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Do you hear that? That tiny ringing noise in the back of your ears? It's constant and endless, shifting and morphing, covering the walls and tile floor of this room like a dusty sheet. It goes away briefly when the nurse comes to visit with her loudly shuffling hooves and squeaking tray wheels. It hides in the corner when the doctor stops by to give you his latest prognosis, but slithers right back to your bedside as soon as he's gone.
That noise has always been there, whether you've thought about it or not, and the longer you focus on the noise, the louder it gets. I'm willing to bet that it's been waiting all your life to become as deafening as it is right now, positively splitting your skull in two, squeezing the tears out of your eyes. Have you also had nights when you cried yourself to sleep and you didn't understand why?
Well, I've always heard that noise too. Only, I know where it comes from. I know what it's trying to hide. I know about the bad place.
Shhhh. Try not to breathe too loudly. We can make noises too, noises that can be heard beyond the walls of this infirmary. Not all things in the darkness use their ears to listen. They can sense a noise beneath our breaths, beneath our heartbeats, that have belonged to living things before the birth of time. Lie close to me, and I will keep you still. I'll absorb the noise, and I will use it to produce a whimper, a holy sound, for I am about to tell you a story. The eternal story. The story that keeps on telling itself, as it did through Soft Step, as it does through me, as it will someday through you.
Many decades ago, I was a little filly—just about your age—and I was very sick. When I proved too weak to fly through the mists of Cloudsdale, I was ushered to a hospital for infirmed pegasi. I slept day in and day out in a room much like this one. I wasn't alone; there were several other young foals with me. We all suffered from one debilitating condition or another. Honestly, I can't remember exactly what my diagnosis was. Whenever I asked my parents, they would tactfully avoid the topic. I'd see a darting twitch to their eyes, as if they expected something to leap out of the shadows at us upon the sheer mention of those years.
Now, I never wanted to be a quiet pony. The name “Fluttershy” was bequeathed me as a term of endearment. It was a bitter twist of fate that life made me so pensive, so bashful, and so easily frightened. The long weeks spent in that hospital ward stole the strength from bones, making my wings too fragile to fly like the other pegasi my age. Even the other foals in the infirmary—some who were worse off than me—joked at my expense. At a very early age, it became clear that I would forever be the target of ridicule. So, I withdrew into the covers of my hospital bed, blending in with the silence and shadows, stifling my whimpers or else everypony else trying to sleep would hear me crying at night.
Looking back, I wonder, perhaps that is why she came to me.
There was a breakout of a disease in Cloudsdale of some sort, or so I had imagined. One month, quite suddenly, the hospital had gotten terribly crowded. They needed to form a quarantine in the opposite wing of the building. For that reason, they moved several elderly patients into our ward. It got so bad that sometimes more than one pony had to share the same bed. I didn't understand it much at the time, and in my already depressed mood I nearly collapsed in a catatonic state from all the unnerving change.
But the old mare that had been assigned to my bed, she was a very kind and gentle pony. In a lot of ways, she reminded me of my grandmother. She didn't seem nearly as worse off as the other ponies in the ward, and she allowed me the peace to rest and calm myself. She told me stories that brought a smile to my face, hummed sweet little tunes to put my spirit at ease, and even gave me a shoulder to cry on when the lights went out. After about a week, I finally opened up, and I told her my name. She told me hers too: “Soft Step.”
Soft Step had lived a long life. She had foaled many pegasi. She had seen the lengths of the world and all the colors of the sky. Still, as old and wise and tranquil as she appeared, I couldn't help but notice a gray layer of melancholic mystery clinging to her wrinkled coat. There was a separate layer to her breath, like a hidden voice, constantly echoing off the concrete walls of the hospital as if in a desperate attempt to locate something amidst the shadows that her eyes couldn't see. When she told me stories, it was in a deep melodic tone, as if she was afraid of disturbing the other ponies in the ward. I couldn't understand why she was so fixated on being quiet; none of the other ponies paid her much mind. Perhaps she was being quiet simply for the fact that I was quiet. It didn't matter much to me; I was happy just to have her there.
After all, I had been in that hospital an awful long time, and even my parents had finally stopped visiting. There were days when I imagined that I would never see the sunlight beyond the windows again. I started to think that I might die in that place. I tried to keep such feelings secret from Soft Step, but somehow I think she always knew my deepest fears. I was a little filly, and foals can be the most transparent creatures imaginable.
If she knew my secrets, she didn't poke or pry. She did everything she could to make me happy. We'd play guessing games about the lives of the ponies in the other beds. She'd tell me riddles and give me several opportunities to come up with a solution. In the afternoon after the lunch trays arrived, we'd play games of hide and go seek under the blankets. She always let me catch her, and I felt victorious every time. She had a merry laugh, dry from all the years sapped from her, and yet full of such warmth that made me think of my grandmother's smile, of toasty warm mornings on the eastern cloudtops, of that rush to the head a little pegasus gets when she dives through the crystal blue sky for the first time.
Then one night, Soft Step was very quiet for some reason, far more than usual. After three weeks of being pulled out of my pensive shell, I had become an antsy filly. I was wide awake, and I kept nudging her, trying to get her to laugh or tell me a riddle or say anything. She looked at me, and I saw her ears twitching, though I didn't hear the sound that was disturbing her. Somehow, just by looking at her face, I knew it all came down to a sound. She looked exhausted, and the wrinkles on her face were longer, grayer.
She asked me something strange. She asked if I was a happy foal. It's such a strange question to ask a filly of that age, come to think of it, and I was no less confused by the inquisition then. More than anything, I wanted to see a smile on Soft Step's face, so I told her that I was indeed happy.
It was around that time that she broke into tears. I had never seen Soft Step cry before, and it broke my heart. I began crying too, and that seemed to make a difference. She immediately hissed at me, nuzzled me, told me to not fret or whimper or worry. She said that I deserved to have many years left, and that now was not the time to have such a beautiful light be snuffed out so viciously.
I asked her what she meant by that, and her face turned even grayer, as if the moonlight coming in through the hospital windows had fixated on her features alone. In the spotlight, she bore that smile I always adored, and she asked me if I wanted to play a game. I thought it was a little bit too late for hide and seek, but I was willing to do anything that might make her happy.
So, with a luring smile, Soft Step dove under the bedsheets. I smirked to myself; I always knew how this was going to go. She'd lose herself amidst the folds, and it would only be a matter of minutes before I found her. I took my time with the game, stalking her like a lion would torture its prey. I even made little growling noises that I was sure would wake up the other foals. I figured that she would reach out to stop me, exposing herself, ending the game in my victory. But she never did. I heard her voice whispering towards me, giggling from beneath the dark forest of the bed's duvet.
So, like a little pegasus warrior, I squirmed and crawled towards her, huffing and puffing as I spelunked my way underneath the fabric. In a matter of seconds, I would have found her. But then a full minute passed. My excited, foalish mind didn't think about it at the time, at least not until five more minutes had passed. Slowly, the oddity of the situation began to fall on me. I felt my shoulders and wings sagging, for the blanket had become heavier, even darker somehow. I should have been hot; I should have been sweating, but a cold chill had fallen over the bed, as if a nurse had crept by to open the windows to a wintry wind above. All the while, Soft Step's whispering voice sang to me, urging me to crawl and climb deeper down the tunnel of sheets. Her tone was growing increasingly hollow, like a bell that had been cracked down its center but still found the resonance to tickle my eardrums. I crawled towards her still. The world had gone cold, and the only life was in her voice, even if it was a receding warmth.
Finally, the sheets gave way, and my hooves met the brass skeleton of the bed's headboard. That alone forced a startled gasp out of my mouth, for I was certain that I had started at the head of the bed, only to crawl in a single direction. When I looked up and around me, I was in a different hospital ward. Only, it was the same ward, but everything was flipped, as if in the reflection of a mirror. Also—like reflections are apt to do when two mirrors are lined up—everything had a dull, almost green haze to it, like smoggy glass under candle light. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the ethereal paleness, I realized I was the only moving shadow in the room, for all of the other beds were empty.
I shivered. I should have screamed. I thought of Mommy and Daddy, but somehow neither of their names would have helped at the time. Instead, the name I whimpered was that of Soft Step, and she whimpered back. That is, her voice rang with starting tonality, clear as a day, as if melodious youth had returned to her lungs. I gazed across the end of the infirmary, towards the door that led into the hospital hallway, and there she stood, bright and healthy. She seemed smaller somehow, and her features were obscured by the misty haze of the frigid room, but I knew it was her. She had the same voice, the same smile, the same eyes.
She whispered and sang to me all at once, urging me to follow her. What—out of the bed? Out of the room? I hadn't walked in months. I hadn't even done so on my own in twice as long. But as she waved her neck and galloped out of the room, I sensed a strong breath of confidence. She believed in me; why else would she have brought me there... wherever we were?
So, with a leap of faith, I crawled out of the bed. The tile floor felt like ice, and yet I didn't so much as jolt. There was a numbness to my limbs, firm and solid, like an otherworldly substitute for strength. I found that not only could I stand upright, but I could move forward at a brisk pace. I did just that, if nothing else than to get out of that lonesome room of shadows. I had to find Soft Step. She would have the answers, the warmth, the gentle grin that kept my smile from dissolving after so many weeks.
She was always one turn ahead of me, darting around hallway corners, her gray tail flicking in the pale shades of some elusive light whose source I could not see. A bone-white glow hung everywhere, piercing the walls and doors and windows of the place. The corridors were empty, devoid of nurses and orderlies. I looked left and right into the doctors' offices and saw nothing but grayness. I called out Soft Step's name as I ran, frantically begging her to slow down, but somewhere in the space of the hospital's labyrinthine enormity, a great black hush swallowed up all my echoes.
At last I found her, squatting before the railing of the second floor, overlooking the hospital lobby below. With an eager flutter of her wings, she glanced at me and winked, then extended her hoof to point down at the space beneath us.
I sat next to her and looked down. My breath left me, and I instantly desired to silence the sound of my escaping gasp.
There were ponies there. Ponies of all ages, from all trots of life. I saw adult ponies, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Some ponies stood in hospital gowns. Some sat in wheelchairs. A few of them stood with an IV stand clutched in their hooves, and even fewer couldn't stand at all; they laid in bed as one or two of the next ponies wheeled them in line. What were they all standing in formation for? I wasn't certain; taking in the massive crowd above the white and black checkerboard tile was an exhausting ordeal for my young eyes. I was too perplexed to think beyond the rhythmic beat of my heart.
That's when Soft Step spoke, and the healthiness of her voice frightened me. I glanced at her; I saw the same smile, the same eyes, the same twitch to her ears. But she was younger now, almost my age. The change in her complexion, however, was not even close to as jarring as what she next told me.
She said that these ponies were all there for a reason. As a matter of fact, we were all there for a reason. Long ago, before mortality and immortality existed as two different things, there was darkness. And the reason that darkness split into that which was dying and that which was undying was because light invaded the universe, and it made somepony mad. As a matter of fact, Soft Step said, it couldn't really be called “somepony.” It was something that had no form. It was something that had no wants or fears. It was something that simply wasn’t, and it had every reason to swallow up the world, the stars, the sunshine, the forests—just about everything else that was.
That was the birth of the bad place, she said. It was a place that had no words, only a sound, a long, labored, wheezing sound, like a death rattle that didn't know how to give into the blissful kiss of silence. It was a niche, a chasm, a crack between the laughter of light and the hollow screams of darkness, where all things gifted with animation—all ponies like us—were forced to someday go, all because the universe could never make up its beleaguered mind whether to begin ending or end beginning.
She had learned to avoid the bad place, Soft Step said. She had found a way out, where all other ponies—the bodies lurching in the lobby beneath us—had all given in. She was proud of herself, ecstatic with her triumph, but she was also alone. And a continuous hum, a low hissing noise of persistent dissonance, was plaguing her constantly. Soft Step could hear it through the walls, beneath the rattle of windows, past the echoes of nurse's hooves clattering against the tile floor. She had escaped the bad place, but her flight would not last forever. The darkness was tugging at her, she said, like gravity, and someday she would have no choice but to give in. She said that the reason she was telling me all of this was because she wanted to thank me. I was her very special friend, the soft thing that made her smile, and my warmth was her warmth. Somehow, I was the one to bless her all along, and not the other way around. She knew that she couldn't escape the bad place, but somehow being with me, playing games with me, singing my tears away night after night, was enough to make her forget about it, if even for a little while.
Just then, a cold gust came from below. I heard Soft Step gasp; it was a very startling sound, like glass breaking in my heart and echoing up my throat so that I too produced a similar, wounded whimper. She peered intently between the bars of the railing, and I looked too.
It was then that I realized that the ponies lining up across the lobby were marching one by one through the entrance doors of the hospital. All that was beyond the glass hinges was darkness. Even to this day, I have no proper words to give the utter pitch black of that abyss. I somehow knew that if I stared at the entrance for too long, a portion of my eyesight would go permanently blind in the shape of its yawning frame.
All it took was a couple of petrified seconds, and I knew what it was that had gotten Soft Step's startled attention. The ponies were no longer marching; they were rushing, galloping—no, they were collapsing. The blackness beyond the entrance was sucking them in. Breathlessly, without shrieks or yelps, they fell into the nothingness beyond the sliding glass doors. As the lobby emptied, a deep rush lifted, like a curtain of rain. Soon, my ears started flicking just like Soft Step's always did. Where there were once the hooves of shuffling ponies, I saw rivulets of movement through the checkerboard floor of the library, until the black tiles overtook the white, giving way to inky tendrils that slithered out from the mouth of the exit and stretched towards us like blooming, onyx flower stalks.
The bad place had become ravenous. Its voice took shape, hissing, ringing endlessly into my ears, for it had acquired the scent of the most elusive morsels yet. It felt us. It hungered for us. It had become our time to go there.
I didn't move until Soft Step nudged me. I broke free of my petrified stare at the sound of her shrieking voice. The ringing almost consumed all her words, but I heard enough to know that she wished me to run. So I galloped with her, scampering and slipping over the tile as we both rushed the way in which we came. I couldn't hear our hooves from the static noise gathering in our eardrums, like crackling black balls of cotton. The windows and mirrors on either side of us turned dark, becoming obsidian. The pale glow fell from beyond the walls, so that the shadows in the corner of every heaving hallway increased by ten fold. I could only see the corridors from the barest glint of their fragile edges. Everything was crumbling, fracturing, buckling from the weight of an incalculably hungry vacuum that existed before the first gasps of time.
When we reached our ward, I couldn't tell, but Soft Step obviously could. It occurred to me that she had frequented these mirrored hallways before, that she had long played games with herself and her shadows before she had the good grace of finding me. I made straight for our bed and tugged her with me, only I couldn't feel her anymore. I looked around and saw her standing dead in the doorframe to the infirmary. I screamed her name. I knew she couldn't hear it from the cataclysmic thunder the ringing noise had become, but she didn't need to.
She looked over her shoulder at me, and I saw that warm smile of hers for the last time. She was a foal, just like me, and yet as fearless as a granite mountain. She said she knew that this moment would come, and that she had fought for the last inch of light in order to stave off the darkness here. Soft Step said that the bad place would take her, and she would struggle as long as she could against it. The bad place would forget me for a few years, perhaps for even a lifetime, but not forever. It was her one gift to me, the one gift she had always wanted to bestow since the first day she saw me lying in bed, suffering, crying, dying far too soon before my time.
I told her through my tears that I didn't earn what she was doing for me. She told me something I have never forgotten: that I “would earn it.”
That's when I turned away and jumped into the bed. Fitfully, I fought with the blanket until I threw myself under the covers. Following her loud commands, I began crawling towards the foot of the bed. I did so in a cold sweat, my every limb quivering. The trembles doubled as I first heard her screams. They resembled a siren at first, undulating and painful. Then something shattered, like a bowl of glass over the bed, and the pitch left her cries, falling lower and lower in tone, sending rivulets of dying, nebulous energy through the bedsheets until her sobs became one with the endless hiss.
By the time I reached the opposite end of the bed, my ears were ringing. As I sat up and looked across the room, at its reverse walls and beds full of slumbering foals, the ringing did not stop. It kept going, deafening me to my pitiable wails as the foals woke up all around me. Even the nurses rushing to my bedside couldn't pry the ringing noise away. They gave me a shot to put me under, and yet I could hear the ringing in my sleep, poisoning my dreams, painting pale silhouettes of equines shuffling up to the darkness, and one set of ears—Soft Step's ears—twitching just like mine did, just like mine still do.
Within a week, I recovered from my foalhood illness. The doctors told me that it was a miraculous recovery, that I had literally climbed my way from the depths of sickness overnight. If I hadn't gotten better, they were certain I might have become a terminal patient by the month's end. They said that I was a very strong pony, and that I should have been proud of myself.
I knew better; I could still hear the ringing in my ear. I told them about Soft Step, about the kindly old mare that had taken me under her wing when our ward mixed with the elder ponies' ward. I mentioned what she had done, the sacrifice she had given, to keep me from having to go to the bad place so soon.
They were confused. They looked at me strange, like I was delirious from my disease. They explained to me that no modern hospital would even consider merging two completely different wards with one another, and they certainly wouldn't have forced two sick patients to share the same bed. They admitted that there had indeed been an outbreak of the Griffon Plague, and they had to set up a quarantine, but despite the many patients who had died, the foals' ward was off limits.
Another week passed. My parents came to take me home. They smiled and said pleasant things to me, but somehow I didn't believe them. They didn't have Soft Step's grin; they hadn't gone the lengths that she had gone to save me.
So, as the years went by, my steps fell into a permanently pensive gait. I withdrew into myself. I heard a noise that no other pony could hear. I knew a truth that no other pony could know. There is a bad place, a bad place that we must all go to. There were times at night when I would try to sleep, and yet I couldn't. Beyond the ringing, beyond the lowly hiss, I could hear her anguished screams as Soft Step fought for me, giving me an extra lease on life, earning every precious year I had left to live with her wicked defiance. But I knew—even from a young age—that such defiance couldn't last forever. The bad place would consume her completely, and then it would find the child it had sought to snuff out so long ago. The bad place would find me.
That is why I became so quiet. Even after all these years, that is why I couldn't ever open up to my friends, no matter how many of them I made. How can you be talkative and energetic when you have such a secret to keep, such a heavy burden to carry on your fragile wings? I realized that I had a purpose in life, a mission to dedicate my years to. Since Soft Step fought to keep me living longer, I needed to make the best of it.
And so I have. I've foaled many children. I've touched many lives. I've helped my friends save Equestria on multiple occasions. I've restored this world to harmony, allowing it to thrive and revel in the warming light. But there would come a time when that light would get snuffed out, and though I may not have been strong enough to prolong the warmth for everypony, I certainly can do what I can to bless you.
So do not be ashamed to cry. Do not be worried about the need to cough or wheeze or shiver. It will pass, as all things do. I know that you hear the noise; I know that you've heard it all your life. It goes beyond this infirmary, beyond the walls of this hospital, beyond the shadows of your room when you shivered under your covers and wept for reasons you did not understand, until now. We are the few who must know, who must wrestle with darkness to keep the light alive. It is not something to mourn, but something to rejoice in, for strength did not exist until we came upon the thoughtless black plains of the universe to give it a name.
I've enjoyed the time that we have had together, but I must go. I love you dearly, and I will be thinking of you with every step I take into the abyss. I know that you will be thinking about me too, but I hope that you someday go beyond that, just as I had to go beyond my loss of Soft Step. When you see me slide under the covers, and when you see the blankets deflate into flat nothingness as if no elderly mare was there to begin with, I know that you will hear me in the noise. It may sound like screaming at first, but if you pay close enough attention to the ringing, you will hear my victory shouts. I shall be cheering for you.
For I will have kept you on this earth a little while longer. You will have many days ahead, days of discovery, days of delicious joy and palpable sadness. You will bring life into this world, and you will usher souls into sleep. Then someday, when you are old and sapped of vigor, when that dull hush of noise starts to sound like the tone of your own labored breaths, it will be your turn to meet somepony, to cherish them, to go to the bad place in their stead, to save them just as I have saved you.