The lump of pony under the blanket shifted slightly. It was too early to wake up.
'Why do they have to run the purifiers so early in the morning? Damn engineers, thinking they run the place.'
'Oh right...they do.'
The bedraggled unicorn pulled the heavy blanket from over his eyes, sitting up off of the bed as he did so. He ran a hoof over his groggy face, rubbing sleep out of one eye. This is how the mornings went, with the water purifiers churning away, pistons pounding within the machine, dull thuds resonating throughout the network of caves that made up the Middle Housing Quarter. Living next to one only made it worse.
This was one of the downsides of living in Mantle City, the biggest coagulation of ponies, griffon, and diamond dogs deep underground. It was a sort of monument to the industry and survival it took to live all the way down in the farthest reaches of the planet.
The unicorn rolled out of bed and onto all fours, shaking his head to alleviate the rest of the tiredness still clinging to his mind. He walked though the living room and into the kitchen, and paused, looking around, wondering what he could wolf down for breakfast.
Open the cabinet, he thought, feeling the magic pulse in his horn. The cabinet door took on a shimmering aura, and swung open revealing a few boxes and cans, mostly vegetables, pasta, and tomato sauce.
"Ugh, nothing to eat," he groaned out loud. He pushed it closed with magic, simultaneously opening another adjacent cabinet. It contained a myriad of cups, bowls, plates, and other assorted dishes. "Come onnn..." he droned. Approaching the last cabinet in the room, he flung it open in mild frustration. The magical force knocked a rectangular box from the shelf within down onto the counter. 'Cupcake Crunch' the box said, with an almost obnoxious jumble of multicolored cupcakes.
He floated the box of cereal over to the table, opening the coldbox in the corner and pulling a carton of milk out. The dish cabinet door opened and gave way to a plastic bowl and spoon. He pulled a stool out from under the table and sat. The box tipped, and out poured dozens of little cupcake-shaped sugary cereal.
"All the things a growing pony could need, plus more sugar than a dragon could handle," he lazily read off the box as the top of the carton of milk opened. It tipped over the bowl...and nothing came out. The unicorn gave it a magical shake, and a scant few drops of milk dripped onto the cereal.
His head hit the table in disappointment as the hollow carton fell to the floor.
The metal shutter-door to the small house slid open, with the young unicorn stepping out, adjusting the single saddlebag on his side. He closed the door back up, pulled a key out of his bag, and locked it. He started trotting off down the neighborhood tunnel, and glanced back at the doorway.
"Mr. Flood, Housing Quarter Level 7, Block 38, Mantle City. They sure love to tack titles onto everypony's name."
The unicorn named Flood adjusted his saddlebag again, continuing down the tunnel to the cart station. It was time to get to work.
The cart network was another of the underground's marvels. They not only ran throughout the entirety of Mantle City, but in and between all the other underground cities. There were dozens of these platforms all around the city, with carts stopping to board passengers every few minutes. The carts themselves were essentially topless metal boxes, about eight feet wide, with mesh seats in light metal frames welded to the inner sides. They were powered by steam engines, readied daily at the service stations by the engineer unicorns. All in all, it was the backbone of the workforce and transportation.
Flood stepped up onto the boarding platform, surrounded by ponies of various color and size. There were a few pegasi here and there. It was a shame about the pegasus ponies; they were so limited in flight, considering that there were only tunnels to zip down. Most of the pedestrian tunnels weren't more than 100 yards in length, and even then, the really long ones were the shafts that gave access to the Housing Quarters.
Sometimes, a cart station would need some emergency supplies, like a cart headlight or two, or an extra load of water or coal to power the engine. On rare occasions, a pegasus would be dispatched to bring the supplies to the station in question. However, the quickest access to a station would be through the cart shafts themselves. Flying through one of these at high speed would usually spell disaster, since the carts were constantly speeding along the tracks in the tunnels, and there wasn't much room to maneuver. Only in the most dire situations would the carts be halted so that a pegasus could take off and make it to a station.
Flood glanced over the cart schedule, looking for the time that the cart would arrive to take him downtown. The next ride would be here any minute now. There were hundreds of scheduled arrivals and departures on the board, going all over the city, some leaving for other towns like Soddington or New Manehattan.
"Transportation to Commerce Thoroughfare now arriving," a crisp, disembodied, tinny voice announced. "Please stand clear of the cart tracks." Flood looked in the direction the voice came from and found the source: a brass horn loudspeaker mounted above a tiny office. A pipe led from the horn along the wall and into the office, where at the other end a smaller horn was attached. A bored looking mare inside sat in front of it.
A low grinding and faint screeching could be heard coming down the cart shaft. Flood and a couple other ponies leaned to get a better look at the slowly approaching light heading towards the platform. Suddenly, the cart burst through the darkness of the shaft and into the light of the boarding platform, cart brakes bringing it to a fast stop with a loud screee.
Another pony inside the cart stepped away from a lever at the front. He unlatched the half-door of the cart, raised his head to the ceiling, and gave a shout of "All aboard!"
There was a clamor of hooves as the waiting ponies on the platform moved to board the cart and take their seats. The empty seats filled first, and soon there were murmured questions of "Mind if I sit here?" and "This seat taken?"
Flood took a seat close to the door, next to a stallion who had a strong odor of coal. He wrinkled his nose. Oh great, he thought, I was worried I'd be sitting next to a rosebed today. Smells awful. Letting his saddlebag slide to the floor with a sigh, Flood sunk lower in his seat, closing his eyes and relaxed.
"Cart downtown, departin' now," came the call of the driver and conductor.
"Please stand clear of the cart tracks," was the answer from the mare in the platform office.
The cart shuddered as the driver pulled the lever down, and lurched forward in acceleration. It quickly picked up speed. Flood shifted in his seat, listening to the mesmerizing chk-chk of the cart flying along the tracks, the hiss of the steam engine at the front becoming white noise, drowning out the small talk between passengers. Flood felt the familiar caress of sleep encircling his head, and he dozed off.
The light was blindingly bright. And he felt hot. Too hot, almost like he was being roasted alive. Somepony was dragging him out of bed, screaming something about a fire, and getting out of the house. It was his father, a look of fear splayed across his face. Dad was never scared like this. Flood was frantic, he had no idea what was happening. He held a hoof to his face to block out the light, and squinted out the window. What he saw shocked him to the core.
Fillydelphia was on fire. There were ponies carrying buckets of water, steam flowing from the brim as they rushed to the flames. But they didn't do anything. It only seemed to make the fire angry as it spread farther and farther. They dropped the buckets as they scrambled to get away, rushing towards a crowd of fleeing ponies.
"Flood, we have to get out NOW!" His father's voice was cracking.
Flood turned around at the sound of hooves on the floor. His mother, tightening a pair of saddlebags around her body with her mouth, came to a halt in the doorway of his bedroom. "Come on, sweetheart, we have to run!"
He took off at a brisk gallop out of his room, and down the stairs. There was smoke on the ceiling, coming from an inferno that engulfed what was once the den, and was slowly making its way into the small foyer. Flood's father was in the front doorway, frantically beckoning them to follow. The three shot off, joining the fleeing ponies.
The heat and light were even more intense outside; extreme temperature made Flood feel like he was being smothered, and the bright beams coming from the sun made everything seem vividly white. Flood squinted through a gap in the crowd, and saw a smaller crowd of unicorns standing in front of a large hill. Their horns were all lit, directing magical energy towards the hill. Flood felt like he could almost hear their thoughts as they cast their magic: Dig. Dig. Make a hole. Move the earth. And indeed, the earth did move. Great chunks of dirt, grass, and rock were being ripped from the side of the hill as more unicorns from the frenzied crowd joined the pack to dig farther and farther into the hillside.
"We gotta help th-" Flood started to cry, but he was cut short as he stumbled and tripped over a moss-covered rock. He fell head over hooves as he plummeted to the ground. He called out to his parents, but they couldn't hear him over the screaming crowd and stampeding hooves. He tried to stand back up, but his right hindleg shot a piercing, agonizing pain through his nerves. He yelped in pain, and fell back to the ground.
But the pain persisted, and was growing in intensity. He rolled onto his back, and looked at his injured leg.
It was burning.
The flames traveled up his leg. They were at his flanks. The flames were coming faster. His breathing came faster too, shallow and rapid. He was panicking. He swatted at the flames on his flank with his foreleg. It caught fire too. He flailed it about in a fit of uncontrollable fear. He screamed.
Flood looked to the sky, the blinding white sky, as the fire overtook him.
The cart came to a screeching halt, throwing an unexpecting Flood back into the waking world, and flat onto his face out of his seat and onto the floor of the cart. The stallion that sat next to him let out a chuckle. “Have a nice nap on the choo-choo, son?”
Flood glared at the stallion as he sat up from the floor, dusting off his coat. He picked his bag up and slung it back around his neck.
The conductor turned to face him. “Downtown, Commerce Thoroughfare.”
Flood stared blankly back up at him from his sitting position on the floor. He was still half asleep, trying to figure out what the colt was talking about. “I...what?”
“You gettin’ off, or what,” he shot back. He was getting a little impatient with the young unicorn who seemed set on ruining his morning.
"Oh! Right, sorry." Flood stammered, a little embarrassed. The conductor pulled the cart door open for him, and he stepped off the cart and onto the Commerce Station platform.
The stallion behind him gave another laugh. "Ha-ha! Take it easy, boy," he called after him as Flood walked off the platform, shaking his head.
He turned his gaze down the titan of a cave that was the Commerce Thoroughfare. It was a particularly long, tall stretch of cave, 5 stories of shops, services, and booths. The Thoroughfare reminded Flood of the Fillydelphia Mall, with businesses scrunched together, one after the other. The individual shops were like door-less houses dug into the sides of the cave, signs hanging above the entrances lit by floodlights. There was always a constant buzz of activity here; ponies of all kinds walking and flying between the different shops, going up and down the metal-frame elevators to the different floors. Standing just off the ground floor cart platform at the north end of the Thoroughfare, it was virtually impossible to see all the way down to the other end of the cave.
Flood set off down the walkway, passing a crew of unicorns in hard hats. They were working away at clusters of exposed pipe and cable that ran along the walls above the shop entrances. A few wisps of steam were fizzling out of a few of the pipe connectors. Sparks flew from a section of split cable. An impatient-looking shop owner stood behind the window of a darkened shop, leering at the engineer crew. Something was always breaking down in the underground, whether it was the steampipe system, the power cables, or in the worst of situations, the cart networks or water purifiers.
Flood passed one of his favorite markets on his walk to work each day: Mantle Grocery, where the basic rations were distributed, and where the Mantle City citizens spent hard-earned bits on extra food , snacks, and drinks. Things like sugar, sunflower seeds, and dairy products, which were taken for granted years ago, were a luxury in the underground. Flood thought back to the empty carton of milk he had back at home. He had gone through a whole gallon of milk in a week when it was supposed to last him for the next two.
Those that ran farms on the surface had, at first, been out of a job. And with no renewable food source, there was a looming crisis of a food shortage. Supplies found on the surface were finite. So the farm ponies collaborated with the unicorns to solve the problem. But with no sunlight, the future of underground farming looked dim.
Then somepony found a solution: the Unicorn Valued-Light Amplified Multi Photosynthesizer, or UVLAMP for short. It was an elongated, high-wattage light bulb attached to a high powered battery. The battery was infused with powerful light magic, which flowed into the bulb and gave off powerful heat and light, enough to provide artificial sunlight that a growing plant would need. With the light problem solved, growing crops was easy. And with hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of room just waiting to be dug out and planted, the farms were limited only by how many UVLAMPs they could afford to install.
Most of the fields that grew fruit on trees, like apples and oranges, served a greater purpose than just providing nourishment for the population. With the UVLAMPs giving off so much magical energy to the trees, it increased the rate that they absorbed nutrients from the ground. So much, in fact, that the roots would pull the soil around them so tightly that it didn't seem like they would ever relinquish their hold. It was almost like a magnetic force. The numerous trees coupled with a stable mass of packed dirt meant there was a wide area where caves could be dug without fear of collapse. These areas were the prime areas for digging out the Housing Quarters. Flood himself lived under what was called Sweet Apple Caverns, run by the Apple Family. He had met the proprietor Applejack once, at a Housing Quarter meeting to warn everyone on the level against tampering with the tree roots.
Flood continued along the Thoroughfare, passing a cul-de-sac of bright, colorful shops and stalls. A heavenly smell wafted over from the circle. Comfort was a commodity in the economy of the deep. And it was definitely capitalized on. The pony that cornered said market was a young mare known as Pinkie Pie. Pinkie held a sort of monopoly over the snack market in the underground, even having a section of the Thoroughfare carved out for her bakery and stores, Sugarcube Roundabout. She had named the business after her old home and workplace on the surface. She and her snack empire were famous throughout the underground as a source of contentment, taking some of the bitter edge off of life in the tunnels and caves. Flood would occasionally buy a pie or box of Cupcake Crunch from the place, but never spent too long inside; the store was filled with ponies from all over the underground communities. The place was a madhouse at most times of day, with a frenzy of activity and orders to fill. Pray we never have an economy boom, Flood always thought, or we'll all go fat from the extra cash we spend on cupcakes and sugar cubes .Pinkie must be already making a killing to have that much real estate to herself in the 'Fare.
Flood passed through the center of the Thoroughfare, a rectangular section of the cave known as Feedbag Square. This was where most of the city's workforce took their breaks, and where anypony could grab a bite to eat from one of the many food stalls or ration vendors scattered about. Ponies lined up all around the Square, exchanging bits or meal tickets for a wrapped sandwich, fruit salad, veggie wrap...whatever the craving, Feedbag Square could satisfy it, at the very least somewhat. It was strange, really, but somewhat reassuring: living underground meant losing a lot of things that were taken for granted with surface life, and yet the compensation for those losses seemed to be achieved through culinary comforts.
Finally, he made it to his destination: the Mailing District. Working as a delivery pony wasn't all so glamorous, but it at least brought home some bits. The Mailing District was usually sparsely populated at this time of the morning, when everyone that worked there was still sorting through mail trolleys, saddling up mailbags, and loading more parcels. Flood approached a small entryway, glancing up at a new-looking sign that hung over it.
"The Great and Powerful Trixie Delivery Company," he muttered. Flood sighed. Trixie's such an airhead.
It was gonna be a long day.
The innards of the Delivery Company were lacking, to put it mildly. The walls had never been properly fitted for paneling, and neither had the floor. The business was set up almost immediately after the Upheaval team had dug out a cave. From then on, the place was always too busy to have an Overhaul crew to come and finish with the power cables, steam pipes, and wall and floor coverings. Crude slabs of sheet metal were jammed into the dirt and rock of the cave walls, with a bare dirt ceiling overhead. The floor was also dirt, packed down tight from hundreds of hoofsteps each day.
The layout of the Delivery Company itself was simple enough; the entrance led to a small reception room, where disgruntled citizens could complain to an even more disgruntled receptionist. A door behind the receptionist's desk led to the heart of the business: the sorting room. Here, over a dozen unicorns worked to sort out the piles of letters, packages, and parcels that were brought in. There was always a rushed atmosphere in the sorting room, partially because the unicorns worked so frantically to get the packages sorted out, and partially because it served as a staging area for the delivery ponies to saddle up and work out their delivery routes. There were always at least a few ponies clustered around the big city maps on the back wall, mentally tracing a path throughout Mantle City, sometimes beyond. Others were in the corner, where a few stacks of small lockers had been placed, putting on saddlebags full of mail and storing their own bags inside.
Flood walked through the doorway to the sorting room, watching the mild chaos before him as he passed . He somewhat enjoyed seeing the hustle of the unicorns, observing their magic at work, letters and boxes flying every which way across the room, out of mail carts and into saddlebags. Maybe it was seeing things get done was what brought the enjoyment. Maybe it was the fact that he had a less demanding job.
Suddenly, he ran into another pony. They both went crashing into the floor, a mailbag flipping over and sending a shower of letters flying into the air.
Ah, hayseed, he thought to himself. Watch where you're going! He looked up at the pony he ran into: a walleyed pegasus, with a gray coat and blonde mane.
"Oh, Ditzy Doo! Sorry, I wasn't paying attention..." Ditzy stared back at him, smiling. Flood smiled back. She never gets mad at anything, does she?
"It's okay." She continued to smile, and began to pick up the letters scattered about, stacking them up into piles. There were a lot more letters strewn over the floor, and Ditzy was getting some of them dirty.
"Mind if I help?" Flood focused some magic in his horn. Stack them up, he thought. The letters began to shimmer and float upwards, aligning vertically with one another in multiple stacks. He willed the stacks to drift towards the empty bag. One by one, they dropped inside. Ditzy let go of the stack she had, and it began to float towards the mailbag. She beamed at Flood as the last of the letters fell into the sack.
They stood up, Flood brushing dirt off his foreleg. Ditzy gave him another smile and set off towards the back of the room. She was the only pony down in Mantle City that he could really consider a friend. She was a single parent, a mother of a little unicorn named Dinky Doo, who Flood would sometimes foalsit. She was just as sweet as her mother.
Ditzy was the first and only pony at the Delivery Company that bothered to get to know Flood. Having moved from Soddington to Mantle City to find work, he knew nopony. He had nothing but the paltry contents of his saddlebag, a small apartment in the Housing Quarter, and directions to The Great and Powerful Trixie Delivery Company. And Ditzy Doo just seemed to accept him as family. Some nights he would spend the evening at her house, sometimes for a meal, sometimes for company. He would invite her and her daughter over sometimes, too. Cooking wasn't Flood's forte, though. Ditzy always appreciated the gesture anyway. She was a kindhearted mare, from a town called Ponyville.
The way Ditzy had described Ponyville to Flood made it sound like a paradise compared to living all the way down in the ground. She had been a mailpony there too, delivering mail from all over Equestria. She normally didn't talk much, but when she told him about life in Ponyville, she could go on forever about the things she missed: the rolling hills of Sweet Apple Acres, cobblestone streets at the center of town, and the sky, the beautiful, blue sky.
Being a unicorn, Flood had no actual idea of what it was like to be a pegasus living underground, with no real space to be able to truly fly. He had asked a pegasus co-worker about it once. 'Think about what it'd be like to cut a few inches off your horn, kid,' he had told Flood. 'And even then, you wouldn't know what it's like.'
"YOU! Where have you been?" Flood was pulled from his thoughts by a harsh cry behind him.
Oh boy...she's out and about this morning. He turned around to face the pony that had called out. It was Trixie.
Trixie was significantly older than Flood, but the way she acted, she may as well have been just a foal. As a boss, she was a self-centered, arrogant mare. Anytime somepony would criticize her, she would demand that they try and do better. It was obnoxious.
"You were supposed to be here five minutes ago! Trixie does not appreciate tardiness. Trixie thought she told you to be here on time this morning, Flank!"
That was the thing about Trixie; she referred to herself in third-person. Everypony at the Delivery Company knew it was out of some sense of self importance.
"You wanted me here at 8 in the morning, and it's barely past 8 right now. And it's Flood."
"What is?" she shot back.
"My name," he answered. "It's Flood."
"Whatever it may be, Trixie frowns upon tardiness! Being on time is being late, as Trixie always says."
"Uh huh. I have letters to deliver," Flood said, giving her a slight glare. He turned away and continued down the side of the room to the lockers.
Trixie shouted out at him as he went. "No more excuses! Be on time or not at all!"
Flood rolled his eyes. Can't believe she called me Flank. Pretty different from the usual Flash or Flare.
As he approached the lockers, he magically pulled his saddlebag off and opened the locker marked '28.' He slid the bag inside. Another pony approached the locker next to his and opened it up. He turned to Flood.
"Did you hear about Tunnelburg?" he asked.
"What about it?"
"They're saying it got attacked! Like New Canterlot," he said excitedly.
"Don't be dumb," Flood responded. "And Gully, you believed it when someone told you the cocoa machine was giving away gold last month. How are you so sure an entire city got attacked?"
"Have you delivered any mail from Tunnelburg lately?"
Flood was silent. It was true, he hadn't had any letters from Tunnelburg for a few days.
"No, and how can that mean they got attacked?" Flood asked.
"They're not letting anypony ride the carts into the city, either," Gully continued. "I even asked at the cart station about buying a ticket there, and they told me the Tunnelburg Transit Authority isn't even sending ticket sheets!"
Flood was silent a second time. Why wouldn't they send tickets for Tunnelburg? he wondered.
"Well, they've probably got some sickness going around or something. Maybe they're locking it down to contain it," Flood said as he closed his locker. "And at any rate, don't go around saying stuff like 'Dude, Tunnelburg got blown up,' or 'Did you hear about those hydras that ate everypony in New Trottingham?' You'll cause a panic. And have you seen my bag? Number 28? It's not over here, it should be loaded and ready to go."
"Your bag's in the back, I saw it over there when I got in. Looked weird, too. Just a couple of letters and one package for downtown Rockland."
"Wait, what? All the way out in Rockland?!" Flood raised his voice. "That's two hours away! By cart! Why am I going all the way out there?"
Gully gave a little laugh. He was evidently amused by Flood's itinerary. "Beats me, buddy, but you better get going if you wanna be back by dinner!"
Flood rushed over to the back of the room where a few mailbags were piled up. He lifted the one labeled '28' with magic, pulling out a package. He stomped over to Trixie, who was giving her lecture on punctuality to a few colts, the same lecture she had given Flood earlier.
"Trixie, what in Equestria is this?" He levitated the package in front of her.
"That is a package, one you should be out delivering right now," she shot back.
She glanced at the label on the package. "Yes, Trixie is relieved you can read. Now, be off with you." She turned back to the colts and continued her lecture. "Trixie frowns upon tardiness..."
Flood's deliveries had taken him all over the city. He had been up and down the Commerce Thoroughfare for most of the morning, and throughout the Housing Quarter for the better half of the afternoon. When all but the package for Rockland remained, he decided he would go to Feedbag Square for a quick meal to eat on the cart ride. Having to ride the rails for deliveries is a crime, he thought as he bought an oat and lettuce wrap. Trixie's such a pain in the flank. He set off back towards the cart station, dreading the long ride that would take him from Mantle City to wherever 8902 Rockland Court, Rockland, was. He didn't think he'd be home until at least 9 p.m.
Approaching the platform, Flood was relieved to see that the cart to Rockland was just arriving. At this time of day, there were hardly any passengers going all the way to Rockland. Almost nopony was boarding the train, and there were even less passengers on the cart itself. The cart wasn't even pony operated, only driven by an old magic engine. Conductor must've taken off for the day, he deduced. Flood stepped off of the platform and onto the cart. As he did so, he noticed a familiar face. Ditzy Doo was on board as well. He took a seat next to her.
"Hey, Ditzy," he sighed.
"Hi, Flood," She brightened up at his greeting. He was obviously tired from the long day, but Ditzy never seemed to waver in her work, always able to make any delivery.
"Why're you headed to Rockland?" he asked her.
Ditzy patted her mailbag. "Delivery," she said. She smiled at Flood.
The cart rumbled, and set off down the track.
Rockland was primarily a mining town, whose chief export was invaluable: coal. Rockland coal was what drove most of the cart system throughout the underground. If the cart system was the backbone of transportation, the coal deliveries were its legs.
After what seemed like forever, the cart came to a halt in the darkness.
Flood looked around in the pitch blackness of the tunnel. "That's weird...why'd we stop?"
Ditzy shifted in her seat. "Broken down?" she asked in the dark.
"Better not be," Flood grumbled. "Let's see here..." Light it up, he thought, as his horn glowed. A little orb of light seeped from the tip of it, casting a wide beam of light into the inky blackness. He moved it along the wall, expecting to see nothing but tunnel. As he moved the beam, he began to see seats and railing. They were at the Rockland cart station, but it was dark and deserted.
Flood couldn't believe it. Sure, it was getting late, but that wouldn't mean the station would be pitch black and empty. Ditzy shifted in her seat again.
"Come on, Ditzy, let's go see what this blackout is for," Flood said. Abandoning his mailbag, he sat up from his seat and pushed the door open, shining light onto the platform. Stepping up onto it, his nose twitched. A coarse smell filled his nostrils.
Ditzy stepped up behind him. She sniffed the air. Flood could see her eyes widen in the pale glow from his horn. "Smoke," she breathed.
Flood tensed. If there's smoke, there's gonna be fire. "Something's gone wrong," he whispered. He didn't feel safe on the platform anymore. "Let's go find somepony that can give us answers."
He and Ditzy set off away from the platform and down a dark tunnel. Flood widened the beam of light to illuminate the tunnel around them as they walked down the tunnel at a quickened pace. The smell of smoke was slowly getting stronger. Something else crept into Flood's nostrils, too. It smelled awful, almost rancid.
As they turned a corner, Flood's hoof bumped into something solid on the ground. He cast the light at his feet.
A pony lay on the ground, motionless. And he was missing a leg. Where the leg should have been was a burnt, charred stump. Ditzy let out a quiet gasp. This was the source of the terrible odor, the pony's burnt flesh.
"Is he...dead?" Flood asked. He couldn't believe it. He had never seen somepony dead before. The smell of burnt flesh, the lifeless body in front of him; all these things were alien to him. Death was something he had only read about in stories about heroic battles or tales of adventure. He had never come face to face with it.
Ditzy Doo put a hoof on his shoulder. "Need to go," she urged. "We're not safe."
Flood stared at the pony before him. "But...we can't just leave him here, Ditzy," he whispered in a low tone.
"He won't be forgotten, Flood."
He blinked once, slowly. Somepony would have to come back and do something. He would lay in the tunnel and rot if they didn't.
Flood and Ditzy had broken into a gallop, racing down the tunnel. They passed a sign reading 'ROCKLAND MANE STREET' in big, brass letters. The smell of smoke had gotten a lot stronger too. Passing underneath an archway, they could see an orange glow coming from around a corner. They sped up, turning the corner, and came to a stairwell. The smell of smoke was almost overwhelming now. Flood raced up the stairs, Ditzy right behind him. When he reached the top, he felt his heart skip a beat at what he saw.
Rockland had become fires and wreckage. Flood had been to Rockland once before, hunting for jobs. The city was a colossal underground chamber, with buildings all around, some as large as three stories high. It was like a surface city, only under the earth. But now, the plain mining town was a mess of debris and towering infernos anywhere he looked. Ditzy stood next to him. "No," she breathed. "What happened?"
"I...don't know," Flood answered. "The entire city..."
Suddenly, Ditzy took off into the air. A great gust of wind from her wings blew dirt away from where she stood a moment ago, some of it hitting Flood.
"Ditzy, where are you going?" he shouted up after her. She didn't seem to hear him though.
Maybe she's gone to look for survivors, he wondered. He watched Ditzy fly farther off down Mane Street. He took off after her.
All around him, fires raged. Some roads branching off of Mane Street were overtaken by flame. Others were blocked by collapsed buildings. The destruction made Flood's coat prickle with anxiousness and fear.
What truly disturbed him, though, was the lack of population. Anywhere Flood looked, he couldn't see a single pony. Or diamond dog. Being a mining town, Rockland was known for having a large population of both ponies and diamond dogs. But none were to be found, aside from the dead pony in the tunnel.
Flood looked back up and saw that Ditzy had stopped racing between the buildings. She had stopped dead in midair, and started drifting back down to the ground. She disappeared between the buildings. Flood darted down an alleyway, galloping to where he thought Ditzy might be. He saw her at the end of the alley, peering into the street beyond.
"Ditzy! What in the world are you up to," he asked as he approached her.
"Shh!" she hissed, holding a hoof to her mouth. "Look!"
Flood crept up behind Ditzy, craning his neck to get a view of the street she was watching. His jaw dropped.
A giant mass of dark gray rock literally stood at the end of the street. It turned what seemed to be its head as it looked around with two small, glimmering eyes. The thing turned around. It had magical runes all across its back, glowing bright white with energy. Flood thought he recognized the thing from a comic book. His eyes grew wide again with shock. No way...it can't be...
"Is that a golem?!" he shouted. The thing spun around, making a loud grinding sound. The two appendages that hung from its shoulders rose up to either side of its head. The magical runes began to pulse, changing color from white to yellow. A third glimmering light appeared below the eyes as the runes turned a deep, bright red. He could hear a heavy humming noise coming from down the street. "Run!" Flood shouted.
The thing's arms flew back down as a blast of intense magical energy launched itself from the third point of light and flew into the section of alleyway that Flood and Ditzy had occupied a split second before. They had tore off down the road, fleeing from the enraged golem.
"What the hay is a golem doing down here?!"
Ditzy just kept running alongside Flood. He turned his head back to look at the golem. It was chasing them. Great, stony legs bringing it down the street with heavy thumps. The humming noise started again.
"This way," Ditzy cried. They turned down another street, but came to an abrupt halt. A building had collapsed over the road, blocking off the other side.
"What?! We can't get past here!" Flood was panicking. The thudding of the golem's footsteps were growing louder.
Ditzy looked around the street frantically, but there was no way to get off it. She and Flood shot their gaze back to the street they had just come off of. The golem came into view. It stopped and turned to them with another deafening grinding noise. The runes on its body pulsed and glowed an intense purple. It began to shake. Flood couldn't move, he was paralyzed with fear. A third point of light appeared again below the golem's eyes. And it fired a bright red beam of energy with a sickening bweeeeeeee.
The beam traveled quickly along the street and up towards them. Flood's eyes were wide with terror. He screamed as he was shoved onto the road, landing on his side. Ditzy had pushed him out of the way of the attack.
The beam sheared her in half, vertically, along her chest. It traveled up a building and dissapated. Ditzy fell to the street.
The golem started to walk down the road, with thundering steps. Flood tried to stand, to run to Ditzy's side. He fell back to the street as the golem's slow, deliberate footfalls shook the ground beneath him. The rumbling of the ground intensified. It was a constant tremor now, sending vibrations all throughout Flood's body.
It stopped walking. The golem stood just twenty feet away from him now, raising its stony arms to the sides of its head. The runes glowed red. Flood knew what was coming, and he could only watch in fear as the familiar point of light below its eyes began to shine brightly.
Then the tremors started again. They were even more intense now. The light on the golem stopped, as both it and Flood looked around the street. The building it had blasted with the previous attack started to crumble. Flood started to scramble away from his position on the street, as the golem stared up at the building. It began to fall apart. It started to fall sideways towards the golem. It turned its attention to the building, charging up another attack as its runes glowed red.
A massive piece of metal came off of the building, falling towards the golem's head as it fired off a blast of magical energy. The attack collided with the debris as it flew straight at its head, exploding into a dazzling explosion. Its head had exploded into dozens of pieces, flying all over the street. The building came down around it as the body tipped over and fell to the ground with an unbelievably heavy thump. It was dead.
Flood lay on the ground in disbelief. He got up and ran to kneel at the upper half of Ditzy Doo's lifeless body, lifting her head up off the dirt. Her empty golden eyes still had tears in them.
Rockland was void of all life. The overwhelming smell of smoke and death would choke the air out of anypony. It was a place of ruin now, the fires burning brightly even after the last life was snuffed out.
Flood didn't want to think about that. Searching for survivors was the last thing on his mind. He ran back down Mane Street, past the decrepit buildings and raging fires. There might be more of them around, he thought. I've got to get out of here.
He flew down the stairs and through the tunnel connecting the cart station and Rockland. He was almost through the tunnel when a steampipe blew open, sending metal and hot, hissing steam into the section of tunnel in front of him. Flood fell forward in surprise, landing on something fleshy and rotten-smelling.
"What in the world," he coughed, as he lit up the ground underneath him. His eyes widened in shock.
Flood had landed on the dead stallion from earlier. The smell had intensified into something even more unbearable. He gagged at the sight, his stomach churning violently. He scrambled back onto his hooves, running through the dense steam cloud forming in the tunnel, towards the cart station.
Leaping into the cart, Flood flung the lever for the engine in reverse. Nothing happened. Panicking, he began to violently push the lever up and down. "Come on! GO!"
He vaguely recalled a time when the carts had broken down before: he was late for work one morning when the entire south cart tunnel of Mantle City had been shut down. A diamond dog had mistakenly dug straight through, sending rocks and dirt everywhere, and causing the tracks to collapse. Flood and a dozen other ponies had to walk to work.
Flood looked up from the cart controls and out into the dark abyss that was the cart tunnel. None of the lights were working, and in his state of distress, the unicorn could only manage a weak glow that lit up only a small circle of earth below him.
He stepped back out of the cart and onto the tracks. Without a moment's hesitation, he continued his escape from the horrors of Rockland.
The tunnel went on for miles. Already exhausted from racing through the city streets, Flood felt as though his muscles were ripping apart as he galloped the stretch of track. He had no idea when he might come across an operational cart station. The route from Mantle City to Rockland was about two hours by cart, but by hoof, it would take him almost four times as long. With little light and miles to go, the way ahead looked bleak.
After a solid half hour of galloping down the track, Flood's ragged breathing and aching sides got the best of him. He slowed to a trot, and then a full stop. His head hung low as he stood to catch his breath. His ears perked up at a slight wooshing sound. He looked up.
A light was coming from down the end of the tunnel. For a moment, Flood thought he had finally found civilization. But that hope was quickly struck from his mind. It wasn't bright a second ago, he thought. Wait...that sound... He began to put the pieces together. No...no no no... The light was growing even brighter now. The sound was getting louder.
It's a cart. It's coming this way.
Flood frantically looked around the tunnel. Both sides were solid, packed dirt. There was nowhere to squeeze in to avoid the oncoming cart.
This is how I'm gonna die...turned into a bloody paste by a mine cart.
The light and noise grew even more intense. As Flood squeezed his eyes tight, bracing for the impending impact, he thought he could hear a faint, high-pitched whistling noise.
The insides of Flood's eyelids turned bright as the light drew closer. Collision was imminent.
Then he was knocked head over heels into the air. He went tumbling along the shaft, cart tracks battering his already fatigued body. The whistling noise had stopped, and the light that was previously headed straight towards Flood was now rapidly casting a powerful beam all around the tunnel. He noticed something odd, too: another set of hooves entangled with his own.
"Ow," groaned a voice. A mare's voice. "What just..."
The light shined right into Flood's face. "Hey, what are you doing down here? Who are you?" The mare sniffed. "You smell like smoke."
Flood, still breathing heavily, couldn't believe he was still alive. He had expected to be a red, pulpy smear on the front of a cart by now, not having a conversation.
"Rockland," he wheezed. "Totally destroyed. Nopony's alive." He squinted at the source of the voice behind the light. "Who..."
The voice was quiet for a beat. "Did you come from there?" it asked.
"Was making...a delivery," Flood breathed. His mind still hadn't fully caught up yet.
"Somepony set off the alert for an emergency in Rockland, back at the Mantle City center...I had friends in Rockland," the voice said. "I thought I'd come lend a hoof, but..." She trailed off. "You're lucky I found you, kid. It's at least another two and a half hours to Mantle City by hoof. Only half an hour if you've got wings, though."
She rose to her feet. The mare seemed fine. Flood, however, stood shakily. He was almost at his limit.
"Can't go on," he managed. And he fell to his knees, forelegs barely keeping him upright.
"Whoa there, stay with me," the mare cried. She held a hoof under Flood's chest, to catch him in case he started to fall. "You're in pretty bad shape. We gotta get you to Fluttershy's."
The mare started to move around behind Flood, hooking her hooves around his midsection. "Hang on, kid!"
Flood felt himself lift up off the ground. Gusts of wind blew all around him as he felt himself slowly ascend upward. The mare was a pegasus.
They suddenly launched forward with a woosh. Flood's eyes began to water from the stinging wind as they flew along the tunnel. The pegasus had hooked her hindlegs under his flank, holding him beneath her.
"Horsefeathers, you weigh a ton!"
She began to pick up speed. As Flood's body lurched from the acceleration, he felt a sensation of vertigo. He was past his breaking point. His eyelids began to fall. A moment passed, and he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Come on, Flood, you can do it!"
Flood sat at a counter, next to a handful of other unicorn foals. He turned to his mother, grinning at her words of encouragement. He was at the carnival, about to play one of the many games his father had shelled out a few bits for. It was the game where somepony would shoot a jet of water at a bullseye, causing a plastic phoenix to rise. Once it reached the wooden cutout of a sun at the top, a bell would ring. Whoever did it first won the prize: a giant, stuffed, purple Ursa Minor. It hung next to a stallion behind the counter, wearing a red and white striped hat, with a red vest. There were countless other prizes around him.
"Alright fillies and gentlecolts," the stallion behind the counter called. "Get ready..."
Flood peered over at the red and white bullseye, under a plastic phoenix, on the opposite end of the booth. His target.
He held the squirter aloft with magic, right in front of him.
Everypony fired the squirters in tandem. Five jets of water flew at five different bullseyes, spray from the water going every which way. Flood and a foal next to him were right on the mark.
The foal looked over at Flood, then to his phoenix. It was rising, but not as fast as Flood's. The foal struck out at him with a hoof, sending his squirter flying through the air and into the middle of the booth.
Flood's mother gasped as the foal snickered, evidently pleased with himself as he returned his full attention to the bullseye. "What a cheater!" his father exclaimed.
Flood glared at the foal, then at the phoenix that had stopped ascending. He was mad, and he wanted that stuffed bear. He looked at the little filly next to him, struggling to keep her aim at her bullseye. He looked back at his own, gritted his teeth, and closed his eyes. I was so close, all I had to do was blast it with a little more...
He felt magic well up in his horn. More magic than he had ever felt before. The energy coalesced into the tip as a great, powerful jet of water burst forth, slamming into the bullseye. The phoenix shuddered as it flew up and into the wooden sun. A ringing bell sounded. Flood had won the game.
"You did it sweetheart!" his mother called. His father was laughing.
Flood was beaming from ear to ear. Then he felt a strange tingling sensation on his flanks. He looked behind himself, and saw a shimmering light on his left flank. After a few seconds, the light cleared to show a picture of a great wave of water. Flood was ecstatic.
"Mom! Dad! My cutie mark! I GOT IT!" He turned to his parents. But they had terrified looks on their faces as they stared straight past him. He turned back around.
A great flame had replaced the booth. A giant mass of stone stood on two legs, with a great gaping mouth and rows of razor sharp, metallic teeth. It roared. Flood fell backwards off of his stool at the counter.
He turned around to shout to his parents for help, only to see that they, too, had turned into giant stone things. He looked all around him, seeing more and more monsters. They were all bearing down on him.
One of them opened its gaping maw to swallow him up as everything went dark.
Flood sat bolt upright in bed, shaken from his nightmare as his lungs gasped for air. He was tangled up in a bedsheet.
Wait, a bed? Where am I? he wondered in a daze. He racked his brain. I was making a delivery, and Ditzy was there...and there was fire everywhere. A pounding headache was clouding his memory.
Oh hayseed, where's Ditzy? Flood looked around the room. He sat on a pony sized hospital bed in a clean room full of other beds. Some were occupied by resting ponies, a few of them with bandages wrapped on a hoof or two. He gathered that he must have been in one of the underground's free clinics. He didn't see Ditzy anywhere.
She must be at the Delivery Company...maybe somepony’s seen her.
He pulled himself over to the edge of the bed, peering at the floor below. He could feel the blood pumping in his head. It felt like a drum beating behind his eyes. Did I hit my head? He rubbed the back of his head with a hoof, and set off to a door at the other side of the room. Open up, he thought, as he approached the door. He smacked headfirst into it, his forehead making a thunk against it. Flood's headache was interfering with his magic.
"Geez," he muttered, momentarily rubbing his forehead.
He pushed the door open, revealing a short hallway leading to the right. Walking to the end, he came to a pair of doors on either side of the hallway. Looking through one, Flood saw a smallish waiting room, lined with chairs. Beyond that, he saw a doorway leading to the Commerce Thoroughfare.
Finally, a landmark. Flood stepped out of the hallway and into the waiting room.
He looked over at a desk where a yellow pegasus had her head under a desk. He thought he could hear her rummaging around, saying, "Oh dear...where did I put it?" A little white rabbit sat on top of the desk, watching her. It noticed Flood leaving the waiting room for the bustling street of the Thoroughfare, and began tugging on the pegasus' wing. A brief moment passed.
"Just a minute, Angel," she said softly. Flood had exited the clinic and turned onto the street as Angel tugged on her wing once more. She looked up and around the empty room. "Oh Angel, you mustn't play tricks, I'm very busy."
The rabbit gave her a displeased look.
The walk to the Delivery Company from the clinic wasn't very far, but in Flood's state, it felt like miles. He came to the doorway of the Delivery Company, walked inside, and entered the mailroom. It was getting late, and only a small group of workers were present, sorting out packages and letters that weren't delivered that day for whatever reason. "Has anypony," he began to ask, but a shrill voice cut him off.
"And just where have you been?"
Flood turned to the source of the voice: Trixie. She stomped over to him. "And where is your mailbag? Trixie expects her property back in its proper place by the end of each day."
"Must've forgot it," Flood said. He squinted his eyes shut, trying to block out the headache that had now grown more intense thanks to Trixie's volume. It was no use. "Where's Di-"
"And where is the gray one? Trixie sent both of you for important deliveries to Rockland today!"
And then it all came rushing back. The cart breaking down, the dead pony in the tunnel, the golem, the destroyed mining town...and Ditzy Doo, the mare that saved his life, now laying lifeless next to a pile of rubble.
Flood started to tremble where he stood. His eyes slowly drifted to the floor. They lost focus.
"She's gone," he whispered.
"What? Speak up," Trixie demanded.
"Ditzy is gone," he repeated a little louder.
"Well she better hurry back, or she won't be getting any wages from-"
"She's dead, Trixie! Ditzy was killed!" he roared. Trixie stood in shocked silence. "And all you can think about is your own damn self!"
The entire mailroom was at a standstill as Flood stood fuming. "You didn't even know her name!"
All Trixie could do was stand in shock, her mouth hanging open ever so slightly. "I..." was all she could manage.
Flood glared at her, then took a look around the mailroom. All eyes were on him. He stormed over to his locker, flinging it open with his teeth. He pulled out his saddlebag, struggling to pull it over his head with his mouth. He eventually got it to fall around his neck.
He strode back over to Trixie, meeting her face to face. "You never cared about her," he growled. "Or me. Or any of us." And he stormed out of the mailroom, through the reception room, and back out into the street.
Trixie was still only able to stand in stunned silence.
Flood ignored the consistent buzz of activity among the shops and stalls as he walked briskly down the Thoroughfare.
She's dead, a voice at the back of his head said.
No, she can't be...
Ditzy's gone, it spoke again.
She can't be...
Flood came up to the cart station, boarding the first one that presented itself. He didn't know where it was going, and he didn't care. He only wanted to be moving. He wanted to try and lose the dark thoughts creeping into his mind.
The cart sped along the tunnels, stopping to let off passengers at various Housing Quarter levels. It came to a stop as the conductor turned his head to address the remaining passengers.
"Quarter four," he droned.
Ditzy's level... he thought. The clock above the station office read 9:47. Flood gasped.
"Oh no," he breathed. "It's almost ten. Dinky's been home alone all this time."
He leapt up from his seat and out of the cart, rushing through the station and along the wide path that ran along the Housing Quarter.Trotting past door after door, he counted to himself. "Six, seven...eight. Here it is." The placard next to the door read "Ms. Ditzy Doo, Housing Quarter Level 4, Block 8, Mantle City."
Flood knocked on the door, waiting for an answer that never came. He pounded on the door, and again, there was no response from within. He wondered if she wasn't even home, if she had left to go look for her mother, or if someone had already come by. Then he remembered. Ditzy always said for her to never answer the door for strangers...
Shoving his face into his saddlebag, Flood began to fish around inside it for something. He pulled out of it a moment afterwards, holding a small metal key between his teeth. He lowered his face to the door, pushing the key inside, and rotated his head, turning the key in the lock. It clicked, and he nosed open the door.
The house was almost identical to his own. All the houses in the Quarter were the same basic structure, with a few rooms added on when needed. The home was completely dark, save for a light from the kitchen, dimly illuminating the living room. As Flood walked in, a light purple filly peeked out from the kitchen. "Mommy?" it called out into the dim light.
Flood started to tremble again. "No...just me, Dinky."
"Flood!" she squealed. "Are you gonna cook for us tonight? And look what I drew!" Dinky darted back into the kitchen, and returned with a shimmering sheet of paper fluttering alongside her. Flood had taught her that, how to make objects levitate.
It was a picture of dozens of multicolored stick ponies, some with wings, some with smaller sticks on their heads; horns. They all seemed gathered around a statue: a pony with both a horn and a brilliant set of wings, rearing up on its hind legs. "It's the Thoroughfare! And look, me and you and mommy are at the Square eating cookies from Pinkie's store!"
Sure enough, Flood saw three ponies on the paper, all next to each other, beneath the statue: one gray, one purple, and one a faded, stony blue.
"Where's mommy, Flood? Did Trixie say she had to work late at the mail place again?"
He stood in the hallway, trembling even more now. "She..." he choked. Dinky stepped a little closer, the paper falling to the floor. She sniffed the air.
"Flood? Why do you smell like smoke?"
His eyes began to water. The rush of emotion he had felt back at the Delivery Company began to return.
"Your mom is...in Rockland."
"Is she working?" Dinky inquired.
"No, Dinky," Flood said in a hushed tone. He was trying to mentally brace himself for the inevitable. "Your mom..."
Dinky was looking up at him, but Flood wouldn't meet her gaze. She had walked right up under him now, looking up into his blue eyes. "Did something happen?" she asked, her voice cracking a little. "Flood, where's mommy?" Ditzy's voice was worried now, she was getting anxious. "Where is she?"
"She died," he whispered.
Dinky's eyes began to shimmer as tears formed in them. "W-what?" she stammered. "That's not funny, Flood."
"Dinky, I'm not trying to trick you." Flood could feel tears of his own start to well up in his eyes. "Something...really bad happened in Rockland tonight. Your mom and I were there, and..." He trailed off. He couldn't tell Dinky about the horrible things he saw that night. "A big accident happened, and your mom," he said. "She was trying to help, but there was a...a fire. And she got burned really bad."
Tears were falling down Dinky's face and onto the floor. "Why," she sobbed.
Flood stood staring at the floor, dead silent. "Because..." he tried to continue. "...Because your mom was brave," he choked.
"No! I don't want her to go!" she yelled as she ran into Flood's chest, weeping into his now tear-soaked coat. "I want her back!"
Flood hung his head low to embrace Dinky as she cried. "I know," he muttered. He led her over to the couch in the living room, the two of them sitting with their legs folded underneath, Flood holding a leg around Dinky. Her face was buried into his side as she cried her heart out for her lost mother.
For about an hour, all Dinky could do was cry. And it was all Flood could do to sit with her and try to manage tears of his own.
When Dinky's tears seemed to ebb, Flood asked if she had eaten anything. She responded with a weak 'no.' Flood got up and walked into the kitchen. After a few minutes of halfhearted searching through cupboards, he found a box of macaroni noodles and some sauce mix. In fifteen minutes, he had a pot of it ready to serve.
They ate in silence. Dinky had stopped a few times to put her fork down and wipe away newly forming tears. Each time, Flood would rise from his seat and move to comfort her, holding a hoof over her shoulder, and whisper "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
After they finished eating, the two left the rest of the macaroni and dishes in the kitchen. Flood brought Dinky back into the living room and helped her onto the couch, taking his place beside her. She leaned her head against his side, stifled sobs punctuating the everlasting silence. It wasn't until half an hour later that the sobs subsided. Flood looked down at Dinky. She must have been completely exhausted, and it was nearly midnight.
Carefully getting up from the couch so as to not disturb Dinky, Flood made his way to one of the bedrooms of the house. He pulled a white pillow and stitched lavender quilt off of the bed; Dinky's bed. He returned to the living room and, with great care, lifted Dinky's head off the couch and slipped the pillow under it. He laid the blanket over her as she slept.
Flood, however, felt restless. His body ached, but his brain refused to accept sleep. He didn't want to sleep, either, for fear of what nightmares might await him. He wandered quietly into the kitchen, looking around aimlessly. His attention fell on a small cupboard just slightly out of reach, above the coldbox. He opened it up with magic.
It was completely bare save for a tall glass bottle. Flood levitated it over in front of his face. Sweet Apple Hard Cider, he mentally read. He stared at the bottle for a moment. Then, he popped off the top with his teeth, pressed the mouth of the bottle to his lips, and tipped his head back, along with the bottle. The liquid bubbled and prickled as it went down his throat. He held that position for a second or two, then moved his head back upright. The cider sloshed around in the bottle before settling down. This should help, Flood thought.
He sat down at the table, both hooves resting on top, taking a mouthful of cider as he sat in the quiet kitchen.
It's because of you, he said in his mind. That's why she's dead.
Flood let his head slide along his foreleg and onto the table, chin resting on top.
You froze up because of a little danger, like a foal, and the grownups had to step in to save your flank.
He moved the bottle back to his lips, eyes watering as he did so.
And now look what's happened. You've orphaned a completely innocent filly, all because you're too pathetic to take care of yourself.
The bottle shimmered and turned it self upside down as more of the liquid poured into Flood's mouth and went into his stomach. He closed his eyes hard as he moved the bottle away, tears cascading down his cheeks and onto the table.
Hard to believe that somepony could get worse as they got older. You're no better than that scared colt you were back when Fillydelphia burned to the ground. Hiding in a cave, that's all you're good at. Pathetic.
His face pressed into the table. The bottle dropped back onto the table with a soft thunk.
Knock, knock, knock.
Flood heard a knocking sound, and looked to the bottle. It was motionless. He laid his head back on the table.
Knock, knock, knock.
The knocking sound returned. Flood raised his head and looked through the kitchen doorway into the living room. It was coming from the front door. He got up and moved through the kitchen, into the living room.
Nopony goes around knocking on doors in the middle of the night. Who the hay could that be this late?
Knock, knock, knock.
Flood crept along the length of the living room, cautiously approaching the door. He stood to the left as the lock clicked open at the touch of his magic. He opened the door wide enough to look out into the tunnel.
On the other side stood three imposing unicorns. Their black, metallic uniforms and booted hooves were intimidating. They looked at Flood through the cracked door.
"Are you Flood?" one of them asked in a low, almost accusatory tone.
"Yeah," Flood responded, slightly shying away from the door. "Who are you?"
"You're coming with us," the second demanded.
Flood glared at the unicorn. "We're going through a loss at the moment," he said begrudgingly. "There's a filly inside that lost her mother, and I'm not about to abandon her."
The second unicorn turned to the first. "There wasn't any mention of a filly," he said, no hint of emotion on his face.
The first turned to the third. "Stay here until we find out what to do with the orphan."
Flood was taken aback. "Who said you were allowed to do any of this? Who are you?"
"Take him in," said the second.
Flood backed away from the door, slightly. "I told you," he said, through gritted teeth, "I'm not going anywhere." He summoned up magic in his horn, lowering his head to point it at the three unicorns.
"The hard way, then."
The third's horn glowed as Flood felt a pressure around his head. He felt a fuzziness begin to envelop his thoughts, and the magic in his horn died away. His head swayed.
The first unicorn turned to the third again. "Wait outside, and don't let anyone in or out. And try not to wake the filly up."
Flood fell to the ground, vision going dark.
"If she does, just make something up."
For the second time that night, Flood slipped into unconsciousness.
The light, blinding as it was, barely registered in Flood's brain as he stirred from unconsciousness, eyes cracking open. His headache was back in full swing.
"He's waking up, sir."
Flood's eyelids twitched as he tried to locate the source of the voice. The light made it impossible to see. He was vaguely aware of the fact that he was sitting, albeit on a cold, hard, metal chair. He could only manage a weak pained grunt as he tried to raise a hoof to massage his pounding temples. But he had no luck in doing so. Something was holding his hooves behind the back of the chair he was strewn across, binding him to his seat.
"Well now, look at that. A live one." Another voice, smoother than the previous, spoke in a low tone, and chuckled softly.
"Where," Flood started to say.
"Are you?" the voice finished. "Nah, that's not how this works. I'm the one that asks you the questions, understand?" The light turned away from Flood's face, and he blinked rapidly as his eyes readjusted to the light of the room, to take in his surroundings.
He was in a small, bare room, occupied only by a table, Flood's metal chair, and another chair on the opposite end of the table. The three walls he could see were solid metal, save for the one to his right, which held a mirror. A light hung from the ceiling.
The voice belonged to a dark brown earth pony, sporting a short, cropped mane and beady, brown eyes. "Coming around, huh? That's good," he said, as he stared straight at Flood. "Very good."
Flood craned his neck to see behind him. The back wall had a door, flanked by two unicorns; the same two that had evidently abducted him. He didn't see the third, the one they commanded to stand guard at Ditzy's house, while Dinky slept inside.
"What did you do," Flood growled, "with Dinky? If you hurt her..."
"You're just full of questions, huh?" the earth pony said. "Aren't you the eager beaver." He slid the chair back from the table a bit, and sat down. "Well let me oblige. You can call me Sleuth," he said, as he scooted the chair back up to the table. "And I'm mighty interested in you. What's your name?"
Flood stared back at the pony called Sleuth. He felt there was something slippery about him, an uneasy aura that hung around him. "Flood," he replied.
"Well, Mister Flood," Sleuth went on, "you've got quite a fitting name. Because you've given us a whole torrent of problems." He leaned in from across the table. "Ever been to Rockland?"
Flood looked into Sleuth's dark eyes. "What?"
"Rockland, Flood! The mining town of Rockland," he exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from his seat. He began pacing back and forth. "Or at least it was. Have you seen it recently? Big mess now, burned-out buildings, bunch of bodies," he stated. Then he turned to Flood, saying nothing else.
Flood's heart rate started to pick up. Hayseed, does he think I destroyed it?! He returned the look Sleuth was giving him. "Look, I didn't," Flood started to reply.
"Don't play games with me!" Sleuth slammed a hoof on the table. Flood cringed. He stormed over to his side as Flood strained against whatever was holding his hooves behind the chair. Craning his neck again to look at the unicorns behind him, he saw one of their horns had taken on a shimmering aura. He was holding Flood in place with a spell.
"An entire town, totally wasted, no survivors, and a pony coming from the Rockland tunnel an hour after everypony's dead," Sleuth shouted. "And what, you were just passing by?"
Flood's pulse quickened further.
"What did you do? Bomb the place? What did she have you do?"
"What did who have me do? And I didn't have a bomb," Flood shot back. He had raised his voice, but nowhere near as loud as Sleuth's.
"So what DID you do it with, then? Magic? Blew up the coal reserves with a fire spell?"
"I didn't do anything! I was delivering a package!"
"Ha!" Sleuth laughed. "So it WAS a bomb! Damn liar," Sleuth spat.
"NO! I didn't know what I was delivering," Flood shouted.
"So she didn't tell you what it was?"
Flood's head was spinning. It felt like Sleuth was just going in circles. "Trixie? No, she didn't even know. It's a package, who cares what's inside it?"
Sleuth suddenly moved his face right next to Flood's ear. "Listen to me," he hissed. "You fucking punk. Whatever she threatened you with is going to be NOTHING compared to what I'll do to you, if you don't start running your mouth the way. I. Want." He accentuated the last three words with sharp, painful jabs of his hoof in Flood's side.
"Who are you talking about?!"
Sleuth bared his teeth as he pulled away from Flood, raising a hoof to strike him. Flood cringed away from him in his seat.
The door behind him suddenly burst open. "Alright," a voice barked. "You're done."
Sleuth stared back into the doorway, a flabbergasted look plastered on his face. "I was getting somewhere," he protested.
"You bludgeoned your way into a wall," came the response. "An innocent wall, to be precise." The voice practically oozed authority. Whoever it was, they were too far beyond the doorway for Flood to see them reflected in the mirror. "Escort him to my chambers, I will investigate him." Hoofsteps announced the new pony's departure.
The brown interrogator glared back at Flood. "Innocent my hoof," he growled at Flood. Sleuth glanced at one of the unicorns behind Flood. "Let him go."
Flood felt the magic restraints around his hooves dissipate. He quickly slid off of the chair, taking a cautious stance, facing Sleuth. They stared each other down for a moment, until Flood felt one of the unicorns work a hoof around the side of his neck, jerking him away and through the door.
They had walked down multiple, dimly-lit corridors before approaching a door at the end of a more brightly-lit hallway. One of the unicorns rapped on the door four times. "Let him in," somepony behind the door responded. The door handle shimmered as the unicorn's horn did the same. It swung open. The other simultaneously shoved Flood inside the room beyond. Flood turned his head to voice his discomfort, only to see the door slam in his face.
"At last," the voice from before said behind him. Flood swung his head to face it. His jaw dropped.
A pony with a deep, indigo coat sat behind a desk in front of him. Her mane was a shimmering blue and purple, one that seemed to sparkle like stars and flow as though it had caught a breeze that wasn't even there . A horn, longer than any Flood had seen before, broke through the vibrant mane. And she had wings. Elegant wings that folded neatly along her dark-spotted sides. Flood had seen this pony before, at the alicorn statue in the Thoroughfare. Like everypony in the underground, he would recognize her anywhere.
It was Princess Luna.
Flood's jaw dropped. Never before had he met face-to-face with a being like an alicorn, let alone a member of the royal family of Equestria. Actually seeing the majesty that was the Princess for the first time was stupefying.
Princess Luna gazed at him with deep, teal eyes. Flood returned the gaze with a slack-jawed, awestruck stare.
"Puh..." he stammered.
Luna smiled at him. "Even after all these years, the ponies of this land continue to hold me in an unnecessarily venerable view."
"You're...you're Luna! I mean, sorry, Your Majesty, Princess Luna," he gasped.
"Indeed I am," Luna replied. She continued to stare at him, a somewhat amused expression splayed across her face. "And you are Mr. Flood of Mantle City, Housing Quarter 7, Block 38. Please, take a seat." She motioned to a chair in a position opposite her side of the desk.
"So it was you that brought me here?"
"The city security did, more specifically. They told me you showed great defiance when your presence was requested for questioning." Luna gave him an approving look. "I understand it was for a younger pony's protection?"
"Yeah, and if they did anything to her, I'll-"
"You may relax," Luna interjected. "Under my orders, be they direct or indirect, no harm has come to anypony. Except in your case, for which I must personally apologize. Sleuth's methods are admittedly harsh, but his actions are purely for the benefit and safety of all."
Idiot, you forgot to bow! She's royalty! Flood's amazement had forced his manners from his mind.
"S-sorry for not bowing, your majesty..."
"Please, Flood, it is I who should be apologizing. I never wished for harm to come to you," Luna said. She leaned in towards him from across the desk. "Seeing you here now, in person, leads me to believe that you had nothing to do with the destruction of Rockland."
Flood blinked back at her. "That's why you brought me here? You guys thought I blew up the town?"
"You were the only suspect we could find," she replied. "The SOS from Rockland reached us just as you were seen emerging from the tunnel. A bit of bad luck, that's all."
"How could I have even done something that big? It'd take a unicorn with more magical power than I've ever seen."
"We had to be sure that she hadn't tricked or hypnotized you into doing it," Luna sighed.
"She? Sleuth said the same thing. I don't even know who she is," Flood said, bewildered.
Luna stood up from her chair, pulling it with magic to rest next to Flood's. She took her seat again as Flood adjusted his own chair to face her.
She took a deep breath. "My sister is the one we speak of."
"What," he breathed. "Celestia's behind this?"
Flood's disbelief was almost palpable. "But...she's supposed to be dead!"
"So the rumor says. 'Celestia died and the sun went out of control,' they say."
"Then the ones about her," Flood gulped, "going crazy are true?"
"I am afraid so," was Luna's somber response.
"So the Corona Reign was because of her," Flood mumbled. He slouched in his seat. The events of the day, coupled with the realization that his ruler had burned and killed so many, fatigued him to no end. All he could ask was "But why?"
"Not even I know the answer to that impossible question," she replied, standing up from her chair. She circled back around the desk, levitating a broken picture frame up in front of her. "The moment the sun intensified, I knew something was wrong with my sister. As I ran through the unbearable heat, up to the throne room, I expected to find her in some great distress. Nothing scared me more than something that could bring her down..." She shut both her eyes as the picture frame came to rest back down on the desk; a picture of Canterlot Castle. A tear dripped onto it.
Flood looked up at her apologetically. "What was wrong with her?"
"When I opened the door to the throne room, all I saw was blinding light," Luna replied. "Whatever may have happened to her, I could not see. Not a day goes by that I wonder what could have driven her to such action all those years ago."
She walked back around to Flood. "Which is why I have brought you here. We know nothing of her power now, or of her intent. As the only survivor of the Rockland massacre, you hold such valuable information on what went on."
Flood stared at her, confused. "But I don't know anything," he said depressingly. "I...all I did was try to make a delivery. That's what I do, I'm a delivery pony." He grimaced. "Or at least that's what I did. I yelled at my boss, oh horsefeathers, Trixie is going to kill me for sure."
"Please, anything you know could be useful," Luna pressed. She was not keen on walking away empty-hoofed. "What happened there?"
Flood sighed. "The entire town was wrecked when I got there. Ditzy flew off trying to look for survivors, and I went after her, but all we found was this huge stone golem, runes all over it and everything. And all I could do was run for my life." He hung his head. "I got my only friend killed because I'm so helpless."
Luna hung her head as well. "I truly am very sorry for your loss," she said in a low voice. "But I must ask, how did you escape? The security forces that searched the area found bits and pieces of strange stone, what I assume was the golem."
"I don't know," Flood said, exasperated. "It just blew itself up when it blasted a building."
"A self defense mechanism?"
"I don't know, okay! I don't want any of this," he shouted. Luna gave him an understanding look. He sighed. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, really. I don't mean to yell. This is just...a lot to take in, on top of everything else."
"Then I believe this is where our time together should come to a close," she said. "However, before you go, I extend an invitation to you to join with the security forces of Mantle City. Any help you could provide against a future attack would be greatly appreciated. After all, you have the most experience with Celestia's golems. Your expertise, great or small, would be a valuable asset."
"I can't, I just," Flood said as he stood up from his chair. "I don't want any more to do with this. It's not my fight," he continued. "I just want to go home. I have an orphaned filly that I have to figure out how to take care of."
He started towards the door.
"The offer will always be open, then," Luna called, as Flood opened the door with a touch of magic.
"Thank you, Princess Luna. With all you've done for us, it's no wonder everypony loves you."
She smiled at him as he went out the door.
"Cheerilee, all I'm asking for is just a few weeks while I get something more permanent set up."
The magenta earth pony stared back at Flood, worried. "I don't know if I can. Teaching fillies is one thing, but taking care of one full time?"
"I promise I'll work as fast as I can." Flood reached down and put a hoof around Dinky. "And besides, you know Dinky as well as I do. Good kid."
Dinky's depressed expression was all the convincing Cheerilee needed. "Alright," she conceded. "I'll take care of her."
"Thanks. Dinky, why don't you take your bags inside and grab something to drink?"
"Okay," came her weak reply. Suddenly, she squeezed Flood's neck in a tight embrace. "Promise you'll come back soon," she said, sniffling.
"I promise." He returned the hug. Dinky let go, and walked inside, closing the door behind her.
Cheerilee glanced at the door, then turned back to Flood. "I just can't believe it," she finally said. "Out of nowhere..."
"Yeah," was all Flood said.
"How've you been doing?"
"I've been fine," he lied. He was far from fine. A better answer would have been exhausted, guilty, and helpless.
"I know you're just lying for my peace of mind," came Cheerilee's chiding reply.
"Yeah. I gotta go somewhere. Thanks again, Cheerilee. You know Dinky and I both really appreciate everything you're doing." He set off down the Housing Quarter tunnel.
The bars of Mantle City, while providing a much-needed getaway from the day-to-day stress, did not generate as much business as the owners hoped. For this reason, the proprietor of Berry's, Berry Punch, had decided to take her love of drink and present it to the good ponies of Mantle City in the classiest way she could imagine: a lounge. As Flood walked through the double doors of the establishment, he was reminded again of the value everypony placed on comfort.
Aside from being close to the Delivery Company, Flood favored Berry's lounge for a particular reason; the place always had some kind of live entertainment in the evenings. Sometimes it was music, or comedy. Tonight, it was some of the greatest music he had ever heard. A gray-coated, jet black-maned mare sewed smooth sounds into the air from a cello as she was accompanied by a brown stallion playing dulcet notes on a grand piano. The lights were turned low, except for one spotlight shining down on the pair as they played.
He had come for drinks at Berry's a few times before, usually an evening pick-me-up after a long day at work. Even so, the magenta Earth pony seemed to recognize him as he wandered among the tables in the dimly-lit room. She waved him over to the bar.
"How's it goin', mailcolt?"
He gave a quick nod and a forced smile as he sat at the bar, setting his saddlebag down.
"Don't usually see you around much at this time of night," Berry noted.
"Can't sleep," Flood explained. "Might as well drink."
She tousled his mane, laughing. "That's the way to do it. What can I get you?"
"I don't even know," Flood sighed. "Whatever you recommend."
Berry laughed again. "A drink recommended by Berry Punch? I'll have you knocked on your flank in half an hour." She wheeled around, and began mixing his drink, throwing ice in a glass, and squirting liquids of various color in after. Flood turned around on the barstool, absentmindedly watching the ponies play their instruments.
A moment later, he felt the tap of a hoof on his back. He turned around to see a glass of dark liquid on the counter in front of him. He looked around for Berry, who was already at the other end of the bar, taking an order from another pony.
Flood levitated the glass to his lips and took a sip. It was unbelievably strong. "Damn," he muttered, stifling a cough. The drink was going to do its job.
Standing up from his stool, he looked around the darkened lounge for a place to sit. He spotted an empty table in a corner of the room, and began to weave in between the rest of the tables and lounge occupants, carefully pulling his drink alongside him telepathically.
He sat down next to the small table, sipping his drink in the shadowy lounge as the two ponies in the spotlight struck up a somewhat melancholy song. Flood sat and listened for a moment, until a voice from beside him suddenly spoke.
Flood jumped at the sudden southern drawl, sputtering a mouthful of alcohol from his mouth.
"Geez, scared the Hell out of me," he said as he wiped his chin.
"Sorry, pardner," came the soft reply. "Thought I might say somethin'. You seemed mighty mopey."
"Mmm, yeah," Flood uttered quietly. There were a few seconds of silence. "Long night."
"Must've been somethin' big, drivin' a pony to drink."
A real long night, Flood said inwardly.
"Anything I can help ya with, pard?"
Flood sighed. "Not unless you can turn back time, bring back the dead, or teleport me far away from here."
The pony chuckled. "Ain't a unicorn, hoss. Sorry." He took a sip of his own drink. "What's your poison?"
He swirled the glass of dark liquid. "Dunno. Whatever Berry mixed me." He tipped it back, swallowing a big mouthful. "Strong though."
"Mighty fine drink here," the pony mused. He took another drink. "I'm partial to the cider, myself. Always had a healthy hankerin' for apples."
Another period of silence passed.
"Sorry about yer loss, too. I know hard it is to lose someone ya care about."
"Really, now," was Flood's slightly indifferent reply.
"Honest buffalo. My own granny died in the fires that burned down the family farm."
Flood sighed, feeling a pang of pity. "I'm sorry."
"S'alright, pardner. Ah've made my grievances."
The two ponies finished their song. A light smattering of applause came from a few tables around the room.
"How'd you get through it?" Flood asked.
There was a soft thunk as the pony set his drink on the table. "Lotta feelin' sorry for myself at first. Lotta blamin' myself. Thought it was my own mistakes that lost us our Granny."
Just like you.
"But I didn't have the luxury of bein' so down an' self-depreciatin'. Family I needed ta help back on its hooves." He shifted in his seat. "An' then I realized it wasn't even my fault. Started tellin' myself every day it wasn't me that burned down the barn, or killed my Granny. Ain't my fault that the sun started beatin' down so hard on us decent ponies."
And then a different voice whispered something to him.
He's right, you know.
A voice at the back of his head. Confident and sure.
"Yeah...not your fault."
She'd want you to be strong. Ditzy didn't die for nothing.
"We may lose someone we love, but we got a lot more ta look forward to," the pony said." "An' a lot more ponies that still need us."
He's trying to tell you something.
"Gotta be strong."
Flood looked at his drink. Something had taken hold of him, making the sight of the half empty glass seem revolting, as if it contained all the horrible things he had been feeling. Then he stood up, and turned to the voice in the shadows. Despite not having had a good night's sleep, he felt awake.
Be sure to thank him.
"Thanks," Flood said earnestly to the stranger.
And he hurried towards the exit.
Getting to the Mantle City Security Offices, Flood found, was no easy task. The only way to enter was through a cordoned-off railway system, available only to the members of Security. While Princess Luna had given Flood the documentation to get back in, the guard at the station was hesitant to allow him passage. Seeing a colt striding back up to the gate, who, a day prior, had come through unconscious and in the company of two security personnel, had evidently raised suspicion.
"No way this is legitimate," the gate guard said as Flood, for the umpteenth time, insisted that Princess Luna had given him the pass herself.
He gave the guard a frustrated look.
"Don't gimme that face," he shot back. "You 'spect me to let you on the cart after Suit and Hooves carried you here in cuffs?"
"Uh...pretty much," was Flood's deadpan response.
"Cheeky little s-"
"We moving it along here or what?" came a third voice from beside the ponies. Both Flood and the guard turned sharply to the source.
A pegasus pony stared back at them. Flood was slightly taken aback at her appearance: she looked positively sickly. Her coat was a faded sky blue, and Flood could barely make out an outline of a cutie mark on her flank. Her mane and tail were a myriad of other washed-out colors. Her eyes, however, were a powerful shade of magenta, with dark circles under them. Despite the appearance, Flood felt as if he had seen her before. He squinted as he looked her over again.
"Nice of you to come back, kid," she said.
Flood cocked his head. "Huh?"
The guard seemed flustered at the mare's sudden, indignant appearance. "Oh, s-sorry Rainbow Dash. I didn't know he was with you." He walked back to the rather small cart, flipping a switch on the controls. Its door opened.
Rainbow Dash...? Flood wondered. Where have I heard that name before?
She strode past him and into the cart, plopping down on one of the few seats inside.
"Oh, right," Flood muttered. He turned to the guard as he raised his eyebrows and gestured towards the cart with a flick of his head.
"Yeah, go on," the guard said, a little defeated. He must have felt a little deflated, as he thought he was denying an intruder access to the offices. His ego must have been getting bloated by the second, only to have been crushed by the oddly familiar mare sitting in the cart.
Flood took his seat opposite Rainbow Dash, still staring at her, trying to figure out where he knew her from. The cart shifted as it jostled down the track.
The pegasus stared back. "Fluttershy did a great job, I guess," she commented.
Rainbow Dash chuckled. "You must've hit your head pretty hard back there," she mused. "Guess that explains why you didn't say 'thank you.'"
Then Flood remembered where he had heard her voice before. "Wait..." he began. "That was you back in the tunnel?"
Rainbow Dash smiled at him. "Yep, I brought you to the clinic. And I stand by what I said earlier. You weigh a ton."
Flood laughed. "I guess I owe you one," he said. "You seem awfully familiar, too," he added.
She cracked her neck. "Well, I don't like to brag, but..." She gave him an even bigger grin. "I was awarded Best Young Flier in Cloudsdale about 10 years ago."
Flood's face lit up. "That's where I know you from! You're THE Rainbow Dash! You beat Nightmare Moon and Discord!" He was ecstatic. It was like meeting a superhero. He read about Rainbow Dash in the newspaper quite a few times. "Wow."
Rainbow Dash blushed slightly. "Yeah, I guess I've done a lot."
"You work for Mantle Security now?"
Her expression changed to one of unease. "Sorta," she said.
"Can't imagine you get to fly much, being underground all the time," he continued.
"Well, actually, I do."
"Wait...seriously?" Flood asked, bewildered.
"I do a lot of flying." Rainbow Dash went on. "Spitfire and I do about ten flights a week."
Flood became even more excited. "Spitfire? You fly with the Wonderbolts?"
Dash looked down at the floor. "Just Spitfire. The rest of them went along with most of the surface," she said somberly.
"Oh...I'm sorry, I really didn't mean to bring that up," Flood apologized.
"It's okay," Dash replied. "It's been a long time."
They were quiet for a while. Then Flood spoke up.
"Is that where you fly?"
"The surface. Is that where you guys fly?"
"Oh, uh, yeah," she responded half-heartedly.
Flood stared at her in disbelief. He was speechless. He hadn't seen anything of the surface since his home burned to the ground. "Wow," he breathed.
Dash stared back. "It's not much, really. Just a bunch of sand and sun."
"What do you guys even do out there?" Flood asked.
"Pretty much just look around for stuff everypony needs. Whatever survived the fires, really. We got most of the stuff for the power generators and water purifiers really early on. Lotta flying in the early days. I think that's what contributed the most to this." She gestured all over her body, at the dulled color of her coat. She flipped her mane with a hoof. "Always liked my mane colors."
Flood had been watching her in stunned silence. "That's awful," he said. "Why'd you have to fly so much?"
Rainbow Dash puffed out her chest a bit. "All the pegasus ponies were too slow to fly under the sun burning so hard without overheating or getting dehydrated. With the Wonderbolts gone, Spitfire and I turned out to be the only ones fast enough to scout out the surface without getting cooked. Now, I get to work with one of my idols, but..."
"That's a horrible price to pay," Flood finished for her.
"And Spitfire's the only one who really understands me," Rainbow Dash added. "She's in the same boat."
They were quiet as the cart pulled into the Security Office Station. Flood was staring at the floor as it came to a halt, still processing his conversation with the second pegasus that saved his life.
Flood looked up to Dash as she suddenly resumed the conversation. She had been looking down at the floor as well.
"Even through all of this, I've been with my friends no matter what. Doing whatever I can to help them." Rainbow Dash sat up, opened the cart door, and stepped onto the platform. Flood followed. "I'll never leave them behind. Even if...I have to give my life."
She turned to face Flood. "Thanks for coming back, kid." She smiled. "Thanks for not judging me."
All Flood could do is return the smile as Rainbow Dash walked through the double doors to the Security Offices. He felt warm inside.
Loyalty, fierce and undying...
A whispering voice echoed throughout the empty cart platform. Flood wheeled around, searching for the source, in vain. He was alone on the platform.
"Somepony there?" he called out. There was no response.
He shrugged, and walked through the doors.
As Flood stepped through the door to Luna's office, she beamed as she recognized him.
"So you decided to come back," she said. "May I ask what changed your mind?"
He returned her captivating smile. "A little perspective."
Princess Luna nodded sagely. "The greatest wisdom comes from everywhere but oneself it seems." She got up and strode around the desk to stand in front of Flood. She completely dwarfed him; at full height, she was almost twice as tall. "I must agree with one of your previous points, Flood," she went on. "I believe you may not be able to help us with the challenge of fighting back against the golems."
"I'll do whatever else I can to help, Princess. Anything."
She smiled again. "I'm happy to hear it." Then her smile began to fade. "However, as you'll be working in the ranks of Mantle Security, your public activity will be of significantly less frequency."
She gave a soft chuckle at his confusion. "It means you'll be working more...behind the scenes."
"Oh, so I'll be disappearing, so to speak?" Flood asked.
"Essentially. I suppose your first assignment should be to tie up any loose ends. Sever your pending social obligations."
"So..." Flood thought for a moment. "Should I quit my day job?"
"Shouldn't be too hard," Flood explained. "I didn't exactly leave on a high note the other day." He bowed his head."Thanks for giving me a chance, Princess."
Trixie hadn't been at the Delivery Company when Flood came to give his resignation. Instead, he gave the receptionist a short note telling Trixie that he wouldn't be coming back to work as a delivery pony. As he walked along the Thoroughfare, he felt somewhat refreshed; as though his life was finally turning around.
"So the princess wants me to tie up any loose ends," Flood wondered aloud. Is there really anything to take care of? Dinky's with Cheerilee, I just quit my job...
He walked past Berry's bar. Ah hayseed...my tab. Flood trotted inside.
The bar was never really busy in the afternoon, but it always had its fair share of patrons. A trio of earth ponies were laughing with each other at one of the tables. Berry was at the bar, giving a white stallion a drink, when she noticed Flood approaching the counter.
"Back for more?" she asked.
Flood laughed. "Nah, just came back to pay the tab." He took a seat at the bar.
She started filling a glass with orange juice. "Have one on me then, mailcolt."
"Quit that job a little while ago, actually." He accepted the glass and took a sip. "Something better came up."
One of the colts at the table behind them laughed again. "Don't get too used to it kid," he said to Flood. "Celestia might set that on fire too!" The other two started laughing as well.
Flood turned around on his stool, smirking. "Yeah, sure."
"Really, kid," the pony went on. He took a sip from his glass. "Bitch is crazy." This elicited another roar of laughter from his friends.
"Funny," Flood said. He turned back to Berry, rolling his eyes.
"Watch the tone, kid." The colt was suddenly serious.
"Yeah, or Molestia might send you to the moon!" The table continued their laughter. "Here's to another thousand years!" One of the colts drained his glass, while another wiped a tear from his eye, still chuckling.
Then a harsh mare's voice rang out from a darkened corner of the lounge.
"I've heard just about enough out of you!"
Flood's head pivoted as he turned to the source of the angered pony. A female unicorn stepped into view.
"Well lookit this filly," one of the colts said. She glared at them.
She was a lavender-coated mare, looking to be somewhat older than Flood. Her mane was a dark indigo, with streaks of deep purple and pink. Her eyes were a color similar to her coat, and were giving the obnoxious ponies a death stare.
"Don't tell me you're one of Molestia's little ponies," one of them said. The other two snickered as all three stood up from the table.
"And what if I am?" the mare shot back.
A hint of malice crept into his voice. "We don't quite appreciate sympathizers," he replied. The colts were moving around the table, very slowly, towards her. "Lost our homes and jobs to that bitch."
"I said that's enough." The mare was bristling with anger.
"Ooh, and what're you gonna do, have your precious princess send us to the moon? Or maybe you'll call her sister," he paused for effect. "Heard she knows plenty about that!" He suddenly lunged at the mare.
Flood nearly fell off his stool as a green bolt of energy suddenly arced up into the ceiling behind the lavender mare. Everyone in the lounge froze. From behind the unicorn stepped an imposing figure: a bipedal creature Flood had never seen before. Its purple, scaled body stood completely upright, with green spines stretching all along its back, from the top of the head to the tip of the spiked tail. Flood could see wings outstretched from its back.
What it was holding was an even bigger mystery. In the creature's claws was clutched a peculiar device: a long cone of gilded, shining metal, inlaid with a simple swirling design. A handle of wood was attached to one end, while the other remained open, a trail of pale green smoke billowing from it.
The colts were slack-jawed as they watched it step between the mare and the colt that charged her, now on the floor, scrambling backwards. Then it spoke.
"Don't make Twilight repeat herself," he said in a gruff voice. He waved the device in their direction. "That a problem?"
All three of the trembling-and now sober- colts shook their heads.
"Good." At his last word, as if on cue, a chunk of the ceiling where the bolt had struck fell onto a table. The colts took off without warning, making a mad dash for the lounge exit. The doors violently swung closed as the last one left the room.
"Come on," the mare called Twilight said. "Let's go home." She calmly strode over to the doors and pushed one open with a brief touch of magic.
The creature approached the bar. Flood tensed up, thinking he might be next.
"Sorry about the mess," he apologized. He turned towards the exit, tossing a handful of bits onto the counter. The door swung shut as he left.
Berry sighed. "Those two."
Flood was still partially in shock. "Who were they?!"
"Twilight Sparkle, Princess Luna's number one. The other one was Spike, her dragon friend." Berry reached over and scooped up the bits.
"Did you say dragon? There are dragons living down here?"
"Yeah," Berry replied.
Wait, did she say...
"...They're with Luna?" Flood asked.
"Crap, I need to catch up with them!" Flood hopped off his stool and made for the exit. He suddenly pivoted around and went straight back to Berry, grabbing the glass of juice and draining it, simultaneously tossing a bag of bits onto the counter in front of her. "My tab," he said.
She chuckled. "See you around, mailcolt."
"Hey, hold up!"
Flood had caught up to Twilight and Spike, calling out to them. They kept walking.
That got her attention. She and Spike stopped, turning to see who called out to them. Flood came to a halt in front of the two.
"Can I help you?" Twilight asked, a little impatiently.
"I, uh...wanna help," Flood said.
"Who are you again?"
"Oh, uh, I'm Flood," he replied somewhat sheepishly.
Twilight cocked her head. "I think the princess told me about you."
"Yes, the one that encountered the golem, correct?"
Flood's face lit up. "Yeah, that was me!"
"...and ran away."
His face immediately fell. "...Yeah."
Spike snorted. "Come on, Twilight." He gestured down the road.
"Now Spike, no need to rush," she said. "He wants to help. I have something perfect for him to take care of."
Flood raised his brow. "You do?"
"Why yes! Here," Twilight levitated a folded piece of paper from her saddlebag towards Flood. "this is very important. Get it done as soon as possible." Her and Spike turned and set off again down the street.
Flood unfolded the paper in front of him, raising it to eye level. It was a list.
"Medical order from Mantle City Clinic, rations from Sweet Apple Caverns, clothing order from Mantle Boutique," he read aloud. His face fell again.
Sighing, he slipped the list into his own saddlebag.
"I'm doing her shopping?"
The families of Mantle City, while grateful that they were given free food, water, and energy, still had a further demand: the education of their youth. Mantle Elementary was established for this reason. Cheerilee had gladly taken up a teaching job there, having been the Ponyville schoolteacher many years before.
Her teaching day had just ended, the classroom empty save for the young unicorn filly waiting by her desk. It had been nearly a day since she had been placed under her care. Her mother was gone, and the only pony she had left had asked if Cheerilee would look after her. She worried about him and what he was going through. He had been really close with Dinky's mother, and was even there when she died. The schoolteacher couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to live with that guilt.
Cheerilee pulled a saddlebag over her head. "Okay, Dinky. Let's go home."
"Okay," Dinky replied. "Miss Cheerilee?"
"Do you know when Flood will be back?" she asked somberly.
"I wish I did, sweetheart," Cheerliee said, dejected.
As they approached the school exit, the door suddenly opened on its own. A familiar unicorn stood in the doorway. For the first time in a long time, Cheerilee saw Dinky smile.
"Flood!" she cried, galloping up to the unicorn and hugging his chest tightly. He smiled back and returned the embrace.
"Hey, Dinky. How are you?"
"Good to see you again," Cheerilee said to Flood. "What brings you to here?"
"Came to talk to you two, actually." He looked down at Dinky. "Something important to tell you, Dinky." She looked up at him with wide eyes. "I've got a lot of work to do. Some of it might be dangerous."
Dinky's lower lip quivered and she began to tear up. Flood pulled her in close. "But don't worry about me, okay? I'll come back as soon as I can."
Cheerilee watched them both with a heavy heart. He had simplified things for Dinky, a filly that was still reeling from the loss of her only parent, who had no idea why everypony lived below the earth in unspoken fear. But Cheerilee was an adult, and she knew the chances that someday, everypony would be in danger again.
Flood pulled away from Ditzy, and handed her a few bits from his bag. "Go get yourself an afterschool snack while I talk to Cheerilee, okay?"
She nodded, gave him one final hug, and trotted off through the exit as Flood watched her leave. Then he turned to Cheerilee.
"You look a lot better," she noted.
"Does that mean you've...?"
"Come to terms?" Another nod. "Yeah, I think so. How's Dinky been behaving?"
"Very well," Cheerilee answered. "The other children asked her why she's so sad today...surprisingly, she talked to the class about it. For a group of schoolchildren, they're very supportive." She smiled at Flood; he returned it. "They all sat with her at lunch this afternoon."
There was a period of silence as Flood gathered his thoughts. "Cheerilee, there's something much bigger going on. I don't know what, but I swear I'll get to the bottom of it." He gestured over his shoulder towards the doors. "I've got a few, uh..." Flood cleared his throat. "Errands to run, and then I might not be around so much. I'm not sure what I'll be up to."
"Just come back safely, alright? There's a little filly that still needs you."
"I will," Flood promised. He turned to walk out the doors to find Dinky and say goodbye once more.
"Good luck," Cheerilee called out after him.
The doors swung shut.