“Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, dropping the scythe immediately and backing away from it as if it were a poisonous snake. “I so did not agree to this!”
Oh, but I'm afraid you so did, Rainbow Dash, Death said as he picked up the scythe and offered it back to her. And a bargain is a bargain after all.
Rainbow sat and folded her forelegs, turning her nose up at the scythe. “Not on your life!” she shouted.
No. On your life, actually.
She winced. “Okay, so, not that I’m not glad you gave me another chance,” she said, offering him her sweetest smile, “but I’m really not sure I want to go around killing ponies.”
I believe I already stated that I do not kill ponies; I merely come to collect them at the ends of their lives. Thus, you have no need for concern.
Rainbow Dash swallowed. “But… I mean, I’ve got my own life to live! I don’t want to spend it doing this!”
Oh, is that the problem? Not to worry! After all, I only wish to take a short holiday. I only need you to take over for a few days. Let's say... three? Yes, I believe that will suffice. Three days as the Grim Reaper and you will wake up amongst your friends and family in perfect health.
Rainbow Dash bit her lip. “W-well… I guess three days isn’t so bad. I mean, how many ponies die in a day anyway?”
Death shrugged. It depends. A few thousand, perhaps?
Rainbow blanched. “A few thousand?!”
Yes, but you'll be glad to know that I don't have to show up personally most of the time, Death said, waving his skeletal hoof dismissively. Actually, would you mind if we conducted this conversation somewhere more appropriate?
“Like where?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Death tapped his scythe on the ground, and the scene around them seemed to fade away into shadow. Rainbow felt as though there was blackness all around until, gradually, she became more accustomed to the light - or lack thereof - and took in her new surroundings.
They stood on a seemingly endless empty plain of bare earth the color of pumice. A starless midnight sky stretched overhead, and the only light was from a crescent moon that curved like a scythe’s blade. Nearby there was a charcoal gray house where white lilies bloomed in a garden in the yard. Behind the house was a huge field of row upon row of tall, ashen corn. She noticed that the stalks seemed to be waving slightly in the wind despite the fact that there was no wind to speak of. In fact, she realized, the entire realm was completely silent to the point that even her hoofsteps sounded eerily muffled.
The whole sight left her awestruck, and her mouth dropped open at the gothic, ethereal beauty of it.
Ah, home sweet home, Death said, motioning for Rainbow to follow him as he trotted toward the house.
“You mean you live here?” she asked.
He chuckled dryly. In a manner of speaking, I suppose, he replied.
He went to the black door of his house and opened it, going inside.
Rainbow wasn’t certain what to expect when she crossed over the threshold of Death’s house, but, to her surprise, the place looked surprisingly ordinary. There was a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, and various pictures of Death posed with surprisingly ordinary-looking ponies.
For pony’s sake, this place looks like my parents’ house, she thought.
“Um, nice house?” she ventured. “It’s… cozy?”
You're too kind, Death said. By the way, I see that you've noticed some of my photographs. I'm quite fond of that one with Hoofdini. Funny story, now that I think of it: quite a lot of ponies showed up to his funeral thinking he'd faked his death, and that it was all one big trick. I made a rare exception and let his ghost attend as well, and he thought the whole affair was hilarious. We had quite the chuckle over that one.
Rainbow grinned. “Heh. Yeah, that is a little funny,” she said, relaxing slightly.
Ah, but I digress. This way, please, he said, leading her to the living room.
(It should be noted here that the irony of Death having a “living room” struck Rainbow Dash considerably later, though such irony was actually unintended. Death refers to that room as his “parlor,” but in any case, what is important is that this is the room where Death relaxes and occasionally entertains other guests who may be ponies or beings who, much like himself, represent abstract concepts.)
Death motioned for Rainbow to have a seat on his sofa while he went to the kitchen.
You prefer your tea with lots of sugar, yes?he asked from the kitchen.
“Huh? Oh, uh, yeah,” she said, still feeling awkward given her situation.
Wonderful. I'll have it ready in a moment, Death said. While the kettle is on, I'll fetch you some necessary supplies.
For the job, he replied.
She gulped. ‘The job.’ Those two little words carried a lot of weight distributed over six letters.
Death returned with a book, a pocket watch, and a clipboard.
I'll be brief, Rainbow Dash, he said. Most ponies are quite able to accept their passing and require no help from me at all. But some are not so fortunate, and thus they require some added assistance. My appearance helps them come to terms and lets them know that someone is there to greet them.
In the end, some ponies simply can't face their fate alone. In the absence of others, I alone am there to be a friend to them. You of all ponies can appreciate that, can you not?
Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her neck. “Sure? I mean, I guess so,” she said, not very convincingly.
Death sighed. Well, perhaps you'll come to appreciate it in time. For now, here are the tools of my trade.
He set the pocket watch on the coffee table. She picked it up and saw that it had no numbers and no hands.
This watch sounds a chime whenever you are summoned. Simply stare into it, and you will know where to go, Death said.
He then passed her the clipboard. It had a few papers clipped to it, but they all looked blank to her.
When you go to reap a newly-passed soul, he explained, their name and all necessary information will appear upon the top paper. Once your task is done, sign on the bottom and leave it in my inbox in my office in the next room. I will add it to my personal ledger once I've returned from my holiday.
“Well, that’ll come in handy,” she said.
Indeed so. For all other matters, he continued, placing the book on the table, please consult this manual. It's a training guide for substitute reapers that I created for just such an occasion.
Rainbow picked it up. It was a surprisingly thin book with a black faux-leather cover. The title embossed on the front read Reaping and You: The Dos and Don’ts of Death.
She made a face. “Nopony told me I’d have to study for this job,” she said.
While the job isn't terribly complicated, Death said, leaning in close to her, his dim eyes burning coldly, I strongly recommend reading this book. Is that understood?
Rainbow swallowed. “Okay,” she squeaked.
Splendid! Death said cheerfully. That just leaves this...
He presented the long, black scythe. This time, she accepted it, if somewhat reluctantly.
With this, you may manifest your will. Return to this place with a tap to the ground. Slice through the air and you may tear through the fabric of spacetime to travel wherever you wish to go. And, should the need arise, you may use it to latch onto a soul to prevent escape should one prove... fiesty, like certain mares I could mention.
She grinned sheepishly. “Well, you can’t blame a filly for trying,” she said.
Perhaps not, he said, but be prepared to be on the receiving end of such behavior every now and again.
Finally, once a soul is ready, raise the scythe into the air to signal that they are ready to pass on. They should fade from sight, and you may then move on to the next. In any case, you must not leave until you've completed your task. Now, do you feel a bit more prepared?
“Right, right,” Rainbow said, nodding. “Sure… piece of cake!” she said, though her expression belied her discomfort.
You are not a terribly good liar, Rainbow Dash, Death said. But not to worry; I will accompany you on your first job. In the meantime, why not enjoy your tea?
“But you haven’t finished making—”
She looked down and saw that a teacup was sitting on a saucer in front of her.
“—it? Wait, when did you… I didn’t even see you bring that in!”
Time holds little meaning here, Rainbow, Death said. But you mortals are better at tricking it than you give yourselves credit for. You've heard the phrase, 'A watched pot never boils'? The true trick is to forget the tea completely if you want it made really fast.
Rainbow took a sip. She smiled. “Whoa… this tea is awesome!”
I am very glad that you like it. But still, you may wish to drink it quickly. Your first assignment should be coming along any minute now...
There was a loud chime, like the tolling of an iron bell, and Rainbow held up the watch. “Oh,” she said quietly. “Uh, can I finish my tea first?”
Don't you think we should hurry?
“I thought you said ‘time holds little meaning here,’” she shot back, giving him a smug grin.
Death chuckled. Ah, I see you are a quick learner. Still, it would not do to neglect the harvest. Drain your cup, Rainbow Dash, for our work is at hoof.
Rainbow stepped through the rift created by her scythe and found herself standing in a small kitchen. Looking out the window, she could see the skyline of Manehattan.
Death stepped in behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She watched as he pointed and then followed him over to the kitchen table.
A stallion sat alone at the kitchen table. He’d collapsed over the table and was face down in his oatmeal, still as a statue.
“Oh my gosh… is that pony… dead?!” Rainbow asked, looking back at Death.
Death slowly turned to face her. For having a face that was nothing more than a skull, he somehow managed to give her an expression that said “Are you bucking serious right now?”
“R-right, right, stupid question,” she said, looking back to the deceased pony at the table. “Uh, so what should I do?”
Use your scythe to draw his spirit out, Death said, and then we'll have a little chat with him.
Rainbow nodded. “Okay… here goes!”
She timidly held her scythe over the body and gently tapped it before yanking her scythe back as though shrinking from a venomous snake.
A shape began to take form in the air next to the body at the table, swiftly coalescing into what looked like an exact copy of it. The pony standing there looked around in confusion before settling his eyes on his own corpse.
That one word seemed to hang in the air and, for a moment, Rainbow felt a pang in her heart for this pony and what he must be going through. She’d gone through something similar herself, after all, not long before.
The pony wore an ill-fitting, shabby brown suit and his mane was thinning. He’d combed it over and his face was creased with wrinkles, though not enough to qualify him as “elderly.” His coat was reddish orange, and his cutie mark was a suitcase stuffed with papers.
“Um, excuse me?” Rainbow asked.
The stallion whirled around and gave only a momentary start when he saw her.
“Huh,” he said, his voice throaty and masculine. “I didn’t expect you to look that way.”
“Oh, I’m not—” she began, but then stopped, realizing her position. “Well, I mean, I am, but—”
She's in training, Death said. He gave a small bow. Please forgive the slight inconvenience.
“Oh, I see,” he said, nodding with surprisingly casual understanding. “I’ve had to take trainees on the job before too. It’s fine.”
Rainbow smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “So, uh, let’s get started and don’t mind if I screw up too much, okay?”
The stallion nodded. “Sure, sure, go ahead,” he said. “You already look the part with the robe and the… what do they call that curved thing? A sickle?”
Scythe, actually, Death corrected.
“Hey, do you mind?” Rainbow said. “Sickle works!”
Ah, yes. Very well, you may continue, Rainbow Dash.
Rainbow looked at her clipboard and squinted, reading the fine print on it.
“So, uh… it says here your name is… Billy Brogan?” she asked.
“That’s me,” he said, holding his head up. “Salespony extraordinaire!”
“Wife, two kids,” she continued, reading his statistics off the sheet, “financially strained, unsuccessful—”
“Hey!” he cried. “I’m… I’m just in a slump!” he added indignantly. “That’s lasted… five years oh who am I kidding!”
He heaved a sigh.
Rainbow felt a hard nudge in her side and turned to see Death elbowing her.
“You… feel like talking about it?” she asked.
“It’s not like I didn’t try,” he said, rubbing his temples. “Ponies just want a little more flash and pizzazz now! So I’m not quite as young as I used to be… I still have value! I can sell these vacuums! I can sell anything! Lemme tell you, I once sold twenty vacuums in one day to some of the best families in Canterlot!”
Rainbow Dash grinned. “That’s kinda cool!” she said. “How did—”
She felt another nudge and saw Death shaking his head. In retrospect, she realized, she probably didn’t really want to know the finer details.
“Well, anyway,” she said, “you ought to be proud.”
“I am!” he said. Then his expression weakened. “I mean… I was. That day when I sold all those vacuums was one of the best of my life. I came home, my wife was so happy, my boys were jumping around… I thought that it was just the beginning.
“But that was really just my peak. I never sold anything close to that to anypony that important. I’ve thought about what I could have done differently, but…”
He shut his eyes. “I guess now it doesn’t matter, does it? I’m dead and there’s no point worrying about what could’ve been.”
Rainbow shook her head. “No, but look on the bright side: now you don’t have to worry about it.”
Billy smiled. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “So, how’d I die anyway?”
Rainbow checked the paper. “It says here that you died of a sudden heart attack.”
His eyes bulged. “What? No way!” he shouted. “My doctor told me last year to take better care of myself, so I’ve been eating more oats!”
Rainbow Dash looked over to the bowl of oatmeal.
“Did you put cream in that?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Only a little!” Billy said defensively. “And some butter. And a little brown sugar. Just like I do… every… morning… oh. Damn.”
Rainbow covered her mouth with her hoof, trying not to laugh.
“Well, I guess I’ve got nopony to blame but myself,” he sighed. “Still, I’m glad I took out that big life insurance policy. My wife and kids will be all right with all that money.
“Heh… I’m worth more dead than I was when I was alive,” he observed, shaking his head. “I can’t decide if that’s funny or just sad.”
“You were smart enough to take care of your family,” Rainbow said. “That totally counts for something. Heck, I don’t think I’ve got a life insurance policy. If I’d croaked for real, the only thing I’d leave my friends and family is a bunch of trophies and a tortoise!”
Billy chuckled. “Well, I wish I’d retired a few years back when I had the chance, but I had a good run, and a great family,” he said. “I think that’s still something to be proud of.”
Rainbow Dash nodded.
“So… what happens now?” he asked.
Rainbow looked back at Death, who pantomimed holding up the scythe.
“Oh, right,” she said, holding the scythe aloft. “Take care, Mr. Brogan.”
“You too, rookie,” he said. He wore a serene smile on his face as his spirit faded, and then he was gone.
Well done, Rainbow Dash, Death said. Let us return to my abode, and then we can finalize things.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” Rainbow Dash said as they both stepped through the rift and back into Death’s parlor.
I am glad to hear that, Death said, though I admit that it was a fairly soft case. They may not always be so easy.
“Pfft,” Rainbow scoffed, rolling her eyes. “I was nervous at first, but after that, I think these next three days will be a piece of cake!”
Well, I would caution you against being overconfident... but perhaps it is in your nature. Oh well, you've shown the ability to roll with the punches, so even if things get tough, I believe you'll find a way forward.
“Thanks, I think?”
Death nodded and suddenly clapped his hooves together. Rainbow watched as a new rift appeared in midair.
In that case, I believe we can consider your training finished, Rainbow Dash, he said and began moving toward the rift.
“Wait, you’re leaving already?” she asked.
Well, since you feel so confident and since I am eager to begin my vacation... yes! He paused and looked over his shoulder, adjusting his straw hat slightly. I strongly suggest you read that manual closely, but you may contact me should a real emergency arise. And I do stress 'emergency,' Rainbow Dash. It must be a life and death situation... er, figuratively speaking.
She held her head high and nodded.
Excellent! he said. Oh, and one more reminder: this deal I've offered to you is not yours to offer to another. In short, don't even think of passing this job off to another pony. I've entrusted you with this duty, so nopony but you can assume it for now.
“I-I wasn’t thinking of passing it off!” she cried.
Death simply stared back at her in silence.
“Okaaay, maybe a little,” she muttered, looking away.
Apologies, Rainbow Dash, but there will be no subcontractors for this job. Now, if you'll excuse me...
Death moved to the rift, going through it. Rainbow peered inside and saw a glimpse of a sunny beach next to a crystal-blue sea.
...good luck, Rainbow Dash. I'm certain you'll do a fine job.
The rift closed, and Rainbow found herself alone in Death’s house.
“Okay,” she told herself, taking a long, calming breath. “I can do this. I’ll start by reading up on this book.”
She took a seat on Death’s couch and opened the first page. “Let’s see… ‘Chapter One: Your Scythe and You. Your scythe is like your best friend. It can do all sorts of things besides reaping. At first it can seem overwhelming! But don’t worry, you’ll be fine as long as—’”
Her watch suddenly chimed, the unnaturally loud tolling of the bell startling her badly enough to make her drop the book.
“I guess I can read this later,” she said, setting it down on the coffee table. She held up the watch. “I’ll just go ahead and take care of this pony—”
The watch chimed again.
“These two ponies—”
The watch chimed again. And again.
Rainbow Dash swallowed. “Okay then… I guess if it’s gonna be like that…”
She gripped her scythe hard and put on her best game face.
“...then let’s do this!”
She opened a new rift with her scythe and bolted through it. Her career as the Reaper was about to begin.
To be continued…