© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(Original Draft: 2-04-2004)
Can you hear me?
You've had worse landings. Last time, you made it through with just skinned knees...
"What... last time?"
Don't you remember?
"I can't recall."
Don't worry about that. Just concentrate on getting up.
"Hey! He's still alive!" Shouted a red-caped pink unicorn from nearby. "Are you all right?"
Cloud, lying on the floor amid a pile of multi-colored flowers and debris from the roof, opened his eyes and peered up, a broken ceiling visible far above him. "What a... landing...." He tried to stand up but, for the moment, could not. His legs wouldn't move.
"Here, let me help..." the unicorn said as she tried to shove Cloud off of his side.
"Where... am I?" Cloud asked.
"These is the Church of the Fifth District Slumps," the unicorn responded. "That was some fall you had."
Cloud tried again to stand up, failing but discovering that he could feel his legs again. "Yeah... but I can handle this sort of work...."
"Oh, I don't think so. That was no glide you were in. You were out of control," the unicorn said, as she cleaned some of the wooden debris from the flowers.
Cloud looked around. Aside from the shaft of light piercing through the new hole in the church's ceiling, a lot of light flooded in through several sets of stained-glass windows picturing classic Pony legends. He stumbled to get up, succeeded, then shook some dust off and noticed where he was standing. Alarmed, he jumped back out of the flowers.
"Oh, don't worry," the unicorn laughed. "The flowers'll grow back nice and strong. This sacred spot is practically the only place in all of Midnight City where they even grow at all. So..." The unicorn, having finished clearing debris from the flower bed. Then she gave Cloud another look. "So, remember me?"
"Huh?" Cloud asked. Sure, the unicorn looked somewhat familiar, but Cloud couldn't quite recognize her.
"Eighth District Theater. Yesterday," she clued.
"You...," Cloud began as he looked over her green eyes and darker red cape. Suddenly it clicked. "You were selling flowers up there...?"
"Good. You DO remember!" The unicorn cheered. "That's quite a surprise, you dropping in like this. What's your name?"
"Cloud," Cloud answered.
"Ah, a good name. I'm Aeris," the unicorn responded.
"Aeris...," Cloud murmured.
Aeris walked aside then spotted Cloud's blade lying on the floor. She grabbed it by the hilt and picked it up. "You dropped this."
Aeris set the blade down next to Cloud. "Thanks, Aeris...."
"Say, those are magic stones, aren't they?" Aeris asked, pointing to the two green gems in the compartments on Cloud's blade.
"Yeah. Nothing special. These days you can buy them everywhere...."
"True," Aeris said, frowning for a moment. "But look at this!" Aeris produced a green magic stone of her own and showed it to Cloud.
"That's just a magic stone. So?"
"This one's special. It does absolutely nothing!" Aeris boasted.
"Are you sure? You probably don't know how to use it properly," Cloud began as he took the gem and examined it himself. "...wait a minute...."
"See?" Aeris said. "Of course I know how to use them. But that one... Mom gave it to me a long time ago. It never works. So, I just keep it around. It... kind of reminds me of her...."
Cloud gave the gem back to Aeris and she put it away. "So," Aeris asked Cloud. "What do you do for a living?"
Cloud shrugged. "Whatever's needed, I guess. A little bit of this, some of that...."
"Jack of all trades," Aeris chuckled. "Have you ever been a bodyguard before?"
Cloud shook his head. "Not really...."
"That's okay. I want you to be my bodyguard."
"Yes. I want you to be my bodyguard."
"Well...," Cloud paused. "...Sure. But it'll have to cost ya...."
"Right," Aeris nodded. "How 'bout a date?"
"A what?" Cloud asked.
"Okay, it's agreed then," Aeris mused.
Cloud shook his head. "Whatever, just tell me one thing. Why me? Why now?"
"Well, take a look over there..." Aeris said, motioning to the side, towards the front entrance to the church. Two Rin Sha military soldiers were standing near the doorway, and a third pony with red hair and a black suit was standing just in front of them. The suited pony walked over, with the other two soldiers following behind closely.
Cloud shouldered his blade and confronted them. "What are you doing here? --Wait--" Cloud looked at the suited pony. "That uniform... you're a... Lurk?"
The suited pony said nothing. His two soldiers flanked him and pointed their laser rifles directly at Cloud. "Vegas, should we take him out?" One asked.
"No," the suited pony responded, pushing their guns down. "I haven't decided yet."
"What's a Rin Sha spy doing here?" Cloud demanded, ready to draw his blade.
"Cloud!" Aeris yelled. "No fights here! We can get out the back!"
Cloud turned around but Aeris wasn't there anymore; now she was standing by the back door waving in his direction. "Aeris...?"
Cloud turned to Vegas. "Catch you later...."
"Vegas, should we get him?" One of the soldiers asked as Cloud chased after Aeris and the two of them left the room.
Vegas trotted across the sanctuary to follow, then stopped near all the debris. "Yes... he had twinkling eyes...." Vegas looked back at his two soldiers. "All right. They won't get too far. Come on!"
Vegas took a few more steps, then turned back to his soldiers for a moment. "Oh! And don't trample the flowers." Vegas walked nonchalantly out of the flower bed to follow Cloud and Aeris despite some horrified yells and complaints from his soldiers about holy hell.
Cloud and Aeris were spotted as she led Cloud up a staircase in the back room of the church.
"There they are! Get her!"
Vegas's two soldiers fired their laser rifles upwards as Cloud pulled Aeris aside and the blasts missed. "Looks like they aren't going to let you go easily...."
Aeris nodded. Cloud rounded a corner only to discover the staircase going up was broken, and it was too high to jump. "Aeris, is there another way out -- Aeris!!"
Just then one of the Rin Sha soldiers made a lucky shot, hitting Aeris in the leg. Aeris recoiled and stumbled, then fell through some loose boards. She landed on a lower staircase and then tumbled down to basement level.
"You idiots!" Vegas shouted as he slapped his soldiers. "We need her alive!"
Cloud looked around. It wasn't safe to jump down to Aeris with Vegas's men and all the supplies lying about the back room. Cloud looked up as Aeris carefully picked herself up off the ground and dusted herself off. Cloud spied something up on the attic level. "Hold on, Aeris!"
Vegas's guards wasted no time taking up positions on the lower staircase, blocking Aeris's way out. "All right, you can come peacefully or not. But you are coming with us," one of the soldiers announced.
"Cloud...?" Aeris shouted.
In a short moment, a tumbling noise echoed throughout the back room. Curious, the guards looked upwards for a moment, but saw nothing. Then, a large box filled with costumes and other props fell from the top floor, landing square on top of one of the guards. In another moment a second one dropped from above, knocking over a barrel next to the stairs. The barrel rolled down the stairs, into and over the lower guard, and straight for Aeris. Aeris closed her eyes, seeming to brace for impact; yet, just as it was about to roll over her as well, she disappeared utterly from view.
In a split second Aeris reappeared at the corner of the staircase, equally as sudden as she had vanished from below.
"What . . . she can wink!?" Vegas gasped. "This... calls for a change of tactics...."
"Aeris!" Cloud shouted from the attic level.
"I'm okay...!" Aeris responded as she climbed the stairs as fast as her injured leg could manage.
"All right Mr. Cloud," Vegas announced, miffed. "You can keep the ancient pony for now. But mark this: we will be back. Guards! Move out!" Vegas left.
One of Vegas's guards complained as they picked themselves up off of the floor. "We're leaving without the unicorn?"
In another minute, Aeris finished climbing up to the attic level. Cloud looked at her injured leg. "You all right?"
"It's only a burn," Aeris said. "It's getting better already. Thanks for your help. This way...."
Aeris walked to one side and opened a window. "We can make our way over the scraps. It's a shortcut to my house. Come on."
Cloud shrugged, then followed her outside.
"Is that why you wanted a bodyguard?" Cloud inquired, jumping from one pile of scrap to the next.
Aeris chuckled. "Persistent, aren't they. They don't give up." Aeris jumped carefully to another pile.
Cloud stopped for a moment. "You mean -- they've tried to capture you before?"
"Many times," Aeris nodded.
"They must not be trying very hard," Cloud said. "Those are the Lurks, an arm of the Rin Sha. Officially, one of their jobs is to locate potential members for Stallions. But...."
"I really don't think that's what they were up to, do you?" Aeris objected as she hopped forwards again.
"No, not one bit," Cloud responded, following her. "They're also involved in a lot of black projects and other hits. Assassination, abductions... you name it."
"Really. Well...." Aeris stopped for a moment as Cloud caught up. Aeris looked at him. "Were you ever in Stallion?"
"Once. Why?" Cloud asked.
"Your eyes. They have a funny twinkle to them."
"Ah, that," Cloud sighed. "Members of Stallion are given an infusion of magical energy to enhance their abilities. That's what makes -- hey, how'd you figure that, that I was in Stallion?"
Aeris shrugged. "...Oh, nothing. Story for another time. Let's keep moving; the house isn't much farther...."
Aeris hopped ahead, across the top of another pile, and Cloud followed. After a short distance more a bright green garden seemed to appear out of nowhere. A decent house stood on the edge of it. Aeris hopped down. "Come on, this is my place. I'll introduce you to Mom!"
Cloud followed and hopped down, just as another pony, a white pony wearing a pink apron and gardening utensils approached. Aeris walked over to the pony. "Mom, I'm back! This is Cloud. He protected me."
"Oh, Aeris...," the pony, Mira, responded. "They weren't after you again, were they?"
Aeris nodded. "But that's okay! Cloud helped me. Can he stay for awhile?"
"Sorry, but I've got to get back to Seventh District," Cloud said. "Lockheart's going to be worried if I don't go back soon. They don't know what happened to me...."
"Who's that?" Aeris asked.
"Lockheart? She's a friend."
"Oh, that's nice. Okay Mom, I'll be going with Cloud to drop him off at the Seventh District?"
"Huh?" Cloud hesitated. "Y-you aren't thinking of going with me? It could be dangerous...."
"No problem," Aeris said. "I've grown up all around here in the Slumps. Danger is what I walk on."
"Well, wait a minute--" Mira said. "I'm not going to argue with you. But shouldn't you stay and rest, at least for a little while? It's just past lunchtime. Aren't you two hungry?"
Cloud thought about it.
"Well...," Aeris thought. "Okay, we'll stay for lunch, maybe some rest."
"Good," Mira nodded as she made her way to the house's front door. "Then welcome in."
Mira led the way inside, and in a few minutes she assembled some lunch. Aeris ate her fill and Cloud took a few bites himself, though he wasn't really that hungry. In about ten minutes they had all finished. Mira looked at Cloud and decided to ask, "Were you in Stallion or something?"
Cloud paused. "You know? Yeah, I was one once. Not anymore though."
Mira nodded without another word to him. Aeris stood up and stretched. "I'm going to rest for a little bit," she announced. She turned around and then trotted up a set of stairs to her room.
"I have a favor to ask," Mira said. "Could you leave quickly, and quietly?"
"Huh?" Cloud responded.
"It's nothing personal," Mira said, a bit embarrassed. "It's just... well..., I don't think it's safe to have an ex-Stallion member around like this. So could you leave? Quietly?"
Cloud suspected there might be another reason, but nodded anyway. "Sure. I can manage all right by myself...."
"Thank you," Mira said, relieved.
"I'll be on my way then...," Cloud stated. He stood up and left the house quietly.
Cloud proceeded westwards, following the few signs that indicated where the next District would be. Aeris's house was almost out of sight when...
"You aren't leaving without me, are you?"
Suddenly Aeris appeared out of nowhere, right in front of him. Cloud jumped back in surprise. "W-what the!? How'd you do that?"
"It's a gift. They say that all the unicorns used to be able to just, wink somewhere, anywhere, and whenever they pleased. But that was a long time, a very long time ago. Almost legend. Very few unicorns these can still do that and, well... I'm just one of them, I guess. But it's more tiring than walking.
"So, we're going, right? You have to go through Sixth District in order to get to Seventh District, you know. I can lead the way if you want...."
"No, I'll lead," Cloud said.
"Okay," Aeris chuckled. "Bodyguard...."
Cloud shook his head as he led through the Fifth District Slumps to a broken roadway. A sign nearby indicated that the Sixth District was just down the road. Too bad the road was broken. Rusted old vehicles, mechanical parts and other garbage made for a virtual maze through which they had to travel. Cloud followed what looked like one of the beaten paths through it, which led over and under a few piles of debris, through a rusted shell of an old crane, past what looked like a large broken dollhouse or something and through a drainage pipe. Soon they came upon another sign, one that read "Wall Mart" in bold yellow spray paint over what must've once been "Sixth District".
"Wall Mart?" Cloud asked.
"Oh yes. That's what everyone down here calls the Sixth District Slumps. A lot of business owners live and make money there."
Cloud nodded as they continued around another pile of junk. "Cool, it's still here!" Shouted Aeris as she ran ahead.
"Wait--!" Cloud said, rushing to keep up. Around the corner was what looked like some old playground. A small square was off to one side, filled with mud and sand. A rusty old swingset sat next to it, long devoid of its seats, now holding only a set of rusted chains; nearby was a small metal dome that young ponies, presumably, could once climb all over. A larger dome with a ladder on one side and a face sculpted into another lay nearby, and this larger one also bore a slide. Aeris was sitting on top of the larger dome, having either climbed or winked herself up there. "Come on, Cloud, the view is great!" Aeris called.
"It's only six feet off the ground," Cloud observed.
"I wonder," Aeris began. "Back when you were in Stallion..., what rate were you?"
One of the nearby lights sparked a few times, then burnt out. "First," Cloud answered.
"Yeah," Aeris nodded, a bit quietly. "He was Stallion first rate too...."
"Oh, nothing much. My last boyfriend. He disappeared about seven years ago. You know? You sort of remind me of him." Aeris looked up and began thinking. "...What was his name...?"
Cloud shrugged. "So, which way is it to the Seventh District?"
"Not much farther. There's a gate not far off west that leads into Seventh District. You just have to get past the guards."
Cloud nodded. Suddenly there was a distant chirp that Cloud couldn't identify. "Hey, what's that?"
In another minute, some travelling business-suited pony rode by in an old-fashioned carriage, drawn by an extraordinarily large yellow-feathered bird, larger in size than any pony that anyone knew. In the back of the cart Cloud spied a white pegasus riding. "Lockheart!?"
Cloud ran into view as the pegasus waved back at him. "What's she doing??"
"That was her?" Aeris said. "Your friend?"
"Yes! I'm sure of it. But who was that, and why was she with him?"
"I've seen that merchant before," Aeris responded. "He comes to Midnight City about once every other week, tours all the Slumps and does deliveries for people. He must have some business in Wall Mart today."
"But... that was Lockheart with him! What's she thinking?"
Aeris shrugged. "Why don't we pay Wall Mart a visit and find out?"
"Come on!" Cloud said, galloping off after the cart. Aeris jumped off of the metal dome in his direction, a bit of a long jump but she landed just fine. Then the two of them continued running northeast towards the Sixth District Slumps, otherwise known as Wall Mart. Lockheart had to be somewhere inside.