by Imploding Colon

Black Level

Bellesmith shivered. The world outside was dark, hot, and loud. She heard the hammering of tools against dull rock, followed by grunts of pain and exhaustion. She remembered an eternity ago when she was in the same hellscape, similarly blinded, with Shell yanking her through the audible nightmare.

Biting her lip, she tilted her head up and peered over the edge of the wagon, careful not to move the tarp away with her stubby horn.

What she saw stole her breath away. Literally hundreds upon hundreds of equines were chained together, forming solid lines as they heaved sundered chunks of rock from one tired soul to another. Towards the front of each line, ponies and buffalo and carabou lined up, sweating profusely as they hammered away at craggy walls of granite. Bit by bit, with agonized persistence, they uncovered an immaculate body of clean, smoothe metal from the meat of the earth. Torchlight bounced off the unnatural structure, covering their moist bodies with a ghostly sheen as they limped back and forth from labor to labor.

There was a flicker of bright lightning, and Belle shrunk further into the rattling wagon. She winced at the sight of grim-faced Enforcers marching up and down the lines, slapping their tasers across the skulls and flanks of ponies who were too breathless to keep up with the rest of the enslaved masses. Under the intimidating presence of the sadistic overseers, the equines worked themselves to the bone. Belle shuddered to see coats stained with blood, vomit, and other horrible juices. She saw thin waifs lying in the distant corner of the heated cavern, and many of them on top of one another. She squinted hard to see better, and still she couldn't determine whether or not the bodies were breathing.

"I'm the lucky one," Grinder muttered to the air in a voice that only Belle could hear from the wagon behind him. "It's these poor saps who get the short end of the stick. I just deliver crap for the Enforcers to shove into their hooves. I figured that if I just play nice and trot in line, then I don't find myself hammering away at them rocks. It sucks, but I have more at stake than just me being put into chains here. A lot of these saps don't last more than a month. I know my beloved wouldn't last a friggin' hour. Meh."

"How..." Bellesmith gulped, tossing her whispery voice towards him. "H-how long have they been here... forced to do this?"

"Take a wild guess," Grinder said, motioning with his horns when a guard's back was turned. Belle turned and gawked at a wide swath of exposed metal stretching over four stories tall. The glinting surface reflected like an iron mirror. "Black Level is growing and growing. I'm not sure what they're trying to dig up in this steaming litter box, but ponies have been at it for far longer than you or I have been here. I think this is what Blue Shelf is all about..."

"All this time..." Belle hissed. "You knew about this?"

"Hey, girlie, it's Ledomare," Grinder grunted. "Since when do you come home, tellin' your lovey dovey zebra everything you've been made to work on?"

Belle bit her lip, sagging where she sat in the wagon. She thought of her first experience here, of the words that had come out of Prime Enforcer Shell's mouth: the threats that he had made. She closed her eyes, and all she could see was Pilate's smiling face. She choked on a sob.

"Got any bright ideas, girl?"

Belle sniffled and looked up. She was shivering at this point. "Huh?"

"Well, you wanted to get in here so badly. What now?" Grinder took a left, and the cart swerved around several ponies trudging by with loads of rocks on their backs. "I've got a legitimate delivery to make, and I can't go making crappy little circles forever!"

"I have to get up to the testing chambers somehow," Belle murmured. Her eyes dashed across the violence and memory flicking before her. "I'm pretty sure I took an elevator down here when Shell dragged me through last. If only I can get back up..."

"I hate to break it to you, but we're alone down here, and there aren't many ponies willing to give me more than a frown. So don't count on me having friends."

"There has to be sompeony that we can—" Belle gasped in mid-speech, her eyes widening at a sight beyond the edge of the cart. "Grinder! Stop here!"

"Stop? How do you expect me to stop?! We'll get Enforcer tasers shoved down our throats?!"

"Pretend that the mana stones of the cart are broken! I don't care! Do anything!" Belle stuck her head bravely out from the wagon and hissed towards the nearest line of slaves. "Psssst! Hey! Over here!"

Two unicorns—a mare and a stallion—gazed over with haggard expressions. Their eyes lit up in the middle of their tortured faces, and both nearly dropped their chunks of rock.

"B-Bellesmith?" the mare stammered.

Belle exhaled. "Felicity... Placid..." She gulped. "By the Spark..."