The Everfree Forest is on Fire: A Near-Death Experience.
Fluttershy snoozed silently, cuddling into her downy pillow and snuggling with the lovely hoof-made quilt Applejack had gotten her for her first birthday in Ponyville. She turned over in bed; In about an hour she was going to need to get up to feed the nocturnal animals and put them to bed, and then she'd have another two hours before it was time to wake the diurnal animals. The first indication that something was wrong was the odor; The smell of smoke drifted in through her open window, making her cough.
“Whu...” She mumbled, blearily opening her eyes; Why was it so bright? She glanced at her clock, which read 4 o'clock. The sun shouldn't be up this early; Was there something wrong at Canterlot? A loud crack, followed by a crash finally jolted her out of her half-awake stupor. She rushed to the window to identify the sound.
The Everfree Forest, which Fluttershy lived just on the edge of, was ablaze, and the fire had already grown to consume the whole edge she could easily see from her window. Her first reaction was, of course, panic. What if the fire spread onto her property, all of the sleeping bunnies and kittens and chickens and...
She stopped. The trees on the very edge of the forest, while as untamed as the rest of the forest, were still home to many of the animals that would be awake at this time, like owls, bats, and raccoons, who more than anything right now would need her help. She swallowed as much of her fear as she could and grabbed her bathrobe, tossing it on as she flew out the window.
A large amount of the critters had gathered on the edge of the forest, helplessly watching their homes burn as Fluttershy arrived. She fluttered from family to family, checking to make sure everything was alright, also mentality counting them to ensure every family had made it out.
Someone was missing.
Fluttershy fought to stave off panic once again, because if she panicked then the animals would start panicking, and that would only lead to more problems. But regardless, a family of three raccoons was unaccounted for. They lived in the deepest part of the woods that it was safe to go into, which was only a few dozen paces, but the smoke and the chaos made seeing into the woods impossible. She was not a brave pegasus, but the thought of the three of them sitting, scared and alone, trapped in their home as the blaze closed in all around them, she'd never be able to live with herself if she just let it happen. She reared up and dashed into the blaze.
It was hot; She'd regretted putting her bathrobe on the second she'd crossed into the forest. She flapped her wings as she ran, clearing smoke and fanning her body. Getting to the tree only took moments; The entrance had been covered over by a burning branch, and she could hear scurrying inside.
“Don't worry, I'm coming!” Fluttershy shouted at the tree. She grabbed the branch, dragged it aside, and poked her head inside the entrance. She was immediately greeted by two fully-grown raccoons, the mother and father, who climbed up her neck onto her back, but the baby was nowhere to be found.
“Hello? baby raccoon, please come out. It's alright, I won't let the fire hurt you.” She cooed, trying to coax him out from where ever he'd hidden. At that moment, another branch fell from the tree, the burning end catching one of Fluttershy's wings as it fell. She let out a yelp, jumped, and whacked her head against the entrance to the tree. She'd shaken the tree roughly enough for the baby to come tumbling from one of the upper levels. Silently thanking Celestia she hadn't knocked herself out, she nabbed him before he could disappear again. Freeing herself from the hollow, she turned and ran to escape the blaze as more burning branches crashed where she'd been moments previous.
It was raining at the very edge of the forest; Fluttershy looked up to see Rainbow Dash bouncing on a cloud, attempting to douse the fire. Soon more weather pegasi with clouds full of water arrived on the scene, containing the fire in short order. Once they were done, her friend swooped down to see her.
“Fluttershy, what happened? Are you alright?” Rainbow Dash asked. Fluttershy looked at herself; She was completely fine, her wing uninjured, and had not so much as a bump on her head. Her snow-white robe, on the other hand, had seen better days. It was stained with soot and ash, the pink frills at the sleeves and neck burned away.
“Yes, everything's fine, I think.” She said slowly.
“Well, that's good.” Rainbow Dash nodded happily. “It looks like you're going to need some help cleaning this up. I'll go wake the others.”
“Oh, no, Rainbow Dash. I wouldn't want to impose...” Fluttershy objected quietly.
“Don't be silly. AJ's probably already awake at least, and I bet Twilight hasn't even gotten to bed yet.” Rainbow Dash reasoned. “Besides, what kind of friends would we be if we just left you hanging like this?”
Fluttershy nodded, and looked about at the animals that were consoling each other. At least a mile of woods had burned, and every tree had held a family. There was no way she'd be able to take care of all of them on her own.
“Alright, but only if they're already awake.” Fluttershy said. Rainbow Dash nodded in agreement, and took off in a burst of rainbow. Fluttershy set about dispensing first aid and the tender care these animal so desperately needed.
A little while later, Rainbow Dash returned with Twilight, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity.
“You were all awake already?” Fluttershy asked. She was kind of far from town, but she had been convinced that she was the first one up every day, except maybe the members of the Apple family.
“Of course. That fire set the whole town on edge.” Twilight said. “How are you holding up?”
“I'm fine, but there's just so much that needs to be done. The animals need to be fed, and put to sleep, but I don't have enough pet beds or space for them, and then the morning animals need to be woken up, and...” Twilight lifted a hoof, silencing her.
“Alright, Applejack, is there room in your barn for some pet beds?” Twilight asked.
“Ah could make room.” Applejack replied.
“Good. Fluttershy, the pet beds are hoof-made, right?” Twilight continued.
“Yes.” Fluttershy confirmed.
“Alright, Rarity can start making beds, then. Pinkie can make dinner for the animals. I'll feed them, and you put them to bed.”
Soon things began flowing. Pinkie was tossing bottles out the window, Rarity sliding pet beds out the door to Fluttershy. Twilight magically caught the bottles and fed the animals, then handed them off to Fluttershy, who rocked them asleep.
“Um, Twilight, if you don't mind, you need to feed them just a little bit slower.” She said, burping a bat and laying him in bed. “If they eat too quickly, then they'll get sick.”
“A little slo....” Twilight stopped mid word. Everything stopped; The entire world was suddenly stock still. Fluttershy took a close look at her unicorn friend; She didn't even seem to be breathing.
Normally, this would be cause for panic, but instead of panic, Fluttershy felt a kick in her side; She jumped, having been caught off guard, and looked around the source of the strike. Finding none apparent, the next thing she noticed was a thumping, like a metronome, on her back. A strap was, to a counterpoint, squeezing her middle tightly, then releasing. She looked at herself; She was wearing a saddle now. It was heavy, bound her wings, and seemed to be the source of both the strap and the metronome. Bags attached to it were thumping and tickling at her flanks, each touch familiar, yet distant.
“Sorry to intrude.” An unfamiliar voice spoke from behind her. A kick, which she distinctly recognized as fear beat on her sides, but it felt distant, and ignorable. She turned to see the source of the voice.
A pony stood before her, either a pegasus or an earth pony, she couldn't tell because of the black robe it wore. She could see that it's coat and tail were both eggshell white, and under the hood was a mere skull.
“Lovely little reverie you've crafted for yourself here.” The faceless pony commented, throwing his head back to push the hood down.
“Am I...dead?” She asked. She sounded a lot calmer then she felt she probably should.
“It's rare for a pony to survive running into a burning forest. You have questions, no doubt. Let us move to someplace less...invented.” His head moved under his robe, and he produced a sickle, the kind of tool for cutting grass or harvesting small loads of wheat. It glowed momentarily as the pony swung it through the air, cleanly slicing the scenery in two, the halves falling away to reveal what looked like a forest at night. Black trees grew straight up towards the sky, none adorned by even a single leaf. A crescent moon glowed in the sky above them, providing enough light to navigate, but not enough to discern details.
“Much better. Now, to answer your first question; No. Not yet, anyway. The fact you're still carrying your mortal burden is proof enough of that.” The ghastly pony said.
“My what?” Fluttershy asked.
“Your mortal burden. You're a spirit right now, a ghost.” He produced a clipboard from under his robe and began writing. “Since you're separated from your body for the moment, it takes the form of a saddle. It's weight is your flesh and bone, the rhythmic pulsing your heart beat, the strap your breath, and the sacks are your emotional baggage.”
Fluttershy nodded. “What is this place?”
“This is a place which goes by many names. It is the world between that of the living and the dead.” The robed stallion replied. “I believe Limbo is the most common name in your area at the moment.”
Fluttershy thought of Pinkie Pie, dancing and bending over to go under a pole. A little tickle came from her bags; Her pink friend's element, laughter. Like fear, though, it was distant, and no matter how she tried she simply couldn't call it close enough to even giggle. She moved on with her next question.
“Who are you?” She asked.
“I am a Reaper. My fellows and I are charged with guiding the spirits of the dead and almost-dead. Little better than a shepherd in the grand scheme, really.” The reaper shrugged. “Name, please.”
“Fluttershy. How did...” she didn't want to say 'I die', since apparently she wasn't dead yet.
“You ran into a burning forest. Isn't it obvious?” The Reaper answered before she found the words. “I can show you exactly what happened, if you like.”
“Yes, please.” she responded. The Reaper suddenly lifted into the air.
“Come with me.”
“But my wings are bound.”
“That's fine. You'll find you no longer need them.” Fluttershy looked up at the Reaper, who waited patiently while she tried to figure out how to become airborne. “Come now, it's not hard. Flap your forelegs if it helps you visualize yourself in the air.” The Reaper said. A dull heat emenated from her bag; she ignored it, and leaped into the air, finally defying gravity and standing next to her guide. “Excellent. Right this way.” He walked, as if up an incline, higher into the air, guiding her in a spiral pattern until they were at least a hundred feet in the air. The Reaper produced his sickle once more and swung it downwards, the ground where they had been standing projecting a scene; Fluttershy's rear end, her head stuck in a tree with two raccoons nearby.
“I'll play it in slow motion.” The reaper said. A burning branch tumbled from the trees above, the ignited leaves clipping Fluttershy's wing and lighting her bathrobe ablaze. She jumped, the tree shaking from the force of her head hitting it, and then fell limp.
“I thought that should have knocked me out.” Fluttershy said. A few moments later, another flaming branch fell on her prone form, and it sat there for a full minute before the weather team extinguished the fire. Rainbow Dash landed in a panic next to her, flung the branch aside and dragged her by the tail out of the hollow. The baby raccoon scurried out of the hole after her.
“I'm glad he's alright.” Fluttershy said. “But, what about what I saw, before you got here?”
“Death is a rather shocking thing for a body, so much so that even affects the spirit housed within. Think of it like this; When you yank two glued pieces of paper apart, bits of one of them get left behind. Your spirit is essentially glued to your body, so when it's forcefully removed like that, it tries to patch the holes. What you saw was a natural extension of what would have happened had you not fallen unconscious.” The Reaper lifted his sickle. “It happens from time to time. You would have realized that you were no longer mortal eventually, and been left alone to wander the woods until one of us found you, or you found your own way back to the soul stream.” With a swing, they were back on the ground.
“The soul stream?” Fluttershy asked.
“It's a river of souls, spirits like you or me. It passes through limbo, winds through the void... that's the real land of the dead... and then back out into the land of the living, where the spirits are reborn as new life. It's also this world's source of power, from which all reaper magic is drawn.”
“Reapers have magic?”
“Of course, like sending your curious little head back to Celestia's realm. If you wish it, of course.”
“Why would I want to stay dead?” Fluttershy asked.
“Being dead's not so bad. For starters, you don't have to carry that pesky pack anymore. You also don't have to jump in the soul stream to be reincarnated right away, since there are many more souls than living creatures. 'The Void' is really a terrible name for the land of the dead; It's actually quite a paradise. You only eat and sleep if you feel like it, there's lots of ponies and other animals around when you want to play, and plenty of room to take for yourself if you don't. Anything you could possibly want is readily available, except...”
“What about my friends?” Fluttershy asked.
“That's the catch. Until your friend's time comes, anyway.” The reaper shrugged.
“I...don't want to leave them behind.” Fluttershy said.
“Alright, then. Two way ticket to Equestria, coming up.” The Reaper lifted his sickle into the air and swung it down on Fluttershy.
It passed through her with no effect whatsoever.
“Something's wrong.” The Reaper lifted his sickle and examined it. There was a cacophony of panicked screams as what appeared to be white water, made from a mass of ponies and animals mangled together began rushing towards them. “Look out!”
The Reaper grabbed Fluttershy by the nape of her neck and shot into the air, dragging her along as the substance passed beneath them.
“What is that?” Fluttershy asked.
“That's the soul stream. But, it's path doesn't come anywhere near here.” The reaper released her, plopping her down in mid-air.
“Did it...flood?” She asked.
“That shouldn't be possible. Unless...come with me.” The Reaper took off. Fluttershy didn't want to be left alone in a dark forest with a thousand screaming creatures beneath her, so she quickly followed.
“Won't going deeper into limbo make it harder for me to come back out?” She asked.
“No. As long as you wear that saddle, and don't touch the soul stream, you'll be able to return to your body. We generally don't like to let the not-quite-dead any further than limbo, since giving them a preview of what it's like generally sways what's literally the most important decision of their life.” The Reaper explained.
“But I've heard stories about ponies who've had near death experiences seeing their passed relatives.” Fluttershy pointed out.
“Right. That's because when the scheduled NDE comes along, the relatives come with the Reaper responsible for finding the spirit.” The Reaper explained.
“There's a schedule?” Fluttershy asked.
“Whoops. Looks like I've said too much...Ah well. Yes, every entrance to limbo is tightly scheduled. Although now that I think about it...” The Reaper stopped dead, and produced his clipboard once more. “You're Fluttershy, the cloud-factory foremare, right?”
“...No.” Fluttershy said.
“No?” The Reaper flipped furiously through his clipboard. “Fluttershy the photographer?”
“No...I was a model for a few weeks, though.” Fluttershy replied sheepishly.
“Then, you can't be...Fluttershy, the animal caretaker, Element of Kindness?”
“That's me.” Fluttershy said. The Reaper almost fell out of the air.
“No way. You're messing with me, right?” he asked.
“Is something wrong?” Fluttershy asked.
“Yes! Your first NDE isn't until...Well, that'd be spoilers, but, not now at any rate.” The Reaper reached under his robe and produced what looked like a miniature skull, with a button on the top. He pressed it; Nothing happened.
“Of course, something's wrong with the stream. This is terrible!”
The pair eventually arrived at the mouth of a cave. Several other Reapers, who except for small differences such as exposed leg bones and minor variations in their robes, looked identical to the one another, had already arrived on the scene. Most of them had charges as well, some wearing saddles like Fluttershy's, others not.
“Why aren't...?” She started.
“Because they're dead, no-going-back style.” Her Reaper replied.
“Oh my! I'm so sorry!” She said to a passing spirit.
“For what? I should be the one feeling sorry for you.” He replied.
“But what about your friends and family?” she asked.
“Oh, they'll be along eventually.”
“It's no good!” A reaper climbed along the top of the cave mouth, only barely enough clearance between him and the stream to get through. “The whole thing's blocked.”
“What could possibly block the soul stream?” Fluttershy's Reaper asked.
“It looks like rocks, but that doesn't make any sense.” The Reapers looked about at one another, at a loss for what to do.
“Anyone not have a charge at the moment?” One of them shouted.
“Crawl through the cave, and go find the Prince. He'll know what to do.”
“Right away.” The charge-less Reaper climbed through the hole and vanished.
“Well. Sounds like we're in for a treat.” Fluttershy's Reaper said.
“Who's the Prince?” Fluttershy asked.
“The Prince of the Void. Or just Prince Void, for short. He's in charge of the Reapers, and is pretty much the master of life and death. He's something of a recluse, though. This will only be the second time I've seen him.” Her Reaper replied. “I'm not sure if I can say you should count yourself lucky or not.”
“Is he scary?” Fluttershy asked.
“Couldn't tell you. Fear's a mortal thing.” The reaper shrugged. “Even if he is, you ought to be be able to ignore it in your packs. Ah, he approaches.”
A dark bulb had appeared over the mouth of the cave, and out strode a fully skeletal pony. He was large, maybe a little taller than Princess Celestia, a long bone horn jutting from his skull. Skeletal wings with stretched black cloth instead of feathers grew from his back, with the same material making up his ears. His eye sockets glowed blue, and despite his lack of facial features, he seemed far more serious than the other skull-headed ponies. Every single reaper present bowed, as well as a few of the truly dead ponies.
“Well now. This is a problem.” The prince spoke in a booming voice which made the trees reverberate and the surface of the soul stream quake. For the first time since she had arrived, Fluttershy found herself unable to ignore the panicked thumping in her bags and slid behind her Reaper to hide. He laughed at her.
“Move aside!” The Prince shouted at the soul stream. Slowly, the souls began to part from one another as he descended into the stream. Rocks had indeed collapsed from the mouth of the cave, but they had arranged themselves too perfectly, and between them was some kind of mortar, or...
“My word. What happened to you poor souls?” The Prince asked, pulling what looked like a very distressed foal from between two of the rocks. He tossed the soul back into the stream and shouted “Reapers! Clear this blockage right away!”
The reapers all dove to their prince's instruction, pulling soul after soul from between the rocks. Fluttershy's instead approached the Prince, pulling her along with him.
“Sir, if I may?” The Reaper asked, bowing.
“What is it, Little Reaper?” The Prince asked.
“This one isn't supposed to be here.” The Reaper replied, standing and indicating Fluttershy.
“So send her back as soon as the soul stream is restored.”
“No, sir, what I meant is she's not on the schedule for...Well, here's her chart.” The Reaper produced his clipboard and passed it to the Prince.
“...Fluttershy, correct? Animal Caretaker, Element of Kindness?” The Prince asked. Fluttershy squeaked in response. “Huh. Most curious...”
“What is, sir?” The Reaper asked.
“This mare coming here, out of schedule, mere hours before the soul stream becomes clogged. This cannot be a coincidence. How did you come to be here, my little pony?” The Prince asked. Fluttershy once again could only squeak in response. “You needn't fear me, little one.” He said, folding his legs underneath himself to sink to her eye level. “Tell me. What was your most recent mortal experience?”
Fluttershy quaked a little more and whispered “There was a fire...”
“A fire? Where?” The Prince asked.
“The...forest. The Everfree.”
“The Everfree Forest? Most unusual.”
“Sir! The boulders are clear!” A reaper shouted.
“Wonderful. Everypony who doesn't wish to be reborn get clear! Carry on, souls! To the next world with you!” And the flow continued once more. Slowly the flood began to recede, and the Prince guided Fluttershy and her Reaper to the ground.
“As you may know, little pony, the Everfree forest is saturated with wild magics.” The Prince explained. “The trees there are ancient, and hold large amounts of such magic. Reaper, your powers should have returned by now. Play her death for me.”
“Yes sir.” The Reaper swung his sickle, and the scene with Fluttershy in the tree appeared on the ground once more.
“Nothing as simple as a careless campfire could have started such a blaze. Roll it back. What was the cause of this fire?”
The Reaper swung his sickle. The scene played swiftly backwards, following Fluttershy back out of the forest, back to bed, the room glowing from the fire, then going dark.
“Stop it.” The scene stopped. The Prince flapped his wings, a scythe falling from them. Using magic, he lifted it and swung at the scene. Fluttershy winced, feeling something peel away from herself.
“What did he...?” She asked.
“He separated the events from your memory. When you wake up, you're not even going to remember what happened.” The Reaper explained.
“Will I still be alright?” Fluttershy asked.
“Yes. We do this to NDE's all the time. It eases the re-entry into the body.”
“It also separates the memory from your perspective, so we can take a roam around and see what really happened.” The Prince elaborated, waving his scythe about as the scene flew out to the forest. “Ah, here's the blaze. Now we play it backwards, and follow it to the source.” The Prince continued to manipulate the view until they came to a pony, robed and hooded, hooves glowing, next to a fire.
“Who is that?” Fluttershy asked.
“Not who, what.” The Prince said, his voice suddenly very serious. He swung the view around to get a look at the hooded pony's face, or lack thereof. “That's one of my little Reapers.”
“Reapers can enter the living world?” Fluttershy asked.
“Well...yes and no. Reapers are spirits, so they cannot enter the living world in any significant measure without a body.” The Prince replied.
“So why does he look like a Reaper?” The Reaper asked.
“Well, either he found some way to break the rules and enter the other world in that form, or a living pony prepared that body for him. This is most troubling.” The Prince said. “I feel you may be connected to all of this somehow, little pony.”
“Me? Why me?” Fluttershy asked.
“You're the only spirit who came to this world as a result. But, we cannot simply keep you.” The Prince let out a huff, then from his wings produced a skull, like The Reaper had earlier. He magically clicked the button on top.
“Number One, pass a message into the living world. I must speak with Princess Celestia.”
“Save your right hoof the trouble.” Fluttershy and the Reaper both jumped at the sound of Princess Celestia's voice. Fluttershy whipped around to see the sun princess, also bridled with a saddle that looked much larger and heavier than her own. She did not look very pleased.
“Ah, Celestia. How are you, my dear?” The Prince gave a courteous bow of his head, which she returned.
“Still alive.” Celestia smiled wryly. “Yourself?”
“Working myself to death.” The Prince replied. “It's not your time yet. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Fluttershy gasped at the Prince's words. “I thought the Princess was immortal.” She whispered to the Reaper.
“Princesses Celestia and Luna are special cases. When their bodies age to the point where they're no longer capable of performing their duties... usually once every hundred years... their spirit vacate their bodies for a few days. The Reapers use magic to repair their bodies to that of a young adult, and then they re-inhabit the body.” The Reaper explained. “It's a special arrangement with the woman upstairs.”
“There are divines beyond the Princesses?” Fluttershy asked.
“...And there I go saying too much again.” The Reaper sighed.
“I am here on personal business. What is the delay on Fluttershy's passing?” Princess Celestia asked.
“You understand that a normal pony's entrance to limbo is a scheduled thing, correct?
“Yes, of course. But out of body experiences don't last hours.” Celestia said. “None of her friends are familiar with the concept of a coma. They're very worried about her.”
“...As I was saying, every entry to limbo is tightly scheduled. The problem is, our little pony here is ahead of schedule. By many years.” The Prince continued. Fluttershy had never seen anypony completely brush off a comment the princess had made before, and nervously glanced at her. She seemed to be more in thought than indignity.
“What does that mean?” Celestia asked.
“It means someone's broken the rules.” The Prince replied. “Observe.” He stood aside and indicated to the image still on the ground of the reaper.
“That's one of yours.” Celestia said.
“In your realm.” The Prince nodded. “I don't know if he's somehow broken the body rule, or if you have a necromancer on your hooves.”
“There's one way to find out.” Celestia pointed out. “Look at his flank. If he has a cutie mark, then he's in a prepared body.”
“Excellent idea, Princess.” The Prince swung his scythe. The scene zoomed in, and passed through the cloak covering the rogue Reaper's body.
A cutie mark sat on it's flank. It was a cloud, and there was evidence of severed wings that had been stitched over.
“Well, that's conclusive.” The Reaper said.
“Indeed. Can you get me a name to go on, Void?” Celestia asked.
“A pegasus with a cloud for a cutie mark.” The Prince pulled from his wings a large ledger and began flipping through it. “...Eagle Eyes. Died about a month ago. This is good, it means my Reaper was probably subjugated by a powerful summoner. But why would he need a Reaper specifically?”
“Maybe the Reaper was meant to capture her soul as it left her body.” Celestia suggested. She glanced over at Fluttershy's Reaper, who immediately bowed.
“Your Majesty. This has nothing to do with me.” He offered. The Prince's scythe swung through the air and lodged itself in the Reaper's skull.
“Eep!” Fluttershy jumped.
“He's telling the truth.” The Prince said, removing the scythe with no ill effect whatsoever.
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Then why didn't the Reaper get her soul?” Celestia asked.
“Perhaps I beat him there? Or he threw off the subjugation when he passed back into the spirit world?” The Reaper suggested.
“In any case, it seems as though the subject of our villain's interest was Fluttershy's spirit, not her body. As much as it pains me to say so, Fluttershy, I think it would be safer for you to stay in this realm for a little while longer.” Celestia said.
“What are you going to tell Twilight and the others?” Fluttershy asked.
“Twilight will most likely read about comas while trying to figure out why you've yet to wake.” Celestia said.
“What is a coma?” Fluttershy asked.
“Back before I was around, when ponies had NDEs, they would wander limbo until either they fell into the soul stream, or found their way out. This process could take...years. And their bodies would remain dormant. This condition is known as a coma.” The Prince explained. “Reaper, guide our guest to my palace.”
“Yes, sir.” The Reaper nodded. “This way.” Fluttershy followed the Reaper back towards the soul stream.
“So how is dear Luna doing? I heard she escaped the moon. Wonderful news; Getting Reapers up there was quite a challenge.” The Prince said as they got farther away.
“The Palace is on the far side of the void.” The Reaper explained. “And the only way to the void from limbo is through the Soul Stream Cavern. As I said before, do be wary to not touch the soul stream, you will be pulled in and no one will be able to save you. There's normally a path, but the stream still breaches its banks. We'll simply fly.”
The spirits which had been screaming before were now quiet, making the stream sound like an actual stream of water. A handful of the souls that made up the stream even seemed to be enjoying themselves as they placidly flowed through the cavern.
“What's The Palace like?” Fluttershy asked.
“Big. You can see it from any part of the void. It also doubles as the Reaper Barracks, and can house three hundred of us.” The Reaper replied.
“How many Reapers are there?” Fluttershy asked.
“Three hundred.” he said. “Lately The Prince has been speaking of expanding the barracks and bolstering our ranks.”
“Where do Reapers come from?” Fluttershy asked.
“The souls of the once-living. To become a reaper, a soul must first show an aptitude with magic. After that, the soul needs to have an appreciation for balance and harmony, and finally the soul needs to have the patience to be a guide for silly mortals like yourself.”
“It sounds like my friend Twilight would make a good Reaper.” Fluttershy said.
“Twilight Sparkle? Prince Void has had his eye on her especially, but all of the elements would make excellent Reapers. Yourself included.”
“But I can't perform magic.” Fluttershy said.
“You're thinking too much of your body's limitations. If you had no aptitude for magic, then you wouldn't be able to wield the Elements.” The Reaper pointed out.
“What were you like before you became a Reaper?” Fluttershy asked. She felt like she may have been prying too much, but near-death had seemed to embolden her.
“I was an earth pony. I'm afraid that's just about all I can remember. I exchanged my previous identity for the honor of serving under Prince Void. Reapers don't have names, just numbers. I'm number 253, if you're interested.”
“That's awful.” Fluttershy gasped. The Reaper shrugged.
“It's certainly not for everyone. I'd say it makes me happy, but that's a mortal thing. I guess a better word would be fulfilling.”
“What's being... dead... like?” Fluttershy asked.
“Well, you can never get hurt, you don't get angry or sad or scared.” The Reaper said.
“But... you don't get happy, or feel love or relief.” Fluttershy finished.
“Unfortunately. That's not to say you don't feel anything, though. Things like heartbreak hurt because they're affecting your soul, but for the dead the link between soul and stimulus is missing. You could call me any nasty name you could think of, insult my family and occupation, but your words alone aren't enough to disturb me.”
“What kind of things would affect you, if you don't mind me asking?” Fluttershy asked.
“It'd have to be something different for everyone, but nothing small. Like... Another Reaper breaking the rules like this disturbs me. What's happened to you is horrid. No one deserves to have their time cut short like that. We're nearly through the cave now, you'll be able to see the palace soon.”
Fluttershy shielded her eyes as they exited the cave. The new area they'd entered, in contrast to limbo, was an enormous field that stretched off the Soul Stream seemingly endlessly in all directions. It was a bright, sunny day, although the light seemed to have no source. There were speckles of plant life all over the field, and ponies trotted about, conversing happily with each other. In the distance she could see a large castle which challenged the palace at Canterlot in it's glory. It was made of obsidian and gold, the turrets apparently having been shingled with rubies and the windows made from diamonds.
“Welcome to the Void.” The Reaper said. Fluttershy looked up as a familiar weight landed on her head; A bird had begun to nest in her hair, as bunnies and other woodland creatures approached her. A forest reached from the ground and formed around them.
“Oh my.” Fluttershy said.
“The void is reacting to your desires.” The Reaper supplied. “You want to care for animals. These animals want someone to care for them. I can't tell which of you wanted the forest.”
“Does it do this for everyone?” Fluttershy asked.
“It does. When you don't want to be seen, no one else will be able to see you. When you want company, you'll be able to find someone who does as well. You want to eat, food will appear.” He explained.
“But what if...”
“Don't worry about it. I don't know how it works, but it works. The only exception to the rule is that Reapers will always be able to see you, and you'll always be able to see Reapers, no matter what. Now, we mustn't tarry.” Fluttershy nodded. She gently excused herself from the animals and followed.
They mostly passed through the field without incident. Birds sang as they flew around the two of them, other Reapers would occasionally nod or have short conversations with 253, and sometimes he would speak to someone Fluttershy couldn't see.
“Sorry.” he apologized after one such instance. “Normally we don't talk to other spirits while we have a charge, but, well, a live one in the Void hasn't happened in a long time.” Fluttershy was thankful she couldn't see the ponies who had taken such an interest in her, the model fiasco was not one she wished to repeat.
“We're here.” The Reaper said as they made it to the front gates. A much, much larger Reaper who would have easily dwarfed even Big Macintosh stood within the gate, waiting for them.
“Number One. I presume our lord sent word?”
“Two-fifty-three. I've heard. Shameful, really. I hope we can get your life back on track as quickly as possible, young lady.”
“Fear not. There is no place safer for you in this world or the next.” Number One said. “253, thank you very much for your continued excellent work. I can take it from here, please return to your duties.”
Fluttershy's saddlebag bucked so hard that it flopped away from her and struck her Reaper.
“I'm afraid I cannot, sir.” He said. “The Reaper's code, page three-thousand, article 24, paragraph 6, line 4, explicitly states that a Reaper must remain with his charge until he or she reaches the end of their journey.”
“...Yes, of course. My mistake.” Number One conceded. “In that case, you should escort our guest to her quarters and await further orders from our lord.”
“Very well. This way, Miss.” The Reaper began to guide Fluttershy towards a set of stairs. Once they were out of the larger reaper's earshot, he said “Something's wrong.”
“What is it?” Fluttershy asked.
“Well, Reapers are assigned numbers based on the order they became a Reaper, so that makes me the 253rd oldest reaper. When a Reaper stops being a Reaper by joining with the soul stream and being reborn, the newer reapers receive lower numbers. The notable exception to this is Number One, Prince Void's right hoof. The title of number one is granted to the best Reaper of the three-hundred, and he stands above the others. His work is mostly discipline and education.” The Reaper explained.
“So what does that mean?” Fluttershy asked.
“That means he should have known the rule about a Reaper's charge. One soul, one Reaper, especially for the still living, since being passed around could potentially damage the soul.”
“Well, everypony makes mistakes.” Fluttershy said. “I'm sorry. I don't usually cause trouble like this.”
“It's no fault of yours.” The Reaper replied. “This is where you'll be staying until we can sort all of this out. The room should function like the void and provide you with anything you desire. I will be right outside should you have any more questions.”
“Alright. Thank you.” Fluttershy said as she was left alone for the first time since the accident.
“I wonder how my friends are doing.” A scene appeared on the floor before her. It started out with her, or her body rather, in a hospital bed. She looked terrible; She was wrapped almost completely from head to tail in bandages. A breathing mask was strapped over her snout, and some kind of medicine had been set up on an IV drip. Fluttershy winced, knowing what was under the bandages. The worst burn she'd ever had she'd gotten after about a month of living on her own. She'd spilled hot water on one of her fetlocks, and it had blistered badly. There was no way climbing back into her body any time soon was going to be a comfortable affair. For just a moment, she considered asking the Reaper standing outside her door if there was any way she could become a more permanent resident of the void, but then the scene pulled back.
Rarity was sitting at her bed on one side, Pinkie on the other. The fashionista had clearly been openly weeping, her eyes were puffy and red, and her usually perfect mane was disheveled. Pinkie Pie didn't look like she'd been crying out loud, but she had a pathetically pained look on her face, her usually crazy-curly mane deflated and limp.
Applejack stood at the foot of the bed. She had removed her hat and covered her face with it, but her shoulders and barrel were shaking violently. Rainbow Dash was stomping around the room, flicking her tail nervously and glancing around like a scared animal, her wings outstretched and vibrating ever so slightly. Twilight shortly appeared in the room, her snout in a book.
“Alright girls, I think I may have found out what's wrong.” Twilight said, placing the book on the table beside Fluttershy's bed. The Librarian's eyes also a little swollen, but they had a steely determination behind them. She began explaining to the others what a coma was, and how the last recorded one had been more than two thousand years ago, predating even the Princesses. Fluttershy got an uneasy feeling in her saddlebags.
“Um... Mr. Reaper? Can you come in here, please?” She called. The door opened and the Reaper strode in. “I think... my friends are about to do something rash.”
“According to this, there are theories that during a coma, a pony would get caught between the land of living and dead.” Twilight said.
“So, if we can go to where she is, then we could bring her back.” Rainbow Dash said.
“Oh dear. This is bad.” The Reaper said. He pulled out his sickle. “Normal living ponies trying to make trips to limbo on purpose never turn out well. They could die. We've got to stop them.”
“How can we?” Fluttershy said.
“Well, this is something we usually reserve for the truly dead. A Final Good-bye; A Reaper can channel a few words from the dead to the living.” The Reaper shook his head. “Number One's going to have my plot for this, especially after our exchange earlier, but...” He pulled the skull he'd had earlier out and fixed it to the handle of his sickle. “Focus on your friends. Let them fill your thoughts, and then send your message.” Without another word, he lodged the sickle into Fluttershy's head.
Fluttershy jumped at first, but the piece of metal hardly felt intrusive. Doing as she was instructed, she focused her thoughts on her friends.
“I'm fine.” she thought. “Everything is going to be alright. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be here, but I promise I'll be back. Cross my Heart, hope to fly.”
The Reaper pulled his sickle out, then swung it at the scene. All five ponies jumped in surprise, then looked at Fluttershy's body.
“Did she jus'...?” Applejack began.
“No. I was looking right at her.” Rarity said.
“Then where did...?” Twilight began.
“She said she'd be back.” Pinkie said.
“So what, we're just supposed to sit on our hooves while she's wandering in some dark forest, lost and alone?” Rainbow Dash said.
“Ah think we should trust 'er on this.” Applejack said. “Ah don' like the idea o' killin' myself tah try an' find 'er if she don' wanna be found. 'Sides, she pinkie-promised.”
“And nopony breaks a pinkie-promise.” Twilight nodded. The friends agreed that they would wait for now and see what happened. The scene faded away.
“What's a Pinkie Promise?” The Reaper asked.
“It's the strongest oath a Ponyville pony can make.” Fluttershy explained. “If I don't find my way back home now, then Pinkie will get mad at me.”
The Reaper shook his head. “Mortals...”
“Number Two-hundred fifty three!” Number One's voice rang from elsewhere in the castle.
“Ah. That would be what a broken rule sounds like.” The Reaper said. He turned and started after the source of the call. Fluttershy trotted cautiously after him. “You should stay here.” He said.
“But, you only broke the rule because of me. I'm sure if we just explain the situation to Mr. One, then he'll be willing to let it slide just this once.” Fluttershy said.
“Not likely. But I can't stop you.”
The two of them trotted through the castle back to the throne room, where Number One awaited them.
“Sending a Final Goodbye for one still bearing the burden is against the rules.” He said, slowly and dangerously.
“I am aware.” The Reaper responded.
“I...it's my fault.” Fluttershy whispered.
“Excuse me?” Number One boomed. Fluttershy winced.
“It's my fault. My friends wanted to come find me, but it wouldn't have turned out well if they did.” Fluttershy explained, slightly louder.
“Even still, he broke the rules and must be punished.” Number One decreed. Fluttershy shrunk behind her reaper once more.
“What's going on in here?” An even more imposing voice rang from the door, making Fluttershy jump; The Prince had arrived. The Reapers both bowed.
“I did not expect to return before you, my Lord.” 253 spoke first.
“Ah, yes. Princess Celestia and I had a lovely chat. Number One, could you fetch for me the Reapers who last tended her body at some point? They have a rather embarrassing scar to answer for.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Now, I seem to have strode into an interesting exchange.” The Prince continued. “Do you care to share the situation with me, Number One?”
“It's...nothing, my lord. Merely disciplinary actions.”
“Really? Of what sort?”
“I sent a final goodbye for Miss Fluttershy.” The Reaper cut in.
“Really? Does this mean she plans to stay among us?”
“No, my lord. The message was sent to prevent five more unscheduled entrances to limbo, from the other five elements.”
“Regardless of the reason, Final Goodbyes are for final goodbyes only.” Number One pointed out.
“...This is true. Number One, take our guest back to her room. I will deal with 253.”
Number One nodded. “Follow me, mortal.” He said. Fluttershy looked back at her Reaper, who simply nodded. She shuffled after Number One nervously.
After following him for a few minutes, she said “Um..Mr. One, sir? I don't think my room is this way.”
“Oh, it's not, my dear.” Number One said. He suddenly furled his robe and swept her underneath, muffling a scream.
“What is my punishment, my lord?” The Reaper asked, bowing.
“Punishment? No punishment. You not only shielded five mares from this realm before their times, but you've also helped me immensely.” The Prince said.
“I don't understand.” The Reaper replied.
“While I chatted with the sun princess, a thought occurred to me. What if The Reaper was not a pawn of a summoner, but the other way around?” The Prince explained. “The Reaper using his magic to invade a pony's dreams, driving them to madly construct a golem in a Reaper's image. Once the body was prepared, he'd enter the world and take a life. Not just any life, though, one of the Elements of Harmony.”
The Reaper shuddered openly. “Why would one of our own do that?”
“To maintain status. The Element of Kindness was not the initial target, she was simply the easiest,” The Prince explained, “Any of the Elements would have done, since the other five would go to any ends for their friend, including the true target of this gambit.”
“Which would be?”
“Twilight Sparkle. The Element of Magic. As you know, I've had my eye on her soul for some time. When her time arrived, I had intended to invite her to the ranks of the Reapers, not only as the first above and beyond 300, but also as the new Number One.”
“Then... No. It cannot be.”
“I thought the same initially. However, I explicitly told him that, for the duration of our guest's stay, you would stand somewhat above the law. I fully expected you to use the Final Goodbye to prevent the other elements from entering limbo.”
“If Number One was the Reaper who brought her here, why did you send her off with him?”
“For bait.” The Prince's cheek bones raised into a skeletal smirk.
“That fool, 253. Beating me to your soul, keeping you away from the flooded stream, breaking the rules, even without the prince's order.” Number One ranted, dragging Fluttershy deeper into the palace.
“Wh...where are you taking me?” Fluttershy asked.
“Oh, someplace you'll never get out of. It may take some time, but what does another year or two matter? That purple molly will come for you eventually.” Number One replied.
“Purple...you mean Twilight?” Fluttershy fell silent.
“Is that what her parents named her? Regardless. I have been the highest ranking Reaper for thousands of years. I will not be replaced.” Eventually they came to a door. “This is where we send ponies that have been very, very bad.” Number One explained, turning the handle. “Enjoy your sta...!”
Number one was cut off as the door flew open unexpectedly, a Reaper flying out and nearly striking him in the face. It skidded to halt, it's sickle ready as it whipped around. Two more stepped from hiding spots in the walls.
“You've been bad, Number One.” one of them said. This was the first reaper that sounded like a mare Fluttershy had seen.
“Did you truly think the Prince had not caught on to your treachery?” The one that came from the door asked.
“Release the mortal. Now.” The third finished.
“...Numbers 298, 299, and 300.” Number one said. “The three of you barely have a quarter of my experience between you. Do you honestly think you can stop me?”
A rainbow-colored prism suddenly erupted around Number One and Fluttershy.
“When did you...?” Number one began.
“Just because you're older doesn't mean you're better at everything.” The Mare Reaper crossed her legs proudly, like Applejack had done many times. Number One wrapped his foreleg around Fluttershy's neck and lifted her up straight. He produced his sickle and slid it between her saddle's strap and her belly.
“Release me now, or the burden comes off.” The three reapers suddenly stood much more seriously.
“Just...who...” Fluttershy began, having been stewing for the past several moments, “Do you think you are?!”
There was a loud PANG! As a pink butterfly-shape erupted from Fluttershy's core, struck Number One and flung him into the back of the cage. His sickle fell harmlessly from Fluttershy's bridle as she turned to face him.
“Using me as bait for my friends, killing all six of us because Twilight might replace you one day? That is inexcusable.” They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and Fluttershy had a soul which could scare a cockatrice out of a meal and make dragons cry. The rainbow prism shattered and the very walls of the castle itself warped as if afraid of being too close to the mare.
Number One could do nothing but sputter in response and step back as the eyes of a pony who was easily a quarter his size cut through him as if he were no more than paper. Even the three younger Reapers, who were behind her, had fallen silent in awe.
“So what if you're not the highest ranked anymore? You should be happy you're allowed to be a reaper with an attitude like that!” Fluttershy advanced as Number One retreated, until he slipped on the threshold of the still open door.
The other side of the door was a black pit, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. Number One reared up, whinnied, then tumbled backwards. Fluttershy reached forward and caught his tail before he fell; He dangled haphazardly from her mouth.
“Pull me up! Pull me up!” He shouted.
Fluttershy's eyes softened as she took a tentative step backwards, pulling the misguided Reaper from the edge. A sickle flashed through his tail, just before her nose.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh...” Number One screamed. Fluttershy spat out the white tail-hairs and rushed to the edge. Nothing greeted her but blackness.
“Why...” She turned to see who'd swung the blade. Prince Void had arrived on the scene, his scythe floating magically next to him, Her Reaper standing to the Prince's right while the three new reapers bowed.
“Those who would upset this realm's harmony must be punished.” The Prince said seriously. “Fear not, little pony,” he continued, shutting the door. “Spirits cannot be destroyed.”
“Then...what's going to happen to him?” Fluttershy asked.
“This door leads to The Black. It's basically a washing machine for souls. The former Number One will tumble through until he has been cleansed of his sin, but for no shorter than a thousand years, at which point he will be deposited back into the soul stream to be reborn. It will not be a pleasant experience. But it is for the best.”
Fluttershy looked away from the door.
“In any case, this is cause for rejoice. With the danger gone, you are now free to return to your life. If that is what you desire.” The Prince said.
“It is. More than anything.” Fluttershy admitted.
“Very well. 253, return her to her body. This will be your last assignment with that number.”
“Sir?” The Reaper asked with surprise.
“I find myself without a right hoof. For your role in these events, as well as your dedication to not just the letter, but the very spirit of our order, you are being promoted to the new number one.”
“Actually, sir... I think I would like to return to the soul stream.” The Reaper said. “This whole ordeal has shaken me. Perhaps in two or three life times, fate will return me to your side, but for now... I can no longer perform my duties as a Reaper in good faith.”
“Very well. But your final order still stands.”
“Yes, sir.” The Reaper turned to face Fluttershy once more. “Two-way ticket to Equestria, coming up.”
“Will...I remember you? Or any of this?” Fluttershy asked.
“It will be as if you've woken from a dream. At first what transpired here may be burned into your memory, but it will fade over time, as if nothing happened.” he explained. “We won't recognize each other, but perhaps we'll meet again, on the other side.” The Reaper lifted his sickle, then swung.
Fluttershy hurt. She hurt all over. She was wrapped up in bandages, and a breath mask was covering her face.
“What...happened?” She whispered. She turned her head in time to see a rainbow streak shoot from the room.
“She's awake!” Rainbow Dash's voice filled the hospital. In moments, her five friends filled the room, each carrying balloons, flowers, and/or 'get well soon' cards. Pinkie Pie squealed in delight, crying wildly “It's time for a party! A 'Thank Celestia Fluttershy's alive Party!'”
“I don't think she's going to be ready to party for some time, Miss Pie.” The doctor appeared from the door frame, carrying a clipboard. “She's going to make a full recovery, but she's also going to be laid up for a couple of months at least.”
“Oh no, who's going to take care of the animals?” Fluttershy asked.
“Everypony in Ponyville heard about what happened.” Twilight said. “We're all pitching in to handle the job until you recover.”
“How...did I wind up here?” Fluttershy asked.
“The Everfree was burning, and you ran in, remember?” Rainbow Dash said. “I found you under a branch.”
“No, I don't. I'm sorry.” Fluttershy responded
“Sometimes patients who experience extreme shock forget what happened just before their accident.” The doctor supplied, his beeper suddenly going off. “Excuse me.”
“I had the strangest dream.” Fluttershy said. “We were taking care of the animals, the six of us... but then it was night time in a forest, and there was screaming everywhere. Then I was in a field, taking care of animals again. Then I was a guest in a castle dark castle... and I saw the five of you... You wanted to come to where I was, to rescue me, but I knew you couldn't for some reason. Then, I remember getting so mad at somepony...”
The other mares exchanged glances.
“We're jus' happy ta have ya back, Fluttershy.” Applejack said, smiling warmly. “Now come on y'all. She needs rest.”
“Rest? But she's been sleeping for the past two days!” Pinkie Pie objected. Everypony chuckled; Fluttershy wincing because it hurt to laugh.
Many years had passed since that day. Fluttershy, though bearing a handful of scars under her coat, made a full recovery and returned to her job caring for the animals, and having wild adventures with her friends. She had settled down and made a family at some point, and presently trotted down the road, home from market.
“Pumpkin, look out!” A voice rang from Sugar Cube Corner as Fluttershy went by. At that very moment, two things happened; A foal riding a scooter slammed into Fluttershy and knocked her over, and what looked like a bathtub smashed through the Sugar Cube corner window, sailing over Fluttershy and smashing harmlessly into the ground. Two frosting-colored ponies, one a unicorn with an orange mane and the other a pegasus with a brown mane, appeared in the hole.
“Be careful, Pound Cake! You could have hit somepony!” The unicorn, a filly, admonished.
“Miss Fluttershy? I'm sorry, are you alright?” The pegasus, a colt shouted.
“Y...yes, I'm fine.” Fluttershy checked herself; She'd scraped her leg when she'd hit the ground, but wasn't seriously injured. She glanced at the foal that had knocked her over; He was an earth pony, his mane, tail, and coat eggshell white. He had black eyes, and a sickle for a cutie mark.
“I'm sorry, Miss. Are you alright?” he asked, on his hooves.
“Yes, I'm fine. What about you?” She asked, standing
“I'll be alright.” The foal looked at the bathtub, then back at the hole in Sugar Cube corner, Fluttershy followed his gaze.
“That... could have killed me.” She thought. Fluttershy smiled, but she couldn't exactly explain why, and a single word came to her lips.
“Yeah.” The foal said. “Wheat Reaper. How did you know?”
“I'm Fluttershy. I'm sorry, I just...guessed.”
“Sorry for crashing into you. I needed to get this to my mother for her secret cake recipe... Oh. I think I've said too much. 'Bye!”
Fluttershy smiled as the foal picked up his scooter and a bag of flour and scooted away into the distance, and turned again for home.