Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 4 - The Logical Conclusion

Ion Cloud settled into his temporary home, and the weeks passed. The prisoner kept his word concerning the dreams. Although they were not every night, any dreams--no matter how blurred and murky--made living in such gloom more tolerable. An even better bit of news was when mail call was implemented a month into his detail. Apparently mail had been forbidden before as the front gate was only ever unsealed for new recruits and the monthly supply drop. The supply drop had a very stringent list of what was permitted, and was also the only time that ponies who had completed their detail were permitted to leave. Mail or any personal items weren’t allowed for reasons not divulged.

The change came after Captain Red Pine learned that she was being transferred. Ion Cloud recalled how she had made it her goal to adjust the permitted supplies on those drops to include mail. While every attempt she made had failed, she finally found a way. Every time a new recruit was brought to the Oculus, they would bring along all the mail. The new recruit would be saddled with the mail bags and distribute it all once they arrived. The amount of times the door was unsealed did not change, and the supply drop was not laden with more than the necessities. This loophole made the Captain very popular for the remainder of her command.

Ion Cloud was happy with the new arrangements. He enjoyed getting letters from his family, although it was sometimes difficult to explain the items from his parents. He often resorted to the explanation that his mother and father loved to travel, and always sent him souvenirs. Cookies or other simple items would have been easily explained. Bonsai trees, jester hats, a double-horned trumpet, and even a crystal ewe from the Empire were far from simple items for an Oculus guard. Unable to house all the items in his small alcove, Ion was more than happy to share his souvenirs with his fellow guards.

One such gift was to Midnight Harvest when his six month tour was up. Ion Cloud gave him the jester hat, an item Midnight had often worn around on his few off hours. There wasn’t a pony among them that could keep from cracking a smile as Midnight Harvest hopped and skipped as he left, humming loudly with a jingling jester hat bouncing around on top of his head as he vanished into the dark tunnel. Captain Red Pine had shown interest in his bonsai tree, which Ion Cloud admitted to knowing nothing about. He offered it to her on the spot, and she accepted it warmly, promising it would be a good gift for her daughters. He recalled her often talking about her children during off-duty moments, and how much she regretted having to serve in the Oculus and be separated from them. Ion sympathized, knowing how much worse officers had it than the guards. The stories of officers serving double time or more than guards whether they had a family or not was disheartening. He was glad that he could offer her something that brought even a little joy.

The double-trumpet he received, he kept. He played well, and enjoyed filling the Oculus with the deep and soothing sound of the large brass instrument. The only item that raised more than a few eyebrows was the one that came from the Crystal Empire. The small crystal ewe was locked in with them, and they had no means of sending it back for a long while. Many were worried the lack of outside air and proper food would be the death of the tiny creature. But, one of the Night Ponies by the name of Shadow’s Penumbra took it upon herself to care for the ewe. Under her wing, the small creature found a home, rations from the Night Guard's own provisions, and what happiness they could provide. It became something of a mascot, and was named Padlock.

Ion Cloud had to bid farewell to friends and comrades often. Every supply drop meant someone would leave. Captain Red Pine left two months after finding the loophole to allow mail. Midnight Harvest had left the month before that, Pleiades taking over his position. Shadow’s Penumbra was the most recent, and she took Padlock with her as she left the Oculus forever. It was made even more difficult to live in the dark and gloomy dungeon knowing that if he made friends, he would soon have to say goodbye.

The months went by uneventfully. The prisoner mainly slept, doing very little the few times he was awake. Princess Celestia appeared two more times following her visit on Ion Cloud's first day, and on both occasions the prisoner remained asleep. During her second appearance a loud boom came from the cell-block. Before the guards could even rush in, the Princess stormed out with a scowl on her face. It was nearly a month after the Princess's last visit that Ion Cloud caught the prisoner awake. Despite their previous encounter, Ion Cloud's attempts at conversation were met with relative silence. The prisoner only answered the question of why he refused to speak with the Princess.

"We have nothing more to say."

New ponies came, veteran ponies left. That was the way of the Oculus as Ion Cloud discovered. As the time passed he found himself moving up the chain of command. He wasn't the only one in that regard. He remembered that word had come of a new Princess being crowned. None of the guards from the Oculus could attend, of course, but it was interesting news. That had been two months ago according to Ion Cloud's faithful count.

He was keeping a detailed track of how long he had been there, and how long he had left until he could go home. At two months remaining in his time in the Oculus, one of the most anticipated events came to pass. The Equestria Games were beginning, and every pony there was on the edges of their seats to learn all that they could. Despite sports scores and other news traveled very slowly to the underground prison, the guards were determined to find out everything that they could.

There was a betting pool between the day and night shifts about which teams would succeed in what event. Though the Pegasi seemed to be secretly conspiring with each other to vote for Cloudsdale, regardless of shift. Ion Cloud was a bit hesitant to put money into a pool, but he had high hopes for his favorite speedster taking it all the way in the single-set free-fall burst races. He knew the relay rally might be the most popular of the flier's competitions, but he had been a burst speedster himself back in school and enjoyed the sport immensely.

A burst race was a sprinting competition much like that of the Earth Ponies, only they were performed straight up so the athletes were fighting gravity the whole way to reach the finish line. Starting from free fall to turn around and zoom straight up was no easy feat, and often only the strongest and most skilled of Pegasi could compete. Because it was a dead sprint event, most trick fliers avoided the competition. Despite this, Ion's choice speedster was none other than a Wonderbolt, Surprise. Wonderbolts were amazing sport fliers, but few entered sprint events such as burst races because the training required weighted flying which could effect their speed over longer distances. Going against this stigma and her own small stature, Surprise had qualified for the games twice before. She'd never earned a medal, but Ion Cloud had hopes this year would be different.

As the scores and details of the games were spread around the Oculus, Ion considered his other favorite event. While a resident of Cloudsdale where speed and flying events reigned supreme, he was a rabid Jousting fan. As contenders went, Rampage Avalanche was by far his favorite. Some said the eleven year veteran of the sport was getting a bit too old, but he was still a force to be reckoned with. If the rumors were true, he had trained in the Saddle Arabian deserts with some of the huge monsters that lived there. This could explain how he was so freakishly strong. Ion Cloud, and an entire generation of Jousting fans revered him as their childhood idol. When it was announced that this was Rampage's last Equestrian Games, the betting pools went wild. Ion Cloud put almost every bit he had from his stipend towards the veteran taking home gold.

This was how they kept themselves entertained, not to mention sane, down in the Oculus. Despite lagging behind the events of the world above, they still enjoyed themselves. Those who left the Oculus behind would no doubt have trouble catching up, but that was a worry for another time. Patience was the virtue of the guards, and they were happy to wait for word of the world above them. When they couldn’t wait, such as for word on the Equestrian Games, they gambled.

The new captain, Kite Glider, was the worst of them all. She was from a rich family, and she had plenty of bits to sweeten any pot. It didn't even seem to matter much what she bet on so long as she was betting. This habit led several to think she may have a bit of a gambling issue, and convinced the rest. It didn’t bother Ion Cloud at all, as he found her to be a kindred lover of Jousting. He discovered this to be a perfect method of getting to know her a little better and found a respectable, if easy-going, leader in the new Captain. He hadn’t previously known many of the day shift guards closely, but after getting to know the Captain he found himself spending more time with their ranks. He found himself once or twice wondering if there could possibly be something between the Captain and himself, but recalled the purpose for their presence in the Oculus. Thus, Ion Cloud did not act farther than simply befriending the Captain.

That was life in the Oculus. Ion Cloud remembered what Commander Stout Shield had told him about the dangers of the prison, but found some of them difficult to believe in. Even some of those who were on their last month claimed it had been more quiet than usual. The prisoner seemed to be asleep nearly all the time, as if the world just couldn't hold his interest. It made everyone's jobs easier. There wasn't as much worry. The fact that they all occasionally were able to dream--though those dreams were broken and fragmented--relieved the atmosphere immensely. Doom and gloom was no longer the first impression of the Oculus detail.

While still unpleasant the Oculus was now more tolerable than previously, as the few remaining veterans could attest. The routine made it almost mindless and they had to keep special calendars to remember exactly what the day was, but that was probably the worst part. Before he even knew it, Ion Cloud was having a discussion with his squad leader about the change-over of command. Pleiades only had a few days left. The undeniably laid-back guard was happy to leave, the underground had seriously "harmed his groove." Ion Cloud didn't know what that meant, but he figured Pleiades was ready to be on his way. Duties were discussed, rotations double-checked, and everything he needed to know covered.

Ion Cloud couldn't help but feel a little jealous of Pleiades. Only a few days and his partner was back to the wonderful sky and crisp air of night, away from the confining madness of being underground. Pleiades was visibly excited to get back to surfing the coast of his hometown in Las Pegasus, as he made every pony in earshot quite aware. The two friends chatted and joked about the silliness of a Pegasus loving to surf, but Pleiades defended himself well.

"It's a different sort of rush, bro. You can fly up high and do a straight dive down through a thunderstorm and not get the same rush. Water's powerful, dude. Power like that gives a rush you can't put in words," he would rant.

Ion Cloud was sad to say goodbye to his friend. He was too used to the jokes and calm demeanor of the happy, free-spirited Pegasus. While he was sad, a bit of excitement was building for him as well as his turn to depart the night shift was next. Back to his family, his hometown, and then onto everything he'd planned for his life. Only a month to go, and then he was free.

The day of Pleiades' departure came quickly. The gate was opening and the Night Guard had lined up as they did when bidding a member farewell. They stood at attention as Captain Kite Glider held a medal of meritorious service.

Then the quake shook everything.

With a flare of his wings Ion Cloud tried to make himself heavy. He tried a moment too late as the floor rushed up to smack him in the face. His eyes were filled with a bright flash and stars as he was left groaning on the shuddering ground. Thrown this way and that for a few moments, Ion Cloud did his best not to pass out. When he finally came to a stop, he had to force himself up. A quick scan showed him he was not the only one nursing his bumps. Every guard in sight had been flung from their hooves, or out of their bunk, and was now moaning on the floor or simply unconscious.

The rumbling continued, and another horrible quake tore through the Oculus. The ground split a few inches, and the walls suddenly sprouted cracks. What guards were able to get their bearings began shouting orders and making sure everyone had weapons at the ready. The outer door was already open, but nothing was coming through the dense black fog. The guards shone a powerful light through the entrance, but to no avail.

For some recovery was quick, others remaining out cold. Ion Cloud had his two-prong ready and aimed, but something was nagging him. Since nothing was coming from the outside, he focused on the crack that had appeared on the floor. He followed it, and saw it led all the way to the other door and into the cell-block. He felt like his heart was stalling in his chest, but he still managed to work his mouth, "Guards! The prisoner! Secure the prisoner!"

Another heavy rumble precipitated the next quake. This time everyone was ready. They kept their feet, watching the crack on the floor grow another inch wider as several more crevasses burst open along the walls. The rumbling finally subsided, only to be replaced by a far more ominous sound.

A loud, harsh bang rang through the Oculus. Ion Cloud shot a wide-eyed glance to Pleiades; they both knew exactly where that had come from. They focused on the cell-block door as another harsh bang reverberated through the iron. Something was hitting it from the other side. It was not hard to guess what that was. They could hear muted shouting coming from the other side, then the harsh crackle of lightning. Silence fell, and the seconds ticked away. Only the sound of a hard swallow, or a shifting hoof broke the steady quiet. Before anyone drew the courage to utter a word, the bang came back. It was so loud it shook the walls, a dent appeared in the door as it bent towards them. Everyone's muscles tightened and tensed, weapons at the ready. Another bang, another dent.

The Sapien was coming through.

The next slam shook the door so hard that machinery began to fall away. The gears shrieked as metal scraped and tore. The guards at the controls were thrown off. A few quick-thinking Pegasi were able to snatch the guards out of the air before they could hit the ground. The slamming came again and again. More dents and cracks appeared in the iron. The chains were falling away, gears breaking and flying as the force of the blows ripped apart the machinery.

One final overwhelming crash echoed through the Oculus as a hole burst through the door. The force tore through over two meters of iron and wood and magic like paper.

Every guard tensed. Ion Cloud gritted his teeth, not daring to make a move.

No green light poured through despite a hole big enough for a head, or a hoof. The silence was even more troubling than the banging. Not a single pony moved. No trigger-happy guards made the fatal mistake of discharging their lightning early. They knew to wait, to watch. With focused glares they watched a seeping, pitch-like darkness ooze from the hole and spread over the area around it. It moved, shivered, undulated like something from only the deepest nightmares. It spread along the iron door with a vicious hiss. Rust advanced before the black ooze, corroding and eating away at everything around it. Whispers began to pierce the air. Quiet at first, but quickly becoming louder as a huge crack split down the middle of the door.

Before the whispers grew loud enough to be understood, the ooze tightened and the door was cloven in two. Like a titan had pulled from the other side, the entire door was sucked into the foggy blackness of the cell-block and vanished. The pieces could be heard clanging and slamming through pillars and against stone before silence fell again.

This was it, every heart froze and every drop of blood turned to ice as the guards stood ready. They watched the same black ooze seep from every inch and corner of the enormous hole where the iron door had stood. The stone around it crumbled from the corrosive, evil black goo.

Then it stopped.

Halting as if it contacted an invisible wall. From the gloom and murk of the darkness before them, the prisoner emerged.

He stepped forward, his gait lazy, his arms hanging limply. He strolled from his prison without a hint of aggression. Darkness was wafting off his body like a cloud, the aura making the air heavy with an acrid smell that made more than one guard flinch.

Not a single guard made a move, horror drawn over their faces as they watched the display before them. This was corruption incarnate. It crumbled stone, eroded iron, even burned the air.

Coming to a rather flamboyant halt at the edge of his seething carpet of black death, the Sapien looked at the guards before him and grinned. "So--shall we begin?"

Lightning cut through the air like razors as the darkness surged in.