• Published 29th Jul 2014
  • 4,555 Views, 108 Comments

Ἐλπίς - Bad Horse



Equestria is gone. But Celestia still has work to do. The Road lies ahead of her, and at its end—the most difficult decision of her life. Again. 2nd place in the "History Repeats" write-off.

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... 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.

Author's Note:

This was my entry in the write-off "History Repeats". I don't know how I feel about it. It took second place, so somebody likes it. Horizon thought it was a story about torture. That wasn't my intent at all. It's a reaction against Harlan Ellison's story "The Deathbird", and I thought it was a story about hope. That's why the title is the name of the goddess of Hope, pretentiously disguised in Greek. (Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory.)

BUT... it also hints that her hope is futile. And since writing it, I learned that the Greeks often used the word "elpis" to mean "wishful thinking". So take your pick.

The cover art is my grimly-edited copy of this happy drawing of Celestia and Twilight.

Comments ( 107 )

[dark]?

Bad Horse?

Sorry, no. :fluttershysad:

...anything that can drain a soul can, at a different time or from a different angle, fill it up again, and more.

As High Truths go, I consider this to be among the highest I've ever seen here.

Thank you.

4767862

This one actually seems rather uplifting. Dare I say, even virtuous.

The Myth Of Celestyphus

The Grim Adventures of Sluglestia

4767862

Aaand... everyone at the latest Writeoff got to read it without any warning about tone or author :pinkiecrazy:

The Smooze strikes again.

I get what your saying. Though our roads are long and painful, and might not necessarily afford us the opportunities and wishes we desire; we can always try again. So long as the desire to do better remains.
I can see how this would be viewed as a story about torture. It essentially is. Working to achieve a goal breaks down an individuals will power. If we fail again and again, than were pretty much shooting ourself in the foot. But, if we understand why we tried, and why we should keep trying, than the suffering is worthwhile. No matter what any one (or butler) says.


At least that's what I got out of this. Maybe I'm wrong and it's really a clever work on why we shouldn't smoke cigarettes. Or something.

Wonderfully written. Painful. What else to say?

It isn't a story about torture. Rather, I should think, it is a story about sacrifice. As profound and deep a sacrifice as it is possible to imagine. Greater love hath no mare.

I am going to write a couple more sentences to end it, though. Just a couple.

"Perhaps," it thought as it faded, melded, merged, "this time I will split harmony into six parts, not five. Perhaps this time it will work."

It did.

My apologies. I had to.

4767907
For your sake I did read it. Seems only fair, considering.

This didn't quite work for me. I'm not entirely sure why. Too vague? Too... I don't know. The notches were a bit confusing. What were they? The souls of ponies? Idk. The smooze is still terrifying. I'd really like some more authors notes on this one.

EDIT: And I added this to the smooze folder too.

a sea of purple goo

And this is what happens when you build your house within range of a tainted lands biome... it spreads and takes over EVERYTHING!

4768098 There's a smooze folder? :derpyderp2:

A hint about the notches: She makes exactly one during the story. Answer: Each notch is in memory of one dead world.

4768171 There's a smooze folder. And ah, yes, that lends the story a new level of weight. Personally, I feel like laying bricks down, a new one forged from the ruins of each world she's "failed" might have been more a more powerful and literal metaphor.

4768202 If you could figure out what she's doing with the bricks, so she's not just laying them down and forgetting them, and so it doesn't seem like she's creating and destroying worlds just to get more bricks to build whatever it is she's building, it could work. I'd rather have something without so much grim-dark to it.

4768227
I think making the notches works better than bricks for the reason you stated - it isn't destructive but creative.

I had my suspicions about this one being yours.

There is no doubt you achieved the kind of pain you wanted to present - it's always a mark of skill when the core struggle arouses such a strong feeling. I have to admit that I'm made of weaker stuff than what this story demanded (I need my catharsis dammit) but this was masterfully written and crafted.

4768317 Thanks, but... it's supposed to be cathartic. Pain isn't supposed to be the point. :twilightsheepish:

It needs restarting to have a cost, or else doing so wouldn't require hope. I wish I could think of a less grim and calvary-invoking cost.

4768269

There's a certain irony, there. What do you do with bricks? You build things. Bricks are creative objects. Their purpose is to create. And carving out notches is, qua carving out notches, an act of destruction. It is taking something that is there and removing pieces of it.

4768355
Well, when the world has fallen to darkness, there's nothing to do but pick up the pieces. Means no one is around to complain about you changing things, like giving ponies hooves instead of hands or adding in an extra element of harmony or whatever.

It is more explicitly gruesome but no less hopeful than The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. Indeed, in some ways it is more hopeful, because they are making the conscious effort to make the world better this time around.

4768426
And yet, you can lay bricks to hide some monument, or carve a statue out of limestone.

4768355
Rather than reducing the cost, having the catharsis be more would've satisfied me - all I got for the bleakness of the situation was one line - but I know I err on the side of asking for too much =x The balance between setup and payoff for something as high-stakes as this is difficult, and I still think you executed it well even if I didn't leave satisfied - I left impressed.

Props for using Greek myths. As a Greek Brony from Greece and a myth geek i feel proud. Honestly i didn't quite understand this story and at times the description was confusing. But if i understand correctly this story was about remembering the old world that got destroyed and hope that the mistakes of the old one won't carry on to the next. And to remember the old ones that lived in it.

Comment posted by Europa deleted Jul 29th, 2014

Wait, what happened at the end? As well written as this was, I'm confused.

4769332 Celestia decided to try again, because she has hope that this time harmony would defeat the forces of entropy.

I like to think she did, and that this is a prequel to FiM.

...and I'm missing one very important element in this.
Luna.

4768443

I'm not saying you're wrong. It just tickled my fancy.

4769381 Makes sense; you've gotta try. Entropy is going to render all that is accomplished meaningless, it will destroy all that is or could be, and make it so nothing will happen forever.

Are you going to just lay down and take that?

Hap

I see what you're trying to do, I guess. I didn't feel sorry for Celestia, or hopeful that she would try again. I was vaguely curious, what this whole thing was about, but mostly confused. I get that each notch was a failed world, and passing over them was painful, tearing away a piece of her each time. But I only got that because of the comments. When reading, I thought it was each individual pony, and she had only "sidestepped" to view the demise of other worlds.

I can sympathize with the sentiment, that each attempt rips something out of you, but you try again. I really, really can. But that didn't come through in the story, not for me. It fell short of actually making any connection, sorry.

All I got out of it is that the butler probably didn't exist, and like any raised eyebrow or similar gesture, it only communicates what the recipient expects. So the message at the end was Celestia's own thoughts, expressing how very close she was to giving up.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

Huh, so I guess it really was Celestia. :B I feel dumb for questioning you on that.

The triumph of the w dammit they stole all the best lines!

I was confused by the road at first. I couldn't figure out why it was tearing away Celestia's body, until I realise that the grooves weren't just markers but something more. I think I giggled just a little bit when we got to the end and she made the next groove.

This Celestia is interesting as well. I can't express it more than that.

Just one thought though. The Butler... quadruped, also has hands? I feel cheeky for even thinking what I'm thinking right now. :derpytongue2:

4769508 he has both and none, everything and nothing. Or something.

4769508 4769514 Hands... oops. Mentally I kept picturing the Butler as humanoid.

4769623 I was picturing a sort of cloudy centaur at that point.

4769625 I like that better... I can't imagine a butler without hands; they're always carrying things. And a centaur can stand with that rigid stiff-backed posture; a horse can't.

One interesting bit for me is that I unconsciously tuned out Celestia's suffering, as if it was told and not shown. Part of the reason is how there is a kind of dreamy feeling around the whole situation, as if it didn't happen in the real world.

Fortunately, too, because otherwise I might not have finished this story :scootangel:

Painful, yet uplifting. The thing about hope is the greatest hope needs a contrast with its circumstances. The hope for a better tomorrow stands out all the more against a much worse today. That sort of hope is much like Celestia in the story; the last light to go out, and the first to be relit.

Excellently done. Thank you for this, and remember not to close the box too quickly.

4768037

I hope my recommendation led you not astray.

Your ending is what I imagined, too. It has the attitude I imagine going along with Celestia's "one more time" response.

Hope?
edit: ?

4770951
You did not. :twilightsmile:

And between us I think we can will the ending so that it is as we imagine.

The best representation of eternity I've yet seen in this fandom. Reminded me of that little story about the bird that comes to the mountain face every thousand years to carve in one tally mark.
A well written story. I love how developed your metaphors are here. They really add to the magnitude of just how far at the end of time this is and how utterly gone any sense of energy and time is. Two qualms, though. One, I think the ending could have benefited more from letting us infer what the Butler meant to say rather than spelling it out, and Celestia answering back in the narration rather than voicing it. (Though that might have cast a more antagonistic light on him than desired.) There is value to her speaking it, as it emphasizes their relationship and her hopes of building an, I assume, perfect Equestria, but I side with what's left unsaid is more powerful, internalizing that hope and determination to get it right.
Two, as much as I loved your metaphors, this one was just too out of place:

There was a slow rumbling tearing sound, like God ripping off a Band-Aid

I remember Chris starting up a comment train on his blog about the acceptability of real-life things in pony fics, and this is definitely one of those things up for debate. Acceptable or not, the imagery struck me as inappropriately hilarious rather than imparting the intended sense of magnitude/finality. It killed the mood, really, but happily there were no other instances like that and I got right back in.
This was actually the first story by you that I've read. Your blogs I consume by the handful, but this is new territory. I have to say I love your style. Hope to see more!

4772291

There was a slow rumbling tearing sound, like God ripping off a Band-Aid

I hesitated over that, because God and Band-Aids (TM) are out of place. You reckon I can keep it if I change it to

like a god tearing off a bandage

?

4772400
If you really want the "god" in there, I would say that's definitely better. But as I wrote that section of my comment, I mulled over how I would have worded such a noise (old editing habits die hard), which to me would be along the lines of a great tree and its roots being ripped from the earth. Or that might have too deep a sound compared to what you were going for. I'm sure there are lots of other ways of describing that sound, though.

4772291
Bad Horse is on record as saying he hopes to never have a "style". Good luck.

If you like this, you should check out his "bedtime stories for impressionable youngsters" and some stuff from his shorts collection, "Twilight Zone". Past that I'd be lost as you, although it occurs to me that he might like hope a bit more than he'd care to admit. (Either that or he just knows that "hope sells".)

Ahem.

4768440
4768037
Ah, that one! "Let there be light." I thought that was the one I was thinking of, but I wasn't quite sure, had to go check.

They go well together, I feel. Asimov's felt maybe a smidgen too hope-y, although that may have been re-reading it. (Certainly it seems as if the grind against entropy should feel hopeless.) The struggle in this one is darker, more evocative, but the hope shines even brighter for it.

Ghost, I feel... ah. Hm. I suppose I should apologize. I see what you're trying to do there, of course. But I feel it works even better if you only add one line.

(Sorry :fluttershyouch:)

4772433
Everybody has a style. Whether it changes with every story or remains the same throughout one's career, it is always present in one's writing. There's always consistency somewhere in any given length of writing. Whether you try or not it shows. Even when writing a particular way for a particular scene, variations of style will repeat themselves. It's a good thing: without a style any work would be as ludicrous as that "orchestral" piece he embedded in his blog a while back.
Like I said, I haven't read anything else by him yet, so I can't say what Bad Horse's is, but I'm sure you can find one if you look.

4772400

"Tearing off a bandage" doesn't capture the feel, because more bandages aren't adhesive. (That's where the "aid" bit comes from- they help you apply them to yourself.)

4772525 4772425 Changed to "like a god ripping off a scab" for now.

I'll second toafan; reading thru "The Twilight Zone" is the best quick intro to the kinds of things I write.

We've talked plenty about Elpis, so I'll just say that the edits here are good edits, and the story is still powerful. :twilightsmile:

Spectacular work. :eeyup:

As this keeps popping up in the popular box, I'm going to say..

That picture is just fucking creepy man. Seriously, what the fuck?

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