Ἐλπίς

by Bad Horse


... and Mnemosyne

She flew on in the unending twilight. Beneath her was purple, fading to gray. It was impossible to say exactly what it was, or how far below her, or how far it stretched in every direction, for there were no landmarks, no boundaries, no shadows. Just a hypnotic slow rippling. Only by the speed or slowness of its motion could one guess whether a wave was a near-by ripple, or a far-off ocean swell. Once she’d thought she had been high above the ooze, and only a lucky glimpse of a ball of white—her own blurred reflection—had saved her from flying right into it.

Some unmeasurable time ago, she had grown too weary to hold up the sun. He had sunk into the ocean of slime with a burning hiss, and when the tower of steam cleared, he had left an immeasurable black crater behind. For a few bright seconds she thought he might have caused the stuff some harm. But the wound closed in on itself with a loud plopping sound, leaving behind only a slick black spiral smear on the surface.

Just—three colors: dark blue above, a purple welt below, and a dim blob of white bobbing in-between.

It was not a true purple, but a sickly blue-and-red-tinged mixture of every color, swirled together, slowly stirring and stretching into feathery vortices and spirals. Equestria, finely mixed. So many bright and beautiful individual things, brought finally together in complete unity, made only an ugly gray.

It was quiet, as apocalypses went. Not so silent it sucked one's breath away, like the gray cinder worlds that had been too spent to disperse the puffs of ash she had risen as she passed. Not raging, like the worlds that had ended in lava fields belching sulfur clouds. Not hissing and biting, like the wind across endless plains of snow broken here and there by ghoulish ice statues. Just a gentle, persistent, sucking sound, like an ocean sloshing against the bottom of an endless pier.

As she flew, she replayed the final centuries in her mind over and over, looking for warnings she could have heeded, precautions she could have taken.

But no obvious turning point could have prevented This without causing That. It seemed nature abhorred harmony as physics abhorred a vacuum, and pushed back harder the closer it came to it. Even reifying it into its component elements had only made the final fall harder and faster. The power needed to hold a world together in harmony could also tear it apart.

No revelation. Just faces and voices. Faces and voices.

The only mark of the passage of time was a dimming of the light, and a settling of the ocean as the purple mass consumed itself, squandering the fruits of millions of years of life in confused and conflicting waves, defecating heavy black tendrils into itself that sank beneath the waves.

All the faces and voices.

How long did it take?

Long.

How far did she fly?

Far.

How tired was she?

The world beneath her shrank as it cooled and solidified, drawing itself together until the dark curve of its horizon was visible. By then the only light was the glow of the mare herself, which pulsed in white waves from her body, in hot yellow shimmers from her horn. She touched down on the featureless black surface. Only then did she allow herself to think on how tired her wings were. The moment she did, they dried up into gossamer gray cobwebs and crumbled into dust, leaving a bare smooth patch behind her shoulders.

The Butler waited there. That was how she thought of him. He had four legs and a tail this time, but was tall and dark and wispy as always, like the shadow of the smoke of a fire. She trotted toward him. When she drew near, he looked at her calmly, with eyes incapable of surprise or expectation.

He held out a sharp dark spike, so hard and bright-pointed that the hand or hoof holding it was too insubstantial by comparison to be seen. It was more like a slashing interruption of space than an object one might idly toss or spin by no higher authority than the laws of physics. Nonetheless she took it between her teeth and gripped it like a bit.

The Butler did not quite nod in response, but his eyebrows may have momentarily raised a hair’s width in acknowledgement. He turned his head slightly to the left, directing her attention. Before them stretched the Road.

It was black, slick, and every bit as hard as the bit of un-space she clenched between her teeth. It would have been as frictionless as theory, if not for the innumerable grooves etched from side-to-side across its surface.

Her eyes travelled up the row of grooves one by one. By the time they had reached the point where grooves and Road vanished at the horizon, she was breathing hard and her legs were shaking. She took an involuntary step back.

The Butler tactfully averted his eyes up and to the left a few degrees, as if to say, It is regrettable. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

She nickered once, soft and low. She began to walk down the Road, and the Butler followed after.

“Walk” is a brisk word for their movement. She took a deep breath before each step. The grooves in the Road seemed not merely to stop her from sliding, but to pull at her and drag her to a halt. They sent vibrations up her legs, whispering, Remember, remember, remember us.

So many faces and voices.

With every step she stopped and stared at one or another of the countless scratches. Some her eyes passed over with a shudder; others, she gazed at for a long time. Behind her, when she moved on, each thin groove glistened with a ribbon of white light.

By the time they had gone a mile, her glow had dimmed to a cool blue. Or perhaps the darkness had thickened. The landscape seemed too worn-down to present any definitive shape or silhouette, too tired to catch the light and reflect it properly.

She was limping now, stepping very gingerly and grimacing each time she set a hoof down. It was hard to see in the dim light, but a darker liquid dripped behind her now, coalescing into blobs and skittering off the road into the darkness. Her limp seemed off, even for a limp, and strangely quiet.

Her hooves were too short. Their soles had worn away. The Butler looked down at the bloody pads exposed underneath, and his brows narrowed and his eyes flicked upwards by the tiniest angle, as if he were severely put upon by this foolishness.

Several times she shuddered and almost fell, but caught herself. The Butler expressed eloquently with his eyelids his commendation of her for averting such a scene.

After they had gone another mile, her steps resounded with hoof-like clicks again, for she had worn through the fatty pad, down to the toe’s coffin bone. Trailing away to the horizon behind them, the narrow grooves gleamed with the slivers of herself she had left behind.

Another mile on, she screamed and fell for the first time. A horse’s hoof seems solid, but there are nerves buried deep within its center.

The Butler actually raised an eyebrow. She struggled to her feet and continued.

The second time she fell, she lay sprawled on the black surface, gasping and trembling. The light within her dimmed to a cold sapphire glow. Her skin clung to the Road beneath her.

The Butler knelt on all fours beside her. He slowly stretched out one shadowy limb towards the dark spike between her teeth, gently, like one offering to take a heavy load.

She jerked her head away, and began to crawl.

The grooves sucked and pulled at her like leeches as she dragged herself across them. They seemed now to drain every part of her equally. As she went, her horn slowly shrivelled and cracked. Her ears sagged and then hung limp like a dog’s. Her legs dwindled to short, boneless noodles flapping ahead of and behind her.

The Butler stood behind her, with an air of infinite patience, moving each foot one step forward every time she managed to wriggle, snake-like, another body length forward. Her light dimmed like a fire burning down to the coals.

An observer might have said that this went on for a long time. But there was no standard by which to measure time other than the mind of the Butler, who was indifferent to it, and whatever mind remained in the ichorous pale serpent, which was enveloped in a fog of pain and concentration no longer anchored to the world of seconds and inches. It slunk forward. Its horn crumbled away, its skin faded to translucent, and its limbs shrunk, inch by inch, as they were gradually absorbed into its body, or into the Road. The mad stare on what was left of its face seemed to come from farther and farther away as its eyes clouded over and shrunk to pinpricks. Still it slithered onward, now only a dimly phosphorescent slug laying down an iridescent trail.

The slug quivered. Its nose, which had melted away and was now merely two vertical gelatinous slits above its mouth, slowly bent down and touched the final groove slashed across the Road. Beyond, it was virgin, uncut, featureless and black.

The slug reached its head sideways and out, lowering the sharp end of the spike to the smooth surface just beyond the last groove. Then it contracted its body, pulling its head back towards itself, dragging the end of the spike across the surface of the Road. As it did, it remembered. As it remembered, the memories flowed into the spike, heating it red-hot, and sparked and burned themselves into the surface of the road.

It remembered being one white speck among the vast green swells of microscopic life, drifting peacefully as they fed from the sun. It remembered growing, slowly, an inch a year, absorbing minerals from a rock, leading a sluggish but tough army of lichens and fungi from the ocean and across the barren, rocky land. It remembered leading the first school of mudskippers, flipping and hopping desperately between evaporating puddles, from the rivers to uninhabited inland pools. It remembered the sudden explosion of shapes and forms. It remembered becoming a her instead of just an it. It remembered the first small furry creature that, when she pointed up, had looked up at the sky in wonder instead of at her paw.

It remembered the ponies. All of them, one by one, from the first to the last. Every foal’s first step and first fall, every love, every fight, every dream, every final breath. For each soul, weak or strong, cruel or kind, a silver drop, brighter and thicker than water, spilled from the thing’s eyes and fell heavily to the Road.

When it had finished, its eyes had dripped nearly away and fallen inward into its eroded head like sinkholes, and there was one more shallow groove cut into the surface of the Road.

The magic of Equestria had no more reality here; it was just a story that had been told once, somewhere. But the deep magic that Equestria had been built on was still in force. The price it demanded from one who would build a world was slight, and terrible: to remember it when it was gone.

The Butler reached out his hoof again, and this time, the slug-thing let him take the spike from its mouth. He wiped it off fastidiously with a black kerchief, and it disappeared into his smoky folds of skin or clothing or nothingness.

The ground shuddered. The world groaned, creaking and croaking, a low tired sound.

The Butler wavered slightly on his four legs, and the slug’s body rippled in waves, as the exhausted world hunched its shoulders and began to curl in on itself in the darkness around them. There was a slow rumbling tearing sound, like a god ripping off a crusted scab, as the world contracted and tore away from the Road. The blackness off to either side became deeper and blacker as the land fell away and in on itself.

This, too, might have been said to have gone on for a long time, if anyone with an interest in such details had been there to measure it.

When it was over, the world lay huddled together in a cold, dark ball, there at the end of the Road. The only light left in the universe was a faint, purple glow deep inside the translucent belly of the slug. If it went out, there would be nothing, anywhere, to ignite it again.

The Butler looked at the world, then turned down towards the slug, and tilted his head.

A butler is a creature that rarely expresses an opinion, but when it does, can give a soliloquy in the alteration of one syllable, and a complete dissertation in the elevation of an eyebrow. The only motion in the universe was the turning and the tilting of the Butler’s head; one might as well say that it stood still while the rest of the Butler, and the rest of the universe, rotated about it. Here is a brief summary of what that motion said:

Look at the length of the Road behind you. So much pain. So much loss. See how much its memory has taken just from you alone. Multiply the pain and the loss you feel by a world.

Now all is one again. Let it have its well-earned sleep. Let its disassembled souls rest in peace. Do not ask them to try again. Do not put them through the humiliation of failing one more time. Have mercy on them, if not on yourself. No more suffering. No more indignities. Have the wisdom to accept the end. Dignity. Rest. Peace. For ever and ever.

The slug’s inner fire dimmed and dimmed, and all around them the darkness held its breath in anticipation.

But the Butler did not know a deeper magic, which says that anything that can drain a soul can, at a different time or from a different angle, fill it up again, and more.

The slug spilled back towards the last groove it had carved in the road, and reached out a thin tendril of a pseudopod that seeped into it, filling it. It waited, feeling that scar in the Road as if listening for a pulse, or an answer.

A light flickered at the tips of that tendril.

Then the slug raised itself up to its full height, opened its wreck of a mouth, and took a breath.

“Et’s shry diss unn more time,” it slurred, and reached out with one burning finger to touch the world.