Albert sat hunched over the kitchen table, head in his hands, muttering and cursing to himself, stopping only to take a long drag from what was once possibly a cigarette, followed by half a minute of coughing.
… … Completely super-duper-ultra-wultra sure?
More for me!
Another tray of freshly baked confectioneries disappeared into the apparently bottomless stomach of Pinkie Pie. It was the third she’d baked since she’d returned.
Barely an hour ago.
But then, time isn’t so much a law in Death’s Domain as it is a suggestion. Despite this, Death’s home contained possibly more timepieces than actually existed on the Discworld, constantly emptying, measuring, and meting out precious seconds of life. There were two timepieces in particular that afforded special interest out of the billions that occupied its halls.
The first was the great grandfather clock in the hallway. Looking upon it, an observer would get the distinct impression that they were gazing upon a very large object that was very far away, yet also right in front of them. It had no hands. Its scythe-bladed pendulum swung back and forth, killing Time.
The second was an egg-timer. One of many. What was unusual about it was its fundamental lack of use as a timepiece. After all, it had no sand in it. It was forged from solid black... black, decorated in the ever-present skulls-and-bones motif that permeated the rest of the house, and like all the others, had the owner’s name emblazoned on its base in gothic block capitals; “Death”.
Albert had, by now, given up trying to find it. In its usual place on Death’s desk he’d found something far more interesting.
A balloon. With “Pinkie Pie” written on it.
Albert stared intently at an old grease stain on the table while his thoughts filtered, like cake crumbs, through the plughole of reason. Or, indeed, like sand falling in a timer.
The door of the oven slammed shut and Pinkie Pie was suddenly sitting next to Albert, gazing at him with deep blue, innocent eyes. Albert’s brain briefly protested at the thought of a horse sitting upright in a high-backed chair, but was silenced by what remained of his sanity.
“... This is serious, you know,” he muttered, at last.
Really? Super-serious or just serious like when Twilight says something is serious and usually that just means she's over-reacting about something like that time when Fluttershy stole the Princess' bi-
“It’s not like it’s the first time. Gods know I’ve dealt with this before. Happens every time he messes with mortals, whatever breed they are.” He gave Pinkie a cursory glance up and down as he spoke. “He gets an idea in his head and off he goes, and who’s left to pick up the pieces? Old Albert, that’s who. Sometimes I don’t know why I just don’t take the damn job myself.”
What do you mean?
“I mean, he’s vanished like this before. First time was with his ‘apprentice’, right bl- … right old mess that was. Then there was the time he got fired... And that business with his granddaughter... and the Hogfather, gods, the Hogfather. One Backspindlewinter I’d rather forget.”
Oh, so he's missing? I just thought he was out.
“I don’t know. What I do know is that you performed the Ritual of Ashk’Ente, gods only know how, now you’re stuck here, his life-timer’s gone, and in its place is one with your name on it! Offler’s sandals, this isn’t supposed to happen! There’s fail-safes for this sort of thing! Like... Susan!”
That's his granddaughter, right?
“Mmrh. The last time he properly shirked in his Duty she... ‘inherited’. Like it was in the blood, but I always thought it was just that she was the most convenient person available. ... I guess, under the circumstances, that’s you now.”
Huh. So... I’m Death now?
“It would explain the voice.” Albert grimaced. Death’s voice entered the brain without bothering to go past the ears, and had the same intonation as two tombstones slamming together. Pinkie Pie’s new voice, on the other hand, reminded the listener of two balloons rubbing together.
Pinkie frowned, allowing a moment for this new revelation to sink in.
… Do I have to wear the robe?
“Well... It’s traditional. Folk put great store in tradition.”
But it's black!
“I’m sure we could find you a pink one somewhere oh gods what am I saying?” Albert pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling. “… No, we’re going to find out what happened when you performed the Ritual of Ashk’Ente, and bring the Master back. You’ll have to fill in for him in the mean time. He’s explained the Duty to you, hasn’t he?”
Pinkie grinned sheepishly.
“... Right. Well. Off to a good start, aren’t we.”
“Pinkie Pie? Are you alright up there, dearie?”
Death panicked as he heard Mrs. Cake’s voice float up the stairs towards him. He attempted to click his fingers, before the realisation that he was currently somewhat lacking in digits sunk in. He briefly contemplated leaping from the window, but wisely decided against it, as this would likely cause a greater commotion than he currently felt equipped to deal with.
Mrs. Cake rounded the curve of the building’s spiral staircase and stopped on the last few stairs, looking directly at Death with a mix of curiosity and confusion. From Mrs. Cake’s perspective, she could see a tall, skinny, white-coated pony in a black cloak standing in the middle of a small puddle of jam on Pinkie’s floor, and the pink filly herself was nowhere to be seen.
“... I didn’t know Pinkie had guests,” she managed, after a few moments of audible silence.
Yes. Guests. I am Bill Door. A friend from... far away, Death said, grinning. He was good at grinning. He could perform the entire gamut of human emotion with a grin. Pony emotion, too, apparently.
Mrs. Cake looked at him intently, eyes narrowing.
Perhaps at this point in the narrative, it is worth explaining the concept of convergent evolution. The phrase defines the set of circumstances that causes two unrelated lifeforms to independently acquire the same, or similar, biological traits. One well known application of this is the 'parallel universe counterpart', which has, by necessity, independently acquired a near-perfect copy of whomever it is acting as the counterpart of.
Less known, however, is that the same can also be true of non-parallel universes, and even universes with no real relation whatsoever. The multiverse is a strange place, and such things happen with shocking regularity.
You see, there lives, on the Discworld, a medium (really more of a small), known only as Mrs. Evadne Cake. Naturally clairvoyant, Mrs. Cake makes a living talking to the dead, which she finds an entirely natural thing to do. Everyone dies sooner or later, but that shouldn’t stop you having a good natter with them. This puts her at odds with most major religions, which is often seen as a blessing to the collective priesthoods of said major religions, as Mrs. Cake ranks up high on the list of divine punishments, alongside such old favourites as famine, pestilence, and loss of all left socks.
The Mrs. Cake of Ponyville was also clairvoyant. This was not widely known, as the question of the afterlife was one that most citizens of Equestria did not often contemplate. On the other hoof, being able to see roughly ten seconds into the future was an invaluable skill when your lodger was Pinkie Pie. It had saved Mrs. Cake’s well-being (and Sugarcube Corner’s fire insurance) more than once over the years.
I only pause to explain all this because the following conversation never actually took place. As both Mrs. Cake and Death possessed the ability to see into the future, both knew what the other was going to say before they said it, and indeed, even when they never did.
In fact, after taking a good long look at Bill Door, Mrs. Cake turned around and returned to the shop front without uttering a single word more.
If she had, it would have gone something like this.
“Bill Door? I remember Pinkie mentioning a Bill Door had come to see her some weeks ago. That’s you, is it?” she would have said, arching an eyebrow at Death.
Yes, he would have replied.
“Been in Ponyville long, Mr. Door?”
“Might I inquire as to what you are doing in the middle of that puddle of jam?”
“What are you doing in the middle of that puddle of jam?”
Death would have looked down at his hooves.
Standing in it.
“I see. … Do you know where Pinkie Pie is?”
I would endeavour to say that she left shortly before I arrived.
“Right, right... I’m not going to ask exactly who you are, or what you’re doing in Pinkie’s room, or how you managed to get up here without passing by the shop front when you obviously lack wings, because I feel I’m not going to like the answers.”
The two would have locked stares for a brief moment.
… I’ll clean up the jam.
“Thank you,” she would have said, and, as she would have turned to leave, adding as an afterthought: “Dearie.”
Pinkie sat at Death’s desk, neatly fitting into the groove in what was supposed to be a high-backed leather chair. In reality, it was more like rock. Death could create anything, but he tended to misunderstand the principles at work behind an object. He could create a perfect copy of the appearance, down to the woodworm damage or rust on the nails, yet somehow entirely miss the point, like creating a chest of drawers that cannot be opened, or an inflexible towel.
She stared at the small group of life-timers before her. Each one had a name. Each one was subtly different. From her time with Death, she was beginning to recognize the basic styles of each race. There were plain, no-nonsense human timers, wood and brass, with simple, clear glass bulbs. There were stocky and ornate dwarven timers, gold and steel, stained glass and rocky salt. Set apart from the others was a troll’s life-timer. It was larger than the others, and consisted of two mossy stones enclosing a pair of smoky quartz bulbs, through which passed gravel, hitting the base of the bulb with a regular tok-tok-tok.
But even they differed within certain limits, much like their owners. Some taller, some shorter. Some more ornate, some plainer. The lives of kings decked in gold and red felt. The lives of paupers, cobbled together from broken wood and tied with string.
She glanced over at her own. Anywhere else, the pink balloon would have appeared cheery, but here it seemed out-of-place. She supposed that, over time, it would deflate, echoing the fall of sand, salt, rock, grain, eggshell and marble.
There was a movement in the air in front of the desk. Or rather, there wasn’t, but the universe was re-adjusted so that there had been.
A grey, hooded figure hung in the air.
It said, We have promoted you.
Oh, hey. Time for exposition, Pinkie said, without looking up. Her voice seemed to lack its usual note of glee.
It said, Your predecessor has been retired. We expect you to pick up the slack. Any questions will be directed to a board of committee.
I do have one question. Pinkie raised her head and locked gazes with the shadowy form of the Auditor. Although it had no eyes, she was looking directly at where they would have been, and her own blue eyes had taken on an icy glow. Strangely, she wasn’t smiling.
I... remember you. From his past. You've fired him, You've tried to have him assassinated, and now you come up again like a Baked Bad when he's missing. Where is he?
It said, That is not your concern. You will perform his Duty as his replacement. We are preventing travel between your world and this. Do not try to leave.
Is that a threat or a suggestion?
It said, Both.
Pinkie slumped back into the chair. Slumping is not something that comes naturally to ponies, especially in chairs designed for two-legged anthropomorphic personifications, but Pinkie had always had a knack of ignoring such petty issues as this.
It said, He always yearned to understand what it is to be alive. It brought his work into question. The living show great aptitude in the Duty, despite the apparent weakness of personality. We will monitor your progress with great interest.
Don't you have personalities? Pinkie asked, feigning ignorance.
It said, I’m a personification of physical forces and processes, why would I need a- Oh, blast.
It disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Pinkie smirked, and returned her gaze to the life-timers on the desk. Pulling one forward with her hoof, she read the name across the bottom carefully.
Frowning a little, she turned to the great jewelled globe that took up a good chunk of Death’s desk. It was a perfect reproduction of the Discworld, set in gemstones, as it rested on the back of four elephants and the shell of Great A’Tuin. She peered through the spyglass affixed to the celestial arch, at the intricate model of the city of Ankh-Morpork.
She gasped, knocking over the timer she still held under her hoof.