Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

Chapter 7 - Three's a Crowd

Confusing flashes of light went crisscrossing through his mind's eye. He felt a headache that bordered intolerable, but couldn't react to it. It was like the stars and flashes and pain held him underwater, surrounding and crushing him. For a moment Ion Cloud forced an eye open, blurry images zooming this way and that. He thought he saw something, a shape maybe, but it was gone. His eye closed again, and as he slipped back beneath the surface he thought he heard music. The pain and lights returned, and he fell away once again.

The shock of consciousness hit like a falling rock. He didn't jump, cry out, or even move. He felt as if a massive weight was holding him perfectly still. Groaning, Ion Cloud painfully forced his eyes open. Blearily, he tried to make sense of where he was. He was somewhere bright, which was already confusing him. White walls, something soft behind his head, even the dull music did very little to help him come to his senses. What was this place? Where was the Oculus? Pushing with his elbows, Ion Cloud tried for a split second to move, and immediately stopped. His entire body felt like it was exploding. He tried again to cry out, but could only manage a dull moan. He had to blink a few more times, the blurred surroundings slowly coming into better focus.

The room was fairly blank. He could hear something next to him beeping. As he was not unfamiliar with these sorts of surroundings, it didn't take long for Ion Cloud to recognize he was in a hospital room. With great effort he looked down, finding the little remote beside his right hoof. It was discouraging how hard he had to work to simply move his leg and push the nurse button. When he relaxed, he felt as if he'd been working out for over an hour. He was exhausted.

The response was swift. Two nurses rushed into his room, both brightening when they saw he was awake. By his side in seconds, they began checking the numerous devices around him, several times recording his vitals manually. Opening his mouth, he tried to speak but found his voice absent.

The nurse to his left put a reassuring hoof on his shoulder and smiled sweetly. "Don't worry, guardsman. We've had to keep you sedated for the past three days. It's wearing off, so you'll be feeling better soon. For now, rest." She nodded to her partner and he took a chart before leaving the room. She made some final checks on Ion's IV bag, a medicine drip, and on the casts that encased both his legs.

Ion took notice now that his legs were covered in plaster. He couldn't tell what was more disturbing, the fact that it had taken him that long to notice or that he couldn't feel a thing. Moving his head back towards the nurse took all Ion could muster. The whole time his body was reacting in slow motion. He decided then he did not like being sedated. Opening his mouth again, he forced words to form. "Three--days?" He managed, the words more air than voice.

The nurse blinked in surprise, obviously she had not expected him to be able to speak so soon. "That's correct. We had to keep you sedated since you were brought in. You've been in and out of the operating room almost the entire time. I am happy to say that you can expect to have full use of your legs again."

Ion Cloud swallowed painfully as he stomached this. The nurse placed her foreleg across his head, making notes as she continued her check-up. The attention was making him feel uncomfortable, but there wasn't much he could do. With another glance to his casted legs, he managed to rasp, "How--bad?"

The nurse sighed. She made the little head motions indicating that an internal argument was in full swing. Back and forth, like she was having a conversation with herself all in her head. "I think that is best left to your doctor."

With all the will and strength he had, Ion Cloud put his hoof on top of hers and looked up at her. "How--bad?"

Her face scrunched, but finally she relented. "Bad." For a second she looked as if that was all she was going to say, but with a sigh and a nod she continued. "Both knees and a hip were dislocated. Your legs had sixteen combined breaks, plus numerous lacerations from the chains that had to be removed surgically. It sounds more awful than it truly is. Everything is reset, and you should be able to walk with assistance within a week." There was a knock at the door, drawing away the nurse's attention. The stallion was there, and he made a motion before walking away. Turning back to Ion Cloud, she smiled. "You have a visitor. He has been waiting for some time for you to wake up. I think you should rest, but he has been very insistent. Please do not push yourself."

A Night Pony strode in, grinning when he saw Ion Cloud was awake. Pulling a stool to the bedside, Midnight Harvest propped himself beside his partner. "Well, look at you. How the hell are you even still alive?"

"Tough," Ion croaked.

"Hell yeah you are. Are they giving you protein bars? I'm afraid you'll wither away if they don't feed you right."

"Idiot," he mumbled with a smirk.

"Do you want some dumbbells?" Midnight was grinning wide now.

With a slow roll of his eyes, Ion aimed his right leg at his friend with difficulty. Lifting it the rest of the way, Midnight bumped his head against it to complete the mock punch. "Others?" Ion Cloud asked quietly.

"You had it a lot worse than most. Not worse than Kite Glider, but she's awake too. Grouchy, but awake. She'll have some wicked scars, but it is what it is. You're all alive."

With a broken sigh of relief, Ion Cloud settled deeper into his bed. "Good." Even with single word responses, his whole chest felt tired. He was dizzy, but leaning back helped. "Any water?" He asked, his voice still sounding raspy.

"You bet. One second," Midnight said as he jumped up and trotted out the door. He was only gone a moment before returning with a cup balanced on his head. "Look, you got a crazy straw! Oh look, you can roll your eyes, at least that still works." Midnight took a glance back towards the door as Ion drank. "You mind having another visitor?"


"He says come on in!" The pony entered in a set of hospital scrubs, pushing an IV pole with his head as he hobbled. One of the pony's right rear legs was bound and casted, but he moved well enough with three.

Ion smirked as he watched. "Hey--dude."

Pleiades beamed in response. "Look who finally decided to wake the heck up. You might be big and tough, but damn if you like to snooze." Taking a seat on the other side of the bed, Pleiades grinned at the nurse as she finished scribbling on her clipboard. "Hi."

"I have everything I need," the nurse said as she set her clipboard into a small pouch at her side. "If you need anything, let us know."

"We'll keep him out of trouble, nurse," Midnight responded with a wink to his friend. "Won't we, Pleiades?"

"Yep, yep," Pleiades agreed conspiratorially.

"Just don't get too excited, you three. Two of you need to rest. The third should not overstay his welcome." She walked out and vanished down the hall.

The moment they were alone, Midnight threw a bundle of gauze right into Pleiades' face. "Don't you get started on the nurses. They have needles."

Pleiades just snickered, despite the gauze assault. "Just being friendly, boss."

"Oh, just being friendly," Midnight mimicked. "You are the most typical guard to ever exist. All you think about is chasing a tail." He ducked as he avoided the gauze thrown back in retaliation. "So, everything went hooves up?"

Ion Cloud grunted before he spoke up. "Yep." He took another drink from his glass, not really caring if he looked silly. He was used to his friend's hi-jinx at this point. Taking as deep a breath as he could, he coughed hard and winced. "Sucked, but feeling better."

Nodding, Midnight Harvest shifted into a more serious expression. He glanced to Pleiades, who adopted the serious tone. With a quick peek towards the door, Midnight made sure there wasn't a lot of traffic before leaning closer to Ion Cloud. "I just wanted to give you a heads up. There is some kind of crazy going on after what happened in the Oculus. The you know what got out, vanishing like a unicorn at a mud-runner's competition. Half the guard is out looking, and all we're getting is more questions. I wouldn't have a doubt that inspectors are coming with about ten billion of those questions and scowls till the end of time."

"Looking forward to it," Ion grumbled as he emptied his glass. "Kinda surprised they weren't here already."

"That's what I'm here for. A heads-up is the least I can do." Taking Ion's glass, Midnight set it aside, then he froze. His face was blank for the few seconds he was looking away. With a start, he came back to the group. "Whoa, sorry. I don't know where I went for a second there."

"You were talking about us being questioned," Pleiades said with a wave of his leg. "And how we'll probably never see the light of day again. Okay, not the last part."

"Yeah well, that isn't all," Midnight said as he leaned closer. "Not hearing this from me, but Princess Celestia is taking a major interest in this. I mean, she is on the warpath. Ever since this big light show in the mountains we've all been at max alert. I don't think the guard has been this mobile for a hundred years, if not more."

"On the warpath? Is that even a thing? I mean, from Princess Celestia? That doesn't sound right." For once Pleiades' voice lost some of its upbeat. He sounded shocked. That was not common for him.

Ion Cloud shared that confusion. His brain couldn't wrap around it. In fact, ever since he'd gone to the Oculus, everything he knew had been thrown into the tumble dryer. Princess Celestia had been nothing but a shining example of hope and wonder for ponies everywhere. In the years after Nightmare Moon's defeat, and the thousand years before, she had worked tirelessly and lovingly to assure Equestria was a land of peace. Even his people, ponies warped by Nightmare Moon's magic so long ago, were accepted as equals. Now, his mind refused to wrap around this rumor of her aggressive actions. There had to be something else going on. Vaguely noticing that both his friends were staring at him, Ion Cloud roused and coughed. "What?"

"I asked if you knew anything," repeated Midnight. "I mean, you are the only pony I know of who spoke with the prisoner for such a long time." His face shifted to a more faraway expression as he added, "Well, spoke to it for so long and isn't nuts." He recovered before asking, "Did you learn anything? Did it say anything to you?"

"Come on, Midnight," Pleiades said accusingly. "Ion Cloud is pretty busted up, and he's already going to get grilled. You don't need to interrogate him."

"It's okay. I'm better," Ion Cloud muttered as his voice sounded less scratchy. "Better MH than a pony I don't know." A coughing fit halted the conversation. It took a few moments for Ion to recover, and a few more for him to catch his breath. When he spoke up again, his voice was barely a whisper, "Some guard I am."

"You're a damn legend," Midnight declared, only to have Ion actually punch him in the shoulder. The strike barely had the strength to shift its target on his chair.

"Well I don't think we should all just sit here and wait for our interrogations." Smacking one hoof down on another, Pleiades' eyes glimmered. "I for one don't like the idea of sitting in here, nursing my owwies until somepony comes in with a folder ten inches thick with sunglasses and starts asking me the same thing a kajillion times."

"Look at him go," Ion muttered.

"If I hear 'Mr. Pleiades,' from a spooky pony with a fedora for a cutie mark I am making tracks for Saddle damn Arabia. No, no, screw that; I'm going to the Crystal Empire. They don't have Pegasi in Saddle Arabia, harder to disguise myself."

"That and you'll get eaten by Dune-Maws before the week's end." Midnight's jab made Ion Cloud sputter as he tried to muffle a laugh.

Pleiades tried to puff up as he retorted loudly, "Those are a myth!"

"Sure they are. So then, 'Mr. Pleiades,' what do you suggest we do? Ion Cloud is half dead, you have a bum leg. No offense," said Midnight to Ion. He received only a shrug in response.

"I say we act like proper guards and find this Sapien jerk and put him back where he belongs. You and Ion Cloud should come with. We've always been a good team," Pleiades grumbled.

"Two problems with that," muttered Ion Cloud as he readjusted himself against the pillows at his back. "First--he blew up his cage. Second--if Princess Celestia is on the warpath, which I have a lot of issues believing," he trailed away into a cough. Taking another deep breath, Ion continued, "Then what are three Night Ponies going to do? We are not exactly an elite force of well-trained trackers."

"I can surf."

Ion just rolled his eyes before mumbling, "Not helping, Pleiades."

"Cloudy has a good point. What the heck are we going to do? Are you actually suggesting we try to hunt down some kind of ancient, apocalyptic eldritch monster that just so happens to be one of the biggest secrets in the kingdom? I think the Princesses would admit to their sweet-tooths before that happens."

"We all have sweet-tooths," Pleiades said on queue with his stomach growling.

"Not helping, Pleiades." Ion Cloud grinned as Pleiades glowered at him.

Rubbing a hoof against his temple, Midnight finally stated what he had been thinking, "Yes, not helping. In fact, this is your idea! Is there a way to make it any less improbable?"

"Look, I have the ideas. You guys run with them. That's how this relationship works," Pleiades stated only to have his friends groan.

"Not helpi-" a pillow collided with his face before Ion could finish.

"I'm serious you two. We all did our time in that hellhole. When the going got tough, we all got strung up like Hearth's Warming decorations. We know more than any pony out there what we're up against." Pleiades almost continued, but was interrupted.

"We don't know anything." Midnight and Ion said in unison.

"That's more than other ponies!" Shaking his head for a moment, Pleiades realized what he said had made no sense. With a deep breath, he continued more calmly, "We don't know anything about it, but we know it exists. I say we ditch and go on an adventure. Wouldn't be the first time some ponies decided to band together and ended up saving the entire world."

It was Midnight's turn to roll his eyes as he shook his head at Pleiades. "We are hardly a trio of chosen heroes. How do you even plan to get out of here? Ion Cloud here has been sedated for three days. He just woke up about---what---an hour ago? Maybe? His legs are a wreck, your leg is a wreck. We aren't going anywhere fast." Midnight's last comment left the three with a heavy silence. Each wanted to say more, but there wasn't much to say.

As his head drooped, Pleiades sighed. A little life had gone out of his voice when he responded, "I just feel so useless right now. We were supposed to keep that whole place locked down, but it came to crunch time and we all got bulldozed. He walked right through us."

"I got a few good hits, I think," muttered Ion Cloud as he fiddled with his nurse call remote. He tended to fidget when he was anxious, and there was plenty of that in the room with them. "He was trying really hard not to get hit, but I got him."

This caught Midnight's attention. "Let's back up a little. What actually happened? I don't even know on account of not actually having been there. I just know the Oculus is gone and all of you guys are here recovering from one hell of a beating."

Pleiades halfheartedly tapped at the bottom of his stool to make himself turn in circles, though he didn't get far before his IV line made him stop, only to have him start in the other direction. He took a deep breath, but let it out without much to say, "It wasn't pretty."

"We tried to take him down, and he fought back." Scrunching up his nose, Ion Cloud then shook his head saying, "No, fought back isn't right. He was all over the place. I mean he's fast. Stupid fast. Running in between us all, dodging and leaping and careening this way and that. Hell, half of us went down because we were hitting one another. That's when I got a good hit in. I've heard ponies cry in pain, but there was nothing even remotely right about the noise this thing makes. I couldn't tell if he was laughing, crying, screaming, or," his voice lowered as his mind seemed to hold that one memory. He glanced up, seeing he had his friend's full attention. "I feel like I'm crazy, but I swear I heard another voice. Like, something was muttering only I didn't understand it. Two different voices, four different things going on." Pushing his hooves into his temples, Ion groaned. "Or I'm still high and my memories are totally screwed up."

"I got hit by a two-prong shot way before that. I don't remember anything," Pleiades added apologetically. He shrugged, but Midnight nodded at him. It was not his fault, and they all knew it.

"The lightning slowed him down just enough. We got a few more good hits. He went down, but only for a second. The whole time making all those sounds." Taking a deep breath, Ion let it out in slow bursts before a hard swallow. His throat was really hurting, but he had to get through this. "When he got back up, I can't even really say. I can't remember how he got up, or--or if he even did. There was the black stuff, and more of the cry-laughing. It was twisting all over, but too dark to really tell what was going on. Then the chains, and then I woke up here. It all happened too fast."

There was a pause as Midnight thought about what he'd just heard. He sighed, and spoke calmly, "I can't imagine any of your peers could have been much more attentive than that. Hopefully I can make a few inquiries, especially since I used to be your commanding officer. That may not mean much outside the Oculus, but it means enough to the right ponies if you ask nicely. Might dissuade enough interested parties to give you two the rest you need."

"You mean time to plan a proper escape?" asked Pleiades as he spun on his stool. He'd actually picked up his IV pole just so he could make full rotations.

The calm quickly evacuated as Midnight glared at Pleiades, though he was smirking as well. "It may not be the best idea to make any kind of explosive escape from the Royal Canterlot Hospital, knucklehead."

"Come on, boss. You haven't even heard the part where I use a gurney for a launch platform and three gowns as a parachute."

"We're Pegasus," Ion Cloud said. "We don't need parachutes."

It was finally Pleiades' turn to roll his eyes. "Says the only one I have ever met that has used his fellow Pegasi for shoulder bench-pressing."

"It's called a military press," Ion quickly corrected.

"Well I call it showing off!" They both shared a chuckle at that.

Listening to the two go back and forth, Midnight Harvest just smiled and shook his head. He checked the door before standing up. His two friends turned towards him, but he held up a hoof. "I've overstayed my welcome. Family members are supposed to be allowed in pretty soon. That, my friend Pleiades, is why you should stick around. Save any escape attempts until after being discharged."

"Check, boss."

"Take care, Midnight."

"Both of you do the same." Walking off towards the door, Midnight went back to humming a tune as he passed into the hallway. The hospital was busy, but he made sure to keep out of the way. For that brief moment he felt right as rain. Some of his best friends were going to be okay. He had been thinking the opposite for the past two days, and good news was welcome. With a happy sigh, he went on humming as he made his way out of the hospital wing and onwards towards the lobby. It was only a few flights of stairs down and he was there.

The good feelings he'd had were already draining away. Midnight turned his head back and forth, narrowed his eyes as he searched. He finally saw the pony he was looking for seated beside an arrangement of plants, just out of sight of the lobby's door. Wearing only a scarf and a saddle sat Stout Shield. The commander was reading a newspaper, a cup of something hot beside him. There was another pony beside him, whispering something before leaving.

Seeing his chance, Midnight made his own way over. When he was close enough, he spoke in a low voice, "I've done as was ordered, Stout Shield."

"I'm still a commander, you know."

"I thought you were trying to be discrete, seeing as you are out of your armor."

"Report," the commander snapped.

"I got as good a recounting of what happened as I think we'll get. Guard Pleiades was rendered unconscious quickly. Guard Ion Cloud recounted the attack in more light, but it matches a few other descriptions. It appears the prisoner was taken down, but then it was too dark to tell afterwards. More mention of the dark twisting substance as well."

The commander paused to take a sip of his drink. "The sounds?"

"Crying, laughing, screaming, and--what I can best describe as chanting," Midnight said with an uneasy feeling. He didn't even like saying it.

"So none of them heard the same thing, but all of them heard numerous sounds at once. Odd."

Midnight took a deep breath, then girded himself before speaking. "All due respect, this is not the place to be having this conversation. Besides, I don't think we'll learn much more than we already have."

"And just what exactly are you planning to do instead? We have very clear orders," Stout Shield said firmly, though he made sure to keep his voice calm.

"There is no question of that. But for now, I feel that these guards deserve their rest, and maybe a few friends and family be allowed to see them. They've been through a lot, sir."

The commander pursed his lips, but finally nodded. "Very well."

"Thank you, sir. It is the least we can do for them." Turning towards the doors, Midnight Harvest only stopped when the commander asked him one last question.

"Where exactly are you going?" The commander gave his question a moment to sink in as he took another sip of his drink. "You have a duty to fulfill."

"I will fulfill my duty, sir. I would never abandon my orders or my purpose. But, for today, I need to go home. After what I just--I would like to return home, sir."

After several agonizing moments, Stout Shield finally sighed, "Fine, go. Report back at suncrest tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir."

"Before you go, what the hell do you plan on doing that you are so bent on getting away for?"

Glaring straight ahead, Midnight Harvest could have flown right out of his own skin with the anxiety that burned in his veins. But, with a slow inward breath, he let his answer out before walking away, "Sir, I plan on drinking until I can forgive myself for what I just did." As he left, he kept himself turned away. Midnight had no desire to reveal the tear that ran down his face as he left.