Pinwheel slammed the screen door shut behind her. Outside, a fly buzzed on her porch. Pinwheel peered through the mesh. The sun beat down on the nearby apple orchard. A slight breeze rustled the branches. She couldn’t hear anything besides the buzzing of the fly and the gentle whisper of the trees. Certainly no sound of pegasus wings. Pinwheel let out a sigh of relief. She turned toward Pale Hoof, who stood behind her in the hallway. “They didn’t follow us here, but they’ll probably come by soon.”
“What should we do?” Pale Hoof took a step closer to her. Pinwheel looked down at the floor, then back up at him. Looking up into his makeshift faces made her feel like she was talking to a stranger. His skull face – even with its perpetual grin and gaping eye sockets – made her feel more comfortable.
“So,” Pinwheel pawed at the floor, “About the Elements of Harmony. You told me they were capable of imprisoning a goddess.”
“Then, what could they do to you?”
Pale Hoof paused. He looked uncertainly from side to side. “I…do not know.” He replied at last, “Luna was just as powerful as her sister, yet Celestia still managed to imprison her for a millennium. With the Elements on her side, she is too powerful even for me.”
Pinwheel took a deep breath. “Then we’ll just have to keep you hidden from her.” Slipping past him, Pinwheel approached the guest bedroom door. She glanced back at Pale Hoof, “Could you make another portal? You know, something that would let you visit me without attracting too much attention?”
Pale Hoof shook his head. “Using magic of that magnitude would break my disguise. If I were to do that, Celestia would without a doubt be able to locate me.”
“It doesn’t really matter what you look like, though, does it?” Pinwheel gestured to his face and body, “They’re looking for you either way. Either you’re a murderer or a Reaper. At least a portal will let you escape this realm quickly if they find you.”
Pale Hoof frowned. He scuffed his hoof against the wood floor, head lowered. For a long time, he said nothing. Finally, lifting his head ever so slightly, he spoke. “But…in this form, I can touch you.” He said, green eyes just barely visible through his long bangs. He lifted his head a little more, “We can have the kind of relationship you wanted. With kissing and hugging and all the things normal couples are supposed to do.”
Pinwheel let out a sigh. She crossed the floor over to him. “Listen, Chuckles. I know what you mean.” Gently, she touched his cheek, “But we had a good relationship before, didn’t we? It doesn’t matter if we’re a normal couple. I don’t think we’ll ever be a normal couple. Especially not with Celestia’s Royal Guard hunting you down.”
“It will take more than a few guards to keep me away from you.” Pale Hoof leaned in and touched his forehead to Pinwheel’s, “If we must run, I will protect you.”
Pinwheel smiled. “That’s sweet, Chuckles.” Gently, she pulled away, “But, to be honest, I’d rather not live on the run. If I can’t convince you to open a portal, well, we’ll just hide you the old fashioned way.” She sidled past him and unlatched the screen door. Peeking out, she scanned the skies. No glint of gold armor or flash of white wings. Motioning for Pale Hoof to follow her, she stepped outside. Around the back of the house, there stood an old-fashioned storm cellar door, sealed shut with a rusty old padlock. Leading Pale Hoof to the cellar door, Pinwheel broke the padlock with her hoof and pulled the right side door open. The cellar yawned before them, the whitewashed steps leading down into a musty darkness. A spider made its home in the corner between the stairs and the wall. Pale Hoof’s eyes lit up at the sight of it. Pulling the second door open, he hurried down the steps into the darkness. Pinwheel followed after him.
The cellar itself was tiny, barely three feet wide with no windows. The only light came from the stairwell leading back outside. There were no furnishings in the cellar besides a series of shallow shelves nailed to the wall. Pale Hoof’s head brushed the ceiling of the tiny room. He turned around in a circle, inspecting the tiny room and then glancing back at Pinwheel. “Pinwheel…” Pale Hoof began, his voice hushed, “This is…”
“Cramped, I know.” Pinwheel finished, “Especially for a big guy like you. But I guarantee no one will look here.”
“No!” Pale Hoof’s face broke into a toothy grin, “It’s PERFECT!” His voice boomed, shaking not only the walls of the storm shelter but the very foundation of the house. Pinwheel nearly lost her balance. She blinked at him in confusion.
“Perfect? Chuckles, what are you talking about?”
Pale Hoof put a hoof against the wall, smiling fondly. “So DARK! So SMALL!” He replied, “This is what it is like to be in a coffin!”
Pinwheel stared. “You’re the only pony I know who considers that a good thing.”
Pale Hoof rubbed his cheek against the brick. “Tell me, what is this wonderful room?”
Pinwheel had to suppress a giggle. “It’s called a storm cellar. You don’t find them on any of the newer houses, but a lot of the older places have them. Ponies used to come here when the weather got bad. Of course, that was before the pegasi in Cloudsdale started scheduling storms.”
“It is PERFECT.” Pale Hoof took a deep, grateful breath, inhaling in all the dust and stale air, “If only I’d known such a room existed before!”
Pinwheel nodded. “That’s what we’re counting on, Chuckles. Like I said, most ponies don’t have storm cellars anymore. If we’re lucky, any guards coming by won’t think to look here.” Pale Hoof sat down in the corner of the tiny room, nestled up against the rough brick walls. With his grey coat and black hair, he meshed perfectly into the shadows. Even with the doors open, one could easily mistake him for simply a tall shadow. Pinwheel’s grin widened, “I’m glad you’re so comfortable.”
“Close the doors, please.” Pale Hoof gestured to the cellar door. Pinwheel turned and pulled them to. Darkness swallowed the tiny storm cellar. Pinwheel felt her way over to the corner where Pale Hoof sat. Touching his hoof, she settled down next to him. Fondly, she patted his leg.
“Reminds you a little of home, I guess?”
Pinwheel leaned back against the brick wall, staring blankly into the darkness. She could feel Pale Hoof beside her. Even with his disguise though, he wasn’t warm. His pelt felt cool to the touch. While he wasn’t frigid, he didn’t feel like any living pony. Listening to the silence, Pinwheel realized all of a sudden that she couldn’t hear him breathing. Shifting herself around to face him, she squinted into the darkness. “This disguise thing…” She began, “How, er, ‘in-depth’ is it?”
“I do not understand your question.”
“You said you could never be mortal, but, “ Pinwheel paused, searching for the words, “you look pretty good. And it doesn’t hurt me when I touch you. But at the same time, I don’t hear you breathing. And I don’t think any living pony would feel as cold as you do.”
Pale Hoof didn’t reply immediately. He remained silent for a few seconds. The quietness set Pinwheel’s teeth on edge. “I could simulate breathing, if you like.” He replied, “It is true that I do not need to breathe, even in this form. And while my body looks and feels solid, I lack the circulatory system that would make me warm to the touch.”
“So it’s just an illusion? But you said you suppressed your powers.”
Once again, Pale Hoof didn’t say anything. He paused for a few seconds. Pinwheel could hear him scratching his hoof against the floor. “It is not an illusion. This body is real. I built it.” He replied, “There are many things you do not know about me, Pinwheel. I used to have a fleshy body, much like this one. But when I became Reaper, my flesh degraded and sloughed off. I could rebuild my body with my magic, but I soon found that such efforts suppressed my powers. The power of the Reaper lives in my bones. To cover my bones is to choke off my powers.”
“So that’s why performing powerful magic would break your disguise? It would cause your disguise to slough off?”
“But…I don’t get it. You built your body up around your skeleton, right? You could have made yourself look like anypony you want. You could disguise yourself as Princess Celestia if you want.” Pinwheel gestured to him in the darkness, “You’re definitely tall enough.”
Pale Hoof shook his head in the darkness. “I am no shapeshifter. I cannot change my cutie mark or the shape of my bones. It is impossible for me to be anypony but myself.” He gestured to the ratty trenchcoat he still wore, “There are hundreds of grey ponies and ponies with dark hair. If I hide my cutie mark, I am still anonymous.”
“You still look sort of like a hobo in that coat.” Pinwheel replied. Pale Hoof let out a wheezy chuckle. Before Pinwheel could open her mouth to say anything else, though, she caught the sound of voices outside. All her muscles tensed. Holding her breath, Pinwheel inched to her feet and approached the staircase. Gently, she pushed the storm cellar door open a crack and peered out. Through the tall grass, she could just make out the figures of two well built pegasi standing in the road in front of her house. The tall plumes on their helmets and gold armor on their backs made them unmistakable. She quickly shut the storm cellar door.
“Pinwheel?” Pale Hoof’s voice was barely a whisper. Pinwheel shushed him.
“Celestia’s guards are out there.” Pinwheel whispered back, “Shoot. I thought we’d have a few hours at least.”
“I think I heard something over here.”
Pinwheel’s blood went to ice. The voices were now right outside the cellar door. She could barely see Pale Hoof in the darkness, but Pinwheel still put her hoof to her lips. Gently, she pushed the cellar door open. Light flooded the tiny storm cellar. Pale Hoof pressed himself hard into the corner. Pinwheel grinned nervously at the two pegasus guards standing less than five feet from the cellar door. “Hello there, officers.” Pinwheel waved stiffly at the two ponies, “What brings you to my house?” She hopped up out of the cellar, closing the door behind her.
The pegasus guards eyed her suspiciously. One of them stepped forward, clearing his throat. “Sorry to be snooping around, ma’am.” The first guard began, “What were you doing down there?” He pointed toward the storm cellar door. Pinwheel let out a high pitched giggle.
“That’s just my cellar. I was down there trying to fix a leaky pipe!” Pinwheel replied.
The guards exchanged glances. “All right.” The first guard said, “Listen, ma’am, we were sent here to investigate a murder at a local restaurant. The Bit and Bridle incident? We have a testimony from a guard that says you witnessed the murder.”
Pinwheel nodded slowly. “Uh, yes. Yes, I was there.”
“The murder was allegedly committed by a tall, grey colt wearing a black coat.” The second guard spoke up, “Earlier today, one of our guards reported you were seen with a colt matching that description.”
Sweat prickled on Pinwheel’s forehead. “I don’t really remember anything like that.”
“We need you to cooperate, ma’am.”
“I really, REALLY don’t remember anything like that.” Pinwheel’s grin sat frozen on her face. The guards once again exchanged glances. Pinwheel swallowed hard. Her throat was going dry. One of the guards opened his mouth to say something, but the creaking of a nearby door hinge silenced him. Pinwheel’s blood turned to ice in her veins. Slowly, she looked over her shoulder. Pale Hoof stood half-in and half-out of the storm cellar, supporting the door with his right hoof. Pinwheel let out a high pitched squeak. She whirled around to face the guards, “Now hold on, it’s not what you think!”
“That’s him!” The second guard shouted, pointing at Pale Hoof, “That’s the murderer!”
“Get him!” The first guard yelled, shoving Pinwheel out of the way and lunging for the cellar door. The other guard followed him. They barely made it a foot, though. A sudden burst of green lightning blinded Pinwheel. When the light faded, the entire side of the house was singed and the two pegasi guards lay on the grass. Pale Hoof gripped his scythe in his teeth. Pools of blood leaked from their sliced throats. Blood speckled their polished armor. Pinwheel turned and vomited on the grass. Pale Hoof pulled himself up out of the storm cellar and stepped calmly over the corpses. His scythe evaporated into a curl of black smoke. Pinwheel stared at him, wiping a string of drool from her chin.
“You can’t just keep KILLING ponies!” She yelled hoarsely. A whiff of the guards’ blood reached her nose. Pinwheel doubled over again, dry heaving on the grass.
“I will REVIVE them AFTER we are SAFE!” Pale Hoof’s voice modulated in volume, jumping decibels between words. Pinwheel turned, taking a long look at him. Black steam bled off his body. Tiny flakes of skin peeled off him and drifted into air. A patch lifted off his cheek, revealing bone beneath it. Pale Hoof looked down at himself, “NO…”
“Your disguise is breaking? Already?” Pinwheel asked, watching as bits of skin chipped off his face. A lock of his hair dropped from his scalp and fell on the grass, “Shoot. We’ve got to get moving.”
“AGREED.” Nearly half the skin on Pale Hoof’s face had evaporated. His right eye lolled in its exposed socket. Suddenly, Pinwheel found herself lifted into the air. A bony wing pushed free from Pale Hoof’s shoulder, cracking through the skin as though it were an eggshell. A second wing emerged on the opposite side. Twin clouds of black mist erupted from the holes. Shadowy membranes knit themselves together over his wing bones. Pinwheel grimaced.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“OF COURSE NOT.” Pale Hoof stretched out his wings. The curls of black smoke were reaching high up over the treetops. Pinwheel tilted her head back to look.
“You’re, uh, smoking.” She said, pointing out the cloud of smoke drifting above Pale Hoof’s head. He paused, glancing upward.
“MAGICAL BLEED. I CANNOT STOP IT.” He replied. Another hoof full of hair tumbled free of his scalp. When he turned to look at Pinwheel, his right eyeball popped out of its socket and dropped to the ground. Pinwheel turned a pale green. Pale Hoof frowned at the eyeball, nudging it gently with his hoof. Immediately, it exploded into ash, “WE OUGHT TO GO.”
“Where are we going?”
“The guards will find us in a heartbeat with all that smoke following you.”
“THEN WE WILL GO TO A PLACE WHERE MY MAGICAL BLEED WILL NOT BE NOTICED.” Pale Hoof took off into the air, carrying Pinwheel behind him with telekinesis. Pinwheel squinted in the wind, her eyes watering. Pale hoof hesitated a moment, then turned southeast. He tore across the sky over Ponyville, leaving the city quickly behind them. Black smoke followed in his wake, growing darker and darker and more pieces of his disguise broke off. Flying across the fields to the outside of Ponyville, Pale Hoof banked hard toward the Everfree forest. Clouds cluttered the sky above the forest. There were no pony towns anyone knew of in the forest, so naturally the pegasi in Cloudsdale ignored it. Strange rumbles and growls echoed between the overgrown trees.
“Hey, hey!” Pinwheel flailed her legs in the air, “Where are we going?”
“YOU’LL SEE.” Pale Hoof began to circle over a sparse patch of trees. He spiraled slowly downward toward the tree line. A deep, water-filled chasm cut a winding path through the forest. Low, misty clouds meandered across the forest floor. Pinwheel felt a sudden pang of recognition.
Pale Hoof found a bare patch of land and touched down. He set Pinwheel down on the grass beside him. Most all of his skin had peeled off. His left eye balanced precariously in its socket and a few stray strands of hair clung to his skull. His decaying face would send any other pony running for the hills, but Pinwheel found it comfortingly familiar. He looked much more like himself now. Turning, she gazed at the spot he’d touched down. There, at the top of a gentle slope, stood the crumbled ruins of the old Equestrian palace. Pinwheel could just barely make out the shapes of the buildings in the mist. She turned back to face Pale Hoof. “This is where we had our first date.”
“INDEED.” Pale Hoof nodded, “THE RUINS OF THE ROYAL SISTERS’ PALACE.”
Pinwheel looked at the ruins. Crumbling buildings wove between the trees. Towers, ballrooms, and courtyards, all overrun with growth. “This place is probably full of hidden rooms.” Pinwheel began, trotting toward the front door. Two massive bronze doors guarded the collapsing entrance hall, “Provided we can find a hiding place that’s not buried under rubble.”
“I DO NOT THINK RUBBLE WILL BE AN ISSUE.”
Pinwheel pushed the front door with her head. It creaked on its rusty hinges and swung inward. The entrance hall, with its piles of rubble and broken glass, looked just like it had when she’d taken Pale Hoof here on their first date. Pinwheel navigated around the rubble, looking around for any caverns or divots that might indicate a collapsed doorway or hall. As she looked over the ruins, though, she felt a sudden knot forming in her stomach.
“So…I guess this means we’re on the lam now.”
Pale Hoof looked left and right. “I DO NOT SEE ANY BABY SHEEP.”
Pinwheel groaned. “No! I mean, we’re on the run. I can’t go home until this gets sorted out. It’s goodbye Ponyville.” She scuffed her hoof against the floor, “I wish I’d had some time to pack…”
Pale Hoof paused. “I…DID NOT REALIZE THAT.”
“We’re going to be camping out here a while, I guess. At least until Celestia’s guards track us down again.” Pinwheel brushed a few pieces of broken glass and rubble aside, then sat down, “Well, we’ve got shelter. And there’s water down there in that chasm. We’ll need some wood for a fire…”
“ARE YOU SURE YOU CANNOT RETURN TO YOUR HOME?”
“Well, they have my name down in connection to a murder. And once Celestia figures out you’re here, I’ll be the first pony she talks to.”
“THAT IS TRUE.”
Pinwheel peered over her shoulder at the Reaper. “Are you sure that you can’t patch things up with Celestia?” She asked, “For me?”
“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE.”
Pinwheel nodded. “If you say so, big guy.”