From Terry Trotchett's A Concise History of Equestria:
If you were to ask some ponies what they thought of Equestria, there would typically be one of three responses.
Most would happily go on about how it's one of, if not the, most beautiful land they've ever laid eyes on. (Even if it's the only land they've ever laid eyes on, which is quite an impressive feat.) When its lush, sprawling forests aren't meeting you at every turn, you're instead walking through flat, green plains that are punctuated with fields of flowers both unique and sweetly fragrant. The animals, use to the care of the equine inhabitants, are incredibly friendly and would like nothing more then to nuzzle up against some passerby. Not to mention that, for the most part, the citizens are a friendly and hospitable lot.
And Celestia's nice, too.
The second, and far more uncommon, response, is that Equestria is more than a little dangerous, with its habit of attracting not just the sweet, woodland creatures, but also the more dangerous, and often predatory, monsters that tower over your average pony, and just as often sporting a mouth big enough to swallow them whole. That they're mostly cooped up in the Everfree Forest is of little comfort, as the practically organic environment seems to envelop a little more of Equestria each year, and there's a disturbing trend of them coming out for one reason or another to incite panic, destroy both private and public property, and cause general mayhem. (Particularly on Fridays.) The equine citizens are still nice, though are looked at as being in denial of just how terrifying the land really is.
And Celestia's nice, though they think she should be a little more proactive in monster control.
The third response, even more uncommon than the second one, is that Equestria is lazy at best, manipulative at worst. After all, they'll tell you, just about everything about it has to be done by some other pony. The passage of night and day, the weather, the seasons, even the animals are dictated when to hibernate and when to head south. In their opinion, Equestria is more-than-capable of doing any of these things on its own, but at some point decided to shove the responsibilities onto its brightly-colored, (some would say even marketable) inhabitants. They would argue that if ponykind simply stopped picking up for its slack, Equestria might rise up and move its own celestial objects, change its own seasons, make its own weather, and if they're lucky, do the dishes.
Also, Celestia's nice, but she's suffering terribly from "beaten dam" syndrome, the poor thing.
While the third responders are the source of much derision and ridicule (because how could a world ever make its own wind without ridiculously huge wings?), they do bring up a key feature (though, again, some would call it a "bug") about Equestria: virtually everything about it is moderated by some other, sentient creature.
There is not one, natural process that does not have some being overlooking its operations. Not the sun, not the moon, not the weather, not the passage of seasons, not even the process that Hoofster described as "that uncomfortable thing that will eventually happen to you, that involves the cessation of breath, vital organs, and having your relatives explain to your foals that you're either sleeping, going on a trip, or taking up a long-term job that involves examining a coffin from the inside. While buried." Or as many others know it, death.*
*For more information about the cessation of breath and vital organs, uncomfortable explanations, etc etc, and all it entails, please turn to page 1,267.
The moon hung in the night sky, its sickle shape still able to bask the land below it in an eerie glow. A land that was, at the moment, enthralled in an almost barbaric ritual of screaming ponies, lurid dancing, and liquid concoctions of questionable taste, all surrounding a giant altar of wood and metal, where there would blare blasphemous words and unequine melodies from gaudy, perverse idols.
Yes, in spite of protests from some neighboring cults, "Hoovestock: An Equestrian Exposition," was in full swing.
Within the kaleidoscopic vortex of cheering fans and stomping hooves, there was one pony who was making slow, but gradual, progress towards the stage. He weaved through the crowd with meticulous care, attempting to avoid any pony as he went towards his destination.
On first sight, he looked like any, normal pony. He definitely had an equine shape that could be barely made out from the black cloak around his body, a cloak that didn't so much hang as it poured. And the horn that jutted through the top of his hood could easily belong to any unicorn, even if it were moderately scythe-shaped and, upon closer inspection, sharper then any blade that could possibly be forged, whether by earthly or mystical means.
He even looked like a pony under his hood, so long as one ignored the fact that normal ponies would have the decency of wearing skin, blood and muscle over their skeletal heads, and use normal, jelly eyes instead of burning, red dots that could be mistaken for fire pits from a distance.
For right now, though, no one could mistake him for a pony. Or anything else, really. That would require them to see him in the first place.
Every so often, though, some equine would stumble in their euphoria, and as a result graze him. The stumblers, almost immediately, would have the sudden feeling they were being watched, question just what their purpose was in the universe, and suffer from an inescapable feeling of dread. Then their friends would come over, tell them to loosen up, and they would escape that dread anyway in the roaring of the crowd, before forgetting about it all a moment later.
The cloaked pony, for his part, would utter a quick apology (that they wouldn't hear anyway), and continue on his way.
After what could be argued to be a treacherous journey through a writhing sea of high-on-life ponies (while avoiding the occasional steeped-in-alchohol vomit), he came to a stop in front of the stage, just as the Bareback Mares finished and begun to leave. It would be his last destination for the night, and the final destination for one, particularly unfortunate, pony.
As soon as the last member, Music Page, had left the stage, the lights suddenly darkened. A sudden hush came over the crowd as several thousand sets of eyes turned towards the stage.
The silence was broken by the hissing of machines, billowing plumes of smoke across the stage, so much that it floated down and into the front rows of ponies, causing them to go into hacking fits. (The cloaked pony, having no lungs, wasn't as affected.) A murmur of excited whispers begun to sweep through the crowd.
The stage lights suddenly shot back on, and this time were pointed into the air. Their came a chorus of awed gasps as a huge, stallion skull begun to descend from above, slowing descended towards the stage below. The tacky prop, made of heavy plastic and weaved with iron bars, was almost able to hide the magical glow surrounding it within the smoke on stage.
But as soon as it came to a stop, resting upon iron support beams secretly erected as it made its appearance, there came a sudden explosion of noise (some would argue music) that sent the smoke fleeing through the crowds, revealing a group of ponies who stood beneath the skull.
The most prominent one, standing in front, wearing a white shirt and brown vest combo, with an unruly, blond mane, was the lead singer, Saint Hug 'Ems (who to this day still had trouble living down his name). To his left, wearing a leopard-spotted vest and sporting a long, dark mane, was his long time friend and lead guitarist, Tough Nail. To Hug 'Ems left, wearing a black vest decorated with gold rings, and wearing a rather dashing mustache, was the lead bassists, Smalls.
And in the back, doing the best a pony could do to be conspicuous while manning a large set of drums underneath a ludicrously, large skull, was the band drummer, Red Shrimp, wearing a black vest and packer hat. His desire to stay hidden wasn't completely warrant-less, given the band's history with their drummers.
"Fillies and gentlecolts," a voice boomed over the speakers, "the moment you've been waiting for. This! Is! SPINAL CLOP!"
There came a thunderous applause as jets of flame shot across the stage, illuminating the rock band and flinging sparks across the wooden structure, which had to be quickly extinguished by stage hooves.
Stamping out a little fire that had grown on his mane, St. Hug 'Ems took to the center of the stage, grasping the microphone with his inarticulate hoof.
"HOOVESTOCK!" he shouted, with an accent that even casual listeners could discern as fake. "Are you ready to rock?!"
The response was a cacophony of noise, enough to make the cloak pony wince, and almost lose his concentration on one of the iron supports that was, unbeknownst to others, buckling.
"I didn't quite catch that," Hug 'Ems said, cupping his ears, "I asked are you ready TO ROCK?!"
"What was that?!"
"YES!" The cloaked pony pony kept his attention towards the support rod, noticing that every scream made it bend just a little more.
"ALRIGHT THEN!" St. Hug 'Ems stood back, his band mates prepping their instruments as they prepared to play their first song. "Let's hit them with everything we got, boys! ONE, TWO, THREE-"
The sound that followed was not the strum of a guitar, the bang of a drum or the off-key notes of a singer. It was instead the sound of an iron bar snapping in two as the rear support for the giant skull finally gave way, causing it fall backwards.
Red Shrimp didn't have time to contemplate what had happened before the giant skull came crashing down on top of him, sending a quake across the stage, send St. Hug 'Ems and Smalls to the stage floor, and causing one floor board to catapult Tough Nail off the stage and into the crowd, where he was caught by ecstatic fanfillies.
Back on stage, St. Hug 'Ems recovered, unstrapping the shattered guitar that had broken his fall, and looked behind him to see a giant, plastic skull where their drummer used to be.
"Oh horse apples," he said, without the accent.
And while security tried to stop a hoard of ponies from hopping onto the stage, the cloaked pony simply floated onto it from the ground, going around the despondent lead singer and towards where the hapless Red Shrimp had been. As soon as he got close, a bright, emerald-green aura covered his horn, and from it there came an ethereal scythe that floated over his head. Without moving his head, the magical blade swung through where Spinal Clop's fourth drummer had been.
A moment later the spirit of Red Shrimp crawled out (or rather, through) the wreckage, shaking his head.
"Wow, that was close," he said, relieved. "For a minute there I thought I was a goner!" He finally took notice of the cloaked pony, who stood motionless in front of him. "Oh, uh, hey. How's it goin'? You get that from a bit-store or something?" He pointed at the cloaked pony's face. "I mean, it's not bad or anythin', but that mask could be way more realistic...
"Oh, hey, Hug 'Ems!" Red Shrimp turned his attention away from the cloaked pony, looking towards the blond stallion as he spoke to some security guards. "I'm fine, dude! All's cool! Let's just get this cleaned up and get on with the show, okay?"
Red Shrimp waited for St. Hug 'Ems to stay something, but the bereft singer simply kept his head down as he continued speaking to the guards, as stage hooves made their way towards them.
"Hey, why's he ignoring me?" Red Shrimp scratched the back of his head, taken aback. "I mean, it's not like it's my fault the whole thing fell down. And I was the one that almost got squashed, anyway."
"He's not ignoring you."
The small, almost nasal voice, came from the cloaked pony behind the drummer, who turned to shoot him a confused look.
"Huh? What are you talking about? He's not even looking at me!"
"Because he can't see or hear you now," the cloaked pony stated. "As for 'almost' being squashed..."
He pointed a bony hoof towards where the giant prop hand landed. Red Shrimp followed it and saw, sticking out between the white plastic and splintered floor boards, a leg that looked remarkably like his own.
Red Shrimp looked at the leg, then back at the cloaked pony, then back at the leg, then once again at the cloaked pony. He stared at the skull 'mask' underneath the hood, and understanding begun to take hold. His eyes begun to widen in shock.
"Y-You mean...?" Red Shrimp took a hoof to his throat, and mimicked a slicing motion and sound.
"Afraid so," the cloaked pony responded.
"Yup," he said with an affirmative nod.
Red Shrimp's mouth dropped open. "But, but...awwww...but, but....awwwwww...but...awwwwww." The former drummer slumped back on his rear, his head hung low as the information sunk in, his eyes watering and his ears flattening against his skull.
"...If it means anything," the cloaked pony said, after a moments silence, "you did last a bit longer then the past drummers."
Red Shrimp sniffed, looking up at him. "Y-yeah?"
"Oh, definitely," he replied, nodding. "I would know. I was there for them too."
"All of them?"
Red Shrimp scratched at the stage floor (or tried to, given he was incorporeal now), and asked, "So, uh, the first drummer, how did that gardening equipment...?"
"You don't want to know," the cloaked pony said quickly. "I've seen just about every, possible way a pony could die, and trust me on this, you don't want to know."
"Alright, alright! I was just askin'..." The ex-drummer shot his mortal coil a forlorn look, before suddenly perking up. "Hey, wait, I'm dead, right?"
The cloaked pony tilted his head. "Uh, yes?"
"Oh, dude, do you know what that means?!" he asked excitedly, the gloominess from before dissapearing in an instant. "My stuff's going to be worth a fortune now! Ha ha! There's my spare drum set, my vests, my hairbands, and I think I still got a half-eaten donut in our trailer!"
The cloaked pony, with a skeletal head, somehow managed a disgusted face. "I really don't know if that'll be worth anything..."
"Of course it will, dude! And just wait until everypony hears about this! I'm goin' to go down as the most famous drummer ever! Who can top being squished by a giant skull? They're goin' to be writing books about this! Maybe the guys will write a song about it...!"
As the drummer continued, he didn't notice that he was beginning to float higher and higher away from the stage, his body taking on a shimmering luminescence as he ascended. The cloaked pony watched silently, his red eyes capturing everything.
Red Shrimp stopped in the middle of his rambling, and gave a shout when he saw what was happening. "H-hey, what's going on?!"
"Nothing," the cloaked pony said calmly, "the more you feel fulfilled about your life, the quicker you ascend and move on. It's perfectly normal."
Fear flashed through Red Shrimp's face. "Move on?! W-where do I go? What's next?!"
"No idea," the cloaked pony said with a shrug. "Maybe you'll get a reunion with the other drummers."
The look of fear quickly vanished to be replaced with excitement. "Oh, that would be so awesome! I can't wait to tell them what happened! Then we're goin' to rock out, and drink, and style our hair, and drink, and-"
Red Shrimp stopped in the air, his body practically a shining beacon, and gave the cloaked pony a bewildered look. The skeletal equine's horn glowed, and from the depths of his cloak came a inked quill and a piece of parchment, both of which floated up to the ascended drummer.
"What's this for?" he asked.
"An autograph," the cloaked pony said, scratching the back of his hood in an embarrassed fashion. "It's, uh, just something I do."
"Oh, sure. I guess everypony needs a hobby." The drummer quickly wrote something on the parchment, and once done, the quill and paper were pulled back towards the cloaked pony, who nodded satisfactorily upon seeing the signature.
"Thank you," he said, stuffing quill and paper back inside his cloak. "It was pleasure meeting you, Red Shrimp."
"Yeah! Same to you, uh..." Red Shrimp scratched his head, his body almost bursting with light now. "What's your name?"
Red Shrimp blinked in an almost dumb fashion. "Mort?"
In a disbelieving tone, that was Red Shrimp's last word as his body suddenly became brighter then any star in the sky, before dwindling into a tiny point, and disappearing all together.
Congratulating himself on a job well done, Mort walked away, moving past a growing crowd of ponies as they pried the giant skull off of Red Shrimp's body. He was still humming "Gimme Some Bits" when the skull rolled over, eliciting a wail of shock and horror from all those nearby.
When Mort was satisfied that none of the Spinal Clop fans would suffer surprise heart attacks, or have the sudden impulse to kill themselves (one pegasus tried, by flying as high as the clouds and dropping, but she lost her nerve halfway and floated the rest of the way down), he took his leave of Hoovestock and proceeded into the grassy fields nearby.
Things had become remarkably quiet in a short period of time. As Mort moved across the plains, he could hear the chirping of crickets hiding within the grass, and the small buzz of fireflies as they floated to-and-throe in the night air. He could feel the tingle of life that existed in each blade of grass he moved through, what had become one of his favorite sensations.
He finally came to a halt atop a small, round hill, and laid down on top of it, giving himself quite the view: the moon cast a soft, serene glow on the fields, with every constellation glimmering in the cloudless night. The herds at Hoovestock begun to dwindle as the ponies begun to leave, either to homes nearby, or to spend a night under the stars. The passing of Spinal Clop's drummer was doubtlessly a damper on what had otherwise been a great night for many of them, but he was sure they would find ways to cheer themselves up. Maybe some songs. Maybe some stories. Probably lots of booze.
Mort did his best to enjoy the moment. Red Shrimp was, for the time being, his last stop, though in a little bit he would have to peer ahead and see what lied in store for him. After which his day would be once again filled with visiting ponies who either reached the end of their long journeys, or who were discovering that they really should've went to the doctors more often.
Laying there, amidst the sounds of insects and the soft wind, he felt the sudden compulsion to "stretch," and in a moment small, bony wings broke through his cloak as if it were mere miasma, spreading wide before disappearing back within the black mass covering him.
"What a night," he sighed, contentedly. He did think it a shame that giant, fake skull couldn't stay up just a little longer. He really wanted to hear "Gemhenge."
As he begun to hum the first lyrics, his ethereal senses picked movement up from nearby. Spinning his head, he saw what looked like a black, oozing puddle hover over the grass, seemingly sloshing over itself as it rolled past him, towards a patch of trees behind the hill. A shade.
"Oh, hey there!" Mort got up from his spot, watching the Shade as it swam through the air like an inky jellyfish. He'd seen them before, of course, going about their own business, but it wasn't often he had the time to talk to one. "Nice night, isn't it?"
The Shade didn't respondl, continuing its journey towards the trees and shrubbery.
"Uh..." Mort watched the shade move a little farther away before trotting after him. "So, you got a name?" He paused, waiting for a response, and continued when none seemed forthcoming. "They call me Mort. Er, well, I call myself Mort, most of the other ponies have a bunch of different names for me, really. Y'know, like the 'Pale Pony,' the 'Skull Stallion,' sometimes the 'Rogue Reaper' and the 'Grim Galloper.' Heh, they sure love their alliterations, don't they?"
The shade continued to say nothing. The pair of them got closer to the batch of woods, every step making Mort feel more and more awkward.
"Er, anyway, I prefer Mort," he said again, shaking off his apprehension. "I mean, sure, I guess it's not as 'grand' sounding like the other names, but it's...well, me, you know? It's just so much me, I...uh, don't really know how else to describe. But, well, it's more than that. The princesses gave it to me a long, looong time ago, before Luna's whole 'evil' phase. It's just, really...really special to me, you know? Kinda like a gift. Er, not that I'm bragging or anything, of course..."
Mort watched the shade, straining his senses in the search for some, for any response. He was so focused that he bumped into the shade when it came to a sudden halt.
"Whoops!" He pulled back his forelegs, the shade filling where his legs had been like water pouring back into a bowl. Looking from behind it, Mort saw what the shade had been seeking out: the emaciated body of some rabbit, that had probably breathed its last just recently. It still look relatively young (Mort could tell these sort of things), causing Mort to chalk it up to some sickness that prevented the creature from keeping food down.
"Hm, starvation. Definitely not one of the best ways to go," he said casually, wondering if he could use their jobs to spark some sort of conversation. "So, I take it you're the shade who takes care of rabbits? That must be rough. I mean, they're always multiplying everywhere they go, and there's sure to be a bunch of other animals who think they're tasty."
The shade's body begun to ripple, and for a moment Mort felt a surge of hope that something had gotten through. But the hope came crashing down as, instead, a sickish-green magical field grew out from the shade's mass, forming a crude, ethereal blade. It swung the blade, lacking any sort of elegance Mort tried to put into his swings, but it still got the job done.
As soon as the crude, jagged blade had soared through the rabbit, its spirit rose up, looking as if it had never lost wait at all, and maybe had a trip to the spa. The rabbit looked between the two of them, shooting looks that were a mixture of fear, confusion, curiosity, and perhaps expectation.
A moment later (it always happened faster in animals, Mort noticed) the rabbit's body begun to sparkle, before vanishing into the night air much like Red Shrimp barely half-an-hour ago.
"Well, at least he's in a better place. I think." Mort rubbed his chin, looking at where the rabbit had been. "Say, have you ever wondered what happens after they vanish like that? I mean, do they go to valley in the sky? Their own little paradise? Or do you think they just...y'know, disappear? Poof, gone, just like that? It's just I kinda told my last pony he could hang out with his predecessors, but I'd feel like a jerk if, well, this was it it. You follow me...?"
Mort's voice trailed off as he finally noticed that the shade had left. In fact, the shade had left even before he started to speak, gauging by how far away it was now, traveling deeper into the woods.
"A-alright then!" he called, fighting a surge of bitter disappointment. "I know you're probably busy, so, uh, maybe we can chat later? I'll just be doin' my thing...alone...like always..."
The shade vanished into the foliage, and Mort slumped to the ground, hanging his head. That content feeling he had before may as well have vanished like the rabbit's spirit. Left in its place was a gnawing loneliness that seem to dig a little deeper every year.
There were thousands upon thousands of ponies in Equestria, and every day he had to move from one end of the world to the other, reaping one soul here, another there, leaving so little time for anything else. And even if it did, no one really knew of him (and for reasons he understood). And even if they did, well, his job wasn't exactly one that came with a lot of reverence.
Only two ponies in all of Equestria knew him, and even that'd be fine, but the brief reprieves he had were never long enough to do anything meaningful with them, and almost always came at times when they were in the middle of something else.
It was in these bad times he wished he was a normal shade again. It'd be awful, of course, relying solely on instinct, with no awareness for anything but his duty, but at least he'd be too stupid to know otherwise.
He gave a morose sigh, and shook off his misgivings. If his internal "clock" was right (and it often was), he was reaching the end of his personal time. He arched his body upward, the green glow from his horn illuminating him.
Earlier he had seen up to half-an-hour after Red Shrimp to see no deaths forthcoming. Now it was time to look even further ahead into tomorrow night to who was next.
As they moved about their business, Mort and the countless shades would absorb, like a sponge, a boundless amount of information. The thoughts, feelings and plans of its inhabitants, the current state of every natural and artificial structure, the movements of every animal and monster, the flow of the wind, sea, and air, even the action of every atom...as midnight passed, the many shades and Mort would have mapped all of Equestria within their collective subconscious, from the largest mountain to the smallest molecule.
More importantly, it was from this "map" that they could predict events that could happen as far as a day ahead. Just as Celestia and Luna knew subconsciously how to raise the sun and moon, Mort and the shades knew how to calculate future events. And as the future came closer-and-closer to the "present," probability fields would narrow and merge until only a few possibilities were left. There was the occasional deviation, as chance could always move in a way even they couldn't predict, but for a large part, it was almost miraculously accurate.
It was through this that Mort and the shades knew where and when to go every day. It was through this they could formulate plans and schedules that took them to every passing on time. It was this their very existence revolved around.
But tonight, something was different.
The glow around Mort's horn died, and the cloaked pony stared into space, confused. He concentrated, his horn glowing once again to make sure of something.
And once again, the results were the same. His next words were barely a whisper.
It was, as always, a quiet night in the castle. Gentle moonlight filtered in through the giant windows that adorned Celestia's chamber, a display she knew her sister would be proud of. Laying comfortably atop a bed adorned with fluffed pillows and silken sheets, Celestia's eyes meticulously scanned another document under candlelight, feeling tired, yet accomplished.
It had been one of her more hectic days, when nearly everything that needed to be done fell upon her all at once. She had been halfway across Equestria most of the day, helping unveil a new library that would not just be one of the largest constructed, but also serve as a intellectual hub for all the bordering nations. Even before the official opening, rare and important documents had been pouring in from every corner of the world.
That would have been enough, but by the time she had gotten home, ready to set the sun, one of the castle staff had rushed to her, explaining through numerous apologies that their had been a mix up with the mail, and a number of letters and documents meant for her had been nearly forgotten for several days.
She wasn't really angry; mistakes happened, after all, and she ended up spending a few minutes assuring the messenger that there wasn't going to be any significant punishment, much less divine wrath.
Still, after seeing the pile of letters and packages that could have easily hidden her, she wondered if she should've also emphasized the importance of avoiding it in the future.
Most of it ended up being letters simply informing her of events both current and forthcoming, sometimes asking for her advice on what to do. The rest ended up being gifts of some sort from the diplomats she knew, a few invites to special dinners in their respective nations, and the occasional request to build a road here or a school there.
Complicating tonight even more was that, just recently, her little sister had suddenly flown to the castle in tears, locking herself in her room. And every time she tried to approach her, the younger princess would wail to be left alone. Celestia didn't want to leave her alone, but she also didn't want to intrude against her will. With nothing else to do, she had simply gone back to finishing the letters, hoping she would be calm down when she was done.
She levitated her now-worn quill and a blank, piece of parchment towards her, writing a short response to the griffon diplomat, agreeing to a dinner with him in a couple days. She signed her name, rolled the parchment up, wrapped her seal around it, and dropped it onto a neatly stacked pile of similar scrolls at the foot of her bed, all due to be sent out by tomorrow morning.
By now her eyes were heavy, and she wanted nothing more then to fall asleep. But as she was preparing to blow her candle out, her eyes caught an unopened scroll, laying right next to one of her pillows. With a small start, she realized it was Twilight Sparkle's latest "friendship report."
It had dropped in on her in the middle of reading a pass-due report on the Hoovestock preparations. (She had been throwing her weight a little in getting more late-night activities going for Luna's benefit.) She had promised herself to read it next, but soon got distracted by the more extravagant items in the Hoovestock report (all from Spinal Clop, of course) and only got more lost in everything after that.
She briefly considered leaving it for tomorrow, but found that she really couldn't help herself. She was so happy that after so many years, her student had finally found good friends, and always felt a spark of joy when she read her reports.
She removed the seal, unfurled the document, and begun reading it quietly:
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned-
Before she could read any further, there came the sound of something shattering.
Snapping her head up, she looked towards the source. Outside a pair of large, glass doors, leading out to her balcony, she could just make out a flower pot that had fallen off the marble rails, and now laid in a broken heap, the flowers buried underneath the dark soil and pottery.
Celestia huffed, wondering if she was going to get any time to read her student's report. Setting the scroll aside, she got up from her bed (taking a good, long stretch as she did), and headed towards the balcony. She would have to put the plants in another pot for the time being, clean up the mess that was left, see if they could get her a new flower pot...
When she was halfway towards the doors, there came several, sharp banging noises from the outside, and she gasped as the doors suddenly flew open, letting loose an intense wind that almost made her reel. She covered her face with a wing, trying to look towards the balcony.
And when she did, she could've sworn she saw something, or rather, somepony, standing outside. But before she could discern anymore, the candles in her room blew out, plunging the room into darkness.
When the wind died down, Celestia looked towards the moon-lit balcony to see who was there, but found the balcony bare of everything but the broken flower pot. Scanning her room, she found the once inviting chamber was now steeped in malevolent shadows that stretched across the floor and walls.
She heard something whoosh beside her, and in the time it took for her to look, the same sound was heard again, from the opposite side of the room. It repeated itself, again and again, all over the room, knocking over stacked books, bottles on her nightstand, and even causing the chandelier to jingle.
"Who's there?" she demanded, her horn beginning to glow bright. "Reveal yourself!" She heard the sound once more, right behind her, and this time she spun herself around, her horn radiating like a miniature sun.
In the light, she found herself mere inches away from a bleached, pony skull, its sockets home to what could have been burning, red stars that seemed to pierce her very soul. The stars shrunk into pinpricks, and she and the skeleton both gave a startled shout.
Celestia quickly backed away, her eyes on the cloaked, skeletal pony as he stumbled back, shaking his head furiously.
"Augh, Celestia! Not so bright!" Mort said in his small, even scrawny, voice. He finally stilled his head, shooting what could have been an annoyed look (it's hard to tell, given his lack of a face). "I mean, geeze, you scared me for a moment!"
"I scared you?" she snapped, stomping one hoof. "You're the one who snuck into my room late at night, Mort! What have I told you about this sort of thing?"
"That when I want to come in, I should knock before I enter," he said, distractedly, as he moved across the room with his glowing horn held high. "Which I did. I knocked on the doors, and came in."
"You're forgot that you're supposed to ask if you could come in." Celestia sighed, slightly exasperated. "So, why are you here tonight? You seem to be in quite a-"
The princess cringed as the doors to her chamber burst open, soon followed by a parade of hoofs as half-a-dozen pegasi, clad in gold-plated armor, rushed into the room.
"Oh, um..." Celestia shot the head pegasi an embarrassed look, her cheeks flushing. "Captain Storm Rider, what brings you here, tonight?"
"We heard you from just down the hall, princess! Are you okay?" The lead pegasus, with fur and feathers as gray as stone (and seeming just as hard), stepped further into the room, scrutinizing the chamber. "Is there a vile intruder to be dealt with?"
"Oh, no, captain, no one's here," she said, reassuringly. She glanced to her left, and was relieved to see Mort, though now looking quite a bit more transparent. He seemed to haven't even noticed the sudden intrusion, as he continued to parade around, though at least in this state he wasn't knocking anything over.
"Hey, this is the highest room in the castle, right? Or at least the most magical one?" Celestia watched as Mort stood on his hind legs, then on one foreleg, then floated upside down, sounding more and more frustrated. "Darn it, I think they're causing interference. Could you make them leave already?"
Celestia sighed. With the exception of her and Luna, no one was capable of seeing Mort like this. Sufficiently powerful unicorns came close, but even then Mort was no more then a shadow in the corner of their eye. "I'll try," she said.
Storm Rider gave the princess a confused look. "Try what, princess?"
"Oh, uh..." Celestia coughed politely. "It's nothing. Captain, I appreciate your hard work, but I am feeling awfully tired right now."
"I completely understand, princess!" the pegasus said with a courteous bow.
She nodded approvingly. "Good, that's very-"
"We'll stand guard here tonight, and insure you have pleasant dreams."
Celestia blinked in surprise. Keeping her tone cordial, she said, "Really, captain, I appreciate the offer, but I am quite capable of sleeping. By myself. Alone."
"Absolutely," he said.
"We can stand guard around the chamber to make sure no one disturbs you."
Celestia stared levelly at Storm Rider, who looked back at her, oblivious. Subtletely wasn't the strong suit of her guards.
One of the guards gasped suddenly, and Celestia looked over to see Mort walking through the other guards in his directionless trot around the room. Each guard he passed almost immediately came down with a bad case of shivers, each one shooting fearful looks around the room.
Mort finally walked through Storm Rider, and even the stoic captain became as pale as a sheet.
"Oh, are you okay, captain?" she asked, concerned. She couldn't help but feel a little guilty about what happened.
"I-I don't know," the captain said, his voice almost breaking, as his armor rattled from his shivering, "i-it just feels very cold all of a s-sudden."
She knew if that she ever wanted to be alone tonight, this was her chance. "Well, I do like to sleep with a few windows open," she said, patting the captain on top of his head with a wing. "Of course, I'm still comfortable with my covers and everything, but I can't imagine you doing too well with all that armor. It does get cold easily, doesn't it?"
"How about this," she said, soothingly. "You go back to your original posts, where it's warm. If anything does happen, I can't have my best guards suffering from hypothermia."
"W-well..." The captain looked back at the other guards, who were all as shaken as he was. Swallowing, the captain looked at the princess and said, reluctantly, "I-if that's what you think is best..."
"I'm sure," she said, ushering them out as quickly as she could. "Just keep watch as you always do. Thank you very much, captain."
Storm Rider muttered something, and the doors gently shut behind him. Celestia breathed a sigh of relief.
"Finally! Now Mort, what were you...Mort?"
As she was getting the guards out, Mort had suddenly vanished from sight. Celestia stood where she was, watching the room to see where he would reappear.
Her eyes widened as something moved through her mane, and she looked up to see Mort's head sticking out of the auroral hair, his horn mere inches from hers.
Mort caught her looking at him. "Magical resonance," he said, matter-of-factually. "If your horn is nearby, it might make the signal clearer."
"Signal?" she asked.
Mort said nothing. His horn begun to shine a green light, as the red pits within his skull seemed to narrow in concentration. Celestia watched patiently, ignoring a buzzing that seemed to be coming from within her mind. And then, as quick as blowing out a candle, the glow died.
Once it did, Mort blinked, and seemed to slump forward in Celestia's hair.
Mort was silent, and lost all form as he became a black cloud that seemingly flowed out of her mane to pool onto the floor, before reforming himself. The cloaked pony slowly moved towards the center of the room, and then collapsed, where he proceeded to sob.
"Oh no. What's wrong?" Celestia cantered over, concerned and feeling just a little fearful. She remembered only a couple occasions where he was distressed in anyway, and they had always involved her sister...
"I-it's awful, Celestia," the reaper moaned between sobs. "I-I don't...I can't..." He spun around, holding his front hooves out dramatically, and wailed in despair, "I can't see anyone DIEING tomorrow!"
There was a beat. Celestia looked at him blankly, feeling even more lost then before. "I'm...sorry?" she said, half-apology, half-question.
"This is so, so bad!" Mort got back up on all four hooves, and begun to pace in a circle. "I mean this has never happened before! What changed? What's wrong with me? Maybe my horn's broke? No, wait, the horn's just a projection of myself! Then that means I'm broke! How could this happen?! I was getting the information same as always! Why can't I get it now?!"
Celestia begun to put the pieces together, and she finally understood what was upsetting him so much. "Mort," she asked, "am I to understand you don't see any ponies...passing away, in the near future?"
Mort nodded briskly, keeping his head down.
"And you think it's because something's wrong with you?"
"Well what else could it be?!" Mort sat down, holding his head between his hooves. (Not literally, mind you. Not this time.) "Oh, what do they even do to us when we break? Do we get fixed? Is there a replacement? Do we get demoted to do something else in that case? What if they just get rid of us? Oh no, what if I get turned into astral glue?!"
She wasn't even sure what "astral glue" was, but Celestia had to stop him before he became more hysterical. She raised a hoof and placed it reassuringly on his shoulder, calming the panicked reaper, if only slightly.
"Mort." She said his name with a gentle firmness that broke the reaper from his babbling, causing him to look at her. "I have another idea about what's going on."
"And I admit," she said, somewhat teasingly, "maybe I'm going out on a limb..."
"Okay?" He was now staring at her, expectantly, as if ready to be told a great secret.
"Isn't it possible...?"
"That nopony is supposed to die tomorrow?"
A silence hung in the air, broken only by soft, gusts of wind from the open balcony. Mort stared at her, his red eyes growing a little larger.
He started pacing again with even more fervor, swinging his scythe-like horn in the air desperately. "Gah, it's gotta be here somewhere! I'm not broke! I'm not broke! I'm not-"
"For heaven's sake, Mort," she said, shaking her head. "Didn't you hear what I said?"
"I did, actually," he said, somewhat irritably, "and it's silly. Sure, that might have been possible ages ago when there weren't so many ponies, but they're practically tripping over each other now! I mean, what are the odds?"
"I see," she said, "so it's more likely that your powers, which have worked flawlessly for over a thousand years, have just decided to fail you today, completely and utterly, for no reason what-so-ever?"
Mort stopped in his tracks immediately, the glow from his horn slowly going out. "W-well..." He sheepishly dug at the floor, looking contemplative. "Uh, I guess when you put it like that..."
She smiled, glad to have finally calmed the frantic reaper. She walked over beside him, wrapping a reassuring wing around him, shivering slightly at the coolness of his "cloak." "Mort," she started, "I know it might be hard to believe, but I find it much easier to believe than the idea of you just 'breaking' all of a sudden."
"I-I suppose..." Mort heaved a great sigh, leaning against her. A normal creature would have felt an icy cold from within, followed by an almost overwhelming feeling of terror; a subconscious reaction to being in contact with something that should only be there during death. Celestia and Luna, however, as familiar as they were with him, felt more of a comforting coolness, like being wrapped in a cold blanket that would eventually warm.
"So, uh..." Mort, sounding a little embarrassed, scratched the back of his hood. "Assuming you're right...and uh, I guess that's pretty likely...what now?"
She gave him a questioning look. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean..." Mort tapped one hoof on the floor, impatiently. "It's just...I can't remember the last time something like this ever happened. I didn't think it could happen. Usually my days would just be spent collecting all the ponies who expired. But if I'm not going to do that, what am I going to do?"
Celestia gave a delighted gasp as she realized what was being said. "Mort, don't you know what this means?!"
Mort looked at her, somewhat startled. "I, uh...n-no, tell me."
"You have the day off, Mort!" She grabbed his hooves with her own (an impressive feat, considering they were hooves). "For the first time, after so many years, you can spend the day how you want to spend it! Isn't that wonderful?"
"Oh. I-I mean, oh!" His eyes widened as the words sunk in. "Y-you're right! I don't have to collect any ponies! I don't have to follow a schedule! I, I actually...oh wow!" Mort started hop in place, excited. "I can do whatever I want now! No time frames, no appointments, just me, me, me!"
Celestia nodded vigorously. "That's right! Your own, little holiday! So, what are you going to do?"
"Oh, uh, well..." Mort scratched his chin in deep thought. "Well, first, I'm going to spend about ten minutes looking at the stars."
Celestia nodded. "Okay, that sounds nice."
"Then, I'll spend another ten minutes admiring the landscape. Maybe some fireflies too, if they're around..."
"And, finally, I'll spend another ten minutes relaxing."
Mort nodded his head in satisfaction, and said nothing more. Celestia watched him, patiently, but the silence only lengthened.
"And then what?" she asked, somewhat awkwardly.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, that was about half-an-hour," she said, slowly. "What about the other 23 hours in the day?"
Mort looked at her blankly, and then his eyes shrunk to pinpoints. "Oh my gosh I have no idea." He sat down, staring into space. "I don't think I've barely had more than an hour of free time all-together in one day. I don't know how to fill that up!"
"That is a problem..." Celestia scratched her chin, thinking. "I wish I could do something with you, Mort, but my schedule tomorrow is completely packed." She gestured towards the pile of scrolls near her bed. "And that's really no way to spend your day off."
"I guess not..." He made a circular motion in the floor, thinking. "What about Luna?"
"Oh, I'm afraid not," she said with a shake of her head. "She actually stormed in a little while ago. She seemed awful upset..."
"Oh, that's too bad..." The reaper perked up, and he withdrew from his cloak a parchment, which he gave Celestia. "Hey, maybe this can cheer her up? I have it on good word it might be worth a fortune."
"Oh, really?" She unfurled the scroll, seeing a hastily scribbled, line: To my final fan, Red Shrimp.
Celestia stared at the paper, and felt her heart skip a beat. "Um, this is...?"
"Spinal Clop's latest ex-drummer," Mort said.
"Ex-drummer," she said slowly. "As in...?"
Mort shrugged. "How else would I get it?"
Celestia nodded, trying to keep a straight face. Spinal Clop would be the band that Luna loved to talk about, the band that she practically had Hoovestock set up for. And if Mort had this, it certainly explained why her little sister had been so inconsolable.
Celestia sighed, the excitement from before beginning to flee. She now had two problems: comforting her sister in-light of a pony's death, and trying to find something for Mort to do. She might be able to talk to Luna, now that she knew what was going on, but Mort? He could do something by himself tomorrow, but she wasn't even sure if he knew how to have a good time, and he probably didn't have any...
"Oh!" Celestia's horn glowed, and she lifted Twilight Sparkle's report from her bedside. Pulling it close to her, she started to read again:
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that just because somepony may look or sound different, doesn't mean you should treat them any differently. Ponyville's resident mailpony might have a few quirks, but they're the things that make her who she is, and underneath it all lies the spirit of a true friend who deserves the love and respect we would give anypony...
"Mort," she said, a smile growing on her face, "I know exactly how you can spend your day off."