“Alright. That brings us around to these,” he began again, setting a hoof on the folder that had provoked Lance's ire. “I had a particularly speedy pegasus take a request to a judge and got a subpoena for your wife's medical records. Truth be told I didn't trust you to not omit a few things if I had asked you directly, assuming you'd even reply at all. I don't think we have to go over the details again. You'd know them, and why they're relevant right now, better than anypony. So doctor, I ask again, would you like to revise your statement?”
His lack of response indicated that he did not.
“I really have to give you credit for this next one. Your entire cover story was a disaster but you did manage to hide the murder weapon fairly well. We went through your house and the surrounding area, cloud and ground alike, over and over but didn't turn up anything. You had everypony in the department stumped...except for me,” he said before reaching into his coat pocket again to produce a knife contained in a plastic bag with an evidence label.
Lance looked in alarm down to the knife and then up at the detective.
“You gave it a thorough washing and then put it right back in the knife block where nopony would think to even check for it. It was hidden in plain sight,” Pinot Noir said with a grin bordering on admiration. “In the end I only found it on a hunch when I ordered ever knife in that block to be tested for blood and there it was. But that's not even the most interesting part.”
He pulled one last photograph out of the envelope. It pictured a knife on a lab table, glowing blue all over save for a thin curved line on the handle in the distinct shape of a very small hoof.
“I don't need the hoof prints you washed off to prove who was holding that knife at the time of the crime, Doctor Strongshy. Not with a hoof that size.”
“What in the...” Blue Shield said as he stared at the snapshot in disbelief.
“In summary, your daughter was not where you said she was, had a large amount of blood cleaned off of her in your bathtub, was holding this knife when it killed your wife, and said wife was on record as mentally unstable with a terminal illness. It also happens that the nature of the damage done fits much better with the profile of a panicked child that doesn't know what they're doing than that of a well learned doctor. Are you sticking with your story?”
“I'm...I'm not saying anything,” Lance reaffirmed, looking somewhat less headstrong as he lowered his gaze down to the table.
“You're buried in a mountain of circumstantial evidence right now, and I doubt any jury is going to buy the efforts of a defense lawyer to pin the crime on your daughter no matter what the facts of the case say. Basically, you don't have to say anything, because it wouldn't matter either way. But I have something right here that is potentially going to have you and your daughter both walking out of this station this evening.”
Pinot Noir set a small plastic bag on the table that contained what looked to be a single seed.
“This is a seed of truth. It grows into an exotic flower, one that is very difficult and expensive to cultivate here,” he resumed explaining as he pulled the planting pot and water bottle to his side of the table. “The kingdom invests in keeping a small supply of them for such murky occasions as this when we can't afford to be wrong. Most ponies will tell you that these things bloom in response to the truth, but that's not quite right.” He poked a small hole in the planting soil before opening the bag and letting the seed drop into it. Then he buried the seed beneath a small mound that was promptly moistened with water poured from the bottle. “You can't just do something like plant one and say the sky is blue. The truth about this seed is that it's a sadistic little bastard. The truth it hears has to cause pain before it'll bloom. Doesn't matter if it's grief, regret, embarrassment, sadness, it only has to hurt. So what we're going to do right now, is you're going to sit there and not say a single word, and I'm going to hurt you.”
Blue Shield had been sifting through the photographs, the brimstone and fire gone from his eyes as he was finally feeling the weight of what he'd almost done to him. As Pinot Noir began explaining what had happened in the Strongshy residence upon that wretched day the younger officer simply sat there and listened.
“I don't know exactly what was going on in the house just before, but given the time of day you were probably in the kitchen preparing a meal. One way or another your daughter winds up in that upstairs bedroom alone with your wife, maybe having been sent up there by you to ask what she wanted to eat..kind of odd since you knew Posey couldn't keep anything down at that point. Maybe you were in denial, maybe you were just keeping things going the way they'd always gone for Fluttershy's sake, I don't know. Once your daughter's up there, she-”
The Lance of the present flinched as his light suddenly went straight out without even the slightest flicker like somepony had simply flipped the switch. The detective's words were drowned out by a combination of the extreme buzzing of his watch that was itself then drowned out in turn by a ringing in his ears that quickly grew deafening to the point that he was left clutching his head in pain. His light started flickering back to life, but he was still trapped in the same interrogation room with several alarming differences. His past self was now faced away from him, sitting in a corner convulsing as black veins overtook him. The table was now vacant, save for the blood that was pooling atop it from the two stallion sized, blood drenched burlap sacks that were held against the ceiling by a combination of rusty lengths of chain and the many large, jagged shards of glass that had been stabbed right through them.
The deaf colt was casually strolling his way across the room toward him, the rate at which he was approaching rather out of sync with the speed of his motions.
Lance sneered instead of trying to retreat from his spot. There was nowhere to go in any case. “So what are you going to do this time, huh?! All you can ever do is delay me, you haven't been able to stop or undo anything I've done!”
The deaf colt stopped within hoof's reach of Lance and stared him down, the amber surgeon almost certain he was going to be knocked around and then put under to awaken in another locked room. Instead the flickering of his light stopped and the room was shrouded in darkness. Lance let out a grunt of pain as he felt something seem to bite his foreleg, and then the ringing in his ears receded until there was silence to match dark, uninterrupted save for his own labored breathing. He wanted to reach down and feel his leg but did not dare move a muscle.
The light flickered back to life. The cell, open door and all, was back, and the deaf colt was nowhere to be seen. On the floor now rested a small potted plant with the dried husk of a long dead flower hanging over the edge. Without any new threats to consider, Lance let himself look down at his leg at last, finding that the deaf colt had decided to opt for convenience and nail the newest note directly to him.
”You confuse 'perpetually unable' and 'currently unwilling.'”
“Thanks for the napkin,” Lance sneered as he tore the note off and instantly regretted it due to the resulting pain from the nail stuck into him. Normally he advised ponies to not pull such things out and wait until they got to a hospital to not risk further damage, but Lance had no idea how much was still ahead and knew that leaving it in while having to run for his life probably do even more harm than removing it. With a hiss of pain he carefully pulled the now bloody nail out bit by bit until it was free and then discarded it on the floor. He then crumpled up the note and pressed it tightly against the bleeding puncture wound, since that scrap of paper was currently the cleanest thing in the entire room.
He looked down at the knife he had removed from the dead stallion's hoof as he sat there waiting to stop bleeding. Finding the knife in the corpse closet had initially inspired a surge of hope at the mere prospect of being able to defend himself. But now that he actually had a knife, he realized that looking at it as anything more than a piece of a puzzle was foolish. This world so outclassed his ability to defend himself that his merely still being alive felt like a conscious choice that somepony else had made instead of being the result of his own efforts. A knife would change nothing, and he had come to doubt that any weapon he could possibly find really could.
Lance lifted the balled up paper from his puncture wound to see that the bleeding had stopped, then let it fall to land beside the nail. The trip back up the ladder after leaving the cell behind was made that extra bit more difficult from the lingering sting in his foreleg, and he even had another descent to which he could look forward. He made his way past the other two cells to retrieve the step stool from the corpse closet and then doubled back to the first cell containing the hanging stallion on the far end. After putting the stool in place he was unable to help but groan as he was forced to used his back legs to step up within reach of the rope and start cutting away at it. Bit by bit the rope frayed until it snapped, the corpse making several unsettling thuds as it dropped to the ground and then flopped forward. The stool suddenly gave way beneath him and he likewise hit the floor with a cry of pain followed by a sharp groan as he righted himself among the flurry of glowing ashes.
When he caught sight of the corpse it instantly convinced him to move with a bit more haste. The sentient blood drops that had been content to stay on the hanging stallion were now steadily spreading out from him along the floor. Lance could not know if they would make things worse for him or not, but he did know he needed that rope. He limped quickly to the corpse, a shiver running down his spine as he felt drops of the roaming blood start trailing up his legs. Doing his best to ignore it, he grabbed hold of the rope with one hoof and cut through it with the other, the knife breaking apart and burning to nothing the very instant the last strand of fiber gave way. With more of the black blood crawling along his body he did not pause to pull the entire length of rope from the hole above, instead grabbing the end and taking off for the door as quickly as his legs could manage.
His skin now literally crawling with the blood that was swarming over more and more of the cell's interior, he hurried outside and turned to quickly pull the rest of the rope out before slamming the door shut hoping that the outbreak would be contained. He then started trying to wipe away the droplets slithering all over his legs and body, but his motions couldn't possibly be fast enough and his panic rose at the feeling of the black blood seeping beneath his bandages. Lance gave a shudder of revulsion as he felt the wounds beneath his bandages being violated, but before he could try and get even a single bandage off a strange but intense feeling shot along his spine from the two stumps that had been his wings. Unable to stand up he was forced to lean against the wall gritting his teeth until the feeling steadily ebbed away back to the more familiar and far less intense sore throbbing, leaving him panting for breath as he gingerly placed his weight back on his briefly wobbling hooves.
“The buck was that...” he muttered as he picked up the coil of rope and started limping back to the ladder.
After climbing down to the lower walkway, and then walking its length before climbing down to the lowest platform, he retrieved the hook from his bag. He tied one end of the rope around the hook, and the other around his wrist so that he would be certain to keep it even if his grip slipped when he tossed it. Taking a last look around to see a dearth of any creatures about to end him, he got on with it and made his first throw. It clanged off the underside of the metal grating he was aiming to pull down, the hook failing to find purchase. Having expected a miss or two anyway, Lance pulled the hook back up and gave it another go, the second throw proving high enough but veering slightly wide and missing the mark. The third finally sent the hook sailing over the grating, and Lance pulled the rope back bit by bit until he felt the slack lessen as the hook snagged.
“Now for the hard part.” He planted his hooves and started pulling, putting more effort into it until the hinges started to creak and the length of grating moved that initial hopeful inch. It was far more difficult than tearing open the cell doors had been but he could manage it. With a last grunt of pain and effort the hinges gave up the ghost with a long metallic groan before the length of grating passed the midpoint and gravity took over. Lance let go of the rope and stepped back to avoid being crushed as the grating fell with a deafening clang, bounced once, and then was still as the noise echoed up and down through the massive metallic chute into which his house had been deformed. Now Lance had a path to whatever lay beyond the door on the other side, the hook and rope burning away to confirm that he had used them as intended.
A few experimental steps assured Lance that the grating was just as sturdy as the walkway above him, and he strode a bit more confidently over it. The door that awaited him was just a plain rusted metal door with not a single hint of the flesh mold infestation from above. Add to that the fact that it was mercifully unlocked and it was easily his favorite door of the past twenty or so minutes. This sentiment changed somewhat when he opened it to find that it lead to nothing. Not just an empty room or balcony, literally nothing. He peeked out and looked down hoping to see anything at all, but nothing was there to greet him, only the great yawning dark.
Lance closed the door in mute confusion. He had hit stumbling points before where the way forward had not been immediately apparent but there had at least been something he could use to try and make things work, or even just a sign that there even was anything to make work. He turned and started back across the grated bridge, wracking his mind for even the smallest thing he might have missed and resolving to go back through each of the rooms...well, each of the rooms that he was still willing to enter anyway.
His planning was cut short by the gurgling, retching sound behind him that accompanied the buzzing of his watch. Lance looked back just as the roller gurney on the wall began spewing deep red acid all over the hinges holding his bridge in place, immediately producing thick wisps of white smoke and a loud sizzling noise as it ate away at the already rusted metal. If those hinges buckled the bridge would drop and take him with it. He made it two steps in his attempt to bolt for the other side of the bridge but then noticed a brick wall of sorts standing in his way.
The sovereign stood there staring at him silently, and if he wanted to get to the other side before it fell he would have to run directly toward her. For an instant he found it impossible to decide between the fall and risking another encounter with her. No, actually, there was nothing of risk about it. If he chose to gallop toward her she would grab him and have her way with him again, it was a simple fact. It was a marvel all on its own that she was standing that distance from him and had not already snatched him up with her tendril, looking almost as if she had already gotten what she wanted from him for the moment.
There was a metallic snap behind him and the bridge lurched down at an angle, putting even more stress on the remaining latch that was sure to follow suit in mere moments. Lance made a snap decision that he would prefer more pain instead of death, but his run toward the sovereign was short lived. The other latch snapped off and the bridge vanished from beneath him. By sheer luck he was able to reach out with one hoof and grab hold of the edge as he fell, saving himself and forcing a groan from his throat from the pain such a maneuver had sent shooting through his body. He tried to pull himself up, or even just get a grip with his other hoof as well, but his injured, exhausted body was simply too worn out and beaten up to accomplish even that simple task.
As his grip started slipping irreversibly bit by bit, he looked up at the monster mare looking down at him and said something he thought he would never be desperate enough to say to her.
She remained where she was, deep sanguine colored mane floating in the unseen currents as the echoes of the metal bridge bashing against the walls in its descent rang throughout the nightmare house.
“Help me,” he repeated, his voice choking up and his eyes wide as his foreleg burned with the futile effort of holding on a few moments longer.
She took a step toward him, regarded him with a slight tilt of her head for a moment or two...and then pushed his hoof off the edge with a casual flick of her own.
His gut lurched as he started to plummet, the muscles on his back reflexively trying to use wings that were no longer there to try and save his life. But there was nothing for it. Lance did nothing. He did not even bother trying to see the ground below as he fell. He did not even bother flailing around in search of a last second hoof hold. The amber surgeon simply allowed it to happen. There was no stopping it.
His nose caught the scent of rot and wet dirt. It went a fair ways toward explaining the way half of his body felt dampened and cold, but it did little to explain the sound of...things crawling around unseen on the walls far above him, punctuated by the occasional metallic groan. He opened his eyes to pitch black darkness yet again, and only then did he recognize the sound of his own breath and the feel of his own heartbeat. Lance was alive.
The foreleg that had so valiantly attempted to prevent his fall was fairly sore from the combined stress of holding up his entire weight and then bearing the brunt of one of the sovereigns 'taps', but it still responded as he tasked it with locating his light and turning it on again. With a sharp click, his pupils narrowed and the blinding presence of any light at all eventually gave way to the sight of two freshly dug graves complete with headstones. One bore Fluttershy's name carved into the stone, the other Soft Cure's. Lance struggled back to his hooves with yet another groan, feeling a bit more pain than usual but not doing bad for somepony who had apparently slept through a fatal fall. He limped closer, and aimed the beam of his light down into the holes. They were empty. There was nopony to fill those graves yet.
Lance blinked the sleep away a bit more before blearily aiming his light upward. If he squinted, he could barely make out the walkways far, far above, but that detail paled in comparison to the way that the metallic walls of the deep pit were alive with swarms of sentient black blood droplets. Apparently the infestation in the cell of the hanged stallion had found its way out. Shaking off the last of his sleep addled haze, he took another look around.
Directly in front of him was a set of metal double doors, partially rusted over but still looking well off enough to function. Next to those doors was what resembled a ticket window, although it looked a great deal less functional. The speaker in the center of the glass had been covered with duct tape, which looked to have trickled out blood at some point judging by the stains left behind. Most of the glass itself was obstructed by slats of metal that came out of the walls around it, and what meager amount was left uncovered was instead shattered to the point of being impossible to see through. About the only thing to be said for it was that at least the slot on the bottom was not blocked.
To his left was a long passage. The floor was more of the same dirt, while the floors and ceiling were both formed from metal that had rusted through at various points revealing nothing but darkness beyond. Lance had been through plenty of claustrophobic passages in his time there, but this tunnel before him had the opposite problem. It may as well have counted as an extension of the room itself rather than a mere passage. So much space into which something horrible and immense might fit, and yet so few options to react to such an abomination. But even though it was difficult to discern exactly what was on the other end at such a distance, there was indeed something on the other side, and Lance might need it. His course was once again lamentable but clear. Besides, even if he could outpace anything that attacked to make it back to the main room, what good would it do? He was at the bottom of an inescapable pit.
He limped along the passage, eyes continually darting between holes in the metal. Lance could practically feel the entrance of the passage getting further and further behind him as he advanced. He dared not look back lest he be tempted to give in to the tension in his chest growing ever tighter with every stray noise in the nightmare around him and run back for the safety he knew to be false. From the general ambiance he was able to pick out an odd sound though...a tiny dripping noise that seemed to be coming from one hole above him. He stopped and shined his light upward toward the likely source, but found nothing in the dark. His watch was not buzzing either, so he kept going.
It was considerably more of a jolt when he heard soft hoof steps following him from above, traveling from that hole to another. Somepony was trying to keep an eye on him...but was also content for the moment to not do anything else. After a considerable pause Lance started on his way again, finding himself oddly indifferent to the hoof steps and dripping noise that periodically followed after him from above. In fact it was strangely comforting. He found himself easing into the pace of his limping while obsessively checking the holes in the walls around him far less often. Finally, feeling a bit more soreness in his limbs from the lengthy exertion, he could make out what was waiting for him at his destination.
There were another set of bars with something woven between them, but it was no longer the strange sheets of flesh. Instead it was a dense tangle of thorny black vines that glistened in places with some mysterious fluid ranging from maroon to a deep red. As Lance and his unseen traveling companion drew nearer he could also see a small movie film canister for use with a projector tangled among the vines, and near to it was another note that had been stuck onto one of the thorns.
Do you think me unreasonable? Do you think I couldn't possibly have a good reason for doing the things I do? That the actions I choose to take are indefensible?
Because you're wrong.
We both have our own 'you're okay' voices, Lance. But unlike you, I can't afford to just talk. If you had known, would you have told her? Would you have told her when there was nothing she could do about it?
For once, the note caused Lance to hesitate. It gave voice to a feeling that had been steadily creeping over him in spite of his refusal to acknowledge it. Something was wrong. Something was deeply, deeply wrong, and no matter how long he stood there looking from the note to the canister and back again he could not for the life of him place a metaphorical hoof anywhere near it. For the first time he felt his faith in his own conclusions start to tremble the slightest bit, and even that tiny disturbance was enough to unsettle him, like the cracking of the supports of a presumed reliable bridge suddenly sounding in the silence below.
A soft dripping noise behind him snapped him out of it. No matter the state of the bridge in his head, he had to keep walking it. There was no other path through the dark. Though his resolve was visibly starting to waver he reached up, took hold of the film canister, and pulled until the thorny vines holding it in place snapped. Upon inspection it looked a bit old and worn, but seemed to be holding together especially well considering the location. It struck him as far from impossible that the contents would still be usable, and so into his bag it went. After closing said bag and bringing his eyes back up, he spotted a gap in the vines that had previously been covered by the canister. Curiosity naturally took hold, but Lance at least had the sense to wait a listen another moment before bringing his light up to it in order to peek through.
It was the final, short section of hallway. The floor was still dirt, the metal walls were still full of holes, but there was another gravestone. This one was overgrown with vines that blossomed some time ago judging from all the wilted flowers hanging off of them. It just so happened that the vines left a gap in just the right spot to read the name upon it.
Her last name had been viciously scratched away until it was nearly illegible. There was no hole at the foot of the gravestone, rather a quite visible burial mound that had been there for quite some time judging by how low it was. Seemingly just as Lance had realized what he was looking at the vines began to slowly slither between the bars with a small chorus of crackling, squishing noises. He backed away quickly for fear of being engulfed by the moving plant tendrils, but the only things the vines were intent on doing was to shift enough to slowly close the gap, separating him from his wife's grave.
“It...it doesn't matter...I'm just seeing...I'm....” Lance lingered quietly for a moment. He never finished the denial. He simply turned around and started back down the hallway without addressing it.
The holes in the wall had changed a bit in the absence of his gaze. They were a bit less random, and seemed to appear in groups opposite one another that had an arrangement much taller than they were wide. He no longer heard hoof steps above him or the gentle dripping that followed behind him. Instead his long trip back through the passage was accompanied by quiet voices, though he would hardly describe them as soft. They were words that tore out of one's throat in a desperate scream, barely audible from an immense distance just like when he had been prying open the flesh covered doors. He could make out nothing that was being said and yet his spine still tingled with a dreadful familiarity that lurked at the edge of his mind but always moved away whenever he tried to focus on it.
Lance was broken out of his mental haze by the sudden shift in the way his hoof steps echoed off the walls around him. When he bothered to get his eyes back on his surroundings he found himself back at the other end of the passage in the room with the two empty graves. He looked back and saw that said passage had not suddenly gotten shorter, he had simply lost himself in...what was it? Calling it thought would have implied something concrete to consider but the only thing in his head that he had to work with was a formless mass of...something.
His body was left to move itself toward the double doors and ticket window as he continued mentally gazing into the static in his mind desperately hoping that the shapes he was beginning to see in the random noise were merely imagined. When he was stood before the window his brain returned to the present, being required for slightly more precise action. Something was obviously meant to be fed into the slot below the window, and the film canister was a likely candidate. He still had a one bit coin leftover from the hospital if there would be another toll, but there was little sense in trying it without first seeing if there was no toll to pay at all. After pulling out the canister and placing it in front of the slot, he nudged it partially inside with a hoof such that if nothing happened he would be able to easily retrieve it.
The canister shifted slightly as something got a hold of it before slowly pulling it the rest of the way into the darkness on the other side. After a while longer the double doors let off a metallic ping as they were unlocked, indicating that Lance had stumbled into choosing the correct first path already. He opened the door and limped inside, musty air enveloping him as he found himself standing once again on old, moist, mold riddled carpet. A single chair awaited him in the otherwise mostly empty, somewhat large room. From the wall that the chair faced hung what resembled a dirty projection screen made out of...well, at that point Lance felt somewhat disinclined to guess what anything in particular was made from anymore. On the opposite wall was a small square opening through which the aperture and lens of an old projector had been pushed. It was a theater for one.
The lone wooden chair proved only slightly damp, and appeared completely free of mold. It was practically a luxury item compared to everything else, yet he was still wary of accepting the unspoken invitation and taking a seat. The deaf colt obviously did not want him seeing what was on that film. Normally this would prompt him to immediately view it but the gnawing doubt in his mind was biting deeper than ever.
What exactly had he been pushing toward all this time? For so long he had been doggedly determined to escape with his miraculously resurrected wife but...how much sense did that really make? One moment he had been standing inside the library in Ponyville, and in the next he was in some terrifying, impossible world where the dead had come back to life. It was true that Twilight Sparkle was the royal student of the princess but somehow he doubted that she had the ability to bring back the long departed.
A possibility began to enter his thoughts, one that would have been impossible for him to even consider prior to his blind need to find and save Posey being so abruptly blunted. It was easy enough to conclude that the three nightmarish transitions were not real, or at least somewhat less real than the fog filled 'normal' version of that world. But what about the rest of it? Was any of it real? Had it ever been, at any point?
Was he asleep...or dead?
Lance did not know how to wake up. Lance did not even know if he could wake up. All he could do was stand there a moment longer and mindlessly sit in that chair, staring forward blankly as he waited to see what the deaf colt had been trying to keep from him.
The projector suddenly coming to life behind him made him flinch in his seat prior to switching off his light to not drown out the image in front of him. It was a fairly grainy image, and the projector was a bit dim, but the image of his past self seated at the interrogation table was unmistakable. He was in the background however. In the foreground was the potting plant. Lance could also hear Pinot Noir's voice, but the sound quality was so low and the voice so quiet that he could not hope to make out his words. The effect on his past self was clear though. As Pinot Noir recounted his take on what happened in their house that day, the amber surgeon of the past quivered as the soil in the center of the pot surged upward in response to his pain. As he broke down further, grimacing, closing his eyes tightly, and ultimately burying his face in his hooves on the table as his body shivered with silent sobs, a tendril from the seed of truth emerged from the soil, steadily growing until it sprouted a bud that then bloomed into a beautiful flower.
The image distorted, shifting into something of a blurred, shaky mess. It was still sufficient to let him see the mass of deep red tendrils that suddenly emerged from the pot, half reaching downward to grasp the table and provide an anchor as the rest coiled into a single large black tendril that grabbed his past self around the neck and thrashed him about for a short while before the film cut to black.
As unsure of things he was at that moment he was still reasonably certain that last part had not happened.
When the image returned he was looking at his wife, looking haggard, thin, and exhausted. Her pale face was framed by a ragged, thinning mane as she desperately tried to make use of the knife in her hoof. But it was futile, her body was simply too weak to do it, and her teeth grit as she scowled at the knife in anger, tears streaming from her eyes in frustration and a sadness deep enough to practically sap away all the light around her.
Then the door opened.
It was little Fluttershy, looking uneasy as she stepped further into the room and asked her mother something, shying away nervously as Posey suddenly burst with laughter. Once again he was unable to make out what either of them was saying. The dying mare then motioned her daughter closer, wearing a weary smile undermined by her erratic, pained movements that soon had her falling off the bed in her efforts to yell a command of some sort. The little filly gasped and ran to her mother's aid before they briefly exchanged words and Fluttershy turned to leave, only to be stopped short by another command from her mother that put quite the confused look on her young face.
Lance's eyes widened as he witnessed Posey shakily hold the knife out to their daughter.
The little filly dutifully took hold of it but looked utterly lost as to what to do with it. Posey said something, and Fluttershy froze with her eyes wide. Her mother began shouting at her, their daughter offering progressively weaker protests as Posey berated her relentlessly to do as she was told. Things reached a peak when his wife suddenly attempted to bite their daughter, only for the confused, crying foal to finally give in to her demands and plunge the knife into the mare's side. The amber surgeon could not tear his eyes from the image as he watched his daughter's mouth kept open in a perpetual silent scream as she stabbed her mother over, and over, and over. When it was all over, when Posey's blood was practically everywhere it could possibly be, the bereft filly was left alone to cry and quiver as the film distorted and then cut to black again, but kept running.
Lance felt sick...he brought a hoof up to his head, eyes unable to focus on anything. He felt...he felt...
He started to laugh. It started as a soft chuckle but then the dam burst and he could not stop laughing like mad until he had to stop for need of breath and the sheer pain in his body from such mirthful exertions. After a last few chuckles he brought his head back up and took a breath to speak, the deep sense of relief apparent on his face.
“You almost had me...you almost had me. Everything I've seen here since I woke up in the library has been a memory of mine...but how can this be a memory too, huh? I'm not even in the bucking room! This is nothing...this is a lie...or a dream I had...and your stupid flower can buck off to Tartarus for all I care. My daughter was a monster, and that's all there is to this,” he assured himself as he got back to his hooves and moved toward the exit of the room.
Just then, as though the film had been spliced together knowing exactly when the stallion would finish his tirade, the image of the same bedroom popped back into focus on the projection screen and grabbed back Lance's attention. He was now standing in the room with Posey's corpse, now covered with a bloody sheet to give her some measure of dignity, the lone stallion pacing back and forth near to hyperventilating as a stream of tears continued to seep from his bloodshot eyes in his panic and sorrow. But then he stopped...seeming to notice something about the pillows on the bed.
The Lance of the present stepped closer to the screen again, head tilted slightly. He remembered this part clearly. Once he had been able to think straight in the slightest after holding his dead wife and crying until his throat was hoarse, he had immediately realized he would have to come up with some explanation for what had just happened even as his grief wracked thoughts remained scattered to all corners of his mind. But as the recording of the past continued and the younger self on screen moved toward the bed, he could not for the life of him remember anything having to do with those pillows. Yet all the same, he watched himself move one of the pillows...and then pick up two envelopes.
His sudden confidence shattered into a thousand pieces he felt an ice cold dagger stab into his head as he suddenly recalled with crystal clarity the image of his hoof holding two envelopes. One was marked with his own name, the other was marked with their daughter's. Lance groaned and fell to a sitting position as he held his head, struck by another intense headache as though merely recalling the memory had set off a small explosion in his head.
“What did the notes say...what did the notes say?!” he growled out loud at the screen as he fought against the pain to stand up again. He remembered the notes, perfectly and completely. They existed, but he could not remember what they had said no matter how hard he tried to recall it.
Instead of offering anything in answer to his question, the screen went black again only to return to another room in the house at a much later time in the day. There was a single small bed, the walls were painted a bright cheery color and adorned with pictures and posters, and there were toys scattered here and there upon the floor. It was Fluttershy's room, dimly lit by the setting sun outside. The door opened and Lance was immediately struck by the sudden massive jump in audio quality as he watched himself, looking utterly lost and broken, step inside of the room with a similarly shattered Fluttershy on his back, the pained filly having cried herself to the point of exhaustion several times over the course of the day at the police station.
He stood there in the darkened room, stripes of dim light from the shades covering Fluttershy's window striping his body as he did nothing and looked at nothing, his face an utterly blank slate with no indication of any mind left remaining behind those eyes.
“...Daddy?” Fluttershy squeaked weakly as her father continued to do nothing. Rather than press him she started to carefully attempt to climb down off his back, only to lose her grip and fall to the floor with a tiny grunt. She let out a soft whine as she stood back to her hooves but seemed no worse for the wear as she looked up at Lance, her large eyes still glistening with the tears that had been ever present that day.
“Daddy?” she repeated, starting to sound worried as her little hoof rose to touch her father's leg. Her eyes, one still bearing a bruised ring, continued gazing upward silently begging for him to say something, anything that would restore even the slightest bit of normalcy to her tiny shattered life.
“Why did you kill Mommy?” he finally asked her, not bothering to look down at her.
“I...she told me to,” she answered with a touch of confusion to her voice, having already told him earlier that day. She had been telling the truth just like her parents had told her she always should.
“Why did you kill Mommy?” he asked again, slowly bringing his head round to glare at her as though she had answered incorrectly.
“She...Mommy she...said to-”
“Do you remember the talk we had about telling the truth and fibbing?”
Fluttershy's ears flattened fearfully as she backed away from her father, the much, much larger stallion pursuing her.
“Do you remember...the talk we had...about telling the truth and fibbing?” he repeated as venom began to drip into his voice in the face of her lack of an answer.
“Y-yes,” she squeaked, finding that no matter how many steps back she took, her father would always cover the distance with but a single step of his longer adult legs.
“Then tell the truth. Why did you kill your mother?” he asked again, brow furrowing more sharply as the anger built on his face causing the little filly to feel all the more frightened.
“I...I...told you the truth Daddy,” she repeated timidly as she cowered, realizing that she could not escape from her father.
“And what truth are you telling me...Fluttershy?”
“That...that Mommy told me to-”
She let out a cry as a large amber hoof struck her solidly across the face.
“That's a lie. That's a lie and you know it!” he growled at the filly that was now shaking with sobs as she hid her head in her hooves. “Your mother was too strong for that! Nothing would ever break her! She would never have given up like that! So tell me the truth! Why did you kill your mother?!” he demanded, now outright shouting.
“Mommy told me to! Mommy told me to!” she sobbed out in desperation as she continued to do what she thought her father wanted. Her only reward was her father grabbing hold of her mane and pulling her head away from her hooves before another couple blows rattled her tiny skull.
“Stop lying! Stop lying to me and tell me the truth!” he raged at her with just as much desperation as tears streamed down his face unrestrained. The second his hoof released her mane, the crying filly fled to the far corner of her room as her father doggedly pursued her.
“Mommy told me to do it! Please stop!” she screamed while instinctively curled up in protective terror in the corner. Nothing she could do would stop him though. He picked her up again, this time pinning her against the wall with one hoof while raining savage blows upon her with the other. She was screaming incoherently now, unable to comprehend anything but the sheer impossible amount of pain shooting through her body. His hoof soon starting to bear spots of blood as his continued assault opened up a cut on her lip and a gash on the side of her head.
“TELL THE TRUTH! TELL THE BUCKING TRUTH! STOP BUCKING LYING TO ME! STOP BUCKING LYING TO EVERYPONY!” Lance bellowed, wide eyed and tearful as he continued to beat his helpless crying daughter without even a hint of mercy. The truth he claimed to want was clearly insufficient, and it seemed he was literally unable to stop until he got whatever he wanted from her, as though his entire continued existence hinged upon her saying a very particular thing for him through his continued assault.
Finally Fluttershy managed to catch enough of a breath to form an answer, blood streaming down her face as she finally learned that the truth would never save her from this. “I WANTED TO KILL MOMMY! I WANTED TO KILL MOMMY! I'M A MONSTER DADDY! I'M A MONSTER!” she shrieked through the blinding agony and confusion. She did not care about the truth. She did not care to do what mommy and daddy had told her anymore. She just wanted it to stop. She just wanted the hurting to stop.
Lance finally relented in his assault...and then gave her one last back hoof across her swollen, bruised, and bloody face before dropping her. She did nothing but crumple to the ground, curling back into her protective ball, crying as loudly as she ever had whilst the blood from her face smeared across her hooves and in her mane. He made no motion to comfort her, once again rendered mute...although his face was anything but blank. As he gazed down at his crying, bloodied daughter, his eyes remained wide open in sheer shock at what he had just done...and yet something felt right again. As the moments ticked by her confession ringed in his ears and somehow he reached some accord with himself, the shock on his face lessening bit by bit until he looked like his old composed self again. He wiped the tears from his eyes and then wordlessly started for the door.
“D-...Daddy?” Fluttershy squeaked hoarsely between her sobs.
He stopped, and looked back at her.
“Are the...” she hiccuped, “are the police ponies going to take me away?”
Lance silently stood there a moment longer before stepping through the door and taking hold of the knob before pausing. “No, Fluttershy. They're not going to punish you,” he began, his body covered in darkness save for the last stripe of light from the shades that illuminated his reddened, bloodshot eyes. “That's my job now.”
The film went black as the Lance of the present heard the door slamming shut, followed by the cries of his daughter that grew ever more distant until they were finally silent. First, the film itself melted in the projector, followed by the screen catching fire and burning down to nothing but a small pile of the familiar ash.
He stood there in the dark...unable to do anything but shiver wordlessly. The doubt that been merely gnawing at him had now ravenously torn deep into his flesh, and the mere cracks below his feet had given way to an utter crumbling away that left him to mentally flail in a free fall. His thoughts of finding Posey were gone. He paid not a single consideration more to escape. In fact the amber stallion did not do much of anything for a while, until he began haphazardly limped in the general direction of the door without so much as a single word of argument against what he had just seen. To his credit he was fairly close in his guess, brought back to a portion of his senses as he walked right into the wall to the right of said door. It was only at that point that he realized he had forgotten to turn his light back on and was still standing in pitch darkness. He fumbled briefly to correct the situation, and then pushed his way back out through the doors.
His light fell upon the sovereign leering at him, standing in the space between the two empty graves, but he could not summon the will to care at that very moment. For a while longer he stared back at her with nothing but the sounds of the nightmare around them, the brief metallic tap of the door swinging closed behind him, and the buzzing of his watch that went completely ignored.
“I...I knew about Fluttershy when I came here. I always knew what I'd done to her,” he began. Talking to her made just about as much sense at anything else in that moment. “Maybe I reconsidered my stance on it as the years went by but...I never forgot, even the least bit. That has never changed, so it makes no sense that I would suddenly be having nightmares about it some two decades down the line.”
The unusually patient mare took a seat, content to listen to him think aloud for the moment.
“But why did I do that to her? Why did I need so badly to force her to lie when everything Pinot Noir said added up perfectly, and even the flower agreed with him? It never would've grown if I hadn't known he was right either...I knew what he was saying was the truth,” he continued, taking a seat himself whilst his eyes began examining the ground. “Why did I need Fluttershy to lie? Why did I need that delusion as though I would die without it?”
The sovereign offered nothing in answer, merely watching him as her mane and tail continued to eerily flow in the air.
“I know I wasn't the most well rounded pony, but especially in my profession I should have known that sometimes you're just really...really unlucky. Posey died from something we could never diagnose or treat...she was far from the only pony that ever had that happen to them. I know she was my wife...and I loved her so bucking much...and watching her wither away and die hurt like nothing else has ever even come close to hurting.”
She let off a distorted noise that almost resembled a fond purr at the thought.
“But I've had so much training and experience...I've seen it happen to other ponies...I should have been able to handle it without resorting to that. It makes no sense that Posey dying on its own would force me to do that. So what did?”
“Which one...which one is the condition and which one is just the symptom? Something else happened...something else happened with Posey that started this. It wasn't just the disease. It couldn't have just been the disease. It wasn't Fluttershy either. What happened that made me have to do that to Fluttershy? What caused this symptom?”
Lance could feel it. He still did not have anything like an answer, but it suddenly dawned on him that he had not been asking quite the right question. His eyes raised from the ground back up to the steely eyeless stare of his perpetual tormentor.
“What did I do?”
In reply she slowly turned to look over to his left, toward a wall that had contained nothing upon his first waking at the bottom of the pit. Now that he followed her gaze his eyes came to rest upon a door identical to the one above that had been at the other side of the now dissolved bridge. He looked back at her briefly but otherwise offered up no further questions as he got back to his hooves and slowly limped his way over to it.
She continued allowing him to move about freely and unmolested...as though she had already somehow gotten what she wanted out of him for the time being.
Lance opened the door and found the same vast expanse of darkness on the other side, but this time he did not close it or turn back. He stood there looking down into the endless chasm. There was nothing forcing him to do anything, no imminent threat to his life to scare him back into the room or out that door, nor even the desire to find Posey as soon as he possibly could. The only thing that was left to him was the question...and for the first time in forever he was in a position where he could not possibly lose.
He let himself fall forward. Lance would either wake up and find answers to his question, or he would disappear and never be bothered by it again. In that moment with the wind whipping past his body as he fell into the abyss, he felt fine with either outcome...