Death approached the alleyway restaurant in Canterlot, pausing to look at the elephants adorning the colorful sign above the establishment before walking inside.
Hm... what an odd decoration, Death said to himself. I was not aware of ponies eating elephants. Perhaps this is simply one of those 'design choices' mortals seem to care so much about.
Coriander Cumin, the host of the Tasty Treat, was setting things up for the morning crowd when he heard someone enter through the front door of he and his daughter’s establishment.
“Hello, and welcome to the Tasty Treat,” he said jovially. “You are in luck, sir, I was just about to open for breakfast. Though our full menu is available as well.”
The customer - whom he could not quite figure out what he actually looked like despite standing there before him - sniffed the air with a bizarre, hollow sound like air whooshing through an empty cavern or playing a sour note on an ocarina. Coriander maintained his smile but couldn’t help feeling just slightly nervous for some reason.
Hallo. I have heard that this restaurant is considered exotic, Death said.
“Well, perhaps for Canterlot, sir,” Coriander replied with a chuckle. “For my daughter - our wonderful cook - and I, it is merely the traditional food of our homeland.”
I suppose that is true; everypony's 'exotic' is somepony else's 'ordinary.' Still, I have heard that one of the ways that one may best enjoy a vacation is to try exotic cuisine. Yes, I believe I will stay for a meal.
“Wonderful!” Coriander said, showing him to his table. “Are you on vacation, sir?”
Yes. I haven't really taken one before, Death replied as he took a seat.
“Oh? How long have you been in your line of work?”
Since the first primitive intelligence on this star was able to comprehend its mortality as it collapsed, breathed its last breath, and contemplated oblivion while its comrades looked on.
Coriander’s forehead started to feel hot and itchy. He wiped his brow but kept his smile. “Then you are overdue!”
I'd also heard that lying on a white, sandy beach was fun, but I don't believe it was so for me. The only thing that happened was that my bones got bleached and a flock of seagulls kept trying to pick at me. Oh, and an ambitious crab thought to make a home out of my cranium. Not a good start to my time off.
“I see. Well, perhaps our food will be more to your liking. Here is a menu, Mr…?”
Death paused. Bill?
Coriander raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips, obviously suspicious of the very unponylike name.
Death glanced back at the entrance, considering making it his exit, and then hit on an idea.
Bill... Door? Yes, Bill Door.
Coriander relaxed. After all, lots of ponies were named “Door.” Open Door and Double Door, two regular customers, were a pair of brothers who ran a sizable door emporium shop in Canterlot, not to mention their cousin Swinging Door, who had something of a reputation for wild late-night parties that had something to do with keys. (Coriander didn’t question this, however; doors needed keys, he reasoned.)
“Well, Mr. Door, let me know if anything strikes your fancy,” he said, turning to go.
Actually, Death said, pointing at an item on the menu, I'd like to try this one.
“Ah, the vegetable curry with rice. Excellent choice, sir,” Coriander said, taking the menu back. “I’ll tell my daughter and be back shortly.”
True to his word, a few moments later he returned with a plate of steaming hot curry with a side of rice and a cup of reddish tea.
“Enjoy your meal, sir,” Coriander said, turning for a moment before pausing and turning back. “Oh, and will you be having des—”
The curry and rice were completely gone and the cup had been drained. Coriander hadn’t even heard the clatter of silverware or any of the other usual sounds of someone enjoying a meal. Nonetheless, it was gone. The stranger’s eyes seemed to glow more intensely.
“Ah… I see you were quite hungry, sir.”
Coriander started to sweat again.
Coriander breathed a sigh of relief.
Death raised a hoof. I'd like another, if you please.
Coriander blinked. “A… another entree, sir?”
Yes, if that's all right.
“Certainly! I’m certain Saffron Masala will be pleased to know how much you enjoyed it. Just a few more minutes, sir!”
As he walked away, Death felt himself relax. He’d wondered if taking a short sabbatical like this was such a good idea, but since the universe hadn’t suddenly started coming apart at the seams, he decided that Rainbow Dash must be performing the Duty well enough. Thus, he relaxed and began to enjoy his vacation, knowing that his scythe was in good hooves.
Twilight sat in silence for a moment after Rainbow finished her tale. The two of them had moved to the dining room to enjoy some tea. (Spike had been in there as well and, being unable to see Rainbow Dash, he just silently stared as Twilight had seemingly carried on a vigorous conversation with herself before quietly backing out the room.)
“I… wow,” she said. “Just… wow.” She then made a face and asked “So they actually tried to do the same musical number that got them killed?”
“I know, right?! And it wasn’t even good!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, slamming her hoof on the table.
Twilight made a face. “Bizarre.”
“Yeah, this is definitely the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Rainbow said before heaving a sigh.
Though Rainbow was often prone to hyperbole, this was not an exaggeration. Becoming the Grim Reaper was very easily the strangest thing that had happened to her. For the curious, the second strangest thing was an incident involving the theft of over 800 pieces of underwear from Victorious Secret’s shop in Manehattan by an untrustworthy relative who tried to shift the blame onto her that she spent the better part of a month explaining to Cloudsdale police before finally deciding to just move to Ponyville and be done with the whole thing before her reputation suffered any further. As a distant third, there was the time she and the others had been turned into Breezies. When being turned into a member of another species is a distant third in terms of one’s strangest experiences (and it’s not even the only time such a thing has happened), one might be tempted to think hard on one’s life choices.
Rainbow, however, was not one for introspection, and so she said “So, did you know about this whole thing?”
“Huh?” Twilight asked. “What thing?”
“The whole ‘magic users can see Death’ thing,” she replied, purposefully bulging her eyes for emphasis.
“Oh, well, I’d read about it in old legends and there were some old professors at Celestia’s school back in Canterlot,” Twilight said, tapping her chin as she reminisced. “I honestly thought it was something they made up to scare foals.”
“Well, you did seem pretty scared when I first showed up,” Rainbow said smugly.
Twilight rolled her eyes. “And I’m sure you were perfectly calm when you saw Death standing in front of you and in no way, shape, or form tried to fly away and then begged him to spare you when you lost at Monopony.”
Rainbow blushed. “Okay, fair point,” she muttered.
“So, you never told me how you figured out that magic users can see Death,” Twilight said. “Did you just happen to get spotted by somepony with magical ability?”
“Huh? Oh, no, uh… the Death of Yaks told me.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, that’s a thing,” Rainbow said. “Anyway, I looked it up in my book just to make sure, and then I came over here.”
Twilight suddenly leaned forward. “Did you say… book?”
Rainbow’s eyes bulged, and she started to grin. “Hey, yeah! Death never said I couldn’t let anypony else look at it!”
She took up her scythe, slashed a rift back to Death’s domain, and went through it, shortly returning with the book in her hoof.
“This is the book that Death gave me and—”
Twilight had already snatched the book from Rainbow. She was wearing a wide grin as her eyes sparkled.
“Incredible… a book written by Death himself! What strange mysteries and new discoveries lie in wait between these pages?!”
Rainbow blinked. “It’s… kinda cut-and-dry, really,” she said. “I got through some of it, but it’s pretty boring. I mean, A for effort to Death and all, but he makes something as metal as being Death itself seem like any other job.”
“To him it probably is,” Twilight observed, dragging herself out of her book euphoria. “Still…”
Rainbow paused, thinking for a moment. “Hey, since you seem so interested in the book, maybe you could read it for me and just give me the short version of things I need to know!”
Twilight frowned. “That sounds a bit like cheating.”
“It’s not cheating!” Rainbow said, crossing her forelegs. “It’s like we’re… study buddies!”
“More like tutoring at best.”
Rainbow sighed. “Look, I don’t want to screw this up, and all I’ve got to do is last two more days before Death lets me off the hook, and I can come back to life! If you aren’t going to help me, then give me the book back so I can read it myself!”
Rainbow reached for the book, but Twilight held it close to her chest and backed away. “B-but I wanted to read it!”
“Then cut me a break and help me figure this out!” Rainbow exclaimed.
Twilight sighed. “Okay. I guess it’s a small price to pay for getting to read it. And I guess you’re right. If this helps you get through this and come back to us, then it’s worth it, Rainbow.”
She smiled, and Rainbow couldn’t help but smile back in return.
“Oh, by the way, Twilight,” Rainbow said, “do me a favor and don’t tell the rest of our friends about this okay? It’d just make things more complicated, and it’s not like they could see me anyway.”
“What about Starlight?” Twilight asked.
At that moment, the door to the dining room opened and Starlight walked through, levitating a plate of pancakes.
“Good morning Twili—”
She froze when she saw the cloaked figure holding a scythe. The pancakes clattered to the ground.
“YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME, REAPER!” she screeched, and suddenly shot forth a massive beam of energy from her horn that engulfed Rainbow, leaving nothing but a wisp of smoke as she ran screaming from the room.
Twilight stood there in shock before a new rift appeared and Rainbow stepped back through it.
“...So, yeah, turns out that being Death means that I can’t ‘die’ and just pop back into Death’s dimension, so that’s good to know,” she said, “but do me a favor and have a talk with Starlight later.”
Twilight massaged her temples. “Yeah… yeah, I probably should.”
“Anyway, do you mind if I hang out here and read some Daring Do books while you study? I don’t have anywhere else to be right now, so—”
There was the sudden sound of a tolling iron bell that rang throughout the dining room.
“What in Equestria was that?!” Twilight asked.
“Ugh, it looks like duty calls,” Rainbow said, taking out her watch. She looked at it for a moment and then grew quiet. “Oh no…”
“What?” Twilight asked. When she didn’t get a response from Rainbow, she asked again “Rainbow, what is it?”
“I… I gotta go, Twilight,” she said. “This is… it’s somepony I know. I really hoped it wouldn’t be.”
Twilight swallowed. “Family?” she asked cautiously.
“No, and not even a close friend, but still…” She heaved a sigh. “I should go take care of this. I’ll be back later and we can talk about the book then. See ya, Twilight.”
Twilight nodded as Rainbow created a new rift and stepped through. It vanished a moment later, leaving Twilight alone once again.
Twilight looked at the book and hesitated for just a moment before opening it and beginning to read.
Rainbow found herself in a darkened bedroom with bare wood floorboards. Across the room was a bed with a nightstand next to it. On the nightstand was a picture of Berry’s younger sister Pinchy and an empty bottle. A few more empty bottles were lying on the floor nearby.
And in the bed, totally motionless with limbs splayed out as if making the world’s worst snow angel, was the body of Berry Punch.
“Aw, jeez, Berry,” Rainbow muttered to herself, bowing her head.
She didn’t know Berry very well. She probably knew Berry the same way everyone else in Ponyville knew her: as the town party animal.
Oh, sure, Pinkie threw the best parties, but it wasn’t really a party unless Berry Punch showed up. She’d been called Berryshine as a child, but took her new name once her legendary punches became famous. They were sweet and festive and fruity… and after dark, when the colts and fillies were at home, they were unbelievably potent.
Her sangria, for instance, was practically the lifeblood of any raucous bash where ponies expected to be brought home stacked on top of each other in a cart. (Big Mac, being a teetotaler, made a killing on weekends doing this.) It was a perfect mixture of wines, fruit juices, brown sugar, rum, brandy, and some special fizzy water she got direct from Manehattan.
The first time Rainbow Dash had gone to an adult party in Ponyville, Berry had offered her a tall cup of that punch. She had no memory of what happened next, but she could take a guess based on the numerous citations she’d received from city hall fining her for making “obscene shapes out of cloud formations.”
The fines hadn’t been fun, but she had to admit that she’d laughed once she saw the pictures.
But now Berry Punch would not be going to any more parties, at least not in this world. Rainbow idly wondered if there was hard liquor in heaven (and sure hoped so), but shook herself free of those thoughts to do what needed to be done.
“Sorry about this, Berry,” she whispered, and raised her scythe.
With a quick tap on Berry’s corpse, her soul sat up and stretched its forelegs.
“Hmmmm, wow,” Berry said, stretching her back, “I was expecting a hangover, but I don’t feel a thing!”
She smacked her lips and got out of bed, and that’s when she locked eyes with Rainbow Dash.
“Hey, Berry,” Rainbow said softly.
Berry’s eyes widened. “Oh no… oh man,” she smacked her forehead and shut her eyes. “I can’t believe this happened again.”
Rainbow blinked. “Wait, what?”
Berry sighed and tried to smile. “Heyyy, so, I’ll be totally honest: I do not remember what happened last night. I’m not sure what you’re doing here Rainbow, but just so you know, sometimes when I drink too much I get a little… experimental. But the truth is that I’m, um… not into mares.”
Rainbow stared back at her blankly. “What?”
“I mean, not that you aren’t pretty and everything!” Berry said hastily. “It’s just that I don’t like you that way. I’m reeeally sorry… but at least that does settle things. I mean,” she chuckled, elbowing Rainbow in the ribs, “ponies have been wondering about you for a while, if you know what I mean…”
Rainbow continued staring back at her.
“Jeez, Rainbow, you’re making this kind of awkward,” Berry said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Look, I’ll make you breakfast if you want, and I’ll be glad to hang out the next time we have a party, but, well, I mean… whatever we did last night, it didn’t really mean anything.”
Rainbow said nothing for a moment. Then it finally clicked. Her eyes went wide.
“Wait, you think… you mean you thought that you and I…?”
“Oh, so we didn’t?” Berry asked. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh thank Celestia, I did not want to have to deal with this crap again after that thing with Lyra. And then that thing with Bon Bon. And then that thing with Lyra and Bon Bon—”
“Ewww!” Rainbow said, having stopped listening once she’d figured out Berry’s meaning.
Berry made a face. “What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t think I’m good enough for you?!”
“What?! No, it’s not that—”
“I’ll have you know that I’m a huge catch!” Berry shouted. “Fun, perky, great kisser…”
“Look, that’s not why I’m here—”
“You don’t believe me? Here, check this out!” Berry puckered up and reached for Rainbow.
“Gah! No, darn it, Berry, I’m not here for any of that, so cut it out!” she said, shoving Berry away roughly.
“Well, you don’t have to act so disgusted,” Berry grumbled.
“Look, I’m here because you’re… well…”
Berry stared at her. “I’m… what? You better not say alcoholic! I swear, if this is another intervention...”
Rainbow sighed. “You’re dead, Berry,” she said quietly.
Berry was silent. “Are you threatening me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Then what do you mean I’m dead? I’m right here! In fact, I feel great! I’m—”
Rainbow grabbed Berry by the face and turned her around to look at her corpse stretched out motionless on her bed.
“Huh,” Berry said. “That’s… weird.”
“Look, Berry, it’s a long story, but I’m here because I’m doing the Grim Reaper’s job for a little while, and the bottom line is that you’re dead, and I’m here to help you, um… pass on.”
“But… that’s… I mean, what did I even die of?!”
Rainbow checked her clipboard. “According to this, alcohol poisoning.”
“Oh, that’s a bunch of horse hockey!” Berry said, rolling her eyes. “I can hold my liquor!”
“Apparently a lot of it,” Rainbow remarked. “Enough to kill you, in fact.”
“I have a very high resistance! There’s no way I’d just croak from alcohol poisoning!”
“Well, this paper and your corpse say otherwise.”
“Look, I can’t be dead, I must be…”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow. Oh, this oughta be good.
Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes. “Resting,” she repeated.
“Yeah!” Berry said. “This is just a dream or one of those, uh… out of body experiences! In fact, that’s probably why I don’t have a hangover: I’m still asleep!”
“No, Berry,” Rainbow groaned, “you’re dead. Like, really really dead. Dead as a doornail. Stiff as a board. Cadaverific.”
“No, no, this is all just a booze-induced fever dream,” Berry said, going over to her body, stroking her chin (her soul’s chin, not her body’s chin, just to be clear). “I’m just asleep.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Okay, if you’re just sleeping, then I’ll wake you up,” she said, trotting over to the other side of the bed. She put her muzzle right next to Berry’s corpse’s ear.
“Berryyyyyy!” she shouted. “Wakey wakey! I’ve got a nice Bloody Marey with your name on it if you wake up!”
She tapped on Berry’s forehead.
“Testing, testing!” she said. She lifted Berry’s foreleg and dropped it, only for it to drop back down limply. She then slapped her several times across the face, eliciting no reaction at all. “This is your nine o’clock alarm call!”
Berry glared at her.
“See? Now that’s what I’d call a dead pony.”
Berry shook her head. “No no, I’m just in a really deep sleep. You’ll see, any minute now I’ll wake up and voom!”
Rainbow groaned. “Berry, this pony wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through her!” she shouted. “This pony is no more! She has ceased to be! Bereft of life, she rests in peace! I’d slap her again to try to prove my point but, much like the point I’m trying to make, that would be beating a dead horse!”
Berry bit her lip. “I… no.”
“Berry Punch, look, I’m sorry, but—”
“No, you know what, I don’t accept this!” Berry shouted. “I can fix this, I just need to get back in there and then everything will be fine!”
Rainbow Dash stared at her. “You know, nopony else gave me this much trouble,” she said.
“Yeah, and look where that got ‘em! Dead!” Berry retorted. She climbed onto the bed. “Okay, so, maybe if I…”
She shoved her leg into her corpse’s mouth, as if trying to put on her body like a pair of pants.
“What the heck are you doing?!” Rainbow asked. “You can’t get back in there that way!”
“Well, I’m sure as heck not taking the other route!” Berry shot back.
Rainbow blinked. “Oh, gross… that is so not what I meant!”
“Oh, you mean I’ve got the right entrance, I just need to try this headfirst?” Berry asked. “Perfect!”
Rainbow heaved another long sigh and took a step back. “You know what? Fine,” she said. “I’m just going to watch this play out until you accept that you’re really dead.”
“Well, be prepared to wait a long time!” Berry snapped. She leaned down and pried her body’s mouth open.
“Ugh… wow, is my breath always this bad?!” she groaned, recoiling from the stench emanating from her body’s mouth. “No wonder my love life is on the rocks!”
“If it makes you feel better, your breath’s probably much worse now that, you know, you’re actually dead.”
Berry ignored that, took a deep breath, and managed to shove her head into her body’s mouth.
(For those wondering how she was able to do this, it turns out that since your spirit is incorporeal, it doesn’t have to follow the same sorts of rules physical objects often do. Thus, with enough willpower, the ghost of a pony could conceivably thread their entire ethereal body through the very literal eye of a needle. This works for the spirits of other beings, by the way, with the strange exception of camels.)
Rainbow started to laugh. “Oh my gosh, you look ridiculous!” she managed to say. “I can’t believe you’re even managing to fit that far in!”
“Sh-shut up!” Berry’s muffled voice said as she pushed herself further down her body’s esophagus. “Ugh, this is so gross… but it’ll be worth it to be back in my body and see the look on your face!”
“Okay, if you say so,” Rainbow said, wondering if it would be inappropriate for her to raid Berry’s pantry and make popcorn while she watched this bizarre spectacle.
“I can do this… just… a little… further…!”
Suddenly something gave and Berry suddenly slid forward, her entire spiritual body entering her physical one.
The body opened its eyes.
Rainbow froze. “Wait… what?!”
Berry Punch sat up and turned to face Rainbow Dash. “Ha! I told you I could do it! In your face, Rainbow Dash!”
“B-but… I mean… how?!”
“I’ll tell you how,” Berry said, placing a hoof on her chest. “Sheer willpower! Guess I’m not as dead as you think!”
“Whoa, wait, this… this has gotta be a mistake…”
“Well, if you say so,” Berry said smugly, hopping off the bed and making her way to the bathroom. “I’m gonna go take a bath and get my day started. I think I’ll schedule a nice day of being alive. You can see yourself out and find some ponies who really are dead. Don’t worry, we all make mistakes!”
Berry slammed the door behind her while Rainbow continued staring after her, but then Rainbow’s brain re-engaged, and she flew to the door and started pounding on it.
“Hey, wait a second! I’m pretty sure this isn’t supposed to happen!” she shouted.
“What’s that?” Berry shouted back. “I can’t hear you over the bath running and you sucking at your job!”
Rainbow groaned. “Look, Berry, I—”
Just then, her watch gave off several more chimes.
“Okay, you know what? Fine!” she yelled, stamping her hooves on the floor. “Sure, pretend to be alive! See if I care! I’ll go handle these other ponies until you come to your senses! Let me know when you’re ready to accept the truth!”
She sliced through the air with her scythe and hurried off through the rift she created. A moment later it closed, leaving Berry Punch’s bedroom empty.
Inside the bathroom, Berry stuck her hoof in the tub as it continued to fill.
“Come on, can’t this water get any hotter?” she grumbled. Then she shivered, grumbling “No idea why, but I just can’t seem to get warm this morning…”
Rainbow stared at the stallion before her as they stood by the side of a dirt road on a steep hill in the middle of a forest. The stallion was an orange pony with a black shirt on. He wore a racing helmet but removed it, revealing a closely trimmed blonde mane. He had beady eyes, and she did not care much for his grin or the hungry look he was giving her.
“Hey girl, I tell ya whut, ya got that dang ol’ like goth look thing goin’ on there, man, but it’s cool, it’s cool, like with that dang ol’ bit with the, like, cloak an’ that curved pokey thing be like ‘Shah, the darkness within!’ gives me the dang ol’ willies, man, but… like a good way, man.”
She blinked. “Not sure what you mean, sir,” she said slowly, “but… I’m the Grim Reaper, and you’re dead.”
“Whoa, hey man whatchu talkin’ bout bein’ all dead like… sounds like a dang ol’ bit o’ roleplay, man, talkin’ like… ain’t one to judge or nothin’ man, just… freaks me out with that Reaper stuff, man, but if you’re into it back at my place if you’re interested.” He raised an eyebrow.
“No, seriously,” Rainbow said, ignoring his proposition. “You were racing your derby cart down that hill, lost control, and hit that tree.”
He turned and saw the wreckage of his cart. He also noticed the pony-shaped object wrapped around - and decently embedded into - a large pine tree. His eyes bulged.
“Yeah, that’s you,” Rainbow said, pointing at the corpse. “I mean, I’m kind of impressed you went fast enough to smack into the tree that hard, if it makes you feel any better.”
He dropped the helmet and fell to his knees.
“Oh no, man! I tell ya whut I just… just dang ol’ built that thang I tell ya whut, always be like… ‘safety dad gum first’ can’t believe I… I mean just dang ol’ look at this, man, I done gone and… like… all smooshed into that dad gum tree like… geh… dang ol’...”
He unexpectedly broke into uncontrollable sobbing.
Rainbow cringed, watching all his swagger and bravado drain from him. She gently patted him on the back.
“Uh, there there,” she said. “Hey, at least you died doing what you loved, right?”
“Man, lemme tell you whut, man, got that dang ol derby, wind in yer face just gotta be like, dang ol’ hoot an’ holler, just… just never quite knew that dang ol’ ‘live fast die hard’ kinda crap there man, just… like…”
He closed his eyes. “...dang ol’ cycle of life, man,” he finished solemnly.
“So, um, that… sounds like you’ve come to terms?” Rainbow Dash asked.
The stallion nodded.
“Whew! Okay, happy trails!” she raised her scythe and offered him a warm smile. “And hey, if there’s an afterlife, maybe we can race sometime!”
He gave her a wink as he faded away.
She grinned for a moment and then created a new rift to go on to her next job.
“So, what’ll you have, stranger?” the dusty brown mare behind the bar asked.
I have heard that many ponies celebrate their vacations with a drink, Death said.
Dust Devil blinked. Something almost registered with her, but not quite.
“I suppose that’s true,” she said. “Well, if ya feel like celebratin’, then how about a nice glass o’ Old Overcoat whiskey. I got this here bottle from Old Overcoat himself!”
You are very kind, Death said.
He was seated at a bar in Appleloosa, and the bartender, Dust Devil, was particularly cordial. He’d kept a supply of hard drink at his home for his more esteemed guests, rare though they were, but he never indulged himself. Still, he could recall somewhere in his journeys that ponies who went on vacation often indulged in food and drink, and now that he’d indulged in food (quite a lot, to the amazement of Coriander Cumin and Saffron Masala, his generous hosts at the Tasty Treat), he decided drink was next on the agenda.
Dust Devil returned with the glass.
Death drained it. (Or at least the whiskey was very suddenly not there.)
“How is it?”
Wet, Death replied. Am I having fun yet?
Dust Devil raised an eyebrow. “Well, ya might give it some time, stranger. Though I suggest ya pace yerself. I mean, this stuff is powerful strong an’ ya seem - if you’ll excuse me - a mite thin. I’d even call ya skeletal.”
Thank you? Death offered.
Dust Devil raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t meant her statement to be a compliment, but at least her patron wasn’t insulted.
“Tell ya what,” she said, pouring him a glass, “things are a mite slow here, so lemme pour ya another glass an’ tell ya a tale. It’s all about me an’ a bunch o’ ponies that met up in the Crystal Empire…”
Please do. I love stories, Death said.
Some time later…
“...And then she goes ‘just putting it out there, no pressure - but I really ought to say it: you two have missed a lot of birthday presents for your grandkids.’”
Dust Devil laughed at the end of her tale. “So that’s my story, stranger. Whaddya think?”
That was lovely, Death said, his forelegs resting on the bar. And I know that feeling. I have pershonally never been invited to a birfday party.
Dust Devil raised an eyebrow. Her patron appeared to be drunk, which made sense after he’d drained the entire bottle of Old Overcoat in less than an hour (and a few more bottles after that, she realized). It was more surprising that he was still standing at all, but still, at least he was still the relatively mellow type of drunk, as opposed to the belligerent kind.
“Seriously?” she asked. “Not even yer own? Didn’t yer Ma an’ Pa ever throw ya a party?”
I had neither a Ma, nor a Pa, nor could I really say that I was 'born,' Death replied, resting his bony forehead on the bar. And it'sh not like anypony ivitesh me to their birfday party...
Dust Devil’s smile became forced. “Oh, um… is that right?”
Everypony hateshhh meeee... he groaned.
“Aw, c’mon,” Dust Devil said, patting him on the shoulder, ignoring the fact that it felt like patting a sack full of dice. “Ya seem like an okay feller to me! Ya must have some friends somewhere, right?”
Well, I - hic - suppose, Death said, raising his head. But not many ponies would call me a friend.
“Well, I like ya just fine, stranger!” Dust Devil said, giving him a warm smile.
Reeeally? Death asked, stepping back from the bar. That'sh the nicest thing anypony'sh ever said to me...
He put a bag on Dusty’s bar. Thish should cover everything, he said, turning toward the swinging door of the saloon. I think I'll go meet up with my old friends. We haven't met up shhhhenturies!
Dusty was about to ask what he meant, but then she looked inside the bag. The coins inside didn’t look like bits, but judging by the strange markings and the text on them, they were most likely very old, and probably worth more than your average bit.
She would be even more surprised when she discovered that they were pre-Equestrian coins minted by Chancellor Puddinghead’s regime of earth ponies and often placed on the closed eyelids of dead ponies when they were buried.
“Apples! We got fresh apples right here!” Applejack called as she stood next to her cart in the Ponyville marketplace. It was a busy morning as usual in the marketplace, with throngs of shoppers browsing the stalls, stands, and carts to stock up on produce, grains, and a few other necessities. In addition to apples, Applejack usually brought some of Granny Smith’s pies, some jars of applesauce, apple butter, leftover zap apple jam, and occasionally some things that had absolutely nothing to do with apples (but you had to ask about those and come back when it wasn’t so busy; AJ had a reputation to uphold, after all).
“I’ll take a few apples!”
Applejack turned to face the speaker and gave a start.
Berry Punch was standing there. That, in and of itself, was not surprising. Berry was a regular customer, after all. What was surprising was how she looked.
“Uh, you all right, Berry?” Applejack asked, raising an eyebrow. “Yer lookin’ a mite rough around the edges today.”
Applejack did not voice her specific meaning, which was that Berry looked like she had partied a bit too hard the previous evening and not done a very good job of making herself look presentable.
“Me? I’m fine!” Berry said, waving a hoof dismissively. “Why do you ask?”
Berry’s eyes looked sunken and yellow. Her coat somehow looked a bit duller than usual. The way she was moving looked a bit stiff and unnatural, as if her joints had turned to metal and then immediately rusted over.
But it was more than that. There was a feeling Applejack got when she looked at Berry. Something that wasn’t easily put into words, like catching the faint whiff of something awful on the wind but not knowing exactly what it was or where it had come from.
Applejack decided to be diplomatic and forced herself to smile. “Oh, no reason, I s’pose,” she said, tipping her hat. “Just thought you looked a little tired is all. Sorry, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Berry smiled. “No problem, Applejack! Anyway, I’ll take a dozen apples, please!”
Applejack piled the apples into the bag and gave them over to Berry, who immediately placed them in her saddlebag.
“An’ here’s an extra, on the house!” Applejack said, tossing a shiny red apple to her.
Berry caught it. “Well, don’t mind if I do!” she said.
She breathed on it and polished it on her chest before taking a bite. Then she made a face and spat it out.
Applejack blanched. Oh gosh, I sure hope there wasn’t a worm in that one! Out loud she asked “What’s wrong, Berry?”
Berry Punch held up the apple. The insides were brown and mushy.
“It’s rotten,” Berry said, narrowing her eyes. There was most definitely an edge to her voice. The kind of edge so noticeable that one could reasonably expect a cartoon coyote to fall off it.
“But… that’s impossible! I picked this batch of apples just this mornin’!”
Berry’s expression didn’t change. She brought the bag of apples back out and practically shoved them back into Applejack’s hooves. Then she held out an empty hoof expectantly.
Applejack sighed and returned Berry’s bits.
“Look, I won’t hold this against you, Applejack,” she said, turning to go. “Honestly, there must be some kind of blight or something going around. This keeps happening today! I can’t get decent produce to save my life today!”
Applejack watched her go. She reached back into the bag that Berry had given her. She gasped.
“That can’t be,” she muttered.
She brought out the apples, the ones that had been fresh and firm mere moments ago. They were already going soft and had brown spots on them. She went to the other apples on her cart and found that they were showing the first signs of rot as well. Worse, her other products, at least the perishable ones, were also starting to turn: Granny’s pies had mold on them and the applesauce and apple butter were starting to ferment.
“What the hay is goin’ on here?!”
She closed her stand and went up the road to check out the rest of the marketplace, following a sickening gut instinct that she hoped was wrong.
It wasn’t. All throughout the marketplace, vendors who prided themselves on the freshest produce in town suddenly found themselves with ruined fruits and vegetables. She wondered about Berry’s suspicion about blight, but that seemed unlikely… she knew of no blight that worked so quickly and struck every single vegetable.
All she knew was that something was rotten in Equestria.
She decided to return to Sweet Apple Acres. After all, there was no point in trying to sell rotten goods.
I should tell Twilight about this, too, she thought. Maybe it’s nothin’ serious an’ I’m just overreactin’, but somethin’ about this feels wrong. It ain’t natural, an’ somethin’ about it makes me feel strange.
She paused. She realized that she actually did feel very strange all of a sudden. She felt lightheaded and dizzy. Her steps became unsteady, and she broke out into a cold sweat. “Ugh,” she groaned. “What the—”
She began to cough. She decided to sit down for a moment.
“Maybe I better rest fer a spell,” she mumbled.
Up the road, she heard another cough. Then several more. The sound began to echo out over the marketplace.
To be continued...