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Silent Ponyville: Reunion
Next stop nowhere.
Part 32.1

------

”So what are we going to tell the press? They're going to want to know why we let Strongshy go.”

“We tell them the truth, Shield, or at least part of it. Posey Strongshy died as a result of her disease. No mother in their right mind would ever force their foal to murder them.”

“Yeah ...good call. This is already going to be haunting her for the rest of her life. Probably for the best it doesn't follow her around in the legal sense too."



“Hey, Pinot.”

“Yeah?”

“You sure she's safe?”

“What? You mean with Strongshy?”

“Yeah. She did have that shiner.”

“What would you have done in Strongshy's position? What else do you do after walking into that situation except get the pony with the knife away from your wife, no matter how you have to do it, no matter who it is?”

“Probably would have found a way that didn't involve smacking the kid around.”

“I'd bucking hope so, you're a trained cop. Now try to think of it from a panicked, sleep deprived, emotionally drained surgeon's perspective."

...

“What if you're wrong?”



“If I'm wrong, they've already got a cage in Tartarus with my name on it, right next to Strongshy's.”


------

It seemed that for once his light had not switched off, and the circle of its beam was the first thing he saw when his eyes drifted open again.

"I'm alive," he muttered with no joy or sorrow. The abyss had apparently rejected him.

He was lying on the floor of the entryway to his house, and as his body roused from slumber it started registering a few bits of pain that he could not immediately explain. Lance let off a sharp groan as he pushed himself up to a sitting position, his hips aching alongside sharp stinging pain in two other places. The first was on one of his flanks, and he discovered with a brief look back at himself that the cutie mark of said flank was entirely missing. The skin had been carved off in a rough hexagonal shape, and his coat was now stained with even more of the now dried blood that had been allowed to seep down his leg as he slept.

Having just seen that wound he felt little hope as he reached up to feel the stinging pain in his ear...or at least where his ear should have been. The sovereign had not simply bit it hard, she had once again delighted in going far over the line by having bitten it off.

“Figures,” he grumbled as he stood back on all four hooves and shook off the lingering sense of violation to which he become all too accustomed.

Lance then realized that quite a bit else was also new.

His house was now a skeleton of its former self. The bulk of the structure had collapsed from the increasingly severe damage that had gotten worse with every puzzle he had solved. There was barely anything left of the upper floor and the majority of the lower floor was now occupied by heaps of debris. What was left mostly consisted of burned out wall frames that had lied dormant long enough for the leftover charcoal and wood to start collecting some kind of sickly glistening moss colored a dark red. More importantly though this severe reduction in complete walls left his view of the surrounding area unobstructed.

Rusted, blood splattered steel grating stretched out as far as he could see, concealed only by spots of stretched out leather coverings that still looked somewhat moist and the incomprehensibly engineered metal abominations that had replaced the buildings of his Cloudsdale neighborhood. Overlooking all of this was a small red light in the sky, shining brightly in the darkness and yet illuminating nothing.

It then struck the amber surgeon that his fall into the void had not been accompanied by any type of siren.

"Buck, buck, buck," he swore quietly as he looked around in increasing panic. This was far, far more than just waking up in a different spot while still in the same building. It had spread everywhere, going off into forever as far as the beam of his surgical light could see. He had not woken from the nightmare ...or the nightmare had followed him into the waking world ...or maybe he was only now truly waking up for the first time since Twilight had cast her spell ...or-

Lance finally recognized the sound of his watch buzzing at a moderate level.

Thankfully the more immediate threat had the side effect of yanking him out of his own head. Something was nearby. Not so close that he was seconds from being torn apart, but closer than he would have liked. Knowing what it was and where it was would be good information to have, but Lance felt little internal conflict about just moving away from it until his watch quieted down. Unfortunately when his hoof moved to start doing just that it brushed against something on the floor that felt a bit more substantial than another small piece of wood.

He looked down to see one of the triangular tablets he had used to unlock the safe. It bore the picture of The Heretic, and when he nudged it over onto its other side he saw that the letter was gone.

"If you didn't turn to ash..." He picked it up, looking it over again just in case he was missing something before depositing it back into his bag. There was still a use for it. But then Lance was faced with the obvious next question. "Where are the other two?"

The buzzing of his watch fluctuated slightly, leaving him momentarily confused as to what that meant before he heard a rustling in the ruins of what used to his dining room. The slight sound was accompanied by the beginning of a pulsing, growling, deep pitched panting noise, like several creatures trying to catch their breath at once. It felt consistent with every other unnatural sound he had heard during his nightmarish journey, but he could not recall having heard this particular one before ...although it was oddly familiar at the same time. Lance could not deny that he felt a twinge of curiosity, but it was far outweighed by his desire to flee and have nothing what so ever to do with that sound.

Then again ...there still might be two more tablets to find ...tablets that he might need later...

There was a sudden flurry of movement in the dining room. Lance could distinguish two different creatures, one sounding roughly pony sized while the other sounded ...somewhat larger. When he actually dared to shine his light in its direction he saw a brief glimpse of something fleshy and pale above the top of what remained of the obscuring wall. An instant later it was slammed down hard enough to rattle the floor beneath his hooves and dislodge a few more loose bits of wreckage. The deep panting noise became slightly less intense and the movement of the smaller creature had stopped entirely, proceeded by the sound of tearing meat and cracking bone.

As he spent the next few moments rooted to the spot trying not to even breathe too loudly, his light happened to fall upon the tablet of The Prisoner resting on a bit of uncovered carpet in the living room. This was far closer to the dining room than he wanted to be at that moment, and simultaneously it introduced the sickening thought that the tablet of The Faithful might just be waiting for him in the dining room itself. He moved as slowly and carefully as he could manage away from his place of relative safety. The tablets having not burned to ash was overwhelming proof to him that they were still important enough to risk picking them up again.

No matter what.

Once he had The Prisoner tablet back in his possession he stood there silently moving his flashlight everywhere he could possibly think to look that was not the dining room. But his hopes were dashed time and again as he saw pile of wreckage after useless pile of wreckage cutting off every area in his ruined home except for the front door and that other room.

No, really, continue to look in other places, eventually it will just pop up in a more convenient location! For no reason!

Fine.

A quick flick of his light revealed The Faithful tablet resting right where he did not want it to be. He turned off his light, inwardly cursing his broken, flightless body as he snuck through the darkness feeling ahead with his hoof while his watch nagged with increasing vigor. The thing in the dining room at least seemed distracted enough with ...whatever it was doing. The sounds of distorted animalistic utterances, panting, tearing flesh and cracking bone was impossible to decipher.

His hoof brushed the threshold between the living room and dining room. He grit his teeth against the desire to run as he just wanted to find the damn tablet already. Finally his hoof hit something and he felt a surge of relief that was quickly brought back down to earth when he picked up a small piece of mold riddled wood.

In his laser focus on the tablet he had neglected to account for the various bits of debris surrounding it. He was unlikely to find it in the dark, but that did not keep him from trying a few times more. Following a few more attempts he felt reasonably certain that it felt like the tablet. It was a similar shape, felt like it was the right weight ...or maybe he was holding a stone coaster.

Scarcely believing he was reaching up for his light, he pushed past his hesitance with the thought that whatever beast was in the darkness a scant few meters away from him would be distracted for so long. His window of opportunity was closing as his watch screeched at him for how stupid he was to just be standing in that spot in the first place. Lance clicked on his light and looked down frantically searching for the-

Something that smelled absolutely wretched hit him with enough force to knock him off his hooves, forcing out a surprised grunt as it pinned him to the ground. His light had been knocked free of Posey's saddlebag straps and produced a brief light show as it spun twice and then hit the ground. It took Lance a couple seconds to realize he was not yet being catastrophically murdered. The small mound of flesh on top of him had a good amount of dead weight to it, but was nothing he could not push off of himself. With another restrained groan of pain forcing its way past his grit teeth he freed himself and let the cold, clammy clump of something roll off of him onto the floor.

Knowing he was likely spotted he immediately grabbed his surgical light off of the floor and used it to find The Faithful tablet. While stuffing it back into his saddlebag the beam of said light caught his attention when it fell upon the object that had moments prior collided with him. It was the shriveled, long dead mare half of a scavenger that had been messily torn away from the stallion half. Despite its own fully exposed innards being grey and rotting away, they were moderately covered with fresh, still steaming blood from the supposedly living other side. Whatever massive thing was in the room with him had caught the scavenger and messily torn it in half down the middle before carelessly tossing the mare half away. Celestia knew what it was doing with the stallion half.

The sounds of ravenous mutilation ceased, leaving naught but that deep, unnatural, vaguely feminine panting noise. Before his better judgement could overwrite his curiosity he had already turned his light enough to see one hideously elongated pale white leg covered with striations and scarred over ruptures in the stretched out skin as though the bone inside had grown to such lengths with absolutely no regard for the flesh around it. It traveled upward and disappeared beneath the tight fabric of a blood covered grungy white miniskirt that was more flesh than cloth.

It became apparent that he truly did have its attention when it stood back up to its full height, abandoning its activities with the stallion half scavenger. A rear hoof took a step back and the entire creature turned just enough to cast a glance back at him. In the extra split second it took for Lance's better judgement to kick in he caught a glimpse of what seemed like a smile but seemed like an attachment on the creature's relentlessly twitching head. The feminine panting became more pronounced and the instant it moved any further Lance was already out the door into the living room.

It was gigantic. It was bucking gigantic. It would easily look down on the sovereign. It was the tallest creature he'd seen and as he bashed through his front door he heard it likewise pushing its way through the entire inner wall of his house. But that last bit of tremendous stress was the last the remnants of his house could take, and the cacophonous sound of the ensuing collapse gave him pause enough to look back. The place he could no longer have really called his home even in the waking world Twilight had stripped him away from was now little more than a burned out wreck.

And from this wreckage of a home emerged the deathly pale nurse.

It stood to its full height, shrugging off chunks of architecture that would have easily pinned Lance to the ground if not outright crush him to death. It was two or three heads taller than the familiar alicorn monstrosity. The two forelegs, equally as hideously elongated as the back legs, were also riddled with tumorous infected growths probably resulting from the various metallic spikes that had been jammed through the top and out the bottom. Yet more long, black blood covered spikes emerged from its chest, the nurse dress having been torn open in front to accommodate them. The stallion half scavenger that it had been toying with slid off of its spot impaled on these chest spikes and slopped onto the ground, leaving behind dark red blood that looked positively bright compared to the dark pitch that was this nurse's blood.

But what Lance could not look away from was the head. The neck was longer than any pony's neck had any business being, and seemed to have a ball joint or two inside. Across the entire length were yet more striations and ruptures in a somewhat spiraling shape. Its nurse cap covered head was featureless save for a few nails sticking out of an angular psychotic looking smile. Then he saw the ears and knew the reason for the spiraled marks along the neck. They were backwards. The entire head had been forced completely around and whatever face the thing had was covered by the filthy nurse hat practically fused to its head. It's 'smile' was nothing more than an incision that had been stretched open by an assortment of nails that went into the back of its skull producing the angular smiling shape. The entire thing twitched in ways that were physically impossible, as though time from the neck up was accelerating and decelerating completely at random. Yet he could tell this eyeless, twitching, giant smiling nurse had eyes only for him.

It easily disentangled its limbs from the wreckage and started for Lance as he turned and started galloping as fast as he could, heading toward the lightless red sun in the sky. The withered nurse's body could not move all that quickly, but at that size it wasn't necessary. Every step it took covered twice the distance that Lance could travel with a single limping stride. He could feel the impacts of the smiling nurse's hoof falls through the metallic grating beneath him, and they were drawing closer.

The bandaged and bloodied amber surgeon kept galloping for the red circle in the sky, feeling a progressively more worrisome twinge on the back of his neck as that damned panting noise got closer and closer. He had not a clue as to how far he needed to gallop or what he would find at the end of that street. For all he knew he was running headlong into a walled off dead end. What he did know for certain though was that he would never be able to out gallop the smiling nurse, and so as he pulled ragged breaths of ice cold air that tore at his throat his eyes cast about for options.

There were none.

The doors were covered with steel or flesh. There was not a single bit of sky carriage wreckage in the street. The alleys between buildings and any windows had been barred off or boarded up. Lance had no place to hide or even momentarily duck behind for cover. His options were to keep running or be killed, and that was all.

The idea of turning his light off to hide in the darkness came to him and left just as quickly when he was almost sent tumbling by a last minute dodge to the side of an enormous hole in the grating. Said idea was chased further away by the brief flash of a drowning mare in the street to his right that started to spasm and choke in response to his presence. There were still monsters in the street, and the one he was most concerned with was now close enough to nearly crush him with a downward swing that bent the grating beneath his hooves as it brushed against his flank. After getting his hoofing back he let out a desperate cry of pain as he forced himself to a sprint against his body's fervent wishes.

It did not last long. After gaining a bit of distance his body utterly gave up on him, forcing him to either slow to a brisk canter or collapse on the spot. Even though his life depended on it he knew himself utterly incapable of another burst of speed like that, and the smiling nurse was already drawing near again! He was going to die! He was going to be impaled on those jagged metal spikes and die!

A scavenger literally dropped right out of the sky a bit ahead of him. The stallion half arched its spine in agony as its severed tongue bled copiously and the foreleg of the long dead mare half flopped about lifelessly. Both back legs had been forced to bend quite a ways in the opposite of the intended direction leaving it completely crippled and writhing in agony. He heard a few strong wing beats above and with no small amount of relief also heard the smiling nurse behind him divert to begin tearing apart the scavenger. Apparently the mere continued existence of the pathetic double creature offended the nurse to the point of distraction.

His shaking legs and burning chest begged him to just stop and rest but he knew he needed every bit of distance he could squeeze out of the precious few minutes the smiling nurse spent ripping the scavenger in half. Soon he was able to spot a few buildings in the distance below the red sun, finally providing him something of a destination. It was a trio of high rise buildings ...or at least something that resembled high rise buildings from a distance.

As Lance trotted closer, his chest heaving with the effort to keep moving, it became obvious that these were less buildings than they were the half completed project of butchers and obscene architects. It was impossible for him to pinpoint the material makeup of any particular part of the buildings. The exteriors that remained were of various possible flesh-like tones that could just as likely be down to the material instead of being a horrific macabre construction, with various streaks of orange or crimson down the side that could just as likely be rust as they could be blood. The damage was extensive, large swaths of the building interior exposed to the elements but shrouded in darkness, the borders of several sections looking unmistakably like massive bleeding lacerations ...or maybe the metal was just bent outward and leaking putrid rust water from a broken pipe?

The three buildings surrounded a central rusted over iron pillar that traveled far higher than the buildings themselves before ending at the bottom of a tube of metal grating that continued to travel upward into the sky until it vanished from sight within the darkness above, completely obscured from view from that point onward. It was held aloft by massive diagonal support beams from the top of each of the three buildings. As the elevation rose, the various flesh tones of the entire horrific construction paled until they were the same deathly white color as the deaf colt and the nurses. The very light and air around the buildings was subject to random distortions and blurring, reality itself seemingly having given up on the very concept of stability.

Yet for this extensive transformation, he still easily recognized it as his second home of Cloudsdale General Hospital.

Another bucking hospital.

Lance was forced to come to a stop as the grating below him ended in a wide gap that extended seemingly forever to his left and right. Gasping for air, he shone his light around until he caught sight of the other side. Were he his usual uninjured self it would have been a simple hop, skip, and a jump away even without wings, but in his current exhausted and quickly deteriorating condition all three of those actions were out of the question. His choices were limited by the freshly blood covered smiling nurse closing in on him again, and the metallic grinding of his watch reminded him that the time remaining to pick from those choices was dwindling rapidly.

Letting out a distressed grunt of agony, Lance turned and trotted a few steps toward the coming abomination to get a running start. Then as the nurse got within reach of him he poured every bit of strength he had left into a final sprint to the edge and a last desperate leap into the air just as the spiked appendage would have otherwise flattened him with another overhead blow.

For Lance time seemed to slow as he sailed through the air. He was given ample time to watch as the tips of his hooves brushed uselessly past the opposite edge, and look up wide eyed as he started to fall past it to his doom, having just barely not made it.

His view snapped downward and his neck barely held together as he suddenly flipped upside down and stopped, screaming with wrenching agony as something grabbed him around his most grievously chewed up rear leg and delighted in squeezing as tight as it could without snapping anything. Lance was lifted up and over onto the other side, and carelessly tossed toward his destination. The metallic floor bit into his flesh as he landed and rolled a few times before coming to rest in a nearly sobbing heap of misery. Everything hurt. Everything.

Conveniently he had landed facing the right direction to watch the smiling nurse practically step over the gap that had nearly ended him. He scrambled to his hooves with another pathetic wail of pain and limped into the courtyard with the nurse in hot pursuit. The base of the middle pillar was adorned with three diamond shape indendations among an open panel of clockwork gears. Glancing up he could make out a plethora of similar gears within the structure visible through holes where the metal had rusted through.

As his eyes came back down he saw a second smiling nurse emerge from behind the pillar, spotting him instantly and coming right for him. Lance swore through his teeth as he tried to spot any way to escaped being impaled between the two of them. His sole path of salvation came in the form of a double door on the bottom floor of the building to his right. With no time to ask any questions he altered course and managed to reach it when the two hulking nurses were but a giant's step away from smashing him through the grating below. He practically fell through the doors that opened inward as he pressed against them, collapsing on the other side and pushing them both closed with his back hooves.

He of course did not feel the least bit safer because of this. Lance had seen how powerful those things were, and there was no reason to believe they would not just smash the door down and crawl inside to end him. Yet as he stood there still gasping for breath, back hoof planted firmly against the door, they remained outside. He could see them through the two rounded windows in the doors, just standing there, their hideous visages twitching erratically before they seemed to lose interest and wander off again. He stared after them in confusion, thankful to be alive but nowhere near understanding why they had abandoned their pursuit.

Then he noticed a familiar pattern covering the door, though it was an unfamiliar color. The veins that he had become accustomed to being black were now a dark crimson. He did not know if this new color made the door unbreakable or simply enabled it to hide him, but he was not up to taking the effort to find out.

Lance tried to get up, but his shaking legs would only get to the halfway mark before pain and fatigue sent him back to the bloodied tile flooring. He was forced to crawl to a nearby 'leather' covered reception desk and reach up with his front hooves to pull himself back up to a standing position. He rested his head atop the desk, not caring what it was made of or what it was covered in as he stood there trying to recover. But it was too much to simply wait out. The massive exertion just to make it into that building felt like it had undone a great deal of the scant healing he had managed. He pulled out the single remaining health drink that had the decency to be unfrozen and drank the couple gulps left in the bottle. Lance shuddered with relief as he felt the worst edge of the pain subside, allowing him to stand on his own again...to an extent. The first few steps still felt more agonizing than he could realistically handle while exploring this horrific perversion of his place of work, but with his only other option being a small sip from a stubbornly frozen bottle he wanted to see if he could manage without it.

With his watch still silent Lance limped a few steps away from the front desk and took in the lobby a bit more. He did not expect so much ...movement. The walls were swarming with blood drops that paid no heed to gravity, bleeding out of cuts that opened and closed as they pleased in material that may or may not have been flesh. It was a small favor that the maroon colored fluids pooling between the tiles of the floor were not as eager to move about. The furniture that was normally present was almost entirely gone, the sole exception being a bench covered in a large swath of surgical drape that was soaked with encrusted blood, covering a single pony sitting there quietly facing away from toward the wall. The figure was deathly still, not even drawing breath, but its posture held not a bit of the slump one would expect from a corpse. It could very well have been a mannequin, but Lance could not recall ever seeing one tailor made to sit on a bench.

There were two elevator doorways in the wall far to his right, only one of which held an actual elevator door. The other was just open to the darkness with nothing to get in the way of anything that might want to slip inside. At a glance the opening seemed just small enough that one of the smiling nurses would not be able to fit, or it may just have been wishful thanking. He hoped never to find out. Next to the elevators there was a rusted over vending machine with a reinforced glass display that had managed to not yet break. Judging by the small red light next to the coin slot, it still had power, and there was only one object left inside. As Lance drew closer he could swear that he just barely heard a distant snarl from far below in the open, empty elevator shaft. He kept his distance.

The one remaining bit of food inside the vending machine was a simple candy bar, the colors of the happy looking foal on the wrapper faded from untold years of sun exposure. Nothing about this environment made him particular hungry, but Lance did recall having one bit left from the Manehatten Hospital. He retrieved it from his saddlebag, pushed it into the coin slot, and pressed the appropriate button. The coil of metal inside screeched as the motor worked against decades of rust, then the candy bar fell down into the retrieval bin. Lance reached into the take-out port, which also screeched its displeasure at being forced to work against the rust, and pulled the candy bar out. The contents felt like they had turned to dust, an assumption confirmed by the mostly white powder with occasional chunks that fell out upon opening the wrapper.

Inside of this candy bar wrapper meant to catch the eyes of foals with a sweet tooth was a clean, sharp scalpel that looked practically brand new aside from the dust covering it.

He shook it off a bit and then placed it in his saddlebag. It would not do as a weapon. Even though it certainly looked up to the task of cutting flesh, it was simply too small to be of any use against any of the creatures he had encountered, so there was little point in keeping it in immediate hoof's reach. Lance continued to give the open elevator shaft a wide berth as he moved to check the elevator door, gritting his teeth against the continued pain of walking.

The call button on the rusted steel panel worked as needed, giving off a distorted dinging noise before the doors opened. He stepped inside and turned around to see the regretfully familiar sight of a covered button panel with no crowbar in sight. Fortunately this one was designed to open with a set of hinges, the only thing preventing this being a keyed padlock. He quickly recalled the 'good time' key he had found in the master bedroom of his house, but after pulling it out he found that the keyhole in the padlock was too small. The right key must have been in the lobby somewhere, and he was not overly fond of the one place he could think to check. He grit his teeth as he limped out of the elevator and toward the bench with the lone, still, shrouded figure seated upon it.

"Look, I can barely walk so if you're going to spring off that bench and kill me you might as well just get it over with," Lance said as he approached. His watch did not buzz as he drew closer but history had taught him that that was no reliable indicator of safety. In this case the pony beneath the sheets continued to sit there completely motionless even as he came within hoof's reach. As he came round to seeing the front side of the pony facing the wall he saw that the right front hoof was extended, and sticking out of that leg was a dirty syringe, the needle fully plunged into the flesh.

It was one of the more heavy duty injectors, the sort of thing foals had nightmares over whenever their parents would mention vaccinations. A rusted metal casing held a glass tube that bore a few small cracks but looked like it would still function. When Lance pulled the needle free of the leg it came out covered in a rancid smelling maroon ichor, causing him to turn up his nose and then wipe the needle off on one of the less filthy looking parts of the drape. He then flinched as the leg detached from its host with a wet crunching pop and thumped onto the floor below, still covered by the surgical drapes. Lance hurried away quickly, having to stop after a short distance and take a seat again as the pain crept up on him before examining his new find.

This was not going to be an adequate weapon, even less so than the scalpel. It was obviously not a key either, though he examined the needle with the brief, hastily discarded thought that perhaps he was supposed to pick the padlock with it. If that were the case he was doomed, as he had no idea how to do such a thing, and despite not being an expert he assumed a needle wouldn't be up to the task. It was no bobby pin after all. He needed to keep looking ...as soon as he managed to stand up again once the syringe was stashed away.

Lance eventually got back to his hooves unassisted but it was far too long and too painful a process. He had not wanted to return to the Celestia damned frozen bottle like a beggar looking for scraps but he was still not in good enough shape to be doing what needed to be done. He did not know how a small sip of health drink was going to possibly help him but it had to be better than going on nothing to continue on like-

The bottle was thawed.

Lance blinked in a moment of mute disbelief before he unscrewed the top and started drinking the blessedly room temperature liquid with little regard to rationing his supplies. He would have happily drank the entire bottle were it not for the fact that he felt something solid tap against his teeth. Pulling the bottle away from his lips, he swished the liquid around in his mouth until he could trap the small object between his cheek and gum before swallowing sans choking hazard. He pulled it from his mouth and was met with the welcoming sight of the cleanest key he had seen in a long while, preserved as it had been within frozen strawberry health drink.

The new lack of pain was a lovely accompaniment to this discovery. Getting back to his hooves was trivial now. He still had a grating soreness in his body but he no longer felt like he was ripping himself apart inside with every movement. Lance stashed the half finished health drink then trotted back to the elevator with a new spring in his step, the key that had been hidden in the bottle the entire time indeed proving to be just the key he needed. Keypad and key alike soon dropped to the floor and burned down to ashes as Lance opened the panel to reveal a single button near the top. The rest of it looked like nopony had bothered finishing it ...or it had been finished and somepony had cut it to pieces. There was a series of metal frames surrounding circular outlets, with the shape of said frames looking like they determined what could or could not be plugged into each outlet. No doubt he would have to find them.

He began the search by pressing the top button, momentarily surprised by how the metal walls surrounding him started moving downward and realizing the elevator car had no walls of its own, just columns in each corner like a cage severely lacking in bars. The wells kept moving down past him as he ascended, until the wall on his right gave way to a grating much like the kind that acted as a  floor in so many places. Lance tensed as he heard his watch start to buzz, keeping his eyes and light focused on the grating as he mentally flashed back to the elevator in the other hospital.

The recollection proved an appropriate one as he caught sight of a pale earless stallion standing on the wall. The deaf colt stood faced away from him, seemingly not even willing to acknowledge Lance's passing presence as he did as he pleased to a barbed nurse whose legs were staked to the wall at the elbow, wrist, knee, and ankle joints. He caught a passing muffled and distorted feminine exclamation, the nurse writhing in some kind of intense sensation as her own black blood continued slithering back to her all over the walls around them after each time it was shed. Even as the scene passed from sight and range of his watch Lance could not for the life of him tell what was being done, with what intent, or who was basking in it or suffering from it.

His ascent lasted a while longer, no other doors or strange sights meeting him until he finally stopped at the top, his watch suddenly buzzing in alarm once more. He quickly looked to his sides, and then heard the familiar intense panting of a mare before he turned round to look behind him. A barbed nurse was suspended helplessly in the air by a dense series of metal cables that kept her limbs at odd, painful looking, but at least possible angles. Her featureless face leered at him, her front hooves quivering as she fought in futility against the cables just to embrace him. Past her, he could see a dinged up and dented metal door without so much as a doorknob, just waiting to be pulled open and stepped through. Her prison of cables was not nearly flush with the edge of his elevator cage though, and there on the floor between was a circle shaped button assembly covered in fresh red blood.

Lance did not walk over and grab it so much as he crouched and reached out to cautiously pull it closer to him before picking it up and shaking some of the blood off. For all he knew she would break those cables the second he stepped past the threshold. Turning back to the panel, he quickly matched the button to a frame with matching rounded sides in the middle of the column. Once it was plugged in he gave it a push, and there was a brief electrical hum before his stomach gave a soft lurch as he began to descend. While he could not recall having seen anything in the elevator shaft apart from the deaf colt's little sanguine soiree he also had a suspicion that things would work themselves out with little explanation needed.

As expected the descending elevator slowed and then stopped at an opening off to his left that had not been there while going up. It was by no means a door though. Somepony had cut through the wall and then pulled it away in both directions to create an entrance large enough for him to step through with just a slight crouch. The room beyond looked less like a room and more like a maintenance access of some kind, complete with the sound of a needlessly large fan slowly spinning to create a slight breeze along with bands of red light that were apparently bleeding in from outside. The red sun was apparently very selective as to what it actually lit up.

What caught his eye most of all was a square shaped button assembly hanging from a bent nail on the opposite wall. He crouched through the entrance and then trotted over to it, glancing to his left to see another wall of grating behind which a younger version of himself was sitting at the remains of a very old, almost entirely broken cafeteria table. His head was resting against the table, nothing visible but his eyes reddened by tears and fatigue against the sillhouette made by the red light seeping into the room through the enormous fan behind him. Said eyes were in a tired daze but simultaneously leering rather intently at something. Lance turned to his right curiously, and there beyond another grating wall was something that made him groan in pain, not from any ache in his body but from the shame brought on by a new recollection.

It was Nurse Soft Cure. She was getting some food for the both of them because during his downward spiral in the midst of trying to even just diagnose his wife's fatal illness he was no longer taking care of himself. She had been forced to drag him down to eat following her having forced him to get some sleep. For her trouble, in his half asleep daze, he was ogling her quite shapely flank. She had caught him. The look on her slightly blushing face, trapped in time, was one of slight confusion as though wondering if what she was seeing meant what she thought it meant. The Lance of the present flinched as he heard a chair pushed back prior to hoof steps rapidly retreating, the Lance of the past no longer there after he looked back to his left. He did not bother looking towards Soft Cure again. The sound of her image burning away was sufficient as he grabbed the button assembly and then retreated back into the elevator.

He sighed, sitting to hold his face in his hooves a few seconds to try and rub away the headache. At that point it had been months since a mare had so much as touched him ...save for Soft Cure, and he really wished she had not. Lance was not above admitting he had the usual needs of a stallion, but at that particular juncture even acknowledging such things was an abomination to him. To his credit he had done a rather good job of it up until that point. The distraction of trying to save his wife was powerful. But then Soft Cure had cared for him, had held him ...and it made him notice her in a way that made him absolutely despise himself. There was now somepony for his repressed needs to focus on. Never mind that she worked under him and that it was horrendously unprofessional, never mind their wider than was appropriate age gap, those were small time crimes compared to his complete violation of all equine decency by eyeing up any mare at all while his wife was slowly dying in his own hospital.

Lance plugged the button into the matching frame just beneath the top button and pressed it. He wanted to get moving before he could recall the aftermath.

The hum of electricity returned to the elevator, but instead of going up the speaker built into the ceiling flared up with static before he heard hoof steps in a hallway followed by his own voice. "Soft Cure?"

"Okay, fine, this conversation, why not?" Lance grumbled as the very aftermath he did not want to think about played above him.

"Yes Lance?" her voice replied.

"I wanted to apologize for ...earlier. It was...grossly inappropriate for more reasons than I can count, and it won't happen again," the younger Lance said with utmost sincerity.

"Lance, no, listen ...it's fine. I mean ...you're right that it wasn't appropriate, but you don't need to feel bad. I don't exactly mind getting eyed up by a stallion like ...you."

...

The memory of that sudden awkward silence caused Lance to groan again, teeth grit and eyes closed as his brain seemed to take great delight in jamming a metaphorical bit of red hot rebar through his gut.

"I ...I should go," he had replied clumsily.

"Me too! Very busy!" she had agreed hastily before rushing off.

"Why did she have to bucking say that?" he growled as the recording gave way to static and the elevator started up again. It then resumed its descent, prompting Lance to briefly look at the button panel but then mentally shrug it off. He was simply done trying to keep track of things anymore.

This time his elevator cage stopped at a somewhat more proper exit. It was only somewhat more proper because it looked to have been a cut away section of a hallway with no proper transition from corridor to elevator. He stepped onto the mold riddled carpet, unable to help noticing how it squelched beneath his hooves. The path ahead turned off to the left, but any progress past that point was prevented by a warehouse door. There was no lock he could come back and deal with later either, it was just welded shut on the bottom. It was not the thickest of doors though, so he could make out the conversation taking place on the other side clearly enough.

"Hey Soft Cure, I want to get this strawberry smoothie health drink. Could you lend me a bit?" came a mare's voice on the other side.

Lance suddenly remembered exactly where he was standing. There was a vending machine around the corner.

"Sorry Sugar Shrew, I brought enough bits for my lunch and that's it," the more familiar voice replied apologetically.

The other mare scoffed. "You know, for the mare riding Strongshy's 'assets' you're pretty stingy."

"Wh ...what?"

"Yeah, it's not like me or any other mare I know can go sweet talk money out of a chief surgeon like you can. Maybe share the wealth with the rest of us a bit hrm?"

...

"I'm not-"

"Oh please, everypony knows it Softie. You think the rest of us that have been working here for years didn't notice this cute young thing just waltz up to Strongshy's office to introduce herself, and then in a matter of a few months she's the head nurse and joining him in the OR? Bet your job is getting even easier now that Strongshy's wife can't perform her 'duties', huh?"

"He's ...we don't ...that's not true!" Soft Cure denied with a wavering voice.

"Spare me the crocodile tears hun, it's not like we blame you for taking that free ride. But maybe be a bit more generous next time?" the other mare said dismissively as she strode away.

Soft Cure was silent for a moment longer. She was most likely making sure nopony was there to hear her before she broke down in restrained sobs of shame for something she had not even done.

Speaking of things left undone ...he knew exactly why that impassable door was there now. At the time of that conversation, he had been standing in the same exact spot around the corner from the machine. He had not rounded that corner. He had not spoken a single word in her defense. He had not even so much as gone to comfort her afterward while pretending his arrival was just a coincidence and that he had not overheard the conversation. Lance had stood there rooted to the spot praying to Celestia that Sugar Shrew would go the other way. Then he had turned and gone back the way he had come, leaving Soft Cure to collect herself alone after having the effort of her entire career invalidated in the eyes of her peers for having dared to comfort him when he needed it most.

It just made sense that he would not be allowed to round the corner that time either.

Lance flinched as something dropped to the floor in the middle of the corridor behind him. He quickly brought his light around to reveal a diamond shaped button assembly on the floor, briefly flicking his light's beam upward to see nothing but the expected ceiling above it. The bloodied amber surgeon gave one last backward glance to the cause already lost so many years ago, and then left her to weep alone as he picked up the button and headed back to the elevator with an empty pit where his heart should have been.

Could he have even made a difference back there? Would he not have just given Sugar Shrew more rumor fodder to spread around if he had defended Soft Cure? No ...chances were good he could not have made a difference in the rumors. But then the mare he ...worked with would have had somepony there to hug her back when she had needed it. That would have been an acceptable difference for him to have made, but that door had been welded shut by his own idle hooves a long time ago.

He glanced down at the diamond shaped button assembly in his hoof and then back up to the button panel with matching framed plug. Lance had a passing thought that his intelligence was being insulted by such simple shape matching tests, but then perhaps this was less of a puzzle to be overcome and more a simple way of ensuring he went to the right places. Then again ...depending on who was directing him and who else was watching him, the definition of 'right place' was likely to vary wildly.

Lance plugged the button into the matching slot residing just above the bottom-most slot and pressed it. At least the following descent made sense that time. The speaker above spared him the torment of another past awkward conversation as well. He was not sure if simply not mentally assaulting him for a few precious minutes counted as being nice, but he would take it.

Once the elevator had arrived at the next destination he bore witness to the aftermath of carnage that put the mere hole in the wall of his first stop to shame. It was another corridor ...and it used to have a series of no doubt once formidable looking doors and chains that now all lay bent and broken covered with rust and fresh blood on the floor all around. The sight understandably put him on edge as he pressed forward all the same, and eventually arrived at a much more normal looking bit of hallway that ended in a junction leading off to both sides. On the far wall was a mostly plain white door, with the rather distinguishing characteristic of a hole punched through it right where one might expect to find room numbers or other sugh designations. His immediate assumption was that it had gotten damaged in the chaos he had just stepped through, but then why would a mere wooden door not be smashed to pieces instead of just punched through in a single particular spot?

His thoughts were interrupted as a tearful Soft Cure tore out of the room and ran down the corridor to his right, teeth grit to contain the humiliation and anger attempting to crawl out of her throat. Lance started trotting a bit faster to try and follow her. Unlike the previous two stops this situation only felt somewhat familiar with nothing concrete snapping into place which made him curious.

Said curiosity was immediately snuffed as he found himself blocked from going further by two roller gurneys. The remains of his curiosity were then stomped into hamburger for good measure when he turned to see the path to the right likewise blocked by another two gurneys. Lance would have bolted back to the elevator right then and there but for the sight of the door remaining partially opened, the darkness beyond offering a grim invitation against which his silent watch was not yet protesting. It still took him a few moments spent not being crushed or melted to work up the needed courage. If the gurneys wanted him dead, there was not much he could do to stop them after all. Why worry too much?

The dust covered room beyond the door was mostly barren, save for a single rusty IV stand from which hung an hourglass shaped button assembly. The concrete walls were mostly intact but heavily damaged, worn away and deeply cracked by something corrosive that had left an abundance of dark residue behind. Upon further inspection the room was not completely covered in dust either. There were areas of bare concrete denoting the position of what Lance could only assume had been furniture that had been moved out at some fairly recent point before his entry. Judging by the dimensions and placement of the dust free bits of floor he could easily imagine this having been a patient's room.

Lance started for the button, but was briefly stopped, ears twitching as he heard the sound of squeaking wheels following above him. He considering looking upward but ...something told him he already knew what was up there. It kept pace with him as he strolled further into the room, keeping the fur on the back of his neck stood on end as he resolved to hurry back to the relative safety of the elevator once he had the button in hoof. Anticipating a shower of acid blood and another brisk run, he took a fortifying breath before plucking the button off of the IV stand.

The gurneys on previous occasion had chosen to mentally harass him by leaving quite suddenly when he was expecting something awful. This time all five of them just...left...at a regular pace...his watch giving a soft buzz as they lazily departed while otherwise leaving him alone. He was thankful, but confused. It was at that point he realized his watch was still buzzing even though he had heard the gurneys wander off and it was only getting louder. Then his ears started ringing and he finally saw the black blood seeping out of the cracks of concrete and pooling on the wall in front of him.

The gurneys had apparently yielded to something else just this once.

Two front hooves emerged from the blood, followed by an earless stallion's head. The black blood burned away in a black flame revealing the pale skin of the deaf colt beneath as he continued his emergence, the ringing in Lance's ears approaching unbearable levels. He turned to run but his movements were suddenly more lethargic than usual, the amber surgeon stumbling a bit as he fled. In spite of his sudden weakness he was gaining a good of distance from his pursuer, emerging from the former patient room into the hallway!

The deaf colt was somehow already waiting for him beyond the threshold.
NOBODY WILL HEAR YOU SCREAM ...BECAUSE THE ONLY ONE LEFT IN THE ROOM HAS NO EARS.
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