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A brief tour of Cloudsdaleo
The darkness lifted. There was no up or down as the horizon spun dizzyingly around him and the wind roared in his ears. Thought battled against vertigo. He was flying. He was falling. Spinning. Quickly. Too quickly.
Land and sky had become a blur and nausea threatened to overtake him as he struggled to grasp the situation. Focus. A flat spin, but the altimeter wasn't screaming. Yet. No, he couldn't afford to panic now. Just fly. He centered the controls and quickly hunched forward as far as he could. The nose dropped as he shifted the center of gravity, steepening the spin and improving airflow across the wings. Reaching over, he adjusted the controls to counter the rotation. After a long moment, he felt the airfoils began to bite and he breathed a sigh of relief as he settled back into stable flight. His head still spun, but he was back in control and began to scan quickly for damage.
His Swift was a beautiful little craft. A cross between a hang hang glider and a sailplane, it could be foot launched like a hang-glider, but it's rigid wing allowed it to still achieve most of the performance of a pure sailplane. It also had recumbent seating and was controlled by a joystick using rudders, flaps and elevons, rather than by shifting the pilot's weight. Compared to a hang-glider, this combination was much more comfortable and took less effort to fly, increasing the pilot's endurance. The little craft seemed to have come through the dangerous maneuver well. Its controls were responsive and the snow-white wings had no visible damage.
The day was still beautiful and clear, and it looked like he hadn't lost much altitude. As his stomach settled, he slowly relaxed, unclenching white knuckles from the joystick. He'd just gotten up here and didn't want to cut his flight short. He loved the exhilarating sense of freedom he got from flying. Especially with gliders, the dance of balancing speed and altitude, lift and drag was like nothing else. Be it skipping between thermals, riding wild gusts, exploring cloud cathedrals or simply soaring in an endless expanse of deep blue sky, up here he was one with the wind – at peace with the world.
If flight were dance, aerobatics would be the flourish, but somehow he had just awoken flat on the floor. It was an unnerving aberration, and he took several deep breaths as the rush of adrenaline faded. It was quickly replaced by a sense of growing unease. Though the sky seemed the same, ahead of him lay an odd cloud formation that he couldn't recall. It seemed to have unusually regular forms, appearing oddly sculpted. It also had a few patches of strangely localized precipitation, and a rather out-of-place rainbow. There were a number of bright specks clustered around it as well – possibly large birds.
Unusual as the clouds were, his attention was soon riveted to the ground instead. Where am I? He couldn't recognize anything – there wasn't a single familiar landmark. He should have been flying over towns and fields, with Geneva just ahead. Instead, he saw only wilderness. There were no cities or expressways, Lake Geneva was missing, and the mountains were unrecognizable. He paled as he realized how completely lost he was.
Just how long had he been unconscious? The spin had to have been brief, or he would have crashed. He had flown from the Salève many times before – there shouldn't have been anywhere in gliding range that would be this different. As he continued looking around, he spotted even stranger things. In the distance off to the side, he could see what looked like a castle plucked from a fairytale and perched implausibly on a mountainside. Odder still, far behind him was what looked like a waterspout, but without a storm. Instead, a shimmering column of water snaked into the sky, like the liquid alien from that old movie “The Abyss” he remembered watching as a kid.
Abruptly, he was jarred from his thoughts as he encountered a violent vortex. The Swift twisted like a snake, and he fought the controls as it stumbled in midair. It felt like he'd run into a horizontal tornado. As soon as he penetrated the outer boundary, however, the air calmed. He found himself carried along, rapidly gaining altitude and speed as he arced towards the clouds he had noticed earlier.
As he closed the distance, he noticed even more oddities about the small cluster of cumulus clouds. The shapes were too regular and well defined. Even stranger, they seemed to support buildings – he thought he could make out columns, pennants, and other architectural features.
The nearest structure was perhaps the most peculiar. It was surrounded by a swarm of small nimbus clouds, but was itself smooth and white. Its form was geometric and regular; a cylinder, round on one end and open on the other, with a large tapered funnel perched at the top. The overall shape reminded him uncomfortably of a sausage grinder. The birds around it were... odd. They were flying wrong and something seemed off with their feet. He didn't know what to make of it.
As he drew closer, he strained his eyes and was alarmed to see what looked like tornadoes arrayed within the depths of the top intake. He had no desire to experience whatever could create the powerful forces he was experiencing, but the strange vortex he was in seemed to be carrying him directly to it.
Already too close for comfort, he tried to bank away from the clouds. As soon as his wing encountered the side of the vortex, however, it was deflected gently back to the center. He tried again, this time diving, and was baffled when the same resistance supported him. By now he had almost reached the structure, and could clearly make out the maelstrom awaiting him.
Praying he wouldn’t go into another spin, he rolled the Swift sharply, pitching it on edge, and then crossing the controls to slip down vertically. The sudden drop knifed through the bottom of the vortex and took him below the level of the intake, though at the expense of briefly rolling the craft. He recovered quickly, but he was already too close to the edifice. Unable to turn away in time, he braced for impact, or at least turbulence. Bursting into a huge factory hall came as a complete surprise.
Time seemed to slow as he tried to process what he saw. He was about halfway up the interior wall of what looked like some sort of factory. Machines of unknown purpose lined the walls, billowing vapor and filling the air with a loud industrial hum. The space was crowded with a riot of colorful flying... No, that can’t possibly be right. Don’t think about it. Focus. Cables, tubes, and ductwork hung in the air or snaked on the ground, creating a disorienting and hazardous environment. Just fly.
Passing over one such machine, a sudden burst of air threw him upwards, directly into the overhead tangle of machines and connections. Again there was no impact, though he felt the little glider shudder at encountering unseen forces as he cleared a wide swath along the ceiling. Behind him, he heard the sudden howl of wind and crackle of electric discharge.
The end of the room loomed and he blew through another wall. He found himself in an even larger room, but instead of the vapor-belching machines, there were a series of tiered pools of bright liquid color. It was crowded with workers, including a large cluster dead ahead.
He reflexively pulled up, intending to avoid a collision by escaping the room altogether. As he slid into the cloud, however, instead of piercing through as it had so far, the little craft shook and fell back as it encountered something unexpectedly dense. Dropping back down, he saw the wing was now coated in the bright liquid and leaving a rainbow trail.
He heard a roar behind him and risked looking back. The ceiling was dissolving, allowing a massive sheet of the rainbow liquid to pour in. Fortunately, though he hadn't been able to escape the room, he had gained enough altitude to miss the strange flyers, especially as the knot dissolved into panicked flight.
Another wall loomed, and the scene changed again. This time he was enveloped in winter, as the temperature dropped precipitously in a room piled high with mounds of snow. Fortunately, this room was barely inhabited and he didn't have to make any evasive maneuvers. He left chaos in his wake nonetheless, as the piles of snow flew into a swirling frenzy behind him.
One more wall, and then he finally burst into the open, trailed by a kaleidoscopic blizzard and a growing chorus of panicked yells and shrill alarms. He was still near the tops of these strange clouds, and he found he had exited above the edge of what looked like a large plaza. It was well populated, and he found himself the sudden center of attention with many now staring aghast at his surprise entrance.
The Swift rose further, trading velocity for altitude, and he briefly hung over the scene. Having made it through the high-stakes slalom, he released his death grip on the controls and slumped back into his seat in relief. In this moment of respite, his brain finally caught up with events and he came to a sudden, terrible realization. I've had some sort of stroke or seizure, and am in a deluded state. I already blacked out once, and clearly can't trust my perceptions now. No matter how you look at it, I am not fit to fly. There is only one thing left to do now – I just should have done it sooner. Mechanically, he reached up and pulled a red handle mounted on the frame.
The rocket exploded upwards with a brief hiss, followed by the soft but reassuring fwoomph of the ballistic reserve parachute deploying. He grunted as he was flung into his restraints by the sudden deceleration. Any of the inhabitants who hadn't noticed him before now clearly had, and they scrambled out of his way as the glider ground to a stop and then began to descend slowly.
Rainbow fluid had begun to run down the sides of the canopy. Now that he was at rest, he swung the canopy up to clear his vision. He was finally able to get a real look at the creatures. It did not reassure him of his own faculties. Flying, yes. Birds, no. From up close they actually appeared to be winged horses. The pegasi of Greek legends, except the Greeks hadn't said anything about their incredible array of colors, smaller size, ability to stand on clouds, or talk. Silence fell at his appearance. What snatches of conversation he could still overhear were beautiful and lilting, but utterly unintelligible. This just keeps getting weirder and weirder. He wasn't sure if he should feel betrayed by the Greeks omitting so many important points, or worry over his own eroding sanity.
A few of the pegasi circled him curiously, though most seemed wary. Those standing nearest were backing away from his descent path. Pilot and pegasi stared at each other in mutual confusion, as the parachute billowed and the Swift descended slowly until it reached the clouds below. The pegasi may have been standing on them as if they were solid ground, but the cockpit passed through smoothly, and he felt only the slightest hesitation as the wing followed afterwards.
Just like everything else, the inside of the cloud was a bit off. Rather than entering into a mist and having visibility gradually taper off, the transition was abrupt, with well-defined boundaries. The movement of the vapor seemed to be constrained, despite being as insubstantial as ever. After a few seconds, the cloud ended as abruptly as it began, and he found himself in a room. Looking up, he could see the Swift had left a hole behind it; he estimated the layer of cloud to have been one to two meters thick.
The room he had dropped into was a different breed from the ones in the strange factory. For one, though the ceilings were high, it was much smaller. Its purpose was much more familiar as well. Rather than having inscrutable cloud machinery, it was a simple lobby that could have been taken from any hotel or fancy apartment – but for everything being made out of clouds. The walls were lined with artwork and shelves, and there were a number of little clusters of sofas and low tables scattered about the floor. On the far end of the room was a long front desk, presently empty.
He found it interesting that somehow these cloud surfaces appeared able to support non-cloud items, and watched in fascination as his wing came down on top of a table that held a lamp and magazine. There was a brief moment of resistance, and then with a sound halfway between a zap and a pop, all the items suddenly fell through. They continued falling as well, vanishing into the cloud below.
A moment later, there was another hesitation, and he looked up to see that the parachute was now entering the cloud. Despite the parachute's larger surface area and the extra cohesion these clouds seemed to have, it was not enough to check his descent.
As he continued to watch, he saw the cloud material trapped inside the parachute deform and even out as it settled. The parachute was clearly leaving a big hole in the floor, but within the parachute the hole his wings and cockpit had left quickly vanished.
He dropped in on another room, and found he had company. Two pairs of ears perked up, and bright eyes regarded him intently. Below him sat a pair of little pegasi, both about the size of a large cat. Foals? He wondered. Both had silver eyes, but while one had a dusty teal coat and lavender mane, the other's coat was ruddy orange with a red-streaked black mane.
The room was littered with toys, and it looked like they'd been bouncing off the walls – literally. He could see small hoofprints all the way up. No wonder there were no windows. Come to think of it, the other room had been windowless as well.
After a brief pause at his arrival, two tiny pairs of wings sprung open and began to buzz. Though he was still high off the floor, they lifted off the ground and quickly darted up to his level. There they circled him like hummingbirds around a flower, letting out a continuous stream of sing-song babble.
He tried to shoo them away, but they seemed more interested in exploring the giant colorful toy that had just dropped into their room. If anything, the gesticulating figure making funny noises was just a bonus. After circling a few times, they settled on the top of the wing and began running back and forth, splashing and creating colorful patterns on its still rainbow-wet surface.
Meanwhile, the Swift continued its inexorable descent, soon reaching the cloud floor. His unruly passengers shrieked in glee and bounced excitedly as they rode the wing down into the next room.
This cloud layer had a new oddity. So far, all the clouds had been a uniform white, diffusing the sunlight into a gentle, omnidirectional glow. Some change had been wrought in this cloud, however. Passing through cut off light like a heavy curtain, and the interior of the room was wreathed in shadow.
For a moment, he was plunged into darkness, and all he could hear was a sudden deep rumbling roar. Then the top of the wing cleared the ceiling, and light poured in through the room's brand new skylight.
Gold, bronze, and steel glistened and gleamed in the gentle half-light of the room. The walls seemed to be studded with stars, as points of light reflected from the various pieces of armor and weaponry displayed. A panicked mental calculation reassured him that the parachute was probably not going to be shredded by all the hardware adorning the walls, at least.
That still left a rather large problem sprawled on a cloud bed near the center of the room, however. Said problem being pure white, blue maned, powerfully built, quite clearly male, and snoring like a freight train.
His sedate descent gave him plenty of time to fret at the abundance of pointy death and potential mayhem in the room. This was not something he was equipped to deal with. The foals did not share his concern in the slightest, however, running about and shrieking in complete abandon. Well, this may be it. He thought glumly to himself.
Two meters, then one. He was on the edge of his seat as the tip of the left wing just missed the stallion, instead encountering a pile of magazines spilling out from under the bed. Zwop zwop zwop – the magazines went tumbling down. Then he was past. The massive stallion barely twitched an ear.
The next room was thankfully empty. It looked like it might be some sort of living room; it was hard to tell, as the room was completely bare. An apartment between renters, perhaps. It was just as well the room was boring – he wasn't really paying attention, anyhow; his mind was preoccupied with the parachute above. Though he couldn’t see what was going on anymore, he was fairly sure the descending maw of the parachute was about to encounter the slumbering stallion.
The Swift swayed slightly as it descended, and he could feel the small vibrations of the foals’ little hooves as they chased each other rambunctiously. Then he felt a heavier resistance as the parachute caught on something large and solid. There was a snort as the snoring from above abruptly cut off; he held his breath nervously. Then he felt the resistance start to give way, and the chute resumed its downward journey. A few moments more and the snoring resumed as well, though much more softly now. He let out a quiet sigh of relief – reassured that he was not about to have an unpleasant encounter with his latest unwitting passenger.
The next room found a pair of orange eyes already fixed on the ceiling in irritation. This room was a bit smaller, and the steamy air thick with the scent of lavender. In the center, a pegasus lay blissfully in a raised pool of water. A cloud bathtub?
Its occupant was bright yellow, with a fiery orange blaze of mane. There were no dead giveaways like with the stallion, but also no hint of his blocky build. Though muscular, this pegasus had the lean physique of a dancer or athlete. It may have been the effect of the water, but despite its alien appearance, the sleek conditioning and refined lines imparted a distinctly feminine air. Indeed, he found himself actually rather impressed by the latent power and lithe grace she exuded.
The reverse did not appear to be true. Whatever nuisance she had been expecting, he and the foals did not appear to have been on the list. She slowly rose, dripping, from the water. With her coat plastered to her body, mane falling limp, and sodden wings raised threateningly, she was quite the sight. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to watch both him and the foals, clearly nonplussed by their behavior. He could almost see the gears in her head grind to a halt as irritation gave way to incomprehension and then alarm.
It didn't take long for her to regain her focus. She tensed up, assuming the taut readiness of a sprinter at the starting blocks. As he reached the cloud level, she dove for the foals, who mirthfully dodged aside. She quickly recovered and tried again, with the same result. Then he was below her and falling; he peered back up through the deepening hole. She had ended up on the edge to his right, and was glaring down from her perch by the tub. Unfortunately, she was a little too focused.
The glider gave a shudder as the descent briefly slowed again. He saw the ceiling bulge, before a disc of cloud detached and descended rapidly. He closed his eyes and looked away. The parachute lurched again, this time accompanied by an indignant yelp from above. There was the same brief hesitation, but this time the release was accompanied by a burst of lavender-scented rain and a series of vigorous exclamations. He had no doubt that his newest passenger was not amused by this latest turn of events. Well, look on the bright side. At least the water missed. He mused.
He finally looked around. This appeared to be some sort of kitchen, but the contents had barely registered before he was already passing through the floor.
Looking back up, he saw the mare's head break through the bottom of the cloud, just in time to meet the new layer of floor rushing up. She shot him a very dirty look before their line of sight was once again cut off.
Two more floors, both empty; another living room and then a bedroom. The third was occupied, but the occupant fled before the Swift had even fully left the ceiling.
This latest room was a little different. It looked like some sort of office, complete with desks loaded with what appeared to be paperwork. Some things never change. In the middle, on a raised dais was what appeared to be a map. Though the symbols were indecipherable, it reminded him of a weather forecast. More importantly, this room had windows! Down below, he could see the ground. Dare he hope?
The next cloud layer was a bit different. The mist was a bit thicker, darker, and went on for longer. Still, he was pleased it didn't immediately lead into another room. The moments in the enveloping gray stretched out, until...
Finally! He tasted open air as he fell away from the strange cloud construct. His parachute caught the wind, and he drifted off to the side. Looking up, he could see an open column of air that clearly marked his path of descent. On one edge perched the strange cloud edifice he had first encountered. His eyes widened as he saw flames coming from it. An ominous plume of multicolored smoke was beginning to snake up into the sky. How can clouds even burn? He wondered.
He noticed that a change had come over the cloud above in the parachute as well. No longer the fluffy white material he had been accumulating, it now looked darker, heavier. A few drops of rain began to sprinkle down. Where they struck the wing exploded into unexpected sparks of blazing color and arcing effervescent energy, eliciting little yipes from the foals. Now thoroughly splattered in the liquid rainbow, the foals whined and danced away from the raindrops, eventually taking flight. They briefly hovered in the shelter underneath the glider’s wings before coming to some sort of unspoken decision. He was caught off guard when they suddenly made a beeline for the canopy and he found his hands full of energetic young pegasi.
Opening his mouth to protest, he immediately received a mouthful of wet feathers for his trouble. Time briefly stopped as his taste buds short-circuited all higher mental functions. It was like licking a high voltage battery made of frozen wasabi. Rainbows were delicious. He mused a bit. They'd go better on some sushi than unaccompanied, though. Or maybe in a dip? Hmmm...
He wasn't sure exactly how long it took him to recover from his little culinary reverie, but when he returned to the present, he found the teal foal industriously trying to excavate his lunchbox from its pocket at his side. Moving to defend his lunch, he discovered one of his arms was pinned by the orange foal sprawling across his lap, sound asleep. It took some doing to extract it out from under the orange foal, correction, the orange colt, but he managed to do so without waking it.
With both hands free, he was able to fend off the little teal treasure hunter, and reclaim his lunch. It ah, no, she, settled back on his legs by her brother and looked at him forlornly. Now this was an arena in which he was outclassed. The wind ruffled her still rainbow-wet feathers a little as she just sat there, looking up at him with big innocent eyes. He sighed. He was a softie when it came to cats, little kids, and now apparently foals as well.
He knew he couldn't hold out, but there wasn't really any reason to, anyhow. He dug into the lunchbox, rummaging around a bit until he pulled out a cup of applesauce. The teal filly watched him intently, eyes going wide when he opened it and held it out towards her. She buzzed up and over, and squeaked brightly at him before burying her muzzle in the small plastic dish. He moved his other hand over to give her support as she eagerly inhaled the applesauce, and she settled down on his arm. When her little wings flicked closed, he was surprised to feel just how light she was.
Focused as he was on the teal filly, he barely registered that the rain had stopped before the yellow mare burst out of the clouds, looking ready to spit fire. She dropped like a stone a little ways before opening her wings with a sharp retort. She must have somehow dried off, because she flew powerfully, seeming completely unhindered. She looped over the glider once before settling into a steady circular orbit. As he tracked the mare's movements, he felt the teal filly relax into him, joining her sibling in slumber.
The mare did not appear to enjoy seeing him holding two limp foals, but he was ensconced in the Plexiglas cocoon of the cockpit, and she seemed unwilling to risk damaging the craft while they were inside of it. She settled for shadowing him aggressively and performing ominous charades.
He had to crane his head up to keep her in sight. As he did so, his attention was diverted by a streak of motion in the corner of his eye. He looked over to see the same column of liquid from the waterspout snake into the top of the cloud structure.
For a few moments, nothing happened; the smoke might have even started to taper off. Then, in a sudden flash of light, the clouds melted away as a prismatic shockwave tore out in all directions. Jagged rainbows jetted out, seemingly at random, while scintillating showers of energy rained down, slowly fading as they spread. He stared up aghast at the maelstrom – the structure at its heart had simply vanished, along with a substantial piece of the adjoined sky city. He heard the booming thunderclap a few moments later, before being buffeted by the force of the distant explosion.
The Swift danced around a bit, but all the lines held. The yellow mare was jostled as well, but she wasn't in a state to notice anything as trivial as turbulence. She had broken off her circling when the building erupted, just hovering as she stared up in shock and alarm. He could see her restraining her impulse to dash up and help. Abruptly, she fixed him with a fierce, accusatory gaze, as if he were the sole source of all her troubles. Well, to be fair, she may currently have a point, he thought, wryly rueful.
The ground was approaching quickly now. The altimeter decided it should wake up and inform him of his impending doom. At this point, he felt sufficiently well acquainted with impending doom, and shut it off. Up above, the great cloud city was tattered, with pegasi boiling out of it and darting off in all directions. Two little foals lay in his lap, twitching in their sleep, while the mare had resumed circling menacingly. The patch of cloud in the parachute slumbered on.
He couldn't help but chuckle at the absurdity of the situation, though his laugh was, perhaps, a little bit strained.
So, I wake up when I reach the ground, right? Right?!?
Downhill both ways
The land seemed to float up sedately, but he knew his speed was deceptive. Still, from this vantage point, he could see the countryside spread out below him, rugged and beautiful.
Behind him, a broad, verdant plain stretched off into the distance. Ahead, the view was blocked by a range of snowcapped mountains that ran off to his right, where the plain gave way to forest. At the border between the two, he noticed a brief flash of light, and his breath caught as he saw a pair of parallel lines running arrow-straight in a cleared strip of land. Looking closely, he could see they continued towards him, past the edge of the wood. A railroad? He followed it all the way past him and across to his left side, where it disappeared at the base of an imposing mountain spire that supported the fairy tale castle he had noted earlier.
The middle ground beneath him was covered by a patchwork of hills and fields that overflowed with a wide assortment of trees and differently colored plants. He could see some signs of cultivation, and he made out a small cluster of buildings by the railroad. He was currently above the far side of the fields, however, falling down to where the hills grew rough and forested as they built up into mountains. It looked like he was heading towards the top of one such hill, its grassy crown rising above the surrounding vegetation like a monk's tonsure.
He dropped further, and as the carpet of greenery below resolved into individual patches of trees and meadow, his perspective of the land crossed that unconscious line between looking down to looking out. With little time left, he quickly cleared the cabin, stowing his lunch and other loose items in the backpack at his feet. Secure in his flight harness, he braced for impact, gathering the foals in and holding them close to his chest. They squealed drowsily at this, squirming in his grasp. Another few seconds and he was below the treetops, the grassy clearing rushing up to meet him.
There was an instant of motion and noise as he was thrust against his seat – the foals lead weights atop him. The cockpit rocked briefly, and then was still. He glanced up to see where the parachute would fall, and was taken aback to see it still hanging above him. Without the weight of the glider, it floated serenely in the gentle breeze, like some giant nylon jellyfish.
Staring up at the scene, he felt like he'd been kicked in the gut, and it had nothing to do with the rough landing. He was still very much here. His hands were clammy and his heart pounded. His throat was dry while his mouth still burned. His chest was sore where the foals lay, as well as where the harness had cut into him earlier. He could smell the wind. He could feel the warmth and the weight of the foals as they moved in his arms. All his senses were yelling that this was solid and real, but it couldn't be. A floating parachute made no sense. These pegasi shouldn't be able to fly. Exploding rainbows were ludicrous. This whole thing was a crazy amalgam of the familiar and the absurd.
He grunted in irritation. Sensical or not, whatever this... experience was, it was persistent. It had also proved it could hurt, so until he had a better idea of what was going on, he should probably treat things seriously. Of course, that also meant trying to make some sense out of this mess. Yeah. Good luck with that. He groused to himself.
There was a rustling thud to his right, and he looked over to see that the yellow mare had landed in the grass just beyond the shadow of the parachute. Noticing his gaze, she took a low stance, legs wide and pawing the ground aggressively, though she had an ear cocked quizzically at the parachute above.
She gestured pointedly with a forehoof, indicating first the foals and then the ground in front of her, while barking something curtly and flexing her wings for emphasis. He needed no translation to pick up that particular message.
He moved carefully, not wanting to provoke her, reaching over to bring the sleepily squirming foals out of the cockpit. Her eyes narrowed and her tail lashed as she watched them struggle, but she restrained herself with a visible effort.
Snick snick snick. They both jumped in surprise as a loose cluster of arrows sprouted from the ground between them. Thock. A polearm of some sort buried itself nearby. Another crash sounded somewhere behind him. He had only a moment to register an omnidirectional whistling before more impacts quickly drowned it out.
The mare’s eyes darted upwards and widened in alarm. She turned to run, but made it only about three paces before thwump thwump thwump thwump, she stumbled, crumpling to a boneless heap on the ground in mid-stride. A stove flattened a nearby bush at almost the same instant as a barbell sank deep into the ground. All around him, the implements of daily life plummeted down, the pock of flowerpots, crump of furniture and tinkle of cutlery merging into a single overwhelming cacophony as a perverse hailstorm threshed the land. The city is falling, he thought in horror.
The Swift was a small island of refuge at the center of a storm of chaos. Shielded by the parachute, from above came just the quiet blat of objects impacting cloud-padded nylon, followed by a soft fabric scree as they slid down the sides. A small ring built up around the edges of the parachute as deflected items accumulated. He hoped the sleeper was deep enough in the cloud to be safe from the surface impacts. The clouds themselves seemed to muffle the noise, as well, and it was somewhat odd to be assaulted by noise from all sides except for above.
Only a small handful of items penetrated the parachute – those sharp, fast or heavy enough to pierce the tough fabric and make it to the ground. He watched as a line of cutlery embedded themselves just to the side, and felt the frame rattle a couple of times from other unseen impacts. The Plexiglas cockpit added another layer of protection, though it did little to make the experience less nerve-wracking; he couldn’t see what was coming, let alone do anything about it. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the initial rolling crash of heavier objects gave way to the scattered pops, plinks and tinks of glassware and wood, before eventually tapering off to the slithering of fabric and rustling of parchment.
He had pulled the foals back in at the first sign of trouble, holding them close once more. They had been quiet during the debris storm itself, eyes wide and ears darting about rapidly. Now they began squirming again with renewed vigor. Well, there has to have been a finite amount of furnishings up there, he rationalized. Still, he waited just a little bit longer; until only a few frilly unmentionables were left fluttering down, and he was certain it was safe.
The foals complained as he reached out again and finally set them down, but they both perked up as they keyed in on their surroundings. He unstrapped his harness and clambered out after them, before reaching back to retrieve his backpack. He didn’t keep much in it when flying, but among the few necessities was a small first-aid kit. Pack in hand, he made his way over to the mare's slumped form.
She hadn’t made it far, which was a good thing. It was definitely a disaster zone out here, and walking was treacherous. Just about anything he could imagine lay scattered on the ground with various degrees of damage. Here lay a dented metal urn. To the side a pile of broken shards he guessed used to be dishware. A little ways away, though still too close for comfort, lay the hulk of a shattered piano, some bales of hay, and an anvil, of all things. In between everything, broken bits of foodstuffs and tangled items of clothing were strewn about liberally. The smell reminded him a bit of a farmers market or a sidewalk sale – a potpourri of old furnishings and fresh produce.
Though the wreckage was extensive, it was not too dense. He was also thankful to see that the one thing the debris did not contain was any other pegasi. Approaching the yellow mare, he knelt down cautiously. She lay on her side, legs outstretched, wings askew and splattered with various bits of pulped fruit and kicked-up dirt. A doughy brownish mass covered her temple and spilled down the back of her head, matting the fiery strands of her mane.
Concerned, he leaned in – looking closely, but careful not to touch. The substance was finely textured, and glistened wetly in the sunlight; he couldn’t readily place it. He blinked, and looked again. Were those nuts? Turning his attention away from her, he spotted several similar blobs scattered in the grass nearby. He pulled a small piece from one of the other blobs, and compared it critically to the material on her head – it looked the same. Bringing the piece to his face, it smelled decidedly culinary, and he risked a quick lick.
The doughy mass was... dough. Apparently she'd been knocked out by some errant unbaked goods. She's going to feel that in the morning, he thought. Still, aside from that, her breathing was steady, if shallow, and he saw no cuts or blood. His limited first aid skills would be of no use here.
He stood up and stretched. Taking a step back, he peered up, scanning for approaching fliers. He didn't see any, but was not left wondering why – the cloud city had changed dramatically since he last looked. Though the total mass of clouds was much the same, marked differences had emerged among them.
Those parts nearest the blast were completely unrecognizable. About a quarter of the city had vanished or been reduced to shreds, whipped around and deformed into twisted streamers of mist, drifting away on the wind. By contrast, the furthest third seemed to be intact. From this perspective, he could see cloud spires hanging down like inverted skyscrapers. This section was a hive of activity, with pegasi streaming in and out, though they followed no pattern he could discern.
In the middle was a zone where the mass of cloud remained, but those spires and other architectural forms he had noted were fast melting away. It was like watching a sand castle dissolve as the tide crept in, or a picture going slowly out of focus. It was hard to tell from here, but he could see pegasi darting in and around these clouds, engaged in a variety of activities. Some were just burrowing into the clouds directly, while others seemed to be shaping them or moving them around. He was amazed at the display; sure, he had seen the pegasi interact with clouds before, but this took it to a whole new level. Remembering some of the disaster responses he had watched on TV, he silently urged them on. He doubted being stuck inside a melting cloud posed much actual danger compared to a collapsing building, but it probably wasn't all that pleasant, either.
As he watched, the swarm of activity increased in pace. They seemed to slowly be making some headway, despite the magnitude of the task. He didn't know how they were organized, but it didn't look like any were heading this way yet, and he wasn't going to hold his breath.
He checked his phone – no signal. I wish I could say I was surprised. What now? It was kind of a crazy problem to have, but after that insane, hair-raising flight, he found himself unexpectedly at loose ends. It was a relief to be on the ground, to be sure – even if he wasn’t quite so sure where exactly this ground was. That said, now that he was down here, he couldn’t really do much until he made contact with the local authorities, and they hadn't put in an appearance yet. He eyed the mare. I hope.
So what could he do besides wait? He closed his eyes. He could feel the sunlight, warm on his face in pleasant contrast to cool fingers of air as a breeze built. It tousled his hair and rustled the leaves in the trees, raising a soft susurration accompanied by birdcalls and the faint buzz of insects. He breathed deeply, taking in the pure air, fresh with the scent of trees and grass. It was peaceful and quiet. Too quiet.
His eyes snapped open, and he looked around frantically. Where are they? Among the varied pieces of debris, it took him a moment to spot the orange and teal figures as they darted across the clearing. The pair of intrepid explorers was almost at the treeline. They're just as bad as me and my brothers were.
"Wait, don't go in there! It could be dangerous!" He cried out, launching into pursuit. He might as well have tried to talk a boulder uphill; a turned ear was the only sign that they had even heard him.
Glass and other things crunched and popped underfoot as he tried to run, and he had to catch himself several times, as his feet repeatedly caught on or slipped in the varied debris. He had never been so grateful for his sturdy hiking boots, but even with them, he was far too slow. The foals had a big lead, and he was only halfway to the edge of the clearing when they disappeared into the forest gloom.
The two little pegasi had found a spot where the ground dipped down, creating a gap in the solid line of bushy undergrowth that ringed the grass. Reaching the treeline, he barreled on after them, trusting his tough flight jacket to ward off the branches.
The weak foliage offered no resistance. Several strides later, neither did the ground. His seeking foot found only air, and he cried out as he found himself falling forward, arms flailing wildly. A lucky grab found a low-hanging branch, and he hung on with desperate strength, while his feet scrambled for purchase as he fell.
His feet found sliding, crumbling support, but it dropped him further and further, until the branch let go with a dry crack. He stumbled forward, clutching the broken stick and trying to check his momentum on a steep slope of loose, shifting earth. Instead of slowing him, the disturbed ground began to move as well, flowing into what quickly developed into a steep gully. He managed perhaps half a dozen more precarious steps before finally losing his balance and falling back into the small river of earth.
It was dark, moving, loud and choking – a disorienting tempest of grit. He couldn't say how long or how far he rode atop the slide, but it seemed an eternity before it suddenly ceased. Ow. He lay there a moment as the last few stones rattled to a halt around him, before sitting up, coughing. A clean breeze blew from above, and he looked up to see the foals hovering overhead, giggling cherubically. Breathing as deeply as he could, he slowly counted to ten. They're just kids, they don't know any better. He repeated to himself.
As the air cleared, he could see how the slope had leveled out – robbing the slide of momentum, and leaving him sitting in a small fantail of gravel. He took a brief inventory, flexing experimentally. He hurt, yes, but only from a few abrasions and bruises; he had no cuts, breaks, or sprains, as far as he could tell. He'd have to do something about the sudden load of dirt in his pockets and shoes, though. He let out an exasperated sigh as he gingerly levered himself to his feet.
First things first, he stalked over to a large rock nearby, sat down, and proceeded to methodically rid his shoes and pockets of their brand-new dirt collection. The colt seemed to find this fascinating and hovered around inquisitively, poking at the various articles of clothing and sifting through the piles of dirt with his hooves.
He shrugged off the colt’s attention, focusing on his belongings instead. He was pleased to find his smartphone intact, and account for his keys and wallet. Next, he swung his backpack around and opened it carefully. First out was the first aid kit, then the lunchbox. As it emerged, the teal filly squeaked in interest and pushed in closer, laying her chin on his knee and looking up at him while her brother sat back, bemused.
Again? He huffed and put the box aside. Once is enough! Ears drooped, and big silver eyes looked up at him mournfully. Oh, that just isn't playing fair! … Fine. Diverted, he rummaged through his shrinking supply of food once more. He doubted they were after the water bottle, his applesauce was an empty husk, and the spare ribs were unthinkable. Celery sticks were his only option. He offered up his meager tribute, earning him another round of puppy dog eyes. “Sorry little miss,” he chuckled, “but that’s the best I can do.” She waited hopefully for just a little bit longer, and then daintily accepted when nothing else was forthcoming. Meanwhile, her brother had come up curiously, and seemed happy enough with his share.
The two pegasi happily chomping away, he put the lunch box aside and continued on to his original goal. A certain black plastic case was now in reach, and he relaxed incrementally when he pulled it out and saw the cover was scuffed but not damaged. Opening it, he saw the case had done its job – the screen was intact, and his tablet lit up at a touch. At least something’s gone right, he thought.
Since he was already half unpacked, he quickly ran through the other pockets to check what else he had to work with. His worldly possessions now consisted of a Swiss army knife, a wall-wart for the tablet, a nearly-new LED flashlight, a half-empty packet of tissues, some writing utensils and a tattered notepad.
The duo had almost demolished their snack, so he hastily replaced everything and got up, stepping back towards the hill as his mind raced.
It had been such a simple plan. ‘Stay in one place’ should be pretty hard to screw up, right? If he had, it would have been straightforward to contact the local authorities when they arrived. Best not to think of it, he sighed. He was where he was, and dwelling on the past did nothing to change the predicament he faced. Now that he had just effectively disappeared with the foals? Well, he knew how that would have been taken back home. Whatever else he did, he had to make absolutely certain he returned them safely.
So how could he make contact now? They'd undoubtedly be investigating the glider, but he had to either get back up to it, or signal them from here.
If he was stuck down here, how could he draw attention to himself? Cell phones were out, and he didn't have any of the proper signaling materials such as a flare gun, mirror, rescue whistle or firestarter. His jacket was a bright red, but he'd have to get out from under this tree cover if he wanted to be seen.
Could he get back up to the glider? The hill in front of him was steep, and the bushes that blanketed the bottom slopes were tough and thorny. The sandy gully he had come down was clear, but the footing was loose and treacherous. After a few fruitless attempts, he decided to circle around the hill, in search of an easier route up.
Fortunately, here at the base of the hill the tree canopy was thick and the underbrush sparse, so he had little trouble forging a path. Plus, now that he was out exploring with them, the foals seemed to find him interesting enough to follow around. After the way they’d ran off before, though, he was now careful to always keep them in sight. Thus, the trek progressed smoothly, though with frustratingly little progress.
Frustrating didn’t necessarily equate to boring, however. Mere minutes after setting out, he ran across a few plates had somehow come down intact, and he inspected the artwork on them with some interest. The designs reminded him of classical Greece, though the main artistic themes seemed to be weather and plants. They were pretty enough, he supposed, but of no use to him.
Further on, he came across a sword jutting out from the ground. It had an oddly shaped grip, but he was still able to pull it out easily enough. He turned it over in his hands. It was sharpened on one side and appeared to be made of good quality metal. The hilt was thin and flat, with a crescent of indentations. Did they grip with their mouths? That might work, but being able to focus on something while swinging one's head would be difficult. Intriguing as such speculation was, he didn't want to give the wrong impression, and returned the sword to the ground.
A bit further along and he spotted a magazine draped over a bush, with a familiar looking yellow mare on the cover. They appeared to have some mastery of photography and printing, he mused. The scene was at the seashore, with the mare lounging on a cloud of mist from the crashing surf. Strangely, she was wearing a swimsuit. Granted, he had encountered her in the bath, but he found that a bit odd when practically none of the other pegasi he had seen had worn any clothing. He leafed through a few more pages; the symbols were unfamiliar, but he could see a level of repetition that suggested it was an alphabet, and not pictograms. Given enough time, he might be able to learn something. Conveniently, there were many other pictures, though most were quite similar to the first.
An insistent tugging at his pant leg brought him back to the present. He looked down to see the orange foal looking back up at him, stamping his hoof and swishing his tail. The teal filly had already walked a little ways ahead. ”All right, all right, I’m coming!” He said, hurriedly. Deciding to take this one along, he tucked it into his backpack. Perhaps he could learn something from it later.
Looking back up, he noticed the forest ahead was a little bit lighter, and he pressed on to what turned out to be a gap in the trees. Here the forest opened onto to a large clearing, and he hastily ducked down when he spotted structures standing in it. Watching quietly, he had to bite back an exclamation as the foals raced past him and into the sunlight.
The field was a wide expanse of grass, dotted with stumps and saplings that surrounded a small bare patch next to the hill. This part of the hill was solid stone, with some sort of opening in it. The two structures he could see were in bad shape – even from here it was obvious the roof of one had caved in.
Emboldened, he rose out of concealment and strode into the clearing after the two. He felt terribly exposed in the open expanse, but that was kind of the point. Regardless, nothing stirred at their approach.
There were two buildings still standing, plus the rubble of a third. The nearest was the one with half a roof – a log cabin. The door was unlocked, but he still had to wrench it open against frozen hinges. The interior was a complete wreck; exposed by the open roof, the contents had long fallen to pieces.
The one thing that stood out was a bright piece of apparel hanging from the stub of a roof beam. Its vivid colors stood in stark contrast to the drab interior, and it sparkled in the late morning light. The simple form, padding, and straps looked oddly familiar, but even knowing the inhabitants here, it took him a moment to place it. He was no equestrian, but it looked like a saddle. This was the first evidence he’d seen of any riders, though. Were there other humans here? It seemed far too small. Adding to his confusion, on inspection he found it to be a frilly, delicate thing, made of satin and lace. Why make an obviously expensive saddle that couldn’t hold up to any sort of wear? Puzzled, he left it hanging there.
Moving on, the second building was a sturdy stone hut. It was basically intact, aside from the splintered door lying just inside the door frame. Other than that, however, the only thing of note was just how empty it was. Aside from the remnants of the door, the single room held only a few windblown leaves.
The clearing held little else; the fallen debris here were sparse, and the collapsed building had long decayed. He avoided the cave mouth completely – he had no desire to go spelunking, and didn’t want the foals getting any ideas. Returning to the center of the clearing, he mulled over everything he'd seen. He hadn't noticed any signs of recent habitation, and he guessed that in another decade or two, nature would have reclaimed it completely.
Still, for now it was a good spot. He sat down cross-legged in front of the cabin, spreading his jacket out on the ground in front of him to catch attention. He was feeling a bit better than after the slide, but trail breaking was tiring and it was nice to rest. Here he faced the forest and could look up at the cloud city or watch the foals frolic. For being found, this was probably the next best option to still being at the Swift; he was visible from the air, and the structures should attract attention.
Of course that means I'll have to somehow stay in one place this time, he thought wryly, as he kept an eye on the antics of the two little pegasi. They had found a tall stump and were now dancing around it, stretching their wings and occasionally fluttering a little ways into the air.
Trying to restrain them would just be wrong, assuming it was even possible. Could he tire them out and hope they fell asleep again? He watched them tear around the stump a little longer. It was pretty obvious who would be tiring out who in any such attempt. What about a distraction? Bread and circuses worked for the Romans after all. Of course he was out of bread, but humanity had brought circuses a long way in a few hundred years. He opened up his backpack and pulled out his tablet once more. With one eye on the tablet and the other the foals, he quickly darted through the screens, homing in on the shiniest, most distracting game he could think of.
Bright music filled the air as a sparkling array of colorful gems rained down, dancing to his touch and bursting into fanciful explosions of light and sound. All hail Bejeweled, destroyer of transit rides and conqueror of waiting rooms. He cranked the volume up and made a big show of focusing all his attention on it, while watching circumspectly as the foals' ears perked up. It wasn't long before they bounced over to investigate, eyes bright and tails flagged. He had a hard time keeping a straight face; it was clear they had never seen a device like this before. They took up positions next to him, leaning so far forward he thought they might fall over. He raised his elbow and they piled onto his lap.
At first they kept looking back and forth between the front and rear of the device, babbling to each other rapidly and gesturing animatedly. They weren’t too careful in their enthusiasm, and he had to lean back a bit after the first few wings to the face. The mystery of the screen soon faded, however, and they settled down and focused in on the game itself. For a time, they were entranced just watching him play, but it wasn't long before the orange one was nudging his arm meaningfully. He grinned, obligingly moving his hand aside while continuing to hold the tablet out for them.
The colt tried first. All hooves, wings and unbound eagerness, he quickly dove into the device. The little pegasus’s efforts immediately ran into trouble, however, as tapping hooves and brushing feathers failed to elicit a response. Soon the colt was whining in frustration, but he was nothing if not persistent. Looking back and forth between fingers, hooves and wings, he finally used his head – and it turns out the touch screen did respond to muzzles. Of course trying to control a touchpad via nose was hardly ideal. Watching the scene play out in his lap, the man had a hard time containing his laughter; the little colt practically went cross-eyed trying to use the device, and made many indignant little noises of frustration as it continually misinterpreted his inputs.
He had to give the colt credit – despite everything, the little guy was making slow but definite progress. It was an impressive display of ability, but the interface was clearly a barrier to the fingerless. Remembering the sword gave him an idea, though, and he dug back into the pack, fishing around until he found a stylus he had mixed in with the pens. The foal’s eyes lit up as he presented it with a flourish, and from there the games began in earnest.
Though not quite as funny as nose-control, watching the foals go at it was entertaining. He found it fairly insightful as well. The two were very alert, and picked up the basic interactions quickly, keying in on what actions resulted in the most exciting sounds and animations. They also had a strong innate spatial sense, and were soon able to hone in on inconspicuous moves that cleared large areas of the field. Fortunately for his high score, neither of them were very good at planning ahead. They invariably went for the best move currently available, rather than making a few smaller moves to set up something big. What struck him more than their abilities, however, were their attitudes.
Squished next to each other in his lap, there was little of the squabbling he would have expected from human kids. Even more telling was how readily they traded off, and that after they both had a turn, they stared up at him until he made a move to play again. He didn't know how old they were, but in his experience, this sort of behavior didn't come readily to most kids. For that matter, more than a few adults still seem to struggle with the concept. These two, however, seemed to cooperate without any thought or hesitation. When he did take his turn, they watched closely, and he soon saw his tricks repeated. Before long, his engrossment was no pretense. Unfortunately, it also meant that the first sign of trouble was when his world exploded into pain-filled blackness.
Consciousness returned with a pounding insistence. The reunion was not pleasant. He was draped over a hard surface, and his head felt two sizes too large as it dangled down like an overripe fruit, bouncing to an unknown gait and fit to burst. The motion swung him back and forth, bringing his face repeatedly up against a coarse, furry pelt. His nose wrinkled – whatever was carrying him could have used a bath.
Between the smell, the motion, and his orientation, he felt his gorge begin to rise, and he had to struggle to keep his last meal down. Trying to distract himself from further cataloguing the unpleasant sensations assailing him, he carefully turned his head to the side, observing his surroundings through slitted eyes. He was descending a rough stone passage, dimly lit by glowing crystals set into the walls at irregular intervals.
Ok. So, plan 'stay in one place' appears to have found an exciting new way to go terribly awry. Just what exactly is going on now?
Whatever had him appeared to be strong, furry, tall, presumably intelligent, and not too fond of bathing. His current position gave him an unpleasantly close view of a short, clubbed tail that whipped back and forth with each stride. If it was structured like a human, than he would be draped over its shoulder, and he could feel his waist encircled by a firm arm. The other arm swung freely, and he was surprised to see just how long and heavily muscled it was. Like a gorilla, the creature sometimes used it to walk, and it had paws that strongly resembled hands, but for the small, sharp claws that adorned each fingertip. He could see pantless, furred legs as well, but the joints were arranged differently, and compared to its arms, well, I can cross Bigfoot off the list of possibilities, at least. So, tiny legs that bend like a horse, but a non-equine tail, plus it has crazy strong arms and I'm slung front-to-back. The pieces didn't add up. Great, just what I need – something new in the mix.
Though his head was encountering fur, his torso rested on something cold and hard that clanked softly with each step. Aside from that, however, he could hear only its low breathing as it padded softly down the shadowy corridor. An angry squalling broke out on his other side, and he covertly turned his head around to see what it was.
A second, much shorter creature walked alongside the one carrying him, this one with long, black fur, as opposed to the short, muddy brown coat of the one carrying him. The short one wore just a simple grey vest, but it held his jacket in one paw, while the other gripped a vociferously struggling net slung on its back. Said net was bouncing rather more than the biped's gait could account for, the motion making the creature stagger as if it were drunk. He could see a few patches of fur poking through, and the occasional feather drifted down from the net as it thrashed, but with the net's many folds and small holes, he couldn’t make out any detail. Still, from the sound of it, the foals were more angry than anything else. Their captors seemed indifferent to the ruckus, though, starting to converse overtop the complaints. Their speech sounded vaguely similar to the few other bits of language he’d heard so far, though these creatures’ voices were raspy and grating.
Yeah, if this is the rescue squad, they're doing a piss-poor job, he observed acerbically.
Aside from the occasional glowing crystal, the passage soon lost any vestige of civilization, the irregular walls splitting and merging like a maze, long past the point where he had lost all sense of direction. They continued their descent for a distressingly long time, during which he ran through and discarded numerous escape scenarios – most of them quickly running aground on the sharp-taloned thews wrapped securely around his waist, and a pragmatic self-assessment of his navigational and athletic capabilities. The one constant he made out of the travel was the continued downward trend, which continued until the tunnel finally disgorged them into a large, echoing space.
As they entered, the tall creature shifted its posture, giving him only an instant of warning before he was hoisted and set down. He continued to feign unconsciousness, carefully taking in the room from where he lay on the ground.
It was large – the part he could see could have held a baseball game. As it was, it accommodated a small campfire, which cast long, flickering shadows that danced on the nearby walls and blended into the dark reaches. The cavern had clearly been worked – the fire had been built in the middle of a large, unnaturally level area of cave floor, and a low stone building covered the length of the left wall. Beyond the fire, a rusty cart track snaked across from the far end of the building, splitting into a miniature rail yard and running further to his right until the tracks were swallowed up in the inky depths of the cavern. Looking out past the tracks in front of him, he could make out the plain rock wall of the cavern, while stalactites hung like disembodied teeth from above. Upon entering, the creatures had barely glanced around at any of this, instead making a beeline to the fire.
Piled near the fire was an assortment of rusty picks, shovels and other digging tools that lay in heaps and spilled out of a cluster of crates. The taller of the two quickly picked out a large crate and upended it – dumping out an assortment of hammers with an echoing clatter, and holding the empty box ready over a flat patch of rock. In a frenzied burst, the short one quickly set the net down and scuttled back as the tall one swooped in to firmly plant the upside-down box. It sat there for a moment, before the wood shook and the box began scooting jerkily across the floor. Both canids hurriedly started piling hammers atop the crate until it stopped dancing about.
The assembly of the makeshift cage finally gave him an opportunity to get a good look at his captors. Not just furry bipeds, the creatures actually looked somewhat doglike, with a canid muzzle and ears. Despite walking upright, however, their musculature reminded him a bit of a chimpanzee – they were far more top heavy than he'd realized. He imagined that their upper body strength was probably phenomenal. Combined with the huge paws and sharp claws they sported, he had no desire to try his strength against one of them. Of course, relations have not exactly started out on a good foot, he thought darkly.
On the plus side, they wore clothing and talked, though those qualities hadn't proved to be absolute barriers against humans doing unpleasant things to each other. There was also the minor detail that the taller dog’s clothing appeared to be suit of armor, which didn’t really help the ‘clothing is a good sign’ argument. It all would have been enough to give him a headache, had he not already had one. So, flying equines that are legitimately quite upset with me, or warlike dog-types that have abducted me to their lair for reasons unknown? I suppose there are worse things than being eaten, but put that way, I'll stick with the guaranteed herbivores.
When the dogs had satisfied themselves that the crate was secure, the large one returned for him. It picked him up once more, carrying him into the stone building he'd noticed before. The door entered onto a large room that he got only a short glimpse of before being carried a short ways down a twisting hallway that branched off into a side passage. While most of the building was mortared stone built up against the cave wall, this side passage had been carved directly into the rock without using any of the typical wooden beams or supports. The tunnel wasn’t very long, the creature stopping almost immediately at a door. It grabbed something from the wall and passed through, and upon entering he had the brief impression of a small chamber surrounded by bars and shadowed voids.
He closed his eyes and continued to act unconscious as he felt himself carried just a little ways further, until he was finally dropped off again. Rough paws quickly emptied his pockets and stripped off his backpack. Then there was a breath of wind above him and a creak of metal that ended with a distressingly solid clang. Listening intently, he waited until he heard the outer door close, the footsteps outside fade away, and then just a little bit longer for good measure.
He lay on his back on a cold floor of rough-hewn stone, and drew a deep breath. The pungent stench of mildew emanated from the wet dungeon walls, tickling his throat. Coughing, he opened his eyes and sat up to see that he was in a small alcove that had been carved out of the rock, and then blocked off by thick metal bars. The room was just barely tall enough for him to stand up in, and he walked over to the bars carefully. From there the cell opened onto a small, circular room, illuminated by a dimly glowing crystal set into the ceiling and flanked by additional cells on both sides. Fortunately, the room and other cells were all empty, and the door blocked off visibility from the hallway.
The bars before him were widely spaced and had no crossbars, but the gaps between them were still a bit too narrow for his frame. He tried to bend or shift them, to no avail. They were too thick, and so well-seated that they seemed to be almost part of the rock. The other sides of the cell were solid rock, entirely lacking in convenient drains or air vents. There were hardly any furnishings to speak of, just an empty wooden crate, small pile of blankets, and a bucket he preferred not to think about.
He turned his attention to the door. It was as solidly built as the bars, but the hinges were just simple spikes seated in loops of metal. He took a careful grip and heaved. !!! Holy crap, that thing is way heavier than it looks! I don't know if I even shifted it. Without a lever or a shot of pure adrenaline, it isn't going anywhere. He put the thought of lifting it aside for now, and continued his examination.
The door lock proved more promising. A square piece of metal set into the door, it was just as solid and crude as the bars, but in this case, that translated into a massive block that seemed just a bit loose at the seams. He could almost fit his fingers into the keyhole, which hopefully meant the tumblers would be large and simple as well. Unfortunately, he had never picked a lock before, and would have to reach around from the back to boot. Still, it wasn't as if he had anything better to do. He liberated the wire handle of the bucket and got to work.
The moments passed fitfully, though without his phone he had no real way of knowing how many. The steady drip of the walls cut through the silence, but he made no pretense of counting. Rather, the regular tinks and plinks served only to remind him of his fleeting opportunity as quicksilver seconds slipped away.
So here I am, stuck behind a dumb lock in some crazy situation by a bunch of creatures I don’t understand. At least it happened on the weekend, but what’s going on back home? How many hours has it been already? I was supposed to meet Michelle for dinner tonight – she’s going to be pissed. At least I’ll have a good excuse for my absence, or I would if it made a bit of sense. Arrgh, this is maddening. I need to get out of here.
Muffled voices echoed from the hall, interrupting his thoughts. He hurriedly hid his efforts, but the noise soon faded away again, leaving him once more in the company of the iron puzzle and his own musings.
Why me? I'm nobody special. I'm an accountant, for crying out loud. This is a situation for some fancy secret agent, über commando, or Indiana Jones type. I don’t have any magic powers or dark family secrets that I know of. What could I possibly have done to trigger something like this?
He racked his memory. He had obviously been flying, and he vaguely remembered taking off from the Salève, but after that, things got fuzzy.
I don't think I crashed, and this is no sort of afterlife I ever heard of. Besides, if I were dead, why would the glider still be here? For that matter, even if I’m not dead, what significance does the Swift have? Sure, it's about as good of a sailplane as you can get, but ultimately, it's just some metal and plastic. No mad science, fancy electronics, or reality warping engines here. Hell, no engines period, and the most sophisticated piece of gear I have is the tablet.
I suppose I could be crazy. Some of the stuff I’ve seen would make a physicist curl up and cry. I don't see why I would be hallucinating something like this, though. I mean I like flying, but the horses are out of left field, and the dogs aren’t even in the ballpark. Having stuff like this in a crazy hallucination just doesn’t make any sen– … Right. So that logic pretty much fails horribly. He rubbed his temples in frustration. Still, logical or not, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is all just too real and consistent to simply brush off as something I’m imagining. Plus, I shouldn't be doubting myself. At least not quite yet.
So assuming my intuition is right, and this is the result of some external force, then that brings me right back to the original question: why me? he sighed. This isn't getting me anywhere. I need to focus on the lock.
The steady drip faded from his awareness as he threw himself into trying to grasp the feel of the machine. It was an alien experience, threading a metal sliver into a tangle of moving parts and trying to manipulate them correctly. He had never been mechanically inclined – the closest he'd gotten had been managing all the cables on the Swift. Still, he had read a little bit about the basics of locks, oh so long ago. What was that book called again? I mostly remember it had all those funny illustrations of wooly mammoths, but I guess it had a practical side after all.
It hadn't said anything about how to handle lock picking when reaching around from the rear of the lock, though, and his crude lockpick did nothing to help. As time passed, the omnipresent cold and dampness sapped his strength, and he could feel his fingers slowly lose dexterity. After the first few attempts, he started taking frequent breaks to rest, warming his hands or stretching his arms as best he could. Sometimes he would pace the short length of his cell, throw his weight against the door, or fruitlessly search the walls once again. Frustration and fatigue slowly took their toll, and he had altogether too much time to stew over his predicament.
It was aggravating how the lock seemed to hover just on the edge of his abilities. Maybe the lock was some sort of metaphor? A trial, or some sort of struggle he had to overcome? Wait, no, knock it off – I've already followed that line of thought, and it doesn't lead anywhere useful. The lock is just a stubborn hunk of metal.
Gradually, oh so painstakingly, he began to get a feel for how the tumblers moved, and at what points they behaved differently. Then he had to work out how to apply pressure to pin them in place. Eventually, he pulled a few large wooden splinters from the crate, inserting them through the various gaps in the lock and using them to hold the mechanism steady. He was grateful it was a simple lock, with only three big tumblers – as it was, it was arduous, meticulous work.
What seemed like hours later, he finally got it. Success came not as a satisfying click, but as a loose wiggle that kept on giving as he laboriously retracted the bolt. The door swung open with a squeal of metal, and at long last, he stepped free of the cell. He quickly made sure that the other two cells really were empty, and then removed his makeshift lock picks. Having covered his tracks, he went up and listened at the wooden door. All was quiet, and fortunately, this door had no lock.
Peeking out, he saw the key hanging from a hook on the wall immediately outside, and to his great relief he saw his backpack on a bench beneath it. Seeing the hallway clear, he darted out and checked his bag. It had been rifled through, but nothing seemed to be missing. He also took the opportunity to swipe the key from the wall – might as well keep muddying the waters as to how I escaped.
Before him now was a short corridor that opened onto the larger hallway. Right was the way he had originally came from, left was still unknown. He checked out the left branch first. It was fairly short, with perhaps half a dozen rooms jutting off it. Most of the doors here had a split, two-level design, as you'd see in a stable. They had clearly seen better days, however; the wood was often warped, allowing him to easily peek between the two sections.
Investigating these particular doors proved to be fruitless, however; peering in revealed only blackness, and he was not about to risk entering a room to find it inhabited. The hallway itself ended in yet another door, however looking through this gap, he could see the main cavern again. He could make out the track running by just a short distance away, the bulk of the building shadowing it from the fire. An exit, he thought. I'll have to remember this. I'm not out of the woods yet, though – I can't just escape by myself. Ignoring how wrong it'd be to just leave the foals like this, if the pegasi later catch me without them safe and accounted for, well, I doubt they're going to assume anything good.
He turned back around, and retraced his steps, continuing on past the cell. This stretch of the hallway had more rooms, some of which were lit. He saw a bathroom and a couple of storage rooms, but most were dark and uninviting.
Past those, the hallway ended at the room he had been carried in through. This one was much larger than the others, and looked like it may have once been used for cooking or dining. From the door, he could still see a table, plus a few cabinets on the walls. Now it was some sort of living area, with a number of sleeping pads spread out over the floor, and piles of gear haphazardly clustered around each one. There were at least half a dozen spots. So there are more of them about. The overall effect was halfway between a campground and a garbage dump.
Scanning the room, he didn't see any occupants, and carefully let himself in. The first thing that hit him was the smell. He hadn't really registered it when he'd been carried through earlier, but now it assaulted his nostrils like a plague of Vikings. It was as if a locker room had been crossed with a pound and left to marinate at the back of a fridge. Wrinkling his nose, he pressed on regardless. Now he could see that in addition to the furniture he had noticed before, there was a small basin of water flowing in the corner, more shelves and a rusty stove. Comparing the precise stonemasonry and tidy cabinetry of the building to the messy heaps on the floor, he was pretty sure these dogs were not the original builders.
Interesting as it was, it didn't get him any closer to rescuing the foals or returning to the surface. Fortunately, the door to the main cavern was a split door as well, so he was able to spy on the activity within.
Two dogs stood by the fire, seemingly deep in discussion. One was familiar – the short, hairy one who had carried the foals in. The other one was equally short, but gave off a very different impression. This one moved stiffly but precisely and was wiry beneath patchy fur. Wearing neither armor nor vest, it had instead some kind of harness that was festooned with so many mismatched bags and pouches that it had less visible fur than even the armored dogs. One paw held a gnarled staff, while the other gestured broadly as the creature spoke. Good thing there’s no such thing as curses, he mused. The way that critter is decked out, I’m almost surprised it doesn’t have a skull on the staff and an odd-colored brew bubbling away atop the fire.
The long haired one was equally animated, the two continuing their vigorous exchange until with a final yap and a brusque wave, the odd dog began walking straight towards his door. He frantically backpedalled, barely managing to throw himself through a side door before the canid entered.
He hadn't had a chance to check this room, and he found himself standing in pitch darkness after swiftly closing the door. Unnerved by the narrow escape, it took him a few moments of fumbling in the dark before he was able to extract his flashlight from his pack. A quick sweep of the beam revealed a jumble of furnishings, but no occupants. Breathing a sigh of relief, he turned around and peered back into the room he had just left.
Within, the odd dog was heading straight towards one of the jumbled piles of items. This one was among the largest, and it was definitely the messiest. He couldn't see any sort of logic to the sprawling mound of jars, bags and other containers, but the wiry canid seemed to know exactly where to look, as it immediately retrieved a large yellow pouch from the jumbled mess. The canid then grabbed a low bowl from a cupboard, filled it from the basin of water and took both items to the table. There it took the pouch and poured a small amount of powder into the water, before stirring it in with a single long claw. Replacing the pouch in its pile, it then carefully carried the bowl back out into the main cavern.
Turning away from the door, he shone his light around the small room again, and spotted a shuttered window. Walking over to the opening, he doused his flashlight and cracked open the shutter. He peered out just in time to see the canid briefly lift one edge of the crate and slide the bowl in with the foals.
After that, the dogs resumed talking, but with less vehemence than before, and ignoring the crate entirely. It wasn't long before he lost interest as well and shifted his attention to the small side room he was in. Closing the shutter, he turned his flashlight back on and looked around.
He hadn't really appreciated it before, but this room had a different air to it; it wasn't just lacking in offensive odors – the atmosphere here had a sense of time to it. The room looked like it had been rifled through, and there were a few pieces of broken furniture piled just inside the doorway, but despite the surface chaos, it still exuded a sense of age and decorum that was quite at odds with the outer room.
A large wooden desk dominated the center of the room, with papers spilling out of drawers that hung from the desk like lolling tongues. Before the desk sat a low, padded bench, powdered stuffing drifting down from the corners. What really caught his attention, however, was a portrait hanging above the desk. His eyes widened in surprise as he shone his light up on it, and saw three ponies gazing back, their painted eyes still bright on the canvas after who knows how long.
Though innocuous enough, the painting nevertheless set his mind abuzz. I didn't think it was the dogs, but ponies dig mines too? What's more these aren't pegasi – none of them have any wings. They could pass for the ponies back home, except for the differences in their colors and proportions.
Curiosity piqued, he examined the portrait with some interest. The picture was set in a nondescript room, and depicted a trio of ponies, two larger ponies in the rear flanking a smaller pony, with all three posed in such a way that their hindquarters were clearly visible. They all seem to have quite intricate brands, he observed. The left rear pony was tall and solidly built, with a white coat, a green mane, and sporting the image of a pick on its rump. On the right was a shorter pony, also sturdy, but not as much as the other was. This one had a tan coat and a pale blue mane, and a rump marking that depicted a basket of gems. Finally, in front of and between the two was a third, smaller than the other two, but lanky. A juvenile? he wondered. It also had a tan coat, but its mane was a deep violet, and its posterior depicted what looked like a minecart.
He leaned back, bemused. Huh. The images are all different, but still relate to mining. Cattle brands would all be identical, plus they can’t hold color. Tattoos could have this sort of variety, and have color, but a tattoo shouldn't be visible through the coat. Maybe they’re painted on, or dyed? This is a portrait, so it could be their equivalent of formalwear, considering they don’t wear any clothes. Wait a minute, though – didn’t that pegasus in the magazine have something similar? he pulled out the magazine and checked it, sure enough, the mare had what looked like a blaze of fire on her rump. I thought that seemed familiar! This magazine doesn’t really seem to be showing a formal type of occasion, though. Yet another oddity.
Anyhow, from the overall composition of the picture, it looks like a family portrait, if anything. Probably depicting the mine owners. So, non-pegasi ponies mine? I suppose that could be useful to remember, he thought, filing the information away. Then at some point these dogs took over, though there is no sign of them in the portrait. I wonder what happened – did they abandon the place, or were they driven off?
Turning away from the picture, he looked down at the desk, curiously shuffling through the papers. The writing appeared similar to the script in the magazine – it was certainly equally incomprehensible. The form of the entries made him think they could be records of some sort, which would probably have been great, had he actually been able to read them. He found that the paper was also quite brittle, and he had to be careful not to tear the sheets. One sheaf caught his eye, however, as the paper was larger and of heavier stock than the others. Examining this pile, he was excited to see drawings and diagrams. Some appeared to depict machinery, which was interesting enough, but others appeared to be maps.
One in particular looked like it depicted an overhead view, and near the middle he saw a shape that looked familiar. Let's see, if I orient the map to align with the direction I was looking at from the entryway, then the passage to the surface would be at the bottom. In that case, this building matches up with these squares in the middle of the map, and the line with perpendicular hash marks would be the mine cart tracks. Away from the building, beyond the switchyard, the far right side of the cavern branches out into dozens of galleries and short, dead-end tunnels. Mineshafts?
He paused briefly, remembering the rails in the flickering light of the fire, and imagining them snaking onward, down into the bowels of the mountain. So that dark area the tracks disappeared into probably didn't lead anywhere I wanted to go. His fingers drummed absentmindedly on the table as his gaze returned to the center of the map. Follow the track the other way, though, and it goes left past the building and into a tunnel that runs all the way to the edge of the paper. Hmm. Next to the end were a few words and an arrow pointing away, but that was it.
It took him a good bit of leafing through the diagrams before he made any headway, but his patience was rewarded when he finally matched up the words at the edge of the map with part of the title of another diagram. This was an engineering drawing of some sort of machine at the edge of a pit, but he wasn't concerned with the technical details. What mattered was a photo attached to the bottom of the sheet showing the actual machine and, more importantly, a cluster of houses standing in the background. So the rails in the mine lead to at least one other exit, and one that comes out near a small town, to boot. Considering that the tracks don’t even come up to the surface here, it’s probably safe to say that the exit in the photo is more important. Granted, I could still be wrong, but it seems logical enough. And if these pieces all come together the way I think they do, well, knowing this place has a back door is definitely valuable.
He returned to the map, tapping it experimentally. Unfortunately, even its thicker paper was alarmingly brittle in his hand – there was no way it would survive any sort of hike through the caverns. He jotted down a rough facsimile of the relevant bits in his notebook before turning away from the papers, and checking out some of the other items in the room.
He was glancing over a pile of old cleaning supplies when he heard an angry commotion echoing from the main cavern. Peeking out the shutter again, he saw half a dozen more of the biped canines had appeared, and were now standing around the fire arguing. There was a large variety among them, including many variations of hair length and color. Most were similar to the tall one that had carried him – large, powerfully built, and wearing armor. Despite their apparent strength, however, they acted more like laborers or guards, as they deferred to the other obvious group.
This second group had even more variety than the first – in addition to fur variations, there were other body types as well, with smaller and weaker dogs in the mix. The one constant was that they all wore vests, and despite their less powerful physiques, they did most of the talking. Most of the new dogs were grunts, but three of the newcomers were of the vest class. Two wore grey vests, one short and light tan, the other even burlier than the guards and with a bluish coat. The final dog had grey fur and was also fairly tall, but the bright red vest it wore set it apart.
The new arrivals were heavily laden with all sorts of miscellaneous goods. These were mostly furnishings, with a few personal items, and a smattering of armor and weaponry. Many of the items were dented or bent, but the dogs seemed to have favored items made of precious metals, or encrusted with jewels, so he doubted the damage mattered so much. Most of the dogs were bedecked with an assortment of tiaras and bracelets and various glittering chains. A pair hefted shining metal urns, while several others maneuvered large bolts of cloth. One of the dogs clung to a set of golden armor, a golden helmet with a blue crest set atop its own. Another was trying to contain an unruly armload of gem-encrusted goblets without dropping a pawful of cutlery. Considering the variety, condition, and timing of all these items, he was pretty sure they could have only come from the fallen city. As the dogs settled in, most of the items accumulated in piles on the ground, though a few dogs hung onto them absentmindedly.
The crate had been removed, leaving the foals lying together on the floor. That had better have been some sort of sleeping powder, he thought darkly. The dogs were not paying them the slightest bit of attention, however, as they were all focused on one of the new dogs as it berated the two dogs that had captured him and the foals. This was the one wearing the red vest, and he was guessing it was the alpha, given how the others cringed as it shouted and waved its arms about. Gesturing wildly, it frequently pointed down at the foals, and occasionally up at the surface. Several times the shorter of the pair tried to present his tablet, while the tall one held out his flight jacket hopefully, but the alpha was on a roll and cut them off with a curt wave of the paw every time they tried to speak up.
Finally, the alpha's diatribe seemed to reach a conclusion. Addressing the tall guard dog that had carried him, the leader gestured sharply, indicating first the sleeping foals, and then pointing off along the tracks towards the building. The harried hound hurriedly nodded its assent, simply dropping his jacket in its haste to bolt for the building door.
He tracked the dog, moving to the inside door to keep watching it. The dog quickly headed over to its pile of stuff and retrieved a pack, setting it out on a table. It then grabbed a few bundles, before dumping out its water skin and refilling it from the water basin. Finally, it grabbed a basket and a few small pieces of bedding and carried these back out to the main room. Returning to the window, he saw the big dog had started bundling up the foals under the irate supervision of the alpha, while the smaller dog slumped off to the side, looking like it wanted to disappear.
Mind racing, he stepped back from the door. They're taking the foals through the mines? Could they be heading for the town in the photo? Have the dogs taken it over as well? Given all the armor and weapons they’re sporting, it seems plausible. I didn’t spend much time on the surface – they could easily control the entire area, and I wouldn’t know it. That doesn’t really change my situation, though. Whatever plan those dogs have for the foals, I can’t let it succeed – I’m going to return those foals to safety myself! And them moving the foals could prove to be my best chance to strike, though I still don't know if I can fight the big one directly. Perhaps there is another way. Glancing around the room, his eye fell on the dog's gear, laid out on the table. It's preparing some gear for the trip, at least. With sudden inspiration, he left the side room and went over to the odd dog's heap of items. Though not as quickly as the dog, he soon spotted the yellow pouch of powder that it had used on the foals. Moving swiftly, he dumped a generous portion into the water skin, shook it vigorously, put the powder back, and then hightailed it back to the side room.
The dog soon returned with the foals bundled up in the basket – he could see only their manes and tails peeking out of the cloth. Seeing them swaddled like that gave him another idea. When their manes fall the right way, you can't really see the foals at all. If I had the right materials, I could switch them out, and no one would be the wiser. All I really need is an appropriately sized object and some hair.
As he was considering this, the dog grabbed the gear it had laid out, and departed down the side hallway. Hmm. It's definitely not heading for the tunnel we came in through, which reinforces the case for another exit. And the map showed only one tunnel in that direction, so as far as I know, it’s heading for the town. I just hope it doesn’t stop by the cell, though there’s not much I can do about that chance, and sitting here fretting about it isn’t helping anything. Still, I need to be quick about putting this together – I can’t afford to let it get too much of a head start.
He briefly darted into the common room again, hunting around until he found another basket and some pieces of cloth similar to what the dog had used.
Returning to the side room, he hastily turned it upside down for useful material. Someone had clearly searched the room ages ago, but they weren't looking to make foal dummies. In short order, he found a couple of vases around the right size and shape and filled them with cloth until they had enough heft. For hair, he denuded a tasselled jacket he found hanging by the door, though he wasn't happy with the effect. It'd be better if I found some real hair to use, but what are the odds of running across nice hair down here? Especially for a color like purple.
In a few minutes, he had the bundles mostly constructed when he heard more commotion from the main cavern. Oh no! Have they discovered my escape? he fretted. Gingerly, he went over to the window and peered out.
A new dog had arrived, another of the grey vest wearers. It wrung its large paws together, shifting its weight back and forth between its feet as it spoke, gesturing emphatically back towards the main entrance. Its ears lay nearly flat against its head, and its tail was drooping as it babbled rapidly, continually pointing back up toward the surface.
After a few moments of this, the alpha held up a paw, waving the new dog to silence. It asked a question which the new arrival considered for a few moments before raising six fingers in response. The leader snorted, then asked something else – indicating the guard dog nearby who still precariously wore the blue-crested golden helmet atop its own. A few dogs nearby sniggered as the guard belatedly doffed the headgear, but the new dog responded to the question by shaking its head in negation.
The alpha let out its own derisive bark of laughter, before beginning a long, growling speech. Gesturing along with its words, the alpha pointed out beyond the entrance, extended one finger and traced it sinuously through the air, inscribing a circuitous, looping path that ended up back where it began. The new dog cocked its head briefly, before shaking it in vigorous disagreement. As it replied, it also stabbed a finger towards the entrance, but then drew it swiftly down and across in a straight line that came to rest pointing at the ground between its feet.
Seeing this, the alpha drew itself up, eyes narrowing and tail standing out as it raised its voice in reply and gestured repeatedly up at the surface, paws flapping as if it was waving it away. The scout backed away slightly, tail drooping, but still tenaciously answering and repeating its own point, even under the alpha’s increasingly withering responses. This exchange continued for a few minutes before trailing off, the two seemingly at an impasse.
Huh, that new dog seems to have seen something the leader doesn’t like. A case of shooting the messenger? he wondered.
In the silence, the alpha stared intently at the scout dog as it hunched down, thinking. As the seconds ticked by, the leader began tapping its foot impatiently. The scout's ears began to droop, as it again wrung its paws and glanced about nervously. Then its wandering gaze locked onto the heap of crates, and its eyes lit up.
Springing erect, it ran over to a crate that sat a little ways apart from the others. Briefly rummaging inside, it came back up holding some items that sparkled even in the gloom of the cave. He felt his jaw drop as he beheld three large round gemstones, two blue and one yellow. The scout dog arranged them into a blue-yellow-blue arc, before presenting them proudly to the alpha.
The leader merely shrugged, causing the new dog to deflate slightly. Set back but not defeated, it returned to the crate. Upon its return it displayed three large diamond-shaped blue gems, arranged in a rough triangular pattern. This time it was as if a cat had just leapt into a flock of songbirds, as the pack instantly dissolved into pandemonium.
The large dog with the grey vest jumped headfirst into a crate piled high with tools, with only his feet left sticking out. Its short, tan companion curled up on the ground, with its paws over its ears. Two armor-clad dogs ran around in circles yelping until they collided and fell over with a clatter, while a third ran off howling into the dark reaches of the cave. The odd medicine-dog ran back into the building, where he could hear it rummaging through items frantically.
It was hard not to laugh at their antics, but his situation was precarious enough already, and the dogs’ nervousness was infectious. Wow, those gems must really be bad news if they can scare these guys, he thought, concerned.
A few of the dogs did not react, merely standing there and watching their packmates uncertainly. Among them was the one who had delivered the news, the remaining one of the pair that had grabbed him, and a couple of the armored ones. They simply stood there in confusion and growing agitation as the rest of the pack melted down around them.
The leader was clearly in the worried camp, tugging at its ears and waving its paws in the air as it walked in circles, talking loudly to no one in particular. It abruptly whirled and directed a question to the tan crouching dog, who responded in a high-pitched falsetto that set his teeth on edge and sent a wave of wincing across the canids in the room. The alpha facepawed, gesturing for the other to stop. By now, even the uncomprehending dogs were starting to show signs of worry.
Finally, the leader stopped pacing and shook itself, as if it had just emerged from a cold bath. Its eyes narrowed, and it barked something out sharply, the room quieting as all the others looked at it expectantly. The alpha addressed the remaining member of the pair of dogs that had abducted him, pointing it in the same direction the first had gone in, and then talking at some length.
They're sending it after the first one? His stomach suddenly knotted. If the two join up, I won’t be able to handle them. Now the leader had shifted and began issuing orders to the rest of the pack, who had all returned to cluster around it. He wasn’t really still paying attention to the others, though, as he focused on his former captor who seemed desperately eager to follow the instructions it had just been given.
Fortunately, like the large dog, the first thing it did was go to the room to grab supplies. Without any foals to deal with, it barely broke stride as it grabbed a few bundles and a spear from one of the further piles. The spear gave him momentary pause but he realized it didn't fundamentally change the equation. These creatures are already stronger than I am – if I get into the sort of stand-up fight where a spear would come into play, then I’ve already lost.
He looked around hurriedly, spotting a broken-off chair leg lying among the wrecked furniture just inside the door. Clutching it in sweaty hands, his heart pounded as he watched the dog return, waiting for just the right moment. It approached steadily, until just before it reached his door, it turned away towards the hallway on the opposite side. The moment it started to turn, he saw his chance and launched himself from the side room.
The dog looked back at the sound of his sudden entry. He saw its eyes go wide, but it barely had time for a strangled yelp before he was on top of it. It had just began pivoting to bring the spear to bear when the first wild swing of his makeshift cudgel clipped the side of its head, jerking it to the side and dropping the dog like a sack of flour. Surprised, he stepped back and waited for the dog to get back up, but it just lay there, breathing slowly. Elation flooded him as his success sank in, but the sense of victory was quickly tempered as he considered what to do with the unconscious dog. Luckily, if the others just sent it off somewhere, they won't be expecting it back very soon. I just need somewhere to keep it out of the way for a while. He grinned, as the perfect solution came to him. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
He was glad this one was relatively small and wore no armor; had it been the large one that had originally carried him, he wasn't sure he would have been able to shift it. As things were, manhandling the unwieldy form was not easy, but adrenaline lent him strength, and he hastily drug it down the corridor and into the cell.
Once there, he rifled through its pockets to make sure it wouldn’t be able to escape too easily. He didn’t find any cell keys, but he was thrilled to find that it still had his phone, keys and wallet. It had a few other things as well, a pouch, a small ball of twine, and a few metal spikes. He pocketed them all for later examination. Looking at the dog’s long, black fur gave him another idea, as well. Acting quickly on it, he brought out the scissors from his knife and snipped off a generous portion of its longest tail fur. He stowed it in the basket, to incorporate into the dummies later. The dog was beginning to stir, so he closed and locked the door.
He briefly returned to the large room, retrieving the spear the dog had dropped and hiding the other bags in the side room where they wouldn’t be noticed. While there, he peeked in on the main chamber one last time. The alpha still stood in the middle barking orders, but some changes were already apparent. The crates had been moved back from the fire and covered with some sort of fabric. One dog had climbed the wall and was hanging ribbons, while another set out goblets, and a third had just appeared with an armload of cushions.
The sight derailed his thoughts once more. What? After kidnapping the foals, now they’re hosting some sort of party? What could they be celebrating? Maybe it might make sense if it was for the capture, but that doesn't match up with the foals being sent away, and how they reacted then. Now the dogs are putting together a fancy reception for the grim reaper because of some crystals, and it makes less sense than ever. The logic here is like a train wreck where they just keep sending more trains. I’m not even sure I want it to make sense anymore – that would probably be the surest sign that I’ve finally lost it.
He took a couple deep breaths to steady himself. Okay, I hate to leave loose ends that can come back and bite me in the ass, but I just do not have the time to deal with this anymore. He turned away from the door decisively and hefted his pack. Hoping he had everything he needed to deal with a situation that threatened to spin further and further out of control, he quietly headed down the hall and took his leave through the door at the end.
Just passing through
The door closed with a soft thud, and he stood before the tracks he had seen earlier; rust flaked off the loose rails and crumbling ties that had once carried the mine’s lifeblood. Well, at least there’s one kind of train wreck I don’t have to worry about – I can scratch ’minecart escapades’ off today's agenda, he thought wryly. Still, though the track itself is trashed, it points the way to the exit, so the dog should’ve gone this way as well.
The rails ran along the building for only a short distance before they reached the edge of the cavern and disappeared into a small side tunnel. Looking around, he didn't see any other exits, which agreed with his recollection of the map.
He followed the track onwards into an offshoot of the natural cavern, where the walls soon narrowed and the ceiling pressed close. Soon, it was nothing but a cramped passageway, with tool marks making it clear how it had been made passable for the minecarts. Even with the excavation the tight quarters barely fit his frame, and he found himself having to hunch over slightly with the decoy basket held awkwardly before him and the butt of his spear trailing in the ground behind. Good thing I'm not claustrophobic, though I do wish I had a helmet.
Up ahead, the rough-cut tunnel ended in a square of blackness that swallowed up the beam from his flashlight. Reaching it, he found the tunnel had broken through into a large natural cavern, about the size of a football field. Here the walls formed a semicircle, with the tunnel emerging at one end. From there, the track ran atop a ledge that hugged the curving left wall, while the wall to the right was a flat plane that dropped into a dark pit that dominated the center of the room. The ceiling was a rough dome of raw rock, riddled with cracks and bare of any stalactites or stalagmites. Fallen stone fragments lay everywhere, ranging from small pebbles to boulders the size of a phone booth.
He set out, moving briskly along the trackbed around the pit and stepping carefully to avoid slipping on the loose rock littering its surface. The going was treacherous, but manageable, and he made good progress.
He had made it perhaps two thirds of the way around the edge when he felt the ledge shift beneath his weight. The rails groaned as the ground moved under them and he froze, swaying slightly as he tried to maintain his balance. His pulse pounded and his heavy breathing was loud against the fading echoes of twisting metal and dislodged stones clattering down into the dark void.
Holy crap, that was too close! I could've died! Ice ran through his veins and he broke into a sweat as the last echoes faded away. He didn't want to move, but staying on the ledge wasn’t safe either, and every heartbeat spent waiting put the foals further away. His gut was a keening void as he resumed his advance, gingerly testing his footing at each step. Driven by a growing sense of urgency, he slowly increased his pace, his stomach gradually unknotting as he picked his way down the rubble-strewn tracks.
At the far end, the curving wall re-encountered the flat plane, and the track turned sharply to run alongside it before disappearing into a vertical fissure in the rock. He was only a few strides from the fissure, when he heard voices echoing behind him.
Abandoning caution, he quickly scurried ahead to the exit, the basket banging against his legs as he ran. Darting through the opening, he flattened himself against the wall before carefully peering back out. From here, the illuminated entryway of the tunnel was easy to make out. Not one, but six equine figures spilled out into the gloomy cavern. Pink, yellow, white, blue, orange, and purple were represented, with even more variations in their hair color. Only two appeared to have wings, but though one was yellow, it had different hair from the mare he'd encountered previously. Most are just ‘normal’ type ponies, then – hopefully they will be inclined to reason, he speculated.
Their gear was as varied as the ponies themselves; the white and purple ones were the only members of the group who wore headlamps, though for some reason the lights were colored – magenta and light blue, respectively. Despite the coloration, he found spots dancing in front of his eyes as he squinted against the glare. Those headlamps throw a lot of light, but the way they just shine it in all directions wastes an awful lot of energy. And if it keeps me from seeing much about those two, I imagine it must be pretty annoying for them as well. Whoever designed those things really called it in. Struggling to make out any detail, he could tell that the white one was wearing a scarf, while the orange one wore a cowboy hat, of all things. The four non-pegasi had saddlebags, and all of them except the purple one appeared to be wearing necklaces of some sort.
They paused there at the entrance for a moment, clustered together, their voices carrying clearly in the underground hush. Not that he understood any of it, but it sounded like there was some sort of disagreement. The blue one was hovering in midair – how do they do that!? – while pointing down the track and gesturing emphatically, to which the violet and orange ones had their voices raised in reply. To the side, the white and yellow ones were examining something, but he couldn't see what until the yellow one flew up with it in its hooves. My jacket! They must have taken it from the dogs. Meanwhile, the pink one was... staring straight at him.
It could have been just looking at the exit, but he had the uncanny feeling that those eyes were locked onto his own. Unnerved, he stepped back behind the reassuring bulk of the rock entryway. Perhaps I've lingered long enough. He began to move rapidly down the tunnel, trying to keep his footfalls light.
Behind him, the voices cut off – replaced by rapid hoofbeats. Did they hear me? Crapcrapcrap this is way too soon! I can't meet them yet – I don't have the foals. How can I explain all of this? He swore under his breath and increased his pace. Here the tunnel ran mostly straight and slightly downhill. There wasn't much fallen rock, but running atop the disintegrating track was inherently hazardous. He had to watch his step while trying to put on speed, the spear and basket making it even more awkward. He hadn't run seriously since high school, and even then he'd been terrible. Now he had just started running, and he was already breathing like a bellows.
It gave him pause. Trying to sprint down an underground mine shaft. What am I, an idiot? That dog must have a huge lead with the foals. Can I really expect to outrun a bunch of ponies? Running is what ponies do – excepting the ones that fly, of course. His pace faltered as he grimaced. I waited too long.
Slowing, he glanced back and saw that he'd only made it a few dozen meters. The hoofbeats echoed louder and louder, and the light brightened, but they hadn't entered the passage yet. Then the he staggered as the floor suddenly lurched and the hoofbeats were swallowed up in the thunderous crash of stone.
He whipped his head forward again as he tried to stop. The ground heaved again, harder, with an earsplitting crack and a sudden gust of wind that caught him from behind, hurling him from his already unstable feet. His flashlight skittered away as he fell, arms curling up protectively above his head.
The terrible crashing ended mercifully quickly, and there were no more gusts like the first, but the unnerving shaking continued a while longer, each shiver making his heart skip a beat. I should not be down here, he thought darkly.
Finally, the tremors began to ebb, and he uncovered his head and opened his eyes. Blessed light! His flashlight had come to rest a body-length away, the beam playing against the side of a rusty rail and diffusing into the dust swirling all around him. Visibility was practically nil, but he hardly cared. His light was still working and hadn't rolled too far – right now that was all that mattered. He crawled over, picking the flashlight up in shaking hands and clutching it tightly. Swaying slightly, he stood up and shone it about. The dusty air picked the beam out in sharp relief, but the tunnel he could see seemed the same otherwise.
As the panic passed, his mind slowly settled and he considered the situation once more. I’ve lost yet more time – that much can’t be helped. But what happened? He stared speculatively back the way he’d come. Did the ledge give way? Is that group in trouble? The pegasi should be fine, but what about the others? Perhaps I can demonstrate my good intentions by helping. He turned, picked up the basket, and began retracing his steps.
He had not gone far before his half-formed plans were dashed. A portion of the passage ceiling near the entrance had collapsed, almost completely filling it. He could still see a small sliver of blackness at the top, and he thought he might've heard voices, but nothing bigger than a cat would be getting through that barrier now.
He eyed the shattered stone critically. The pile looks loose, and none of the pieces I can see are all that big, but there are an awful lot of them, and I’m not sure how stable this tunnel is anymore. On Earth, this would have taken a work crew hours to clear, not to mention hazard pay. Solo? By the time I got through, it'd be over one way or the other. Pointless. He sighed. Well, at least now my course of action is clear – it's up to me to rescue those foals. Plus, I don't have to worry about any more complications – if clearing all those rocks is impractical for me, it'd be downright impossible with just hooves and wings.
Decision made, he turned around and pressed forward with redoubled urgency.
The passage continued to follow the line of the fissure, mostly straight, but gradually descending. The slight grade was welcome as he pushed himself to keep up the pace. It worked for a time, but trying to maintain speed on a treacherous surface in poor lighting was both physically and mentally draining. Despite his determination, he soon found a stitch developing in his side and his momentum faltered once more.
Desk work has not exactly prepared me well for underground footraces, he thought irritably as he leaned up against a fallen chunk of rock, breathing heavily and reaching into his backpack for the water bottle. As his labored breathing eased, another sound gradually became apparent – rushing water.
He looked ahead more closely and noticed that the black void ahead was not as completely black as he had thought; a small patch ahead seemed persistently lighter. Turning off his light confirmed it. Have I reached the exit already? he wondered. It doesn’t really make sense, if I’m as far down as I think I am. Maybe I overlooked a narrow gorge from above? Regardless, he set out again, his steps quickening in anticipation as he forged ahead, the light growing as he neared it.
Minutes later, he stepped from the end of the passage into another world, but he wasn't outside like he had thought he would be. Rather, the tunnel had broken into another, significantly larger passage, one big enough to hold a double-tracked railroad, and running further than he could tell. He stood at the outside of a bend, with the curving tunnel cutting off his sight in both directions. Instead of a sky, the light poured in from veins of crystal that ran along the walls or thrust from the ceiling.
At the bottom a small river busily carved the chamber still deeper; narrow and swift, the torrent leapt and churned in exuberant waves. Above the river, the fantastical crystalline illumination brought to life an unreal landscape. Instead of the raw, broken rock of the previous chamber, this cavern had an array of stone forms where it had flowed and solidified over uncounted millennia. Those below had been scoured and molded to suit the whims of the river, but above clung stalactites, as well as stranger features he had no names for. He'd seen pictures of this sort of thing, but they had hardly prepared him for the real thing.
Amidst the welcome change in scenery were a few discordant notes. Some of the formations had fallen – perhaps recently, if the cleanness of the breaks was any indication. Pieces of the resultant rubble looked to have fallen into the river as well, whipping this stretch into even more of a frenzy than he imagined it usually was. As well, though the trackbed crossed the river before turning to run downstream alongside the water, the actual track stopped at his feet, leaving just a gravel pathway stretching out before him.
This absence of the tracks was odd, but manageable. More troubling was the absence of the bridge the tracks had used to cross the river. A few stumps of timber jutted from each bank, but that was it, and given the state of this stretch of the river... Too far to jump, too deep to ford, and too rough to swim. But in that case, where did the dog go? His stomach sank at the thought he might have been chasing an assumption, and he worriedly scanned the ground for some sort of clue. To his immense relief, he soon picked out a rough path leading away from the trackbed. It branched off to the right of the track, heading upstream.
It wasn't really much of a path, more of a collection of paw prints with delusions of grandeur, but one set of those prints was sharp and well defined. He had never done any tracking before, but he was pretty sure that was a good sign.
The path snaked a fairly easy route among the obstacles of the tunnel floor as it paralleled the river. The cavern meandered as well, slowly gaining elevation. He hadn't gone far, though, before he noticed a change in the atmosphere. Though the path was no closer to the stream, the roar of water grew steadily louder as he progressed. Rounding the inside of a corner, his breath caught as he beheld the reason.
A rippling curtain of water plunged down from above, the centerpiece of a spectacular room. The cascade itself was a liquid sculpture, dynamically shifting in an endless dance. More than twice his height, the thundering torrent issued from an upper cavern, from where it spilled through a smoothly worn groove in an outthrust ledge, and curved down in a graceful arc until it met the waters below in a roiling froth that wreathed the pool in mist. Evanescent patterns of light shimmered from its dancing surface as it plunged, while smaller flows on the sides splashed from the jutting rocks, adding to the glittering spray.
The whole scene was gently lit by massive, glowing crystal veins that burst into the cavern, just a little further down the wall from where he stood. The wall on the far side of the river was covered in crystal as well, but instead of shining spires, these were large, flat plates that did not glow, but instead acted as mirrors and reflected the scene manyfold. The overall effect was breathtaking, and though the chamber was only a little wider than the tunnel leading up to it, it felt much bigger.
Away from the waterfall, the plunge pool calmed to where he could see through the pure water to the stones lining the bottom of the pool. Here too, fragments of crystal intermingled with base rock, creating a coruscating effect with the shifting waves that reminded him of looking into a night sky filled with twinkling stars. The pool was framed by solid rock, except for the far side, where a narrow fringe of sand clung to the shore. In the middle of this sparse beach was a spit of sand, with yet another strange creature partially beached atop it.
Oh no, not something else weird, he thought despairingly as he staggered to a halt. This one was basically serpentine, with a vibrant purple body that trailed away into the depths of the pool. The portion above the water was also purple, though he could see bright orange tufts peeking around from the far side. Great. Another complication, he groused. Fortunately, it hadn't shown any signs of noticing him so far, and its little patch of sand was conveniently isolated.
Focusing on the task at hand, he saw that although the cavern continued above the cascade, the trail took a different route. It crossed the river by diving down to the pool and passing directly behind the waterfall, before climbing up the bank and winding downstream. From here, the route looked both spectacular and perilous.
Much as he wanted to linger and take in the spectacle from his current, comfortably safe vantage point, the clock was still ticking. I never saw the dog headed downstream on the far bank, and since the path curves back on itself, that means it must have already made it to the waterfall and back before I arrived at the river. I still have a lot of ground to make up, he thought in concern as he set out once more.
He followed the path down to the water, gingerly lowering himself over the slippery rocks, and edging his way beneath the ledge of rock that thrust out from upstream.
Here at the water’s edge, the roar of the falls enveloped him, and the wet, slippery rocks made the path treacherous. Focused as he was on his footing, the tip of the spear swung out just a little too far, and a sharp tug caught him off guard as the rushing water clutched at it greedily. Suddenly unbalanced, he reflexively let go of the shaft before it could take him with it. In an instant, the weapon had tumbled away and vanished into the churning pool.
He staggered back, reaching a hand out to steady himself against the wall, legs shaking after this latest close call. Breathing heavily, he looked up and realized how far behind the cascade he had already gone. The gentle play of light shone through the fluttering sheet of water as it hung, suspended in space, contrasting sharply with the shadowed thunder at its base. Despite his predicament, the sight took his breath away and, for a moment, he wished he had time to appreciate the view. Instead, he riveted his attention back to the ground and pressed on; here behind the falls, the path demanded nothing less. Around him, the crashing rumble beat into his skull and the rocks themselves seemed to vibrate as the air seethed with mist in the dappled half-light. At times the vapor was thick enough to pool around his legs, shrouding the path, and making him feel like he was falling through the clouds once more as he slowly crept forwards.
It seemed to take ages, but he finally made it out from under the ledge, the path widening and mist thinning until he was walking confidently down the narrow beach. Up ahead he could clearly see the figure on the sand, and from this angle, it was more perplexing than ever. The slender purple body still looked basically serpentine, but from here it was obvious that the bright orange tufts he’d seen before were merely the tips of a full head of hair.
Said head was pointed away from the pool, making it hard to see from the far bank, and aligning it with one of the larger crystal mirrors. Though it had a strong leonine cast, the face was surprisingly expressive, possibly due to the human-like hair. Large curling locks adorned the top of its head and end of its snout, reminding him of nothing so much as a dapper English gentleman, except that the last third of the facial hair on one side seemed to be... Purple hair! How incredibly fortunate!
The creature lay bonelessly on the sand, eyes shut and breathing slowly. He would have said it was impossible to hear anything over the roar of the waterfall, except he thought he could hear a bass rumble in time with its breath. Is it snoring?
Movement in the pool caught his eye, and he looked down to see the spear bobbing as the waves slowly washed it up against the sand next to the creature. He found himself torn. It's got purple hair – exactly what I need to copy the filly, and much better than these tassels. With this, the dummies would be just about perfect. Plus, I might be able to retrieve the spear. Either one of those could be critical later on.
Of course, they both also rely on catching up to the dog, which in turn depends on not being eaten by an enraged sea serpent with half a mustache. He sighed heavily. I can't believe I'm seriously contemplating doing this, but no risk, no reward. The worst part is that this isn't even the craziest thing that has happened to me so far – just the most hazardous thing I've had any sort of choice in. Still, at the rate things are going, I'm sure I'll have to do something equally hare-brained. His hands clenched and unclenched reflexively as he stared at the ceiling absently. Fine, so this is an incredibly stupid idea, but if I pull it off, it will be invaluable. I'll try it, but the instant things start to go wrong, I'm out of here.
Resolved, he carefully crept down the beach to the little spit of sand, the rushing water swallowing up his footsteps. He set down the basket so it wouldn't encumber him, and turned to regard the creature.
The face was larger than his torso, but it was utterly relaxed, the eyes closed and ears hanging limp. At this distance, he could clearly make out the delicate pattern of scales, and the supple way they moved with each breath it took. It still showed no sign of being aware of his presence, breathing deeply, and twitching occasionally as it slept. Just pretend it's your brother and the shaving cream again, he thought, stepping forwards.
All too soon, he had crossed the narrow beach and reached the head. It exhaled deeply, and he froze and blinked in surprise as the warm air washed over him. Minty breath? Just what does this creature eat? Or do they make dragon-size breath mints? He shifted his weight forward once more, two hesitant steps taking him close enough to touch. From there he turned and sidled nervously alongside its jaw, the water deepening quickly and forcing him to toe the precarious edge. The open strip of sand narrowed quickly, and wavelets were licking at his heels as he finally reached his goal.
The shaft of the spear still bobbed just to the side, tantalizingly close. He carefully bent over to retrieve it, breathing an inaudible sigh of relief as he picked it up without incident. He quickly repurposed it as a support, and two careful steps later, he had reached the hair.
Unfortunately, the mustache was long enough that the purple section he actually needed was sitting over deeper water, out of reach. I’ll have to cut further down, he realized. It's a waste, but there's no helping it. Supporting the length of hair in one hand, he took out the scissors on his Swiss army knife and began snipping near the midpoint. The hair had an odd, metallic quality, but was still quite fine, and cut easily. In short order, the last strand parted, and he was holding the purple and orange plume of hair.
He froze as the creature stirred, but after a couple incoherent murmurs, it subsided. Carefully, he relaxed and began to creep away. With any luck, maybe it won't notice, he thought forlornly. Seeing the reflection in the nearest crystal plate, however, well... The word lopsided seems inadequate. Yeah, I'm not feeling so lucky today, he thought, hurrying his steps while listening intently for any hint of motion behind him. Reaching the bank, he hastily scooped up the basket, scrambled away from the pool, and hustled downstream along the path as quickly as he dared. Only after he had rounded several curves in the tunnel did he feel safe enough to pause and take stock of the situation.
The purple hair was a bit darker than he remembered the filly's hair being, but it was close – much better than the tassels, or trying to use the black fur from the dog on both dummies. This purple hair was also silky and incredibly fine, which contrasted oddly with the coarse, almost wiry texture of the orange section, despite the almost seamless transition between the two. It was a pity he could only use a few, thin strands of the orange to approximate the colt’s red streaks; though it was a nice bonus to improve that dummy as well, he had no real use for most of it.
Since he had already stopped, he set about redoing the dummies with the new hair. It had been a big risk, but the results might just be worth it – as the cloth bundles were basically featureless, the hair had an outsized impact, and the dummies had much more verisimilitude now.
The break also gave him a good opportunity to finally look at the pouch he had taken from the dog when he locked it up. It was made of a rough, sturdy fabric, and small enough to fit in his hands, but it was still noticeably heavy and quite lumpy. Opening the drawstring, he gasped at the contents sparkling in the dim light. Holy crap, these gems must be worth a small fortune! I'm no jeweler, but several look like they would be perfect for an engagement ring, too. It's just too bad there aren't any of the blue ones the dogs seem to be so afraid of...
A smile played on his face as he stood up, squared his shoulders, and looked ahead down the trackbed. Okay, I’m making progress, but it's too early to celebrate – there's still a dog to catch.
He set out once more, soon encountering the empty bridge location and rejoining the track. Just like the other bank, the rails on this side were missing, though the bed was mostly intact, and the occasional tie remained.
The babble of the river gradually soothed his worries, especially compared to the earlier oppressive silence. He wouldn't be able to hear the dog up ahead, but hopefully it wouldn't be able to hear him either. He followed the trackbed at a fast walk, keeping a sharp eye out ahead for any sign of the dog.
He hadn't made it far when he felt that something was off. It took him a moment to place the change; a strange howling coming from behind him, followed by a building rumble. He looked back to see a frothing mass of water surging down the river, raising the level abruptly. Alarmed, he scrambled off the track and sprinted away from the river, climbing up the sloping tunnel wall as far as he could. From there he watched the water nervously, but after a few tense moments, the flood seemed to stabilize just below the level of the track, and showed no signs of rising further.
I'm lucky I crossed when I did, he thought as he eyed the now-raging torrent. With this much water, that path behind the waterfall must be completely awash. I hope that creature is okay. It looked at home in the water, though and I'm sure the raging water woke it up. It's probably fine, even if it did get washed downstream. Hmm. I might want to keep an eye out for it, though, just in case it does get washed past me. With that thought in mind, he warily watched both river and path as he resumed his trek. He seemed to have gotten his second wind, and he made good time along the trackbed.
As he had noticed earlier, this tunnel seemed to stretch on and on, meandering only slightly. The river wove back and forth as well, but it generally hugged the far wall, leaving a broad bank on the right hand side. There were occasional patches of light, and more of the exotic rock formations, but the tunnel was mostly a study of rock, water, and mud. At least the route was generally easy going; the gravel was even and the track sloped gently downhill. It ran on for perhaps half a kilometer like this before he noticed a change up ahead.
Here the walls fell away as the passage opened up into a large space, perhaps the size of two or three gymnasiums, dimly lit by a few more crystal veins. The river ran steadily along on his left, while the floor to the right dropped much more quickly, until it reached a flat dirt plain. In the middle, the track path stayed level, atop an earthen embankment that soon began to feel a bit like a dike.
Motion next to the path caught his eye – he froze, dousing his light. The movement came again, and this time he made out a shower of earth thrown up from the right of the embankment, just a little ways ahead of him.
Something was digging into the bank beneath the path. Listening carefully above the rush of the stream and his own quiet approach, he could hear a familiar guttural voice muttering in the hole below. It’s the dog! But if the dog is down in the hole, where are the foals?
He stopped and scanned the chamber more carefully; it ended a little ways ahead, the river disappearing into a much smaller tunnel, barely wide enough to accommodate the current flow. Just before the chamber wall, however, the track path curved to the left and re-crossed the river. The bridge here was also missing, with a section of rapids marking the spot where it should have been.
It was there, at the base of the crossing, that he finally saw the basket. Oh, so the river blocked the dog as well? What luck! It might not have drunk from the canteen, but that doesn’t matter anymore – this is my chance!
Channeling his inner ninja, he crept down the path, across where the creature labored below. He could barely hear its whuffing exertions, but the grumbling came through clearly and he fancied he could feel the dirt tremble slightly beneath his feet, though that could have easily have been the energy of the river.
Barely daring to hope, he snuck away from the dig site, and came up to the basket. Looking back, he saw dirt still streaming from the side of the berm and risked briefly using the flashlight. The sudden flood of relief almost turned his knees to jelly as he saw two little bundles lying in a basket, small tufts of hair poking out and the fabric gently rising and falling with each breath. Shoot, I can’t make the dummies do that. I hope the dog isn't so observant. Asleep and wrapped up like this, they seemed so much smaller than the energetic bundles of mayhem he was accustomed to.
He’d planned to quickly exchange his prepared basket for the dog’s, but he realized that the baskets didn’t match as closely as he'd hoped, so he had to swap their contents instead. He moved as quickly as he could, but it still took a few moments to get the blankets right and the dummies' hair to fall correctly. His heart was pounding harder than during his run, but he forced himself not to hurry. After a couple long minutes he finally stood, satisfied with his handiwork. It’s not perfect, but it’s solid – enough to pass a casual inspection, I hope. Time to make good my escape.
He scanned the cave, considering his options. Ahead, the river seethed and roiled, with great standing waves and churning waters. That’s where I want to go, but there's no crossing with it like that. Behind was the embankment, where the dog still dug furiously. I could head upstream, but I hate to backtrack, plus I don’t want to risk disturbing the dog by walking over it. Better to keep my distance if I can.
Looking around for an alternative, he spotted a large cluster of stalagmites a little ways down the slope that seemed to offer enough concealment. Picking his way down the slope to them, he found himself on the edge of a large, flat plain. It was an odd purplish dirt, crusty, and with clearly defined edges. The surface was largely free of stone, though various pieces of wood lay scattered atop it. Conveniently, a wooden crate lay among the debris nearest the stalagmite. The bottom was embedded a few inches into the ground, but it was easy to shift and proved just big enough to serve as an impromptu seat for him and the basket.
He wasn't happy with the basket. The dog had managed the one it had, and he'd put up with his own so far as well, but it kept banging against his leg, and he didn't trust the handle. Time for some judicious repacking. Emptying out the main compartment of his backpack left just enough room for the foals. They barely stirred at the shift to the backpack, which told him a bit of just how out of it they were. With the backpack full, the magazine, first aid kit, and lunchbox were bumped over to the basket.
As he was finishing up, he noticed that the tone of the river had changed again. He looked up the slope warily, peeking around the edge of the stalagmite. He couldn't hear anything above the sound of the river, but motion atop the embankment caught his eye. The canid was walking along it, striding until it was standing nearly above him. He held his breath as the dog halted, then exhaled slowly in relief as it merely picked up the basket and continued along until it disappeared out of view.
After a few minutes, he hadn't seen any further sign of the dog, and his curiosity got the better of him. He strapped on his backpack, grabbed the spear, and stealthily scaled the bank. He kept a low profile, worming his way up the last few feet, until he had his head level with the trackway and was peering across. He spotted a figure moving on the opposite riverbank – the canid had somehow made it, and was quickly climbing up. As he watched, it deftly scaled the rubble and vanished into the gloom.
He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Thank goodness, it finally left. He grinned broadly. I got away with it! I almost can't believe it! Now I just need to make it out of here with the foals.
Climbing all the way up, he got his first real look at the river crossing. The river still raged violently, but it was running lower now, exposing a series of pilings that jutted from the frothing water like jagged teeth. The dog must have been working to lower the level of the river, he thought, as he eyed the stones with some trepidation. That's still not an easy crossing to make.
So that digging changed the water level? he speculated. I should probably check it out – Now that I have the foals, there’s no reason to rush. To the contrary, if I move too fast, I might catch up to the dog again. He walked back upstream along the embankment, and soon got his answer. A sizable volume of water was pouring through a new hole in the embankment, enough to draw down the level of the river on the other side. So that was its plan, he mused. That's an impressive bit of digging – I don't think I'll be able to improve on it. It might grow larger on its own, though. It’s a good thing I didn't choose to hide upstream; I wouldn't want to cross that section now, the way it's being undermined.
Then, as he watched, the river suddenly quieted, the volume of water dropping off as it mysteriously reverted to the rowdy brook he had originally seen. The flow of the diversion died away as well – the reduced river level no longer even enough to reach the inlet of the dog's tunnel.
He scratched his head, puzzled. That's seriously strange. Did something else happen upstream? he wondered. Still, there's no sense in waiting for it to come back. I may not be comfortable with it, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the– No, just no. That idiom has been forever ruined for me now.
Setting his thoughts aside, he hurried back along the path and down the embankment to where he’d left the basket, but he only made it halfway down before he stopped in his tracks, swearing softly. It figures something had to go wrong. I should've considered where all that water would end up.
Ahead of him, the dirt plain had been transformed, and was now almost half a meter higher than he remembered. Disconcertingly, even at its new, higher level, the substance had a crusty surface that made it appear dry and solid. As he watched closely, though, he could see the surface shift, with various bits of wood and other light debris swirling and drifting about in a way that showed that it was still quite fluid underneath. Unfortunately, among those swirling, drifting debris was the crate with the basket, which had come loose and now floated several meters away from the shore.
Still, the inflow of water had halted, and as he watched, he noted that the level did not rise any further. Unfortunately, it didn’t fall, either, and though the swirling slowed, it did not altogether cease. Instead, the lingering motion gave rise to a new disquiet, setting off senses honed by numerous late-night horror movies and sporadic fridge-cleaning.
Could he get his stuff back? He toed the edge of the muck dubiously, pulling back as his boot immediately sank into the purplish gunk. Slippery, sticky, and disturbingly gelatinous mud. He hefted the spear and reached out with it, probing the hidden depths of the pit. About half a meter from the edge, the bottom dropped off almost out of reach. He tried from a couple other angles, quickly finding the same result. He stood back on the edge, massaging his temples absentmindedly.
Dammit, I just don't see how I can get the basket back with what I have. I’m not about to wade in there, there’s nothing to float with, building a causeway would take too much time, and I'd need a longer staff or a rope to fish it out. So much for all my gear. Frustrated, he kicked a rock onto the mud, though watching it quickly sink away didn’t help his mood any. He sighed. I got the foals, and that's what counts. At least I'm not in a race anymore.
Defeated by the mud, he climbed back up the berm and surveyed the river crossing once more. The water was still low and placid, revealing several more stepping stones than before. He carefully picked his way down to the river and stepped out across the rushing water. The rocks were slippery, but the crossing was a breeze compared to the waterfall, and after a few careful minutes he was scaling the far bank. Cresting the top cautiously, he broke into a smile as his careful scan didn't find any sign of the dog. Of course, he couldn’t see much of anything else, either – just a boring slope of gravel and rock, with the path running up and away from the river before disappearing into shadow.
Despite the gloom around him, he found his spirits lifting. Well, that's one set of hurdles cleared. I got the foals, lost the dog and crossed the river. Now I just need to keep the two of them safe while getting out of here and figuring out how to meet the locals on reasonable terms. Piece of cake. Of course this latest bit of running around has doubtlessly put the nail in the coffin of the 'stay in one place' approach. Ah well, no point in dwelling on bygones. Yeah, there's still a lot to overcome, but I've come a long ways already.
He stood poised for a moment longer, eyes focused somewhere beyond the enveloping darkness.
I just need to keep forging ahead.