you. You will keep your secret if you so choose.”
That was too much, too unexpected. Morhoof couldn’t even feel relief, just baffled and floundering. Then guilt launched its sharpest harpoon and skewered his heart. “There’s something I need to know.” She raised a brow but inclined her head for him to ask. “Smog.” Luna’s face drained of expression. Morhoof felt the conversational ground under his hooves sag like rotten boards, but he had to ask, if only so he would always know he’d asked. “Breaking Dawn.” Her scowl literally darkened the cell, the sunbeam fading until it seemed like a bar of moonlight. Half of his sudden shivering wasn’t from fear. Silence filled the freezing air, so intense his own racing pulse faded from his ears. “Did…what was his sentence?”
Luna said nothing, a vague dark blob around cold green eyes.
Morhoof blinked, and his twin tears didn’t make it far before they froze to his cheeks. Every fiber of his being shouted for him not to push the issue, but he couldn’t stop. “Please. He was my friend. Did he die?”
Faster than a blink, dizzying as a kick to the skull, the cell returned to normal temperature and brightness. Luna returned to being a regal alicorn, not an eldritch enigma.
“If you ever wish,” she said, “to speak with somepony who understands the horror of being host to a nightmare, merely fall asleep with the wish to dream of me.”
Blue light flashed from her horn and glared into his eyes.
Bright sunlight glared into his eyes.
Blinking, missing the comfortable shadows of his cloak, Morhoof instinctively headed for the nearest shady alley so he could don his garment. ‘Shady’ being relative with all the white cloud towers bouncing light down between them so all the shadows were the pale grey of paper ash at best. He didn’t have to pay attention for that to happen.
That was fortunate, because his mind reeled. Luna had visited him before his hearing. She had cast a spell to make him forget that she had done so, and…other things. He could vividly remember her visit but the trial remained a fever-dream, or something he’d read in a novel while badly sleep-deprived.
Well, that was a turnip for the cooks.
Pausing in the middle of fastening a harness buckle, Morhoof wasn’t sure he’d gotten that phrase correct. Thinking about turnips made his stomach growl, echoing with emptiness. He had some coin on him. First order of business was to eat. Then he could focus on brooding.
At a sidewalk table outside a little café, Morhoof soon had a heavy salad and a number of breadsticks inside him. His eyes stung and watered a little. Not from the sunshine. Not with his hood back where it belonged. Luna had planted a final gift in his mind, like a pearl in an oyster. He knew what had happened to his old frenemy Smog, or Breaking Dawn. He also sensed the magical binding that rested on his tongue like a frozen silver bit. He’d never be able to speak or even hint at the pink bugger’s fate. Luna must have bent some very serious rules just to share what she had. It would have been better if Morhoof could have shared it with the few others who wouldn’t be happier thinking that Smog was dead. It was more than he deserved to know. He’d have to consider doing her a favour someday, to repay her for that.
A second mug of ale sat beside the first mug, emptied over the course of his meal. It had a head on it like a foam cauliflower and smelled like bardic nectar. Lifting it up, he made a silent toast to Smog. ‘Good luck in your new life, my friend.’ he thought. He looked at the mechanical leg holding up the mug; his agelessness came from a more wholesome source than before and he had the word of a Princess that Loco was gone. Clean slate, legally speaking. Things had changed for him, too.
“Good luck to us both.” he said.
The literally-hovering pegasus waiter gave him a funny look, which Morhoof ignored in favour of emptying the mug. His semi-intentional dramatic scene made a pratfall into unintended comedy when the foam got up his nose. His instant sneeze exploded a foamy beer geyser that hit the waiter dead in the hindquarters. Morhoof laughed until he cried, or maybe cried while laughing; barely able to handle the coins well enough to leave an eye-popping tip by way of apology.