The ballroom was as beautiful as any other part of Castle Canterlot. So to was the flower arrangement next to the podium. Carnations, roses, gladioli, all artfully arranged.
It was almost enough to make one overlook the dead body in the center of that arrangement.
Stygian found he couldn't look away from the bier, from the wizened body almost lost amid those flowers. Those sunken eyes, those visible ribs, that wispy beard… surely this couldn’t be his friend. Surely Star Swirl the Bearded couldn't have simply died in his sleep. There must have been some mistake, and Star Swirl would soon appear to chastise everypony for being so foolish and mistaking that sad cadaver for one such as him.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?”
Stygian flinched at that. He hadn’t even heard Somnambula approach. Her mourning robes weren’t much different from her usual ones; the greatest changes lay in her jewelry. The heads of jackals, ibises, and crocodiles all featured heavily. Her blindfold, the same one that the sphinx had bound her with and had come to be imbued with her Hope, the same one he had sought to duplicate, was wrapped around her neck like a scarf. Her expression—
A nudge of her wing against his modern suit jacket got him out of it. “You’re brooding, Stygian.”
Some local—noble or arcanist, Stygian wasn't sure which and frankly didn't care—cleared her throat. Somnambula rolled her eyes at her and led Stygian towards the back of the room. “You more than anypony need to talk about this,” she said once they had some privacy.
“Why, because I’ll try to enshroud the world in eternal darkness if I don’t?” He winced. “I’m sorry, that—“
“No. Today, you have no need to apologize. I know it is hard for many to face death. My people… we learned much from the Anugyptians. That while life is to be cherished, death is just another part of the journey.” She spread a wing across his back. “But I cannot expect such acceptance from everypony. Even in my own homeland, ponies thought I was strangely sanguine about it. Hope is often mistaken for madness.” She smiled. “One need only look at Pinkie Pie to see how that has not changed.”
That managed to coax a pained chuckle out of Stygian. One that soon became a sob. “It’s just… It doesn’t seem possible. He always seemed stronger than a minotaur and more stubborn than a donkey. I always thought death had tried to come for him before we’d even met him, and had learned its lesson.”
“Aye. So it seemed.” Rockhoof said from Stygian’s other side, grey lacing his elaborately braided beard. He wore a medallion of his own cutie mark, whose meaning he’d never been able to explain to any of the other Pillars’ satisfaction. Still, at least he was as hale as ever. For now. “But even the mightiest fall with time, lad.”
“Logically, I knew that, yes. Emotionally…” Stygian shook his head. He was vaguely aware of alicorns giving their eulogies, Celestia and Luna as students, Twilight as one too humble to ever think of herself as a teacher to one such as Star Swirl. He was sure they were exquisite, respectful, everything that Star Swirl would either love or hate. The thought made something spark in the depths of his sorrow. “What do you think he’d think of all of this?” He waved a hoof over the entire proceedings, the black-garbed mourners, the banners detailing every work from the amniomorphic spell to the Unfinished Theorem of Destiny, that blasted mound of flowers.
Even Stygian’s fugue couldn’t hide the clanking that preceded the answer. “Oh, he’d hate it,” said Flash Magnus. He’d come in full armor, some old pegasus tradition that even the pegasi had forgotten about judging by how he was the only one so garbed. It covered scars old and new, and enough medals that Flash probably didn't even need the skyplate. “Probably complain the whole time about how everypony was wasting time that could be put to better use. To say nothing of all the details everypony got wrong. If he couldn’t find any, he’d make some up.”
Rockhoof nodded. “Aye, I can hear him now.” In a passable imitation of Star Swirl’s voice, he pointed at one of the banners and grumbled, “That rune’s bent the wrong way! It’s a good thing you all like funerals so much; we’ll have a lot more coming soon!”
Stygian wasn’t the only one who laughed at that. It got a few dirty looks from the milling crowd, but how many of them had ever known the stallion? Oh, sure, they knew his name and his deeds, but how many had known him?
A nudge strong enough to make Stygian stumble got him to look at Rockhoof. “Lad, you’re sayin’ that out loud.”
“You’re not wrong, but still,” added Flash.
“Oh.” A part of Stygian he didn’t like to think about found some dark satisfaction in the abashed looks of the crowd. Still, he bowed his head to those looking the most abashed. “I am sorry.”
The ponies mumbled some apologies and drew away. But none of Stygian’s friends did. There was that.
Meadowbrook shuffled in, maneuvering her Rarity original like a captain guiding a ship as the crow’s feet around her eyes wrinkled further in her concern. “Stygian, cher, you look horrible.” She looked around and leaned in close. “If you could pull a few o’ those carnations away from Star Swirl, I could mix you up somethin’. The punch is halfway to a potion as it is.”
Stygian stood poleaxed for a moment. “I… don’t believe that will be necessary, thank you.”
“If you’re sure. He’d probably be happy to know somepony was findin’ a use for the things.”
Somnambula nodded. “He was very practical like that.” After a moment, she added, “Aside from the bells. I never understood the bells.”
“I don’t think you were supposed to understand the bells,” said Stygian. “You were just supposed to talk about them. We’re still talking about them. They add to the legend.”
“Like the beard?”
Rockhoof shook his head, his lips curled up just the smallest bit. “Neigh, lass, he grew a beard same reason I did. Couldn’t be bothered to shave. Not like today with their magic trimmers from another world.”
Meadowbrook looked at the podium, where an orange alicorn was giving a eulogy that seemed to focus heavily around dimensional travel and proper waste disposal. “Who is this ‘Princess Sunset Shimmer’ anyway? I ain’t never heard o’ her.”
“A strange mare from a stranger land. We’d probably find her company familiar.” The Pillars turned to their last member. Mistmane’s body glimmered in the light of the ballroom, more crystalline than even Princess Cadance or her foals, a stark contrast to her matte black kimono. But that glimmering came from an incredible gauntness. Frail as she was, Stygian couldn’t help but think the overall effect was that of an ornately folded dust cover over a delicate, possibly even misshapen glass statue.
“How you doin’, Mist?” said Meadowbrook, moving to her side and standing ready to offer any kind of needed support.
Mistmane waved her back. “I am fine, my friend,” she said in good humor. “It was not my life I sacrificed, only my beauty. I will be quite the sight when my own time comes, but that isn’t for a while yet.”
Stygian took in his friends and felt something twist in his gut. He couldn’t tell if it was guilt or the loss of it. “Thank you. All of you.”
That got looks of confusion from all of them. “For what?” said Flash.
“For…” He struggled for a moment, trying to find words that could describe a feeling he couldn't even recognize. “For allowing me to come, I suppose. For being here for me.”
“It has been years since Limbo, Stygian. Not only are you forgiven, you have even profited from it.” A playful smile belied Somnambula's glare. “I am still waiting for book six. A. K. Yearling can only satisfy me for so long.”
“You have always been one of us, even when we were too proud to see it,” said Mistmane. She bowed her head to him. “If anything, we should be thanking you for honoring the old fool with your presence one last time.”
“And we’re not abandoning you after the last time.” Rockhoof reached for his shovel, no doubt to thump the ground with it to emphasize the point, but he’d gone without for the occasion. He made do with a hoof and pressed on regardless. “We all learned from those mistakes.”
“I suppose we did. Even Star Swirl.” Stygian looked back to what was left of the wizard he’d once idolized.
Several dozen ponies stared back. It was then when he realized just how quiet it had gotten.
Stygian looked around. The other Pillars seemed just as confused. He hung his head as he turned back. “I’m dreadfully sorry. I was being most disrespectful. I… I should go—”
“You’re fine, Stygian,” Princess Twilight said from next to the podium. She smiled and stepped further from it. After a bit of head tossing, she got her ethereal mane to flow in the other direction and stop blocking the way. “I just thought you might want to say a few words yourself.”
Stygian felt his jaw drop. “Me?”
Another incredible nudge sent him a few steps forward. “Nopony better, lad,” Rockhoof said.
Swallowing his nerves, Stygian let the momentum carry him forward. At the podium, he looked across the room. His friends still gathered together in one distant corner of the room, while so many others…
So many others were waiting to hear his words and thoughts. How was that so different from his usual life in this modern era?
The thoughts flowed out of him. “Star Swirl the Bearded was many things to many ponies. A teacher. A legend. A loyal ally. A deadly foe.” A nod to Princess Sunset. “A misguided garbagestallion.” A few uncertain laughs sprang up and died an awkward, painful death. “It was not until we emerged from Limbo that anypony could truly call him a friend, but he focused on learning that new magic with as much dedication as any other discipline. And now…”
At last, the words clicked into place. “Now we must say farewell to a stallion who seemed like he would last forever, but he would not want us to live in sorrow. He fought to preserve light in a time when the shadows encroached from all sides. I speak from experience when I say they are hard to shake from your mind, but we will honor him by doing so. We have but only to look about us to see all the good he brought into the world, whether through his work or his students. Let us honor it and carry on his legacy. Do not allow the light to dim because one of its caretakers is no longer with us. Let every day be brighter than the last, for the knowledge that Star Swirl was once with us, and that we carry on his work.” Stygian thrust a hoof in the air. “To Star Swirl!”
“To Star Swirl!” The shout didn’t cover the whole room. A few looked at him ridiculously, trying to toast with an invisible mug. But the other Pillars, the alicorns, all the brightest lights in the room all followed suit.
And for a moment, Stygian could’ve sworn he saw Star Swirl himself smile.