• Published 17th Nov 2016
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The Mask Makes the Pony - kudzuhaiku



Flicker Nicker has joined the Rat Catcher's Guild. He's rather good at it, but wants to be better.

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Chapter 1

For some ponies, it all came down to the mask they wore. Flicker Nicker, a colt, was one such pony. He paused, took a deep breath, and lifted open the heavy wooden lid on his work trunk, revealing the contents inside. The trunk, large, heavy, made of elephant wood and brass, sat in the back of a wagon parked at the entrance to the sky docks. With an almost tension filled slowness, the trunk opened and the first thing to be seen was his mask.


Seeing it calmed him, eased his jitters, it somehow made everything better. Flicker hadn’t told anypony yet, but the mask was his real face. It was how he wanted the world to see him. Sure, some ponies were frightened of the mask, and that was fine. That was how it should be. The masks were made with intimidation in mind, to keep ponies away while the job was done. When ponies saw the mask, they knew to stay away, to give plenty of space, to stay back.


For Flicker Nicker, the plague doctor mask was the symbol of his noble profession, his calling, the whim of his cutie mark, his destiny. Reaching out with a hoof, he gave his mask a gentle caress. It was clean, polished, cared for, and kept in immaculate condition, just as his master, Mister Chandler commanded. The colt took a deep breath and tried to keep the shakes from setting in.


Today, he was being tested.


Moored in the sky docks, an airship containing contagion awaited. The crew was already quarantined, two members had pneumonic respiratory infections upon arrival. They would be treated and they would live. The ship however, had to be purged of vermin. Rats and fleas infested the vessel and it was Flicker’s job to eradicate the disease bearers. He could sense them, feel them, his magic told him that the plague was present and made his skin crawl.


The ship in question wasn’t too far away. He could see the two mooring chains that connected the ship to the dock. Rat shields had been placed on the chains, big heavy disks that prevented the rats from climbing over the chains and escaping from the ship. There would be nowhere to go, nowhere to run, the vermin would be destroyed like rats trapped on a ship…


Which they were.


Lifting his head, Flicker saw that Doctor Sterling Shoe was talking to the harbourmaster about the job. Flicker had met the harbourmaster a few times, but he had trouble remembering his name. The old pony was from Germaney, had a love for hard consonants, talked as though he was always clearing his throat, smelled of strong liquor, and was a kind, generous soul beneath the gruff exteriour.


Sterling Shoe, or Doctor Sterling, was an actual doctor, and not just a plague doctor among the rat catchers. Flicker Nicker liked the doctor and was glad to work with him. Doctor Sterling had a cold, clinical, methodical approach to the job, and Flicker very much wanted to be just like him. Always calm, always cool, always collected, never afraid, never panicked, Flicker strived to copy all of the doctor’s mannerisms and he made it his life’s mission to please the older stallion.


Another deep breath. Flicker lifted up the mask in his telekinesis and with a well practiced motion, he placed it upon his face while fondling it with his magic. There was a moment of powerful suction as the mask’s magic activated. For a few seconds, it was impossible to breathe, but Flicker did not panic, he remained calm, knowing that the mask was protecting him. The mask’s magic activated and he began breathing filtered air.


He began putting on the rest of his gear, an act that he had done a hundred times and more, if not a thousand. It was something he practiced, something he watched himself do in the mirror, putting on his face, putting on his skin, it was how he became the pony that he was meant to be. The mask hissed and chuffed as he inhaled and exhaled. His magic cinched up straps, tightened buckles, and it didn’t take long before everything was in place.


It didn’t take long to become the pony he was meant to be.


The second to last thing to go on was his broad brimmed hat. He began loading up his gear into various pouches and pockets, storing everything away in its proper place. The alchemical candles were the tools of his trade and seeing them reminded him that he had a test coming soon. Mister Chandler would be disappointed if he failed. After stowing away his tools of the trade, Flicker Nicker strapped on his sword belt.


He had a fencing exam coming and he wasn’t looking forward to it. There would be bruises, so many bruises, and after having the stuffing beaten out of him, he would still be expected to do his job, attend to his duties, and work through his lessons. Fencing exams were the worst and he dreaded them.


Unicorn fencing was completely different than say, diamond dog fencing or minotaur fencing. Where they held a sword in the hand, unicorns had no such restrictions. A sword could come in from any angle, from any direction, a sword could even be teleported from one striking point to another in the blink of an eye. Flicker had trouble keeping track of where the sword went and he had endured many, many thumps to his backside as a reminder to remain focused.


Following procedure, Flicker checked over his gear. His protective suit covered every inch of his body, everything was zipped, cinched, and buckled, with no way for rats to get in, save by chewing. His mask was secure, snug, and his hat was at a rakish angle. He had a full complement of alchemical weapons, most of which were magical candles, but he did have one emergency incendiary grenade that he was only supposed to use if he got swarmed. If he used his only incendiary grenade, he was expected to make a new one, and that was difficult, so Flicker was hesitant to use it even if he needed it. He closed the lid of his work trunk and turned to face the ship.


He was ready.


Today, he would go in alone and clear the ship.


Doing so would take him one step closer towards being a stallion.


Flicker Nicker landed upon the deck with a thump after Doctor Sterling had levitated him over. No gang-planks, as rats could escape on those. He took stock of his surroundings and saw that the deck had its own cargo lift. This was a cargo ship that dealt in valuable goods, things too important to risk sending by train or wagon overland. Train robberies happened all the time, but it wasn’t Flicker’s business to worry about them.


That was somepony else’s job.


In the broad daylight, the deck was clear. The wood needed a good scrubbing and maybe some varnish. But that wasn’t Flicker’s job. Moving with calm assurance, he made his way to the door that lead down to the crew quarters, where he would begin. Once he started, there would be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, there would only be death for the vermin aboard this vessel.


Flicker Nicker was already showing signs of being good at his job, of living up to his flaming rat cutie mark. It was easy to give in to the urges, to hear the call of one’s cutie mark, and do what purpose and destiny expected one to do. Flicker did nothing to resist, he gave himself over wholly and completely. He lost himself on every mission, on every job, when he put on the mask and went to work, he was a different pony.


Wearing the mask, he was free to be himself, without reservation or concern.


Unmasked, Flicker Nicker was just another somewhat confused colt that wasn’t sure of his place in the world, a colt that didn’t quite fit in with other colts his age, a colt riddled with doubts about his own identity. But the mask fixed all of that, it took away his need to think, to reflect, to worry about who and what he was.


Pulling open the door, he stepped inside and had a look around as he pulled the door shut behind him. It was dim, almost dark, but he wasn’t worried, not in the slightest. His mask began to adapt to his needs and his dark-vision kicked in. Making his way into the crew quarters, he saw all of the signs of infestation.


In the magical lenses of his mask, he could see the vermin. Fleas, lice, bedbugs, mites, they all showed up as bright orange dots and most of his vision was orange right now. Rats showed up with a bright red glow, and infected rats looked as though they had red, coruscating steam rising from their bodies. The rats were in hiding, in other places within the ship, and his mask allowed him to see through walls and barriers. He could see plenty of red rats with wavering, shimmering streams of red rising up from them.


Moving to the center of the room where the beds were, he stood in the middle of the bunks, pulled out a candle from one pocket, pulled out a small candle holder from another, placed the candle into the holder, and then put it down upon the floor. With a flick of magic, he lit the candle’s wick and waited.


Nothing happened for a few seconds, but Flicker was patient. When the candle began to sputter and fizzle, one corner of his mouth turned up just a little beneath his mask. A thick billowing miasma poured from the burning candle and began to fill the bunkroom. He stood amid the fumes, a stage magician standing amidst the smoke while performing a deadly trick, and he watched as the bright orange dots in his vision began to blink out of existence. Little by little, the orange dots went dim, then went dark. The infested mattresses and bedding, given a loving caress by the foul murder gas coming from the candle, became killing fields where fleas succumbed to a poison designed to make their chitin dissolve.


Flicker stood waiting, unmoving, unfeeling, watching as the orange dots in his dark-vision cleared one by one. Fleas were the disease and Flicker was the terrible, terrible cure. He was their horrible death-god come to claim their wicked, plague bearing souls. When he was satisfied that one candle would be enough, the colt moved on to deal with the red splotches in his vision.


The job was simple. Get rid of all of the orange dots and red splotches in his vision. It was like a game, a contest, a bit of sport. Flicker had a cold, clinical detachment from his work. He stood in the crew kitchen and watched the shimmering red outlines highlighted in his vision. Rats in the pantry. No, not rats, not with dark-vision, they were little blips of red that needed to be neutralised, made to go away.


He rummaged around in his pockets, pulled out a candle, a candle holder, he socketed the candle, and then just as before with the fleas, he put it down on the floor. For a second, he thought about his sister, Knick-Knack, whom he missed. After a pleasant moment of reminiscing, he decided that this one was for her. Flicker was the dutiful big brother doing what he could to protect his sister.


The candle fizzled to life when he touched it with his magic. After a few seconds, it released a sweet smelling gas as it burned, and Flicker waited as the kitchen began to fill. The gas crept everywhere, under doors, into cupboards, into the pantry where the rats hid. It didn’t take long before the rats got a whiff of the sweet smelling gas and compelled by unseen forces, they came out of hiding, drawn to the candle by powerful magic.


One by one, they gathered around the candle, hypnotised by the dancing flame. They gathered in large numbers, forming a solemn congregation of vermin, there were a lot of rats in the kitchen, and the sparking flame reflected in the mirrored lenses of Flicker’s mask. Mesmerised, the rats gathered, more and more kept coming as the candle burned.


Flicker was patient. This job took patience. Good things came to those who waited.


The candle let out a sizzle, like butter hitting a hot cast iron skillet. Black, greasy smoke rose from the flame, which now burned with a diseased looking green pallour. Good things were about to happen. The candle, having called forth the rats with a mesmerising gas, now issued forth the means to kill said rats. Toxic fumes spewed forth, but the rats made no effort to save themselves. Hypnotised by the flame, they succumbed to the neurotoxin so carefully crafted to kill them.


Flicker Nicker stood amidst the fumes, unphased, unbothered by the lethal gas, protected by his mask and armor. One by one, the red splotches in his vision faded as the rats in the crew kitchen died, but more red splotches remained in distant places. Waiting, watching, Flicker knew he would get to them soon enough.


The candles were his master’s great contribution to pony society. Wick Chandler was a candle making genius and Flicker was expected to learn his master’s secrets. A candlemaker had become the head of the Rat Catcher’s Guild, so a rat catcher was now expected to learn how to be a candlemaker. There was more to life than one’s cutie mark and Flicker was expected to learn this. Killing rats was easy, the colt was good at what he did, but making candles and getting them right took an extraordinary amount of effort.


When the final rat breathed its last, Flicker moved on, a dark phantom moving among the shadows.


One by one, the red outlines in his vision faded away. Death had come to the cargo hold and Flicker was its chosen agent. Down here, he had lit several candles, spacing them out so that every inch of the cargo hold would be permeated with lethal gas. This ship held unseen, unwelcomed cargo, the plague, creeping death, and Flicker did his part to keep his country, his fellow ponies, safe from the unseen killer that lurked in the hidden, dark places.


The rats here were plaguebearers and Flicker stepped over their twisted, contorted corpses as he moved about. His long protective cloak made the lethal miasma around him swirl with each movement. There could be no survivors, nothing on this ship could live. Already he had walked from stem to stern looking for red in his vision, and now, he walked from stem to stern again as one by one, the red faded into the nothingness desired by Flicker.


Little blips of bright orange could be seen in his vision, but they didn’t last long. He had set candles out for them too. When the rats died, the fleas fled. His dark-vision told him that the ship was going dark as one by one, the lights went out. When everything was dead, the first part of his job would be done and the second part would begin.


Cleanup and disposal.


The fleas dissolved from the candle gas, but the rat corpses had to be disposed of. He would have to gather them all up, put them all in barrels specially designed for the job, and haul them back to the guildhall. The rats would be used for all sorts of things; they would be dissected, studied, rendered down to be turned into alchemical ingredients to kill more rats, and the unneeded corpses would be incinerated into harmless waste.


There were only a few red blips in his vision now, rats that had fled to the furthest corners of the ship, those strong of mind and capable of resisting the mesmerising call of the candles. Flicker was a bit worried by the strong minded rats, and he had good reason to be. He knew what lurked in the dark, but now wasn’t the time to worry about that. It almost appeared as though he was dancing as he moved through the whorls of gas, using his cloak to waft the fumes about and pushing the suffocating miasma into every nook and cranny.


As everything around him died, Flicker could not help but feel that this was a beautiful start to what was sure to be a wonderful day. Sure, the cleanup would be boring, but he didn’t mind. It was all part of the job and he was born to do this job. He continued his macabre dance, bringing clouds of toxic death with him as he capered about the cargo hold.

Author's Note:

And so we begin.

Thank you, Constant Reader, for a moment of your time so that I might tell you a story.

As always, discussion is encouraged and I'd love to hear what you think.

Again, thank you.

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