60w, 3dAussie Bronies
The darkness seemed to almost flicker around them. It bounced off the walls, reverberating around the cave invisibly yet inescapably present. Their lantern fought valiantly against the shadow surrounding the two ponies, but it was fighting a losing battle. The small bubble of light did little but offer a mere token of visibility in the darkness. It was all around them, hissing angrily. There was more than one set of walls within these caves.
“Mama?” the filly whispered.
“Where are we going?”
The mare paused. She honestly didn’t know. She just kept pushing onwards, hoping against hope to find some sort of exit. “We’re trying to find a way out.”
“Oh.” She didn’t sound convinced.
The cave around them was small and cramped. The ground rose unevenly, punctuated by stalagmites and other grotesque rock formations formed over aeons of water movement. Water runoff trickled endlessly, making the rocks smooth and slippery. More than once the filly had lost her balance. Their weak light battled endlessly against the shadow, but served to add nothing but a dim glow – just enough to see several paces in front. Punctuating the silence was their hoof-steps, echoing into the inky blackness. Their breaths came short and sharp, and the rustling of their clothing and packs seemed to resonate within the cave.
The mare and the filly pressed on. As they went deeper into the cave, the walls became closer and closer. Their slick surfaces were angled steeply, lined with small stone bumps. It was not long before the mare was forced to lower her head to prevent hitting it against the roof in the darkness. As they walked, the older pony became more and more worried. If they didn’t find an exit here, she had absolutely no idea what they could do to get out. The snow blocking the main entrance would have to be several feet deep. Even with proper tools it might take days, even weeks. Their own water would only last a couple of days, and the mare didn’t trust the water around them to be safe enough to drink. They just didn’t have enough supplies... or light.
The mare stopped suddenly as one of her front hooves slipped into nothing. Her muscles locked into place as she pressed her weight backwards to stabilise herself.
“It’s alright,” the mare replied, breathing heavily.
Her daughter nuzzled her gently. “Don’t scare me like that, Mama,” she said shakily.
The mare briefly returned the nuzzle before examining the fall in front of them. Rather than falling as a straight drop, the rock actually swept away, evening out into a flatter decline as it went. A shelf of rock jutting out from the roof prevented the mare from seeing what lay down this embankment.
Carefully, the mare placed a tentative hoof onto the sliding rock-face. It was slick, explaining why she slipped. Slowly, she pressed more weight onto the hoof. When she didn’t fall uncontrollably, she placed her other hooves down as well, causing her body to skate tentatively down to the bottom like a slide. She had to put a hoof up to stop herself from hitting the wall at the far end.
At the end of this decline, the cave ended in a dead end. Or at least that’s what the mare thought before she noticed another crack running down the length of the wall, its jagged edges glistening dangerously in the weak light of her lantern.
“I think I’ve found another way forward!” the mare yelled to her. “Come down!”
“Is it safe?” came the tentative reply.
“Just come down. I’ll catch you!”
The mare heard her take a deep breath before a second later; the small pony came sliding down on her haunches, her eyes wide. The mare caught her with an outstretched leg before she hit the cave wall at the end. The filly trembled in her embrace. Before the mare could react, however, a huge smile lit up the filly’s face.
“That was fun, Mama!”
She laughed. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
The filly smiled, an expression that seemed to light up the cave far more than the lantern. “Where next, Mama?”
The mare pointed toward the jagged break in the wall and the filly’s face dropped.
“It’s still somewhere,” the mare said.
The filly frowned slightly, but didn’t respond. Taking her cue, the mare proceeded to manoeuvre her body through the fracture in the rock. It was a tight fit, and the mare winced slightly when the edge of her hood got caught on one of the jags, causing it split slightly along the worn seam.
On the other side, the mare’s jaw dropped. Barely illuminated by the rusty metal lantern, was a room that had definitely been hewn out of the stone by pony-folk, or at least something with some degree of technical proficiency. While small, the walls were at ninety degrees and without the pockmarks that cursed the walls of the cave behind her. Inside the room sat row after row of wooden shelving, interspaced by small piles of barrels between each one. Most of the shelves were bare, but the mare could make out some shapes sitting on each one. At her feet lay a small pile of broken wooden boards. The edges of the door still remained on its hinges on either side of the entrance.
“Good Celestia,” she breathed.
“What is it, Mama?” the small pony behind her asked, just catching up.
“I… I don’t know.”
The mare slowly approached one of the shelves. It was empty and caked with dust. Thoroughly confused, the pony started to search the room. The storage spaces held little of interest. She could only find a few mouldy sacks of flour and a couple of seed bags for some unmarked, and probably extinct, plant. The mare packed the seeds away carefully within her saddlebags.
Frowning slightly, the mare turned her attention to the barrels. The wood on each one was damp and cool. The rotting lids broke easily on those that had not already been opened. Inside, the mare found that most of them were already emptied. She did, however, find two tins of cabbage whose tinplate seals appeared to have not yet rusted through. Allowing herself a small smile, she packed them inside their bags.
When she had checked the four corners of the room for anything hidden in the shadows, the mare turned towards the wooden door that sat at the far end of the room. The rotting planks of wood were held together by rusted metal bands that stretched horizontally across the frame. There wasn’t a handle, suggesting that whoever had built it had accommodated for more than just unicorns.
The mare searched the filly’s expression. She merely stared blankly back at her, not saying a word. After receiving no response, the mare tentatively pushed the door open, the rusted hinges protesting loudly as they moved. Beyond the door lay darkness, broken only by a small stone tunnel that stretched as far as the pony could see both left and right. Taking a deep breath, the mare walked into the corridor, leaving the cave far behind.
The mare is young, really young. Her small body, devoid of a cutie mark, trembles as the storm rages outside with a vengeance. She can hear the rain lash against the roof like a thousand miniature fire-crackers and the wind howl like a pack of timber wolves. Every now and then, her bedroom is illuminated by a great flash which is followed shortly by a resounding boom that shakes the house to its foundations.
The mare whimpers as the storm grows worse with each passing second. She can’t stand the loud noises and she can’t stand the dark. Even the lightning does nothing but cast terrifying shadows around her room, their outlines like demons or ghosts.
She quivers underneath her blankets, her head fully submerged between her two pillows. She just wants the storm to go away.
“Go away,” she whispers. “Please go away.”
There is another flash and another explosion of thunder. The room always seems darker in the immediate aftermath of a lightning strike.
Her door suddenly begins to creak open and a bright light enters, piercing through her protective veil of blankets.
“Are you ok?” her mother asks gently, the older pony’s hoof-steps following her voice into the room.
The mare doesn’t reply, instead choosing to whimper again into her pillow.
“Oh, little one,” she coos softly. “Come here.”
Before the mare knows it, her mother has crossed the room, placed the lantern on her bedside table and got into bed with her, holding her trembling body close. She snuggles deeper into her mother’s soft, warm coat, trying to get her mother to protect her.
“It’s just a storm,” her mother says. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
“It’s not just the storm. It’s the dark, too.”
Her mother kisses the top of her head. “But why is the dark so scary?”
“Because there are monsters! Because I can’t see things clearly! Bad things can be in the dark!” She speaks quickly.
“There aren’t any monsters.”
“That’s what all grown ups say...”
Her mother stops for a second, thinking. “Even if there were monsters,” she begins, speaking slowly, “then you wouldn’t have to be afraid of them.”
“Because monsters can’t get ponies who are loved.” Her voice is assertive and matter-of-fact.
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that none of the bad things in the dark can get little fillies who have somepony who loves them.”
“Bad things in the dark are mean, and all you need to do to get rid of mean things is show them that you aren’t affected by how mean they are. So if you tell them that, ‘No, I don’t care, Mr. Mean Thing. My mommy loves me very much!’ then they go away.”
“Really?” The mare is wide-eyed.
“It’s true. The bad things can only get us if we let them.”
“Then I’ll never let them get me!”
“There you go!” Her mother nuzzles her affectionately. “The bad things in the dark can never get you.”
“Yeah!” The mare gives her mother a quick squeeze of a hug. “Thanks, Mom.”
Her mother kisses the top of her head again. “Now sleep, little one. Get some rest.”
She is awfully tired now that her mother mentions it. The mare yawns. She lets her head rest against the soft pillow. Her eyes blink, slowly. Sleeping is too easy.
“Sweet dreams, little one,” her mother whispers. “None of the bad things will ever hurt you.”
“Never… hurt… me,” she responds, quickly falling asleep.
After some time, her mother leaves the room, leaving the mare alone on the bed. She leaves the light on the bedside table, while outside the storm continues to buffet the world.
The mare often looked back on this memory. She would laugh at herself. So young, so naïve. She was so oblivious. Nothing, absolutely nothing would have prepared her for what was waiting just around the corner.
Left or right - those were their two options. It was simple enough, yet the mare hesitated. The stone corridor stretched out on either side as far as the eye could see - rapidly falling away into darkness as the lantern’s light failed to reveal the end. The stone was cut fairly evenly, though the floor was covered in a thick layer of dust. The mare could just begin to make out dark shapes set evenly on the inside of the walls, each one the same size as the door they had just come through.
Acting on a sudden impulse, the mare chose left and proceeded to walk down the silent hallway. The first doorway they came to was jammed shut and refused to open despite the mare’s attempts. The second door opened, but only revealed a small cave-in, the large pile of rubble destroying anything that would tell the mare of its purpose.
The third, however, opened without hassle, the wooden frame moving slowly along decaying hinges. The inside of the room featured only a few broken barrels, some piles of rope and some cleaning equipment. It was obviously just more storage. The mare didn’t bother to enter and continued on down the hallway.
The two ponies encountered several other rooms in this regard. Many of them were blocked, probably from the inside, and two more had been subject to roof collapses. The ones they could enter proved to be little more than storage spaces. There was never any permanent looking furniture, and whatever was inside was in poor repair. If there were wooden items, they were often burnt, the outsides charcoaled, now rotting in the damp cave air.
The tunnel they were following ended abruptly, turning a sharp ninety degrees to the right. Left with no other choice than to follow it or go back, the mare followed this new direction. This new hallway proved to be almost identical to the first, doors set alongside the right hoof side of the wall.
The mare stopped. The tunnel’s layout had suddenly changed. A door sat on the left. The inside of this fissure banked steeply down, stone steps cut neatly into the floor. Just as the descent made it’s first turn into the darkness, barely visible from the mare’s position, a huge pile of rubble blocked the passage way. The whistling proved that air was still able to move between the blockage, but the mare knew there was no way she would be strong enough to lift any of the rocks.
“It’s a staircase,” the mare said, more to herself than the filly.
“But where does it lead?”
“I don’t know. Hopefully an exit,” the older pony replied.
“I hope so.”
Further down the tunnel, the hallway suddenly shifted right by another ninety degrees, taking them the opposite way that they first started. The mare prayed that they were not merely walking in an enclosed loop, the only exit the way they had come. But the staircase filled her with hope - it would have had to lead somewhere, she just had to find where that somewhere was.
They had no choice but to continue along, and hope that maybe, just maybe there was another way out.
It was the darkness that first alerted the mare to its presence. They were in complete and utter shadow already, but from the hole, the darkness seemed to pour out, literally filling the hallway in front of them. The mare watched anxiously as the dark seemed to emanate from the massive opening in the wall on their left.
She approached it slowly, fighting a natural reaction to turn tail and flee. She had to press on; she had to keep herself going. The opening stood about five metres high and about four wide. Beyond it was nothing but shadow, the darkness itself stretching out for as far as the mare could see.
Steeling her nerves, the mare stepped through the gigantic doorway and into the space beyond. She gasped as her light stretched out in front of her, growing weaker as it spread out further and further from its source. What the mare could see caused her pause in shock.
They were standing inside an enormous cavern, the roof higher than the mare could tell. The walls on their left and right were only barely visible, just discernible due to the ornate pillars carved into their sides. The far wall was lost to the sea of shadow, too far away for the light to reach.
In the middle of this ancient hall lay the remains of a pony settlement - rows upon rows of tents, all supported by weakening poles, their tarpaulin roofs and walls crumpling in on themselves. Chairs, tables, crates and other loose items lay scattered among the abandoned living spaces, their upended surfaces all collecting mountains of dust.
The middle of this settlement was gone. It had been rent in half by a jagged fissure running diagonally from the left hoof corner of the room to as far as the mare could see and was about fifteen metres wide at its widest point. The dark fracture fell away into oblivion, its depth unknowable in the weak light. Awed, the mare couldn’t help but shudder at the sight of the small town swallowed up by the crack in the earth, fallen away, lost to darkness.
Just off to the side of the settlement, barely spanning the width of the fissure, rested a haphazard rope bridge of mismatched wood and metal, its wooden planks sagging under its own weight. The mare considered it with caution. Whoever had built it had placed it there after the town had been destroyed and abandoned - she could tell by the loose furniture lying around from the camp that had been partly used in its construction, but if that was the case, then where were the ponies who had assembled it?
The mare approached the bridge with caution. On her right the pony settlement sat silently, illuminated by the ghostly light of her lamp. The crumpled tents were the only gravestones their owners would ever receive. Visible between the corridors of tents, the mare saw a host of living utensils such as plates, cups and cutlery. Whoever had lived here left in a hurry.
The first of the dead could be found by the bridge. Two crumpled bodies sat against the opposite support poles, one even resting a hoof over the rope that stretched the length of the chasm. Their flesh was dry and blackened, tufts of their coats still clinging to their decaying bodies, punctured occasionally by bleached bone. Around them was a dark stain, the remnants of a grisly fluid. The mare was thankful she couldn’t see their cause of death on their decomposing bodies. The diameter of the pool testament to the extent of their injuries.
“Look away,” she said to the filly. “Just look away.”
“Why?” the filly responded, staring at the two bodies.
“Because it’s bad.”
The filly looked at her quizzically, yet the mare did not elaborate.
Oh Celestia, some things should never be seen.
The mare placed a hoof onto the decaying bridge, testing its integrity slowly. After it held with one, she placed another onto the wooden planks, adding more weight. When she finally stepped out onto the dangerously flexing crossing, it creaked ominously into the darkness, yet held. The mare turned to the small pony waiting behind her.
“Come on. It’s safe.”
“Really?” The filly’s voice sounded unconvinced, but the mare recognized the fear.
“See? I’m already on it. It’s fine.”
Her lips set into a straight line, the filly stepped onto the bridge behind her mother. Slowly, they began to cross, placing one hoof after the other as carefully as they could. The bridge flexed and moaned as the travellers moved and would often shake from side-to-side. Broken planks tried to trip the ponies up, but the mare kept a close eye on the aging wood and alerted the filly whenever there was a weak spot. Below the two ponies, the bridge fell away into the immeasurable darkness, the shadow staring hungrily back at them, almost willing them to fall. The mare was very thankful for the barriers of rope that framed the walkway.
Upon reaching the other side, the mare let loose a breath she did not realise she was holding. She could have sworn she heard the filly do the same. Now safely back on solid ground, the mare began to walk through the tent settlement. She noticed in sadness that there were several more bodies here, often set in small groups, black stains encircling their fallen forms. The absence of any weapons that may have brought this destruction caught the mare’s attention. Somepony, or something, had clearly scavenged the bodies for items, yet left them here to rot.
The mare could see further evidence of this ransacking. Many barrels or containers lay overturned or smashed, spoiled contents left next to the corpses of their previous homes. Several tents had been knocked over now lying trampled and crushed. Some even appeared to have been torched, the burnt and melted tarp in black puddles on the ground.
“I don’t like this place,” the filly said suddenly, her voice echoing out into the vast hall.
“Me neither,” the mare responded, frowning as she did. She didn’t notice the fearful glance the small pony shot her way; perhaps if she did she would have regretted the next words out of her mouth. “There is nothing good about this cave.”
“But maybe a way out?” the filly suggested shakily.
Walking across the hall like they were, the mare could now make out the far wall. It was broken up like its counterparts adjacent to it by semi-circular stone pillars that were probably for decoration rather than any structural support. Set deep into the middle of the wall was a doorway, larger than the ones back in the catacombs behind them, but considerably smaller than the entrance to the cavern they were currently in. However, the great wooden door was smashed open, its hinges twisted and its wooden frame scorched.
The mare drew near to the door and appraised the inside curiously. Beyond the entrance lay a small ante-chamber, its miniature size surprising, considering the size of the door. A single upturned desk laid against the wall, surrounded by loose sheets of paper that were spread out all over the floor, the yellowed pages appearing almost luminescent under the light of the lantern. A lone, dark stain sat in the middle of the ground and stretched up to the desk. Its red shade was visible on any of the parchment that it touched. There was no body though, a small comfort to the mare.
Entering the room slowly, the mare carefully looked over the paper that wasn’t stained in blood. Most of the pages had been ruined by the exposure to dust or time. Making sure to skirt around the streak of blood on the floor, the mare moved to the upturned desk. The back of the drawers had been smashed open, but the mare could see that its contents were all still inside. Here the mare found the end of the trail of blood, its grisly path smeared over the surface of the desk, the fluid clearly having dripped into the open compartments inside. Carefully, the mare fished around inside with a hoof. Inside was nothing but paper or an empty pot of ink. Just before she pulled out her hoof, however, the mare found something different: a small leather-bound book lying at the back of the drawers.
Removing it slowly, the mare pulled it out. Its cover was stiff and stained with blood. The pony opened it delicately and a few pages fell out, fluttering to the floor. The inside of the jacket contained the words, “Owned by Scarlet Quill” in cursive. Scarlet Quill… the mare had heard that name before… where was it from…?
That’s it! She was the mayor of Manehatten before the end. Curious, the mare opened the rigid pages. The ink, where it was still readable, was fading from age. It was a journal, the dates starting after the end, but yet still over seven years ago. With her brow furrowed in apprehension, the mare began to read.
‘…the road was impassable in many places. We saw many ponies and invited them to come with us. Some accepted, some declined. Many of our fellow travellers reported some worrying rumours, of ponies acting violently, even attacking and enslaving each other. I shudder to think that such things could be true. We have been walking for two days now. Everything is burnt. Where is the sun? I cannot see the sun! It has been almost two years, so where are our Princesses? I am a little worried. We have nothing but each other and the clothes on our backs and any food we can scavenge. Where are we going? I do not know. We only need to get away from the city, it holds nothing but death, now.’
The next few entries were impossible to read, the pages having been stained with blood. The mare skipped forward to the next legible part.
‘Sunny reported that she found a cave today. She said she had no idea how she found it, but was certain she could find it again. I knew that the mountains were a perfect choice for our little rag tag bunch of survivors. The stories say that they are riddled with dragon caves. She did say that it didn’t look like a dragon cave, at least not what from she saw. Only time will tell. Any shelter is good shelter. The ash is still so hot. I am a little concerned about Sunny’s cough. That sky cannot be healthy for anypony, but I am not sure she listens to me. She is loyal and dependable, after all. She doesn’t want to let anypony down. So I guess to the mountains it is then. Let us pray we can find it someplace worthy to call home.
‘Success! The cave in the mountains has proved to be a magnificent shelter. Though I am not sure ‘cave’ is the right word. The place is huge! It’s comprised of three massive floors, each one divided into two sections, a large cavern and then a rectangle of tunnels that ring around the outside of catacomb of rooms. There appears to be an entrance on the top and then two on the bottom floor (one of which we came through), though the top one was boarded up and only leads to a cave. There is so much space for us here, it’s amazing. I got Cogs to put out a message on the radios, to try and get all ponies to find shelter here with us. In the morning I will send out a search party to the farms down on the plains on a hunt to find food. I have to admit, though, I am not sure whoever built this was a pony. The architecture… it’s unlike anything any of us have ever seen. Not that that’s important right now. We have everything we need to survive for now, let us thank the Princesses for that.’
The next few entries detailed day-to-day routine in the caves, detailing the struggle to survive in the darkness. After missing a section due to absent pages, the mare started to read again.
‘Another family and a few lone travellers arrived today. There are so many of us now. Ponies hear our radio broadcast and come from all over Equestria to live in some semblance of peace like our old lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to feed everypony, but that’s of little concern, as long as we’re all alive. Cogs has perfected the water purifier, and it’s such a relief to drink clean water again. Poor Sunny’s health has been rapidly declining, yet she still insists on helping out. That poor mare. There aren’t many pegasi left in the caves, not since Contrail and Flightspeed passed away from lung problems.’
The mare skipped forward a few pages and was surprised to find that she had jumped forward over a month.
‘Sunny passed away today. I knew this day was coming… but it’s not the same without her. She was one my closest friends. I just wish I had told her that… before… well… no point getting upset now.
‘We expanded our little community up to the top floor today. I put my office in there as well, away from the other ponies. I just don’t feel like talking too much these days. Cogs has mentioned that he’s noticed some problems with the water purifier. I’m sure he can fix it, though.’
‘To think… it’s been over a year and a half since we found this little cave. To think all that’s happened. It’s so very dark in here. The water purifier broke down yesterday, though Cogs did say he should be able to get it running again sometime today. We are having food problems again, not surprising considering we have to feed over two hundred ponies. Ponies always get short tempered when they’re hungry. I just have to hope they’re patient and understand that there just isn’t that much food anymore. Here’s to our bright and wonderful future. Also, I miss Sunny; she always knew how to make me smile.’
The mare was beginning to get to the end of the book now and the time gaps between entries were getting larger and larger. Looking around, she realised she had sat down without realising it. Next to her, the filly was reading the old ponies of harmony book, lost within its pages. Satisfied that a rest would do them good, the mare read on.
‘The water purifier broke again today. Cogs doesn’t know when it will be back and working. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Everything is breaking these days. Even the radio gave out a few days ago, though we couldn’t take any more ponies any way.’
‘Morning Dew told me something worrying today. She said that she had heard several ponies talk about the food shortages, about how they are angry at me for not providing enough food. Is it enough that I try? Probably not, but I do. Oh Celestia please know that I try so hard. She also mentioned that they said something about chaos… I don’t quite know what that means. Everypony has heard the stories about chaos, but after all that we have seen, they are as likely as the Princesses being alive. So why are they whispering about a force just as dead as the sun or the moon? I may have to look in to this matter further.’
‘There was an earthquake today. It caused a massive crack in the top and middle floor’s roofs (or floors, respectively). Ponies are beginning to argue again, that the place isn’t safe, that we are running out of food. I just have to tell them everything’s ok. And it will be. I know it. The purifier is almost fixed and soon we will all be ok again. I know it. We just need some more food… There are more ponies whispering about chaos now. I don’t like it. I wish they would talk about something else. Here’s to the Princesses memory that everything will be ok. After all, what more can we do?’
The mare suddenly realised that she had reached the last entry of the diary. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she read on.
‘I’m scared, so very scared. They are everywhere. All my friends, Cogs, Morning Dew… they’re all dead. They’re all dead. A few of the ponies have barricaded themselves with me on the top floor. It won’t hold them for long, especially since they have the mountain entrance on the top covered. They are still whispering, we can hear them through the barricade. They are whispering while our defences’ burn. Oh Celestia, Oh please Celestia. Why did this happen? Where did we go wrong? Why has it come to this? I tried, please know that I tried so hard. All I wanted was for the old days, for ponies to live in peace. I have failed. I have tried and I failed. If anypony reads this, know that I am sorry. Oh Celestia, I am so sorry. I have to say goodbye now, they are nearly through. Oh Celestia I am sorry.’
There was a break in the page.
‘I am not sure if I am scared now. It just feels numb. Goodbye. I will always remember the good days, the days of harmony. Maybe it’s like that on the other side; maybe it’ll all be ok. Maybe…’
And then the entry stopped. The rest of the page was blank, marked only by a few small, crinkled drops. They weren’t hers, but when the mare reached up, her own face was wet. She gently wiped them away.
A small voice yelled within the mare’s subconscious. Something terrible had happened in these caves. Something violent. Despite the evidence that she had seen today that the cave was utterly abandoned and had been for a long time, the mare couldn’t completely force down a nagging feeling of worry. But then... this was nothing different to every other night they slept. Even then, she decided that she and the filly would sleep behind the desk. It was a small precaution, but a precaution nonetheless.
“I think we’ll sleep here tonight,” she said, her voice soft.
The filly nodded her head. “Ok.”
Slowly, carefully, the mare closed the book and placed it inside one of their packs. It would never be forgotten now, always treasured. At least somepony would carry the memory, for memories are all that anypony has left. The mare hoped that one day, somepony might do the same for her. She knew it probably wouldn’t happen, but all she hoped for it all the same.
That night, the mare slept poorly, haunted by a constant whispering whose source she could never locate. All around her, the world burned, leaving nothing but ash and the memories of a world before the darkness.
The sun is setting gloriously over the mountain, washing the city with brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow. The stone walls almost appear to be on fire with a radiant beauty. However, the mare sees none of this. She is sitting inside her living room, the sizzling sounds of dinner being prepared making their way from the kitchen. Tonight it is her husband's turn to cook.
"Smells delicious," the mare says languidly, enjoying resting her tired body.
"Darn well better be," comes the disgruntled reply.
The mare smirks. He does not enjoy cooking. Basking in the pleasure of the afternoon, the mare closes her eyes. Beside the pony a record player sings softly to her, the volume turned down low.
'I know that things always seem their darkest,
Right when you are around,
But please believe me when I say this,
I will not rest till our love is found.'
Along the walls of her living space sit several bookshelves, each packed to the point of overflow or double stacked to accommodate their inhabitants. In the corner rests a coat stand, which currently features her husband's work clothes and a red helmet. A wooden coffee table completes the scene, piled high with various magazines and newspapers. Next to her, the chorus starts to play and so the mare sings along softly.
"I tried so hard to complete this,
That I lost sight of the beginning,
And now that we have nothing but each other,
Will it prove to be enough in the end?"
Her husband enters the room just as she finishes singing. He is smiling at her kindly as he walks, his large, honest eyes twinkling as he does. The mare stares at him accusingly.
"You have a nice voice," he offers in his defence. "You should use it more often."
"Nonsense," she replies. "I can't sing."
He rolls his eyes. "Yes you can. Please believe me, you really can. When have I ever lied to you?"
Before the mare can rebut his claim, the song suddenly hits its catchy instrumental hook. Her eyes light up in excitement.
"Come dance with me!"
"What?" he says, not just a little bit shocked.
"Yeah! Dance with me! Now!"
But as he is speaking, the mare dashes over with lightning speed. She wraps a leg around his neck and proceeds to lead him awkwardly around the living room. More than once he has to stop her from bumping in to something.
"This isn't really working," he grumbles.
"How do you mean?" she says innocently.
"You’re limping around on three hooves while I'm on all four. This isn't working."
She pouts. "Hmmph. You’re no fun." She drops back down properly to a normal standing position.
Outside, a siren blasts out into the dusk air, its repetitive whine the only sound beside the quietly playing song.
"But don't worry, you can still sing," he says to her, trying to lighten the mood.
"No I can't," she replies sadly.
He doesn't say anything in return. He turns and walks back toward the kitchen.
"Dinner will be ready soon," he offers over his shoulder.
He stops. "Oh, that reminded me, did you lock the door?"
She sighs. "Yes, I did."
"You know that it's new, and you have to turn i-"
"I know," she says. Realising that her words sounded harsh, she offers him a small smile. "We're locked up safe and tight. Don't worry."
"I'm not," he says before walking back into the kitchen. "But you can't be too careful."
As he leaves, the song comes to its conclusion, the soft voice and the piano the only parts left. As the mare stands there, the lyrics fade quietly into nothing.
'But please remember that I love you,
Even though it means little now,
And even in the depths of your goodbyes
I, oh yes I, will stand by you... forever...'
Should they have seen it coming? Should she be able to look back at those days and see all the signs pointing toward their inevitable demise? Toward a future filled with nothing but ash and darkness? Perhaps. But she could not. There were no signs, at least ones that were obvious. Life had been normal, or she thinks it had been.
But maybe there were signs, maybe if she looked hard enough she would remember the ominous reminders that ponies were about to fade away into oblivion. Notice the subtle tightening of the noose around their necks. Maybe the signs had always been there and she was too ignorant, too unwilling to see them, comfortable within her peaceful existence. She couldn't be sure. Memories are such a fickle thing, after all.
It had been such a beautiful day, one of celebration and joy, a day to celebrate the gift of the sun on the longest day of the year. It was meant to be a day of hope and harmony. Who knew that it would be their last? If anypony did, they did nothing to stop it… or maybe they did. Maybe they tried and failed, like Scarlet Quill had done. If so, their story has already been forgotten. Their valiant attempt at saving the entire pony civilization was now lost forever, never to be remembered. Who could know? Who would know? Did anypony ever know at all? It almost seemed pointless to try and imagine these things now. After all, what good would it do but remind her of a past she would never re-live? There was no joy in considering what could have been.
The mare woke to a dark so perfect and so complete she had thought she had died. When she didn’t panic and began to accept this realization, her stomach curled up. She was feeling guilty. It was then she realized that she wasn’t dead, and the memories of the previous day came flooding back. They were still inside a gigantic cave, and they were still desperate for a way out. Suddenly, death seemed much more inviting.
She cursed herself silently into the dark. She couldn’t think like that, not now, not ever. That was the kind of talk that saw a pony give up all hope. That was the kind of talk that saw a pony submit to the darkness.
Fumbling slightly as she did, the mare re-lit the lantern, the magic candle about half used up. She hoped that it would last for another day. Then again, she had no idea when, if ever, they would escape. The best place to start would be to follow the journal and head towards the main entrance on the bottom floor.
The mare frowned when she remembered the collapsed staircase back inside the catacombs. Perhaps there was another one. Or even better, one within the large chamber just outside.
There was, however, a problem that she had to consider. Something had killed Scarlet Quill and the other ponies. What was it...? And more importantly, was it still here? The mare hadn’t seen any sign of anything having moved, let alone living within what the mare had seen of the cave, but even then, she couldn’t be sure. They would have to be very careful in their travels today.
The filly had woken now due to the lantern’s light. She yawned sleepily and rubbed her hooves over her eyes.
“Sleep well?” the mare asked.
The filly nodded her head, still too groggy to answer. Smiling, the mare pulled out the last cookie they had and offered them to the filly for breakfast.
“What about you, Mama?”
“I already ate,” she lied, hoping that the small pony didn’t press the issue any further.
“Oh,” was all she said before beginning to munch happily on the dry and stale cookies.
When the filly had eaten, the mare packed away their sleeping apparel and with the filly walking beside her as always, headed out into the cave. She wasted little time in making her way straight over to the side of the cavern, watching out for another staircase. Her search proved fruitful sooner than she expected - they soon found another rectangle of darkness set inside the cave wall. And this time, it wasn’t blocked with rubble.
Making sure the filly was following her closely, the mare set out down the staircase as it fell away into the mountain, spiraling as it went. She listened out carefully for any noises besides what they were making, but yet heard nothing. The air here was dry and musty, filled with dust.
At the bottom of the staircase, the mare found themselves inside another gigantic cavern, identical to the one they had just come down from. This one even had the exact same jagged fissure running through it. The only difference was the piles of rubble that had crushed many of the tents on either side of the fracture, perhaps overflow from the fallen roof above.
What the mare did notice different, however, was the level of destruction around the tents that had not been crushed. Many more were torn and burnt, the furniture around them stained and broken. More bodies rested in here as well, even more so than the previous cavern, their corpses cast into weak relief by the flickering lamplight.
On their right was another staircase, this one also going down. Eager to avoid walking through the settlement and across another rope bridge, the mare headed down. Hopefully they could skip this chamber all together. Her hopes were short lived, however. She found that this staircase had also been subject to a cave in, the blockage about halfway down the descent.
With no other choice but to turn around, the mare headed reluctantly back up. They would have to go through the cavern and into the catacombs.
Walking through the small town of tents and the dead, the mare noticed the filly staring at the dead ponies with a look of curiosity that scared the mare. She didn’t say anything, though. After all, what was there to say?
It was with a small smile that the mare noted that this bridge was in slightly better condition than the one in the cave above. It featured triangle-shaped supports along each side and two lines of rope acting as guard rails. Just like before, the darkness leered up at the two ponies when they crossed the creaking bridge. It beckoned at them to dive into its inky depths.
Safely on the other side, the mare set out towards the catacombs. The large entrance seemed much less imposing on the other side of its swirling shadow.
Now back inside the familiar tunnels, the mare chose to head left. On their right was the same staircase that had been blocked on the first level. Not trusting their luck, the mare didn’t want to waste any time by finding another dead end.
Much like the level above, the tunnel stretched out into the darkness, doors set along the inside wall. What was different, though, was the contents of these rooms. There were living quarters now as well as storage, or at least they had been before being seemingly abandoned. Small beds had been cut into the side of the rock, rotting mattresses on these shelves. Simple desks or bookshelves also sat along the walls, their surfaces bare and dusty.
Another difference, or at least something that the mare failed to notice before, was that all of these rooms seemed to interconnect. There were doors on all four sides of the room, placed in the corners to maximize the amount of uninterrupted wall. The mare found that each door opened into the room beyond and vice versa until they reached a room connecting to a tunnel.
Every room appeared to be abandoned. They were filled with dust and decay, stripped of anything worthwhile. Realising this, the mare returned to the outside tunnel, still heading in the same direction as they had started. Just where was that right hoof turn?
Almost as soon as she had thought it, the sharp ninety degree turn rushed up to meet them in the darkness, taking them in a direction that the mare had lost all ability to decipher. East perhaps?
They continued down this hallway, rapidly becoming lost in the familiarity of travel. The mare hung her head slightly as they walked; the lantern was certainly not a light burden to carry around one’s neck.
It was like this that she first noticed them in the dust.
There were multiple sets imprinted into the dust all around them. The mare began to breathe heavily, how did she not notice them before?
She stopped suddenly, listening out into the darkness. There was nothing, just like there had been nothing for the last two days - nothing except her heartbeat which was now pounding ferociously.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” the filly asked, her head tilted slightly to the side.
“N-nothing,” she replied. “Nothing at all, just keep a listen out to any sounds, ok?”
The mare watched the filly’s eyes widen. That was a mistake. The damage done, the mare walked on, her ears straining to make out any sound in the darkness.
As they walked, the number of hoof-prints grew larger and larger, all of them converging on a single point. The mare stopped when she realized where: the staircase. They were all to and from the staircase they had to travel down to escape.
“Mama,” the filly began, her voice rising in panic, “why are there hoof prints all over the ground? Mama?!”
“Mama!” Her voice was loud now, echoing in the silence.
“Quiet! Please!” the mare exclaimed.
Both ponies froze. They had both heard it, a short metallic rasping sound. It was wraith-like, yet ever so quiet. It had come from the staircase, drifting out from within the shadows.
They stood there, not moving a muscle, listening out to any further sounds. There was nothing, only silence, an echoing, deafening silence.
“Mama, what was tha-?”
It happened without any warning. They came out of the shadows with speed and ferocity, malice glinting from their sunken eyes. Two ponies had jumped out of the staircase, one unicorn and one earth pony, the former levitating a pick-axe and the latter gripping a jagged knife with her mouth. They were filthy and starved creatures with strange tattoos marked all over their bodies. Both were dressed in rags with an assortment of cruel and demonic looking wooden carvings resting around their necks like jewelry.
Reacting on nothing but pure instinct, the mare spun on her front hooves and bucked the charging earth pony as hard as she could. Their attacker was struck hard in the chest and knocked back into the unicorn behind her. Her breath left her body in an audible cough as she tumbled to the ground.
“Run!” the mare shouted to her daughter as she pushed her along the tunnel. “For the love of Celestia, run!”
Not needing further encouragement, the small pony began to sprint as fast as her legs would carry her down the darkened hallway. Behind them, the two ponies were recovering from the initial failed attack.
“Chaos! You can’t run from the shadows of Discord!” One of them howled down into the darkness, the voice reverberating around the cave walls.
The mare and the filly tore down the hallway and soon reached the right hoof turn, taking them back along the way they had first come, only now on the other side of the catacomb. Snatching a brief look back, the mare saw that the two ponies had given chase, their eyes glinting evilly in the light of the lantern.
Discord? The word seemed unfamiliar to the mare, then suddenly she remembered the old stories, the spirit of chaos, Discord. But they were just that - stories. Discord was destroyed in the fires, he had to have been. Unless this was what Scarlet Quill was talking about, ponies losing themselves to myths in the dark…?
“You will help us!” one of them screeched as they ran. “Help us with the freedom of death!”
Run. Oh Celestia, run.
As the mare ran as fast as her legs would carry her, she realized that they had no other option but to go to the staircase on the other side of the catacombs. From there she would have to assume there would be more of these ponies down in the bottom level and make a run for the main entrance.
Practically dragging the filly along, the the mare thundered down the stone corridor, the black doorways on either side rushing past as blurred shadows. They ran through the darkness, not knowing whether or not there were any more threats lying wait in front of them. They couldn’t know, they just had to hope.
Another right hoof bend met them at the end of this tunnel. They were almost to the other staircase now. The mare offered herself another glance backwards while the filly got a head start and saw that the two ponies were still chasing, but further behind, their skeletal sides visibly heaving from exertion.
Not wanting to waste this advantage, the mare forced herself on. Her breathing was coming harder and harder now, and her legs were filling up with the familiar burn of exercise. The filly appeared to be doing little better.
“Just… a little… further…” she gasped out.
On their left the staircase suddenly loomed out of the side of the tunnel. Not missing a beat, the two ponies charged down the stairs, caring little for the loud echoing their hooves made in the enclosed space.
At the end of the stairway, the mare found herself in an identical tunnel to the one they had just left. They had to get to the great cavern, for that was where the main entrance was, or at least as far as the mare could tell from the journal. Guiding the filly next to her, the mare turned and began to run left.
“Fire, shadow, death and chaos!” came a tortured cry from behind them, their pursuers only just reaching the bottom of the stairs themselves. “Intruders in the catacombs! Sacrifices to the spirit of chaos!”
The mare listened in panic as suddenly more shouts rang out through the system of tunnels, echoing dementedly in the shadows. She even heard a howl rip through the air, a twisted mimicry of a wolf on the hunt.
Metallic clinks began to follow the shouts as the mare realised that they were being hunted. She tried to ignore the rising sense of panic and almost threw herself and her daughter around the final right hoof bend they would have to take before reaching the great hall. They were so close now, so close.
“Chaos!” The shout echoed down the tunnel, coming from the opposite direction.
“Faster!” the mare panted out. “We have to run faster!”
The filly whimpered as she ran, her tongue hanging out of her mouth.
With a spike of elation, the mare realised that they had reached the entrance, the gargantuan black portal looming out into the hall. Only now the mare ran straight into its welcoming shadow. They were almost the-
She froze, her hooves skidding along the stone. The entrance was blocked. Huge piles of rubble rose up in front of the mare, filling the great cavern entirely. With a sinking feeling, the mare suddenly realised where all of the stone displaced by the two fissures above had fallen.
The mare turned, desperately trying to work out where to go next. That’s it! The journal spoke of a second entrance on this level, a smaller one like the one they had come in from.
…On the other side of the catacombs. The very catacombs which were currently filled with Celestia-knows-how many cult members hunting them down.
“Do not fear chaos! It always lurks in the shadows. Soon you will realise, soon you will learn.”
The mare spun around as fast as she could, lowering her body to ground to coil her muscles for an attack. Rapidly approaching from the opposite direction were three ponies, all dressed similarly to the ones that had been chasing them. There were two earth ponies and a unicorn; they were all armed so it was the unicorn who had spoken.
“You’re not ponies,” the mare hissed, edging herself and the terrified filly into the middle of the tunnel. “You’re monsters.”
The unicorn snarled slightly. “What more is there, in the shadows of chaos? Nothing. There is nothing but chaos and death. And you will soon learn…”
He motioned to the two ponies beside him to attack, but she was ready. While he was speaking she had positioned herself and her daughter to be in the perfect location to throw herself sideways, taking the filly with her, and into an open doorway inside the wall.
The two ponies landed heavily inside the room and the mare kicked the old wooden door shut with a back hoof as she did. She quickly scrambled to her hooves, dragging the filly up by the collar with her mouth.
“Run,” she hissed. “Through the doors to the other side.”
The filly whimpered but did as she was told, sprinting to the next doorway, heading deeper into the catacombs. Just as they were leaving, the first door shattered open, sending shards of wood scattering through the air.
“After them!” the unicorn screamed. “Everypony after them!”
Refusing to look back, the mare continued to run, pushing her legs as fast as they would go. Each room they burst through showed obvious signs of habitation. Dirty cooking utensils, sleeping apparel or clothes and weapons lay strewn over the floors. Every room stank atrociously, the product of poor ventilation.
Once they even passed by a pony who was chasing them. He stuck his hooves into the stone, holding a spear out in front of him, blocking the doorway the mare had intended to run through. Ducking to the side, the mare pushed the filly off to a door on the other wall, going around the pony, praying that they weren’t being led into a trap.
They were slowly losing their pursuers in the convoluted pattern of doors that they were taking. The mare could hear their hoof-steps slowly fall behind. While they ran, the mare, driven on pure desperation, pulled out the knife from its scabbard on her side. Its dulled and serrated edge glinted in the lantern-light. Could she use it? Probably not, but she was running out of options to get past the ponies who stood in her way. She noticed the filly look up at the knife that she was holding fearfully. Celestia damn us all.
It was almost with a sense of surprise that the mare found herself bursting out of the honeycombed rooms and back out into the tunnel on the other side. She quickly looked around, searching for the looming dark of the small room leading off to where the exit should be.
She found it, but when she did, her blood ran cold. Standing in front, guarding it, were two foals, both barely older than her daughter. One was male, the other female and both were armed and staring maliciously at the mare and her daughter.
“Give us the filly,” the female one hissed. “Give her to us!”
The mare’s blood caught fire. She snorted as pure rage coursed through her body. These were not children, they were monsters. And there was no way in Equestria they would threaten her daughter.
Her vision awash with red, the mare charged the two small ponies. When she reached them, she reared back on her two back hooves, kicking out with her front legs. She was filled with the righteous fury of a parent, her eyes glinting in the darkness. She landed heavily back down on all four of her hooves, threatening the two foals with her knife. Upon seeing the mare charge them, the two ponies had broken, the male sprinting as fast as he could down the tunnel while the other filly whimpered into the wall, cowering as she did.
“Run,” the mare mumbled to her daughter, who was shivering in fear. “Run!” With the filly, she couldn’t be sure they would stay away long enough to escape. Maybe she could buy her time, stop them from catching up. Her own muscles were already screaming in protest.
The filly, needing no further instruction, sprinted into the room. The mare regarded the small pony trembling in front of her, her knife glinting hungrily. She was so small… her ribs stuck out like the supports of a barrel. She was quivering in fear. The mare’s anger broke at the sight of this pathetic creature, crying into the dust, and her stomach twisted into shards of razor sharp ice.
“Keep them alive!” roared the voice of the unicorn. “We want them alive for the sacrifices…”
The mare turned, now facing the unicorn whom was surrounded now by ten other ponies, all glaring at the mare with a hunger that made the pony’s skin crawl.
She glared back at them, their depravity re-igniting the burning sense of frustration and justice within her chest.
“No,” she said simply, the word coming out distorted due to the blade in her mouth.
“Get her,” the unicorn jeered. “Turn her to chaos.”
Before her assailants could move, the mare spun and sped off into the room she had sent her daughter into. She had given her daughter enough of a head-start. The inside was almost an exact replica of the first room they had entered in this Celestia-forsaken cave, complete with shelving and small piles of barrels. Through an open door on the other side there was a tunnel. It was not built of stone, but of earth, held together by old wooden support beams, each one clearly beginning to rot.
Wasting little time, the mare sprinted into the tunnel, chasing her daughter through the darkness. She realised that the small pony would not have had any light and cursed herself for sending her off like that. Behind her, the cult members were giving chase, their haunting cries echoing up the tunnel. Gritting her teeth, the mare just ran faster.
The mare was only just beginning to realise that the tunnel was sweeping toward the left when she found the filly running blindly through the dark, one leg occasionally stretching out to prevent her from running into a wall.
“Mama!” the small pony screamed in relief when she saw that it was the mare.
“Run,” was all the older pony said in reply. “Run.”
Together again, the two ponies sprinted through the tunnel of earth and stone. It was becoming narrower. The mare was sure of it. Her legs were burning now, and her lungs burned from exertion. She just wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to keep going.
Just a little further... for the love of Celestia and Luna, just a little further.
Then suddenly, bursting forward out of the darkness like a rainbow after a summer storm, a shaft of light pierced the mare’s eyes. She couldn’t believe it, the surface, it was right there! It was right in front of them! They were going to escape!
“Catch them!” the unicorn screamed. “The small one, we have to get the small one!”
And with that, the mare stopped in her tracks, the filly sprinting past her. Anger coursing through her body, the mare snorted. With a savage grimace, the mare turned and bucked as hard as she could against one of the wooden support frames. It shattered with splintering crack as her hooves punched through the ancient wood. Above her, the roof shook, small clouds of dust falling to the floor. Moving to the one in front, the mare bucked again, breaking the support beam. Now small pebbles fell from the ceiling and the earth groaned ominously.
“Mama!” the filly screamed from outside the tunnel. “Mama, please, come on!”
The mare ran forward a little, almost out of the cursed darkness, the fresh air teasing her nostrils with its scent. Behind her, the cult ponies were barely thirty feet away, screaming as they chased. Above them, the roof groaned again, and more debris trickled from the ceiling. She stopped and with one final kick, broke another of the support beams.
It happened so very fast. The roof cracked and then shattered, filling in the tunnel with a resounding boom. The mare dove forward, escaping the falling rock by millimeters. The cries of the Discord ponies suddenly disappeared, muffled completely by the collapsing roof.
The mare rolled over onto her back, relishing in the cool twilight air as the dust around her settled. The light of the sun was low on the horizon, and darkness was falling rapidly. Around them, the trees cast long shadows onto the ashen mountain slope.
Breathing heavily, the mare looked up and realised that they were on the other side of the mountains. The plains of Equestria swept out below them, broken only by the occasional hill or the lone river that snaked its way through the landscape and toward the sea.
Around them, the mountain slope was covered in trees, indicating that they were no longer too high up in the mountains. The trees here were all blackened, and the ground was covered in a thick layer of ash and charcoal, remnants of the fires only a few days ago. Pockets of snow also dotted the slope, melting rapidly from the residual heat still present in the earth.
Her legs trembling from exertion, the mare got up. It would be dark soon and they had to find shelter. The mountain rolled gently down to the plains, forming plenty of natural gullies on its descent. Picking one of the deeper recesses, the mare started towards it, willing her legs to carry her forward just a little further.
The gully was small with steep slopes, trees growing up on either side, reaching toward the sky with charcoaled branches. At the bottom, the mare found the remnants of a stream, small boulders littering the gully floor, washed down eons ago when the stream had been larger. Utterly exhausted, the mare collapsed behind one, and the filly followed suit, letting her body fall unceremoniously onto the ash.
They were safe. After everything, they had escaped and were safe. The mare couldn’t believe it and had never been more excited to see the corpses of the trees standing watch over the Equestrian landscape.
The mare struggled to open one of the cans of food for dinner and they ate it cold. Neither of them cared.
As soon as the filly finished eating, she lowered her head down and promptly fell asleep. The mare covered her in a blanket, watching the rise and fall of her breath.
The mare laid down and pulled her own blanket around her tightly. They were safe… they were safe… They were safe...
The mare winced. The image of the small filly, crying in the dust while she threatened her with a knife flashed through her mind.
Despite the uncomfortable twisting in her stomach, the mare felt herself quickly lose consciousness, no matter how hard she fought against it. Tomorrow they would reach the plains and from there, Manehatten. After that, there was only one thing the mare cared about, and that was home. By the grace of Celestia, she was going home.
Closing her eyes, her mind torn between images of home and of death, the mare finally fell asleep, losing herself to a world of dreams.
A/N: A massive thank you to Sessalisk for editing, and an equally big thank you to everyone for reading. Questions? Comments? I appreciate feedback of any kind, so please let me know how you are finding it! Thank you again for reading, and I shall see you for chapter 4!